Thursday, 18 August 2016

Don't laugh at the Labour Party, it's your problem too!

It used to be said that the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than to Marx. In fact the risk debt is to Fred Karno the man who designed  its constitution. Who else but Fred could have created a system in which the rank and file members hate the MPs, the MPs hate the leader and he hates the national organisation. It all seems specially designed to ensure that Labour stays in opposition forever. 

Indeed I think my D.Phil thesis "The Whigs in Opposition 1812 to 1830" was the best possible preparation for being in today's Labour Party. Of course my Whigs were very different to today's Labour Party They weren't as fractious.They were a party of aristocrats and gentlemen  in politics out of duty,not a desire to get their snouts in the trough.It's not even that they didn't have good leaders .In Fox,Brougham and Grey they had some of the best men around.

The comparison is apt because the Whigs were small,weak, divided on policy and totally unable to bring the government down,or even defeat any of its measures.The result was two decades of bad Tory government, political repression and economic depression until the Tory hegemony was broken, not by the efforts of the Whigs but by a people's revolt for parliamentary reform.

That's the perfect illustration of the consequences  of a weak opposition in our two party system. Political history abounds with others. An unelectable  opposition under Michael Foot allowed Margaret Thatcher to get away with anything she wanted,thus permitting the neoliberal revolution,the crushing of the miners  and the selling off of assets. 

The more divided the opposition the longer the hegemony of the other side, like the eighteen years of Tory rule from 1979 to 1997 and as for a split  of the opposition destabilises politics as  the death throes of the Liberals did after the First World War, leading to  the three party  confusion of the twenties and thirties.

So, Labour's problems aren't just the problem of those of us in the party. Civil war as a system of party management is  a crisis for the whole political system. Good opposition is essential for good government,which needs an effective opposition to keep it accountable and moderate.  The weaker the opposition, the stronger the government, the more it can get away with, and the less need it has to cleave to the centre ground. Like it or not, a great deal  depends on Labour's prospects. There are three possible scenarios offer.

Labour's civil war could continue. Both sides would rather fight each other than the Tories, making Labour  unelectable because at the very least voters expect the opposition to be able to form a viable alternative government not offer a bag of hyperactive ferrets fighting in a sack.Alternatively,one side wins and destabilises the party by purging the other. 

The left would concentrate on making Labour  the perfect leftist party,ideologically pure and totally unelectable. If it's the Blairite right, they'd go for a makeover and lobotomy, watering policy down so far Labour's  hardly worth electing.As a worst case, Labour could  break up. Then both sections are impotent,unless the electoral system is changed to proportional representation.Which it won't be.We'd have recreated the nineteen twenties.

With Labour self screwed it's all down to Theresa May..She must either be her own opposition and steel enough of Labour's clothes to stay in the centre Alternatively, she can veer right and dole out more neoliberalism with tax cuts for the wealthy. That would mean talking the talk of fairness but not walking the walk,rather like Cameron, the PR PM.

Her opening speech,which was almost New Labour,indicated that she'll do the first.That would be sensible and is what I'd hope. But then Mrs Thatcher began by expressing her  desire to "bring harmony where there is strife" and look how that finished up.

 So, with Labour in default,much depends on Theresa May.She leads a more right wing Tory party than Margaret Thatcher came in with so it won't be easy.Yet  with Labour in its present state the best,indeed only, hope is that she really meant what she said and that the sentiments of her first speech came from the heart, not the Tory Party PR department trying to make a dishonest woman of her.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Mobility of Labour with Brexit (the detail)

Free mobility of labour is going to be used against us in the exit negotiations. Unfairly.It doesn't apply to refugees,terrorist suspects or notifiable diseases and Schengen puts limits on it so they can avoid it when they wish,but imposing it on us will make Brexit less popular.

Mobility was written in when the EU had only six,then nine members It was perfectly: acceptable then because they all shared a similar standard of living and employment levels.Indeed a lot of mobility was going on already.Remember Peter Mayle?

