Wednesday 31 May 2017

Old habits never die

I was ‘lucky’ enough to receive the election communication for our local Tory candidate this week, and it contains some ‘interesting’ claims.  Firstly, there was the rather strange claim that having campaigned for the Brexit Secretary David Davis means that he knows how to get a good deal for Carmarthenshire from Brexit.  The idea that this knowledge has transferred from one person to another by some sort of osmosis just by campaigning together is remarkable enough; even more remarkable is the implicit suggestion that David Davis has much idea himself about how to get a good deal.  Or perhaps that’s the problem – his fellow campaigner has somehow sucked all the knowledge out of him.
Apparently, voting for Havard Hughes (and Theresa May, who according to his posters – “standing with Theresa May in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr” – is also a local candidate) will “stop Plaid from blocking Brexit”.  I’m sure that Plaid would find his faith in their ability – with an expected 3 MPs out of 650 – to stop Brexit in its tracks more than a little flattering, but it only serves to convince me that, despite his apparently impeccable local pedigree, he has spent more time in the recent past dwelling in the same galaxy as his party’s leader.  And it completely ignores the fact that Plaid, like the remainers in his own party and the Labour Party, seem to have given up the fight to retain Wales’ place in Europe.
He goes further – a vote for him will “stop Plaid from helping Brussels break Britain and our economy in revenge for Brexit”.  This is the sort of foaming-at-the-mouth approach to those evil bureaucrats in Brussels which I would generally expect only from UKIP, but it serves to underline just how far in that direction a party which mostly (remember those faraway days just one year ago?) campaigned to remain in the EU has gone off the rails in its pursuit of UKIP votes.
In his write-up in the Carmarthen Journal last week, Mr Hughes revealed that he used to be a member of the Lib Dems, along with his mother (who fought previous elections in this area), before they both defected to the Tories.  However, his leaflet shows that he hasn’t lost all his Liberal Democrat tendencies; it includes a nice bar chart, based on “recent odds” from some bookie or other, which demonstrates, with complete disregard to any actual votes cast in the past, that only the Tories can beat Plaid in this constituency.  You can take a man out of the Lib Dems, but you can’t take the Lib Dems out of a man, to misquote an old saying.

Tuesday 30 May 2017

Being strong

The idea that the Prime Minister of the UK should be a ‘strong’ person is core to the Tory election appeal.  And I can understand why anyone would want to think that the country’s leader was a ‘strong’ person.  Whether the current Prime Minister meets the criterion (which is the other side of the Tories’ campaign) is another question; and the answer depends largely on what the word ‘strong’ actually means.
Over many years – in both politics and my working life - I’ve come across a variety of leaders of different types, some of which I’d regard as having been strong leaders, and others of which I’d regard as having been weak leaders.  And I’ve been thinking about the attributes which lead me to those conclusions. 
Strong is certainly not the same as stubborn; a degree of determination can make a leader appear strong, but a refusal ever to consider the possibility of an alternative approach is stubborn rather than determined.
Then there’s the question of discussion with others.  Indecisiveness – and giving the impression that you agree with whoever was the last person you spoke to – will always come across as weakness, but it’s often the strongest leaders who have the confidence to listen to and discuss with others before forming a conclusion.  The line between those two positions isn’t always clear, but it’s an important distinction.  Being unable to hear an opposing view is invariably a sign of weakness rather than strength. 
In any negotiation, having a clear idea of what you want to get out of the discussions from the outset is clearly a strength, but being unable to articulate that – or, even worse, being unable to distinguish between a wish list and an acceptable outcome – is a weakness, not a strength.  And assuming that the other side will roll over if only you shout loud enough is not negotiating at all.
So, confidence tempered by a willingness to listen; an ability to persuade rather than simply instruct; and an ability to be flexible around the detail whilst working for a clear overall aim – all these things would help me to feel that a leader is ‘strong’.  Applying all of these tests to the leaders of the two main UK parties doesn't give me a whole heap of confidence in either, but insofar as there is a 'winner' at all, it isn’t Theresa May.  So how are the Tories and their friends in the media getting away with portraying a weak leader as something she patently is not?

Wednesday 24 May 2017

Beware leopards and spots

The launch of the Tories’ ‘Welsh’ manifesto on Monday was somewhat (deliberate understatement) overshadowed by the astonishing U-turn on a social care cap, and the Prime Minister’s Trump-like insistence that a reversal of what has been said just a few days previously was merely an alternative fact a minor clarification.  But it meant that the import of some of the other things being said – in a more specifically Welsh context – did not get the attention it deserved.
I suppose the very fact that the ‘Welsh’ manifesto was launched by the UK leader rather than depending on any natives should have been warning in itself (the self-styled ‘Welsh leader’ wasn’t even present – whether by lack of invitation or lack of inclination is unstated).  But some of the comments made should give serious cause for concern in relation to the resilience (I was tempted to say strength and stability) of the devolution settlement.  How can these statements:
·         "The United Kingdom Government has in the past tended to 'devolve and forget'.  This Conservative government will put that right.”
·         “We will work closely with the Welsh Government for the benefit of all our people - but that will not be the limit of our actions in Wales."
be interpreted, other than as a clear statement that a re-elected Theresa May would have no intention of respecting the boundaries between devolved and non-devolved responsibilities?
And, constitutionally, she has every right to interfere and over-rule the Welsh Government and the National Assembly at any time of her choosing.  The convention that the UK Government would not do so is exactly what it says, a convention. And as the Article 50 Supreme Court proceedings demonstrated, there is absolutely no requirement on the UK Government to abide by that convention.  It underlines the truth which devolutionists would prefer that we didn’t understand – all the powers of the National Assembly and Welsh Government are ‘on loan’ from Westminster, and can be reclaimed at any time.
There is one way, and only one way, of replacing the concept of sovereignty as the inalienable right of the Crown-in-Parliament with the concept of sovereignty belonging to the people of Wales and that is by securing Welsh independence.  The Tories’ commitment to devolution is being shown to be the same as their commitment to any other policy – it will only last as long as the UK leader decides (which, as we’ve seen on other policy areas, might only be days at a time).

