Tag Archives: Conservatives

What I meant to say on Radio 4

Last Friday, I appeared as a guest on the Today programme on Radio 4. The subject was a report that had been done by the Institute for Fiscal Studies about how the wealth of those born in the early 1980s was half of those born 10 years earlier (when they had been in their early/mid 30s). The largest factor behind this was the inability of those born in the 80s to get on the housing ladder.

The interview was done before 7am, I hadn’t had any coffee and speaking to an audience that probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions was rather nerve-wracking. So I stumbled over my words and didn’t make all the points I had wanted to.

This then, is my attempt to clarify and expand a little on what I had hoped to say.

The economic reality

I was born in 1983 and as such I fall squarely within the demographic being studied. I fall at the tail-end of Generation X, just a little older than those increasingly referred to as Millenials. The housing situation comes with a double-edged sword. The starting point is that rental prices are high. The effect of this is that it is difficult to save as much of one’s salary as one would like in order to contribute towards a deposit. Yet it’s a goal that is constantly moving. Moving further away. In January, the Halifax bank said that the average deposit needed for a first time buyer in my area was £91,000. More recently, the Land Registry recorded house price inflation in the 12 months to July 2016 as being 8.3%. So what ends up happening is that the real value of the savings towards a deposit is being eroded by inflation. Interest rates aren’t keeping up either. The highest rate of interest I can get on my savings is 0.75%.

As such, I cannot foresee a time within the next few years when houses may become affordable. One of the few hopes of the Brexit vote was that it would bring house prices down, but the devaluation in the pound seems to have offset any domestic instability in the market by making buying houses in the UK cheaper for overseas investors.

A fairer economics

So what needs to happen? Here are some suggestions:

  • Rent controls. First of all, curb any increases in rents and then seek to bring them down, starting with those that are most exploitative (e.g. by looking at rent charged per square foot of living space). At present, tenants are simply being milked for their cash to slake the thirst of landlords’ greed.
  • Build new houses. One of the main driving factors behind house price inflation is a lack of supply. We need new homes and they need to be built sustainably and sold affordably. There’s no point going down the “grand designs” route if all the houses you build come with a £400,000 price tag. The prices need to be linked to average local incomes. There’s also the added benefit of investment in housebuilding is invariably a boost to the economy, creating jobs.
  • Factor in house price inflation into either CPI, RPI or create a 3rd There’s a saying I use at work (nicked off a book on steady state economics): “You measure what you care about and you care about what you measure”. At present, the Bank of England willfully turns a blind eye to house price inflation. This leads to them keeping interest rates artificially low. If they cared about the economic problems caused by uncontrolled inflation, then they would start to factor it into their measures. And once they do that, they’d care about getting it right and getting it down.
  • Increase interest rates to control inflation. Linked to the above, it has to be recognised that inflation of 8% is not healthy for the economy. Incremental increases are needed to a) curb the reliance on debt and b) assist savers in going someway to stop the real value of their savers being eaten away.
  • Limit buy-to-let investors from having an unfair advantage over first time buyers. As well as the under supply of new houses, one of the problems that is contributing to the problem is that homes are being bought by those who don’t intend to live in them. Examples of such measures could include: a) penalties for property owners for not letting out empty properties, b) increased taxes on the profits from rents, c) tariffs on overseas companies & individuals buying UK residential properties, d) Legal maximum on the number of residential properties an individual can own.

Objections

The above suggestions are not universally welcome.

  • Free market fundamentalists object to the idea of rent controls as a matter of principle, as they abhor “market interference” regardless of how justified it is. The reality is that with inelastic demand in the housing market, unfettered market forces will only push prices even higher. Those who subscribe to neoliberalism, though, subscribe to a failed economics and their opinions on such matters need not be taken too seriously, as they are always driven more by ideology than they are by sound reasoning.
  • There tend to be fewer objections here. The main issue is about where houses are built. Brownfield sites are preferable. The downside is that extra supply may push prices down, though given the rampant inflation of recent years, it seems likely that it would just temper that runaway increase in prices. Even if house prices were to come down, this is not as bad a thing as some might think it is. The term ‘negative equity’ still haunts those who remember the late 80s and early 90s, but today’s recent inflation means that homeowners have already benefitted hugely, so it is unlikely that the value of their homes would dip below the amount they bought for it. E.g. Let’s say someone bought a house for £200,000 three years ago. If inflation was about 8% a year, then that house would now be worth about £50,000 more. So if a market correction brought the price down to £220,000 they would still have a £20,000 gain, even though it had decreased by £30,000 from its inflated peak.
  • I’ve heard some contest that this isn’t necessary because mortgage inflation is already factored into the RPI. However, I don’t see this as an objection holding much weight as it only takes into account those fortunate enough to already have mortgages. It does nothing to measure how much more difficult it is to get a mortgage in the first place.
  • This is the big one that people hate. It depends on whether you are part of the “haves” or “have nots”. The downside to increased interest rates is that those with existing mortgages will find they get more expensive. It would also push up the cost of borrowing for businesses. This is where we find out if the lessons of the 2008 crash have been learnt or not. Sensible financial planning, whether personal or in business, needs to take into account the possibility of interest rate rises. If you haven’t got enough headroom to be able to afford a rate rise, then your financial planning abilities should be seriously called in question. In the case of the homeowner, when enjoying the advantages of low rates, it is prudent to save some of the excess; a rainy day fund, if you will. In the case of a business, you need to have modelled your banking covenants with sensitivities built in. Not everyone will have been so sensible, and those who have indebted themselves to such an extent that they would be unable to cope with increased will find themselves struggling more than they have done in the past. Of course, it is the job of a responsible government, with the will of the populace, to support any who fall on hard times. Some people would be hurt by an increase in interest rates, but it’s a necessary consequence of a correction to the market, and there ought to be a sufficiently robust welfare state in place to ensure that nobody is made homeless or bankrupt as a direct result of any interest rate rise.
  • Here, there are difficulties of practicality. How enforceable might they be? In particular, proposal d) might be easily dodged by the having properties owned by a spouse/partner. I must confess I’ve not thought through all the possible loopholes and there’s significant improvement needed to make this a workable suggestion. Yet the principle appears to be sound. For while on the one hand, the rhetoric of the current government is increasingly xenophobic, to pander to the support they get/need from the far right, there is at the same time keenness on investment into the UK from overseas. But we need to both educate out the xenophobia that is endemic in society and be more nuanced about the nature of overseas investment. If it is a case of “put a little in, get much more out” then this should be recognised as a threat to the economy, as opposed to blaming doctors who come from overseas and do a great job in the NHS under (unnecessarily) difficult circumstances.

