Friday, 29 July 2016

Not as special as they think

The man who wrote the infamous Article 50 allowing a member-state of the EU to opt out said this week that it was never his intention that it would actually be used.  It was only ever intended to keep the UK quiet and stop them moaning that there wasn’t a way out even if they never wanted to use it.  And when the then Labour government sought the inclusion of such a clause, they never really wanted it either; it was all about showing how tough they were being and how nothing was irrevocable – a way of making the Lisbon Treaty more palatable for a sceptical audience at home.  In short, it was a classic piece of spin rather than a serious statement of intent.
By way of retaliation and amelioration, the others agreeing to the inclusion of such a clause deliberately left it vague and imprecise, and it was always clear that the underlying intent was to make it difficult, not easy, for any state to opt out.  It is against that background that we need to judge to what extent we should trust or believe those who argue that, of course, the other EU countries will want to make the UK’s exit as smooth as possible. 
Simply reading the UK press, one could be forgiven for believing that the UK is so special and exceptional that the other 27 members will be only too happy to be flexible to suit us, but going into a negotiation with that sort of attitude and approach has a pretty negative impact elsewhere.  Of course it’s true that the UK will remain a valuable trading partner for the EU even after Brexit, but from a more continental perspective, the UK is nowhere near as special or unique as our home-grown politicians would like us to believe.  There are, as it were, plenty of other and bigger fish to fry.
Added to that is a degree of frustration – again a result of the UK’s continual attempts to demand a ‘special’ status – that for years the UK has been an obstacle to the progress which others would like to make, and now, from their perspective, the UK seems to want them to put everything on hold once more while it dithers about when to even start the process.
I don’t expect much to change; those who consider themselves ‘special’ are rarely able to see things from the perspective of those who they consider ‘not special’.  But I will be rather less surprised than they are if they don’t get the outcome that they’ve been promising so glibly.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Changing positions

In March 2014, prior to the Scottish independence referendum, the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, said very clearly that if an independent Scotland and Greater England were to follow different policies on immigration, then border controls between England and Scotland would be inevitable.
Two days before the referendum on membership of the EU, the same Home Secretary pronounced with absolute certainty that border controls between the north of Ireland and the Republic would be ‘inevitable’ if the UK voted to leave.
Two weeks after becoming Prime Minister, she visited the north of Ireland and announced that border controls will definitely not be introduced.
What can we conclude from this (other than that her position on any issue is more likely to be based on the need for short term political advantage rather than any principle or strategy)?
The BBC’s reality check web site says that the truth about borders probably comes down to the detail of the terms under which the UK leaves the EU.  I’m prepared to accept that that’s a reasonable conclusion.  But since those terms are not yet known, we can only conclude that the latest statement from the PM can only have the same degree of credibility as the previous two – i.e. not very much at all.
At present, I can see no way in which there can be free movement between Ireland and the rest of the EU, free movement within the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK, and no free movement between the UK and the rest of the EU.  Going via Ireland might be the long way round from Paris or Berlin, but it looks like an easy passage.
Of course, if the negotiations result in continued free movement between the UK and the EU, the question doesn’t arise.  A lot of the ‘leavers’ might then feel that they’ve not gained very much though.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Finding the real culprits

