Sunday, 30 September 2012

Because the left like to target "groups" for punishment doesn't mean the rest of us do...

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The problem with the left is that they think other people will behave as unpleasantly as they do. This leads to the belief that negative consequences of policies are always 'deliberate'. Here's a tweet from Clare Gerada, top GP, leftie and self-professed feminist:

Women hit much harder than men by recession. Kate Green "this is deliberate". Women double whammy - tax credits & benefits 

Now I don't know who Kate Green is but I'm assuming that she's another lefty and that Clare Gerada approves of her views. And this is pretty scary from someone who is bright enough to be a proper doctor. I'm guessing that, like all the other lefties, Kate and Clare think the Conservative Party's inner sanctum is like something out of the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" with besuited Tory toffs guffawing as they deliberately design policies that "target" women. I find it deeply worrying that such people - Kate and Clare that is - are anywhere near the levers of power.

The Labour Party when in power may deliberately target groups it doesn't like - parents of children at grammar schools and private schools, people living in rural communities, smokers, small businesses and drivers spring to mind. But Conservatives don't think that way. We really don't.

I know the lefties might be shocked by this revelation but it's true. That doesn't stop us from proposing policies like minimum pricing for drink that fall heaviest on a particular group but that is a consequence of a daft policy not a deliberate act of punishment. It may be true that women suffer more from recession (a recession caused by the last Labour government but we'll let that pass) but it is an enormous leap to believe that the Conservatives are deliberately manipulating the economy and the government's spending just to "target" women. On a scale of 1-10 for stupidity that is definitely an eleven.

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For the children...

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This is beyond stupid. It is deeply wrong and insulting to parents:

"It is with regret that from now on we will be unable to accommodate parents wishing to spectate at our sports fixtures unless they are in possession of an up-to-date Swindon Council CRB check.

"At Isambard we take safeguarding very seriously and because of this we are unable to leave gates open for access to sporting venues at anytime during the school day.

"The current access arrangements are frustrating for both Isambard staff and parents and have recently resulted in reception staff and PE staff being on the receiving end of verbal abuse from parents who have become frustrated trying to get into or out of the school." 

There is absolutely no need at all for this policy. None whatsoever. But we can expect more and more of this as headteachers and governors get ever more panicked over safeguarding issues.

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Postliberalism - rediscovering the "F-word" in Blue Labour and Red Tory

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It’s always tricky to use the ‘F’ word when writing about political thinking. It has become so cursed by its association with genocide, racism and war that the thinking that lies underneath is ignored. It seems to me that, unless we act with care, we will tiptoe towards those ideas again:


There is a distinct combination of ideas here – of market-friendly social democracy and a greater respect for “flag, faith and family” social conservatism – that has a natural majority in most rich countries, one that was squandered by the left in the 1980s. (Though the first Blair government had some echoes of it.)

Groups such as Maurice Glasman’s “Blue Labour” and Philip Blond’s “Red Toryism” have tried to turn their parties in a post-liberal direction, with limited success. But the interest in those two movements is in itself a sign that there may be a new intellectual consensus emerging to rebalance politics after the reign of the two liberalisms.


Here we see new language – “post-liberalism”, the two liberalisms – used to replace the older language of past rejections of the enlightenment revelation that we are free individuals. Whether than tones of Hobbes’ Leviathan with its appeal to god and the monarch as the embodiment of statehood or to a 20th century critique:


It is opposed to classical Liberalism, which arose from the necessity of reacting against absolutism, and which brought its historical purpose to an end when the State was transformed into the conscience and will of the people. Liberalism denied the State in the interests of the particular individual.


Today we see in those anti-liberal “Blue Labour” and “Red Tory” ideas another assault on the idea of individual sovereignty. And the attendant policies echo those past ideas – not just “flag, faith and family” (a slogan that the creator of the “F word” would have loved) but the rebirth of protectionism, the corporate state and an obsession with grand projects. For draining the Pontine Marshes read instead HS2, the Severn Barrage or ‘Boris Island’ – great schemes that only the powerful state under inspired leadership can deliver.

