Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Totnes Primary
Are Lib Dems foolish to interfere?

This is a screenshot from Newsnight on Tuesday, who ran a long feature on the Totnes selection for a candidate to replace Anthony Steen as the next Conservative MP there, featuring an interview between bay MP Adrian Sanders and editor Michael Crick.

Sanders was repeating much of what he said in his newspaper column the previous week - which I found equally surprising. What he said was that he urged Lib Dems to vote for Nick Bye as he believed Nick would be the easiest person for their candidate to beat at the next election.

Firstly, it is a high risk strategy for any MP to interefere in the business of neighbouring constituents and one that most MP's run a mile from. To be blunt, there are no votes in it.

Secondly, presumably if Mr Sanders believes that Nick Bye is an electoral liability he must think that Nick Bye will lose the next mayoral election if he fights it. As a Lib Dem therefore the last thing he would want would be for Mr Bye to be selected in Totnes and then not stand for Mayor next time in Torbay opening the way for someone new.

On the other hand it could be that perhaps Mr Sanders is trying a double bluff? Is he hoping that if he publicly urges Lib Dems to vote for Nick Bye then Tories might do the opposite in droves, depriving Nick of the nomination and forcing him to stay on as mayor?

A third and much more intruiging possibility is that Mr Sanders is hoping that Nick does get picked for Totnes, wins the seat and then has to resign the mayoralty - creating a juicy well-paid political job vacancy immediately after the next election, suitable for an unemployed local man with political experience to try and get elected into.

I wonder who could be up for that, then?

Either way trying to gerrymander in the internal politics of another constituency is a very high risk activity, it made the Lib Dems seem unusually petty and party political, something they usually go out of their way to avoid. But then personal ambition and what is good for the party have never been happy bedfellows with the Torbay Lib Dems.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A long history of pain in Afghanistan

How many times have Imperial powers been vanquished in Afghanistan? Well the British Army was defeated twice during the Victorian era (as the first picture above illustrates).

For a simply and very well written account of the First and the Second Afghan Wars go here, (and note how depressingly familiar the problems sound to us today). It's a shocking tale of death and destruction with very little upside for the British. We invaded to impose order, unify the country, and install an Empire sympathetic Government and we ended up with a fragmented and deeply hostile tribal wasteland - and a massacre.

But in spite of this had another go at invading the country in 1921 and once again we were comprehensively beaten in battle and forced to withdraw.

Then in the 1980's Afghanistan was invaded by the Soviets - the same Red Army that we had feared invading Europe for 30 years - in a similar ill-fated attempt to impose a single Government across the whole country, this time a communist one. For ten years they suffered massive casualties and continuous military humiliation. Eventually they also had to pull out, with even more loss of life; events that so traumatised the Russian population that many people believe it was the catalyst for the downfall of the Soviet Empire. Afghanistan ended up even more inhospitable, ungovernable and lawless than before.

Various accounts and explanations have been given by the invaders of the reasons for their ultimate failure and all of them still apply. The inhospitable terrain, the lack of resources and above all the ruthless nature of the enemy.

I am a great believer in accepting that people make honest mistakes. What is unforgivable is not to learn from them. The idea that an invasion by the Americans or anyone else from the West could impose any kind of order on the Afghans was flawed from the start; Bush and Blair's crime was choosing not to learn from the lessons of history.

I do not believe that Britain is safer as a result of invading Afghanistan, the people who have attacked us have all done so since the invasion - and all of them have links with Pakistan.

What we need now is a good excuse to withdraw with what little remains of our pride intact. Then what we need to do is agree not to make any more military commitments anywhere in the world until we have equipped our forces to do the job properly.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Increasing Social Mobility - the answer is staring us all in the face

I have sat through the news this morning in utter disbelief. Today the Labour Government task force on Social Mobility published it's report conclusions. Theories abounded about rich people buying extra opportunity through private education, about the professions being prejudiced against working class applicants and about a lack of encouragement and lack of ambition amongst many working class children, who undeniably face a reduced chance of reaching the upper echelons of society than their parents or their grand-parents did.

For an hour or more on the Today programme various well meaning people agonised over the dismal failure of social mobility in recent years, yet not one of the mentioned main the reason why this has happened.

After three 'golden decades' of social mobility after the war from about the late 1980's the ability of people born on or near the bottom to rise to the top has been reducing sharply in a fairly continuous trend.

Now what could have happened during the 1970's to so reduce the next generations chances of going from the bottom to the top I wonder? Oh yes, we closed all the Grammar Schools.

