Tuesday, 30 October 2012

More on "The Magnet"

This film, shot in the late 1940s partly on the streets of the county borough of Wallasey, has featured disproportionately on this blog and on Liberal England. Yet another reminder of yet another nom-de-guerre appears in the obituaries pages of today's Independent. John Clive, veteran supporting actor and latterly a thriller writer (a work based on the death of Dr David Kelly was left unpublished at his death) made his first film appearance in the Ealing comedy under the name "Clive Kendall".

Monday, 29 October 2012

Labour has short-changed taxpayer

I had thought that the so-called "Short money" was provided to opposition parties in order for them, among other things, to develop policy in the absence of access to civil servants which they would have had if they had been in government. However, the Independent today reveals that the Electoral Commission has a separate special fund "designed to help parties draft manifestoes and explore policy areas". Labour has received a total of £954,691 for this purpose since the last general election.

At the time of Labour's Manchester rally, I blogged an objection to the party's booting policy discussion into the long grass. It seems that we have been short-changed not only as electors but also as taxpayers.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Hear your police commissioner candidates

The two politicians and the two independent candidates for the post of police and crime commissioner (PCC) for the South Wales area were interviewed for half-an-hour by Vaughan Roderick on BBC-Wales' "Sunday Supplement" this morning. The Web page for this programme is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nly4r.

The outcome illustrated many of the flaws in the whole Conservative experiment. (It should be remembered that the United States of America, where the system originated, has given up on electing their police commissioners.) I would single out Alun Michael for an unashamedly party political approach - virtually all his answers included an attack on the coalition government. Caroline Jones, to be fair, began with a non-party pitch, but was dragged into a partisan fight by Michael's approach. One is still disappointed by her support for not only the PCC concept, but also the bias in the electoral process to those candidates with money behind them.

There is a BBC summary of the candidates here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19509951

The candidates' web-sites are:





Saturday, 27 October 2012

103 years of a Liberal reform to end

It is piquant that a Liberal Democrat in a coalition with Conservatives should administer the funeral oration over the last vestiges of something initiated by a Liberal who went on to become a famous Conservative prime minister. David Heath, the new minister for agriculture, is presiding over the consultation about the ending of the Agricultural Wages Board.

On Thursday 25th October, this interchange took place during DEFRA questions in the House:
Jack Dromey (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): In 2009, the Minister said : “any weakening of the Agricultural Wages Board or its abolition would further impoverish the rural working class, exacerbating social deprivation and the undesirable indicators associated with social exclusion”. What has changed, and how would he explain that change to the 1,020 workers who were previously protected by the board in his constituency?
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): I think I know rather more about workers in my constituency than the hon. Gentleman. I am aware of the circumstances in the agricultural industry, and I am also aware that there are now many protections for low-paid workers. I would not be proceeding with the consultation unless I was convinced that this was in the interests of those who work in my constituency and throughout the country.

Winston Churchill, when a minister in the great reforming Liberal administration of the early 1900s, pushed through the Trade Boards Act 1909. The incentive for the Act was described in the 1928 "Yellow Book":

The determination of wage-rates is pre-eminently a subject for collective bargaining, and constant readjustment is needed as the conditions change through the introduction of new processes, the expansion and contraction of markets, and the rise and fall of prices or of the cost of living. But there are many minor trades so ill-organised that collective bargaining cannot take place.

The Act

set up machinery for the fixing of minimum wage-rates where lack of organisation deprived the worker of  adequate protection, and for enforcing these rates by process of law

The boards mirrored collective bargaining elsewhere, the workers and management both being represented under a neutral chairman. However, representatives were appointed by the government. Before the Great War, only seven trades were covered, but after a revising Act of 1918, a further twenty-nine were added before the Conservatives took control in 1922. Agricultural wages had to wait for a minority Labour government in 1924.

