Saturday, February 28, 2015

Energy suppliers and the price comparison websites take us for fools.

There are two frauds going with Energy supply. The first is the basic premise that one supplier over time will be cheaper than another. There is no reason why this should be true, and it isn't. The fundamentals of Gas and Electricity supply are the same for all the suppliers. The raw materials cost of gas/electricity, the cost of distributing it  to the home and the costs of marketing do not vary much between suppliers. The need to invest and to pay shareholders dividends are much the same as well. No one supplier has a cost advantage that they can convert to a permanent price advantage. What they do is continuously run tactical price-led campaigns to try and encourage switching. In the very short term a consumer can save, but over time swings and roundabouts cut in and there is little point.

The second fraud is the price comparison websites. They serve the needs of the suppliers to induce switching and are rewarded with commission payments when they succeed. The implication that you can save (say) £210 a year by switching from one supplier to another is highly specious (read the small print if you doubt it!). What they do is gross up the tactical offer from Supplier A and compare it with your current price from supplier B. But in a few weeks time Supplier B could have a similar tactical offer...or Supplier C or Supplier D for that matter. 

So what should the consumer do, stick with one supplier and engage with them. Make sure that you let them know you are monitoring prices and that you expect them to be competing over time. And that you expect the best tariffs. There is little point in continually switching supplier. You only feather the nest of the price comparison websites as well as spending time "researching" when you've got better things to do ! 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

No ifs and buts - to be elected to Parliament gives you a full time and well paid job!

The idea that you would have a job in public service for which you are paid a salary higher than the earnings of all but 3% of the population and not regard it as "full time" is offensive. And yet that is what the disgraced Tory grandee Sir Malcolm Rifkind is saying and so is his erstwhile colleague Lord Heseltine, among others. 

The competition to be selected to contest a Parliamentary seat is intense in all the major parties. For anyone interested in politics, ambitious and with a bias for service to be a Member of Parliament must be the dream job. And it is a big job as well. You serve the interests of an electorate of, on average, 70,000 people and their families. They come first because they have a right to demand your attention and your help. 

Constituency work is the core of an MPs job. In addition the MP has a duty to his electorate to represent their interests in Parliament. He or she is not a delegate and is expected to use their own judgment on issues, and it is accepted that they will be loyal to his Party. That is the next layer up in the job – in part the rather demeaning “lobby fodder” role but that aside the duty to be an active member of the legislature.

The hard graft work of Parliament is in the many Committees. Here the “humble” MP can come into his or her own. Studying and revising legislation, challenging witnesses and ministers and so on. 

Finally an MP may become a Minister or Shadow Minister. There are 120 of the former each of which brings with it a fully accountable portfolio of responsibilities. Not all MPs want to be a minister (and not all ministers are MPs of course, some sit in the House of Lord’s) but most do. Not, I suspect, because of the additional salary that being a minister brings with it but because to do a ministerial job is the pinnacle of a political career, especially if it is in Cabinet.

So what is an MPs job? It is, from the moment he or she is elected, to be part of the active fabric of our national politics – of our governance as a nation. How an MP’s time is spent depends on the nature of their parliamentary and, for some, ministerial work. I have been told in the last few days (not least by Sir Malcolm Rifkind) that to be an ordinary MP is not a full time job and further that there is a comparison between the case of the MP who has “another job” as a minister or shadow minister and the Rifkind example. That is that an MP’s active pursuit of income outside of Parliament and Party and Politics is analogous to the fact that another MP may have “another job” as a minister. This is bunkum. To be a minister is part of the public service role for which you were elected – as is, for example, to be a member of a Parliamentary committee. 

Malcolm Rifkind has made no friends with his claim that he had the right to supplement his MP’s salary of £67,060 because he wanted to “have the standard of living that my professional background would normally entitle me to have”. Aside from the fact that with his MP’s salary alone  Rifkind is close to the top of the earners league in Britain there is the implication that to feather his own nest during the working week on non public service work is acceptable. It may be common, and MPs may always have done it but is it acceptable? I would suggest not. 

