Friday, 30 November 2012

Government interference: Conservatives have double standards

On the same day as most of the print media cheer David Cameron for setting his face against any laws to ensure the press meets its own code of conduct, there is a report that Theresa May wants to be as statist as Labour when it comes to state snooping on the Internet, including emails and Worldwide Web access. Nick Clegg and the parliamentary Liberal Democrat party are proving as robust over the Data Communications Bill as they are over Leveson.

Actually, the support for Leveson's "statutory underpinning" is not 100% on the LibDem benches. John Hemming, MP for Birmingham Yardley, asked the deputy prime minister yesterday: "Why do we need legislation, ministerial involvement through Ofcom and implicit licensing for news printed on dead trees, but not for news displayed on computer screens?". On the other hand, 40-odd Conservatives are said to favour Leveson's back-stop in spite of their leader's misgivings. If Labour is truly united behind Ed Miliband, then there is theoretically a majority for Leveson in the House. However, as we have seen with Lords reform, it is not enough to have a clear majority in favour of legislation if one or more of the party leaders are not willing to see the business through. We are promised a draft Bill on Leveson within a fortnight; it remains to be seen whether either a timetable or a guillotine motion will be applied to it against the virtual certainty of a filibuster by opponents of Leveson.

This split in the legislature is reflected in the pages of the Independent. Editor Chris Blackhurst asserts that legislation is not only unnecessary, but undesirable, and media editor Ian Burrell clearly agrees with him. Former editor Simon Kelner feels that the press has already had its drink in the last chance saloon. Columnist Joan Smith welcomes the Leveson report and feels let down by the prime minister. Steve Richards attacks David Cameron but does not come down on either side of the legislation argument.

It is probably obvious by  now that I side with Nick Clegg over the statutory back-stop. What finally convinced me was a interview on Good Evening, Wales with Joshua Rozenberg the lawyer/journalist. He pointed out that the legal profession, which once operated unchecked under its own rules, is now regulated by a very similar mechanism to that proposed by Leveson for the press. The Legal Services Board has a duty to see that the Bar Council (barristers) and the Law Society (solicitors) properly apply the rules they themselves have drawn up.

Where I agree with John Hemming (and with Conservative MP John Baron who put the point explicitly yesterday) is that many victims feel aggrieved because they are unable to seek justice through the legal system, which is often considered too complex and costly. Legal aid is not available for defamation cases. Ideally, there would be such strong disincentives to lies being printed in the first place that there would be no aggrieved victims.

Much has been made of the fact that the chair of Ofcom (which body Leveson sees as the equivalent of the Legal Services Board) is appointed by the minister in the Department of Culture Media and Sport. The judge is, however, open to the possibility of another organisation seen as less close to government doing the job. I suggest that another solution would be an amendment to the legislation relating to Ofcom so that the appointment is made by a joint committee of both Houses of Parliament rather than a government minister.

The press in this country - including, yes, its equivalent on the Web - is the last unregulated profession. What Leveson proposes is the same light touch as lawyers themselves have submitted to. Thinking of the memorable words that Rudyard Kipling suggested to his cousin Stanley Baldwin about power without responsibility, even harlots are more regulated than the press.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

World Food Prices

Just over four years ago, BBC World Service started an index of food prices, based on the experience of its correspondents in key locations round the globe. Unfortunately, it ceased to be kept up after a matter of months, but during its short life it hinted that some nations were weathering both the economic slump and the rise in wheat prices better than most. The last published graph is here.

Monday, 26 November 2012

UKIP threat to Conservative electoral progress

David Cameron has only himself to blame. Having won the leadership of his party by appearing to be at least as Eurosceptic as his rivals, he is now threatened because he has not fulfilled the implied promise of retracting the UK from the EU. Never mind that he recognises the value to Britain of staying within the Union (and probably had some inkling of this even before he came into government) and that he knows that the Conservatives need to appeal to a broad swathe of the UK electorate in order to succeed at the next election, the little Englanders in his party are out to get him. I have only the Indy's report to go on, but it appears that Michael Fabricant is in their number. He believes that the Conservative party is now structurally Eurosceptic and that an alliance with UKIP is necessary. There is clearly pressure on Cameron to take a harder line on our links with the continent. There is implied pressure to deselect EU-realist Conservative MPs.

