Sunday, 29 March 2015

No Second Term - and avoiding apathy

For what is a critical General Election, and one which will have unpredictable ramifications, the volume is strangely muted.  Being unable to contemplate the stage-managed face-off between Cameron and Miliband, preferring the congenial surroundings of a Scottish bar, the small amount that I was able to stomach on catch-up confirmed all suspicions.  Apart from being a platform for the superannuated egomaniac that is Jeremy Paxman, Cameron lived down to all his patronising stereotypes while Miliband was being given a rough time on the basis he is probably more intelligent than the average television pundit.

Perhaps more telling is that, although these two are the plausible choices before voters as Prime Minister, the undergrowth of the campaign will take on massive importance as the parties realise that the electorate is not a mass of amorphous sheep.  Cameron has clearly been advised not to come across as an out-of-touch millionaire, which is unfortunate as it is about his one remaining claim to being genuine.  Minimum wage and zero-hours contracts don't resonate with him, where he can rely on both his mates and his trust funds to maintain him in the lifestyle to which his class has become accustomed.

Miliband is starting to fire a little more, which is just as well.  There is every reason to challenge the Tory orthodoxy that cutting services and farming out profits on what remains to cronies does not make an economic policy nor a recipe for a happy country.  The language of the left has been too defensive over the last two decades, and promoting at least some form of redistribution and rebuilding people's stake in society is something that Labour should have been doing since 1997.  It may be too late, but some rhetoric on these lines will persuade a few more to vote tactically.  If Labour strategists are wise, they will tone down their national attacks on the Liberal Democrats, to encourage the maintenance of Liberal MPs where the choice is them or the Tories, and to secure credibility if the balance of Parliament requires tacit support for progressive measures.

Watching Nicola Sturgeon's performance at the SNP conference was interesting.  The sophistication and cunning that Salmond bequeathed is clearly providing a framework within which they will play the system.  In positioning the SNP as a mainstream centre-left party that will play a non-particularist role in determining post-election policy she will whip the Tories into a frenzy of hypocrisy, while reassuring the mass of electors that they have little to fear from bolding the Unionists to account.  The Tories were quick enough to impose UK policy on the Scots during the 1980s and 1990s, despite their  questionable legitimacy, and for them to turn round and accuse potential legitimate representative as having no rights to vote accordingly is the kind of breathtaking idiocy that we have come to know and love from this discredited bunch of authoritarian oligarchs.

Where the SNP cleverness emerges is that their first minority administration was effectively propped up by the Tories.  It is hardly reasonable for Cameron and his attack squad to make out that the SNP are a bunch of eye-popping irresponsible lunatics when they have run Scotland effectively for eight years, and where their own sporran-swinging loons were effectively prepared to tolerate them in power.  This is surely being held in reserve for the next phase of viciousness.

Given that Cameron himself has turned himself into a lame duck, by announcing that he would not presume to serve a third term as Prime Minister, the task of the opposition becomes much easier.  When he then attempts to suggest that the election is a straight contest between him and Miliband, then it makes the choice much clearer - as for all his faults Miliband has not given the impression that the second half of the next Parliament will be spent in a revolting jockeying for position amongst the third-rate crypto-fascist fellow-travellers.

The Conservative Party, in seeking to assuage its right-wing, has demonstrated over the last five years that the reformist agenda was a confidence trick.  The choice of Theresa May, George Osborne or the Blond Buffoon postulated by Cameron as potential successors was either a poisoned chalice or a recognition that the party is rapidly catching up with the Kippers in terms of petty bourgeois, southern England irrelevance.

For those looking for encouragement, Sturgeon made electoral reform for Westminster a condition for SNP support for any administration.  Making it clear that the constitutional settlement is not out of bounds, and that the irrelevance of a bipartisan electoral system in a pluralist society will not go away, will do something to reclaim the issue as solely a Liberal Democrat preserve.  The reform of politics is not just about electoral reform, but until there is a genuine opportunity for the majority to influence electoral outcomes this will perpetuate apathy.

In an election where the outcomes are uncertain, the next few weeks will be interesting.  A narrative that reasserts a progressive, compassionate majority agenda and rejects a further five years of papering over the neo-con cracks is within the grasp of the electorate.  It is to be hoped that those politicians who have any stake in a vision of change will behave in a way that makes a post-election consensus feasible and where the arguments for humanity take precedence.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Do the Tories want to lose the election?

The Budget was not even a nine days' wonder.  Osborne's performance was that of the smug bully at a school debating society, devoid of substance and strong on arrogance and sneering.  The constant jibes at Miliband suggest strongly that the Tories don't want their policies to be scrutinised too closely.