The biggest cause of a reduction in life chances for working class people is of course the closure of Grammar Schools. It's obvious - supported by all the evidence, and everyone knows it to be true; and yet neither the Labour members of the committee mention it, nor do the Conservatives advocate restoration.


Well the problem was never with Grammar Schools, it was with the rest.

Questions have always existed over the quality of general education in Britain and the fear has always been there that we just don't produce enough high quality teachers. Grammar Schools undeniably tended to cream off the best teachers leaving many schools dangerously weak.

The decision to call all the other schools by the damning term 'secondary modern' didn't help much by reinforcing the impression that these schools were second-class, as indeed too many of them were. Any system that meant that three quarters of children 'failed' was bound to run into problems in a democratic country sooner or later, and so it proved.

So with the kind of perverse logic that permeates Government the solution was not to improve teaching standards, or to incentivize good teachers to take up posts in non Grammar schools, or to widen the scope of school selection to include sporting or artistic ability but to close the Grammars and average everyone down to the lowest common denominator.

And here we are thirty years later, scratching our heads and wondering why social mobility is back to pre-war levels.

Some form of selective schooling is the only answer - streaming has been tried and was the promise of Comprehensives, it failed because what makes a really successful school is a culture of excellence and achievement; and by definition you can't get that in every school.

What would help would be to have not just excellence in academic subjects. In the modern world artistic or sporting ability may well turn out to be of equal or greater value than an brilliant academic mind and these talents need to be selected out, too. I'd make selective 'county schools' available to every child with talent - sporting schools selecting on agility and fitness, artistic schools selecting on artistic aptitude and technical colleges selecting pupils demonstrating technical ability, as well as grammar schools.

But in any event we have to face the fact that some would not get into a specialist school. The facts of life cannot be changed, we are not all born equal. The function of education should not be to simulate that we are; but rather to allow people to maximise the ability nature provided them with and help everyone to have an equal opportunity to go for whatever opportunity exists. Unfortunately the current education system in many cases does the opposite - simulating equality by depriving any opportunity at all.

What is fascinating about this debate is that it goes to the heart of the ideological debate in British society today. Do we want to forever be a society that obsesses about those at the bottom - even if they made their own way there? A country that always mitigates failure - even by those who make no effort? A nation that hands out opportunities on a buggins turn basis and in doing so eradicate any last vestiges of personal ambition? A place that 'simulates' equality by banning success, dragging everyone down to the level of the lowest achiever?

And if we carry on down this path who loses out the most? Is it the rich or the well connected? Is it the feckless and lazy? No, its the people in the middle who don't want to stay there, the aspiring and the hard working; the people who in doing well create the wealth in which we all share eventually.

Oh the irony of it all. Britain's declining 'social mobility' (in other words the block on poor people attaining high achievement) - is a direct result of social engineering by those who claim to have the interests of the poor at heart.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Primary Masterstroke?

I think the Totnes Associations decision to hold a fully open primary election to pick their next Candidate is a brilliant move that I hope heralds a new beginning for British democracy.

One of the only major drawbacks with the First Past the Post electoral system we have in this country is the problem of 'bed blockers' - long established veteran MP's in very safe seats who having been selected years ago simply get re-elected time and time again because of an inbuilt one party majority in an area. These people often become out of touch with their electorate because they simply don't have to maintain the aggressive level of electioneering and campaigning that is required in seats that are closer fought each time.

Various potential cures for this have been cooked up over the years and none have worked. One cure was the introduction of the need for sitting MP's to be formally re-adopted by their parties each Parliament, unfortunately all that happened is that long-serving MP's weren't challenged and simply got re-adopted unopposed.

Cameron's hope is that if the idea of primary contests takes off there will be eventually a choice of candidates from each party offered to the electorate of each seat in between elections. A long serving MP who is good, like Ian Gibson, would be reselected by the whole electorate; whereas a 'donkey with the right colour rosette' might find some stiff competition for the job from within the ranks of his own party. This would give a modest level of choice to all the electors, even if the demographics of the seat make it overwhelmingly a one-colour likely outcome in the end.

Totnes is very much the test-bed for the system so here's hoping it all goes well next weekend.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Why aren't politicians covered by the Advertising Standards Authority?

I have reproduced a fabulous and now iconic advert that I remember as a child seeing in American comic magazines (trash mags, as they were called by teachers at my school)- adverts which we knew even as schoolboys were a pack of lies. (Some of the best of these - a real trip down memory lane - are reproduced here).

