Friday, May 24, 2019

Grace

I want to talk a bit about grace, because I think a lot of the time I don't really get it. From a Christian point of view, we have plenty of songs which major on grace ("Amazing grace", "Wonderful grace", "Grace, grace, grace", "By grace alone somehow I stand"), we have churches (Grace Baptist, Grace Community ... and so on), and of course as believers in the Protestant tradition, we follow Luther and the reformers and the apostle Paul in asserting that we are saved by grace alone. But I think we end up a bit muddled after that. What does it actually mean? What am I supposed to do with it? How should I live as a result? I think a lot of that may be because when we think about it, we tend to focus on ourselves. What happens when instead we start from God?

What does grace mean to the giver?

I guess the point about grace is that it starts from love. This is something that is open to us to experience as human beings. The trouble is, the language of love is blurred today; we tend to think of it as being transactional - you do something for me, I do something for you. This idea of relationships is described in Ecclesiastes - not in an approving way, but as part of what life looks like "under the sun" - if you take God out of the equation. "Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves. A cord of three strands is not quickly broken." As though the whole point of relationships is to make you stronger, a kind of evolutionary strategy.

But that's not what love is. Love makes you weaker.  Or perhaps slightly more accurately, love has a cost. You give yourself for the other person. For example, parents sacrifice their comfort, wealth, and sleep to care for children. For all the jokes about what we expect our children to do when we need to be cared for, both the parents and the children know that there's nothing the child is ever going to be able to do which will make up for what their parents have done for them. Other relationships are like that as well - although it may be the case that both parties in a relationship sacrifice themselves within it.

I think that's how we need to understand how God is towards us. He created us, he loves us - not in a way that he is ever going to get anything back from. In fact, in the same way that there's nothing a child can really do to give anything back to their parents, there is absolutely nothing we can give back to God - because it was he who gave it to us in the first place. There's more - because we have "sinned", rebelled against God, he actually needs to come and rescue us. The price of this, in Christian terms, is massive - God, in the person of Jesus, comes and gives up his life to save us from the consequences of our sin. In the same way that a parent would do anything, give anything for their children, or a lover would do anything, give anything for his or her beloved, God has done everything and given everything to save us.

But the significant question is, why? What does he get out of it? Is it some kind of power trip to get people to worship him? Well, if you are the creator of the universe and so on, you don't need to surrender yourself to achieve this. In the same way as the pagan kings in the Bible could simply pass a law commanding everyone to bow down to them, and couple it with a death sentence for those people who didn't, there's no reason that God could not have done that. "Worship me - and if you don't, you'll face my judgement." If you accept that he is the creator of the universe, then it's hard to say that this is an unreasonable position to take.

But he doesn't.

Instead he gives us everything, eventually even himself. He knows that as he gives us this, we have done nothing to deserve it, and there's nothing we can do to repay it. So why does he? The answer is, because he loves us. "I know you don't deserve it. I know you can't repay it. But I love you - so I am pouring this out upon you..."

How does one react to this? Remember, nothing you can give back will ever repay what you have been given - and that's not what God expects - in the same way that we don't tot up the debt our children have for us and present them with a bill, and we don't keep a kind of ledger of the good things and bad things that our lover does for us if we truly love them - we just give, because it's what we want to do. What do you want from someone you have poured out your grace on, out of love? I would suggest that you just want them to value it, to be thankful for it, to recognise it. You want don't want them to do anything, you just want to know that they understand what you have done for them, and value it.

Now, what happens if you don't value what someone has done for you? You can imagine a situation where children are ungrateful for what their parents have done - they don't appreciate it, or mock it, or whatever. Or no matter what a lover does, his or her beloved is indifferent and unmoved by it. Eventually, the heart of the person pouring out their grace will be broken, they will stop giving. Eventually, in a sense, this also becomes an act of grace - the final one - the child does not want the embarrassment of their parents showing their love; the way the lover pours out grace on the beloved when the beloved is indifferent is just awkward. Better in those circumstances for the grace to cease, to allow distance between the two parties. The parent, the lover has not stopped loving, but unrequited love ultimately goes nowhere. 

So what should grace mean to us?

I suppose we need to grasp the nature and meaning of grace, in the first place. God's grace to us means that there is nothing we can give back - for our life, for our salvation. Anything we have to offer God is what he has already given us - it's his already. And he's not looking for you to "give anything back" to him. Or "give anything" to him at all. He simply wants you to understand and value what he's given you.

