Thursday 29 February 2024

Cracking down on crackdowns


One of the key weapons in the armoury of a desperate politician is to announce a ‘crackdown’ on something or other. It’s not unique to the Tories – I seem to remember a certain T. Blair announcing ‘crackdowns’ on various perceived sins – although it’s more likely to come from a government which has the power to do something than from an opposition which does not. It was Sunak’s turn yesterday, with his pledge to ‘crack down’ on mob rule. Announcing a crackdown always sounds forceful and macho – although it doesn’t exactly play to Sunak’s visible strengths. Or even his invisible ones. The most useful crackdown would probably be a crackdown on the announcement of crackdowns.

‘Mob rule’ isn’t something which is easily defined either – at least, not by someone who wants to prevent people blocking the streets protesting about climate change or war whilst also joining in with those who use their tractors to block the streets in protest against revisions to farming subsidies. Whilst I would describe neither as ‘mob rule’, in Sunakland it seems that either there are good mobs and bad mobs or else the definition of a mob is such that protests against a Labour government in Wales are magically excluded. And that, of course, is part of the point – it’s really divergence from his own views on which he wishes to crack down.

I’ll admit that I’m not sufficiently familiar with the details of farming finances and subsidies to judge whether the Welsh Government’s proposals are as bad as some farmers are making out. What I do know is that any Brexit promise to maintain the level of farm finance was as false as all the other promises, and that a reduction in funding inevitably leads to replacing previous schemes. George Monbiot argued yesterday that the differences between the English schemes and the Welsh schemes are not as great as they have been presented by some, and that “The main difference is that in Wales, the offer for farmers is better – with more consistent payments and a smoother transition from the old system”. If that were true, it would mean that Sunak was busily supporting farmers who are arguing that a deal better than that which his government has offered isn’t good enough. An entirely normal level of honesty from the current UK government. I suspect that the truth is more nuanced. Farming subsidy schemes are complex and any change means, especially if accompanied by an overall reduction in funds, that some farmers will inevitably lose out, even if the Welsh scheme is indeed better overall than the English equivalent. And that will undoubtedly impact rural communities in Wales, for whom the farming industry is still a key factor.

The easiest ‘solution’ would be to ensure that the pre-Brexit levels and methods of funding were maintained, a matter which is wholly in the hands of one Rishi Sunak. Joining in with protests which are effectively against his own government’s actions is taking a leaf straight out of the playbook of Welsh Labour members in relation to hospital and school reorganisations, so there isn’t a lot of moral high ground for Drakeford et al in this. Although constrained by Westminster decisions on funding, the Welsh Government does have some room for manoeuvre on what is still, officially, a consultation process. I really hope that they will listen carefully and use that room for manoeuvre. It’s doubtful, however, that they will be able to please everybody and still achieve the aims that they’ve set out for themselves. Calling on Sunak to intervene and over-ride whatever is decided in Wales (as some of the protesters have done) is counter-productive for an industry which has more direct influence over what is decided in Cardiff than it does over what is decided in London, and is, instead, playing to the agenda of people whose aims go way beyond reforming farming subsidies.

Sunak’s apparent ‘support’ for Welsh farmers is a double-edged sword, and his real agenda is about party political advantage and undermining Welsh democracy. If English farmers start protesting with tractors in the centre of London, he’ll soon enough be ‘cracking down’ on the ‘mob’.

Wednesday 28 February 2024

Neutering protest


There is a valid debate to be had about how much notice should be given to police and other authorities about the intention to hold a large demonstration and, in principle, planning to increase the notice period from 6 days, as the Home Secretary is apparently considering, isn’t a wholly unreasonable suggestion. It does take time to plan the police presence and make any other necessary arrangements. How much notice is needed is another question again, however; and the idea is not without other problems. Firstly, some demonstrations happen as an immediate and almost spontaneous reaction to events where people wish to express their feelings immediately, and secondly – more practically – defining a ‘large’ demonstration in advance isn’t as easy as it might appear. In truth, even the organisers will rarely know how many people to expect.

Whilst being presented as a reasonable step to take in terms of practicality and planning, the real agenda here is to make it harder to organise mass protests and to constrain – yet again – the right of people to protest. The Home Secretary himself almost says as much with his comments about the protesters’ aims, telling the Times in response to protests about what’s happening in Gaza, “They have made a point and they made it very, very loudly and I’m not sure that these marches every couple of weeks add value to the argument. They’re not really saying anything new.” There is, within that, an implicit view that people should protest once, make their point, and then become silent, even whilst the actions about which the protests are being held continue unabated. It completely misses the point that those demonstrating are also seeking to influence events (whether demonstrations are the most effective way of doing that is an entirely different question, but they are one of the few ways that people actually have of expressing themselves). And, as we know from experience, once people stop protesting, the powers that be will simply assume that the issue has gone away, and that people no longer feel so strongly. Protest, almost always, needs to be sustained if it is to have any effect. But the idea that protest might actually influence events is precisely the reason why authoritarian governments want to stamp it out. Making it more difficult to hold a protest is just the first step.

Tuesday 27 February 2024

Hair-splitting is just a diversionary tactic


Maybe there’s a scholar of English nuance somewhere who can explain the enormous difference between claiming that Sadiq Khan and, in consequence, London are under the control of Islamists (© Lee Anderson) and claiming that the whole of the UK is under the control of Islamists and Keir Starmer is in hock to them (© Suella Braverman). The first is apparently so serious as to justify removing the whip, whilst the second can be ignored. Number 10 have been struggling for days to explain what exactly it was about Anderson’s statement which led to his suspension (and today’s ‘clarification’ has added little to the sum total of human knowledge), suggesting that Sunak really doesn’t understand what was wrong with both wild claims, and has merely responded to bad press.