The system was given a boost and new names by the Attlee administration with the Wages Councils Act 1945 and the Agricultural Wages Act 1948. It survived successive Conservative and Labour administrations until the advent of Margaret Thatcher. The putsch which she began was virtually completed by John Major in 1993. The only survivor was the Agricultural Wages Board.

Blair-Brown did not resurrect the wages boards, but instead gave us the minimum wage. The AWB may therefore be seen as something of an anomaly.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

More power to local councils

Steve Richards is agin it. When I saw the headline in his comment piece in the Independent on Thursday ("So you're in favour of giving councils more power? Neither am I"), my reaction was that here was a democratic socialist typically defining democracy strictly in terms of the central politburo in Westminster. Closer reading reveals that his argument is more nuanced than that, but still wrong in my opinion.

He asserts that local services are increasingly provided by private and third-sector organisations answerable only to Westminster. He also seems to be saying that because Parliament has powers to summon ministers to make statements to the House of Commons, statements which can be questioned, and local councils cannot call decision-makers to account, then powers should not be devolved to local authorities.

The snappy answer to the last point is to grant more powers of scrutiny along with the powers to run more services locally. But my contention is that the scrutiny powers are there anyway. The last round of local government legislation strengthened the scrutiny function. Moreover, most full council meetings have the powers, within a certain time window, to call in decisions rather than rubber-stamp them. There is also the possibility of tabling a motion for debate in council, which would also have the effect of cabinet members (or mayor) and officers to answer for their actions. Members of opposition groups seem to use the latter weapon to effect in England, while in Wales it seems too often to remain sheathed. During my brief tenure on Neath Port Talbot CBC, I obtained a debate on the level of ex-council house rents. I was told by an officer that this was the first time that the standing orders had been used in that way since the authority had been set up in 1996. Mr Richards would no doubt ask me what the outcome was, and I would have to admit that the chair (illegitimately, in my opinion) curtailed discussion and the Labour majority on the council voted it down. But that brings me on to other point.

Mr Richards says: "If a free school flopped, Michael Gove would have questions to answer on the Today programme. Under the robust regime of the Speaker, John Bercow, Gove would also be in the Commons responding to an Urgent Question after his Today appearance." I put it to him that if the Tories had a majority in the House, the Speaker would have not felt as free to exercise his powers. Indeed, if there had been a Conservative overall majority in 2010, the scuttle was that Bercow, more liked by Labour and Liberal Democrats than by Tories, would have been out on his ear.

In the end, what is achieved by an Urgent Question? I suggest that, apart from dragging a minister to the House, it has no more effect than the powers which local authorities have. The issue is aired, seen by political anoraks on BBC-Parliament, and perhaps is picked up by the more serious newspapers. The government will make sure that no further action is taken, unless the coalition partners do not see eye-to-eye, in which case the questionable decision would probably not have been made in the first place.

We have a rare, and I fear probably brief, period when the electorate has given more power to ordinary members of the House of Commons than if any party had an absolute majority. This has led to more back-bench debates, and more scrutiny of ministers.

If we want to perpetuate this in Westminster, we need to introduce proportional voting for general elections. If we want to make local government more representative, and increase its power of scrutiny, we need to do the same there. STV works in Scottish local government, why not in England and Wales?
And let's have more decisions made at the appropriate level, not handed down from on high.

I'm not crowing yet

I did predict some time ago a 1-1.2% growth in GDP at the end of the year, but that was for year-on-year growth. Today's figures show a 1% (or 0.8% if one takes out the notional contribution of the Olympics) increase of the third quarter of 2012 over the second. I am, however, looking forward to this time in January and the explanations from the IMF and others as to the accuracy of their forecasts.

It is surely the right time, before we experience another Lawsonian or Brownian boom-and-bust, to tighten mortgage lending rules, as the FSA intend to do.