Can you imagine a High School teacher, average salary £30,000, saying that he or she would work the hours they choose for this salary turning up at their school when they feel like it because  they need to pursue  additional earnings outside to which their “professional background” entitles them?  Oh and they would use the insider knowledge accruing to them from their teaching job and experience to help them get this lucrative outside work!

Monday, February 23, 2015

Send in the Clowns time in South Thanet

"Meet the Ukippers"

The BBC was allowed what seems to have been total access to the UKIP Party workers on the ground in South Thanet – the Constituency for which Party leader Nigel Farage hopes to be elected as Member of Parliament in the upcoming General Election. The programme has become famous because of the views of Councillor  Roxanne Duncan, a dim-witted and openly racist woman in her mid sixties who is one of two UKIP members of the local Council. She revealed deep-seatedly prejudiced views directed at “negroes” or “people with negroid features”. Among other things she said:

 “A friend of mine said “what would you do if I invited you to dinner and put you next to one?” I said I wouldn’t be there. Simple as that.”

Ms Duncan’s honesty was curiously refreshing - repellent though her views are. Her fellow activists, a bit more media savvy, were much more circumspect. The Branch Chairman Martyn Heale, had a rather large skeleton in his cupboard – he was once a member of the neo-Nazi “National Front” and seemed irritated that people keep mentioning this. He was the sort of person familiar to grass roots activists – an energetic enthusiast and the type of person you might expect to see running a local bird-watching group. As was Liz Langton (pictured above with her husband) Ukip’s then press officer for South Thanet, who might be the lady Captain at a run of the mill small town  Golf Club. Sincere people with not much hinterland except dogs and, in Mrs Langton’s case, a passion for collecting clowns. Heale and Langton didn't really express strong views but it was clear that they fully bought into Ukip’s anti-establishment, anti-EU and anti immigration meme.

The party activists and local members were seen at various meetings one of which Nigel Farage spoke to. They were almost without exception in  late middle-age ( or older) and (it seemed) of modest education. None of them was articulate in a broader sense and one suspects that they know what they are against but not what they are for. Curiously the programme revealed little in the way of a coherent Right Wing ideology and few of the South Thanet UKIP team or its supporters could present a coherent and detailed case for any political position. The strongest moment was when a couple of building workers were interviewed about their complaint that they had lost casual work because Bulgarians were prepared to work longer hours for the same money. Langton was excited by the this and tried to get the local media interested in the story - but they weren't. 

It is important to remind ourselves that South Thanet is Nigel Farage’s chosen constituency and its demographics certainly suggest it has plenty of the archetypical Ukip supporters around. An ageing population. A deprived area. A long way from London emotionally if not actually (75 miles) and contemptuous of the Metropolitan elite. But if their local Ukip membership and activists are typical of other Constituencies then Ukip has a problem. These were political  rookies with no practical experience at all and few of the talents you expect of local party workers in the traditional parties. This naivety Ukip tries to present as a virtue but frankly on the evidence of this documentary you wouldn't expect them to have the nous to run any sort of decent election campaign. Too old. Too ignorant. Too narrow. Too biased. And, in the case of Councillor  Roxanne Duncan so gruesomely prejudiced that she should not be allowed any forum to present her staggeringly offensive views. 

Nigel Farage is no fool and surely he will realise that it will be a struggle to win in South Thanet with this lack of organisational talent on the ground. Will he ship in people of real competence to run his campaign? I wouldn't bet against it. In the meantime Duncan and the rest have had their brief moment in the spotlight – and a right pig’s ear they made of it. The metaphor of Liz Langton’s collection of clowns was apposite.  

