Category Archives: Politics

Posts about politics and politicians

Justice for All

I only ever attended one Employment Tribunal during my career, about twenty years ago – and I found it a bit of a pain and a waste of time. So, at first sight, you might think I have some sympathy for the headline in today’s Daily MailDaily Mail headline

But I don’t. Here’s why.

My Tribunal Experience

My presence was required at an Employment Tribunal as a result of a grievance claim from a former member of staff who was dismissed for gross misconduct. I was the senior manager and the final step in the company’s appeals process: I had dismissed the appeal and upheld the sacking. The offence was theft of a small amount of cash. We had a clear policy on this type of misconduct: the nature of the work required a high degree of trusting our staff and the hard line was pour décourager les autres.

The case took two days and was held in Croydon: a two hour journey each way from home. The tribunal dismissed the claim and awarded us costs. I admit to feeling slightly sorry for the guy, for his poor judgement and false hope in thinking he had a case. But I was also irritated by the – to me – waste of everybody’s time. Was the case “spurious”, to use the Mail’s language? In their eyes, probably yes, but I felt that “misguided” would be a more accurate term.

Grayling’s Failing

Fast forward to 2013. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling introduced fees for ETs, of up to £1200 for the more complex cases – extra if there were appeals. The reason Graying gave was to deter “vexatious” cases, an assertion made without conducting any research into the verity of his statement. Volumes of cases fell dramatically, by more than 70%. If the assertion that fees would deter the more frivolous and less worthy cases, the success rate of the remaining volume of cases would have risen. In fact, the opposite occurred. The logical conclusion was that most claimants who would have succeeded in the past had been deterred from claiming: a denial of justice.

As an advisor in the past four years, many times I’ve given advice to clients on employment issues. They had a valid claim against a rogue employer who has cheated them out of money or discriminated against them. But when told of the fees, they decide not to proceed. Very often this is simply that they cannot afford the money. Sometimes they’re advised to sue in the county court instead, because this is cheaper. This was correct advice, but absurd when you consider that the Employment Tribunal system was created as a better-matched and less intimidating way than the courts for mistreated employees to seek justice.

Praise to Unison

Unison bannerSo I was delighted to see the news that Dave Prentice and the Unison union have persevered in their legal fight against tribunal fees – and won. The Supreme Court ruled that fees were a denial of justice and were unlawful. The decision of the five judges was unanimous. Grayling’s policy changes when Justice Secretary have been ruled unlawful before. But this time, the Supreme Court went further. In one paragraph of their ruling, they effectively lectured the Government on some basic truths about our constitution. It’s worth reading in full (the emphasis is mine):

  1. At the heart of the concept of the rule of law is the idea that society is governed by law. Parliament exists primarily in order to make laws for society in this country. Democratic procedures exist primarily in order to ensure that the Parliament which makes those laws includes Members of Parliament who are chosen by the people of this country and are accountable to them. Courts exist in order to ensure that the laws made by Parliament, and the common law created by the courts themselves, are applied and enforced. That role includes ensuring that the executive branch of government carries out its functions in accordance with the law. In order for the courts to perform that role, people must in principle have unimpeded access to them. Without such access, laws are liable to become a dead letter, the work done by Parliament may be rendered nugatory, and the democratic election of Members of Parliament may become a meaningless charade. That is why the courts do not merely provide a public service like any other.

Now, that’s basically what’s called a bollocking! Call it teaching grandmother to suck eggs, if you like. The “enemies of the people” (Daily Mail style) yesterday called out those who are the real enemies of the people in this case: the Government in trying to defend the unlawful actions of an earlier Tory Justice Minister. The Court ruling has been called a “lesson in patriotism” in a powerful article by Afua Hirsch in today’s Guardian.

Justice for All

So, the Mail did what it always does: take a news story and spin it to the opposite of the truth. It again confirms their attitude to the law. It’s fine when it’s used by the rich and powerful to bully and intimidate others into getting their own way. It’s the law as a plaything of the rich: super-injunctions to suppress awkward facts and expensive divorce settlements for spouses of billionaires. But the law as a bulwark to protect the rights of the poor and exploited? No way. There’s a word for this attitude: feudal.

And as for my irritation at the two days I spent in Croydon all those years ago? Put it down as the necessary price to pay to protect those freedoms we have gradually wrested from those in power, over the past 800 years since Magna Carta.

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One Penny Has Dropped

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have banged on many a time about economic policy: Free Market Fundamentalism, as I call it. It is one of the two major delusions from which the country is suffering. We have suffered the consequences of a fatally flawed view of human economic behaviour for over 35 years.

Over a similar time frame, a second delusion has taken hold, growing to overwhelm us in a moment of supreme folly on 23rd June last year. It is the delusion that Britain would be better off outside the European Union. To make my position absolutely clear: it is 100% certain that every possible outcome from EU trade negotiations about the UK’s trading position outside the EU will be worse than the status quo. Every option would be worse; it’s only a matter of “by how much”.

