Friday, January 29, 2016

My name is Michael Foot...

When the Labour splits of the 80s get the full Hollywood treatment, it's clear that there's only one possible choice to play the lead.

"Socialism without public ownership is nothing but a fantastic apology"

"You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off"

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Precious antique heirlooms

La Toynbee is off one on again in today's Guardian, angrily decrying the arrogant ideological vandalism that has caused the Government to sell off accoutrements of the state for no reason other than the purblind pursuit of hard right-wing small state barbarism. And what are these priceless heirlooms, the disposal of which causes such wailing and gnashing of teeth?
The Press Association lists this fire sale: Royal Mail, Eurostar, Northern Rock and shares in RBS and Lloyds were just the ones that made headlines.
If you're looking for a clear proof of a Government red in tooth and claw, this isn't a great place to start. The Royal Mail was privatised in line with the recommendations of a bi-partisan report commissioned under the last Labour Government. The clearly expressed intention at the time that the Government took stakes in Northern Rock, Lloyds Banking Group and RBS was that this was a temporary measure and that there was no intention for the Government to become permanent shareholders.

Ultimately, there is one test for Government assets, and it's the one expressed by Danny Alexander at the time the Eurostar sell off was announced:
“It’s the government’s job to create the right economic conditions to allow businesses to flourish and create the wealth we all need to support our standard of living and the public services we all depend on. But there’s no virtue in the government owning assets it doesn’t need to," 
Why should the Government own shares in Lloyds Bank? Why should it retain ownership of a land development site in Kings Cross? Polly has an answer to this:
And London land is exceptionally precious – land the state will need but can never regain.
Obviously Polly has misunderstood the details (it's Polly after all). This isn't land owned by the Government that's being sold. It's an investment in a land development company. Which means that the land will be developed with or without the Government being an investor. But more generally, isn't Polly forever decrying holding land in case you might need it later? She is for housebuilders:
They sat on land banks watching values rise. Sitting on prime land with planning for 300,000 homes, they build in neither boom nor in slump, when borrowing is cheap. 
What's happening in Kings Cross?
The 67-acre King’s Cross estate is being developed into 8 million square feet of mixed use space, consisting of offices, apartments, retail space, educational establishments and leisure areas across 50 new and refurbished buildings, and with 26 acres of public realm, including 10 new parks and squares, 20 new streets and 3 new bridges across the Regent’s Canal. Its occupiers include Google, the Aga Khan Development Network, and University of the Arts London.
Is this a bad thing, that the Government should stop in case it "needs" the land later? Or is it just that the Government should have a stake because.... because why? There's no answer to this in the article - the benefits of retaining Government ownership of everything from catastrophically mismanaged banks to property developers is just assumed. In decrying the wanton ideology of a Government that is weighing up the need for Government to own each individual asset, Polly fails to realise that her own unspoken prejudices are more ideological by far.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The problem with Corbynism

There is actually a bit of what looks like good news for the Labour Party at the moment. Membership figures are through the roof, and that new membership is engaged, enthusiastic and almost messianic in its support of Jeremy Corbyn. In the Westminster Hour programme on Sunday night, there was a feature from the West Dorset Labour Party, which has added hundreds of members since the election, some of whom were retreads from the 1970s and 1980s (who left because New Labour was just Tory-lite) and some of whom are new joiners, having previously been unengaged by politics.

It was clear that this new membership were there because they believed in Jeremy Corbyn, and were excited by the return of true socialism to British politics. The story of Corbynism so far, on one level at least, is the story of enthusiasm.

And that's the problem. They're just completing the review into why the opinion polls called the 2015 election so badly wrong, and the conclusion is that they were polling the wrong people. The people they polled were engaged in politics, keen to vote and disproportionately Labour. The people that voted? Not so much. Not only are the British unenthusastic, they are positively anti-enthusiastic. Janan Ganesh has another very good article in the FT on this very point:
Apathetic Britons are not waiting to be redeemed. They just have lives to get on with. Not only are they apolitical; they rouse themselves to vote every five years precisely to stop hot heads and crusaders from running their country. They like Mr Cameron because he governs well enough to save them having to think about politics. 
The British generally don't like grand projects. They don't like visions. They don't particularly like politics or politicians. The wife of Spencer Percival discovered that she was a widow by the cheering in Parliament Square that greeted the news of her husband's assassination.

Corbynism (insofar as that's actually a thing) relies on uncovering a great army of the formerly unengaged; inspiring non-voters by the clear radicalism of Labour's new politics. But, as noted by more or less everyone else, the thing that non-voters have in common is that they don't vote. Their apathy is not caused by a longing for true socialism.

