Monday 15 July 2024

Don't do as I do

 

After more than six decades, it’s hard to remember exactly what I was taught about history in primary school, but such odd strands as come to mind relate more to the stories of individuals than those of peoples and cultures. The kings and queens of England certainly featured a little; the princes of Wales rather less, except around March 1st. For some people, that may be the only sort of history they ever learned, a version based on the idea of ‘great men’ whose deeds are treated as though they drove history rather than as sitting in any sort of wider context.

Whether it’s an accurate way of looking at history is another question entirely. How different, for instance, would the twentieth century have looked without a Churchill? He certainly had a way with words and many found him inspirational during a period of great challenge, although a more rounded picture can’t escape his innate racism, nor avoid wondering whether all his war time decisions were really as brilliant as they have been painted. If he hadn’t been there, who would have been in charge during the second world war, and would it have changed the outcome greatly? Would a different individual have risen to the challenge? We can never know, because we only live history once, and it is what it is. Related questions can be asked about Hitler, or Stalin. Were these uniquely evil people or, given the circumstances at the time, would they have simply been replaced by other, equally evil, individuals?

One of the justifications for political assassinations – a field in which the USA tends to excel, even if normally practiced outside the territory of the USA itself – is that killing evil men protects the rest of the world. And I’ve even seen some argue that if Hitler had been assassinated in the 1930s, the holocaust could have been avoided. Maybe, if the entire Nazi leadership had been ‘taken out’ before coming to power (even assuming that to be possible), things might have been different; but it’s impossible to tell and, by the time they had taken control of Germany, there were more than enough potential replacements. But there are at least two other problems with that scenario, even if we conclude that it would indeed have made a difference. The first is that it really means eliminating people before they’ve committed the crimes, and pre-emptive extra-judiciary execution isn’t something which can be easily justified morally. But the second is a much bigger, albeit incredibly simple, question with no easy answer – who decides?

Whilst Trump appears, at times at least, to be seriously unhinged and whilst he is, for many of us, a deeply unpleasant person generally unsuited to the job of president, his first term in office didn’t put him in the same category as a Stalin or a Hitler. Some of the proposals being floated for his second term have some very unlovely historical precedents but, given his propensity for distancing himself from concepts such as truth, judging him guilty to the extent of deserving to be executed on the basis of what he says today is, at the least, premature. It’s certainly not the sort of decision which any society with even the remotest claims to being democratic and abiding by the rule of law should be leaving to a lone gunman with a rifle.

The condemnation of yesterday’s attack has rightly been near-universal, but the reaction of both Trump and Biden would sound a lot more sincere if there was some sign that it had caused either of them to reflect on the USA’s long-standing proclivity for conducting or facilitating assassinations elsewhere.

Friday 12 July 2024

Whose economy is it anyway?

 

It has been calculated that people in the UK, on average, are living a ‘three planet lifestyle’, which is to say that if the entire population of the world lived the same lifestyle we would need three times the amount of resources available to us on Earth. Now there are, of course, a number of estimates and assumptions used to arrive at that conclusion, at least some of which are inevitably open to challenge. But, even if we quibble about the detail, the conclusion that some of the world’s population are using resources at a rate which could not be sustained if everyone lived the same lifestyle seems a reasonable one. There are choices we can make: we could reduce the population, we could reduce current living standards in the richest countries, we could find a way of sustaining the same living standards whilst using fewer resources, or we could prevent the rest of the world from ever attaining a similar living standard to our own. The third of those is likely to be more acceptable than the rest, although there are questions about how easy it will be to achieve. And the default position of the richest seems, by and large, to be about holding on to what we have.

The 'three-planet' analysis, surely, makes it clear that the debate about sustainability cannot be divorced from considering the size of the human population. As far as I’m aware, no one is suggesting, or ever likely to suggest, thankfully, a cull – although the appalling propensity of mankind for armed conflict might inadvertently have that effect, and unchecked climate change is also likely to add to the human death rate, along with misery and grief. There is, though, a much more benign effect of growing affluence which is likely to check overall human population growth at some future date, and which is already impacting the richest countries. Growing affluence and lower infant mortality lead to a falling birth rate, and some of the richest countries are already seeing a birth rate running below the replacement rate, leading to predictions of falling populations.