Political Will

The existing economic situation is a result of the economic and political will of the past. To have a hope of changing things for the better we need a fairer economic and political will now, though it will take time to come to fruition. One of these is the need to change an unhealthy mentality that sees houses as investments rather than as homes. Just a few days ago, I saw on Facebook a post from an old school friend who is an estate agent encouraging people to see how much their house had increased in value. Someone I used to sit next to at work also had an odd boast that his home made more money in a year than he did. This is the kind of thinking that has been allowed to fester for many years and will take a long time to fix. With the above measures, there should be a reduction in the rate of increase in property prices and therefore lower returns for those who have used property as a means of investment. But none of this will happen if the political consensus carries on in the same way it has done for the last few decades. There needs to be a change, but it needs to a sensible change. As we’ve seen particularly in the last year, change for the sake of change can turn up some distinctly unsavoury characters and ideas that should never become part of public policy.

Side issue: the radio experience

Having gone through the experience, there are any number of things I would have liked to have done slightly differently. I had lots of thoughts (which I’ve tried to enunciate above) but I didn’t arrive in the studio with a set of points to make. I was given some idea of the questions, but John Humphrys could ask me what he liked, having been given a briefing paper on the think tank report and on what I had told the show’s producers the evening before. So I have something of a new-found respect for the politicians who go on live interviews. They come on with a set agenda, something they have come prepared to say. While we were off-air, just before the interview, John asked me “So you’re going to say you’re broke, are you?” which I wasn’t. When the microphone was on, I could think of 3 different things I could have said, each worded in another 3 different ways, and so in trying to pluck the right words out of the air, I hesitated, mumbled and then stumbled over what I actually said. That’s why I’m ever so grateful for the existence of a backspace key on the keyboard. I was also conscious of the rumour that if Radio 4 goes silent for 6 seconds, it’s a sign that something’s gone very wrong, so every moment of silence on my part (while my pre-7am coffee-less brain was trying to work) added to the pressure I felt in the interview. I do admit to dodging one question, as it was about another member of family (who’d been invited on, but declined) where I wasn’t prepared to speak on their behalf.

Final thought

As frustrating as it is to be living a relatively miserly existence, certainly compared to friends and colleagues, I am by no means poor. There are many more who have been hurt far worse by the failures of Conservative economics. One need only look at the proliferation in the need for food banks in the last 6 years to see the damage that Cameron & Osborne wreaked upon the citizens of this country.  Whether we are rich or poor, as measured by non-liquid assets, cash or income, there is far more to life than materialism.

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The election happened, what next for the left?

Since last week’s general election, many have been quick off the mark with writing the post mortem, suggesting what went wrong and a few early hats have been thrown into the ring for the vacant party leadership roles.

I hope you’ve not become bored of reading such articles. I’ve written this over the course of the weekend; so I’m sorry that’s not been as quick off the mark as others have been. The plan is to look at the disparity between what was widely expected to happen and what did happen, try to look at some of the reasons behind this, suggest how the UK political left might start the fightback and what the ordinary citizens of this country can do in the meantime.

What was expected to happen?

With the opinion polls that were published prior to the election, there was no clear winner. It seemed likely that the Conservatives would win the most seats but fall short of an overall majority. Labour were expected to suffer heavily at the hands of the SNP in Scotland, but that they might gain a fair few from the Liberal Democrats, meaning an overall small loss in the net number of seats.

My own particular guess was that in the Lib/Con marginals, the Liberal Democrat voters would, in spite of their party’s betrayal, remain loyal. After all, their sin was to go into coalition with the Conservatives, so it would make no sense for voters to go from Lib Dem to Conservative. I thought they might lose some voters to Labour, ultimately diluting the Lib+Lab vote and allowing the Conservatives a few wins, but not many, as they would vote with the Lib Dems as a tactical manoeuvre.

I also thought that, given the cuts the Conservatives unleashed in the last 5 years that Labour would pick up some Lab/Con marginals. Further Labour gains would result from the rise of UKIP which would dilute the Conservative vote.

The result would be that the Conservatives wouldn’t be able to win a majority and that another attempted coalition with the Liberal Democrats would still fall short. The other possibility was that Labour would try to form a coalition with the SNP but that too would fall short of a majority. Yet crucially, Lab+SNP would be greater than Con+Lib.

As a result, I thought that we would end up with a minority government. Such a government would not last long, being unable to pass a queen’s speech and losing a vote of no confidence, triggering a second election this year. Given a quick failure, whoever formed the minority government would likely lose the subsequent election, making this May a good election to lose. My hope then was that since the Conservatives had the most seats, they would be the ones to drink from the poisoned chalice.

What happened?

My estimate was wrong. I’d bought in too much to the published opinion polls prior to the election and when the exit polled showed a clear lead (though not quite a majority) for the Conservatives, I didn’t believe it.

The expected windfall of seats for the SNP did happen, with a number of high profile people losing their seats, including Douglas Alexander, Danny Alexander, Jim Murphy and Charles Kennedy.

The first real warning sign, though, was in Nuneaton. It was a target Labour seat that they needed to win if they were going to beat the Conservatives. But instead of that happening, the Conservatives won the seat with an increased majority. This happened in several marginals, though Labour did take some (and the Conservatives won a few Labour-held marginals). This was not a case of a significant victory (though I would say it was a notable victory) for the Conservatives; more a stern defence of that which they held most precariously. Also, the success that UKIP had in the last round of local elections was not replicated, meaning that they did not dilute Conservative support as much as had been expected. A case in example was my incorrect prediction about what would happen in Crawley, where I lived for 7 years.

The real surprise was what happened in the Lib Dem dominated area of South-West England. Here, contrary to my (and others’) expectations, the Lib Dem voters did abandon their party in droves, and went to the Conservatives. It was these wins that really helped to ensure the Conservatives won a majority.

Why it happened?