Some, such as the Trade and Industry Secretary, have decided to try and avoid the question by getting into a semantic argument about what is or is not Islamophobia. If it weren’t for the fact that this is a blatant attempt by the hair-splitting tendency to divert attention away from the substance, she might even have half a point. ‘Phobia’ isn’t the best suffix to use, given its suggestion of fear, and ‘anti-Islamic’ might indeed be more accurate use of language. It is possible to hate something without fearing it, and to fear something without hating it, but arguing about that nuance doesn’t actually deal with the essence of the comments, which seem to display a mixture of both hate and fear.

Essentially, what both Braverman and Anderson are complaining about is that people have been ‘allowed’ to demonstrate against Israeli actions in Gaza rather than having their protests banned and the ringleaders rounded up and jailed. And whilst the subject matter in this case might be the appalling violence being deployed in Gaza, both of them are using what they assume (maybe correctly, although I’m not entirely convinced that they are really in tune with even that group) to be an unpopular cause amongst their target voters as a hook to express their dislike of any dissent from their own view of the world. And it’s not at all unreasonable to wonder whether Sunak’s half-hearted disciplinary action against one of them (make an unapologetic apology with your fingers crossed behind your back and we’ll let you back in, seems to be the message) and his reluctance to even consider action against the second is a result of him basically agreeing with them and not really understanding what the fuss is about.

If any of them understood what the traditional ‘British values’ which they all claim to espouse mean, they would also understand that the right to protest is one of those values. What their words and actions demonstrate most clearly – and not just in relation to Gaza – is that they are actually clueless about those values. It increasingly appears as though the only ‘right’ that they think anyone other than themselves and the financial interests they represent should have is the right to do as we are told. And that isn’t really a ‘right’ at all.

Monday 26 February 2024

Painting the economy red, white and blue isn't the same as making it work better


Labour’s leader is visiting the West Midlands today, and his speech has been widely trailed in advance. Apparently, he wants to see Labour running what he calls a ‘patriotic’ economy. It’s an interesting, if essentially meaningless, turn of phrase, but like most essentially meaningless phrases, it can be interpreted to mean whatever the listener wants it to mean. Starmer will probably be happy with that – and wrapping himself in red, white and blue is a tactic to which he increasingly turns.

It would be nice to think that what he is trying to say is that the economy should work for the benefit of all citizens, rather than the wealthiest few. It’s a sentiment that many, including myself, could readily agree with, but it does imply a recognition that ‘the economy’ is not some mysterious force which controls us, like Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, but a system invented by humans, run by humans and regulated by humans. There are more ways than one of doing all of that: the ‘economy’ doesn’t have to work well only for some. That isn’t quite what he is saying though. His speech talks about an economy where “…Britain’s hardworking families reap the rewards”. ‘Hardworking’ is a phrase which seems to trip off the tongue of politicians – very few of them seem to be able to make a speech without using the term. But here’s the thing: every time I hear that phrase, I hear someone who is also saying that only working people count. The sick, the disabled, the elderly – few of the people in these categories fit any rational definition of ‘hardworking families’. It’s as though they really neither count nor matter.

The speech gets worse, because he then launches into the trope of what he sees as the “…core British value of working hard and getting on”. In itself, the phrase sounds almost innocuous, but it contains within it a deeply unpleasant suggestion that anyone who doesn’t ‘get on’ is simply failing to work hard enough, with the implication that poverty is thus the fault of the poor. As Yoda almost said, “The Protestant work ethic is strong in this one”. It’s based on the idea which has become central to Labour thinking – although it’s a long way from the beliefs of the party’s pioneers – that what is important is something called ‘equality of opportunity’ rather than economic equality.

It’s true, of course, that anyone can (theoretically, at least) establish a successful business and become a multi-billionaire, or walk into a highly-paid job if they have the necessary skills and attributes, and that education, alongside other policies, can help to develop those skills and attributes and theoretically make it possible for more people to ‘work hard’ and earn their fortune as a consequence. But it’s also true that, even if they have all the necessary skills and attributes, not everybody can do that. Simple mathematics tells us that extreme wealth is concentrated wealth, and concentrated wealth for the few necessarily requires a transfer of wealth from the many. More generally, ‘getting on’ for some requires that others do not ‘get on’, no matter how hard they work (and there are many people in poorly-paid roles who work a lot harder than some of those in well-paid roles). And despite decades in which ‘equality of opportunity’ has been the stated goal of governments of all parties, one thing we know for certain is that parental income is still the best predictor of outcomes for children.

Starmer had an opportunity to say that his government will ensure that the economy works for all, but he has chosen instead to talk about a few minor tweaks to an economy which is designed and run to do the exact opposite. That’s not to say that the tweaks are completely without merit, but transformative this is most definitely not.

Sunday 25 February 2024

Identifying the extremists


After several years of trying his damnedest to get expelled, which led instead to his being promoted to posts within the governing party, Tory extremist Lee Anderson has finally managed to get the Tory whips to act against him for his astonishing, not to say ridiculous, claim that ‘Islamists’ have taken control of Sadiq Khan, and through him of the imperial capital itself. This has been adjudged to be one unhinged comment too far. Presumably, his efforts to date have been regarded as merely obnoxious, something which has become de rigueur in his party since it has been largely infiltrated and taken over by Farageists.

