Friday, 12 August 2022

Domestic violence is everyone's business


A guy I once worked with was utterly shocked (along with the rest of his family) when his sister was killed by her husband; they hadn’t known that there were any issues at all between the pair. I remember his words to me at the time: “No-one ever knows what goes on behind closed doors”. When it comes to domestic violence, there are only ever two people who really know what happened, and even they will have different versions of events. Plaid seems to have got itself into more than a little bit of difficulty in its response to the assault by MP Jonathan Edwards on his wife, and the party’s response seems to have led to some uncomradely comments, not to say bitterness and dispute, amongst the members, judging only from the public comments I’ve seen on Facebook and elsewhere. Bearing in mind the words of that erstwhile work colleague, I don’t know enough about the detail of what actually happened to comment on the original event. There are some general political issues, though.

Firstly, it seems that Plaid’s disciplinary rules don’t actually allow the party to distinguish, in the way that the NEC attempted to do, between re-admission to the party and re-admission to the parliamentary group. From my own past extensive involvement with the party’s rules, that doesn’t surprise me: there are always new situations which those drawing up the rules failed to foresee and allow for. It’s why the rule book ends up as a lengthy and unwieldy document as new rules are invented to plug any gaps identified. In principle, though, expecting higher standards from those representing a party – any party – as a candidate for public office than are expected of ordinary members is not at all an unreasonable position to take. It’s part of the reason parties, including Plaid, use some sort of selection or vetting process to ensure that only suitable individuals get selected as candidates, even if such procedures can never be perfect.

Secondly, society as a whole often seems to apply dual standards to the question of domestic violence. It’s hard to imagine another violent crime in which the forgiveness of the victim (even if later regretted) is considered to be some sort of mitigation which diminishes the seriousness of the initial assault. There are power differentials as well as genuine feelings which can drive 'forgiveness' in  such circumstances. No violent assault by one person on another is ever, or should ever be, ‘just a matter for the individuals involved’. It is understandable that, in a domestic situation where the police believe that reconciliation is possible, attempts are made to resolve the issue by issuing a caution rather than a prosecution in order to spare families the trauma of a court case, but it is wrong to assume that the issue of a caution in itself somehow makes the case less serious. The decision between a caution and a prosecution isn’t simply based on the perceived degree of seriousness of the offence. And a perpetrator doesn’t somehow become a victim if the offence affects his or her future career, although that’s what some seem to be arguing.

Thirdly, parties need to be wary of trying to hold other parties to a higher standard than they expect of their own politicians. Arguing that a man fined for breaking lockdown rules should be forced out of office, but a man cautioned for domestic violence should be allowed to ‘move on’ and get back to normal is not a good look.

There is a debate to be had, of course, about whether someone committing a crime should have that held against him or her for ever, or whether society should be prepared at some point to forgive and allow the individual to return to normal life, particularly where contrition is genuine. I’ve always been in the latter camp on that question, but returning to normal life as an accepted member of society isn’t necessarily the same thing as going back to what the individual was doing before. There are some roles where different criteria are going to be applied, even if those roles aren’t formally identified, and the criteria aren’t written down anywhere. Ultimately, it’s a matter of opinion and judgement, and people will make different judgements. That difference of opinion seems to be at the heart of the uncomradely comments to which I referred above.

I haven’t been a member of Plaid for the last 12 years, and I no longer have any involvement with the rules or processes which the party applies, so there’s a sense in which it’s not my business. I do, though, live in the Carmarthen East constituency (the boundary with Carmarthen West is at the end of our drive) and I, like others, will have to decide at some point for whom to vote. It would be naïve for any party, or any individual, to believe that the events which have transpired will not affect the decisions made by individual electors.

Thursday, 11 August 2022

How to win people to the Tory cause?


