Thursday, 31 October 2013

Churn in Royal Mail shares

According to this week's Private Eye, 84% of the shares in the privatised Royal Mail are already in different hands from their initial owners'. If true (and the Eye admits that it cannot identify the shareholders because only one, an offshore hedge fund, holds above the 3% necessary for disclosure), it makes a mockery of the government's strategy in privatising the organisation. The aim was to ensure that the bulk of the shares was in the hands of long-term institutional investors, as this interchange last week at BIS questions showed:

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): How many and what proportion of employees of Royal Mail opted out of the allocation of free shares. [900669]

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): Of the approximately 150,000 employees who were eligible for free employee shares, only 372 opted out of the scheme. Therefore, 99.75% of employees have accepted the shares that we offered them.

Mr Hollobone: Is not the number of posties who have opted out of the scheme remarkably low? Despite the threats of industrial action and union militancy, is it not clear that the vast majority of Royal Mail employees have accepted the invitation from Her Majesty’s Government to take part in the biggest employee share scheme of any major privatisation?

Vince Cable: Yes, it is a very positive story. The engagement of almost every employee of Royal Mail is extremely encouraging. I seem to remember that under the last Labour Government we lost in the order of 2 million working days through industrial action in every single year. This is a big change for the better.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I remind the Secretary of State that before this privatisation every one of my constituents had a share in Royal Mail? It has been revealed that only a tiny number of people in most constituencies now have any shares at all and that the Prime Minister’s hedge fund friends own a lot of them.

Vince Cable: On the contrary, the share register is dominated by large long-term institutional investors, most of whom hold the savings of millions of our citizens.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): This afternoon, I am due to meet for lunch that great Welsh export and one of the world’s best rugby players, George North. As the Secretary of State knows, George North was bought by Northampton from the mighty Scarlets at a very reasonable price during the summer. Does he think that the hedge funds feel the same as Northampton Saints, because they have acquired the Royal Mail crown jewels at a cut price?

Vince Cable: No; in fact, the offer was framed in such a way as to ensure that the shares were acquired predominantly by long-term institutional investors. A few hedge funds are involved and, indeed, some hedge funds take a long-term view.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Who are these women?

Over the years I have moved a hoard of pictures culled from various sources as I have upgraded my computers. Most of them I can identify, but there are a few whose origins are lost. I think they may have been distributed in the 1990s to illustrate the capability of graphics software or hardware. I also remember one of a model with a big hat, entitled "Lady be good", which I associate with Apple.

Any information as to who the models are and how they came to be captured on gif and tif would be welcome.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Neil Gaiman it isn't

"The Aida Protocol", published by the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) is a comic-book style tale of an attractive member (think Katrine Fønsmark from Borgen) of the group. The story involves theft from cross-border oil supplies, blackmail and attempted suicide. However, the book betrays its origins in France, where bandes dessinées are taken seriously. The climax is not a shoot-out on the streets of Brussels but a crucial vote in an EC meeting after a pitch by our heroine which begins: "A key budgetary debate to be held soon will enable us to realign ...".

I shall hang on to the book, though, because it has a good summary of the powers of the European Parliament and the position of Liberals within it.

"The Aida Protocol" is fictional but Members of the European Parliament, much like Elisa Correr, are increasingly important players on the European political scene. In effect, since its first direct election by universal suffrage in 1979, the EP has seen its role gradually grow through successive European treaties; it co-legislates with the Council of Ministers on a host of subjects that affect the daily lives of citizens and consumers across the 27 Member States of the Union. Over the last few years MEPs gave most notably adopted a series of European laws [...] The ALDE, the third largest group in the Parliament, is at the centre of the European political chess-board, which is often a key hinge position between the two major groups, the S&D, on the left [...] and the EPP, on the right which includes conservatives and Christian Democrats.

Incidentally, it was encouraging to see the prime minister in the Commons yesterday reporting back on the recent meeting of the Council of Ministers, and responding to questions. It would be better, though, if he made these statements more frequently. So far as I can see, the last such was in December of last year. Even better would be the more active participation of Labour members. As Peter Bone MP pointed out at the end of the session, there were just five Labour members present when the PM sat down.