In response, the man himself said that he fully understood that “…they had no option but to suspend the whip…”, but refused to retract or apologise for his remarks. It’s probably just the excuse he’s been looking for to lead what he probably hopes will be a mass exit from the Official Farageists of the Tory Party towards the Provisionals of Reform. In what would, in any rational universe, be seen as a not-very-funny attempt at self-parody, but which appears to be instead a deadly serious lack of self-awareness, he said that he would “continue to support the Government’s efforts to call out extremism in all its forms”.  ‘All’ its forms? It would be nice to be able to believe that he is the only one who sees any political view which diverges from his own as being ‘extremist’, but it seems to be becoming the norm for his erstwhile colleagues, given the number of times he’s made extremist statements with the apparent consent and support of his now ex-party’s leader. And despite her own unhinged comments this week about the huge leftist conspiracy being driven apparently by the World Economic Forum, The Financial Times, and the Economist amongst others, Truss has apparently managed not to cross the line between being merely mad and being expellable. Still, given that the man making the decisions on who to suspend and for what, the Chief Whip, has previously suggested that the RSPB is a terrorist organisation, it’s difficult for anyone to know where the line actually is. If there even is one any more.

Friday 23 February 2024

Choosing on what to be defeated


Much of the commentary surrounding the shambles into which the English House of Commons descended earlier this week has been either about the extent to which it was all about party political manoeuvring over what appear to be tiny differences in wording or about whether the Speaker was being partisan in his decision-making. Whilst the difference between an immediate ceasefire, a humanitarian ceasefire and a sustainable ceasefire is indeed important in terms of nuance, the population of Gaza, who have largely been herded over recent weeks into a giant refugee camp right up against the border with Egypt, simply want the shooting and the bombing to stop. Some of the other differences in wording – such as the extent to which Israel deserves criticism – are probably more significant in terms of meaning, but even less so in terms of simply stopping the fighting. On the substance of the issue being debated, there isn’t really much more to say than that the fighting needs to stop.

The shambles also revealed yet another aspect of the arcane nature of Westminster’s rules, something which has received rather less comment. The SNP still hold the majority of Scottish seats (whatever the current opinion polls tell us about their prospects for the next election) and under the normal rules of democracy that might suggest that they have a reasonable right to claim that they represent Scottish opinion. They are accustomed to losing votes in parliament; having Scottish opinion over-ruled by the English majority of MPs (and in this context, Tory and Labour usually seem to act as one) is something which happens on a more or less daily basis. One of the things that emerged from this week’s debacle is that, on three sitting days each year, the SNP get to choose the subject on which the English majority proceeds to over-rule Scotland’s voice. 'They' probably see it as an over-generous concession.

Choosing the subject on which you’re going to get hopelessly outvoted can’t be an easy matter, and since the result is pre-ordained, one could argue that it doesn’t matter a great deal anyway. The wish to be seen to have views on matters other than domestic Scottish issues is an obvious one for a party which wants to avoid being labelled parochial, and which wants Scotland to take its place on the world stage. I can’t help wondering, though, about the wisdom of choosing to lose on an issue which genuinely is a UK-wide issue for as long as the UK exists. It doesn’t add much to the narrative of Scottish voices being ignored. On this occasion, the SNP’s natural desire to twist the knife in a divided Labour Party seems to have got the better of them, and they’ve ended up joining in the procedural fun and games which are so typical of Westminster. It’s not the first time that I’ve wondered what there is about the place which sucks people into its preposterous norms and practices. It's not unique to the SNP. But then sucking people in is what has made the English establishment so extraordinarily long-lived.  

Thursday 22 February 2024

Quantum voting


Most of us are familiar with Erwin Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment about a cat in a box. Not so many realise that the point is not simply that we don’t know whether the cat is dead or alive until we open the box, but that the cat is, under the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, both dead and alive until the box is opened and the cat is observed, at which point the uncertainty resolves itself into either a dead state or a live state. Until that point, not even the cat knows whether it is dead or alive, because it is both. It’s a hard concept to get one’s head around, but Schrödinger’s point was to demonstrate how foolish it is to seek to apply quantum uncertainty to real world physics, even if it is indeed odd that such fundamental uncertainty at particle level does not reflect itself in classical physics.

The UK is on the brink of running a rather different large scale experiment on the applicability of quantum uncertainty in the real world. According to Sunak, any vote for a party other than the Tories is a vote to put Starmer into Downing Street, whilst according to Labour, any vote for a party other than Labour is a vote for the continuation of a Sunak government. If both are true, it must mean that around 30% of the votes cast in the coming election will enter a state of quantum uncertainty when they are placed in the ballot boxes. At that point, those who thought that they had voted against both the two largest parties will actually, under the Labour-Tory interpretation, have voted both for and against both Labour and the Tories. This uncertainty will only resolve itself when the ballot boxes are opened and the papers counted, at which point the application of the Labour-Tory interpretation to voting will be shown to have been as foolish as the application of the Copenhagen interpretation to that imaginary cat.