Monday, 22 October 2012

ANC showing itself in its true colours

The ruling African National Congress in South Africa has always been linked with Soviet communism. Admittedly, no other major power was interested in supporting the underground opposition during the years of struggle against the racist National government, but it does mean that a core of ANC activists received their political education from Stalinist cadres. The authoritarian mind-set came to international prominence at Marikana.

Now there are signs of political paranoia as the State Security Agency has turned its attention to the Democratic Alliance, the South African party which is a member of Liberal International, forming close links with Britain. In the line of fire are Western Cape premier Helen Zille, who has been promoting South Africa in this country, and her former assistant Mark Coetzee who has been taken on by Nick Clegg as an adviser.

Thursday, 18 October 2012


I haven't had time to read the WAO report referred to in the local Liberal Democrat blog, but it is already clear that people, including our own AM Peter Black, are pulling their punches in the area of the links between the Labour party and the leadership of the Swansea-based All-Wales Ethnic Minority charity. Maybe the file which is said to be with the CPS covers this issue, but I doubt it.

There is also the wider question as to how the Welsh government regulates grant-funding generally, as raised in the discussion on Radio Wales this morning (available until 25th Oct.) and in this contribution to  Iain Dale's blog by Ali Goldsworthy.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

McCarthyism by another name

It seems that the covert blacklist of trade unionists and other "troublemakers" (usually those who blow the whistle on unsafe practices) is alive and well. Its latest manifestation is the Consulting Association. An ancestor was the Economic League.

It was interesting to come across an 18th century precedent when reading "Darwin's Ghosts" by Rebecca Stott. (This is a very readable and informative book, by the way, which incidentally gives due credit to one-time Neath resident Alfred Russel Wallace.) Stott describes how Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, worried about how his late book "Zoonomia", which contained a chapter casting doubt on the Biblical description on creation, would be received.

Was Erasmus frustrated by the silence? It is impossible to know. He seems to have been living on tenterhooks. He was under surveillance; he knew that. Three years earlier, John Reeve, a judge in London, had set up the Association for Preserving Liberty and Property against Republicans and Levellers, employing spies in every town who were instructed to watch local subversives.

I don't suppose this was the first instance of what we would now call McCarthyism, but it was still surprising to see how well organised it was at so early a date.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Brod/Kafka archive to be made public at last

If I hadn't been aware of Franz Kafka and Max Brod before starting A-level German, the inspired critical linking of the impersonal and arbitrary legal system of Josef K's world in The Trial with the operation of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe would have brought the lifetime friends to my attention. (In reality, the sufferings of Josef K and of K in The Castle almost certainly relate more to religious guilt and redemption than politics, but the parallels are compelling.) As it was, encouraged to read German literature beyond our set book of a Stefan Zweig novella, I not only picked up the Kafka novels but also a collection of German poetry. In this, there was a mysterious poem, entitled "Paradiesfische auf dem Tisch" if I recall correctly, by Max Brod.

Max Brod it was who preserved the most significant of Kafka's works when he escaped from Prague to Israel before the shoah. Kafka had asked those who possessed any of his writings to burn them after his death. Fortunately for posterity, nobody seems to have obeyed this request. For a long time, the Brod archive, apart from the Kafka novels, has remained under lock and key. Its tortuous history and the momentous legal decision which enables it eventually to be made available on the Web are outlined here. To be fair to Brod's heiress, Esther Hoffe, her motives in holding on to the Kafka papers seem to have been to draw attention to Brod who she felt was undervalued. What motivated her daughters' intransigence, I can only surmise.

Certainly, Brod is a significant figure in his own right. In addition to his own books and poetry, he was Leoš Janáček's biographer and librettist. It speaks a lot for Brod's character that the ultra Slav nationalist Janáček worked with him.

I will be interested (if my German is still up to it!) in reading the correspondence between the two friends and other cultural figures of the 'twenties and 'thirties, including the aforementioned Stefan Zweig.