Saturday, February 21, 2015

It's a very bad idea indeed Mr Balls - think again

One should be wary of believing everything one reads in the newspapers - especially in the Murdoch press in the run up to a General Election! But if there is a scintilla of truth in today's report in "The Times" that Labour is considering reducing some of the tax benefits attached to pensions in order to pay for reducing University tuition fees then one can only conclude that the Party has taken leave of its senses.

The idea that you can fund one specific expenditure from one specific tax is rarely credible. Labour is already taking us for fools with its policy of introducing a "Mansion Tax" to pay for increased NHS spending. That's not how the public accounts work! Tax receipts go into one large pot. Government expenditure comes out of it. You cannot create some sort of bloated piggy bank where you isolate a specific tax revenue and from which you pay a specific set of bills. So the underlying logic of using savings on tax relief to pay for student costs is deeply flawed.

But aside from the flawed housekeeping logic the idea of penalising pension savers at this time is not just wrong but immoral. The changes in recent in recent times to pensions - especially in the private sector - have dramatically reduced the financial prospects for future retirees. Where final salary based pensions from Defined Benefit schemes were once very common these have now all but vanished for new employees. Schemes have closed and their replacements - so-called "Defined Contribution" schemes - offer much less by comparison, and especially much less certainty. Workplace savings, which is what these "DC" schemes really are, are important but for average earners they offer very modest post retirement income prospects. Better than nothing, but far from generous or enough. 

In ths changed world Government in its own interest should be reducing the tax liability on specific pension schemes not thinking about increasing it! In its own interest because if you take away pension income by (effectively) increasing tax then you are likely to find that you have to give it back again in welfare benefits. People have to live and the Pensioner community is already struggling with inflation which is way above the averages of the Consumer Price Index.

It's a bad idea Mr Balls. Think again. 


Friday, February 20, 2015

We cannot retreat behind walls in the modern world

In my lifetime (Post War era in its entirety) the most significant phenomenum by far has been the overt cooperation of nations. By "nations" I do not just mean inter-Government (though it includes that). I mean, especially, the business world. As a child I can't recall my family consuming any global brands. TV was 95% locally made (the odd Hollywood movie aside). Holidays were on Cornish not Costa beaches. And our society was mono-cultural. Over the years all of that has changed. My parents visited perhaps ten countries. I've been to nearly 100. They had three radio stations to choose from. I can listen to any station anywhere in the world on my iPad. They had to get visas to travel and wait in long queues at borders. My borders, once I've got to Calais (!) are open and crossed at 120 kms per hour. My Father only ever worked in London. I've lived and worked in seven countries.  

Whether we like words like "Globalisation" or not it is a fact and it's here to stay. The Multinational Corporation, the Global brand, the international media, the ubiquitousness of travel, the openness of modern societies to migrants, the economic cooperation, the bias for "Jaw Jaw" to resolve differences not "War War" ( in Europe at least). All of this, and much more, driven by technology. We can be anywhere in the world (almost) within 24 hours. We can tune in to any medium from almost anywhere. I can read The Times without even having to get out of bed. And the Washington Post for that matter. On Facebook I have friends in thirty countries and converse with them in real time. There are no food seasons any more. I can buy strawberries and raspberries all the year round at my supermarket. Containerisation has meant that my bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand costs no more to transport to me than a bottle of Sancerre.  

In this international world we cannot retreat to behind our borders. We cannot take unitary decisions over things in isolation. It's about much more than cooperation with other nations in fact. We are, like it or not, in partnership in everything we do with people, institutions, businesses and centres of power external to us. That is why to continue to play an active part in international bodies, to continue to build political and economic alliances, to continue to be an open, liberal pluralist society and to reach out and not retreat inwards is the only way forward.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Our politicians as Brands --- there's no "Apple" there !

Back in 1960 JFK was seen as the first to market himself as a "Brand". Not sure he was really, but he was certainly "made" by some slick brand marketing. Here in the UK we don't have a President (boo, we should !) but we have had some powerful personal brands (Wilson, Thatcher, Blair in modern times). So what about now? Here's a personal list of some of the best, and worst of today's lot.