At the core of this new philosophy lies state-sponsored community organisation – taking Alinsky’s idea of the inspired activist and twisting it to turn these people into agents of authority wrapped in the cuddly language of the “third sector”. Such people become the shock troops of post-liberalism – the advocates of the new corporate state, projectors of moral judgement and champions of subsuming the individual into an allocated geographic, cultural or social group.

This post-liberalism is founded on a different conception of the state than the “F word” – more local, less anti-clerical and closer to the “F word’s” syndicalist roots. But some of the calls are familiar:


“...we've got to re-interrogate our relationship with the EU on the movement of labour…We should be more generous and friendly in receiving those who are needed. To be more generous, we have to draw the line.”


...and:


“a commitment to regional renewal, democratising corporate governance, reform of the firm, a left patriotism, a willingness to work with faith communities and a scepticism of traditional centralising, state solutions.”


As the creator of the “F-word” demanded:


...an active man, one engaged in activity with all his energies: it desires a man conscious of the difficulties that exist in action and ready to face them. It conceives of life as a struggle, considering that it behooves man to conquer for himself that life truly worthy of him, creating first of all in himself the instrument (physical, moral, intellectual) in order to construct it. Thus for the single individual, thus for the nation, thus for humanity. . . .


But above all:


Outside the State there can be neither individuals nor groups (political parties, associations, syndicates, classes)...


So, when those protectionist, anti-immigration, anti-choice, anti-business words drop from the lips of politicians red or blue – couched in a language of populist appeal – listen instead to an earlier post-liberal voice, that of Mussolini, and ask whether we really want those ideas again?

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Cheese smuggling or Why criminals like protectionism

A few of you, on hearing this story, will have grinned a little. Maybe even guffawed. After all cheese smuggling is funny, no?

Canadian authorities say two police constables helped smuggle more than $200,000 worth of cheaper U.S. cheeses and other foods across the border from Buffalo to sell to pizzerias and restaurants.

The Niagara Regional Police Service announced today that the pair, one of whom has been fired, were arrested and charged, along with a third man. Charges against the three, all from Fort Erie, Ontario, include smuggling and other customs violations.

The point, however, is that with a very long and pretty open border, the Canadians are daft to impose huge tariffs on imported dairy produce as well as a range of permits, licences and rules (not just on imports but on selling dairy in a different province). All to "protect" the dairy industry (at the expense of the consumer).

And, as this story shoes us, the big winners aren't the cowherds and milkmaids of Canada but a bunch of criminals (helped in this case by a pair of corrupt cops). Protectionism sounds good when politicians promise it to one or other special interest or in a sort of populist, "keep out the foreigners" campaign but when it's introduced it acts as a tax on consumers to the benefit of smugglers.

And you don't need to protect the dairy industry. Go look at New Zealand and learn.

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Saturday, 29 September 2012

Now about that cigarette smuggling that isn't increasing...

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...now it's starting to grow in Bradford too:

The amount of black market cigarettes smoked on Bradford streets has more than doubled in only one year, claim tobacco industry investigators who raided the city’s bins to gather their evidence.

One-in-five discarded packets were for smuggled cigarettes or were fake brands manufactured for illegal sale – a 100 per cent increase on the results of a similar survey in 2011 which put the figure at 9.5 per cent.

And of course more price increases and plain packs will stop this!

Mind you Labour Councillor Val Slater seems happy to see a load of the folk who elect her lose their jobs - cigarette packaging employs over 1000 people in South Bradford:
 
The tobacco industry claims Government plans to insist on plain packaging for cigarettes without any complicated logos or artwork will only make things easier for the crooks and gangsters without altering smoking trends.

But Bradford councillor Val Slater (Lab, Royds) who chairs West Yorkshire Trading Standards Committee said she doubted that claim: “Personally, I can’t see the logic of that argument, because obviously the criminals are perfectly able to copy what’s out there at the moment,”

The point is Val that plain packs make it even easier and even cheaper to copy. Or did that bit of logic pass you by?