For those of us who prefer to live in the real world rather than that postulated by strange thought experiments, what the observation and measurement will tell us is, firstly, that around 30% of the electorate will have rejected the idea of both a Tory government and a Labour government and, secondly, that most of their votes are essentially worthless because those behind the Labour-Tory interpretation have rigged the rules of the experiment to allow only two possible outcomes in most constituencies. If either of them really believed what they say, they would be arguing for a system of voting which allowed that 30% to express for themselves which of the two biggest parties they like most (or, perhaps, hate least) by indicating their second and subsequent choices. The main reason that they don’t do so is because they fear that, if they did, they might find that an awful lot of the ‘firm’ choices they receive from the 70% or so voting for one or the other are already concealed second or third choices being made by voters with pegs on their noses, and that the whole idea of ‘the two biggest parties’ is itself a largely imaginary construct. Just like Schrödinger’s poor cat.

Saturday 17 February 2024

Making silly assumptions


Following the results of the Kingswood by-election, Sirjake came up with what some have described as a bizarre defence of his party’s performance. It wasn’t so bad, he said, because “If you add up the Conservative and the Reform Party vote, it’s more than the Labour Party vote”. The statement is, of course, mathematically accurate, albeit of limited practical value. I’ve lost count of exactly how many elections I fought as a candidate when I was politically active, but I think it was around 20. I won a few, but the victories were certainly outweighed by the losses. I don’t doubt, though, that if I’d been able to add the votes of another party selected at random to my own, I could have ‘won’ all of them. That isn’t the way elections work, though.

Sirjake also took comfort from the fact that “Labour did not get over 50%”. It’s another true statement – it just ignores the fact that under a first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral system there is no requirement to get past 50%. And indeed, in two of the four elections Sirjake has fought in his current constituency, it’s a bar that he didn’t get over himself. Again, it’s not the way elections work, although it’s possible that Nanny hasn’t explained that to him yet.

The attitude underlying it is that candidates for Reform and the people who vote for them are really Tories at heart, and merely temporarily estranged. In fairness, it’s not an attitude limited to Sirjake, or even to the Tories, many of whom would agree with him. It’s also an attitude shared by Labour, who frequently talk and behave as though those who vote for the Lib Dems or the Greens – or Plaid in Wales and the SNP in Scotland – are really just temporarily estranged Labour voters who sooner or later will return to their ‘true’ political home. The Tories and Labour alike see politics as a two-party affair, trying to bring everything down to the level of ‘it’s them or us’, as though they have a right to expect that anyone against ‘the enemy’ will vote for them. Sunak was at it this week, with his statement that anyone not voting for the Tories is voting for Starmer and the Labour Party.

It’s one of the reasons that they both cling to the FPTP electoral system – it’s a system which encourages people to see things in such stark binary terms. Traditionally, it’s Labour which has suffered more than the Tories under this system – the political ‘right’ has long been more united behind one party than the political ‘left’, but Labour would prefer absolute power for a third of the time than sharing power most of the time. Unusually, the system is currently working against the Tories with the splits on the ‘right’ visible not just within the party (where they’ve always existed), but with another party challenging them for the xenophobic and English nationalist votes on which they’ve long been able to rely.

Part of Sirjake’s problem is that he has been unwilling to follow through the logic of his claim. If all those Reform voters would really have preferred a Tory MP to a Labour one, then a proportional system of voting would have allocated their second choices accordingly. Things aren’t quite that simple, though. An unkind soul might well point out that if you add together the Labour vote and either the Lib Dem vote or the Green vote the total would come to more than the total of the Tories and Reform, and if all of those voters had preferred Labour over the Tories, then the Tories would still have lost.

In truth, whatever system is used, it’s dangerous to assume that all of those voting for Party A would really have 'come home' to Party B on second or third choices. That assumes that people’s second and third choices (to say nothing of their first choice) will follow the logic of an analysis of party platforms and policies. Politics really ain’t like that. And that is the real flaw in Sirjake’s analysis.

Friday 16 February 2024

Talk of shields is misleading

A good shield is intended and designed to be a defensive tool, not a weapon. The objective is to protect the user against offensive weapons being used by others, not to attack those others. At a pinch, a desperate soldier could probably use a shield to hit an opponent over the head, but it’s poorly designed for that purpose and somewhat unwieldy in use. A similar story applies to umbrellas. Whilst they are good at protecting the user – or the top half anyway – from rain, they are not much use as a weapon. Again, a substantially made one, properly furled, could be pressed into service to hit someone over the head if it’s the first thing that comes to hand, but it’s hardly a weapon of choice.

Both terms are badly misapplied when it comes to nuclear weapons. It’s at least partly deliberate – there’s something mildly reassuring about providing protection through shields and umbrellas in a way which cannot be said about threatening to use weapons of mass destruction, each one intended and designed to kill thousands of people indiscriminately. The ‘protection’ provided by nuclear weapons amounts to a threat to wipe out whole cities in response to any attack. It’s not something that any ‘shield’ or ‘umbrella’ could ever achieve, no matter how well designed. Nevertheless, the ‘friendlier’ terms were both in use this week by German ministers urging some sort of joining up of French and UK nuclear weaponry to provide ‘protection’ for the whole of Europe. Whether nuclear weapons do in fact act as a deterrent is one of those questions which can never be fully answered: the argument that they have prevented full-scale war in Europe since the end of the Second World War depends on an implicit assumption that a war would have occurred had the weapons not existed. It’s an assumption which is essentially impossible to either prove or disprove; an impossibility which only adds to the ferocity of debate on the subject. The clearest direct evidence for their deterrent effect is that the possession of nuclear weapons by Russia has deterred NATO countries from more direct intervention in support of Ukraine, but that makes the weapons look more like an enabler for their possessors than a protection against attack. To say nothing of an encouragement for proliferation.

