Friday 14 June 2024

An unwelcome interruption


It’s always the foreigners who mess things up.

Things were going swimmingly for Rishi Sunak and his project to annihilate his party. He’s always saying how strong his commitment is to serving the public, and this project, with all its benefits for future generations, is his way of demonstrating it. His definition of poverty as the unavailability of Sky television went down incredibly well with those who already wanted his project to succeed whilst also helping to move a few waverers across. Giving an aide who is unable to resist a flutter on political events enough nods and winks to make a decent stab at the date of the election days before he announced it was almost a master stroke. Making sure that it was duly drawn to the attention of the Gambling Commission might have been a little harder, but where there’s a will, as they say.

And then along comes a G7 meeting, forcing him to take two days out to swan around one of the most remote corners of Italy with a bunch of foreigners, creating the danger of a poll recovery in his absence. Worse still, his new best friend, the Italian PM best known for her extremist positions on just about everything, insisted on giving him a huge hug. In front of the cameras too – raising a serious threat that some of Nigel’s supporters might see him as being worth a vote after all. Fortunately for Rishi, he’s well blessed with aides and assistants capable of carrying on his project without him, albeit unintentionally. Grant Shapps, along with Michael Green, Corinne Stockheath and Sebastian Fox – four for the price of one – did a sterling job of reminding people just how utterly the Tories are going to be destroyed in three weeks’ time, although urging people to vote to avoid handing Labour a supermajority was a bit more of a positive message than he would have wished. There’s a danger that some might take it seriously.

He’s now itching to return to the fray. Only another three weeks to remind people, incessantly, that the next PM will be either him or Starmer, and that a vote for anyone other than him is a vote to turf him out of put someone else into Downing Street. Sometimes, the simplest message is all that it takes, and encouraging people to see it as a simple choice between him and somebody else – anybody, really – should be enough to finish the job. The hardest part will be finding enough time to campaign in his own constituency to ensure the right result. Failure to lose there could condemn him to weeks or even months more in Westminster when he could be reacquainting himself with his riches in California.

It's a hard life.

Thursday 13 June 2024

Labels don't help, even if they're valid


A noticeable trait of some Tories – Sirjake is a classic example – is to avoid referring to ‘Labour’ or the ‘Labour Party’ and talk instead about the ‘Socialists’. The word is deemed to be, in its own right, sufficient condemnation of those to whom it refers with no need for further elucidation. In the milieu of those who do this, it might work, but it betrays an underlying assumption that what the speaker considers unspeakable is also considered unspeakable by most of those listening. It is, at best, a contentious proposition. There is a similar phenomenon in operation on what is loosely called ‘the left’, where the word ‘fascist’ is often used in a similarly abusive fashion, making a similar assumption that fascism is beyond the pale for most listeners. It’s lazy – and probably ineffective.

Merriam-Webster (other dictionaries are available) tells us that fascism is defined as: “a political philosophy, movement, or regime … that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition”. An objective consideration of the political programme of parties like Reform and the modern Tory Party, to say nothing of American Trumpism or a range of European parties, will end up ticking most of those boxes, and leading to the conclusion that a resurgence of fascism is a real and present danger. But the applicability of a logically justifiable label is a wholly unreasonable, not to say counter-productive, reason for applying it. The problem is, in essence, that when we start looking at the public reaction to the elements of the definition, it becomes obvious that many of them are popular. Fascist ideology speaks to a number of deeply ingrained prejudices and biases. Using a label is a wholly ineffective way of addressing those underlying beliefs.

The commemoration of D-Day last week has been seen by some as a timely reminder of the cost of suppressing the last major outbreak of fascism in Europe, with its presentation of ‘the war’ as a battle between two ideologies, conveniently labelled freedom and fascism. Not for the first time, I found myself wondering about the validity of that characterisation. I’m too young to have been around during the war years, but during a childhood in the 1950s I certainly remember what some of the adults around me said about it. The phrase, “The only good German is a dead one” is a phrase I remember hearing a number of times, and the words ‘German’ and ‘Nazi’ were often conflated. It was only much later that I learned that not all Germans were Nazis (and, in terms of their philosophical outlook at least, not all Nazis were Germans; some were very much closer to home). The war, from that remembered perspective, was not some great ideological battle for those who lived through it and its aftermath, but a battle between two states which had fought each other in the past. The enemy was Germany, a traditional foe and competitor, not Nazism. It’s an attitude which echoes still in the stupid chant by some Ingerland fans about “two world wars and a world cup”.

