Sunday, 4 December 2016

"I, Daniel Blake" and me.

Last week I saw this  film about a  man in his 50s in the North East  of England who, although he has a heart condition, is diagnosed fit for work by the the government's social security system, and his attempts to appeal his case.

It is a film that makes one thoroughly ashamed to be British and have a government so monstrously unfeeling - determined, it seems to massage down the figures of those unable to work through illness regardless of the human consequences.  I'd like to think that all Conservative MPs, party members and voters, members of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, and readers of the Daily Mail would see it.

My comments relate to three incidents of which I've had practical experience.  The consequences for me have been very minor - just irritation, rather than literally matters of life and death.- but nevertheless signify a downward spiral in the quality of our lifestyle.

The film opens with Daniel Blake "enduring" (that word is used advisedly) a telephone interview to assess his ability to work.  The motivation of the interviewer is  clearly: "Answer the question so I can tick my box"  No time for explanations, qualifications, just "Yes" or "No" to the way I'm required to think of things.

Many of us are experiencing similar blinkered thinking when trying to make sense of banks, investment companies, hospitals and  local government.  Very often the first "conversation" is with a tape recorder.  Press this, press that, listen to this message  (at your expense, because it's often a premium number)  about how you could do what you want on line,  and finally, do it our way or not at all. I get the impression that much of the harassment from the banks is to put us in the position of supplicant, so that in the end we feel grateful that the bank can do anything for us at all.  The reverse, of course, is true: they are dependent on our custom.

There is much talk of the advent of the robotic society.  These are robots, both tapes and humans, and they detract from the quality of life rather than enhance it.

Blake is ordered to pursue his case by computer.   The Department of Work and Pensions, he is told, is
"default computer," to which he responds, "Well, I'm default pencil."  Time and again I have replicated Blake's experience of spending more time than I care to on inputting information  only to find the system fails at the last hurdle.  Much of the  information required , especially on "mail order" systems, is irrelevant to the  request being made, but clearly there simply to enable them to pester us  with unsolicited offers and opportunities that we'd prefer not to be bothered with.

And finally the film closes with  Blake's "final plea" that he is "not a client, a customer....but a citizen."  Here here!  I'm pleased that Alan Bennett, in his latest very readable diaries, Keeping on Keeping, on makes a similar point.  As far as the banks and the supermarkets are concerned I am happy to be a customer because  I have the sanction to " take my custom elsewhere,"  But on the railway I am a passenger, with the health services I am a patient, and with both local and national government I am a citizen.  The attempt to reduce all our relationships to the cash nexus by calling us customers is a monetarist step too far.

I,Daniel Blake also has a sub-plot in which a single mother is driven to prostitution by the intransigence of the system.  Do see it if you haven't already.. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Reining in corporate greed.

There are clear parallels between the UK's vote  for Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in the US.  In both countries the "left behind" have taken the opportunity to take a swipe at "the establishment" regardless of the consequences.

In the US here is anger that the perceived effects of globalisation have left swathes of the country, the "rust belt" abandoned and with only a minimalist, if that,  welfare safety net. In the UK there is growing anger that, while those at the bottom of the pile have suffered the consequences of government-imposed austerity, the fat cats at the top have not only escaped unscathed but are become richer and richer.

Here are a few figures to illustrate the obscene and still growing gap between the rich and the poor.

  • Unemployment benefit (now ludicrously called "Job Seekers' Allowance) is  £73.10 per week for an adult, which is the equivalent of £3 801 a year, though I you only get it for six months;
  • the government's version of the Living Wage is £7.20 an hour, which for a 35 hour week is £252  or £13,100 per year assuming full-time work rather than zero hours contract.  Members of the House of Lords, who could be said to be on zero hours contracts, though they choose their own hours, receive £300 a day plus expenses;
  • the current median wage is just above £535 per week, or just over £28 000 a year.
  • the average pay of trading bankers at Goldman Sachs is said to be around £400 000 a year, which works out at around £7 500 a week (that's rounding down);
  • the average "compensation" (pay is to crude a word) for the CEOs of the FT100 companies is £5.5m a year, or over £105 000 a week (again rounding down.)  According to some calculations this is 128 times that of their average workers, whereas in 1998 it was only (!) 47 times.
In her opening speech as our prime minister Theresa May spoke of  her "mission to make Britain a country that works for everyone." This was effectively a tacit admission that David Cameron's government had failed to do that.