This is probably a result of demonstrating quite how unpleasant a Tory government would be.  The reports from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility and the Institute for Fiscal Studies that always accompany the Budget make disquieting reading, which is doubtless why the Tories have resorted to smearing other parties.  Now that the Clarkson diversionary feint has run its course, expect nothing more than ad hominem attacks on Labour and the Liberal Democrats over the next seven weeks.  Tory policy has nothing to commend any active attempt to market it.

Gideon was working firmly on the smoke and mirrors principle of politics.  The announcement of devolution to the North for transport was nothing more than a pre-election gambit, talking up large prestige projects while the small print indicated nothing more than a feasibility study - which will probably come up with similar reality to last year's totem of rebuilding the railway line in Devon.  But by then the election will have been and gone, and the Tories will have scuttled back into their cynical redoubts.

It is axiomatic that a Budget well-received in the short-term is unlikely to be one that does any good.  The Lawson boom in 1989 is a precedent, but the Tories had three years to ditch Thatcher, the Poll Tax and undermine Labour.  Osborne's approach has been to pick off the likely target Tory groups, mainly the elderly and the stupid.  The removal of tax on some savings income is a gimmick that will diminish in impact as interest rates return to normal level, and the protection of the interests of pensioners above all other groups is a pure electoral manoeuvre.

As for the "Help To Buy ISA" this is both contemptible in its complete misdiagnosis of the housing crisis and stoking up existing problems, and in its cynical exploiting of the idea that even £30,000 will suffice for a deposit in much of the country by 2018, when the first of these state subsidies matures.  It would be better just to write cheques to the house builders, were it not for the fact that this would be recycling Tory party donations.

Where the undergrowth is thickest is where the most malignant policies are hidden.  Although Osborne was careful, the cuts are savage and deep-seated.  What is left of public provision will be further ravaged over the next five years - from a messianic desire to either sell off or eliminate social capital.  At the same time, there is a calculated risk to undermine the pension value of middle- and senior-ranking public servants through changes to the taxation treatment of pension contributions - exploiting envy that the systematic rape of the middle and working classes has not been shared evenly until now.  Cutting the welfare bill is code for further social and economic cleansing, and the Budget was ominously light on the detail around how the evasion and avoidance mountain would actually be tackled

Increasingly, it looks as though the Tories have either written off their chances of winning, or are waiting for something to turn up.  The lack of any talking-up of private sector performance, a result of the huge productivity gap that has opened up in this depression, and the desperate attempts to avoid discussion on the NHS underlines the bankruptcy of the conventional political response to the ongoing crisis in both the state and society.  Labour are just as bad in their preening that things wouldn't be quite as bad, while Danny Alexander's risible attempt to adopt the middle ground serves to emphasise that British politics cannot act as a mature channel to raise, explore and resolve issues.

In his chutzpah, Gideon cannot admit that much of post-2010 economic policy has been a failure and that more of the same will merely enshrine this.  Nobody is prepared to admit that services have to paid for, nor that there is an inter-generational obligation not best served by the current obsession with protecting the well-off, retired middle classes at the expense of the remainder of society.  Even raising these issues is treacherous Marxism in the eyes of the contemporary right.  The orthodoxy suggests that they will go down spouting the same patrician platitudes that have missed the opportunity to rebalance the economy and the geography of the country.

Someone commented, rather cynically, that the only difference between a Tory and a Kipper budget was that there was no reduction in the price of cigarettes.  The risible right doesn't really have any policies to offer going forward.  Osborne has set the stage for a campaign where all the difficult areas which require moral choice are swept under the carpet - it will be interesting to see whether it is only the SNP and the Greens who rise to the challenge of exposing his imperial nakedness, at least after the watershed.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Farage's testicles blown out of the water

It is hardly surprising that the general view of UKIP as a racist and as a detested organisation is firming up.  In the face of stiffer scrutiny of its policies, scions and demeanour its leader is continuing on the offensive.  Equally it is not outstanding to remark that he uses the Telegraph as his preferred organ of emission, given its compromised status and editorial limpness.  Maintaining this particular image would require additional bilious Viagra, so having dug deep the thrust of the argument needs to be exercised.  Rubbing Kippers up the wrong way is easy but satisfying.

Farage had a nasty experience with testicular cancer in the 1980s.  That is unpleasant and nasty for the sufferer.  He was misdiagnosed.  When he took advantage of an additional opinion, paid for through private health insurance, it was correctly diagnosed - although probably the symptoms had developed sufficiently for greater confidence.  As a racist, he couldn't help but observe that one of the incorrect diagnoses came from an "Indian" doctor.  Had this been a personal issue, then this could be left to rest.