We have to acknowledge that this is now a highly divided country. Scotland is undoubtedly the country of the SNP. London is predominantly a Labour city. In England, outside of London, the Conservatives are the dominant party except for in former mining communities. Wales is predominantly Labour, by population, at least. As with London, their support is greater in more urban areas, though the constituencies with larger areas are more mixed, so the Labour majority doesn’t show up well on a map. Northern Ireland has a quite different politics altogether, which has a far deeper and more painful history than I can reasonably go into here.

I would need to add: the SNP ensured that Labour had a bad night. But the SNP are not to blame for allowing David Cameron back into Downing Street. If they had increased their share of the vote, yet not won a single extra seat, then David Cameron would still have a majority. The difference would be that Labour would have a greater share of the opposition benches.

I have long maintained the idea that governments are not so much voted in as they are voted out. In 1997, the Conservatives had lost any shred of credibility and all Labour needed to do was present a credible alternative. They did that successfully and won the election with a landslide. At the time, people asked if it was the end of the Conservative party. It wasn’t. It was damaging, yes, and they were unlikely to win the next election either. But then Labour took 418 seats, with the Conservatives on 165. Compare that to last week, when the Conservatives won 331 and Labour won 232. So I think one cannot say that 2015 was as bad for Labour as 1997 was for the Conservatives.

In 2010, Labour were the ones who had lost credibility, so it should have been a cake-walk for the Conservatives to win a majority, but it was a reflection of their electoral failure that we ended up with a hung parliament, resulting in a coalition. A part of this may well be due to the fact that the Conservatives came off worse than Labour did in the expenses scandal. Though trust in both sides was severely dented by that episode.

They key thing that happened in electoral terms was where the disaffected Lib Dem voters went. In London, having looked through some of the constituency results (I haven’t done a full numerical analysis yet), they seem to have gone largely to Labour and the Greens, with some to UKIP and a handful to the Conservatives. This is what I expected to happen nationwide, but elsewhere, particularly in the south-west, the largest chunk of Lib Dem voters went Conservative. I confess, I don’t understand why they would really do this. It’s not a part of the country I live in and I haven’t been able to speak to anyone who did switch their vote that way.

Beyond that, though, my view is that the Labour message was too piecemeal. They were chasing the agenda set by the mainstream media (see below), coming up with policies in response to what others had said, instead of leading the way with an alternative vision. Much of the discussion over the last few days has asked whether they were too far left (which doesn’t wash with Scotland, nor with the opposition to their ‘control immigration’ mug) or too far right (which doesn’t explain why they didn’t take the English marginals that were ripe for the picking).

How to fix it?

There has to be a long term strategy from the left. Ideally, this should be a 13 year strategy, starting from now. Why 13? Well, there should be 3 phases: the first starts now and needs to establish a plan for bringing down the Conservatives at the next election, replacing them with a credible, progress and egalitarian government. But it would be too short term to say the aim is to be elected. The strategy has to include a full 5 year plan for government. Yet we know what the Conservatives have done in the last 5 years of coalition, and we have some idea about what they will do, untethered, in the next 5 years. Will a single term be enough to unwind the legacy of the David Cameron, George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith? Maybe not. So we need to think about how to start undoing the damage they’ve done as well as the further damage they will do; this will entail fixing the country and preparing for a 2nd term.

The strategy has to be two-fold: national and local.

On the national level, there has to be a whole, coherent and credible alternative. The first thing is the substance of the message, be it on business, on housing, on debt, on immigration, on debt, on taxation, on education, on defence, on health, etc. More than that, though, any election strategy has to incorporate the media. While there has been some progress with social media, it remains the BBC and the newspapers who set the agenda. Given these are largely Conservative biased (the BBC’s main political team of Nick Robinson, David Dimbleby, Andrew Marr and Andrew Neill being the most notable of the pro-Tory group) then an infiltration strategy is partly what’s needed. One can combat the right-wing hegemony head on, to sing a different tune. Yet one can also attempt to change the tune from within the choir. In the wake of the election, people have been joining both the Liberal Democrats and Labour. Yet party members are unlikely to find employment in press run by Murdoch, Dacre or the Barclay brothers. A little more subtlety is required. In short, to be as clever as a fox, whilst remaining as innocent as a dove.

Then we have the matter of the Independent’s betrayal, as they encouraged a continuation of a Conservative-led coalition, while the Evening Standard, owned by the same tycoon who runs the Independent, backed the Conservatives. My proposition is that we need a new left-leaning national newspaper. I suggested this on social media on the election and was subsequently trolled for saying it. Amongst the irrational rantings that were aimed at me, they said that the Guardian and the Mirror were sufficient and that there was nothing wrong with the over-arching dominance of the newspaper market by a very small number of very rich men with a vested in interest in keeping the Conservatives singing their tune.

On the local level, the obvious answer is to set about targeting the seats to win. However, there has been a strong suspicion that to counter this, the Conservatives will attempt to rig the next election by changing the constituency boundaries so as to favour them. I’ve read comments from Conservative supporters saying that their primary aim is to make sure than Labour are locked out of government for decades. As an example of how this could be done, they might enlarge the London constituencies (making sure they are larger both in terms of population and area), thus reducing their number; or they might take two adjacent Conservative constituencies and make them into three.

For the Liberal Democrats, they have space to come back. First of all, though, they need to acknowledge their responsibility for helping to introduce the bedroom tax, for Sure Start centres, for cuts to disability benefits, for targeted sanctions against the unemployed. They can’t say that because they were in coalition they were forced to do those things. They need to acknowledge that they were wrong. Then, depending on how the majority Conservative government play things out, they can (as some have before the election) list out the things they prevented happening during the coalition’s reign. Things like the Conservative plan to repeal the Human Rights Act, to change the boundaries, to make even deeper cuts or further and faster privatisation of the NHS. If they can do this, then they stand a chance of taking back some of the Lib/Con marginals they lost, particularly those in south-west England and south-west London.

In the mean time

I am not a politician. I am not a journalist. I am someone who cares. Someone who is worried and fearful of the harm that this government will do.

On Saturday there was protest held in Westminster. I had looked around to see if I could find any plan for a protest but could find none. The first I heard about it was on Twitter after it had begun, by which time it seemed a little late to go and join. I supported that protest, and let me say why.

