Thursday, June 30, 2011


Skipper in Hongkong for Couple Weeks

Yes, off to stay with my old friend Paul in his place of employment: Hongkong. Also will be visiting University Politics Department to see if we can establish a good connection.

Before the taxi whisks me off to the ordeal of long haul flying (not a good flyer), I do have two points to make about politics:

1. Seems clear to me Ed Miliband has thought long and hard about whether to support the unions' strike action and has judged public opinion will not support their action. He's also laying down a Blair-like marker that he won't pander to the unions; a risky strategy as they provide funding form his bankrupt party.

2. Interesting piece by Allegra Stratton today in which she suggests Tory backwoodsmen are muttering darkly about Cameron having effectively abandoned his reform programme, opting instead for safety first and survival.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Martin Bell's Killer Facts on Postwar Suicides

Went to see Martin Bell give a lecture at the Imperial War Museum North last night. His lecture, Death of the News, was a bit of a rambling, self indulgent affair but, given Bell's qualities as a communicator, it was well worth listening to. Two facts from it I'll never forget, they were like a slap in the face. Speaking of the cost of war, Bell pointed out that while the Falklands war coast only 256 service-men's lives, since then 569 former soldiers have taken their own lives. Bell also cited suicide rates among US Vietnam veterans; while half a million died, he claimed, unless I heard him wrongly, that twice that number have committed suicide.

I have done a limited web search on the topic and while it's still clear there is an acute problem, I'm not sure I can believe the horrific figure I thought I heard. Bell pointed out that in a few years time psychologists predict a bitter harvest from the Iraq and Afghan wars. A sobering and grim point about war which so many overlook. I wonder if the close involvement of civilian and children's deaths in modern, post imperial wars warfare, is a connection with this appalling wastage rate of ruined young lives.

On a slightly less sombre note, though an equal slap in the face, was supplied by the two guys to my left in the audience. I only mention their absurdity as I have never encountered it anywhere else in the whole of my life. I went to the lecture along with a journalist colleague who wanted to write an online article on Bell's lecture. She found a piece of paper on her chair and used it to record some notes, True, her paper did emit a certain crackle but not to any excessive degree I would maintain.

Suddenly the guy to the left of my colleague snatched up her paper and dramatically threw it on the floor. When she tried to retrieve it, he placed his foot on it so she could not. When I remonstrated with him after the lecture they both claimed the rustling paper was so loud they 'could not hear the lecture!' Such a claim, absurd in itself as Bell was using a microphone, was deemed justification for what in law, I guess, amounted to an assault and theft. As a teacher I want every audience member to take notes- some undergraduates don't bother, so I was a bit outraged by this inexplicable act. I advised them both to take course in anger management but my companion was furious at the sheer hooligan behaviour of apparently respectable people.

Monday, June 27, 2011


How Much Longer Can George Ignore the Signs?

Larry Elliott today rehearses a by now familiar refrain regarding the inevitability of the Coalition's U turn over deficit reduction. He points out we have seen them over: the sale of forests; reform of the NHS; and reduced sentences for guilty pleas. But it's not just a Guardian columnist saying this.

Paul Johnson, Director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) is saying something very similar in the current issue of Prospect. Elliott flags up the recent shocks to the economy: bursting of the private sector bubble; seizing up of the financial sector making it paranoid about lending; and the rapid rise in commodity prices which has fuelled a very unhealthy inflation. With banks and companies seeking to clear up their debts and individuals paying off their mortgages, there is no money left to invest and grow the economy.

So we see a bank rate of 0.5% having little or no effect on house sales- such a rate in theory is tailor made for one- and with consumers saving there is precious little being bought on the High St. Back in May 2010 the economy was still growing as a result off Labour's final bits of stimulation. Next came growth of 0.7 in the third quarter but then growth has been zero ever since with no sign of it recovering.

How much longer can Osborne manage to ignore signs which anyone who had read page one of 'How to Learn Economics' would recognise? The problem is that this is the U turn which dare not speak its name. It would not be called a U turn but would be instantly called one and Cameron's credibility, Osborne's and the Coalition's would be perhaps fatally wounded, leading possibly to the end of the government by this time next year.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


We Can't All Own a House at These Prices

I make n o excuses for reaching back for a topic to earlier this month when Andrew Rawnsley addressed the subject of housing. He referred to Thatcher as the champion of the so-called 'property-owning democracy' with her astonishingly successful 'right to buy' policy of selling council houses to tenants. Rawnsley notes the policy was designed to convert anyone who gained possession of property into a likely Conservative in spirit and deed. At the time Labour sought to rubbish the idea- what's wrong with renting a council house? they asked. But this didn't work and very soon they were on board too, selling council houses and urging the acquisition of property as a good thing.