To overcome a delusion, first the “penny must drop” to the sufferer that they are mistaken. No progress can be made during the period of denial. As I said in my recent post, Take Back Control, I believe that, at long last, the penny has dropped for an increasing number of Britons that there’s something fundamentally wrong about our economic system. The Labour Party get this; the Tories not, so far. That’s bad news for the Tories and good news for those of us who think that they’ve been wrong all these years. But we also need the second penny to drop: that staying in the EU is the UK’s best conceivable option. That penny hasn’t dropped – yet.

Project Fear Revisited

There was a whole load of bollocks spoken by the Remain Tories, and in particular by Osborne and Cameron, during the EU referendum debate last year. Their opponents, with some justification, called it “Project Fear”. (In comparison, the Leave campaign should be dubbed “Project Outright Lies”.) It was a source of immense frustration that the debate, as reported by the media, was conducted solely by the two opposing wings of the Tory Party (with some vile “sounds off” on the extreme right by UKIP). The economy didn’t crash and burn within days of the referendum result (although the pound did drop sharply); its death was always going to be a slow, lingering one, barely started even now.

The 2017 Election: The First Penny

Of the two delusions mentioned above, the result of the 8th June general election shows, I think, that the first penny has dropped. Increasing numbers of voters are sick of austerity and can see for themselves that it’s not working. For obvious reasons, the rich tend to save a higher proportion of their income than the poor. By taking money from the poorest, Osborne plunged the economy back into a needless recession in the early 2010s, reducing his tax income, increasing the need for benefits and made his target of balancing the books harder to achieve.

Theresa May on election night
May on election night

The effects of the remorseless downward pressure on public sector expenditure (instead of, for example, raising taxes on the wealthiest) didn’t really seem to have much effect at first. But by now, the cumulative effect is apparent in many different places. The struggles to maintain standards in the NHS have been all to plain to see for some time now. Then teachers and parents are concerned about the cuts to school budgets and their effect on class sizes, curriculum options and much more. More recently, damning evidence of the collapse in discipline in our prisons was made clear by the Chief Inspector of Prisons. The fact that not a single youth custody centre is safe to house young offenders is a spectacular disgrace for a relatively rich country in the 21st century. Police, firefighters, paramedics, doctors and nurses have rallied round time and again in recent months dealing with the aftermath of terrorist attacks. Failure over seven years to give them a decent pay rise is increasingly seen as unfair. And squeezed living standards from rising inflation are affecting all but the very richest in work and those on benefits alike. I could add low growth, record levels of personal debt and of the trade deficit, as well as many other economic weaknesses.

The delusion that Free Market Fundamentalism creates a strong economy is falling away fast. That leaves one more penny to drop.

The Second Penny: EU Membership

One year on, there’s still a large minority of the population who feel justified to have voted Leave last June. These include several members of Theresa May’s cabinet, including those most involved in negotiating terms for our departure. But with no overall strategy from May, even they are disagreeing among themselves about how hard a task they’ve set themselves. The most delusional, Liam Fox, said negotiating a trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history”. David Davis, by contrast, described it as more difficult than a moon landing: “Half of my task is running a set of projects that make the Nasa moon shot look quite simple,” he said. I’m glad to see that he turned up in Brussels this week fully briefed and prepared:

David Davis empty desk
Look no notes!

About 45% of the UK’s trade is within the EU. The 27 countries share culture, values and ideals most like our own. (For example, the USA is, culturally and in social attitude, a very alien place indeed!) Fox and his ilk seem to think the world outside the EU is just waiting for us to leave so they can start doing a whole lot more business with us. In practice, Fox is swanning around the world, at our expense, trying to do business with a combination of the “old Commonwealth” (i.e. the white folks) and a bunch of despots and human rights abusers. With the latter group, the talk seems mainly about selling them arms. Just like old times in the Ministry of Defence, mixed with nostalgia for the days of the Empire.

The likelihood that such trade could fill more than a tiny fraction of that lost within Europe is zilch. Nada. Nothing. How long will it take and how much damage will be done to our economy and to our national reputation before the second penny drops? I hope it’s soon, for all our sakes.

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Take Back Control

Arguably, the most successful soundbite of last year’s EU referendum campaign was “take back control”, used by the Leave team. It was delusional, of course, based upon the ridiculous idea that Little Britain could be master of its own destiny outside the EU. The realpolitik of 21st century capitalism means that the mega-rich and multinational corporations are free to move capital – and jobs – around the globe. This makes pure fantasy the idea that one medium-sized country can be in control. Standing together with like-minded countries in a bloc like the EU gives some chance of the needs of the people winning – sometimes – against the rich, powerful and footloose. On our own, forget it.

But the idea – and the phrase – caught the imagination of many, assuming they didn’t think too deeply about it.

Ironically, one year on from the referendum, the idea of taking back control – in a different sense from before – is really beginning to catch on. And, this time, it’s a development of which I approve. Two recent events best illustrate my point.