All this is music to the ears of rival party leaders. The Conservative party could become more extreme - or more split. The UK electorate does not like extreme or split parties. The real threat from UKIP  is not so much in terms of votes. UKIP has probably garnered as many genuinely anti-Europe votes as it is likely to reap in 2015, in spite of support in the London press for its stance. UKIP's recent gains are as likely to be protest or anti-politician votes, as Professor Curtice points out in a side-bar to the Indy article quoted above. The greater danger for the Conservatives in my opinion is that they will lose their activists. Just as Labour party workers tend to be more socialist than their leadership and Liberal Democrats more liberal and democratic than theirs, so the average Tory constituency worker is more class-conscious and jingoistic. UKIP's domestic manifesto - leader Nigel Farage is now stressing that they are no longer a one-issue party - will appeal to those Tories also.

Labour should benefit in the relatively few constituencies which are Labour/Conservative marginals. However, unless there is some honesty in Labour campaigning in 2015, any Labour gains will we wiped out by Conservative gains over Liberal Democrats. If Labour campaigns hard for its candidates in seats where it has consistently come third, and against coalition, as it did in 2010, then the anti-Tory vote will be split where it counts most. If Labour wants cooperation with LibDems after the next general election, it would help if their leadership recognise publicly the more progressive measures which our parliamentary party have managed to achieve through the coalition, and the restraint which we have managed to impose on the most reactionary Tories.

Later: the Liberator collective has an interesting sidelight on the appeal of UKIP.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Could Zuma become another Mugabe?

Liberals in South Africa fear that another seven years of Jacob Zuma as president of the republic will lead to disastrous economic and political consequences. The Democratic Alliance has moved to remove him and his cabinet from office. A South African news site reports:

The DA has filed for an urgent court interdict to allow the motion of no confidence against President Jacob Zuma to be debated in the National Assembly, the party said on Saturday.

Parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko said the Democratic Alliance would never allow the ANC to defeat the aims of constitutional democracy. 

"That is why yesterday [Friday] I filed papers at the Western Cape High Court to seek an urgent interdict to compel the Speaker of the National Assembly to uphold the constitutional right of the opposition to have this motion debated." Mazibuko was speaking at the DA's Gauteng North Regional annual general meeting in Tshwane. She said the African National Congress was blocking the motion of no confidence against Zuma because it was scared that its own members would vote against him. "The ANC parliamentary caucus is blocking it because they fear, rightly, that their own members will side with the opposition to vote against the president," she said 

She said the Constitution allows for the motion to be considered in the National Assembly. "It is indeed a sad day when a member of Parliament must seek an order of the court to compel the legislature to respect the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, and our rights to hold the President, that we elected accountable," said Mazibuko. A motion of no confidence in Zuma was tabled on November 8. It was brought on the grounds "that under his leadership the justice system has been politicised and weakened; corruption has spiralled out of control; unemployment continues to increase, the economy is weakening, and, the right of access to quality education has been violated". 

On Thursday while answering questions in the National Assembly, Zuma said he felt "aggrieved" by media reports that the government had paid more than R200 million for his Nkandla home. Mazibuko said the public was hurting too and questioned if Zuma knew that. "How does he think the millions of people who have no work feel when their president lives in such grand splendour? How does he think the parents of children who never received textbooks... feel?" asked Mazibuko. "How does he think the widows and children of the 34 police and security officers, and mineworkers who were gunned down in cold blood at Marikana feel?"

While we are rightly concerned about the Netanyahu government's cynically timed military action in Gaza, and its effects on peace in our region, we should also be aware of the threats to democracy south of the Sahara. It should not be forgotten that the tentacles of past ANC corruption reached into the City and the last Labour government.

Friday, 16 November 2012

John Walter: perils of press proprietors' dependency on government

Today is the 200th anniversary of the death of John Walter, founder of the Daily Universal Register, which became The Times newspaper. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry records that:

"Like other newspaper proprietors of the period, Walter received money from the Treasury to ensure a degree of favourable coverage. During the later 1780s and 1790s this amounted to £300 a year."

This was at a time when the average weekly wage for a labourer in the Home Counties was 8 shillings (40p).