It is possible that Putin is mad enough to believe that he can restore the old Russian/Soviet empire’s territories by the application of military force (his past words and statements certainly seem to indicate that he would like to do so), but the probability that a madman would be ‘deterred’ by anything is low. The whole concept of deterrence is predicated on the assumption that the actors are all rational, and that’s an assumption around which there must be considerable doubt. The second most probable reason for the outbreak of war would be if Putin believed that ‘the West’ is preparing to strike first and thus decided on pre-emptive action. Talk of establishing a ‘European’ nuclear strike force doesn’t look like the smartest way of convincing him otherwise.

Thursday 15 February 2024

Threats and deterrence


If a householder builds a tall wall around his garden, and tops it with an electrified razor wire fence, some might think him to be quite mad, but it might reasonably be considered to be a deterrent against anyone trying to enter his land. It’s still a deterrent if he lurks behind the wall with a loaded shotgun and puts stickers on the outside of the wall warning potential trespassers of the fact. If he then builds a tower just inside the wall and stands on top of it waving his shotgun in the direction of anyone passing by, he would remove all question as to his sanity, but has he also crossed the line between deterrent and threat? The difference between a deterrent and a threat is sometimes, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder.

Relationships between states are more complex than that, but the basic point – that whether an action is considered to be a deterrent or a threat depends on one’s point of view – is substantially the same. If Russia moves troops closer to the borders of NATO countries, is that a threat to invade those countries or a deterrent to a perceived threat to invade Russia? If the US moves nuclear weapons to the UK so that it can strike Russia sooner and with less warning than by using ICBMs based in the US, I don’t doubt that the US would intend it to be a deterrent. But I couldn’t blame Russia for seeing it as a threat. To the extent that people contemplating fighting a nuclear war haven’t already, like the guy with the shotgun on top of his tower, removed all doubt as to their rationality, there is a point in the game of deterrent/counter-deterrent (or threat/counter-threat) where it becomes almost rational to strike first, on the principle of ‘use it or lose it’. The question we ought to be asking ourselves is whether those taking decisions, allegedly on our behalf, are bringing that point closer or pushing it further away. Claiming that ‘he started it’ is a kindergarten level argument; the issue is not about who started the spiral towards war, but about how we stop it. There is nothing unpatriotic, and it isn’t being a stooge for Putin, to try and understand that he might just possibly interpret things in a different way. And whether that interpretation is right or wrong is irrelevant – understanding it is a part of the key to any attempt at mutual de-escalation.

There does seem to be a marked increase recently in the number of people telling us that we must prepare for war, although their motives may be mixed. I suspect some merely want to reintroduce conscription in the belief that it will restore ‘traditional’ values, including imposing a sense of ‘British’ patriotism which they think has got lost. Others probably think that ramping up armament production will be good for jobs, and that a wartime economy would be good for capitalism in general. Some, though, are entirely sincere – they really do want to fight an all-out war against Russia, and all pretence that a war between two capitalist economies would somehow be about ideology has long since been shattered. Paranoia even leads some to think about the Republic of Ireland as a potential enemy (almost a case of ‘if they’re not with us, they’re against us’), and even to talk about the need for England to bomb an independent Scotland to prevent the Russians from using its airbases. That wasn’t only about trying to head off independence – some people really do think that way.

I can’t immediately recall any time in human history where huge armies have been built, possessing enormous quantities of the latest and most potent methods of destruction, without them subsequently being used. And I’m not currently particularly confident that we’re on the verge of achieving that for the first time.

Tuesday 13 February 2024

Missing the opportunity


The idea that the way people vote may not always be the result of a careful assessment of the parties and their candidates is not exactly a new one. Graham Wallas, back in 1908 (“Human Nature in Politics”) argued that political opinions and actions are largely the result of habit based on irrational assumptions. I can’t remember exactly where, but another formulation of a similar idea which I came across in 1970 or 1971 described voting as an essentially irrational act. Not everybody would agree, of course, but there is enough truth contained in the statements for us to be wary of those who argue strongly for a position which implies something different. As evidence, of a sort, I can offer one story from my own campaigning history in which an elderly couple told me that they were going to vote for myself and Plaid Cymru “because Labour and the Tories gave away the Empire”. There are plenty of other examples, and few people who’ve ever done any serious canvassing will not have similar stories to tell.

The immediate relevance of this is the debate over the proposed new voting system for the Senedd, which has aroused the ire of some. Some of the criticism is justified; some rather less so. Personally, I’d prefer that the two parties pushing reform (Labour and Plaid) had agreed to implement STV instead. There are problems with all voting systems, but it's always seemed to me that STV is the best – or perhaps I should say least worst. For me, the primary criticism of the closed list system as opposed to STV is that STV allows second, third etc choices to influence the outcome, whilst under a closed list, only first preference votes count, meaning that the votes of people whose first choice is for a smaller party are completely disregarded. Much of the public criticism of the closed list has, however, revolved around a rather different issue, which is about the right of voters to choose an individual to represent them, rather than simply a party.