Tuesday 23 May 2017

Keeping a straight face

As the wheels increasingly fall off the Tory election battle jalopy, their Scottish branch office has managed to claim that a vote for the Tories in Scotland is a vote both for and against the same policy.  Apparently, if voters in Scotland vote Tory, they’re voting to keep the winter fuel allowance as a universal benefit in Scotland whilst introducing a means test on the benefit in Englandandwales.  And because it would not be a standalone piece of legislation, but part of the budget, it would not be affected by the legislation on English Votes for English Laws, so any Tories elected as part of ‘Theresa May’s Team’ from Scotland would be whipped into supporting the means test, whilst leaving the party’s MSPs free to oppose it in Scotland.
It gets better; because of the effect of the Barnett formula, the savings following the imposition of a means test in Engalndandwales would reduce the budget available to Scotland, which would then have to cut other spending to finance the continuation of the benefit.  So the Tory MSPs get to oppose an unpopular policy being introduced elsewhere by their own party, demand that the SNP doesn’t follow the Westminster Government on this policy, and then criticise any savings made elsewhere to pay for the policy.  Win-win, eh?
But how do they manage to keep a straight face? 

Monday 22 May 2017

The difference is more fundamental than many think

I’ve often heard people – including some who should know better – argue that the UK is now in a state of post-ideology politics.  Insofar as there is any validity to this at all, it is because the government and opposition parties, to a significant extent, have accepted the victory of one particular ideology.  Sometimes however, even in the pretend world of manufactured outrage which generally passes for political debate, proposals come to the surface which demonstrate and underline the need for ideological differences to reassert themselves.  One such is the Tory proposal on paying for care for those who need it in the latter years of their life.   
Of those of us lucky enough to live to a ripe old age, some will need care whilst others will not.  The reasons for needing care will vary; it could be physical disability but there is also an increasing incidence of dementia, bringing a need for expensive round the clock care.  It’s mostly not ‘healthcare’ as such, but it is unquestionably a need generated by a health problem, and the distinction between health care and social care is close to meaningless in this context.  The question, at its most fundamental, is whether we pay for that care by pooling the risk, or whether we push the costs of that care onto individual sufferers and their families.
That is, in essence, a question of ideology.  The Tories have pinned their colours very firmly to the mast of individual responsibility – pay low taxes and pay the costs of care yourself.  That is not the principle which underpins the NHS, which is rooted in the idea that we all pay in through taxes and NI, and can access the services as and when we need them.  In effect, we are pooling the risk, and the tax and NI contributions we make are a form of insurance against needing the services provided.  There is no fundamental practical reason why we could not adopt exactly the same approach to providing other sorts of care. 
There would be a financial consequence, of course – the cost would be distributed over the population as a whole, and it would mean that many of us have to pay a bit more tax, of one sort or another.  For those of us who need the services – and none of us can be sure that we won’t – it provides the certainty that the care will be available when we need it.  For those who don’t – well, it’s like paying any other insurance premium; if the event insured against doesn’t happen, it’s a sunk cost. 
One of the most common arguments used against such a collective approach is that the more well-off get the benefits as well as the poor, and that applying a means test (which is what the £100,000 limit proposed by the Tories amounts to) means that the help is targeted at those who need it.  But a proper taxation regime means that those who can afford it will be paying more in advance; the extra cost of providing services to all is recovered by extra taxes on those who can afford to pay.  The argument against providing universal benefits is a fallacy used to rationalise a desire to keep taxes low for the most well-off in society.  In this specific case, it’s also a means of protecting the assets of the very wealthiest by raiding the assets of those whose assets are limited to a modest home.  The astounding thing is that so many fall for it – at least, until the problem hits their families.
There was a report last week about the reaction of voters in a solid Labour constituency to the idea of extending means testing in general, and it showed the extent to which the individualist ideology has triumphed over a more collectivist approach.  It related to the means-testing of the winter fuel allowance rather than the social care policy, but the underlying attitude applies to both.  And although it’s easy for people to think that ‘those who can afford to should pay’, they’re usually thinking about someone else.  What many don’t yet seem to realise is that, in the case of the new Tory policy on paying for care, ‘those who can afford to pay’ is being defined as ‘every home-owner’.  The legacy of New Labour has a lot to answer for. 
The problem is partly that people are looking at only one side of the equation – payments made by the government.  A balanced system needs also to consider the other side – payments to the government, aka taxes.  As Chris Dillow posted last week, if the objective is to ensure that those who can most afford to pay stump up the most, then a progressive taxation system coupled with universal benefits is a more efficient means of achieving that than a system of means-testing. 
After being slammed by the Tories and their media friends prior to the last election for talking about introducing a ‘death tax’, Labour back-pedalled on their proposal to place an extra tax on estates to pay for the increasing social care costs.  Given that history, I can’t blame them for seeing an opportunity here to attack the Tories in the same terms, but what they don’t seem to be doing is pointing out the essential difference in the two approaches, which is that their proposal was based on taxation of all to pay for those in need, whereas the Tories’ proposal is based on charging those receiving the services, albeit posthumously. 
They seem to have lost sight of the essential difference between an individualistic approach and a collective one.  Yet failure to make that distinction turns the debate into merely an argument over taxation and expenditure rather than one about what sort of society we want to live in.  And allowing the debate to take place only at that more limited, ideology-free, level is allowing it to take place on the Tories’ terms.  It’s a very strange situation when the most vociferous opposition to this individualistic approach is likely to come not from those who should traditionally be promoting a collectivist approach, but from those who fear that traditional Tory voters are the most likely to be hit financially by the proposal.  

