Sunday, 30 October 2011

Far from being ‘all in it together’ pay for Britain’s top directors shows they aren’t even on the same planet.

Pay for directors of the UK’s top companies has risen by 49% according to a report complied by Incomes Data Services (IDS). The average pay package for a director of a FTSE 100 company now stands at £2.7 million, this takes into account salary, benefits and bonuses and the rise is higher than that given to the chief executives of the same companies. They, the poor dears, have had to struggle along on just 43% more pay than they received last year; how have they coped eh?

Pay for most employees has risen by 2.6% over the same period and many workers have seen their pay cut or remain static. Consumer price inflation is currently running at 5.2%; for most families balancing their budget has become a circus act performed on a high wire without a safety net.

David Cameron, who has been in Australia all week attending the Commonwealth heads of government jolly in Perth, said the findings of the report were ‘concerning’ and called for greater transparency when it comes to setting pay levels for senior managers. Labour leader Ed Milliband said the levels of pay awarded to directors were evidence of the ‘something for nothing culture’ that had infected business.

Trades union leaders took a more robust line, Len McCluskey of UNITE said the government should ‘consider strongly giving shareholders greater powers to question and curb these excessive packages.’ TUC leader Brendan Barber accused directors of using ‘tough business conditions to impose real wage cuts, which have hit people’s living standards and the wider economy, but have shown no such restraint with their own pay.’

If you were in need of evidence that we have passed through the looking glass into Wonderland the IDS report provides chapter and verse. On a weekly basis we are lectured by ‘business leaders’ of one stripe or another about the need for pay restraint and the importance of imposing brutal austerity measures on public spending as they vote themselves massive pay rises and cry for huge bonuses on top.

The reason for this, we are told with finger wagging imperiousness is that they are ‘wealth creators’, sorry; run that one by me again. The economy has stalled, unemployment is soaring and productivity figures are at an all time low; just what are this shower doing to create wealth? At best they seem to be shifting what little wealth there is into their own pockets.

About all of this the best David Cameron can find to say is that he is ‘concerned’, granted I don’t expect our PM and his Downton cabinet to string a ‘Capitalism is Crisis’ banner on the gates of Downing Street before leading a march on the stock exchange; but a somewhat more robust response does seem in order. Out in the real world people have moved beyond being ‘concerned’ to being alternately terrified and furious.

When Ed Milliband spoke about ‘predator’ and ‘producer’ forms of capitalism in his party conference speech he was accused, shamefully by some members of his own shadow cabinet, of not fully understanding economic realities. Now it looks like he might just have had a point, if not quite enough in the way of nerve when it comes to matching words to policies.

Even the union leaders, although they have proved the continued relevance of their movement, haven’t quite got the message yet. It isn’t enough just to point out that the casino capitalism of the past thirty years has failed, doing little to create wealth and even less to distribute it fairly, we need to have a genuine and for all parties often troubling debate about the sort of country we want the UK to be.

Do we want growth at all costs? Are we happy to see social mobility continue to decline for the sake of paying a little less tax? In short do we really want to all be in it together or just out for ourselves?

I don’t pretend to know the answers to any of the questions listed above or the dozens of others that could take their place; but, like most people outside the charmed world of the Westminster bubble I can’t see how we can deal effectively with the problems Britain faces if we don’t start asking them soon.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

It is time for the 99% to occupy the political mainstream.

The protestors from the Occupy London movement who set up camp outside St Paul’s this week have done something truly historic, and I don’t mean forcing the cathedral to close its doors to the public for the first time since the war. They have given our complacent political elite a much needed shock.

The closure of the cathedral, which initially welcomed the protestors, rightly asserting their right to protest peacefully over the possible loss of tourist income, was instituted on, it is claimed due to health and safety concerns. The Right Reverend Graham Knowles, the Dean of St Paul’s, said the potential dangers arising from cooking stoves and small fires lit by the protestors were a hazard to cathedral staff, visitors and the protestors themselves.

