Friday, June 28, 2013

Lord Ashcroft's research puts the Boris "appeal" in it's true light.

The research into the appeal of Boris Johnson by Lord Ashcroft is characteristically thorough. It says to me that the old adage that you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but not all of the people all of the time seems to apply. Boris has his loyal supporters who think he is the answer to the question - the question being "Who can get the Conservative Party power". He has his detractors, me included, who would not vote for him even if he was standing to be leader of a Parish Council. But most voters surely see Boris as likeable but not credible as a figure standing on the same stage as Merkel or Obama. The research confirms this.

Lord Ashcroft seems genuinely to think that Mayor of London is a proper job and that Boris has been good in it. In fact he has been good at what he's good at - he was the ideal Mayor for the razzmatazz of  London 2012 and he did well. But the Olympics aside the truth is that the Mayoralty isn't much of a job at all - and Boris seems pretty bored by it. The hands of the Mayor are tied by the very narrow remit the job has. So Boris uses it as a personal platform and most of his speeches and pretty much all of his writing in his Telegraph column and elsewhere are not about London at all.

Boris's enthusiasms are the ones that grab the headlines. The Airport in the Thames Estuary idea is much more "in your face" than the far more logical, but boring, expansion of Stansted/Gatwick/Heathrow . The latter doesn't grab headlines, the former does. That's why Boris is for it. He is a skilled self-publicist and a bit of a card. That is why people aren't over-bothered, at the moment, by his adultery and his lax morality. But if he was the Conservative leader they would be. It would be unprecedented in modern times to have a philanderer as Prime Minister - we might regret this and argue that the public and the private lives of our leaders are separate things. But that is not how it is. Lloyd George ( and others) got away with being a goat because the then media was not really into tittle-tattle. Times have changed.

The concept of Boris as vote-winner is unproven. True he has twice been elected Mayor in Left-leaning London. But you must look at these wins by looking at his opponent's controversial appeal. Like Boris Ken had his loyal supporters but the number of people who said "Anyone but Ken" far outnumbered those who said "Anyone but Boris". A good Labour candidate (Alan Johnson for example) would have beaten his namesake last time round.

"The idea of Prime Minister Boris appeals most to those who have the most jaded view of what politics can achieve for the country and themselves" in Ashcroft's report is brilliantly put and a bit depressing - though true. The "appeal" is identical to that of UKIP. And George Galloway. It's a "stuff you" reaction in difficult times - rather like the search for scapegoats for our troubles. "I Blame the EU and immigrants" say these voters - mostly without having a clue about the real causes of Britain's malaise. But when push comes to shove in the run up to a General Election most of these voters will return to the more conventional fold of the three main parties - they always do. And at that time they will see David Cameron - warts and all - as a far more credible Prime Minister than Boris Johnson. Because he is. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The harsh economic truths that no politicians can ignore

Borrowing is cheap with interest rates continuing at a historic low level. But when they increase ( as they will) the cost of Government debt will increase – potentially to levels that will make repayment not expensive but impossible. It is irresponsible to propose significant increases in public expenditure at this time unless they can be offset by reductions elsewhere – even then it’s highly problematic.
Whilst current borrowing is at fixed and very low interest rates (Bonds and Gilts) there will be a substantial need for new borrowing at gradually rising interest rates. The combination of servicing the existing debt and servicing the new higher cost debt will be potentially crippling. As "The Spectator recently put it even at the current low interet rates the cost of "Servicing debt will soon be more than the [budgets for] education, policing or defence". 

There is no real alternative to a major restructuring of the British economy and society to bring government revenues in line with expenditure – and this means a comprehensive redefinition of the welfare State. I say this as a Fabian and (broadly) a Labour Party supporter.

We cannot spend our way out of trouble when every pound we spend is likely to cost us more. As a Nation we are not technically bankrupt at the moment but rising interest rates will push us in that direction. And as we do move that way the ghastly ratings agencies will write our rating down and our borrowing costs will rise even more!