From a global and sustainability perspective, this is surely good news, even if the impact is still some way away. It’s not the way that capitalist economics sees the situation though. An economic system predicated on the necessity for growth in order to perpetuate capital accumulation requires a permanently growing population. And an economic system which assumes that wealth belongs to those who are economically active, whilst the rest of us are a ‘burden’ on the economically active cannot see a way of carrying the cost of that burden without a growing working age population, especially as the age profile of societies changes. Supporters of the system can only imagine responses which involve a higher birth rate, more immigration, increasing retirement ages, or higher taxes on those who work.

But what if we instead reimagine the economic system in different terms? An economic system is a human construct; there is no ‘invisible hand’, only a set of rules drawn up and operated by humans. Current rules work first and foremost for the benefit of those who own and accumulate capital and rent-seekers. That’s exactly what they were designed to do (and it’s no coincidence that capital accumulation and rentier income are taxed less highly than wages and salaries). The alternative is to see the economic system as a social construct, and design it to meet the needs of society as a whole. Human society isn’t only composed of workers and capitalists; there are also some unable to work, including the young, the old, the sick and the disabled. Those groups aren’t a ‘burden’; they are part of a complex social structure, and the productive output of any economy needs to meet the needs of all of its members, including those groups. It might be argued that taxation is simply the practical mechanism by which that is achieved, but capitalist ideology has created a belief that starts with an assumption that the productive output belongs primarily to those who are being taxed, and that taxation means that it is somehow being taken from them. The demand for lower taxes – and in consequence for less expenditure on meeting the needs of those considered to be a ‘burden’ – is a direct result of that ideological economic perspective. And those who claim that we are in a post-ideological politics have bought into that perspective, hook, line, and sinker.

Tuesday 9 July 2024

Different meaningless slogans

 

Moving away from the empty sloganizing which characterised the previous government for a number of years can only be a good thing. And in some ways, the Starmer government has made a good start – today, for instance, it was announced that the meaningless phrase ‘levelling up’ will be dropped from the title of the minister for housing and local government. It was, as they say, only ever a slogan. They do, however, seem to be coming up with a number of meaningless slogans of their own, which does not augur so well.

Starmer has repeatedly said that it will be a case of ‘country first, not party’. It sounds very grand but what does it actually mean? He probably wants us to think that it means that he will put the interests of the country ahead of the interests of the Labour Party, but who decides what the interests of the country are, and on what basis – and what does he mean when he talks about the interests of the Labour Party anyway? It sounds suspiciously similar to another phrase that Labour have been using, which is that it is about policy not ideology, apparently reworded somewhat revealingly by Tony Blair earlier today (a man who seems increasingly determined to drive the car from the back seat) as being about ‘taking politics out of policy making’.

In truth, unless one sees politics as being just about the machinations of politicians seeking personal advantage and advancement rather than a clash of different ideas and world views, all policy decisions are inherently political. Taking politics and ideology out of policy doesn’t mean that the decisions are being taken free of any political or ideological bias, it simply means that they are being taken within the constraints of the current ideology. In effect, that assumes that capitalist ideology is the norm and all views based on alternative opinions can be axiomatically rejected. Now that will hardly come as a surprise, given that Starmer has been making it clear for many months that his main differences with the Tories are about competence rather than direction. The surprise is – or should be – that such meaningless banalities are being treated as profound and meaningful statements.

It might reasonably be argued that what they mean is that they want to do ‘what works’, but that inevitably raises two questions. The first is whether what prevents other options from working is that they are inherently unworkable, or whether they have been rendered unworkable by an acceptance of unnecessarily imposed ideological constraints. And the second, and perhaps even more important, is ‘for whom do they work?’. These are not questions which they have any intention of asking, let alone answering. But without asking them, we are doomed to more of the same. Just a bit more competently executed.

Saturday 6 July 2024

Labour likely to miss an opportunity for electoral reform

 

The now former PM’s Tory Oblivion Project failed at the last fence, leaving his party with more seats than he had hoped, and himself unable to make the planned getaway to California to be reunited with his fortune – for a few months at least. His only consolation must surely be that there are enough Tory MPs left for them to fall into multiple sects, groups, and schisms rather than unite behind a clear successor.

