Tuesday, 31 July 2012

It just won't happen

Vince Cable would have made a better chancellor of the exchequer than George Osborne in 2010. So would David Laws or Chris Huhne. But the Conservatives are the majority party in the Commons. There is no way that they would concede one of the great offices of state

They do things differently in Germany. The Free Democrats have provided both an economics minister (Count Lambsdorff) and a foreign minister (Guido Westerwelle) to coalition governments. 

With disquiet mounting on the "dry" side of the Conservative benches over what are seen to be too liberal policies and too many Liberal Democrats with government jobs blocking promotion opportunities for ambitious Tories, it is even less likely now that Cameron will improve the standing of LibDem ministers within the government. The best guess is that Hague (an ex-McKinsey man) will take over at the Treasury and that Osborne will be shuffled sideways rather than dropped.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Liberal Democrats don't "own" House of Lords reform

One of the lessons taught on management courses is the need to distinguish between importance and urgency. It is sometimes known as the "Eisenhower principle" after the WWII general and US president. Lord Glasgow, the hereditary peer who takes the Liberal Democrat whip, clearly was not aware of it when he asserted on "World at One" today that people in the country do not think that House of Lords reform is important. What he meant was that people believe that there are more urgent matters. When asked their views on reform, most agree that it is overdue. Moreover, all significant political parties at the last general election felt reform was important enough to include in their manifestos.

Obviously, the most urgent thing for one of the eight per cent unemployed is that next job. For the person who wants to start a new business or grow an existing one, it is a grant or loan on less than extortionate terms. However, it is difficult to see how more debating in the Commons is going to speed up either.

House of Lords reform is not that urgent that decks have to be cleared to push it through within days. It can be dealt with as a normal part of the parliamentary schedule. It is not, however, something which can safely be left to the next parliament, almost certain to be more complacent than the present one, as we get further away from the expenses scandals.

Lord Glasgow says he has written to Nick Clegg asking that the coalition should not proceed with the legislation, because the party will look foolish when it fails to pass the House.

There are two things to say about this.

Firstly, if the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party backs down now it will (rightly) attract cries of "yet another broken promise". Labour and the Nationalists will have a field day. They can rightly say that they (with a few exceptions, some honourable, some less so) supported the broad sweep of the coalition's proposals. The Liberal Democrats will stand accused of having said one thing in their manifesto and doing another when in government.

Secondly, and to me as a democrat more important, the Bill, having passed second reading, is in a sense now the property of parliament rather than that of any one political party. The Bill is based not on any one party's plan, nor even that of the coalition, but on the recommendations of a joint committee. There was a majority of all the UK parties in favour of proceeding with the Bill. So it would not only be politically bad but also morally indefensible for Nick Clegg to withdraw his support for giving the Bill  time for debate.

Of course, Labour behind the scenes could scupper the Bill by disagreeing with any sensible timetable. In that case, they should be called to account publicly. The Labour leadership - the majority of party members who clearly want reform can be excused - should be exposed for going back on their principles merely in order to embarrass the coalition.

Former Conservative health minister Stephen Dorrell spoke in favour of the Bill at second reading, sentiments reproduced in The Guardian:

The House of Commons provides an effective forum for enforcing the political accountability of the executive, but it is not an effective legislative assembly. Britain would be better governed if a reformed upper house had a democratic mandate to fulfil this role. This approach should appeal to a Tory instinct precisely because it is limited and incremental and makes no attempt to create a new constitutional blueprint. It builds on changes introduced over the last 100 years and does not preclude later changes in the light of experience; but in the meantime it aims to restrict the torrent of half-baked legislation by strengthening the democratic roots of parliament. What's to oppose in that?