Monday, 28 October 2013

Pardon me, boy, is that a demolition?

The US equivalent of the Euston Arch was Pennsylvania Station in New York. In both cases, preservation societies had grown in importance before their demolition, but both erections were so iconic that commentators tend to date the preservation movement each side of the Atlantic from them. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the start of The Penn's demolition. There is more here.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Dylan and music

There are two historic rooms in which I would like to have been a fly on the wall. The first was the hotel room in Chicago which Louis Armstrong hired so that he and Bix Beiderbecke could jam together, something which two men of different skin pigmentation could not have done in public (or even on shellac) in most of America at that time.

The other - come to think of it, not far removed in time - was at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, Swansea, where school-friends Dylan Thomas and Daniel Jones would create imaginary worlds, play word games and fling bits of poetry back and forth. I was reminded of this link between poet and future composer when I heard Cerys Matthews' 99th birthday tribute this morning. She and guests emphasised the musicality of Thomas's verse, and how it in turn inspired musicians.

Earlier, on BH, it was sad to hear even Swansea citizens associating the name first of all with consumption of beer and not with the fine craftsmanship of his writing. Auden, for instance, a sloppier writer in my opinion, was also a drunk, but he is remembered foremost as a poet, if only for "Night Mail" and "Stop all the clocks". One hopes that over Thomas's hundredth year, print and broadcast media will restore perspectives and kill some legends.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

What was the point of privatisation?

There have been some shifty reactions to the 8-10% rise in utility charges so far announced by three of the largest suppliers. Labour's leaders responded with a promise to freeze prices temporarily if they come to power in 2015 - a promise of Elastoplast in the future, but no long-term solution. Ed Miliband claimed that energy prices went down while he was at the relevant Department (I believe this coincided with a fall in the wholesale price of gas across Europe) but otherwise stayed stumm about the years between 1997 and 2010. Sir John Major, in a move which seemed more calculated to undermine Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron than to help the hard-pressed citizen, proposed the same sort of windfall tax which Labour implemented in 1997 and which he had campaigned against when he had been the defending prime minister. David Cameron himself blamed "green" levies as much as wholesale prices, ignoring the fact that the infrastructure companies came second in the order of components of consumer bills showing an increase.

One would have expected a ringing endorsement of the market, a declaration that no matter how high the cost of supplying gas and electricity by the Big Six appeared to be, it would have been far worse if the utilities had still been in state hands. So I thought I would check back through Hansard to see if that was indeed the rationale for privatisation of electricity supply.

In fact Nicholas Ridley, when opening the Second Reading debate, put wider share ownership at the top of the benefits of privatisation. Next came "the opportunity to develop commercially and to be truly accountable both to its customers and to its shareholders."

It was in fact Malcolm Bruce for the Liberal Democrats who envisaged financial benefits to the consumer:
The way in which electricity currently operates cannot be defended. It uses its statutory requirement to keep the lights on as an excuse for wasteful investment and inefficiency. Despite the Department of Energy's aim of a 20 per cent. energy saving during National Energy Efficiency Year, electricity consumption increased. None of the targets for the electricity industry set by the Department of Energy has been achieved. The industry's response to rising demand has not been to promote energy conservation and efficiency but to build massive new power stations of questionable economic efficiency which are incompatible with the development of combined heat and power as the most efficient form of power generation. I do not defend the present structure and organisation of the electricity industry.

But he did go on to say:
The industry must be strongly and effectively regulated by an agency with teeth — teeth to intervene on and control prices and to require that greater attention be paid to energy efficiency and choice. After four years more of this Government so many utilities will be in the private sector that it might be appropriate to draw the agencies together so that they can pool resources and learn from experience.
I spent time in the United States last year finding out how public utilities operate there. I was impressed by the way that public utilities commissions operate. Without exception, amazement was expressed, by Republicans as well as Democrats, that the British Government should privatise utilities as central monopolies without real competition or adequate regulation. I remain convinced that we shall have to put that right. We also need some kind of anti-trust powers so that monopolies can be examined and be broken up to enforce competition. Because of the Government's record and the sweeping terms of the Bill, we need more detail of Government thinking before the House can be expected to support the Bill.
An open-minded approach to the privatisation of electricity might yield useful answers to the problems that British Gas and British Telecom are now manifesting. We should improve the operation and accountability by the electricity industry

Dr John Cunningham virtually committed Labour to renationalising electricity and bringing back the water boards. What happened to that, then?