These days adverts like this are not seen because laws and rules have been introduced by most Western countries that outlaw misleading advertising. In Britain most of this process is overseen and managed by the Advertising Standards Authority (another one of those famous Quango's we are all talking about) although certain types of advertising activity such as online and in-store displays are covered by other regulations.

The Advertising industry realised that flagrant lies and misleading claims in some ads risked creating cynicism and thereby damaging the integrity (and worth) of all advertising and they self-regulated to prevent this.

According to the ASA site:

Self-regulation of non-broadcast advertising as we know it today began 40 years ago when the Advertising Association established what became the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), the industry body that sets the rules for advertisers, agencies and media. As the foreword to the very first edition of the British Code of Advertising Practice explained: “The function of advertising is the advocacy of the merits of particular products or services … and this Code seeks to define practices considered undesirable by the organisations which have subscribed to it.”

That was in 1961. The following year, the industry established the Advertising Standards Authority under an independent Chairman, to adjudicate on complaints about advertising that appeared to breach the Code.

"When challenged, advertisers must prove their claims are true. If they cannot prove it, they cannot claim it."

Ever since then the advertising industry has been increasingly strictly controlled, and although strengthened with a number of consumer laws is still largely self-regulated. These days you can be pretty certain that if a definite claim is made for a product (or against a competitors product) in the UK, the facts are there to back the claim and a third party independent adjudicator has passed it for publication.

But not if that advert is made for, or published by, a political party.

From the start the ASA specifically excluded political advertising and political claims, mainly to avoid having to be drawn into political fighting.

The ASA today divert any enquiries about misleading advertising by politicians to the Electoral Commission. The EC's stated aim is to encourage " integrity and public confidence in the democratic process" and although they list a large number of things they promote and monitor on their website honesty in political promotional material is not among them.

So today the most outrageous claims, lies, laughable misinformation and misleading charts and pictures can all be found in the leaflets and posters put about by politicians of all colours. And because party A lies about party B in one leaflet, human nature dictates that party B then makes even more blatant lies about party A in their next publication.

So you see 'X cannot win here' bar charts that wildly exaggerate the relative states of parties, utterly misleading figures on the economy and daft claims about spending cuts/tax rises (delete as appropriate) which serve to simply turn voters off completely.

And before anyone gets too sanctimoniously irate, I specifically include my own party in this - we had some very unsubstantiated claims on posters at the last election which would not have got past the ASA had they been covered by the regulations.

Occasionally someone names names, and makes a claim about an individual candidate rather than his party, and the public are then treated to the unedifying sight of a libel action between two squabbling politicians making claim and counter claim.

This escalating arms race of misinformation is becoming very dangerous, especially at a time when the public are already seriously concerned about the trustworthiness of this Government in particular and all politicians in general.

In allowing false claims to pass unchecked we are creating the very kind of cynicism and disbelief that the advertising industry was wise enough to see the danger in 50 years ago.

The answer is simple. Either the laws and regulations concerning advertising products should include all advertising, including political ones, or new regulations should be introduced forcing the same burden of proof.

Politicians need to be more 'legal decent, honest and truthful' than any advertiser.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Is it Time
to end

Is there a better way of funding the BBC?

I have just had another reminder for the TV licence in my flat in London. I am not an MP and don't have this luxury paid for by the taxpayer, so I have to pay a total of £285 to be able to watch TV all week and all weekend; regardless of the fact that we prefer Sky and ITV.

The current fee of £142.50 represents a rise of over 50% in the last ten years. The BBC argue this increasing amount is necessary because of the extra costs of providing new technology and the growing number of new channels they have. Currently they say the fee provides:
  • the television channels BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three, BBC Four, BBC News, BBC Parliament, CBBC and CBeebies;
  • five network radio services, plus BBC Asian Network, and digital radio services BBC 1Xtra, BBC Radio 7, BBC 6 Music and BBC 5 Live Sports Extra;
  • regional television programmes and Local Radio services in England;
  • national radio and television in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland;
  • BBC Red Button, BBC Mobile and the BBC website (
This is a very long way from the original purpose of the BBC which was brought into existence in 1922 as a non profit making corporation owned by it's founding shareholders (including Marconi, Vickers and General Electric) to experiment with public broadcasting. Later, in 1923, it was given a Royal Charter and financed from 1927 via the licence fee "to enrich people's lives with programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain."