Dorrell it seems to me represents the traditional solid centre of the Conservative Party. He has no great expectation of preferment these days, so his motives for speaking and voting as he did may be seen to be pure. The Tory "rebel" strength will practically not increase. The only reasons for not proceeding with the Bill are party political: Cameron to maintain a façade of unity, Miliband to be awkward. The majority in parliament and in the country want reform; let us proceed with all - deliberate - speed.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Artistic and sporting

Culture should embrace not only the arts and science but also sport. It seems the media need to be reminded of this. In my young days (before the paper became "The Guardian" and started supporting Labour), I can just remember Neville Cardus as both cricket reporter and music critic of the Manchester Guardian.  (Indeed, if I recall correctly, he once likened an innings by an obdurate Northern batsman to one of Bruckner's slow movements - and he rather liked Bruckner.) John Arlott had been poetry producer for the BBC's Overseas Service before becoming better known as a cricket and football commentator. Since then, things have become more compartmentalised.

David Lister in yesterday's Independent Review struck a blow for restoration of the balance. He praised the early evening scheduling of Friday's Prom, the culmination of the West-East Divan Orchestra Beethoven cycle, in time for people to enjoy the whole of the Choral Symphony and then see the Olympic opening ceremony from the beginning. He declared: "It has always struck me as both strange and irritating that sport and arts are so often pitted against one another. [...] Witness the astonishment aroused by the England football manager revealing recently that he curled up in bed with Albert Camus. He was probably forgiven because the French novelist was a goalkeeper too. But it was seen as slightly bizarre." He went on: "You can, of course, love both. I am passionate about the arts, I am passionate about sport. [...] this is a hugely important couple of weeks coming up. Not just because there is a surfeit of activities, sporting at the Olympics, artistic at the Cultural Olympiad and other arts events. [...] Let the Games commence. And with them a whole lot of art, drama, music and dance."

Friday, 27 July 2012

GDP a misleading indicator

Hamish McRae echoes the doubts of many of us over the reliance on GDP alone as the indicator of a nation's economic health. I became sceptical in January when one of the financial pundits pointed out that a contributory factor to the fall in GDP in the last quarter of 2011 was the cut in retail fuel costs. Since then, we have had reported rises in UK employment, predominantly in the private sector. Yet the Office for National Statistics reported a further decline in GDP in the last quarter, and stated that the usual period of revision was not certain to show an improvement. The horrendous weather in the period hit the construction industry particularly hard, but that hardly explains the downturn across the board. (The ONS bulletin as a pdf file is here.)

Mr McRae writes:
By coincidence, within a few minutes of the GDP release yesterday the CBI produced its quarterly industrial trends survey. This is what the CBI said in its introduction to this: 'The UK manufacturing sector is showing resilience in the face of challenging economic conditions, with orders and output growth steady…Both measures of activity indicated modest growth in the three months to July, while manufacturers' optimism about the general business situation was broadly stable relative to the previous three months.' This comes on top of extremely encouraging employment figures, which showed in the three months to end-April, the private sector added a net 205,000 jobs, the second-highest rate of job creation ever. This is not [...] consistent with a shrinking economy. We are getting close to the peak in employment at the top of the last cycle, though officially the economy is some 4.5 per cent smaller. As Chris Wilkinson of Markit points out, if the official figures of GDP were correct the UK economy would be shrinking faster than Spain's. Not even the most unutterably dismal economist could think that is the case.

It is certainly not cause to go chasing headlines with a quick fix. Cutting the VAT rate would no doubt pump up GDP again, but at the cost of sucking in exports. VAT is a regressive tax, and in my opinion should be reduced permanently once the deficit is under control, but a temporary cut is more trouble than it is worth to small businesses.

Contrary to what Ed Balls has been saying the plan is working. It is working more slowly than anticipated because of the unforeseen attack on the eurozone, a symptom of which is the shut-down for four months of Honda's Swindon plant, which relies on sales in continental Europe. Labour insisted around the time of the 2010 general election that they should not be blamed for the effects of the "global" recession  (in truth, a transatlantic recession). It is therefore hypocritical of them to accuse the coalition government of creating the double-dip.

Certainly the coalition was too quick to cancel capital projects - though as indicated in my earlier post, it was right not to go ahead with PFI schemes which would merely push our deficit troubles over the horizon. If HM Treasury had possessed a functional crystal ball, they would surely not have done so. (The same could be said of Alistair Darling, Labour's last chancellor, who planned cuts £1bn more than the coalition did.) The coalition has, though, responded with the go-ahead for railway electrification, work on which has started, and which Labour repeatedly ducked.