The 2017 General Election

Once again, the pollsters got it wrong. The Tories’ loss of overall majority came as a surprise and, this time, a pleasant one for me. (The shocks of 1970, 1992 and 2015 were three times too many for one lifetime!) There genuinely seem to be signs of change. Specifically, I mean signs that more and more voters are seeing the Tories and their austerity agenda in its true colours: as a way of reinforcing the power and wealth of a minority at the expense of everyone else.

People are beginning to see the value of the public sphere: the schools, hospitals, police, firefighters, public infrastructure, clean air, enforcement of reasonable regulations for safety in employment, and many more. It extends to an appreciation of the longer-term strategic view that public ownership can give to areas such as blue-sky R&D and in the energy sector.

For three and a half decades, government and economists have asserted the supremacy of free market fundamentalism. They assert that free markets, unfettered by government interference, will produce the best of all possible outcomes. For the poor, their concerns and fears are vilified or ignored. At long last, an increasing number of people see that assertion for what it is: a lie.

They can see with their own eyes that the average worker is still worse off than before the 2007-8 global financial crash. They can see the rise of low quality, insecure jobs and the sham self-employment. They see ruthless employers increasingly treating their workforce with contempt. Too many people feel they have no control over their lives. Job insecurity means they cannot make sensible plans for the future, about basic matters such as housing and starting a family. For the rich, every whim and opinion is indulged and flattered.

The recent general election result showed that more people have seen through the Tories’ lies. Corbyn’s Labour Party finally gave them a real choice: a chance to get back some control. Emphasis on workers’ rights and the renationalisation of railways and utilities is seen to make sense. Private utilities casually rip off their customers – their nationalised forebears never exploited them in that way.

The Grenfell Tower Tragedy

And then came that most unimaginably awful, utterly avoidable tragedy: the Grenfell Tower fire. Four weeks on, those who have lost their homes and those who have lost loved ones still haven’t had their questions answered. Still the authorities, above all Kensington and Chelsea Council, are failing in their most basic obligations to the residents. Most of the support and help for practical, emotional and psychological issues still seem to be given by volunteers and community organisations. Yet Kensington and Chelsea is the UK’s richest authority, with nearly £300m in its reserves. The total breakdown of trust between the state and the citizens of the area is palpably raw and tragic. The Grenfell residents aren’t being given even the basic answers to help begin a grieving process and to rebuild their lives. The lack of control they have over their present and future lives screams out every minute of every ghastly day.

Out of Control

Whilst in no way comparable, I remember clearly the moment I found out my first wife, in her mid-40s, had been diagnosed with cancer. There was an overwhelming sense that our lives had, very suddenly, got totally out of control. Over the following few days, through our own research and with good support from medical staff answering our many questions, we began to feel better able to cope. The cancer hadn’t gone away, but we had more information to begin to make sense of it all and gain a feeling of control once again.

It would be simply wrong, impertinent and insulting to the Grenfell victims to say I know how they feel. But it is, after all, a defining feature of being human that we try, however inadequately, to empathise with those who are suffering. All I can say with any certainty is that it must be massively, massively worse than what I went through – unimaginably so.

A Turning Point?

It feels like the Grenfell fire and its aftermath is a turning point: I really, really hope it is. Grenfell, or something like it, is what happens after thirty-five years of inhumane economic policy, treating humans simply as economic units. And, as economic units, the rich and powerful are treated with utmost respect; the poor and vulnerable with utmost contempt. I sense that people really have had enough, at last.

The hope now is that we can be led by people with the vision to plot a new path to the future. The Labour Party manifesto for the recent election was a good start. Jeremy Corbyn seems to have found his feet. He clearly recognises that, if everyone is to “take back control” of their lives, most of us, at some time need the state to be there to lend a helping hand. This help takes many forms: benefits, doctors, nurses, firefighters, a decent job with a predictable wage or basic needs like gas and electricity from an organisation that doesn’t try to rip you off all the time.

The Tories won’t get us there. Several members of May’s cabinet are professed admirers of Ayn Rand and have called her most famous novel an “inspiration” – here’s one example. Free Market Fundamentalism, that cruel and heartless creed of greed, is the natural brainchild of Rand’s cold-hearted and false assumptions about human behaviour. It must stop. All the people of Britain, poor and rich, must be given the opportunity to take back control of their lives. Starting now.

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Forever Walk Alone

A song for Theresa “No Mates” May: no mates in the Tory Party, no mates in the right-wing press, no mates in Europe…

If you stir up a storm, build your hopes up high,
But show you’re afraid of the Mail
At the end of the storm, we all say “bye-bye”
And tweet that you’re wrong and will fail.
Plod on: you won’t win
Plod on, say again
Till our screams are crossed with groans
Limp on, limp on, no hope in your heart
You’ll forever walk alone
You’ll forever walk alone.
Limp on, limp on, you won’t tear us apart,
You’ll forever walk alone
You’ll forever walk alone.

For pity’s sake, May, just go.

 

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Enough Is Enough

Theresa May must go. Enough is enough.

The UK has now reached the greatest political crisis since 1945. Article 50 was triggered in March. The clock is ticking down to March 2019. The EU and 27 other countries have discussed, agreed their approach and are waiting to begin negotiations.

