Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The General Election and Me

Everybody's so busy wanting to be down with the gang. "I'm conservative", "I'm liberal", "I'm conservative". Bullshit! Be a fucking person! Lis-ten! Let it swirl around your head. Then form your opinion. No normal, decent person is one thing, okay? 
Chris Rock, 2004

This is my blog, and I'm writing this for me own sake, partly to clarify what I actually think, and partly because writing something calmly, slowly and sensibly, with time to research and time to edit is considerably easier, and more therapeutic, than blasting out off-the-cuff rants on Facebook or the Guardian website. I'm going to write about two things. The first are the bizarre myths that seem to abound about socialism, the Labour party, and the previous Labour administration in particular. And the second is, well, pretty much everything else about the general election. The things I want for this country, the things I don't want. The things I'm absolutely bloody terrified that we're going to get and I can't do anything about.

I may lay myself open to being accused of setting up straw-men in what I write, but I promise that every single one of the things that I mention here I have read, either in a newspaper article or in the comments following it, or I've heard on the radio, or I've heard a politician say, or sometimes I've heard a normal human being say to my face. I'm not going to make anything up just for the sake of arguing against it. And I'm not expecting anyone to try and argue against what I'm saying, or tell me I'm wilfully misinterpreting their point. In fact, I actively don't want to start an argument, I just want to get it all of my chest. This is my blog, and I'll cry if I want to.

Myths, legends and superstitions

Labour's recession

Apparently, the recession that started in 2008 was all Labour's fault. All Gordon Brown's fault. All Ed Balls' fault. Even our Noble Leader David Cameron referred to it recently as "Labour's recession". Now he (I desperately hope) has to know better and is just being mendacious. Everyone else who touts this line? I don't know. Are they so insular they failed to notice the global financial crisis? Do they think that Gordon Brown invented credit default swaps? That Ed Balls convinced Deutsche Bank to invest in collatoralised debt obligations? That Labour fed the Wall Street greed for free money until it invented a ponzi scheme so grandiose that when it fell it took the banks themselves with it? Do the rest of Europe blame Gordon Brown for their recessions too? And the US? I never knew he was so powerful. Yes, the global financial meltdown happened while we had a Labour government, but I think it's fair to say that it would have happened whether we'd had Labour, Conservative, Green or Monster Raving Loony at the helm.

I do thoroughly recommend reading "The Big Short" by Michael Lewis if you want to learn more about the horrific, blinkered, mindless banking practices that were going on prior to the crash.

Conservative recovery

And obviously it was only the Conservative Party that dragged us out of the recession. Wasn't it?

Here's a graph of GDP growth rates from 2008 to now. The last general election was in May 2010. By which time we were already out of the depths of the recession, and the GDP growth rate was positive again. Under the Labour Party. But apparently that doesn't count. It was the Tories wot did it.

Historical Data Chart

And, as I recall, it was only in retrospect, after some minute analysis of the figures, that it turned out that George Osborne hadn't taken us into a double-dip recession. And again, only by the skin of his teeth that he dodged the triple-dip.

Socialism is not Communism

I've lost track of the number of people who've equated socialism to communism and then leapt from there to declaring that anyone who wants a socialist paradise wants Pol Pot, Stalin or Chairman Mao at the helm. Surely there has to be the equivalent of Godwin's Law, where you can declare someone to have lost an argument on the internet if they invoke the dictator of a repressive regime?

I know that people are using hyperbole on the internet, but really, if your best criticism of a socialist government is that it might be like Pol Pot I think you need to stop and look around at some broadly left-wing governments around the world. I don't seem to remember Finland being infamous for its Great Leap Forward, or for its single-child policy. I don't think anyone was horrified to discover the Killing Fields of Denmark, or the gulags of New Zealand. It's entirely possible to have a left-wing, egalitarian society with high social spending, a high standard of living and a high happiness index.

