Monday, 30 September 2013

Lewis Fry Richardson

This is the sixtieth anniversary of the death of the mathematician and scientist whose Quaker pacifism prevented him from gaining posts which would have given him more prestige and recognition. He contributed to the science of meteorology, and wrote papers which foreshadowed chaos theory and fractals. I am particularly intrigued though by the citations in this biography of his work applying mathematics to the causes of war. One wonders what his formulae would produce in the current world situation.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Fifty-year-old vinyl wish list

Well, not quite fifty years. Judging by marginal notes on this sheet of paper I found inside a boxed set of vinyl, together with the LP release dates I have now looked up on the Web, it dates from 1965. I must still have been branch secretary of the MoT CSCA (predecessor of Mark Serwotka's SCS), because there is a reminder to send minutes "for last meeting" to a couple of activists. (Plus ça change.) Therefore I wrote the list before my promotion into the white heat of automation of vehicle registration in 1966.

Certainly it was written between girl-friends: after "Curlew River" but before "Les Troyens". The list does reflect my musical interests at the time, but there are some peculiarities. There is no Mahler, and I remember being introduced to this composer a couple of years earlier. Perhaps there was no modern recording at that time? None of the records is in my collection - indeed I have different recordings of the same piece in some instances. There are two listings of Khachaturian's violin concerto (by Kogan and Oistrakh), crossed out because it must have been around this time that I acquired a Russian MK recording in a Gamages sale. (I don't play the disc of this flashy piece much, but it still turns up. It was a choice of one of the contestants in "Young Musician of the Year" not so long ago.)

Why I didn't buy any of these is still a mystery. Perhaps the expansion of the Third Programme/Radio 3 made so much more music available. Maybe I was increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of my record-player and decided to wait until I had a decent stereo set-up. Anyway, here is the complete list, which may have some sociological value:

DGG LPM 18923                        Karajan, Berlin Philharmonic, DEBUSSY/ RAVEL Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune/ Daphnis et Chloe
CBS BRG 72269                         Stern, Ormandy, Philadelphia, PROKOVIEV Violin Concertos 1 & 2
RCA Victor RD 7724                  Spike Jones, "Thank you music lovers"

CBS BRG 72639                         Bernstein, Royal Danish, NIELSEN Symphony No. 3

Philips BL 7661                           Trio Los Paraguayos, "Por Todo El Mundo Cantan"

Decca Ace ADD 117                    Kubelik, Vienna Philharmonic, BRAHMS Symphony No. 1

Decca Ace ADD 120                    Kubelik, Vienna Philharmonic, BRAHMS Symphony No. 4

Philips MMA 11089                     Dorati, LSO, STRAVINSKY "The Firebird"

Music for Pleasure MFP 2002      Galliera, Rabin, Philharmonia, TCHAIKOVSKY/SAINT-SAËNS Violin Concerto/Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso
HMV ALP 2106                          Baker, Du Pré, Barbirolli, LSO, ELGAR Sea Pictures/Cello Concerto

Pye GGC 4040                           Haas, London Baroque Ensemble, STRAUSS/ARNELL/KAY [various pieces for wind ensemble]
Stateside SL10141                      "The Best of the Modern Jazz Quartet"

Decca MET 301                          Britten, English Opera Group, BRITTEN "Curlew River"

HMV HQM 1008                        Pritchard, Glyndebourne Festival, STRAVINSKY "The Soldier's Tale" suite
Victrola VIC 1108                       Gibson, Royal Opera House, BIZET/GOUNOD Carmen Suite/Faust ballet music                
HMV ALP 2097                          Royal Choral Society, Du Pré, Sargent, RPO, DELIUS "A Song Before Sunrise"/Cello Concerto
Victrola VIC 1016                       Gibson, LSO, SIBELIUS Symphony No. 5/Karelia Suite

CBS BRG 72452                        Stravinsky, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, STRAVINSKY "Pulcinella"
Reality RY 1004                         John Foreman, "The 'ouses in between"

Music for Pleasure MFP 2046     Collingwood, LSO, ELGAR Nursery Suite, Serenade, Bavarian Dances

I remember the Los Paraguayos album being on the list because it contained a version of "Magdalena". This number closed a regular BBC Radio programme by Nigel Hunter called "Latin Carnival" or some such, and I got hooked on it and its false endings. The wind band version he used was not commercially available in the UK - nor was most of the other stuff he played, come to think of it. The programme would presumably be packaged under the label "World Music" now. I would love to check my recollection against the Radio Times of the period but, although the RT archive has been digitised, BBC is reluctant to let hoi polloi have access to it.

The Alexander Gibson recordings are on the list because I wanted some memento of the man. He had presided over one of those concerts introducing secondary schools to music, and I had warmed to him as one of the few adults who did not talk down to his young audience. I should have bought the Sibelius, for which he was renowned, but at least I do have a Waverley recording of his conducting Prokoviev's 5th symphony.

I do have the Barbirolli/du Pré Elgar, but unfortunately it is the cassette version. It is a nice reminder, though, of that magical night when she played the concerto at the Proms and, walking back to my digs in Victoria, I passed the entrance to the mews where the du Pré party had just arrived in high excitement after her success.