However, if her Green Paper on Corporate Governance Reform issued yesterday  is anything to go by, there's not going  to be much change. Early indications that Mrs May favoured elected worker representatives  on company boards have been rowed back to mean that  their "voices" might be heard via non-executive directors (sounds a bit like the Guardians ad Litem appointed by the courts to speak for children too young to represent themselves).  And it looks as though she's caved in to indignation from the corporate  lobby that companies might be required to publish the ratio of their  executives' pay to that of their average worker.

If the serious dysfunctionality of our political system is to be healed it is essential that the present system which allows a tiny minority (the one per cent?) to rape and pillage the economy while those at the bottom of the pile are so squeezed that they are unable to participate even marginally in what our society defines as "normal"  be seriously reformed.

In my half century and more in the Liberal/Liberal Democrat party we have proposed various schemes to produce a fairer system which really does "work for everybody."  The most promising, around in the 1960s, was that  company boards should comprise one third shareholders' representatives, one third employees' representatives and one third representatives of the customers and community served.  With such a composition any  "stakeholder"  would need  support from the others in order to achieve an aim.

It is unrealistic to expect a Conservative governments to implement anything so radical but here are a few suggestions for moves in the right direction:

  • company law should be amended so that, rather than the requirement to act solely or mainly in the interest of the shareholders, they should be required to act in the interests of all the stakeholders, defined as appropriate to the individual industry:
  • shares should held for at least six months with financial penalties for selling within three yeas of the purchase;
  • remuneration at all levels should be open and public, the lowest not falling below the living wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation (not the fake one decided by the government)  and the highest not more than a given multiple above that (I would have thoght x10 to start with, reducing gradually to x5 but that might be a bit optimistic for the times):
  • there should be genuine representation, by election, on the boards, of the various stakeholders, starting with at least two for each interest, and gradually increasing so that no one interest has a majority;
  • the functions of each individual employee should be clearly defined and a fair wage paid for performing it.  There should be no bribes and bonuses, as these inevitably distort performance..
Further suggestions are welcome.

If our democracy is to survive intact I see it as an urgent matter for the Liberal Democrats, preferably in cooperation with Labour and the Greens, to be working on a model with sufficient flexibility to be adapted to different circumstances.  Such would not be a complete solution to the present disaffection, but it would be an essential part.

Saturday, 26 November 2016

Our Christian country

Today is Advent Sunday, the start of the season of three to four weeks (depending on what day Christmas Day falls) when the church asks us to prepare, not for Christmas (though too many parsons don't seem to realise this, and Advent Calendars certainly don''t)) but for the Second Coming, Last Trump (now there's a thought), Day of Judgement, the  End Times, or whatever you like to call it or them.

Oh for the days when parsons had the courage to stand out against populism and commercialism and forbid the singing of carols in church until Christmas Eve at the very earliest (though we choirboys could practise them  of course.).

Our vicar, who is German (just one of the many "immigrants" who combine to make my life more stimulating, comfortable and convenient) introduced us last Sunday to this poem by Malcolm  Guite:

Our King is calling from the hungry furrows
Whilst we are cruising through the aisles of plenty,
Our hoardings screen us from the man of sorrows,
Our soundtracks drown his murmur: ‘I am thirsty’.
He stands in line to sign in as a stranger
And seek a welcome from the world he made,
We see him only as a threat, a danger,
He asks for clothes, we strip-search him instead.
And if he should fall sick then we take care
That he does not infect our private health,
We lock him in the prisons of our fear
Lest he unlock the prison of our wealth.
But still on Sunday we shall stand and sing
The praises of our hidden Lord and King.