In terms of seats won, the scale of Labour’s victory is stunning, and under the antiquated electoral system used in the UK, it’s only seats that count. Scratch the surface, though, and start looking at the votes cast and the story is rather different. Winning 63% of the seats on a mere 34% of the vote gives absolute power to a party which could only persuade a third of the electorate to vote for it. Democracy it ain’t. Outside Scotland, Labour’s vote share rose only by a tiny margin overall in England, and actually fell in Wales, but those averages disguise differential movements in different constituencies which led to the votes being concentrated where they were most effective. Even then, had Farage plc not taken so many votes, mostly, one suspects, at the expense of the Tories, the result would have been very different.

It's a mistake, of course, to simply assume that Reform voters would otherwise have voted Tory. Some would have voted Labour, others for Plaid, the SNP, the Greens, or even the Lib Dems. But supposing for a moment, for the purposes of illustration, that all those who voted for either the Tories or Reform had actually voted for the leading contender of the two in every constituency, Wales would have woken up to a very different landscape yesterday. We would have 18 Labour MPs, 10 Tories, 2 Plaid – and 2 Reform, namely Llanelli and Maldwyn. There were special circumstances in both those latter 2 seats, of course, but ‘special circumstances’ can’t be used as an excuse for results we might not like. Whilst the assumption that Tory and Reform voters would have voted for each other’s parties is hopelessly over-simplistic, the illustration does serve to underline just how shallow Labour’s ‘landslide’ really is.

The Electoral Reform Society has done an analysis of the votes, and produced some numbers for how the result might have looked had the election been fought on the basis of the Additional Member system which has been used to date for Senedd elections (although it’s now being scrapped for a closed list system). Whilst it would have made no difference to Plaid on 4, and little difference to the Lib Dems who would have had 77 rather than 71, the impact on Labour, Conservative, Reform and the Green Party would have been huge, giving them 236, 157, 94, and 42 seats respectively. Starmer would today probably be negotiating with the Lib Dems and possibly the Greens as well, before forming a government. Caution is needed here, of course, not least because a different voting system might lead to people making different choices; assuming they’d simply vote for the same party is not an entirely valid starting point. If the Tories and Reform agreed to some sort of coalition, that would take them past Labour’s total, but then they run out of potential allies. Labour would have had far more viable paths to a working majority. I don’t really want to see 94 Reform MPs in the House of Commons, but I want to keep them out because people vote against them, not because of a rigged electoral system.

The ERS are promising to produce an analysis of the probable result based on use of STV, the proportional representation system favoured by many of us. It will be interesting to see the outcome of that work, although working out where people might have placed their second and third preference votes is even more fraught with assumptions than the analysis which they’ve done to date. I suspect that the overall picture will not be hugely different – at headline level, Labour would still be without a majority, the Tories would still be a larger group than they are today, and there would still be substantial numbers of Reform and Green MPs. And Starmer would still be trying to negotiate some sort of coalition.

The obstacle to electoral reform remains that both Labour and the Tories have demonstrated that the current system can give them absolute majorities on a minority of the vote. As long as enough Tories believe that swinging towards Farage’s position will make Reform go away, they are unlikely to change their stance. And while Labour, as a party, has adopted proportional representation as policy, the apparent scale of this week’s victory makes it unlikely that they’ll invest much effort in pursuing it. It wasn’t in their manifesto, and Starmer himself seems at best lukewarm on the idea. It would be a mistake, though, and one which could all-too-easily allow the return of the Tories in five years time. Those arguing that the scale of the victory means Labour will be in power for at least a decade need to remember that what was done in a single election cycle can equally be undone in another, and a mere 34% of the vote isn’t a very good starting point for any government. It’s in Labour’s own interests  and any sense of democracy and fairness demands – that the system is changed whilst they have the power and the numbers to do it. I’m not optimistic that they will, though.

Thursday 4 July 2024

One last heave by desperate PM

 

In his last-ditch attempt to ensure the success of Project Oblivion, the PM has apparently been sending out hourly tweets making increasingly fantastical claims about what Labour will do if they win, including the abolition of exams, the demolition of the green belt, and taxing people for driving their cars. About the only things he hasn’t so far accused Starmer of planning are the abolition of democracy and the installation of Starmer as PM for life. Which is something of a pity, because it takes much less deliberate misinterpretation of Starmer’s words to conclude that he wants to do both of those things.