The protestors, who are part of a worldwide movement calling for a ‘structural change towards authentic global equality’ and for the world’s resources to ‘go towards caring for caring for people and the planet, not the military, corporate profits or the rich’ claim to speak for the 99% of people for whom globalisation has brought only debt and despair over the past quarter century. They have promised to ‘accommodate the cathedral’s concerns in any way we can’; even so an organisation founded by a man who threw the money changers out of the temple has still got cold feet about supporting their cause, I’m not a believer but I still think that is rather sad.

The real impact of the protest lies not in what is participants have said and done, but in what they haven’t done. Unlike the protests over tuition fees late last year there has been no public disorder, no windows have been smashed at Tory Party HQ and no national monuments have been defiled by the offspring of rock royalty. To a man and a woman the protestors have been, for all their eccentricity, impeccably well behaved.

As one protestor calling herself ‘Lucy’ told the BBC yesterday the protest is ‘not just about a few people who have got tents in St Paul’s, it’s not a stunt, it’s not a spectacle.’ That would explain why it has given the media and the political establishment such an almighty shock.

The media had settled within twenty four hours of the first tent going up outside St Paul’s on the line that this was another outing for the ‘rent-a-mob’ protest movement, several commentators even raised the ghost of Swampy the poster boy of the Newbury by-pass protests of the nineties, even though he hung up his dreadlocks years ago. Yet is wasn’t the protestors or the public who were out of touch at all, it was the press with its default setting of moral panic who failed to grasp what was going on.

As for the politicians, all three parties have spent the week in a panic about Europe and whether or not Britain should stay in the European Union, a significant number of people would like to see a referendum held on the subject but the politicians don’t and so all three party leaders are trying to strong arm their MPs into voting against one. Not everyone who wants to see a referendum is an angry little Englander, some of us would like to see the UK leading a drive to modernise the EU so that it is strong enough to meet the challenges of a world where the US could be out of the economic game for a decade or so, but we’re being denied the chance to have a reasoned debate because a remote political class is treating the issue like something that mustn’t be spoken of in front of the children.

The presence of that sort of attitude at the heart of Westminster is why the Occupy London protests have so wrong footed the political establishment. They can cope with protests that provide a couple of hours of chaos on the streets and then melt away, not least because it allows them to adopt absurd moral postures of the sort struck by David Cameron following the riots in August.

What they can’t cope with is the existence of an ordered and articulate protest movement that refuses to conform to their favoured stereotypes. Occupy London is just such a movement and at a time when inflation is soaring, unemployment is going up and more and more people are feeling left behind in the rush for growth it resonates strongly with the public mood too.

It isn’t a panacea for all our political ills, sooner or later the tents will have to be packed away and the protest movement will have to adopt more conventional tactics, like building a strong grassroots membership, organising community activism and maybe even making an impact at the ballot box. That is has, so far, maintained its integrity and good humour whilst avoiding a damaging confrontation with the police suggests that this earnest band of eccentrics could be the start of a movement to bring politics back home to the people.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Austerity isn’t working.

The party conference season is over and the political circus has packed up the bunting along with its hangovers and trooped back to Westminster as the leaves begin to turn. If there is a nip in the air this year it has as much to do with the state of the economy as the arrival of autumn.

Unemployment figures released on Wednesday show that the number of people out of work has risen by 114,000 to 2.57 million, reaching its highest level since the mid nineties. Part time workers have been hit hard as have the young with youth unemployment rising to 991,000, meaning that 21.3% of 16 to 24 year olds are without a job.

Alan Clarke, an economist for Scotia Capital, told the spike in unemployment ‘shouldn’t come as a surprise because the economy is growing at half the pace it needs to unemployment stable.’ Things are likely to only get worse with huge cuts in the public sector workforce and a failure on the part of the private sector to make up the jobs lost with fresh recruitment.

Labour leader Ed Milliband has called for an emergency budget to deal with the effects of the looming economic crisis saying the government needed to show a ‘greater sense of urgency’ and that its deficit reduction plans risk sending ‘our economy into a tailspin.’