The dullness of British politics is a great British achievement, as Ganesh notes:
There are nations with much hotter politics, and they tend to send refugees to tedious old Britain.
The firing of blazing enthusiasm in the hearts of a couple of hundred thousand new members is not just not evidence of a Labour electoral revival, it might even be another symptom of their steps towards electoral disaster.

Half a thought...

Inspired by this piece in the economist. It's talking about America's relative lack of an Islamist problem.
Three things account for America’s relative security... By far the most important reason, however, is that American Muslims are less interested in being radicalised than their European counterparts. They are richer, better educated and altogether better integrated into the mainstream. Though less than 1% of America’s population, they account for 10% of its doctors; in 2011, less than half said that most of their closest friends were Muslims.
Often, immigration is defended as necessary because immigrants will do the dirty jobs we coddled Westerners won't touch. Or because immigrant labour provides a cheap, semi-skilled force that can keep otherwise unproductive industries going for another generation. But there must be an argument that by sourcing immigration from low-income, low-education areas (even comparatively within the countries of origin), host countries make it much harder for assimilation to take place.

I'm not quite a Marxist on this, but I do believe that class (as expressed in economic and educational attainment) is at least as big a factor as race in assimilation and development. Unless we're honestly suggesting that we as a society were more racist to Indians from India than we were to Indians from East Africa (or, now, are much more racist to Muslims from Pakistan and Bangladesh than we are to Muslims from India) it must be to class that we should look, rather than race or religion.

Monday, January 11, 2016

How to Win Friends and Influence People

There's a hilarious article in the Guardian making the case that the EU has indulged Britain enough over this silly renegotiation lark, and what's needed now is some bloodcurdling threats about the terrible things the EU will do to us if we have the temerity to leave. Obviously, it being the Guardian, the first thing to do is to define your enemy - more Scots currently want to remain in the EU than do the rest of the UK, so we can take the Scots out, while the Welsh and Northern Irish despite polling showing they want to leave can be ignored because they "have far less influence". So the enemy is "the English".
Step one is to ask if this referendum is actually a once in a lifetime opportunity to cut the English loose. Why not let them simmer in their splendid irrelevance for a decade or more, and then allow them back in – provided they ask really, really nicely.
The basis behind this, behind the article as a whole, is that the UK's status is a function solely of its membership of the EU. Without that, it is splendidly irrelevant. Which must come as a surprise to the UN Security Council and NATO, not to mention the G7.
The United States values Britain as its proxy seat at the European table. With that seat empty, why would Washington keep its poodle?
The US are obviously opposed to the UK leaving the EU. But what concrete policy changes would happen as regards bi-lateral relations if it did? Most examples of US-UK co-operation are bi-lateral anyway (Trident for one, and most foreign policy initiatives for another).
Meanwhile half of British trade is with the EU, but only 11% of EU trade is with Britain. 
Worth identifying what that trade is though. The UK runs a thumping trade deficit with the EU - we buy stuff from them, and sell much less stuff back to them, The area in which the UK is most strong -services - is not part of the Free Market (which kinda shows how much influence we have in setting economic policy).
Yes, we would strangle or crush the English in the post-Brexit negotiations, the way any group of nations comprising 450 million people would to an opponent eight times smaller who has just tried to blackmail them.
Hmm. He comes back to this later, in more detail . As a starting point, however, it's worth pointing out that we're all members of the WTO, and the scope for punitive tariffs (for example) is limited. Even if it weren't however, the threat of levying tariffs (like Russia has done) is the threat to make your own citizens poorer - it's imports that make people richer, and they can't force the UK to enforce import tariffs.
This is why the best way forward for Europe is to threaten to hit the English as hard as we can. We must stop treating membership of the EU as a favour granted by England, and instead make the English feel their vulnerability and dependence...In other words, the English attitude towards the EU is transactional rather than transformational – therefore appealing to the European ideal or England’s better self is pointless. Instead we need to spell out all the ways in which we will make the English suffer if they leave.
Historically, threatening to crush or destroy the English has been sub-optimal in terms of outcomes.
So let us start talking now, out loud in Brussels as well as in Europe’s opinion pages and in national parliaments, about the offer we are going to make to the Scots, should they prefer Brussels to London in the event of Brexit.
Probably better square that with Spain and Belgium first, unless you want that offer to be "you can't join the EU".
Let’s also discuss in which ways we are going to repatriate financial powers from London to the European mainland. It is strange enough that Europe’s financial centre lies outside the eurozone, but to have it outside the EU? That would be like placing Wall Street in Cuba.
I don't know what financial powers he thinks the EU has ceded to the UK that could be "repatriated", or what effect he thinks that would have on the City. Much (most?) of the City's work is with non-EU members - the US, the Far East, the Middle East and everywhere else. If it were possible to create a European financial centre by fiat, I think Frankfurt might have done it by now. Also, if he thinks it's weird that a financial centre should be located offshore of a large economic entity, he needs to travel a bit.
Clearly multinational corporations from China, Brazil or the US cannot have their European HQs outside the EU. So let’s have an EU summit about which European capitals these headquarters should ideally move to.
Because that's how multi-nationals make their location decisions - on the basis of EU summits telling them where they should go to.
Or consider the UK-based Japanese car industry – would Greece, with its excellent port and shipping facilities, not be its ideal new home?
Oh yes. I'm sure Nissan would be itching to move the most productive car plant in Europe to the country with the lowest productivity in the EU. Oh, what's that?
If Britons voted to leave the EU, "life would carry on," he said. "We would continue to find ways to invest."
This is the chief problem for those in England trying to make the EU case: they must acknowledge first how irrelevant and powerless their country has become. Except that is still a huge taboo.
Funnily enough, this is untrue in two different directions. First, the UK is a long, long way from being irrelevant and powerless. Fifth largest economy in the world. Member of the UN Security Council. Member of NATO. And that's before we look at the more intangible side of things at which, it turns out, the UK is supremely good:
Britain scored highly in its “engagement” with the world, its citizens enjoying visa-free travel to 174 countries—the joint-highest of any nation—and its diplomats staffing the largest number of permanent missions to multilateral organisations, tied with France. Britain’s cultural power was also highly rated: though its tally of 29 UNESCO World Heritage sites is fairly ordinary, Britain produces more internationally chart-topping music albums than any other country, and the foreign following of its football is in a league of its own (even if its national teams are not). It did well in education, too—not because of its schools, which are fairly mediocre, but because its universities are second only to America’s, attracting vast numbers of foreign students.
Secondly, wittering on about how irrelevant and powerless the UK has become has been a national obsession for well over a century. We love talking about how weak and feeble we are, regardless of whether it's objectively true or not.

