Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Ken Clarke - principled and right on Europe.

Writing a tribute to Ken Clarke in the Daily Telegraph today  Iain Martin says "...he was wrong about European integration and the EU, on an epic scale."

This is the reverse of the truth. Ken Clarke has been the voice of sanity on Europe throughout his career. Where all too many Tories live in some phoney golden past in which Britain stands alone again, Ken has seen it and told it as it really is. The modern world is interdependent and you either build firm alliances or you sink. No European country eschews cooperation and only the uniquely rich Switzerland and Norway can afford to. Britain is bigger than these two States put together - and some - and central to the building of a modern cooperative Europe. 

The supreme folly of those who peddle the Europhobic line has challenged Ken for decades and he has fought them with style. He has always had right on his side and his Eurorealism has been consistent and admirable. It was the Conservative Party, especially under Heath, who pushed for Britain as a member of the EU (and its predecessors). Ken Clarke has been the inheritor of their vision. I hope that he will continue to fly the European flag - and his Party would do well to listen to him not to scorn. Britain's new Foreign Secretary is on record as wanting to leave the EU. Whether Hammond is playing internal Party politics in his Eurosceptism I don't know - he is seen as a possible leadership contender so he probably is. That alone shows the difference between the world of the Hammonds and the world of Ken.

Ken Clarke has not been wholly unpragmatic in politics - he wouldn't have succeeded as much as he has if he had been. But when it comes to what he truly believes in - especially over Europe - he has been consistent and honourable. There are not many in politics today with beliefs and values that are true and not created for personal advantage. We will miss the man who at times stood alone surrounded by colleagues always ready to stab him in the back. Well they've got their man at last - and the Government is much morally weaker for Ken's departure. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Alastair Cook could learn from Mike Denness

Sport can be brutally cruel at times. It is the flip side of the joy of the winner - the grief of the loser. The penalty miss in the shoot out. The broken gearbox in a GrandPrix. And the depression of the batsman when he gets out - again - for a low score in a Test match. For cricket is so exposed. The long walk to the crease and the even longer walk back. In front of 15,000 people with the dressing room full of your mates who will look down when you enter and avoid eye contact because they are embarrassed for you. And that is where Alastair Cook is, and has been for what seems a long time.

Cook failed again at Trent Bridge. On a flat batter's wicket he contrived to find another way to get out, bowled off his thigh pad. When a sportsman of quality loses form we tend to grab at the cliché that "Form is temporary, Class is permanent" - and of course that is true. But that doesn't explain the loss of form - it just acknowledges the hope that it won't last. Well sometimes it can last a very long time! Take the Tottenham Hotspur and Spain striker Roberto Soldado. At top Spanish Club Valencia over three seasons he scored a goal in 50% of his games. At Tottenham last season he made 28 appearances and scored only six times - solid from the penalty spot, hopeless from open play. The number of times he got the ball in a scoring position and blasted it over the bar became almost comical (not if you're a fan it didn't of course!). 

As fans we don't want sportsman to fail, and in that, I think, lies part of the problem. When Cook came out to bat yesterday there was not one England fan at Trent Bridge who wished him anything but well - and therein lies the rub. We were tense, it was tangible, and it must have communicated itself to Cook. And he was tense. He knew the truth - he was only opening for England in this Test match because he was captain. Any other player in his sort of trough of performance would have been dropped - ask Nick Compton about that! It's an unforgiving world. 

Beyond the fact that he is captain Alastair Cook is the shining white hope for the recovery of England cricket from the disaster of The Ashes. When the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) decided to sack Kevin Pietersen this s what they said:

"The England team needs to rebuild after the whitewash in Australia. To do that we must invest in our captain Alastair Cook and we must support him in creating a culture in which we can be confident he will have the full support of all players, with everyone pulling in the same direction and able to trust each other."

This is not an equivocal statement. Cook was to be the hero, and KP the discarded villain. The ECB was choosing to "invest" in Alastair Cook who would create a "culture" of support. It doesn't actually mention winning matches, just being a jolly bunch. It is presumed, I assume, that winning will result if the team is happy. Well England has now gone nine Test matches without a win (including the one underway which will be at best a draw). This is some way behind the woeful 18 matches under Mike Gatting from January 1987 to August 1988 but it's halfway there. The discarding of Pietersen may have improved dressing room morale (has it?) but we are yet to see that in results, though it's early days in the new era to be fair.

Another sporting cliché that is being aired at the moment is that winning is addictive. Winning teams are more likely to win their next match than losing teams. If you think you will win you probably will. The reverse also applies - at team level but absolutely at the level of the individual. Soldado must have felt that his goal scoring touch had deserted him last season. And he expected not to score. So he didn't. Even when a one-legged striker would have. Alastair Cook won't admit it, he's too proud too, but he expects to fail. So he does. In calendar year 2014 he has played seven Test innings scoring 97 runs at an average of 13.8. His confidence is shot. You can see it in his body language. And what sort of "culture" does the captain's continued failure create in the dressing room. Supportive, no doubt, but I don't think rallying round a failing batsmen who continues to fail was what the ECB had in mind.

Back in 1974/5 the estimable Mike Denness dropped himself for one match after a short run of failed performances when captain of England. He returned and scored a match-winning 188 in his comeback match. It was a gutsy thing to do and a classic, and rewarded, action by that most decent of men. Cook is a decent man as well but my guess is that the ECB hierarchy would do everything in their considerable power to stop him from taking a break. Not because he is not the best man to open for Enflsnd at the moment (he self-evidently isn't) but because they have openly "invested" in him as the main thrust of their strategy for the future. And because they (the ECB suits) would lose so much face if Cook walked away - even temporarily.

Sport is cruel and Alastair Cook is suffering at the moment. It is sad to watch. Maybe all will come right in England's second innings at Trent Bridge. But if it doesn't there is a strong case for Cook immediately to take a breather from international cricket. He IS a classy player - his overall record is beyond dispute. But he needs time away from the spotlight to recover his self-confidence and his form. Mike Denness showed him the way.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

On Pensions at least public sector employees don't have much to complain about.

I have no doubt that some Public Sector employees have legitimate grievances about their lot under this Government but Pensions is not one of them. Yes the Pensions deal, post Hutton, is less advatageous then hitherto. Pensions will be based on "career average" earnings rather than final salary and workers will work longer and contribute more towards their pensions. But compared with the Private sector Public Sector employees are in a still enviable position. Crucially in the run up to retirement   employees will know very accurately what their Pension will be. This is because their schemes remain Defined Benefit (DB) schemes which provide for a precisely forecastable Pension which will not be subject to the visicitudes of financial markets or to unpredictable annuity costs.

In the private sector DB schemes stll exist of course but most are closed to new entrants. For some time now the only offer to a new employee has been a so-called "Defined Contribtion" "Pension". In reaility these are not, and never have been, pension schemes at all - certainly when compared with what the Public Sector enjoys. What they are are workplace savings schemes with tax advantages. But what they produce in the way of an annual income on retirement is, compared with the DB alternative, completely unpredictable. The Chancellor acknowledged these facts when he removed the obligation to use a DC "pot" to buy an annuity in the Budget. 

To purchase an annuity producing an annual income of £20,000 a private sector employee saver aged 65 would have to have accumulated a pot of around £400,000. And yet there will be many public sector employees on such a Pension or more - guaranteed. And the contributions they will have made will be insignificant compared with the commitment necessary to save £400k - not that many will be able to do this of course. The average pot is likely to be less than a tenth of this.

