Thursday 30 October 2014

Worrying analysis from John Redwood

Mr Redwood recently posted on the subject of Quantitative Easing:

People say the aim was merely to bring down longer term rates of interest, to make it cheaper to borrow long term. They see QE as an elaborate way of altering the price of long term money compared to short term loans. Perhaps the Bank’s first explanation that it was to try to inject cash into the economy to be spent is nearer the mark.

What is more interesting is the change of stance on unwinding the position. In the early days it seemed likely that first the Bank would stop new purchases, then allow repayments of debt to cancel the outstanding gilts as they matured, and then sell back the remainder before raising interest rates. Now the agreed policy is to raise the official short term rate before taking any steps to reduce the amount of bonds held. This has the perverse consequence of losing money on the bond holdings at market prices, if the Bank raises the official rate and that has the normal impact on the value of gilts.

If true, this adds to the rip-off of the taxpayer by the government's selling of public assets at less than the market value.

Perils of allowing automatic publishing of comments

The reason why I have set Blogger to allow vetting of comments before publication is illustrated here. I am fairly liberal, but I draw the line at messages containing links to URIs which I do not know are safe and those which contain material which could lay me open to police or court action. Without knowing the content of the message which is key to Caron Lindsay's article, I would guess that its racism was such that it would have failed my second test.

Of course, it is easy for me to police the infrequent comments that this low-profile blog attracts. For Liberal Democrat Voice to adopt the same policy, it would require a full-time editor (in effect, three editors to cover each 24-hour period). This is not something which it can afford and it is a bit much to expect volunteers to devote this support day in, day out.

I hope LDV can find a solution. The party should not be losing members over such misunderstandings.

Equal access to rail franchise process

A nice coincidence after my posting about devolved transport administration, Andy Sawford MP yesterday won leave to bring in a Bill to allow public-owned entities to bid for British rail franchises. It is unfortunate that Mr Sawford chose to use most of his ten minutes in promoting Labour's 2015 manifesto policy, thus attracting an equally doctrinaire response from Martin Vickers on the Conservative benches. Ten-minute Rule motions mostly go through on the nod, in the knowledge that there is practically no parliamentary time available to allow the resulting Bill to proceed, but this one aroused so much passion on the Conservative side that one was surprised that the House voted by a large majority to consider the Bill in January, the Noes mustering only 38.

Mr Sawford drew attention to the anomaly that continental publicly-owned operators can bid for rail services in Britain, but our own public service does not have the same freedom at home or abroad. He cited the success of the Great Eastern franchise when it lapsed into public hands, but Mr Vickers pointed out that some costs - track access charges and cost of bidding - normally paid by franchisees were not taken into account.

If the short debate has drawn attention to the inflexibility of the franchising process, it will have done some good, even if Mr Sawford's Bill will sink without trace.

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Who benefits from selling public housing?

Afghanistan: Our military withdrawal not the end

The Liberal Democrat Voice headline is more despondent than Paddy Ashdown's message overall:

Our recent military involvement in Afghanistan can only be justified by what happens next (the "defence of our streets" argument was always specious). We must build on the positives laid out by Paddy. It is to be hoped that the civil involvement by the EU will continue. This has not hit the headlines but is surely as valuable as the military legacy. I trust that as long as Rory Stewart is in public life we will not lose our engagement with the people to whom we still owe so much - and, of course, there is Afghanistan's new-found enthusiasm for cricket which will keep sporting links with the UK and the Commonwealth.

Tuesday 28 October 2014

Centenary of a global saviour

Dr Jonas Salk was born on this day in 1914.

A culture of fear in the civil service?

The prime minister's assertion that the call for a €2.1bn "adjustment" came out of the blue began to look a little ragged during the Q&A on his European Council statement yesterday. However, it does seem that information had not been passed up the civil service chain as quickly as it should have been, judging by this report. The question that comes to mind is: were the civil servants attending the meeting with their EU colleagues in mid-October afraid of reporting the bad news? Moreover, what were "junior" civil servants doing at what was clearly an important meeting? (How junior is junior? Are we talking clerical staff here?)

Monday 27 October 2014

Happy birthday, Dylan Marlais Thomas

The official website is here and there are mini-biographies easily found on the Web. This one sets him in a Welsh literary tradition.

I've already blogged about Thomas's musical links, but he mixed with artists as well. Alfred Janes was another one of the Kardomah Boys. He inspired artists, notably Ceri Richards. His connection with the Euston Road group (his wife Caitlin, who had been a model for Augustus John, was the sister of Anthony Devas's wife Nicolette, and the Thomases had set up home in Camden Town) was perhaps not as inspiring.

Drinking was part of the culture he grew up in, but John Arlott and others who worked with him at the BBC attested to his professionalism as a poetry reader and actor on radio. (Incidentally, there is a typo in the article I have linked to: "John Pudley" should read "John Pudney".)

