Friday 30 May 2014

They're both right - and both wrong

Competing claims this week as to whether Scots will be £1,000 per year better off (according to the SNP) or £1,400 a year worse off (according to the Treasury) after independence.  They can’t both be right – or can they?  Clearly both figures cannot be correct in an absolute sense, but although I haven’t checked their sums, I’m prepared to accept that both sets of sums (and therefore both conclusions) are correct based on the initial premises.  The problem, of course, is that they haven’t started from the same premises.
Any exercise like this must inevitably make a series of assumptions and guesses about future Scottish Government decisions, UK Government decisions, and the economic context in general.  And the assumptions and estimates chosen will have an enormous impact on the final result.  Given that the figures are intended to support two different perspectives, there should be no surprise that they’re different.  Opponents of independence will choose a more pessimistic set of assumptions; supporters a more optimistic set.
So which set of assumptions is correct?  Probably neither.  Economic forecasting is notoriously unreliable when performed by economists, but when performed by politicians with axes to grind…
The surprising thing to me was that, given the difference in perspective between the two sides, and the difficulty of making any predictions, the two results have come out as close to each other as they have.  For sure, the difference between the two will look like a lot of money to most Scots individually, and splitting the difference to overcome the worst aspects of bias one way or the other is hardly the most scientific approach, but a middle course between the two looks like independence wouldn’t actually make much difference – it must be well within any margin of error for an exercise of this nature.
Actually, we’ll never know who’s ‘right’ anyway; we can’t run history forward twice to see what really happens under each scenario.  Scots will have to listen to both sides carefully, and decide for themselves which set of predictions they find most credible.  I rather suspect that neither set of figures will have much impact on opinion; they will merely confirm existing opinions.
That’s far from being a bad thing, because ultimately, the idea of independence for the Scottish nation has never been based on economics.  There are economic consequences to independence, of course, but few people really doubt that an independent Scotland could be made to work.  But the decision as to whether people want to take responsibility for their own future or not has always been bigger than the question of whether they’d be better off by doing so or not.

Wednesday 28 May 2014

Learning the right lesson

In response to the Welsh results in the European elections, the UKIP lead candidate suggested that the result proves that Wales is as Euro-sceptic as England.  I’m not sure that it proves any such thing.  I don’t actually disagree with the assertion that the difference between England and Wales on the EU is very small (indeed, I’ve posted on that previously); I just don’t think that this particular election result tells us much about opinion on Europe.
It probably does tell us something which I find much more worrying than people having a different opinion on the EU, and that is that people in Wales are as likely as people in England to vote for a party which sees immigration as the root of almost all evil; the EU is merely the instrument which they blame for immigration.  Immigration was the issue on which they actually led, not the EU.  And that similarity of opinion was being expressed across Wales, even though actual recent experience of immigration (from outside the UK at least) is minimal in much of Wales.  Indeed, previous waves of immigration into Wales (again, from outside the UK at least) have largely been well assimilated; yet still this hostility to more is visible across the nation.
It’s tempting to interpret the UKIP vote as being a result of English in-migration into Wales, and I’d be surprised if that isn’t at least a factor.  Dafydd Iwan got into hot water a few years ago by suggesting that there were English people who’d moved to Wales to escape multiculturalism in England.  His remarks were labelled unacceptable by the Labour Party, but he was just reporting what many doorstep canvassers will be well aware of.  I remember one English in-migrant telling me that he’d moved to Wales ‘to be amongst my own people’, without realising for one moment how that might sound to anyone who sees themselves as Welsh rather than English or British.
But an occasional piece of individual anecdotal evidence is not enough to blame the thousands collectively, and given the high level of support for UKIP in parts of Wales where it is hard to imagine that there has been a significant level of in-migration from England, I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that this hostility to immigrants (which usually excludes those from elsewhere in the UK) is as prevalent amongst Welsh people as it is amongst English people.  Sometimes we see differences in opinion because we want to see them rather than because they are real.
And that is perhaps the more important lesson from UKIP’s success in Wales.  The assumptions we make about Welsh opinion are no longer valid, even if they were in the past.
Some of our political class have spent a lot of time and energy theorising over the potential constitutional crisis which might arise if Wales were to vote to stay in the EU whilst England voted to withdraw.  That time might have been better spent trying to persuade people in Wales to take that different view rather than merely assuming that they would follow the politicians’ lead.  Similarly, theorising about who voted for UKIP, or even worse, trying to attract those same voters by demonstrating a tough attitude to immigration, might be better replaced by countering the underlying prejudice.

