Wednesday, 28 October 2015

The Lords, the Tories and the stink of immorality

Of the myriad problems with Britain's constitution, the House of Lords is an egregious example of the fetishisation of history over practicality.  A modern, revising second chamber was an option at least before Blair discovered the satisfaction of mediocre placemen, and before the Tories' achievement of throttling the reformist agenda of their deceased coalition partners.  In the context of a constitutional settlement that is, to put it mildly, unworkable, unaccountable and untenable, the Lords represents the manifestation of a persistent reluctance to address fundamental issues.

Savouring the irony of the Tories denouncing unelected privilege is hubristic but fun.  To witness the poltroonish yobbery of Osborne claiming that the Tories have a resounding democratic mandate to implement policies not in their manifesto is akin to time travel back to the 1980s, when he was still fantasising about the conjunction of porcine greed and the late and partially-lamented Thatcher.  For the Tories to pick on features of government that frustrate their will is rank hypocrisy given their contempt for democracy and accountability, and their amoral bulldozing of the basic standards of probity that a citizen might have the right to expect.

Tax credits, in their current form, are an untenable legacy of well-intentioned Labour paternalism.  Brown's extension of the regime to become an effective top-up in the context of exploitative employers was economic folly on one level.  In encouraging firms to underpay staff in the knowledge that the state will redistribute other people's money, another large corporate subsidy was established; the inevitable squeals that increasing wages would reduce viability has enough short-term traction but not enough economic literacy to suggest that even the unfettered market is able to function.

Therefore to watch the line-up of such paragons of philanthropy as Andrew Lloyd-Webber and the scions of JCB diggers lining up to support Osborne's misguided policy was a salutary reminder of why opposition is needed at all levels.  A government of oligarchs, sucking up to any rich third party, with disdain for the impact of their policies - hardly a recipe for a popular or measured approach to policy-making.  When challenged by the Lords on the basis of humanity, economics and the mendacity of Cameron's snouty trotting-out of sham piety around "hard-working families" the Tories don't like the evidence that their writ, untenable on democratic grounds in the Commons, is not all-encompassing and that there are to held to account.

The major confrontation between the Lords and the Commons during the Liberal government of 1906-15 was around the Lords blocking the popular policies that founded modern social security, an which resulted in a workable compromise whereby the Lords had limited blocking powers - further refined b the Attlee administration of 1945-51.  In the absence of an elected second chamber, this is reasonable.  To watch the hamster-faced maunderings of the Tories you would have thought that the current situation was analogous.

In reality, the tax credits issue is one that tests the boundaries of the Tory perversion of the constitution.  The understanding is that the Lords do not object to a finance bill - and the lies being spread by the Tories are that this was a finance measure.  It wasn't even a primary bill, but secondary legislation which has been used by both totalitarian parties to push dubious policy changes through parliament with the minimum of scrutiny.  Osborne and Cameron resemble bullies caught in the act, a position of immense psychological pleasure for them but dangerous for the rest of the country.

It is clearly hyperbolic to observe that the process that the Tories see to neutering the Lords resembles the progress towards dictatorship in inter-war Europe, but there is a certain resemblance to the German Enabling Act of 1933, where a government installed on a minority of the votes suspended all vestiges of constitutional government.  In the context of the assault on liberties and accountability, vigilance is needed to ensure that petty spite is not allowed to descend into the final removal of any citizen power and challenge.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Flat earth, HS2 and the lunatic fringe

From the venomous and monomaniac tone of their social media campaigns, you would be forgiven for considering that the proposal to build a new mainline railway in Britain was on a par with every natural and unnatural evil of the last two millennia, at least in the eyes of the self-styled people's tribunes who maintain a virtual campaign in the face of reality and reason.

As a sign of old age, it is difficult to get interested in the minutiae of division between the various groups - rather akin to the Trotskyite fringe in the 1980s their theological disputes are irrelevant either to the remainder of the world or to the political programme that they seek to influence.  What is clear is that their manoeuvres are entirely counter-productive, given their purported desire to oppose significant upgrades of infrastructure.

