Sunday, 26 June 2011

Giving everyone a share won’t make the banking system fair.

Its that man again, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg I mean, back with another ‘wheeze’ he thinks might save his party from the chop at the next election.

This time he wants to give every voter in the UK a share in the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and Lloyds, both of which were nationalised during the crash of autumn 2008 as part of his ‘People’s Bank’ plan. Mr Clegg, who was in Brazil when he announced that he had written to the Treasury suggesting the plan, said the British public needed to be given something back for bailing out the banks almost three years ago.

Speaking to Sky News he said: ‘Psychologically it is immensely important that the British people feel they have not just been overlooked and ignored.’ Obviously Nick Clegg has never had to go to a high street bank to try and get a loan to start a small business of a mortgage with which to buy his first home because that is exactly how people feel they are treated by the banks they partially own.

Under the proposed scheme 46 million voters will be given 1450 shares in RBS and 440 in Lloyds worth around £1000, these can be sold once they reach a value of 74 pence for the Lloyds shares and 51 pence for those in RBS with the owner keeping anything the shares make above that amount.

David Cameron expressed lukewarm support for the plan saying he would ‘look at all the possible ways of putting the nationalised banks back into the public sector.’ An official Downing Street spokesperson said the deputy PM’s plan is ‘one we will look at, but we will look at all the options.’ A spokesperson for the Treasury said ‘while the question hasn’t yet arisen, we have said we will look at all the options.’

This amounts to a polite way of saying; not on your nelly Nick.

Chuka Umunna, Shadow Minister for Small Businesses and a rising star in the Labour Party told Sky News that he couldn’t ‘help but think it’s a bit of a distraction’ from the ‘major issues we are suffering from as a country economically’ and that he would be ‘quite surprised in George Osborne agrees to this.’

Quite surprised? I’d be totally flabbergasted if he agreed to go along with it. When the nationalised banks are eventually sold off the Treasury will be under pressure to use the funds raised to cut the deficit not in an attempt to bribe people to vote Lib Dem at the next election.

For an expensively educated man who has spent his whole adult life in politics Nick Clegg really does come over as dangerously guileless. First he made a hash of fronting the AV campaign, refusing to share a platform with Labour leader Ed Milliband and by doing so sabotaging the idea that reforming the voting system would make our politics more mature and collaborative and less of a playground squabble; then he attached himself to plans to reform the Lords that have been designed to fail and now he has invented this farrago all by himself. The man seems to be drawn to hopeless causes in the way iron filings are drawn to a magnet.

If the plan to hand free shares in the nationalised banks over to the public were any more of a turkey it would gobble and feel nervous around Christmas time.

To begin with allocating shares to 46 million voters and setting up a mechanism that would allow them to sell them on when they reach their target value is so complex it invites disaster. There is talk of it being based on the system used to sell tickets for the 2012 Olympics, which seemed to have been set up on a hopeless underestimation of how many people would use it meaning the whole thing crashed within minutes and even now half the punters involved don’t know what events they’ve bought tickets for or where they’ll be sitting.

As for allowing the public to exert its influence over issues such as banker’s bonuses or the criteria for granting loans and mortgages diffusing share ownership so widely would make it impossible for the holders to organise collective action. Anyway the banks and their allies in the city would snap up the shares of the least financially savvy citizens at the lowest price possible meaning the returns to the tax payers would be minimal.

The inconvenient and dangerous truth is that the coalition government has been bought and paid for by shadowy people with deep pockets in the city, largely because the Conservative party which holds the whip hand in it has. However bravely David Cameron, George Osborne or anyone else on the government benches talks about reining in the worst excesses of the city and making the banks lend to small businesses and first time buyers at rates they can actually afford it is just so much hot air.

Talk is cheap and easy; regulating a financial system that has grown too big, too powerful and in many cases dangerously arrogant is hard and politically costly. If this is the best they can come up with then the government is clearly not up to the challenge.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The voice of the not so compassionate conservatives speaks out.