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On not needing extra troops north of the Trent - some strategy thoughts for my Party

Alex Massie writing in the Spectator touches on the vexed issue of the ‘North-South’ divide - at least in political terms. Referencing a piece by Michael Dugher in the Guardian, Alex says:

The north-south divide threatens Tory hopes of ever winning a workable parliamentary majority. Doubtless the Conservatives can make some gains in the south-east and the midlands but they must, surely, be closer to their ceiling in those regions. Which means they need to be more competitive north of the Trent.

As a Conservative in the North I find this subject fascinating. Indeed, the choice of the term “North of the Trent” is itself a historical curiosity. As players of the boardgame, Kingmaker, will know the northern bishops – York, Durham, Carlisle – lose their troops when venturing south of the Trent. Or perhaps, like modern day Conservatives, they need those troops to guard them from those who see them as creatures of a London-based, south-east focused culture.

The contention from Alex Massie – reflecting Labour commentors – is that the problem lies in political positioning. He appears to swallow the line that the issue is that northerners think Tories “nasty”:

But even when this is not the case there’s no doubt at all that being considered the Nasty Party and being seen to be just-fine-with-that-thanks is a more than rum approach to government. Politics is a communications business and it’s bizarre so many MPs and ministers seem to forget that.

It seems to me that – while I have a great deal of agreement with Alex on the “nasty party” problem – the core of the failure lies with policy not with communication. All the political parties have policies determined primarily by the culture of London but, for the Conservatives, this is compounded by the dominance of the South-East among the parliamentary party and (just as importantly) the voluntary party.

We see this policy problem with transport investment, with housing and with such issues as regional pay. There is no north of England filter through which to run these policies, no right-of-centre think tank in Leeds or Preston with the ear of ministers and policy planners. This problem is made worse by tokenism such as holding cabinet meetings in Manchester or appointing a “minister for the north”.

If the Conservative Party is serious – and I hope we are – about winning seats in Yorkshire, Lancashire and the North East, then it needs to find a real voice in the North.  Perhaps something as radical as recruiting the team to write the 2015 manifesto from the north and basing them in the north - not in Chester or Harrogate but in Barnsley, Burnley or Washington. And then making use of the great resource we already have up here – experienced local councillors who have spent decades fighting in Labour’s rotten boroughs.

It won’t happen but, if we are to take the north we have to listen to these voices. We have to appreciate just how the party is misunderstood by so many. And perhaps think a little about those folk living in three-bed semis near Oldham and on the hills overlooking Keighley. People who think they pay too much tax, who see too much waste and who worry about the cost of living. This was the simple message of the Thatcher years – work hard, keep what you earn, care for your family and look out for your neighbours.  And in return the government will take less from you, will help keep you safe, will protect our shores and will reward thrift and effort.

Even Tory voters in my neck of the woods think the party’s leadership too distant, too grand, and too posh. That they are, in truth, no more distant, no more grand and no more posh than that leaderships of Labour and Liberal Democrats does not matter; it is the Conservatives who are seen that way not the others. If we are to change then we must campaign in the language of the saloon bar not the language of the country supper. And this doesn’t mean being snapped holding a pint in some Berkshire gastro-pub but talking seriously about tackling inflation, cutting out waste and reducing taxes.

Above all, it means campaigning in the north – not by sending out patronising mailings from London or recruiting a few kids to work in “target seats” but by basing a real and substantial part of the Party’s activities in the north. By showing that we really do think the North matters.

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Friday, 28 September 2012

Not looking good for minimum pricing...

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It's not looking good for the nannying fussbucket's favourite policy of making beer more expensive for poor people:

The European Commission has challenged Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s law which imposes a price hike on booze - a plan which Mr Cameron hoped to follow in England and Wales.

Officials in Brussels told Scottish ministers they had to withdraw legislation to impose a 50p-per-unit price on alcohol because it was ‘not compatible’ with the EU Treaty.

Spain, Italy, Portugal and Bulgaria are also believed to have concerns about Scotland’s plans as they export drink to Britain.
Jolly good news - I'll be having a beer to cheer the (please let it be true) demise of this nasty proposal.
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Thursday, 27 September 2012

A brief thought about innovation strategies and growth...

