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?

Friday, May 05, 2017

This is not about Brexit

My fear ... These elections are not about Brexit. Brexit is a distraction, a means of capturing votes with a big sideshow. After all, what is guaranteed to stir the British public from apathy more than a perceived threat to its sovereignty from the outside? What is more guaranteed to turn them away from a party than the suggestion that it is prepared to appease them?
Whilst the EU negotiator sounds conciliatory, and says there is no punishment, the media report the risks of a cost of 100 billion Euros, and the tories are happy to suggest that was the threat. WHO IS GAINING FROM THIS SUPPOSED INTERFERENCE IN THE ELECTION?
So the conservatives are about to be given a huge electoral mandate, and with that, they are going to dismantle the remaining vestiges of British society, under the guise of the need for austerity. The NHS, state education, social welfare, none will exist in a form that we would recognise by 2022. The apparatus is already in place. The conservatives engineered the majority they needed in the marginal constituencies in 2015 by cheating the finances. The potential sting to them has been drawn by the fact that they are about to secure their majority. Money is already being diverted away from state schools, the NHS and welfare towards privately owned schools and grammar schools, healthcare companies and other companies. With a majority of over 100 in the next parliament, there will be nothing that can stand in the way of them legitimately completing the job. - the poor lose out as a result of the 11+…/dwp-fit-to-work-assessments-… - companies gain more than the government saves…/selling-nhs-profit-full-list-4646… - (old report) people in government who benefit from private health companies