Trip, trap, Phillip Davies, Conservative MP for Shipley and full time Tory Troll, came out from under his bridge this week to make the claim that the minimum wage, set at a princely £5.93 per hour, is a ‘hindrance’ to some jobseekers.

The jobseekers in question belong to the ‘vulnerable’ category, as opposed I suppose those people without a source of income who feel relaxed and confident about where their life is going. This includes people with disabilities, learning difficulties and mental health problems, all of whom Mr Davies claims are being held back from finding work by the minimum wage and having to compete with able bodies candidates.

The solution, he suggests, is for these people to work for less than the minimum wage as a way of getting a foot in the door with employers; the fact that some employers might well see this as carte blanche to take advantage of people when they’re at their lowest ebb seems to have passed Mr Davies by entirely. Anyway, he has empirical evidence to prove his point, well someone at a surgery run by mental health charity MIND in his constituency who told him that they ‘accepted’ being passed over by employers who couldn’t see the person for his or her perceived ‘problem.’

This prompted Phillip Davies to say in a commons debate on the minimum wage and employment opportunities this week ‘Given that these people cannot be as productive in their work as someone who has not got a disability and given that the employer was going to have to pay them the same they would take on the person who was going to be more productive.’

Where do you start when it comes to hacking your way through such a thicket of prejudice? Would, for example Stephen Hawking have been more productive a physicist is he hadn’t been struck in that pesky wheelchair; has the requirement for employers to hire on merit and make reasonable adaptations to help workers with disabilities passed people like the honourable member for Shipley by?

Condemnation of Philip Davies remarks came swiftly with Labour’s Anne Begg calling his comments ‘outrageous and unacceptable’ and Sophie Corlett of MIND saying that it was a ‘preposterous suggestion’ that someone with a mental health problem should accept less than the minimum wage in order to ‘get their foot in the door with an employer.’

Phillip Davies also faced criticism from his own side of the house with fellow Tory Edward Leigh challenging him during the debate to ‘Forget for the moment there is a minimum wage. Why should a disabled person work for less than £5.93 an hour? It is not that much is it?’ A Conservative Party spokesperson later told the BBC that Mr Davies comments did not ‘reflect the views of the Conservative Party and do not reflect government policy.’

While it is to be welcomed that the Conservative Party has chosen to distance itself from the intemperate remarks made by one obscure backbencher I’m not at all sure that this means David Cameron has made his party any nicer; just that most people aren’t that nasty to start with whatever their political affiliations. For all the clumsiness of his expression of them Mr Davies views mark him out as a recognisable Tory type.

The sort of conservative for whom the idea of people pooling a portion of their resources to be used for the collective good through the welfare state is an assault on individual liberty. In their simplistic view of the world the poor or anyone experiencing difficulties is simply not trying hard enough; to them empathy might as well be a brand of aftershave.

Even though they are marginalised at the moment one day soon the likes of Phillip Davies might hold the future of the coalition in their hands. The Tories have never been squeamish when it comes to dumping leaders who start to stumble, one bad run and David Cameron might find himself having to play to a gallery of people who see the world as something to be hammered into the narrow template of their prejudices to survive.

There is, if they’re sharp enough to capitalise on it an advantage in this for the opposition. This week Ed Milliband announced that he was ending Labour’s tolerance for irresponsible behaviour at the top and bottom of British society; from now on Labour is going to be the party of the ‘grafters’.

How much of this was based in a genuine commitment to return Labour to its roots as a party for working people and how much was just another attempt to give his failing leadership some kind of recognisable direction is open to debate. One thing though it crystal clear, at any moment the ‘grafters’ he seeks to represent could find themselves joining the ranks of the ‘vulnerable’ through economic, social or medical circumstances beyond their control.

Contrary to popular prejudice the disabled, the mentally ill and the long term unemployed do want to work and to enjoy the independence that goes with earning your own living. The Labour Party should be in their corner, fighting to build a welfare state that helps people to help themselves and a minimum wage that gives everyone a fair day’s pay for doing a fair day’s work.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

St Vince finally loses his halo.