I believe that a LibDem government would not have "front-end loaded" the public sector job cuts. It would thus have eased the pain of transition to more commercially-orientated employment. I would also like to think that it would have accelerated the raising of the personal allowance, thus pumping money into the economy where it would do most good. At least in coalition we have prevented the much greater pain which would have resulted from the huge public expenditure cuts offered by the Conservative manifesto.

Plan A is not ideal, but it has the confidence of the international money markets, a confidence which the Labour government had lost.

It will be interesting to see what the July economic statistics are. The change for the better in the weather in the middle of the month may produce an upward blip in GDP. What will Mr Balls say then?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Plan Balls is with us already

Thanks to this week's Private Eye for highlighting a key paragraph in George Osborne's announcement about economic investment.

Also from today, a new temporary lending programme as part of UK Guarantees will be available to ensure that around 30 public private partnership infrastructure projects worth an estimated £6 billion in the next 12 months can go ahead. 

So PFI, under its New Labour re-branding as PPP, returns with all the implications that has for the burden on the next generation. Moreover, PPP providers will be able to borrow at favourable rates from UK plc rather than have to rely on the markets.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Alan Mathison Turing

The life and work of Turing, born 100 years ago last month, are laid out in the Wikipedia entry. The Computer History project has recently added a recording of interviews with Jack Good and Donald Michie on YouTube. There is a more personal memoir by his late brother at The Daily Beast. (I'm glad to see confirmation of the story of the buried silver in this.) More information about his pioneering work in computer science is still coming out. His work at Bletchley Park on code-breaking was classified until recently and it seems personal animosity by others working on the world's first stored-program computer has down-played his contribution to programming it. On the other side of the Atlantic, early computer designers have not admitted knowing of Turing's ideas which, considering that he was a post-graduate at Princeton for two years, strains credulity.

To my mind, the call for a pardon for his crime (which it was then) of expressing his sexuality is an irrelevance and ignores the equal justification for giving retrospective pardons to thousands of other men caught by what was notoriously a "blackmailer's charter".  Let us just celebrate the work and seminal ideas of a great man.

Where are all these people who want to leave the EU?

There are only around 60,000 signatories to a petition on the Downing Street web-site calling for the UK's exit from the European Union. (100,000 signatures are required for an e-petition to be considered by the House of Commons.) Considering the welter of hostile comment about the EU and the euro currency there has been over the last three years, that is a poor turn-out. The petition closes in ten days.

It looks as if the plain people of Britain realise that they are better off in than out, and are not swayed by the massive propaganda by interests with motives far from pure patriotism.

Friday, 20 July 2012

It wouldn't happen in my day

A few years I drafted, but did not publish, a post under the title "Lack of professional standards endangers computer data security":

75% of UK organisations have experienced at least one data breach in the past 12 months.
An independent research report published recently by the Ponemon Institute reveals that the vast majority of organisations use live production data when testing applications. This is not surprising as it is often a necessity to ensure all production scenarios have been validated. What is more worrying is that the research suggests not much is being done to protect this business critical information.
Key points of the report were:
  • The vast majority of the root causes for a data breach are internal
  • Test environments are often less secure than production environments
  • The risk that data used for development and testing purposes will be lost or stolen is real
  • Most organisations do not have adequate security technologies in place to protect real data used in application development and testing
It seems from this pdf that not enough has changed.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Can someone give me a source for this squib?

"Come in, Mr & Mrs Jones. You asked about your son's prospects after school. I have to say that his GCSE results are moderate, to put it kindly. His English is slipshod but passable, he has a shaky grasp of history and his mathematics is appalling. He does not think logically, so philosophy and science are obviously barred to him. He may, however, have the makings of a political journalist."

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Meat and poison department

That was the headline of my favourite feature of the old Royal Festival Hall monthly programme leaflets. In this the programme author (possibly the renowned general manager, Mr T.E.Bean?) collected reviews of recent concerts from the music critics of the day, as published in the daily or weekly press. Quite often one felt that the impressions of a piece or its performance were gained from totally different concerts.