Again, it helps to think about this in terms of human relationships. What would the beloved do if the lover pours out grace upon them? They would simply love back. They would recognise how much they have been given, and be simply devoted in return. They don't need to do anything - the lover doesn't give a list of rules that need to be obeyed in return for their love - because they are simply pouring out their love. But even so, it is easy to see that there are ways of behaving in the light of that love which aren't an appropriate response to it. Parents don't approach their relationship with their children as a kind of quid pro quo thing - but everybody knows how awkward it is to see children who are ungrateful, who take what their parents give them for granted.

This imagery does exist in the Bible in more concrete form (eg. the book of Hosea) as well as in discussion about salvation by grace, and what the law means for people who have been saved. It's wrestled out in the New Testament as well - how are we supposed to live? What are we supposed to do? We are not called to live under the law, but that doesn't mean that what we do doesn't matter. There is a picture of what it is like when it goes wrong in both brothers in the story of the Prodigal Son - the younger brother takes for granted what his father has done for him - but the older brother is clearly resentful of his father as well - the same grace has been poured out on both of them, but the older brother talks about the fact that he has been "slaving" for him and "never disobeyed [his] orders" - this isn't the language of someone responding to love.

The image of the older brother was arguably the main point of the parable, addressed to the target audience - the Pharisees, who resented the fact that Jesus was drawing "sinners" back to God. Their lives had been based on keeping the rules, on proving they were good enough for God. But that was not how God had ever brought people to himself - he had always given salvation to his people. It's hard for those of us from a religious background to hold onto the fact that it's nothing that we have done that saves us - we tend to think, like the Pharisees, that we are pretty good - and lose sight of the fact that God has simply poured out his grace upon us because he loves us, even though there was nothing we could give to him. That's what we need to be holding onto.

This post is just musing; if there are theological errors, they are all mine.


Saturday, May 04, 2019

Local election results

The leaderships of both the Conservatives and the Labour Party have reportedly said that the message from the local elections is that "they should get on and deliver Brexit".

What actually happened in the local elections is that Brexit supporting parties (UKIP, Conservative, Labour) all lost seats, and Brexit opposing parties (Liberal, Green) gained seats. There was also a turning away from national parties towards local groups. So there is disillusion with national/international politics - but to describe this vote as an endorsement of the movement towards Brexit takes a level of pigheadedness and confirmation bias that in any merely safety-critical role would probably be fatal. The parody website, Newsthump is doing a better job than the main news outlets of cutting through the cant on this.

In the European elections, the picture will be different. That's because at the European elections, the groups who don't actually care about local politics but which just want out of the EU will come out to play (Brexit party) and the voters who don't actually care about local politics but which just want out of the EU will come out to vote. The main parties will still be hammered, but it won't look as unequivocally anti-Brexit as the local elections did.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Representative democracy?

In the last 24 hours, a single petition has attracted 700,000 signatures, and is now nudging a million total signatures. That's 1% of the total population in 24 hours, and say 2% of the voting population in total. The petition is very, very simple. "Revoke Article 50" - that is, stop the UK withdrawal from the EU.

The people who digitally sign the petition basically know that it's not going to change anything - the deal with government petitions is that over 100,000 signatures will mean that a petition will be "considered" for debate in parliament; that's the best that's on offer - but since parliament is largely preoccupied by the issue of Brexit anyway, the likelihood of this specific item receiving separate consideration is slim. The same goes, I imagine, for the people who are planning to march in London on Saturday in support of a new referendum. At this stage, it's unlikely to change anything - but people want the government to know that this is not happening in their name.

The justification for signing the petition is that for large numbers of people, their belief that the simplest and best way out of this mess is just to stop it, is not being articulated. The views of the 17.4 million people who voted to leave in the referendum are talked about continually - and the non-binding referendum has become binding, and the fact that we were told that arrangements for leaving would be agreed in advance has been ignored. If 2% of MPs expressed this view, 12 of them would have stood up in parliament and asked for the process to stop in the last few messy weeks. If even one person had stood up and articulated it, it might have been enough raising of a flag to get it on the table. But even the europhile LibDems instead have focussed on the expensive and dubious option of a second referendum. Revoking Article 50 is clearly not a less-than-1% option - but you wouldn't know that given the failure of any politicians to contemplate it.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Project Fear

The funny thing about all the "project fear" statements is that people use it almost like being told something is bad makes the statement wrong in itself. "Bad effects of brexit? Project fear! Climate change? Project fear! Smoking causes cancer? Project fear! Not wearing a seat belt increases risk in road accidents? Project fear!" It's like invoking Hitler - "stop the argument, this is the trump card."

