Sunday, 29 April 2012

Why 'Double-Dip' Means Nothing For Labour

Today's Sunday papers are full of retrospectives anticipating George Osborne’s political obituary. 
Personally, I would not be so quick to pronounce him dead and gone.


Typical of today’s offerings is Heather Stewart’s – at the risk of being offensive – rather shallow review of the Chancellor’s situation for the Guardian.

Ms Stewart’s comment was not short on hyperbole.  The Tories’ plans, apparently, have been ‘shattered’.  The economy is ‘flat on its back’.  George Osborne's central economic gambit ‘has failed miserably’. 
But before we commit Mr Osborne to the dustbin of history, perhaps we need to be not-so-hasty.  Rejoicing over the government’s economic difficulties is a path fraught with danger, and Labour needs to be very careful.

Rejoicing about recession
Firstly, are we happy with an article which uses the word ‘gleefully’ to describe Ed Balls’s reaction to Osborne’s predicament?
Recession is a terrible scourge.  It is people suffering – factories closing, workers losing their jobs, stress, worry, hardship and – in some cases – suicide.  Down there in the Westminster bubble, an economic dip might well be surmised to cause joy in the Shadow Cabinet … but the appropriate human reaction is very different up here in the north-east, at the sharp end of economic failure.
‘Bitterness’, ‘anger’, even ‘reproach’ would have been reactions to welcome.  ‘Gleeful’ is an unsatisfactory word – a vote-loser.  People up here already believe that their lives and fate have become a pawn in a politicians’ game; all the word ‘gleefully’ does is convince them that the Shadow Cabinet are no better than the Tories.

Gambling on the economy
Secondly, are we sure that -0.2% really is a ‘double-dip recession’?  And are we really going to base our opposition to the government’s economic policy on the claim that we are now into a ‘double-dip recession’?
When I went to church in my younger days, I was always wary of those preachers who tried to ‘prove’ the validity of the Christian faith by bombarding me with ‘evidence’.  What happens to your faith, for example, if you have founded it on the miracle of the Turin Shroud, when some scientist comes along and demonstrates it to be a medieval forgery?
In the same way, what happens to Labour’s economic credibility next quarter if the economy shows a +0.2% growth?  Are we going to eat humble pie and acclaim Osborne’s resurrection from the dead?
Moreover, even if it could be proved that the Chancellor was to blame for the dip, the fact that the economy MAY be flat-lining does not necessarily mean that it would be right to embark on a Keynesian spending-spree and start racking up the national debt.
Fiscal responsibility is a given, whoever is in government, and Mr Balls needs to be very careful before he puts all his chips on the roulette wheel of economic growth, +/-0.2%.
The truth is that – even were the economy growing – Osbornomics is a very wicked strategy, deeply harmful to the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, and economically damaging to regions such as the north-east.  If we are going to oppose it, we do not need to invoke a double-dip recession to do so.

We do not want to follow the USA

Neither, thirdly, quite frankly, am I very impressed by comparisons to other countries’ economies.  As Ms Stewart points out, Austerity isn’t working in the eurozone because the Finance Ministers of Spain and Greece do not have the benefit of devaluation or quantitative easing. 
Neither, equally however, to be candid, am I as impressed as Ms Stewart with America’s so-called economic recovery.  So yes it is true that Obama has continued borrowing, and yes it is true that the US economy is growing.  But all the evidence from the US indicates that, although there has been positive growth, the consequent increase in GDP has been overwhelmingly swallowed up by the top 1% … and that the experience of American’s poorest is no better than that of Greece’s poorest – poverty, tent-cities and exclusion-from-welfare.
There is no point in a country having a growing economy, if the benefits of that growth are not being passed on to its citizens.
And that is the biggest problem of Britain’s economy – not whether growth is flat-lining or not, but the way the product of our economy is being distributed … and it is THAT, not any spurious wrangling about decimal points, which ought to form the basis of Labour’s critique of Osbornomics.

Tax-avoidance, infrastructure and jobs

It is often the ephemera that capture the headlines and – to be blunt – ‘ephemeral’ is the correct word to categorise last week’s (challengeable) -0.2% growth figure.
What has been happening below the headlines, however, is that there has been an extended debate about what a Plan B might involve, and there is growing consensus about what it should include, particularly: a degree of rebalancing of tax, investment in infrastructure, and financial stimuli to industry which require jobs-for-grants.

To be fair to Ms Stewart, that is fairly much how she ends her article:

“Even within his spending plan, Osborne could have thought urgently about easing the squeeze on hard-pressed families, funding infrastructure projects that would create jobs and boost productive capacity, and channelling investment to firms still starved of the funds to expand. Instead, his priority was to deliver a tax cut to some of the highest earners in the country.”
And it is with such a narrative – not any triumphalistic gloating about a double-dip recession – that Labour needs to be articulating its pronouncements on the economy.

As for Mr Osborne, I would not write him off quite yet.  We have all seen the films, and we all know better – even when the demon is slain – than to turn our back on him and relax.

Friday, 27 April 2012

We Have A Government Which Is Actively Destroying The North-East

Do you get the impression that the Tories are trying to destroy the north-east?
David Cameron warned us before the election that he intended to do so, but I think there were some who didn’t believe him at the time.
Anyway, he has been as good as his word.

Cutting back on the Welfare State

First, there were the cuts in benefits.  Tough new rules have been introduced for Housing benefit, and for people on Job Seeker’s Allowance.  Thousands have had their working tax credits revoked.  The government is currently reassessing those on sickness benefit and – in County Durham – declaring 45% of them ‘fit for work’, and placing a further 26% of them into a ‘work-related activity’ category (which means that they will be moved onto JSA after a year).  These changes will affect the north-east disproportionately, because we have a high proportion of people on benefits – 14% of the people in Aycliffe are ‘workless’ (i.e. receiving some kind of benefits) compared to 10% nationaly.
I am aware that some of those local people defined by Mr Cameron as ‘decent hard-working families’ may approve of these changes, because you have been sold by the government a ‘scrounger’ narrative, which alleges that people on benefits are in fact just being lazy, and taking money out of your pocket. But even if you believe the propaganda, you cannot deny that these cuts represent a significant cut in demand, especially for basic consumer goods, in the region … and that cut in demand will affect the general prosperity of the region.

Cutting back on local government

Secondly, there have been the cuts in local government.  These cuts have been organised so that they have hit the north-east far harder than down south (where one authority actually received more money).  To this has been added an attack on public sector pensions (workers are going to be required to pay more, for longer, for a smaller pension) and an officer pay freeze. 
Worse, in fact, is coming soon, for the government is determined to return to Councils control of their locally-generated business rate … which would be fine if we had lots of thriving businesses up here, but we don’t.  The guess in County Durham is that the measure will cut a further £80million a year from the County Council’s budget (on top of the £125million cuts over four years already determined).  It is a massive figure to find on a total budget requirement of £447million.
Now it is true that many private sector employers and employees despise and envy the ‘gold-plated’ public sector, and the government in this has tapped into a popular feeling that Councils waste money and that the restrictions of a ‘small state’ were long overdue.  What people are finding now, however, is that charities and valued community facilities are having to be cut, and that many private firms actually made money out of working on local government contracts … or doing jobs for local government employees.  As the local Councils contract, so does the local economy.

Cutting back on NHS funding in the north-east
A further blow to the north-east has been slipped through without anyone noticing, in that the government has quietly changed the basis on which it allocates NHS funding.  Hitherto, regional funding has been based on the level of deprivation (since it has long been established that health is a function of wealth).  From now on, however, funding is to be based upon the how long people live (on the argument that, if an area has more old people, it bears a greater burden of care).
This, by the way, is heinously erroneous.  Most of a person’s cost to the NHS is incurred in the last year of life – which happens whether you die at 57 or 87.  In the meantime, the decision will consciously move money away from the poorer areas where people are unhealthier and die younger, and give it to richer areas where people are healthier and live longer.
De facto, it will take money from the north-east’s Health Trusts and give it to the south-east.