The desire to see the outcome of that conflict as a triumph for good over evil, where the men in white hats defeated the ones wearing black hats, is natural and understandable, but if that outcome is more generally and simplistically understood as simply the victory of one country over another, it can all too easily leave untarnished the political philosophy which led to so many deaths. The corollary of a belief that one group or nation is superior is that other groups or nations must necessarily be seen as inferior. That in turn leads seamlessly to a belief that some have more rights than others. Pandering to such views rather than challenging them serves only to validate them, yet it’s where the official UK opposition increasingly seems to be. It’s as dangerous as simply hurling labels around.

Tuesday 11 June 2024

Will Sunak be remembered as a success after all?


Beauty isn’t the only thing which lies mostly in the eye of the beholder. In generic terms, most judgements as to what is good, bad or indifferent depend to a large extent on our own perspective; we all have our own criteria against which we make that judgement. Take Prime Ministers, for instance. In recent years, the contest for the title of worst ever Prime Minister has become a crowded field, although there are people, not all of them currently in therapy, who sincerely believe that Liz Truss did a brilliant job in the role. Despite the strong competition from her predecessor, to say nothing of her successor, those making a judgement based less on fantasy and more on the lived experience of the majority are more likely to rate her as top contender for that title of ‘worst’. It’s a record with which it’s hard for Sunak to compete.

It follows that being regarded as the worst is a race to the bottom that Sunak has probably concluded that he can’t win, although his recent emulation of the Johnsonian technique of simply making it up as he goes along has convinced some that he’s still half trying. But all PMs who can see their time coming to an end start to worry about their ‘legacy’ – how they will be seen by future generations. As that reference to future generations suggests, the ‘legacy’ of any PM can only be properly judged after a suitably lengthy period of time has passed. Maybe Sunak isn’t aiming for the title of ‘worst’, but the title of ‘best’, and just knows that it will take time for people to recognise his outstanding contribution, and identify the correct assessment criteria.

There is still one thing that he could achieve in his remaining month in the job which history would view as a huge positive step to have taken, and that is this: the complete annihilation of the English Conservative and Unionist Party. It would be a truly stupendous achievement for any leader to take his or her party from overwhelming electoral dominance to oblivion in just five years, and even if we give his immediate two predecessors some credit for building the foundations for the Sunak oblivion project, it’s still a remarkable success story for him in the mere two years he’s had in charge.

Given that his own seat is something like the fiftieth safest for his party, losing that one, leaving him free to push off to California soon after, would also suit his own personal agenda as well as being a major step towards his own version of net zero. Some might see this as some sort of failure, but any balanced view of history is surely more likely to judge it a success. Whether he can actually drive the dial all the way down to zero is currently an open question, but no-one can accuse him of not trying. It may take time – not least to ensure that the beast is well and truly dead, rather than merely resting – but Sunak may yet end up being credited with the most significant political change in recent UK history.

The one thing that stands in the way of him getting the recognition he would deserve for achieving his mission is that the political gap is likely to be filled by another party moulded by its own current leader into a carbon copy of what Sunak’s party was a mere 14 years ago. It would perhaps be unfair for Sunak’s achievement to be sullied in such a fashion, but when did fairness enter the equation?

Friday 7 June 2024

*Knowledge* that isn't


One thing that economists *know* with absolute certainty is that every human will always act in a way which maximises his or her own financial position. It’s an assumption which underpins many economic theories – and, by extension, much of government policy. Applied to politics, and especially (although not exclusively) to conservative politics, it means that politicians *know* that people will always vote for the party which offers them the greatest personal financial benefit, regardless of the effects on others. Whilst some voters might actually tell the pollsters directly that they think a decent health service is more important than a penny or two off their taxes, the Tories *know* that those voters are lying, and that, in the secrecy of the polling booth, they will vote on the basis of personal benefit. And those who really depend on a public health service for their very lives aren’t in any of the target groups of voters.

It's what explains the Tory obsession with tax – whether talking about their own promised cuts or the other parties’ alleged increases – and why their tax promises are targeted at precisely those individuals and groups whose votes they are keenest to attract. They are convinced that recipients of tax cuts will vote for those implementing them. It also, in a roundabout way, goes at least part of the way to explaining the otherwise inexplicable decision of the PM to duck out early from the D-Day commemorations yesterday to do an interview with ITV in which he was talking about…er… tax. There is, to put it bluntly, no financial benefit to voters from his attendance at the commemoration, and it is therefore something which he doesn’t need to be concerned about. He really can’t understand what the fuss is about, or why others would be concerned – an attitude which shone through in his initial reaction to criticism, even if some slightly wiser head has since taken him to one side and drafted a more sincere-sounding apology for him to put out.