Last week, the frontrunner for the Conservative leadership declared that young people are natural Conservatives, and gave as proof the fact that so many of them are involved in ‘side hustles’ alongside their day jobs. Those interested in facts and evidence may care to note that poll after poll shows the reverse (young people are actually turning against the Tories) but then the sub-group ‘those interested in facts and evidence’ is not one to which Truss, or indeed many other Tories, choose to belong. Interestingly, and probably by complete coincidence, there was an article in the Sunday Times this week (paywall) which drew attention to the same issue, highlighting that an increasing number of young people are indeed attempting to monetise their hobbies. It did, however, put rather a different gloss on the matter, by explaining that they are doing it largely as a means of making ends meet in an economy that otherwise leaves them struggling.

Whilst there are, no doubt, a small number who have found that they can make more on their ‘side hustles’ than in their main job, that is far from being the norm. In essence, Truss seems to believe that people who feel themselves forced into spending long hours of their ‘free time’ working to earn an hourly rate well below the national minimum wage, whilst also holding down a full-time job, are showing an entrepreneurial spirit which makes them natural Conservatives. It’s a scenario which is open to at least one other possible interpretation about their potential support for a party whose policies have put them in that position. As a way of persuading low income groups to vote Conservative, it’s up there with one of the other core beliefs of her cult, which is that cutting public services to enable the government to cut taxes so that people keeping more of ‘their own money’ can spend more than the amount saved on buying the same services privately is going to make people feel more well-off and correspondingly grateful.

It's an ‘interesting’ approach to both economics and politics, which is certain to collide with reality in the near future. But then ‘believers in reality’ is another sub-group from which most Tories have long since checked out.

Monday, 8 August 2022

What's the difference between the Tories and the Taliban?


It’s neither the start of a joke, nor a trick question. And the answer, in the specific case of education, is ‘not a lot’. The Taliban select on the basis of gender: they effectively exclude all girls from education, since girls have no role in the economic or social life of the country, and need to know their place. The Tories want to select at age 11 on the basis of parental income*, providing the children of the wealthiest 20% with a better education than the rest, who need to know their place in society. It’s a difference of detail rather than of kind. Both see education as a means of serving the interests of their god rather than those of the children – in the case of the Taliban, that’s Allah, whilst for the Tories it’s Mammon, as in the case of Sunak’s proposal to ban any education which does not confer a significant earnings advantage on the student.

Neither sees, nor is capable of seeing, any advantage in having an educated populace (indeed, it’s something that both fear, probably with good reason), and both are utterly incredulous at the idea that education should ever be about providing fulfilment for individuals. For the Tories, the idea that there are social advantages in having well-educated people (for example, to serve in a volunteer capacity in their communities) rather than using their education purely for selfish personal gain is something that they not only can’t begin to understand, but that they see as a positive threat. Better education has, from the perspective of the Tories and the Taliban alike, an unfortunate tendency to lead people to ask more difficult questions.

The final, and most depressing, similarity is the degree to which they have managed to convince so many people to agree with them. It wasn’t just their weaponry which gained the Taliban control of Afghanistan; the populace (well, the men at least) largely welcomed them back. And the Tories aren't imposing their will on a reluctant population – people actually voted for them, in large numbers. Just as many rejoiced at having their freedom of movement curtailed, so they also rejoice at having the educational opportunities of their children constrained.

Afghanistan under the Taliban is a failed state; the UK under the Tories is rapidly becoming another. In both cases, restricting educational opportunities is just one specific example of how and why. Time to head for the exit.

*Yes, I know that they actually want to select on the basis of tests and exams, but we have at least 60 years of research which tells us that parental income is an extremely good predictor of success in those exams. And the few exceptions who sneak through merely serve to put a veneer of meritocracy on what is in essence a system designed to maintain the privilege which comes with wealth.

