08 April 2014

Independence For Scotland, Britain To Stay In EU. Where's The Consistency?

I believe that not only is Holyrood better than Westminster, Brussels is too. Quite simply I would rather be ruled by Brussels bureaucrats than London bankers (Although I do admit this doesn't sound the most attractive choice).

That is why my position is consistent and logical and different from the unionist Eurosceptics whose arguments are full of contradictions.

If you believe the * British * press, Brussels is the root of all evil. The truth is, the flaws in the EU are much exagerated and the pernicious power and destructive activities of bankers much understated. And bankers fund our political parties.

* The British press is mostly foreign owned  and the owners located in tax havens which might explain their paper's focus on welfare rather than bankers and other wealthy tax avoiders *

If UKIP and the Tories stated clearly that they wanted Scotland for its resources they would at least have some intellectual honesty to their argument. But instead they simultaneously claim Scots are a burden on English taxpayers while crowing about us all being "better together". While using the exact opposite arguments about sovereignty to decry the EU. They are all over the place and only get away with it because Labour and the media are complicit.

Labour party careerists put their party before the interests of the people (both Scottish and rest of the UK). But even in this they are misguided. Ignoring the interests of the people will only damage Labour in the long run.

Scottish independence is fundamentally about restoring democracy. Not only will it set free Scotland, it will help regional England, Wales and Northern Ireland loosen the grip of destructive London dominance. And that is why, as an Englishman I am all for it.

03 April 2014

10 policies to reinvigorate the Left

John Harris is right to say the Left are stuck in the past. They rarely set the agenda. In particular he refers to a Labour party, which feels compelled to dance to the right wing corporate media. I have sympathy with the overwhelming challenge Labour face from a distorting 24 hour media, but continually conceding ground will get the left nowhere. Rightwingers control the media and so control the future. The Right popularise policies from delinking pensions from annuities to a punitive welfare "cap", that look fair but push an individualist agenda favouring the well off. The Left need to find popular collectivist policies to reset the balance. Here's how.

1. Corporations and rich individuals donate  over £30m every year to political parties. Obviously, they do this to influence policy (mainly towards a rightwing agenda). This distortion has to be addressed if we care about democracy. In future all political donations (including trade union donations) will need to go into a general political fund. This will be allocated to political parties in proportion to their percentages of the vote. In addition, a political levy will apply each year equivalent to the yearly average of the previous 5 years of political donations from each company or individual. No longer should wealth determine political influence.

2. Corporations spend hundreds of millions on political PR. This must be balanced with an equivalent political levy that is distributed to parties according to votes. The more a corporation or wealthy individual seeks to influence policy, the more they have to donate into the general fund to allow others a response.

3. Just as broadcastors provide free space for party broadcasts. So too must newspapers, websites and magazines that carry political content. A few pages would suffice to allow some redress to newspapers's slavish following of the agenda of the big corporate advertisers that fund them.

4. The rightwing are using local government to circumvent democracy. Devolving the most difficult cuts down to councils controlled by opposition parties is a disgraceful way of avoiding blame. Local councils are now little more than central government lackeys dictated to from above on everything from their spending priorities to how they raise their revenue . This has to change. Councils need the power to decide how they raise their revenue and by how much. As a first step give them complete control over council tax, to revalue, reband or even replace with a land value tax.

5. Our constitution should not be easily changed by parties with only a temporary mandate. Most governments are now elected with less than 40% of the vote, let alone 50%. Yet they have the power to completely rewrite everyone's basic rights. This has to stop. We need to construct a proper written constitution decided by a two thirds majority that protects not just local democracy but also basic democratic ideals on the media, elections and other rights. For instance, it is a disgrace our second chamber is chosen by PMs and the landed gentry.

6. Link MPs pay (and expenses) to median earnings. Populist, but also a leftist point. There should be no need to pay MPs more than twice average earnings. Public sector pay generally should be limited to a 4:1 ratio from top to bottom (with a generous floor above the living wage) to set a good example for the private sector.

7. Link tax to inequality. There is growing evidence that inequality damages the economy as well as society. Ever greater rewards for those at the top has not increased the economic pie. Indeed the debt crisis can be linked to "fast buck" economics that is now an entrenched vested interest defending the unproductive financial industry & "rip off" economy. Corporation tax should be proportional to a company's pay inequality. Of course the global movement of capital to avoid tax will be a problem but can we afford to keep giving in to this threat? We could even link the welfare budget to the level of inequality.

8. We cannot continue to ignore environmental and social damage just to get short term economic gain. We need to build support for policies to address pollution and obesity. We need to control vehicle use.  We need to build housing for good health and efficiency. Only when there is wide public support can we implement "sin taxes" on sugar or plastic packaging etc. As a first step, we could follow Finland's example of a 70's style deposit on packaging and bottles to encourage their return to the shop. Only by putting the environmental costs on retailers/producers will we discourage over use of packaging (and reduce costs of litter, recycling and refuse collection). A tax on land would discourage free carparks. We could give companies significant tax breaks for the number of their employees who travel to work by means other than the car. Households that go car free could get council tax rebates or even free bus passes.