It is alleged that a firm in which he was a partner was one of those who was betting heavily against UK banks, and therefore a partial cause of the 2008 banking crisis. Whilst the extent of his own direct involvement is not entirely clear, the way in which such funds behaved at the time was a living demonstration of the idea that some people do pursue their own financial interests, no matter how damaging that may be to others, or even the country as a whole. It’s also of a piece with the acceptance of donations from dubious individuals. Everything is defined in monetary terms – even morality is subservient to money.

But here’s the thing. Those economists who *know* that we will all act at all times in our own best financial interest also know – or at least most of them do – that it’s really just a working assumption that they use to develop their theories and models. In the ‘real’ world, humans are complex creatures who don’t always behave as the models say they should, and those models can only ever give a sort of approximation to help understand the economic world. It’s a limitation on their *knowledge* which people like Sunak simply do not and cannot understand. And end up looking more than a little bemused at what they see as the stupidity of those who don’t behave as they are supposed to.

Thursday 6 June 2024

Protection from whom?


Sunak’s claim about Labour’s tax policy has been widely debunked, and exposed for the silliness which it is. Whether the next government will actually increase taxes or cut services is an open question, however – doing neither whilst adhering to a stupid and unnecessary fiscal rule of their own invention is a logical impossibility, but exactly the same can be said about the Tories. His claim that he will protect pensioners from ever paying income tax on their state pension, however, enters a new world of unreality.

It is a fact that the default position, as of today, is that an increasing number of pensioners are going to end up starting to pay income tax on part of their state pension. That is the result – the inevitable result – of both freezing tax allowances and increasing the pension. The resulting effective increase in income tax doesn’t only affect pensioners, it’s just more obvious because the state pension has long been set at a level below the threshold for income tax. Sunak’s promise to increase the tax threshold, for pensioners only, to ensure that it always stays higher than the level of state pension will certainly do what he says – i.e. ensure that no-one pays tax on their state pension.

But he is effectively arguing that the best way to protect pensioners from the effects of Tory policies is to vote Tory. “Vote for me to protect you from me” is a novel – probably unique – election gambit.

Tuesday 4 June 2024

So what's the 'right' number?


From the data available, it’s not at all clear that migration is as salient an issue in the election as some politicians seem to believe. On the other hand, if they bang on about it long enough and often enough, its salience is likely to increase – that’s just one of the many ways in which Labour seem to be determined to validate, rather than challenge, the Tory agenda. Starmer told us yesterday that net immigration is ‘too high’ and that Labour will slash the numbers. One might think that someone who believed that a number was ‘too high’ might have at least a rough idea of what number would not fit that description, but it is another of those details on which he seems to be clueless. And even if he feels unable to be precise about a number, it would surely be reasonable to expect that he would at least be able to set out, in rough terms, what criteria he would use to determine an answer to the question.

Sunak says much the same thing, and is thrashing around for policies which will reverse current trends – my, will he be angry when he finds out who’s been in government for the last 14 years. Whilst he can offer potential ways of cutting the numbers, in public he’s remarkably sanguine about the effect of those ‘solutions’ on the finances of UK universities, to say nothing of the sustainability of the entire health and social care sector. Perhaps he really does believe that most older people – his only remaining target group of voters, apparently – really would prefer to die for lack of care than receive care from some foreigner. Farage’s suggestion that the answer is to reduce net migration to zero is even further detached from reality, but then, so is the probability that he’ll ever have to implement anything he says.

It's worth noting that some of those most keen on eliminating immigration are also arguing for UK families to have more children. Well, well-off families at least – they don’t really want the poorer to have any children at all. Traditionally, the argument against immigration has been that we don’t have the homes, hospitals, schools etc to support the extra people, but it should be obvious that an increase in population caused by an increased birth rate leads to exactly the same pressures on services in the long run. And if the Tory-Labour antipathy towards immigrants isn’t rationally based on that sort of argument, then on what is it based? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the underlying basis owes more to vote-seeking than anything else. It means that the ‘right answer’ for net migration is whatever number they think will prevent them losing racist and xenophobic votes to the other party. And it’s why they can’t ever put a number on it, because their opponent will simply outbid (or should that be underbid?) them. It’s ultimately a race to the bottom, and a pretty shameful one at that, given that they both understand the economic and social impact of drastically cutting numbers but are too afraid to spell it out.