Brilliantly, the author concludes by saying what a waste the renegotiation is anyway, as the UK ought to have focused on CAP reform (as if the UK hasn't been banging on about this fruitlessly ever since the 1970s) and the pointless parallel Brussels/Strasbourg situation. In other words, if only Britain had contented itself by harmlessly asking France to cancel things that it will never cancel, everything would be fine.
Instead he has set his sights on largely symbolic measures aimed at humiliating and excluding European migrants, safeguarding domestic interests versus those of the eurozone and, no surprises here, guarantees for London’s financial sector.
Imagine that, a national leader asking for reforms and safeguards in the national interest! Scandalous.

I'm sure there's an intelligent and reasoned article to write about how the EU can collectively put pressure on the UK to vote to remain in the EU (although I'm equally sure that an external Project Fear would be massively counter-productive). I'm absolutely sure that this wasn't it.

Thursday, December 03, 2015

Terrorist sympathisers

As far as David Cameron telling his MPs not to go through the voting lobbies alongside Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers goes, I prety much agree with Twll Dun here. It was unnecessary and counter-productive to the debate, because it gave everyone on the other side a semi-legitimate reason to feel aggrieved. On the other hand, my advice to Labour would be that if you don't want to be called terrorist sympathisers, you might want not to elect people to your leadership that quite clearly sympathise with terrorists.

How dare you call me a terrorist sympathiser?!

Equally, most of the frothing indignation has been bullshit. Cameron quite clearly did not say that all opponents to airstrikes on ISIS were terrorist sympathisers. Pretending that he did is just dishonest. Just as is the other meme that's starting to go around - that Cameron is himself a terrorist sympathiser because he hasn't declared war on Saudi Arabia. And just as is this cartoon in today's Times.

One of the entire points of the debate over Syria is that Assad has refused to take on ISIS - preferring to focus his energies on wiping out more secular internal opposition. The entry of Putin into the war, breathlessly celebrated by such "anti-war" voices as Patrick Cockburn in the Independent and gorgeous George Galloway, has unsurprisingly seen them line up behind their ally Assad, their actions again focused on non-ISIS opposition. Why else would Russia have been bombing along the Turkish border? The suggestion that bombing ISIS is somehow to act in Assad's and Russian interests is beyond fatuous - it is dishonest. 

