Vir Cantium

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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Is It Time to Lay Off Gordon Brown?

Now I suppose that title can be interpreted in two ways … but in both cases the answer may well be “yes”. Of course, he should be sent into opposition at the General Election, but might it be time now to change tack as we approach the “official” election campaign?

YouGov this morning are reporting the Conservative lead down to 2%. Much panicking and gnashing of teeth has ensued.

It wouldn’t hurt for the party to start being a bit more consistent and clear about what we will do in power. Some of the problem is that, although political anoraks like myself could quote all sorts of areas where there is a clear distinction between the Conservative and Labour approaches, to the average punter there is little difference between us – an impression not helped by the expenses thing.

The bullying issue has had virtually no effect on the polls. Is it any surprise? In a week when a good few of the general public (too many, in fact) have been more concerned with a footballer sleeping with a woman who used to be the girlfriend of another footballer, and how that footballer is upset with the first footballer and … er, where was I?

Ah yes, the point is that, for those outside the political sphere, attacking Gordon Brown is now having the same effect as bombing a ruined city – we’ve made our point. It might even start to engender some sympathy in the average voter. It’s time to move on and concentrate on what we will do in power.

If we are going to cut taxes – even if it’s just a few – then say so. If we are asked about our approach to a particular issue, don;t start the response with “Thanks to Gordon Brown, widget production has plummeted ….” because by the time you’ve got round to the Tory vision for the widget industry, people have switched off.

It’s time to move on … or we might just find out how Labour felt in 1992.


Snow Chaos

Tut tut. We are so rubbish in this country. A few flakes of snow and everything collapses.

I mean, in countries like Sweden they’re used to this. Their transport systems and public services don’t grind to a halt do they?

Shopping Around

Suppose you suspected that the place where you usually had your hair cut was overcharging. What would you do?

You might go down the road to the next hairdressers/barbers. Perhaps their prices were similar – unsurprising if they and the near neighbour were in competition and keeping an eye on each others’ rates.

A short distance away, you might find someone who’ll cut your hair for considerably less, so you go there instead (assuming you’re happy with the quality, customer service and all the non-financial factors that might go into the typical purchasing decision).

This, surely, is how most people would do things. Not, it seems if you are Dr Ros Altmann “former government adviser”. Her approach, it seems, would be to call on the government to launch an enquiry into the rates charged by hairdressers … or, to take another example, credit card companies:

A former government advisor has called for an investigation into the profit margins of credit card companies.

Ros Altmann says credit card rates of around 18% are excessive and argues there could be a case for a regulator to oversee the rates they charge.

Credit card customers are now paying the highest interest rates for 12 years, according to financial information service Moneyfacts.

This is despite the fact that base rates are at an all-time low of 0.5%.

The card companies say rates are high because of the large number of people failing to pay their bills during the recession.

Well, a quick glance at moneysupermarket reveals that there is a good selection of cards charging single figure rates, so it’s hardly a cartel operating here.

If a credit card rate is that critical to someone’s finances, then they need debt advice or help with their financial planning – not, potentially, more government regulation to save them from themselves.

Next thing you know, they’ll be suggesting that the credit crunch had nothing to do with people borrowing irresponsibly and that it was entirely the banks’ fault. Oh, wait….

Stephen Gately, Jan Moir and That Slippery Slope

Many will remember the article by Jan Moir that was published about the death of Stephen Gately. A not insignificant 25,000 people complained to the Press Complaints Commission about it. Now, the verdict has been passed:

The press watchdog has decided not to uphold a complaint about a newspaper comment piece on the death last year of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately.
Ms Moir’s article was published the day before the gay singer’s funeral. It discussed his lifestyle and suggested the cause of his death had not been natural.
Ms Moir said Gately’s death struck a blow to the “happy-ever-after myth of civil partnerships”.

This was the right decision, however inappropriate or distasteful the comments*. The old maxim applies: “I disagree with what you say, but defend your right to say it”.

Ben Summerskill from Stonewall, interviewed on the Today programme this morning, seems to think differently. He disagreed with the IPCC ruling and suggested that more needed to be done to deal with such situations. He has, unfortunately, fallen into the familiar trap whereby someone sees that a self-regulatory mechanism doesn’t produce a result he agrees with, therefore “self-regulation isn’t working”. He expanded on the point thus (not verbatim – working from memory):

We don’t let investment banks say “don’t worry about the audit, we’ll self regulate” or to mining companies “don’t worry about health and safety” we’ll self regulate”

If investment banks aren’t audited, then a lot of money is at stake (including, somewhere down the line, yours and mine). Health and safety can literally be a matter of life, death or limb. Jan Moir’s ill-advised comments were simply upsetting.