Me? I've switched my electricity supply to Good Energy. I believe they are wrong in turning their backs on nuclear power as a non-carbon source of electricity, but they seem to be straightforward people to deal with - and they have promised not to put up their prices in the current round.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Another solution for the NHS

There is an interesting suggestion in Liberal Democrat Voice. England should follow Sweden in localising its public health service. Welsh citizens suffering from a devolved health service and looking at some Labour council administrations might query the proposition. To my mind, what makes the difference is ethos. In the UK governments have become conditioned to market theory, that practitioners throughout society are motivated by money. In Sweden - in Scandinavia generally - there is still a belief in public service.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

IMO bans dumping of PIB at sea

In February of this year, hundreds of seabirds in waters off the southern coast were killed by a glue-like substance. It was later identified as high viscosity polyisobutylene (PIB). Now, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) has announced that PIB dumping at sea will be outlawed from next year, thanks largely to pressure from the European Commission and the UK government. There is more in a media release from Sir Graham Watson MEP.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

The Berry-Atanasoff Case

Today is the fortieth anniversary of a patent ruling which was of great commercial import to the IT industry in the United States. We now know that the Berry-Atanasoff analyzer was not a computer in the sense we mean it today, but nor was Eniac the first working stored-program machine, being anticipated by at least two computers in the UK.

Friday, 18 October 2013

A dysfunctional Senate should not be an argument against an elected House of Lords

A letter in today's Independent suggests that the recent deadlock in the United States Congress is a grim and dreadful warning against electing the House of Lords. It should be pointed out that the present House of Lords, full of placemen and placewomen, can also block legislation and occasionally does. However, there are two major differences between the two upper houses. Firstly, the Lords cannot block money Bills, so the Commons will always achieve its budget. Secondly, an elected UK government will, because of the Parliament Act, always get its way eventually. None of the proposed reform schemes would alter the powers of the Lords.

Moreover, Senators are elected by the first-past-the-post system and, because of the domination of two-party politics, are even more beholden to their local party machines than our MPs are. Hence the sight of Republicans being torn between threats of Tea Party dominated state machines and the blandishments of Wall Street and the President. (Whether the US is right to assume that the world will continue to allow her to run deficit budgets is another matter.)

If the Electoral Reform Society has its way, the influence of party bosses will be insignificant. Even if party lists are allowed, the fact that when reform does come it is virtually accepted that it will be by a proportional system and that the terms will be so long that a member of the Upper House (whatever it is to be called) does not have imminent re-election at the back of his or her mind.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Pubs, puffing and the post

In a powerful speech on the adjournment last night, Greg Mulholland MP attacked the so-called pubcos and the misbegotten legislation that enabled them to flourish. His concern was to save not only public houses as an institution but also to save those tenants who suffer from the unscrupulous practices of pubcos. He set out in detail and at length, but clearly, how we had reached the current situation. If you haven't already done so, I recommend reading it, though, as Mr Mulholland made accusations against several named individuals under parliamentary privilege, care should be taken in quoting from it.

However, when Mr Mulholland said:

this whole sorry saga is a tale of one of the worst examples of reckless, irresponsible capitalism this country has ever seen—a get-rich-quick scheme for a greedy few that has marred lives and closed thousands of pubs and that has caused losses of billions for the UK economy, pension funds and the Treasury. [...] the large, leased pubcos are not pub companies in any real sense. They are highly leveraged property companies
A quick look at the share prices of [the prominent pubcos] reveals the profile of a classic pump-and-dump operation, with a huge surge like a giant heartbeat, then failure and the resultant flat line.
With positive broker comments and heavy financial public relations, the insiders exited and the gullible lost money. Pension funds, choosing to believe the hype from the companies and the endless positive messages of house brokers, stayed in and lost fortunes for pensioners. Naive retail investors did the same. The winners were the insiders and the directors; the losers were the publicans, their communities and the pensioners whose funds unwisely left money in the pubcos.

the surge in the price of Royal Mail shares was fresh in my mind.