In small rural community council elections, where most of the candidates will be known to most of the electors, I don’t doubt that the personality and history of the individual is a major factor in the voters’ choice. But the more populous the area choosing a representative, the smaller the proportion of the electorate that will actually know enough about the individuals, and the more likely it is that voters choose based on party rather than person. And whilst some long-standing MPs and MSs like to believe that they have an enormous personal vote, my own experience of canvassing at Senedd and Westminster parliament levels tells me that that is likely to be greatly exaggerated. As a candidate, I’ve had people telling me that ‘I don’t normally vote for your party, but I’m voting for you’, and as a canvasser for other candidates, I’ve had people telling me that ‘I normally vote for your party, but I’m not voting for X’. Candidates hear the positive messages – their foot-soldiers hear the negative ones. It is a fiction of the UK constitution that voters choose an individual to represent them rather than a party, but a fiction that many choose to believe. It's true, of course, that a closed list effectively allows parties to select which of their candidates will be the first to be elected, but the extent to which that ceases to be true under a more open system is somewhat exaggerated.

There is another aspect to this as well. Some of the critics of the closed list have also been quite critical in the past of the quality of some of those elected to the Senedd. There is a certain degree of arrogance behind that criticism, implying as it does that those making the criticism have the knowledge, experience and ability to do better. But let us suppose that the criticism is indeed a valid one. Are electors really in a position to be able to address that, given their necessarily limited knowledge of the individuals? If the quality of those elected needs to be improved, the only people in a position to do that are the political parties themselves. Furthermore, it isn’t just about individuals – if we want a successful Senedd leading a successful Wales, we need the best team. And as any sports fan will know, the best rugby team isn’t the one with 15 outside halves, and nor is the best soccer team the one with 11 centre-forwards. A closed list invites the electors to vote for a team rather than an individual, and that gives the political parties the opportunity to decide who their A-team is and position team members on the lists in such a way as to get that team elected in the order it chooses. The problem with that however is that, in practice, there is no sign to date of the parties abandoning a selection system based entirely on ambition and popularity and trying seriously to assess ability and suitability instead. As it is, they seem to be hell-bent on going for a closed list system which is not as representative as STV and then ignoring the one big advantage that it does have.

Friday 9 February 2024

Who cares about an arbitrary number?


There is a long-standing, but rather odd if you stop to think about it, trend for organisations announcing new initiatives, buildings, or policies to concentrate on the cost rather than the substance. It’s as though the PR officers believe that the most important part of the news is how much is being spent, rather than what is being done. Here, here, and here are a few random examples. Anyone wanting to know what the story is really about will never find out from the headline alone. But in terms of the impact, it’s what is being done that is the real story – and the price attached to it is often a largely arbitrary first guess rather than a detailed costing.

That, it seems to me, was always the status of Labour’s £28 billion Green Investment Plan – just another headline lacking in real detail. Just about everyone can tell you how much they planned to spend – few can tell you what they were actually going to do with it. In that limited sense, ditching the headline sum is, or should be, a non-story. The question should be more about what they’re actually now not going to do which they were previously planning to do. And the answer to that question is far from clear in anything that they’ve managed to say so far – it’s all been about the number, which was pretty much plucked out of the air to begin with. Listening to their statements, one could be forgiven for believing that they are not changing their plans at all, just stopping all talk about the cost. But doing what they previously said would cost £28 billion, without spending £28 billion, and sticking to the silly fiscal rule which they themselves have invented is a mathematical impossibility. Whether it helps them politically is another question – switching the debate away from an essentially ridiculous numbers game to a more complex question which the media can’t even be bothered to engage with might help them electorally, but it tells us little about what we can expect from a new government.

The party was, in reality, pretty stupid to name a figure at all in the first place. It might have made a good headline at the time as an indicator of how serious they were about taking  action on climate change without having to do the hard yards to spell out the detailed policies, but that’s a very short term consideration. And it played into the hands of a Tory Party determined to hold Labour to a standard of fiscal responsibility to which they’ve never adhered themselves. To say nothing of a lazy media more interested in the yah boo politics of ‘he said, she said’ than in attempting to explain the seriousness of the situation and the required actions and consequences, let alone the complexities of public finances.

And that brings us to the real, and very sad, story here. It’s not some superficial froth about U-turns and flip-flops, it’s not about the detail of government expenditure and how it is financed, it’s not even about climate change and the urgent need for action. It’s about the one thing – the only thing – to which Labour is now resolutely committed. That is to play the game under Tory rules and abide by whatever constraints the outgoing Tories leave for them. At a time when people seem to be crying out for change, the only thing Labour are planning to change is the people implementing the policies.

Thursday 8 February 2024

Pressing the self-destruct button?


There was a story back in the 1960s about a CofE vicar preparing the service for the Sunday after an election before he knew the result. In something of a quandary about which hymn to sing, he eventually settled on three alternatives, so that he covered all bases. If the Tories won, the congregation would sign “Now thank we all our God”, substituted by “Oh Lord our help in ages past” in the event of a Labour victory. Just in case the Liberal Party (as they called themselves back then) were to win, the fall-back option would be “The Lord moves in a mysterious way”.