Yesterday, Starmer told us that the UK will not rejoin the EU in his lifetime, one of the few definitive pledges he’s managed to give in a somewhat lacklustre campaign. Since no government can bind its successors, the only way he can deliver on that pledge is to remain in office until he dies. That, in turn, obviously means the abolition of democracy. It’s a silly extrapolation of a silly statement, of course – but no sillier than much of what Sunak has been saying about Labour’s plans.

But there is a real point here about democracy, and it doesn’t just apply to Starmer; it equally applies to Sunak (or whoever succeeds him as party leader). Ruling things out categorically clearly implies that public opinion has no role or place in decision-making. And nor is it just about the EU. Both parties have repeatedly made it clear for example that even if the SNP were to win every seat in Scotland on a manifesto pledging an independence referendum they would ‘never’ allow such a referendum to be held. They’ve gone further as well – they have claimed that a defeat for the SNP in today’s election, an outcome which is possible according to the polls, will kill the idea of independence for ever, as though those who argue for it have no right to continue promoting their views after a single electoral setback. It is a profoundly anti-democratic stance to take.

Whether the issue is the EU or Scottish independence, or whatever else, it is reasonable to suggest that the decision shouldn’t be revisited by an annual referendum, and to debate, in that case, how long is a reasonable period before re-assessing public opinion. It is not reasonable, and not the act of any democrat, to argue that it doesn’t matter what the public think (nor, in the case of Scotland, whether they vote for parties supporting such a proposition) and that the decision can and will be made by the PM of the day. It serves to underline how strongly both the main English parties are wedded to the idea of absolute sovereignty being vested in the crown-in-parliament rather than in the people. On the basis that you can’t abolish what you don’t have, they don’t really need to propose the abolition of democracy.

Wednesday 3 July 2024

Loosing the hounds

 

In the last two days before voting starts, Sunak has obviously decided that his Tory Oblivion Project needs yet another boost. The lies became even more fantastic and a whiff of antisemitism was deployed. Whilst the project received something of a setback with the Nigel Farage plc Party coming close to an implosion over racism and admiration for Putin, Sunak hadn’t yet played all his cards. Fresh from reminding us of the disaster which was Liz Truss, yesterday it was finally time to roll out her predecessor as another reminder of just how chaotic the last few years have been and how dishonest his party can be. That Johnson seems to have declined to be pictured with, let alone shake hands with, the current incumbent was a beautiful bonus.

But with the latest poll showing the Tories still retaining as many as 64 seats, it’s time for desperate measures if he is to get down to less than 50 and be certain of losing his own seat. Today, in a final roll of the dice, he’s let the dogs off the leash. First up in admitting that defeat on a huge scale is inevitable was Suella Braverman, who somewhat strangely seems to believe that making the wipeout even greater will aid her chances of becoming leader. But then, most of what she believes seems a little strange. She was rapidly followed by the ever-dependable poodle Mel Stride, always guaranteed to present the picture his leader wants presented. Just how many other outgoing cabinet ministers will be loyal enough to their leader to step up to the plate and concede defeat before the polls open tomorrow is as yet unclear. Perhaps Sunak has another card or two in the pack that he can play if they don’t, but it’s not obvious what they might be, and he’s leaving it very late. On the final day of the campaign, the success of the TOP is still on a knife-edge.

Tuesday 2 July 2024

Might Sunak's message be a little too subtle?

 

As Sunak’s Tory Oblivion project winds its way towards a long-awaited conclusion in a few days’ time, his rhetoric becomes ever more hyperbolic and alarmist. And desperate. Take his claim, for instance, that Labour will wreck the economy in 100 days. It was obviously a deliberate attempt to evoke the memory of 45-day prime minister Liz Truss for the benefit of those who were starting to forget her, because I surely can’t be the only one who had an immediate mental image of her shouting from the back of the room, “What do you mean, it will take them 100 days? Hold. My. Coat.” At a time when one of Labour’s key messages is that they are more competent than the Tories, he has seized on the only clear example of his own party’s competence and efficiency that came to his mind, namely the economy-wrecking business. Superficially presenting his own party as the more competent, whilst subtly reminding people how much damage they did. For the sake of a successful conclusion to the project, we can only hope that it wasn’t a little too subtle for the audience.