It has been observed that Thomas's reputation is higher in the US than it is here. It did not help that the London literary establishment turned against him, prominently Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis. One of his biographers even suggested that he was lucky to die when he did because his only worthwhile work was long behind him - a view which I have also heard Professor Dai Smith express. Yet, according to Jeff Towns in this radio programme, "In Country Sleep", a slim volume published only in the United States in the year before his death contained new work well up to the standard of his previous poetry.

Sunday 26 October 2014

The Health Service in Wales

I have already dropped a comment in Facebook to the effect that the Daily Mail's use of spurious statistic does no good to the genuine case against Labour's handling of the NHS in Wales. I had started a blog post about the differences - and similarities - between the two health services, but it has been replaced by a message from Kirsty Williams.

There is no stronger critic of Labour’s catastrophic failings on health in Wales than me. Their appalling record speaks for itself: A&E targets that have never been met, the worst ambulance response times in the UK, the scandal of children with mental health issues being treated on adult wards… the list just goes on.

It’s clear that the Welsh Labour Government needs to be held to account for their mismanagement of our NHS.

What I will not accept, however, is the issue of cross-border care being dragged into this war of words. For many Welsh patients, the closest hospital to them is in England. Many of my own constituents use the County Hospital in Hereford. But all services used by Welsh patients are paid for by the Welsh NHS. In fact, patients from Wales are precisely what’s keeping many services at Hereford running. 

Labelling these people as 'refugees' is a disgrace. I will not accept the Tories and the right-wing press using my constituents as a boot in this game of political football, and I’ve written to Jeremy Hunt telling him to stop.

Both Labour and the Tories are using this so-called 'war' for their own political convenience. For them, Welsh patients are just collateral damage. The Welsh Liberal Democrats refuse to let that happen. That’s why we need to sit down and have a sensible debate about the future of our health services.

I'm glad to know that Kirsty's plan for a Commission with staff, patient and cross-party representation has not been rejected out-of-hand by the Welsh Health Minister and I await developments with interest.

Saturday 25 October 2014

Votes for 16 and 17 year olds

As someone who recalls thinking more about politics in my last years at school than through the early years of working life, I endorse Mark Williams' call.

“The Assembly has spoken with one voice with the motion in the Assembly endorsed by all 4 parties, which among other things called for the Assembly to determine its own electoral arrangements. It would be bizarre indeed, now that the precedent has been set in Scotland, for 16 and 17 year olds not to be able to vote in future referendums in Wales - and if extension of the franchise is permitted for referendums, why should it not for all future elections.

“Liberal Democrats believe in the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17 year olds, and the Scottish experience has shown this is positive. At the very least, our National Assembly should have the opportunity to determine its own electoral arrangements.”

Friday 24 October 2014

2.1bn euro sex and drugs tax

My first thought on hearing the news this morning was that there are people in the European Commission who would like to guarantee a UKIP gain in Rochester and Strood at the end of the month.

It seems that adjustments to EU budget contributions are made continuously on the basis of recalculations of GDP. Better people than I have commented on the flaws in GDP as a measure of the health of a nation's economy. Further suspicions were raised when I saw which other nations are expected to contribute to the poor suffering Germans and French: Greece, Italy and Spain, the most struggling of EU economies  at present. They just happen (along with ourselves) to have had their GDP estimate boosted by the inclusion of the black economy.

David Cameron has clearly taken the right decision in calling an emergency finance ministers meeting. It would be wrong simply to sulk and refuse to pay without exhaustive discussion of the basis of assessment. There would be precedent for ignoring an EU invoice, though: Germany and France both broke the Stability And Growth Pact in the early years of the century and as far as I know have never stumped up the fine which should have resulted.

Thursday 23 October 2014

Crossley Motors

This is a small plug for an excellent website celebrating one of the unjustly rather neglected UK vehicle marques. I can remember Crossley buses in service in Manchester and the occasional Crossley saloon in my schooldays. But the history as revealed by Malcolm Asquith is richer than I expected.

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Some follow-ups

Confirmation of the post about global temperatures:

Another cause of the missing income tax referred to in this post, and something I should have remembered from the days when I was in that situation: self-employed tax and company tax returns are made in arrears, and a high proportion of the new employment which has been created since 2010 has been in this sector. We may be looking at January before we see the expected boost in exchequer income - too late for the chancellor's "autumn" statement in December.

Contrast in archiving

The South Wales Guardian reports that the Carmarthenshire archive has been closed to the public because mould has been discovered in their store. I recall that the Guardian's own archive in Ammanford used to be an unordered pile of back issues in a corner of an upstairs room in the main library;

Swansea and Neath have, in spite of financial stringency, maintained a high-grade service to the public and professionals.