In a speech made at a college in Southend this week he called for a plan for jobs to be implemented that would feature, amongst other elements, a one off tax on banker’s bonuses the proceeds from which would be used to create 100,000 jobs for young people; investment in large infrastructure projects that would create jobs and demand for services and tax breaks for small firms that take on extra staff.

The was, Mr Milliband said, ‘an economic emergency’ and that through its economic policies the government had shown itself to be out of touch ‘with what is happening in Britain’s factories, its high streets and its homes.’

The response from Tory MP Matthew Hancock, a former advisor to Chancellor George Osborne, was both predictable and cynical. He told the BBC that Labour had ‘abandoned the Darling plan and now freely admit they would just keep spending on the taxpayers credit card’, he added to this a jibe that just as ‘you wouldn’t bring Fred Goodwin back to run the banks, so why would you bring Ed Balls back to sort out the economy.’

I am, it is fair to say, not the most enthusiastic of cheerleaders for Red Ed, not least because most of the time he is barely pink at best; but his assessment of the damage being done to the economy and society by an arrogant and out of touch government is spot on. Quite how wide the gulf between the antics of our leaders and the experience of most Britons has become is amply demonstrated by the behaviour of Liam Fox and Oliver Letwin.

I don’t much want to join in the schoolyard game of nudging and winking that has been played by the press all week over the relationship between erstwhile Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Adam Weritty, a close friend who pretended to be one of his ministerial advisors in a political equivalent of saying ‘I’m with the band’ as a way of blagging stuff for free. What angers me and I suspect most people is the though of the not so fantastic Mr Fox and his VBF trotting the globe at the public expense while at the same time service people returning from Afghanistan were being handed redundancy notices along with their campaign medals.

As for the antics of ‘Posh Ollie’ Letwin, who it was revealed this week likes to read his ministerial correspondence in the park and then drop it in the bin because carrying all those confidential papers back to the office is the most awful fag, it is all too clear what has been going on. This is the latest incident in the gaffe prone career of a man who thinks his, alleged, intellect frees him from having to apply common sense to what he says or does. There are occasions when eccentricity can be a sign of brilliance; here though it is just a symptom of pathological self indulgence.

Far worse that this is the divorce from reality that has been occasioned by the vanity of the Prime Minister and the cynical ambition on his Chancellor, which could, in time, prove to be every bit as damaging as the decade long feud between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

David Cameron spends his time strutting the world stage pretending to be a world statesman whilst ignoring the growing problems in the UK, apart that is, from when he feels the urge to do his patronising ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ routine in the name of the ‘big society.’ George Osborne is sticking to his damaging deficit reduction plans not out of an intellectual commitment to their economic accuracy, which by the way seems to be disproved at least twice every week, as a cynical belief that if rather than when the coalition collapses and the Tory grassroots decide it is time for Citizen Dave to spend more time with his ego he will be ideally placed to sweep to power as the heir to the Iron Lady.

This is a government charged with leading our country through the worst economic crisis the world has faced since the thirties and at its heart is a toxic mix of arrogance, entitlement and jockeying for position. Across Europe young people are rioting in the streets because they have had their future stolen, but the political elite are carrying on as if nothing has changed. An austerity package implemented by these people is a recipe for disaster.

Years ago I used to drink in a bar that had by its exit a sign reminding leaving customers ‘You are now entering grim reality’; maybe it is time someone put a similar sign up in David Cameron’s office. He could get his new friend Tracy Emin to make one out of her old knickers if he likes anything so long as the message gets through that life for most people is getting harder by the day. Time to face the facts Dave, austerity isn’t working and you are leading a complacent government into an dangerous era.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

All hail Churchillian Dave

Over the years David Cameron has had more personal than Barbie and Action Man put together. In short order we have met ‘Compassionate Dave’ the man who wanted to detoxify the Tory brand by hugging huskies; ‘Concerned Dave’ the man who was going to nurse the economy back to health like a vet tending to a much loved family pet; and, since the riots we’ve had ‘Self Righteous Dave’ thundering like an old testament patriarch about the behaviour of the feral underclass.