There is, though, another solution open to them. Since the debate is largely about ‘net’ migration (a numbers game which rather ignores the fact that much of their target audience is more concerned about characteristics such as skin colour and religion than numbers), they could simply introduce a scheme under which large numbers of UK citizens are persuaded to leave. It would need both a carrot and a stick, but they are largely implementing the stick part already – poor services and declining standards of living (one might even add a rejection of action to reduce the climate change which is leading to semi-permanent rain). Given a big enough carrot, I’m sure that there are millions who might be open to an offer to live a better life elsewhere. Compulsory French, Spanish and Italian in schools might turn out to be rather more useful than Sunak’s weird obsession with Maths.

Thursday 30 May 2024

If not now, then when?


A few days ago, ‘Keith’ Starmer declared that he is, despite all the empirical evidence to the contrary, a socialist. The problem with the s-word is that it means different things to different people, so he helpfully attempted to give us a taste of his own definition, which is something to do with putting the interests of the country ahead of those of the party. At first sight, it’s a pretty silly thing to say. It doesn’t look a lot better at second or third sight either. On reflection, I suppose it merely shifts the definition issue off one word and on to another – what does ‘the country’ mean in this context. If ‘the interests of the country’ is shorthand for a belief that the duty of any government is to ensure the welfare and wellbeing of all its citizens on an equal basis, then perhaps the statement is not quite as silly as it looks. Although quite how that might force him to disregard the views of his party is less than clear.

There are not, however, many signs that this is what he believes at all. Labour have, after all, made it very clear that many thousands of people will be expected to continue to live in poverty under a Labour government, at least until something magical happens. Even if there are at least partial solutions available. Most of the time, Starmer seems to be much closer to the Tory vision of society, in which each individual’s value is related directly to their financial worth. Turning to the real thing, Hunt was at it a few days ago, when he claimed that the Tories are the party of hard work. For other people, of course: because one thing we know is that for the lowest paid in manual work, ‘working harder’ benefits only their employers. Which is probably what Hunt had in mind, even if he didn’t say it directly. Meanwhile, those who choose their parents with more care can go through life carefree without ever discovering what ‘work’ is, let alone the ‘hard’ version of it.

Of course, it isn’t just in the field of manual work where rewards aren’t always as proportional to effort as Tory and Labour alike would have us believe. Whilst there are a very small number of wealthy artists, musicians, writers and performers, most people in those fields barely scrape a living together. On the basis of yesterday’s policy pledge from Sunak, any university courses pursued in such subjects are a rip-off since they don’t improve students’ later earnings, and should therefore be scrapped. It’s not just philistinism (which is not the same thing as saying that philistinism isn’t one of the drivers), it’s another expression of the way in which they see everything in financial terms, as just another transaction. The idea that education and learning – let alone the transferable skills such as carrying out research and then organising and expressing thoughts, all of which can result from structured study regardless of the subject matter – have any value in themselves is one that they find strange. But then a well-educated populace is not likely to turn into an electorate which can be manipulated on the basis of prejudice, bias and hatred.

Defining ‘socialism’ in a few words isn’t an easy task. Ensuring the welfare and wellbeing of all citizens on an equal basis might be a reasonable first stab, even if it leaves unstated the implicit but necessary enabler, which is that the economy should be run for the collective benefit rather than the benefit of a few. It’s not what Starmer is offering, though – indeed, he currently seems more concerned with eliminating from Labour’s ranks any who believe anything remotely similar to that. It might be reasonable to argue that 45 years of Thatcher and her successors have left an electorate unready to hear, let alone vote for, a more collectivist approach, but failing to present one merely reinforces the status quo rather than challenging it. The problem with an argument that ‘now is not the time’ to present an alternative is that there is never likely to be such a time.

Monday 27 May 2024

Lord of Chaos


One of the features of the 2017 election campaign was the way in which Theresa May’s big announcement on social care turned to dust on exposure to daylight and scrutiny. And one of the features of politics more generally is that politicians rarely learn from the mistakes of others, preferring to believe in their own unique ability. That inability to learn about the dangers of announcing policies which haven’t been thought through has given us Sunak’s National Service policy. The policy, which was categorically ruled out by one of Sunak’s ministers only three days before being announced as government policy, has been torn apart for its back-of-the-envelope costings and criticised by former military commanders as unworkable.