Tuesday 27 May 2014

A tall tale

Last week, the UK Treasury told us that an independent Scotland would be unable to afford to pay pensions unless the country opened its borders to a veritable flood of immigrants, so they had better do the right thing and say no.  No surprise that die-hard unionists should leap upon the argument as ‘proof’ that an independent Scotland would be unsustainable.
But it actually proves no such thing.  What it does prove (as if something so obvious needed any further proof) is that a pensions system which depends on paying today’s pensions out of the contributions of today’s workers will be put under increasing stress if longevity increases and the birth rate falls.  Scotland is not unique in this respect – it’s a problem facing the whole UK, it’s just that Scotland (like Wales) will get there sooner than the South East of England.
The Treasury’s suggested response for Scotland – growing the working population by attracting immigrants – misses the point completely.  It’s a sticking plaster approach (which raises a whole host of other questions), and since longevity is still continuing to improve, one which would need to be repeated for some time to come.
The approach adopted by the UK Government is a more sustainable one (although not one I support) – increase the pension age so that fewer people receive pensions and those who do receive them for a shorter period – but it’s still missing the point.  We need to move to a state pensions system which is more like the occupational pensions to which many of us contribute, that is, one based on savings and investments rather than payments out of revenue.  Even were a decision taken today to do that, it’s a process which would take some decades to complete, and politicians, who always have an eye to the short term rather than the long term, prefer sticking plaster.  It’s ‘only’ the old who suffer as a result.
There’s another problem as well with depending on attracting working age immigrants who will pay taxes here to pay pensions.  It doesn’t actually solve any problem – it just moves it from one country to another.  When large numbers of working age people leave a country to work elsewhere, that country potentially ends up in the alleged position of Scotland today – it’s left with an aging population, unable to properly support those in need.
And in that context, there was surprisingly little analysis of why Scotland (and again, the same applies to Wales) has a population which is aging faster than the UK as a whole, with fewer young workers to support those who have retired.  There are, of course, a number of reasons for that – but surely one of them is the way in which young working people from all the peripheral areas of the UK are attracted to the South East where, on the basis used by the Treasury’s figures, they are now contributing to the pensions of people in the South East rather than those of their own elderly relatives.
In short, migration – which the Treasury presents as the solution – is actually part of the problem.  An over centralised UK economy attracts migrants in from the periphery to the centre and then tells us that the periphery is too poor to look after its elderly and needs help from the centre or massive immigration to do so.  The truly amazing part of this is how many people swallow it.