Dennis Brain must have been the reason for the wind ensemble disc being on the list. It would also have given me a chance to hear music I didn't yet know. This LP is also a good example of a re-release on a bargain label of good music previously available only at top price. As well as Pye's "Golden Guinea", there were "Music for Pleasure" (Hamlyn/EMI), Decca's Ace of Diamonds and the World Record Club (mail order) series.

Saturday, 28 September 2013

End of VHF/FM

It seems that the government is still determined to go ahead with forcing all public radio transmissions to digital. This will obviously make obsolete hundreds of thousands of serviceable FM receivers in the UK and reduce the flexibility of an organisation like BBC Radio Wales which is currently able to split the airwaves to accommodate, say, sporting commentaries for different parts of the country. Additionally, unless additional transmitters are provided, it will deny radio to many parts of the UK, even some within greater London, whose DAB reception is practically nil.

As someone who switched to DAB a long time ago, I have another concern. BBC and those commercial stations which have DAB channels suffer from "early adopter" syndrome. The early system of DAB in use here is virtually unique. The world standard is now DAB+ which is an improvement in several respects. It seems unlikely that there is any investment worldwide in improving the performance of the original DAB hardware and software, so I should like to see the government commit to DAB+ for the future. This would encourage manufacturers to produce radios which can switch easily between the two - according to Which? there is already a suitable computer chip design. Obviously the two systems would have to run in parallel for some time, but a decision to secure the future of radio in the UK is overdue and if VHF/FM is abandoned, then there will be money from the sale of that spectrum.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

By-election results

After all the good work by previous speakers at the annual general meeting of Labour in Brighton, implicitly offering an olive branch to Liberal Democrats by attacking the Conservative side of the coalition government, Harriet Harman's viciously partisan and wrong-headed closing speech showed how difficult it will be to produce a progressive coalition after the next general election.

She failed to give any credit to Liberal Democrats in government for giving certainty to state pensioners (which makes me wonder whether this is an area where Labour aims to make savings to pay for the two Eds' extravagant promises) or for making sure that other state beneficiaries would at least receive a 1% uprating where the Conservatives were proposing no increase. Nor did she mention the pupil premium.

That was misleading by omission. But she did worse on polling results. She was right to say that Labour had made gains in UK council by-elections, and that Conservatives had made great losses - also true, but the beneficiaries were UKIP and others as much as Labour. She was wrong to say that Liberal Democrats had also had big losses. We are just one down on the year so far, and in 2012 we finished five up. Overall, the period 2011-2013 shows a net gain of 1.

The inference is that we are holding our own. The best chance for Labour to be part of the next government is to remove Conservatives in Con/LibDem marginals. Presenting voters with the illusion that Labour can achieve an overall majority at the next general election will see more Tories elected, not fewer.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Another victim of "Peeping Tom"?

Donald McLeod has drawn attention to the work of Brian Easdale, the composer favoured by Michael Powell, in his current series of Composers of the Week, which features British screen composers. It is surprising how so accomplished a film composer (Hans Keller's judgement), the first British composer to receive an Academy Award for a feature film, could have disappeared from consciousness. My guess is that it is to do with his last major credit, Peeping Tom. This challenging film, which would have been a critics' favourite fifty years later, was universally condemned on its 1960 release. Director Michael Powell was rescued by Martin Scorsese in the late 1970s , but after Happy Deathday in 1968 Easdale seems to have been cold-shouldered by the industry apart from some shorts.

Easdale wrote music for the concert-hall too, and the titles are intriguing. As a Mancunian, perhaps his music could be revived by the Salford-based BBC Philharmonic.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Beveridge and Labour

Liam Byrne made three references to William Beveridge in his speech to the Labour annual conference in Brighton earlier today. Judging by other references in this speech and others, Mr Byrne knows his history of social legislation in the UK, but perhaps few of his fellow-members are aware of Beveridge's contributions other than his famous report. I certainly wasn't until I read Beveridge's entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

As far back as 1907 he was arguing for a system of social insurance and labour exchanges, based on a research visit he had made to Prussia a year earlier. Shortly afterwards, he became what would now be termed a Special Adviser to Winston Churchill, then a Liberal minister at the Board of Trade. Beveridge worked "closely with the Board of Trade's permanent secretary, Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith, in drawing up the Labour Exchanges Act of 1909 and part 2 of the National Insurance Act of 1911. Under these acts labour exchanges under Board of Trade control were established in all parts of the country, and unemployment insurance was provided for two and a quarter million workers in heavy industries". (Churchill also pushed through the Trade Boards Act 1909, establishing the wages councils, which put a floor under the earnings of workers in industries where they most liable to exploitation. Most of the wages councils were abolished by the Thatcher/Major administrations.)

Unfortunately, Beveridge soured any relationship he had with trade unions during the Great War, when under Lloyd George he felt compelled to suppress collective bargaining in the munitions industry. It seems to have taken another world war and the report which provided the ammunition for the 1945 Attlee government to dispel the antagonism.