I don't know a Labour supporter who did not want to own they own home, to avoid paying rent to parasitic landlords and to acquire an asset to be traded up, maybe cashed in though downsizing, when the kids leave home and, finally, passed on to them in the will. And for a while it worked well. I was able to buy houses in the seventies, initially for £4K, then £9K(about twice my then academic salary) and finally £28.5K in the 1980s; this was a stretch but just about doable. It was even tougher when the mortgage rate swung up to 15% and we had to take in student lodgers for a while. Left of centre folk saw property as the big dividing line in society:

The haves do; the have-nots don't. Once the mortgage is paid off, the haves possess a store of wealth and an inheritance for their offspring. The have-nots have nothing to show for a lifetime of paying rent and zip to leave to their children. By the end of New Labour's time in office, it had not only embraced the property-owning democracy, it had even set a target for it. Property was not theft – it was aspiration.

The consolation for paying high interest rates was that a nest-egg was accumulating, and faster than any pension fund. But at least high interest rates kept prices reasonably low for first tie buyers. Given supply and demand, falling rates at first boosted sales to young buyers but easy capital pushed up prices into a boom on more than one occasion. Rawnsley notes that:

A ghastly feature of each boom was the sound of middle-class home-owners smugly congratulating themselves on how much their houses were soaring in value as if this was testimony to their brilliant judgment rather than the simple good luck of surfing an asset bubble.

The backlash, of course, was that once prices rose high enough, 125% mortgages at six times salary were required to buy even an average priced house. Not such a problem when the banks were awash with credit but after the crunch, banks swung to the other extreme and home loans dried up. First time buyers now need a deposit of (usually) a quarter of the asking price and few youngsters can afford that. The average age of first time buyers has risen from 25 in the 1980s to 37 in 2011. It is still climbing.

The heart of the problem is that while 250 000 new households come on stream every year, only 100,000 houses are being built. Increase the number of new-builds, whether council or private sale, and prices will come down. In 1953 Harold Macmillan, as Housing minister established his reputation for rapid promotion by building 300,000 houses in one year. The present incumbent, Grant Schapps, seems an especially plausibly smooth young Tory but, I wonder, why doesn't some ambitious young tyro set about achieving a similar target and do everyone a favour?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011


Most Recent Poll Gloomy for all Parties

The Guardian's latest poll is pretty bad news for all three major parties. On the face of it Labour might disagree- two points up they now lead the Tories by the same margin. But as the paper's editorial points out Ed Miliband's personal ratings are deeply depressing for him and his party:

Only 28% of all voters, and just 45% of Labour supporters, think Miliband is doing a good job. His net negative is -21, down eight points since March. His rating is one point worse than Clegg's and 16 points worse than Cameron's. The Labour leader seems notably unpopular among older voters and men. His popularity ratings now resemble those of Iain Duncan Smith when he was leader of the opposition, and Miliband's rating is notably worse than those of William Hague or Michael Howard as opposition leaders.

Moreover, while 40% support the Coalition's economic policies are best, only 28% think the same of Labour's. This poll defines the huge mountain Miliband has to climb to raise himself from the miserable comparisons being made with the younger Hague's period as Leader of the Opposition not to mention that of IDS.

But that does not mean the Coalition can hug itself with glee at the results. 42% say Cameron is doing a 'good' job but now 47% say he is not, plunging him into 'negative' territory for the first time. His close friend George Osborne fares even worse; his -2 rating for m arch has shot up- sorry I mean down- to-12. As for poor Nick Clegg?

The deputy prime minister has fallen less fast, but only because he was already at rock bottom. His score is -20%, down two on March, with 54% saying he is doing a bad job, including 55% of people who voted Lib Dem in the general election.

While the government might breathe a sigh of relief that it bests Labour on the economy, 53% say they are 'not confident' about their financial situation, only 46% say they are, with Tory voters twice as confident as Labour ones. Labour, however, can take comfort in their leads of 7% and 5% respectively on their 'banker' issue of health and education.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Should the Lords be Elected?