Tuesday 21 October 2014

"The Parliamentary Expulsion Bill"

This is how David Davis MP (Con, Haltemprice and Howden) described the Recall Of MPs Bill (pdf here) as presented to the House of Commons. He sees it as a mechanism for the establishment, via the Standards Committee, to identify members who did not fit in and subject them to recall via a mere 10% of their electorate. ( Lay members are outnumbered ten to three by MPs on the House of Commons Standards Committee.)  Mr Davis is supporting amendments by his party colleague Zac Goldsmith.

Goldsmith himself pointed out that "Recall is not a new or radical idea. It exists in various forms in about 30 countries on five continents, including Poland, Canada, Germany, Japan, India, South Korea, Costa Rica, Taiwan, Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador. It has existed in the US for more than 100 years, and in Switzerland for even longer. It is a good idea - it works - and it is great that the mainstream parties have finally accepted it."

Liberal Democrat Mike Thornton agreed that the Bill was imperfect because if it goes through unamended, the public will see that we are deciding who should be kicked out and who should not. The public must have a way of initiating a recall. However, he felt that Goldsmith's amendments would open the process to political abuse, and were so horrendously long-winded and complicated that the chances of succeeding in getting anyone recalled if they deserved it would be minimal. The process could be dragged out for two years. He was looking for a decent amendment that would give the public a way of initiating a recall.

Tom Brake, the LibDem deputy leader of the House, in summing up for the government confirmed that both the prime minister and Nick Clegg agreed that the Bill could be improved and that they are willing to listen to proposals, while rejecting the particular amendments proposed by Goldsmith.

If you want to make your views known to your MP, have a look at the Unlock Democracy pages.

More investigative resources needed

The government needs to strengthen the teams following up the excellent work by the Canadian authorities in tracking viewers of child pornography, or the public will suspect that the slackening of effort is because the researches are getting close to home.

One recalls rumours surrounding a former north-west MP which were not followed up at the time.

Monday 20 October 2014

Further devolution - an opportunity for rail transport

In announcing Scotland's next rail franchise, the SNP government's minister for transport, Keith Brown, took the opportunity to criticise the system under which it was awarded. In his statement of 2nd October, he told the Scottish Parliament:

I wish to remind members of the context of railway franchising. As members will recall from my statement earlier this year on the award of the Caledonian sleeper franchise, franchising is a requirement under the Railways Act 1993, and it precludes any UK public sector organisation bidding to operate a railway service. As I have stated publicly on many occasions, that is an unfair restriction that ought to be changed so that private and public sector bidders can compete equally. I have written to three Secretaries of State for Transport to request a change in law and each request has been refused.

Over 13 years, the Labour Administration chose not to widen access to rail franchising to UK public sector organisations, despite having ample opportunity to do so—the Transport Act 2000 and the Railways Act 2005 are silent on the issue. In fact, the Labour Administration supported franchising and its restrictions. In 2009, the then Secretary of State for Transport, Lord Adonis, reassured the House of Commons Transport Committee that

“The evidence so far is that the franchising system has continued to prove its worth.”

I am left to deduce from its legislative silence and its vocal support for franchising that the Labour Administration was clearly happy to leave us operating these patently unfair procedures.

This week, we have started laying the tracks of the Borders railway, but the tracks of the franchising process were laid by Tory and Labour Governments at Westminster.

Earlier this week, I was asked to cancel the franchising process. Doing so might have left us liable for bid costs in excess of £30 million from our five bidders. Members should remember that it cost the Department for Transport more than £50 million for the failure of the west coast franchise, about which Ed Miliband said:

“It is a disgrace that it is going to cost £40m and perhaps more of taxpayers’ money because they have bungled this franchise.”

Nobody in the chamber can guarantee what new powers we will get and on what date, but we know that a delay in the process would be for a number of years. It would be costly and a bad deal for the travelling public, and I am not willing to put at risk the expectations of our passengers or the interests of the taxpayer by playing fast and loose with rail franchising.

There are those, even within the Liberal Democrat party, who see franchising as the only way to introduce private finance into train operating. However, Railfuture's John Rogers offered an alternative when he gave evidence to the Welsh government enterprise and business committee's inquiry last year. He said

We do not yet have full responsibility for rail transport in Wales. I, on behalf of Railfuture Cymru, urge the Government of Wales to do all that it can to get maximum and complete powers over rail transport in Wales, so that it can be planned for the benefit of the nation. It should not be about going cap in hand to Westminster and maybe being rebuffed or bogged down.


when we drew up our plan we simply said that, rather like Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland—the best example we saw was that of the Republic of Ireland—there should be a vertically integrated not-for-dividend company owned by the Welsh Government, which would appoint the best possible people to run it at arm’s length, but lay down what British Rail did not have, that is, complete cross-party political backing, adequate finance, and some kind of parameters for standards of service, reopening and integrated transport. In Wales, there are so many gaps in the rail network, or what is left of it, we should be considering long-distance bus services, as well as rail, as part of the overall pattern. It is rather sad what is happening with Arriva at the moment. We should be integrating Carmarthen northwards, and Afon Wen to the top and so on. I am open-minded on this. If we have a Government-owned, not-for-dividend, arm’s-length, high-powered, efficient company that the nation can be proud of, which fulfils the criteria that the Government lays down, I am easy on it. It is a matter of getting rid of this tiresome, hideously expensive franchise system.
The committee's final report showed an open mind:

We have listened to arguments for and against the different possible models for managing the next franchise. We are not fixed on any one approach but we agree with some witnesses that the key criterion should be choosing the model that delivers the best outcomes for passengers and taxpayers. The Welsh Government also needs to be clear about how the risks involved in the chosen management model will be managed. A decision on this has to be made by 2015 at the latest.

I suggest that both Scottish and Welsh governments should take advantage of the pressure which the "Better Together" vow has put on Westminster in order to have the Railways Act 1993 amended. If the Treasury wants an example of a viable not-for-dividend company which has invested in infrastructure, they need look no further than Welsh Water.

Sunday 19 October 2014

The fight for openness

There was yet another example of what use back-bench MPs in minority parties can be, when John Hemming moved the second reading of his Transparency and Accountability Bill in the House of Commons last Friday. Unfortunately, the Bill has met tacit opposition from the government and, one suspects, Conservative and Labour back-benchers judging by the way they spent two-and-a-half hours of valuable Private Members time on the pointless Referendum Bill before John Hemming was able to speak. No vote was able to be taken and debate is due to resume next Friday.

Not only is the Hemming Bill a clearly liberal measure, it also incorporates long-felt needs on the part of consumer groups like Which?

Saturday 18 October 2014

Ched Evans

If Ched Evans had been a brickie or a bin-man, he would have, after paying the price for his crime, been able to slip back into work without any publicity. Conversely, if he had been a Manchester United or England regular he could have ridden out the storm. He is in the public eye but not rich or famous enough to quiet the mass media. As a result he is being punished twice.

I sympathise with both Nigel Clough (manager of Sheffield United) and Chris Coleman, the Welsh manager. Both would surely prefer to judge whether to reinstate him on footballing grounds. Coleman's position is more awkward: with Sam Vokes out through injury, Wales has no obvious centre-forward choice and Evans could have been a strong competitor for the position.

Friday 17 October 2014

Beer flood no cause for rejoicing

Today is the two-hundredth anniversary of a foreseeable accident at Meux's brewery in Tottenham Court Road, London, which led to the deaths of nine people.

Thursday 16 October 2014

The triumph of evil

Daniel Hannan MEP has tweeted that "Burke never spoke that line about 'all it takes for evil to triumph'. In politics, he was broadly in favour of good men doing nothing".  Naturally this sent me scurrying to my reference books.

Nigel Rees in Brewer's Quotations confirms the first statement. "We have here another of those quotations which arrive apparently from nowhere, and gets quoted and re-quoted without justification." However, he does cite an excerpt from a Commons speech by Burke which rather casts doubt on the second assertion:
"When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle".

Wednesday 15 October 2014

TV debates

In spite of the fact that Nick Clegg's great showing in the first televised party leader debates of 2010 helped me to an increase in the Liberal Democrat vote* in the Neath constituency, I am not a supporter of US presidential-style politics. This feeling that the Great Leader model of governance is obsolescent is one of the reasons for my attraction to the Liberal Party. All idols should be examined for feet of clay.

However, as Stephen Tall comments on Liberal Democrat Voice, another round of TV debates as part of the 2015 election campaign is inevitable. We should therefore seek to improve the model which the media companies have put before the political parties.

I agree with all his points, particularly about giving all parties which have at least a theoretical chance of forming a Westminster majority a voice in those debates. (Plaid Cymru fails on that score, but perhaps they can team up with the Greens, being the only two socialist parties with current MPs, to present a common front.)

However, I think it is also important to include and enhance the other debate, that between party spokesmen on key subject areas: finance, foreign affairs and social policy. The debate on financial affairs in 2010 went well, though it probably attracted fewer viewers than if it had gone out on BBC-1, ITV or Sky. TV companies naturally want a gladiatorial combat, but democracy would be better served by showing parties as other than one man bands.

* That is, the postal vote. Most of the postal ballots had been returned before the furious concerted media response to Nick's success, something for which the LibDem PR people had been unprepared. If they had been savvy enough to divert attention in the final week back from Nick to our other trump card, Vince Cable, who knows what might have been achieved?

Tuesday 14 October 2014

A Palestinian state

I have often been critical of David Ward MP whose tweets defending the Palestinians have crossed the boundary into anti-Semitism. His speech to the House yesterday made redress. He related how he had back-packed in Israel, had worked on Israeli farms and understood how much Israelis felt threatened by surrounding Arab states. He also drew attention to the sacrifices which the post-war UK Palestine peace-keeping force had made. His balanced arguments contributed to a resolution which, while not having the weight which it might have had when Britain was still an imperial power, nevertheless added to the swell of international opinion in favour of statehood for the Palestinians.