Home Secretary's statements today

Mrs May made the right decision over Gary McKinnon, but on rather dodgy grounds. She clumsily avoided her shadow's direct question as to whether the Home Office had obtained independent medical advice on Mr McKinnon's condition. She explicitly relied on the medical evidence put forward by the defence, which suggests that other factors dominated her thinking. Today's decision does not address the underlying flaw in the extradition treaty with the US, that it is asymmetric in its operation.

Mrs May also shaded the views which she put forward yesterday over the European Arrest Warrant. It is good news that the government is actually going to talk to the Commission about Tory objections to it. One hopes that she will also talk to fellow EU justice ministers (it is the council of ministers after all who ultimately makes EU decisions), where she will probably find much support over one of the quibbles she raised today, that the EAW sweeps up very trivial offences.

Tories seem to want to revive the Costa Del Crime

The presence in Spain of fugitives from British justice, safe because the European Arrest Warrant procedure was not made retrospective, is a permanent affront. The EAW made sure that there was no increase in their numbers. It has also made it possible to repatriate drug-dealers and paedophiles from other parts of Europe to stand trial here.

Yesterday's statement by Home Secretary Theresa May throws the UK's participation in the EAW after 2014 into doubt. Mrs May intends that we should opt out from EU justice powers but thereafter pick and choose what aspects we should opt in to. This is dangerous. It presupposes that the British public will not elect a more reactionary government at the next general election, which could come as soon as 2014. The benefits from opting-in far outweigh the losses.

There have been hard cases. To my mind, those individuals who have suffered from defective prosecutions would have been aided by more vigorous consular support.

When a fellow party member agrees with a Liberal Democrat MEP colleague that she has got it wrong, Mrs May should think again.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Employment rights and economic growth

David Blanchflower in the Independent uses these data from the OECD to make the point that further reducing employee rights is hardly likely to improve the UK's economic performance, given that our light touch is second only to that of the USA. America's own economic performance and rate of re-employment after the 2008 crash are hardly exemplary. The same could be said about Hungary and Ireland, also below the OECD average.

(click on the graphic for a better view)
Four of the six most regulated countries - Portugal, Spain, Greece and France - are among the least favoured by the ratings agencies. A large part of the economic woes of Greece and Spain is due to the failure to collect tax due. The "black" economy of Spain and Portugal is said to comprise between 20 - 25% of activity. There is much grumbling in France about the costs of employing people and threats to move businesses to England. That all seems to back up the theory that less regulation would encourage more work "on the books".

However, equal top of the employee protection league is Turkey, whose economy is thriving - so much so, that the UK continues to support her case for entry to the EU. Germany, Norway and Sweden too have more employment protection in place than the OECD average.

It seems to me that not only does employment protection legislation not harm the national economy, but that it may also dampen the effects of external shocks, such as the 2008 credit failure. More important is a cohesive and respected revenue system.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The UK’s First Renewable Micro Grid

I am in the middle of a sort-out of old periodicals, accumulated while I was serving on the council and not having time to digest thoroughly. Among them is a copy of CAT Supporters Update, in which there is a description of the centre's micro-grid, providing up to 30kW of electrical power at the time of its installation in 2009. The system integrates all the wind, solar, biomass and hydro energy on site and is linked to the national grid via an automatic switch box. There is also a battery providing 3 hours of back-up if all the sources cease.

It is good to see that not only is the system still going strong, but that CAT also has a meter on its blog showing the output currently.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Switched on at last

The headline and the map extract are cribbed from the October issue of Railwatch magazine. The editor has celebrated the coalition government's announcement of railway improvement schemes all over England & Wales* by spreading the map over the front and back covers.

It's nice to have an excuse to remind people of the government's commitment to improving transport in South Wales (and that the new trains will be built in Britain), but I would also point out a little patch of red in the top right corner of my extract. This represents electrification of  the line from Barnt Green to Bromsgrove. This is clearly intended to improve the reliability and frequency of trains from the Worcestershire town into Birmingham, but it also happens to be on the routes to the Midlands from Cardiff and Bristol. Surely the next step is to extend electrification to Cheltenham, Gloucester and Worcester and later to Wales.