Sunday 30 June 2024

Every man for himself

 

Yesterday, in a demonstration of the growing chaos within the Tory Party, the outgoing Secretary of State for Wales, David TC Davies, launched a truly astonishing attack on his cabinet colleague, the outgoing Chief Whip, Simon Hart. It’s true that he didn’t actually name Hart directly, disguising his assault instead as an attack on the Labour candidate for Monmouth, but the nub of his complaint could equally be applied to his colleague. And he wouldn’t want to apply different standards of honesty to different parties, would he?

Fighting a General Election for Westminster on the basis of devolved issues is, to use Davies’ words, “…appalling that they’re deliberately misleading the public by claiming they can improve the NHS and other devolved areas”. Yet according to Hart’s latest missive, voting for him will “Save Glangwili”, a hospital which the Welsh NHS is planning to replace with a brand new hospital in the west of the county. It's harder to find a clearer example of a devolved policy over which no MP will have any influence, or of “…trying to con the people of Wales by claiming” that they can sort out devolved issues.

There is, of course, one way in which it makes sense for the Tories to state that they will ‘solve’ all the issues which, in their view, the Welsh government has handled badly. That is, of course, to undo devolution. Well, to use the Sunak approach to politics, they haven’t specifically ruled it out, so that must be what they are planning. Alternatively, it could just underline the fact that it’s now every man for himself, and say whatever might work, for a party facing wipeout.

Friday 28 June 2024

The battle of the dodgy bar charts

 

The Lib Dems are the undisputed champions of the dodgy bar graph, complete with manipulated scales, which always somehow seem to show that the Lib Dems are either in the lead, or else are the leading challenger to whoever seems to be in the lead in any given constituency. Imitation, they say, is the sincerest form of flattery, and at least three parties (Labour, the Tories, and Plaid) are at it here in the Caerfyrddin constituency. Maybe the Lib Dems are too, but since we’ve had zero information from them to date (please don’t bother now, I’ve already voted), I can’t be certain whether even they would have the chutzpah to claim that they are ‘Winning Here’.

Unsurprisingly, the three bar charts I’ve seen don’t all show the same thing. Choosing which poll to use is a bit like the way that parties hold up different economists to justify their costings – they always choose to invest authority in the one that presents figures closest to their own views. Plaid are using a poll which shows Plaid as the clear front-runner with Labour some way behind and the Tories in third place. Labour and the Tories are both using polls which show Labour in the lead and the Tories in second place. You pays your money and you takes your choice: the accusation by Labour that Plaid are lying just because they are using a different poll was somewhat over the top, though. All are based on those large MRP polls which tend to be more accurate in the round than the smaller polls, but which are still based on models and assumptions. Even a poll of 13,000 is likely to include only around 20 voters per constituency, nowhere near enough to give an accurate local picture in itself. Accuracy depends instead on an analysis of demographics and an assumption that people in similar categories will vote in similar ways in different constituencies. It’s a fair assumption at a high level, but can never pick up on the hyper-local factors.

As to what’s actually happening in Caerfyrddin, who knows? In its various guises, the seat has swung back and fore between Plaid and Labour for decades; any poll showing those two parties in contention is potentially accurate, and either could be in the lead. The Tories have a solid base of support, and came second in the old Carmarthen East constituency in 2019, well ahead of Labour. They might well have a shout on the new boundaries in a good year for the party. But nobody with eyes to see would think of 2024 as a good year for them; more a year of total collapse. Any poll which shows Labour and the Tories in a close two-horse race thus fails the reasonableness test – it just ain’t credible. But then, credibility isn’t the aim. The aim, generally, is to persuade anyone planning to vote for a candidate not in the top two for the constituency (according to the selected poll) to choose instead whichever of the top two they dislike least. It’s a product of an unrepresentative voting system, but since the top two in most constituencies are Tory and Labour, neither of those parties sees any incentive to change the system. That means we’re stuck with a plague of dodgy bar charts assailing us from all sides, like some sort of graphical arms race, to increasingly peripheral effect.