The public sector rightly gets public support - we value our doctors, our nurses, our teachers and the rest. But when we look at how these workers are protected in retirement in a way that the private sector employees also used to be but no longer are?  Well in truth, in this area at least, the public sector doesn't have much to complain about does it? 

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

How the Eurozone is quietly making the Euro doom merchants eat their words.

The remarkable thing about the Eurozone is how little dissent there is now about the process of stabilisation of the single currency. Roll back a couple of years and the doom merchants were in full flight. Greece would have to leave. Portugal would surely follow. The Euro was dead. And so on. In fact progress has been steady under the skilled management of the EU and, especially, Angela Merkel. The Euro, far from being dead, is attracting new nations to it. The process of greater macroeconomic coordination of Eurozone countries (always a likely requirement) is moving forward without too much bleating about lost sovereignty. Meanwhile Britain stands aloof from all this, failing to use its currency independence to boost the balance of trade (the reverse in fact as we let the pound strengthen so making our exports more expensive). 

Yes there is much still to do and a continued credit squeeze is regrettable. But come the dawn the Euro will surely emerge strong, as will the finances of the countries that use it. The most successful economic union of all time will be underpinned by a currency that will almost certainly replace the dollar as the transnational currency of choice. By then Britain will probably have reverted to Pounds, Shillings and Pence!

Monday, July 07, 2014

Publicly accountable railways and gas and electricity supply are essential. But its not about ideology.

The calls for the "Re-Nationalisation" of the railways are wrong. Wrong because the word "Nationalisation" is loaded and linked with bad memories of the old inefficient "Nationalised Industries". Wrong also because it suggests that it is something that is an ideologically good idea - shades of the Labour Party's now deleted Clause IV of its constitution: "common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange". We need a new language.

We live in a mixed Economy within which decisions are, or should be, taken rationally not ideologically. It is, as I have written before, a big "Public/Private partnership" with as its goal the outcome of maximising utility for all. In the main the Public sector should not be involved in manufacturing, commerce, trade etc - certainly in those sectors and businesses where competition is real. The Government should not own banks or financial services institutions though of course it should regulate them (better!). Transport is, however, another matter as is part of the Energy supply sector.

Any economy has to have a reliable transport and energy infrastructure and it is the duty of Government to provide it. In the United Kingdom Government builds and (mostly) maintains the road network. The same with Rail via "Network Rail" which had to be created after the disastrous private sector "Railtrack" failed so abysmally. The Airports may be privately run - but they are public assets, as are the ports.

The energy sector also has public assets in the electricity and gas networks (pipelines and transmission cable systems). Now there is nothing wrong with private sector companies using public assets if it is in the public interest. So a busy transport activity like buses on (say) the London/Oxford route has two operators who compete on services and price. The passenger is the beneficiary and there would be no credible case for taking these operators into public ownership and combining them. The railways, however, are different. As, in my view, is Gas and Electricity distribution to domestic users.

The rail network is publicly owned, but the train companies that use it are privately owned and operate franchises. In effect they are private sector monopolies. Unlike the London to Oxford buses there is little or no competition. You want to go to London from Manchester - Virgin Trains is your only serious choice. And in the busy and highly profitable London commuter zone there is also only one operator on any one route. No consumer choice at all.

The State is involved  in the railways not only as owner of the track network but also the stations - and as the provider of subsidies as high as £4billion per annum to operators in order to keep open "uneconomic" but judged useful routes. Meanwhile the private sector monopolies, like Virgin, pay shareholder dividends and of course make profits. These would be absent without subsidy! The myriad of operators have different names, different fare structures, different booking systems and there is no consistency of offer between them. Virgin from London to Manchester is different from East Coast London to Leeds. But that is not competition - if you want to go to Manchester it's irrelevant if there is a "better" service to Leeds (or vice versa!)

The case for the railways system being truly publicly accountable is overwhelming. Consistency of offer, integrated branding, cooperative route planning and above all a pricing system for tickets that makes sense. The income generated by this operation would not go to shareholders but be reinvested in the network and services. In this model whilst the track, stations and trains would be publicly owned it would not be a recreation of "British Rail". There would be plenty of room for public/private partnerships providing they could be shown to be in the public interest. If you start with that goal of "maximising utility" then you seek the most pragmatic way to achieve it. Not all the workers in this system would need to be employed by the public sector and there would be plenty of room for "contracting out". But at the macro level all the confusion that exists at the moment would be swept away and we would have, once again, a publicly accountable and substantially publicly owned railway system.

The Energy sector is different.  Here the issue is not that there is no competition but that it is artificial. The infrastructure that delivers Gas or Electricity to your home is, like the railway tracks and the stations, publicly owned. The physical gas or electricity that is input into these systems is a commodity and like all commodities there is a broadly comparable common price. No Gas or Electricity supplier has any strategic cost advantage over another. They pay the same supply costs and the same infrastructure use costs. So the price competition between them is only tactical. British Gas may offer you a price deal to encourage you to switch from, say, Eon but over time the price you pay will be the same. There is no real competition. Consumer prices would be lower if there was a single Gas or Electricity supplier to all domestic homes. There would be no duplication of facilities, no marketing costs and no dividends to pay. Again there would be some scope for public/private partnerships but the overriding test of everything would be consumer interest not profit.

If we eliminate ideology and start with the rail passenger or the domestic energy consumer and measure what is in their interests then the case for a properly accountable railway and energy system is overwhelming. Yes politicians would set the standards and decide priorities - but isn't that what we elect them for anyway?

Friday, July 04, 2014

Getting and spending – two sides of the same coin for Government

The whole idea that you can talk about spending and taxation separately is deeply flawed. Indeed the idea that you can decouple the public accounts from the economy as a whole makes little sense. The start point of everything has to be citizen welfare in its broadest sense. It has to be bottom up. What are the needs of the people and how best should the Economy satisfy them?

If we start from a “Grand Ideology” then we miss the point completely. This is equally true whether it is Free Market Conservatives or Public Ownership Socialists who are making the noise! The economy as a whole is a huge Public/Private partnership. There are some things which fall unequivocally on the Private side of the divide and some which can only be done by the State. In between is a huge raft of consumer needs where Government has to make judgment calls about how best to manage.

Public expenditure falls broadly into three categories.

(1) Necessary, but efficient, expenditure which only the State can make.

(2) Discretionary expenditure which the State chooses to make, but doesn’t have to.

(3) Necessary expenditure which is inefficient and where either economies need to be made or which could be better carried out by the private sector.

The easy hits are in the second category. So we get cuts to Arts Funding which is likely to destroy some regional theatres and make the future of many arts institutions in peril. This is crass and deeply to be regretted. A cut to the International Development Budget would be in the same category. To its credit the Government has not done this despite the strident voices from some on the Right urging it to do so.

It is in the third category that most of the action is! If some aspects of the Health Service would be more efficient and cost effective if contracted out to private enterprise then only the Socialist ideologue would object. But if the motivation is some “private sector first” Conservative ideology then it is a very bad idea indeed – not least if the private sector beneficiaries are Conservative Party donor companies! The subsidies paid by Government to keep some rail services afloat and the utter confusion across the “network” of operators, fares and service standards are scandalous. This was a privatisation that was botched and had made us a laughing stock. Nobody wants British Rail back – but a publicly accountable Rail network that is consumer not profit driven seems a necessity to me. It’s not a call for renationalisation exactly, but it is a call for a publicly accountable revolution!