Sunday, 22 September 2013


The new thriller serial Orphan Black from BBC Worldwide North America centres on the theme of multiple human clones, presumably using the same technique as produced Dolly the sheep. From the artistic point of view, it's probably better that the exact mechanism is not described in detail. However, I trust that the series will gradually uncover and discuss the motivation behind the secret cloning programme, along with the expected thrills and other revelations. Certainly, if I were an evil genius I would want a production line of attractive young women as in Orphan Black, not a generation of new Hitlers.

Natural Selection, a TV movie starring C Thomas Howell, also turned on the plot device of cloning. It came out two years before Dolly was born and I wonder whether writers Todd Slavkin and Darren Swimmer were au fait with the research at the Roslin Institute. They were certainly tech-savvy enough to create a realistic depiction of the work of a computer programmer, rare for Hollywood in those times.

Life and art are converging. Ten years ago, commercial cloning of pets began. Recently, an outstanding eventing horse has also been cloned. It is not clear whether the problem of premature ageing, as shown in Dolly and her fellows, has been solved. If this is not inherent in the process, and the difficulty of maintaining the integrity of DNA during transfer can be overcome, then I believe that in most of our lifetimes, some scientific institute is going to ignore ethics and produce a human clone.

Friday, 20 September 2013

One cheer for Ed Miliband on under-occupation* cut

It's good to see him come down off the fence. A black mark, though, for making policy on the hoof. One assumes that the coming Labour conference will endorse the move, but will wonder why they have been starved of serious policy proposals for a year or more. There is also doubt about his calculation of alternative savings. Conservative ministers have already responded that this is another attack on people's pensions. Why not be bold, and repeat what other Labourites have been saying, that the saving in cutting the housing benefit will cause costs elsewhere in the system?

* The official term, and the one that was used by Labour ministers when they introduced the cut in the local housing allowance.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Hollywood underscore

Regular listeners to Francine Stock's Film Programme on Radio 4 will be familiar with Neil Brand's illuminating (if occasionally overlong) musical illustrations. They called out for collation into a TV series with the benefit of actual film clips and full orchestral soundtrack. Now we have it, in The Music that made the Moviesthe first episode of which was shown last week. That dealt with the golden era of Hollywood when the basis of film composition was the Austro-German symphonic tradition, while tonight's introduces jazz, pop and rock.

Film music has been touched on before in TV documentaries on cinema. What makes this series unique is that it is presented by someone who is a practitioner, who has composed not only for contemporary productions but is also familiar with the art of accompanying silent film.

If I have a quibble about the first programme it is that it had time only to deal with the pioneers and stars of Hollywood composition - and could not even find room for Dimitri Tiomkin. It therefore missed out the second rank of composers, who had to produce music by the yard to a tight deadline to feed the stream of lower-budget pictures and second features. But the likes of Roy Webb and David Raksin also had their moments - e.g. Cat People and Laura.

It was David Raksin, in an extended interview with Edward Seckerson in the Radio 3 series Stage and Screen  (no episode of which has been preserved by the BBC, apparently) who told one version of the historic break-up of the partnership of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock. The only common factor is that it centred on the rejected score for Torn Curtain. According to Raksin, Hitchcock knew that the studio had already lined up a younger replacement for Herrmann. Nevertheless, Hitchcock had Herrmann play through the entire score before cruelly telling him that his music was out. Another version (presumably emanating from the Hitchcock camp) has it that Hitchcock confided in Herrmann as soon as he had the bad news, but as a sympathetic gesture booked an orchestral session so that Herrmann could at least hear the score performed. According to Brand, Hitchcock had the say on what music was to be used, though the studio had pressed him to select something current and commercial. He passed on these requirements to Herrmann, who as he might have known, obstinately wrote what he thought the screenplay required. Hitchcock fired him after hearing just the first music cue. Certainly there was a disagreement between two autocratic men as to whether music was an adjunct to a movie or part of an integrated whole.

Perhaps this is something we will hear more of in the third episode of The Music that made the Movies, of which I cannot find the details. Eastern Europeans took the lead in the integration of music, plot and photography. Sergei Prokoviev worked closely with Eisenstein on his classic films, reaching a peak in Alexander Nevsky. Alexander Korda, working in England, indulged Sir Arthur Bliss (though quietly dropping some passages which held up the action) in Things to Come. Another European composer best known for his work in the concert hall was also enthusiastic about writing for the screen, but then Dmitri Shostakovich had before becoming famous earned a crust as a pianist in silent cinemas. He probably has the honour of being the first serious composer to write a film score, though it was not until comparatively recently that it was actually married up with The New Babylon.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


Well, follow that. Federal Conference in Glasgow 2014 is going to have to be the best party conference of all time to improve on the last five days. There has been the right balance of endorsement of the party in parliament and defeats for the powers that be to show that the Liberal Democrats are still a members party. The direction of the drafting of the general election has been established. Linda Jack has renewed her faith for another year. There has been a notable defection - Dr Richard Grayson to Labour - but the usual headlines that a leading Liberal has quit have not appeared. Indeed, the media coverage has been almost objective. More to the point, it has been extensive and serious. To top it all, there has been Nick Clegg's best Leader's Speech ever.

