Monday, 10 September 2018

Glyndimandias


Seen near Glynde



Glyndimandias

I met a traveller from a Sussex land,
Who said—“Two vast and pointless trunks of stone
Stand by the road. . . . Near them, on the earth
Half sunk a ticket kiosk lies, whose shattered frown,
And wrinkled schedule, and lack of mirth,
Tell that its attendant well those coupons read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand Supreme that mocked them, and the Artwave that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Glyndymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Ticket Prices, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of those colossal Posts, boundless and bare
The lone and level downs stretch far away.

With apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Monday, 13 August 2018

The Möbius strip

I have a Möbius strip. On one side of it is Boris Johnson, on the other, any of the nastier ayatollahs. They merge seamlessly into one another. Johnson’s jibe about letter boxes has had exactly the required effect – attention. Two separate issues become one here: Muslim patriarchy and Johnson’s pursuit of power.

Photo by besshamiti on Plixs 

Johnson’s article about the clothing of Muslim women is formed as a liberal wrapper round a racist dog whistle. The liberal wrapper serves to deflect expected criticism of the dog whistle. Johnson is not a liberal. He adopts liberal policies, or at least liberal words, when they aid his pursuit of power. You might equally think Johnson is not a racist. He adopts a racist tone when it aids his pursuit of power. It is possible to adopt a liberal tone without being liberal. It is not so possible to adopt racist tropes without being racist.

If you want to make a liberal point about a particular form of oppression, you do not in the same breath make jibes at the victims of that oppression. If you have to make jibes – and Johnson does – you make them at the perpetrators of the oppression, not its victims. But that was not the purpose of his piece. The purpose was to take another step on the road to power, and in that he has succeeded. Stephen Williams suggests his time might be up. I think not. His latest nastiness has cemented dislike among those who dislike him, but it has also cemented his popularity among the disparate groupings of flaccid to hard right wingers who he hopes will propel him to power.

Johnson possibly did not intend to cause an upsurge in abuse. But he could certainly predict that it would happen – as it has - and was reckless as to whether or not it did.

Any effect on Muslim women was a by product of a step in Johnson’s careless ambition. To that extent we go back to the Möbius strip: Johnson is as patriarchal as any fundamentalist Muslim. And also racist. There is a debate to be had as to whether the wearing of a niqab signifies oppression. In some cases it does, in some it does not. Where it does, the liberal answer is not to ban them. Johnson is fortuitously right there. But instead of enforcement by law, there must be a liberal effort to engage in dialogue aimed at making that particular segment of our society more liberal. We engage in that dialogue. Johnson, slave to his own ego, does not.

Friday, 27 July 2018

In which I fail to write a brief history of Universal Credit

I set out to write a brief history of Universal Credit since 2010, but I realised when writing it that that is not possible, because it is in fact a brief history of government incompetence, falsehood and vindictiveness.

Universal Credit is a great idea that many people have tried to bring to fruit for more than fifty years. It simplifies the benefits system, removes lots of barriers about eligibility, removes barriers to getting back to work, and takes considerable administrative burden off citizens, businesses and the state. However, it always proved too complicated, particularly given the Byzantine complexity of the UK benefit system it was intended to replace. But fools rush in where angels fear to tread, so Iain Duncan Smith, on being given the DWP brief, could not wait to get his hands on it.

Universal Credit will not remove all complexity. Two issues in particular stand out. First, the costs of disability cannot be catered for by any universal credit system. We still need benefits to deal with the costs of living and working for disabled and chronically ill people.

Secondly, it will not deal with housing costs which vary far too much by claimant and by geography. This will be true anywhere, but is more true for the UK because of the febrile state of our housing market. So for both disability and housing costs there still needs to be a separate eligibility- and / or means-  tested system.

Still, if well implemented, it could remove a lot of administration and a lot of difficulty.