Plans to reform the Lords are still a little vague. Clagg, still smarting from his AV debacle, hopes to garner some credit from this next constitutional foray, but it is by no means certain. The essence of the proposals is to maintain the same functions- debate, revision amendment- but to elect a 300 strong house for 15 year terms by PR. A variation of that, which now seems to be government policy is that 80% should be elected with the remainder appointed. Apart from the anomaly re PR- if one chamber why not the other?- these proposals have been severely criticised.

Lord Strathclyde, who appeared with Andrew Marr this morning, once opposed an elected House but is now in favour, arguing it will strengthen both democracy and the House itself. He hopes the first new members will be elected in 2015- Marr was sceptical. The opposition is indeed fierce. Root and branch reformers, claims new-boy Peter Hennessy:

believe that, if everyone engaged in legislating in the public’s name should be accountable to and removable by the electorate, a fully elected chamber is the only answer. The 'physicians'(moderate reformers), who have a feel for the consequences for Parliament as a whole, sense that the Coalition’s range of proposals are dripping with unintended consequences. Echoing Sir John Major’s point that the answer to the Lords’ problems is not more politicians, they stress the indispensability of having, somewhere in the parliamentary cycle, a group who are there primarily because they know things, rather than believe things

Thew fear is that an elected Lords will clash with the elected Commons and gridlock will result. The beauty of British government, compared with, say, US government, is the ability of the executive to take firm action. A clash of 'legitimacy', especially for a PR elected chamber, might subvert this quality. Moreover, the Commons itself might well veto such a reform. Hennessy's further point is that the glory of the Lords is its protean blend of experience and brilliance. This is the result of appointment; having to suffer a bruising election campaign would probably scare off most of these people from standing and democracy would be the poorer for it. People like Lord Norton, also oppose the plans whilst 'radicals' like Chris Mullin, oppose it on the grounds that it would undermine the authority of the Commons:

I can’t say that I'm overjoyed at the prospect of the Lords being filled with C list candidates who have failed to get into our end of the building – or rejects from the Scottish, Welsh or European parliaments. The idea that a wholly elected house will be any more democratic than the present arrangements is likely to prove fanciful since the odds are that it will involve some sort of list system and inclusion on that list is likely to require the imprimatur of the party leader in any case.

Simon Jenkins, who seems to gravitate to the right by the day, argues that an elected house will be a 'whippable' house and so reduce the dose of genuine democracy the present Lords provides. On balance I'm against an elected house too, for the above reasons.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


It's Early Days Still for Ed but he Must Raise his Game Soon or Risk Being Replaced

Well, it's been quite a week for Ed Miliband. Those revelations in the Telegraph suggested Ed had co-authored the coup against Blair in September 2006.

To be fair, Ed Balls came in for most of the apparent blame, but Ed cannot escape his past as a member of that tribal clique around the former prime minister. This would not have been so bad if Ed had not completely flunked PMQs on Wednesday, when Labour MPs, licking their lips at the expectation of the roasting Cameron would receive for his recent U turns over NHS and sentencing, had to watch, horrified, as Ed meandered feebly ion front of an open goal.

Then came the leaked speech his brother would have given had he won the leadership contest. Of historical interest only? Not really as David would have accepted some culpability for the economy's weakness and offered a reasonably clear way forward. Then came the4 Sundays with sniping articles and magisterial editorials telling him he wasn't performing to a high enough standard. The Observer cleverly led with a paean of praise to a vigorous act of opposition- that of Rowan Williams, and compared it to what Ed has so far managed.

The challenge for the Labour leader is much stiffer. In an age of presidential politics, he must turn himself into a person who inspires both trust and hope. In an era of deep scepticism about politicians, he must fashion his party into one that voters will want to return to power. On all those counts, he has a mountain to climb and is still only at base camp.

It has to be said that to date Ed has not really seemed presidential, prime ministerial or even like a leader of the Opposition. One of the key problems he faces is that the real opposition seems to be part of it: the Lib Dem bit. It's Nick Clegg's battle against Lansley's plans and the obdurate rightwing Tories who wish to see his forever seen off. Ed Miliband's voice has been lost in all that activity and diminished whatever attempts he has made.