Monday 13 October 2014

Those global temperatures are up again

It seemed unlikely after the miserable August we experienced in Wales that the month was a record-breaker globally. However, we were more in line last month. The Met Office (HQ and in Cardiff) confirmed last week that our September was the driest since records began in 1910. Now NASA has announced that it was also globally the warmest since 1880. The author of the Discover article goes on:

Later this week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will release its own, independent calculation of how September 2014 stacked up. Sometimes NOAA’s calculation differs. (But this month, I wouldn’t bet on it.)

Unless something really weird happens, 2014 is on track to be the warmest in the instrumental record.

The apparent levelling-off of global temperatures over the last ten years has been cited by climate-change sceptics from Nigel Lawson to Guido Fawkes as evidence that 90% of the world's scientists are wrong. The article concludes:

If you’ve ever had the flu you know that even while you are wracked by body aches, sneezing, coughing and other symptoms, your temperature can fluctuate. While on average it is high when you have the flu, you might experience periods when it subsides a bit.

Well, the same thing is true of the climate system. Symptoms of climate change abound, as detailed in the latest round of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — from melting ice sheets, to rising sea levels, to some extreme weather events.
In the meantime, keep in mind that 2014 is still on track to be the warmest on record. So that leveling in global average temperature over the past 10 years may be about to end.

Welsh farming in perspective

(Thanks to the European Parliament's research service for the picture above.)

It did not surprise me that Wales has more in common with Ireland and large parts of Spain than with England in respect of the preponderance of small farmers, but the dominance of big farms in France, contrary to the image which politicians there like to project, did come as a shock.

Sunday 12 October 2014

Repeating the conditions of the 2008 slump

Mitch Feierstein, in an article in the Indy in August, warned that the same mistakes that led to the collapse of confidence in financial institutions six or seven years ago are being repeated, only with central banks dragged in. He concluded:

The recipe was ever thus: equal measures of greed and speculation, blind-bake, heat on full power. Relatively speaking, the risk is 40 per cent bigger than it was in 2008: bigger institutions, bigger transgressions, bigger fines. And this time, the central banks want a slice of the pie, making this an exponentially larger feeding frenzy that can only end with indigestion.

Our only chance for salvation is an injection of honesty and governance into politics. Voters will not keep blindly electing politicians on rhetoric and spin, but that doesn’t mean the outcome will be an improvement. The swing to the right in the recent European elections suggests more than a protest vote.

Someone once alerted me to the BOHICA syndrome. BOHICA? I asked. He sneered: “Bend Over, Here It Comes Again.”

On this side of the Atlantic, the Telegraph is not the first journal to warn that borrowers taking advantage of government schemes and lowish interest rates are going to be hit when the next downturn comes - and this cannot be more than five years away.

Friday 10 October 2014

Continuing the party fun

Just for fun: assuming the Clacton swing from Conservative to UKIP is reproduced uniformly over the country in a general election held tomorrow, a quick visit to UK Elect produces:

UKIP 10697005 36.00% (362 Seats +362)
Labour 8609527 28.97% (194 Seats -64)
Lib. Dem. 6836824 23.01% (51 Seats -6)
Others 1206281 4.06% (20 Seats)
DUP 168216 0.56% (8 Seats)
Sinn Fein 171942 0.57% (5 Seats)
SNP 491386 1.65% (4 Seats -2)
SDLP 110970 0.37% (3 Seats)
Independent 213718 0.71% (1 Seat)
Pl. Cymru 165394 0.55% (1 Seat -2)
Alliance 42762 0.14% (1 Seat)

The crude swing of over 40% is obviously invalid as UKIP deliberately did not stand in Clacton in 2010. A complicating factor is that Clacton was a new constituency. However, UK-Elect calculated potential UKIP support as 4.51% in 2005. So the above forecast is based on a swing of 37.85%.

Apart from the wiping out of the Conservatives, the effect would also mean the loss of the current Speaker and the sole Green member.

On the other hand, on a uniform swing of 17.65% from Labour which UKIP got at Heywood & Middleton:

Conservative 10703754 36.03% (398 Seats +93)
Labour 3496182 11.77% (129 Seats -129)
Lib. Dem. 6836824 23.01% (88 Seats +31)
SNP 491386 1.65% (8 Seats +2)
DUP 168216 0.56% (8 Seats)
Sinn Fein 171942 0.57% (5 Seats)
Pl. Cymru 165394 0.55% (5 Seats +2)
SDLP 110970 0.37% (3 Seats)
UKIP 5478918 18.44% (1 Seat +1)
Green 285616 0.96% (1 Seat)
Independent 213718 0.71% (1 Seat)
Alliance 42762 0.14% (1 Seat)
Respect 33251 0.11% (1 Seat)
John Bercow, Speaker 22860 0.07% (1 Seat)

which would be good politically for Liberal Democrats and Plaid, but saddle the country with a majority Conservative government.