I have some niggles. I always have niggles. The party could have been openly critical of the real-terms cuts in JSA and some other benefits, even though our leaders can claim some credit for stopping George Osborne for making them even worse. There was nothing about the unjust, privatised, work capability assessment system - even though it is something else we can justly criticise Labour over. In the effort to differentiate us from the other parties (and I wish more of this had been done from the start of the coalition) there was little acknowledgement of what in those parties we could sympathise with. Full marks to Simon Hughes for reaching out to the trades unions in his speech this morning calling for a more even income distribution, and to Lord McNally for drawing Conservatives' attention to their party's historic attachment to human rights.

I'm not a great one for leaders' speeches. On the occasions that I attend conference, I find that the lunch interval before the speech is a good time to make for the railway station before the rush. Out of duty this afternoon I stayed to the end of BBC Parliament's coverage from Glasgow, and I'm glad I did. There was the expected electoral appeal to the centre ground, but there were also more personal content than usual. I must admit to a tear in my eye this afternoon when Nick described his joy when as an Englishman in America he could not get enough of the media coverage of the breach of the Berlin Wall when the news broke. That struck a chord with me, who miles from home watched BBC's live transmission from Berlin when Olenka Frankiel walked in with a chunk of the Wall which had just been hacked off and put it on the table in front of the panel of the great and the good. It was all the more moving for me and others of my generation who were around when the Wall was thrown up, a more frightening experience than the Cuban Missile crisis. When Nick described his mother's privations in a prisoner-of-war camp, I remembered my schoolmate Graham's mother describing having been part of a forced march across war-torn Europe. Nick could have finished his speech there and then.  The descent into an announcement of free school meals was bathetic. But it triumphantly picked up again.

There will always be the suspicion that Nick - in common with the other major party leaders - does not know the price of a sliced loaf or a litre of milk. He was honest about his privileged background, but there is no doubt in my mind that he is an instinctive liberal. I was glad that he proclaimed his belief in education for all, to the European Union and to human rights, and to shouting about them during the campaign to come. We now need to convince the voters that we also believe in economic fairness, as so many representatives affirmed from the rostrum in these last few days.

Legal aid

One of the most shaming things about the coalition is that it is bearing down more on legal aid than New Labour and the Thatcher/Major administrations. It is also a shame that the motion below had to be introduced to the agenda for the Glasgow conference of Liberal Democrats by means of the emergency motion procedure rather than being included in the substantive agenda.

Conference notes:
A. The Party’s current policy on Legal Aid, adopted overwhelmingly at the Sheffield Party Conference in 2011.
B. The pressures upon public spending faced by the government, which is substantially the result of serious failings in economic policy by the previous Labour Government.
C. The widespread criticism of proposals in the MoJ’s consultation paper on Legal Aid including an unsustainable model for Price Competitive Tendering of criminal defence services, and substantial reduction in the number of suppliers, and that whilst big changes have been made to the proposals the proposals on tendering to deal with objections to lowest bidder ‘cut price’ justice, fundamental concerns remain about the sustainability of the supplier base in light of proposed fee cuts of 17 per cent.
D. Scrutiny by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) of proposed changes to civil legal aid, including the proposed introduction of a residence test for civil legal aid claimants, restrictions on the scope of legal aid available to prisoners and on payment for preparation work in judicial review cases, and the JCHR request for the Secretary of State for Justice delay the proposals until the Committee completed its work and reported back to parliament.
E. That the Ministry of Justice is proposing to create significant new demands on expenditure in prisons policy, at the same time as making cuts to legal aid.
Conference believes that:
i) The provision of a high quality justice system and proper access to justice are fundamental obligations for a modern democratic state.
ii) The human rights implications of the changes to legal aid being investigated by the JCHR are of fundamental significance for the right of access to justice and the rule of law.
iii) No further cuts in the provision of Legal Aid and the availability of local justice should take place without ensuring that any such proposals are first properly trialled and assessed to demonstrate that there will be no adverse effect upon access to justice and the quality of legal services provided to those who require assistance by means of Legal Aid.
iv) New areas of Ministry of Justice expenditure cannot be justified while legal aid is being cut so drastically.
Conference calls for:
1. Proposed changes to criminal or civil legal to be stayed pending thorough consultation and scrutiny to ensure there will be no adverse effect upon:
a) Access to justice and the availability of local justice.
b) The quality of legal services provided to those who cannot afford to pay privately.
c) The public purse through unintended consequences such as prisoners being detained for longer than necessary or defendants suffering miscarriages of justice.
d) Public confidence through the removal of the means to ensure public accountability, fairness and equality before the law regardless of means.
e) Human rights issues as identified by JCHR, and that the Committee’s concerns be acted upon in full.

It is sad that Lord McNally, speaking for the government, retreated to the well-worn argument that he needed to find over £100 million in savings. Speakers before and after him emphasised that there were savings easily to be made in the current system. For instance, Graham Colley of Liberal Democrat Lawyers pointed out that 45% of legal aid goes to directors defending fraud charges. A simple scheme of compulsory insurance for directors would take that cost out at a stroke.

The point was made that cost comparisons with other jurisdictions were misleading because we have an adversarial, not a Roman-Dutch, court system. When all costs are taken into account, we spend less on legal aid than the equivalent budgets in Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands among others.

Any cost savings in legal aid would almost certainly be outweighed by increased expenditure in other parts of the system.