Democracy should not be an event that happens one day every five years. Democracy should be woven into the fabric of the society we live in. When we’re not at the ballot box, we can protest, we can petition, we can march, we can write letters, we can go and see our MPs at their local surgeries. Such expressions of democracy can be firm, they can be loud and at times, they can be disruptive. There are lines to be drawn, though. I do not advocate violence, nor do I advocate inappropriate protest, such as the graffiti that one person put on a war memorial.

Protests against austerity or against the removal of human rights are not, as some Conservatives have been saying, moaning or whinging about the result of the election. While there is a debate to be had over the effectiveness of our current democratic system (c.f. the referendum debate and the outcome of every close election – my particular favourite example is 1951), I do not dispute the Conservative’s right to govern. It has been suggested to me, by several on the political right, that accepting the legitimacy of the result means that we shouldn’t protest. I cannot agree with that.

When Labour won the 1997 general election and sought to introduce a national minimum wage, Conservatives would have been well within their rights to take to the streets to demand that employers should be allowed to employ people for as little pay as they saw fit.

Nor do I agree with the accusation that protest is in any way sanctimonious or self-righteous. To speak out against the Conservatives is an act of compassion; of standing up for those who have been, and will be hurt, by the acting out of Conservative policy. To turn one’s back or adopt an “I’m alright, Jack” attitude is an act of wilful negligence. There will be a time for gentler persuasion, but right now the time is right to give Conservative voters a metaphorical slap across the face, show them what they have allowed to happen. So that, like the end of The Bridge On The River Kwai, they may realise what they have done. I do not wish to demonise Conservative voters. Instead, my prayer for them is “Father, forgive them. For they know not what they do.”

Thoughts of an undecided voter (and how to persuade me to your side)

With about a month left until the general election it seems right to have a little bit of thinking out loud about how to vote. At present, I’ve not firmly decided which way I will vote, but the hope is that by writing down the thinking process and opening it up to critique that there may come a sharpening of these slightly blunt thoughts. The interested reader may wish to refer to the Voter’s Manifesto I published last autumn for specific areas of policy:

Part 1 – Democratic reform, Debt, Deficit & Austerity
Part 2 – Environment, Employment, Inflation, Transport and Healthcare
Part 3 – Company Law, Corporate Tax, Personal Tax, Loan Sharks and Regionalisation
Part 4 – Welfare, Europe, International Aid, Housing and Utility Costs
Part 5 – Education, Immigration, Tobacco & Gambling, Culture and Defence

Here I will make a few comments on each of the parties standing in my constituency. Consequently, I will not be making extensive comment on any of the regionalist/nationalist or minor parties that I cannot vote for. I shall deal with them in the order of the size of their current parliamentary parties.

The Conservative Party

Nationally

I am not a natural conservative and have been highly critical of the evils perpetrated under the current leadership. They try to make much of their economic record with buzzphrases such as the “the mess we inherited” and “our long term economic plan”. What they fail to ever mention is that they inherited a recovering economy. Not only that, but they have been consistently dishonest in their appraisal of the causes, only attributing it to the previous Labour administration, failing to mention that the Conservatives supported Labour in the bail out of the banks, the single act that pushed up the deficit and increased the debt. Still further, as any reasonably educated and economically literate person could tell you, the causes of the banking crash was a lack of regulation and oversight, sparked by the deregulation of the markets in the late 80s. Successive governments, Tory and Labour, oversaw the growing problem, with ineffective regulation, though it was always the Tories who called for less and less regulation. In the last 5 years, the coalition’s economic record can be summed up by the fact that nearly a million people have had to use foodbanks between 2013 & 2014.

Their attacks on the disabled have been, and I do not use the word flippantly or in ignorance of its implication, immoral.

Locally

With this being a safe Labour seat, the Conservative candidate is something of a sacrificial lamb. The fact that she put herself forward for selection must have come to a great relief to the local party that someone had bitten this particular bullet. Her main campaign thus far has been a mixture of parroting the party line and having a petition against the ridiculous management of London Bridge station, where many of the residents of the constituency commute through.

I am led to understand that she has not been well lately, so most of the campaigning has been done by the local party on her behalf. I hope she recovers to good health soon.

The Labour Party

Nationally

I have voted for Labour in the past, but I did not in the last elections to be held, the European elections. Part of the reason for that is that is the different electoral process there. You may recall that I am no great fan of the first past the post system. But for a general election, it’s what we’re stuck with, not least due to Labour’s campaigning against the introduction of a more democratic method. This means we remain with voters having to consider tactical voting.

My biggest concern is that Labour are just too far to the political right and as such are almost indistinguishable from the Conservatives. When looking at what a Labour cabinet might look like, one has to assume that the current shadow cabinet will, by and large, be the cabinet of government. I have particular issues with some of the cabinet. For example, I still do not find Ed Balls to be a credible candidate for chancellor; Margaret Hodge would be a far better candidate. When it comes to education, Tristram Hunt just seems as though he is in the wrong party, just as Robert Halfon’s campaigning for the disabled has been most un-Conservative like. The recent comments by Rachel Reeves to the effect that Labour are not the party of the unemployed does little to make me think that her ideology is vastly different from that of Iain Duncan Smith – probably the most heartless person on the Conservative front bench.

I have also heard very little about reversing the damage the current government has inflicted. So while they make a lot of noise about the NHS, they do not go far enough by way of banning the privatisation of the NHS or repealing the Health and Social Care Bill.

Locally

The incumbent MP, a former minister, is stepping down this election. Her successor has been curiously quiet. The most notable campaign has been one about the overcrowding at London Bridge, in parallel (but seemingly not in cooperation) with the Tory candidate. Secondary to this has been about the small businesses based in railway arches, particularly those near Herne Hill and Brixton stations. As yet, though, my only encounter with a Labour activist in the area was a gentle door-to-door enquiry when the gentleman couldn’t remember the candidate’s name.

The Liberal Democrat Party

Nationally

The Lib Dems are another party I have voted for in the past. Not the recent past, I might add. For whatever they may claim they stand for, they are tainted by the Faustian pact they entered into 5 years ago.

They have, though, been behind some of the better measures made by the coalition, such as increasing the personal allowance. As the minor part of a coalition government, it was almost inevitable that they would make compromises. The question to consider is whether those compromises were reasonable or whether the Lib Dems violated their principles in order to ensure they occupied, if not the corridors of power, the broom cupboards that lie just off the corridors. Their biggest own goal was to back the Conservative’s plans to make higher education unaffordable for many, in spite of having promised to not raise tuition fees.