I hadn't heard of Mr Guite before but, although yet another immigrant, he seems to have his finger very accurately on the pulse of British life.  The first 12 lines sum up the general population to a "T" and the final two twist the knife very accurately into that dwindling band of us who still turn up Sunday by Sunday and go through the motions. I often wonder if we follow the teachings and example of Jesus any more closely that anyone else.  It worries me that so many church-goers read the Daily Mail.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Trial of Thomas Mair

The public trial of  Thomas Mair, who killed my MP Jo Cox, last June, has now lasted a week and is expected to continue for another two.  I cannot see what useful  purpose is served by this. The fact that Mair killed her is undisputed, and whether the verdict is murder, manslaughter, unlawful killing or something else should make no difference to the sentence, that he should be detained  in a secure institution and treated for mental illness until it is safe to release him, which will probably be "never." 

 A sensible system would sort this out in an afternoon. 

There is no sense in which "justice" is served by this protracted legal performance. Instead public money is being wasted on lawyers, who will not be on the minimum wage,  and the expenses of witnesses. The major outcome is the of feeding  the public's appetite for ghoulish details to the profit of the press. 

Sadly that bastion of probity and liberalism, my beloved Guardian, participates in full..

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Globalisation scapegoated

Our prime-minister, Theresa May,  has recognised that “globalisation [is] a force for good” but admits that there are “tensions and differences between those who are gaining from globalisation and those who feel they are losing out.” (Mansion House Speech, Monday 14th November.)

Well good for her: she “talks the talk very well”, but , as Aditya Chakrabortty points out,  we need to avoid the trap of attributing  the creation of a “left behind” class to the inexorable forces of globalisation  which, now we recognise the danger, just need  a bit of maternal tweaking  to make things better.
Chakrabortty attributes the growing inequality and creation of an underclass not to globalisation but to domestic political decisions dating back to the doctrines and policies of Sir Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher.   He lists:

  •    the privatisations, particularly of public utilities, which ceased to be primarily public services but were and are squeezed for maximum profit by their hedge fund owners;      
  •  the reduction of UK manufacturing capacity by a fifth through the economic policies of the 80s;
  • draconian laws to limit the powers of the trade unions;
  •   the reduction of civil service personnel  by 80 000 (with a further 100 000 in the pipeline unless policies change;
  •   the deprofessionalisation of teaching and the substitution of a “tick-box mentality” in our schools;
  •   the development of precarity in employment.

To this list I would add:
  • the squandering of North Sea oil revenues on tax cuts and the funding of unnecessary unemployment  (rather than the creation of a Sovereign Wealth Fund as in Norway);
  •  the abolition of wages boards;
  •  the forced sale of council houses without provision for their replacement with affordable housing;
  •   the brutal and divisive treatment of the miners;
  •   tax cuts for companies and the rich on the pretence that this would increase enterprise, the benefits of which would trickle down to the rest of us;
  •  the failure to chase tax dodgers;
  •  social security cuts for those who need  help;
  •  the selling-off of UK assets, both public and private, to foreign owners for short-term gain but a long term drain on the balance of payments.

It would be idle to pretend that some of the above were not influenced by globalisation, but they were not caused by it, and could have been prevented or ameliorated had there been the domestic political will.

Chakrabortty’s conclusion is that the “[sink ]from semi-prosperity into pauperism” of the working classes, (and now a goodly portion of the middle and professional classes) was and is “not a one-off event driven by the magical, unanswerable forces of globalisation.”

In other words, we can, should and could  work together, preferably with our European neighbours,  to heal the rift which has led to Brexit and work together for a more equitable and co-operative (and thus probably happier) society.  All that’s stopping us is the political will.

Let's hope that there's some evidence of Mrs May's intention to put her talk into practice in the Economic Statement later this month

Monday, 14 November 2016

US and UK both have simple solutions.

Both the US and the UK are  facing damaging futures but both have similar, and perfectly legal, solutions for avoiding their self-inflicted wounds

In the US Hillary Clinton won the popular vote for the Presidency: she received approximately a quarter of a million* more votes than Donald Trump.  However, through peculiarities in the electoral system Mr Trump has more votes in the Electoral College, which will actually make the legal decision.

