Tuesday, 23 May 2017

"Strong and Stable" or "Weak and Wobbly"

The real Theresa May is starting to show herself.
  • ·         The budget U-turn on National Insurance.
  • ·         The U-turn on “no election”.
  • ·         The refusal to take part in any televised debates.
  • ·         The “private” campaign visits where the public, and on one occasion even the workers in their own building, were excluded in favour of invited Tory supporters.
  • ·         The lack of consultation on the dementia tax, the terms of paying for and recovering the costs of care in your own home, and the subsequent U-turn.
  • ·         Here are six other U-turns by Theresa May
She’s 14% ahead in the opinion polls (although that lead is narrowing) and yet she seems to be worried about adopting unpopular policies and defending her position publicly. Her tactics of keeping your cards close to your chest, in the form of the absence of adequate consultation and preparation (softening up by leaking and briefing in advance) have backfired.

Meanwhile she’s convinced both Labour and the Tories not to talk about the most important subject on the table, the terms of Brexit, saying that she doesn’t want to give away her negotiating position. There wouldn’t have been an election this early without the Brexit referendum and not to raise this “elephant in the room” is breathtakingly dishonest and cynical. It should be what this election is all about otherwise we risk being taken down the route dictated by the Tory right wing and the Daily Mail, who purely on ideological grounds, would prefer it if there was no agreement with the EU. Many Labour voters are switching to the Tories because they trust Theresa May to get the best deal rather than Jeremy Corbyn. I'm starting to think that trust is misplaced!

Repeating the “strong and stable” mantra won’t cut it anymore. She’s shown herself to be neither!

I’m sure that both the hard line Brexiteers and the EU negotiators are taking note.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Should you cost manifesto commitments?

There were two interesting interviews on the Today programme this morning. 

John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, was talking about Labour’s manifesto and comparing it with the Tory’s and Ken Clarke MP was stating that in his opinion you shouldn’t cost manifesto commitments.

John McDonnell claimed that, in the Labour manifesto, all of their policy commitments had been fully costed so that the source of funding for each policy was shown in detail. He compared that with the Tory manifesto which doesn’t cost any policy commitments. 

In contrast, Ken Clarke said that it’s crazy to expect chancellors to refer to the last manifesto before taking decisions about spending and taxation. I can see his point, but effectively Ken Clarke, who is an experienced and wily old politician, was using one of the classic debating tricks that I was taught at school. You take a statement from the opponent and you extend the argument so that it begins to appear ridiculous, but you take care to ignore the original purpose of the opponent’s statement.

Clearly you can’t set out 4 or 5 years of budgets in a manifesto! But if Labour hadn’t costed their policies the Tories would say, “Look at all these spending commitments. Where is the money coming from?”  The political reality is that Labour is generally considered to be the tax and spend party, whilst the Tories are expected to be prudent with public finances, and are ideologically opposed to increasing spending.  So the Tories can get away with not costing anything while Labour can’t! But what if some Tory policies (ignoring brexit for a change) are detrimental to the economy?

Let’s take immigration.

The Tory manifesto on page 54, proposes to limit net migration to an undefined number "in the tens of thousands p.a."  This is the most recent in a series of such commitments that were also in the 2010 and 2015 manifestos, none of which have been adhered to. This commitment has also not been costedIn addition the Tories will double the Immigration Skills Charge on employers wishing to employ migrant workers to £2,000. Recent reports have, however, asserted that the UK needs about 200,000 migrants p.a. to maintain fiscal stability in the face of skills shortages and an ageing population. Furthermore, it's in danger of self-harm if the current number of migrants is artificially restricted.

Labour’s manifesto, on page 28 of the pdf, states that “working with businesses, trade unions and devolved governments to identify specific labour and skills shortages, they will put in place a system which regulates immigration in line with the UK’s economic needs”.

It’s clear which of these two policy approaches is likely to have the most simplistic appeal to voters and which is too subtle and reasonable to be easily absorbed and understood. But which is going to deliver what’s best for the UK economy?