Wednesday 26 June 2024

How to win a bet by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

 

There’s no doubt that the little scandal about betting on the date of the election has provided a significant boost for Sunak’s Project Oblivion. Whilst many – including some in his own party – criticised him for dragging things out before taking any action, that’s because they don’t understand the objective. Delaying action, leading to repeated headlines over two weeks, can only have assisted in the fulfilment of his project. He claims to have been incredibly angry about the whole saga, but chances are that the part which upset him most was a Labour candidate getting in on the act. After all, the Tory majority in that seat last time round was a little over 20,000, so in the context of the 2024 election it wasn’t even a marginal. It was a racing certainty that Labour would win, further reducing the total in the Tory column. In a blow to his project, Sunak now has to face the probability that the Tories might even hold the seat. Worse, tarring Labour with the same brush runs the risk that the Tories might hold on to a few other seats as well.

It wasn’t quite the same scandal as that besetting the Tories; rather than using insider knowledge, this Labour candidate was betting on the outcome of an event in which he had at least a degree of agency. The extent to which he chose to campaign or not campaign could, in theory, affect the chances of him winning, even if victory looked inevitable to everyone else regardless of what he did. It’s not easy for a Labour candidate in 2024 to lose an election in which he starts only 20,000 votes behind. Paradoxically, Starmer’s quick action against him has probably helped him to lose the election – and win the bet. In electoral terms, it’s a sort of lose-lose outcome: neither Sunak nor Starmer gets the result they wanted in the constituency.

Monday 24 June 2024

Did Farage, albeit accidentally, have a point?

 

That Nigel Farage hates the EU and sees it as some sort of evil dictatorship which enslaves its member states is hardly news. He blames the EU for almost everything that is wrong in the world. Most recently that extends to being part, along with NATO, of what provoked the Russians into invading Ukraine by daring to expand what Farage sees as the EU’s empire into parts of Europe which Russia thought in some way belonged in its sphere of influence. The choice of words is important, though: what Farage sees as EU-driven expansion to incorporate more countries will be seen by others as a case of states which have newly regained their independence choosing their own future. Whilst there’s no doubt that the existing members of both the EU and NATO were keen to draw countries in the east of Europe into their ranks, agency ultimately lay with those new members in the first place, not with the EU/ NATO. Those states were, to put it another way, exercising precisely that national sovereignty which is, apparently, so important to Farage, just in a way of which he does not approve. It’s legitimate to question whether they were making the right/ best choices – especially so in regard to the military alliance rather than the primarily economic and political one – but not whether they had the right to make them.

If the alternative was to avoid ‘provoking’ Putin, that would imply either that the states concerned agreed never to seek EU/ NATO membership, or that the EU/ NATO declined to accept them. Or even a bit of both. But there is a corollary to that – it would also mean that those states agreed to accept the effective political, economic and military dominance of Russia over them for the foreseeable future. In other words, Farage seems to see it as ‘better’ that those states cede a degree of sovereignty involuntarily to Russia than that they voluntarily share some of their sovereignty with others. Superficially, his demand for absolute sovereignty for the UK whilst limiting the sovereignty of countries to which Russia believes it has a right looks inconsistent. But it really isn’t: English nationalist exceptionalism has long held that some countries are more equal than others. And it isn’t only English nationalists – Farage is just invoking the same attitudes which led to the Munich agreement or the Yalta Conference, where European ‘great powers’ thought that they had the right to dismember and determine the future of lesser states over the heads of the people who lived there.

Whether EU/ NATO expansion did actually provoke Putin is another question entirely. He has certainly said that it was a factor, and it’s not hard to see why expanding the territory covered by NATO in particular up to the Russian borders could look like a threat, but a man who believes that large swathes of Europe historically belong to Russia – and that Ukrainians are just Russians speaking a strange dialect – could always have found another excuse to justify fulfilling his dream of reviving the Russian empire at some point. Wars are rarely caused by a single factor or event, and interpreting that expansion as a potential future threat still doesn’t justify launching a war against a neighbouring country.