Because of this, it seems meaningless to ask what their policies are, as their voting patterns will be dictated to them by whoever they may end up in coalition with, if they even retain a large enough parliamentary party to be the kingmakers as they were in 2010. The last projection I saw had them down to 17 MPS, making them the 4th largest party, behind the SNP.

Locally

The Lib Dem candidate has climbed the ladder through local politics and is by far the most recognisable of the candidates, having been a local councillor. He was also the first to get his leaflets through the door. This, though was where they lost any chance of my vote. There was a misleading graph on the front of the leaflet which exaggerated the Lib Dem share of the vote. This was a dishonest measure and when I confronted the candidate about it, he failed to acknowledge that it was wrong, trying to somehow argue that to graphically represent the share of the votes fairly would be misleading. I will not vote for a candidate that seeks to mislead the electorate.

LD poster

The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)

Nationally

Where does one start with UKIP? From one perspective, their recent increase in popularity (due in no small part to the exposure afforded to them by the BBC, Daily Mail and other bastions of the right wing media) is quite interesting, but in many aspects it is also deeply worrying. Their rhetoric of hatred directed at the migrant population, blaming all the countries ills on the European Union, is built upon a paranoid delusion.

The rate of embarrassments they have had over the racism of members, their cavalier attitude towards to expenses and their whole far-right ethos go completely against what I, and many others, see as good about British values of multiculturalism, tolerance and reasonableness.

Locally

I heard nothing from the local candidate. Just as the electorate here are too intelligent and well-informed to vote en masse for the Conservatives it seems highly unlikely that UKIP be a significant force here. At the European elections, their poster in the area was defaced with an message saying that their politics of division and fear was not welcome here.

The Green Party

Nationally

I have for some time been more inclined to the Greens than any other party. As a scientifically educated person, though, I do not agree with their objection to nuclear power. Their lone MP, Caroline Lucas, is one of the few members of Parliament who is genuinely deserving of the title “honourable”. She has consistently spoken good sense in the Commons and been a thorn in the side of the coalition. Natalie Bennett, though, has had a massive crisis of credibility lately. It began with an interview on the Daily Politics which was followed up with an infamous radio interview when she came completely unstuck over some rather gentle questioning on their economic policy.

I regard their “citizens’ income” policy as nuts and any time they have been given an opportunity to explain how it will be funded they have completely failed to do so.

Locally

The local candidate is the biggest reason to not vote for them. For starters, he doesn’t seem to be very aware of where the constituency is. His rhetoric is nearly all based around Brixton. Yet only a tiny bit of the constituency is in Brixton; furthermore, only a tiny bit of Brixton is in the constituency.

Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC)

Nationally

This is a minority party with no realistic prospect of gaining any candidates. Founded by the late Bob Crow, they are ostensibly a party that stands against things, not for them. On their website, under a heading entitled ‘What we stand for’ they say:

“TUSC will oppose all cuts to council jobs, services, pay and conditions. Reject increases in council tax, rent and service charges to compensate for government cuts. Vote against the privatisation of council jobs and services.”

One of the puzzles is that if they really are a trade unionist party, why is it that the trade unions, on the whole, back the Labour party and not TUSC? That’s a question I don’t know the answer to. I could speculate, but that will be of little help.

Reading through their policies, it is clear that they are a left wing party and probably most aligned with my own thinking. While my own manifesto was (and I hope it was clear) a sketch, theirs seems even more simplistic. For example their entire tax policy is “Tax the rich. For progressive tax on rich corporations and individuals and an end to tax avoidance.” – there are no proposals as to how this will be done, how much it will raise or even what thresholds will be used to determine “rich”.

Locally

The local candidate comes across as the antithesis of a typical politician. In this respect, he very much like the other left-of-centre candidate, the Green Party’s candidate. He is clearly a passionate man who has put himself up for election more because of what he believes and less because of party loyalty. This makes him quite different from the other candidates, where I think the weightings of the motivations may be quite different.

I do not believe he stands a real chance of being elected, but I am tempted to vote for him, if only so that he does not lose his deposit.


After enunciating those thoughts, am I any closer to a decision? Closer, certainly; decided, no.

How to persuade me to vote for you

If you’re allied to a particular cause and you wish to persuade me to vote for you, here’s how to go about it:

1) Have good policies. Without these, you’re a non starter. They must be well thought through, overall financially viable (allowing that some areas will be net spends and others net gains, e.g. funding the spending of the NHS through taxation) and must leave no group left behind. See my voter’s manifesto (links above) for what I consider to be “good”. Others will differ to a greater or lesser extent.

2) Spend more effort speaking about your own policies than you do of others. There is nothing more offputting than trying to portray your cause as the only viable one, dismissing all other alternatives as “chaos”. As a corollary to this, I would also ask that you not make promises on behalf of another. By all means, critique a manifesto promise that one of your opponents has made or point out failures to meet promises, but do not make assumptions about what another party will do unless they have stated it. It makes you look as though you lack the conviction to back your own policies and are relying on voters to make you the default option of “not them”.

3) Don’t be a sycophant. Anyone who wholeheartedly and uncritically supports every policy of their own party is a person who falls into one of two categories: a) the gullible, believing everything they hear with a slavish devotion to the party line; or b) the dishonest, who advocate views they do not hold for fear of seeming to be disloyal. The former is a fool whose opinion is valueless as it is swayed and tossed by the wind, devoid of a firm foundation. The latter is a schemer who cannot be trusted as it impossible to tell what they truly believe and what they are saying because it serves an ulterior motive.

The Rochester & Strood by-election: a prediction

I must confess from the start that the title is a little misleading as the purpose of this blog is not really to predict the precise number of votes and therefore who will win the forthcoming by-election. Rather, this is a prediction about the fallout after the result.

For what it’s worth though, I think it will be a close-run election and that the Conservatives and UKIP will be the top two parties. The Labour proportion of the vote will go down, as will the Lib Dems, with a small, but insignificant increase for the Greens. If the opinion polls are to be believed, then UKIP look set to come out on top.

However it goes, the fallout is what will be more interesting. The fact is that Rochester and Strood has been a safe Conservative seat. Though given the change in British politics that we have witnessed in last few years, it seems reasonable to suppose that a lot of those on the far-right, which the Conservatives rely on for electoral success, will switch to UKIP, thus eroding the Conservative vote.