David Cameron is good for businesses

Now, I'm not exactly an expert on this, but I can see a distinct chasm between being good for businesses and being good for people. And perhaps Cameron is good for businesses, but if he is, I fear that it's at the expense of people. The massive proliferation of zero-hours contracts for example (I'm struggling to find accurate figures from the Office for National Statistics on this, so can't be more accurate than the fact that the number of such contracts has increased markedly).

The company I work for may need to employ a technician soon. We could, and probably will, employ one full-time person. But then, we're relatively decent human beings. Instead we could employ two people on zero-hours contracts and offer each of them 18 or 19 hours a week. We wouldn't have to offer them hours when we were light on work. We wouldn't have to pay as much National Insurance, as we'd only have to start paying once the pay went over the lower threshold for each person. We wouldn't have to offer them any hours at all when they were sick. Overall, it would cost us less. It would also get two people off the unemployment register, and off some benefits. So that would look good for the government. But it would also bring in less tax and NI to the exchequer as they'd both have their personal allowance before paying tax. Not so good. And neither of them would be earning a decent wage, or have job security, or sick-pay. If we were bastards, we could save pennies and screw people. But it would be good for business. Not for the people involved, but at least the business would be doing OK. And that's what matters, right?

Then there's "welfare-to-work", where a company gets to have an employee, but doesn't have to pay them. The poor sap who works for you is doing so only because if they don't they won't get their benefits. That's not having a job, that's indentured servitude. Basically, if you can't get a job, the government then owns you. Yes, it's good for business, who get something for nothing, but it doesn't seem to be very good for the people involved.

Benefits Scroungers

"I work hard and pay my taxes, I don't see why I should support all these people who are too lazy to get off their arses and get a job". Because, obviously, the only reason for getting benefits is not having a job. And the only reason for not having a job is being too lazy. If you can be bothered, I recommend the Institute of Fiscal Studies report on benefits in 2014. I've taken the data from Table 3.1 of that report and used the abomination that is Excel to create a nice chart for you:

("Other" is currently my favourite category. It's a Christmas Bonus. "The Christmas bonus is the only national benefit not included in any of these sections. This is a one-off payment of £10 to the recipients of certain benefits in the week beginning the first Monday of December." It's 0.08% of the benefit budget.)

The individual breakdown of each of those sections is itself very interesting, but it made for a rather busy chart, and it's all there in the report I've linked to if you want to read it. The point is, we really don't spend that much on the unemployed. Nor, as it turns out, do we have "the most generous benefits system in Europe". As a percentage of GDP we rank quite low in Europe in fact (with apologies for the poor quality of the image).

Social security

We spend a lot on our elderly, and our sick, and our disabled. Personally, I think that's a good thing. Particularly because it's only a matter of time or luck or both before we all fit into one of those categories.

Who exactly are the scroungers? Me? I get child benefit, and 15 hours of pre-school childcare a week. My mother? She gets a state pension, and a bus pass, and a winter fuel allowance. My father in-law? With his pension, and his arthritis, diabetes and cholesterol medication. My friend? Being unable to work while being treated for breast cancer at the age of 21, but having had a zero-hours contract, so no right to sick-pay. Another friend? In a wheelchair and with no use of her hands after an horrific car accident, but still working as a teacher, despite needing carers at home and school.

And as for that "hard-working" trope - we spend 16.67% of our welfare budget on supporting those whose income is inadequate to provide them with the basic necessities of life. They do work, but it's still not enough. I wonder if this could have anything to do with Cameron being good for businesses but not so good for people?

Things I voted against

I think that you can probably guess that I didn't vote for the Conservative candidate in my constituency*. There were a lot of reasons for this, some of them almost certainly emotive, some of them almost certainly a product of my upbringing. Some of them were underpinned by a sense of injustice and inequality, and a desire for this country to be a fairer place for everyone. I know that there are Conservative voters out there who voted that way because they want the same things that I want, and think that the Conservatives can provide that. I'm not claiming a monopoly on compassion or fairness or equality. But I am trying to explain why I don't think the Conservatives are the party to create an egalitarian society.