9. We need to build some more homes. But there is no point building surburban sprawl or building for property "investors" or worse, yet more second (or even third or more) homes. We need to address housing inequality. Real garden cities would be high speed rail connected, compact and car free with comprehensive metro systems and high density quality housing, yet with walkable large green spaces. A land tax would cap housing costs and speculative profiteering.

10. Finally we need competition between political ideas. A stale party system where constituency boundaries and voter registration rules are fought over for party advantage is no good. A bias towards the bigger two parties perpetuates the status quo and stifles competition of political ideas. Labour needs to embrace more proportional elections, but also more radical ideas on direct democracy. Each street could have  an elected rep, with a small budget they could pool with other streets if they desired. Some councillors could be randomly selected in the same way as juries, to widen representation. Elections could be held yearly. Above all, the Left should not fear more democracy. The masses are their biggest ally.

22 February 2014

If We Want To Increase Turnout We Have To Remember Why People Vote

The chances that any one individual vote will make a difference to an election result is almost non existent.

At the last general election, every majority was greater than one. Hardly a surprise. So why should any one individual make the effort? And there is an effort involved. However small you may consider the effort in voting, the effort is much larger than the chances that individual vote will actually "make a difference" to the result.

Obviously there is the rationale "well, if enough people thought like that it would make a difference, a big difference". Indeed. And that thought alone can act as a big incentive to turn out.

When talking about low turnout, usually a lot is made of "apathy", the so called apathetic masses. This of course shifts the blame from those in charge. It lets them off the hook. It's those lazy plebs at fault, not us. In fact the only lazy ones are those using apathy as an excuse.

Think back to the opening paragraph and you can see it is not apathy that makes a person consider their vote worthless, it is rational consideration of the facts.

And this is why any barrier put in the way of registering to vote or the actual process of voting, however small, is going to have a significant effect. And why Individual Electoral Registration could have a massive effect. There are millions registering and turning out who can hardly be bothered at the moment.

So if individual votes are worthless, why do so many individuals actually turnout? Turnout of 50,60,70% or more seems unbelievable for a worthless act.

Of course voting from an individual viewpoint may be worthless, but from a collective point of view it can be far from it.

These are the main reasons why people vote and it may surprise you.

HABIT

If people vote when they are young they are likely to continue voting. And the more they vote, the more likely they are to vote. And vice versa.

Me and my friends are of an age group that had to wait till we were nearly 23 before we got to vote in our first general election in 1992. Which was a 5 year gap from 1987. The difference this makes is really noticeable in the turnout demographics - something like a 10% drop from those a few months older who got to vote at 18 in 1987. Most of my friends didn't get into the habit of voting when young and so never will.

We must remember the corporate strategy. McDonalds was one of the first companies to target children with its advertising and promotion because they worked out that if you want repeat frequent customers you need to get them into the habit. Get them young. Tobacco companies also know this.

Once people hit their early twenties they have made their mind up about most things. Rarely will people much change their political ideology and that includes whether they bother voting or not.

That is why changes that impact on turnout are so important, because that impact can last generations. It is going to be incredibly hard to break the non voting habit of the younger generations.

CONTENTMENT

Some commentators argue that content people are likely not to vote because they are happy with the status quo. In fact the opposite is the case, content people vote more. And the more society treats you well, whether in status, income, wealth etc, the more fearful you will be that your good life will be taken away. So you vote to keep what you've got. Unhappy people with little to show from society turn out less.

PEER PRESSURE

We all know family and close friends influence how you vote but they also influence whether you vote at all. The longer you know someone and the earlier their influence, the more chance you will copy them.

CULTURE: IT'S COOL

Difficult to imagine how voting can be cool, but when the franchise is first extended, turnout is usually at a high point.

LACK OF DISTRACTIONS

Modern life is full of activities, stuff. Things to do. We have moved on from Harold Wilson asking the BBC to move Steptoe & Son (they refused), but distractions do make a difference. How do we find time to vote?

RACE, CLASS, GENDER of candidates

People are racist, "class"ist and genderist (men more so than women it seems). They vote for people in their own image. Sad but true. See no-one like you and enthusiasm for voting wanes. The under-represented in parliament, turn out less. Which in turn means they are even more under-represented, which leads them to turn out less...and so on. A vicious circle.

IDEOLOGICAL or EMOTIONAL CONNECTION of candidates/party with voter

Politics, charm and good looks. Policies do make a difference, but in a world where trust is in decline generally and particularly of politicians, charm and good looks are getting more important. Charm and good looks however are not enough to restore lost turnout from a disengaged electorate caused by disillusionment at disappointing policies and broken promises.

NEGATIVITY

If you were going to buy a certain item and every advert you saw just slagged off a competitor producing that item. You might decide not to buy at all.

Negative political campaigns reduce turnout. And the longer the negativity goes on, the bigger the impact on turnout.

There is something about politics thats makes negative campaigning so successful.

Unlike in a healthy competitive marketplace, where increased sales drive profit. Politicians can profit just as much by driving down the votes of an opponent as winning votes themselves.