As a result, whether or not they win, the relentless optimism of the UKIP leadership will be declaring this a success. The extent to which that celebration takes place will, of course, depend on whether Mark Reckless wins the seat he previously won for the Conservatives. I would predict that Nigel Farage will be given plenty of air time and column space to enunciate his view that this is indicative of a sea change in public opinion, that people are fed up with traditional Westminster politics and that UKIP are the ones to deliver change.

The Tories, having either lost the seat or seen their majority severely dented, will need to have their spin on it. And of course, that spin will be: “[what a disaster for Ed Miliband]”. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Tory playbook would parrot the same line even if Labour were to have an unlikely win. If I were a Labour voter in the constituency I might even be tempted to vote UKIP as a tactical vote, though given the proximity to the 2015 general election I might just not bother this time around, as it won’t change who’s in government. Either way, the Conservatives should have a tough job on their hands, but they will look not to their own failings but will react like a wounded beast to lash out at those around them. Don’t expect David Cameron to be put in front of the cameras and interviewed extensively; that job will fall to someone else, offered up as a sacrificial goat to the right wing media who are increasingly finding their loyalties split between an ailing Tory party and the strengthening, yet still dilute, poison of UKIP.

In a seat where the Tories have had a majority of just under 10,000 any movement in the votes for Labour, the Lib Dems or the Greens is of such comparative insignificance that any attempt to make generalisations about the state of the parties and of the country as a whole will likely have an extremely high conjecture-to-fact ratio.

It is interesting to note that in the last general election, the English Democrats polled higher than the Greens in the constituency but that they’re not standing in this election. Instead, there are 4 independent candidates as well as representatives of the Monster Raving Loony Party, Britain First, People Before Profit and the Patriotic Socialist Party. I wouldn’t expect many of these to have a significant effect on the outcome, and indeed most will probably lose their deposit.

What might be most interesting is the Labour reaction. In some ways, being the previous runners-up but with no realistic chance of winning, they’re in a no-lose situation. The ground would be set for an attack on David Cameron’s lack of leadership, just as the right wing press have attacked Ed Miliband recently on the basis of journalists passing off rumours from other journalists as news. However, given that this looks set to be a two-horse race between the two right wing parties, it seems likely that the media will grant them the lion’s share of the coverage. As such, if there is to be any comment from Labour, the Liberal Democrats or the Greens on the outcome of the election, don’t expect them to make the headlines.

What we’ll get is airtime afforded primarily to Nigel Farage with maybe the odd comment from Mark Reckless, though he’ll mostly be silent so as to not steal the limelight from his party leader. The upper echelons of the Tory party will be strangely quiet and none of the main media outlets will question why. They’ll put up someone to take any flak for them, though any questioning will tend to be along the lines of “[are you not far enough to the political right on immigration]”.

In other words, no change from what we’ve grown used to over the last couple of years.

The squeezed middle?

Used under creative commons license. Image by 'Images of Money'

Used under creative commons license. Image by ‘Images of Money’

Wednesday sees George Osborne deliver his latest budget speech. Some of it he announced on Andrew Marr’s Sunday morning show, other parts may well have been leaked by the time you get round to reading this (I’m writing this on Monday night).

In his appearance on the Marr show, aside from being fed his lines by the host who had earlier in the show demonstrated a clear and distinct partiality with regards to the Scottish referendum on independence from the rest of the UK, and aside from the fact that there was no serious or penetrating scrutiny given applied to the Conservative party policy, making the Marr Show little more than an extended party political broadcast for the Conservative party; aside from all that, I was struck by something Osborne said as part of his prepared speech.

Whilst speaking of personal taxation, Osborne spoke of the increase in the personal allowance that has taken place since the coalition came into power in 2010.

Before coming to that point though, I would like to note two things: One, the rapid increase of the personal allowance was a Liberal Democrat policy, not a Conservative one. It was a feature of the coalition agreement that the Lib Dems insisted upon. It was one of the few areas where the Lib Dems led and the Conservatives followed.

Secondly, I would add that it is probably the best thing the coalition government have done. I am in favour of lifting the lowest paid out of personal taxation. Ideally, the personal allowance should be at a level whereby no one is taxed whose net pay would not be enough to reasonably live off. The measuring of how much that is a complex matter and one that I shall not address in this blog post.

But the point that struck me was that Osborne was proud that it was reducing the amount of tax paid by the middle-to-high earners. Without getting too personal here, I will say that in my current job, on my current salary, a small part of my tax is paid at the 40% rate. This is an important point. The media will often talk about those who pay the 40p rate (i.e. 40p in the pound, but I prefer percentages for clarity) but they fail to mention that only the uppermost part of someone’s salary is paid at that rate. There is still a significant chunk that is paid at 20%.

As someone who is counted as a middle-to-high earner, am I pleased that the amount of tax I pay is being reduced? No.

Nomatter what your political persuasion, one should face up to the economic fact that we have both a large debt and a large deficit, both of which need reducing. The two essential ways of doing this are to increase revenues or to cut costs. The current government’s plan has, for the last few years, been to cut both revenues and costs, but to cut costs at a much faster rate, through their austerity plan.

Many more voices than just mine will testify to the great damage that the austerity programme has done, with people losing their livelihoods and even their lives as a result of it. In other countries, such as Greece, it has been taken to a more extreme level but has merely resulted in mass unemployment and has failed to live up to its promises.

So while some cuts are necessary (and here I would rather cut spending on Trident and other weapons of mass destruction rather than removing the safety net of social security which is relied upon by many in their hour of need) the more obvious and sensible measure is to increase revenue. Anyone who has studied economics at any level will be familiar with the idea of elasticity of demand. That is, the more you charge for product, the less demand will be. But how much demand falls off in proportion to how prices increase is measured by its ‘elasticity’. Luxury goods have a high elasticity, whereas necessities have low elasticity. Take train tickets for example. Many use trains to get to work. If the price gets bumped up by 5% we don’t get the choice to not go to work. We are forced to swallow it, increasing the revenues of the train companies.

When it comes to tax, part of modern right-wing ideology is that tax is highly elastic. They love to tell us that increasing taxes will deter rich people from coming to country (hey, that’s one way to curb immigration!) or force people to leave. In France, when they raised taxes, a few high profile people did choose to leave the country. But did it cause a reduction in revenue that crippled the country as the austerity measures did to Greece? No.