Saturday, 6 August 2022

Labour demands economic recession


In the light of the latest figures for inflation and the consequent rise in interest rates, the Bank of England has come under criticism from one of the contenders for the Tory leadership, who is making vague threats to ‘review the Bank’s mandate’. This is being interpreted as a threat to the so-called ‘independence’ of the BoE which has allegedly operated free of government interference since being granted said ‘independence’ by Gordon Brown in 1997. But, as anyone familiar with devolution will be only too well aware, ‘independence’ to operate in accordance with a mandate laid down by government – a mandate which can be changed at any time – isn’t really ‘independence’ at all. And given that the Bank is wholly owned by the UK Government and that the Governor, Deputy Governors, and External Members of the Monetary Policy Committee are all appointed either by the UK government or else by the monarch on the recommendation of the government, that ‘independence’ is illusory.

Insofar as the one tool (raising or lowering interest rates) that they have been given in order to achieve the stated objective of managing inflation is the right tool for the job at all, it’s one which is predicated on an assumption that inflation is always the result of an internal wage-price spiral which can be broken by reducing the living standards of the comparatively less well-off. How that same tool is supposed to bear down on inflation caused by a sequence of international shocks, whether self-inflicted such as Brexit, or whether entirely outside the control of any UK Government such as the war in Ukraine or a pandemic involving a novel pathogen, is a question which the government seems reluctant to ask, let alone answer, and the Bank itself can only wield its hammer with increasing frequency and severity, whether it has any effect or not.

The mandate given to the Bank by the government – to use interest rates to maintain inflation at or around 2% per annum – is, and always has been, entirely arbitrary. The idea that 2% is the ‘right’ amount of inflation is little more than the considered opinion of Gordon Brown in 1997, and the idea that it’s the ‘right’ number for all times and in all circumstances is a very peculiar one, to say the least. But the issue goes further than that – whether the objective of monetary policy should be entirely based on controlling inflation is merely another considered opinion; there are alternative views. The government could, for example, give the Bank a mandate which also seeks to ensure full employment instead of merely using its blunt hammer to attempt to manage inflation. In short, there are good reasons for considering, from time to time, whether the mandate under which the Bank operates is the best one, given the circumstances at the time, rather than assuming that what might have looked ‘right’ in 1997 is always going to be so.

In that context, it was pretty depressing to read that Labour’s Shadow Chancellor is one of those criticising the idea that the Bank’s mandate could or should be reviewed at present, arguing that it's the wrong time because the UK is on the brink of a recession. Given that that recession is at least partly a result of the Bank blindly following a mandate which gives it little choice but to cause said recession, this is precisely the time to be questioning whether it’s been given the most appropriate mandate. Instead of which, the unquestioning support for financial orthodoxy from Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition amounts to a demand from Labour that the Bank of England must be allowed to cause a recession without interference. Vote Labour for an economic recession doesn’t strike me as being the most appealing message to be giving out.

Thursday, 4 August 2022

If this is the product of careful thought...


It became increasingly probable during the months before it happened that PM Johnson was going to be pushed out at some point, even if the nature of the final straw and the precise timing turned out to be the Tory equivalent of jailing Al Capone for tax evasion. Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss had obviously been preparing to launch their campaigns whenever and however it happened, even if denying the fact is an unwritten requirement under their party’s somewhat flexible rules. Both were not only first-hand witnesses but also active participants in all the errors and failings of the Johnson government from which they are now so keen to distance themselves whilst continuing to praise the author. They both claim to have known better all along, and have both had months to think about the policies they were going to present as part of their campaigns in order to sound coherent and credible.

What all that means is that, no matter how crazy some of their current statements might seem, nor how often they have to retract and retrench, everything they are saying at the moment is the product of months of careful deliberation. Perhaps we should be grateful that they’re not just making it up as they go.