* Do you see what I did there? I didn't vote for David Cameron, or Ed Miliband, or Nick Clegg, because they weren't standing in my constituency. I voted for a parliamentary candidate in my constituency. And since my constituency is a safe Conservative seat, a fat lot of difference it made.

Taking from the poor and giving to the rich

In 2011 the VAT rate went from 17.5% to 20%. VAT is a regressive tax - it takes no account of your ability to pay, your income, or your needs. In fact, it disproportionately affects the poor. In 2009/10 the poorest 20% spent 8.7% of their gross income on VAT whereas the richest 20% spent only 4.0% of their gross income on VAT. (Andrew Barnard, Steve Howell and Robert Smith (2011). Effects of taxes and benefits on household income Statistical Bulletin - 2009/2010. Office for National Statistics, p. 14.)

In 2013 the upper rate of income tax (for income over £150,000) was cut from 50% to 45%. That's for the top 1% of earners. The Conservatives propose that they will raise the higher rate income tax threshold. Only 14.7% of taxpayers currently pay the higher rate of income tax. That's the best-paid 14.7% of the population. When we're "all in this together", couldn't the top 14.7% of the population perhaps be in it with us? 

The "bedroom tax" or under-occupancy penalty has been a big stick with which to thoroughly beat a small problem. Those occupying social housing are, almost by definition, at the bottom of the heap. The stated aim was to encourage those "under-occupying" their homes to move out, thus freeing up larger homes for larger families in need of social housing. In England there are 180,000 tenants under-occupying two-bedroom homes, but only 85,000 smaller homes available. So at very best, if you moved as many people as you could, with no new tenants involved, you'd still have 95,000 tenants who couldn't move, because there was nowhere to move to. Those are totals alone, taking no account of where the homes are and whether it's in any way feasible for people to move to them. So the poor have a choice to move (either impossible or unlikely) or pay up.

Eroding my freedoms

As soon as she got the keys to the department back, Theresa May started talking about the Communications Data Bill again. I'm not sure I can begin to explain my deep distrust of any government that wants access to so much data about its populace. This would require ISPs and mobile phone companies to keep records of everybody's internet activity, email correspondence, voice calls, internet gaming, and mobile phone messaging services and store the records for 12 months.

Then there's the Human Rights Act. This brought the enforcement and implementation of the European Convention on Human Rights into domestic courts. And it isn't as though the rights we're talking about are obscure, or unreasonable:

- The right to life
- The right not to be tortured
- The right not to be a slave
- The right to a fair trial
- The right NOT to be punished if you haven’t broken the law
- The right to private family life
- The right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion
- The right to freedom of expression
- The right to marry and start a family
- The right to peaceful enjoyment of possessions
- The right to education
- The right to free elections
- The right NOT to be given to death penalty

The convention guaranteeing these rights has been in force since 1953. We're not just threatening to scrap the Human Rights Act, but also to remove ourselves from being signatories to that convention. In other words our government wants to breach international law and renege on a fundamental international convention. And if we do that, what's to stop other, genuinely repressive regimes doing the same, safe to argue "but the UK did it"? I never trust a government who repeals legislation designed to protect the people, or writes new, more draconian legislation with the assurance "it's OK, we won't abuse these new laws". Perhaps it's not the current government we need to worry about? Perhaps it's more important to accept that one or two people may get away with something slightly unsavoury rather than risk many people having their freedoms curtailed?

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
Martin Niemöller                         

I do thoroughly recommend reading "The Rule of Law" by Tom Bingham (that would be Lord Thomas Bingham, KG PC QC FBA and variously Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice and Senior Law Lord.) Even for the layman, he explains beautifully and succinctly the role of the law and of government in both making and being bound by the law.