The CofE was then – and still is in some circles even today – regarded as being ‘the Tory Party at prayer’, and the old joke plays on that view. It’s an association which some in the Tory Party seem determined to end once and for all, with bishops and archbishops now added to the list of dangerous enemies of the people, along with judges, lawyers, the BBC, the Civil Service, foreigners in general and the EU in particular. Liz Truss and Sirjake seem to have added quite a few more enemies of the people to the list at their little jamboree a couple of days ago. The ‘crime’ being committed by clerics in this case is to actively welcome converts from other religions, and Islam in particular. Some may have laboured under the delusion that proselytizing is a core activity for any religion, but it seems that the CofE has been converting the wrong people, at least as far as Braverman and Patel are concerned. For truly traditional English conservatives, the job of the English state religion is to support the establishment, and especially the Tories, not to go off and recruit people who are ‘not quite like us’. The bishops are, apparently, not looking deeply enough into the souls of the new converts to establish the degree to which the conversion is genuine.

There is half a valid point behind all this. Given that apostasy is a capital offence in some countries, the attraction of converting to Christianity for an asylum-seeker who cannot then be returned, under UK law, to a country where he or she might face the death penalty is clear enough. Thus it’s perfectly possible that some of those converting are less than entirely genuine. Whether it’s happening on the scale alleged by the less-than-dynamic duo of former Home Secretaries, and whether it’s the job of bishops to interrogate would-be converts to establish the depth and sincerity of an enthusiastically-expressed new faith is another question. How could the bishops even do what is being asked of them if they wanted to? Maybe the duo think that we should return to the methods of the Spanish Inquisition which, with a little bit of torture, managed to extract confessions of heresy (not all of which would have been entirely genuine) from most of its victims. The duo both strike me as the sort of people who would be not exactly averse to the odd torture session and might even find it pleasurable, as long as it was being applied to someone else. Especially foreigners.

There is something else that strikes me about this particular duo. I’m sure that both of them have been quite vocal in demanding that those who move to the UK should do more to integrate with the local culture and values. Some might see conversion to England’s official (even if, by now, minority) state religion as a good example of doing that. That does not, however, fit the political agenda of the English Conservative Party, which would sooner see it as almost a terrorist act in itself. As the Truss event showed, they are increasingly in danger of allowing themselves to be destroyed by their own paranoia.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

Meeting the objective


As others have pointed out, the Piers Morgan interview with Rishi Sunak a couple of days ago wasn’t exactly the pinnacle of journalism in the twenty-first century. Or at any other time, past, present or future. Somehow, however, it managed to tell us a few things about Rishi Sunak.

That he’s an inveterate liar we already knew, but denying that he's a betting man when he’s previously told us about his discovery of the joys of spread-betting on cricket was never going to work. Even worse - while he was doing his spread-betting he was also working on his day job as a hedge fund trader – which means that his paid job was, quite literally, to spend the day gambling. Just for good measure, that previous interview which he assumed everyone would have forgotten about also tells us that he sees nothing particularly strange about doing his personal gambling in office hours using office IT whilst he’s actually being paid to gamble for someone else.

His inability to avoid the trap which the self-styled ‘journalist’ laid for him is also telling. There are many things he could have said to avoid sealing the bet with a handshake – if he was going to try the ‘not-a-betting-man’ line, that was the time to do it, not after the event. His predecessor but one would probably have looked for a convenient fridge at that point, but Sunak couldn’t even manage that. He’s probably just become too accustomed to being bullied into things by his own party: faced with another bully, he just caved in.

Underlying all of this are real people, vulnerable people, being treated like pawns in a game by two men utterly lacking in empathy and understanding, for whom the odd £1,000 here or there is nothing. And in that sense, the interview was an outstanding success. It showed us exactly who and what Sunak and today’s Tory Party are – and that was the objective, wasn’t it?

Monday 5 February 2024

What's the catch?


A survey was published last week showing that voters want income tax cuts to help with the cost of living crisis. Shorn of context, that’s hardly a surprise. To the bald question, “Would you like more money?”, “Yes, please” is a wholly rational response. As far as I can see, though, people weren’t asked about how that should be funded. There is, as has been pointed out many times here, no necessary direct relationship between tax raised and government expenditure, but since both Tory and Labour claim that there is and will act on that basis, it’s reasonable to ask how they would fund it.

If the people getting the ‘extra’ money in their pockets found that they were also expected to pay more for school stationery and materials, or that NHS dentistry became even harder to access, or that cash-strapped councils would raise parking charges to try and balance their books, or that people would have to pay for their own bin bags in future, (add to the list as you will: all of these reflect what is currently happening in various places) would they still want that ‘extra’ money in their pockets? Because a tax cut only leaves people with more money to the extent to which they don’t then have to pay for things which were previously being paid for out of that taxation.

It's regressively selective as well. Those receiving the biggest benefit from any tax cut and those facing the biggest increase in expenditure as a result of cuts in services or higher prices for those services aren’t the same people. And those most in need are the ones who are most likely to find out that the cost of that tax cut outweighs the benefits, whilst the most well-off bank the cash. “Yes, please”, is an entirely rational and reasonable response to the question, “Would you like a tax cut?”, but a more appropriate response would be “What’s the catch?”. It’s a question to which you will not find an answer in a survey designed to show that tax cuts are popular. And increasingly it appears that the colour of the rosette doesn’t tell you which ones are selling the snake oil.

Friday 2 February 2024

Mathematics, Pure and Applied


In response to a question from the soon-to-be-former MP for Ynys Môn, the soon-to-be-former Leader of the House of Commons expressed her shock at the plan to increase the membership of the Senedd. Following a quick sum which demonstrated that she does at least have a basic command of primary school arithmetic, Mordaunt pointed out that if the size of the House of Commons was based on the same ratio of members to population, there would be 2,058 MPs. She should probably stick to carrying swords – at least then she’d only have to demonstrate the limits of her understanding once every coronation. And silently, at that.