PERCEIVED IMPORTANCE of the ELECTION

Obviously General elections are more important than local and Euro elections because that is where the power is. Also close elections can drive turnout. We all know the difference between a marginal and safe seat.

PROPORTIONAL or FAIRER ELECTIONS

Proportional voting can reduce negative campaigning, under-representation of certain groups, devalued votes in safe seats and disillusionment at distorted national results. But it doesn't stop the general decline of turnout completely.

AND FINALLY, EASE OF REGISTERING & VOTING

Anything that increases security and accuracy of an election usually comes with a cost.

As I explained at the start, even small barriers to voting can be enough to put people off. The benefits of combating fraud do have to be weighed against the numbers put off voting altogether.

CONCLUSION/SOLUTIONS

Wherever there is a cost to voting, it needs to be countered with an incentive.

People can have a "moral" problem with voting being anything other than a voluntary duty that people should be willing to perform no matter what the costs and barriers to themselves. As I have already explained, from an individual point of view the incentive to vote is non existent. Yet we all know that it is of huge benefit collectively to us all.

The only way I can see this circle squared is to recognise that people incur costs in voting and recompense them for the good they are doing society by turning out.

A financial allowance set at just enough to compensate for the expense of voting (in time, effort & financial) has the advantage of appealing to those groups who turn out least - the poor. It would be simple and overcome the deterrent barriers of having much more secure election procedures and finally it would work. Turnout would soar if you paid people to turn out.

19 February 2014

A Scottish Pound?

An Assessment of the UK Treasury's Assessment of a Sterling Currency Union.

Every negative that could be accentuated about an independent Scotland has been accentuated. This is an unremittingly negative document.

That is not to say that there are not risks involved in Scotland going independent. But the chances that EVERY risk associated with independence actually occurs is, I would suggest, very unlikely. Let's take some examples from this 78 page document.

First off, lets start with one point I can agree with. I can accept that legally the pound sterling is not an asset that the "continuing" UK has to share.

As the document states "there is no rule or principle in international law that would require the continuing UK to share sterling".

Equally "there is no rule or principle in international law" that says Scotland can't negotiate a lower share of liabilities as a result.

In physical terms I can agree that a sterling zone is not an asset in the sense of the £1.2 trillion of physical and cash assets the UK possesses. The UK will also have £1.6 trillion of national debt by 2016. Scotland's share of this debt (on a population or repayment share calculation) is between £100bn and £130bn which can be offset against UK assets held outside Scotland. This will leave an independent Scotland with a much lower debt/gdp ratio (55%-75%) than the continuing UK (85%) (more on this later).

Legally it has already been established, by the UK treasury itself, that the national debt is the responsibility of the "continuing" UK. An independent Scotland has no "legal" responsibility to take on a share of this debt. So Scotland cannot "default" on this debt, since it is not legally theirs.

However the Scottish government has said they want to take on a fair share of liabilities (which includes debt), as long as they get a fair share of assets. Legally a sterling zone is not an asset. But in practical terms it would be of "benefit" and anything of benefit is usually deemed an asset.

But, says the report, a sterling zone would not be of worth to the continuing UK because an independent Scotland would be too "risky" to be a part of it. Therefore, despite the lower transaction/barrier costs etc for both countries of continuing a currency union, this is not in the "continuing" UK interest.

This is based on three broad claims.

1) As a "new" country money markets wouldn't trust Scotland.

2) As a "small" country it would be more reliant on trade and have less economies of scale.

3) An independent Scotland is too dependent on oil, gas and financial services, which would make revenues vulnerable and volatile.

All of this it claims would bring an interest rate premium that would push up Scottish deficit repayments.

This conveniently ignores the fact that whatever way it is negotiated, Scotland will start with a much lower debt/gdp ratio than the continuing UK (see above point). This usually brings a reduction in interest rates.

In the EU single market and as an English speaking nation, point 2 is pretty negligible, even irrelevant. And it is surreal to think rump UK would dare veto EU membership for their third biggest trading partner or Spain would cause chaos to European business just to get one over on the Catalonians. Even if they did, Scotland would no doubt end up still in the single market like Norway or Switzerland are. Some would argue that is an even better position to be in.

Finally, even without oil & gas, Scotland has output per head 99% of the UK average. With oil & gas it is 120%.

A lot is made of the volatility of oil & gas prices in the document with a constant focus on prices falling. But how likely is that? At over $100 a barrel, the profit margin is huge. Prices do fluctuate but big drops are usually temporary and followed by huge increases. In an energy hungry world the general trend is clear, prices are going up and likely to continue going up.

Nor is oil & gas the only large energy resource that Scotland has. Renewables will grow in value and Scotland has some of the largest potential in Europe.

Scotland is future proofed, exactly the type of country investors want to lend to. If anything, the rest of the UK can only benefit from sharing a currency with such a nation.

Which leaves one final claim why a currency union is not in the continuing UK's interest:-

"Scotland could leave a currency union for its own benefit at any moment and leave the rest of the UK counting the cost".