This is not to say he needs to create a detailed paln so far ahead of the next election but he needs to indicate some themes, values and objectives designed to win back some of thoswe millions who deserted Labour during the past decade. Ed's job may be one of the toughest and most thankless in politics, but to win the next election he must appear to be a more effective leader or he will soon feel the hot breath of his would be usurpers on the back of his neck. One is clearly Ed Balls and the second, who knows, might even be his brother David.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Dangers of Making NHS a hoistage to Shameless Face of Capitalism

Interesting piece in Oberver regarding NHS plans. An advisory report by Sir Stephen Bubb is due out this week and the indications are that the coalition will accept its recommendations wholesale. However senior Lib Dems have flagged up their great concern overe Bubb's conflict of interest:

Lib Dem spokesman John Pugh told the Observer he believed there was considerable doubt over whether Sir Stephen Bubb, the expert responsible for the body's conclusions on competition, was sufficiently neutral over the issue. Bubb leads the Adventure Capital Fund, which provides finance for "third-sector" organisations for a return on its investments. Its highest-paid director receives £140,000 a year, according to Companies House, and its clients would stand to benefit from further competition between health care providers.

I can sense a full scale row over this breaking out with rightwing Tories gnashing their teeth in frustration at their 'yellow bastard' partners. Personally, I was very concerned after reading Peter Wilby on the Southern Cross debacle. Wilby explains how private equity buyouts, a feature of the noughties, took advantage of the unregulated 'private' status of companies compared with public ones. He explains how a US private equity firm bought up Southern Cross and then 'did the business':

Care homes were attractive because they seemed to offer a guaranteed cashflow and an expanding market. Blackstone, a US private equity firm, bought Southern Cross for £162m in 2004, offered shares on the stock market at a total valuation of £423m in 2006, and sold its last stake in 2007, when the value was £770m. Now Southern Cross is worth barely £10m. Blackstone's trick was to sell some of the homes to property firms, raising oodles of money, and lease them back. Now Southern Cross can't afford the rent, while councils can't pay higher fees and would prefer to keep more old people in their homes. This week, Southern Cross announced 3,000 job losses, arguing implausibly that care standards.

Other countries- France, Germany, Ireland- involve private sector provision in their health systems but I suspect their involvement is carefully regulated. This is very necessary as Southern Cross, letters writ hugely large- illustrates the awful vulnerability of a health service to the shameful get mega-rich quick financiers when they see an opportunity. Thousands of old people are now thrown into limbo as a result and I who do you think will end up paying the bill run up to make odious people very rich? The state, the taxpayer of course.

Friday, June 10, 2011


Brown's Team to Eject Blair Led by Balls Say Telegraph leaked Documents

This latest revelation by The Telegraphabout the role of Ed Balls in 2005-6 in allegedly 'leading the coup' against Tony Blair. Balls denies any involvement but the evidence s pretty clear and plentiful too in the form of the documents leaked to the Telegraph.

It seems that Balls was the organiser of a team of six, including Ed Miliband, Douglas Alexander, Spencer Livermore, Ian Austin and the ever faithful Sue (now Baroness)Nye.Each was given an areas of responsibility in effecting the transition of Blair to Brown as soon as it could be managed. The September 'coup' has been chronicled by Mandelson in his Third Man; Blair in The Journey; Seldon in Blair Unbound; and Rawnsley in The End of the Party.

All except Mandelson have been on the airwaves to confirm that the leaked papers merely confirm all the details already gleaned from interviews with the more objective participants. Balls sounds disingenuous in his denials: they were merely working to facilitate the transition; everything he did was open and above board. Rather like the Conservative Party under early Cameron he is working hard to detoxify his brand as a 'Machiavellian' plotter and schemer. While he may do so to a degree acceptable to his party, I doubt he'll change the view of future historians.

Does it matter? is it merely exhumed recent history? Yes and No. Labour still suffers from a very poor image in the wake of its 13 years in power. Osborne has succeeded in hanging the deficit around Labour's neck and we may be sure that as well as Balls, Ed Miliband's complicity in turfing out Blair will surface in the 2015 election. The Tories will congratulate themselves on this knowledge and availability of the Opposition's dirty washing. But the election is four years away and much can be forgotten by then as well as the likely surfacing of likely differences within the Coalition. But today has not been a good day for Labour.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011


Is Anglo-US Culture an Augury of Decline and Fall?