Oh, and another funny thing ... picking isolated statistics as a supposed refutation of project fear ... "Look at our employment rate! Project fear is wrong about Brexit. Look at the nice weather in Wales! Project fear is wrong about climate change. My uncle smoked for eighty years and didn't get cancer! Project fear is wrong about smoking. I know someone who knows someone who in an accident was thrown clear of a car and walked away without a scratch, when the car exploded and killed everyone else! Project fear is wrong about seatbelts."

Basically, I am sceptical that anybody who says "project fear" about anything is capable of serious critical thought. It's an anti-argument. But then since "An argument that feels right to me and fits what I want to believe must be as true for me as your argument is true for you", I guess that's what we should expect in a postmodern era.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Making LaTeX work

If you are a "normal" person, you've probably never heard of LaTeX (pronounced "lay-tech"). It's a text processing system in which, rather than WYSIWYG, you mark up your code as you write it, and then compile it - typically into a PDF. The appearance can be startlingly attractive - Donald Knuth, who is basically one of the people who invented computer science, apparently said that TeX, which underlies it, was intended for the creation of beautiful books — and especially for books that contain a lot of mathematics”. Beyond maths, its use extends to pretty much any field where you want to add content that is more than simple Roman text - chemistry, non-Latin characters, bibliographies...

The trouble is that it suffers from CompSci disease - which I think I can summarise as being that the assumption is made by most people using it that time spent learning about how to install and use it is time well spent - rather than simply time that is lost from the project that actually needs to be done. Error codes are opaque, software has hidden dependencies which mean that it doesn't work and won't tell you why not, and instructions assume that you will take delight in spending several evenings working through a tutorial gradually getting up to speed - rather than wanting basically to be able to do this NOW. LaTeX devotees in universities will demand that students or supervisees will do stuff in LaTex because "it gives the best results" - this feels like the CompSci equivalent of chucking a non-swimmer into the river above Niagara Falls ...

So what's the best way to do anything with LaTeX? I don't know the best way, but last night, I did manage to find one that works. I installed MiKTeX. Unlike TeXMaker and TeXworks (as a platform on its own - actually MiKTeX invokes TeXworks), it downloaded everything it needed to work straight away. Also, it automatically updated everything. Also, rather than grumbling when it needed something that it couldn't have (extra skills beyond the core functionality), it just went and found the library it needed on the internet. This basically brings LaTeX into the realm of normal computer users rather than computer specialists.

I then spent a while getting to grips with some of the basic instructions. The "Hello World" of LaTex looks like this:

\documentclass[12pt]{article}
\begin{document}
Hello world!
\end{document}

(Computer guys, do you know how INFURIATING it is when you install a package and even this doesn't work out of the tin???!!!)

Then, with a little more exploring, I came up with:

\documentclass[12pt]{article}
\usepackage{chemfig}
\begin{document}
\title{A \LaTeX\ Sampler}
\author{Joe Author}
\maketitle
\section{The first section}
\subsection{The first subsection}
Now is the winter of our discontent\\made glorious summer by this son of York \\ \\
\noindent
\texttt{Here is some teletype text}\\
\textbf{Here is some bold text}\\
\textit{Here is some italic text}\\


\chemfig{C(=[:0]C(-[:60]H)(-[:300]H))(-[:120]H)(-[:240]Cl)}
\begin{thebibliography}{1}
\bibitem {Shakespeare 1604}Shakespeare, W., \textit{Richard III}, Stratford, Reprinted 2016.
\end{thebibliography}
\end{document}
What bits and pieces do we have here? It includes ... how to invoke libraries (chemfig, in this case, for the molecule that it draws!!), how to create and display a title, sections and subsections, how to do bold, italic and fixed fonts, and how to set up a bibliography. I also found a usable online reference for LaTex, at Wikibooks.

Basically, this one post that I have written is what I was not able to find on the internet, which is "How to get up and running with LaTex fast, and have access to the information you need to make more progress with it."

