Friday, 15 November 2019

"...not of our own making"

At the end of last week, Tory advisers were congratulating themselves on overcoming the problems of the first week of campaigning, claiming that “They weren’t problems of our own making. So we did the only thing we could to make them not problems any more as fast as possible”.  They were obviously feeling proud of themselves, but with another week full of problems following on from the first, they may have spoken too soon – underestimating the gaffe proneness of the PM is a huge mistake.  But the phrase which caught my eye was the bit about not “of our own making”, implying that the problems had somehow been caused by someone else.  I wondered who else they had in mind, given that the two incidents to which they were referring were the Rees-Mogg comments on Grenfell and the circumstances of the resignation of Alun Cairns.
If it wasn’t the crass comments of a Conservative minister (Rees-Mogg) about the residents of Grenfell Tower, amplified by the ‘defence’ of him by another Tory MP, who exactly was to blame for the problems faced by the Tory campaign?  Are they blaming the media for daring to report what Tories said?  Or are they blaming the Grenfell Tower residents for creating a situation where Rees-Mogg had no alternative but to criticise them?
Turning to the Cairns affair, who are they blaming?  If it isn’t the Tory aide/candidate who wrecked the rape trial, and if it isn’t the Tory minister who supported the candidacy even after the trial incident, who caused the problems to the campaign?  Are they blaming the media for reporting what happened?  Or are they blaming the victim for reporting the matter to the police in the first place?
In both cases, what has actually caused problems for the Tory campaign is the lack of judgement shown by Tory cabinet ministers, and the underlying attitudes revealed by that.  Claiming that the problems were not “of our own making” merely shows that those making the claim are guilty of the same poor judgement.  It has, though, become typical of the current government’s approach.  Everything that happens – even their own words and actions – are the fault of someone else.  In one big sense they are right – it won’t be their fault if they end up being re-elected, despite all their apparent efforts to avoid that outcome; it will be the fault of those silly enough to believe anything they say.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Boris' incompetence more significant than Farage games

I’m not sure that the decision by Nigel Farage plc to opt out of fighting Tory-held seats will turn out to be the unalloyed advantage to the Tories as which some have presented it.  It will undoubtedly assist them in some seats, but some ex-Farage candidates are talking about standing as independents, and the impact on those seats where former Tories are standing as independents is also unclear.  And allowing Farage plc to concentrate on a smaller number of seats may damage the Tories' chances in those seats.  But the legitimate labelling of all Tory candidates in 317 seats as being “officially endorsed by Nigel Farage as the best route to a no-deal Brexit” will leave some of them (yes, there are still a few remainer candidates amongst the Tory ranks) feeling uncomfortable, and its impact on the sizeable minority of committed Tory voters who are remainers is also yet to be seen.  (As an aside, why does there appear to be no police investigation into what looks to be a corrupt attempt by the Tory Government to bribe Farage with a peerage?)
The bigger advantage being enjoyed by the Tories at the moment is the disarray amongst their opponents.  Last week, the Lib Dems’ leader declared, not for the first time, that Corbyn is unfit to be PM, and when pressed as to why, the first thing that came into her head and out of her mouth was that Corbyn would never launch a nuclear strike.  I agree with her assessment of Corbyn on this issue, but for many people, that’s one of the few positive reasons we could find for voting Labour.  It also reaffirms that, for all the talk by the Lib Dems that their priority is stopping Brexit, their true position is that even a no-deal Brexit would be preferable to having Corbyn as PM, and that is influencing their decisions on standing or not standing in constituencies.  It’s not a good position from which to seek the support of Green and Plaid voters in relevant seats in Wales.  And that's without even mentioning their strident opposition to allowing the Scots another vote on their future, and their transparent attempts to ally themselves with both Labour and Tory in Scotland to undermine the SNP.  ‘Stopping Brexit is the top priority apart from the other ones’ is sadly typical of muddled Lib Dem thinking.

The polls are currently suggesting that the best hope of avoiding a Tory victory is that the Tories’ own gaffes and incompetence will cut their poll lead and we end up with another hung parliament.  The good news is that, so far at least, they seem to be trying hard to oblige.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Small truths can hide big lies

In a speech last week which was widely described as ‘rambling’ and ‘incoherent’, the PM managed to give the impression that he either doesn’t know what’s in his own deal, or else that he’s simply lying to mislead people.  Rambling and incoherent seem fair enough descriptions to anyone who’s seen him perform recently.  It turns out that the man whose erudition and great oratorical skills were going to turn around the fortunes of his party either doesn’t possess those skills or else is, for some reason, unable to deploy them when they’re needed.  He simply doesn’t do what those party members who voted for him thought that it said on the tin.  Who’d have thought it (other than, of course, those people who were actually paying attention to what’s happening, which by definition excludes the membership of his party)?
Not understanding his own deal or lying about it are also highly credible accusations against a man known for his lack of attention to detail and his propensity to dissemble, but I wonder if the accusations are missing the point.  It could be simply that the small truth obscures the bigger lie – he knows that his deal requires checks, and he’s telling the truth about not implementing such checks, and the bigger lie is what he told the EU.  He simply has no intention whatsoever of honouring the obligations to which he has agreed in his discussions with the EU (which is not to say that he won’t expect them to honour theirs – this is the essence of cakeism).  The EU’s problem is that they thought – silly them – that the PM of the UK could be relied upon to be honourable, not realising that the habit of referring to all MPs in the House of Commons as ‘Honourable’ members was just for show in his case.