Not obvious is another significant improvement, on the branch line from Barnt Green (where the new extension of electrification will begin) to Redditch. This narrowly escaped the Beeching axe, but was given a new lease of life with electrification. From two or three journeys per day in each direction in cheap and already aged diesel multiple units, frequency has increased to two per hour through much of the day. Passenger traffic is now so buoyant that it is deemed necessary to double-track the branch, increasing frequency to three per hour. There is a lesson here for Network Rail and the Welsh Government with respect to the electrification of the Valley and Llynfi Lines.

*It seems that the SNP government in Edinburgh is going in the opposite direction, cutting back on some projects previously programmed.

West Coast cock-up - or conspiracy?

It is a pity that Railwatch went to press before the West Coast Main Line débâcle, though it did catch the cabinet reshuffle which saw Justine Greening replaced by Patrick McLoughlin as Transport minister. It would have been good to have the insights of the experts of Railfuture. However, more of the reasons for the collapse of the bidding process have come to light. One did have suspicions when the name "Goldman Sachs" came up, though the ex-banker in question denies direct involvement in the bidding process. It appears that the mistakes were not in calculations as such, but in assigning weightings to future passenger numbers and inflation, both in the guidelines provided to bidders and in the assessment of the bids. There is a suggestion that there was a bias against Virgin Trains in the Department because of the way that Richard Branson outsmarted the civil servants when he renegotiated the franchise in 2006. There is obviously a need for the inquiries which Mr McLoughlin has initiated.


Another announcement which Railwatch was too late to catch was that English rail fares would not rise (as scheduled) by inflation plus 3% in the New Year, but by inflation plus 1%. For this, credit must largely go to Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat minister in the Department. But two questions remain: why use the discredited RPI (which is almost always higher than CPI) as the measure of inflation; and what is going to happen in Wales?

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

More Taliban barbarism

Caron Lindsay has already written at length about the latest affront to civilisation in the Swat valley. I would just like to add this reference which underlines that the prophet himself would have condemned the attempted murder of a fourteen-year-old girl.

In particular (the emphases are mine):

Anna King, a modern Muslim woman and a convert - or, better to say, a revert - to Islam, explains the Islamic emancipation of women as follows:

"Islam first gave women their rights in a time when women were nothing but the property of men. Islam gave women the right to buy and sell on their own, own businesses and express her views politically. These were all basic rights which the American woman was not granted until relatively recently! It also encouraged women to study and learn Islamic knowledge, breaking a ban which several religions had stipulated, which forbid women to acquire any religious knowledge or touch religious texts... It also abolished the practice of marrying a woman without her consent. Thus, one would have to be very stubborn indeed to refuse such obvious facts and proofs that Islam was women's first liberator."

The tendencies to see women as "an inferior species" who has no right for education and that must be totally secluded from the society arose much later in the Islamic world, as a result of deviations from the right Qur'anic path.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Origins of one-nation conservatism

Ed Miliband, George Osborne and even Wikipedia ascribe the concept of "one nation conservatism" to Disraeli, and in particular to his Manchester speech of 1872. However, Jane Ridley, one of Dizzy's biographers, has stated that he never used the actual expression "one nation". The nearest he comes to it is by exception, in this excerpt from his novel Sybil: "Two nations [...] who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones [and so on]".

It has been an annoying exercise to pin down a phrase which seems to have been with one since childhood. The Web has not been of much help, but thanks to Anthony Sampson's Anatomy of Britain I believe that it was Iain Macleod who fixed the expression in the nation's consciousness when he founded the "One Nation" group of new Conservative MPs on his election in 1950. Macleod explicitly saw himself as a political heir of Disraeli, though one wonders whether he also had in the back of his mind the United States pledge to "one nation under God".