Cutting back on north-east pay
In addition, the government presses ahead with its plans for regional pay differentials – which will see public sector workers in the north-east earning much less for the same job than their equivalents in the south. 
Now, to be fair, as I write this blog, I am conducting a twitter-debate in which my opponent is claiming that there are wages differentials in the private sector, so why not in the public sector too?
Indeed, the policy is being sold by the government not only as ‘fair’, but as necessary for the local economy, because – they say with a degree of justification – high public sector wages are making the regional economy unprofitable. 
However, it doesn’t take a genius to work out how falling public sector wages will make the region more profitable – they will in their turn drive down private sector wages.  This may indeed increase corporate profits, but it will make us all the poorer up here, not least by reducing the amount of money families have to spend in the local shops.  If you are a conservatory-builder, the benefit you gain from reduced wages will not make up for the fact that no one in the area has enough spare cash to be able to order one of your conservatories. 
Regional pay threatens to decimate our region.  Regionally negotiated pay will wreck national negotiating structures, weaken unions, and ultimately reduce everyone’s pay.  Regional pay will reinforce the 'bright flight' already tempting our able young away from the region - leaving for jobs and higher pay. And, most of all, lower public sector pay will take £billions out of a north-east economy which is already stagnating from lack of demand; the result will be a Keynesian multiplier in reverse, whereby the teacher can’t pay the plumber, who therefore can’t pay the wholesaler, who therefore can’t pay the landlord, who therefore can’t renew the plumbing etc.

Creating a cheap-housing 'Homeland' for the poor
In the meantime, I fear the north-east is set to suffer from the government’s housing policies. To be fair, rents are lower up here, so the number of people suffering from the rent cap will actually be much lower than down south, and neither do I think that as a population we will be hit any harder than anywhere else in the country by the bedroom tax.
What we DO need to worry about, however, is what knock-on effect the housing cap will have on our area.
You may have seen in the news, this week, the story of the London Borough of Newham which – unable to find homes for its residents at an affordable rent – is looking to ‘ship out’ numbers of tenants (who are losing their homes because they cannot now afford the rent) to places elsewhere in the country.  I am told that, where such a transfer is arranged, those people go to the top of the housing list.
Many of these people have jobs – albeit low-paid jobs – in the capital, and the question is being asked why we are moving people from London where there are jobs, to places up north where there aren’t.
What I fear will happen is that – in a fashion reminiscent of the Bantu homelands under apartheid – places like the north-east will end up as cheap housing pools for the families of manual workers.  Like the black people of South Africa, the ‘workers’ of the family will move to London to live in squalid, shared accommodation for months at a time, sending money back to their families living in cheap-housing in the north.
Is this what the rich want? – a ‘made-in-Chelsea’ zone in-and-around the metropolis, with their menial servant workforce hidden away in lodging houses, and their families – along with the disabled and unemployed – coping as best they can in the boondocks of the north, out-of-sight-and-out-of-mind.

[Reflecting on this section, I wondered whether I might not be guilty here of overstatement, and I certainly don't expect busloads of migrants from Brent to start turning up with their suitcases.  But I do suspect that the rent differential will gradually encourage, as a counterpoint to the 'bright flight' the region suffers, a knock-on 'rent creep' effect as families are forced to move seeking cheaper housing.  It is a measurable phenomenon, and one we need to montior.]

The failure to stimulate the private sector

But what, you ask, happened to the government’s promise that the slack created by the cuts in the public sector would be taken up by growth in the private sector? 
What has the government done to facilitate such a process?
Now it is true that, in the latest budget, Newcastle was designated to become a ‘super-connected’ broadband city, so all credit there (unless you live outside Newcastle, that is).
But when our local MPs spoke in the recent debate on the north-east economy, they were damning in their criticism of the almost-nothing that this Tory government is doing to stimulate business in the north-east:

“This Government have abolished our [Regional Development Agency], despite the fact that during the last three months of 2011, the north-east enjoyed record high growth in exports…”
“Some £329 million [of European regional development funding] was made available, but £129 million remains un-invested directly because of the loss of One North East…”
“Considered together, London and the south-east account for 84% of planned [infrastructure] spending, compared with only 6% for the three northern regions and an unbelievably minuscule 0.04% for the north-east. That equates to £2,731 per head of population for London and the south-east, more than all the other regions combined, compared with £201 in Yorkshire and Humber, £134 in the north-west and just £5 in the north-east of England…”
“Finally, in the month when the north-east is losing its regional development agency, its local enterprise partnerships will receive a paltry £10 million from the Growing Places fund…”
Thus, whilst it is taking £billions out of our north-east economy in benefit cuts, reduced Council funding and regional pay arrangements, the government is utterly failing to direct back any funding to stimulating growth.
The result is obvious in our visibly failing economy; and it will only get much, much worse, not better.

Embedding the regional disadvantage

To be fair, if I were a southerner reading this litany of complaint, I would at this point be losing patience.
‘What a sponging moaner,’ I would be saying, ‘what he’s bemoaning is nothing more than the fact that we are giving him LESS than we always have. Those north-easterners need to stop demanding more handouts and start making their own way in the world.’
What can one say?  When one is continually demanding a re-balancing of the nation’s wealth, it is indeed easy to look as though one is a continually open mouth.
But what I would say to that southerner would be to ask him to consider how things have got that way.
The north-east economy runs at a loss because the terms of trade are against it. The south-east has a huge economic advantage, so wealth continually flows from the outer regions of the United Kingdom TO the south-east, which continually, therefore, gets rich through its balance-of-payments surplus viz-a-viz the rest of the country.
If we in the north east had the south-east’s proximity to the continent, its governmental and financial centres, and its communications infrastructure, perhaps it might be fair to blame us for a failing economy.  But whilst we do not have such economic advantages, we are ALWAYS going to decline relative to the south-east without some mechanism to redistribute wealth back north (which is exactly what the government is stopping) or some mechanisms to attract industry to the north-east (which is exactly what the government is failing to provide).
So don’t throw up your arms and decry these ‘lazy’ north-easterners who ‘lack’ the necessary entrepreneurial skills and work ethic to grow their economy!

As far as County Durham and Newton Aycliffe are concerned, even the paltry efforts the government IS making to encourage business outside the south-east rebound against us. 
Again, let’s listen to one of our MPs in the recent debate on the north-east economy:

“The Scots at Holyrood still have economic development and tourism strategies and are still offering inward investment incentives, all important determinants whether a company invests in Scotland or the north-east, but the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills seem oblivious. For example, Amazon, despite considering a site in the north-east, located in Edinburgh, purely on the basis of the grants available. Given the existing imbalance in Edinburgh’s favour, the decision to locate the Green investment bank there seems like a political and economic knee in the groin for regions such as the north-east of England…”
Thus, when you are just outside a ‘development’ zone, it becomes even harder to get your economy going, because any of the reduced business interest which might occur gets directed away from you, and towards the nearby enterprise zone.

This is particularly apposite for County Durham and Newton Aycliffe.
Two enterprise zones have been established in the north east. One zone comprises the Sunderland-Tyneside coastal belt. The other – spearheaded by Tees Valley Unlimited – includes Redcar, Teesside and Darlington. 
The Tees Valley Enterprise zone is the cruellest cut for us because – as you will see if you look at the map – Newton Aycliffe sits right next to the zone, just outside any reliefs or allowances it might offer.
The people of Newton Aycliffe face an uphill struggle trying to attract industry to come to our Business Park, however good it might be, because you can get a grant if you set up just a few miles away.

Conclusion: a war of attrition has been declared on the north-east
I have lots of complaints about the last Labour government as far as County Durham is concerned.  For a number of years, we had as our MPs the Prime Minister as some of the leading politicians in the land – yet when the Labour government eventually fell, it left us still with an inadequate two-lane motorway (and a normal two-way road north of Newcastle), outside its high-speed rail plans, and with a desperately slow broadband network.
But one thing you’ve got to hand to Blair and Brown, however, was that they DID try to take some of the money that was ponding up in the south-east, and through-flow it back to the north-east.  The Labour government sited government agencies in the north-east, funded the very vigorous One North-East, and expanded the public sector rapidly.