So let’s get away from arguing about expenditure and cuts as if they were separate things – they are of course two sides of the same coin. And let’s start making decisions based not on ideology or political expediency but only on a clear understanding of consumer need. Start there and you might get somewhere.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

The benefits of medical screening - a personal story

I haven't taken Fentanyl or Midazolam before - apparently they are recreational drugs as well as being pre-procedure medicines if you need to be sedated! So this blog could be more than usual rubbish if the effects haven't worn off. Bear with me!

A couple of weeks ago I was called to St George's Hospital, Tooting because a routine test had shown a small amount of blood in a stool sample. This can be a sign of bowel cancer although, overwhelmingly, mostly it isn't. The test and follow up is part of the NHS bowel cancer screening programme now being conducted across the country. 

My further screening took two parts. I spent some time a few days ago with a nurse trained in colonoscopy - the exploration of the bowel by a Doctor using a minute camera which travels the whole length of the bowel looking for abnormalities. She explained the procedure to me and answered my questions. She was knowledgeable, engaging and comforting. She knew her stuff. It was my decision whether or not to go ahead but it was pretty much a no-brainer.

Today I had the colonoscopy and that's why the sedatives were administered. The Doctor was friendly, looked the part and as with the nurse he had time to engage with me. Nothing was rushed, I won't describe the procedure in detail other than to say I could follow the camera's view in full HD colour as it made its way to my appendix and back. The close ups were crystal clear and the Doc. commented as he piloted the camera on its journey. 

Any anxiety I had was alleviated as the Doc. and I saw with him what was mostly a very normal bowel. Three very small polyps showed up and they were removed - along with the camera a tiny device travels along which can cut off an polyps and extract them for laboratory analysis. I was also shown to have "Diverticular disease" which the Doctor described as an area of the bowel which looks like Swiss cheese - it has holes in it. It is not a source of concern but can cause abdominal pain from time to time - there is no treatment other than a high fibre diet.

This was NHS treatment at its best. Screening for serious disease is always a good idea and particularly for bowel cancer which responds well to treatment if there is early diagnosis. The Cost/Benefit Analysis is hugely positive. A cancer diagnosed early and treated saves the NHS thousands compared with late diagnosis and intensive emergency cars. And of course it saves lives.

The test I apply to the NHS for me personally is this - can I imagine that if I had "gone private" I would have had better care? The answer in this one instance is an emphatic "No". The facility at St George's is modern, comfortable and confidence-building. The timespan from the abnormal test to the colonoscopy was two weeks! The staff at all levels were skilled, kind and helpful. I was never someone on a conveyor belt but at all times I was treated like an individual. Of course one should avoid extrapolating from one good (or bad) experience and drawing general conclusions. But for me this was a most reassuring and brilliantly handled event. Thanks are due to all at the St George's Endoscopy Unit. Thank you all. 

(And now for something completely different - how will the residual Fentanyl  and Midazolam in my system react to a small glass of Guinness? I'll let you know!)

Excellent analysis of Ed Miliband by Peter Oborne - essential reading

In the Daily Telegraph this morning there is a wonderful article by Peter
Oborne on Ed Miliband which does him enormous credit. There is no doubt that the Conservatives principal election weapon will be personalised attacks on Miliband rather than his policies. What policy critique there will be will be at the facile "RedEd" level. Having met him and listened to him live I agree 100% with Oborne's analysis. He is far too intelligent a political thinker to believe that 2015 Britain requires 1945 solutions. 

The Welfare State is not dead in the water but aspects of it are increasingly unaffordable. So radical solutions are necessary - to cope with ever increasing longevity especially. And the balance between public and private sector needs urgent review. We need new models for gas, electricity, rail transport (etc.) which deliver better value and better consumer service. Not old-fashioned nationalised industries - but for these key sectors the current private sector profit driven basis (often with subsidy!) doesn't work - we do need far higher public accountability. Ed I think knows all this.

Can he create a modern Labour manifesto that is neither Blairite nor Brownite but brave and genuinely "One Nation". I'm sure he can. Can he then communicate the key messages coherently not to the Westminster Village or fellow policy wonks but to we the people? That's his real challenge. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Cameron - it's the Judgment thing.

What Labour should do is use Coulson as the symbol of a deeper malaise, but not over concentrate on the Coulson story itself. The fact that Brooks was cleared reduces the danger for Cameron. It raises an element of doubt about the whole prosecution which apologists for Coulson/Brooks can exploit - News International has this in hand. 

Cameron is loyal to his friends. This is a good Upper Middle Class virtue, sometimes, but it also leads to cronyism. That IS a charge that can be levelled at the Prime Minister. He has made a string of dismal appointments in and out of Government and in many cases loyalty made him stick by failing Ministers. Cameron has always struck me as a decent man (albeit one with a nasty streak) but lacking in any wider experience in the real world outside his personal comfort zone. His closest advisors are mostly from the privileged Public School and Oxbridge educated elite from which he himself comes. Then occasionally he decides he needs a bit of "rough" - hence Coulson and Hilton and Crosby. He is a hopeless judge of character except by the standards of his own class. And those standards include believing a person if they tell you something. Coulson lied. Cameron believed him. It is the judgment thing.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Time for the Conservatives finally to put Margaret Thatcher behind them

The absence of giants in our current politics meant that some venerate Margaret Thatcher in a sort of misty memory of "greatness". This tendency has, of course, been given a turbo boost by her still recent death  and by Charles Moore's very good first volume of biography. The short version for those who didn't particularly like her but "admire" her is that desperate times demanded desperate measures. The problem with this is that in fact the times weren't desparate at all. 

James Calaghan's government in 1978 was actually pretty competent. Callaghan was a well-liked and able PM who regularly wiped the floor with Thatcher in the Commons and elsewhere. Denis Healey was a fine Chancellor, and most of the other Ministers were capable. Tony Benn, for example, was an excellent Secretary of State for Energy in those difficult Energy times. The Achilles heel was Union power and the failure of "In Place of Strife"  still clouded Labour's credibility as a potentially reforming force in this area. But with the "young Turks" - Owen, Williams, Rogers and with the brilliant Healey a Labour victory in 1979 would certainly have kicked off a new emphasis on Union reform. Well we all know what happened in the Winter of Discontent - the biggest tragedy for the Left and for Britain in peacetime Britain in the 20th Century.

Margaret Thatcher ridiculed the whole idea of "consensus". This is the delusion of a dictator not a modern politician. In complex modern societies you have to bring the people with you. Thatcher never did that. Her election victory in  1983 gave her a minority of the votes against the challenge of the soft (SDP/Libs) and harder (Labour) Left. Thatcher won because the Left was divided and in the still bright glow of the Falklands. The Myth was well under way to being created. Then, empowered by a wholly unjust majority in the House of Commons she elected to confront the Unions without any real grounding in public support. There was no precedent in a British society for the military-style attack on the NUM. It was contradictory to British Values and driven by an obsessional refusal to even consider consensus. (That same obsession had led to the Falklands War - that last irrational, preposterous Imperial adventure). 

Of course the hubris of Thatcher was eventually to be her downfall. Not, sadly, at the hands of the electorate but in the "Fall of Caesar" drama of 1990 when her colleagues in the Conservative Cabinet acted as a collective Brutus to stab her in the back (and the front as well). They were acting patriotically to remove from office a woman who was clearly at the time unfit for power. 

