Monday, 30 November 2015

Inequality on the rise

In his autumn budget speech, George Osborne repeated a charge he had made several times before, but added a twist:

"When I presented my first spending review in 2010 and set this country on the path of living within its means, our opponents claimed that growth would be choked off, a million jobs would be lost and inequality would rise. Every single one of those predictions has proved to be completely wrong." (my italics)

I do not remember the predictions about job losses, but I do recall Labour claiming that GDP would fall (it didn't, but GDP probably does not deserve to be the totem it is anyway) and that inequality would rise. They were joined in the latter by Liberal Democrat back-benchers, who unkindly pointed out that the haves gained significantly over the have-nots during the Blair-Brown years also.

Now we have further confirmation that Osborne has not reversed the trend to inequality.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Sensation Smith of Drury Lane

I was lucky enough to enjoy browsing the specialist shelves of the Drury Lane branch before the vandals of Westminster City Council dumbed-down their libraries. Where those treasures of writing about the theatre (going back to the Restoration) are now, I have been unable to find out. I just hope that they have been kept together and are still available to curious members of the public.

Among them was a biography of a remarkable stage designer who preceded Sean Kenny by at least a generation. In the days well before CGI, "Sensation" Smith created realistic train-wrecks and shipwrecks on stage. I believe the book I read was more nearly contemporary than this one, but either would surely provide the basis for an enjoyable TV feature for BBC-4 or Channel 4.

Friday, 27 November 2015

The long grass of CP5

There was not much news, and certainly none good, at the Railfuture meeting in Bridgend yesterday. The Hendy report had been published, confirming that the extension of electrification from Cardiff through Bridgend, Port Talbot and Neath to Swansea would not begin before 2019. Indeed, the story outside the official meeting that neither the civil servants at the Department for Transport and the Treasury nor Network Rail had taken the coalition's decision seriously. Apart from Hitachi's fancy new sheds in Swansea, with attendant power gantries, there has been no preparatory work west of Cardiff. So there has been no realistic estimate of what work needs to be carried out on existing bridges and other infrastructure - except that it is known that the clearance of the last lot of signal gantries to be installed is inadequate.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Still some hope for the Swansea Bay project

Commentators have drawn pessimistic conclusions from energy minister Amber Rudd's recent pronouncements. She has proclaimed herself to be a disciple of climate change denying Nigel Lawson and has encouraged the growth of gas-powered electricity generation. The government has dropped all mention of the Swansea tidal lagoon project from its speeches and media releases.

However, Mark Leftly in the Independent holds out hope. He gives many reasons why the project should go ahead and concludes:

the probable lack of fanfare around Swansea Bay lagoon doesn’t mean the Chancellor is telling us the project is dead. Rather, the Autumn Statement has come too soon for the Government to show off a technology that could transform energy policy and become one of our most significant modern exports.

Perhaps he anticipates a big announcement at the start of the Welsh Conservatives' election campaign? I am not so hopeful. Leftly tiptoes all round the major point of contention: the strike price which TLP is asking for. The company's opening bid was for more than the Conservatives are guaranteeing the French and Chinese for the new wave of nuclear power stations. This government has closed its ears to environmental scientific advice, so I am not optimistic.

Bastiat Prize

Congratulations to Amit Varma on winning the Bastiat Prize for journalism for the second time, so far the only person to do so.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Coalition betrayed again

The rail electrification through Port Talbot and Neath to Swansea, stalled by Labour when in government, and given the green light by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, is one of the sacrifices made by George Osborne in his quest to meet his deficit reduction target.
Tomorrow happens to be the first meeting of the newly restructured Railfuture Cymru, after which I hope to have more detail.

Data loss from Goddard Inquiry - PM unconcerned

It was not only Spending Review day in the Commons - during which George Osborne fell back on the Gordon Brown technique of headlining unrealistic targets - but also the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Support for abused women needs not only money for those selected charities in the field (a faint cheer to the Chancellor for this) but also a systemic supportive approach by the police. That is not going to be helped by restrictions on police budgets; there is even a risk of losing what gains we have made in enlightened forces in England and Wales.