The important words there are "if well implemented". The current system is poorly designed but even so might be functional and might do some good, if it were well implemented. But the implementation has been catastrophically bad. Computer systems have been badly planned and commissioned; there has been tinkering with the principles and the practices on which UC operates which has necessitated throwing good money after bad. And they still do not work anywhere near as well as they should. It is telling that one of the DWP’s most stringent critics during this period has been The Register, a non-party-political online scientific and technical news site. E.g.  Department of Work and Pensions internal docs reveal troubled history of Universal Credit.

 The levels at which the benefit is set will not remove many people from the poverty trap. (There is a separate argument to be had about whether UC is affordable. In my view the current level has been set for doctrinaire rather than fiscal reasons.) Other rules, such as the waiting period before being eligible, the determination to pay monthly, and to make access online, are designed to make the system inaccessible (or, at the very least, were made without care for their effect on the claimant).

In addition to this, the current minister, Esther McVey, has continued two of Iain Duncan Smith's most poisonous practices. The first is the Pinocchio style of management whereby any cause for criticism is routinely denied, until it becomes undeniable. The routine is then usually to say, “That was last year’s / quarter’s / month’s / week’s figures. This  year’s / quarter’s / month’s / week’s figures are much better” without actually citing the current figures. Information is routinely concealed. FOI requests are tenaciously and expensively fought – note the two year attempt to keep hidden the documents referred to in the link above from The Register. And information is routinely destroyed. For instance, food bank use has increased markedly in areas where UC has been implemented. A Freedom of Information request unearthed the fact that “jobcentres are told to destroy evidence of foodbank referrals and stipulate; “it is not to be used for any other purpose, including to count/monitor the number of signposting slips issued””.

Meanwhile, the Trussell Trust, a studiously non-partisan provider, has released figures which embarrass the DWP: “Food bank use in UK reaches highest rate on record as benefits fail to cover basic costs”. On average at the time of this report food bank use had increased 13% over a year. In Universal Credit areas the rise was 52%.

And secondly, she has continued his determination to turn the entire DWP, including the UC section, and the various entities to which it outsources its work, into a vindictive machine in which claimants are misinformed, disbelieved, condescended to, lied about and outright bullied, some to their deaths. Many sources can be adduced for that statement. An article in the Guardian provides a flavour. Despite the title, it is not just about IT - “Universal credit IT system 'broken', whistleblowers say”.

So, in summary, it is not possible to outline a history of this manifestation of Universal Credit. Future students of social policy will be unable to tell whether UC as such was workable, because:

- whatever its merits, it is a fiendishly complicated idea whose complexities were ironed out with a sledgehammer. (An idea like this needs years of preparation, instead of which it got months.)
- every complexity that was ironed out was to the detriment of claimants. The welfare of the claimant is a by-product in this system.
- the IT systems on which it depends have never worked properly and there appears to be no hope that they will. (Systems like this need years of preparation, instead of which…..)
- there is a determination at the upper levels of the DWP not to learn but to implement UC with a steam roller, with no care for the effect on claimants.
- lying about its (lack of) progress has been and remains the strategy of choice for ministers.
- UC staff, like every arm of the DWP since 2010, are encouraged, cajoled, and outright threatened themselves to treat claimants as responsible for their own predicament.

The National Audit Office assessment “Rolling out Universal Credit” is excoriating for ministers. But, cravenly, the NAO concludes that it cannot see a viable alternative to continuing to throw good  money after bad, and continuing to throw good people onto an ever increasing scrap heap. That is an abdication of responsibility in the face of government incompetence and intransigence. There is a alternative, to scrap it and start again properly. The damage that would be done to Britain’s finances and reputation is infinitesimal compared to the damage that is being done to the lives and livelihoods of those unfortunate enough to have to claim it.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Some thoughts on Maria Caulfield’s letter of resignation


Maria Caulfield, MP for Lewes, has resigned her position as Conservative Party Vice Chairman for Women in protest at the PM's position on Brexit. (I love the irony of a woman being called "Vice Chairman for Women".)


Here are some comments on her letter of resignation.