But the alternative is to chuck Scotland out on day one. So if the only difference is timing, what is the benefit in not allowing a union to continue longer? Surely better to delay costs, if any?

The Scottish government have stated they have no plans to leave sterling, say, for the Euro. And if they ever did decide to join there would be a lengthy transition process spreading out transition costs. Why would the rump UK decide to take these costs immediately in one hit? It makes no sense and I imagine the UK would decide this too when the time actually arrives. And of course all the main UK parties have in principle an aim for the UK to join the Euro itself, so there is no permanent guarantee for either side of the continuance of the pound.

Overall, I can only assume the conclusion of this treasury document was decided before they even started to research and write it. It is not a credible document in my opinion.

17 February 2014

Labour needs a policy on boundary changes that stops the march towards gerrymandering

In the US, the incumbent party in each state gets a once in a decade chance to draw the congressional boundaries. Sophisticated computer programs are designed that manipulate boundaries to maximise seats for the party in control. Boundaries are drawn that can significantly skew results. Keeping parties in power even with less votes than their opponents.

Aside from this the Republican party in particular have become experts in voter suppression - finding more & more ways to remove targeted groups from electoral rolls.

All in all. Not a healthy situation for a so called democracy to be in.

Thankfully the UK is in a better position, but, we are moving in the US direction.

Like in the US, the UK uses a system for electing its national parliament where the drawing of constituency boundaries can have a bigger impact on the result than the actual votes cast.

For example, it is estimated that about half of Tony Blair's majorities in his three election wins were down to the favourable boundary review in the 1990s done under John Major's Conservative government.

This Coalition government have introduced measures that are going to impact significantly on the democratic process.

The most important will come in June this year - Individual Electoral Registration (IER). It is predicted that the move from household to individual registration could reduce UK rolls by 10%, removing 4.5m people across the UK. A 10% reduction is the experience from N.Ireland where it is already in place.

Initially around 10m people will be removed from the electoral roll. Those with incorrect address details with the DWP will not be automatically added to the register. These geographically mobile people - mainly young, urban and poor will (for the first time) have to provide proof of ID to re-register.

I am assured that the main impact of these changes will not affect the register until after the 2015 general election. So the impact will be most felt at the 2020 general election. So there is time for a Labour government to find a better way.

IER will not only remove millions of potential voters from the rolls, the new boundaries due to come in by 2018 will be drawn using these incomplete rolls. These boundary reviews are where the real impact will be felt because ignoring unregistered electors will make urban constituencies bigger than they should be devaluing all urban votes.

By drawing boundaries that ignore the unregistered, the current unregistered who vote in future, along with regular voters, will find their votes are devalued even before they get to the polling booth.

Which brings me on to the second significant change made by this government.

The coverage of the boundary vote in parliament by the UK media will have implanted the idea in most people's minds that the only unfairness in our current boundary based system are unequal sizes of electorates between constituencies. In fact this is probably the least significant factor in causing bias in our system.

David Cameron and a lot of other Tories have spoken of "equalising constituency electorates". And have made hay on the fact that this "fairness" has been blocked by the Lib Dems and Labour.

The current situation is that the vast majority of seats (over 90%) vary between 65,000 and 79,000 constituents. A handful of exceptional cases vary by far more e.g Western Isles 22,000, Isle of Wight 110,000.

Labour win seats with an average of around 68,000 registered electors in them, the Tories around 72,000. It is this "bias" the Tories are complaining about.

The Tories' proposal is to "equalise" to a variation of 2.5% around the mean of new bigger constituencies (73,000-77,000). Reducing the number of constituencies makes urban & suburban seats bigger & more rural. There will still be a handful of exceptional sized constituencies mentioned earlier which are exempted under the legislation. So the huge differences between these mainly rural constituencies will remain.

Drawing constituency boundaries is a difficult enough task even with a 10% variation. With 2.5% it becomes impossible to avoid breaking up communities, taking a bit of one town and a bit of another, crossing rivers and valleys, islands and mainland, slicing across council boundaries and having more frequent changes to counteract population movement, mainly "suburban drift".

These changes make accountability a joke as large numbers of voters find their MP has changed even before they get to vote, and there is little cohesion between local and national elections and the communities they serve.

Unlike in the US, an attempt is made in the UK to draw boundaries fairly with regard to all the conflicting considerations mentioned above.

The task falls to the four boundary commisions, one for each country of the UK. Of course they are heavily influenced by the main political parties - Labour and Conservative, in their decisions. And legislative guidelines can also heavily restrict their ability to be impartial.

One of the reasons the current boundaries are seen to favour Labour is that the last time a review was done in England in the mid 1990s, the incumbent Conservatives shored up their safe seats at the expense of their marginals. Labour were more than happy to accept these boundaries. which "concentrated" more of their vote in marginal seats and less votes in seats they couldn't win or in seats they win easily. The Tories did the opposite, moving more of their voters into seats they win comfortably anyway.

In the knowledge that they were heading for a heavy defeat, the highest ranking Conservative MPs, holed up in safe to fairly safe seats valued their own re-election above maximising the number of MPs for their party.

