Monday, 30 August 2010

The Something for Nothing Big Society

The Conservative Lib Dem coalition government has announced plans to shrink the power of the state and increase the voluntary sector to cover the shortfall in provision of public services. The rhetoric is all about removing central government control and empowering local people to shape their own communities.

In principle the idea has some merit, local people are well placed to decide what local services they need and how they should be provided. The feeling is though, that this project is more about reducing the financial resources from the state that sustains public provision, and replacing this with private, charitable and voluntary sector input and thus saving money from the public purse.

The previous Labour government ran some pilot schemes to try and increase public involvement in running local NHS trusts, but found lamentably low turn outs in elections for these posts. Things like healthcare are very complicated services to deliver, and to think that members of the public can just turn up at a meeting and suddenly transform service delivery in a positive way is somewhat fanciful.

The charitable sector in the UK is around 40% funded by government money, and all the indications are they will be amongst first in line when spending cuts are made to reduce government borrowing, at the break neck speed the coalition government demands is necessary to get the economy onto an even footing.

So, with less money going directly on public services and cuts in grants to charitable organisations, how will public services be maintained, let alone be improved? The for profit private sector will not be interested in any of this unless they can make money out providing services, so it’s not easy to see how they will fill the gap and make savings at the same time. Social enterprises or cooperatives and mutual societies have been mentioned by the government, but it has not been made entirely clear how they would be funded, though logically they will receive less money than is being spent on services now. A National Service programme has been mooted, in which sixteen year olds will be forced to do community work, presumably unpaid, but can this really replace work done by qualified professional workers? Which leaves purely voluntary action, which of course costs nothing or very little, but will this really be able to provide high quality and efficient public services?

The whole idea is reminiscent of Victorian era welfare practice, which existed out of necessity, before state welfare replaced much of this admirable, but desperately under funded action, in the twentieth century. The real purpose of the Big Society is to destroy the welfare state and reverse a hundred years of social progress. It would be amusing were it not so serious a matter, to see those right wing politicians and commentators who are the ones foaming at the mouth about people on state benefits, wanting a ‘something for nothing society’. Well, this is the something for nothing government, where if you want public services, you have to provide them yourself.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Labour Leadership Contest

Ballot papers will be sent out this week in the contest for the leadership of the Labour party. Five candidates are running in a complicated electoral system, where those entitled to vote can endorse a first and second preference, for leader of their party. The system uses an electoral college format. Whereby, one third of the votes goes to MP’s and MEP’s, a third to affiliated organisations such as trade unions and the co-operative society, and a third to ordinary members. There are anomalies, like MP’s being able to vote in all three constituencies, should they fulfil the criteria, so it is a strange system of democracy.

The election has not grabbed the attention of the media or public at large, perhaps because there is so little to choose between the candidates ideologically, but it is an important contest, with the winner a possible prime minister, maybe in the not too distant future given the cracks that are appearing in the ConDem coalition government.

So to the candidates on offer.

Diane Abbott, struggled to get the required number of MP’s nominations to get onto the ballot and has David Miliband, the front runner candidate to thank for asking his supporters to nominate her, which is rather humiliating really. It does highlight though the extent of rightward drift in the Labour party, that someone with Abbott’s views, which were pretty mainstream Labour a generation ago, has so little support in the Parliamentary Labour Party now.

Ed Balls has run a pugnacious campaign, attacking the ConDem government at every opportunity, but seems to have no significant support in any of the three constituencies. In my view, he is too Gordon Brown like, his mentor, when Labour wants to put behind them the Brown years, because of his lack of popularity.

Andy Burnham always looks like a schoolboy when I see him on television, and he seems to have not much support in the Labour party either. Likely to finish in fifth place, I think.

Then we have the Miliband boys, David and Ed. One of these two will be the next leader of the Labour party, although apparently their mum will be voting for Diane Abbott. David, the former Foreign Secretary, flies the standard of New Labour, the don’t frighten the horses with anything too social democratic tendency. He is also it would appear, complicit in the rendition and subsequent torture of terrorist suspects on his watch at the FO, but is portrayed as a vote winner with ‘middle England’.

Ed Miliband’s pitch has been to try and recapture those voters (and members) who deserted Labour over the Iraq war and anti civil liberties policies, and maybe more. He is talking a more social democratic language than his older brother, and is hoping to pick up more second preferences in the process. Both are good communicators, although at this stage, David has more gravitas.

From a purely Green party electoral point of view, it would probably be best if David Miliband becomes Labour leader, because that would leave the largest electoral gap on the left in British politics. We have done well out of standing to the left of Labour over recent years and this would continue best I think, with David Miliband leading Labour.