Wednesday 21 May 2014

Selfishness isn't enough

One of the more depressing aspects of what passes for debate in Wales about membership or otherwise of the EU is that it concentrates entirely on how much money and how many jobs Wales does or does not get as a result of membership.  It’s a very narrow and selfish way of looking at membership of any organisation.  Worse, it in some ways concedes the argument to the antis.
Whilst it’s true that many jobs in Wales ‘depend’ on the EU, that is saying little more than that extant employment patterns ‘depend’ on the status quo.  But that would be true for any ‘status quo’; and if the status quo changed, so would the employment patterns.  I seem to have a vague recollection of claims being made prior to entry into the then EEC that UK jobs ‘depended’ on trade with the rest of the world and would be damaged by membership.  It’s equally valid as an argument.
When it comes to Regional Aid, the antis are entirely correct when they say that, if the UK wasn’t making large payments to the EU, then it would be able to spend even more on regional policy within the UK.  Whether any UK government would actually do so or not is another question entirely, and the history of UK regional policy doesn’t give me much faith that they would.  But an argument in favour of membership of the EU based primarily on scepticism about whether any UK government would be as generous to Wales doesn’t seem to me to be a particularly well-based one.
And what if, by some amazing miracle, the situation in Wales were to be transformed, such that Wales became a net contributor to EU funds?  If the only argument in favour was that we get more out than we put in, then the logic flows the other way – which is pretty much the position of UKIP and Tory sceptics at a UK level: 'it costs us more than we get back'.  The point is that membership of any club requires a subscription, and if one of the aims of the club is an element of redistribution, then some members will contribute more than they get back, whilst others contribute less.  Every winner has to be matched by a willing loser somewhere else.  There has to be a better reason for joining any club than an expectation of benefiting at the expense of others. Universal selfishness leads, ultimately, to poverty for the majority.
And that gets us to the real economic debate about the EU, which is hidden behind claims about how much regional aid we get or how many jobs depend on membership.  The EU is a club which aims to enmesh and equalise the economies of Europe, through economic co-operation.  Redistribution is a key element of that (which is the underlying reason why the EU is more dependable than the UK in this context), but co-operation and redistributive policies are close to anathema for the Tories and UKIP; they want only a system of competition where the strong get stronger and the weak go to the wall.
That argument about co-operation, which is also about keeping the peace on a continent which was torn apart by war for centuries previously, is one which supporters of the EU seem unable or unwilling to put; but by failing to put it, they are in danger of conceding one of the basic points of the antis, which is that the only thing that matters is narrow economic self-interest.  There’s a lot of things that I don’t like about the way that the EU has evolved, and much that I’d like to change (although that’s a great deal wider than a self-interested renegotiation of the terms of membership which is all the Tories seem to be interested in); but given the choice of European co-operation or competition, I choose the former.  However, it’s a choice which isn’t being widely articulated.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

A confession

In the light of Farage’s comments last week about feeling uncomfortable in a train hearing other languages being spoken around him, I have a confession to make.  I’m afraid that it’s not entirely unknown for me to speak Welsh on a train, even when travelling outside Wales.  I suppose it’s possible that if he’d thought about the matter for more than 30 seconds, Farage might be prepared in principle to make exceptions for the non-English native languages of these islands.  But somehow I doubt it – anything non-English seems to be ‘foreign’ to him – and anyway, I doubt that he’d know the difference between Welsh and a dozen other languages.  But as far as I know, I’ve never been on the same train as him, so I guess that I’ve not offended him directly.  Not yet, anyway.
It is, though, an incredible thing to get offended by.  Apart from anything else, how does he know whether those speaking in foreign languages are immigrants or tourists?  As he says, it’s far from uncommon on trains in London, in particular, to hear many different languages being spoken – but whether that’s a result of what he would perceive to be a failure of immigration policy or what others would see as a success of tourism policy is not a question which can be easily answered just on the basis of sight and sound.
I can understand why it is considered reasonable that people settling in a country should be expected to learn its language, but not why the use of that learned language should be made obligatory in all aspects of their lives including private conversations on trains.  (Although why it’s considered racist to suggest the same thing in relation to Welsh in the Welsh-speaking parts of Wales is something which has long eluded me.  And what Farage’s reaction would be to any demand that English migrants to the Dordogne or the Costas should be compelled to learn French or Spanish is an interesting question.)
A negative reaction to people who choose to use a language other than English to speak to each other – wherever they may be – has more to do with paranoia or xenophobia than rational thought.  But then, appealing to xenophobia is what he’s about.