"Part of the agreement required Walter to publish certain paragraphs approved by the government. However, this turned out to be a disastrous bargain for Walter, since on 21 February 1789 he printed articles from Thomas Steele, the joint secretary of the Treasury, which accused the royal dukes of insincerity in celebrating the king's recovery from illness and of conducting an opposition party. Steele's articles were declared by the courts to be libels on the royal dukes. Walter was sentenced in November to a £50 fine and a year's imprisonment for his attack on the duke of York. While still in prison, Walter was further tried for libels on the prince of Wales and the duke of Clarence, and sentenced to an additional £200 in fines and a further year in prison."


When Paddy Ashdown speaks on military matters, and especially on the sort of expeditions on which he has experience, then the powers that be need to listen. I remember his advising four or five years ago that we should keep our forces in Afghanistan, but change our strategy, because there was still - just - support among the population for their ability to keep the peace. That support has clearly evaporated.

That does not mean that we should forget Afghanistan. There is not only a moral requirement to continue to support good governance and the social well-being of what is one of the poorest countries in the world, there is also the self-interested motive which was the Labour government's pretext for putting our troops there in the first place: preventing the country becoming a breeding-ground and safe haven for terrorists. There is already civil support from EU nations and from Canada. The UK should share in this.

There is probably enough mineral wealth to support a viable Afghan state, if multi-national corporations, with the aid of warlords and/or private militias, are prevented from exploiting it at the expense of the nation. A start could also be made to increase Afghanistan's income by licensing the opium, which their farmers have some expertise in producing, for medical purposes.

Monday, 12 November 2012

One misidentification does not refute a large body of evidence

Before people who weren't around at the time dismiss the evidence of widespread abuse because of one fouled-up Newsnight segment, they should read the report by the respected journalist Nick Davies:

There may even be copies out there of the Jillings report, which had officially been ordered to be pulped.

He Di

Never mind Xi Jinping, He Di (pronounced "Her Dee") with his Boyuan Foundation could be the most significant person in the China which will shortly become economically the most powerful nation on the planet.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

One has to make a choice in the PCC election

Electing Police and Crime Commissioners is a backward step. That is not only the view of the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties, but also that of students of the history of the process in the United States. Police authorities, which the new posts will replace, may have their faults, but their constitution allowed for proportional representation of political views across a police region. The PCC system means that one man's (and throughout Wales, it is bound to be a man) views will prevail.

However, we must face the reality that PCCs will soon come into existence. If we care about ensuring the least bad option, we have to vote. It is tempting to spoil the ballot, but so far nobody has come up with a way of making sure that a mass spoiling registers with the government.

I believe in keeping party politics out of policing. I shall therefore be giving my votes to the independent candidates, even though both are based in the Cardiff region. My first preference will be Mike Baker, because of his relevant experience, though ideally the PCC should have business acumen as well.

Churchill, Carter, Obama, Affleck

Coincidentally, at the same time as I was reading "Patriot of Persia", Christopher de Bellaigue's biography of Muhammad Mossadegh, Channel 4 broadcast a programme about an Israeli war-game posited on a first strike against Iran and Ben Affleck's "Argo" was released in the UK.

Affleck had prepared himself for directing his fact-based thriller by reading up on what had led up to the Islamic revolution which forms the background to "Argo", as his gallop through post-war Iranian history on Radio 4's "Film Programme" demonstrated. The only thing missing from this objective overview was the trigger for the US Tehran embassy siege, the decision by that decent man, president Jimmy Carter, to allow the deposed Shah to enter the US for urgent medical treatment. This was misread by the revolutionary guards, including a young Ahmedinajad, as political support for the hated dictator. The economic situation of the time is widely blamed for Carter's loss to Reagan in the presidential election of 1980, but the mishandling of the embassy siege, which made the US look weak, must have contributed.

Another decent man, Barack Obama, has apologised for the United States' part in the coup which gave the Shah absolute power in 1953. So far, neither the United Kingdom government, BP (the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company as it was then) nor the BBC (the Overseas Service had abandoned its traditional neutrality in order to assist the coup) have done the same. Churchill and Anglo-Iranian played on the American fear of Communist advance to induce the US to take the lead in removing Persia's democratic elected government, in order to maintain Anglo-Iranian's semi-colonial status in the oil-bearing region.