Going back to first principles, transport has a number of key purposes.  At the highest level, it moves people and goods from one point to another - responding to economic and social demand.  It also acts as a means of influencing where houses, workplaces and communal facilities are located - in a sane world the provision of transport is considered in parallel with decisions on land use.  It sticks in the craw to argue that this is now recognised even by some of the more evolved Tories, a belated conversion but nevertheless welcome.

There are a number of fundamental challenges facing governments when making transport decisions - the uncertainty as to the future, the inability of government decision-support tools to be capable of making the kind of strategic choices that satisfy all accountants and the number of half-baked critics whose capacity for inductive reasoning is paralleled by their literacy.  Most, not all, of the opposition to HS2 is coming from the green ink brigade, which makes it far easier to dismiss.

Infrastructure lasts for a long time.  Anybody who commutes into or travels into central London is disgorged into a pattern of streets that evolves very slowly, and where the rail and Underground networks were largely defined over a century ago.  The agonies of developing new capacity will be partly addressed by Crossrail when it comes on stream, but always playing catch-up compared to the pent-up demand from an overcrowded city.  Emulating the living conditions in the Far East is not that far away, which will doubtless cheer up our smug, chauffeured Chancellor.

Lessons are always learned.  There is no real prospect of constricted Tube lines being built - any new construction under London will probably be to main-line size. The construction of Roman roads was innovative, but neither their width nor their material base would be appropriate for the volume of traffic caused by current population numbers. Constraining the future of Britain's infrastructure to palimpsests of historic provision may satisfy heritage nostalgics but is hardly demonstrating a commitment to a modern economy.

This is a neat reminder that reality bites.  Even if the forecasts of population growth are overstated, there will still be 10-15% more people living in Britain in 50 years' time.  Unless draconian rationing is put in place, this will cause a proportionate increase in transport demand.  The motives for travel, and even the frequency, may change with changes to working patterns and social arrangements.  Yet there will always be a demand for mobility - and this is not usually predictable through the prisms of futurologists - commuting demand has continued to increase over the last decades despite the availability of technology for home-working and the rise of freelance contracts.  Social and affiliative needs will remain whatever the workplace holds.

Add to this the unbalanced nature of the UK economy, with the wealth bubbles and the magnetic impact of London and its undistinguished hinterlands, and the argument for a new railway has gained multi-partisan support.  From Edinburgh to Birmingham, with a vocal consensus amongst the Northern cities, there is a recognition that the improvement of connectivity is a necessary but not sufficient condition for rebalancing.  As London becomes less attractive for both companies and labour, it will not lose its dominance, but fast and effective access to and from it can be used, with allied taxation carrots and sticks, to determine whether the rest of the British polity can become part of a prosperous whole.

The main argument put forward by the odd more thoughtful opponent is that the risk with new infrastructure is that all it does is bring more places within London's orbit, with which I can sympathise and agree.  Hence why new transport capacity is a precursor but not a panacea.  This is not a diatribe about regional policy, but for too long it has been at best second-fiddle to the self-interest of the rapacious, amoral leeches of the financial services industry.  The language of London-centricity is that nothing can be done to detract from its success.  If it is so successful then it does not need the nannying and special treatment from the state that appears to be the norm.

For the most part, the opponents dribble on about specific aspects of the HS2 proposals.  They usually have some sort of hobby-horse that should have been boiled down for glue years ago, for example using the old Great Central alignment - conveniently forgetting that the railway is still in daily use into and out of central London, and therefore that all the expensive provision of tunnels and terminals would still be required.  They fall into the idiot trap of assuming that passengers will only go from one station to another - so that the first phase would only affect people travelling from Euston to Birmingham.  A short spell of reflection that people live, work and play in various places, and that they will use a train (or a series of trains) as a means of travelling between them, and that becomes a soundbite canard for those of limited intelligence.