In the UK the popular vote was for leaving the EU but the actual decision lies with Parliament, where the members of both houses are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining.

So, in each country, let the law take its course.

Donald Trump hinted during his campaign that he might not accept the result if he didn't win, with suggestions that the election  would be "rigged."  Who can doubt that, had the results been reversed and he had won the popular vote and  Mrs Clinton the Electoral College he would now be screaming  that the electoral college majority should not be observed?

For Democrat supporters to take a similar line now is not to descend to Trump's level.  The Founding Fathers introduced the idea of an Electoral College for just these circumstances.

This is no time to go ever the the details of the fraudulent campaign  he waged. It is enough to note that he either doesn't understand the truth or he ignores it when it suits him. Either can explain how, during the campaign he vilified President Obama and claimed that Mrs Clinton should be arrested, even hinted to his supporters that she should be shot.  Then  after his apparent victory, when unifying words rather than vilification were appropriate, he refereed politely to "Secretary Clinton" and admitted that President Obama was a "good man."

He is not fit to be President and the Electoral College should grasp the nettle and vote accordingly.

Parliament should act similarly, and promptly, in Britain. The justification for triggering Article 50, that "the people have spoken and should not be ignored." is plain nonsense.  Of those entitled to vote, a minority of 37.5% voted to leave, another  of 34.7% voted to remain, whilst 27.8% didn't vote.  This is a trumpet making an uncertain sound rather than a clarion call for committing hara-kiri which must be obeyed.

To repeat, but in brief:
  • there should never have been a referendum in the first place: it was called not in the national interest but for the Tory Party's domestic purposes, to curb a haemorrhage of support  to UKIP;
  • if we had to have a referendum , then on such a serious issue there should have been built-in safeguards requiring a higher bar such as a 60%+ majority based on a minimum turn-out rather than a bare majority of those who bothered to vote (as happens in organisations from  golf clubs to choral societies);
  • claims on both sides were misleading and in some cases mendacious, and there was no law to challenge this;
  • the claims made for our future outside the EU are unravelling daily.
So come on, MPs, take courage and do your duty.

Both the UK and US constitutions have these "trip switches" or "safety valves"to guard against folly.. It is criminally negligent not to use them.

* the figure I read on Friday 11th November was 235 181, but apparently some votes are still being counted, and the final total could be half a million or even more. See

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Oh dear!

I happened to be in the United States during the later stages of the Carter-Reagan campaign of 1980.  Until the result of a Reagan victory, which to me was almost as big a shock as Donald Trump's victory today, Reagan had been treated by the "liberal" press as a lightweight candidate, not a serious contender, something of a buffoon.  However, as soon as he became President-Elect  he acquired some of the automatic dignity that goes with the office and even the media which  had been dismissive of him before became more respectful.

I suspect much the same will happen to Trump: perhaps is already happening (I can't say as I've spent the morning out walking in spite of the snow).  In addition, just as many of the ideas of left-wing governments, in the UK in the 1930s and more recently in Greece for example, have been neutered by the  established order, so inevitably will some of Trump's wilder proposals, such as his his "beautiful wall" on the Mexican border and the exclusion of all Muslims.  It is perfectly possible that Trump has already begun to row back on these proposals, much as the Brexiteers lost no time in doing when they won our EU referendum.

So maybe this is not total disaster, but can be "managed," as someone put it on a news bulletin I did hear this morning.

Nevertheless there has been a serious shift in the way democracies work.   The Enlightenment/Liberal  consensus of the last 200 years: that life is good, most people are well-intentioned, all deserve respect as human beings, peoples can live in harmony provided that the rule of law and human rights are respected, that rational argument can lead to wise government - has received a serious knock.  In the UK with Brexit, ("we've had enough of experts"), in Turkey with the increasing influence of fundamentalist religion, now with the absurdities of the Trump campaign, perhaps Marine Le Pen in France next year.

Literals with both large and small "l's" need to take a long hard look at what has caused our good intentions to be defeated by what looks very much like mob rule.