Friday, 8 November 2019

Could Boris be an alien?

A conservative candidate, Nadhim Zahawi, found himself struggling yesterday to deny that he thought that Jeremy Corbyn would have all billionaires shot.  The possibility had been put to him on the basis that his party’s leader had claimed that Corbyn was a bit like Stalin.  In fairness to Zahawi, the rules of probability decree that nothing which has a non-zero probability can ever be entirely ruled out, even if the probability is vanishingly small.  In the same way, the probability that Zahawi possesses a functioning brain cell to call his own is hardly backed up by the evidence on display in this interview, but again, it cannot be completely ruled out.
Meanwhile, one of the Nigel Farage plc party candidates who has bailed out since the election was called apparently claims to be from the star Sirius, and given that party’s candidates’ reputation for honesty and truthfulness, I’m sure that we should take her at her word.  In any event, on what we might call the Zahawi protocol, it cannot be entirely ruled out.  It is significant, is it not, that in all that party’s references to immigration from elsewhere on this planet there is no reference that I can see to extra-planetary immigration? 
But if one party can be fielding aliens as candidates, how can we be certain that others are not also doing so?  It is surely notable that the Tories have nothing to say on extra-terrestrial immigration either.  Can we be certain that they have not been taken over by shape-changing lizards?  Perhaps we’ve been given a clue all along in the oft-repeated description of Rees-Mogg as ‘other-worldly’; it would certainly explain his complete lack of human empathy and understanding, to say nothing of Boris Johnson’s shifty eyes.  Like Labour’s alleged desire to shoot billionaires, it cannot be completely ruled out, and may even be marginally more probable.
Perhaps we’re not really having an election at all - just caught up in one of the weirder episodes of the Twilight Zone.

Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Confusing wealth ownership with wealth creation

Elections inevitably draw out hyperbole and given the future former Prime Minister’s reputation as a ‘journalist’, the use of the technique against Corbyn is only to be expected.  That doesn’t make it fair or reasonable, of course, and his comparison of Corbyn with Stalin is a case in point.  It’s also unfortunate in that the invitation to think about the key attributes of Stalin – a hatred of democracy, a tendency to purge his party of those who don’t agree with him, and a demand that parliament does as he tells it - do indeed ring a bell in relation to a current prominent party leader, but it isn’t Corbyn.
More specifically, however, he interprets Corbyn’s antipathy to billionaires as meaning that Corbyn is an enemy of wealth creation, an accusation which reveals more about Johnson’s own lack of understanding of economics and wealth than it does about Corbyn.  Simply equating the possession of personal wealth with wealth creation is a fundamental error.  There are many ways of accumulating extreme wealth, and not all of them are honest, to put it mildly.  Even amongst the ‘honest’ routes to extreme wealth there are methods which owe more to redistribution of wealth created by others than they do to actual wealth creation, a fact which many of the conservative party’s donors demonstrate well.
Of course, there are some billionaires who have had a brilliant idea, set up a company to exploit it, sold millions of whatever, and ended up filthy rich.  To the extent that they personally created the personal wealth that they enjoy, it is through the original idea and its exploitation, but did they really personally create all that wealth?  Did their employees not contribute at least something to that success?  There’s another aspect to the question as well.  As Chris Dillow wrote last week, the very existence of so many billionaires could be seen and interpreted from a Conservative viewpoint (let alone a leftist one) as being a symptom of market failure, not its success.
Most economists would define ‘wealth’ in terms of GDP or some variant on it; the country as a whole is wealthier if its GDP is higher.  It’s a definition which says absolutely nothing about how that wealth is then distributed.  Corbyn’s opposition to the concentration of wealth in an increasingly small number of hands is not anti-capitalist in the sense in which Johnson tries to portray it; indeed a more valid critique from a socialist perspective might be that trying to make capitalism work more fairly perpetuates the system, making Corbyn a better friend of the system than Johnson.  Protecting the interests of the super-rich, as Johnson seems to want, is actually a bigger danger to capitalism in the long term.

Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Pacts are a poor substitute for proper reform

With an election in the air, politicians’ fancies, it seems, turn inevitably to the subject of pacts and deals, and in Wales, that raises the perennial question of the ‘progressive alliance’ (whatever that actually means) between Plaid, the Lib Dems and the Greens.  The Labour Party can probably be relied on, as ever, to take its ball home.  How useful all this is is another question entirely.  It seems to me that the approach being adopted to assessing this is far too mathematical.
I agree with the premise of the would-be pacters that Brexit is a defining issue for a generation, and that the ‘wrong’ outcome will be seriously damaging to Wales, although I also fully understand that not all independentistas see things that way.  But even if we did all accept the monumental importance of defeating Brexiteers, will a pact actually deliver that objective?  In practice, the objective comes down to defeating Tories (on the basis that Labour MPs will, even if not part of the formal pact, be likely – although not certain – to vote for a second referendum given that that’s part of their policy for this election).  So, in order to make a difference to the outcome, the basic equations boil down to (in terms of votes cast for each party):
Lib Dems + Plaid + Green > Conservative, and
Conservative > Labour
Based on previous election results, the number of constituencies where these will both be true is vanishingly small, and even if we try and project forward from some of the latest opinion polls, such a pact doesn’t seem likely to make a huge difference.  To make things worse, the outcome isn’t just a mathematical one – voters aren’t ‘owned’ by their traditional parties and can’t be ‘instructed’ to vote in a particular way.  Many Lib Dem supporters are die-hard unionists and will vote Tory rather than Plaid; and there are more Plaid supporters than the party would wish to acknowledge who would prefer to vote Tory rather than Lib Dem.  A more accurate equation would be (using the Lib Dems as the chosen ‘remain’ candidate in this case, but the same applies in principle to other options):
LD + a* PC/100 + b*Green/100> Con + c*Plaid/100 + d*Green/100
Where a, b, c, and d are the percentages of supporters of the parties concerned which will choose to vote for the anointed or unanointed alternatives.  And here’s the thing – a, b, c, and d are unknowns; they might be what Rumsfeld called ‘known unknowns’, but no-one has a clue what values to assign to them.  If the numbers fall the ‘wrong’ way, a pact could even end up achieving the opposite of its aim.
I don’t blame the pacters for their feeling that ‘something’ needs to be done, and there is always, I suppose, the hope that being seen to be forming a pact will appeal to voters by giving the appearance of a qualitative change in the style and nature of Welsh politics, although I’ll admit to being doubtful about that.  And there’s always the complication that people can see what is going on elsewhere – Wales can’t be isolated from the impact, for instance, of a tacit LD/Tory (+Labour?) pact against the SNP in parts of Scotland, giving the absolute lie to the suggestion that the Lib Dems’ number one aim is to stop Brexit.  Pacts are a poor substitute for what is really needed – an electoral system which allows for the more accurate representation of electors’ views rather than a majoritarian system under which the winner takes all.

Monday, 4 November 2019

Half-honest isn't much of an improvement

In a strange few days, both Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have been caught out telling half the truth; and being halfway honest is a huge step forward for both of them, although I doubt that it will last for long.
In Johnson’s case, he has been claiming that a future trade deal with the EU will be easy because the UK and the EU start from a position of complete alignment on rules and regulations.  The second part of that is the true part; the first part is only true to the extent that it is his intention that the regulatory alignment will continue.  And given that his whole rationale for Brexit is to end that regulatory alignment, it turns the easiest deal in history into the hardest, because it is the first time ever, as far as I’m aware, that two trading blocs have deliberately set out to negotiate a weakening of trade ties between them.  It’s a point which Michel Barnier has already made.
In Farage’s case, he has claimed that consumers and businesses will all benefit from lower prices once the EU tariffs between the UK and the rest of the world are lifted.  And he’s right, of course he is, to argue that if goods on which tariffs are currently paid can be imported free of tariffs, then those buying them will be able to benefit from lower prices.  There is an unstated assumption, though, which is that the buying power of those consumers and businesses remains unaltered.  However, if cheaper goods compete with UK produced goods and UK producers subsequently go out of business, than those employed by them will see their buying power reduced.  It won’t affect everyone (we can be reasonably certain that the likes of Farage and Johnson will not be impacted), but an increase in company failures with a consequent reduction in total employment reduces overall buying power. Many individual consumers may not be affected, but others will be dramatically impacted.  And on the basis of many economic studies, the probability is that those most directly and significantly affected will be precisely those who were persuaded to vote for this 'new improved' future.
Both men are clearly selling cakeism to the electorate at large – the idea that there are no trade-offs and that we can enjoy all the benefits without the costs.  It’s a con trick, of course; but con tricks work, and many are taken in by them.  Contrary to popular belief, the most successful cons aren’t like the one in The Sting which targeted a single rich crook; they depend instead on taking comparatively small sums from large numbers of honest individuals.  Those individuals are often those who can least afford to lose anything but are also most in need of the good fortune which the conman promises them.  They fall prey because they want to believe that they are being offered a way out.  A desperate person would sooner believe a promise of great fortune than a cold hard analysis of the reality facing them.  Both Johnson and Farage instinctively understand this – just look at which electors they are targeting in the coming election.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Avoiding the argument is a cop-out