This week in his address the to Conservative Party conference in Manchester he unveiled his latest incarnation, ‘Churchillian Dave’ (policies not included), the man who will lift the country out of the doldrums with the sheer force of his personality. Along the way he will stiffen our sinews by urging us to ‘show some fight’ and to avoid being ‘paralyzed by gloom and fear’ in the face of looming economic disaster.

Speaking about the fragile world economy he said ‘As we meet here in Manchester the threat to the world economy and to Britain is as serious today as it was in 2008’, and that ‘the Eurozone is in crisis, the French and German economies have slowed to a standstill; even mighty America is being questioned about her debts.’

Crikey! Gloomy times indeed, the Autumn of 2011, it seems, is like all those other autumns when plucky little HMS Britain has had to make headway through a sea of troubles, thank god we’ve got a square jawed hero in the shape of Captain Cameron lashed to the mast.

Even tough, as he noted, ‘nobody wants false optimism’ out latter day Nelson can see sunlight and calm water ahead because thanks to the economic plan followed by his government ‘slowly but surely we’re laying the foundations for a better future, but this is the crucial point it will only work if we stick with it.’ All that is needed for things to come right is for people to adopt a ‘can do attitude’ and show a little ‘British spirit’.

An hour or so of such sentiments repeated endlessly were rounded off with an exhortation for the country to ‘show the world some fight. Lets pull together, work together and together we will lead Britain to better days.’ For an encore maybe we can teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.

Anyone listening to the Prime Minister’s speech last Wednesday in the hope of divining the future direction of the government he leads would have been sorely disappointed because it was alarmingly light on policy announcements. There will be another 90,000 places for young people on the National Citizen Service programme, all very worthy, but most of those young people would probably rather get a job or training place instead.

There is also going to be a consultation into whether or not to legalise gay marriage, something that David Cameron and his advisors think is very daring and metropolitan. In the real world most people could answer question posed by an expensive consultation in ten seconds flat by giving the idea a resounding affirmative. These days only the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble feel the need to congratulate themselves for being grown up enough to accept there is more than one kind of stable relationship.

Although it pains me to say it this was the best conference speech of the season. Where Nick Clegg was too compromised to be taken seriously and Ed Milliband sucked the air out of the room with his lack of charisma David Cameron gave a faultless performance. The trouble is that’s all it was, a performance; so much smoke and mirrors signifying nothing.

The real story was happening elsewhere, in the blithe reduction by Home Secretary Theresa May of the debate over the creation of a UK Bill of Rights into a tabloid squabble over whether or not an illegal immigrant was allowed to stay in the country because he owned a cat. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke was right to call her comments ‘childish’, he forgot though to mention that they were also decidedly dangerous.

It was also to be found in the complacent assertion by Chancellor George Osborne that the government is going to plough on with its deficit reduction plans even though they are harming the economy. By the end of the week twelve UK banks had had their credit rating downgraded by Moody’s and Mervyn King, looking for all the world like an economist who had just been goosed by the ‘invisible hand’ had been forced to announce a £75billion QE package.

The message to be taken from David Cameron’s conference speech isn’t the one he might have hoped to put over about battling through against the odds. It is one about a government that has fallen into the deadly trap of thinking that only by showing that the ‘aren’t for turning’ can they be considered strong. Even though in reality leadership is about performing a series of complicated handbrake turns to avoid colliding with an immovable object that exists to prove there is no such thing as an irresistible force.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Official: Ed Milliband isn’t Tony Blair; so who is he then?

Ed Milliband is back in town, the town in question being Liverpool home to last week’s Labour Party conference, and he’s out to wage war on the ‘predatory asset stripping’ and the ‘fast buck culture’ that has caused a ‘quiet crisis’ in the UK. If politics were an old time western then Red Ed would be the hero in a white Stetson riding to the rescue of the nations ‘grafters.’

In his set piece speech to the party conference on Tuesday afternoon he hit out at the government’s austerity plans which are, he says, to blame for the ‘quiet crisis’ and at the political and economic settlement of the past thirty years for too often rewarding ‘not the right people with the right values, but the wrong people with the wrong values.’