Friday, March 02, 2018

Antibiotic resistance

The dangers of increasing antibiotic resistance are well known. It is impossible to use the NHS without becoming aware of the comprehensive warnings relating to the improper prescription and use of antibiotics. The danger is that improper use of antibiotics will result in antibiotic-resistant strains of harmful bacteria arising - and antibiotics, which have proved the mainstay of public health for fifty years, will no longer be effective.

People are less aware of agricultural use of antibiotics, to promote growth in healthy animals. Here is an article on the subject from Wikipedia, and here's an introductory article from The Guardian. Theoretically, the practice should be being reduced. This article from The Independent suggests that disturbingly, even antibiotics of last resort are still being used to promote growth.

There is no way of telling from meat labelling what role antibiotics have played in the rearing of animals. Some food suppliers are now drawing attention to their decision not to use antibiotics in farming (eg. Karro Food Group, who even sought to establish a trademark for antibiotic-free meat). A preferable way forward would be for meat from animals reared using antibiotics to promote growth to be labelled as such. I have started a petition (here is the link) suggesting this form of labelling.

This would promote consumer choice and information. Another issue is that when we leave the EU, the government has indicated that it wishes to have a comprehensive and liberal trade agreement with the USA. Use of antibiotics in meat-farming seems to be considerably more widespread there. A consumer regime which makes this visible would hopefully help in the fight against the growth of antibiotic resistance.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Live shows

The following are recommended ...

U2
Coldplay
Green Day
Talking Heads
Bruce Springsteen
REM
Queen
Take That

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A female Doctor

The thirteenth Doctor is going to be played by a woman - Jodie Whittaker.

My reaction to this? I'm not as appalled as some. I tend to work on the basis that if this was a matter of "inclusivism" it should have happened years ago. If the aim of the regeneration is to unlock new dramatic possibilities, then a female Doctor is just as right as a male one.

It's worth pointing out that given the Doctor prioritises compassion, collaboration and communication over conflict and competition, he is already prioritising what would conventionally be called "feminine" values.

However, there is one thing ... as a wise old man (over 900 years, regardless of the body he appeared in), the Doctor corresponds with one of the main Jungian archetypes. For a heavy but enjoyable romp through some of what this means from the point of view of fiction, read The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker. In effect, what it means is that there are certain "classic characters" who are recognisable throughout the world of narrative. One of these is the "wise old man" - which recurs most obviously in wizards like Gandalf, Dumbledore, Merlin and Cadellin. Our ideas about how the Doctor will behave are shaped by the fact that he incarnates this archetype. When people say, "But the Doctor has to be a man!" is it because they are prejudiced in some way, or is it because in their mind the Doctor occupies this archetypal space? From my point of view, it's "just a drama" - the writers can do what they like with it. But maybe that's because, not having a TV in my formative years, I never had a specific Doctor that I thought was "the definitive one".

What will happen when the Doctor is incarnated as a woman? Is it possible for a woman to be a "wise old man", in Jungian terms? Or will we end up seeing the Doctor conform to a different archetype? The "wise old woman", maybe? Will that be a noticeable change in focus? Does that matter? The whole gender thing - whether such a thing even exists as something more than a social construct - is being widely debated. It will be interesting to see whether fiddling around with archetypes casts any more light on the question. In fact, I'm more interested in answers to these sorts of meta-questions than I am shocked by him incarnating as a woman.

Incidentally, I don't know the extent to which the writers are aware of Jung and archetypes. They probably just want to write a good episode and not worry about the rest. That's the clever thing about the archetypes - for the most part, they sit there in people's unconscious ....

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Tales from the plutocracy

Public subsidies to the rail network, and rising ticket prices, whilst shareholders are paid hundreds of millions of pounds in dividends.

A tower block burns down whilst Conservative MPs vote against tighter regulations of building safety standards.

Private companies are paid to cut benefits being paid to poor people. Their shortfall of money is met by charitable donations and volunteers manning food banks.

Shortfalls in school funding are being met by donations from parents.

The cost of nurse training to be met by the nurses themselves, rather than society as a whole.

Uncapped rises in rent met (or not) by housing and other benefits, which effectively transfer wealth from the taxpayer to the wealthy. Incidentally, my definition of "the wealthy" here is people who have homes that they can afford not to live in. That's a bit of a simplification, but it's not a bad starting point.