Bringing in the poorer, former Communist states made everything different because they had far higher levels of employment and lower living standards. Germany was prepared to pay the huge cost of mobility and bringing the east up to the levels of West Germany.That was for kith and kin.They weren't prepared to finance every one else in the same way.

So the inevitable happened. The unemployed came west to work and enjoy the higher standards and the jobs they couldn't get at home. This has been made worse by the consequences of the Euro folly, pushing unemployment in Europe over 10% and youth unemployment over 25%.This makes Britain even more attractive , boosting our influx higher than everyone else's.

Don't get me wrong. Britain needs immigrants. Immigration stimulates growth.An ageing population needs an influx of youth to finance them (sand me) and keep the economy growing. We need their work ethic to do the jobs Poms won't. Many like the diversity.

The problem is that the natives weren't asked and don't particularly  like it. They feel health and education are under too great a strain and there isn't enough housing to go round.And they're right, because cuts and under investment have made all these services less adequate anyway

The answer is obvious. Emigration helps the poorer states,relieving their population pressures and reducing the burden of unemployment.So it's a form of aid.It costs us and strains our facilities. So why,if mobility is so important, doesn't the EU finance it out of their aid budget to help us provide the levels of service they deserve and bring health,housing and social services up to levels at  which they can cope.That will check the fears and jealousy?

After all the EU is prepared to pay billions to Turkey to take Europe's unwanted refugees, It already supports  Greece to cope with the floods It helps Eastern Europe to take their Quotas. So surely it's not too difficult to provide money to finance such an important principle, help the counties losing young people and provide for peace harmony and acceptance in Britain?. We could even accept more asylum seekers to seal the bargain.Of course we'd need full and free access to the single market in return to help us to keep growing  and provide for the jobs the new arrivals need. 

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Don't tell me class is a dead issue.

When I was a lad  class was easy to recognise. The working class wore flat 'ats, their wives headscarves.The middle class wore trilbies or cheese cutter caps for the young ones,and the upper class wore top hats, even at school and probably in bed. Much more difficult to recognise them now  in the range from Tee shirts and tattoos through New Look and Marks &Spencers to Saville Row because society has changed shape and what was a pyramid with a broad working class base has narrowed at the bottom and swelled out in the middle."We're all middle class now" some say.We're not.Sixty per cent of the population still describe themselves as working class though the boundaries are less clear..

Britain is still a divided society .The basic division isn't ethnic or religious, its class. The lower down the ladder you are the shorter your life, the weaker your health, the worse your education and the dirtier the deal you get from society. Britain is a country run for the benefit of the middle and uppers allowing them to live well on the backs of the people because we don't think there's enough growth and wealth  to provide for everyone and social advance has become a zero-sum game not a question of raising all boats. 

Thus it has always been. Except that from the turn of the last century the working class  began to receive the benefits of the industrialisation imposed on them in the nineteenth century.Things began to improve and after the Second World War they were rewarded for their sufferings in depression and war by the tilting the social balances towards them. Full employment, a welfare state, social reforms and economies run for growth. We"re their reward.

These never had it so good years came to an end when the postwar settlement fell apart because of inflation,industrial action and balance of payments problems in the seventies .The answer from governments driven by a revived neoliberal philosophy was to blame the workers and shift the balances back to wealth. Worker  power was broken by the castration of the unions and the end of full employment.Their welfare benefits were cut and house building of public rented properties for them largely came to a halt.

The sacrifices required by recession were placed squarely on working class shoulders not on the backs of those who'd caused the recession by their irresponsible greed, and the new approach became one of taking money from the workers to force them into work and give it to the rich as an incentive.The assumption was that they alone provided the dynamic of the economy so their enrichment would trickle down to the workers much as feeding more hay to horses generates more trickle down to feed the sparrows. Growth slowed . Its benefits went to the rich not to the workers whose incomes and living standards stagnated. 

Which is where we are today. A new gilded age in which wealth and the big corporations rule, the economy is under-run to keep the workers down, and growth pathetic. The workers are driven ever harder, their power to resist broken, and the rich greedily accumulating ever more, conservative government entrenched and Labour, the only party which might tilt the balances back even just a little, is broken by civil war.