However, Nigel has turned this into a political crusade.  So the immediate response of human concern should be supplanted with a "so bloody what?" test.  Medical diagnoses are not 100% certain, and in three decades progress has been made.  Hundreds, if not thousands of incorrect diagnoses are made every year - and in some cases these are fatal.  If one adopted the judgemental skills of the average Kipper, one step up from the kind of eugenic theory that propelled the European dictators into genocide, then it it is possible to hypothesise that the real tragedy is that the misdiagnosis was not as severe as in other cases.  Not wishing Farage dead, this is an inhumane response, but one which if extrapolated to misadventure affecting anyone else, especially if covered by the demonology of immigrants, scroungers and the undeserving poor, many of his followers would not regard such a view as an unacceptable denial of humanity.

The irony is that Farage was an enthusiastic supporter of the privatisation of the English and Welsh NHS in the 1980s, as a foot-solider in the Thatcherite revolution.  By the time that he required its services the focus of activity had moved towards the managerialism and marketisation that paved the way for the subsequent Tory and Labour orgy of PFI-mandated theft, rather than diagnostic skill.  So it could be argued that he was a victim of his own ideology.

Now Farage is using his personal experience to argue that this is an excuse to encourage people to opt out of the NHS if they can afford to.  Notwithstanding the continued and unremarkable inconsistency between different parts of his motley band's views, this is a clear example of how the Kippers are in the hands of lobby groups and the shadowy right - hoping that the distortions of the electoral system will convey on them legitimacy after the General Election.  The debate around public versus private provision is not being carried out with the interests of taxpayers and patients at the centre of it, rather how much profit can be syphoned out either through marketisation of core public service provision or by eliminating the service in such a way that those who can afford to are taxed through insurance to replace it, and those excluded are forced to hope for the best as they are excluded from health care.

The Kippers are basing their position on the far right of the Republican Party in the USA, who have frustrated healthcare reform.  The irony is that the UK health provision is both relatively good and relatively cheap as a share of GDP, especially when compared to the debacle that unfolds across the Atlantic.  However it does create opportunities for enrichment for individuals and organisations, who then bestow their beneficent largesse upon their client politicians.  This is the model of politics that City-boy Nige, whose populist act is transparent to the point of nudity, wants to institutionalise.

So, even though Farage claims a swelling around the size of a lemon (an image of UKIP that will be very hard to remove), he should be seen as a canting liar and hypocrite.  At the same time, he is providing further camouflage for further NHS privatisation - in a pincer movement with that other scummy toad Clarkson - and therefore should be hung up for further ridicule.  His misdiagnosis was unfortunate, but using for it political ends diminishes those who have suffered more grievous loss than he did through misplaced and retrospective incompetence.

This weekend we have seen one of his MEPs compare a Scottish Minister to a convicted terrorist ("only a joke"), another candidate stand down over embezzlement charges, another round of blaming extreme weather on moral turpitude rather than climate change.  Last week one of his councillors was charged with stealing from his father's shop.  These are not people fit to lecture the rest of the country on morality - and their leader's descent into the cesspit should act as a further warning of the dangers of pandering to a narrow, demagogic politics of fear and envy.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Scotland puts Miliband in denial

The emergence from the catacombs of the ennobled Kenneth Baker, spewing unctuous rubbish about the necessity of a Conservative-Labour coalition should the Scottish National Party continue to perform strongly, demonstrates quite how deluded the party political machinery has become about the state of opinion and trust in the political system.

In hindsight, the moment Labour last Scotland was when Cameron appeared, alongside Labour grandees, before the referendum promising to sell the Unionist birthright for a tartan-themed tin of fudge.  For over thirty years Scottish politics has been defined by an anti-Tory consensus, their presence in Holyrood the consequence of a representative political system that recognises plurality.  However hard Miliband and Jim Murphy try to pretend that this consensus continues, the catastrophic loss of trust in Labour flows directly from the alliance with a party that is distrusted, hated and held in contempt.

For Labour, this is catastrophic.  Whereas in the independence referendum there was a simple, binary choice, where 45% was not enough to win, in parliamentary elections 45% of the popular vote would be enough to secure a landslide on a scale that neither Blair nor Thatcher could have dreamed of.  Even assuming no drift to the SNP to hold Westminster politicians honest, the latest polling evidence suggests that the massacre of the GB-wide parties in Scotland will be brutal, pitiless and on a scale that more or less guarantees that no party will hold a majority in the House of Commons.