May, with a workable majority of 17, in a fit of hubris, decided to crush all opposition. After consistently denying she would call a snap election, she called one. Her argument – always a lie – was that parliament was thwarting her plans for negotiating exit terms with the EU. And this was after Jeremy Corbyn had led his party to support the triggering of Article 50.

Theresa May contrite
Fatally damaged

So, after 7 weeks of unnecessary distraction, where are we? Hung parliament, with May proposing to govern propped up by the Democratic Unionist Party. This is the party that wants the hardest, the most economically damaging form of exit from the EU. The irony is that Northern Ireland voted 56% to 44% for Remain. So the DUP is the least representative party in Ulster to express the province’s wishes. Tragically, Northern Ireland’s politics is frozen in a 17th century time-warp. The DUP’s anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage stance takes us straight back to the Dark Ages. Being beholden to this lot is worse even than the Tories own “Irreconcilable” backbenchers. They’re way outside the UK mainstream. Enough is enough.

Nasty and Greedy

Nasty: May once famously warned the Tories about being seen to be the Nasty Party. Their election campaign was full of nastiness, or repeated personal insults and false accusations against her opponents, Corbyn above all. I trust that by now, her campaign coordinator Lynton Crosby will have had the sense to fuck off back to Australia. I hope too that 2017 will mark the low point in such vicious, nasty campaigning.

Greedy: The Tories have championed the economically and socially disastrous policies of Free Market Fundamentalism. Since the days of Thatcher, the cry has been “greed is good”. The election result clearly expresses the UK voters’ desire for an end to austerity, which has always been a political choice, not an economic necessity. (Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s article in the Guardian on 8th June states extremely clearly why Labour’s manifesto policies will be best for the country.)  Well, May got greedy. She had a Commons majority of 17 – she wanted 100+. Look at her now, sucking up to the most socially conservative, almost mediaeval party (the DUP) in Parliament to scrape a fragile majority of 2 or 3.

The sight of sociopathic, narcissistic Donald Trump in the USA should be a warning to all countries where Nastiness and Greed ultimately lead. Let’s hope this is the end of both. Enough is enough.

Apologies Required

The Tories got us into this mess, almost all by themselves, with a bit of help from their bigoted, xenophobic outliers, UKIP. The British people are owed an apology, from these three people in particular:

  1. From David Cameron, for being too weak to manage dissent in the most rabid, xenophobic ranks of his own backbenchers, by calling a referendum, thinking it would quell the infighting in his own party.
  2. From Theresa May, for failing to listen and consult more widely, for her instinctive authoritarianism and for her hubris, greed and poor judgement in trying to secure a crushing majority in Parliament.
  3. From Nigel Farage, for… well, for being such a fraud and total gobshite.

The Westminster Parliament collectively has a lot to answer for, too. In passing the referendum bill in the form in which it was agreed, needing only a simple majority of votes. Such a constitutionally momentous change would, in any well-ordered democracy, have included checks and safeguards such as a super-majority of votes cast and a minimum percentage of the electorate.

Will anyone apologise for this mess? Don’t hold your breath. Enough is enough.

UK’s Negotiating Position

May spoke recently of the danger of the UK going “naked into the debating chamber” in the event of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. Well, where are we now? May’s authority is fatally damaged. With her leading negotiations, the EU and the 27 other nations will just laugh at us. They were already incredulous about the referendum result and May’s choice of the trio of ministers most involved in negotiation, Boris Johnson in particular. Referring presumably to the Berlusconi years, a senior Italian politician remarked last summer: “We though we were the crazies!”

To extend the metaphor, a May-led negotiating team will not only be naked, but the wounds on her back from the lashing she has just had from the British electorate will be red and raw for all to see. Talk about “strong and stable”: the opposite is the case. May has already got the backs up of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier (the chief negotiator) before the election with her bombastic approach. Now she can be expected to be treated with contempt. That’s absolutely NOT in the national interest. Enough is enough.

The Way Forward

What IS in the national interest seems screamingly obvious to me. Well over 50% of the votes cast in this election were for parties wanting to break from the old orthodoxy. In particular, they want a move away from austerity and an approach to the EU negotiations that reflects the wishes of both Leavers and Remainers. The latter, 48% of us, simply haven’t had a look in so far. A little humility from those representing us wouldn’t go amiss, either. Oh, and, after the resignation of its joke of a leader, UKIP can just fuck off and die, finally.

What we really need is a Government of National Unity, where a progressive alliance of parties work together to take a fresh approach to the many issues which face us. And yes, the government should include a few of the more forward-thinking, liberal-minded Tory MPs.

Goodness knows, the problems arising from the old politics are real enough. The dire, crumbling state of our public services, and especially the NHS, need urgently addressing. Proper school funding to ensure we have the best possible educated future citizens is a priority, too. And the crisis in the lack of genuinely affordable housing is building to a crescendo – one 35 years in the making since Thatcher started selling off council houses. We need to get productivity rising again, by strategic investment in promising industries of the future. And, not least, we need to address the evil of terrorist attacks, including through adequate community policing.