As Bellaigue's book makes clear,  the Iranian communists, the Tudeh party, were a nuisance, but nowhere near strong enough to take power. Mossadegh, on the other hand, was a democrat (even though he had arguably a more royal pedigree than the Shah, scion of the usurping Pahlavis) who had widespread support on account of his demonstrable incorruptibility. Bellaigue suggests that "Mossadegh's Iran would have tilted to the West in foreign affairs, bound by oil to the free world and by wary friendship to the U.S., but remaining polite to the big neighbour [USSR] to the north. In home affairs, it would have been democratic to a degree unthinkable in any Middle Eastern country of the time except Israel - a constitutional monarchy in a world of dictatorships, dependencies and uniformed neo-democracies. The broad strokes of his government would have been egalitarian and redistributive, with a planned economy eroding the power of the 'thousand families', but dappled with elitism (a literacy condition for voters; a penchant for French-educated cabinet mnisters). In social affairs, secularism and personal liberty would have been the lodestones, and the hejab and alcohol a matter of personal conscience. Sooner or later, women would have got the vote."

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Thatcherite governments

Labour has been fond of saying that the "Conservative-led government" is "more Thatcherite than Thatcher". While agreeing that Clegg, Alexander and Laws could probably squeeze a little more out of David Cameron, on a number of scores the coalition is not only more liberal than the Thatcher/Major governments, but also less Thatcherite than New Labour.

For instance:

ID cards
Published Green Paper proposing a national database of personal details.
Legislated for national database and compulsory ID cards
Repealed database and ID legislation
Public photography
Permitted arrest of anyone taking photographs near public buildings
Repealed the law in question (section 44 of theTerrorism Act 2000 )
State Pensions
Broke the link between state pension and the wage rate index
Did nothing, resulting in the farce one year of a 75p weekly increase
Established triple-lock: pensions tied to highest of 2.5%, the wage rate index and CPI
Top tax
Cut top rate of tax to 40%
Did nothing for twelve years, then introduced a top rate of 50% which lasted 36 days of their administration.
Set top rate at 45%.
Post Offices
Closed around 7,000 post offices
Closed a further 6,000 post offices
Ended programme of post office closures
Military invasions
Permitted US invasion of Grenada, a Commonwealth country

Joined US in invasion of Iraq
Has resisted direct intervention in Libya, Syria, Iran

Friday, 9 November 2012

Ramsay Mac

Today is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of James MacDonald Ramsay . He had a heart attack while playing deck quoits on board a cruise liner, something which his opponents no doubt had a sardonic chuckle over. Widely seen as the arch-betrayer of the Labour Party at the time, his reputation as someone who made the modern Labour Party possible (and virtually destroying the Liberals as a party of government in the process) has grown in recent years.

In a neat bit of synchronicity, it is also ninety years since he fled his Leicester seat, where he was looking insecure, for South Wales. As the ODNB puts it, "In 1918 Aberafan, like most of Wales, had been a Lloyd George fief, but when the general election came in November 1922 MacDonald was elected with a majority of 3207."

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

We must resist back-door Beecroft

I am grateful to Gareth Epps for this analysis:

George Osborne is proposing to give rights to employees in companies to have shares, in return for reduced employment rights. This proposal has caused considerable concern among Liberal Democrats, especially as we have only last month at our Autumn Conference brought forward serious and detailed proposals on Mutuals, Employee Ownership and Workplace Democracy. While our plans enjoy wider backing in the tradition of Liberal co-ownership proposals dating back to the Jo Grimond era, Osborne’s rushed plans (announced barely a fortnight ago) do not.

Osborne’s proposals seem to be an attempt to bring back the discredited Beecroft proposals by the back door: proposals which had no support in the world of business, or anywhere else for that matter. He has managed the feat of uniting the CBI, TUC and the Chartered Institute of Personnel &
Development (CIPD) in opposition. A recent YouGov poll showed that Conservatives are more likely (by 46 to 37 per cent) to be against the proposals than for them. The body representing employee-owned business, the Employee Owners’ Association, says (see that the proposals are completely unnecessary: that ‘there is no need to dilute the rights of workers in order to grow employee ownership and no data to suggest that doing so would significantly boost the number of employee owners. Indeed all of the evidence is that employee ownership in the UK is growing and the businesses concerned thriving, because they enhance not dilute the working conditions and entitlements of employee owners.’