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The innovation strategy - or innovation-led growth -  isn't usually about "innovation" but is about government investment in science and in manufacturing industry. Stuff like:

A £200m fund for early-stage ventures; freedom to raise money for the Green Investment Bank, and a new business bank to lend to growth sectors including advanced manufacture and life sciences.

..and

Invest the proceeds of the forthcoming 4G spectrum auction - estimated at £4bn - in science, technology and innovation.

Plus...

Higher education funds for radical inventions around knowledge creation - putting design thinking at the heart of the new Catapult centres.

All good stuff and "targeted" at the things that made regions "competitive" - at innovation. Or so we're told. The truth is that innovation - or a great deal of it - isn't about science but about boring things like systems and distribution. Amazon's success is as much built on getting super swift logistics as it is about whizzo techie wonderments. But it's the latter that suck up the innovation funding from governments.

The problem is that, while innovation is awfully important at the firm level, at the macro level there's not much evidence that R&D spending impacts on growth:

And here lies our problem. We know that innovation generates growth (by reducing costs, by creating new products and so forth) but we can't capture that growth by looking at the sort of investments that typify government innovation strategies. Indeed, if a firm only innovates because of grant-funding (or 'soft loans' which amount to the same hill of beans) then we have to question whether the innovation is real or merely staged to secure the funding.

It seems to me - and there is some evidence to support this - that the real benefits lie in:

  • Concentrations of private sector knowledge workers (think Thames Valley)
  • Low (or no) taxes on capital gains
  • A focus on service/process innovation (services are 80% of our economy after all)
  • Active incentives (such as reduced taxes) for business innovation
  • Similar incentives for individual investors in innovation (tax reliefs or lower personal taxes)

What is clear however is that schemes predicated on the activities of universities - clutching another batch of government funding to their chests - do not deliver innovation and do not benefit growth.

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Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Letting politicians and the well-meaning run banks is a daft (and dangerous) idea

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The other day Vince Cable announced his new small business bank:


"We need a new British business bank with a clean balance sheet and an ability to expand lending rapidly to the manufacturers, exporters and high-growth companies that power our economy. Today I can announce we will have one. I am working with the chancellor to develop a state-backed institution that will combine up to a billion pounds of new government capital with a larger private contribution."


So there you have it – a super new bank run by politicians that will gallop to the rescue of all those dynamic little businesses that can borrow money from the nasty private banks (or indeed the nasty public-owned banks for that matter). For all that this looks and sounds like just another back-door bank bailout, Vince has his headline and a shiny new state bank to play with!

Now while this sounds like yet another rehashing of 1970s policies – picking winners, national investment banks and doubtless the white heat of technology – it is matched in its lunacy by the latest wheeze from Labour. This is the idea of making banks lend money to poor people:


Labour has published proposals for a policy that it says would force banks to lend more in deprived communities and encourage lending through third sector financial institutions.


The alarm bells are ringing loudly at this policy! Apparently the intention is to force banks to lend in poor places (on what basis is unclear) or else hand over dollops of cash to social lenders – charities, credit unions and so forth. The approach would:


...require banks to reveal what they lent in each community and to lend a minimum amount in every community.


Apparently this was a huge success in the USA where the Community Reinvestment Act was a factor in (although probably not the cause of) the housing-bubble that helped precipitate the financial meltdown we all enjoy today. So Labour in the UK is proposing a lending scheme targeted at people who won’t find it easy to repay the loans. To say this is irresponsible does not quite capture the whole picture. Assuming that the government’s moral suasion makes banks use credit unions and the like to do the lending, we face the added problem of banks run by politicians and the well-meaning lending to poor folk.



Leeds City Credit Union (LCCU) will be hoping yesterday’s sentencing of former manager Beverley Johnson for fraud will mark the end of the most traumatic chapter in its 25-year history.

Over the past five years, England’s biggest credit union has endured the fallout from chronic mismanagement which resulted in near complete financial collapse, two police inquiries, the former chief executive being forced to resign and finally an embarrassing court case thanks to a manager helping herself to the contents of members’ accounts.