There was much talking-up of the value of Royal Mail before the public offering, so it was not surprising that trading began above the offer price. However, the shares currently stand 50% above the offer price. It does seem that the advice to the Chancellor as to the pricing favoured city speculation rather than a fair return to the taxpayer, and I note that Lazards, the advisors concerned, are to face questioning by Select Committee next week.

I have this feeling that today's share price over-values Royal Mail. Whether the price settles down to something closer to the government's initial valuation, or plunges below it in a reflection of the pubco boom and bust, only time will tell.

Of course, if the coalition had adopted the approach in the Liberal Democrats 2010 manifesto, all this nonsense could have been avoided.

Monday, 14 October 2013

EU and economic clout

Chris Davies MEP, in his regular newsletter, cites two examples of the effectiveness of the EU.

Firstly, Ukraine is resisting bullying from President Putin to join a Russian-led trade alliance and is close to signing instead an accord with the EU. Uncertainties remain as to whether President Viktor Yanukovych will accede to European demands for the release from prison of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and for introduction of fairer electoral arrangements, but the signs are good.

Secondly, EU governments may next week give the European Commission a mandate to negotiate the first ever investment and market access deal with China. This could be a major advance. China is the EU’s second biggest trading partner but it is enormously harder for EU companies to get a stake in the Chinese economy than the other way around. Recent reports from China suggest that the country has a strategy of providing financial support for exports to Europe that risk destroying our domestic industries; "establishing global supply chains that allow China to control prices". We need to counter this.

Osborne, Cameron, Davey and even Boris Johnson have negotiated large inward investment deals. (Incidentally, does Chinese investment in the Manchester Airport industrial park imply that Manchester has overtaken Birmingham in the race to become the UK's hub airport?) However, there is less sign that they have achieved any advances for British business in China.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Polio on the increase again

This description of what could be characterised as the biggest pathogen exchange in the world  contains a warning and an indictment of the United States' conduct of its war on terror, as this article explains.

The best of MPs

David Heath, MP for Somerton and Frome, has announced that he will not stand for election to parliament again. He is only 59, but felt that 30 years in Westminster was enough. In his statement, he says that he promised his wife in 2010 that this would be his last term. So it is not the result of a fit of pique at being sacked from government.

It is a pity that Mr Heath will be remembered for initiating the badger cull, and not for his work as deputy Leader of the House. Sir George Young and he made a great team, I thought. Sir George was urbanity personified at the despatch box, while Mr Heath piloted through the Commons a whole slew of legislation reforming the business of the House, with wit and only occasional glimpses of exasperation. He also started work on recall and on the West Lothian question which has sunk without trace since he was promoted to DEFRA.

As one of a vanishing breed, someone who earned an honest crust - and in a technical job, too - before going into politics, Mr Heath's departure is doubly regretted.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Regional pay discrepancies

A report by Policy Exchange (which has links to the Conservative Party) is featured in the Western Mail and (with map) in The Independent this morning. The think-tank's recommendation is that because public sector pay is higher than that in the private sector outside London, the West Midlands and the East of England, the former should be cut. Perhaps a more positive recommendation is that private business should relocate from the overheated South-East to parts of the country where personnel are available at more sensible wages.

What struck me about the graphic was that the discrepancy in Wales was shown as just under 4% (as against 14% for South-West England and for Merseyside). I can only assume that Airbus in the north and the financial industry in Cardiff are skewing the figures. A more fine-grained analysis would surely show a two-digit discrepancy in West Wales at least.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Pumped storage developments

I used to wonder why Ffestiniog and Dinorwig were apparently unique in Wales. Surely the concept of a power storage facility making use of the natural contours of Wales had proved itself, and could be scaled up or down as appropriate. Indeed, it would complement the increasing acreage of wind farms, regulating the inherent unpredictability of their production.