After 17 years without a majority and the prospect of many more lean years, the Tories have learnt the lesson of this individualist approach and have now adopted (ironically) a collectivist strategy to boundary reviews.

But even if the boundaries are drawn completely impartially, it is impossible to draw them without bias, especially bias against smaller or non geographically concentrated parties. Which brings me to why the current constituency electorate variations are a red herring.

Geographical concentration of votes (just enough votes in winnable seats and few in others) and what is called "differential turnout' (61% turnout in Labour seats, 68% Tory) are far more important. In fact an LSE study suggests over 80% of the "bias" is accounted for in these ways. So, at best the Tory "equalisation" will only address 20% of their "problem".

Another point to mention is that boundaries are drawn by numbers of REGISTERED voters in a seat, not by the actual "voting age population" which should be the real guideline.

Low turnout seats also have disproportionately high numbers of eligible but unregistered electors. So to compare just the number of registered voters in each constituency underplays the numbers of eligible voters in Labour constituencies.

By voting age population, the differences in constituency numbers actually FAVOURS the Conservatives the most. Urban constituencies average 102,000 population, rural 94,000. Tory seats are more rural, so their MPs already represent smaller populations than Labour.

Another factor is double registration of people in second homes and of students. These double registrations are largely in more wealthy rural Conservative seats so overestimate the numbers in these seats giving an impression these seats are bigger than they actually are.

Nationally the Tories got 47% of the seats from a 36% voteshare in 2010 but deem this unfair because Labour would do even better with such a voteshare.

The real solution to the manifold injustices of a boundary based voting system is to move to a proportional system where national voteshare is more important than drawing boundaries on a map. But that is not a solution favoured by either of the "big two" parties for obvious reasons.

They both do very well out of the present system, the only disagreement is over the share of these unjust spoils. Both parties receive a higher percentage of seats than their percentage of votes would manage under a proportional system and this is at the expense of the other parties.

Defenders of the present system defend geographical boundaries because each MP is directly accountable to electors in their constituency. Yet every Tory boundary reform proposed will reduce this accountable "constituency link" from bigger unwieldy constituencies to frequent boundary changes, reduced registration to unfathomable boundaries based on strict numbers.

Failing a more proportional system, Labour need to offer fairer boundaries. Stable boundaries sized by voting age population eligibility & complimentary with local council boundaries etc. Tory proposals will diminish democracy.

06 February 2014

IFS says tax base is too dependent on rich few, but real problem is inequality

In Thomas Piketty's new book "Capitalism in the 21st century", he argues that the rise in inequality is inescapable and will reach double the present levels.

In 30 years the top 1% have gone from owning 13% of total wealth to 30%. In the next 30 years this could reach 60%.

A new IFS report says the UK income tax base is unstable because it depends too much on just 300,000 people - the richest 1% contributing 30% of revenue.

But tax rates on the rich have actually fallen and rates on the poor have risen. Without reducing the total tax take overall, rising inequality means this concentration of revenue collection on the rich few is inevitable and cutting tax and spending which by nature tends to be redistributive will only accelerate inequality. We are stuck in a self fulfilling catch 22 that is very convenient for the Right.

The IFS also criticise the government for reducing the overall tax base by pushing up the income tax threshold to £10,000.

Yet this has been the one piece of good news for below living wage earners. Yes I know it is a poorly targeted way of helping low earners, but at least it was a pro "make work pay" policy and continuing to heavily tax subsistence level incomes makes no social sense.

So what is the solution and can we be more optimistic about inequality than Piketty argues?

The free movement of capital around the globe is increasingly defeating tax collection at national level and favourable tax policies and other "big corp" legislation are bought cheaply from our weak political systems. This is the main thrust of Piketty's pessimistic view - (although two world wars depleting the wealthy's assets temporarily turned the tide).

Piketty argues that nation states can only hold back the rising tide of inequality in the short term because the wealthy can move capital around the globe and continually play one nation off against another. So the only hope to combat this are supranational organisations like the EU.

It is ironic that those wealthy few who control the financial markets argue against the EU's single currency on the basis that social justice & economic efficiency in the Eurozone require significant fiscal cooperation between nations. Yet this equally applies to free movement of global capital or free trade agreements, yet the EU is the only organisation with a significant supranational structure to tackle this problem (inadequate though those structures may be).

On the tax base issue, the IFS argues correctly that increasing the National Insurance threshold is a better way of helping low earners than the Income Tax threshold (though this doesn't expand the tax base).

It seems to me that if we are hamstrung and unable to use taxes to reduce inequality, then Miliband's idea of "predistribution" is even more pertinant. Politically useful in an era of austerity ideology where tax and spend are anathema, Miliband could smash monopolies and regulate prices and wages to redistribute wealth. The wealthy will of course spend heavily to vilify this approach.