Friday 19 May 2017

Setting double standards

Some of the proposals announced in the Tory manifesto yesterday seemed, at first sight, to be an attack on one of their most loyal groups of voters, pensioners.  Anecdotal evidence is necessarily unreliable as to the attitudes of the many, but after seeing a few pensioners interviewed following the launch, I suspect that attacking their benefits is not much of a gamble after all.  There are plenty of them prepared to blame immigrants, overseas aid, unemployed people – anyone except those actually taking the decisions.  Getting different groups to blame each other looks like a successful political strategy, sadly.
But it’s the response to the economic aspects of the manifesto that struck me.  I posted a few days ago that the expectation that any political party could realistically produce a sound costed manifesto for the next five years was plain silly, because there are too many unknowns and variables.  What parties can do, however, is look at one or other side of the balance sheet.  They can, for instance, set out their approach to taxation and borrowing, and state that they will manage expenditure in order to meet their targets.  Alternatively, they can set out a programme of policies and state that they will manage taxation and borrowing in order to deliver that programme.  It’s a bit like an economic version of the uncertainty principle – you can do one or the other but doing both is impossible.
In 2010 and 2015 the Tories effectively took the first approach.  They set out their over-riding aim of eliminating the deficit within 5 years, promised not to increase any of the main taxes, and simply stated that they would cut spending in order to achieve that.  Detail on what would be cut was sparse, to say the least, but they got away with it because they framed the whole debate in terms of the absolute necessity of that objective.  As it subsequently turned out, on the basis of the bar which they set for themselves they failed miserably.  Not only did they not eliminate the deficit, they borrowed ever more. 
In this election, they have thrown that approach out of the window.  Yes, they still have some vague commitment to eliminate the deficit by 2025, but in essence, their approach this time round is to set out their programme and state that they will adjust taxation and borrowing as necessary to deliver that programme, without spelling out any detail.  The chances of them achieving that deficit target look slim to me, but it doesn’t matter because it’s more than one election away, and it was always the wrong target anyway.  The ‘deficit elimination’ mantra served its political purpose of framing the agenda and putting the other parties on the spot; it was never that important in economic terms.
The point is, however, that the Tories have been allowed, for three elections in a row, to set out the detail of only one side of the equation, whilst the other parties have been forced onto the defensive in trying to explain exactly what they would do about both sides.  How has this happened?  Why are we in a situation where the bar has been set so much higher for everyone else?  Double standards have been applied with the active support and complicity of the press and media, including the publicly-funded BBC.  The real victory of the Tories, not just in one or two elections, is that they have been able to turn ‘impartial’ news media into their own propaganda arm; barely challenging what they say and do even in comparison with their own self-imposed target whilst tearing pieces out of anyone failing to meet a higher – and essentially unattainable – standard.

Thursday 18 May 2017

What's the vision?

One of the consistent themes on this blog is about whether political parties should be leading or merely following public opinion.  The former involves having and setting out a clear vision about the sort of future they want to see and trying to persuade or lead people to follow; the latter is more of a beauty contest, with parties saying much the same thing and arguing about which has the best team to deliver on the popular policies.  The second scenario does not necessarily mean that all policies are identical; there’s still some scope to appeal to different demographics and groups, but in essence, much of the core will look essentially similar, and election campaigns will concentrate on ability to deliver.
In some ways, this election looks like something of an exception.  Jeremy Corbyn seems to be trying to articulate a different set of values and priorities in a way which Labour has not really attempted for decades.  Indeed, that is precisely his biggest sin in the eyes of many of his party’s MPs, who are much more comfortable with the beauty contest style of politics.  The Tories, on the other hand, seem increasingly prepared to say anything which they think might be popular, and to concentrate all their efforts on trying to prove that an automaton is better qualified to implement them than a thoughtful man who actually wants to consider the facts first.
Here in Wales, this dichotomy between the two approaches is a particular problem for Plaid.  The party that I joined in 1971 was, unquestionably, a party which had a vision for a different future for Wales and set out to convince people about that future.  The Plaid contesting next month’s general election seems to be much more in the second camp.  The idea that Plaid might actually be better at defending Wales than the Labour Party has the advantage of probable truth, but ‘we’re more anti-Tory than Labour’ isn’t much of a vision for the future, and seems to me to be playing to an interpretation of Welsh politics which is increasingly divergent from contemporary reality.
At the core of the party’s appeal for this election is the idea that Plaid is the only party that will put the interests of Wales ahead of its own interests, yet that doesn’t always seem to be supported by the detail.  According to this report from BBC Wales’ political editor, Plaid has now accepted that Brexit is inevitable, and a Plaid insider told him that ‘they felt there were no votes to be gained by re-fighting last year's battle’.  As an assessment of the probability of garnering votes on this particular issue at this particular time, I’d agree with that conclusion.  It’s the same problem being faced by the Lib Dems in trying to appeal to voters on the issue – their promise of a second referendum seems to be making little impact. 
The question for me, though, is not about whether it would win votes but about where the best interests of Wales lie.  If someone really believes that the best interests of Wales lie in membership of the European Union, shouldn’t they be making the case for that outcome when given the opportunity, even if less than half the population agree with them?  That does not preclude attempting to influence the nature of any Brexit deal in the interim, nor seeking to maximise any opportunities which may exist, but it does require having and presenting a clear vision about what sort of Wales they want to see, and how they see Wales’ place in the world.
And that brings us to the question of independence.  For sure, the word is given more prominence than has been the case for some years now, with a clear statement right on the first page that “It remains our ambition for Wales to become an independent nation”; but the detail of what independence actually means in a post-Brexit world is conspicuous by its absence.  For decades, the word has been synonymous with ‘full membership of the EU’; but for a party accepting Brexit it must now mean something else.  And if I, as a long-term independentista, don’t know what that is and am unsure about supporting it, what chance of convincing the rest of Wales?  But then, there are even fewer votes to be gained by promoting independence than in opposing Brexit - which brings us right back to the question of what politics should be about.