I’m not a natural Labour voter but, in comparison with their recent chaotic leadership, their manifesto is a well thought out and well considered document. There are certainly things that I disagree with, like the re-nationalisation of several industries (which is not costed), but there are lots of other subjects where their policies are reasonable, more detailed and more sensible than those of their opponents.

If you are a life-long Labour voter, thinking of switching to the Tories, before giving Theresa May a blank cheque and a landslide majority, perhaps you should first read the manifestos. The UK desperately needs a strong and stable opposition not a dictatorship!

Friday, 12 May 2017

England First!

This morning I listened to an interview on Radio 4's Today programme with Andrew Lilico, executive director of Europe Economics and Professor Ngaire Woods, dean of the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. From their responses it was clear that they were on opposite sides with Lilico supporting "Leave" and Woods supporting "Remain".

Nevertheless, both agreed that there had been no trade deal negotiated between the EU and a non-EU country in less than 10 years and some had taken 14 years. Lilico considered that the fact that the EU and the UK were starting from a common position should shorten the time required, but in my opinion it's quite likely that the negotiation would start from zero (in terms of agreed items) and take just as long as a negotiation with any non-EU country would.

Both also agreed that, over the next 5 years, people in the UK will be worse off than at present due to rising prices for imported goods as a result of the fall in the value of sterling, stagnant wages and reduced or zero growth arising from reductions in investment and reductions in confidence affecting consumer spending.

When asked the direct question "will people in the UK be better off in 10 years time" the answer from both was more or less positive.

So the UK can expect about 10 years of low or zero growth, which would put it behind most of the countries of the EU. When compounded over 10 years, 2% growth annually is a 24% increase, and this is probably what the leading economies in the EU will achieve. Britain on the other hand will lose a major proportion of this growth, the effects of which will show in terms of unemployment, falling real incomes (after the effects of inflation on pay rises) and reduced tax income to the exchequer to fund public services.

Of course you could take the Gove position “Who needs experts?” But when opposite sides agree then perhaps one should take them seriously.

But I have a radical plan to replace this loss of revenue!

England First!

Britain spends about 60bn/yr on defence,  representing about 2% of GDP. Since we have decided to be more isolationist, to reduce our influence in the world and become a Norway or a Switzerland, why do we need an Army, Navy and Air Force? Especially, why do we need nuclear weapons and submarines?  Scrap all that and recycle the savings by spending them on public services and infrastructure. 

In addition, give Scotland and Northern Ireland independence, thus saving the money given to them under the Barnett Formula . While we’re thinking along these lines, in return for a financial settlement, we could also give the Falklands to Argentina, and Gibraltar to Spain. That should at least pay for the large warehouses and customs facilities that we'll need to avoid the 30 mile queues on Kent’s motorways which will result from leaving the Customs Union. It would also justify the decision to scrap the Navy.

This could be the key to a successful hard brexit. Assuming that there are no U-turns from Theresa May, everyone who voted “leave” to stop immigration will be happy. After all, there are hardly any “Pret a Manger” sandwich bars staffed by young Europeans North of Watford, so not many people would be inconvenienced, and there are plenty of people on zero hours contracts in different types of employment who would love to fill the full time, low paid jobs currently done by other European immigrants. 

Sovereignty would be well and truly returned to England, and there would be no need to waste two years on trying to negotiate with those very difficult Europeans. Even the Tory right wing, Nigel Farage and Paul Dacre of the Daily Mail would be likely to agree with this "England First!" approach.

Perhaps like Johnson and Gove I should buy a Battle Bus that I could use to promote the simplistic falsehoods (otherwise known as lies) associated with this plan. The £350 million per week lie worked for them and successfully duped a lot of people, why shouldn't a similar approach work for me!

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Less than two years to agree a divorce?

I’ve been impressed recently by Yannis Varoufakis who was the Greek Finance Minister and recently has established himself in the UK as a journalist, commentator and author.

He has recent and very relevant experience of dealing with the EU Commission and the leaders and ministers of EU governments when, two years ago, he was trying to find a solution to the Greek debt crisis.