Personally, I still think a radical overhaul of tax & benefits are required to make a real difference - the government currently spend £720bn a year. I would scrap all spending bar the £130bn on health, £30bn on social care, £90bn on education, £30bn on justice, £30bn transport & £50bn debt interest. I would allow £50bn more for infrastructure and miscellaneous. This leaves £310bn to pay every worker, pensioner, disabled & unemployed person cash of £6,900pa each. Extra revenue could be raised by scrapping all tax allowances (raises £90bn) which would increase payment to £8,900pa (£740 per month).

This would extend the tax base to all workers, as all earnings would be subject to tax and NI. It would provide a subsistence amount to every adult to live and because there is no means testing remove all admin costs and it would encourage work as there would be no benefit loss to taking work. Very few would not want to supplement a subsistence amount by working. Those people generally are on benefits already anyway. The incentives would now be clear, every pound you earn would make you better off.

I would also look to build housing for profit to pay down the national debt by buying cheap agricultural land (£8k an acre), then grant planning permission thus turning it into £1m per acre overnight. Then build houses & infrastructure with the revenue and sell for big profit. Just 0.5m acres (0.4% of UK's 60m acres) would provide ample space for 4m new homes. Land profit from granting planning permission could generate £400bn in revenue for infrastructure, house building and paying down national debt. I think thats a better option than trying to pay off a £1.2trn national debt by hitting the poorest 10% of people who only have assets of £8bn. The assets of the richest 10% are £4000bn.

Time we had a proper debate on this rather than the poor excuse for a debate we get in our corporate owned (& government bullied publicly owned) media.

06 December 2013

England's World Cup Draw

I am perhaps alone in thinking this is not too bad a draw for England.

Certainly there are easier teams to play than Italy, Uruguay and Costa Rica and the 2,000 mile trek to the tropical north of Brazil would have been nice to avoid.

But most teams will have to travel big distances in this world cup and there are harder groups. Though being in group E with the Swiss, Ecuador and Honduras would have been nice. Jammy French!

I think the biggest thing in England's favour is the order of the draw. Playing Italy first and Costa Rica last is a big advantage. Also the heat in Manaus will not be too bad due to the very late kick off (10pm local time, 2am BST). I think the atmosphere there will be electric and benefit England.

Beating Italy or Uruguay will be a tough task. Luckily England don't need to beat either. A draw against both teams is very achievable and will leave everything in England's hands for their last game against Costa Rica. They will know exactly what they need to do and England tend to improve as tournaments progress. I think they can beat Costa Rica and beat them by more goals than Italy.

I have never known the Italians go into a first game at a world cup going for a win (they rarely go for a win in any game). They always settle for draws, especially against the bigger teams like England. This means Italy v Uruguay could be an eliminator for both teams. They will have to go for it.

The worry is that England recently played poorly against comparable teams when they lost at Wembley to both Chile and Germany in friendlies. Hopefully we will do better in competitive games when the squad have been together longer.

Defeat against Italy would probably mean we were out and the last game would be a dead rubber. But 2 opening draws and progressing would be likely. This seems very possible. The key will be our defending.

I optimistically predict 1-1 against Italy and 1-1 with Uruguay. A two goal or more win in the last game should prove enough to see us through. And if we can't beat Costa Rica....

21 November 2013

We Need A Better Democracy: Elections Aren't Working.

Elections are easily bought by the rich and powerful. This is something the ancient Greeks realised thousands of years before Russell Brand was born.

As inequality increases and the wealth and power of the few at the top increases, the rich have more to spend to buy their politicians,  influence public opinion, and divert even more of the wealth their way.

In the US, it is pretty much given that the candidate with the most to spend wins the election, regardless of policies.

As inequality increases, the rich have to spend more to persuade voters the system is worthwhile, but they can also afford to spend more. The ever increasing campaign funds in the US depressingly reflects the growing inequality there. It is a spiral of democratic decay as the battle for ideas is fought amongst an ever smaller and wealthier part of the electorate.

Of course, the rich would rather spend as little as possible having to buy politicians and public opinion and any mechanism which helps reduce the number of votes they need - from a more easily gerrymandered first-past-the-post system right through to outright voter suppression, even ballot rigging, they will support (covertly if necessary).

Proportional elections mean the rich have to spend even more influencing public opinion so they oppose it. It also makes it more difficult to hide the bias in the system. It can't be made too obvious that we only get a real debate of an issue when the wealthy disagree with each other. This is why the EU issue is more prominent than poverty pay.

But I have come to realise that even proportional voting is not enough. Even a more balanced, more diversely owned and properly free press and media is not enough. Even appropriately devolved government and a written constitution to protect voting rights is not enough. All of these things are widely accepted as good but none are likely to happen. Why is that?

I think it is quite simply because our parliament, even the bit that is elected, is not even close to being representative of the voting age population. Nor do most MPs have any real understanding of life outside of the elite privileged background that most of them have come from. Even those MPs that started out with good intentions get ground down by the system.

The process of MP selection generally sieves out radical idealists, even ones who would be immensely representative and popular. Even those who stick with it find the compromises needed to progress through a party system and survive the scrutiny of a rich owned media prism that is constantly distorting what you are and what you stand for, totally corrupting. It is of course much easier for radical politicians of the corporate right as the media is far more sympathetic.