Wednesday 17 May 2017

How will you pay for it?

When it comes to political manifestos, I struggle to work out which is the silliest – asking that question, or trying to answer it.  But that doesn’t stop them.  Having ‘fully-costed’ manifestos is, it seems, de rigueur, even if it’s economic nonsense, and yesterday’s Labour manifesto was a case in point.  I can’t remember when or how it became necessary for parties to explain in detail both the cost and the method of financing of their policy proposals, but I suspect it’s a consequence of the Thatcher years when a political ideology contrary to the interests of the many was promulgated by the simple expedient of pretending that government spending is like household spending, and must always balance out.
It’s a simple enough comparison to make, and it’s counter-intuitive to argue that it’s nonsense, which is why it has taken hold to the extent that it has.  The press and broadcast media promote the ideology by default – whether because they are biased towards it, see it as in their own best interest, are innumerate, or are just plain lazy is an open question.  It doesn’t really matter why – the effect is that parties have become so afraid of challenging the established wisdom that they seek to comply even if at least some of those involved realise how silly it is.
So, yesterday was Labour’s turn to answer the silly question and explain how they will pay for one of the boldest manifestos put forward for many a year, so they duly gave an appropriately silly answer.  Oh the numbers certainly add up, it’s just that they’re based on so many unstated assumptions as to be completely meaningless.  The government, with all its statisticians and experts, has only just been able to tell us what the rate of inflation was last month, and nobody knows what the actual rate of economic growth is until after the event either.  And that’s without throwing in uncertainty over exchange rates, Brexit, and unexpected events which are, by their nature, unforeseeable.  Yet producing a ‘fully-costed’ manifesto requires all of these things to be known for the next five years in advance.  It’s impossible; figures which can only be, at best, rough estimates based on a whole range of assumptions are being bandied around as though they are gospel truth.
Since being elected in 2010, and again in 2015, the Tories have borrowed hundreds of billions of pounds more than they said they would.  This is equivalent to hundreds of billions of pounds’ worth of uncosted expenditure compared to their manifesto promise, yet few of the media so keen to pin down Labour and other opposition parties seem to bat an eyelid over that.  Politicians can get away with uncosted expenditure as long as either a) they don’t predict it in advance, or b) they’re Tories, apparently.  But having said that, I should make it clear that it’s the hypocrisy and double standards to which I object, not the borrowing itself.
Borrowing, despite all the rhetoric, actually makes sense at a time when people are queuing up to lend money to the government at what are, effectively, negative real interest rates.  They don’t call it lending to the government, of course – they call it investing in NSI products, or buying government bonds.  But whatever they call it they are in fact lending money to the government, and are currently willing to go on doing so.  Labour’s talk of increasing borrowing not only makes economic sense, it’s a welcome change from the ideological straitjacket.  My main criticism would be that they’ve tried to put a firm figure on it, rather than simply stating that they will borrow whenever it makes sense to do so.
There’s an interesting analysis here of borrowing over the years by Labour and Conservative governments respectively.  It clearly shows that the rhetoric generally being used is at variance with the truth: overall, Tory governments borrow more and Labour governments are actually better at repaying debt.  One possible (and counter-intuitive interpretation) of this is that, actually, the Tories really are better at economics than Labour, and that, despite what they say, they have a willingness to borrow as and when appropriate – we just need to judge them on what they do, rather than on what they say they will do.  It isn’t the only possible interpretation however, and it would be a far too simplistic one.  A more detailed analysis of the difference in circumstances facing governments of the two parties would be too lengthy for this post.  It’s enough for the time being to indicate that knee-jerk criticism of Labour for planning to borrow owes more to spin than to good economics.

Tuesday 16 May 2017

What's the real intention?