The problem here, and I think it was cited this morning, is that offensive comments about black or Jewish people are now covered by criminal law. Well, in my view, hate speech legislation has already gone too far. It provides for someone to be jailed because they expressed a viewpoint the government and legislature disagree with. Of course, the line must be drawn somewhere, but we had perfectly sensible, tried and tested rules covering incitement to violence, slander and libel for many years before hate speech laws came about. Too many have died for the right of free speech for it to be compromised just because someone’s feelings were hurt.

The fact is that to put regulation of the press on a legislative footing will not be putting us onto a slippery slope … we are already on that slope. Even so, that doesn’t mean that we should dig the ski poles in and give ourselves an extra push.

* Update: I think I should clarify – it wouldn’t necessarily have been wrong, given the independent nature of the PCC, to have decided the other way, but on balance I think the decision was right. Jan Moir was suitably castigated following publication, and apologised afterwards. End of.


… in a manner of speaking:

From MyLabourPoster, inspired by the current Conservative poster series.

Been There Done That

The Telegraph reports:

Job centre staff were unprepared for the hundreds of thousands of middle class workers who have lost their jobs in the recession, the Government has admitted.

A report published by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) found that centres were under-staffed, while new recruits lacked experience because they had not had enough training to deal with the unemployed.

It disclosed that job centre staff did not know enough to deal appropriately with middle class professionals who were newly out of work. It found they “lacked confidence in knowing who to offer services to”.

Well, firstly, let’s not forget which government has so recently been shutting job centres.

More personally, this gives me a sense of deja-vu. I have had the Job Centre experience in the past – in the early 90’s recession – when as a mere audit junior, made redundant, I found myself signing on. Even then, it seemed the Job Centre was less of a (state-run) employment agency and more of just a government office for handing out unemployment benefit. It felt as though the Job Centre was of a world of manual weekly paid work, and could do little for someone in any sort of “specialist” occupation, such as a trainee accountant, in the midst of professional exams.

I got the impression, perhaps unfairly, that the staff there were going through the motions – particularly when no interest was paid to my evidence, carefully documented, of my earnest job-seeking (isn’t it a condition of the benefit that you are making an effort?).

Twenty years’ on, and it seems things haven’t changed. If what this report says is right, then we are looking at a system that hasn’t really moved on from the model of the old-fashioned labour exchange – and that is letting down both the jobless and the staff.

When Luvvies Try To Do Economics

I like Bill Nighy … as an actor. He’s good. But he should stick to acting.

The same goes for Richard Curtis: a fine writer there is little doubt, but he should stick to writing. Nevertheless, they and their chums have embarked on a crusade. A campaign to introduce a Tobin Tax.

The Robin Hood Tax is a tiny tax on bankers that would raise billions to tackle poverty and climate change, at home and abroad.
By taking an average of 0.05% from speculative banking transactions, hundreds of billions of pounds would be raised every year.

Gosh, it really is the silver bullet! The panacea!

Yesterday, the Robin Hood Tax had plenty of favourable airtime, particularly on the BBC. It’s difficult to reconcile, I know: a campaign driven by leading members of the world of entertainment, supporting an idea that involves increasing taxation and the tentacles of the state, getting a warm welcome from the major (and state-supported) player in UK media.

But wait, it’s not just luvvies involved here:

Who’s in?

Gordon Brown, Angela Merkel (the German Chancellor) and Nicolas Sarkozy (the French President) have all spoken out in support of a tax on financial transactions.

No mention of support from the great President Obama. Funny that.

Anyway, Gordon Brown supports it. So it’s dead in the water then.

Speaking on the PM programme last night, dear old Bill’s support seemed to hang on the “fact” that Richard Curtis is a very intelligent man, so he must be right. But isn’t a Tobin Tax unworkable without every country signing up? Oh no, even if the UK alone were to do it, it would raise x billion which could then be used to fight child poverty.

Now I’ve left out the amount because (a) the thing would still be unworkable, so it hardly matters, and (b) the loss to the Exchequer would be “x” times a significant multiple as the institutions leave London and take their corporation tax, PAYE, employers and employee’s National insurance and stamp duties with them. Then there’s the cost to ordinary pension funds from this “tiny tax on bankers” (and yes, the equivalent effects on Frankfurt or Tokyo should the grand global plan come together). Oh, wait …

Will the tax be passed on to consumers?
The Robin Hood Tax will not impact on personal banking or on retail banking. That’s because it targets a distinct area of bank operations – high-frequency large-volume trading, undertaken by financial institutions in the ‘casino economy’. 