Demanding that Sir Philip Green should be stripped of his knighthood, as several Labour MPs have done, is an easy way of attracting a headline or two.  It avoids the need for proper discussion about what changes might be needed.  It also fits the prevailing narrative about ‘holding people to account’, and demanding ‘justice’ - although scapegoating seems a better description to me.  It doesn’t actually help the employees or pensioners of the company, though.  Worse, I’m also not convinced that they’re going for the right target, as opposed to the easy one.
As far as I’m aware, no-one has yet suggested that Green has broken any laws – if that situation changes, then clearly he should be brought before the relevant courts and dealt with.  The suggestion is, rather, that he has been incompetent, reckless, greedy, or perhaps lacking in a sense of morality and decency in the way he has treated the staff involved.  All of those things may or may not be true; but the question about how this was allowed to happen stands.
BHS isn’t the only company facing a huge pension deficit; there’s a similar issue facing the employees of Tata and many other companies.  What we should be considering is how these pension deficits have arisen, and what we need to do to prevent more of them.  Pensions is a complicated issue, and expecting our MPs to turn their attention to that instead of seeking easy headlines looks unrealistic; but if pensions deficits on this scale can be so commonplace and entirely legal, surely the people we should be looking to ‘hold to account’ in the first place are those responsible for lax legislation and regulation – i.e. the MPs themselves.
There are a number of different things which have led to the scale of some of the pension deficits.  One of those was the change in the taxation regime for pensions introduced by Gordon Brown, and voted through parliament by – the Labour MPs now demanding action against Green.  The problem with Brown’s changes wasn’t that they were wrong in principle, but that they came without warning and were introduced in a single year.  There was no opportunity for adapting to the new regime or to phase in changes (including increased contributions).
A second issue is the requirement – again imposed by parliament – for pension funds to publish details of their funding situation as though they were about to be wound up.  The logic of this is entirely sound (and it’s a valid basis in the case of BHS), but for most pension funds, this accounting basis is both unrealistic and significantly exaggerates the scale of any likely deficit.
But another, and the most pertinent in the case of Green, is that employers can get away with making inadequate contributions to the fund, sometimes over a long period.  When I first joined a pension scheme, too many years ago, I remember being told that it was really ‘deferred salary’.  That is to say, the contributions being made by my employer were part of my overall salary, put aside to guarantee certain benefits in retirement.  From this perspective, the failure of any employer to make and maintain adequate payments over the long term (accepting that there are sometimes short term issues which can lead to a temporary shortfall) to meet the commitments given to staff is like failing to pay staff the wages due to them.  But the latter is a crime; the former is not.  Why not?  Again, we have to turn to our parliamentary representatives if we want to know who to blame.
Demands by MPs for tokenistic action against an individual may indeed make good headlines – but they also divert attention from the real culprits, the lawmakers themselves, who have consistently failed to ensure that the legal framework for pensions simply does not allow unscrupulous employers to get rich at the expense of their staff and pensioners.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Conflicting facts

According to those who support leaving the European Union:
·         the UK is an important market for the other EU countries, so it is in their interest to allow continued full access to the single market,
·         leaving the EU will allow the UK government to give state aid to industries such as steel, which they cannot do currently under EU rules,
·         the UK can negotiate a free trade deal with China without having to consider the interests of 27 other EU members, and
·         the UK can impose tariffs on products, such as steel, which are being dumped at less than cost price by our competitors.
I don’t disagree with any of those statements in principle; they are all ‘true’ as far as they go.  The question, though, is whether and to what extent they can all be true in practice at the same time.  It appears that many of the Brexiters seriously believe that they can, but it looks like a highly unlikely proposition to me.  For instance, why on earth would the 27 remaining member states allow a free market with another state which was providing state subsidies to its industries in order for them to compete on price?  It would be self-destructive for them to do so.
But that unshakeable belief that ‘the world will come to us and deal with us on our terms’ is at the very heart of the problem; there is an exceptionalism which has dogged the UK’s membership of the EU from the outset – always seeking opt-outs and exclusions; rebates and special terms.  That separateness and superiority which characterises the UK’s approach to the world stage probably stems from an unwillingness to let go of the imperial past.  It’s a perspective which was certainly reflected in some of the rhetoric about being a ‘great trading nation’ and looking again to the Commonwealth.
Perhaps the shock of Brexit will finally bring a healthy dose of reality about the UK’s place in the world.