I was intrigued by Larry Elliott's Monday piece on the Decline of the American Empire. He ran through the depressing economic statistics- nearly 10% unemployed, one in six supported by food satmps, a huge government deficit- and flagged up the traditional American optimism that the biggest economy in the world with the best universities, will be able to ride these troubles and emerge on top as ever before. But Elliott deploys the analogy of the decline and fall of Rome, as chronicled by the master historian Edward Gibbon. He enumerates the similarities between the fall of Rome and indeed, the decline and fall of the British empire:

The experience of both Rome and Britain suggests that it is hard to stop the rot once it has set in, so here are the a few of the warning signs of trouble ahead: military overstretch, a widening gulf between rich and poor, a hollowed-out economy, citizens using debt to live beyond their means, and once-effective policies no longer working. The high levels of violent crime, epidemic of obesity, addiction to pornography and excessive use of energy may be telling us something: the US is in an advanced state of cultural decadence.

He points out that such decline is late to be recognised: in the case of Spain it was Britain who challenged; in the current case of the USA, it is China which challenges. We all know power has been shifting to the east for well over a decade but I was fascinated to see the parallel drawn between the augury of Rome's bread and circuses together with its imperial self indulgence with our own culture of fast food, reality shows, infantilised sexuality, celebrity vacuity and the rest. So are we all unwittingly living in the twilight period before the walls of our civilisation come crashing down? I do hope not.

Saturday, June 04, 2011


Trouble Swirls Around Key Coalition Issue oif Health Reform

The Economist's Bagehot diagnoses 'blood' flowing within the Coalition and prescribes the need to staunch it. Liberal Democrats are feeling awfully depressed following their loss of council seats and any prospect of voting reform this side of the next half century. This explains why they are giving the NHS reform legislation such a mauling. They hope giving the Tories a bloody nose on such a visceral core issue, will remind people of their existence and write large their vital influence as a check on the nasty party with whom fate has decreed they must in other ways support. Bagehot argues:

Modernisers around David Cameron have spent the past year arguing that, when times are hard and tough policies are needed, a coalition government is a better vehicle for promoting radical reform than a purely Tory government would have been, especially one hobbled by a narrow parliamentary majority. As modernisers tell it, because voters can see two parties from different political traditions thrashing out policies together, they are more willing to accept that the coalition’s bolder plans are in the national interest, and are not just a plot by “nasty” Tories.

Well maybe their analysis is correct but the present situation does not make it quite so clear. As the columnist points out later on in his article:

Were Conservative modernisers right to argue that two-party government makes difficult reforms easier to pull off? Or has the NHS row confirmed a deeper Tory hunch: that just as leopards have spots, Lib Dems are perfidious and sneaky, making the coalition an obstacle to bold policymaking? There is something to the first argument and, alas, the second too.

Maybe solidarity around the deficit, education and a new welfare benefits shake-up balance out the Lib Dem awkwardness over the NHS, but health is a 'sacred issue' and might even bring about the end of the coalition experiment. The worrying case of Southern Cross doesn't help one little bit. A major aspect of the Lansley NHS plan is a closer involvement of the private sector. However we see that in the care home area, where the private sector has been heavily involved form many years, this company has mismanaged its affairs spectacularly with the result that the welfare of thousands of old and vulnerable people have been put at risk. My feeling is that even more 'blood' will flow over this issue in the very near future.

Thursday, June 02, 2011


How Not to Get Promoted

I don't often read the Daily Mail but my eye caught an article useful for my research on 'ministerial promotion'. It's about Crispin Blunt (pictured) the prisons minister, who, it seems has allowed a prisoner to father a child with his partner via artificial insemination. According to the piece, Blunt is known as 'dead man walking' already as a result of his numerous gaffes since in office.

This latest is interesting as it was a gaffe politically, yet seems quite reasonable to those who think Article 8 of the Human Rights Act entitling prisoners to a 'family life' is perfectly defensible. Maybe morally and legally it was a decent thing to do but politically it was certainly something of a gaffe. Why? Because it violated the thinking of the splendidly bigoted readers of the Daily Mail to whom Tony Blair and his successor made such frequent obeisances. As the only newspaper in the last decade to continue expanding sales, politicians look to it as the mouthpiece of election winning voters. Blunt should have spotted this one coming and failed. This will almost certainly end his chance of promotion.

In a recent Radio 4 broadcast Michael Heseltine, talking about promotion, said:

You have to have a nose. You have to be able to spot, to smell the bomb to keep you away in these files. So there is no escape from hard work, if you try to skate over the surface something will blow up and it would be your fault and you can’t afford many of those. So, the nose for trouble!

Mr Blunt, it would seem would fail the Heseltine 'nose' test and I confidently expect him to be reshuffled out o office in the expected summer reshuffle.

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