But what struck me most forcibly was a question to the Prime Minister by a Labour member about the loss of contributions to the Goddard Inquiry via a web site, a news item which had passed me by at the time. David Cameron seemed unconcerned about the reasons for the loss of these data. It is surely necessary to put at rest suspicions of those seeking redress from Goddard that there is not some back-office saboteur attached to it.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Darling anniversary

Heroine Grace Darling was born 200 years ago today. Without detracting from their bravery, it seems that her father was partly motivated by hopes of salvage from the Forfarshire in mounting the rescue.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Give up F1, not red button

It seems that BBC wants to save money by giving up choice at Wimbledon and other events with broad appeal but seeks to hang on to rights to the ecologically-dubious, laddish, Formula 1. There is no mention of trimming executives, I notice.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Trade Unions and Liberal Democracy

There are still classical liberals in the party who throw up their hands in horror at the merest whiff of "syndicalism", but as yesterday's debate in the House of Lords showed there is a more realistic attitude in today's Liberal Democrats.

Lorely Burt spoke largely from experience in business and personnel management. In her maiden speech to the upper House she said:
Before I discovered politics, my career was in public service—the Prison Service, in fact—in commercial business and then as an entrepreneur with my own businesses. I have spoken up for business large and small throughout my parliamentary career, so this short debate today seemed ideal for my maiden speech. My party, the Liberal Democrats, is a pro-business party. We feel a special affinity to small businesses; that independence of thinking, preparedness to back up your beliefs with actions and working hard are all traits we share with the entrepreneur. Indeed, many party members are entrepreneurs, but many also are trade union members, a lot of them in the public sector, selflessly serving in health, education and other services.

We all recognise that businesses and public services are nothing without the people who staff them, put their energy, time and creativity into making businesses grow, deliver the best service they possibly can, take pride in seeing the success they have helped to create and rightly expect to share in that success. Business is a partnership between those tasked with managing the business and those who put energy and effort into making that business or that service the best it can possibly be. Here I cannot help being a little bit controversial. I think that anyone who seeks to profit at the expense of one side or the other will only defeat themselves. Taking sides is counterproductive—and I am sad to say that we see this all too clearly in politics at the moment. 

The Trade Union Bill, to which several noble Lords have already alluded, in my view seeks to diminish union power when there is no evidence that strikes are on the increase and the number of trade union members is at its lowest for 20 years. Having said that, however, trade unions have a big responsibility, too. They serve their members poorly if they seek to push management too far, protect unproductive working practices and hamper the ability of employers to create wealth for all. That is why Liberal Democrats favour employee ownership so strongly. It is sad that many unions do little to support mutual and shared ownership when their own roots come from the co-operative movement. So, we welcome the constructive role that trade unions can play in the partnership that enables everyone to benefit from their labours.

 In case anyone is thinking that I am unrealistic in my description of the working partnership I have outlined, I point noble Lords to an example of what happened in Solihull when Jaguar Land Rover fell on difficult times and we feared that either the Solihull or the Castle Bromwich plant would have to close, spelling disaster for our area and affecting the wider West Midlands. Management and unions worked together to agree a plan to reduce workers’ hours and pay, thereby enabling more skilled staff to remain in work so that the skills would not be lost when the hoped for upturn arrived—and, boy, did it arrive. Since that terrible time, JLR has become one of the most successful manufacturing companies in the UK, investing and building a long-term future to guarantee the success and prosperity of all the partners involved. That is the way to do it. Successful, long-term businesses are built on firm and committed partnerships between owners and staff.