Sunak and his advisers seem not to have considered the possibility that ministers being interviews might be asked questions on the policy as opposed to being allowed to spout meaningless slogans, with the result that they have been sent out unbriefed and ended up busking with incoherent and inconsistent answers. Putting those answers together, we now know that the scheme would be compulsory, but with no means of enforcement for those who choose to ignore it. Any ‘punishment’ for those declining to participate is expected to be meted out by employers not giving jobs to young people who can’t demonstrate their participation, and fast-tracking those who have, whether they can do the job or not. Curiously, it was only a matter of a week ago that another of Sunak’s ‘loyal’ troops told businesses to consider people solely on merit and forget all other factors. Neither position seems to be easy to reconcile with the Tories’ traditional position that businesses themselves know what’s best for them and should be allowed to make their own decisions free of political interference.

Still, the good news is that, uniquely amongst all politicians, Sunak has a plan to which he is working. Just as well. Imagine how much chaos he could create – in his own party, never mind for the rest of us – if he didn’t have a plan.

Sunday 26 May 2024

Compelled to volunteer


Traditional wisdom says that oppositions never win elections, it’s just that governments lose them. It’s not one of those laws of politics that I’ve ever found entirely convincing, but it’s one which Sunak seems determined to prove does apply, in his case at least. His latest sure-fire election loser is his half-baked plan for the reintroduction of National Service. It’s a compulsory scheme under which 18 year olds can choose either to spend a year in the armed forces, or to give up one weekend a month for a year to ‘volunteer’ to do community work. Compulsory volunteering is a concept which will, of course, be familiar to many former members of the armed forces (as in “I need three volunteers – you, you and you”), but the ‘compulsory’ part of both elements seems to be optional, since there will apparently be no sanctions for those who decline to participate. Sunak, who ruled out conscription just a few short months ago, claims that National Service isn’t at all the same thing as conscription, and I suppose that if it’s only optionally compulsory he might have a point, if only in terms of linguistic niceties.

What’s harder to fathom out, though, is who exactly he thinks this policy will appeal to. He has probably calculated that since it doesn’t start until 2025 and only applies to 18 years olds then, those most directly affected haven’t got a vote in this election anyway. And he’s already lost the votes of most of those young people who are already 18, so can’t make that much worse. I suppose it might be popular with those who did their National Service back in the day and feel that the country has gone to pot since it was abolished, but since the policy ended in 1960, with the last conscript released in 1963, anyone who actually was conscripted would have to be at least in their late 70s, and most would be over 80. Demographics tells us that that is a comparatively small and diminishing cohort. It’s also one of the few cohorts where a majority reliably vote Tory, meaning that the scope for winning extra votes is necessarily limited. Returning to the possibility that there is some sort of cunning plan here to throw the election, it could just be an attempt to make sure that as many as possible of those MPs who’ve plotted against him go down as well.

There’s no real need to worry too much about anything he promises to do over the next six weeks, given that the probability of him still being around to do it is vanishingly small, but the bit that concerned me most wasn’t the ‘interesting’ use of words like ‘compulsory’ and ‘voluntary’, it was the point made in news reports about the need for cohesiveness. As a Tory spokesperson put it, “Only by nurturing our shared culture and fostering a sense of duty can we preserve our nation and values for decades to come”, as Sunak said, “…to create a shared sense of purpose among our young people and a renewed sense of pride in our country”, and in Cleverly’s words, “The bulk of this is about helping build a cohesive society”. It looks and sounds a lot like a scheme designed to inculcate a sense of Britishness, deference and obedience into a reluctant and ungrateful peasantry. And they’re planning to pay for it by raiding the wholly inadequate fund which was set up to replace EU funding. That scheme has already been used to redirect funds from poorer area to richer ones; this proposal would further rob those poorer areas of the funds they need and were promised in pursuit of an outdated and dangerous form of English/British nationalism which sees any alternative sense of identity as a threat.

Saturday 25 May 2024

Spotting the difference


Here are two pictures of Starmer surrounded by Labour’s ‘Change’ posters in recent days – one from the Guardian taken in England, and one from Sky News taken in Scotland.

Do they think no-one will notice?