But what has happened is that, in the meantime, the south-east has got fed up of what-it-sees-as continually bailing us out, and it has decided that it wants to keep the money it earns IN the south-east, and it wants to stop all this ‘redistribution’ to the poor and the regions … and it has elected a government which stated explicitly that such was what it would do if it came to power.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is exactly what is happening now.

Thursday, 26 April 2012

So - Did Ed Balls REALLY Cause The Recession?

Hopefully, this will be a short Rant.

Fraser Nelson, in the Spectator Blog today, reports a spat between Ed Balls and AF Neil over Mr Balls’s claim that the Tories’ "deep, harsh cuts" had caused the recession:
"adjust for inflation and core government spending (that is, stripping out debt and dole) is down just 0.8 per cent. Is that really what caused the crash, asked Neil. Really?"
Hoisting the Shadow Chancellor on his own petard, Mr Nelson then goes on to suggest that it is Ed Balls who is responsible for the crash – by so terrifying people about the coming axe ‘that they desisted from their economic activity and bunkered down’.
The Shadow Chancellor, suggests Mr Nelson, TALKED us into recession!

The Alternative Conceptual Universe of Mr Nelson
So – and let’s pause to get this correct – what Mr Nelson is trying to get us believe is that Austerity HASN’T caused the recession, not because austerity doesn’t indeed perhaps cause recessions, but because there hasn’t in fact been any austerity.
And – further – do I read the inference that there isn’t really a true recession either … because the downturn is just a figment of businesses’ imagination, rather than a real, industrial slump?

It just goes to show what you can do with words which, as we know, are abstract constructs and do not carry absolute meaning.
Because – whatever Mr Neil might claim about the cuts – they are ‘deep and harsh’ out here in the real world of making-ends-meet.
And – whatever Mr Nelson might suggest about the recession – it is real enough out here in the real world of jobs and living.

The main thing that struck me, however, as I read Mr Nelson’s sophistry, was to wonder – if he is correct – why Labour has the Tory government on the run at the moment?

If Mr Neil is correct and there have been no real cuts – why is the government sitting there and taking the rap for making cuts?  The government is as responsible as anyone for the language of austerity which has accompanied its measures to ‘tackle the deficit’. 
So why – if there have been no cuts in real terms – is it allowing the opposition to slaughter it in debate after debate for the ‘cuts’ it is allegedly making?

And if Mr Nelson is correct and the recession is merely a blip of confidence caused by the misapprehension of cuts, surely we have the stupidest government of all time, for IT has created a collapse of business confidence out of an illusion of austerity it has propagated!

Back To Reality?
The alternative to all this palaver, of course, is that Ed Balls was right first time, and that the government’s austerity cuts have caused a recession.

Maybe Mr Nelson is correct and the Labour ‘line’ IS a fiction … but the convoluted logic of his alternative makes my brain hurt.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Do We Need To Be Uneasy About Lords’ Refom?

I rarely disagree with Polly Toynbee, and I’m not sure even that I completely disagree with her latest ‘rant’ about the reform of the House of Lords.
But I am uneasy about it.

Does the Lords needs reforming?
To some degree, reform of the House of Lords is hard to oppose (which I suppose is why politicians try to earn a few easy Brownie points by suggesting it).
Indeed, in this day and age, who can really support a system which gives twelve bishops such prominence when so few people actually agree or even care what the CofE believes?
And in a democracy, is it not arguable that we ought to hound out in disgrace our hereditary peers, who are there simply because their ancestors killed or oppressed ours (and stole their land, labour and product)?

The tendency of successive Prime Ministers to ‘pack’ the Lords with politically like-minded peers is another problem – even if it has resulted in some kind of unwieldy, overweight balance.
And surely nobody can countenance the appointment of a life-peer because they gave large donations to a particular political party?

Do we really want new second chamber?
So, OK, there are abuses to be reformed – wrongs to be righted, Mrs Toynbee.

However, as you know, what is being suggested is not fine-tuning … not ‘tinkering at the edges’ to do away with some of the incongruities.
You know as well as I do that what is being suggested is REPLACING the House of Lords with an elected upper chamber.
And that is where I begin to quibble.

I am left-wing in my views.  I despise privilege and patronage.
But even I concede the drawbacks of an elected upper chamber over the existing House of Lords.

When are these ‘senators’ going to be elected?
At the same time as the Commons?  All that will produce is a mirror image of the Commons.  So what would be the point – the Commons will make ideological laws, the upper chamber will agree. 
But what will happen if we hold the elections at different times – during an administration when it is going through its usual period of unpopularity?  What that will produce is an upper chamber diametrically opposed to the Commons … and we will be reduced to the American system of warring houses.  Throw in a quiver of elected mayors and we really will have created a system capable of total coagulation. 

At the moment we have one House, elected by the people, truly able to claim that they are the representatives of the nation.  That is why, when it comes to it, the Commons can simply ignore the House of Lords (and rightly so).  But what is going to happen when we have two elected chambers, both of which can validly claim to be the people’s representative body?
I’ll tell you what – deadlock.
Stand-offs, then discussions, then brinkmanship, then squalid compromise.
Think US budget … coming soon to a constitution near you.

A plague on both your houses
Most of all, what possible reason have we to want MORE elected members?
It is typical of the disconnection of our politicians that – faced with a world in which politicians are universally distrusted and despised – they could come up with a solution for reform which involves … more politicians!

More elections – more hype – more expense (and expenses) – more party political posturing – and a lucrative political career for a whole host of politicians who were not quite good enough to be selected for a constituency. 
Quite frankly I am horrified at the prospect, and I suspect most people who give a damn will be too.
People do not want more politics; they want effective politics.

We are told that almost two-thirds of the people want Lords’ reform.
Don’t fool yourself. Most people just want a government under which they will be able to pay their bills and feed their family.
They do not give a damn about the constitutional arrangements for an upper chamber.

But, no, our politicians – whilst they are cutting Housing Benefit, Disability Living Allowance, Legal Aid, public sector pensions and a whole load of other things that make the difference between penury and survival – are openly proposing that we PAY for a referendum on Lords' reform.  

Get real.

A House of Michael Portillos, please

The greatest advert for the House of Lords, imho, is Michael Portillo (even though he isn't a lord).
Mr Portillo, you will remember, was a Thatcherite hit-man. People hated him – the biggest cheer of the 1997 election was when Mr Portillo lost his seat.

But, post-career, when you see him now on BBC This Week, is he not a changed beast?  His politics are arguably left-wing.  His passion is train lines.  His demeanour is thoughtful and gentle – he does not need to ‘win’.  He is popular and – that rare thing – he is trusted … because he is a post-politician.
So he can afford to be magnanimous.

THAT is what we need in the Lords.  Politicians and patricians who have served with distinction, and who now don’t care, need or wish to ‘get on’, but will share their thoughts and experience without fear or favour.
We need a second chamber which will vet and proof the Commons’ legislation, yet which will not see itself as a rival legislature … and which will ‘roll over’ if the Commons insists.

Funnily enough, the proposals to reform the Lords come at a time when we are as near to this being the case as ever I can remember.
Faced with the Tories’ austerity measures, the Lords filed a string of amendments and criticisms.  They were reflective and constructive attempts to prevent anomalies. They were an attempt to protect the vulnerable.  And, by contrast, it was the Commons who came out of it all looking right-wing, ideological and oppressive.

It could be argued that – just when it is doing its job properly – now is the LAST time we should be changing the Lords.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

We Should All Do A Little To Help Bahrain

We cannot do much to end the nightly violence in Bahrain; but what little we can do, we ought to do:

At last, with this BBC article, the #Bahrain scandal has hit the mainstream - and about time too.

There has been ongoing government oppression there for more than a year, but the West has been desperately slow to act/react. Now, #F1 have forced through the Grand Prix on Sunday, which will merely give validation to a dreadful regime.

The #F1 may go still be going ahead but we can still #boycottBahrain.