I cannot do justice to the debate here. If you haven't already seen it, watch it when it becomes available on iPlayer.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Grass-roots surge on "bedroom tax"

As reported on the local party web-site, the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow resolved yesterday that there should be an immediate government evaluation of the working of restrictions on housing benefit and that in the meantime the cuts should be suspended where they are causing hardship. The impression that I had from watching the debate on television that the motion was inspired not by low electoral motives but by real experience from councillors and MPs. Time and time again the note was struck that the theory of moving claimants from housing that was too large for them to free it up for families was all very well, but that in practice it really hurt people. There was just not enough suitable social housing for people to move to. Clearly, the feedback ministers by storm, because there was no real opposition from the "top table".

There was certainly no sense of a move towards Labour on this. It was pointed out that the Thatcher government allowed more council house building than New Labour did in thirteen years of government. Given that Labour had introduced a "bedroom tax" in the private sector (and, though it was not mentioned in the debate, were moving towards it in social housing), their current campaigning was described as opportunistic. Much was made of the split in Labour over its repeal.

Since I last posted on this subject, my attention has been drawn to more parliamentary material which indicated where the New Labour government was heading. For instance, there was the Green Paper issued in January 2006, entitled: "A new deal for welfare: Empowering people to work". The Green Paper itself is no longer available in the National Archive. There is only an executive summary. However, there is enough in the published responses to the consultation to indicate the then government's thinking. There are also several written answers (too long to reproduce here) which reinforce the impression. Chris Bryant has recently accused Liberal Democrats of hypocrisy. He should look at beams in eyes closer to home.

Monday, 16 September 2013

LDs want 45p to stay - just

The motion on Fairer Taxes passed as follows:

Conference believes that in a fair society, government has a duty to help the least well off to get on and to
ensure that everyone pays their fair share
Conference believes that taxation policy has a crucial role to play in building a fairer society, promoting
prosperity and protecting the environment, and that the tax system itself should be simpler, and endorses
policy paper 111, Fairer Taxes, as a statement of Liberal Democrat tax policy to help achieve this.
Conference believes:

1. Government should cut tax for those earning low and middle incomes, through:
a) Raising the income tax threshold to £10,000, taking 2.7 million people out of paying income
tax altogether, and giving a tax cut of £700 to many million others, now delivered by Liberal
Democrats in government.
b) Further raising the income tax threshold to the level equivalent to a full time job on the National
Minimum Wage (NMW), and index-linking it to further rises in the NMW, ensuring that no-one
earning the minimum wage pays income tax on a standard full-time salary, and giving a tax cut of
up to £460 to millions of other workers.

2. The wealthiest should pay their fair share, through:
a) A Mansion Tax, applicable at 1% on the excess value of a residential property over £2 million.
b) Lifetime tax relief for pensions being limited to a pension pot of £1 million.
c) Non-dom tax status being more tightly restricted, and prevented from becoming hereditary.

3. Wealthy individuals and companies should no longer be able to see paying tax as optional, through:
a) Liberal Democrat-led efforts within government to crack down on tax avoidance, including both
international efforts and the introduction of a General Anti-Abuse Rule in the UK.
b) The introduction of a stronger General Anti-Avoidance Rule, supported by a straightforward preclearance system, which would outlaw any move taken purely to avoid tax in ways not intended by
c) Continuing to invest in HMRC’s ability to tackle avoidance, which has demonstrated a good return
on investment, and in international efforts to co-ordinate anti-avoidance.
d) Tackling tax avoidance by multinational companies, especially in developing countries, by requiring
greater transparency of their tax arrangements, including country by country reporting.

4. The tax system should be simplified by:
a) Making personal tax returns simpler by HMRC pre-populating them based on information they
hold, and make contacting HMRC much more straightforward.
b) Continuing to simplify tax rules by limiting specific reliefs, and ensuring that they have ‘sunset
c) Renewing the mandate of the Office of Tax Simplification.

5. Taxation should focus on wealth rather than income, through:
a) Supporting the introduction of a system of land value taxation.
b) Moving back to a system in which capital gains are taxed at the same level as income, rather than
at a lower rate.
c) Maintaining the existing rates of income tax, including the additional rate of 45% for income over
£150,000 per year.

6. Businesses and especially small businesses should be supported, through:
a) The reduction of corporation tax by the Government to a historically low level, which has helped to
stimulate business and is attractive to international investors.
b) Introducing a range of financial and non-financial measures to help small businesses, including
simplifying tax administration.

7. Control of taxation should be devolved further to nations, through:
a) Devolving power overs a range of taxes to the Welsh Assembly, in line with the recommendations
made by the Silk Commission.
b) Supporting a move towards Fiscal Federalism for Scotland, including further transfer of tax
powers as set out in the Scottish Liberal Democrats policy paper ‘Federalism: the best future for

8. The tax system should promote environmental sustainability, by:
a) Continuing to push for reform of the EU emissions trading scheme (EUETS) so that it drives
improved energy efficiency.
b) Further promoting more energy efficient homes by lowering the rate of VAT for home renovations
which increase the energy efficiency rating.
c) Linking Vehicle Exercise Duty bandings to EU emissions targets to improve energy efficiency.
d) Continuing to push for reform of taxation of international aviation to change Air Passenger Duty to
a Per-Plane Duty.
e) Providing ISA allowances for investments into enterprises with environmental and/or technological

Conference, by a slender majority, rejected an alternative to 5(c):
Option B:
c) Maintaining the existing rates of income tax, apart from the additional rate for income over
£150,000, which should rise to 50%, subject to an independent review concluding that the
additional income from this change would be likely (on the balance of probabilities) to exceed the
costs of introducing it.