We also need a change of tone from our elected representatives. The point-scoring, fear inducing, hate-fuelled approach of the last few years must stop. And we need politicians who speak proper sentences, like the rest of us.

A more consensual approach to EU negotiations will pay dividends and maximise the chance of a better outcome that we’d ever get from May’s gang of zealots and the delusional. We’ve seen record numbers of younger people engaged in politics and actually voting. It’s more about their future than mine. And we need a new kind of leader to take this forward and build on the momentum generated by this new blood. A person who’s shown he’s at his best when painting a better vision of the future for – dare I say? – the many, not the few. (His talents are wasted in opposition, where he doesn’t really shine.)

Jeremy Corbyn
A new PM for a new age

Step forward, Prime Minister-in-waiting, Jeremy Corbyn.

 

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Two Paths

Tomorrow, Britain faces what is, almost certainly, the most important general election of my lifetime. Two paths into the future are possible, depending on the choices we make. But hanging over the election are two dark and ponderous clouds. These are, of course, the impending EU negotiations and our reaction to the recent spate of terrorist attacks.

two pathsEU Negotiations

The first major issue will be the path we steer to leaving the EU (or not??), following the calamitous referendum result last summer. Neither of the party leaders has been straight with the British electorate on this point. Any conclusion to negotiations, short of changing our minds, will leave the UK worse off than now. The whole negotiation process is an exercise in damage limitation.

Recognising this, Jeremy Corbyn has been largely silent when it comes to reaching the “best” conclusion, or speaking of “success”. For this, Theresa May has accused him of being unpatriotic or failing to “believe in Britain”. These soundbites may play well as a dog-whistle to the Tory faithful – or, more cynically, to wavering Tory / UKIP voters. But the sheer vacuity of the comment exposes May’s own weaknesses. Her promise of a “successful” outcome means one of two things. Either she’s lying or she’s deluded.

Response to Terrorism

Following the shocking events in Manchester and at London Bridge, Jeremy Corbyn and other critics have challenged the government on cuts to police forces of 20,000 officers. Retired and serving senior police officers have explained the importance of community policing in building trust in communities. This is particularly important in areas where people feel marginalised and discriminated against.  The statement issued by Corbyn on Sunday evening was balanced, proportionate – even “statesmanlike” by one commentator.

By contrast, May’s reaction seems to have been twofold. Firstly, she has engaged in a series of personal attacks on Corbyn. These include questioning his patriotism and willingness to make hard decisions, often based on a distorted interpretation of remarks he has made in the past. (To his credit, Corbyn has not sunk to the level of personal attacks in return.) Secondly, she has made a series of what appear to be “on the hoof” policy announcements about the powers of police and security services. This smacks of panic and as an attempt to detract from her record over six years as Home Secretary and a year as PM. Comments about Human Rights legislation are particularly worrying. These seem to reinforce the strong authoritarian streak in May about which I have commented before.

The Leaders

All of which brings us to the contrasting personalities of the two leaders who could conceivably become Prime Minister on Friday.

Theresa May coffee

Theresa May has looked more and more uncomfortable as the election campaign has progressed. The first period was spent trying to build a personality cult: “Team Theresa”. We saw a series of set-piece speeches with selected party faithful hermetically sealed from the town or village outside. “Strong and stable” was the mantra repeated endlessly, to almost hypnotic effect. When May proved “weak and wobbly” over the social care spending cap, this entire strategy fell apart. Her “nothing has changed” squeaked out after this U-turn made her look like the proverbial rabbit in the headlights.

May’s now notorious lack of warmth has a number of consequences. Her inability to relate to people bodes ill for the EU negotiations. Her disastrous dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker got matters off to the worst possible start. His comment was “I leave Downing Street 10 times more sceptical than I was before.” Nicola Sturgeon described May’s lack of relationship-building ability in stark terms. “You literally go into a one to one with her and it’s like she’s reading from a script rather than having a conversation”, she said.

The same coldness means May’s personal support in her own party is thin, trusting and consulting with only a small circle of close confidantes. This could prove a serious problem when the going gets tough in negotiations. This also means that, too often, she is closed to wider advice. Many of her announcements seem to come as a surprise to the Minister responsible for the policy area: Education, Home Office and Foreign Policy spring to mind. Ministers support the party line on TV one day, only to find May has changed her mind the next. So the “Team” bit of “Team Theresa” is mostly a sham.

May’s wobbles, U-turns and panics during the campaign all seem to come from criticisms from the same quarter. The only pressure she responds to is her own right flank – the Incorrigibles as I call them – and the likes of the Daily Mail and other right-wing newspapers. She has never shown the slightest concern for other members of society – including the 48% of us who voted Remain. She’s deaf, too, to the particular concerns of those from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

May’s refusal to appear in a TV debate with the other leaders won her no friends and effectively killed off the “strong and stable” strategy. Her excuse – that she was too busy “preparing for Brexit negotiations” – was an open goal for an obvious riposte: “So why did you call an unnecessary election?” Theresa May just looks awkward most of the time these days, like she wishes she could be somewhere else. None of this bodes well for the next five – or two – years with May at the helm.