The truth is taxation is inelastic. This gives rise to the possibility that, as train companies have exploited commuters, governments could exploit all its citizens by unfair taxation. But what is fair? Surely it is in answering this question that differences between left and right become apparent, especially when we consider what our priorities are. Right-wingers such as George Osborne see fairness in prioritising that people keep as much of their gross pay packet as possible. Left-wingers such as me prioritise ensuring the dignity and the livelihoods of the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

For me, as stated once, but to reiterate the point, tax becomes unfair when the net income after tax is not enough to live on. If you have more than enough to live on, then you have enough to be taxed upon. Note that even if there was a flat rate of 40% (which is much higher than the actual effective rate of tax paid by those whose pay comes into the 40% band) then any individual would still keep more than half of their pay packet.

We also need to consider the seasonality of life. For some of my life I was in state education and not earning a salary, not paying taxes. At other times I have been unemployed and had to claim job seekers’ allowance in order to pay for my rent and food. At times like these, I was net taker from the state. At present, I am a net contributor. If I were to take a simplistic, conservative approach, and demand that I only pay tax for the services I use, then I would pay much less tax than I do now. But what about those who are currently in a season of being net takers? The young, the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled? It is to support them that we need a section of the population to pay more tax than the cost of the services the latter use. It is a recognition of this that makes me despise the term ‘the squeezed middle’. I am not squeezed enough.

To turn a phrase around a little bit, I would say: First, to each according to their need. To fund that, from each according to their ability. This is where I think our priorities should lie. The idea of tax for tax’s sake is as wrong as it is to try to separate the payment of taxes from the provision of centrally provided services.

So please George, let’s get priorities straight. For those who are out of the tax system, let’s ensure that there is a living wage paid to those in work, and a firm support net for those who aren’t. For those who are paid in excess of they need to live on, please tax us more. We can afford it.

A food bank is not just for Christmas

Yesterday saw a debate in the House of Commons on food banks. This was secured after a petition started by Jack Monroe which received over 140,000 signatures in just a few days. I was not able to watch the whole debate as I was at work at the time, but did catch up with some bits and listened to an account from my father, who is currently the operations manager of a food bank in the home counties.

The overall impression that he gave was that there were some good backbenchers but that the behaviour of the front bench was disgraceful. The secretary of state, Iain Duncan Smith, was seen laughing at the debate and also left early, thus refusing to listen to a vital debate on an area of great public concern for which his department is responsible. This abdication of responsibility is not behaviour becoming of a person who is fit to execute office with which they are charged. Esther McVey also did nothing to show that she understood the problems by stating, “As we are saying, it is positive that people are reaching out to support other people.”

When obtaining a voucher for a food bank, those in need are asked to state why they are having to resort to the use of the food bank. This data is gathered by the Trussell Trust, though to my knowledge this has not yet been published as a full scale study. From my father’s experience of administering the vouchers, the overwhelming reason is because of the benefit reforms pushed through by the current government.

The big frustration that arises is that the Conservatives know that the rise in food banks is a result of their policies. Britain isn’t eating because of what our leaders have done in the name of austerity. Yet the Conservatives live in a state of denial, which was exemplified by the debate. They spent more time trying to blame Labour for the increase in the last three and a half years and showed no care or humanity for the half a million or so people who have been helped as a result of the food banks.

The debate, however, was poorly attended for most of its duration. I have yet to investigate this, though I read several notes from people claiming that no more than 50 or 60 Conservatives were in the chamber at any one time, yet when it came to a vote, they mustered enough people to win the vote, though for each who voted for Conservative denialism (a vote, in my view, which demonstrates a callousness and a deep disrespect that is a shame to our common humanity), there were opposition members who didn’t come along. For any member who represents a constituency which has no present need of a food bank, I can understand why they might not have attended, though given the widespread nature of the problem, they could have stood in solidarity with their neighbours.

There is much more that could be written, though I would rather move on to a more practical and forward-looking proposal.

Christmas is less than a week away. This is a very busy time for many people for a variety of reasons. This is no less so for those who help keep the food banks running, collecting and distributing essential items to those in need.

Many people will also have either finished or come close to finishing their Christmas shopping. My request to you is that as you do you shopping for your family or friends or just for yourself, that you pick up two or three additional non-perishable items that you can donate to your local food bank. If you are not sure where yours is, simply Google “food bank [place name]” and you should very quickly be able to find one. There are contact details on any Trussell Trust website so you can find out where to drop items off. If you cannot drop food off, please consider a monetary donation.

As busy as Christmas is, the need for food banks doesn’t end there. There will be people who are struggling to eat at New Year, in the 2nd week of January, the 3rd and the 4th. Please continue to support on an ongoing basis. A food bank is not just for Christmas. Please help ensure that help is available for those who need it. If a society is judged by how it treats its elderly, its poor, its disabled and its most vulnerable, then let’s demonstrate to our politicians that society is more decent than that which they are attempting to engineer.

It is a tragedy that in a modern society we have to have food banks. It is a shame on our leaders that so many are denial that the policies they have planned, voted for and implemented are a leading cause of the massive increase in food poverty over the last three and a half years. Jack’s petition was one form of democracy and we will have another in a year and a half’s time to change the current status quo. Until then, our humanity compels us to help one another.

An analysis of the local elections – West Sussex & Crawley

Last Thursday saw local council elections in much of England & Wales. Much has been said and written already by way of interpreting the results on a national scale. Here, I shall focus mainly on the county in which in I live, West Sussex. I hope some other bloggers will do similar analyses for their own counties. I shall look at how the 2013 election compared to when the seats last came up for election in 2009. I shall make a few comments on the performance of each notable party before looking at one parliamentary area in closer detail.

Sources and methodology

All data was drawn from the website of West Sussex County Council on Friday the 3rd of May, with the analysis being conducted over the course of the bank holiday weekend that followed. As the information was not in a friendly format for analysis, I have had to type every number into a spreadsheet (which is available if you leave a comment and include your email address – you will see room for this on the comment box, though your email address will not be made public unless you either wish it to or you put in the wrong box). Because of this, I cannot rule out the possibility of transcription error though I have made every effort to be accurate. For the sake of direct comparison I have not made comparisons for any by-elections that took place since 2009. Anyone who wishes to do so is welcome, though I doubt they will have much of an effect on the analysis.