1. Boris Johnson. Easily our strongest personal political brand. Wide appeal. Meets the criterion of the "Love Brand" - you forgive him his mistakes. "Boris" is "Coke" - instantly recognisable. Not the "Real Thing" - but then nor is Coca Cola. 

2. Nigel Farage. Brands need strong visual symbols. Farage has that. The pint and the fag. The grin. He is the quintessential "Marmite" brand and like that product if you like him, you like him and if not you hate him. His appeal is strong, but limited. Like "Boris" he is forgiven his mistakes. But once you've made up your mind one way or another you are unlikely to change. 

3. Ken Clarke. A bete noir of the Tory Right but Ken has the ability to appeal across the political spectrum which is unusual today (Thatcher and Blair had it). Ken is 74 and has missed any chance of Number 10 and knows it. But he keeps on trucking. He has a hinterland (Jazz, beer, cricket...) which makes him interesting where others are not. Fading a bit but still admired. Marks and Spencer.

4. Gordon Brown. Strong identity, Scottish, proud, achiever but deeply flawed. Gordon is the "Royal Bank of Scotland". Still around, but you wonder why. Once very powerful but now at best tolerated - at worst a symbol of failure. Unfair, of course. But that's it with brands. Once they're shot they're shot.

5. Tony Blair. Someone who once was. A brand once the runaway leader that has now fallen spectacularly from grace and is struggling to re-establish itself. Hubris led to pride before the fall and it won't be easy to recover, indeed it may be impossible. Blair is Tesco. The shelves are still stocked, but nobody wants to go there. 

6. Theresa May. May has a strong visual identity and is underpinned by self-confidence but is rather gaffe prone. Unlike Boris (some see him as a rival) she is not forgiven her mistakes, rare though they may be. Most of the time she delivers but when she has a bumpy landing or cancels a flight she is not forgiven. Theresa May is British Airways. 

7. David Cameron. "Call me Dave" has what all brands need - a solid technical product. The bits and pieces of politics, like public speaking, he does well. But it is hard to like him because beneath the solid surface you have no idea what he really stands for. Not because he doesn't tell you, but because you don't believe him. He is superficially the archetypical political professional but it's a veneer. Underneath that veneer you don't trust him. Cameron is BP - and riding for a fall like they did. 

8. Ed Milliband. Ed is nice, capable but hugely maligned. His most commonly used descriptor "Red Ed" is a negative jibe and his most familiar visual symbol, Wallace of "Wallace and Gromitt", was also given to him by his enemies. His own brand identity is taking a long time to emerge and his sponsors are struggling to do it. He is the opposite of Cameron - you do mostly know what he stands for (decent performance and a lack of Flashiness) - for but there is no overwhelmingly strong brand identity to sustain him. He is worthy, and decent but finds it hard to defend himself when under attack. Ed is a Skoda on "Top Gear".  

More to come ? Let me know...! Do we have an "Apple" manqué ? 

Sunday, February 08, 2015

A Referendum on Britain's membership of the EU in 2016 is a farcical idea. But pragmatically it might be a good one!

I am not the most pragmatic of people. During my Shell career I once did a management course which included psychological profiling and I scored what was the lowest score ever on "Pragmatism".(I scored quite well on other things so the P45 was withheld!). I'm not sure that pragmatism is necessarily a virtue anyway. You see what I mean. This by way of an introduction to the thought that as a strong pro-European I should probably, and pragmatically, welcome the idea of an early EU Referendum.

I think the whole idea of a Referendum is bunkum. Other than a misguided attempt to unite the Conservative Party it has no logic to it. The reason for my view that there IS no reason to hold one. There is no new Treaty on the table. No changes to the EU, or Britain's relationship within it, are being proposed that require specific public endorsement. The EU is an organism within which change is a constant, but organic change. Of course it's different from the EC that Britons vote overwhelmingly to stay part of back in 1975. But every change that has taken place since then has happened democratically and Britain has been involved. Notably in the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher successfully negotiated a lower contribution for Britain.