Monday 19 May 2014

It really is all about prejudice

According to Miliband last week, he doesn’t believe that “... it is prejudiced to worry about immigration”.  Faced with the fact that immigration is a major issue on the doorstep, he has pledged that Labour will, however, ‘bear down on immigration through a six-month restriction on benefits for EU migrants and longer transitional controls for new accession countries’.  If this isn’t responding to prejudice, what is it?
Prejudice is simply ‘forming an opinion before becoming aware of the relevant facts of a case’.  Given the research which has been done on the economic effects of immigration, showing that it has a net benefit to the UK economy; and the research on benefits showing that immigrants are actually less likely to be on benefits than UK citizens – effectively demolishing the most usual arguments against immigration – what is left as the basis of the concern to which Miliband is trying to respond other than prejudice?
And that prejudice isn’t uniformly directed at all immigrants either.  Farage may have been attacked for the politically unwise distinction that he drew between Romanians and Germans, but I rather suspect that his chilling response “You know what the difference is” reflects an attitude which is all too common.  In trying to generalise the issue to one of ‘immigration’, politicians are glossing over the fact that the opinions to which they are trying to pander do indeed make distinctions between different types of immigrant from different backgrounds.  Politicians like Miliband can’t or won’t acknowledge those differences because to do so would be to admit that much of the doorstep hostility to immigration is indeed based largely on prejudice.
I can understand why Miliband says that Labour should not turn its back on public concerns, but the choice he faces isn’t the binary one of ignoring those concerns or pandering to them.  The option of countering prejudice with facts doesn’t seem to be on his agenda.

Thursday 15 May 2014

Wortless guarantees

Politicians have been taking turns to express their concerns about the proposed take-over of Astra Zeneca by American firm Pfizer.  They’re concentrating on the potential negative impact on jobs and research in the UK, and on the possible tax implications, naturally – but they’re missing the point.
One classic example was the MP grilling the Chief Executive of Pfizer and demanding guarantees about how many people would be employed in a specific location in five years’ time. The Chief Exec looked and sounded evasive; but in reality, how many companies, whether a take-over was in the offing or not, would be able to give that sort of guarantee anyway?  The underlying assumption seemed to be that without a take-over, everything would be certain to carry on as it is at present – but that’s a hopelessly invalid assumption.
Any demand for guarantees and binding promises from a multinatiional company will ultimately be next to worthless, and I’m not at all convinced that attempting to make them ‘legally-binding’ will really make much of a difference. Under the system of company law which all the politicians support, and which none of them show any predilection to change, both Pfizer’s and Astra Zeneca’s prime legal obligation is to maximise value for the shareholders. If legally cutting their tax bill, reducing the number of employees, or shifting activity from one part of the world to another helps, then not only are they free to do that, they are more-or-less obliged to do so.
It’s not an approach which I support, but it’s the inevitable result of a legal system whose objective is to support and protect capitalism.  The politicians could promise to change the law to give other stakeholders – such as employees, customers, and governments – more rights.  But they won’t; indeed, most of them would happily dismiss such changes as ‘more red tape’ – government regulations standing in the way of ‘free enterprise’ and the ‘right’ to make profits.  But unless they’re prepared to tackle that question, all the hand-wringing and pleading is ultimately just grandstanding.

Wednesday 14 May 2014

National lists

One of the ‘no-hope’ amendments put forward during the discussion on the Wales Bill in the House of Commons was the replacement of regional lists by a national list.  It wouldn’t be my preferred option; I’ve long been convinced that the best electoral system is STV in multi-member constituencies.  STV not without its problems (no system is), but it seems to me to be the best compromise between electoral accountability and representation of opinion.
I wouldn’t rule out a national list though as an improvement on the present system.  One step forward is better than no steps forward, and holding out for the ‘perfect’ solution shouldn’t stop us from making an improvement if we can.
There are two main positive effects which would flow from the implementation of a national list, in my view.
The first is that the election result would be more proportional than it is now.  The overall composition of the National Assembly would better reflect the range of opinions held by Welsh voters.  Based on the last election, under a national list UKIP, Socialist Labour, the Green Party, and the BNP would all have been represented in the Assembly.  (I can’t say that I’d particularly welcome representation from UKIP, let alone the BNP, but I’m not a great believer in rigging the electoral system to exclude those of whom I disapprove. Their arguments need to be countered, not simply gerrymandered away.)
The second is that it might cause a rethink about the assumption that all AMs are the same and have the same types of responsibilities.  It’s not an assumption that I’ve ever been convinced about.  They are all ‘equal’, of course, and should all have an equal voice in the legislative process, but equality isn’t the same thing as sameness.  I can see advantages in having two different types of AM – all equal when it comes to voting and selection for posts within the Assembly, but with list AMs being less encumbered with constituency casework and freer to become experts in particular fields of legislation.  Would that really be such a terrible thing?
One other thought strikes me as well.  When the legislation for the additional member system was drawn up, did the authors really think through the implications of allowing parties to put candidates on the lists and then not stand in any constituencies at all?  I had thought that the intention was to try and introduce a proportional “top-up” element to offset the result of the FPTP system in the constituencies, but if a party decides not to stand in most – or even all – of the constituencies, is there an injustice to offset? 