There was considerable discussion about the practicality of implementing the Mansion Tax. As a new tax, setting up the machinery to collect it would be expensive. In the end, Vince Cable persuaded conference that the party should stick to its resolve to shift taxation from income to wealth.

I was rather surprised that the opportunity was not taken to send a message to the Conservatives over the married persons tax allowance in this amendment:

 After 8. e) (line 67), add: Conference believes that the proposed marriage tax allowance, that would give certain types of married couples a tax break, is discriminatory, unnecessary and expensive. Conference therefore resolves to oppose the proposed marriage tax allowance, and if it is implemented to repeal it at the earliest opportunity.

Again, the vote was close but not as close as on the 50p rate.

It woz the party wot won it

It was a toss-up whether today's BBC 1 o'clock news headline was that Nick Clegg had trounced progressive forces in the economic debate this morning, or that he had suffered a demoralising defeat at the hands of the Trotskyite sandal-wearers. Either case was supportable. The motion from the top table was passed. On the other hand, the Glasgow conference accepted an amendment (albeit slightly amended) from the Social Liberal Forum, who have been among Nick's most vigorous critics. In the end, BBC opted for the Clegg victory line but made sure in their report that there was a clip from the end of Vince Cable's later speech which appeared to criticise the coalition.

In truth, a Venn diagram comprising the main motion, the amendment which was won, the amendment which was lost (I can't find a copy of this, but there is a summary on Gareth Epps' contribution to Liberal Democrat Voice), Nick's summation and Vince's speech would show more overlap than outliers. The debate was not a one-man show. There were well-thought contributions from all (because the discussion was not a simple black/white matter) sides. It is worth looking at the full debate when it is shown again on BBC-Parliament (or on the various online sources) and then comparing it with the personalised treatment in the press.

Later: I've now found the text of the amendments at Autumn/Policy/Aut13 CE plaintext.txt

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Conference votes for a real-world energy policy

The Guardian reported Nick Clegg as urging Liberal Democrats to be realistic now that we are a party of government. This was interpreted in some quarters as rolling over to the Tories in such areas as civil liberties, defence and social fairness. While I feel that more could have been done in the latter area, in the event LibDems in parliament have maintained their principles on all three. Nor are there signs that the party as a whole is going to back down on any of them.

There is movement, however, on the energy front. Representatives at the Federal Conference in Glasgow this morning accepted that there is a need to accept both shale gas and nuclear power in order to fill the gap between phasing out coal-fired stations and the ability of renewables to supply base-load electricity.

An option in Motion F10 (on Green Growth and Green Jobs) which would have ruled out new nuclear capacity altogether was voted down in favour of one which accepted "that in future, nuclear power stations could play a limited role in electricity supply, provided concerns about safety, disposal of radioactive waste and cost (including decommissioning) are adequately addressed and without allowing any public subsidy for new build". It helped that Ed Davey, the man with ministerial responsibility in the field, was on hand to reiterate his guarantee that there would be no subsidy on his watch. It has to be said, though, that some members were reluctant converts, persuaded by the loss of jobs if there were to be no new nuclear construction. The pressures on Hinckley in Somerset are the same as those in Ynys Môn. There was a clear, if not substantial, majority for Option B.

There was an even larger majority in favour of fracking for shale gas, though with safeguards. This I am much more doubtful about, and wonder how many of the representatives came from parts of the country overlying gas-bearing shale beds and knew about it. The UK is at least better prepared than the US, where the chemicals used for fracking are still proprietary secrets, in that fracking contractors must make their recipes public here. However, inspections must be real and stringent, not merely rubber-stamps as we saw in parts of the English NHS under Labour.

The whole motion is baggy and unfocused, something to which the Association of Liberal Democrat Engineers & Scientists objected to. However there move to refer the motion back was defeated and at least we have an indication of direction, if not a plethora of concrete proposals.

There is a pdf of the conference agenda here. It includes the text of all the motions, but sadly it has not been updated with the amendments.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Nick Clegg's leadership

It's a pity that in this weekend's Any Questions? the question about Nick Clegg's leadership came last. Norman Lamb had no time other than to deliver the Great George Street prepared script and Maria Eagle was able to slip in the standard Labour line that the Liberal Democrats were Tory lickspittles who had no effect on government policy. Sitting on the panel was John Redwood who frequently, in parliament and on his blog, bemoans the fact that Liberal Democrats in the coalition have prevented the Conservatives implementing their 2010 manifesto in full and he did not have the opportunity to repeat that view.

I used to think like Matthew Oakeshott, that we Liberal Democrats needed a new figurehead going in to the next general election. In the aftermath of the Welsh local elections, swept by Labour, I envisaged Nick doing the decent thing and off his own bat taking up a commissionership with the United Nations or in Brussels, or a similar high-status international post, in time for us to put someone else in place who was not associated with failure.