Friday, 22 July 2016

The genesis of parties

The first embryonic political parties in the UK were born inside the House of Commons itself as the members of that institution formed themselves into groups around different opinions or personalities.  For generations, the bodies which formed outside parliament in support of the parties were known as ‘associations’ rather than parties; each constituency would have its own ‘Conservative and Unionist Association’ or ‘Liberal Association’.  These bodies existed to support the parties, but were not formally part of them; the parties only existed inside parliament itself.  The idea that anyone outside parliament could join the Conservative Party is a novel one, which has existed for a few decades at most.
In this view of the world, MPs are elected to express their own opinions freely, not to represent the views of any outside group or party; and they are answerable to the electorate as a whole not to any party or other sub-section of the electorate.  That view of the world is, effectively, what the unwritten constitution decrees.  And from this perspective, it is indeed outrageous, as Owen Smith seems to be saying, that members of a political party outside parliament should ever dare to think that they can hold their elected members to account, let alone replace them with people closer to their own views.
However, what this man claiming to be steeped in Labour traditions and values seems to be forgetting is that the Labour Party did not originate in the same way, but had a very different origin.  The Labour Party was started outside parliament, as a movement to give expression to interests and opinions which were not represented inside the legislature.  It was a movement which sought to change the world, not merely run it better, and it was a movement owned and controlled by its members at large, not by the tiny minority of them who would ever become members of the legislature.
From that perspective, the anger of many ordinary members at the outrageous behaviour of a tiny minority of members – who just happen to be the party’s voice in the legislature – who are unwilling to accept the decisions of the membership, let alone attempt to represent them, is entirely understandable.  Why wouldn’t people who feel that way seek to replace people who they see as being out of touch with their views and concerns?  And why should they not have every right to do so?
One of the things which Labour’s current row is highlighting is the extent to which that party’s elected members have signed up to the idea that they are answerable only to the electorate at large, not to their party.  This blind acceptance of the constitutional status quo is nothing new, of course.  (And it isn’t only true in relation to matters constitutional either.)  It’s been true for most of the party’s history, even if it hasn’t always been as obvious as it has been over the past few decades.
It would be a brave person who would predict the outcome at this stage, but it is at least a possibility that two parties will emerge from the wreckage.  One of them will be a party belonging to the membership, run largely outside parliament but with a phalanx of perhaps 30 – 40 MPs as its parliamentary wing – a bit like the original Labour Party.  The other will be a party with perhaps 170 or so MPs, but with virtually no organisation outside the legislature itself.  Like the Tories of old, this will be a party born inside the legislature rather than a result of political activity outside, seeking to form support groups to do their bidding at election time.  And looking at the policy positions of most of them, that won’t be the only similarity with the Tories.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The greater of two evils

Poor Owen Smith.  People are being a bit beastly to him over a press release which he issued some years ago when he was working as a lobbyist for Pfizer.  It certainly seems to be clear that the press release in question expressed support for greater privatisation in the NHS; I can’t see how anyone can seriously deny that.  But the man himself has also been absolutely clear that he has always believed in the idea that the NHS should be free.  The problem is that people are having difficulty reconciling those two statements.
However, in fairness to him, it seems perfectly simple to reconcile the two things; at that time, he was speaking for his employer and expressing the employer’s opinion, but now he’s speaking as a politician and expressing his own views.  All perfectly straightforward and obvious.
The part I don’t understand though is this: why would anyone think that being willing to argue and lobby for a privatisation which you fervently oppose simply because you’re being paid to do so is somehow a lesser sin than actually supporting privatisation because you think it’s the right thing to do?  I’d have thought that was a bigger problem for a politician claiming to be principled, not a lesser one.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Who created the chaos?

There’s an old joke about three people arguing about which is the oldest profession.  The engineer said, “Just look at the universe.  It’s a masterpiece of engineering – god is obviously an engineer.”  The architect disagreed, saying, “The bible says that god created order out of chaos; that requires planning.  God must be an architect.”  The politician trumped both of them with one simple question – “Ah, but who do you think created the chaos in the first place?”
What brought that to mind this week was the Labour leadership contest.  There’s something more than a little Orwellian about the two challengers being so totally at odds about which of them is the ‘unity’ candidate; but every time I hear that word ‘unity’ being spoken by a Labour MP, the question which crosses my mind is simply, “Ah, but who created the disunity in the first place?”

Friday, 15 July 2016

Where can we find them?