Sadly the basic service has been allowed to mushroom and complicit Governments have voted for the BBC licence fee to balloon to keep up. From a few pounds in the 1970's the fee is now a substantial chunk of many homes entertainment income, and while the politicians of the left go on about poverty, latterly 'energy poverty' and now even 'water poverty' none of them seem keen to address the fact the for many poorer households the TV tax is a serious and growing expense they should do without, but can't.

The House of Lords reviewed the charter in 2004 and their Lords report says "Using television receiving equipment without the appropriate licence is a criminal offence subject to a maximum fine of £1,000. In 2003 a total of 96,872 people were prosecuted in the UK for licence fee evasion. No-one can be imprisoned solely for licence fee evasion. However, if an evasion fine is not paid, then magistrates have the power to impose a prison sentence. In England and Wales, 28 people were imprisoned in 2004 for non-payment of licence evasion fines (the average sentence was 14 days). In Scotland 18 people were imprisoned in 2004."

Every time I raise this subject someone pops up and says 'but the BBC make good programmes' and I always reply the same, the BBC don't, the people who work for them do. Those people work for the BBC but could and would work for another broadcaster if the BBC wasn't there. I have never agreed that the BBC is somehow essential, it might have been in the 1950's when it was BBC1 or ITV but today when there are 900 channels I just don't see that it deserves special status.

Having to pay for the BBC is even more galling for those of us who subscribe to Sky or Virgin, it's the equivalent of being obliged to pay for a Jaguar first if you want to buy a BMW, just to keep the firm going.

The time has come I believe to radically review why the BBC exists and consider new ways of providing the public service output that some people say would not be made if there were only commercial channels (still wondering why we need special 'public service' broadcasts but not 'public service' newspapers or magazines, but there you are) .

I have a suggestion. Firstly, we could make the licence fee optional to people who want to watch the BBC, possible now with digital technology. Second, sell off the corporation except radio 4 and BBC2 , estimates vary hugely but SKY - with half the viewers and none of the valuable TV archive material- is worth £8bn, so the money raised from a partial BBC privatisation could easily top £15bn.

Properly invested £15bn would yield enough to finance a decent news and public service broadcast service on one national radio station and one TV channel in perpetuity, without costing you and I a penny, and without needing the expensive TV licencing service, and without cluttering up our courts and prisons with thousands of unfortunate fee dodgers.

If you still wanted to watch Eastenders, Strictly Come Dancing or Holby City then you'd have to pay the BBC subscription; but if you wanted to be "enriched with public service programmes and services that inform, educate and entertain" you could do so on radio and TV for free, forever.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

A picture is worth 1000 words, (part2)

I am grateful to the UK Public website ( here ) for supplying this revealing chart.

The Government is on course to control more than half the economy by the end of 2011.

Government spending as a percentage of the total economy has only gone beyond 50% during wars. Even during the disasterous 1970's the ratio remained (just) below the half way mark.

Why is this important? The long-term fastest growing economies in the world are all those with the lowest percentage of Government spending in the economy, places like China (27%) and America (37%). The long term low growth countries have the highest general levels of taxation and Government spending, culminating in the Soviet Empire which collapsed through economic failure. Also the lowest growth ( or most recession-prone) periods in our own history have been when tax-and-spend is at it's highest.

Non-Government economic activity is what drives growth in an economy because private economic activity creates profit, thus creating larger enterprises making and selling more goods, employing more people who then buy yet more goods with the money thay have earned.

As the Government spends more the productive economy is squeezed, and with a smaller pool of profit to create future economic growth from the potential for growth is reduced; as we found to our cost during the 1960's and 70's.

A way of illustrating this is to compare a private motorway with a Government one. When roads are built as business ventures on a pay per mile basis a successful (busy) motorway like the M6 extension makes it's owners lots of money and they have both a huge incentive and the income to finance improvements to increase traffic flows and revenue. On the other hand when the Government owns a busy road there is no profit and funding for growth is not created, in fact the reverse happens- more demand creates wear and tear problems and we soon end up with the M25.

When British Rail was wholly state owned in the 1970's Sir Peter Parker, it's chairman, acknowledged that when the trains got too busy his only solution was to increase fares to 'put people off' because new trains would have cost the Government millions that it didn't have.

But there is more bad news, Government spending is also inflationary. The countries with the highest long-run average inflation rates tend to have the highest levels of public expenditure and Government debt.

When the Government spends more it creates other forces that create inflation and suppress future economic growth. When the Government expands spending it goes into competition with the private economy, for example it competes for labour - driving up wage costs. And because Governments run on debt they also compete for money - in borrowing more of the finite money supply they are reducing the capital available to private business, constraining their growth and eventually pushing up interest rates.