Of course, uniform swings do not happen. Moreover, there is more than the usual element of protest in UKIP's showing yesterday. One of the Clacton voters interviewed on BBC-TV freely admitted that he would revert to the Conservatives at the general election. I would expect this effect to be even more marked for Labour in Greater Manchester. It may not be enough to dislodge Douglas Carswell, who must have built up a considerable personal vote.

UKIP has not yet done as well as the SDP did in the early 1980s when the latter won two by-elections and peeled off 28 MPs from the Labour Party. The Rochester & Strood by-election on 6th November is significant. If defector Mark Reckless can win the seat for UKIP from his former party, there may well be a stampede of those Tories who believe that Margaret Thatcher was unjustly forced to resign as leader in 1991.

David Cameron's response to this is critical. It could dawn on him that his appointment of more hard-line and populist ministers in place of effective but more consensual individuals has failed in its aim of appeasing his Thatcherite critics and rein in the Conservatives' illiberal lurch. On the other hand, he and George Osborne could panic, producing even more UKIP-leaning policies - and pay the price in 2015.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Nick Clegg, hair today, gone tomorrow

There was speculation in a couple of journals (probably triggered by Paddy Power) that Nick Clegg was to use his conference speech to announce his resignation. This was never going to be the case. For one thing, he has repeatedly said that he would lead the Liberal Democrats into the next election. After the continuing bad press he has received for going back on pre-election pledges (not to go into coalition with the Conservatives, to vote against tuition fee increases) he is not going to present another hostage to fortune. (Funny how David Cameron gets away with repeated lies, though.) For another, there is no obvious successor now that Chris Huhne has been shamed out of parliament.

There are also signs that, in some parts of England at least, he is no longer ballot-box poison. All three commentators on last Sunday's BH praised him for the decision to go into coalition. The manifesto will be tweaked as a result of conference decisions, but it will remain heavy on aspiration, which will go down well with what used to be classed as the Mondeo family. Nick can also point out that, even after the kerfuffle over increased fees, more people in England - and not just young people - are going to university as a result of Vince Cable's improvements to the loans system than in Labour's last years.

But just for fun, let's look at the supposed challengers. Vince Cable, Tim Farron and even Steve Webb can be ruled out on grounds of follicle challenge. The necessity for the presentation of a good head of hair is evidenced by the way the prime minister has his own barnet carefully sculpted to hide his bald patches and even his deputy's has unnaturally darkened over the years of government. So that would appear to leave only Danny Alexander and Jo Swinson. Would the electorate be ready for another Scottish party leader?

Wednesday 8 October 2014

Liberal Democrat definition

Nick Clegg's speech to federal conference in Glasgow went down very well in the hall (I watched it on BBC-Parliament) judging by the tweets recorded on Liberal Democrat Voice and on Facebook. I found it an anti-climax - or rather, it reached its climax too soon. (I suspect Gareth Epps will be rather more severe; I haven't read his comments yet.)

It started iffily. A large minority of the party. while appalled by the beheading of non-combatants in Iraq and Syria, is not enthusiastic about any military intervention in the area and I thought Nick struck a false note with cheer-leading for the government on this. Later, he spent rather too much time on education and health, without explaining that he would expect the devolved administrations to match the promises for England and that national Liberal Democrat parties would be fighting for them too. With Clacton and its large retired population in mind, I feel he also missed a trick by emphasising what the party had done in government for security in old age, and what we were committed to in future. He was right, of course, to castigate the Conservatives for aiming to balance the budget on the backs of the richest while giving a further tax hand-out to the richest, but this was such a strong point that I felt it could have come towards the end. The speech closed on an aspirational note, which may, like the main manifesto, go down well in London and south-east England, although not so well in areas where it is a struggle not so much to get on as to get in to work and feel secure there.

But for me he could just as easily have stopped after this early section:
Al Murray – he of Pub Landlord fame – said a great thing on Trafalgar Square in the days leading up to the Scottish referendum. I was there stood in the crowd with thousands of others and it really stuck in my mind. He said that there is something wonderfully vague about being British. After all, he said, that’s why we call ourselves Brit – ish. And it’s true. You can be British as well as Scottish, English, Northern Irish, Welsh…ish. At the same time you can be black, white, Asian, Indian, African, European, mixed, not-mixed. You can be gay, straight, bi-sexual, transgender. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, atheist.

The Scottish referendum was not only momentous because it reaffirmed Scotland’s place in the UK – and for that I will be eternally grateful for the unbelievable efforts of Willie, Alistair, Danny, Jo, Mike, Charles, Ming, the whole Scottish team… The Scottish referendum was also brilliant because it forced us to hold up a mirror and think about who we are. Four nations, yes, but also 64 million people with identities which are distinct yet overlapping, because these Isles of ours are among the most diverse and inclusive in the world.  