(And for those who say the media's effect on politics is negligible, I say that even an average product can sell well above average if well advertised, otherwise why do companies bother spending billions advertising? And the Right benefits from an equivalent of billions of pounds of free advertising every month in the Right dominated media. I estimate this is worth 10-15 points of swing for right wing parties over left of centre parties (note: not just the Tories benefit)).

But getting back to the crux of the argument; am I just saying that Russell Brand is right? And lets remember what he is arguing. Not only that voting is ineffective, but that it is actually harmful in that it legitimises and perpetuates the current system.

I'm really not sure. Largely Brand is right. Voting is mostly ineffective and it does help legitimise the system. But at the margins small change is possible. And although it never challenges the fundamentally flawed system, small change over generations can improve lives for millions.

But is small, incremental change enough over a lifetime? And the massive improvements brought about by advances in technology are mainly going to a few. In some ways lives are worse than ever for those at the bottom of the pile.

But even Brand himself knows the system is not all bad. He has acknowledged that if all MPs were like Caroline Lucas things would be much better. But she only got elected because people voted Green. So if most didn't vote for establishment parties and candidates and changed their vote to Green, wouldn't that bring the radical change we need?

Sadly, probably not. Because as any PR voting enthusiast will tell you - "turkeys don't vote for christmas". The age old problem is once in power radical policies dissipate and the party becomes the establishment itself.

This happened to the Labour party and would happen to the Greens. Our system means change doesn't happen overnight anyway and who can wait a lifetime? On that I can agree with Brand.

There would be some improvements with a distant future Green government no doubt, but they wouldn't abolish a system that had granted them power. And on the road to power the elite would have plenty of opportunity to infiltrate and manipulate the party's ideals and aims out of all recognition to its radical roots. Just look at how disappointing the minority Green council in Brighton & Hove has been. Some progress, yes, but radical?

The city is still clogged with traffic for a start. Hardly what you would expect after 2 years in to their rule expecially after reading their manifesto about how urgent change is needed to save the environment.

Yet, I can"t see how not voting will help us either. Does anyone think the elected PCCs (police and crime commissioners) are holding back on their actions and would refuse more powers because over 90% of the electorate didn't vote for them?

Neither do councillors ever feel the need not to claim a mandate when they also were mostly elected with less than 15% support. Does the fact that the Lords received no votes at all stop them making our laws? MPs would carry on regardless of their support. In fact less voting might embolden them to ignore the masses even more than they presently do.

Also I worry that Brand's argument about not voting is dangerously close to the argument of marxists I met in the 1980s, who tried to persuade me to vote Tory because "it would speed up the coming of the revolution". Of course, considering the class background of most marxists, this was a very convenient argument.

So, on balance I am going to keep voting and hope voting for radical policies is good enough (currently the Greens are closest to my views). Fingers crossed I'm right, but good luck to Russell Brand as well. I support civil disobedience. One way or another we need to find a way to reduce inequality.

Personally I think we should populate our parliament with people chose at random from the population. It seems the only way to avoid the rich choosing our representatives for us.

But to get that sort of change would probably require the sort of risky revolution Brand is so sure is going to happen. Trouble is I am not so sure it will ever happen.

04 November 2013

Why A Minimum Wage/Living Wage Is A Sticking Plaster Not The Solution To Poverty Pay.

It is a good thing that Ed Miliband is talking about a living wage and pledging to use tax breaks as an incentive to employers who pay it. But it isn't going to be enough to address the root cause of poverty - a massive widening in inequality.

Sadly even well meaning employers cannot afford to subsidise the poor having to pay rip off rents, exorbitant debt fuelled house prices and the rip off prices of privatised monopolies. Not to mention the unnecessary taxes that hit poverty pay hard.

Wages can only rise as far as productive value will allow. There is some scope as many jobs pay below their true value. The Tory horror stories of mass job losses from having a minimum wage have proved false.

But equally we shouldn't be taxing people earning less than the living wage. What we should be taxing are speculators, whether builders who profit more from sitting on land than building on it or casino bankers and traders who do nothing socially or economically useful.

It is time for a land value tax and a financial transaction tax to largely replace the stupidity of taxing things we should be encouraging - i.e. jobs, especially as only the little people pay income taxes and corporation taxes.

And despite the media onslaught, we should also help those with little or no work. In the US, attacking the poor is so advanced that even working 80 hours a week to make ends meet is not enough to avoid a "lazy" tag. The ideology where only the individual is king of their rise or demise has to be challenged. It is the lazy system that destroys lives not lazy individuals.

A basic income unconditionally paid to all will remove the financial disincentive to work. Pay workers the dole and no-one loses by taking a job.

But most of all we need a massive public housing programme to address an acute shortage that now afflicts 100s of thousands but in 20 years will affect 10s of millions.

Ed Miliband is right to enter this debate and it is progress that it is on the agenda, but the solutions require more than just scratching the surface of pay.

10 June 2013

Why the Brighton & Hove Council Pay Cuts Are Not About "Equal Pay"

First off, a bit of background to the current pay dispute that has led to B&H Cityclean staff being balloted by it's union GMB, and voting 95.6% for a strike (on a 86% turnout). A 7 day strike has been set for Friday 14th June followed by indefinite "work to rule" (more strike dates could follow).