The Economist Keynes believed that temporary Government intervention in a recession could prevent deflation and mass unemployment. His theories were born out of the Depression but economists remain split on whether his theories actually work. It is claimed that Keynsian policies followed by British Governments of all colours after the war led to chronic inflation and our relative economic decline until Mrs Thatcher turned her back on his theories in 1979. His fellow economist and critic Hayek claimed that what starts as temporary governmental fixes usually become permanent and expanding government programs and that keeping taxes low and Government spending moderate were the key to expanding economies. History -and the chart above - prove Hayek to be right.

Labour are claiming that their trillions in spending is a 'return to Keynes' and will prevent a recession and unemployment - I believe the reverse, that a deep but short recession has been swapped for a prolonged period of economic instability, inflation and stagnation as the bloated public sector stifles the private sector and civil society.

It's time to dust off the flared trousers and the platform shoes, the 1970's are back.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Scrap Idea

The problem with democracy is that elected people are drawn to grand schemes that try and address more than one problem at once, and in doing so fail to properly address any of them.

Environmental concerns are a classic case in point. Tapping into fears about the sustainability of current levels of industrial activity is too tempting for many politiciansto avoid. And now there is a recession and ministers see opportunities all around to tap into fears of unemployment too. So we end up with bonkers initiatives like the car scrappage scheme.

According to the Government this will:
a) replace polluting old cars with environmentally friendly new ones - saving the planet
b) increase sales of new cars, saving lots of jobs

Now I must confess to having a special interest in all things motoring and I know a lot about cars; and this scheme is the biggest load of hogwash I have ever heard.

For a start it is a myth that buying a new car is ever environmentally friendly even if the new car is massively more economical than the old one. Manufacturing a car is hugely energy consumptive, estimates vary but according to research by Argonne National Laboratory, a U.S. Department of Energy research facility actually making a Toyota Prius uses roughly the same amount of energy the car consumes in 60,000 miles of driving. So even if your new Prius used half the fuel of your old car it would still take 120,000 miles of motoring to get back to square one in planet- saving terms.

What about CO2? Well it's a bit of a myth that new cars are always more CO2 efficient than older ones. Sure old cars like Ford Cortina's are disasterous environmentally but we aren't talking about taking classic cars off the road, the scrappage scheme is aimed at ten year old motors, all the cars on this page are qualifying for scrappage under the scheme. These are cars designed in the environmentally conscious 1990's and which must pass a stringent emission test every year.

New versions of a car model are usually bigger, faster, better equipped and heavier than the old model and often the CO2 figure goes up with the newer car. And in any case the scheme is not linked to CO2 emissions so you could scrap a 1 litre Ford Fiesta and use the money to buy a 5 litre Range Rover if you wanted to.

From an environmental point of view the last thing you should do is encourage a new car to be born. Keeping your old car properly serviced, tyres fully inflated, driving carefully and using it as infrequently as possible is infinitely better for the planet than trading it in.

So if it isn't good for the planet it must be good for British jobs. Well, not necessarily. The truth is that only 15% of the cars sold in the UK are made here, and many of the components they are made from are imported. From a jobs point of view keeping your existing car running is probably more worthwhile, the numbers of people employed in making new cars in Britain is dwarfed by the number of people repairing and making and supplying replacement parts for old ones.

Aside from the environmental issue and the jobs issue there is another important reason why this plan sucks. At a time when consumers are already burdened with too much debt why is our Government spending £300m encouraging people to run up yet more debt?

Good quality marques just don't wear out, rust, or break down like they used to. A ten year old car from a maker such as Mercedes, Toyota, Volvo, VW and BMW is probably only half way through it's design life, even with 100,000 miles on the clock. To encourage perfectly good cars like these to be scrapped while encouraging consumers to pile into a new HP agreement is utter madness.

Trust me, your ten year old car is probably in far better shape than you think. There are some people who believe that this is the real reason car manufacturers needed the car scrappage scheme in the first place.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

'A picture tells a thousand words'
caption contest

This is a frame capture from Prime Ministers Questions today at the House of Commons. Ministers are becoming accustomed to their man comprehensively coming second in his weekly contests with Cameron but today was spectacularly bad by any standards.

Here Mr Brown has just blurted out that his forecast for Government spending growth is 0%, seconds later the House erupts into laughter but look at the stony expressions from Harman and Jowell.

I think Browns expression is a classic as well. I think he looks like a bloke who has just called his new girlfriend by his ex-girlfriends name; but what do you think he is thinking?