Jeremy Corbyn campaigningOn the other hand, Jeremy Corbyn seems to be enjoying himself. The crowds greeting him around the country seem to growing larger and more enthusiastic. For sure, he’s had some embarrassingly bad moments, Woman’s Hour being an obvious one. Corbyn stood up well to pressure in TV cross-examinations from Jeremy Paxman and the like. His interactions with members of the public appear to be genuinely warm and sympathetic. The one thing this campaign has given us, under media impartiality rules, is greater exposure to the actual Jeremy Corbyn, rather than the straw man caricature. (I see that that most rancid of rags, the Mail, is today throwing everything they’ve got from their hate-filled, distorting sewer, in an attempt to blacken the name of Labour’s leaders. Quelle surprise.)

It’s true that Corbyn is untested in high office, having spent his entire political career on the back benches until elected Labour leader nearly 2 years ago. But it does seem that the man has grown in stature during the campaign and he has said, somewhat modestly, that he’s giving the campaign “everything he’s got”. There seemed to be  a certain refreshing honesty in that remark. It seemed to have come from the heart, in contrast to May’s “I speak your weight” robot. And Corbyn does seem to have enthused and inspired significant numbers of younger voters, whose future is most at stake.

The Choice

And so, tomorrow, decisions are to be made, votes to be cast. The polls have been all over the place, but the odds still seem to be in favour of a Conservative win. Anything different will depend crucially on the turnout by younger voters, who appear to favour Corbyn by about a 3:1 ratio. I have no idea whether the apparent enthusiasm for Corbyn can be turned into a higher turnout from this notoriously “won’t vote” age group.

For me, the decision is simple. Two paths are open to the country tomorrow. The path to a win for the Tories leads to the certainty of economic pain and misery for most. Five more years of austerity, further deterioration to our underfunded NHS, schools and police forces, plus a continuation of the housing crisis. All this compounded with a disastrous outcome to the EU exit negotiations, with implications for generations to come.

The other path to a Labour victory is less certain. A Corbyn-led, more consensus-seeking approach to EU negotiations should lead to a less damaging outcome for our economy – if the City and the media give him a chance. But Corbyn at least offers the hope of a better future, particularly for those younger than myself.

Sadly, my vote will not count: like 80% of the country, the outcome in my constituency is not in doubt, thanks to our first-past-the-post system. But, token though it may be, my vote will be a small gesture towards the uncertain path to a fairer, more hopeful future.

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Which Theresa?

I’m confused. Which Theresa May is it we are supposed to be voting for?

Is it:

  • The “strong and stable” Theresa of Tory Party fantasies?
  • The serial U-turner Theresa who ditches part of her manifesto after only four days?
  • The “bloody difficult” Theresa who soured relations with key EU officials before negotiations even started?
  • The “financially competent” Theresa whose only costed manifesto policy is free school breakfasts – at 7p per pupil?
  • Or the scaredy-cat Theresa too afraid to debate with other Party leaders on live TV?

Which is it? I think we have a right to know before we vote!

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Curiouser and Uncuriouser

Just after she retired, my wife and I were at a social function. She was asked what she was now doing with her time. She replied that she was doing English Literature as a part-time student with the Open University. The questioner without hesitation responded: “Oh, I can’t think of anything worse!” This, as it turns out, is a great conversation killer! Where on earth can the conversation go from there?

Reflecting on this exchange some time later, I wondered why I felt at the time such huge contempt for her questioner. My conclusion was that the questioner and I are poles apart on one spectrum of human attitude: curiosity. I was appalled by the fact that someone would find offensive the idea of a mature woman gaining new knowledge and learning new skills.

Lifelong Learning

I started to think about the wider ramifications of all this. To start with, we all have some fundamental principles that underpin our outlook on life. Two of mine, relevant to this subject, are these. Firstly, the development of the human brain by the random march of evolution is a thing of wonder and celebration. Secondly, when it comes to the brain, I’m a firm believer in the “use it or lose it” principle.

Alice and the Mad Hatter

Just look around any primary school classroom. Just talk to, or observe, any 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9-year old child as they explore new things about the world. See the joy that comes from each new discovery, and the further quest for knowledge that it inspires.  Sadly, for too many of us, that joy, that quest for learning, withers and fades. But for many – and I like to consider myself as one such – that curiosity survives into old age. The popularity of adult education classes, of institutions such as U3A, of mature students taking degrees are all testimony to that. To quote a tired – but paradoxically energising – old cliché, “You’re never too old to learn!”

Left and Right

I’ve often pondered what underlying characteristics separate politically left-leaning from right-leaning people. It’s part of the old “nature versus nurture” debate. Perhaps it’s something to do with our faith in human nature. The right might take a view that, left to their own devices, people are selfish and can’t be trusted. The left, by contrast, may hold an unshakeable faith in the improvability of human kind. They criticize each other as being bitter, cynical and twisted or being hopelessly naïve and utopian. Such an analysis may explain a lot, but I think it gets us only so far.

argumentI think there’s another dimension, a spectrum which characterises the left-right character differences. And that’s this dimension of curiosity: the preparedness to use one’s own brain to challenge received ideas and think things through for oneself. My observations of human behaviour over nearly seven decades have noticed one thing in particular. Those on the right (politically and socially) seem much more prepared to take at face value the word of authority figures, such as politicians, doctors, priests and anyone in uniform. (Increasingly these days, these also include business leaders and the rich of all types.) The left are more prepared to challenge and seek alternative views on the subject.