The solution has to be a proper look at the National Balance Sheet and the National P&L. Stop spending on vanity projects like Trident. Reconsider the shibboleth that the standard rate of Income Tax must not rise. Introduce a financial transactions tax. Freeze all universal benefits and Public Sector pay. Look again at Public Sector pensions – even post Hutton they will be increasingly unaffordable. Introduce a Super Tax on earnings above £1m per annum. Realise that big as a Nation as we are we cannot go it alone and discard the idea of an EU Referendum – work closely with our EU partners most of whom share our problems. And so on.

This is not a Keynes v Hayek/Friedman type problem. There is a new paradigm in our economy and we need a new solution and that will require us completely to redesign what we do as a Nation and how we do it.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Tax is a cost. Corporations are right to seek to minimise its payment within the law

I really do wonder is any of the strident critics of transnational corporations tax avoidance have any idea what it is like to work in one of them? In modern times one of the driving imperatives in all major companies has been cost reduction. In the latter part of my long (37 years) career in Shell I was fairly often exposed to this – not least because I worked in an area that was particularly vulnerable – Brand and Communications. For many of the Engineers, Geologists and Accountants at the top of the business my area of specialism was “Discretionary expenditure” – if you cut it hard there would be no immediate effect on the bottom line – except, of course, for the cost reduction. That over time if you didn't invest in your brand your business would suffer was true – but to those with ever shorter performance timeframes (often linked to their bonuses) it was the short term that mattered. I fought my corner on this one and sometimes succeeded. But the vulnerability of my budget was obvious and sometimes I and others like me failed.

The same story applied to maintenance and safety. Preventative maintenance of physical assets helps preserve them and contributes to their safe operation. But it is a judgment call as to what level of maintenance justifies the expenditure. BP, of course, found to their cost that inadequate attention to safety was a recipe for disaster (in the Deepwater Horizon case) and there are still question marks over what they do. As there are for Shell.

The Revenue budgets of the multinationals are always in sharp focus and if a cost cannot be clearly justified then cuts will occur. As I say above in my career I noticed that this became all the more  the case as the bonus culture intensified. If one of the “Key Performance Indicators” (against which bonuses are calculated) is cost management (it always is) then the temptation to cut and trim will be enormous. Which brings me to tax!

Tax liability is unquestionably seen in the area of “bad costs”. Whereas I could try and make a case not to cut my Advertising budget (and sometimes succeeded) I never heard of anyone trying to make a case to pay more tax! Every potential tax dollar avoided adds to the bottom line. So companies like Shell employ dozens of tax lawyers and tax specialists whose sole task is to minimise tax liability. The lawyers are there because all of this must be done within the Law – otherwise we are talking “Tax evasion” which is obviously always wrong. And the clever tax accountants are there to find the ways of doing this. Let’s take one simple example. Let's say Company “A” sells raw materials to Company “B” – with both companies being part of the “Mogul” Oil Company. Let’s also say that Company “A” operates in a low tax environment but Company “B” operates in a country where taxes are much higher. Doesn't it make sense to arrange the “transfer price” for the raw materials in such a way that you minimise your tax liability where Company “B” operates?  For “A” to make profits is beneficial to the Corporation as a whole rather than for “B” to do so. The lawyers will tell you if this is legal and if it is the accountants will tell you how to do it. Common-sense is it not?

So what would I say to the Government of the Country “B” who feels that Mogul should be paying more tax in their country? Change the law is what I would say – and conclude a bilateral agreement with the Government of the country where Company “A” operates if necessary. But don't slag off Mogul because they are doing what any sensible businessman always seeks to do – avoiding incurring unnecessary costs. And at the Mogul AGM the shareholders might not be very responsive to a statement along the lines of “We didn't need to pay this tax but because we are good corporate citizens we chose to do so. Unfortunately we had to restrict your dividends as a consequence.” I’d try and vote out of office any executive who made such a dim-witted remark. Wouldn't you?