What's more it's going to get worse.American research indicates that as growth has slowed since 1970 the bottom fifth of the population has got a smaller share of it and the top 1% far more. If this trend to inquality is allowed to go on then it becomes a zero sum game with the top groups growing at the expense of the bottom.Then you've got trouble. The only answer must be to boost growth , spread it more fairly and give more power to the proles all of which only the state can do. The market won't. So don't tell me class is a dead issue.

Monday, 8 August 2016

The great Brexit terror

The Great Brexit terror reminds me of  research I did in 1959 about fluoridation of water supplies in New Zealand.In the first town to put fluoride in its water supply to prevent tooth decay a terrifying picture was painted  of the likely effects:head ache, nausea,bone collapse ,cancer and blindness , F day arrived and complaints from people suffering all the foretold symptoms flowed in.Except that the fluoride hadn't arrived. F day had been postponed

It's much the same with Brexit.Remainers argue that we've made a terrible mistake which must be reversed. Their terrifying warnings are all materialising.Trade groups like cars and construction warn of rising prices and falling outputs and every emerging problem including several that would have happened anyway is blamed on Brexit. Yet it hasn't happened yet and won't for two years and more.

The fear manipulators have ignored  crucial facts. Any government will take corrective measures when the economy slows .Theresa May has already abandoned the deficit reduction programme and will borrow to finance essential work.The Bank will add even lower ,possibly negative,interest rates to this and  a new dollop of quantitive easing though this time the Bank should buy back government bonds issued to finance infrastructure work.

The fear mongersalso ignored the fall in the pound from its unsustainably high levels. This is already stimulating exports  and creating jobs in exporting industries  and has further to go.A competitive  pound makes exports cheaper and imports (and foreign holidays)dearer .That's the lesson we should have learned from the last Tory devaluation in 1992 when we were forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism That triggered growth and gave the economy a boost which lasted for several years 

As for the negotiations ;calm down dears.There's much less to fear than the nattering nabobs of the media like to pretend.They  want to build up tension while the scardy cats of the City,constantly fearful of loosing its Taxhaven on Thames role   prophesies disaster.It predicted the same in  1992 when we left the ERM and in 2003 when we didn't join the Euro.It was wrong then and wrong now. 

The City is in more danger from the greedy incompetence it showed  in the Green case and the dishonourable behaviour of the banks over rate fixing , than from any restrictions from the EU.It's best selling point has to be  efficiency and integrity not its willingness to collude in corporate swindles,tax avoidance and huge fees for selling British assets.

As for manufacturing it will keep its access to the single market.Britain is in deficit in manufactured trade So any restriction hurts them more than it hurts us,and in the unlikely event that theY impose the common external tariff against us the  devaluation will allow manufacturers to take it in their stride.So all we have to lose is the onus of supporting French agriculutral protectionism in every trade negotiation .That  will make country by country deals a lot easier. 

Which leaves immIgration We need it. It's a driver of growth but the numbers do strain education health,housing and social services. So why not accept freedom of movement on short and (for the skilled) long term permits,provided the EU  compensates us for the costs of upgrading the supporting services including housing That will  allow us to cope with the numbers coming with fewer social strains than we now have..

 Politically all that would work. The Scots and Northen Ireland will go along if they get a fair deal. The Tories are already coming back together and Mrs May has given the Brexit boys their chance to implement their dream. If they succeed she wins. If they don't she can always fudge up a new compromise to be put in a second referendum. So the real problem is not whether Brexit will work but whether  pro-EU opinion ,particularly in the Labour Party, will accept the necessary changes or whether Remainers will attempt to negate the verdict of the people by prolonging the fight over a decision that's been taken .

The death of two party democracy

The two party system has been so basic to British democracy for so long that it's difficult to realise that its dying and cant now serve its traditional purposes of criticising the government and providing an alternative government.