Things have changed. Firstly, even after three years exposure in parliament, no obvious challenger has emerged. Menzies Campbell and Vince Cable would do an excellent job, but would be crucified in the media because of their age, as Ming has already discovered. None of the younger contenders has proved to be sure-footed enough or to possess sufficient gravitas. It is, of course, nonsense to depict Nick as a Michael Foot figure. Foot was seen as old and as a wild-eyed extremist. Nick's appeal, apart from his charm, is to the centre ground of British politics.

Secondly, the message that we are actually influencing government seems to have got through to the print media at least, judging by the extracts I have seen on Facebook this morning. What the press says today, BBC will say tomorrow. There have been failures to persuade our Conservative allies to take a more progressive line in certain areas, but mostly where Labour does not exactly have clean hands either.

Lastly, Labour has not made the surge I expected. They have been all over the place. Their big mistake was to lead on the economy, when anybody with any common sense could see that the economic situation in 2014/15 will be better than in 2009/10. This strategy may have been reasonable if they had kept on the front bench the chancellor who had started to address the deficit and even presided over a slight blip in GDP growth during his tenure. Instead, they reverted to Ed Balls, the éminence grasse of the Gordon Brown bubble years. When Labour attacked on the social welfare front they concentrated on such things as the benefits cap which mainly affects voters in London, and which were shown to be popular in opinion research in the country as a whole. Balls has conceded that a Labour government would repeal virtually none of the welfare measures introduced by the coalition with the exception of pensions. It does not help that the party as a whole has not formed a coherent set of policy proposals. Consequently, Miliband has had to react to events, making up policy on the hoof and more often than not having to retract. He has laid himself open to attack - which is sure to increase between now and the general election - because of the way he has handled Labour/trade union relations.

So we can leave it to the Conservatives and their friends in the press to keep Labour in their place (opposition), while we get on with forming and refining positive policies. There is nobody better than Nick Clegg at putting a case across. I hope that this week's conference will give him a substantial brief to work from.

His clear antipathy to Nick and an unreasonable faith in opinion polls marred an otherwise interesting Matthew Oakeshott  interview. For instance, I tend to agree with him when he warns against following the lead of the German Free Democrats, who he sees as "a business friendly party in the middle blowing one way or the other, normally with the right." (Perhaps "economically liberal" rather than "business friendly" would be a better description.) I also agree with him that we must keep big single donations out of UK elections while not starving parties of funds. His 5-5-5 plan is attractive:

to limit individual donations to £5,000, to impose a £5m spending cap on general election campaigns and to allow voters to mark on their ballot paper a £5 tax donation to a party of their choice. Clean politics does have to be paid for, that’s the right solution. Obviously we can’t just hand out taxpayer’s money without giving them control. That really meets all the objections because anyone who doesn’t want to give, doesn’t.

Now to settle down with a pot of tea to watch the conference on BBC-Parliament while keeping an eye on events in Cardiff.

Friday, 13 September 2013

Chemical genocide

This call to sign a petition relating to the after-effects of the Fallujah attack reminds me of a shameful episode in our history.  When the first reports of Saddam's use of nerve agents on a civil population, followed swiftly by some of those victims who had escaped death, reached London, prime minister Thatcher rejected them as Iranian propaganda. Of course, Saddam was then the West's friend in the fight against Muslim extremism.

Behind the electoral headlines

BBC coverage of local elections in Russia has been confined to the Moscow mayoral race. Of Norway's parliamentary election last Monday the Beeb has said little. Therefore it is good to see in the latest Liberal International bulletin that even in the apparently ultra-Conservative Russia:

[Liberal International] full member, Yabloko, have won 70 seats in local parliaments and will have two heads of towns after the latest round of regional and municipal elections in Russia. 

Yabloko emerged strong across a number of regions despite the Kremlin’s grip on political life. Despite this uncertainty and political chaos under Putin, Yabloko leader Sergei Mitrokhin said: “For me it is encouraging that there are people who can resist this chaos. For me this is an optimistic signal. We will rely on these people. They are the future, and there is not a future for populists and nationalists who mean only chaos and the end of Russia.” 

Commenting on the Moscow mayoral election, in which he stood, Mitrokhin stressed that despite the loss he had actually achieved moral victory. Thanking his supporters, Mitrokhin said: “I think that they are the most intelligent people in Moscow who realise the threat the present political regime present for Moscow. These people do not follow provocateurs.”

Venstre in Norway also made progress, gaining seven seats to total nine in the 169-member Storting. It appears likely that Venstre will form part of a four-party coalition, even though the Conservatives need only one other partner for a working majority. I was concerned that an anti-immigration party, Progress, is part of the putative coalition (indeed the infamous Breivik was a member for a time). However, the outgoing Labour foreign minister, who would have every reason to attack Progress, believes the party is not as extreme as it is painted.

What happens politically in Norway is important, because that nation is a model for UK's relationship with the EU if UKIP and most Tories have their way.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Useful feedback sites : Report, view, or discuss local problems (like graffiti, fly tipping, broken paving slabs, or street lighting) : British cycle network : Journey planner


I am persuaded by Lord Greaves (his latest letter to the Guardian is here) and by John Leech MP that HS2 is a Good Thing. However, I agree with the senior Treasury official who warns that there is no "blank cheque" for the scheme. Budgets must be adhered to, and the taxpayer should not be held to ransom by contractors or landowners. The threat of pulling the plug must always be there.