The memory came back when I read "All or Nothing" by John Amis some time ago. Obviously to like a composer does not mean that you have to accept every single thing that he has written. Clearly we both admire Prokoviev, and the expert opinion of Mr Amis (Heldentenor manqué) is worth much more than mine, but it is remarkable how differently we feel about the piece in tonight's Prom, the sixth symphony.

To me, the Prokoviev's sixth comes from the same cast of mind as two others: Vaughan Williams' and Tchaikovsky's. There is the same feeling of nostalgia, or regret for times past: what Antony Hopkins calls a "yearning" quality. In the last movement, he also echoes Tchaikovsky's empty bravado. In addition, there may even be an element of self-mockery. Prokoviev was criticised in his days as a Young Turk for his "motoric" rhythms. It is possible to hear both a clock and a train in this piece.

It follows that I see this as a substantive work, not something cobbled together from pieces rescued from a bottom drawer. Prokoviev must have "meant" it. He would hardly have risked such a pessimistic work in the face of Stalin and his cultural censors otherwise. (I agree with Mr Amis about the socialist realist hack-work nature of much of the other stuff that he produced during the period.) Nothing else from his second Russian period contained discords as the sixth does - well, apart from the music associated with the warring families in "Romeo and Juliet", but this was clearly done for effect.

I must take the opportunity to register my objection to Mr Amis's criticisms of the other symphonies. Yes, the fourth comprises material rescued from "Le Fils Prodigue", but it is worth rescuing. The third/Fiery Angel is not tuneless; it has one great long melody. I wonder if the outrageous nature of the opera has coloured his view? There is nothing wrong with recasting music rejected from other media in symphonic form. I cite again RVW, who reused music from films, the masque "Job" and the opera "Pilgrim's Progress", only slightly altered, in his symphonies.

Perhaps my view in turn is coloured by the fact that the third, fourth and sixth symphonies and the complete Romeo and Juliet ballet music formed the seed of my LP collection. I collected these Soviet MK recordings, in plain sleeves, at a price my then clerical officer's salary could stretch to, from Gamages' closing-down sale in the 1960s. I admit to a soft spot for them. Some time I must get around to transferring them to a digital medium.

Around that same time, I bought my first full-price LP, Oistrakh playing the Bruch and Prokoviev violin concerto. I see that the latter is coming up in the Prom season: next Wednesday, in fact. I think this is another work which Mr Amis and I can agree on to enjoy.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

European rail traffic management system

Following yesterday's post on GWR electrification, I assume that the opportunity will be taken to upgrade to ERTMS.  This is not only the European standard, adopted already fittingly by Denmark, the last holder of the EU presidency, but has also been taken up by railway systems in other parts of the world.

However, Wales is up there with the leaders, because ERTMS is already in operation between Shrewsbury and Aberystwyth.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Electrification of Great Western

I feared that the Cardiff establishment would ensure that the Valley Lines would be electrified but that Aberavon, Neath and Swansea would be left out. But we are going to get both.

The GWR announcement has been greeted as good news for Swansea - and it is, not only for current businesses but also for new ones and for the university - but industry, in particular Tata Steel, at intermediate points along the line will also be winners.

The timescale seems right, as well: naturally following on from the work already started. Too often in the past, there has been a big government investment in infrastructure projects followed by a retreat, leading to a break-up of construction teams and a waste of expertise. The only thing that concerns me is the future of the "bi-mode" electro-diesel train-sets (image above) scheduled to replace the HS125s on the Swansea run. The contract for these was still not signed in March of this year. One hopes that there will be no further dithering,  because even after the electrification to Swansea there will be a need for them on to Llanelli, Carmarthen and Milford Haven.

All in all, a real triumph for the coalition government after years wasted under Labour.  Liberal Democrats have always advocated a better balance between road and rail investment, and it seems that LibDem Norman Baker, as a minister in the Department of Transport, has played his part in the electrification decisions.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Gibraltar not priority for Spaniards

I am wary of public opinion research, but the fact that the survey picked up in this posting does not show an overwhelming desire on the part of the Spaniard in the street to take Gibraltar from the British is reassuring. It is significant that even among conservatives, no more than half felt it was important. The proportion fell to 30% or less on the socialist end of opinion.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

LIBOR inquiry let-down

Further to my posting of 5th July, the two most prominent critics of Barclay's on the Treasury Select Committee have been omitted from the parliamentary committee of inquiry into LIBOR fixing. John Mann, whose style was more confrontational than inquisitorial, will not be missed, but Andrea Leadsom, as a former insider, knew what questions to ask. It is to be hoped that the Lords will make a higher-powered contribution to the committee's membership.