Lord Stoneham spoke from both sides of the labour/management divide:

As a social democrat, I spent a career grappling with change in industry. I also frequently worked for a trade union [NUR] so I, and these Benches, remain committed to sustaining, improving and supporting the work of trade unions in this country.
Given that we will be debating the Trade Union Bill, I do not think that this is the moment to go into detail on it, but I will say that these Benches are opposed to the Bill, as we opposed its measures when they were proposed in the coalition. Fundamentally we are opposed to it because we see it as a partisan Bill, both industrially and politically, and because it seeks to further weaken the influence of trade unions when, frankly, they are no longer in a strong position. We think that it is irrelevant to the main economic issues of raising productivity and enhancing the country’s competitive advantage.
On freedom of speech, we say that we may not like what people say but we will defend their right to say it, and so it is with trade unions. Despite the frustrations and the disagreements with them that we sometimes have, we will fight to maintain freedom of association to ensure that the rights and interests of employees are properly represented. Indeed, I believe that society will benefit if we do so. In this debate we have heard a number of arguments for and examples of the benefits of trade unions to democracy. I will not go through them all again but I should like to draw out a few, some of which have already been mentioned.

Historically, trade unions have improved the terms and conditions of their members. I say to the House that one of the problems that we now have is that our trade unions are in a weakened position. We are now in a position where the Government have to intervene to try to arrange the living wage so that the state does not subsidise the wages paid by employers. That we are in that position is not a sign of strong trade unionism; it is a sign of weak trade unionism.

I also want to emphasise the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Monks, about boardroom pay and differentials in industry. I worked in a company which was very conscious of what it paid the board and the managers. In fact, I negotiated with the noble Baroness, Lady Dean [Brenda Dean, formerly general secretary of the print union SOGAT]. Frankly, I could not have faced trade union representatives if I had had a huge bonus or a huge salary increase at a time when we were announcing redundancies. That was how we behaved. It was a counterbalance which, to be frank, is lacking in much of industry and employment today, and I think that we miss it.

Historically, trade unions have made a big impact on health and safety. In debates on health and safety, too often we have concerns about regulation. People say that regulation of health and safety is completely impossible. I say that if we had more representatives on the ground, there would be less need for regulation; it would be automatic in industry, and that is a role that trade unions have played in that field.

[...] It might also be appropriate for somebody outside the Labour Party to comment on the huge role that trade unions have played in various aspects of life—certainly in my generation. First, they saved the Labour Party in the 1980s. I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, in his place, because he was assisted by that. But for them, the Labour Party would not have been transformed. Secondly—here, I give due credit to the noble Lord, Lord Monks—trade unions changed the view on Europe inside the Labour Party in the 1980s. But for the commitment to the Social Charter, countering the idea that the EU was a capitalist club, we would not be in the position we are in today with the Labour Party supporting Europe and the Conservative ranks now split. Maybe the Government can learn from that experience—indeed, I think they are doing.

Finally, unions act as a check on management in industry. I worked in the print industry and at times I would complain. We were sometimes too slow to make changes. However, we as management had to work harder, do better and be more progressive to get those changes. Eventually, we did—and we did so in my company by agreement. Similarly, things are now happening in the motor industry. Fifteen years ago, I visited Nissan when it was in its early days, and now it is the most productive plant in Europe. We heard the story of Jaguar Land Rover. None of that would have been possible without the contribution or leadership of the trade unions in those areas. We need to build better, more confident management in dealing with trade unions.

I do not accept that there is not room for the trade unions to modernise and to reach out more. I did not find the turnout of 4.4% in the GMB’s leadership election very encouraging, but falling membership will not make unions more representative. Indeed, as the membership falls and unions turn into silos, we will find—unless we try to reverse it—that the unions will be less representative.

Unions have to examine their role but so, too, does management. We have given too much attention to short-term decision-making and there has been an overemphasis on shareholder value. This is a time for the employee stakeholder to have a much more determining role. Trade unions are an essential part of a progressive social democracy and, for the foreseeable future, they will be central to progressive politics in this country.

Lord Monks' contribution at 19 Nov 2015 : Column 281  is worth reading, too.

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Joe Hill anniversary

I looked in vain at the TV listings for a showing of Bo Widerberg's film about the Swedish immigrant to the US, executed ostensibly for a murder but in reality for his trade union activities one hundred years ago today.