What Can I Do?
The best thing to do would be to refuse to watch the Grand Prix as a gesture of solidarity.

However, if you cannot make yourself do that, take a note of the companies which are advertising on the track and on the TV as you are watching, and contact them to tell them that you are going to boycott their product because they supported the Bahrain Grand Prix. At least that will make them aware next time that they must take human rights issues into account - Grand Prix races should not merely be about hedonistic indulgence.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Recruiting Activists On The #Labourdoorstep

I met a lovely old chap on the #labourdoorstep this evening.

When he opened the door, I said as I always do:
‘Hello Sir, my name is Councillor John Clare and I’m out with the Labour Campaign Team [points to rosette] doing a voter-id. So would you mind please if I asked you how you voted at the last election?’

He did a small strange curtsey, gave me a ‘knowing’ look, smiled and said: ‘I don’t think you want to know!’

‘Oh dear,’ I smiled, ‘Not Labour then?’
Actually the whole area was overwhelmingly Labour, so it had been a good day, but apparently I was going to get an ‘A’ (‘Against’) here.

From Bad to Worse
He adopted a pained, theatrical expression, squinted towards the ceiling, and intoned: ‘I wouldn’t vote for that lot of they were the last Party on earth.’

I never let this kind of thing worry me – to a degree I sympathise – so I laughed out loud.
I had, however, ‘set him off’. He proceeded to tell me how the entire political class were compromised, how they had betrayed the voters, how they couldn’t be trusted, how that Breivik chap had had the right idea and they all needed shooting.

‘And your … man,’ he spat out, ‘he’s the worst of the lot. You can’t trust a word he says, AND he’s no backbone … why is he not speaking out about the dreadful things that the government is doing.’

‘This government is doing some terrible things,’ I interjected, trying to get a word in edgeways.

‘Terrible? I’ll tell you…’ he said, and he was off again. Contrary to first impressions, he was reasonably well-informed, especially about the issues that had affected him personally.
‘I’m suffering here,’ he shared. ‘I can’t make ends meet any more. It never used to be like this.’

Turning the Corner
‘Well that’s it,’ I encouraged, ‘I suppose that’s why we ought to vote Labour … to winkle this lot out.’

‘Aw they’re all the same,’ he said.

‘Perhaps you’re right,’ I offered. ‘There were some things the New Labour government was doing towards the end which I couldn’t agree with.’

His face hardened. ‘Oh no,’ he said, ‘I won’t hear a word against Gordon Brown. He was a good man. He tried to put it right. It was a world recession for goodness sake – in Spain, in Germany, in the USA … how did Gordon Brown cause that?’

I opened my mouth, but there was no stopping him now…
‘That’s why I suppose we’ve GOT to vote Labour,’ he told me, ‘to get rid of this lot.’

‘Good man!’ I said and shook him by the hand. It seemed I had converted him from ‘Against’ to left-wing activist in three minutes and I hadn’t said above a dozen words!

‘But I won’t vote for you after that!’ he added, somewhat deflating my vanity.

1. Some people just talk as they warm.

2. People ARE capable of appreciating the truth about the recession – when they reflect on it, they can see sense.

3. Many people’s automatic reaction to politics and politicians is that we’re all corrupt and we’re all the same ... and it will take a long time to correct that prejudice, if we can correct it at all.

4. Ordinary people – especially poor people – ARE naturally Labour; they sometimes just need a little help to see so.

5. The Coalition cuts are beginning to hurt people, and people are beginning to come round to the realisation that the Coalition has to go; the trick will be to make them realise that voting Labour is the best way to do so – that Labour is a viable alternative.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

The 'Big Society' Is An Absolute Evil And Labour Must Oppose It

The village of Eldon, in County Durham, starred in my 1996 textbook on the Industrial Revolution as an exemplar pit village, growing in just 40 years from a cluster of cottages to a busy community with school, chapels, cycle track, tennis courts etc.
By the time I arrived in the 1970s, it had recessed into a ‘Category D’ village – ‘D’ for dying. The swimming bath had been turned into a car tip. One house had subsided into the pit beneath and the plot was left, empty, as a warning to others. The whole place reeked (in some houses literally) of poverty.

Yet in the centre of the sprawling village, in stark contrast, stood two impeccable Memorial Cottages – provided by the Durham Aged Miners Homes Association (formed 1898), and paid for out of a voluntary levy on working miners’ wages, which went to support miners who reached the age of 65 and were turned out of their tied cottages.
They stand there still, a testimony that we know all about the Big Society up here in County Durham.

Charity and Taxes
In his recent budget, Chancellor George Osborne restricted to a quarter of their income the amount that rich people could claim against tax for ‘charitable donations’.

Let’s acknowledge it; it was a laudable attempt to stop an outrageous tax scam
Liam Fox’s ‘Atlantic Bridge’ lobby group had charitable status. It was part of Osborne’s move against ‘morally repugnant’ tax avoidance.

Shortly afterwards, however, Tory MPs started coming out of the woodwork. Just as the super-rich provide most of our taxes, they argued, they provide most of our charitable giving – by his ‘controversial’ measure (as it was now being called), the Chancellor was threatening the survival of Britain’s essential charities.

The furore reached a shrill peak today with a Telegraph editorial which accused the Chancellor of reneging on the Big Society – on the Tory promise to make:
“a fundamental break from the post-war assumption that the state would care for every need of every citizen from the cradle to the grave. Even before the crash of 2008, it was clear that this paternalistic ambition was not sustainable, let alone palatable … The essence of [the ‘Big Society’ idea] was to give people control over their own lives and get government off their backs.”

Back to before the Welfare State
The Telegraph article should be a clarion wake-up call to the people of Britain, because it is – at last – an explicit acknowledgement of what we have always suspected to be the truth … that the Big Society is a policy to destroy the Welfare State.

Osborne’s move against donations to charity, fumed the Telegraph, is emblematic of ‘a worrying premise: …that the state is the proper recipient of all money to be spent on public services’. And so we have it – the Telegraph Tories want the state to CEASE to be the proper provider of public services, and they want the ‘Big Society’ to take us back pre-1945, to a world where people’s needs are not met as of right by the welfare state, but where they are met by charity, and by self-help associations … such as the Durham Aged Miners Homes Association!

People in the north-east with memories, or a knowledge of history, will be quaking in their metaphorical boots at such a suggestion.

The miners of County Durham could tell this government all about the Big Society, charity and self-help. That was all they had before 1945. And, quite frankly, it stank.
It was at the mercy of the market – generous when times were good, but utterly inadequate when times were bad. Above all, it failed to touch the grinding poverty in which hundreds of thousands of people lived in the north-east before the Second World War.

Charity is capricious and random. It does not follow the need, but the whims of the giver – cancer and children’s charities usually do well, animal charities suffer during a recession, and issues such as asylum-seekers and psychiatric needs tend to struggle. Often, the generosity of donations is related to the degree to which the charity is seen as ‘deserving’ – and thus the ‘Big Society’ is umbilically linked to the government’s ‘scrounger’ narrative.

Above all, shifting the balance of care-in-society from the state to the community (charity and self-help) would be a reversion of the rights of ourselves as citizens. Someone who goes to the state to claim legal benefits – who does so because a law defines eligibility and they fit the criteria – is exercising thereby their right to state support … their right as defined in law. They can take their child allowance, JSA or tax credits with the same self-pride that they would take their wages, or seek a rebate from their electricity company. This right has been hard-fought and even-harder-won over the last century. It has always been regarded as the ultimate achievement and benefit of democracy – of government of the people, by the people … FOR the people.

Charity is based on a different premise altogether. It is given as a favour, by someone who has more than you, out of their generosity. They have a right – to withhold it – you have nothing. You have to ASK (‘beg?) for charity. It is not yours as of right. They decide if your case is 'worth' it. Charity is a judgement on you and (since you are already reduced to the point where you have had to ask) it STARTS with a presumption of failure and inferiority.