Policies can invariably be presented in more than one way; and most policies have ramifications elsewhere, even if that isn’t entirely clear at the time.  Yesterday’s announcement by the Tories that they will legislate to allow people to take up to a year off to look after sick relatives appears a strange one, for several reasons, but I find myself wondering whether this isn’t a victory for presentation over substance.
Firstly, it seems to have emerged from nowhere and to have been given very little thought.  The implications for businesses are far from clear, as many businesses have been quick to point out; how they will be expected to cover for such absences is an obvious concern for them.  The implications for the staff themselves haven’t been made explicit either – whilst their jobs will be kept open for them when they return, it’s an open question as to how they will be able to support themselves unpaid for a year.  The detail is completely absent: it’s easy for the Tories to say that they’ll think about that later, but it means that voters are being asked to buy something superficially attractive without knowing how it will work in practice.
And secondly, it seems so un-Tory-like.  Imposing extra costs and bureaucracy on businesses is exactly what they normally claim to be against; their more usual approach is to talk about getting rid of rules and regulations.  Of course they’re trying to steal Labour votes by appearing to adopt some of Labour’s traditional approaches, but this one looks like an attempt to sound like they think Labour ought to sound without really understanding what that means.
There is, however, another possible explanation, and it’s much more in line with traditional Tory approaches.  There is a looming crisis for care services as the population ages, and the costs of providing care are inevitable going to increase.  Freeing up relatives to provide care on a voluntary basis is likely to help to ease that pressure, and reduce the demand for state-provided care.  This could, of course, merely be an unexpected consequence of an otherwise well-intentioned policy, and perhaps I’m just being my usual cynical self; but I can’t help wondering whether this new ‘right for employees’ is actually a cost-saving measure being spun as something it really isn’t.

Friday 12 May 2017

Forgetting the objective

On Tuesday, a former Secretary of State for Wales told us that scrapping the pensions triple lock before 2020 would be an act of bad faith, given the promise which he and his party made only two years ago.  My first reaction was that, given Mrs May’s clear and intense dislike of opposition to anything she says from the opposition parties let alone from her own side, Crabb has obviously written off his chances of returning to the Cabinet any time soon. 
There is one thing that he has learned from his leader however, and that is the art of making policy U-turns.  Unless I’m very much mistaken, this is the very same Stephen Crabb who argued strongly  last year, just after the Tory leadership election, that the pensions lock should be scrapped, or at the very least modified, immediately.  Clearly, changing it two years after promising it would be in place for five is ‘bad faith’, but changing it only one year after making that promise is entirely reasonable.  But then, when he made his statement last year, he wasn't expecting to be facing the electors quite so soon, and might have thought that they'd have a bit more time to forget the decision.  The U-turn might suggest that he is from the same planet as May after all, but if he wants to get on, he probably needs to co-ordinate his policy flip-flops so they coincide with May’s, rather than conflict.

There's another aspect to this as well.  If dropping one promise three years early is a sign of bad faith, why is it then OK to drop other promises?  On the basis of that argument, the manifesto for the first three years would have to simply carry forward the pledges made in 2015, but part of the reasoning for holding an election at all is surely so that May can free herself from all commitments made by the Conservative Party and implement the UKIP ones a manifesto more to her liking instead.
Anyway, to the substance of the matter.  My recollection of the reason for introducing the triple lock in the first place was that pensioners had lost ground in relative terms over the period since Thatcher scrapped the link with earnings, and the intention of the policy was to restore their relative position.  There has been some criticism recently that, as a result of the policy, pensioner income is growing faster than income for other people – but that was precisely the intention.  The question should not be ‘are pensioner incomes growing faster?’, but ‘has their relative position been restored yet?’  In any rational world, the question of whether the triple lock should be retained would be related directly to determining a target ratio between pensions and earnings and then establishing whether that has been achieved.
When that point has been reached, it would seem entirely reasonable to me to re-open the debate about how pensions increases should be calculated and how we ensure that the relative position of pensioners should be maintained.  I haven’t done the sums; my feeling is that we’re probably not there yet; but maintaining the triple lock indefinitely would result in a significant target overshoot over time.  But it’s as though the politicians have all forgotten the origins and rationale for the policy.
The policy is promoted as something which will appeal to pensioners, and attacked as something with which young working people are being burdened.  That is completely at odds with reality.  I’m not at all convinced that Einstein ever said that compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe, but it certainly is a powerful financial force.  And it means that the biggest beneficiaries of a triple lock maintained indefinitely are not current pensioners, nor those about to retire, but those who haven’t even been born yet.
I don’t think that it’s right or sensible to maintain the policy for ever, but it would be helpful to have a more informed debate about the objectives of pensions policy rather than an attempt at point-scoring between those who are targeting older voters and those targeting the young.  It’s another example of the froth of modern politics.