LCCU’s mismanagement has been the subject of a long-running Yorkshire Post investigation which first revealed serious concerns as far back as 2007.


Imagine millions of – in effect – free cash landing into these organisations. Take a glimpse over the Atlantic again and look at how politicians and political favours nearly destroyed savings & loan institutions. And consider whether this sort of story might happen again here:


LCCU was shown to (be) rife with cronyism and nepotism, including major breaches of financial rules through favourable loans provided to staff and their relatives.

In one instance, the son of then chief executive Sue Davenport had received a loan for £14,205 when he was only entitled to £1,200. In another, Davenport’s daughter-in-law had been able to take part in processing a loan for herself at a preferential rate.

Criticisms from the Financial Services Authority (FSA) were also highlighted, in particular Davenport’s ability to exert an inordinate amount of control over the books. A letter written by the FSA to LCCU as far back as 2003 specifically referred to “the risk of intentional manipulation” – a risk subsequently shown to be one Davenport was willing to take.


Perhaps we shouldn’t take the risk of letting a coalition of the well-meaning and politics runs banks – it will end it scandal and crisis. And won’t help poor people – folk who need advising not to borrow rather than encouraging into taking out loans they can’t afford.

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Monday, 24 September 2012

Going anti-clockwise round Coventry - a paen to England's roads



Today, for reasons that are unimportant to you, dear reader, we drove from the fine old town of Bath back to a very nearly drowned Cullingworth. The journey took in a new experience since, rather than the usual sclerotic motorways we opted for a pleasant drive – I would say meander but the one thing the Fosse Way doesn’t do is wander about – passed Malmesbury, Cirencester, Stow-in-the-Wold and Stratford. I say passed since – with the exception of Moreton-in-Marsh – all the places en route are safely by-passed by a well maintained and appropriately sized highway.

At the end of this little trip the navigation (Kathryn) announced that we were now going “anti-clockwise round Coventry”. This tickled me a little but got me to thinking about how we moan and whinge about transport, traffic and roads. Yet, over the years the assorted county councils (in the main) have, along with the Highways agency, smoothed the passage of traffic while allowing the various little market towns, spas and villages to breathe again.

So since we didn’t go through any town centres – a favourite topic on mine – I will comment on roads. Starting with the little windy country lanes that don’t seem to go anywhere but which are lovingly patched up and repaired by a combination of council workers, assorted contractors and the local farmer. The recent bad weather has bashed away at these roads washing away lumps of them, filling dips and hollows with water and strewing the surface with the debris from fields and lanes – a veritable flotsam and jetsam of farm life. And they – those farmers, the men from the water board and the council – were already out mending and making do. Allowing us to pass (actual thigh deep floods aside) from one place to another with the minimum of hindrance.

And then to the better roads – thousands of miles of them that we take for granted. Filled –sometimes to overflowing – with traffic, all going busily about its daily business. These are the arteries of England’s economy. Forget about those trains and planes, ignore the fancy urban tramways and underground systems – it is these A-roads and B-roads along with the wealth of England flows each day. Ten thousand and more vans, pick-ups, low-loaders, trucks, container wagons, car transporters and delivery lorries. Each one with its precious cargo – goods and expertise flowing from one small place to another. Each little trip making it possible for us to have bread on the table, heat in the house and a happy smile on the faces of healthy children.

So to those who look disdainfully at the car, who curse the van and the truck. For all you who hold forth about how all the freight can go on railways or even into barges. All of you are wrong. The future success of our economy depends rather more on those roads, on allowing the easy movement of plumbers and locksmiths, supermarket delivery drivers and truckers, computer salesmen and cheesemakers – all the producers that make us rich. And that means roads.

So if there is to be infrastructure investment let’s spend it on by-passes, new road links, road widening and road improvements. Let’s give councils the money to do the backlog of repairs. Let’s spend the money we get from road users – all £30 billion and more of it – on making life a little easier for those road users. And let’s tell all the tree-huggers and planet-savers that, right now, getting the economy moving is more important than their eco-scaremongerings.

Getting the economy moving means getting people moving. And that needs roads. Including the one going anti-clockwise round Coventry.

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