Charity as a Failure of Society
The concept behind the Welfare State was of the state as a community of all its inhabitants, in which a country might reasonably be expected to be able to produce enough to provide all its inhabitants with a decent standard of living.

In the ‘Austerity’ years immediately after the war, this presumption had a stark reality for the rich – ‘bread for all before cake for any’. As the years went by, and the country prospered, there was a realisation that ‘cake for some’ is acceptable … but only as long as there was always ‘bread for all’.

Today, I floated the idea that charity, therefore, represents a failure of the Welfare State – any state which was truly providing a basic standard of living for all its citizens in theory wouldn’t need any ‘charity’ (except international aid, of course) ... the community-through-the-state should proactively be picking up the whole tab.
Looked at by this logic, the mere existence in a society of ‘charities-which-are-needed’ is arguably a cause for shame for that society.

Nowadays, people use the term ‘welfare state’ in the wrong way – they think of it almost in terms of a charity, doling out benefits to all who ask.
This is a very inadequate and misleading definition of the term.

We need to re-establish the phrase ‘Welfare State’ as a term defining the nature of our state; rather in the same way as we might speak of ‘a Fascist state’ or ‘a Federal State’, we in Britain today have ‘a Welfare State’ – one in which the prime and overriding concern of the government is the welfare of its citizens.

The Tories – explicitly – want to change this. They want a ‘small state’ which has devolved some responsibilities for the welfare of its citizens to a random collection of charities and self-help groups. Under cover of personal-empowerment, we are seeing no less than a government which is seeking to shed its role of ultimate responsibility for its citizens’ welfare.
If you do not find this outrageous, then you are either blinkered, or so rich as to be invulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.

The Labour leadership, as always, is ambivalent. They mutter something about ‘benefits and dangers’ and try not to upset the apple-cart on what they see as a popular ‘centrist’ Tory idea.

Well they need to wake up.
Because the ‘Big Society’ is an absolute evil.
It will remove rights from Britain’s citizens that took a century to accumulate, and threatens thereby once again to make us beholden and submissive.
It needs opposing.

Britain is ‘a Welfare state’ which cares for its citizens from the cradle to the grave, and the proper provider for basic needs is the state.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Ken4London - Reductio Ad Absurdum

In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, as King Arthur and his ker-niguts approach Camelot, the scene switches to the wonderfully ludicrous ‘We’re knights of the round table’ song – after which Arthur sighs:
‘On second thoughts, let’s not go to Camelot … it is a silly place’.

On dissension in the Labour Party
After the donner und blitzen of yesterday’s row about nothing-in-particular (which still rumbles bitchily, if not-quite-so-enthusiastically, on), today the Labour Party decided it would fall out about … Ken Livingstone’s video broadcast.

Puppet-master, as often, was the awesomely provocative Dan Hodges.
When I was a teacher I regularly fell victim to my pupils’ attempts to ‘wind me up’, but we all knew that – great fun though it was – it wouldn’t get the exams passed.
Mr Hodges, however, is a provocateur par excellence, and it wasn’t long before he had his response.

To be fair, he had been goading for a couple of days (he had been mocking Ken for crying) without anybody rising to the bait.
But today, picking up on an accusation that the people in the video were actors, not bona fide members of the public, Mr Hodges really ‘got them going’.
Before long, everybody was piling in.

The affair had me in hoots of laughter all morning.
As fast as they scotched one assertion, Mr Hodges threw them another, and we were off again!
Were they actors? Did they get expenses? Did they read a script? So Ken was crying at his own script?
It all fizzled out in early afternoon with a typically brusque exchange between Mr Hodges and @lukeakehurst (who really must come off his red meat diet) about who was canvassing how much, and Mr Hodges taunting: ‘I'm not going to be campaigning anywhere. I'm going to be sitting with my feet up and having a nice cup of tea.’

I was waiting for the coup de grĂ¢ce whereby Mr Hodges – having reduced a good proportion of the Labour twitterati to spluttering rage – then sat down and wrote a blog about the shallowness of the issues in the Mayoral election … but he spared them that outrage.

On being silly
Although I found the palaver amusing, at the same time I couldn’t help but despair that the Mayoral election had been reduced to this.
I presume both Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone have policies they want Londoners to weigh, and that they would prefer the debate to be about those? But, instead, we are all quibbling about whether Rabbi Joseph Stauber is an ‘actor’ if someone had written down what he was to say.

And I was reminded of King Arthur’s dictum: ‘let’s not go there … it is a silly place’.
Because the danger, isn’t it,
is that – faced with such trite idiocy – your average voter is going to decide that politics is 'silly', and a place where he is not going to ‘go’.

To be fair, it’s not wholly the politicians’ fault.
Faced with an electorate who absolutely won’t consider anything to do with real issues – who defiantly refuse to go any deeper than the totally-superficial – what can politicians do but put on an X-Factor show for them?

But then – when the media seize upon the campaign and run X-Factor-size scandals about it – what can we expect but meaningless X-Factor-style debates on twitter?

And then – when the underdog who actually really CAN act turns up on stage – how can we be surprised when he runs away with the popular vote?
And THAT’S how we end up electing the George Galloways of this world.

Politics in our country really has turned into a shallow, silly soap opera. It is similarly divorced from anything that approaches the reality of people’s everyday lives, and it produces empty elections with meaningless results.
There's no wonder that people feel disengaged ... and so the silly show spirals round and round, down and down.

I don’t know how we will ever turn things round; you wonder if an extended period of Tory government might engage people’s attention, but all it produced last time was ‘Things can only get better’.

And the row about that video?
I thought the only person who triumphed from the whole, silly, affair was the Ken Livingstone Team, @ken4london, who took advantage of the hou-ha to tweet:
“Watch the fantastic broadcast they're all still talking about. Better off with Ken. #talkaboutlondoners”
Well done them. For they, perhaps alone, realised the truth – that when politics has been reduced to an X-Factor jape, all publicity is good publicity, and you simply milk it for all it’s worth!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Akehurst And The Mambo

There has been a furious exchange of tweets over the last couple of days between NEC candidate Luke Akehurst and a number of different people, from Dan Hodges to Eoin Clarke to Seema Chandwani to a left-wing group called ‘Representing the Mambo’.

Ironically, it all started when Mr Akehurst attacked people who were undermining Labour’s mayoral campaign for Ken Livingstone (a man whose beliefs Mr Akehurst must have struggled to tolerate) … but then it moved on to the Respect leader Salma Yaqoob, various confrontations in the past, Zionism, Islamism, expelling Party members etc. etc. ad nauseam…

As with all twitter debates, limited to their 140 characters-a-blow, it generated a great deal more heat than light, and consisted of ill-tempered posturing on both sides. Nobody came out of it looking anything but – Dan Hodges and I agreed on the word – ‘grubby’.

Luke Akehurst
To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed with Mr Akehurst. I wonder whether he fully appreciates his position, and how he is regarded by people on the left of the Party.

They see him as ‘Establishment’, one of the ’in-crowd’ who have dominated the Party (and ignored them) for decades. They see him as a right-wing ally of a lobby group called Progress, which is pulling the Party rightwards into Tory policies and must be … well, choose your word: ‘challenged’, ‘ostracised’, ‘hounded out’ – I fear that all are valid.

Oh that God the grace would give us… I suspect that Mr Akehurst would recognise none of that in himself. He sees himself, and Progress, as exemplars of true Labour principles and loyalty, as tireless workers for Labour victory, and as quite left-wing-enough for any hope of electoral victory.

And to be fair to Mr Akehurst, he IS Labour through and through. He IS a tireless worker for Labour victory. He IS tribally loyal to the Party. He is committed to an increased member voice within the Party (one of the few really influential Party members who is) and for that alone he should have our support.

When he lashes out at the Left (as he does from time to time), he does so because he genuinely believes that the things the Left are saying will damage Labour’s credibility and chances. He sees praising the SWP, the Greens, Respect etc. as fragmentational – a form of treason … and to be fair to him, what would we be saying if he was lauding Nigel Farage and Civitas.