Every policy, every policy, designed to transfer money from "normal" people to "the rich", or limit the amount of money "the rich" have to pay to participate in society.

The opposition party argues over how left wing it should be whilst the party in power presses ahead unchallenged.

The media, largely owned by the plutocracy, draws attention to the weakness of the opposition rather than exposing the money grab of the people in power.

Friday, June 09, 2017

The "trickle-up" effect

The Conservatives promote the idea of the "trickle-down" effect - the idea that if people at "the top" get richer, the money trickles down through the economy and spreads to "the bottom" - the poorest. However, in my mind, this system has broken down. It would be better to describe it these days as a "trickle-up" effect - through high rent, housing benefit, dividends to shareholders, high charges for credit, and so on, as much of the spare money of the poor as possible is soaked up and passed up the chain to the wealthy. It doesn't trickle down any more - the net wealth of the richest 1000 people increased by 14% last year. That £83 billion pounds that just 1000 people increased in wealth by could have had a major impact on the economy were it "trickling down". Understand that I am not being anti-rich here. I consider myself one of the lucky ones, in wealth terms. But the whole foundation for how Conservative economics is sold to the population is on this basis. And if in actual fact, the money is simply being tied up in billionaires' assets, then this is not working. Note that even if the same amount was being transferred back to the economy at the same time as their wealth was increasing (though how quickly can a billionaire spend money?!) this would still represent a ridiculously inefficient process of getting money into the economy.

The point about this money is that it has to come from somewhere. And if the money is available to increase the net wealth of individuals, it could be available to reduce the deficit, or pay for hospitals, or .... whatever. The government is enthusiastically chasing something like £1 billion fraudulently obtained benefits - and rightly so. But that billion pounds is spread across far more people than 1000, and they are far more likely to be spending it in the local economy ("trickle-out?") - and the casualties of this are the people who are seeing their benefits cut when they are actually dependent upon them. This is why foodbank use is at record highs.

Similarly, quantitative easement could have passed money into the economy for the benefit of the population - but those billions of pounds were never seen by "normal" people, whilst high earners in the banking sector continued to see huge bonuses.

The world has changed, in this area as well as others (see my post on privatisation below). The Conservatives continue to pretend that things are the same as they were thirty years ago, in regard to these things, which is why people uncritically continue to vote for them, and believe that they represent a better way than the dangerous lefties with their strikes and their unions and their closed shops ("Corbyn will take us back to the 70s"). But these people owe it to the rest of society to understand how the tories are taking them and everybody else for a ride.

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Tomorrow's election

Basically, the only thing the conservatives are offering is the "best Brexit deal" - a statement so vague as to have no substantive content whatsoever, and one which seems pretty unachievable given the team that are likely to be involved in the negotiations. There is literally not one other thing they have said in this election campaign that offers anything good for the country ... unless you happen to already be very rich (as, of course, all of the key players in the last government are). There is no let up to the threat to human rights, education, health, transport, international relationships that we have already seen from the tories. The rest of their campaign has been spent, with the collusion of key sections of the media, trying to say that Corbyn and his team would be bad for the country - as a means of distracting people from the appalling impact that their own manifesto will have.
Despite this, Corbyn has presented himself as measured, thoughtful, polite and a much more convincing figure for PM than May. I have several issues with Labour. One is that their manifesto promises are financially unachievable. Another is that whilst I would be happy to see Corbyn in 10 Downing Street, I don't believe the left wing of the party has the necessary competence to attempt to deliver anything close to what they have been talking about. And the third is that I still have not forgotten what Labour did from 1997-2010 - the misguided foreign adventurism and the laxity regarding the City of London which permitted them to wreck the economy. Note that I don't believe that this was fundamentally Labour's fault - this was the financial hard right wing, a sector of the economy that is happy to bypass political process altogether, and actually deserved the Icelandic solution of failure and prosecution, were that not to have had such an appalling impact on millions of innocent people. But it was on Labour's watch.
The fact that the electorate can apparently forget holds out hope in the long term for the party I still prefer, the Libdems. Some are still punishing them for (in effect) not being the biggest party in the coalition from 2010-2015, despite the fact that they managed to hold back the appalling right wing programme that the tories have since embarked upon. "Liberal" (that is, anti-liberal) secularists worked hard to damage Farron and undermine him from the start of the campaign, which is particularly daft as the libdem agenda is much closer to their mindset and more authentic than either of the two main parties. It was similar to what happened to Orson Scott Card with the film Ender's Game - it had a profound and overt anti-war message, but "liberals" could not see beyond Scott Card's attitude to other issues, so chucked the baby out with the bathwater.
With a big drop in Labour's polling position, and the largest party continuing to oppose Brexit, the Libdems might have hoped to have seen an increase in their share of the vote. This has not happened, and this is also despite their manifesto being generally well regarded and thought of as the most honest and realistic. It's not going to make a difference, and I can't imagine that the Libdems are going to advance significantly, if at all, in this election, but do at least check that you're voting for a party where you believe in the policies, not one that the media are telling you is the best one.