If you change money to go on holiday, send remittances abroad, invest in a pension fund or take out a mortgage, you will not be affected by this tiny tax.

Really? Well, I guess this would explain why Curtis, Nighy et al weren’t complaining too loudly when so many were enjoying low interest rates and free banking, partly made possible by the “socially useless” but profitable activities of the banks – they’re using fantasy economics. Next year they’ll be campaigning to have more money trees planted.

Underpinning the plan is the touchingly quaint and naïve assumption that throwing billions of public money at a problem will solve it … like child poverty. Note to Bill: this isn’t 1997 any more. Billions have been thrown at child poverty, and things haven’t got any better. Sometimes, you know, it’s not just about money. And even when it is, it’s not always about governments spending it.

One last point for now: if the Sally Army, Oxfam, ‘, Christian Aid, RSPB, Save the Children, Comic Relief and many others were hoping to get any money / unwanted clothing / bric-a-brac off me in future, then they will have to become proper charities again … not campaign fronts for statist left-wing causes.

Electoral Reform – Making the Best of a Bad Idea

Thirteen years ago, with a different election result, we could have seen a new Labour government forming a coalition with the Lib Dems, with electoral reform as their power broker’s fee. Of course, it never happened, though 1998 saw the Jenkins Commission recommend an Alternative Vote system

So it’s taken this long for Gordon Brown to suggest a referendum on electoral reform. (Is there an election in the offing? Maybe a hung parliament?)

Now there hasn’t, as yet, been any large organised campaign in favour of First Past The Post (FPTP), mainly because there hasn’t had to be, even though a number of different systems have been trialled in other elections, with varying degrees of success. “Success” being, as it has to be in politics, whatever you want it to be.

Discussions around electoral reform often settle around PR, which is based on the assumption – challenged too rarely – that a body of representatives that directly reflects the proportion of votes cast is “fair”.

Yet what is proposed today is AV, which is not strictly PR, rather a system that still retains the constituency link. Like PR, though, it tends to benefit more the smaller parties and – let’s be honest – the Left, which has been more prone to factionalism than the Right, at least in the UK. Not that that is in any way the Government’s motivation, is it? By getting electoral reform of some description in then open before the election, any coalition process with the Lib Dems in a hung parliament will surely be smoother, with the possibly unpalatable pill of electoral reform already swallowed.

So, as a Conservative, I guess I’m should be somewhat wary about electoral reform … and I am. Whether an AV, STV or “proper” PR system is in place, the end result will typically be more coalition governments. Now if you believe that the best form of government is one where you throw everyone into a political melting pot and the best ideas will magically rise to the top and a golden age of governance, world peace and love and big hugs all round will ensue, then you might genuinely believe yourself when you say that a series of coalition governments is a good thing.

There is a great irony about those who propose systems that naturally increase the chances of coalition governments. That is: who votes for coalitions? If Gordon Brown and Nick Thingy do a deal after May to form a coalition, we will have a Labour/Lib Dem government. Fine, you may say, but (a) how is it fair that a party with maybe 18% of the vote decides who forms the government and (b) unless any ballot papers actually featured a Lab/Lib candidate, we will have a government that nobody voted for – surely even less democratic than a government formed on the back of 42% of the vote?

But wait … do Conservative have something to fear from electoral reform? Probably not, in the long term. Firstly, we should qualify that question by defining “Conservative” in the broader sense of the Conservative movement. It is quite possible that just as AV or PR favours smaller parties on the Left (including, lest we forget, the BNP) so it will also do for the Right, so we may well see a higher profile UKIP. Those familiar with centre-right politics will recognise that a large bulk of UKIP support and activism is essentially Conservative with added Euro-scepticism (which is why Conservative leaders would do well to treat UKIP voters as lost sheep to be tempted back to the flock, rather than xenophobic outcasts to be shunned).

Some of my fellow Tories may fear the Conservative/Lib Dem 1-2 which voters may plump for, as the electors make the common mistake of thinking that the Lib Dems are somehow in the centre, to the right of Labour. Yet after a term or so, it is more than possible that centre-right voters will default to a Con-UKIP / UKIP-Con combination. So, not only would the Lib Dems not fair as well as they have been hoping for decades under a new system (and that’s not counting what a stronger Green vote would do their core support), but the possibility exists for many right-wing ideas to still find their way to fruition as part of Conservative/UKIP coalition in a electorally reformed future.

Happy New Year

Yes, it’s February, so Happy New Year to everyone. (Accountants will understand.)

… and I even remembered my WordPress password. Things are looking up.