Failing that, the appointment of a QC of the calibre of Robert Jay as counsel for the committee would be essential.

For more of how LIBOR was fixed, listen to OU/BBC's "More or Less".


In her farewell editorial in Social Housing magazine (she has now moved on to a post as statistical journalist at the FT), Kate Allen wrote:

"When the post-war welfare state was founded, Beveridge had a vision for housing. It was to be for all, regardless of assets, income or need. Housing was regarded as a public good, like health or education.

"What a radical thought that is, in these days of 90 per cent loan-to-value ratios. That dream fell by the wayside relatively soon in the life of the public services, but it lingered in the hearts of many.

"It is a scandal that housing associations are being forced to fund their public-spirited activities through market speculation. It is shocking that asset sales are used to subsidise the poor.

"This is not what the founders of the welfare state - or the benefactors of the earliest housing associations - had in mind. And if we are honest, it is not what most of those involved in the business of social housing believe either.

"There is a role for private finance, but that is not the same as asset-stripping. What attracts serious long-term investors is the stability, the reliability and above all the solidity of the asset base. Marketisation of the sector is an existential threat to those characteristics."

So far, NPT Homes has shown up well in Social Housing's tables, being well capitalised and not paying more than the average to its directors. However, the inheritor of Neath Port Talbot's housing stock (whose disposal was forced through by a Labour/Plaid Welsh Government and a Labour-controlled council, it should be remembered) needs continuous monitoring lest it slip into bad ways. There is a duty here for the council-appointed directors to the mutual's board, who must not treat their posts as merely honorific.

Private letting

Last Thursday, there was a Lords debate initiated by Labour's Baroness Rendell of Babergh on the subject of problems faced by families in the rented housing sector. The second speaker was Liberal Democrat Ros Scott (Baroness Scott of Needham Market) who revealed some significant figures garnered from the Treasury as part of her research. 1991 was the lowest point for the private rented sector, bearing out here impression then that private renting was predominantly a temporary expedient. Now, she went on: "The English Housing Survey, published last week, has shown that the private rented sector has just reached parity with social rented housing. Each has a 17% share. There are now 1.1 million families living in the private rented sector and, according to a Cambridge University study, the number of families with children in the sector has risen by 86% in the past five years."

For many families, she said, " it is not an option they would choose, but they take it because they have been priced out of owner-occupation and cannot get social rented accommodation.

"Affordability is a key issue. Tenants have to find a deposit, a month's rent in advance and fees for letting agents. It is bad enough if you are trying to do that every five years or so, but in a volatile market people are often having to do it every year. Rents are high relative to the incomes of people in the private rented sector. The English Housing Survey estimates that the cost of housing accounts for 19% of the weekly income of owner-occupiers and 43% of the income of those in the private rented sector. Those figures need to come with a little warning, because the figure for owner-occupation is averaged out and includes those who have small mortgages because they have owned for a long time. Nevertheless, the figures are stark. [...] we all know the horror stories about poor quality accommodation, failure to deal with even serious and life-threatening problems and rogue landlords in general. On top of this, the high turnover rate means that families have little sense of permanence,with all that that means for the education of their children and their general well-being. Concentrations in certain areas mean that there are localities where a significant proportion of residents have no real stake in their area.

"We make a big mistake if we think that the growth of the private rented sector is a blip caused by a temporary lack of social housing and the unavailability of mortgages. These problems are here to stay, and so is a more mobile population in an increasingly flexible job market. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation recently published a study about housing and young people which showed that by 2020, 1.5 million more young people will be going into the private rented sector, most with their own tenancy and the rest living with their parents, as we have heard. These young people will very soon become parents, so the number of families in private rented accommodation will also increase."