Wednesday, 3 August 2022

There are no good outcomes for Wales


When it comes to the question of devolution, unionist politicians have always been split into two camps. On the one hand there are those who believe that the best way to maintain the cohesion of the UK is through a measured response to national aspirations in Wales and Scotland, whilst on the other hand there are those who believe that the best way to maintain that cohesion is to ignore those aspirations and impose rigid central control. The aim has always been a matter of complete agreement; any disagreement has been about the best strategy to achieve that aim. Broadly speaking, albeit with a significant number of vociferous exceptions, Labour has fallen into the first camp, whilst the Tories, with a few thoughtful and perceptive exceptions, have fallen into the second. We can never know which was right: whilst the second-campers point to the increasing clamour for independence from the Scottish Parliament as evidence for devolution having been a disaster (in terms of achieving the shared objective), no-one can ever be certain that that clamour would not have expressed itself in some other way had that parliament not been established. But being mostly Tories, we can be confident that their objective ignorance will not interfere with their subjective certainties.

And so it turns out. In the leadership race, the two remaining candidates have a shared aim, but two competing approaches. To reverse devolution, one promises to interfere in devolved areas in both Scotland and Wales more aggressively than any previous administration, whilst the other promises to simply ignore Scotland, its First Minister, and the electors. (It’s reasonable to assume that she’d apply the same approach to Wales if the idea of Wales ever made more than a passing acquaintance with her brain cell.) The absolute certainty that they know better than the people of Wales and Scotland what those countries want is common ground between them – and the resounding cheers coming from the hustings audience suggest that their views are indeed in tune with the predominantly white, affluent, elderly, English males who make up the electorate at this stage. There is nothing in the background, experiences, or knowledge of the candidates which would ever give them pause to reflect whether that electorate might be in any way unrepresentative of the wider electorates in Wales and Scotland – or even in England, come to that. Doesn’t ‘everybody’ think the way that they do, and share their prejudices and convictions? Everybody of any importance, anyway.

They clearly believe that over-riding the economic development priorities of the Welsh government, ignoring the constitutional mandate of the Scottish government, and scrapping the Northern Ireland protocol despite the clear majority in favour of it in the NI Assembly will somehow strengthen the union and make us all feel part of a greater whole. Perhaps history will show them to be right; unlike them, I’m at least prepared to admit that none of us can be certain. It does, though, look to be an unlikely proposition at the moment, more likely to foment discontent and undermine the union than strengthen it.

Neither Truss nor Sunak looks like being of much benefit to Wales; for an independentista, perhaps the least worst outcome of the race is a narrow victory for the one the MPs really didn’t want over the one that they only mildly didn’t want, leaving both the membership and the MPs divided and querulous. Fortunately, that looks increasingly like exactly the result they’re going to give us. Those who are not independentistas can merely look on with sorrow at the complete absence of any credible unionist alternative.

Monday, 1 August 2022

Circular motion leads nowhere


Underlying the sacking of one Labour frontbencher for allegedly making up policy is a circular argument which ultimately leads nowhere. Basically, Starmer is arguing that Labour can only bring about real change if the party wins a general election, but that it can only win that general election by promising not to make any significant changes.

The detail of the statements and events which led to the sacking are strange enough. Apparently, arguing that working people should get pay rises at least in line with price inflation is not Labour policy. The only conclusion to be drawn from that is that it is now Labour policy that working people should accept below-inflation pay rises and be grateful for the resulting drop in their standard of living. It also seems to be Labour policy that working people have every right to withdraw their labour in an attempt to protect their standard of living, but that they should never exercise that right because it might inconvenience other people.

It isn’t just on industrial disputes where Starmer’s Labour has fallen in behind the Tory press; abandoning the previous commitment to bring rail, mail, water and energy back into public ownership is another example. In this case, they are blaming a wholly arbitrary fiscal rule which the Tories have long abandoned themselves but continue to use to beat opponents over the head, and fear of the Tory media causes Starmer to promise to work in a straitjacket from day one of a Labour government. It’s an unnecessary and wholly self-imposed straitjacket at that. And it makes me wonder whether they even understand their own fiscal rules at all – spending, say, £100 billion to bring a series of enterprises back into public ownership obviously increases public debt on one side of the balance sheet, but (assuming that the assets are worth the price paid to acquire them) it adds £100 billion in assets to the other side of the sheet. The net increase in total debt is precisely zero, but the government ends up owning assets which it can either run in a way that reduces prices or in a way which generates profits which flow to the Exchequer. There are good arguments for renationalisation, not least its popularity; there are also some good arguments against, none of which have anything to do with some imaginary and arbitrary fiscal rule.