Tuesday 13 May 2014

Collaboration will be the norm not the exception

Labour’s Party Political Broadcast last week, parodying Nick Clegg, has been much criticised by other parties.  Whilst I agree that it really isn’t a very grown-up approach to politics, and has nothing positive to say, I can’t help thinking that it’s an inevitable result of the race by Labour and the Tories alike to employ ‘gurus’ from the USA in their campaigns.
Negativity and personalisation are the bedrock of US politics; why would anyone expect that employing ‘experts’ in the field would not lead to replicating the same approach?  There’d be little purpose in recruiting such people and then telling them “Actually, we don’t do things that way here”.  The very fact of their employment tells us that both parties are planning to further Americanize their approach to campaigning.  Pathetic it may be; but we can only expect more of the same.
Insofar as there was any serious point to the broadcast, it was the notion that the Lib Dems are “propping up” the Tories.  It’s not a very mature approach to the concept of coalition, and may well come back to bite Labour if they find themselves turning to the Lib Dems for support in the future.
There was a time when the overwhelming majority of the electorate voted for one of only two parties, but in recent decades, political allegiance has become much more fragmented.  Labour and Tory alike obviously regret that, but believing that such a situation will return any time soon – if ever – is just wishful thinking on their part.  Even under the current electoral system – let alone the more proportional one which will be with us at some future date – collaboration with other parties will become the norm, even if it doesn’t always lead to formal coalition.
Given that fact, attacking the very fact of such collaboration just because it’s with someone else looks childish.  Drawing attention to elements of any particular deal leaves more than enough scope for attacking the Lib Dems and their role in government, but to attack the fact of their having entered into a coalition is to ignore the reality of modern politics.