Whilst the outcome of her quick calculation is mathematically accurate, several other things are equally true based on a similar calculation. If the ratio of elected members to population in the UK parliament mirrored the Scottish parliament, there would be 1,591 MPs, if it matched the Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland, there would be 3,221, if it matched Portsmouth Council (which covers Mordaunt’s constituency) there would be 13,569, and if it matched my local community council, there would be 765,113 MPs. And there are corollaries, of course – if we take the House of Commons as our starting point, the Senedd should have only 32 members, Portsmouth Council should have 2 members, and Town and Community Councils should be abolished. As an exercise in pure mathematics, about the only sphere in which it’s rational to divorce the numbers from all meaning and start comparing apples and oranges, it’s mildly interesting. But in the real world it’s pointless and irrelevant.

The question is, or should be, what is the best number for the membership of a particular elected body, taking into account the population, responsibilities, demographics and geography. And the truth is that there is no ‘right’ answer to that question. Mordaunt’s response – typical of a Westminster MP – is based on the unstated assumption that Westminster has it right. Of course. The body charged with looking at the numbers of members of the Senedd considered a number of what they felt to be comparable legislative bodies across the world, but even doing that contains an implicit assumption that those bodies might have got it right. Ultimately, it’s a matter of opinion, and opinions will differ. Mordaunt, like the soon-to-be-former MP for Ynys Môn, clearly feels that 96 is ‘too many’, but the cynical amongst us might think that they’d say much the same if it was proposed to reduce the number to 10, or even 1.

Few politicians – especially those in an institution which considers itself to have absolute sovereignty over everything, even to the extent of declaring the truth to be untrue – like the idea that some power might be held elsewhere. Fortunately for them (to say nothing of the rest of us) their ‘soon-to-be-former’ status means that they won’t have to worry about it for long.

Thursday 1 February 2024

The myth of fiscal headroom


Fiscal rules are magical things which, apparently, every party needs to have. Parties can and do, however, invent their own rules. And change them, if ever they become ‘inconvenient’. It’s easy to see why the Tories, particularly late in a parliament facing an election which they are all but certain to lose, would want to lay down rules which would constrain an incoming Labour government. It’s a lot less easy to understand why the Labour Party would be stupid enough to let them get away with that.

Whatever, the Tory rule is, in essence, a very simple one: it must show that government debt overall is reducing by the end of the current five year period. Effectively, it doesn’t matter what happens in years 1 to 4, as long as the numbers show the right answer by the end of year 5. Although it might sound very difficult, it’s actually quite easy to achieve, all they have to do is make up the numbers. And that, in effect, is exactly what the Office of Budget Responsibility accused them of doing last week. As their head honcho put it, it’s not that the government figures are a work of fiction, because there was no work involved. They are simply invented numbers, with no plan for achieving them and no evidence to justify them, yet statute requires the OBR to pretend they are serious.

But that isn’t the end of it; the rule is even more magical than that. When one year ends, what was year 5 becomes year 4 and a new year 5 gets added on to the end. The rule now only requires a reduction in debt by the end of the new year 5. If they want to, the government can put off debt reduction almost indefinitely and still claim to be meeting the rule which says it’s reducing. By definition, the figures for year 1 will always be firmer and more accurate (or rather, less inaccurate) than the figures for later years, and they become the basis on which the government manages the books for the year. So, if income increases for whatever reason (such as more people being brought into payment of income tax through frozen limits) or expenditure reduces (such as lower interest rates leading to reductions in the cost of debt servicing), the government finds itself with what it and the media like to call ‘fiscal headroom’. Without borrowing any more than they’ve already planned to do, there is suddenly cash available with which they can do one of three things.

They could reduce the planned borrowing for the year, they could increase spending on failing public services – or they could cut taxes. And all the talk at the moment is that the Chancellor will use this apparent windfall to reduce taxes in next month’s budget, in the belief that doing so will be a big enough bribe for people to vote for the Tories. They will still be borrowing the same amount as they’d already planned to borrow (for all their talk about needing to cut borrowing, that’s a task which they’re more than happy to put off until the mythical year 5 and thus leave to an incoming government). They’ll just use some of that borrowing to reduce taxes. That’s right – the policy is effectively the same as that promoted by the previous worst PM on record, Liz Truss, namely borrow money to cut taxes. The only difference is that she alarmed people by planning to exceed the budgeted amount of borrowing without providing a good enough set of fictitious figures for the future, whilst Hunt is promising to stick within the already agreed fiction.

Here are two facts we know. Firstly, cuts in income tax always help higher earners more than low earners. And secondly, when the government borrows money and pays interest thereon, it necessarily borrows from those who have money available to lend, whether that’s directly through NS&I investments or indirectly through pension pots. Heads the better-off win, tails the less well-off lose. Doubly so, in a sense – the less well-off are also more dependent on the failing services in which the government is deliberately choosing not to invest. It’s easy to see why such policies appeal to those who have money: who wouldn’t prefer to pay less tax and then lend money to the government and receive interest on it instead? It’s a lot less obvious why this ploy will appeal to the majority who neither have the money available to lend to the government nor are likely to benefit greatly from any tax cuts. But then, sleight of hand is the secret of a good magician; most people aren’t seeing the full picture.