If I had a vote in the election, I would probably vote for Diane Abbott, and give my second preference to Ed Miliband. It will be interesting to see the result, as it will be a barometer of how Labour sees itself for the next few years.

Monday, 23 August 2010

The Great Pensions Robbery

The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government have announced that all public sector pensions will in the future, be increased annually by the percentage figure as measured by the Consumer Prices Index (CPI), rather than has been the case for nearly 100 years, by the Retail Prices Index (RPI). It also seems that private sector pensions which have previously risen in line with RPI, will be allowed to move to the CPI measure.

The RPI and CPI have different ways of calculating the rate of inflation in the UK economy. They calculate inflation by using a ‘basket’ of products and services and tracking the price changes in these commodities, but the CPI uses a larger sample than the RPI . Crucially though, the CPI excludes housing costs, which by anyone’s definition is surely an essential indicator of the cost of living? Also, the CPI excludes rises in Council Tax, which is something that we all have to pay.

You can see from the diagram above, that for the past 21 years the CPI has invariably been running below the RPI rate, on average by about 2%, except in the early 1990’s and the current recession. The periods where CPI has run ahead of the RPI can be largely explained by collapsing house prices which has occurred in the last two recessions. When the economy has been growing, CPI has always been below RPI, and instead the talk was of a separate ‘house price inflation’, as though that was somehow a special case, when in truth it was what was growing the economy in the first place.

What all this represents, is a proposal to cut the amount of pension increase for everyone either paying into these pension schemes, when they come to retire, and for those drawing these pensions now.

The vast majority of people in these schemes are on modest incomes, which will over time become even more modest. Welcome to another chapter in the coalition government’s determination to make those least to blame and least able to pay, foot the bill for the present economic crisis.

There is though hope, that this proposal can be stopped in its tracks. The trade unions will be against it, as will pensioners groups, and there must be millions of people in pension schemes like these, both in public and private sector employment, as well as those who are now retired. We should remember, that at the time of the pension agreements being drawn up and agreed upon, it was a central point, that RPI would be used to calculate inflationary increases in the pensions. This was a contract made in good faith by members of pension schemes, and the present government wants to break that contract, which is grossly unfair. If people had known that they would be ripped off like this at the time, they might have made different financial choices.

A huge amount of people could be mobilised against the change to CPI, probably larger than that gathered for the successful challenge to the Poll Tax in the 1990’s which spelled the end for Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. Could this attack on pensions see the back of David Cameron as Prime Minister? It certainly has the potential.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

The Democratic Deficit in Haringey (and almost everywhere else)

The pie chart above illustrates the percentage share of the vote in Haringey at the council elections in May this year. The parties scored like this, Labour 41%, Lib Dem 33%, Conservative 15.5% and Greens 10.5%.

Under our ward by ward first past the post electoral system, this result gave Labour 34 and the Lib Dems 23 councillors, of the 57 seats on the council. The combined total vote share of 26%, gave Conservative and Green voters zero representation in Haringey. On a purely proportional basis, these voters would have been represented by 14 or 15 councillors, and we would have had a fair reflection of what the electorate actually wanted see in terms of political representation in the borough.

The Green party is fully committed to moving towards a system which delivers ‘fair votes’ at all levels of government, and obviously we stand to gain by a change in the system. The Conservatives, who locally would also have gained from proportional representation (PR), in the main, are against such a change. But this is linked to how the Conservatives benefit from the status quo at national, Westminster elections, and no doubt in some areas at local level.

The Labour party, who also do well locally and nationally out of the present electoral system, are also against change, and from a purely cynical stand point, it’s easy to see why.

The Lib Dems as is their way, get themselves into something of a tangle when it comes to electoral reform. Under a PR system, they would have gained fewer seats in Haringey (19 as apposed to 23), but are long standing proponents of PR for elections, at least at national level, but here in Haringey, it would cost them representatives, and they seem to be not principled about PR when it doesn’t favour them. When was the last time you heard a Haringey Lib Dem councillor calling for PR at council elections? Hell is likely to freeze over first.

Of course, all this feeds into the national proposal for a change to the Alternative Vote for national elections, which is likely to be put to a vote, at a referendum next year. Under this system, candidates are ranked in order of preference, 1, 2, 3 etc. AV is not a PR system, and is little better than the current system at delivering a fair reflection of the votes cast, but has its advantages to the main parties.

The AV proposal for national elections is nothing to do with making elections a fairer expression of the votes cast, but all about the big parties trying to get the best advantage for themselves, particularly with the Con Dem coalition wanting to gerrymander the constituency boundaries in their favour.

Some kind of PR system would take away the opportunity of the bigger parties to gerrymander in this way, and produce a fairer result for the voters. But this is the last thing the main parties want to happen, as it would remove their opportunity to force through policies which significant parts of the electorate are against. So much for democracy!