Monday 12 May 2014

Symptoms and causes

From many years of canvassing door to door, I’m only too well aware that ‘immigration’ is one of the topics most often mentioned.  It’s always mentioned in a negative light – rightly or wrongly, people perceive it as a problem.  And that seems to be true even in areas where the immigrant population is so small as to be almost undetectable; so whatever the ‘problem’ is, it’s very often not based on any direct or personal experience.  It’s no surprise that politicians want to be able to say something in response – particularly when there’s at least one party campaigning largely on the back of this general unease.
Almost all the work which has been done on the subject of the economic consequences of immigration suggests a net economic benefit rather than disbenefit (quite apart from the fact that parts of the NHS would collapse without the input of migrant workers).  Yet still people believe (or claim to believe) that immigration is a huge economic threat, and politicians vie with each other to pander to that view.  It would be easy to blame the hysteria of some of the tabloids, or even the spinelessness of politicians who know the truth but are afraid of losing votes by articulating it.  Whilst I’m sure that both of those are factors, I suspect that they are only reinforcing a deeper mistrust and wariness of ‘otherness’ rather than actually causing it.
The ‘rules’ surrounding debate of the subject are complex and usually implicit rather than openly stated, which makes it harder to discuss sensibly whether, and to what extent, free movement of people is a problem or not.  All ‘internal’ migration within a state (for instance from England to Wales, or from London to the Lake District) is a no-go area when it comes to discussion, despite the fact that the only real difference between ‘internal migration’ and ‘immigration’ is the constitutional status of the artificial lines on a map which people cross.  And all discussion seems to start from an assumption that movement of people across some lines is something which needs to be ‘controlled’; the only question for debate is how, and at what level.
One of the approaches to control suggested recently was the idea of ‘targetted’ recruitment of immigrants; i.e. identifying what skills are needed and then going out to specifically target people in other countries who have those skills.  It’s a neat answer for politicians to give to those who rail against immigration on the doorstep.  Active encouragement of selective migration (with the implicit suggestion that ‘non-targetted’ immigration would be controlled) is a way of controlling the free movement of people without saying so.  But it leaves me more than a little uneasy. 
If those skills are needed here, are they not also needed in the ‘home’ countries of those possessing them?  Indeed, in many cases they may well be in even more short supply there than they are here.  Whilst attracting people from elsewhere to fill the gaps left by our own inadequate training and education might appear to ‘solve’ our problems (as well as achieving its other intended objective of convincing voters that those advocating such a policy are being ‘tough’ on other immigration), is there not at least a danger that we merely move the skills shortage elsewhere? 
Insofar as there are economic disadvantages to human migration, they’re more lilkely to be suffered by the country from which people are emigrating than the one to which they are immigrating. One of my themes on this blog has been the idea of Wales as a good world citizen; is deliberately planning to take highly skilled and educated people away from where they are even more needed really compatible with that? 
Most migration – to use the wider term – is economic in one way or another, and it happens because people see that they can enjoy a better life elsewhere.  And the cause of that is economic inequality between the richer parts of the world and the poorer ones.  Rather than concentrating on preventing or limiting the movement of people – which is little more than a symptom of economic inequality – might it not be better to turn our attention to how we address that inequality instead of perpetuating it?

Wednesday 7 May 2014

Electoral fiction

Last week, the former Secretary of State for Wales once again gave us the benefit of his opinion, in some detail, on the proposal in the latest Wales Bill to remove the Labour-imposed ban on dual candidacy for the National Assembly.
Fundamentally, his logic is sound, and I find it hard to disagree with his contention that individuals who have been decisively rejected by the electorate should not, nevertheless, end up being elected.  But agreeing with the logic isn’t the same as agreeing with the premise on which it is based – i.e. that anyone failing to win an election in a constituency has therefore been rejected as a person.
For a conventionally conservative politician like Hain, the assumption is so obvious as to not even need examination.  It is a convenient fiction of the UK constitution that all MPs (and AMs etc.) are elected as individuals rather than simple nominees of their party, and it would be unreasonable to expect any conservative to challenge that fiction.
But looked at from another point of view, the idea that people in Neath would still have chosen Hain as their MP if he had stood as a conservative candidate – or even as a candidate for the successor to his former party, the Lib Dems – is patently risible.  Whilst there may have been a small number of astute electors who realised that the difference between the parties was so small that they might as well vote for the person that they most liked, the overwhelming majority voted for the party – the man simply came with the package.  (In all fairness, I suppose that it really is possible that he believes that he would still have won as a conservative, given his unique ability and talents.  He wouldn’t be the first politician to be overcome by such an unrealistic level of self-belief.)
If that’s true in Neath, it’s equally true in Clwyd West, his favoured example of the ‘problem’ that he perceives.  But it simply isn’t true that the three losing candidates were ‘rejected’ by the electorate; it was merely that they were wearing the wrong colour rosettes.  The fact that they lost tells us nothing at all about what the electorate thought about them as candidates.  Equally, however, the fact that they ‘won’ places through the regional list tells us nothing about what the electorate thought about them as candidates either; all it tells us anything about is the relative level of support for the various parties.
All judgement of the merits of individuals is, in practice, done by their parties before presenting them to the electorate as candidates.  One would hope (although there is obviously room for doubt) that the parties would be seeking to put forward their best people to serve the electorate.  The Labour/Hain ban on dual candidacy is more likely to put an unnecessary obstacle in the way of that than to facilitate it. As such, it fails to serve the best interests of the electorate.