Not only Hill but also Widerberg are clearly too sensitive for the TV companies (especially the BBC) these days.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Lethal Force

The guidance to police officers on the use of lethal force has been honed over the years and in the light of several publicised incidents. Discretion is given to commanders to respond appropriately in the light of what could be fast-developing situations. It seems to me that this responsibility is in the right place, and that the principle of maintaining a cadre of well-trained firearms officers to be deployed in critical situations is the right one.

So the pressure to arm regular constables as a matter of routine should be resisted. Apart from the difficulty of bringing every ordinary PC up to the required standard, arming them is going to inhibit their relations with the public and also tend to make them a target.

The lesson from Paris is not that the police did not have enough fire power but that better intelligence is needed, along with the sense to act on it.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015


Ben Chu has a provocative article in the Indy. Beginning by quoting Confucius in support of the necessity to define terms precisely (with which I agree) he suggests that because capitalism is no longer capable of definition we should abandon the term.

Well, I thought I knew what it meant: using money to make more money. However, there had to be a technical definition, did there not? The first surprise was that the first appearance was as late as 1854 according to the Shorter Oxford, although capitaliste was in use in France in the preceding century. Still, the definition was crisp enough: The condition of possessing capital, or using it for production; a system of society based on this; dominance of private capitalists.

Things became a little more complicated on checking with a mid-twentieth-century Britannica. The entry for CAPITALISM (by Joseph Schumpeter) begins:
A society is called capitalist if it trusts its economic progress to the guidance of the private businessman. This may be said to imply, first, private ownership of nonpersonal means of production, such as land, mines, industrial plant and equipment; and, second, production for private account, i.e. production by private initiative for private profit. But, third, the institution of bank credit is so essential to the functioning of the capitalist system that, though not strictly implied in the definition, it should be added to the other two criteria.

Schumpeter, writing in the aftermath of the second world war and the New Deal, which both involved some federal government direction of labour and capital, with rationing and nationalisation in addition on this side of the ocean, saw the then economic system as fettered or at best guided capitalism. He saw the possibility of reversal but did not predict it. That came in with a vengeance a generation after his death under Reagan and Thatcher.

So I am surprised that Ben Chu concludes that:
“Capitalism” doesn’t really exist. There are various modes of market-based economic, social and legal organisation in rich countries, some of which work well in some respects, and some of which don’t.
and that the term:
has outlived its usefulness. It now merely spreads confusion and breeds dogmatism.

It seems to me that the dogmatism has always been there.  Also, governments have always distorted the system, even without moving to outright socialism, when it suited them, especially in times of war. I believe that OED definition is good for a few years yet.

It has not failed

Nor has "capitalism failed" as the Occupy movement would have us believe. What has failed is regulation of markets and of the behaviour of the participants in them. Cartels and private monopolies thrive. After a short period when banks were reined in, we are beginning to revert to the bad days of Clinton-Bush-Blair-Brown.

State socialism has failed, but capitalism and the market society will continue. What elected governments must do is ensure that markets are fair and that capitalism works for all the people, not just the capitalists.

Monday, 16 November 2015

No agency will own up to Workie

You must have seen Workie, the three-metre furry beastie who bestrode the prime-time ITV (among other) screens. You probably know that he cost £8.54m at a time when DWP had frozen benefits and proposed to cut tax credits (which proposal the House of Lords fortunately blocked). It has been difficult to find out much more, beyond the fact that Baroness Altmann was happy to take credit for helping to design the creature.

I have this theory that the Conservative party pays off advertising agencies who have aided successful election campaigns with big government campaigns. Usually agencies are not shy about their multi-million contracts (remember Saatchi in the 1980s?) - denying of course that these are hand-outs. However, I have spent a good hour or more searching the Web for the identity of the agency responsible for Workie, or even who built him. Quite a few marketing consultants are ready to criticise the construct, but of the progenitors, there is no sign.

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Horror must not be met with horror

The death toll in Paris has exceeded 120 130 and there are nearly 100 people on the critical list, not to mention those with lesser injuries. The scale of mortality is the worst since the second world war, but in nature the terrorism ranks with that of the red brigades in Germany and Italy. Good sense in these two countries prevented a spiral of violence in the 1970s.