But raising the question of whether NATO really did pose a threat to Russia does mean that Farage has gone to the very heart of the debate about the role of ‘defence’ in the modern world, even if almost certainly unwittingly. The nub of the argument is this: do armed blocs act as a deterrent or a threat; do they make war more, or less, likely? Specifically, if most of the former Warsaw Pact countries had not chosen to join NATO, would Putin have been more likely, or less likely, to seek to annexe all or part of Ukraine? The answer is essentially unknowable, which probably helps to explain the absolute certainty which people bring to the table when the issue is debated. Those who would have us spend ever more on armaments argue that it’s better to be safe than sorry, but it’s entirely possible that what they see as being ‘safe’ is actually the direct opposite if it makes it more likely that those who are supposed to be ‘deterred’ feel so threatened that they decide to take the risk of striking first.

What we do know, with a reasonable degree of certainty, is that using Earth’s finite resources to build ever more weapons makes those resources unavailable for other aims, and also that the long term future of all of us depends on achieving a degree of civilisation which recognises the need to share and co-operate in the way we use the Earth’s resources. Somehow, I don’t think any of that was in Farage’s mind when he opened his mouth.

Friday 21 June 2024

Oblivion Project back on track

 

For a few days last week, Sunak’s Tory Oblivion Project was put on hold as he trotted off to a remote corner of Italy for a G7 meeting and then headed up to Switzerland for a meeting on Ukraine. In his absence, there was a serious danger that his project could stall, but he’s safely back in charge now, and making up for lost time. Losing his Campaigns Director to the already simmering betting scandal was a masterstroke. That should certainly help to ensure that his enemies within the Tory Party – the whole of the party, basically – don’t have much chance of derailing his project. It’s made him so “incredibly angry”in his own words – that he’s going to do precisely nothing about the two candidates involved (so far; who knows what else is yet to emerge, given that the bets appear to have been part of a much larger surge) until after the election a probe by outside bodies is completed, despite the fact that a policeman involved was rapidly suspended in an unusually swift response from the Met. England failing to win a football match might have been outside his control, but was undoubtedly a lucky boost to his little project.

Finally this week came the news for which he has been anxiously waiting: the polling is now so bad that even his own seat could fall to the opposition. So far, it’s only one poll, and others are still showing that he might be put on the spot about his insincere pledge to serve a full five years, but there’s still almost two weeks left for the other polls to confirm such an outcome. He needs to get the final total below 53 seats to be reasonably certain of regaining his own freedom of movement across the Atlantic, although achieving his true target of zero looks as though it might still be just beyond his grasp. But there’s an increasing chance that the next Tory leader will be chosen by putting all – or maybe even just both – the remaining names in a hat and pulling one out rather than bothering with an election process. All in all, he’s had a good week. He can only hope that there are no further international distractions to take him away from the campaign trail during the limited time remaining.

Thursday 20 June 2024

Designing our own shackles?

 

Perhaps it’s some sort of strange strain of the Stockholm Syndrome which has affected the Labour Party, and in particular its Shadow Chancellor. They know that they are captives or hostages, but end up developing an empathy with their captors which an objective observer would find it hard to understand.

The Office for Budget Responsibility was established by George Osborne in 2010, with the intention of setting a rigid discipline for public finances which would ensure that subsequent governments stuck to one particular version of financial orthodoxy. It was the same orthodoxy, with the core idea that government finances are just like those of a household so that governments can only spend what they raise in tax, which led to Osborne’s successive austerity budgets – and thus to the poor state of many of our public services today. Politically, the sub-plot was to ensure that a future Labour Government would be bound by the same constraints and thus unable to implement anything like a traditional Labour platform. They never expected that any Conservative government would run foul of its restrictions, but then no-one ever expected the ascent of Liz Truss. Not even Liz Truss.

In its political objective, it has succeeded beyond Osborne’s wildest dreams. Not only have Labour bought in, hook line and sinker, to the concept and the underlying financial orthodoxy, it was announced this week that Labour in government will actually strengthen and reinforce the system, making it even harder to escape the rigidity it imposes. Reeves’ delight in presenting this policy is a bit like a slave being pleased at being given the right to design and decorate his own shackles. It’s addressing the wrong problem: the issue isn’t that the shackles aren’t pretty or effective enough, it is that they keep the slave enslaved. The OBR doesn't need to be strengthened, it needs to be either abolished or else given a different remit.