Back to pragmatism. Let's assume that a new Cameron Government of whatever construct wants finally to kill off the Eurosceptics. (It won't, of course, like death and taxes they'll always be with us). He knows that if it is in Britain's interests to stay in the EU and that one way to do this is to launch into apparently substantive discussions with our 27 fellow EU members and come out with a "deal". Our partners will probably and pragmatically agree to this. They want the whole nonsense out of the way as much as we do. This "deal" will have some "hot button" element in it that Cameron can hail and present as a "result". Perhaps over migration (two birds with one stone time). It won't mean a can of beans, but it can be presented as a "Good deal for Britain". You can hear the rhetoric now.

Parliament will endorse the "new deal" comfortably. The payroll vote + Labour + LIbDems+SNP... A comfortable majority defeating the Eurosceptics and the awkward squad. Farage, if he's there, will throw a fit. Carswell will burst his spleen. And a few Tory Right Wing grandees now out of office personally will cry betrayal. But Dave will win. Then the Referendum campaign will have the political Establishment solidly "For". Yes the antis will argue against and they will have plenty of support in the Media. But remember all this will be only a year or so into the new Parliament. Cameron will still be in the afterglow of having upset the odds and stayed in office. This should give him the confidence to marginalise the antis. And the payroll vote will be secure along with ambitious Tory MPs who won't want to damage their prospects of a job by joining the awkward squad.

Pragmatists always justify the means, however uncomfortable, if the ends are better achieved by doing so. If the ends of settling that the UK will stay in the EU for good can best be achieved by the farce of an EU Referendum in 2016, then perhaps I should also conclude its a good idea...

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Owen Jones, living in the distant past, has a startling resemblance to Nigel Farage

Twitter activists know that there is a tendency, forced on us by the 140 character limit, to to indulge in Reductio ad absurdum. Owen Johes has given us a classic of the type. He has managed to be contentious at least three times in the cramped space of one tweet.

Is Labour facing "wipeout" at the lands of the SNP? Well Lord Ashcroft's poll of 15 Scottish seats would certainly suggest so. But other polls and thoughtful analyses by Iain Dale and others point to Labour holding on to more seats than it loses. The anti-establishment movement seen elsewhere in the UK with the rise of UKIP and the Greens manifests itself in Scotland in the SNP. This was seen in the Independence referendum and the country is still in the afterglow of that near earthquake. Labour, honourably in the view of many, campaigned for a "No" vote and this has cost them dearly. There was certainly a strong Socialist element in the SNP's IndyRef campaign but the "Yes" vote comprised a broader coalition than that. Including, no doubt, a few "Tartan Tories" and others from the Right. The SNP's #GE2015 campaign may be overtly Socialist in character, but I doubt that it will be. The question the voters will address is not the binary Yes/No choice of the referendum but a much more complex one with issues spanning Trident to the economy to the role of MPs at Westminster. Yes there will be a fierce SNP/Labour fight. But to characterise it as a fight between the new standard-beamers of Socialsm (the SNP) and traitors of the Left ("Rightwing" Labour) is simplistic nonsense.

Jones, if he supports Labour (questionable), should surely be encouraging them in Scotland. They have three months under a new leader there to claw back ground lost to the SNP. It is far from the lost cause he suggests it is. The same applies more generally to Labour across Britain. Here Jones is suggesting that there are "political cranks" trying to make the Party more Rightwing. He wants Labour to be more overtly Socialist and eschew the centre ground. The problem with this is, of course, that were it to happen Labour could kiss goodbye to any chance of power. Perhaps Jones would prefer a party waving the Red Flag and returning to the days when they promoted "...the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange" - that's a perfectly respectable and intellectually sustainable message. If you want Labour to be a fringe party without a chance of winning an election.