And yet something very un-British is taking root in our politics. A growing movement of people who want to pull us apart. Salmond, Farage, the bitter tribalism of left and right – in their different ways they’re all doing the same thing. A growing pick-a-side politics, in a world of us-versus-them. Worried about your job? Your business? Your children’s future? Your way of life? No matter, just blame Europe/Brussels/foreigners/immigrants/the English/the South/professional politicians/Westminster/big business/anybody claiming benefits/ even onshore wind farms… …Life is so simple when you know who – or what – to blame.

It’s seductive and it’s beguiling. That much may even be proved tomorrow, if the people of Clacton give the UK Independence Party an MP. But resentment, the politics of fear, doesn’t pay the bills or create a single job. Claiming to address people’s acute anxiety about the modern world, it provides nothing but the false comfort of grievance. Dressed up as the politics of hope, it is in fact a counsel of despair. Why do you think I took on Nigel Farage in the TV debates at the European elections? Because I thought it would be easy? – me defending Britain’s membership of the EU, him bashing Brussels? No, I did it for the same reason this party must now come out fighting: because someone has to stand up for the liberal Britain in which we and millions of decent, reasonable people believe. For tolerance, compassion, openness, unity – the values this party holds so dear.  

Perhaps part of the feeling of come-down resulted from several inspiring debates earlier in the morning, shamefully under-attended considering, as one speaker reminded us, they dealt with matters so ingrained in traditional Liberals. A motion reaffirming our commitment to further devolution in Wales - and English cities/regions but only by consent - and all the commissions' findings, including addressing Wales under-funding, was passed overwhelmingly. "Rebanking the UK" would increase diversity, encourage peer-to-peer lending, and reduce the dependency of local businesses on the Big Five banks, among other things. Finally, in "Protecting Private Tenants", an injustice in tenancy law was addressed. (The point was made that neither the Conservatives nor Labour - with a few honourable exceptions on the back benches - were interested, for their different reasons, in the situation of private tenants.)

David Laws in his speech yesterday introducing the debate on the pre-manifesto virtually said that if the Liberal Democrat party didn't exist it would have to be invented. (More here if his speech goes on-line) It was not just the fairness in the way we propose to balance the books, but also the way we uphold the rights of the individual against an intrusive state - and the rights of journalists to protect their sources. These would be under threat from majority Labour or Conservative governments.

Ian Birrell and others have asked what the Liberal Democrats are for. In a later article, Birrell even suggested that we had "lost sight of our crucial historic purpose". Mr Birrell, in singling out just Jeremy Browne among LibDems for praise, seems to believe that purpose is solely economic liberalism. I take the contrary view. Traditional Liberal and LibDem themes cropped up again and again in debates in Glasgow 2014 - yea, even land value taxation!

Tuesday 7 October 2014

Structural and cyclical deficits

Institute for Fiscal Studies director Paul Johnson has posted an Independent View on LibDem Voice which lays out the problems facing the UK government attempting to reduce the budget deficit, the resulting debt and the debt historically accumulated. Two graphs in the article usefully separate out the components.

Mr Johnson writes that the deficit "is still hovering around £100 billion this year" and that "The Office of Budget Responsibility estimates that around £70 billion of that deficit is structural" leaving around £30 billion cyclical deficit, that is, £30 billion which should disappear in the good times. What worries me is that we are now entering the good times, judging by the GDP figures, and that tax returns are below budget estimates. It is unlikely that the poor weather in August was a major factor in this, nor that a drier than usual September is going to improve the I&E account by much. This is the wrong time to raise the start level for the 40% income tax rate, still worse to reduce that rate. If higher incomes really are drifting up, then the exchequer should take its fair share. This is the time, in George Osborne's memorable phrase, to start fixing the roof.

But there is still a mystery surrounding the missing tax income. Part of the story may be filled by several tax loopholes, which Private Eye has been banging on about for years.

One loophole was identified by Gordon Brown when shadow chancellor during the last Conservative administration, but not closed by him during thirteen years of a Labour government, that is, "non-domiciled" status. Another, a favourite of hedge funds, is an "investment management" exemption which allows funds registered offshore - say, in the Cayman Islands - to be run from London without being taxed in England.

A third was actually created by Labour: the limited liability partnership.

It is unsurprising that a Conservative-dominated administration has moved to correct these sins of omission and commission, helpful as they are to City spivs, only round the edges. Nor can we expect the neo-Thatcherite UKIP to do this, but surely these are two of the loopholes whose closing would contribute to the restoration of social security which will feature in the LibDem manifesto for 2015.