Dear Prime Minister

It is with regret that I am writing to inform you of my decision to resign as a Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party following the collective agreement by Cabinet on the Chequers Brexit deal.

Having attended the briefings provided for members of Parliament, I cannot support the direction of travel in the Brexit negotiations which, in my view, do not fully embrace the opportunities that Brexit can provide.

It is noticeable that in all the resignations we have had, nobody has been specific about what these alleged benefits are. Much has been made, for instance, of a trade deal with the USA. But the detail is missing. And the detail is important, when the President of the USA is clearly intent on starting trade wars at the drop of a hat. And also when he has said specifically that his intention is to make the NHS pay more for their drugs. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/05/15/trump-threatens-use-us-trade-talks-force-nhs-pay-drugs/ In trade negotiations with the USA, we will be at their mercy. The logic that we gain in trade negotiations by being part of a large bloc escapes Ms Caulfield.

It is also noticeable that she, like the others, makes no proposals of what alternative scheme is better than the Chequers deal. We suspect that that is because she knows there is none.

For me the backstop agreement for Northern Ireland was neither necessary or constructive for the future prosperity of the UK. Having strong links to the Republic of Ireland I feel the backstop position is not appropriate and should have been rejected. It has been used by the EU as a way of blocking a mutually beneficial deal.

Ms Caulfield’s strong links to the Republic of Ireland should make her aware that the commentary from the Republic is almost uniformly about what a disastrous piece of stupidity Brexit is. (https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/fintan-o-toole-britain-has-gone-to-huge-trouble-to-humiliate-itself-1.3558995)

And again Ms Caulfield fails with the details. Theresa May has promised there will not be a hard border. This is integral to the Good Friday agreement. How does Ms Caulfield propose to ensure this? (She should, please, not mention technological solutions – if the technology existed to secure free movement for businesses across a hard border, it would be in use at hard borders all over the world. It is not, because the technology to do this does not exist.)

It is also disappointing that in connection with Ireland she only mentions prosperity. If she really has strong connections to the Republic of Ireland, she must be aware that peace is at least as important to them as prosperity. There is still too much violence in the island of Ireland, but it is incomparably lower than it was before the peace agreement. The absence of border controls forms an integral part of the peace agreement. Ms Caulfield’s hard Brexit risks bodies and lives in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. How does she justify this?

The policy may assuage vested interests but the voters will find out and their representatives will be found out. This policy will be bad for our country and bad for the Party. The direct consequence of this will be Prime Minister Corbyn.

Well, obviously some of us rather hope that the result will be bad for the Conservative Party. But who is finding out what here, and who is being found out? Most of the finding out lately has been about the lies, malpractice and illegal actions of the Leave campaign. Very significant overspending by Vote Leave; collusion with other organisations, like BeLeave, to cover up the overspending; the murky source of the massive amounts of cash donated by Arron Banks; his connections with the Russians – his initial confession to one boozy lunch, which rapidly magnified to four meetings, and now to eleven. Illegality and foreign influence leave Brexit with nothing but a fig leaf over its naked opportunism. If Ms Caulfield really respects democracy, she will agree that the British public, knowing what they know now, deserve, and democratically need a vote on the final deal.

Since the announcement on Friday my constituents, whether they voted leave or remain, have contacted me in large numbers to say they do not support the deal and it would therefore be more appropriate to have a Vice Chairman who can confidently defend the proposal.

That is very interesting, given that many of her constituents have considerable difficulty reaching Ms Caulfield at all. How many open access surgeries has she conducted herself this year? And the remain voters will have been contacting her to say they do not agree with this deal because they do not agree with any deal to leave the European Union.

None of those who have resigned, including Ms Caulfield, have said what they would actually do. They do not have any alternative proposal that solves any of the issues facing us. While they promise unicorns, the government is preparing to stockpile food, and plonk generators in the Irish Sea – that is how bad reality has become.

Ms Caulfield owes it to us all now not just to say that she disagrees with the Prime Minister, but to give clear and detailed proposals as to how she would solve the issues about our relations with the EU, the position of businesses, specifics about control of immigration, very detailed specifics about how she proposes to solve the problem of the Irish border while respecting the Good Friday agreement, and many other issues.