Sal Brinton, in her address as federal president to the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference yesterday, called for a measured, intelligent response to the dreadful terrorist attacks in Paris and Beirut. (This was echoed by the leader in the Independent.) She warned that far-right groups were already capitalising on the indication that at least one of the dead terrorists had come in to the EU with refugees on a Syrian passport, possibly fake. We must resist simplistic, repressive, policies. If there is a lesson, I feel it is that we must increase our resources for vetting asylum claimants, in the UK and the continental EU, as well as improving our intelligence.

There is a comment on al-Jazeera about that finger-pointing and Simone Frosini Simon had an appropriate pictorial comment, passed on by the splendid German anti-Nazi website Storch Heinar:

It's a hard road, but we have to trudge it

The Western Mail, owned by the Labour-supporting Trinity Mirror group, gave decent coverage of the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference in Swansea yesterday. It highlighted our leaders' call for a Liberal Democrat fightback in Wales, as well as the reasons why Wales needs the Liberal Democrats - and those go beyond decent staffing levels in our hospitals, an increase in housing and attacking unjustified pay rises for politicians. The journal was right to point out that there is no inevitability about a recovery from our low point, but it would have been fair to acknowledge that this lesson was emphasised in speeches by Kirsty Williams, Tim Farron and federal president Sal Brinton.

On a happier note, here is the presentation which should have been made at Bournemouth of the award for the best UK by-election campaign of 2014/15:

Eluned Parrott AM and Neil Fawcett of ALDC with the winning Wrexham organiser

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Blogging may be sporadic

If today were not already dominated by the Welsh Liberal Democrat AGM all day in Swansea, I would not in any case feel like writing in view of the terrorism on the streets of Paris. That over forty innocent people have lost their lives in one of the world's great capitals is - words fail. If "awful" had not lost its meaning over the years that would come close. These fearful attacks have obviously been well planned and there must now be concern about the climate change conference due to take place at the end of this month.

Friday, 13 November 2015

A scab which should not have been picked refers.

My father taught me not to pick at scabs. They were nature's way of covering up wounds so that they could heal.

When it was clear that the Liberal Democrat party had exhausted all processes for dealing with Chris Rennard's exploitative behaviour (not forgetting that he had already been effectively and quietly sidelined after the first complaint by a young woman member had been made) and that protocols had been put in place which should prevent a recurrence, I suggested to the last of the Channel 4 Six who was still a member that pursuing the matter publicly would do harm to the party and her reputation without giving her the satisfaction that she desired. She did not take it well, but the public row died down anyway.

One would have thought that the senior people in the Lord's would have had the sense not to open the wound again. The argument that Lord Rennard has "served his sentence and been rehabilitated" is all well and good, but to my mind retaining his party membership was sufficient rehabilitation. The public - nudged by the media, especially the online media - will not understand. As young public relations practitioners are taught, “If the public thinks you have a problem, you have a problem.”. Jane Brophy in Oldham West will not welcome this distraction. If the affair drags on into 2016, it is going to affect our campaigns in the Scottish and Welsh general elections.

There are Lords (and even Ladies) who believe that Chris Rennard was hard done by. They are of a generation which believes that "boys will be boys" excuses everything. They no doubt also hark back to the golden days when Rennard-inspired campaigns won by-election after by-election and may even believe that we lost so badly in the 2015 general election because Rennard was not at the helm. They should recognise that things have moved on, even in the last decade. Not only have sexual politics changed, but so has campaigning. Today and the immediate future belong to the likes of Michael Ashcroft and Mark Pack. Pickles and Rennard are yesterday's men.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Britain's part in the restoration of the Shah

Cathy Fox's blog excerpts corroboration of the leading rôle played by Britain in unseating the democratically-elected prime minister of Iran. In my opinion, the ex-spook Cavendish exaggerates the influence of communists and neglects that of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now BP). However, the very fact that he writes from the perspective of a different interest tends to confirm the evidence that Britain instigated the coup. Now that Iran is back at the international conference table and clearly willing to cooperate in bringing an end to the Daesh insurgency in Syria, surely the time has come for that apology by the UK government.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Fighting Oldham West