She asked: "What progress is being made to deal with the issue of empty homes, estimated last year at 720,000 across the country? What is the Government's policy towards conversion and change of use back to residential? High streets are shrinking, and this is not just a short-term problem caused by the recession. There is an underlying issue caused by the huge growth of online shopping. Areas where many shops are boarded up would probably benefit from a change of use."

Ros had sympathy with those individuals who were wary of investing in properties to let because the returns were only 3-4%, low considering the risks that were involved. (7% is the generally accepted target return.) "The Treasury needs to think about smarter incentives," she suggested. "Changes to stamp duty have been welcomed, but measures are needed to encourage new building in the sector. It can and should be made conditional. There are schemes in France and Germany which offer tax breaks, but only in exchange for longer, more stable tenancies."

She concluded: "The private rented sector has now become far too important to be left to chance, as successive Governments have done. I look forward to hearing from the Minister today but also to some action in future."

The ministerial response was inadequate. It seemed to me that her prepared speech did not take into account points raised during the debate and offered no solutions.

Friday, 13 July 2012

Counting on the night of an election

The Electoral Commission has recommended that what Tony Greaves calls the "spectator sport" of overnight election counts should be the norm. (Details on Mark Pack's pages.)

In all the discussion, little attention has been paid to the cost of the exercise. Local authority staff* have to be paid for the overtime that they work, and I doubt that they are paid at plain time rates. There are other costs resulting from carrying out this exercise after normal working time. I have a suggestion: since the leaders in the campaign to persist with overnight counts are the broadcasting organisations and political wonks, they should contribute financially.

* In days gone by, electoral returning officers would recruit local bank staff, because they were used to counting notes accurately and quickly. With the reduction of both bank branches, EROs would be hard pressed to find sufficient bank cashiers to count one ward, never mind a constituency.

Parliament "wants to get on with" reform

In reply to a question from his shadow in the Commons yesterday (Business of the House, col. 484), Sir George Young, the Leader of the House, said about the Lords Reform Bill, that "it was clear from the vote on Second Reading that a huge majority of the House want to get on with it, with majorities within each of the three major parties voting for reform. She said that we could trust the Labour party, but I have to say that the Labour party was willing the end but not willing the means. Saying before the programme motion was even tabled that Labour Members would vote against it shows a lack of commitment to getting the Bill on to the statute book. It was equally clear on Tuesday that there was no consensus on the timetable for the Bill, which is why we did not make progress with the programme motion. What we want to do—I say this in response to what the hon. Lady has just said—is to reflect and to allow time for meaningful discussion, including with the Opposition and with other hon. Members, to build a consensus on the best way forward." [My italics]

This statement appears to put to bed the rumours in the Guardian and the Independent that David Cameron had cooked up a deal with Nick Clegg whereby a replacement neutered Bill, which did no more than eliminate the hereditary peers, would be introduced. This sort of stitch-up would have caused mass resignations from the Liberal Democrat party with the sole benefit of producing apparent unity within the parliamentary Conservative party.

The fact that both newspapers presented their own take on what is essentially the same story suggests that the proposition originated in Westminster. One trusts that it was merely a scheme dreamt up by a Conservative Special Advisor and was quickly slapped down.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

House of Lords reform (to be concluded in the autumn?)

Programme motions were introduced by Labour in their first year of government, specifically to reduce an opposition's power to obstruct progress on a Bill and even prevent the end of a Bill ever being reached. (I recall that one of the first actions of New Labour was to push through an Act on plant variety patenting in a single day.) Before this innovation, timetable motions (the "guillotine") were only resorted to after it was clear that a Bill was meeting time-wasting tactics.  Last night, on the second day of the second reading debate on the House Of Lords Reform Bill, Jack Straw, a senior member of the Blair administration, repented of programming - after fifteen years! Many other Labour and Conservative members protested the proposed schedule.

One can see the objections to a tight timetable on discussion of a Bill of major constitutional import, and the coalition government was surely right to withdraw its programme motion. The Labour front bench promised not to filibuster the Bill when it comes back to the House in the autumn (probably - we will know more at business questions on Thursday). I hope they keep their word, but they said something similar about the Parliamentary Voting System And Constituencies Bill before it went to the Lords. Nor have they yet responded to government requests for their own suggestions as to what time is required for the reform Bill.