This underlying difference has many manifestations. Divine revelation versus the scientific method. Theocracy versus secularism. Royalist versus republican. Tradition versus progress. Order versus creativity. Views on the environment and climate change. Rote teaching of facts versus “learning to learn”. Attitudes to race, gender and sexuality. Nostalgia for a mythical “golden age” versus optimism for the future. The welcome, or otherwise, for different cultures and the immigrants who bring them. Win-lose versus win-win. Daily Mail versus Guardian.

To sum up: “I have nothing to learn from you” versus “I welcome the opportunity to learn from you”.

Sticking Together and Schism

There’s a further point I’d like to make concerning this phenomenon. And that’s to do with political parties. It’s a well-observed fact that parties of the left love to have debates and schisms, factions and splits. It seems naturally easier for left-wing party activists to split and form a new party than split the difference. (Think Judean People’s Front in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.)

Sorry, I meant the People’s Front of Judea.

Parties of the right tend to keep their differences to themselves. Last year, nearly half of Tory MPs voted Remain. But with literally one or two exceptions, you never hear from them now. There’s a strong cultural pressure to stick together / avoid doing something that is “bad form” / don’t let the side down / support the regiment / rally round the flag / supply your own cliché. (The exceptions, of course, are the extremist right-wing parties like UKIP and the Front National.)

In addition to the huge disparity in funding, this phenomenon hugely disadvantages Labour and the left in UK elections, with our first-past-the-post voting system. To recall an old joke of two men chased by a lion, “I only have to run faster than you, not the lion”.

It Makes Me Cross

One last thing about all this that makes me cross. It’s when religious apologists rage against that non-existent oxymoron, the “militant atheist”. You know, the person who’s going to undermine all moral authority by brainwashing our children into becoming atheists too. All the atheists and humanists I know want nothing of the sort. We just want people to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions. The uncurious just don’t get that bit. So I say, rediscover your inner eight year-old. Try using your brain a little harder and discover something new. Test your opinion against some facts. You might even enjoy it.

“Curiouser and curiouser!” cried Alice. Well, amen to that, I might say!! (Or not.) And, by the way, Alfie, what is it all about?

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Who’s Playing Games Now?

A few weeks ago, Theresa May made a bid for the moral high ground by lecturing her opponents: “Politics Is Not a Game”. Indeed it isn’t. But she then played a cynical game by calling an entirely unnecessary general election. Following the tragic events in Manchester on Monday, she resumed hostilities by playing games with politics and the nation’s security.

Theresa Mat Andrew Neil
May losing it with Andrew Neil

At the G7 meeting yesterday, she is reported as saying “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault”. No he didn’t.  She went on to lecture Corbyn thus: “there can never be an excuse for terrorism, there can be no excuse for what happened in Manchester”. Corbyn doesn’t need the lecture, as his own words prove.

What Corbyn Did Say

I’ve read Corbyn’s speech in full. It’s available here courtesy of the New Statesman. It’s worth reading in full, but to counter May’s untruths, here are a few key extracts from his speech.

Corbyn spoke first of the shock and grief in the country and of people coming together and rallying around. He praised the public and people in public services:

“The people who we ask to protect us and care for us in the emergency services, who yet again did our country proud: the police; firefighters and paramedics; the nurses and doctors; people who never let us down and deserve all the support we can give them. And the people who did their best to help on that dreadful Monday night – the homeless men who rushed towards the carnage to comfort the dying, the taxi drivers who took the stranded home for free, the local people who offered comfort, and even their homes, to the teenagers who couldn’t find their parents.”

He went on to present his political vision of striving for peace whilst recognising the need for strong action when needed:

“I have spent my political life working for peace and human rights and to bring an end to conflict and devastating wars. That will almost always mean talking to people you profoundly disagree with. That’s what conflict resolution is all about. But do not doubt my determination to take whatever action is necessary to keep our country safe and to protect our people on our streets, in our towns and cities, at our borders.

There is no question about the seriousness of what we face. Over recent years, the threat of terrorism has continued to grow. You deserve to know what a Labour Government will do to keep you and your family safe. Our approach will involve change at home and change abroad.”

He then states that Labour in government would reverse cuts to police and emergency services. And then comes the part for which he was vilified – judge for yourselves:

“We will also change what we do abroad. Many experts*, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.”

(*He could have also mentioned Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.) The emphasis above is mine, but you get the point. He then makes a clear statement of support to the armed services and gives them a clear commitment:

“I want to assure you that, under my leadership, you will only be deployed abroad when there is a clear need and only when there is a plan and you have the resources to do your job to secure an outcome that delivers lasting peace.”