The symptoms  have been emerging for a long time but were ignored because parties still alternated and rascals were thrown out in the old fashion..Thatcher swept in as Labour lost control,Blair took over as Major failed, then Cameron,with a little help, took power in coalition. Yet behind the scenes the roots of the system were dying. Nine out of ten electors voted for one of the two alternatives in the fifties againsr two thirds now.Party membership fell from the millions to under two hundred thousand .The proportion of strong supporters fell.More people began to switch.

Then came the devastating loss of Labours majority in Scotland  where. Labour will fight win back seats as the SNPs romantic glow fades in the problems of power. Yet it won't again have the major contribution Scottish Labour MPs made to winning and holding power.Harold Wilson wouldn't have won in 1964  or 1974's first election,both building blocks to a majority.

 Labour could still hold power either in coalition with the nationalists or on the basis of support  on confidence as the Liberals relied on the Irish nationalists from 1910.Yet the two parties are bitter enemies on the Scottish ground and the Liberals could hold out the bait of Home Rule. Labour can't.

Beyond this lies a wider problem.Labour is ceasing to be one party. It may not split but its losing its base.The working class has shrunk, the middle class has grown  and is much better off. Affluence has killed altruism.Concern for the poor has been edged out by fear and dislike, faith in growth raising all boats has given way to a zero sum game in which working class gains are seen as a threat .This growing middle may not like greedy self enrichment at the top but sees scroungers and the work shy as a burden on its taxes.A meritocratic society cares less about those left behind,until they punched it by voting Brexit.

The old basic problems of depravation and want are more partial and the growing middle class is more nervous about threats from below,trade unions, higher taxes lower standards than  about the excessive rewards for those above.Indeed concerns about  pensions, house prices and  interest rates and their pawky investments cause it to identify up,not down

The BlairIte answer is to take Labour's core support for granted and reach up to the middle class and down to the properous south by accepting Thatcherism.balancing budgets and replacing general benefits by means tested meanness. Thus New Labouir delivered less to its people,a failure particularly obvious striking in housing, to appear respectable ,avoid frightening  the middle class and win the approbation of the City and the multinationals.

The left, on the other hand thinks Labour in government always betrays their principles.Having  nagged ,about this  for years they now control power and hope, by offering radical policies,greater equality  and a restoration of power to the unions, to bring back the mass working class support the party has lost.

The relationship between Parliamentaery party and the more radical  rank and file members has always been one of suspicion  but now that the lunatics have taken over the asylum mistrust has  exploded into civil war.Yetneither side is particularly attractive to the working class, the right because it offers only peanuts,  the left because of its sectarian obsessions with issues and causes of no real interest to the majority of voters.

Takes two to tango .If Labour prefers to do the Hokey- Cokey it becomes irrelevant.The precedents  are dire.When a party dies the obsequies destabilise decades as the Liberals did between the wars. If it splits it entrenches the Tories to do whatever they want, as we did Mrs Thatcher and Liberal split over home rule did Salisbury.If it's really feeble it can even allow six decades of Tory hegemony like those up to the Great Reform Bill. In fact, come to think of it my, D Phil thesis The Whigs in Opposition 1812-1830 was a brilliant preparation for being in the Labour Party.

Parliament: auditor to the nation

After being retired for a year I can admit that much of my work as an MP could have been done by a trained Orang Utan,provided he was backed by a proper staff.He'd have to be an energetic beast to cope with all the attendances at factories,functions,schools and events constituencies demand these days .He'd need a team of social workers to play the local ombudsman role and deal with all the problems that come up and he'd be well advised  not scratch to himself too much or put too many bananas on his expenses but otherwise he could replace many of us.

 He'd not need be too bright to read out the pre- prepared questions the whips hand out and listen to the media ready  answers.As for tramping through lobbies to be counted, that's  more a job for sheep but he could do it and his more brutish mates could be whips, though they'd need to be able to count up to 300 ( or a diminishing number on the Labour side) As for occasional,or even regular chest beating and swinging through the trees to get media attention, that would come easily to playful primates.

Yet one role which is developing fast, demands a higher level of intelligence than any political primate and provides more satisfaction than Parliamentary hack work .It's accountability, a function growing in importance and effectiveness to the point of offers a more challenging role for MPs and a more useful function for a Parliament which otherwise has little power beyond heckling the government steamroller as it drives over them. 