His account of the negotiating tactics adopted against him by the EU is highly revealing and also depressing. Varoufakis describes the various methods used to delay and frustrate progress towards an agreement over the Greek bail-out. 

I think it’s quite reasonable to expect EU officials to follow the same path with Theresa May. The longer they delay, the more concessions they are likely to get from her. Alternatively the more they are going to demonstrate to EU countries, with strong anti-EU elements, that leaving the EU is not a soft option and that you can’t have all the trade advantages, with none of the costs and disadvantages of membership.

There are 27 other countries in the EU so any inconvenient or painful economic results, following no agreement when the two year article 50 period expires, will be spread over all of them. In contrast the UK will bear the full costs and consequences of a failed negotiation. The fact is that the EU is holding all the best cards and is in a much stronger negotiating position than the UK. No amount of talking tough by Theresa May will help when, on the other side of the table, there are people holding all the aces who don’t even really care when the hand is played. 

For the EU delaying an agreement is a win–win situation. Among the EU officials there could even be an aspect of thinking that it’s better not to agree, than to agree something that will be criticized later.

If there’s no agreement the EU will say it’s due to Theresa May’s intransigence and the hard Brexiteers behind her will stand logic on its head and say that it’s a good outcome. 

Even without the punishment factor, when divorcing from the EU, it was never realistic to expect an agreement to be reached in two years.  Assuming that both sides are genuinely willing to negotiate, all negotiations take time because everyone has to have the opportunity to adjust their expectations down between meetings. In a negotiation of this breadth and complexity two years was never going to be enough. With this very short timescale all the pressure is on the UK and, unlike in the Greek/Euro crisis, there’s little reason for urgency on the other side.

Varoufakis’ suggestion is to change the terms of the whole thing by asking for an off the shelf “Norway Model” whilst the details are negotiated over say, seven years. He doesn’t really explain why this would be attractive to other EU countries, other than to say that pushing the decisions that far down the line would mean that the current set of EU Commissioners and government Ministers would be likely to be out of office, and therefore they would be more inclined to agree to a deal that their successors would have to see through.

But, even if this idea was sellable to the soon to be elected Tory government and its right wing, the Department for Exiting the European Union has unfortunately ruled out such an arrangement. In addition, EU Commission President Donald Tusk said, at the end of March, that any transitional deal cannot last longer than three years.

It looks like we’re heading for a hard Brexit!

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The beginning of the end of the Post-Truth era?

After the first 60 days of Trump’s presidency there’s been a change in the balance of power between the White House, and the media. During the campaign, he was in the ascendancy, regularly accusing the media of creating fake news stories when they reported anything unfavourable to him.  

In his first week in office he was signing executive orders; and diverting attention away from anything that reflected badly on him by making up his own fantastic tweets. Right from the start he tried to change the reality of even trivial matters like the size of the crowd at his inauguration day; or more seriously the number of fraudulent votes cast.

But federal court judges declared his first travel ban on people from some Muslim countries unconstitutional, and then did so once again to the revised order because, in their published judgement, they took his own statements during the campaign, concerning excluding Muslims from entering the US, at face value. This was the first collision between Trump’s habitual lying and the real world. When you're President of the USA, words matter and can no longer be treated as fleeting statements made in campaign speeches, easily said, often repeated, and then forgotten.

Trump is also facing a multi-organisational investigation into links between him, his campaign team and Russia.  Why would Flynn deny meeting the Russian ambassador for discussions about sanctions only to resign when called to account for his lying. 

In addition, why would Sessions not disclose to the Senate confirmation hearing that he had met the Russian ambassador twice during the campaign, and then withdraw himself from the investigation. Everyone thinks there’s a smoking gun somewhere, which sooner or later will be found!