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Online Neath Guardian

This is a belated (seven days late) acknowledgement of the launch of a new online newspaper under the title "Neath Guardian" (no connection with the Trinity Mirror corporation which presumably still owns the title of the late lamented print edition).

I wish the webmaster well in their new endeavour, and hope that correspondents from all over the district of Neath will support the publication with news and views.

Another Liberal hero

Sunday Supplement is a mine of information. For instance, I didn't realise that Disraeli's beloved Mary Anne was born in Cardiff until Vaughan Roderick dropped that information into a discussion about "one nation" (a phrase which Dizzy never used, incidentally).

But I am most indebted to this morning's programme for turning me on to William Powell (WRH Powell, not his more conservative antecedent), the radical Liberal MP for Carmarthenshire 1880-1889, about whom the local history society has just published a book. While remaining true to the land-owning class's leisure pursuits of hunting and horse-racing, he had a genuine concern for his tenants. For instance, he provided a school free of the dogma taught in the otherwise obligatory (Anglican) church school, to which his largely non-conformist tenants objected. He abolished toll-gates where he could, thus defusing locally the Rebecca Riots which rumbled on in other parts of Wales.

On the national front, "he advocated the disestablishment of the Church of England in Wales, education for all, tenants' rights, expansion of the franchise, local democracy, Home Rule for Ireland and for Wales". His radical stance provoked the Western Mail into dubbing him a "communist". I'm sure he would be fighting further social security cuts if he were a member for Carmarthen today.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Tax drives oil rig firm HQ from Stavanger

Seadrill, the world's biggest offshore rig company according to this report from News and Views from Norway, is to move its corporate HQ from Stavanger. Possible destinations include Houston (Texas), London, Dubai and Singapore. The major reason is the tax régime in Norway.

The timing of the decision ("before year end") may be significant. By then, the result of the US presidential election will be known and the UK "autumn" statement will have been debated.

One trusts that the chancellor will not be tempted into loosening financial controls or reducing corporation tax further for the sake of attracting corporate tax tourists.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

West Coast main line rethink

The Guardian account has the sub-head: "Transport secretary announces competition has been cancelled following discovery of flaws in franchise process". The smart response to this is that people were pointing out the flaws both in John Major's original scheme and Labour's rejigging a long time ago.

I don't believe that "civil servants can't do sums" is the whole story. It looks as if politics, both at the political level and within the Department, influenced both the original award to First Group and its reversal. There will surely be developments. It's a pity that the story broke too late for this week's "Private Eye".

Meanwhile, government has decided that the taxpayer will reimburse all the original bidders (not just First and Virgin) for their costs, some tens of millions of pounds in total.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Policy-free Labour conference

I thought this was going to be the conference which confirmed the direction that the Labour Party would be taking after their election defeat. Policy commissions had been set up which duly reported in the summer of this year. One would presume that after tidying up by the various party committees, each policy initiative would have been summarised in a proposition for conference to approve. Instead, as I understand it, the proposals are to be distributed to the grass roots for their comments in a new Web-based consultation exercise. It looks like pushing unpalatable (either to the executive or to the party's backers) decisions over the horizon.

I shall probably be told that it's all a part of the new spirit of localism and democracy which has been injected into the party. Certainly, that is to be welcomed. But there are signs that it was a fairly late decision not to stage policy debates in Manchester. Large slabs of time have been taken up by non-party events. There was the stimulating seminar led by Michael Sandel on the theme of the market economy on the opening day. Today, we saw the very ecumenical (Conservative peer Seb Coe featured prominently) celebration of the successes of the London Olympics.

Some ideas have been thrown out by shadow ministers, but there is no sign that they have been through the mill of Labour's democratic processes. There were presentations of laudable local initiatives, like food banks. There was a strong feeling for the Union with Scotland. On substantive changes in formal policy, not a word.

So far, this has been a conference dedicated to polishing Labour's image and, for the faithful, of improving the mechanisms of winning elections, though very little about what they would change if they do win.