Mr Akehurst would never do that, because he is ruthlessly and exclusively Labour. He has turned up – and still goes – to knock doors and post leaflets and attend meetings and do all those mundane work tasks that so many of our ‘senior’ members consider themselves above.
Mr Akehurst is Labour, and if you cannot bear to be in the room with him, then… well I’ll leave you to supply your own text there.

The Mambo
Mr Akehurst’s twitter outburst has drawn forth a critical article from a collective calling itself ‘Representing the Mambo’.

To be honest, the sheer vitriol of the article, and its indulgent use of ‘f***ing’ put me off this lot. Their twitter feed was even worse, revealing a string of trolling tweets directed @lukeakehurst.
It is worth reading the ‘About’ section of their website; it gives you a taste of the flavour of the beast.
I refuse to judge them, but I fear they are not ‘my sort of people’ – sorry guys.

In my political beliefs, however, I would like to bet that I am much closer to The Mambo than I am to Luke Akehurst. Similarly Salma Yaqoob seems to be a person of great moral integrity, and a person with many of whose views I would concur.

But Ms Yaqoob is not Labour, she is Respect. I would that she would join the Party and bring her obvious talents and insights to bear; but she is not a Labour member.
She actively campaigned against a Labour candidate and defeated him; and the fact that she supports Ken Livingstone does not condone that.
Politically, Ms Yaqoob is someone whom we must oppose, must defeat.
She is a political enemy, even if it suits us from time to time to call a truce.

Thus – although I often agree with every word they say – I must admit that I find it incredibly difficult to side with those left-wing Labour supporters who flirt with these people, whose loyalty is conditional on getting their own way, and whose support is unreliable.

How do you grow to like and respect someone who – as soon as your politics drift slightly rightwards – assaults you with expletives? I thought we were in the same Party?

On How To Behave
Mr Akehurst and the ‘heavies’ on the Right do need to appreciate their changed position. They can no longer despise and ignore the core – and they are going to have to come to terms with the fact that the core are a good deal more to the left than they would wish. They are going to have to woo them into solidarity.
They need to realise that hostile outbursts do not work with the hard left of the Party – who tend just to walk away in a fit of martyrdom.
They need to realise that they are still the senior partners in the Party, yet that they must engage with the resurgent lefties with patience … and they are going to have to give ground if their Party is not going to fall apart.

Meanwhile, The Mambo and the other radicals on the Left need to understand that vitriol and vehemence just makes them look childish and ignorant.
They need to realise that – if Mr Akehurst and Co. ever were harassed into leaving the Party – all that would be left would be a beefed-up-SWP and Labour would never be elected anywhere ever again.
They need to realise that, if it came to a fight to the death, the message of 1994 is that it is Mr Akehurst and his friends who would win, and that most of the ‘lefty’ support would stay in the Party and go quiet, and that they would fade into the political ether where they will have no chance of ever achieving even a whiff of their political hopes. (Ultimately, New Labour was a disappointment, but we got something of what we wanted, and at worst they weren’t as bad as the lot we have now.)

Most of all, the Mambos of the Party need to be nice to other members. I KNOW you don’t agree with Mr Akehurst (neither do I) – you are ALLOWED not to agree with Mr Akehurst. But you and he are in the same Party, and you need to be working together in a sense of comradeship towards mutually agreed goals. And sometimes that is going to mean you swallowing your principles and letting him get his own way; and sometimes you are going to get your way, in which case you must do so gracefully.

Jesus had two hilarious things to say about this, and they contradict each other, though both are true.
‘Those who are not against us are for us,’ he said … and indeed it is very welcome when the likes of Selma Yaqoob support Labour’s mayoral candidate. Similarly comfortingly, I know that when it comes to a general election many of the ‘Independents’ who have given me such a hard time on the Town Council will vote Labour.

But Jesus also said that ‘those who are not for us are against us’. And thus it is that you need to remember who is REALLY on your side, and who is just happening to be agreeing with you at this current moment-in-time.
And the simple truth is that it is Mr Akehurst who is for us, and that when left-wing Labour members attack him, all they are doing is ripping apart the Party (and the same is true, of course, for Mr Akehurst). And all those attractive people outside the Party are just that … outside the Party.

If the genuine Labour Left and Mr Akehurst cannot find an accommodation, then all is lost. For Labour Left needs to realise that Labour will never win an election without the Mr Akehursts of this world. And Mr Akehurst similarly needs to realise that Labour will never win an election without giving the genuine Labour Left reasons to vote Labour, and he needs to listen long enough to discover what that those ‘reasons’ might comprise.

And both sides might start by being a bit more careful in their tweets.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Some Common Sense On Tax

People who read this blog will remember that, last year, I suggested a number of times that reducing benefits was not the only or even the best solution to the budget deficit – increasing taxes on the rich was another.
Since then, of course, Chancellor Osborne has reduced the tax on rich people, but increased it on pensioners … which I suppose serves me right.
But what is the truth about tax?

Taxing the Rich
It is an uncomfortable fact – as I was recently challenged about by two young men on twitter – that the rich pay much more tax than the rest of us. A BBC editorial suggests that the top 10% of earners provide almost a half of the tax yield. Moreover, according to another BBC article, the burden individually on the very rich is rising – whereas in 2005-6 people earning more than £10m a year paid £6.1m each on average, in 2009-10 (i.e. before the 50% rate) that average had increased to £7.6m each – an rise of 24% in just four years.
There is no wonder the rich are squealing.

By contrast, those of us at the bottom of society provide comparatively little, the lower 50% of earners providing barely an eighth of the tax yield. And it has been estimated that almost three-quarters of us get more out of the state than we pay … only the top earners pay more in tax than they receive in benefits and services.

Before you run off proposing further tax cuts for the wealthy, however, there are a number of factors you need to take into account:
1. Apparently, the picture is much more balanced when you take the whole range of taxes (including VAT, excise etc.) and not just income tax, into account.
2. Income tax is rightly based upon the notion of ‘progressive taxation’ – that the more you earn, the greater proportion of your income should go in tax – and indeed this is fair because, as I suggested in an earlier Rant, what matters is not your absolute income, but how much you have spare after you have paid for the necessities of life.
3. Many people (and not just socialists) would accept that – in a world where wealth flows naturally from the poor to the rich – taxes on the rich are essential to redress the imbalance in the terms of trade. If such a mechanism did not exist, we would literally move steadily towards a society where the poor starved.
4. Above all, it might just as validly be argued that it makes no sense to cut the tax of the very people who supply most of the tax yield; surely, if anything, this is an element of the tax share that we need to maintain!

Nevertheless, you can see why the government is so scared that we might, by an over-punitive tax regime, drive away the rich. If we were to make Britain a place where the top 1% of earners did NOT want to live, we would see the tax take fall by a quarter … and just see what cuts in benefits and services would follow upon such a reduction!
It is in this context that we need to judge Francis Maude’s recent controversial statement that he wants to make Britain a ‘tax haven’ for the rich. I suppose the argument is that the richest 1% of earners provide the lion’s share of our tax revenue so, even if the cost of keeping them here is letting them off billions of pounds-worth of tax, it is well worth it to get the £614bn a year we DO get from them.

On the other hand, London IS the favourite residence of the world’s super-rich, so it might be argued that we have a way to go yet before we start driving away the hand that feeds us.

'Tax evasion' and 'tax avoidance'
A proper debate about how much the rich should pay, and (perhaps more to the point) how much we dare charge them before they decamp elsewhere, has not even begun to take place, however, before it has been muddied by talk about 'tax avoidance'.

Talking about stopping tax avoidance is judged to be much ‘safer’ for Mr Osborne than talking bluntly about taxing the rich. And so he declared in his budget speech that ‘aggressive tax avoidance’ was ‘morally repugnant’, and today he has declared himself shocked at the degree of tax avoidance that takes place. The government is currently considering a General Anti-Avoidance Rule (GAAR) – although the general opinion is that it is conveniently toothless.

You need to be careful here, too, however.