A fundamental part of the argument, insofar as there is one, for an electoral pact between the Tories and Nigel Farage plc is that many of what are over-simplistically referred to as ‘Labour leavers’ in places such as the north of England and Wales will never vote for the Tories, but will willingly vote for a completely different party which stands for much the same things.  And I’m afraid that it’s probably right.
It’s hard to find a better example of why the Labour Party’s demonization of ‘the Tories’ is such a bad idea (and it’s a demonization which has been copied by others, including, sadly, Plaid here in Wales).  Concentrating on the party and basing opposition to it on historic folk memories rather then engaging with the political disagreements in their own right has been far too easy a cop-out for decades.  As long as there was only one party representing a particular viewpoint, making that party the basis of an irrational and emotional hatred has ‘worked’ for Labour in Wales.  But because the arguments for conservatism have, as a result, gone largely unrebutted, when those arguments are put forward by a different organisation trading under a different name, that hatred is essentially non-transferable.  Treating the electorate like tame committed anti-Tory sheep, and assuming that they will blindly follow for ever an argument which is both emotional and at an ever-increasing historic distance, is a recipe for allowing the growth of an organisation like Nigel Farage plc.  The Labour Party can and will blame everyone else for this, but that party is the midwife which has allowed ‘the right’ to grow in strength in Wales as elsewhere in the UK.

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

Could Farage be the best way of stopping Brexit?

Despite what the opinion polls are saying, the pundits all tell us that the coming election is highly unpredictable.  Maybe; the polls have been wrong before, and things can change during a campaign.  The recent finding that the Tories are in the lead in Wales just ‘feels’ wrong, but that could be affected by a large dose of wishful thinking on my part.  And while Johnson is likely to prove a better communicator than May (he could hardly be worse), he also has a massive propensity for gaffes, and some of the people around him could also blow it by accident.
To get his majority and then get Brexit (phase 1) ‘done’, the PM needs only to get around a third of the electorate to support his party, and there are certainly enough hard-line Brexiteers to give him such a level of support, even if, as seems at least possible, he jettisons the support of all other types of previous Tory voter in the process.  If he achieves that, then under what passes for democracy in the UK, he would claim a mandate for his deal, despite the fact that a good number of those hardliners would prefer something even harder.
But overall, the biggest potential obstacle to his success is another party, namely Nigel Farage plc.  At current polling levels, they are likely to make only a minor dent in the Tory vote, but their vote share could easily improve over the course of a campaign.  If they were to poll around 12% (currently their status in the polls), spread evenly over the whole of England, they would do no serious damage to the Tories and fail to win a single seat, but at around 25%, spread less evenly, they could start to win seats to a significant extent.  It means that there is a ‘sweet spot’, at around 20%, evenly spread, where they would win no seats but badly damage the Tories.  Put another way, at that sweet spot, people choosing to vote for the party which most accurately represents their view of the desired outcome of Brexit is the best way of ensuring that they don’t get what they want.
Leaving aside (for a moment at least) my own preferences when it comes to Brexit, the idea that the best way to stop Brexit completely is to get those who want the hardest version of it to vote for the only party openly offering them what they want underlines the broken nature of the UK’s sham of a democracy.  There is something very wrong with a system which can potentially either give absolute power to one minority or completely exclude another significant minority from any representation at all.

Friday, 25 October 2019

The artifice of the deal

When he was just plain old mister, Donald Trump ‘wrote’ a book called The Art of the Deal explaining how to do deals.  He didn’t write it himself, of course, he got a proper writer to do that, but the book claimed to explain how he was the world’s best dealmaker ever.  I’m not sure that anyone other than himself ever believed it (the real author has subsequently suggested that it should be recategorized as fiction), and it’s clear that his view of all deals as zero sum games is significantly at odds with the way most businesses set about achieving agreements, but somehow it managed to sell quite a few copies.
One person who appears not to have read it is Boris Johnson.  I doubt that even Trump could have come up with the sort of offer that Johnson made to parliament yesterday, which appears to be of the form ‘do one thing you don’t want to and I’ll allow you to do something else that you don’t want to’.  The attraction to the opposition parties of being allowed to discuss his withdrawal agreement if they first agree to his demand for an election immediately after passing it is far from being obvious.  It’s more like the mafia than a negotiation, except he can’t even get that right – instead of making the opposition an offer they can’t refuse, he’s made them one that they can’t accept.  It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the ‘offer’ isn’t really serious at all, just another attempt at playing silly games to try and get his own way.