The post hoc deification of Margaret Thatcher is, as I said, a reflection of the feeling on part of many Conservatives that there are no giants of her stature around. She had charisma and a certain perverse style. She had energy and a commitment to hard work and she was a patriot. But she was the exception that proves the rule that politics is the "Art of the Possible". Conservatives should long ago have put Thatcher and Thatcherism behind them. And should they fail to do that and adopt neo-Thatcherite policies and even choose a Thatcher clone as leader (is there one?) the only result will be unelectability. Is that what they want? 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

"British Values" - if you can define them you're a better man than me Gunga Din !

I have been struggling to find a good dictionary definition of "Values".  This, from a Business Dictionary, is probably the best I've seen:

"Important and lasting beliefs or ideals shared by the members of a culture about what is good or bad and desirable or undesirable. Values have major influence on a person's behavior and attitude and serve as broad guidelines in all situations."

There is a strong element of culture and community about "values" when defined in this way. It is a collective not an individualistic concept. As individuals we all, to a greater or lesser extent, have values. However the premise of "shared values" suggests that these personal values are part of and subordinate to the values derived from our culture. But there is never a precise overlap. We may have personal values which our culture does not share. Our culture may have values which we personally reject. So when we consider the idea of "British Values" we may mean British norms (what most people believe) but this cannot be prescriptive - other than in some Orwellian nightmare where we are told what to believe!

"You're so British" a foreigner, often an American, might say to you or me. They mean - often quite admiringly - that we exhibit traits in our behaviour that they see as being characteristically British. A warning bell should be sounding when this happens. Behaviour has layers and the actions or words on the outside layer - "good manners" for example - may disguise all sorts of hidden malignancies! We are not known as "perfidious Albion" for nothing and whilst I would not charge that hypocrisy is a British Value, caveat emptor should apply - especially to first meetings.

Most British people believe that having a constitutional Monarchy is desirable - that is a shared belief. Those of us who disagree with this could be judged as being UnBritish, and to an extent we are. This does not make us wrong though - at least from our subjective standpoint. We might say that believing in "Equality of Opportunity" is a British Value. Well how does that square with the extreme privilege of the Royal Family. Not very well. We might also say that Democracy is desirable and as such we have another British Value - the right to choose and dismiss our leaders. And yet we have an appointed not elected second chamber in our Parliament - hypocrisy in spades?

In the definition above there is a description of values being shared by "members of a culture". Clearly whether we find this useful or not depends on what we see as a "culture". Whether a large Nation like Britain has ever been a homogenous culture is doubtful and that it isn't today is self-evident. The cultural mores of the many different, and often large, "ethnic" communities in Britain differ from one another and from the majority white Anglo-Saxon culture. There may be shared values and there is an obligation on us all to obey the Law - but the variations of beliefs and behaviour are wide. Some second, third and fourth generation members of what are often (though inaccurately) described as "Immigrant" communities may choose to shed some or all of their families cultural heritage and become more conventionally "British". But that is their choice and there is no compulsion on them to do so nor necessarily anything commendable in their choice.

Which brings us to David Cameron. Here is what he said recently about "British Values":

"We need to be far more muscular in promoting British Values and the institutions that uphold them. A genuinely liberal country believes in certain values, actively promotes them and says to its citizens: this is what defines us as a society."
Does Cameron here mean "Majority Values" and are the Monarchy and Parliament among the institutions he wants to "uphold"? Does he want those from a different cultural heritage to be more like him and abandon their family culture? It sounds very much as if he does. And does he want people like me to abandon my opposition to the Monarchy and not to argue that our Democracy needs urgent reform to be silent? Must I uphold institutions I deplore just because the majority isn't bovvered about them ? 

If we define "British Values" in an all-embracing way that tolerates wide cultural and belief system variations then the definition becomes so nebulous as to be neither distinctive nor useful. For example even belief in the "Rule of Law" , which all of us irrespective of background might be expected to share, is problematic. Especially for those who believe that "God's Law" is always ascendant over Laws made by man. But this is not a problem unique to Britain and it is not a specific objection to British Laws that the extremists who want (for example) Sharia - or their version of it - to prevail have. The same would apply to any State where the "Rule of Law" is NOT Sharia.

Cameron says that British Values are our  “...belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law” . You see what I mean by nebulous? "Freedom" is a motherhood catch-all that means precisely what any of us wants it to mean. "Tolerance" is much the same and highly subjective. There is nothing particularly British about "accepting personal and social responsibility" either and how we define what it means is very dependent on our core cultural mores. I'll give just one example of this. In Chinese cultures there is an inherent acceptance that one generation has an obligation to look after it's parents' generation. Care for the Elderly is not avoided or left to the State. It is a part of an individual's "personal and social responsibility". Many of us would argue that this example is far from the only one where British Values, if that is what they are, lag well behind best practice.

So I conclude that the search for "British Values" is largely a waste of time. That there are behavioural norms which make a Society better to live in, and that these include obeying the law and being tolerant of others, is undoubtedly true. Helping others, especially when they are in trouble, and being considerate are admirable values as well. Being free to choose our leaders and putting constraints on what we can say and do in public, and to some extent in private, are necessary requirements in any civilised society. But these are not uniquely British Values and in some areas we are far from the best around ! 


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The NeoCons haven't gone away - but events have shown how lethally wrong they were.

There is only one good thing to have come out of the misbegotten adventures of Afghanistan and Iraq - the defeat of the Neocons. That hundreds of thousands of innocent people had to die to achieve that outcome is beyond scandalous - but those strident voices whilst not silent are thankfully back in the margins again. 

The idea that the West, and especially America and Britain, has a moral duty of care to the abused and disadvantaged living under dictatorship is a decent one of course. Indeed the United Nations was established on this very premise. But to extend that duty beyond diplomacy and aid and institute military action as the Neocons wanted? That, at least, is now off the table - or should be.

To invade Afghanistan to track down the perpetrators of 9/11 on the face of it had a strong whiff of legitimacy to it. Such a heinous crime should surely not go unpunished. But to do it so incompetently - the men in the caves were never going to be defeated by a conventional  Army and Air Force - that's another matter. And then to pursue not Bin Laden, but regime  change - the overthrow of the Taliban - what conceivable justification was there for this? It not only turned out badly - the Taliban are just waiting for the right moment to retake the country when allied forces depart - it led to the shedding of all too many young lives.

The Iraq War had little support outside the White House and Blair's Number 10. Not from the UN. Not from Europe. Not from most of the American or British public either. But the NeoCons were supportive of course, hardly surprisingly as it was their idea! Regime change was the goal and the Mission was accomplished when Saddam was swinging from the end of a rope and his statues had been destroyed. Except that it wasn't of course. The Neocons and their NeoCon President and British accomplice had the military power to change the regime - but neither the wit nor the resources to establish anything stable in its place. "Après moi, le déluge" - and how. 

That Iraq was riddled with deadly Sunni / Shiite rivalries was hardly a secret but the NeoCons either didn't understand that or didn't think it mattered! Iraq would have changed in time and the West could have helped achieve this by supporting those Iraqi democrats who wanted to achieve that in a non religiously motivated way. Saddam's regime , whilst predominantly Sunni in a Shia country, was broadly secular and in that respect it was surely a model of a modern Islamic State. But no matter the NeoCons wanted Saddam's blood and the Shia's who wanted him out agreed. Why did Saudi Arabia not support the overthrow of Saddam? They, like Saddam, are Sunni Moslems. 

The NeoCons are not gone - they are well financed and have powerful backers especially in the Republican Party. And they pop up from time to time with their "Something must be done" hand-wringing. They wanted more action in Libya, in Syria and even Iran. And some are now calling for strong intervention by the West in Iraq again. When will they ever learn? 