Since one may easily look at the number of councillors at a glance, my aim here to focus on the share of the vote of each party. I will look at the turnout in each ward as well as the share of the total votes of each party and how this share has changed between 2009 and 2013. A summary of the results may be found below:

Election 1

Please note that I have not corrected for rounding errors in the percentages.

Conservatives are still the dominant force in West Sussex. Though they lost some councillors they retained overall control of the council. It has been noted by such political commentators as Nick Robinson of the BBC and John Snow of Channel 4, as well as various political correspondents for national newspapers, that parties in government often do badly in the local elections mid-way through a Parliament. This was no exception. As a share of the vote, the Conservatives lost over 10%. It seems as though most of this went to UKIP, with some traditional Labour voters returning, having voted Conservative as a protest last time round.  

Labour had a terrible time in 2009. This represents partial reparation of the damage done to them then, but with a modest 5.4% gain of the share of the vote, they don’t look likely to challenge the Conservatives any time soon. They did, however make significant gains on the Liberal Democrats, with an almost equal share of the votes, even though they are now only the 4th party in the county, thanks to the huge gains made by UKIP.

Liberal Democrats performed awfully. They had been the second party, but have now been passed by UKIP and have Labour snapping at their heels. It seems unlikely that many Lib Dem voters switched the Conservatives. Some may have gone to Labour and some to UKIP. Both seem to me to be protest votes, dissatisfied with the Lib Dems collaboration with the Conservatives in the coalition, though being unable to stand up to the most evil of the plans devised by David Cameron and his cabinet.

UKIP did very well. They won some councillors, though due to the first past the post system (something some readers will note I am not in favour of) they won a disproportionately few numbers of seats compared to their share of the vote. Much has been said about where their vote came from. Ideologically, since they sit roughly half way between the Conservatives and the BNP, it seems reasonable to assume that some votes from those who voted for those other right-wing parties. But they also seem to have gained voted from the Lib Dems, whose voters tend to have little in common with the traditional UKIP voter. But this was a time for breaking tradition. It remains the case that UKIP control no councils and have no MPs. While they had a very good election this time round, only time and future elections will tell if they are a reasonable force to be reckoned with or if this was a reactionary flash in the pan.

Greens remain a minority party, even though they do have 1 MP in the sister county of East Sussex. They made modest gains in the share of the vote but do not look likely to have a large say in the County Council any time in the foreseeable future. I would imagine that their modest gain in the share of the vote came from former Lib Dem voters, though it is difficult to be certain of this.

BNP had their vote almost obliterated. Gaining just 57 votes in the whole county, the far right extremists fielded just 1 candidate, compared to the 22 they had in 2009. Their vote seems to have transferred to UKIP. Though they were a minority here, they are no almost non-existent, which in my opinion is no bad thing.

Probably the most interesting thing about this election was that in every single ward, without exception, turnout was down on 2009. Sometimes turnout is dependent on the weather, with a rainy day discouraging people from voting. But the 2nd of May was a wonderful warm, sunny spring day. When I went to vote at about 19:40 in the early evening, the sun was hanging low in the sky and there was a pleasantly warm breeze about. So one might have had good reason to expect a high turnout. Though I admit I have done no research on, nor do I recall, what the weather was like on the day of the 2009 vote. To me then, the most striking conclusion about the county-wide vote is that the last 3 years of coalition government has put people off. Those that have voted for the Conservatives remain largely loyal, but those floating voters who favoured them last time round have tried to send a message to the party’s leadership by voting for UKIP. Their coalition partners have come off far worse, almost falling to 4th place. This is not traditional Labour country and though they gained some share, are unlikely to wrest control from the Tories any time soon.

So West Sussex remains a blue, uninteresting county. My father puts it quite aptly. “You could put a blue ribbon on a pig and it would get elected.” Indeed, given some of the MPs who have their safe seats here, one might argue that their snouts remain well and truly in the trough. But there is one area of West Sussex which is slightly more interesting, and it is to that which we turn to next.

Crawley – the only interesting seat in West Sussex

Crawley has become something of a bellwether seat. In 2010 it was won by the Conservatives, overturning the smallest majority in Parliament of 37, having been held by Labour since they won it in 1997. Prior to that, it had been Conservative seat since its creation in 1983. Before then, it was part of a combined constituency of Horsham & Crawley.

If we look solely at the local election votes that took place in Crawley, then we get a slightly different picture from the rest of the county.

Election 2

Here, the Conservatives lost the overall vote, with a bigger swing away from them and towards Labour. The Liberal Democrats were almost wiped out within the town, with UKIP coming a solid third.

How local election results translate into Westminster elections is never certain, but if the direction and size of the swings are reflected in the 2015 general election then the Conservatives have much to worry about. Having not won a general election outright since 1992, Crawley is a seat they need to keep if they have any hopes of winning a majority in the House of Commons. In 2010, the Conservatives won 44.8% of the Crawley vote, with Labour coming in second with 33.3%. If the swings above were to be reproduced, then that would result in the Conservative winning just 31.1% and Labour taking the seat with 40.7% of the vote.

Even if we were to temper the swing, by making it only 60% as strong (i.e. 13.6% x 60% = 8.2%) then Labour look likely as though they would still win, albeit with a tiny majority, as they did in 2005.

Whichever way you look at it, the Conservative MP for Crawley, Henry Smith, should be looking over his shoulder. He and his party will have a tough time keeping Crawley Conservative in 2015. They will have to bring back the disaffected voters by appealing to those who abandoned them for UKIP, whilst at the same time trying to maintain their loyal base and win over some floating voters who have favoured Labour. But if they try to be all things to all people, they may pull themselves apart. Labour’s policy of having no policies in advance of the general election has been copied straight from David Cameron. The gains made by the Conservatives in 2010 were more a default reaction against Labour than for anything the Tories actually stood for. Labour seem to be playing the same kind of waiting game, hoping for a win by default, though it’s a potentially risky strategy, as it didn’t even work for Cameron.

When it comes to 2015, Crawley will be a seat to watch. Ed Miliband visited the town prior to the local elections. I expect him to be back in 2 years’ time, as I expect the leaders of the other main parties also.