Monday, 9 September 2013

The Flowers of the Forest

500 years ago, England's B team (as Alex Massie put it on  BBC Radio's Making History) put an end to Scottish military ambitions for centuries. On Flodden field, James IV was the last reigning British king to die in battle. It was probably also the last battle in which the English longbow was a significant factor.

What would be the result of a Scottish independence referendum held today rather than on the anniversary of Bannockburn?

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Sarah Teather - Labour shouldn't crow

I remember thinking that Sarah Teather's fate as a London MP was probably sealed when Nick Clegg and David Cameron sacked her as Minister for (English) Education in favour of David Laws. Sarah was one of a number of women demoted by the leaders of the coalition who seem to share the mentality of Tony Abbott. The inner cities are likely to be the exception to the rule that the official opposition will make no headway at the general election in the face of a thriving economy, but being a respected minister would probably have been enough to stave off Labour's attack in Brent.

However, before Labour sisters believe they have a ready-made convert, they should read Sarah's resignation statement, (pdf here). She says she is proudest of getting a constituent released from Guantanamo Bay and of Liberal Democrats in government delivering on their promise to end child detention in the immigration system - both redressing Labour government wrongs.

Sarah emphasises that it is absolutely inconceivable that she could ever join any other political party than the Liberal Democrats. She goes on: "I shall be out campaigning for the local elections with my local LibDem team over the forthcoming months and will campaign to get my Liberal Democrat successor elected to Parliament in the General Election. In Parliament I shall continue with my work as Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees and will carry on making the case for a fair and humane immigration system as Parliament considers a new immigration bill in the coming months."

She must have taken it personally when those obnoxious vans made their incursions into North London constituencies. They appeared at the time when she was considering her future and must have been the final straw.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Housebuilding seems to depend on confidence

Andy Boddington has a thought-provoking piece on Liberal Democrat Voice. I'll leave it to others to weigh up his solutions to the problem of the dearth of housing. I was most interested in the peaks and troughs of the graph which accompanied his article.

The first thing that struck me is how much the rises and falls of each of the lines (private, housing association and council house completions) coincided. over the years since the last world war. There was a noticeable surge in council house building when Macmillan and Marples were at the Ministry of Housing under Churchill, and again during the early years of both Wilson governments (private building also fell during the first of those) and of course building by councils falling to virtually nothing when Thatcherite policies held sway between 1990 and 2008.

Friday, 6 September 2013

State finance for election campaigns


As Peter Black wrote in another context, "if only they had done it when in power" - or, rather, if they had recognised then that big trade unions were just as much vested interests as business corporations. Only if you believe that the nice Mr McCluskey or the sweet Mr Murdoch are utterly altruistic and have the best interests of the British electorate at heart when they outspend parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru on election propaganda can you resist the argument for independent funding for serious political parties.

Incidentally, I was heartened by one figure in the chart accompanying the Independent article: that we raise £150,000 more than the Conservatives from the membership.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Politicians and IT

Been there. A minister is sold on a grand IT project but insists that it is completed to suit an electoral agenda rather than to a realistic timetable. It falls flat as soon as it is rolled out live and is shelved. New management is brought in and the project is brought back on track.

I had thought this government might be different. In 2010, the Conservatives published a well-thought-out manifesto for computing in government, which promised more devolution to civil servants for small projects and more work for SMEs. This suggested that intelligent project control might be on offer as well.

The NAO report on the Universal Credit introduction reveals that nothing much has changed on either the project control or the procurement fronts.

The story of DVL (the first paragraph) has a happy ending. The new management and additional experienced staff enabled both driver and vehicle licensing systems to go live not much later than the original calculations had predicted, and in the case of the vehicles project with which I was most familiar with only one minor error. A BMW dealer in West London received more paper from Swansea than he expected, but otherwise as far as the general public was concerned, the system ran smoothly.

The hiccup was not even a factor in Labour's loss in 1970. England's exit from the Mexico World Cup was more of a talking-point, but Roy Jenkins' mean budget was probably the decisive factor. It may well be different this time. The benefits system affects many people and a failure would cause real hardship. A delayed licence would not have been disastrous.

Mr Duncan Smith's inflexibility is worrying. The whole concept of universal credit is too important to be put at risk by a macho minister's unwillingness to reexamine his timetable.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Sending signals to the economy

The Financial Times reports that a poll of purchasing managers shows that the UK services sector grew in June for its fastest rate for 6 years. This is yet another sign that the economy is far more active than the experts predicted, and surely time for the government and Bank of England stimuli to be removed or reined in. It seems to me that attempts to affect an increasingly complex economy are like sending signals to remote spacecraft. Because of the finite speed of transmission, by the time the signals are received, unless an eventuality is well anticipated, a course correction may be pointless or even dangerous.

House price rises may be welcomed in the Express, but surely a time when real wages continue to fall behind inflation is wrong to continue to schemes like Help to Buy, never mind Quantitative Easing.