Well the flowers have gone. As have the soldiers - gone to graveyards, everyone. Let's not send any more.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The last gasp rearguard action against plain cigarette packaging is as mendacious as ever from the Tobacco Giants.

As a Formula one fan and also because I worked in a Brand Management for Shell and was at times quite close to the company's sponsorship of McLaren and later Ferrari I know a bit about tobacco marketing. F1, of course, was almost the last of the global sponsorship opportunities that the likes of BAT, Imperial  Tobacco and Philip Morris had. They hung in there to the bitter end and used every trick in the book to keep their noxious brands on F1 cars for millions of television viewers to see. Even Tony Blair fell for the soft sell ( and the money) of Bernie Eccelestone who was essentially the tobacco industry's mouthpiece for years ( in his own interests of course). Tobacco money is big money - very big money indeed. There is no lobbyist too expensive, no campaign too costly that Big Tobacco can't afford it. Every restriction on cigarette brand promotion has been fought tooth and nail and the advertising profession has been compliant in trying to stop or delay controls. But gradually advertising of tobacco products has ceased in most countries as has the sponsorship of sporting and other events. 

The latest well funded rearguard action by the tobacco industry in the UK is to campaign against the  proposal that cigarettes will have to be sold in plain packs in future. The companies unite together under the umbrella of "Forest"  (Freedom Organisation for the Right to Enjoy Smoking) and they are currently targeting the Prime Minister, David Cameron, in their campaign:

Those of us who followed the fight of the Tobacco giants to keep in F1 know how they work. They fought off restrictions for years skilfully and with lavish use of all the financial clout they enjoyed. In the end they were beaten but F1 cars stayed mobile fag packets for years after such displays were banned everywhere else.

So why are the companies so in favour of branded cigarrete packets and why are they fighting this last battle so hard? The reason is simply that they know (1) The pack design is a key component of their brand promotion. The Marlboro' pack, for example, is an iconic brand symbol. 

(2) Brands add value - massive value. The profit comes from the brand promise which is symbolised by the pack. If the promise, in the case of Marlboro, is distinctive you make more money - much more.


In one recent survey, the top brands in America were shown to be Apple, Marlboro, and McDonalds and Malboro generally features in the top five or so brands in most countries where it is marketed - despite promotion of its brand being prohibited by law. It is also generally the number one tobacco brand.

Philip Morris, owners of Marlboro, know that for their brand to continue to prosper it has to be visible at the point of consumption. The Marlboro brand offers benefits to its choosers which meet those consumers' needs. Those needs are partly physical - the need to satisfy a craving for nicotine. But that could be done by any generic or unbranded cigarette. The main needs that Marlboro satisfies are emotional - above all the need for status. You take your pack of Marlboro out of your bag or pocket. You display it. You tap it. The cigarette comes out and you light it and smoke it. You are seen to be doing this - you are a Marlboro smoker. You have status.

The tobacco companies argue that strong branding only encourages brand switching - you are persuaded to switch from Camel (say) to Marlboro because you are persuaded about the practical and above all emotional benefits that will accrue from doing so. There is no increase in the size of the market from the branding activity, they say, and so it is just harmless competition between brands for existing smokers. This is nonsense.

All marketing has two objectives. To persuade people to try a product and to persuade people to buy your brand of that product rather than someone else's. This is especially so of premium brands like Marlboro. A young person seeking a variety of satisfactions might not think that cigarettes are one of them but is then exposed to the world of brands conferring status on him or her. He sees the Marlboro smoker and the uber-cool Marlboro pack and maybe he's tempted in a way that he almost certainly wouldn't be by a plain pack. There is ample evidence around the world over history of how young people begin smoking because they see it "cool" to be associated with (say) Marlboro. 

So "Forest" and their paymasters know exactly what they are doing. Yes packs may encourage brand switching. But they also, and crucially, help the growth of the market among the young people that the tobacco companies need to recruit to replace their older smokers who are dying off.

I attended the recent ConHome conference - a Conservative party gathering (mostly!) and there were one or two organisations who had paid to have stalls and displays there. One of them was Forest and they also advertise prominently on the ConHome website. There has always been right-of-centre political support for the Tobacco industry - often backed up by "Freedom of Choice" type arguments so it is perhaps no surprise that the mostly excellent ConHom website rather contaminates its brand by associating with the tobacco industry. Never underestimate the power of Big Tobacco. They would not be so strongly fighting the plain packs legislation iof they did not see it as a threat to their brands and to their business! 

Sunday, June 08, 2014

How to combat Nigel Farage's Powellite raging against the dying of the White.

Aided by a compliant media much of the political noise over the past year or so has come from the mad insurgents of UKIP. Now before anyone accuses me of intemperate language let me stress that I use the adjective "mad" and the charge of insurgency advisedly. We are observing here a popular movement with an appeal to between a quarter and a third of the population - an appeal sufficient to win them the EU Parliament elections and potentially be major spoilers in next year's General Election. I do not charge the voters who have supported them with madness - but I do direct that charge at Nigel Farage and his co-conspirators.

History, particularly that of the Twentieth Century for which we have so much archive film, shows the power and the danger of the demagogue - and that is what Farage is. His oratory is effective in the same way that that of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco or even Oswald Mosley was effective. He appeals, as they did, to the basest emotions of his audience. That is the way it works with these men. Farage has no manifesto of substance and no coherent political ideology. Compared with the Social Democratic Party (SDP) - the last real challenge to the established order in British politics - he is shallow and single issue driven. That single issue is, of course, an obsessive opposition to multiculturalism and to anything that limits Britain's power (as he sees it) to govern ourselves. So the Anti EU stance (preceded of course by UKIP's anti Euro campaign) combined with an anti immigration polemic is what you get.

Farage rages and most of the time against the dying of the light. I am sure that many of the voters who support UKIP do so because they object to the way their environment has changed. I would like to quote anonymously here from a message to me from quite a well-known sportsman about his friend's mother's decision to vote UKIP in a Northern town. He also expresses his own opinions fairly emphatically: 

"My best friend from school's mother taught in local schools for 30 years and has just retired. She lived in a nice cul-de-sac in Blackburn. She is now the only person in that cul-de-sac who celebrates Christmas. She has been a Liberal Democrat voter for most of her life but has now changed completely. This is not cultural improvement. She no longer feels part of her own community. The other fact is that we are not in a a financial position as an economy to be able to allow non skilled or low skilled labour into the U K. We cannot afford the benefit system we have currently never mind letting new people in who can access NHS/Welfare etc. Maybe what is needed is a five year gap between moving here before being eligible for welfare...."

And so on ! This is essentially the sportsman feeding back to me the UKIP message. Nigel Farage told a story a short while ago about being on a train to London on which nobody was speaking English. He was mocked for making this remark but he knew exactly what he was doing ! This was a small rage against the dying of the "white". Against the change that means that whereas 50 years ago the 8:15 from Orpington was full of people just like Nigel it no longer is. The change that the quoted sportsman comments on in simple code "... the only person who celebrates Christmas" means, of course, the only white person of traditional British origins. The lady doesn't, not to put too fine a point on it, like living close to non-white British Asians with a different culture.

UKIP's voter support comes I think substantially from people like the lady in Blackburn. People of a certain age who feel uncomfortable with the changes that have happened and who seek scapegoats. But it is a rage "...against the dying of the light" in that multicultural change cannot be unwound.Nigel  Farage in power could do nothing about that cul-de-sac in Blackburn even if he wanted to - nothing, that is, unless he indulged in Nazi style ethnic cleansing ! 