Thursday 11 May 2017

Tax is a good thing

One of the depressing aspects of this election, as with others which have gone before, is that the parties feel constrained to argue about which of them will keep taxes lowest.  It’s an argument predicated on the assumption that tax is always a bad thing, and that people will always vote for the party which taxes them the least.  What it avoids is any debate about the nature and purpose of taxation.
Even when politicians do talk about the need to increase taxation, they do it in a cautious and hesitant fashion.  One very recent example was the Lib Dem promise to raise income tax by 1p to fund NHS and Social Care.  I’m not a fan, to say the least, of hypothecated taxes like this; saying that this penny of income tax is for the NHS, that one for Defence, the other one for pensions isn’t a particularly helpful way of managing government finances, particularly when circumstances change (as they always do).  It isn’t just the Lib Dems though – look at the hesitancy with which Labour talk about raising the top rate of income tax.  Even in the way in which it was presented, it was about those who would not face a tax increase under Labour rather than those who would.
That isn’t the only aspect of language used which colours debate.  Why is taxation, for instance, always described as a ‘burden’, with debate limited to who should bear this ‘burden’?  This sort of language evidences the underlying assumption that taxation is some form of ‘necessary evil’; but the idea that it’s an evil of any sort effectively concedes the ideological argument.  The argument that it is better for people to keep more of their own money and decide for themselves how to spend it is itself an ideological argument, not a statement of fact.  Why is it ‘better’; who decided that; what are the criteria being used to arrive at that judgement; and where is the evidence that lower taxation meets those criteria?
There’s another aspect to all this as well, and that is that the debate usually concentrates on taxes on income.  Part of the reason for that is that taxes on income are generally more visible – people looking at their payslips can see immediately how much has been deducted in tax.  VAT, on the other hand, is a lot less visible.  For sure, higher VAT leads to higher prices, but most consumers when purchasing items don’t distinguish between VAT and other causes of high prices; the question is only whether the total price is affordable.  So, whilst the parties get themselves worked up over whether or not VAT will be increased, it’s a tax which is a lot less visible to most of those paying it.
Taxes such as VAT are not only less visible than direct taxes on income; they’re also much less progressive or fair.  On most of the vatable goods and services which most of us buy, we all pay the same amount, regardless of means.  Any shift away from visible to less visible taxation is in effect a transfer of tax from the richer to the poorer.
There is, though, an alternative ideological viewpoint.  Tax is, in essence, a good thing, and the more it’s related to ability to pay the better.  Tax underpins civilisation.  Taxation is one way of ensuring that the economy benefits the many not the few, and enables the maintenance of a caring and compassionate society.  Seen from this perspective, any party claiming to be the party of low taxation is a party which is, in effect, promoting personal selfishness at the expense of community solidarity.
Rejecting the idea that taxation is something inherently bad, and defending and promoting the idea that it is central to any society which values all its members, is just one of the steps which are required if we are to reject the increasing division of society into haves and have nots.  Where, other than Sweden, are the politicians brave enough to make the case for taxation in a bold and assertive fashion?

Wednesday 10 May 2017

Differing in degree, not in kind

The Prime Minister is determined to stick to her unachievable pledge to reduce net immigration to an arbitrary level of ‘under 100,000’ per annum.  In the meantime, the provisional wing of her party, aka UKIP, has plumped for an equally arbitrary level of zero.  Both figures have merely been plucked from thin air in an attempt to appease voters who don’t like foreigners, and both are justified by the use of the magic word ‘sustainable’, a word whose use is, apparently, enough to justify anything with no further explanation required.  The difference between these two policies is not one of kind, merely one of degree – an arbitrary target for net migration levels regardless of economic impact is exactly that, at whatever level it is set. 
Both parties rehearse the usual arguments; no matter how many times they’ve been rationally and logically dissected, analysed, and debunked, they appeal to a sector of the electorate and are therefore wheeled out time and again.  I haven’t, in the past, paid too much attention to the detail of UKIP policy statements, but based on what has happened over recent years, UKIP’s policy today is probably just a foretaste of Tory Party policy and arguments for the next election. 
One of the arguments that UKIP make is that England is the "sixth most overcrowded country in the world".  I assume that they’re talking about relative population density, but I can’t make any sense of this claim.  This data from the Office of National Statistics says that the average population of England is 413 per square km, and this table shows the countries of the world, which can be ranked in order of population density.  The UK is obviously there as a single entity in 51st position, but if we use the England-only figure, it would be in 31st position, between Burundi and the Netherlands.  Even if we exclude those overseas territories which are not sovereign countries from the list, I still can’t get England to a higher position than around 17 or 18.
But let’s put aside the mere detail of the claim about England’s position in the table of overcrowding, and turn to the essence of the claim itself – which is that England is ‘overcrowded’.  What exactly does that mean?  Clearly, anyone who believes that country A is ‘overcrowded’ must have at least some idea of what the ‘right’ population level for that country is, but I’ve never heard them answering that one, and I don’t know how they could or would.  It’s an utterly meaningless statement which still manages to appeal to many of those hearing it, usually as a rationalisation of a much baser instinct.
We should also come back to the fact that they are quite deliberately talking only about ‘England’ here.  In Wales (149 per square km), Northern Ireland (135) and Scotland (68), the situation is very different.  Do they think we’re overcrowded as well?  If they do, then merely controlling net migration isn’t going to help them get the English population down to their imaginary ideal level – and if they don’t, then why apply a policy based on the situation in England?  I doubt that they’ve given a moment’s thought to that question.
Part of the problem in all of the discussion about immigration is that the Tories and UKIP do have one valid underlying point, albeit one that they’re failing to grasp other than in a highly distorted fashion.  It is this: if the population in a country is growing and the provision of services is not, then there will be additional pressures on health and other services.  (It’s also true that a country with an aging population will face greater pressures on services such as health and social care.)
That statement is surely indisputable, and the resulting pressures are regularly used as arguments by those opposing immigration.  But that is ignoring the key caveat about matching the growth in provision of services to the growth in population.  If services do not keep pace with the requirements of a growing population, it’s because the government presiding over the situation is neither planning nor providing adequate services.  When people blame immigrants, they’re diverting attention from the failure of successive governments to make adequate provision.  Whose interests does that serve, I wonder?