Monday 6 October 2014

Signals from the housing market refers. Guido reckons that the drop which forecasters CEBR predict will be just a pause before a further inexorable rise in property prices in the metropolis. To my mind, anything which reduces the overheating of the London economy (and putting the hub airport people are calling for elsewhere in England is one such measure) is a good thing.

Locally, I see more estate agents' signs appearing. This could mean that sellers who have been holding off until they receive a fair return have seen a resurgence in the housing market - or it could be desperation.

Sunday 5 October 2014

How much do you pay for your milk?

It's a standard question for interviewers of people standing for election. In my case, it was 84p for two litres from Morrisons, thanks to their current campaign of price cutting. If one Carmarthenshire farm, quoted on Radio Wales's Country Focus this morning is typical, Robert Wiseman Dairies will be paying only 27.1p per litre of raw milk from next month. The average production cost is calculated at 32p per litre.

Evidence from the streets

Prostitution, like homosexuality, has always been with us. The former has after all been traditionally known as the world's oldest profession. After over a century of oppressive legislation, the United Kingdom has now recognised that same-sex relationships may be in the minority but they are a valid part of society. Now there are signs that a more mature attitude to sex work is growing. The resolution reached in the debate on Saturday does not seem to have inspired a glut of prurient* headlines. Even the Murdoch Sunday Times gives as much prominence to Steve Webb's pension reforms.

The only person to speak against the motion yesterday was a man. The point was made time and time again that laws which merely shifted criminality from prostitutes to the potential clients, the anti-kerb-crawling legislation or "the Nordic model" had in practice resulted in more dangers to sex workers.

* One schoolboy thought did cross my mind, though. Both Evan Harris and Chris Davies revealed that when in the House of Commons they had both been recipients of the sex workers' politician of the year award. This takes the form of a flying golden penis, and I wondered whether they had compared their trophies for size.

Friday 3 October 2014

I thought David Blunkett was bad ...

I haven't worked out whether, in my casting of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, it would be Theresa May or Chris Grayling in the part of the Queen of Hearts, believing they know better than judges:

No, no!' said the Queen. 'Sentence first—verdict afterwards.'
'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. 'The idea of having the sentence first!'
'Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.
'I won't!' said Alice.
Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

Given his public support for the European Convention and the Court on Today this morning, one wonders how much longer Simon Hughes will survive in the post-Grieve Justice Department. Incidentally, Simon has not got around to including his appointment as Minister of State in the biography on his constituency web-site. I wouldn't bother, if I were he.

The devolution angle

Willie Rennie, leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, has commented:
Putting human rights at the heart of the Scottish Parliament was endorsed by the people of Scotland in the 1997 Referendum. Any attempt by the Tories to rip human rights out of the Scotland Act would betray the votes of people in that referendum.
The Tories in Scotland are seeking to repackage themselves as a non-toxic, mainstream, centre ground party. They now face an urgent challenge to prove that by putting a block on their Conservative leaders in Westminster ripping human rights out of the Scottish Parliament. They may only have one MP in Scotland but they could work with us and others in the Scottish Parliament to prevent this.

Scots have voted for devolution within the United Kingdom twice, Wales just the once, and Scotland has its own legislation, but some of the same considerations apply. The Westminster government would have to amend the Government of Wales Act 1998 if it wanted to stop Welsh citizens taking cases against their government to Strasbourg.

Climate change and satellite findings

John Christy and Roy Spencer of the University of Alabama have long been critical of the majority scientific view that global warming is man-made. Their latest findings, that global surface temperatures have remained stable for 18 years, are quoted approvingly by Guido Fawkes.

Then come apparently contradictory data, also from a satellite survey, showing the effects of ice loss in Antarctica in the latter part of the period covered by the Christy/Spencer findings. I say apparently contradictory because the two surveys measure different things, and I am sure are both sound. One explanation for the lack of warming at the surface is that the oceans are absorbing the increase.

Christy and Spencer may just be right and that the global warming since the Industrial Revolution may be coincidental and part of a natural variation. However, global cooling does not seem to be close and the seas continue to expand. Politicians should surely be concerned about mitigating the effects of sea-level rise, whatever the cause.

Thursday 2 October 2014


Kirsty Williams has long campaigned for better prevention of stillbirth in Wales. She asked again about the subject at First Ministers Questions last Tuesday.

We now learn that the failure to prevent these distressing events is also marked in English medicine. Paul Kenyon's Panorama programme highlights the NHS failure to match other nations' reduction in stillbirth and compares it with the organisation's previous reluctance to accept overwhelming evidence in respect of sudden cot death.

It seems to me that if Wales generally adopted best practice as outlined in that Panorama programme, more mothers could be delivered of the healthy babies they are surely entitled to. Moreover, our NHS could actually advance on England in this area and gain much-needed good publicity.

Wednesday 1 October 2014

Jim Griffiths' first

Fifty years ago this month, James Griffiths was appointed by Harold Wilson as the first Secretary of State for Wales.