The Birmingham lie is one of the most interesting, because it demonstrates both cretinism and myopia.  As Birmingham is en route to the northern cities and Scotland, trains travelling there will be able to make use of the new railway to reduce the time taken on the overall journey - and nobody other than a delusional sock puppet would argue that the whole railway could or should be built at once - witness the success of new construction in Japan or Europe through phasing.  Scotland wants a fast service to the north of England and London, but again this will be phased.  Improvements in rail's competitiveness over the coming decades will create a stronger base load which can justify further investment - a virtuous circle that most people are capable of grasping.

Governments are elected to make choices - and the opponents, again with limited evidence and competence, make accusations that government's own decision-making tools do not provide a ringing endorsement of the current proposals.  The limitation of economic forecasting over a long period is that the external environment shifts - making the tools outdated - which means that a judgement call is needed.  That is what politicians are there to do - giving leadership and taking decisions where they can weigh up both quantitative and quantitative evidence.

This is not to say that there is everything perfect around HS2 - but it is the option that is on the table. The best is the enemy of the good; procrastinating has led to delays over key transport and energy decisions that undermine the wider public interest.  High speed rail is not an end in itself, but if you are going to be building new capacity you do not replicate the constraints of the past.  Whatever technology emerges on the roads, rail is still space-efficient and has less impact - moving a thousand people in driverless cars will require either huge amounts of space or inventing a concept similar to a train to minimise the amount of road required, neither of which are likely to receive much support or funding.

The opponents of HS2 have yet to come up with either plausible or deliverable alternatives.  Instead they talk to each other, which is at least satisfying for the rest of us.  Realism is that there is momentum behind the project, and that the probable alternative if delayed will be more motorways.  In that case, opposition will be latter-day Swampys rather than the current motley crew of attention-seeking maniacs.  Far better to challenge constructively, and make sure that a commitment to better transport is used to benefit as many people and places as possible.  That requires the ability to move beyond slogans and baboon-like simplicity.

Friday, 9 October 2015

Avoiding the 1980s

There are many truisms around in politics at the moment.  Not least of which is that the 2015 General Election has been a definitive moment, and that we are heading back towards a period of Tory hegemony similar to the Thatcher/Major period.  This appears to be wishful thinking, particularly on the part of a media that cannot comprehend anything beyond a binary choice, nor can it relate the geographical and social fissures that afflict the United Kingdom.

Refracted through the usual metropolitan prism, the election of Corbyn as Labour leader seemed inexplicable - after two decades of politics defined through photogenic, upper-middle class men whose inability to open their mouth without checking back to base this did not compute with a narrative around focus groups and careful stage management.  Perhaps, for once,  the Labour electorate were ahead of the curve, in at least recognising that the narrow focusing on particular interest groups and the pseudo-scientific targeting of swing voters has resulted in an erosion of wider support and political engagement.

It should be noted that Cameron secured less support than Thatcher, and, despite the protestations of the right, not every one of the millions who supported the Farage rodomontade are natural supporters of the Tories.  This does not suggest that there is an ingrained Tory hegemony at the highest level, although the perverted electoral system could deliver them.  Instead politics, as with everything else, has become more fragmented and individualised.  The rise of national identity politics in Scotland and Wales has become ingrained, particularly since (despite the protestations of the party tribalists on all sides) the ideological purity of Nicola Sturgeon and others does not appear to be a major negative factor except for the political geek class.

For all those of us who want to see the Tories out and punished for their rank hypocrisy over austerity, including the brazen near-racism and vile oratory that was turned on for their membership this week, the geek class may be the obstacle.  Instead of identifying what issues resonate with the electorate and campaigning on them - irrespective of other parties' positions - the focus of much internal debate in opposition parties is on dishing their rivals rather than the Tories.  For every sensible pronouncement from Labour or the Liberals, there is a tribal joke at the other's expense, forgetting that, even with current Liberal national irrelevance a change of government may require tacit acknowledgement of sensible targeting in individual seats.