Most people, when they hear that rich people are ‘aggressively avoiding’ their taxes, will come away with the impression that they are somehow CHEATING on their taxes.
They would be wrong.
Cheating on your taxes is illegal. When you break the law (e.g. by claiming allowances you do not deserve) it is not called ‘tax avoidance’ … it is called ‘tax evasion’, and you will be fined or sent to prison for it. My father, who was an accountant, terrified me by telling me that, if they find you evading tax, the Inland Revenue can set a putative amount that you should have paid, and then charge you in addition up to seven times that amount in penalties. (I don’t know how true it is today, but it is a strong argument to keep your tax return straight!)
What most people fail to realise about 'tax avoidance' is that it is completely legal.

Moreover, tax avoidance is something we ALL do.
When you put your money into an ISA so you don’t pay tax on it, you are avoiding tax. When you take advantage of any of the many legal ways openly advertised on the Which? website in order to reduce your tax bill, you are avoiding tax.

Tax experts DO draw a distinction between ‘foreseen’ avoidance (i.e. tax claims explicitly allowed by HMRC) and ‘loopholes’, but it is hard to see how anybody can do anything about something which is absolutely legal.

Until recently, for example, rich people could avoid stamp duty by putting their house in the name of a company, and then selling the company (and the house with it) rather than just the house. Last month’s Budget tried to close the loophole but, apparently, accountants have already found a way round the new rules.

Similarly, the Budget sought to limit how much people might reduce their tax bills by donating to charity, by setting a cap on tax relief of 25% of total income on claims over £50,000.
It remains to be seen how effective this measure will be. Unlike the USA, whose citizens pay tax to the US government on every penny they earn anywhere in the world, Britain only charges people on money they earn in the UK. Consequently, rich people, by artificially moving their money around, are able to minimise the amount they appear to have earned in the UK and thereby – absolutely legally – to reduce the tax they pay. That’s why so many rich people have financial interests in the Cayman Islands, and Jersey, and the Isle of Man.
So there seems little point in setting a cap linked to income if rich people have limitless absolutely legal ways to artificially reduce their declared income.

Ultimately, it all boils down to how clever your tax accountant is, and ‘morality’ and ‘duty’ play no part in a tax return. How many of us, for example, if we were made aware of a perfectly legal way to avoid tax, would not take advantage of it?
Here’s one example; if you pay a higher rate of tax than your wife, it makes sense to put your savings in her name – if she pays no tax, for example, you may be able to claim back the tax she paid on her Building Society accounts. It is a way to avoid tax.
Will you do so now? Or, when I described it, did you say to yourself – no, I enjoy paying tax and will continue to pay tax on my Building Society savings, even thought there is no need whatsoever to do so.
Maybe you did – there are people in the world who do indeed think like that – but let me guess that you are not rich.
We cannot expect people to pass up opportunities to avoid tax when they can legally do so. EVEYBODY hates paying tax.

So what is the solution?
Polly Toynbee in today’s Guardian argues that tax transparency is the solution. Once people could see at the click of a mouse how much you earned and how much tax you paid, she suggests, the court of public opinion would exert its influence:
“[In Norway] the boss of Nokia, pop stars and politicians face annual embarrassment as the press explores their returns. Transparency underpins a culture of social justice and civic duty.”
Personally, I think it is a nonsense. Are we really suggesting that we base our tax system on trying to embarrass people into paying more?
And in the meantime, I am not so sure that I would be happy in a world where my next-door neighbour, my political colleagues (and enemies) – and you! – can know what I earn, can scrutinise my tax return, and can try to suggest that some absolutely legal allowance I have claimed is, in the court of public opinion, ‘morally repugnant’.
Apart from the fact that I regard my income and my tax as a private transaction between me and the taxman and none of your business, I am unhappy about a system which threatens to turn tax from a mathematical calculation into a moral opinion.

The answer to the 'tax avoidance' problem is much simpler – it is simply a legal matter of closing the loopholes that we don’t like, or which we find are being misused. The answer to aggressive tax avoidance is aggressive loophole-closing.
Don’t get me wrong. There IS an ethical debate to be had about the amount of tax we ought to be paying related to our income.
And it is linked to the practical problem of how much we can ask rich people to pay without driving them abroad.
It may well be that – as we close the loopholes which allow the rich to avoid tax we need also end up reducing the rate of income tax which we require them to hand over.

But a system which nominally charges them a high percentage of their income as tax, on the understanding that they will be able wriggle out of much of it by finding tax loopholes, is clearly ridiculous.

And at the end of the day, there is this abiding imperative; as a state we are spending more than we are taking, and we need to find some way to close the gap.
And I am still of the opinion that – until, as ‘wealth-creators’, they have got the economy booming again – the people with money have to understand that it is inevitable that people are going to ask them to stump up more … one way or another.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Canvassing, Voter-ID And Getting The Vote Out

Dan Hodges – whom, reader, you must already know I enjoy to read – has a great piece today entitled The Strange World of Political Activism. If you have ever knocked doors, read it – it had me chuckling throughout. I’m not sure how much doorstepping Mr Hodges has done, but he has clearly done enough to appreciate its realities!

The strange world of political activism
To be fair to Mr Hodges, also, I have to admit that I share much of his cynicism about canvassing.

A lot depends on the general political climate. In 1997, amidst the New Labour euphoria, you might have been forgiven for forgetting that you were a political activist, and thinking rather that you were a long-lost brother or a returning hero. I remember one street where I was all-but-embraced in virtually every household and was followed up the street by a group of children who literally cheered me from house to house as though they were watching the overs in a cricket match.
By contrast, 2007 was a different matter altogether. I would guess that a majority of people simply refused to come to the door to speak at all, and those who did were overwhelmingly hostile. I genuinely think that we did more harm than good that election – we simply reminded the opposition to turn out to vote to get rid of us.

Voter-ID, on the other hand – which Mr Hodges appears to confound with ‘canvassing’ – is a different matter. Voter-ID is where you go round door-to-door purely and simply to identify where they vote Labour. It is essential that you do this well before the election.
By contrast to canvassing, Voter-ID really works. When the election comes, you know where your friends are. You need to check that they are still up for voting, and – on the day – you need to make sure that they go out to vote. Especially in poorer areas, this indisputably delivers victories in even the most dyed-in-the-blue Tory wards. There really ARE more of ‘us’ than there are of ‘them’, if only we can get ‘us’ to go and place a cross next to the right name.
That was part the problem in 2007. After 10 years of Labour domination, we had got sloppy. All the old voter-ID lists were way out-of-date, and we ended up doing our voter-ID as we were doing our canvassing, and it was disastrous.

They live where you don’t dare to drive
George Galloway has obviously got us all thinking about canvassing, because also today Rupa Huq, who was one of the failed shortlisted Labour candidates for Bradford West, has written a disappointing article to the effect that she was ‘best out of it’.
She alludes to the Morrissey song:
“You don’t know a thing about their lives
They live where you wouldn’t dare to drive.”
As someone who has doorstepped in ‘that kind of’ area, my immediate, trite, response was to suggest that the U2 song Where The Streets Have No Name would probably have been more appropriate. There is one area of town, in particular, which is so confusing that I regularly knock the back door, having knocked the front door only minutes earlier; it is very embarrassing, especially if you got a negative reaction the first time!
Amusingly, one of our Party members is the former council official who devised the numbering scheme, so we punish him by making him go round there delivering the leaflets!

But as for ‘not daring’ to go, perhaps I’m lucky that there are NO ‘no-go’ areas in Aycliffe … maybe you need to be wary of the dogs, but certainly not the people. Indeed, the poorer the area, the more submissive and pliant the people.

The other day, we were in a nice part of the town, but there was a block of single-persons’ flats – the kind of place that lady canvassers do not like to go alone. By chance I drew the only flat where a voter was registered (a telling point in itself) and I bowled up to the door (yes – having checked for evidence of dogs).
It was about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The door was answered by a crushed, timid man, wearing a vest and track-suit bottoms, who twisted uncomfortably like a child in trouble.
He was typical of the kind of person for whom I have given my life as both teacher and politician.