Since the advent of the coalition a little over a year ago anyone with a passing interest in British politics will have been fascinated by the remarkable transformation of Vince Cable from one of the few politicians the public trust into the government’s patsy of choice.

He flicked off the last few scraps of his chrysalis this week with a speech given in his role as Business Secretary to the annual conference of the GMB trades union in Brighton that resulted in at least one delegate walking out and another holding up a banner reading ‘Vince Cable is not welcome here.’

He started well enough praising the unions for showing moderation at what are difficult times for their members and saying that ‘the right to strike is a fundamental right’, before suggesting that this might change if in response to the savage cuts to public spending coming down the line the ‘usual suspects call for general strikes and widespread disruption’ and in doing so ‘impose serious damage to our economic and social fabric.’ Were that to happen then, Mr Cable implies, the pressure on the government to further curb the powers of the unions that were dramatically curtailed in the eighties and never restored by a New Labour government keen to curry favour with big business would ‘ratchet up’.

Cue much deserved booing, heckling and stamping of feet, within the resulting din it was just possible if you listened closely enough to hear the small but heavy clink made by a halo slipping to the floor. Meanwhile in the Tory backwoods there was much rejoicing over another former liberal being converted to the cause of demolishing workers rights.

Back when the coalition was new and the world was innocent the presence of Vince Cable and other Liberal Democrats at the heart of government was thought of as being enough to rein in the worst excesses of the Conservatives; that didn’t go to plan now did it? What happened was that they allowed themselves to be implicated in a frenzy of slashing and burning aimed at dismantling many of our public services that has more to do with ideology than deficit management.

Nick Clegg may think he has won a victory for his beleaguered party by getting Andrew Lansley’s plans to reform the NHS put on the back boiler, in fact all that has happened is that the damaging upheavals he proposed have been delayed until the Conservatives win a second term; something they look dangerously like doing as the Labour Party continues to fight amongst itself.

Opposition to the spending cuts and the withdrawal of the state has been left to the likes of Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, I don’t normally favour giving faith leaders a free pass into the political arena, but when they, as he has with his article for the New Statesman this week, use it to ask awkward questions I can accept that it is an idea that is not without its virtues.

The unions too, if the language of Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka and other union leaders is less polite than that of Dr Williams, are asking searching questions about the direction in which the government is leading our society. It may surprise the Tory backwoodsmen but the unions have always favoured jaw, jaw to war, war; but they are increasingly being forced into a corner by a government that is being egged on to a fight by the sillier sections of the right wing media.

As a liberal Vince Cable should as a first response attempt to see a situation from a perspective other than that of those who hold power. The people for whom de-industrialisation and the withdrawal of the state aren’t abstract concepts to be discussed around the cabinet table or in a seminar room; they are disasters with the potential to wreck whole communities.

The excesses of the 1980’s showed that allowing the gap between the rich and the poor to widen unacceptably doesn’t create prosperity and opportunity; it creates resentment and disorder, now it looks like every mistake made then is going to be repeated once again.

It doesn’t have to be that way, which is something the British public recognised way ahead of their political representatives and demonstrated at the ballot box in May 2010. We don’t want the old way of doing political business where everything comes down to an unending wrangle over power, we want a mature and progressive consensus where parties work together for the best interests of the people they represent.

There was once a, naive as it now seems, hope that Vince Cable amongst others understood this and with the formation of the first coalition government since the war would take such an understanding into the corridors of power. How wrong we were.

I used to wonder why David Cameron didn’t dispense with his services after he was caught on tape making idiotic remarks about ‘declaring war’ on Rupert Murdoch by undercover journalists from the Daily Telegraph; I don’t any more. A government going in the wrong direction in a hurry will always have a use for someone like Vince.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Electing Tony not Ed as leader was the real ‘disaster’ for Labour

Its all gone pear shaped for troubled Labour leader Ed Milliband; again. The party has dropped two percentage points to lie neck and neck with the Tories at 37% according to a ComRes poll published this week.