Thanks to CAT's Clean Slate magazine, I now know that others were ahead of me. The Quarry Battery Company's scheme at Glyn Rhonwy, due to be completed in 2017, could be the first of many second-tier pumped storage schemes in a size bracket below Dinorwig, and for that reason less obtrusive.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Fears for all-Wales travel pass recede

While most of my party's propaganda about the draft Welsh budget has understandably concentrated on the increase in the pupil premium, I was concerned to see what had been agreed about other social spending. The pupil premium of course was first championed in England by Nick Clegg, later being adopted as Conservative Party policy also. It is a tribute to the tenacity of Kirsty Williams and her team that the Labour Welsh Government was persuaded to extend it to Wales (though Labour insisted on it being given a different name).

There are some other benefits which may not have the LibDem stamp on them, but have their origins in the Labour/LibDem partnership of 2000. I am thinking of free bus travel for the over-60s and free prescriptions in particular, as both of these measures were said to be under threat during the drafting of the budget. However, these are safe for another year at least according to BBC News. There have even been increases.
These measures probably do at least as much for the well-being of older and infirm people in Wales as the £570,000 increase over two years in the Welsh NHS budget.

We were sniffy about free school breakfasts when Labour introduced them, worrying about their cost-effectiveness. Now Nick Clegg has seized on the idea of free school meals for primary school children - though it has not yet officially been adopted as LibDem party policy - so we can hardly complain about an increase here also.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


Donald Macintyre begins his political commentary in today's Independent: "In a climate in which Nigel Farage has become the man to beat in next year’s European elections, Nick Clegg is doing something rather daring, and making the most strongly pro-European speech by any party leader since 2010. His 'call to arms' in a letter urging British businesses and other institutions to proclaim the benefits of EU membership is a timely use of his platform as Deputy Prime Minister."

He goes on to emphasise Nick's aligning himself with both Tony Blair (who would probably have pushed his government more EU-wards if it had not been for Gordon Brown's presence) and Margaret Thatcher who, while rejecting the concept of a European superstate in her Bruges speech, concluded that “Britain does not dream of some cosy, isolated existence on the fringes of the European Community. Our destiny is in Europe, as part of the Community.”

But Nick makes a case for more than just economic advantage. If it was only this, then there would be little to differentiate ourselves from Cameron and Miliband. Cameron and his friends in the city would like to see the UK opt out of social legislation and worker protection, while Labour would not seek to reverse any move along these lines judging by their resistance to anti-ageism and similar directives when they were in power, but otherwise they see the advantages of being inside a free trade area. Clegg goes further.

He cites our increased influence as a result of EU membership in trade deals, the fight against cross-border crime and the environment. I would add: the protection of democracy. I believe that Greece is an example of this. In pre-EU days, Greece suffered from political instability interrupted by a reactionary dictatorship (the Régime of the Colonels). NATO, which is credited with keeping the peace in Europe after the Second World War, did not prevent the latter; indeed, it may covertly have encouraged it. Contrast more recent history, when near post-war austerity would probably have seen a neo-Nazi party take advantage to seize power, were it not for the support of the EU. One can add Spain and Portugal, for a long time strangers to democracy, now with stable elected legislatures.

Liberal Democrats have always sought to reform the EU. Now that the European Parliament has been given increased powers of scrutiny, our MEPs have actually been able to achieve some improvements and (along with like-minded MEPs in the powerful Liberal & Democratic group) blocked some regressive measures. We have consistently argued for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), which Mrs Thatcher short-sightedly signed up to. The pressure on the CFP has finally told, as Nick made clear in his speech.