Monday, May 29, 2017

Third way

Corbyn is not quite the poisoned brand that he was. Over the last week or two, increasing numbers of people have given him a long hard look, particularly in the light of May's performance, and have come to the conclusion that he might be prime ministerial material. Also, the Labour manifesto was popular - people in general seem to regard it, as intended, as a manifesto of hope. But Corbyn's personal rating is still substantially lower than May's, and there are doubts that the commitments made in the manifesto can be funded. The right-wing press have grilled opposition politicians (Farron over homosexuality, Corbyn over the IRA) in a way that they simply haven't the tories. Hitherto, Corbyn has not suffered too much, but in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing, it's hard to know what impact public perception of attitudes to security issues will have.

Meanwhile, from having all but an absolute majority of the electorate in their hands (having hoovered up the UKIP votes following their pretty much wholescale adoption of their policies and attitudes), the Conservatives have seen their lead in the polls gradually slipping away. Their manifesto seems to have been one of the major causes - but it was symptomatic of a general sense that they conveyed that they could say pretty much whatever they liked, and they would still sweep to victory. Foxhunting, massive personal liability for the cost of social care, grammar schools, ID required to vote - get it all out there. But drip by drip, the united opposition to this platform from schools, the health service, and really anybody who was prepared to think about the implications of the proposed policies seems to have got through to increasing numbers of people, and the lines in the sand of more and more of the electorate were being crossed.

What we are left with, seemingly, is one group of people saying "vote Conservative, they may be bad, but we can't have Corbyn" whilst the other group, to a much greater extent than I have noticed in any previous election, are saying "anything but the tories!" The shame about this is that, after the last two elections (LibDem in 2010, UKIP in 2015) we really don't have the sense of there being a coherent alternative to Labour and Conservative, at least publicly. There has been small-scale co-operation in some constituencies, with tactical voting being encouraged in some marginal seats. It would be nice to think that this would make a substantial difference - and if the polls get closer, maybe it will make enough of one.

But imagine a parliament shaped by proper proportional representation - even with the polls as they are today. Something like 290 Conservative, 250 Labour, 60 Liberal, 25 UKIP, 25 others. There need not be a coalition, though that's one way of dealing with the situation. There could just as easily be a minority government. What would happen is that the party manifestos would be all but irrelevant - the government would have to work with other parties to make things happen. Can they do that? Of course they can! That's what happened with the calling of the early election, and the agreement of parliament to approve the invocation of Article 50. The leading party (which forms the government) makes the case for something, and persuades parliament of the rightness of the proposed actions. They win the argument, rather than assuming that the electoral mandate that they received (for all sorts of reasons) justifies whatever they want to do.

The 2010 government came closest to this, although the effect of the coalition is that this "winning of the argument" took place within the coalition government, rather than by parliament. The consensus is still that those five years represented a period of effective government, and certainly preferable to what we have had since. A significant number of Liberal policies were introduced, and many illiberal Conservative policies - ID cards, for example - were dumped.

The Labour party have muttered about electoral reform in the run up to the publication of their manifesto, and this report suggests three quarters of their voters might support reform. The trouble is that if you have gained power under the current system, you have a strong reason to preserve it. Theresa May in particular seems intent on using this election as a power-grab - her intention in going to the polls was apparently to silence opposition in parliament (incidentally this statement, made at the time she called the election, made my hair stand on end - that is democracy, no?!). Her manifesto is talking about disenfranchising those without passports and driving licences (that's mostly the poor), and if Scotland left the union, the Conservatives would be virtually unassailable in England. Of course, the tories would say that an end to the Union is not what they want ... but if they happened to be left with political control of the rich south, that would make it sweeter. If the pendulum swings back far enough, and Labour return to parliament with a bigger share, it's not hard to imagine that PR would drop off their radar again. They will continue to be an ineffective opposition, as they have been for the last two years, but happy that they ARE still the opposition.