Metropolitan liberals like me argue that multicultural Britain is a far better place than the mono cultural Britain we grew up in. I believe this emphatically and so, I am pleased to observe, do most young people who have never known a non-diverse Britain. But UKIP's appeal is not to me or to them. It is to those like the Blackburn schoolteacher and to a predominantly working class target group. In "Revolt on the Right" the authors show that those most likely to vote UKIP are angry old white men - older, less skilled, less educated working-class voters who have been “written out of the political debate”. This was the group, remember, who also supported Oswald Mosely and Enoch Powell whose messages were not dissimilar to that of Farage. 

In his infamous "Rivers of Blood" speech in 1968 Enoch Powell said this:

"We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre."
I suspect that the retired teacher in Blackburn and the "left behind" group identified in "Revolt on the Right" would say that Enoch was right. And I have little doubt that Nigel Farage would as well - although whether he would admit it directly is another matter! Farage rails against "immigration" because this is a coded way of railing against "multiculturalism". Immigration, in theory, is something that Britain can do something about - multiculturalism is a fait accompli. Enoch Powell predicted this:

"For reasons which they could not comprehend, and in pursuance of a decision by default, on which they were never consulted, they [the British people] found themselves made strangers in their own country. They found their wives unable to obtain hospital beds in childbirth, their children unable to obtain school places, their homes and neighbourhoods changed beyond recognition..."

Nearly fifty years on it is these fears that Farage and UKIP pander to. There is little or no difference between Powell and Farage in beliefs or rhetoric. Indeed Farage has said recently:

"I would never say that Powell was racist in any way at all. Had we listened to him, we would have much better race relations now than we have got," 

Powell was, of course, also a fervent anti-European. He said in 1971:

"The very use of the word ‘Europe’ in expressions like ‘European unity’, ‘going into Europe’, ‘Europe’s role in the world’ is a solecism which grates upon the ear..."

There is little doubt that Farage would agree with that as well! However the anti European Union message that launched UKIP  would be insufficient to sustain it without the anti-immigration message as well. Europe is low down the list of issues of concern of the population at large, but immigration is high up. So Farage finesses his opposition to the EU to opposition to immigration from EU countries - a movement of labour that membership of the Union encourages. If you oppose this immigration you have to oppose Britain's membership of the Union because the only way to stop it would be to withdraw.

If we believe that the message of UKIP is a deranged message we have to admit that there is method in Farage's madness. Nigel Farage is, give or take a detail or two, Enoch Powell's representative on Planet Earth today. He is an anachronism living in a time (or at least hankering after it) which is long gone. But as "Revolt on the Right" shows, and the UKIP electoral support proves, there is a strong minority in Britain that rejects the modern structure of our society and naively belives that Farage has a message that has practical options attached to it. But in truth the cul-de-sacs's in Blackburn are not going to change and multicultural Britain is here to stay -  much to our collective benefit many of us would say. Similarly the free movement of labour in Europe is unlikely to be significantly changed, although there may be some tinkering on the edges. It is, I suppose, possible that the political class may so mess things up that we find ourselves after a referendum withdrawing form the EU. But that is pretty unlikely as well. In the meantime Farage will carry on tilting at windmills and making us feel uncomfortable.

As with Enoch Powell Nigel Farage appeals to our basest fears and he simplifies unbelievably complex matters into banal slogans. The intellectual challenge to UKIP is robust and unchallengeable. But can those of us convinced of this translate this challenge into simple messages that combat UKIP's polemics? That's is much more difficult.




Sunday, June 01, 2014

Political leadership - you know it when you see it - but I just don't see it now.

"Leadership" is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. In my experience in the world of business it is a rare quality, and possibly getting rarer. And the great leaders are mostly born not made. I remember, in Shell, various "Leadership Development" courses were popular for a time. But I don't actually recall anyone performing better for having been on one. We all swiftly reverted to type once we came back from the Training Centre to the real world. The born leaders carried on leading, and those who found it difficult to inspire carried on not being inspirational.

Leadership is often linked to charisma to the extent that "Charismatic Leader" is seen to be tortologous. In business the examples of a Richard Branson or a John Harvey-Jones are often quoted here. Well I've known leaders who were far from "stand up and sock it to them" and I don't think that charisma is a prerequisite to for effective leadership. The question, a military metaphor, "Would you go over the top with this man?" gets nearer to the truth. Does he inspire? Does he give you confidence? Do you trust him? Does he lead from the front? And, above all, does he know what he is doing?

And so to politics. In Britain at the moment there is a scary leadership defecit. And so, in desperation, we have chosen to substitute charisma for true leadership - at least in the case of Nigel Farage. That Farage has charisma is true. He is funny, and irreverent and a bit of a card. He speaks well (he speaks nonsense, but he speaks it well). He has energy and a certain style. He passes, for some, the "over the top" test. He is a snake oil salesmen, but for many that doesn't matter. And he is fallible and at times a fool. But that doesn't matter either! 

On modern times really only Tony Blair has the same impact and not one Conservative Party leader since Margaret Thatcher. Remember, for example, Iain Duncan Smith being branded as the "Quiet Man" - code for saying "We know this bloke can't hack it as a charismatic leader but he has hidden depths". Well he didn't and the Tories jettisoned him without even allowing him to lose an election! Gordon Brown was similarly inept. You'd hide in the trench latrine to avoid going over the top with Gordon. Blair was clever and inspirational - a fine speaker in public and the right man for his time -twenty years ago. But, as it turned out, there was a lot of snake oil being sold by Blair as well. He failed the "trust" test and that was his downfall. If you no longer believe that a leader is telling the truth you'll move away.

David Cameron seems to think that leadership is about being visible and having a soundbite for everything. For a while we did actually think that Tony Blair believed in things - wrongly as it turned out. With Cameron I have no idea even what he wants us to think he believes in  - let alone what he actually does. If anything. He reminds me of the old joke about the phoney who said "I have very firm principles - here they are. And if you don't like them no problem. Try these". Ed Miliband probably does believe in things but he so lacks credible confidence that he loses it too quickly. He fails the "over the top" test not because he's mendacious or foolish but simply because he doesn't inspire confidence. An able back room boy who was accidentally propelled  into a leadership position he is demonstrably unsuited to. The "Peter Principle" in action.

The leadership defecit cannot be filled by Nigel Farage, and probably not by the similarly charismatic Boris Johnson either. Boris is no buffoon and people like him. But he doesn't quite have the gravitas along with the style that a truly respected leader needs - at least some of the time. Thatcher had it - and early Blair. Even Nick Clegg had his moment in the sun during the 2010 General Election - but the clouds soon descended never to lift. Alex Salmond has it though if he loses the Scottish referendum the game will be up. Leadership skills or not. 

In America there have been two exceptional leaders in modern times - Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. For a time Barack Obama looked to be in the same league and it is a bit of a mystery why with so much going for him he has failed - at least when judged by the highest standards. Roosevelt, Churchill, Reagan, Clinton, Thatcher, Blair (briefly)... As I say you know it when you see it. And I just don't see it now.

Friday, May 30, 2014

We owe the younger generation more than bigotry and prejudice

Roger Helmer, UKIP's candidate at Newark, is 70 which means that he is from the youth wing of the Party. True Nigel Farage is only 50 but he has attitudes broadly similiar to that of my Father who would have been 98 this year. The Kippers live in the past. We all, of a certain age, do to some extent of course and I have my moments of Old Fartdom. But when I worry occasionally whether my Baby Boomer generation has left the right legacy for our children and theirs my doubts don't last for long. We are today infinitely more tolerant, more open, more outward looking, more international than listening to the UKIP mouthpieces would ever suggest.