I disagree with Nick on one point: we are overdue an unconditional in-out referendum, which would settle our membership for a generation, as originally proposed by Ming Campbell. I know there was small print in our manifesto which promised a referendum only if there were proposed changes in our relationship with the EU, but we gave the impression in the campaign that in government we would provide a referendum regardless. We could actually have had an EU referendum instead of that pointless and damaging vote on a change to the electoral system which was not supported by any party, even Labour from whence it arose. The longer the referendum is put off, the more likely it is that we will have a perverse result when it is finally held.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Journalism, not theft, exposed the expenses scandal

Vaughan Roderick on Sunday Supplement this morning chose his words carefully, but still gave the impression that the Daily Telegraph's purchase of stolen data exposed the abuse of House of Commons expenses. It was not; it was the hard slog of investigative journalism by Heather Brooke which brought to light the extent of troughing which was taking place. What the stolen CD gave the Telegraph was actual names which would probably have come to light in due course anyway.

Friday, 4 October 2013

Those old black-and-white movies

This is a belated thank-you to BBC-2 for its Saturday and Sunday morning showings of films from the pre-widescreen and -stereo era. Not only are they exploiting their library of RKO movies but also include in the series some Ealing Studio classics. What inspired this post was seeing San Demetrio London in the listings for tomorrow morning. It was the first film that I remember my father taking me to see (not the first one I saw with both parents; I remember crying during Anna Karenina and having to be taken out). The fact that I was absorbed in the first as my father was suggests that I was already developing a critical faculty. The film's grip was due largely to a screenplay by Robert Hamer, who went on to achieve fame with Kind Hearts and Coronets. There are also some familiar faces among the cast, including the first film appearance of Robert Beatty who as a Commonwealth citizen was able to play Americans in UK productions without upsetting British Actors Equity.

Here's hoping I can wake up in time to see it again.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Some thoughts on the Osborne speech

For more of the full text of the Chancellor's speech to the faithful in Manchester on Monday, see (or listen to) The Spectator blog. As I watched it live on BBC-Parliament, it seemed to me that he was claiming for himself many successes which stemmed from LibDem policy and that he was all too willing to blame some traditional Tory scapegoats for likely failures.

At every Party Conference since the election, as we have gathered, the question for us, the question for me, the question for our country, has been: ‘is your economic plan working?’. They’re not asking that question now.
Actually, many still are.

The deficit down by a third. Exports doubled to China. Taxpayers’ money back from the banks, not going in. 1.4 million new jobs created by businesses. 1,000 new jobs announced in this city today. Our plan is working.
He should have given some credit to the work of BIS under Vince Cable and (initially) Ed Davey.

We held our nerve in the face of huge pressure. Now Britain is turning a corner. That is down to the resolve and to the sacrifice of the people of this country.
The sacrifices have not been borne equally throughout UK society.
I share none of the pessimism I saw from the Leader of the Opposition last week. For him the global free market equates to a race to the bottom with the gains being shared among a smaller and smaller group of people. That is essentially the argument Karl Marx made in Das Kapital. It is what socialists have always believed. 
Playing the reds-under-the-bed card. Mind you, Ed Miliband makes it easy for him to do so.

I have to tell you today, that Nick Clegg has informed us of his intention to form a new coalition. For the first time, he’s intending to create a full working relationship with Vince Cable.
I was uncomfortably reminded of Nick Clegg's cheap shot at Matthew Oakeshott in Glasgow.

[Labour would] much rather just talk about the cost of living. As if the cost of living was somehow detached from the performance of the economy. Well you ask the citizens of Greece what happens to living standards when the economy fails. You ask someone with a mortgage what happens to their living standards when mortgage rates go up.
It's those very same low interest rates which are depressing the value of savings and pensions. Moreover, the national minimum wage now sets a low floor. If we had full employment, market forces would naturally push up wages, but we are far from full employment except in some specialist technical areas.

Our country’s problem is not that it taxes too little. It is that its government spends too much.
This is the nub. Labour too often has been seen to spend on the state for its own sake, never more so than in the period of Gordon Brown's chancellorship when he used increased state spending as a weapon in his jousts against Tony Blair. But today's Tories seem to regard the state as inherently evil. There has to be - I hate to say it - a middle way.