The perceived wisdom is that the electorate punishes disunity - and there are plenty of political activists who see everything in terms of blocs rather than policy.  Perhaps there is an alternative construction, to the effect that the Coalition did at least open the idea to parties working together in UK-wide government, and that the problem was that there was no convergence on policy before the election that triggered its formation.  Realistically, Labour is unlikely to be able to form a majority government in 2020, so there will need to be some form of convergence well in advance if there is not to be a reputation of the canards and misrepresentation that the Tories used to scare the electorate in their target seats.

If there is any form of policy convergence, around housing, regional and devolved nations development, or constitutional overhaul, mature politicians should be working with it, rather than seeking to engage in casuistical differentiation from their partners.  Giving the electorate a clear understanding of party priorities and the likely direction of a changed government would provide a base upon which a sophisticated tactical voting approach could mitigate the impacts of a failed pseudo-democracy.

With outsiders now leading all the opposition parties, this is a clear opportunity to create a programme that is not fixated on the M25 and the machinations of the overgrown adolescents who plague the party apparatuses.  There is genuine anger, concern and fear which will be multiplied as the impacts of destroyed and diminished public services feeds through - and which there needs to be a politics of hope around.  The 1980s seemed like endless impotence against the Tories, this time round it could be different.  Five months ago, this would have been a dangerously low probability outcome - now, with a more diverse and representative politics across the left, there is a chance for a positive programme.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Tory hubris does not add up

As the Conservative Party rolls into Manchester, their emphasis is on presentation and on exploiting the perceived weakness of the left.  Osborne's slimy utterances and the mendacious claims of one nation Toryism are the soundbites, while underneath the various forms of primeval throwback are chuntering away with nostalgia for a bygone era of fealty and rigid hierarchy.  For every potential modern policy, there are snivelling and foul throwbacks that should act as a salutary reminder that, much as the Blairites failed to capture the Labour Party, the Tories remain the Nasty Party.

Sometimes it is not the fault of the mainstream party.  When the self-styled and mendacious Taxpayer's Alliance (the single apostrophe is appropriate since it is not a membership organisation but a mouthpiece for gibbering right-wing lunatics) calls for cuts to pensioner benefits to be brought forward because, not merely statistically many of the recipients will be dead or too befuddled to notice before the next General Election, this is not surprising.  When Jeremy "Rhyming Slang" Hunt regards cutting tax credits as some kind of moral crusade to remove British workers' rights and emulate such paragons as China and the USA, it is clear that the asylum has been well and truly breached.

The Tories are currently in a honeymoon period.  Illegitimately elected, a point which needs to be rammed home every time they bang on about rights and self-determination for other elections, their base is built on sand.  Huge swathes of Great Britain are no-go areas for them, and the towering achievement of less than a quarter of the eligible electorate supporting them is not one they are particularly comfortable with.  An unbalanced recovery continues, but prone to disruption from squalls beyond Europe, and the housing bubble looks set to create more division going forward.

Against this background, most government departments are going to be cutting between a quarter and two fifths of their expenditure after Osborne's spending review this autumn.  Compared to the austerity-lite that the Coaltion perpetrated, this is savage and will resonate into areas of Tory heartlands where their own sense of entitlement will be rattled.  A division over Europe will magnify as the referendum campaign heats up, and the Tories will then have their own leadership to worry about.  Not exactly a glowing prospect, even with four years to go until the next election campaign commences its progress.

Appealing to a "one nation" narrative is clever spin now, given that their mavens and echo-chambers have been alleging that Corbyn's mainstream democratic socialism is some form of extreme Maoism - I'm quite surprised that there haven't been parallels drawn between Islington today and Cambodia in 1975 by some of the more hysterically raving lunatics.  This won't work as services collapse and society becomes more polarised.

This is not in itself a gaping opportunity for the left and centre to grasp, merely a necessary and sufficient condition.  When the enemy is sliding back into a morass, the time is right for a clear alignment and statement of an alternative position.  The Tories are doing themselves no favours with their current hypocritical maunderings on minimum wages and tax credit, the distorting mirror will see to that.  They have not shot themselves fatally as yet, but the omens are not good for the remainder of the current Parliament.