I'm not sure that I really believe the argument that this is an issue of sovereignty either - the HRA allowed the government get out clauses anyway - it says that the government can't interfere with your rights unless it's a) authorised by law, b) necessary, c) in a proportionate manner. Which is a pretty broad set of conditions to let them do what they want. I also don't buy into the idea that the HRA makes it easier for "bad people" to seek protection and prevent the government protecting us from their "badness". If someone commits an act that is against the law of the United Kingdom, prosecute them for that crime. If you just don't like them, or don't like what they say, tough. And if you don't like the way our Supreme Court is interpreting the HRA, with its exhortation to take into account rulings from Strasbourg? Tough again. The separation of the judiciary and the executive is a fundamental tenet of a democratic society, and I certainly don't want politicians taking judicial decisions. So I refer you back to Thomas Bingham again, who was instrumental in incorporating the ECHR into British law and also setting up our own Supreme Court. I trust him considerably more than I trust any politician, of any party.

Handing power to corporations

The TTIP really, really worries me. There are some fundamental asymmetries in it that I would hope would worry most people. Like corporations being allowed to sue governments, but governments having no recourse to hold corporations to account. And there are a great many of our rights, standards and protections that would be thrown away to satisfy large foreign corporations. Our food standards, health and safety standards and employment protection laws are much more stringent than those in the US, and yet the current proposals would have us "harmonise" our laws to the same standards as those in the US. And every single estimate, from the most pessimistic to the most optimistic, says that signing up to the TTIP would cause job losses in the EU. 

And then there are the secret courts that will convene to settle disputes between governments and corporations. That's right, secret courts. Courts in which corporations can sue governments for acting in any way that prevents the corporation from making a profit. Yes, I did just write that. We would not be able to write into law anything, no matter how important, that prevented a corporation with a contract under TTIP from making a profit. Even if that law was "don't release toxic sludge into our waterways". And the court in which the decisions about these situations would be made would be secret. Even the UN are now piping up and pointing out it's not a good idea and it probably undermines the principles of democratic government, not to mention those pesky human rights again.

Then there's the creeping privatisation of the NHS. I am not rabidly anti-capitalist. I'm quite happy that there are businesses and services that operate best when market driven. But I am absolutely certain that neither health not education come into those categories. If I buy a sofa and it turns out to be a shoddy, I may be out of pocket, but I can easily choose not to buy from ShoddySofas Inc again. I can tell my friends about them, write reviews, wave placards outside their shops or complain to Trading Standards, and aside from the cost I haven't exactly ruined my life. When it comes to being treated for cancer however, I don't want profit to be the driving force behind what treatment I receive. I don't want my doctor to go for the cheap option in the hope of making a bit more money. If it's not quite good enough, I don't get to have another go. There's no review I could write, or replacement sofa I could buy that would get me my health back. Sure, the doctor might decide that maybe costs were squeezed a bit too low this time, and will improve things for the next person, but it's a bit late for me. For the most part, you get one chance at life, and it's not worth using that one chance allowing some huckster to see how much money he can squeeze out of it. The single most important driving force behind healthcare should be the outcome for the patient, not profit.

Things I'd like to vote for

        I kept the faith and I kept voting
        Not for the iron fist but for the helping hand
        For theirs is a land with a wall around it
        And mine is a faith in my fellow man
                                       Between the Wars Billy Bragg 

A fairer electoral system

You may have noticed my little dig above about the fact that I didn't vote for any of the party leaders. I don't particularly want to vote directly for the Prime Minister. I don't have any problem with the Prime Minister being selected from the ranks of the majority party or coalition of parties. What I do want is that my vote is actually counted, and makes a difference. I don't want any more absurd imbalances between votes cast and seats won. I don't want to try to second guess what other people in my constituency are going to vote so that I can try and make a tactical vote to oust an incumbent that I'm not happy with. I want to vote. I want to vote in a meaningful way. I want to vote with my convictions.

I'll give you some stupid statistics now to illustrate my point. In this election, the swing of the popular vote was as follows:

Conservative    +0.8%
Labour             +1.4%
SNP                 +3%
LibDem            -15.1%
UKIP               +9.5%
Green              +2.8%

And yet the change in numbers of seats was:

Conservative    +28
Labour             -24
SNP                 +50
LibDem            -48
UKIP                +1

It doesn't really matter who you support, surely anyone can see how ridiculous that is?