Monday, June 17, 2013

It's the Conservatives' internal divisions which will scupper them in 2015

Elections are adversarial - they are a clash between alternative ideologies and, above all, personalities. There was not much wrong with the Labour manifesto in 1992 but there was no way that the country was prepared to have Kinnock as Prime Minister. Five years later John Major, a decent if uninspiring leader, was swept away by the youth, intelligence and carefully stage-managed appeal of Tony Blair. In 2010 the Kinnock effect returned to oust Gordon Brown who many felt had no right to be Prime Minister anyway. But the Tory Manifesto wasn't the winner. Those who were suspicious of it, but had had enough of Gordon, leaned in the "I agree with Nick" direction and gave us a hung Parliament and that led to the shambles of Coalition. 

Analysis of the failure of the Coalition has again to be seen in an adversarial context as well. Labour, as a Party, is comfortably leading in the Opinion Polls, but there is a sense of "by default" about this. Can you name ONE policy that Labour has that has strong popular appeal? Their broad proposition is that they are nicer than the Tories (which they probably are), more caring (likewise) and potentially more competent (much more questionable). Seeing this many Conservatives look to play the "personality" card to save them. Hence the renewed affection for Boris who is the stand out politician of the times not because of his policies (fluffy and confused) his record (patchy at best in a job that is pretty lightweight anyway) his character (he's a bit of a shit) - but because despite all this people like him. In an "X Factor" society he's the one that has it.

If David Cameron had a united Party behind him he could be a formidable electoral asset for the Conservative Party. If most Tories were promoting the Cameron brand rather than undermining it and seeking alternatives then the Party would be far more appealing. Most people aren't too bothered by the minutiae of policy proposals. UKIP, a shallow and prejudiced bunch of Golf Club bores, has short-term appeal because it has two policies (on Immigration and Europe) which have resonance with a significant minority of the electorate. Ed Milliband seems to believe that a carefully worked out Manifesto which shows Labour to be trustworthy and potentially competent on managing public finances will secure victory. I rather doubt this.

Divided parties don't win elections. The more the Conservatives tear themselves apart the less likely they are to win anything in 2015. My guess is that Labour, despite having a leader who lags behind his Party in appeal and despite the likelihood of that leader being beaten on the hustings by the Prime Minister, will win a working overall majority in the General Election. Echoes of 1979 when Thatcher was less popular than Callaghan personally but could present the "Labour has failed" message to good effect. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

A response to Rabbi Sacks

Chief Rabbi: atheism has failed. Only religion can repel the new barbarians

A response to Rabbi Sacks

You just don't get it do you? You can call me an atheist if you wish but that is not how I refer to myself. "Atheism" (like other isms) suggests a belief system. In fact it is the absence of one. I don't "Believe" in atheism. I disbelieve in religion. 

I find the bias here and elsewhere in favour of "Faith" absurd, offensive and just plain wrong. Over the centuries, and still today, Religion has been responsible for more evil than any other phenomenon. The idea, propagated so often, that to believe in religion - any religion - is more meretricious than not to believe is preposterous. Mr Sacks says "Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral". I would put it otherwise. It is possible, maybe, for a devout believer in a Religion to be moral - but the chances are that such a believer will not be. Because it is Amoral as well as intellectually unsupportable to believe in dogma. A dogma that disallows for no logical modern reason the consumption of certain foods. A dogma that forbids the consumption of Alcohol. A dogma that removes the foreskin of newly born male children or the clitoris of young girls. A dogma that pretends that a wafer and a glass of wine turn into tissue and blood. A dogma that forbids the cutting of your hair. A dogma that declares that those who lose their faith should be hunted down and punished. A dogma that turns stories for which their is no scientific evidence into fictitious real events that are supposed to guide or instruct us. A dogma that denies the scientific evidence of evolution. Or prohibits abortion. Or allows (or disallows) polygamy. Above all a dogma that holds out that in the afterlife you will go to Heaven, if you are good, and Hell if you are bad. And that in that heaven virgins await you or in that hell flames.

Man does not need mumbo-jumbo to know how to behave. The secular ethic requires us to think freely about what is right. Not to turn to some ancient tome for guidance. Man has it within him to live a good life of his own volition. And, as Christopher Hitchens Put it:

“We are not immune to the lure of wonder and mystery and awe: we have music and art and literature, and find that serious ethical dilemmas are better handled by Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Schiller and Dostoyevsky and George Eliot than in the mythical morality tale of the holy books.”

Amen to that.