People such as former care company Southern Cross and the former masters of the financial universe exemplified by the likes of ex RBS chief Sir Fred, ‘the shred’ Goodwin, to whom Gordon Brown gave first a knighthood and then rather a lot of taxpayers hard earned cash when the banking system nearly went into meltdown in 2008. These all round bad hats would be shunned in favour of companies such as Rolls Royce that actually make things rather than simply shifting money around.

He admitted that during its time in government Labour had ‘lost trust on the economy’ and pledged that under his leadership a future Labour government would ‘only spend what it can afford.’ You might think that all governments intend to do this but then tend to get blown off course and into debt by what Harold Macmillan called ‘events dear boy’, however in a world where the right wing media blames everything from the global financial crisis to it raining on the proprietor’s birthday on Labour profligacy it is a point worth making.

Ed Milliband is also in favour of a ‘new bargain’ between the government and the British public, one based on a ‘something for something’ culture where responsibility and hard work are rewarded. This would apply to those people at both ends of the economic spectrum, so no more free handouts for people on benefits and a bit more tax for the rich to pay. Not a bad idea in itself and one that resonates with the public, but it does sound a little bit ‘motherhood and apple pie.’

This wasn’t a bad speech, even though by now we know the bar set for Mr Ed isn’t all that high to start with. His delivery was as pedestrian as ever and, as his attempt to tell a joke about his recent operation to correct a deviated septum demonstrates, a second career on the stand up circuit does not beckon.

There were though several things to commend in what he said, he struck the right note between nailing the failings of New Labour and being aware of those of the more traditional wing of the party. He was also right to highlight then need for Labour to champion the building of a new type of society, one that avoids a retreat into cosy utopianism and that rejects on principle the cynical calculations of the Blair years.

The problem is that after a year in opposition Labour under Ed Milliband are still unable to articulate what that new bargain would look like when translated into reality. This is partly a result of their leader’s difficulties communicating with the lobby correspondents at Westminster let alone the wider British Public; say what you like about Saint Tony the one thing he did better than anyone else was work a room.

This inability to get over a message that should resonate powerfully with the public as the spending cuts begin to bite shows itself in the fact that when ComRes polled a thousand voters for the Independent only 24% saw Ed Milliband as a credible prime minister in waiting. That figure probably dropped even further amongst voters who heard him denying on Radio Four’s Today programme that he was ‘weird’, something floating voters in another poll conducted for Tory grandee Lord Ashcroft claimed to see him as.

This accusation in itself was rather childish, for the record all senior politicians are a little bit odd, they have to be to cope with the years of ridicule and rejection they have to go through as they climb the greasy pole. Far more damaging was the claim made by the same poll that even voters who were ‘warmly disposed’ to Labour see Ed Milliband as being ‘a blank canvas onto which they projected what were essentially hopes, or at least the benefit of the doubt.’

The real problem though is that even had Ed Milliband delivered a latter day Gettysburg Address in Liverpool this week it would have made little difference because as a means of political discourse set piece speeches made by leaders to their party conference are a busted flush. They are too carefully choreographed to make a lasting impact, it would have been more effective to have heard Ed Milliband make a shorter and more passionate speech about the three thousand BAE workers thrown on the dole this week than for him to have run through his over rehearsed paces so the massed ranks of the press could hold up score cards like this was the Olympic ice skating championships.

At the end of this year’s conference Ed Milliband is no more or less secure in his position as leader than when it started, mostly because there are no credible challengers waiting in the wings. Ed Balls would dearly love to make a grab for the crown, but made too many enemies when he was Gordon Brown’s strong arm man to have any serious backing. Yvette Cooper may make a more realistic challenge at some time in the future, but not until after the next election in all probability.

Things could be worse for the Labour Party; they have the germ of a message about change and fairness that could resonate powerfully with the electorate if only it were articulated properly. The trouble is it is hard to see how they are going to get any better with a leader who, at best, can only inspire voters to give him the ‘benefit of the doubt.’