‘Hello,’ I enthused, ‘My name is John Clare and I am canvassing on behalf of the Labour Party. Did you know there was an election on Thursday?’
‘Oh yes … I’ve already send off my postal vote … I posted it on Sunday.’
He spoke slowly and distractedly. I wondered if he was on drugs.
‘Great!’ I said. ‘It’s wonderful to see that you are so public-spirited. May I ask how you voted.’
‘Oh yes … Labour,’ he said.
But I was a teacher for 40 years, and I can guarantee you that he was lying. A short pause and a slight double-take in his eyes betrayed that … in addition to which, when I checked, I saw that he hadn’t applied for a postal vote.

People are strange when you're a stranger
Seeing as we’re finding pop songs appropriate for doorstepping, I suspect you couldn’t do better than The Doors:
People are strange when you're a stranger,
Faces look ugly when you're alone
Women seem wicked when you're unwanted,
Streets are uneven when you are down
which are feelings with which I suspect every canvasser will be able to identify.

As Mr Hodges points out, political activists are not normal people, and it is we who are invading normal people’s lives. The mere fact that you are knocking doors makes you odd, and you would be mistaken to think that the people you speak to are telling you the truth; almost all of them, even the polite ones, mostly want you to finish up and go away.

But, having said that, how else do we contact my single, crushed flat-owner man? If there is anyone who NEEDS a Labour councillor, who needs to be rid of this ideologue Tory government, it is him. And – so – maybe I will never persuade that particular person ever to actually vote … but the person three doors down, now that’s a different matter.
As Mr Hodges acknowledges, someone has to do it and – in the absence of a flood of eager volunteers – I suppose it will have to be you and me.

I know few people who do not HATE knocking doors; like visiting hospital or going to the dentist, it is something you have to steel yourself to undertake.

Nevertheless – like visiting hospital or going to the dentist – it is something which has to be done.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

A Government Which Does Not Understand Panic Buying Is Not Fit To Govern

One of our ‘problems’ is that we have an out-of-touch government which has not a single clue about how human beings think and act … and a similarly out-of-touch media reporting it.

There is a comedian – I think it is Michael McIntyre – who has a routine about panic buying. Going out and buying something in short supply is not ‘panic buying’, he says – it is just common sense. ‘Panic buying’ is when there is a shortage of petrol and you go out and buy a hairnet and a bag of dog biscuits. ‘Why did you buy those,’ your wife asks. ‘I don’t know,’ you reply, ‘I just panicked.’

The ‘Petrol Panic’
I have kept remembering that routine throughout the nonsense which has filled our TVs about the ‘petrol panic’. They were STILL banging on about it on Sky News last night … reporting with incredulity that petrol sales were now down.

OF COURSE they are down, you idiots – we have now all filled up our tanks and don’t need to buy any more!

Throughout the week, we’ve been subjected to pompous twerps raising their eyebrows at the ‘panic buying’ of petrol. Some of them have patronisingly intoned that they have not succumbed to the panic.
More fool them – it is THEY who were behaving idiotically, not we.

So let’s nail the ‘panic’ thing once and for all.
I did not panic; I took a rational, conscious decision.

Being on twitter, of course, I found out about the Union ballot before anyone else. I KNEW it was only the ballot. I KNEW no strike had been called.
But I immediately phoned my son and advised him to go out and fill up.
‘Will it do tomorrow, do you think?’ he asked.
‘If you leave it till tomorrow,’ I told him, ‘you’ll likely find yourself stuck in a queue.’
And of course I was correct.

If there is going to be a tanker strike - if there is even the chance that there may be a tanker strike - you have to be some kind of idiot if you don’t fill up your tank ‘just in case’.
You cannot take the risk of running out some time in the future – you HAVE to be able to get to work, you NEED to be able to get to the hospital, to your family, to the shops etc.

And it’s not because you erroneously think there’s going to be a shortage because there is going to be a tanker strike.
It’s because you correctly appreciate that news of a possible strike is going to cause everybody to try to fill up … and it is THAT which is going to cause the shortage.
It is simply realising how the world works, and acting appropriately.

And so EVERYBODY with a brain took a conscious decision to go and fill up.
In any other scenario it would have been labelled ‘forward thinking’ and lauded.
Only the government and our nincompoop media call it ‘panic buying’.

Some people, indeed, had to queue – inconvenient, but they made a rational decision that it was worth it. They shrugged their shoulders and waited it out stoically. If they had been ‘panicking’ they would have been running around hysterically and I didn’t see any of that.

Of course, some petrol stations ran out, and they went on TV railing against the ‘panic buying’ that had run them dry. In fact, we were listening to the idiot end of the petrol forecourt brigade – the fools who hadn’t had the foresight to realise that the strike announcement would cause a surge in sales and who hadn’t organised themselves adequately to take advantage of it … who hadn’t had the foresight that their customers had.

Francis Maude and the Government’s response
Francis Maude has come in for it, of course; to be honest, I can’t fault him on his general advice to fill up – it was only what I advised my son.

And as a government tactic, it was spot on. For months before the 1980s coal strike, the government stockpiled coal, so when the strike happened it was months before we noticed any inconvenience at all. Nasty, but expedient.
Since you cannot build piles of petrol in the same way, I suppose, the only way to scupper the strike was to get millions of motorists to do it for you … by individually filling their tanks.

Where I take issue with Francis Maude – where I feel he really ought to resign – is not in his general advice to fill up, but in his ridiculous advice to fill up jerry cans. Not only is this exceptionally dangerous, it is arguably illegal – there are strict rules governing the storage of petrol at home, of which Mr Maude was apparently unaware.

Maude’s fault (and it is symptomatic of this whole government) was that he spoke in ignorance – that he gave stupid and inappropriate advice. He was simply not aware of the rules governing normal human existence.

An out-of-touch government and its drawbacks
Many people are saying that this government is out-of-touch – Nadine Dorries, for example, has castigated the Cabinet as a set of rich boys who don’t understand what it is to walk round a supermarket and not to be able to afford to buy what you need.

True or not, that is only the shallowest level at which this out-of-touch government is hurting the country. There are other, much more damaging ways in which this government’s lack-of-appreciation of human nature and the way it works is damaging us.

Take for instance the economy
There is a yawning revenue deficit, and so the government has promised to slash the budget and reduce it – in George Osborne’s shallow, inadequate version of common sense, it makes sense.

But as soon as the Tories came to power I advised my children to cut their spending, clear their debts, and try to save up a bit of a buffer, just as quickly as they could. There were bad times coming, nobody’s job was safe, and they needed to ‘clear the decks’ to survive the squall.

I was fully aware – as any economist would tell you – that millions of people doing just that makes recession a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is not the government cuts, but millions of individuals cutting back their spending, which causes the collapse of demand which causes a recession.

But for the individual, there is no common sense alternative. If you have any sense, you will see what is going to happen anyway whatever you do, and make sure that you don’t get burned.

Where the government is culpable is that, for all its economic experts and advisers, it didn’t plan for this inevitable process when it happened.
If even little me could see what was going to happen, why couldn’t the Treasury?

Or take as another instance the government’s attempts to stimulate business
The government is pouring money into SMEs, but none of it is going into expansion and employment. Industry is awash with money – £70billion of it – but it isn’t stimulating economic growth. Firms are just salting it away against a rainy day.

But OF COURSE they are. You would have to be an idiot of a businessman to be taking on huge debts and risky projects today. Yet the government throws up its hands in horror.

It is not a bad thing to have businesses which are secure against economic recession. Or it would have been an easy matter (as I have argued before) to make the funding dependent upon increasing employment.

What is culpable about this out-of-touch government is that it did not see what even little me could see as plainly as the nose on your face.

In the petrol crisis, as in everything else, this government has demonstrated its incompetence, not so much in its policies, but in its clear inability to understand how human beings react.

THAT is why they are constantly being embarrassed and taken by surprise, and THAT is, at base, why they are demonstrably unfit to govern.

We are lumbered with a government which, in every respect, simply does not appreciate how the world works.