I want to thank you for the opportunity of being the Vice chairman for Women, especially during the centenary year of suffrage.

We should be grateful for one thing. At least Ms Caulfield has not told an outright lie in her resignation letter as Boris Johnson did.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Let's not be the radical party

First posted on LibDemVoice.

I find the word “radical” increasingly difficult nowadays. It has become a shibboleth. Whatever is being pitched has to be framed as radical. And everybody knows exactly what it means and says so with great authority. The trouble is that the next person will, with equally great authority, give it a different meaning.

And also, it doesn’t tell us anything about the liberalness of the policies being proposed. I think most people will agree that Iain Duncan Smith’s approach to welfare benefits was radical. But I don’t think any liberal wants a policy that vindictive. (Or that incompetent.)

When you look at the things we are in favour of, many of them are not radical at all.

Legalisation of cannabis, for instance. Cannabis is no more harmful than tobacco or alcohol. Its prohibition actually creates harmful forms of the substance, costs taxpayers a significant amount of money and badly affects a significant number of lives by creating criminal records that otherwise would not exist. Legalising it can be framed not as radical, but as common sense.

Try this:

We can:

- reduce harms to many ordinary people
- reduce pressure on the police and the entire justice system
- reduce burden to the NHS
- reduce days lost to illness for businesses
- increase tax revenue
by legalising and regulating cannabis in the same way as we treat alcohol and tobacco.

There is nothing radical there; it is just plain common sense.

Or, on a different topic, try this thought experiment:

- you are a country with small but very sophisticated armed forces
- your men and women are highly trained, well paid and dependable
- they and their families live in good quality accommodation
- if they are wounded in the service of their country, they get excellent medical and social care, and decent benefits
- you buy high tech equipment, both large scale and small scale, with an eye to effectiveness and value
- you invest in intelligence globally, regionally and locally, to enable your forces and equipment to be used most effectively and with least cost to bodies and lives
- you put effort into working on relationships with other countries which enable you to  collaborate to prevent conflict, but also to prosecute it effectively when necessary.

But one day you decide to spend more than three full years of your budget on a single weapon, one which is in practical terms useless for any conflict you can foresee, and will also, within five years, have lost its unique selling point of being invisible underwater. To afford this, you compromise every other budget: you take significant chunks of money away from recruiting, paying, accommodating and caring for your soldiers, you compromise on all the other equipment you buy, and you spend less on intelligence and on your diplomatic efforts. All for a weapon you will never use.

Doing something about Trident is not radical, it is just common sense.

We can do the same with most of our policies – climate change, housing, education, health and social care, transport.

Then we can save the word radical for policies that really are. Land Value Tax, maybe, because that really would shake up wealth and power in this country.

Monday, 4 June 2018

"Ashamed to be British"

I’ve been mulling over for a while blogging about an oft used phrase “makes me ashamed to be British (or English)”. As usual Nigel Farage has tipped me over the edge. The BBC has a survey about attitudes towards Englishness in which it appears that young people are likely to be less proud of being English than older people.  The BBC then approaches its man for all comments, Nigel Farage, who says “It’s as if we’re teaching young people that any sense of English identity is racist.” In the replies below the Beeb’s tweet about it, several people say Farage makes them ashamed of being English.

I will leave Farage alone, and I will also leave alone the issue of the framing of questions. The choice in the Yougov poll was about whether people feel “proud” or “embarrassed” to be English. National identity is a complex thing, and there are lots of other possible feelings, and lots of other ways of contrasting being proud.

(In what follows below, for “British” you could perfectly well read “English”. That does not mean that I think “English” and “British” are interchangeable – that is a con trick we English have been pulling on the rest of the world for centuries. It still works on most Americans. It only means that, whether you are using the frame of “Britishness” or “Englishness”, the mechanism is the same.)