The net result of the Starmer circularity paradox is that Labour’s leadership are going to great pains to tell us what they won’t change, but are struggling to identify anything that they will change, other than the personnel. Replacing an incompetent and mendacious government with one which is marginally less so is not an entirely pointless exercise, but it’s hardly an exciting or inspirational proposition. Running around in ever-decreasing circles is not an activity which generally produces beneficial consequences, and those participating in such activity might not like the place they end up.

Friday, 29 July 2022

Maintaining privilege is what the Tories are all about


In answer to a question at the Tory hustings yesterday, Sunak seems to have committed himself to a wholescale reintroduction of selection at the age of 11 and the opening of more grammar schools. Strictly speaking, his comments only apply to England, although I’m not sure that he fully realises that and, given the increasing disregard for the boundaries set by devolution, I wouldn’t be so sure that it wouldn’t end up applying here too. His argument, though, was specious at best, and even that’s giving him considerable benefit of the doubt. He said that “… education is the most powerful way we can transform people’s lives”. It’s a point with which many us would agree, but dividing children into sheep and goats on the basis of alleged academic ability at the age of 11 means that it’s a benefit which he plans to bestow on only a proportion of the country’s children.

One thing which all the research into selective education tells us is that separating children into two categories in this way has the entirely predictable effect of also separating them by parental income. The more comfortably off the parents, the more likely it is that their children will end up in a grammar school and vice versa. It’s not a 100% match, of course – as a council house kid who went to a grammar school in the days before selection was abolished, I know that from personal experience. But there is a high degree of correlation between parental affluence and success in the selection process, and the general result of selection is that more investment is made in the education of some children than others, setting out their respective life paths at the age of 11. The lives being transformed under Sunak’s vision are overwhelmingly the lives of the better off – who just happen to be the children (or more likely grandchildren, given Tory demographics) of the Tory party members to whose prejudices he is currently seeking to appeal.

That’s not to argue that comprehensive education has been an unqualified success – it has not. There are still ‘good’ schools and ‘bad’ schools based on academic results, although that may be as much to do with catchment areas as quality of education. Catchment areas are far from being equal in terms of socio-economic status. The solution to that, however, is not to entrench those differences in the structure of the system but to address the underlying causes. Far too much of what our politicians try to do on this is based primarily on trying to address the symptoms – how to help those from poorer backgrounds catch up with their more affluent peers. It’s a sticking plaster approach when what we really need is to address the underlying social and economic inequalities. It’s unrealistic to expect the Tories to come up with any sort of plan to do that; they are always going to be happier securing and enhancing their own privileges. What’s more depressing is the lack of clear alternatives from opposition parties on the issue. It allows the Tories to set the parameters of the debate, and, as Sunak’s comments show, they are not afraid of moving things further in the direction of privilege. One clear benefit arising from the Tory leadership debates is that they are openly demonstrating the extent to which they are the party of the better-off and the privileged, a fact which Johnson’s practiced mendacity managed to obscure in 2019.

Thursday, 28 July 2022

An innovative Truss


Sometimes, the simplest ideas are the best, and Liz Truss has certainly managed to come up with one of the simplest solutions ever. Faced with what she sees as an unacceptable rate of murder in the UK, she will order police forces in Englandandwales to cut the number of murders by 20% before the next election. Some might think that it raises a number of awkward questions, such as why the other 80% of deaths due to homicide are acceptable. After all, if the number can be reduced by 20% by simply issuing an order to police forces, why not 50%, or 80% - or even 100%. Those are, however, mere details: we should be focussing instead on the innovative approach of government by decree and asking ourselves how it can be applied elsewhere.