This and other posts on the subject of a welcome change in Liberal Democrat parliamentary by-election tactics were very cheering. It helps that the parties said to be the front-runners in Oldham West And Ryton have their difficulties. UKIP has declined sharply in the opinion polls (though I note that BBC has been giving Nigel Farage the oxygen of publicity in the wake of the "Dear Donald" letter). Labour is more publicly divided than I can remember since the Gaitskell/Bevan splits of the 1950s. Indeed, their candidate is said to be opposed to Corbyn's leadership. (Has he been asked which side he would have taken on the Welfare Vote, one wonders?)

On the face of it, Oldham West is a "safe" Labour seat. However, there is a strong Liberal tradition in the town and the late Michael Meacher - a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, by the way - must have had a large personal vote. A well-known local campaigner has been selected for the Liberal Democrats and Great George Street is actually putting resources in. The signs are good.

What a contrast with Barnsley Central in 2011!

Rhodesian UDI

The descendants of colonialist settlers in what is now Zimbabwe, led by the self-mythologising Ian Smith, declared independence unilaterally fifty years ago today. It was to be another 24 years, followed by a vicious civil war, before majority African rule was established.

In a Liberal Assembly of 1966, the then leader Jeremy Thorpe said:

"Fellow Liberals, we are now writing the last major chapter in a long Imperial history: are we to allow it to be said, that at that stage we destroyed the multi-racial Commonwealth which we have created, that we have appeared to reverse our beliefs in a non-racial society, that we abdicated our responsibilities to the 4 million Africans living in Rhodesia, all because we were too weak in resources and determination to prevent 2000,000 people from setting up illegally a political system, based on racial discrimination in its every aspect? I cannot believe that that is the role of Britain and I would only say this, if we fail to end this rebellion, if we are set on that course, then we shall not only lose the respect of the world but far worse, we shall lose our own self respect as well."

He went on to recommend to the Labour government instigating high-level bombing of Rhodesian railways and, if I recall correctly, connections to the Kariba hydro-electric scheme. The sobriquet "Bomber Thorpe" attached to him as a result by prime minister Harold Wilson and the media took a long time to shed. Wilson chose to take the sanctions route. This did not bring the speedy end to UDI which he proclaimed.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Winifred Knights

As if I had cued the paper, the Independent yesterday published an article about a prize-winning woman artist who was famous in her day but is now largely forgotten. An exhibition of her work is opening at the Dulwich picture gallery. I suppose it is too much to hope that it could travel to the Glynn Vivian when the latter finally reopens.

Monday, 9 November 2015

Luckily, there was a full moon

It is fifty years since the Great North-Eastern [America] Blackout. Contrary to supposition, there was no significant increase in the birthrate in the summer of 1956.

Anniversary of the end of hanging

The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 came into effect on this day fifty years ago. It fulfilled a promise by Labour under Harold Wilson who had come into power the previous year, but it was down to a back-bencher, Sydney Silverman, to introduce the measure as a private member's bill.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

We need constant reminders about women artists

Last week, Radio 3's Composer of the Week has been Louise Farrenc. In her time (the mid-19th century) she and her publisher husband were a considerable presence in music in France and beyond. The examples which Donald Macleod have played, including songs specially recorded by the splendid Ruby Hughes, show that her fame was fully justified. No doubt the easy access to publishing helped, but the young Louise Dumont had established herself before her marriage to a supportive husband. (The story of women composers who were forced to stick to home and hearth after marriage is a long one.) Yet outside France she was largely forgotten. I confess that I did not know of her until CotW responded to a suggestion from a listener that she be featured.
Someone I knew only as a name in the roster of Les Six was Germaine Tailleferre until she was featured in CotW. Her extensive catalogue, including both inventive pieces and background music for the French screen, was a revelation. Not enough is available as commercial recordings. CotW has featured the work of women composers in other recent series.