For Miliband and Cameron, this represents disaster.  Electoral machines are calibrated not on maximising popular support and engaging with people around ideas and vision, but on the basis that a  limited number of marginal seats will change hands and thereby propel the party into government.  Cameron has been banking on this throughout the government, squeezing and humiliating the Liberal Democrats with a view to picking up seats from them, while not targeting Labour to any significant extent.  Labour target both of the other parties.

Yet in a pluralistic world, this is a dangerous and limiting tactic.  If there is no positive reason to support a party, its core vote disintegrates, and it cannot appeal beyond this.  The decline in party membership for the three self-styled main parties has been matched by a surge in support for the Greens, the SNP and the Kippers.  In all cases there is a positive articulation from these parties, even if in the latter case it is a vile, semi-fascist play on the politics of envy, fear and hypocrisy.  The decline in support for the mainstream parties has been a trend for half a century, and working within a political system that is, fundamentally, only functional when there is a binary choice, by excluding plurality of voices and representation it is sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

Miliband is in Scotland today playing the"Vote SNP, get Cameron" card.  This is pure scare-mongering, rather than reflection of the potential post-May Commons battleground.  On current polling, Labour and the Tories will be neck-and-neck in terms of seats, with the balance made up of the Northern Ireland parties, the SNP, Plaid, Liberals and an unknown but probably insignificant number of Kippers and Greens.  In 2010, the electoral arithmetic meant that the only plausible and stable combination was Tory and Liberal, but it is very unlikely that this will be repeated this year.

The breakdown of tribalism in politics is not a passing fad.  With inter-generational warfare being stoked by the right, and with the manufactured disappointment in the Liberal Democrat participation in government, the political landscape increasingly resembles a dispersed archipelago with no interaction save for incoherent rantings through partisan megaphones.  In the best tradition of an infinite number of monkeys with typewriters, the UKIP defector Reckless identified the electoral system as a barrier to his party (narrow partisanship) but it remains the single stumbling block that maintains the fiction of omniscient party machinery.

The current UK national system elects constituency MPs on a first-preference-takes-all basis.  Where the result is clear-cut there is at least some semblance of accountability and representation, but in a multi-party democracy it cannot work.  With parties controlled by 20- and 30-something apparatchiks whose definition of getting out of Westminster is anywhere within Greater London, this is not a challenge to the legitimacy of the system but a calculated insult to the political elites by an increasingly disillusioned electorate.  Engagement is much more likely to occur and to be informed where the participant feels even a scintilla of being able to influence the result.

So Miliband's pleas will fall on deaf ears.  Mistrusted by the Scots, vilified by a cowed, venomous right-wing media, he is fighting the wrong battle.  He may well be the best option on offer to be the next Prime Minister, and his party may be the largest single force, but he is not articulating why his vision will command any wider support.  Scotland's modern democracy, with a system designed to ensure pluralism, has become the best indication yet of the disgust and distrust with which the machine politicians are held - and Salmond and Sturgeon have (disingenuously) exploited this.  For the majority who have not supported Cameron and his agenda, the outcome of this election should be clear-cut, an open, straightforward debate on the art of the possible.  Labour in Scotland needs to write itself off, and not to claim that it is the sole force that can dislodge a government and a Conservative party that has long since given up any claim to nationwide representation.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Local government - cesspools, corruption and incompetence

Hardly a day goes by without some further egregious example of local government venality and incompetence.  Be it the Tories, whose snouting for self-interest is axiomatic, or Labour fiefdoms where the idea of democratic accountability is beyond the achievement of basic literacy, the destruction of what should be a tier of government in touch with daily life continues.  No GB-wide party appears to have any programme of reducing this democratic deficit, nor of acknowledging that the mess that exists needs fundamental reconsideration in the context of the delegitimised state.

Local government in England, particularly, has an unenviable task.  Hampered by an electoral system that treats most authorities as playgrounds for politicians who are either aspiring to climb the ladder, superannuated hacks or too idiotic and swivel-eyed to be let loose on any larger platform, and by a plethora of low-status, big-talking officers whose capability and imagination is hampered by both their own low status and the constant pressure to outsource to provide both diminished accountability and a suspicion of backhanded corruption, it is hardly surprising that local turnouts are low and that engagement is equally limited.

Ever since the Tories bought off the poll tax fiasco by increasing the share of central funding to local authorities, there has been no let-up in the confusion as to what the function of councils should be.  Whitehall is quite happy for it to be a means of delivering centrally-specified and funded services, and there are many of the political class who find the playground political arena suits both their abilities and their egos.  The coalition has bribed and bullied most councils into cutting services through capping council tax increases, and by giving grants to authorities who keep their budgets in line with central requirements, learning from the SNP's practices.