Since writing this previous post - http://neilharding.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/pay-strike-why-jason-kitcat-numbers-don.html?m=0 - (which despite limited publicly available information turned out more accurate than I thought possible) a few more nuggets of information have been released by BHCC. So I thought it was time for an update. In particular I want to destroy the myth that this dispute is about "equal pay" or "bringing poorly paid women's pay UP to men's pay level".

If I was going to summarise this dispute in one phrase it would be "delineating pay differentials".

What I mean by that is, a change to overall pay so that at each pay scale, allowances are proportionate to the basic hourly rate paid.

Because allowances are generally a higher proportion of the pay of lower paid workers (both in percentage terms & because the low paid tend to do more shiftwork & anti-social hours), and because allowances have to suit the current arbitrary basic pay evaluations, this is resulting in proposals to cut allowances to the lowest pay grades and increase them to higher pay grades. So generally, if you are on higher pay you get a rise, lower pay you see a cut of varying amounts. Cityclean staff are in the lower pay grades who are seeing cuts of up to £4,000pa.

As you can imagine, explaining this in a 5 second soundbite (which is most people's level of interest) is nigh on impossible. So it is easy to see why people might just prefer to think it is about bringing women's pay UP to men's levels, when what is actually happening is completely different.

This is most visibly demonstrated when we consider why the new proposals mean some females on less than £16,000pa (gross pay including allowances) are seeing a pay cut while some men on over £21,000pa are seeing an increase in pay, despite working similar hours and shifts. (I have gleaned this information from comments Penny Thompson (Chief Executive) said on Friday during the #BHopendoor. She stated that allowance changes (cuts & increases) were mostly hitting the lowest paid hardest, i.e. scales 1-5 but most gainers were care & support workers who are on scales 4 & 5. So therefore most cuts must be scales 1/2 & 3).

So if your understanding of "equal pay" or "single status" laws are that women and men doing jobs of "similar" status are "paid the same" then you might be confused as to why these pay differentials matter at all?

My understanding is that because of the way that "basic pay" gradings were set in 2009, (when the Tory administration attempted to tackle the "single status" issue), there is a potential legal requirement to bring a whole "historical hotchpotch" of allowances "into conformity" (allowances were the part of pay that were left unresolved in the single status talks last time) which is bound to lead to unfair cuts to the lowest paid or a significant increase to the wage bill because increases go right up the pay scale increasing the pay differentials. My guess (and I'm being kind here) is that the Greens didn't initially realise this.

The main problem seems to lie in how the "job families" were decided, not just those "similar" jobs but also those jobs deemed higher up the pay scale.

The "potential" risk of single status lawsuits depends on how many claims are viable. I suspect since several thousand staff (& ex staff) have already signed "compromise agreements" in 2009 when the council paid out £35m in compensation to those deemed underpaid, this potential has been greatly reduced. Compromise agreements take away the right to sue the council on employment grounds. (I am told only for historical employment, but I was under the impression it was future cases as well).

However since a ruling in Birmingham late last year that ex employees were entitled to 6 years backpay even if they had left employment longer than the previous 6 month employment tribunal time limit, the potential to sue in the civil courts was increased and costs are higher there than in tribunals therefore increasing legal costs for the council.

However to be worth a "no win no fee" case, the backpay would have to be substantial and the pay issues are tiny now compared to the 1980s and 1990s. Still I can understand the council wanting to eliminate future risks completely now as this will set the clock running down in terms of the 6 year period. Although I fail to see how change now would eliminate all past claims (as some have claimed). It is nonsensical to think historical claims would become invalid. I think it will reduce not eliminate historical claims.

So what is the solution to all this?

Well, the Greens truly had an opportunity here to show they were a radically different type of political party. They failed! And the Greens as a party need to ask difficult questions as to how their internal democratic structures went completely awry.

I believe that had Caroline Lucas been leader of the council instead of Jason Kitcat, we would not be in this dire situation. Caroline would have immediately realised that cuts to some of the lowest paid staff were off the agenda whatever the advice of senior officers.

The radical answer is politically challenging. Rather than just doing the bare minimum in terms of reducing pay ratios and providing a "living wage". To solve this without pay cuts to the low paid requires radical restructuring of basic pay scales.

Instead of tinkering with a couple of salaries at the top, the Greens could have demonstrated how a council can be run efficiently with no-one paid more than £50,000pa.

And instead of £7.45ph being deemed a "living wage" in high cost Brighton (when even northern Labour councils pay this). They could have moved nearer to the London living wage of £8.55ph as the bare minimum. With a guarantee that any drop in allowances are made up by increased basic pay.

With pay scale differentials squeezed much closer together the savings are estimated at around £13m. Should be easily enough to solve a dispute where the current proposals change no more than £1m of the wage bill. The fact that Penny Thompson & Jason Kitcat ignore questions asking how much saving a £50,000pa cap would reap speaks volumes.