A core part of the case for leaving the EU was that the UK could negotiate its own trade deals with countries outside the EU, rather than being dependent on reaching a deal which satisfied all 28 members. It’s one of those stories which is entirely ‘true’, but which isn’t exactly the whole truth.
In the first place, it obviously requires the services of a significant number of skilled and experienced trade negotiators to hold simultaneous parallel negotiations with a number of other countries and trading blocs; but in the second place, on the question of principle, I never really understood why anyone would believe that a country with a population of 65 million was going to get a better deal with all these other countries than a trading bloc with an internal market of some 500 million. It just seems counter-intuitive, somehow.
Anyway, back to the question of these skilled and experienced trade negotiators. The first and most obvious problem is that the UK doesn’t currently have many of them – perhaps none. The simple reason for that is that we haven’t needed them for most of the past 40 years; trade negotiations have been handled collectively by the EU rather than individually by the member states. So we’ll need to recruit some – but from where?
I quite liked this story a couple of weeks ago. I suspect that the offer was made with tongue firmly in cheek, but New Zealand was offering to ‘lend’ the UK its own top trade negotiators for a while to see the UK through its immediate problems. That might work, although the problem is more than a short term one. A long term future outside the EU will require more than borrowing a few experts from the other end of the world for a few years.
If I were looking to recruit the right people for this role, I think I’d start in Brussels. That’s where we find some of the most experienced negotiators, and many of them will have the language skills as well. Poaching them might mean offering them more than they’re currently being paid, of course. But the delicious irony here is that the pro-Brexit ministers newly appointed to look after these issues, fresh from a campaign in which they have been arguing for controls on immigration from the rest of the EU might find that one of their first tasks is … to recruit people from other EU countries to fill key roles in trade negotiations.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

The safety of the frying pan

The UK’s new Prime Minister has been referred to many times in recent days as someone who ‘campaigned for Remain’.  This seems to me to be an extremely loose use of the word ‘campaigned’.  As I recall, she said little or nothing during the campaign, save to broadly agree with the anti-immigration line of the Leavers; and there was speculation about which side she’d support right up until the formal start of the campaign.  I’ve wondered throughout whether the tag of ‘reluctant remainer’ should not have been ‘secret leaver’; someone who chose, perhaps simply out of loyalty, to state her support for the official position of the then government and prime minister without really believing it.
Whether that’s true, or whether it’s simply the zeal of the convert, the placing of prominent anti-EU figures in key positions of influence over foreign relations looks to me to be a clear indication of her determination to press ahead with Brexit, regardless of what emerges during negotiations.
It also looks as though the government’s economic policy will change significantly; the ideological commitment to ‘austerity’ is quietly being sidelined, and the rhetoric looks likely to change.
Calls for a new election because none of us voted for the new PM are the natural but misplaced reaction of opposition parties – after all, outside of the Witney constituency, no-one voted for Cameron either.  The UK does not operate a presidential system of government (although personally, I’m attracted by the idea of separate elections for the legislature and the executive); we elect a parliament from which a PM is then chosen, and there’s nothing to stop any party of government changing its leader (and therefore the PM) at any time. 
There is though a much better argument for holding a new election; if the ‘new’ government jettisons much of the manifesto on which all the MPs of the outgoing government were elected, then that is a change compared to what we voted for.  And economic policy was central to the Tories’ manifesto just a year ago.  I’m not sure how good an idea a new election is though; I wouldn’t care to predict the likely outcome.  Jumping from the pan into the fire might not turn out to be the brightest idea.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Rules and regulations

The Labour Party faced a very difficult decision yesterday in interpreting its own rules as to whether Corbyn did or did not need to collect sufficient nominations from MPs and MEPs in order to be a candidate in the forthcoming leadership election.  The issue may yet end up in court for a final determination as to the ‘correct’ interpretation of a rather vague piece of wording.
I’m not without some experience in the area of rules and regulations for party governance – during my period as chair of Plaid Cymru, interpreting the rules went with the job.  There were always those who felt that there were too many rules or that the rules were over-complex, but one thing that I learnt over the years was this: as long as members of an organisation behave in a comradely fashion, respecting the values and ethos of the organisation, you basically don’t need many rules at all. 
Rules only become essential when one or more members decide to seek advantage, whether personal or for a faction, by working in ways which don’t respect those values and ethos.  When that happens, you not only need rules, you need as much certainty as possible, and the rules need to cope with every possible eventuality, because the unscrupulous will not hesitate to take advantage of any possible loophole.  But the rules need to be laid down in advance, and it’s nigh on impossible to cover every possible circumstance; rules end up with an often implicit assumption that people will ‘play the game’ in the spirit of being part of a team.
From that perspective, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Labour’s officials and the position in which they find themselves (even if watching the party self-destruct isn’t an entirely unpleasant experience!).  I’d guess that those involved in writing this particular part of the rule book simply never imagined that a leader could be elected who didn’t have the support of the MPs from the outset, nor that MPs would then seek to use the rules to overturn a democratic and popular decision made by the party as a whole, let alone start planning said coup before the members had even elected the leader in question.