The Public Accounts committee has shown the way.Backed by the National Audit office with its 700 staff this has long been the best committee It certainly gave me more satisfaction than any other part of the job and has always had a vital role in ferreting out fraud and failure .The evidence is normally fed to it by the NAO. but in the last Parliament its chair,Margeret Hodge made it  tougher and effective,taking it into areas of concern where it forced the pace not the NAO. It hauled in the multi nationals such as Google Amazon and Starbucks and brought their tax fiddles to public attention. 

It highlighted tax dodging via Luxembourg and Ireland and the scandalous softness of Dave Hartnett,head of HMRC to Vodaphone and Goldman Sachs forcing him into retirement. It brought out the cheating and failures of  government contractors like A4E,Serco and G4S and the folly of the huge NHS computerisation which was scrapped after wasting billions.The privatisation of so many services and bringing business methods and people into education and health increases the risk of fraud and a public service which brings Sir Phillip Rose in to advise on economies is hardly going to be safe in business hands.The PAC has highlighted cases such as King's Free School in Bradford which might otherwise have been hushed up.

The price of honesty is eternal vigilance and while the PAC has shown the way its efforts are being shared by other  committees driven by effective chairs . Tony Wright and the Public Administration committee  changed Parliament for the better,Treasury under Andrew Tyrie toughened up government's attempts to dilute banking reform,  Home Affairs under Keith Vaz. changed government policies and Frank Field's forensic skills with two combined committees  brought Green and  the pillaging of BHS to book. Committee  chairs have become as important as ministers All have ventilated concerns which would othwise have been smothered by  government's obfuscation,dilitariness ,indulgence and PR

This angered the civil servants who were grilled and the  ministers who were criticised .Attempts were made to rein committees in via members briefed by minsters and departments but most interference was resented and rejected .On the PAC it was  beaten off by the skill of the chair and the swing vote of Richard Bacon a tough and  informed Tory who views integrity as an almost religious imperative. Government stopped trying to pack the committees as Gordon Brown had flagrantly done by removing every Labour member with a taint of Keynes from the Treasury Committee to turn it into an adoring chorus.The election of chairs by the whole house gave them a degree of independence they'd not had before.

Not yet perfect the system is still developing.Some chairs are creeps. Some committees plough boring fields.Politics and caution can muzzle as  they did Parliament's Iraq enquiries and a Security Committee which never hears or sees evil.Politics can triumph as  when I chaired a sub committee of the Treasury committee which reported that joining the ERM would be damaging, only to have another committee under Giles Radice reverse that verdict and proclaim membership as the best thing since sliced Frankfurt sausage

But election makes chairs stronger and more independent.MPs are beginning to feel that committees give them real power an interesting job, and a chance to influence policy.It's the most exciting part of an otherwise dull job. Which creates the prospect of developing the committees as a combination of continuous accountability and mini Royal Comissions which don't take minutes and waste years like their ponderous big brothers.That would raise Parliament's role from a stage on which the party battle is fought  to the more useful one of accountability with committees as the nation's auditors.

 Britain needs Such a reform.Compared to the USA our so called constitution provides few means of redressing grievances, unearthing scandals and failures,exposing the abuses of corporate power or bringing professional or business reprobates to justice.Government and business have massive PR machines,to put a rosy gloss on disaster.Hordes of libel lawyers lie in wait for the incautious.HMRC is understaffed,whistleblowers get punished and professional and business regulation is chaps regulating, and regularly excusing, chaps. Regulatory capture the Americans call it but it's the norm here.Even reprobates can be  regulators.Private Eye does its best but neither it,nor our underpowered Ombudspersons can cope withe scale of abuse and emerging corruption.

Why not  give the job to the Parliamentary select committees? Properly backed by their own research staff ,their membership decided by an independent panel,not the whips, their chairs supplied from short lists decided by the speaker and elected by the house they can do the job and become a powerful check.That would make the system accountable,protect the people,restore respect for Parliament and give MPs something more useful to do than playing Punch and Judy.