There follows some sections about unity, coming together and British values:

“Because when we talk about British values, including tolerance and mutual support, democracy is at the very heart of them. And our General Election campaigns are the centrepieces of our democracy – the moment all our people get to exercise their sovereign authority over their representatives.”

Near the end, he states his hopes for the conduct of the debate in the remaining days before the election:

“So, let the quality of our debate, over the next fortnight, be worthy of the country we are proud to defend. Let’s have our arguments without impugning anyone’s patriotism and without diluting the unity with which we stand against terror.”

Some hope, given the abuse already heaped upon him by May, other Tories and the usual rabid elements in the press!

Statesmanlike

Jeremy Corbyn
Corbyn on foreign policy

Reading the whole piece, I was left with the impression of a carefully thought out, intelligent and balanced set of arguments. This clearly is a moderate and nuanced speech which could have been made by any number of mainstream politicians in other parts of Europe. But not by “Team Theresa” with their shrill, ranting comments and their disowning parts of their own manifesto. The narrowing of the Tory lead in the opinion polls is clearly rattling them.

Who’s playing games with politics right now? It’s Corbyn who is looking statesmanlike, possibly even “strong and stable”. Dare one say it, even Prime Ministerial??

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Sub-Prime Crash 2.0

We are still recovering, painfully slowly, from the global economic crash of 2007-8. Average real pay is still below pre-crash levels, with only Greece performing more badly than the UK on this measure within Europe. I fear we now have the conditions in place to sleepwalk into the next crash. The 2007-8 crash started in the USA, the trigger attributed to the collapse in the so-called “sub-prime” mortgage lending market. In other words, mortgage companies lent money to people who, increasingly, were unlikely to keep up with the payments. The Tories under Cameron and Osborne seem to have successfully (and unfairly) laid the blame on the Labour Party, on whose watch the crash occurred.

financial crash graph

Assuming the Conservatives win on June 8th, I reckon there is a greater than fifty-fifty chance the next crash will happen on Theresa May’s watch. Only this time, the causes will be more home-grown. We don’t have the same set of circumstances as we had just before the last crash, but we have some very similar problems – and the lessons of the last crash have not been learned.

Household Debt

The level of debt in UK households has been climbing to a record high whilst savings have fallen to a record low. The number of County Court Judgements (CCJs) against debtors has hit a ten year high. And now real wages are falling again. The FT reported this last week, along with the assessment that the last ten years have been the worst for wage earners since the Napoleonic Wars 200 years ago. The economy as a whole has been growing at less than half the rate it did for the first 30 years after the war, when economic policies very similar to those in Labour’s manifesto were followed by Tory and Labour governments alike. Such growth as there has been in the last decade has been snuffled up by the richest 1% of the population – leaving the rest of us worse off than a decade ago. And that growth has largely been funded by more personal borrowing.

Sub-Prime 2.1: Credit Cards

On top of this, there are strong indications that banks and other financial institutions are finding new ways to lend recklessly. Low, or zero, introductory interest rates are luring more people into the credit card habit. As well as the increasing risk of default, companies have been flattering their accounts by a new piece of creative accountancy. They are including future profits from when the introductory rate ends in their current income and so are flattering their financial position. This practice is very similar to an accounting trick used by Tesco for which it was fined £129m by the Financial Conduct Authority, plus a bill of £85m compensation to suppliers.

The risk here is that finance companies engaging in this practice are giving a false (and flattering) account of their financial position.

Sub-Prime 2.2: Car Financing

Over the past few years, motor traders have frequently been in the news – good news – for announcing record car sales. Much of the growth can be attributed to a new way of financing the cost of the car purchase, known as “personal contract plans”. An article here includes a quote from a finance expert that “Borrowing is a very bad idea when it is done against a depreciating asset … such as a car,” adding that there was a “serious level of fragility built into the system”. Something similar is happening in the US, prompting the article Will Cars Be the Death of Us This Time?

Don’t be surprised if the wheels drop off of this wheeze sometime soon.

UK’s Unique Vulnerability

Add to all this, the UK is uniquely vulnerable to disturbances in the global financial system. In my 2015 post Two Gamblers and a Pint of Lager, I explained just how exposed the UK is, with our extreme over-dependence on financial services. With 1% of the global population, we have 37% of the most risky type of financial transactions. Total City trading gambles our entire annual national income every day and a quarter. The right word for such behaviour is “madness”.

So, all it would take is a bit of a shock to the system. If the opinion polls are correct, Britain will vote on 8th June for the maximum possible risk of the biggest shock to our finances since at least the 1970s, and probably since the Second World War. I’m talking about the distinct possibility of the UK crashing out of the EU without a trade deal. Prime Minister May has already ruled out staying in the single market by her obsession on immigration. Add to that May’s character: stubborn, inflexible and with strong control-freak tendencies – look at how the Tory election campaign is being hyper-controlled by a small team of close advisers. Together with her lack of understanding of European sensitivities, egged on by a rabid right-wing press, a vote for the Tories is the maximum risk choice.

Strong and stable? My arse.

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