Our current system of First Past The Post has favoured both sides of the political divide at different points over the years, but I assure you that this isn't something I've only started complaining about now that it has favoured the party I don't want. I've been bleating on about this for years. I voted for AV when we had a referendum, but was angry at the time that we were being offered a poor relation of electoral reform, and it was obvious at the time that AV wouldn't win enough popular support. The Conservatives lived up to the promise to provide the LibDems with a referendum on our voting system, but in the most neutered and useless way possible. And the LibDems caved and didn't manage to get a vote on PR put before the people.

Obviously, there are drawbacks to Proportional Representation too, but it isn't as though democracies all over the world haven't been grappling with this issue and coming up with variations that counter many of the issues and yet deliver a proportional, fair, balanced system. Like the MMP used in New Zealand, or the PPP used in Germany. Or indeed the AV+ system that was suggested by the Jenkins Commission. If we're going to go to the trouble of setting up a commission on reforming our electoral system, the least we could do is listen to its conclusions isn't it?

A fairer taxation system

Contrary to what a lot of online writers seem to think, I would not do anything I possibly could to avoid paying tax. I would not shift my wealth offshore. I would not find interesting loopholes that allowed me to transfer my house to my cat. In fact, I would be happy to pay more tax for high levels of public services. I'd rather pay more tax for a sound, reliable, efficient health service and education system, than pay less tax and watch the health service be farmed out to companies wanting to find ways of making a profit from treating our ill health.

I'd like a genuinely progressive taxation system, where the rich paid more, and the poor were supported better. I'd like a system of taxation and welfare that didn't lead to increased numbers of people needing to rely on food banks to eat.

A strong welfare state

I'd like a change in mindset, so that the default assumption is not that anyone who needs help from the state is a scrounger, a layabout, lazy, feckless, stupid or selfish. Where has our compassion gone? How have we reached a position where there seems to be such a vociferous anti-benefit media? How have so many people apparently forgotten how easy it is to be sick, disabled, alone, vulnerable, broke, unemployed, hungry, cold or weak? How easily it could happen to any one of us. How valuable it is to have a safety net that is there to catch each and every person who needs it.

I'm going to finish with an anecdote. Anecdote is not evidence, but it can be illuminating.

There were two men, both of them immigrants to this country.

The first man was a highly skilled, highly educated man who worked as an engineer, before moving to work for the National Economic Development Office. He wrote speeches for government ministers, he drafted recommendations for the Department of Trade and Industry, he battled to improve the efficiency of our heavy industry during the 1970s and 80s and thus save jobs and livelihoods. He married and raised two children who both went on to read Natural Sciences at Cambridge University before becoming professional physicists in different fields. 

The second man was an economic migrant to this country, coming here from Africa because the opportunity for work was so much better here. He became terminally ill some years after immigrating, and though he considered returning to Africa, he had a wife and children here, and access to free and excellent healthcare. He was unable to work due to ill-health for the best part of a decade, cost the NHS many hundreds of thousands of pounds, finally dying after three weeks of very expensive treatment in an intensive care unit. He left his widow and children with no visible means of support, and as he'd made insufficient National Insurance contributions during his truncated working life, his widow received only a reduced widow's state pension. 

Both those men were my father. There are two sides to every story. There are always shades of grey between the black and white extremes. Neither the Conservatives, nor Labour, nor any other party has a monopoly on good ideas, bad ideas, dangerous plans, self-interest, compassion or intelligence. I'm just more afraid of what a Conservative government might do than I am of any other major party.


  1. Okay, I had a long comment but blogger ate it. Let me summarize: you have a lot of well considered points, I'm always viscerally shocked by countries without a constitution (it's all in what you're used to and it's also not like Scarobto have done a great job with my constitutional rights, the jackasses).

    But mostly: you have an ELECTED official named BALLS???? How does anyone keep a straight face???

    1. Well, we do kind of have a constitution, it's just spread across multiple different documents, Acts of Parliament, court judgements etc. Makes it more challenging for the lawyers!

      And, yes, Ed Balls was an MP until this election, and basically it was impossible to mention him without smirking. Poor bloke.