The ninety-two Tories and nine DUP members in the "No" lobby last night were clearly sincere in their outright opposition to the Bill, in that they want to keep the Lords exactly as it is. After all, there has been a built-in Conservative majority there for a hundred years or more, even after New Labour (without a referendum!) stripped the upper chamber of most of the hereditary peers. The Tory pitch was: it works, why change it? Dr Julian Lewis, in his speech, cited Lords revisions which strengthened restrictions on trade unions. However, he did not mention that Margaret Thatcher's poll tax legislation - something that cried out for rejection by a truly reforming chamber - sailed through the Lords with no more than a ripple. I hope those Tories in their election literature dissociated themselves from the official manifesto commitment that:  "We will work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber to replace the current House of Lords". They clearly had no intention of working towards any such consensus. 

Some also smeared reformers as seeking grubby short-term political advantage. Would they not do us the courtesy of recognising that Liberals since the days of Lloyd George have been against the unelected nature of the Lords?

Nor should one impugn the sincerity of those Labour members who voted against out of a long-standing antipathy to there being an upper chamber at all - though one notes that Jeremy Corbyn, a unicameralist, was in the "Aye" lobby last night. These, too, no doubt disavowed their party's official manifesto, in Labour's case to commitment to "moving to a wholly elected House of Lords".

Condemnation should be reserved for those hypocrites who opened their speeches with agreement that there should be Lords reform, but still voted against second reading. There was nothing in their list of objections, including the absence of a referendum, which could not have been dealt with at committee stage.

 On the subject of a referendum, Labour should realise that this would be a costly exercise. Nor is there any indication that turnout would be meaningful. However, if the price of guaranteed Labour cooperation in getting the reform on to the statute book is a referendum, then the government should swallow its pride and accept it. Perhaps Labour can be persuaded to trade including in the Bill provision for a referendum, which was in their manifesto, for excluding election by party list, which was not.

The Big Society and Care In The Community

Political commentators seemed surprised when Jesse Norman revealed himself to be a reactionary when he voted against the coalition over Lords Reform. There was little doubt in my mind after research last year, prompted by the assertion that he originated the concept of the "Big Society" within the Conservative Party.

Jesse Norman's "Compassionate Conservatism" (82-page pdf) is a deeply Thatcherite document. For instance, trade unions are part of the big society, yet Norman approves their breaking-up. TUs provide support over and above welfare.

It seems to me that the true compassionate conservatism of such as Michael Heseltine and James Prior has been swept aside by Thatcher's children, and that the "Big Society" has been hijacked by HM  Treasury.

Monday, 9 July 2012

House of Lords reform (next)

The House of Lords Reform Bill 2012 has been introduced in the House of Commons and debate will start in earnest this afternoon. Some specious arguments against discussing reform at this time are dealt with in a previous post. I would only add that this is the best chance for a generation of putting the second chamber on a sound democratic footing. So far, this parliament has proved to be the most reforming of its own institutions since the great Liberal administrations of the Edwardian era. The opportunity must be taken to build on this before the Commons ossifies again.

There are one or two features of the Bill which could be improved: the inclusion of Church of England bishops in the reformed upper house, the use of party lists for the ballot and the timing of elections. I can't see the Conservatives giving up on the former or Labour on the second, but there is no reason why the committees in either House should not see the difficulties in the tie to Commons elections and improve things. That is, of course, if the unholy alliance between Tory traditionalists and Labour weasels does not talk the Bill out.

Check on http://www.markpack.org.uk/33013/thornsby-and-ashdown-on-lords-reform/ too.