Some 50% of Brits in their twenties today went to a University. Far, far higher than in my day. In further education you meet people different to you. You don't debate multicultarism, you live it. You don't question tolerance it's how you live. You take people as you find them and don't buy the prejudices that others would have you adopt. The pompous bigots of UKIP and their fellow travellers on the Right of the Conservative Party throw insular xenophobic rants at you and you ignore them. It doesn't mean that you become a political activist - though you may do this. But it does mean that you associate intolerance with a generation that offers you nothing.

The future isn't ours - we of the three score years and ten generation. The future is for those forty years and more younger than we are. The UKIP mob would have us hand over a future to these people with Britain returned back to the 1950s. Isolated. Unicultural. Cut off from Europe. A State to be seen as sadly clinging on to the wreckage of the past rather than optimistically working together to embrace the future. Ask a young British person whether he or she is European and you'll get a "Silly Question" look back. You not only can be British and European - you genetically are. It's in your DNA. Ask a person who at University probably studied and lived with students of a dozen or more nationalities whether they'd mind if a Romanian family moved in next door to you and they wouldn't understand the question and might suggest therapy to you.

In the recent elections the younger and better educated voters had no truck with UKIP. The future is theirs not ours. Time we cleared the way for them. 

What now is the point of the LibDems ?

The Party is called the Liberal Democrats. The "Democrats" bit comes from the SDP and so do, or did, many of its supporters and some of its leaders like Vince Cable and Shirley Williams. The SDP was Anti Conservative and only Anti Labour in regret. SDP had only one reason to exist - to promote Social Democratic values when it saw Labour as being too hard Left. Under Kinnock and especially Blair/Brown Labour moved to the centre Left and in effect became the SDP in all but name ! It still is. "Red Ed" is a preposterous inaccuracy. The Labour Party Miliband leads is Social Democratic rather than Socialist.

The LibDems in opposition were mostly "Labour Lite" - although on some issues they were actually a bit to the Left of Labour when the latter was in Government. Their opposition to the Blair wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was principled and got them a fair bit of support. In the 2010 General Election Nick Clegg ran a good campaign positioning himself as the energetic Left of Centre alternative to the exhausted Gordon Brown. If you didn't like the Conservatives, and you'd grown tired of Labour the LibDems were a rational alternative. Or so it seemed. Young (especially), softer Left and (especially as well) people with a good education voted LibDem in large numbers. The secured 23% of the vote (although "only" 57 or 6.5% of the seats in the House of Commons).

To enter into Coalition with Cameron's Conservatives ran contrary to LibDem values and history. The political spectrum in Britain ran, in 2010, from the Far Right (BNP/UKIP) through the Right and Centre Right (Conservatives) and then crossed the Right/Left divide into LibDem, Labour and Green Party territory. There was certainly a soft centre potential policy consensus embracing mainstream Conservatives, who under Cameron ran the Party, the LibDems and much of "New" Labour. But nevertheless there was a quite strong line down the middle dividing Left and Right. If there was to be a Coalition it seemed illogical to cross that line. Which meant, effectively, that the only Coalition option was a left of centre one - one that for old SDP members like me was the highly desirable realignment of the Left we had yearned for. A LibLab pact. A Coalition between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats. It would, with only 315 seats to Cameron's 305, have probably struggled. But the ideological logic of it would have made sense and few voters from either of its constituent Parties would, I think, have objected.

The Coalition runs counter to everything the SDP stood for. The economic Liberal wing of the LibDems - Clegg, Laws, Alexander and the rest wanted it. But many of us ordinary LibDem voters, especially like me with SDP previous, did not. The compromises the LibDems made to their "values" to be able to form and then sustain the Coalition made one wonder whether those values meant anything at all. The 2010 LibDem manifesto was largely ignored by them in government. Did they put checks on the wilder Rightist policy ambitions of the Tories? I doubt it. Danny Alexander, David Laws and Nick Clegg behaved like straight down the middle economic Conservatives. Vince Cable did little or nothing to suggest that he was anything but a free market Tory at heart, despite his long history in Labour and the SDP. The Coalition ministers like Cable took to the pleasures of Power as if to the manor born - they couldn't believe their luck!

I see no need for the LibDems any more. The Cleggites can make their home in the Conservative Party and we ex SDP folk can return happily to Labour. The protest vote element of the LibDems (always important) has gone to the vile bigots of UKIP - this may be Clegg's enduring legacy. In the run up to the 2015 General Election the Tories will claim that the "successes" of the Government are Conservative successes and the failures are entirely attributable to the shackles of Coalition. And the LibDems? Well you work it out...!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

You don't beat UKIP by agreeing with them


Between them Labour, the Conservatives, the LibDems and the Greens secured 64% of the UK-wide vote in the European elections. In other words the number of voters opposed to the UKIP message of prejudice and xenophobia far exceeded the 27.5% who bought it.

That UKIP topped the poll is scandalous and a condemnation of the failure of the major or respectable parties to present a universally attractive appeal. There are bigots out there for whom Mr Farage is some sort of saviour – and there are people for whom a fact-based pitch will fail. But UKIP is wrong on everything and can be shown to be so. Britain is far better as an active member of the European Union than we would be outside it. FACT. Immigration has been good for Britain both when measured empirically and when looked at from a social perspective. FACT. The main political parties are not led by self-interested, corrupt liars but by decent people who while they of course have personal ambition are mainly driven by honourable motives. FACT.

So what should the decent men and women of politics do to combat the UKIP threat? Well most importantly they should not try and adopt any of UKIP’s positions on anything. This is for two reasons. First UKIP is wrong. Secondly for one of the established Parties to lean in the UKIP direction would be counter-productive. It wouldn't gain any support back and it would to an extent legitimise UKIP’s position. Can you imagine Farage saying “Even David Cameron is now saying UKIP was right on….” !

So the right thing to do is to refute and challenge all of UKIP’s lies relentlessly. Marshall the facts and communicate well. Don't bash UKIP voters but UKIP’s leaders. Show them for the narrow, prejudiced, ignorant bigots they are. Not by insulting them personally but by revealing the extent of their lies. But that is not enough – grass roots action is necessary as well. The main parties must in their different ways convince their natural supporters that, as Tony Blair has put it:

 Britain's future lies in being "outward looking and open-minded", not "closed-minded, anti-EU and anti-immigrant".

"Attitudes that are closed-minded, anti-immigrant, anti-EU, 'stop the world I want to get off', those attitudes don't result in economic prosperity or power and influence in the world.

"There is a perfectly good, strong argument to be made - you have to go out and make it."

But that argument has to be made not (just) in the cerebral pages of “The Guardian” or “The Times” but by engaging directly with all of the people. It is not as big a task as it might seem. Lets say that around a quarter of the electorate is attracted by UKIP. Well you only need to recover half of those to reduce UKIPs influence and marginalise them as the extremists they are. 25% is approaching mainstream – 12% or less is on the fringe. We must drive UKIP back to the fringes from which they emerged. And we will only do this if we engage, speak in language that people understand and don't imply that we think UKIP voters are fools.

Monday, May 26, 2014

UKIP – a populist appeal by bigots that strikes a chord with many who may not be.