Apart from George Osborne and a handful of Tories, there is no support for these unworkable proposals, much less a body of evidence in support. Indeed, it is only evidence that will consign them to their rightful fate.

There are a number of flaws to the proposals as they currently stand, including:
  • The concern that an unemployed person may be compelled to enter a job without rights or face losing their JSA.
  • The tax break proposed by Osbourne would appear to be of greatest benefit to financial services firms in the City - a blank cheque to bankers.
  • The tax break takes no account of the over 100,000 existing employee owners in the UK, all of whom have full employment rights.
  • Just like Beecroft, many of the proposals will not do anything to allow entrepreneurial businesses to grow better.

Ten years ago, I was working for what was one of the fastest-growing companies in the UK. It ruthlessly used legal procedures to incentivise its workforce, while removing employees not felt to be doing enough, or re-employing them as consultants. That can be lawfully done - why do more now? Well, as Lucy Bone in Huffington Post puts it: ‘It is high-earners who could profit most from the Employee/Owner scheme.

They will see the opportunity to make their remuneration package as tax efficient as possible. The proposal has most obvious synergy for City workers, whose high salaries disincentivise them from bringing unfair dismissal claims and who are paid large bonuses, often in shares. These employees will be paying higher rates of income tax and CGT, and so have much to gain from today's proposal. Ironic, perhaps, that a proposal to help small business may in fact bring benefits to that most unloved of employees: the banker.’

The consultation site is still open for a couple of days (note that it was launched not long ago, giving less notice than the govenment's own rules, which state that consultation to changes in
the law is supposed to last for 12 weeks.) It can be accessed via the Internet at:
You can respond directly to the consultation at

Care homes not safe yet

Southern Cross, the health services company which failed spectacularly last year, had at least twenty residential care homes in South Wales, two of them in Neath Port Talbot borough. It seems from this piece in the Independent yesterday that the successor companies which took over its operations are no more transparent and not much less indebted than Southern Cross. HC-One, which runs Clwydi Gwyn in Skewen, is ultimately based in the Cayman Islands. There is still a possibility that the debt burden which dragged Southern Cross down could in turn see the end of its successors (NHP/HC-One owes £1.8bn).

The saving grace is that the law prevents residents being turned out on the street.

Monday, 5 November 2012

North Wales child abuse

Bravo, Roger Pinney, Eddie Mair and his editor. Everything I was calling for yesterday in PM today.

Here's hoping that David Cameron is as good as his word and that the Welsh government are kept in the loop.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The news is right here, BBC

It is virtually impossible to find on the Web a justification for BBC's blanket coverage of the US presidential election. The cynic would suggest that BBC staff like being in the States, especially during the pre-Christmas (and -Hanukkah)  shopping season. Besides, there is lots of free TV footage, courtesy of the campaign teams.

Presumably, if put in the dock over this, the director general would say that it is necessary to inform the British public about who is going to run the free world for the next four years. That view would be defensible if BBC-News actually reported on how the election of either Obama or Romney would affect the rest of the world. If anything, Romney would be slightly better for the UK economy - though not necessarily for the generality of Americans - yet there is a barely disguised bias towards Obama in the media coverage here. (That is not an endorsement of Romney, by the way, and it is based on the premise that he would not start or abet an attack on Iran.) Instead, the BBC is more concerned with process, treating the poll as if it were just another sporting contest.

As I type, BBC-News is belatedly but slowly waking up to the implications of the paedophile ring centred on North Wales childrens homes in the 1970s or 1980s. When the edited and anonymised Waterhouse Report was published in 2000, Paul Murphy, the then Welsh Secretary said that there was no evidence of a high-level paedophile conspiracy. In view of recent allegations by Rod Richards (former Conservative MP and AM) and Labour MP Tom Watson, one wonders whether he would care to review that statement.

In any case, a whole generation has grown up since Bryn Estyn. The BBC has a duty to inform them of the historical background, as well as reminding those who were around at the time of the extent of the abuse. Now that the Children's Commissioner for Wales has added his voice to the demands for a fuller and more transparent inquiry, it is no time to allow the US horse-race to bury bad news.