The "political cranks" are, by the way, the Blairites and especially Alan Milburn and Lord Hutton. The former recently said "You [must] appeal to a broader constituency, other than your core vote. It’s very easy in politics, comfort blankets work in politics, because – guess what? It does what it says on the tin! – it’s dead comfortable. But it doesn't give you victory." The "comfort blanket" he is referring to is the old fashioned socialism that would, in theory anyway, shore up hard core support. It would also prevent anyone else voting for you. Milburn again: "How did Margaret Thatcher construct enormous majorities? By making a deep incursion into Labour territory. How did Blair construct enormous majorities? By making deep incursions into Tory territory."

The Tories would love it if Ed really was "Red". They could guarantee themselves another five years in power if he was. He isn't, and for two reasons. First conviction. Milliband was a supporter of and an effective Minister in the  "New Labour" government of Blair/Brown. Second pragmatism. He knows that  victory is only possible from the Centre/Left not from peddling old-fashioned Socialism. It is absolutely NOT "Rightwing" to be a supporter of a mixed economy and to acknowledge that successful modern States are public/private partnerships. And to argue that national economies should not run long-standing public deficits. Jones revealed his colours on this when he said that "Angela Merkel is the most monstrous western European leader of this generation". This was because she is the most powerful European politican and because she favours more balanced national economies - notably in Greece. To call her "monstrous" for this is as wrong as it is offensive.
There have always been Owen Jones's around across politics. Nigel Farage is another one. They resemble one another in their extremism, their convictions and their populist appeal - though Farage is well ahead of Jones in the latter. They are also alike because both want to return to the past - in Jones's case to 1945 and in Farage's 1955. Not many people make Farage look modern by comparison ! And they are alike in that there is not a cat in hell's chance that they will gain power or see their preferred policies implemented. I hope. 

Sunday, February 01, 2015

Alan Turing was judged and convicted by the laws of his time. We can apologise, but not overturn his conviction.

In my lifetime, rather more so than in the earlier decades of the twentieth century before I was born, we have as a nation become more tolerant and more socially liberal. At the same time there has been an increase in regulations and prohibitions. There is a paradox here and there will not be absolute consensus about what has been unbanned nor about what has been banned! But personally I think we've got it about right. Decriminalising homosexuality I support, as I do the prohibition of smoking in public places. Tightening up on drink driving seems to have been right to me, but I also support the reform of the licensing hours for pubs. There's not much, if anything, I'd like to be able to do that is now banned. There's not much I'd like tighter controls over.

So the laws change over time. But at any one time we have to obey those laws - even if we believe they are iniquitous. You can't smoke in a pub, so don't be a dick and try and do so! That's not how it works in a civilised society.

Which brings me to Alan Turing. What he did broke the law and he was convicted and punished. From today's perspective what happened to Turing is shocking - as was the persecution of other homosexuals at that time. But wrong though we now say (rightly in my view) that law was it was then the law and Turing and all the others broke it. If you try and find a way to pardon Turing you have to pardon others as well (Peter Tatchell is currently arguing in favour of this). You cannot discriminate in Turing's favour because he is now famous. Justice is blindly impartial, or should be.

We cannot as a nation get into some huge exercise of retrospectively looking at criminal cases and deciding whether we should overturn convictions. (This is not saying we shouldn't review unsafe convictions - those where it was not the law that was wrong but the conviction against that law). We cannot say that a law that applied in, say, 1950 shouldn't have applied because the law was subsequently repealed. Sadly we can't unhang a murderer who was executed because capital punishment was later abolished. 

I see no problem, in principle, in our generation apologising for the "sins" (as we now see it) of an earlier generation. But we cannot retrospectively change the law and decide that someone duly convicted by due process of law should now be unconvicted.