The fiscal rule to which she intends to adhere is entirely arbitrary, as is the particular number attached to the inflation target, but the result of that rule, coupled with accepting the budgets for future years which have been set by the current government, is that cuts to public services have already been built-in to future forecasts. They may not have been explicitly identified, but they are there for anyone who looks to see. The combination of ruling out tax increases, sticking to a rule which requires current expenditure to be paid for out of tax, and increased expenditure in some areas makes cuts elsewhere almost inevitable. The only get-out is for the growth genie to emerge suddenly from the lamp and miraculously increase government revenue. The whole edifice of Labour policy depends on an assumption that by doing very little other than being a bit more competent, investment in the UK will magically increase. It’s an outcome that few serious economists believe is likely.

The comparison with the Stockholm Syndrome is based on an assumption that Reeves and Labour are the captives here, and have developed an empathy with the Tory captors who set the rules. There is an alternative theory though – Labour could be captors as well, just like the Tories. They really, truly believe this guff, and their manifesto is an invitation to the captives – the population as a whole – to participate in the design of our own shackles by voting for a different bunch of captors. In that scenario, it’s the voters who end up suffering from that strange version of the Stockholm Syndrome. History tries to tell us that some slave-owners were more ‘benevolent’ than others. It’s a disputed interpretation of history to say the least. And the bottom line was that the enslaved were still slaves.

Monday 17 June 2024

Dealing with the lying liars

 

Last week saw the publication of manifestos by most of the parties. On the basis of scanning them, it is clear that amongst his first acts, in the unlikely event of his being re-elected, Rishi Sunak is clandestinely planning to reintroduce workhouses, award Vladimir Putin a peerage, and start a war with France. His manifesto doesn’t say any of that, of course – but neither does it explicitly rule any of it out. Given that the Tory attack on Labour is now largely reduced to accusing them of planning a variety of tax rises on the basis that the Labour manifesto doesn’t explicitly rule them out, why shouldn’t the same approach be applied to their own manifesto? And why stop at taxes?

Objectively for those who take the trouble to assess the different party statements, it’s a pretty stupid and pathetic approach to electioneering, and it smacks of desperation. But the lesson that they have learnt from Sunak’s predecessor but one is that making stuff up and repeating it even louder when challenged can work. The hope is that enough people remember the lie and forget the detailed rebuttal to swing their votes in the desired direction, particularly if they really want to believe the lie. (Although why keep these aims secret? Who, among the target audience for the Tories, doesn’t secretly like the idea of a decent war against France? Even if that audience would probably prefer to take on Germany. Again.)

There are, as the saying doesn’t quite go, lies, damned lies and political manifestos. The idea that ‘politicians always lie’ is commonplace, and in the sense that what governments deliver isn’t quite what their manifestos said they were going to deliver, it has the ring of truth. And whilst that is sometimes down to lying, it’s more often a case of exaggeration and wishful thinking – and circumstances can and do change. But recent years – the Johnson/Trump era stands out as marking the transition – have changed the nature of political lying. It’s no longer ‘just’ a case of exaggerated promises, it’s now direct, repeated and deliberate falsification of objectively provable facts. The ‘alternative facts’ are actively promoted by partisan print media and grossly inflated by the echo chambers of social media. The BBC have a reasonably good fact-checking service, but in their caution they struggle to be as blunt in their assessment of lies as they could be – and even after demonstrating the untruth of any given statement, they seem quite happy to invite the liars back to repeat the same lies again the following day.

There was an attempt in the Senedd recently, led by Plaid, to criminalise lying by politicians. It was somewhat droll, to say the least, to see it supported by the Tories, given that they have been the main culprits in recent years. It probably underlines the fact, though, that they don’t really believe that the law can successfully be applied to what they have been doing. I suspect that their assessment of the probability of such a law being effectively used against a Johnson or a Sunak is accurate, implying that they want the kudos from being seen to oppose political lying but without any danger that it would actually restrict them from doing so. They would hardly have supported it if it really meant that they would no longer be able to refer to ‘blanket’ 20mph speed limits, for example. It’s a problem to which there is no simple solution. In an ideal world, the miscreants would be rewarded with ‘nul points’ when the votes are counted. Sunak might be doing his best to move his party towards such a scenario, but he won’t be around for long afterwards (his promise to serve a full five year term on the opposition benches should be treated as just another example of the genre) and finding a successor who won’t simply double down on the same approach is looking like an impossible task. It looks like a problem with which we’re stuck.

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.