Tuesday 9 May 2017

Knowing the boundaries

Early last week, I had a nice little letter from the MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, seeking support for his re-election.  It was delivered through the Royal Mail – that’s an expensive method of distributing leaflets, but it arrived (just) before the deadline for counting expenditure towards election expenses, so probably doesn’t count towards his re-election expenses for the constituency.  Getting it in early shows that he’s probably keen not to add his name to the list of Tory MPs currently still waiting to hear whether they will be charged for election offences following the submission of some ‘interesting’ expenses returns at the last election in 2015.
And fair play, it’s completely bilingual as well (not something one can always count on from the Tories, even in heavily Welsh-speaking areas like this), although something got lost in the translation of “continue to champion the Armed Forces in Parliament” which ended up as “Yn cefnogi ein holl drigolion, p’un ai ydynt yn fy nghefnogi neu beidio, neu yn wir, os byddant yn pleidleisio o gwbl”.  Still, mistakes can happen to all of us, and that looks like a simple case of changing the wording after the original had been sent for translation and hoping that no-one would notice.
However, talking of mistakes, an accidental mistranslation isn’t the biggest one with the leaflet.  The much bigger error is that I don’t live or vote in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire.  I live in border country, true enough – I can’t leave my drive without entering the Carmarthen West constituency.  But I don’t live in that constituency, which means that he really didn’t need to worry about getting it to me before the deadline after all.  On my understanding of electoral law, he doesn’t have to declare expenditure on writing to random people who don’t live in his constituency.  The question which arises isn’t about the cost, it’s about the rationale.
If the leaflet had been hand-delivered by one of the Tories’ volunteers, it would be an easily understandable mistake.  I’ll admit that it’s a mistake which I’ve made myself in the past when leafletting in rural areas where boundaries can occur in seemingly strange places.  But it wasn’t hand-delivered - it came through the post, and the address has been printed from a database.  It raises a few interesting questions about which database is being used and why: it’s clearly not one which is limited to the constituency boundaries.  Still, I suppose that it helps to keep printers, postmen and those involved in recycling paper in gainful employment.

Monday 8 May 2017

Where's the alternative?

Whilst the extent of their success may have been somewhat overplayed by the press and media, there can be no doubt that last Thursday’s local elections were a boost to the Tories.  But if there’s one thing that must be even more pleasing than the actual results to the Welsh Tory high command, it’s the reaction of the other parties.
This response from Wayne David was typical of the complacency coming from Labour in particular.  It is of course true that the Tory advance in Wales was not as great as some polls had been suggesting, and was less than in England, but at least part of that is down to the fact that there are large swathes of the old Glamorgan and Gwent where the Tories can rarely even be bothered to stand.  Holding off a Tory surge in areas where the Tories have few or no candidates hardly counts as a huge achievement.  At a time when yet another election has demonstrated that many parts of Wales are becoming similar to England in terms of voting behaviour, suggesting that Welsh Labour has somehow got it right and can teach English Labour a thing or two looks more like ignoring reality than facing up to it.
As voting behaviour in Wales increasingly changes to match that in England, few things will please the Tories more than to see Welsh Labour reverting to its default – and only – strategy of not being the Tories.  I suspect that Labour will have to suffer even more damage – possibly even terminal damage – before they realize that the strategy is of increasingly limited value.  Harking back to Thatcher and the miners – let alone Churchill and Tonypandy – is appealing to a demographic which is inevitably and inexorably declining due to natural causes.
But one of the problems facing us in Wales is that it isn’t just Labour which is depending on this out-dated strategy.  Much of what I‘ve seen of Plaid’s messaging for the General Election so far seems to be based on the idea that they’re even more anti-Tory than the Labour Party.  It looks as if we’re facing an election where the two main opponents of the Tories in Wales are going to spend much of their time arguing over who’s best-placed to defend us from those who will, yet again, be painted as baby-eaters or worse.
It’s an essentially negative approach, with little by way of vision for an alternative future.  Worse still, it fails to present an alternative set of values.  One of the reasons for the increasing success of the Tories has been that they have managed to get increasing numbers of people to buy in to what is essentially a selfish political philosophy.  Whether they’re talking about looking after Brits first, controlling the borders, cutting benefits, or cutting taxes, the underlying theme is one of an appeal to individualism and selfishness amongst the target demographic and demonising the non-target demographic.
In much of their response to this approach, the self-styled ‘progressive’ parties seem largely to accept the implicit values and propose minor variations to policy; what they’re not doing is promoting an alternative set of values based around community solidarity and collectivism.  The existence of that alternative set of values amongst the Welsh electorate is simply assumed, despite the growing evidence to the contrary.  But failure to promote an alternative set of values leaves a situation in which people are being asked to choose which of the parties will best deliver on the one set of values which is evident.  Why wouldn’t voters increasingly turn to the Tories?

Thursday 4 May 2017

Planets, galaxies, and universes

The suggestion which emerged in the report of that infamous dinner in a German newspaper a few days ago that Theresa May was living in a different galaxy may have been unfair.  A different galaxy is a step up from a different planet true – but is it a big enough step up?  Perhaps parallel universe might be a better description.  We learned three things in particular about Theresa May’s universe yesterday.
We learned that when people restate what they’ve been saying for months, that amounts to a hardening of their position.  (That’s as silly as imagining that repeating the words “strong and stable” ad infinitum turns them into a harder statement.  Oh, wait a minute…)  It’s a reasonable assumption that the Brexiteers have never believed that the EU Commission of the EU27 meant a word of anything that say, and would eventually back down if the UK shouted loudly enough.  But it seems that the rest of the EU doesn’t understand that nothing which is said by a politician is ever supposed to be taken seriously (as in ‘there will not be a snap election’, to quote just one example).  Foreigners, eh?
We also learned that telling the UK that it can’t and won’t enjoy the same benefits as a third party after refusing to pay the fees, abide by the rules, or accept the referee’s jurisdiction is a ‘threat’ or some form of punishment.  It’s a position which underlines that the objective of at least some of the Brexiteers, from the outset, has been not just Brexit but the destruction of the whole EU.  Demanding that the EU accommodate one former member by dropping most of the rules by which they operate is an entirely consistent position, but hopelessly detached from reality, as events are demonstrating.
Finally, we learned that telling the world at least part of the truth about Brexit which the UK Government would rather that electors didn’t know amounts to interfering in the UK’s election, and is somehow on a par with Russian hacking of the Democrats in the US election.  It underlines, yet again, that the current UK Government has little or no conception of the way in which the EU works, despite the UK’s 40 years of membership.  It is impossible for 27 countries to arrive at, and maintain, a common line on an issue without discussion; and with that many people involved, the discussions will inevitably be semi-public.  Besides, expecting the EU to remain silent in response to patently absurd statements about Brexit being made by UK ministers is utterly unrealistic.  For many of us, injecting a bit of truth into the election debate about Brexit is providing assistance, not interfering.
The problem is, though, that her rhetoric will actually ‘work’ with a particular target audience.  Truth is a dispensable element when trying to use confirmation bias to reinforce existing prejudices and beliefs.  Those prejudices and beliefs have been fed a diet of lies and misinformation for many years, creating a context in which May’s interpretation of events will be perceived as being accurate by many.  Ridiculing her is too easy; unfortunately, she’s not the only one dwelling in that parallel universe.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