With declining local scrutiny, both by politicians and by the media, there is much darkness in local government that deserves illumination.  Private Eye cannot act as a sole voice of criticism, nor should it be left to concerned activists to expose the venality, corruption and misdirected nepotism that appears to be the central symptom of contemporary government.  Whereas fifty years ago there was a pride and an independence that engendered a municipal spirit, this is increasingly rare.

Much discussion around constitutional reform focuses at the national level, and it contains a justifiable set of requirements including electoral systems that reflect pluralism, institutions that are accountable and a modern framework that enshrines the citizen as the sovereign force.  This cannot be achieved without reform of local government, to ensure that it is neither a sinecure nor a dog-whistle enabler of central policies.  Indeed, all the reforms at a national level need to be reflected locally.  Proper accountability, scrutiny and the removal of allowances and back-door funding of councillors that concentrates powers in party apparatuses is a necessary precondition for reform.

The mania for outsourcing has lined the pockets of companies such as Capita and removed accountability from both council staff and elected members.  Perhaps the time has come for central government to ban any contracts that span the electoral cycle of councils, and any that do exist can be terminated without cost to the public purse after four years or elections.  Private provision of public services is not in itself evil, but it becomes so when it hamstrings and frustrates the general will through contracts that are asymmetric, too complex to implement and which commit tax revenues without commensurate accountability.

Local democracy will not be a deciding issue for the foreseeable future, although Osborne's cuts agenda will make it much clearer how the services people take for granted will be either emasculated or sold off.  Recent cuts have been largely invisible to the majority, as they pick off vulnerable groups one by one, but the easy targets are now cowed.  It will be the visible communal facilities such as libraries, sports facilities and open space that will galvanise people into action.  The first stages of this are happening, and it will be intriguing to see where, if anywhere, the incompetence and venality of local Tories causes a shift in Westminster representation in May.

Monday, 2 March 2015

The Tory economic confidence trick

Over the next two months, we will hear a great deal of how both the Coalition's economic medicine has worked and how more of it, under that great populist George Osborne, is necessary to support the speculators, oligarchs and parasites, not to mention pensioners, who form the Tory core constituency. At the very least, the sceptical should take this with a pinch of salt - but would be better advised to purchase a bargepole with a minimum length of three metres.

At the heart of the charlatanry is the hard right orthodoxy of the state being evil, inefficient and the enemy of the entrepreneur.  The corporate welfare that the Tories have handed out to the banks, to big business and to their cronies has been accompanied by an assault on the welfare state - some of which is justified but the vast majority of which is the vindictiveness of an elite isolated from the consequences of its own cupidity.  The failure of the Tory dogma can be demonstrated by the consistent failure to meet deficit-reduction targets, not because of the enthusiastic butchery of the public sector but because tax receipts are either not there, avoided or evaded.  For the last four years, tax revenues have declined against the forecasts.

Increasing inequality, reducing services and putting a moral veneer on it is an odious confidence trick to be playing.  It also makes Labour lazy and complacent as there is no alternative strategy needing to be articulated.  There is no effort to address the structural failings of the British economy, its over-reliance on capital flows, the failure to stimulate manufacturing and the constant transfer of wealth to the top echelons of the population.  Growth has been sustained through a money illusion of property price inflation, kept going through artificial constraints on housebuilding, a non-existent policy to stimulate the country outside London and a perverse tax regime that regards property as a near-one-way-bet for capital accumulation.

All this may help the Tories in the short term, but it is not basis upon which an economy or a state can be run.  Articulating the revolutionary idea that the economy is the servant of the people, and that there is no special legitimacy to the self-styled "wealth creators" who are, usually, rapacious rentiers rather than innovators and supporters of the whole community, is something that should form the basis of a radical narrative that takes on board sustainability, environmentalism, internationalism and the idea of social cohesion and capital.

Sadly the debate has been diminished so that the only issues that appear to matter are those of inflation and GDP.  While public services are reduced, PFI-style Ponzi schemes such as student finance are deferring the crisis until the current generation of fools is dead, and there is no coherency in any direction that is not focused on removing constraints on the rich to do what they like, the Tories are laughing.  Hopefully an articulate alternative can emerge - but this needs public intellectuals rather than party hacks to start the ball rolling.  Starting now, there is still time to reclaim both the economy from the grasping morons, and politics from the cronies and the corrupt.