It should be obvious to anyone that in the years running up to the crash this country should have been running a budget surplus.
Indeed. Even Gordon Brown (who inherited a healthy set of books from Ken Clarke) initially promised to balance the economy over the medium term - the so-called golden rule.

I can tell you today that when we’ve dealt with Labour’s deficit, we will have a surplus in good times as insurance against difficult times ahead. Provided the recovery is sustained, our goal is to achieve that surplus in the next Parliament.
I seem to recall that both Liberal Democrat and Labour 2010 manifestos envisaged eliminating the structural deficit in the middle of the next Parliament. It was the Conservatives who proposed to do so within one Parliament.

we should commit, alongside running a surplus and capping welfare, to grow our capital spending at least in line with our national income. 
It's one thing to ensure that nobody should gain more from state benefits than from working - a situation which is resented by those on low pay - but it's quite another to freeze all benefit payments, which amounts to a real-terms cut in payments which are not generous to start with.

There is no argument with maintaining capital expenditure. One of the coalition's early mistakes was to adopt Labour's scheduled capital expenditure cuts.

We are increasing to £10,000 the amount you can earn before you pay a penny of income tax. That is a real achievement, delivered in budget after budget by a Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer.
In the LibDem manifesto, not in the Conservative one.

I know whose side this Party is on. We are the party of aspiration. The housebuilding party of Macmillan.
But Macmillan and Marples actually drove the programme from the centre, including pressing local authorities to build council houses. There is little sign of that central direction from the Conservative members of the government - indeed, some of those earlier levers of control are no more.

 The pupil premium to support the most disadvantaged children: that was Michael Gove’s idea, front and centre of the last Conservative manifesto.
But an idea pioneered by Nick Clegg in this country and of course prominent in the LibDem manifesto.

 the biggest ever rise in the state pension.
The triple lock was in the LibDem manifesto, not in the Conservative one.
Today I can tell you about a new approach we’re calling Help to Work. For the first time, all long term unemployed people who are capable of work will be required to do something in return for their benefits, and to help them find work.
Beveridge didn't believe in the long-term unemployed rotting in idleness either, but he proposed that they should be given regular re-training to make them ready for paid work. Mr Osborne doesn't seem to be prepared to provide funds for that. 

Others will be made to attend the job centre every working day.
Given that Labour cut a swathe through Job Centres and their staff, and that Conservatives don't like increasing the numbers of civil servants, I can't see how this can practically be implemented.

[Later: it seems that Osborne has form in the area of acting in the area of welfare spending without consulting the DWP:]

Confidence and supply in Norway

It's a smaller country, but Norway may show how things would have worked out in the UK in 2010 if the Liberal Democrats had decided to go for constructive opposition rather than be part of a coalition. After just under three weeks of negotiation, following the general election of September, instead of a coalition of all non-socialist parties which the Norwegian Conservative leader desired, there will be a very conservative coalition of two with the Liberals and Christian Democrats staying outside government.

Empty Homes

When I were a lad, there was widely believed to be something called "squatters' rights", the ability of homeless people to take over and set up home in unoccupied property. It was open for aggrieved owners to seek repossession under the civil law. However, two items of legislation, one passed by a Labour government and the second quietly by this coalition, makes squatting in residential property a crime. Under the Criminal Law Act 1977 it became an offence for a trespasser to enter residential premises and refuse to leave when asked to do so by a “displaced residential occupier” of the property. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 means that it is now an offence to actually squat in residential premises in addition to not leaving when asked to do so. Further, the police will be able to use powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to raid a building on suspicion that it is being occupied by squatters and then eject or arrest them. - See more at:’s-rights/#sthash.deMtGvTs.dpuf.

It may be thought that an incentive to owners of empty property to bring it back into use has been removed. It should be pointed out that the legislation does not apply to commercial property. (This should not be taken as encouragement to take over vacant office buildings, such as the unfinished block on the old Liberal Club site in Victoria Gardens).

There is a positive initiative: The Ecology Building Society, in cooperation with the Empty Homes Agency (link has embedded audio) and government, both local and national, has launched a loan scheme to bring empty homes back into use.