There are quite a few entirely legitimate arguments to be made against extending the RAF's mission in Iraq across the border to Syria. It's a shame that all the arguments people are actually making are such bullshit.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Bombing Syria

It's quite a long time since I last had no idea what to do about Syria. But I have finally come to a view on whether the UK should join the coalition that is currently carrying out air strikes against ISIL in Syria. I'm cautiously in favour, for the following reasons:

  1. We're already bombing ISIL in Iraq;
  2. That seems to be going pretty well, all things considered;*
  3. The border between Iraq and Syria is effectively imaginary;
  4. Our allies are already bombing ISIL in Syria.
It may very well be true that adding British drone missile capabilities to the coalition in Syria is unlikely to win the war, in and of itself. It may also be true that a final resolution of the Syrian war is beyond Western capabilities anyway. But ISIL is both a regional menace and a global nuisance. Its impact as a Caliphate stretches from Bangladesh to Nigeria, by way of bedrooms in Brussels and Bradford. To the extent that the UK is able to take action to degrade it, it should do so.

I'm reasonably settled in my view on this now, after a lot of indecision. Part of the reason for this is that the counter-arguments are so bad. I had the misfortune to catch Diane Abbott on the Today Programme this morning. It is, incidentally, a sign of the depths to which Labour has plunged that Diane Abbott is now such a consistent defender of its positions. It's almost impossible to set myself up on the side of an argument advocated by Diane Abbott, Jeremy Corbyn, Peter Hitchens and Giles Fraser.

Time will tell on this, and I very much doubt that we will see much of an impact, but in the last resort, it's a bit craven to agree that action should be taken, and then demand that it's taken by anyone but us.

*On 17 September 2015, it was reported that around 330 ISIL fighters had been killed by British airstrikes, with zero civilian casualties. By 26 September 2015, ISIL had lost a quarter of its territory.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


George Osborne was definitely tending to the self-satisfied for most of the Autumn Statement yesterday - no mean feat, given the back-pedalling at its heart. But he was rarely smugger than when he announced what he thought was a really clever wheeze.

The VAT rate charged on sanitary products is 5% - the lowest permitted under European law. The UK Government is currently lobbying the EU to allow them to exempt sanitary products altogether (and apparently with some chance of success). At the moment, however, this is a tax that the Government wants to get rid of, but can't.

One of the key points of 'unfairness' that is raised against the tax as it stands is that it applies uniquely to women. When the Treasury dropped the rate from standard to reduced back in 2000, one of the questions asked was whether there were any products that only men would ever buy. Inventive mandarins eventually came up with beard trimmers and circumcision knives - neither of which really amount to the same thing. So, you have a tax raised (effectively uniquely) entirely from women,

Wouldn't it be a nice gesture, thought Osborne, if this money, which is there in the general funds, could be spent specifically on women, just as it is raised specifically by women? An additional £15m for women's charities, so that at least this unwelcome tax is going to a good cause. It seems rather a neat solution.

No. Of course not. Everyone went nuts instead.
Not for the first time, I am baffled by this argument. There's a perfectly good argument that it would be better if no tax was levied on tampons - it's just that it's not something the Government can legally do. But the argument that, given that tax is levied on tampons, it is insulting for the proceeds to be given to women's charities is just really odd.

I think there are three different assumptions going on, and all of them are wrong. The first is the one you see about 'luxuries' and razors and so on.
I recognise that razors are zero-rated, and judging by many Conservative Members the opportunity to shave every day is a human right. They are cleanly shaven, and I am sure they would be concerned to be charged a higher rate of VAT.
 Stella Creasy, Hansard, 26 October 2015
The idea being that idiot know-nothing men apply VAT to essentials like tampons that don't affect them, while ensuring that more male products, like razors, are exempt. Which is fine, except that razors are VAT-able at 20%.

The second argument is that funding for charities should come from general taxation - typified by the two tweets above. And the obvious answer to this is that it does. Obviously there could always be more money spent on things, and obviously there are more good causes that would benefit from funding than there are funds. But the argument that no public money goes to women's charities apart from this latest initiative is just wrong.

The third, and most emotive argument is that this is just making "Bleeding women pay for other bleeding women". But this argument is arse-about-face. The Government isn't levying a special tax on women in order to pay for women's charities. The tax on women is there already, and unremovable. The Government is just making sure that the money raised is spent on women, and not on ministerial cars, or Type 26 frigates, or any other of the myriad recipients of public funding.

That this initiative has created so much hostility is proof either of the proposition that no good deed goes unpunished, or that there really is just no pleasing some people.