Jessica Duchen's blog post in the middle of the week was therefore timely. It seems that every generation has to fight anew for equal treatment of women in the arts, and that female achievers in previous ages are dropped from the record. History has been equally unkind to graphic artists.

There is one area of the creative arts which is an exception: writing. Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters have never been far from the top of reading lists. Women dominate the golden age of detective fiction. There seems to be no discrimination in the distribution of literary prizes. There is clearly something to do with the male/female dynamic here.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Voters should know who is on the party list

Last year, the Electoral Commission issued a discussion paper on the format of the regional ballot paper to be presented to voters in the Welsh Assembly elections. The intention was for the EC to issue a recommendation in December 2014 and for the Westminster government to make a decision earlier in this year. However, it seems from this news item that the matter is still being weighed up.

The sooner we can do away with top-up lists for the general elections in Scotland and Wales the better. Unfortunately, they were the only form of proportional representation that the Labour Party would accept during the devolution negotiations in the 1990s. One can see the appeal to a party which believes in strong central direction. However, they also mean that when electors are casting their vote to enable a balance in the national assemblies reflecting the balance of opinion in the nation, they are buying into the parties' estimation of the best people for the job. We should at least enable voters to put a face and a reputation to each of the people on the list.

As Ceredigion MP Mark Williams, the deputy leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, said: “Regional AMs of all parties work hard for the people that they represent, and build up personal name recognition in their own right among communities in their area. Not putting candidate names on the regional ballot papers, as was the case in 2011, weakens the link between the electors and the elected, makes our democracy more distant and faceless, and decreases transparency.

“That’s surely something that no-one can support.”

The list names were on the ballot in the first Welsh general election. Labour when they had majorities in both London and Cardiff had them removed for the spurious reason that they made the ballot paper too complicated. One assumes that the real motivation was that certain regional AMs - like South Wales West's Peter Black - were becoming too well-known in their own right. An indication of this is that the compromise of displaying the full list in polling stations was honoured more in the breach than the observance in at least one Labour-controlled council area.

Mark Williams is pressing Welsh Secretary Stephen Crabb to make a decision.

Reinstating candidate names on regional ballot papers is something that’s supported by many organisations... The decision has been with the Secretary of State for many months, and all those involved need a decision as soon as possible in order to make arrangements for the upcoming Assembly elections. I do hope he will support our calls.

Friday, 6 November 2015

A LibDem initiative that the Conservatives have not killed - yet

The Business Growth Fund has been a success. As this article in the Indy last September described, the BGF was set up by Vince Cable in his first few days in office. It is bank-financed, but state-backed.

In 2011, the BGF, launched with £2.5bn from high-street banks, was criticised as a figleaf to spare the blushes of banks that were refusing to lend to small and medium-sized enterprises. Others worried that the BGF represented a return to the days when the state tried to pick private-sector winners. The rest of the private equity and venture capital industry fretted that the BGF would provide unwelcome competition, cherry-picking the best investments.

Four years later, those fears look unfounded. For one thing, the fund was given a mandate to invest between £2m and £10m in the businesses it backed, relatively small investments compared to the private equity houses. Moreover, it has been run at arm’s length from the Government and the banks, sourcing deals through a regional network of financiers, accountants and other agents. The BGF also takes minority stakes in the businesses in which it invests, rather than taking control. Sometimes, it invests alongside other partners, [...] but in other cases it is the only backer. Either way, it sticks to minority stakes.

For many entrepreneurs, that is hugely attractive. Young businesses often find that equity funding is required to take the business to the next stage, but their founders are reluctant to give up control of the ventures they have built from nothing.

For all these reasons, BGF has proved popular with growing businesses. After a slow start, [...] the pace quickened. Today, the fund’s portfolio includes almost 100 businesses, representing most economic sectors and every region of the country. [...]