Ganging up against us

I referred last week to the Prime Minister’s speech in Cardiff, during which she talked about the other 27 EU states ‘lining up to oppose us’.  She obviously liked that line, because she repeated it on Thursday.  Perhaps, in expecting that things would be otherwise, she’s been listening to Trump too much – apparently he needed to be told 11 times that he couldn’t do trade deals with individual EU members, only with the bloc as a whole, at which point the penny eventually dropped and he realised – to the enormous surprise of almost nobody else – that negotiating a trade deal with an EU market of 450 million is a better bet than a deal with a UK market of 60 million.  It apparently hadn’t occurred to him that the word ‘Union’ in European Union means that the countries involved act as one on a range of issues, including trade.
That brings us back to May and her Brexiteer gang.  They really do seem to believe that they can ‘divide and conquer’ – that by talking to individual EU states, they can somehow persuade them individually to support a softer line.  They are clearly struggling with the idea that the remaining EU states want to continue behaving like a union and take a common line.  It’s almost as though the history of the past 40 years of UK membership has somehow passed them by, and they’ve learned nothing from it.
Part of that is probably ideological.  Some of them have seen the destruction of the EU as part of their objective from the outset; after all, if you truly believe that it’s ‘wrong’ for one country, why would you believe that it’s ‘right’ for anyone else?  That group expected (and still hope this will turn out to be true) that Brexit will be merely the first domino; that after one country is seen to sail off into a glorious new world, others will be lining up to follow.  In practice – at this stage at least – Brexit seems to be having the exact opposite effect; it’s increasing the desire for unity amongst the remaining members.  And in the galaxy inhabited by most of us, that makes it entirely clear why Brexit cannot ever be a ‘success’ for both parties, as the Prime Minister keeps insisting.
There’s also another element of hypocrisy in what May and her gang are attempting to do by speaking to the other members as individual countries rather than solely as part of the whole, and that relates to her attitude towards Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  She is adamant that none of those parts of the UK should be allowed even to influence the negotiations, let alone talk directly to the EU27 about their future.  So why does she not understand that what she’s preventing in the UK is, in essence, exactly that which she’s demanding in the EU?

Tuesday 2 May 2017

More ways to kill a cat

That was an oft-used saying when I was younger, although perhaps it isn’t entirely appropriate or politically acceptable these days.  But the underlying point is as true as ever – there is invariably more than one way of achieving the same objective.
Recently, Theresa May told us that she wanted to cut net migration to a ‘sustainable’ level.  She didn’t even attempt to define the word ‘sustainable’, but used the word to justify a figure plucked from the air.  ‘Sustainable’ has become one of those words which politicians use to justify anything and everything, but which they never feel any need to define or explain.
So, by a process of reasoning which she was unable or unwilling to elaborate, this means that net in-migration to the UK should be ‘in the tens of thousands’.  How she will achieve this, given that the same statements have been made by her and other Tories consistently over several years, was left unsaid.  The only thing that we know for certain is that leaving the EU is not the solution, because non-EU immigration is way higher than that anyway.  Still, if you’re trying to appeal to people who don’t care about the detail, who just don’t like immigrants, and who have already demonstrated themselves to be gullible, details are not required.
It’s interesting though that she was focussing on ‘net’ migration.  Personally, I’m far from convinced that ‘net’ migration is the issue that’s concerning those to whom she’s trying to appeal, most of whom simply don’t like foreigners.  But, giving her the benefit of the doubt on that one, if we assume that she’s on the ‘right’ track in terms of the target audience, let’s return to that business about killing cats: it’s possible to reduce net migration without reducing the numbers of incomers at all, because the same result occurs by the simple expedient of increasing the number of emigrants.  (Although, of course, because they’re British we must not refer to them as migrants at all, only as ex-pats; migrants are ‘other’ people, not Brits.)  Under this scenario, if she can’t reduce the number of immigrants (and she has, allegedly, been trying to do that for years), then all she needs to do is to encourage more of us to leave the country.  In numerical terms, at least, that would ‘solve’ the ‘problem’.
It would be a novel approach (and some might think that it even makes sense of some of the policies she’s pursuing - seen as an encouragement for some groups of people to leave the UK, they look a lot more logical).  The problem is, though, that her over-riding priority of leaving the EU currently seems more likely to reduce the number of emigrants than the number of immigrants, thereby making it harder to achieve her arbitrary net target.  Perhaps they just haven’t thought this one through properly.  It would hardly be the first time.