The best outcome would be for the FPTP system to deliver the distribution of votes that would result in this happening in parliament naturally. With Labour weakened, there was some hope for a while that there might be serious opposition to the Conservatives from several parties - that would have been another goodish outcome - imagine 330 Conservative, 200 Labour, 80 Liberal (as people swing away from Labour in indifference to Corbyn and their ability to mount an opposition), 60 other. But as Labour have got stronger, this has looked less likely, unfortunately.

I suspect that local results will have more of an impact on this election than on many recent ones. I hope so. The assumption has to be that the Conservatives have soaked up pretty much all of the UKIP vote, and so everything that can be done to constrain the mixture of right-wing (which shapes the tory government) and complacent apathy (which shapes most of the tory vote) should be done. My fears for this election are that it could prove a one-way street for some very unpleasant changes to British society. My hopes are that people will, to quote Sheenagh Pugh:
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can't leave some stranger poor.
But I'm not holding my breath

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Conservative equivalent of nationalisation

The bogeyman of nationalisation stalks threateningly around the Labour party. Memories of strikes, poor service and inefficiency are deeply imbedded in our national consciousness, and both the (right wing) media and right wing politicians are more than happy to remind us.

It has struck me recently that what is particularly disingenuous about this is that the Conservative party are more than happy to substitute their own analogue of nationalisation - ultimately, no better for the consumer.

The public logic is as follows: a nationalised industry is uncompetitive and inefficient, likely offering poor service. If it is privatised and opened up to competition, this will drive prices down and result in an improved service. That was the historical logic - the Conservatives of the 1980s had many faults, but this was their agenda, and there's little doubt that the big privatisations of that era - BT, British Airways, British Gas, BAA - have ended up doing the job better as private companies than the were doing as effectively parts of the government.

However, the more recent privatisations seem to have been less about the ideology of the most effective way to run a public service and more to do with transfer of wealth to a de facto plutocracy. Privatisation of electricity, water boards and the railway have not apparently resulted in genuinely open and competitive markets. Employees have suffered, and customers have seen little benefit. The biggest beneficiaries have been a comparatively small wealthy class. In the case of the railways, for example, this report points out that whilst the railways still require a public subsidy of billions of pounds (that is, taxpayer money), and ticket prices have consistently increased faster than inflation, they are paying hundreds of millions of pounds to shareholders. It is hard to believe that the taxpayer is gaining value for money from this arrangement - but since it is the government ideology, securing value for money for the taxpayer is secondary to detaching these entities from the government. If it benefits the plutocracy, so much the better.

Can you see how this is similar to nationalisation? The policy is ideological - it has little concern with the customer or the taxpayer - it is what the government is going to do anyway. Unlike with nationalisation, the folk memory of privatisation is generally good, still - "Tell Sid", the spread of share ownership and dividends, improving customer service. But that's not what is going on now. Instead, we see markets with no competition, and money being transferred from taxpayers not to a bloated public service but to shareholders. But the effect is the same.

This is the model the Conservatives wish to pursue if they continue in power. Public money goes to pay for school places in academies, which whilst state schools are struggling and having to cut budgets, still anticipate being able to make a profit. The same for the health service - public money again being used to pay for medical work, but rather than state-owned enterprises collecting the money (at cost), private companies (making a profit for the benefit of shareholders) will collect it instead. And this is what is planned for old-age social care. Companies will be invited to provide financial products and the net effect will be a large proportion of the capital from a significant fraction of the housing stock of the country being transferred for profit to them.

This is blatantly serving the interests of people within the government. I read a report that the prime minister's husband works for the company with one area of expertise being the sort of equity release product that will form the staple of the Conservative proposal about social housing. Extensive connections between private healthcare companies and government ministers have been reported (it should be noted, though, that some of these are donations, and politicians have little control over who gives them money).

What's the alternative? Is it possible to have a middle ground between nationalised entities, with their risk of inefficiency, and private companies, transferring money from the public purse to shareholders and overpaid executives?