By contrast the Liberal Democrat dead cat has bounced up to 12% thanks to a minor boost provided by leader Nick Clegg’s timid objections over NHS reforms. Smaller parties including the Greens, UKIP and the SNP have also seen their approval ratings rise recently.

This should be a time when Labour is making hay whilst the political sun shines, leading economists are queuing up to criticise the coalition for cutting the deficit too quickly, savage spending cuts are about to hit the Tories core vote in middle England and David Cameron’s plans for a ‘big society’ are still utterly incomprehensible; yet the official opposition has missed a string of open goals. As a result Ed Milliband is under fire for failing to convince party activists he has the ability to win a general election; worse still he sent them out on the campaign trail for the recent local elections without a slate of coherent alternative policies to sell to the voting public.

What he has done though is saddle the party with twenty five different policy reviews with titles ranging from ‘Family life. What helps?’ to the utterly baffling ‘X Factor for the many, not the few.’ What does Red Ed want, free entry for all to television talent contests? Your guess is as good as mine mate.

What is crystal clear though is that however many policy reviews he has launched Ed Milliband is still no clearer to defining what Labour stands for than he was when he stood on the platform at last year’s party conference prattling brightly about a ‘new generation’ taking the reins. People were inclined to cut him a little slack then because he was new to the job, they won’t do so now.

This week the Daily Mail reported with barely restrained glee the opinion of an, unnamed, member of the shadow cabinet that by launching endless policy reviews Ed Milliband had ‘created a monster’ and proved himself to be a ‘disaster’ as party leader. To be fair the Mail, like much of the media and what passes for ‘informed opinion’ has had it in for Red Ed from day one and not without good reason.

He has proved himself to be an intelligent, if a little too earnest policy wonk promoted beyond his abilities with no ability to connect with the grassroots membership. Worse yet his atrocious performances at Prime Minister’s Questions have too often given a boost to the government by letting David Cameron appear to be cleverer and wittier than he really is by bashing him out of the park every Wednesday afternoon.

The truth though is that in the disaster movie into which the end of the New Labour project is rapidly turning Ed Milliband isn’t so much the iceberg as the poor sap who has been made captain just in time to go down with the ship. The real ‘disaster’ for the Labour Party happened when Tony Blair became party leader and got worse when Gordon Brown took over in 2007.

Between then those two men destroyed the Labour Party as a distinctive voice in British politics. One did it by turning the party into a tool of his vaunting ambition; the other by using it to act out his ever multiplying neuroses; both Blair and Brown colluded in the creation of a party structure that removed policy making from the membership and put it in the hands of a cosy cabal. For all his talk about making the party more open to new ideas Ed Milliband has done nothing to change that.

The received wisdom is that all Labour has to do is move back onto the centre ground, appoint a suitably slick son or daughter of Blair as leader and all will be well again; it won’t be. Back in 1997 people wanted to vote for a party that had a conservative approach to economics but phrased it in a ‘nicer’ way, hence the success to New Labour, times have changed though, Citizen Dave has detoxified the Tory brand whilst George Osborne has smuggled all the things even Margaret Thatcher recoiled from doing into his budget under the guise off cutting the deficit. Why then would anyone who wanted a Tory government not vote Tory then?

What Labour needs to do to survive, never mind about winning elections for the moment, is to go back to being a real Labour Party again. Back to speaking up for the poor and the many people who fear they soon will be poor if our country continues to be at the mercy of the markets and the sort of people who when shown a rainbow can’t help thinking how it would be so much more cost effective if it used fewer colours.

They need to talk in simple, but never simplistic or patronising, language about the possibility of creating a different sort of society. One that may be a little harsher for the very rich; but that will be so much fairer for everyone else.

Ed Milliband has proved that he isn’t the man for that job, if it can’t find a man or woman who is than a financially and ideologically bankrupt Labour Party will have come to the end of its natural life. It will be time for those people, and I count myself amongst their number, who think there is still a role for the sort of party Labour used to be before the advent of Tony Blair will have to set about building a new one from the wreckage of the old.