[Later] "Unlock Democracy"'s director has a good post on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Boom and bust (1928)

"The experience of one country after another has made the features of the process of inflation familiar, almost stereotyped, phenomena. Prices rise slowly at first, but with a gathering momentum; they rise generally, but most unevenly, wholesale prices outstripping retail, the prices of goods that enter into foreign trade rising most of all. There is a state of feverish activity, with little or no unemployment, with, for some time, even an appearance of general prosperity. But the appearance soon proves to be illusory. The feverish business activity is seen to be inefficient and most wasteful activity, with speculative cleverness at a premium, and solid work and enterprise at a discount. There is a fungoid growth of unnecessary intermediary operations, and a decline in genuine productive effort. The country's products are exchanged for the products of other countries on absurdly disadvantageous terms. A redistribution of wealth is effected, more revolutionary than the most revolutionary of Governments would deliberately enact, yet of a kind to increase rather than diminish the equalities of wealth."

"Just as feverish activity is the leading characteristic of inflation, so the leading characteristics of deflation are prolonged depression and malaise; and the medical parallel holds at least so far, that it is probably unavoidable that a fever of inflation should be succeeded by a period of subnormal business temperature."

From the "Yellow Book" (Britain's Industrial Future - the Report of the Liberal Industrial Inquiry of 1928). The emphases are mine.

Mutuals benefit from mistrust of commercial banks

The Independent reports that mutual building societies and the Cooperative Bank are benefiting from the troubles of the big banks quoted on the stock exchange. As the director of the Building Societies Association was quoted as saying: "Customers are turning to put their faith in institutions that legally and constitutionally are focused on the customer, not the shareholder."

Not only mutual, but ethical as well, Ecology Building Society "has seen its assets rise 38 per cent to £103.5m between 2007, before the credit crunch, and last year. 'In 2011, our savings inflow was double what we expected as people sought an institution they could trust with their money,' says a spokesman. 'This year we're seeing people move their money because they can no longer stomach the behaviour of the mainstream banks.'"

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Beautiful Evelyn Lear is dead


I remember, I remember, a concert performance of The Trojans At Carthage at the Albert Hall. Evelyn Lear was stunning in a blue dress as Dido. Ronald Dowd was inspired as Aeneas. Magically the middle-aged balding Australian seemed to be transformed into the classic hero before my eyes in their love duet hymning the night of intoxication and infinite ecstasy. Something prompted me to turn to my companion and I could see that there were tears in her eyes. Affection turned to love in that moment.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Inquiry into bank ethics

Stephen Tall at Liberal Democrat Voice argues for a judge-led inquiry and by implication against the parliamentary inquiry which will no doubt be approved today. I don't see that the two are mutually exclusive. There is a real need for an expeditious (though not rushed) inquiry into LIBOR fixing and into mis-selling of hazardous financial instruments to SMEs. This committee of inquiry should be in a position to make recommendations as to government action, including possible legislation in the next session at the latest. It may turn up other aspects of City operations which would warrant a more wide-ranging Leveson-type inquiry, one which would necessarily be more expensive.

The composition of the parliamentary committee is important. Yesterday's interrogation of Bob Diamond by the Treasury Select Committee was notable more for sound-bites than for elicited information. There were not enough members with relevant City experience*. The decision to include the Lords in the forthcoming inquiry will enable such people as Matthew OakeshottSusan Kramer and even Paul Myners to participate (though the latter is more likely to appear as a witness!). Possibly there are Conservative and cross-bench peers with City knowledge who are not tainted by banking misdeeds. From the Commons, I would like to see Chris Huhne bring his knowledge to bear, though I accept that the criminal charge hanging over him makes his choice problematic for David Cameron. There should be no such difficulty in appointing David Laws, who is well on his way to rehabilitation after his expenses misdemeanour. Significantly, Laws was a director of Barclays de Zoete Wedd before it became Barclays Capital and before Bob Diamond was appointed.

[Later] Jonathan Calder is even more scathing about the Select Committee session. I have also heard the suggestion that the parliamentarians on the new inquiry should not put the questions themselves, but should appoint a QC, who can be trusted to pursue a line of enquiry forensically without being distracted by the desire to score political points.  There is a peer who was once ideally suited to the task, having made a successful career at the commercial bar before entering parliament, but sadly the rat-trap mind of Margaret Thatcher is no longer there.

* nor with interrogation skills

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Curse of the EU presidency

Cyprus takes over the presidency of the European Union the day after their Marcos Baghdatis is bundled out of Wimbledon 2012.