One of the biggest issues of the day is global warming – following the new methodology, we can solve that by instructing the Met Office to reduce temperatures by 3 degrees Centigrade across the UK. That will be a lot cheaper than taking measures to reduce emissions. And rising sea levels – the Royal Navy could be ordered to turn back the sea before it reaches the coastline. Better than building new flood defences or abandoning some seaside communities completely. Fuel poverty, or even poverty more generally? No problem – people can easily be ordered not to be poor. Once the potential of this innovative approach is fully understood, the possibilities are endless, and since none of them require any government expenditure at all, every problem can be solved whilst still cutting taxes dramatically. Her financial programme starts to make sense after all.

It's such an obvious approach that I can’t imagine why no-one has thought of it before.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

Avoiding the question


As part of his attempt to win over the Tory members to his side, Rishi Sunak this week wheeled out the old chestnut about passing on government debt to our children and grandchildren unless the UK restores a balance between government income and expenditure. It’s one of those things which is obviously ‘true’; if a government borrows in the short term and takes generations to repay, then the responsibility for servicing and repaying that debt passes on, inevitably, from one generation to another. It’s not the whole truth, though. Whether from ignorance or a wilful attempt to mislead (I opt for the latter), it ignores the wonderful process called double-entry book-keeping. It was invented in 1494, which probably makes it a bit too modern for the Tories, but for the rest of us, it means we need to look at the other side of the accounts, not just at the debt.

All debt has to be balanced by an asset somewhere, and in this case, what looks like a debt to the government looks like an asset to all of those who have loaned it money. And that, whether directly through NS&I products or collectively though pension and insurance funds, includes most of us. It’s true that we pay interest on the debt as part of our taxes, but it’s also true that we receive that interest back in our pensions and from some of our savings. And although it’s true that unredeemed government debt effectively passes down the generations, the same is equally true of the assets represented by that debt. It has to be, otherwise the sums don’t add up. At a population level, the problem is not that one generation is repaying the debt of its predecessors, because that new generation has also inherited the savings; it’s not an intergenerational problem at all. The real issue is at an individual level, not at a population level: because of an insufficiently progressive taxation regime, the individuals paying interest on the debt through taxes are not always the same people as are receiving the interest on the money loaned to the government. In short, the process serves to transfer wealth from the comparatively poorer to the comparatively richer.

The political question here is why, given that it’s their own supporters who disproportionately benefit from such a wealth transfer, the Tories are so keen on reducing debt in the first place. It’s hardly as if those lending the government money are keen to be repaid (they are not; it’s a safe repository for surplus money). But the Tories are not really against it at all; it has far more to do with advancing an ideological position about reducing the amount of government expenditure (and therefore taxes – and guess who benefits most from tax cuts?), whilst finding a supporting argument which those who have most to lose from smaller government expenditure can relate to and support. In truth (as Richard Murphy pointed out yesterday) the Tories are not and never have been the party of low government debt; quite the reverse. What they’re against is the redistribution implicit in a large state working for the benefit of all its citizens rather than just the richest, and nonsense about the national credit card is just a convenient form of argument. And whatever they may say, they really don’t care about reducing debt at all – in arguing for tax cuts whilst increasing debt, Truss is being far more honestly Conservative than Sunak (allowing rich people to pay less tax leaving them more money to ‘invest’ by lending it to the government in exchange for regular interest payments is classic Conservatism), even if she sees it as simply a transactional position to win the votes of the Tory membership.

An internal Tory debate about the size of the national debt is a convenient distraction, but ultimately it’s a Big-Endian debate. The real question should be about what we want the state to do and how. It’s easy to see why the Tories would prefer to avoid that question.