Trump, in his attempt to abolish Obamacare, has a grass roots revolt on his hands over the hardships that would be created for many of his own supporters in terms of removing or reducing their health care cover; so he has used his familiar distraction tactics and accused Obama and the UK of “wiretapping” him. This should have been a good tactic, because normally the policy of the intelligence agencies is neither to confirm or deny such matters, but this time the lie was such a whopper that even the Director of GCHQ condemned it outright, as did the FBI and the NSA. Fox News his favourite TV channel has now dropped the journalist who started the rumour. I think that’s as strong a statement on the matter as anyone else has made so far.

Trump’s popularity is the lowest of any newly elected President at  37% but he so much needs approval and adulation that his response has been to organize campaign style rallies in Florida and Nashville  to bolster his ego.  In the Florida rally he once again blamed the media for all his troubles but, protected by the first amendment, they are doing their job and exposing the untruths wherever they can.

Trump’s a better campaigner than he is a President and he’s mobilised a lot of discontented people to support him, but his ignorance, and his disregard for both the truth, and the institutions which exist in democracies to limit the power of the executive, are catching up with him.  The fight back is underway in the US mainly because Trump has overreached himself very quickly, made numerous mis-steps and is now on the back foot.  I hope that we are seeing the beginning of the end of the Post-Truth era in politics.

Now we need to apply the same degree of scrutiny and resistance to spin and untruths over the Brexit negotiations, although with the predominantly foreign owned, right wing, UK press that will be difficult.

Theresa May wasn’t part of the team of liars who led the leave campaign, but she has now firmly allied herself with them. By prioritising immigration control over trade and the economy she’s on the way to confirming the UKIP/Daily Mail lies making immigrants the scapegoats for all of the economic and social woes of the UK.  In the period when Osborne’s cuts to central government and local authority budgets are beginning to really bite hard and affect the NHS and social care that is a gigantic lie! 

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Crane migration over the Lot

Yesterday evening the cranes were flying right over the village.  There was skein after skein of them for more than half an hour at dusk. I would estimate that several thousand were going north.  They call to each other as they fly and often change their position in the V-shaped formations. It was quite a spectacle!
It can be a matter of luck whether you see them or not. Some years they fly above the clouds and you just hear their calls, other times they fly over at night. They usually co-ordinate their northward migration to a particular day so if you're not there you've missed them!  

This video from Peter Erl shows the migration very well.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Post Truth Politics Rules!

No French politicians keep their promises, and no one expects them to do so, but the ideas of Benoit Hamon, the newly elected leader of the French Socialists, are in a different league from the others.  He says that he wants to pay everyone 750 Euros/month by 2020 regardless of their income or resources. Before then all young people between the ages of 18 – 25 will be given 600 Euros/month without pre-conditions. He also intends to reduce the working week from 35 to 32 hours.

Let’s not bother with discussing how this might affect an already ailing French economy, or what is likely to happen to the generation of young people who don’t have any need to work or contribute to society.

There seems to be little concern about how this will be financed and the 1 Euro socialists don’t care!  They paid this token amount and signed an online statement saying that they shared socialist values and were immediately eligible to vote in the socialist primaries!  So once again an attempt to open up important decisions to the democratic process has backfired.

Democracy only works when voters act responsibly and can distinguish between truth and lies.  First we had the £3 Labour Party voters who have chosen an un-electable and ineffective leader; then we had the Brexit vote, led by unscrupulous lying politicians like Johnson and Gove; then we had the election of Trump, who can’t open his mouth without lying; and finally (for the moment at least) Benoit Hamon, who is promising policies which are impossible to deliver.  Once again post-truth politics rules!

It was crazy to decide about the complex subject of the European Union by referendum and it’s equally crazy to allow people to choose political leaders in primary elections without the voters having paid their full membership dues and having been party members for at least a year! In my view such things shouldn’t be up to the Party to decide, but should be regulated under electoral law.

It’s unlikely that M. Hamon will get through to the second round of voting in the French Presidential election but he will split the left wing vote and allow Marine LePen, the National Front candidate to get through easily. In the past everyone has always united against the NF for the second round.  Recent events in the feverish world of post-truth politics suggest that we shouldn’t count on that happening this time!