The biggest achievement of Mr Cable’s initiative, however, may be to re-establish the idea of growth capital as a mainstream option for small and medium-sized businesses looking to grow. The banks themselves walked away from this type of investment years ago, while it is fair to say the private equity sector comes with a little baggage. Equity investment, however, has an enormous amount going for it, for both sides, as BGF is now beginning to prove.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Lancashire by-elections

There are a few by-elections coming up in Lancashire in the next couple of months. There is of course the parliamentary election in Oldham West for which Liberal Democrats have selected Jane Brophy. Given the renewed spirit in the party, I would expect this to be a gripping three way contest between Labour, LibDems and UKIP. The fact that our new leader is from the county (albeit holding a seat across the county boundary) must be an advantage.

In addition to contests in Fylde and Barnoldswick, there is one in the Lancaster authority which should appeal to those campaigners who have recently been celebrating the anniversary of Brief Encounter.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Picking a team up off the floor

There was an interesting pair of articles on Jose Mourinho's management style in the Indy recently: an interview of Arbeloa (before Chelsea's home loss to Liverpool) and Monday's comment piece by Ian Herbert, the paper's chief sportswriter. It seems that Mourinho is good at driving his players, ruthlessly dropping them when he feels he needs to punish, and defending his teams as a whole against administrators, referees, the media and everybody else he sees as an enemy, but not so good at putting an arm round the shoulder of individuals whose confidence needs restoring. Sir Alex Ferguson, who became notorious for his "hair-dryer" treatment, was, on the quiet, good at the softer side of management also. Bill Shankly was another with a fearsome public reputation but very good on the one-to-one side of management. It is notable that both had long periods of tenure and saw Manchester United and Liverpool through testing times as well as periods of success.

The trouble is that, Arsenal apart, Premier and Football League owners are less patient these days. Most are driven by the desire for quick returns or to cut losses. Managers like Nigel Clough, who have achieved success by building teams over a long period, face an uncertain future. One wonders how long Sam Allardyce, another "player's manager", has to justify his position at Sunderland.

Swansea City is a different sort of club and Garry Monk is part of the family, as it were. Even so, Huw Jenkins and the board have been ruthless in shifting out managers who have not lived up to expectations. The Swans are not exactly on the floor (they are two points above Chelsea in the League table, after all) and the Trust is not going to be desperately disappointed if the club does not win a trophy this season, but this does look like Monk's first real test. He has proved to be a clever tactician; is he also capable of keeping all the players onside and stopping the poor run of results?

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

About-faces on the Lords (continued)

Last week I fingered Sir Edward Leigh for praising the Lords' independence when revolting against the coalition and condemning it when supporting George Osborne's SI to cut tax credits. Having trawled through Hansard's record of oral questions last week, I find that other Tories need to be named and shamed: Jacob Rees-Mogg, Bernard Jenkin and Mark Pritchard.

It is only fair that those supporters of the cuts to tax credits who have been consistent critics of the make-up of the Lords should also be praised for their consistency, if nothing else: Liam Fox, George Osborne, Kenneth Clarke, John Stevenson and Henry Smith.

An IT or O&M practitioner accustomed to drawing up decision tables will naturally ask: was there a member who voted against Lords reform yet queried the cack-handed and hubristic way in which Osborne attempted to push through his measure? Indeed there was: Peter Bone continues to prove himself almost as big a nuisance to the 100% Conservative cabinet as he was to the coalition.

Finally, Cheryl Gillan has a record of wanting Lords reform, but not if it meant a totally-elected upper chamber. It appears that she has been a supporter of the tax credit system in the past, and her contribution last week was distinctly ambiguous.

Monday, 2 November 2015

This could be bad news for the Kurds

The regaining of an overall majority by the AKP in Turkey as a result of a campaign based on fear, uncertainty and doubt, is bad news for honest electoral campaigners and probably not only for the Kurdish population of Turkey but also the semi-autonomous Kurds of Iraq.

A key date in computer logic

George Boole, after whom Boolean algebra, ingrained in every self-respecting computer logic designer, is named, would be two hundred today.

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Before the Boston Tea Party, there was the Stamp Act

A major imposition of extra taxation on American colonists occurred this day 250 years ago. The Stamp Act ignited the first sparks which were to lead to American Independence.