I am struck by how regularly people respond to events by saying something like “makes me ashamed to be British”. Nigel Farage has that effect – not surprisingly. So have the Windrush scandal, Grenfell, Brexit, the state of our prisons, the prevalence of foodbanks, to name only a few. I suspect that a lot of people who say it don’t actually mean it – it has become a trope, a cliché, a standard reaction to the many shameful things we see around us.

And I wish people would stop saying it. There is no need for any of these things to make us feel less positively about our nationality. What we should be ashamed of are the people who make us feel like this. I am shamed by the political schemers who have been so brutal towards the Windrush generation. I am shamed by the liars, cheats and charlatans who stole the EU referendum result. I am shamed by the succession of home secretaries who think that prison is only about punishment. I am shamed by the poisonous attitudes towards unemployed and disabled people entrenched at the DWP by Iain Duncan Smith and embraced by all of his successors. I am shamed by the many people who insist that Dunkirk was a “British” victory and who ignore the 18,000 French troops who died standing between us and the German army in order to give us a chance to escape.

I am shamed by such people, but I am not ashamed of who I am. I am British and English, and proud of both. That does not mean that I think I am better than anybody else. It is a fake, brittle patriotism that can only love its country if it can pretend that its country is better than anybody else’s. I am simply proud to be British, and I will not be shaken from that by the liars, thieves, pretenders, charlatans, bullies, bigots and bloats with whom I share my nationality. The fact of sharing with such people sometimes dismays me. But we do not get to choose with whom we share our nationality, and our nationality is bigger than the character of any of its undesirable holders. So, I am ashamed, dismayed, perturbed, troubled, sometimes grieved, by the antics of people such as those mentioned above. But they will never make me ashamed of my nationality.

Thursday, 24 May 2018

Equal Power, and how you can make it happen

First published on LibDemVoice, 24th May 2018.

I think Equal Power is the first book I have ever pre-ordered. I started reading it the day it came out. When I tweeted about that, Jo Swinson replied, and I promised her I would review it as soon as I finished reading it.

Several months later…..

My post hoc justification for my tardiness is that, to coin a phrase, a review is something best tasted cold. And I find that my opinions about the book have not changed since I first read it.

I found “Equal Power, and how you can make it happen” very powerful indeed. Not because the material was new to me – most of it was not – but because of the way Swinson treats it. She combines statistics and research evidence, other people’s stories and her own experience in a compelling way. The trick with such material is always in the way the combination is made. Statistics are devoid of life and stories lack width in applicability. Swinson combines the two admirably well in a very readable style. She then delivers much of the punch in the book through recounting her own personal experience. And, very importantly, every chapter ends with a summary of actions that everyone can take to improve gender equality.

She gives herself the space to lay out more than simple arguments. She discusses some of the underlying ideas and languages behind many of our attitudes. She notes in particular (around p31) the use of the word “illiberal”, something I have experienced myself, particularly in discussions about gender issues, being used with the evident purpose of closing an argument. “I’m against all women shortlists because they are illiberal.” Of course they are, but you cannot end it there. You have to show why they are more illiberal than the current system which routinely and significantly discriminates in favour of people like me.*  (Jo does not favour all women shortlists, but for better reasons.)

The stories bring life to the pages. Some of them are familiar, some are not, and some are immensely powerful. Shirley Williams’ anecdote of her experience as a junior minister in the 1960s is a corker. If you don’t know it, it’s almost worth buying the book for that story alone.

For much of the time I read the book, I was listening to the music of another articulate, energetic Scot, Amy MacDonald. We have come a long way, a very long way since the times of Shirley Williams’ anecdote, but there is still a very long way to go. “Don’t tell me that it’s over, it’s only just begun.” The practical suggestions for action at the end of each chapter outline some very good ways of taking us further along the road towards gender equality.

This review is quite short. I don’t want to waste more of your time reading it when you should be reading the book, available here or here, and then doing something about the inequities it catalogues.

(*Old white git in case you hadn’t noticed. I also have the beard and sandals, but for this purpose those are optional.)