Although I believe the leadership of UKIP to be opportunistic bigots and beyond the pale that does not mean that I tar all those who voted for them with the same brush. Some undoubtedly will be – indeed as is often the case they may have Party members who are much more extreme than the leaders are. But in the main I think that UKIP’s recent election performance has been driven by ignorance and frustration – and a wish to find scapegoats.

The key positioning of UKIP is anti Europe, Anti immigration and Anti the current established political class. Nigel Farage has utter contempt for this political class - especially David Cameron who said his party was full of “loonies, fruitcakes and closet racists” .  Cameron may regret this remark – he shouldn't, it was broadly true. But it seems that the more the establishment points out that UKIP’s leaders are pretty much precisely as Cameron described them it doesn't affect UKIP’s rise one bit! Try that for a paradox.

On Twitter I had an exchange with a someone who thought that I was calling UKIP’s supporters “Far Right”. I wasn't, I was calling the Party that – an important distinction. But look at the exchange:


Note the final tweet

“[UKIP voters] are fed up with what is going on. If you lived in some of the areas in question you may have a different perspective.”

Let’s try and decode this tweet. He may be referring to areas of high unemployment where people are frustrated by  perceived political failures. But I don't think that’s what he means. I think that he is referring to areas with a high concentration of non White Britons – British Asians for example. This is dodgy territory but remember Nigel Farage’s views on multiculturalism:

“We are rejecting the doctrine of a divided, multicultural society and telling ourselves and the world that we are really proud to be British”

he said in September 2012. Now there is a subtle but crucial difference between immigration and multiculturalism but all too often remarks like Farage’s reveal that there is deliberate confusion. So for Farage being Anti immigration, which of course he is, will be interpreted as being anti-multiculturalism, which he also is as it happens! 

Back to our UKIP voter. There may be many reasons to put your X against the UKIP candidate and obviously and especially in the EU elections being anti the UK in the EU is one of the main ones. But look at that tweet again. It probably means that he thinks if I lived in a multicultural area I may “have a different perspective”.  So Vote UKIP because their leader doesn't like multiculturalism, wants to stop immigration and perhaps can do something about that fact that I don't recognise my home town any more what with the Mosque and the Halal butcher and the… I am speculating here of course but doesn't it have the ring of truth about it?

So are the anti multicultural UKIP supporters racist  or just ignorant? As BNP support has fallen UKIP support has risen. The “closet racist” now has a respectable home to go to. Not all UKIP supporters are racist and I don't directly charge the UKIP leadership with being so. But you do wonder….

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Nick Clegg formed a coalition with the Conservatives without realising that in the UK we have no coalition tradition.

Nick Clegg is half Dutch and no doubt understands the electoral system in The Netherlands well. It is the purest form of Proportional Representation you can have. In the House of Representatives there are 150 seats and each Party gets seats directly proportional to the number of votes they receive in a General Election. The graphic above shows the current situation. A Party needs to command the support of MPs in the House - 75 seats - which means unless there is a landslide a coalition will be necessary. The present coalition is between the VVD (liberal Conservatives) and the PvdA (broadly equivalent to Britain's Labour Party) - the two largest Parties with 79 seats between them. The Dutch therefore, like the Germans, currently have a Grand Coalition. 

Where in Europe PR is used then coalition government usually follows. The point about this is that the electorate understands this when they vote. They know that every vote will count so they can follow their consciences and their beliefs. There is no need to vote tactically. The electorate also knows that after an election there will be a period of horse trading as (usually) the Party with the most seats seeks one or more Coslition partners. Compromises are necessary. In The Netherlands the VVD "won" the last election with a broadly Conservative platform just beating the Social Democrats of the PvdA into second place. Then the negotiations began during a period called the "Formatie" - the "Formation" in English. A Blue/Red coalition was the outcome. A VVD voter who doesn't like socialism, or a PvdA voter who hates Conservatives might have felt aggrieved but in the main they will have accepted the situation. The reaching of consensus across all policy issues is what the Eutch system always requires in the Formatie period.

In 2010 in Britain Nick Clegg and David Cameron had a brief period of "Formatie" on the Dutch model (sort of!) but this only lasted a few days before a Coalition agreement was reached. In The Netherlands the Formatie generally takes weeks - sometimes months! Looking back at May 2010 it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the British Coalition agreement was a rush job. This is because we have no tradition of coalition Government and no processes and procedures exist. They were making it up as they went along. Perhaps the key mistake was to declare that the Coalition would last five years - we would introduce fixed term Parliaments, of which this coalition would be the first. Of course technically the Coalition could be dissolved at any time, it was a constitutional change but not one that overrode the Head of State's right to dissolve the Government at any time and precipitate an Election. But in practice a key element of the Coalition agreement was that it would last five years.

In his speech to the Conservatiive Home conference in London on 24th May the Chancellor of the Exchequer  spoke of the Goverment's achievements (as he saw them) of the last four years. These were all, as George Osborne characterised them, Conservative achievements! Indeed the Chancellor did not once mention his Coalition partners, nor the fact that there had been and still was a coalition with the LibDems. Many of the Government's Tory ministers got a name check from Mr Osborne, but not  one of the LibDem ministers! 

Because we have, unlike the Dutch, no real tradition of peacetime coalitions in a Britain in Central government the public is unfamiliar with them. So this Government has been criticised by grass roots supporters of both partners. The Tories in the country blame the LibDems for holding the Government back - especially on European policy and on spending cuts. The LibDem activists believe that key parts of the LibDem manifesto were compromised by coalition - University tuition fees for example. It has been a difficult alliance and, as we can see from the recent local election results, both coalition parties have suffered from it electorally. Some of the more pure and Right Wing Conservative voters have decamped to UKIP. Many of the left-leaning LibDem voters have gone to Labour. And it is the LibDems who have suffered most.

To vote Liberal Democrat was for many voters a protest against the two main Parties. Some liberal Conservatives voted LibDem because they believed that the current Tory Party was too Right wing. Some social democrats voted LibDem because they thought that Labour was too Red. But after four years of a Conservative-led government the situation has dramatically changed. The only credible left of centre option is now Labour - the LibDem participation in a Centre Right government has destroyed their credibility as a serious player on the Left. At the same time the protest vote imperative has passed from the LibDems to UKIP. If "None of the above" is your choice you have now to go to UKIP because the Conervatives and the LibDems are part of the establishment in government. And no doubt some of those who though at heart were natural Conservatives and were tempted by Mr Clegg have now returned to the Tory fold. 

The LibDems are between a rock and a hard place. There is no logical reason to vote for them any more - they do not have a proposition that appeals. Liberally minded Conservatives can hardly be too unhappy with Mr Cameron. Left-leaning LibDem voters will have been turned off by the Coalition and will find in Labour a comfortable home. Meanwhile some hard line previous Conservative voters defect to UKIP - to be joined by the "Stuff the lot of you" brigade! 

Nick Clegg perhaps thought that Britain was slowly moving towards a more European coalition model - something that the adoption of the Alternative Vote (AV) voting system would have helped. But Clegg  and the other AV supporters were soundly defeated in the referendum in May 2011 and this, as it turns out, was the end, for the time being anyway, of the creation of circumstances under which a coalition Government   would be the most likely outcome of any General Election. As we saw in 2010 "First Past the Post" (FPP) can deliver a hung Parliament but it is rare and unlikely to happen again in 2015. By then the LibDems may have recovered a bit from their current low position in the polls. Or they could have disappeared as a force to be reckoned with almost entirely. When the story of the LibDems comes to be told it may well be that Nick Clegg was the leader who drove them out of existence!