Taking time out

Time for taking time out from writing this blog. If I put that down, in writing, then maybe I won’t renege on it.

And why take time out?

Politically we’ve reached another point of stasis. Theresa May is calling for cross-party cooperation which she doesn’t deserve for a nano-second, and won’t get. Corbyn has amazingly a significant lead in the opinion polls. Brexit is anyone’s guess. Which way will the worm (yes, worm) turn?

When I started this blog I’d hoped to bring in a little bit of humour from time to time. Politics could be fun as well. But that seems like another age. That’s another reason for taking a breather.

A third reason, and maybe the best – summer holidays are upon us.

And, as for me – I’m about to move house, to a wild corner of Gloucestershire, where Labour ousted the Tories last month. There’s a canal, and steep hills, streams cut deep, and a hundred years ago Laurie Lee was growing up in the Slad valley maybe two miles away. If I write over the coming months it will be of birds, bees and flowers (we shall see!), and sunrises, or the Cornish coast path, if I escape that way. Any discussion of politics is out.

There was a R4 discussion (one final comment!) this morning about critical thinking. They referred to the fact that rolling news can be the enemy of critical thought but couldn’t understand why one young person preferred not to listen. Not listening or watching is the answer. Don’t get wrapped up in the big roll.  Find other ways to access news – take it in at your own pace, with time to assimilate.

That’s what I will do over the summer. It’s what I do already.

When I can, when furniture and books are unpacked, I will chill out. Walk the hills, or run, or get myself a small boat and a paddle, or a motor, and row or chug down the canal. That would be a good summer.


The Grenfell aftermath – and the future of housing

I was discussing the Grenfell inquiry with friends last night. We were vociferous, and of divided opinions.  But I also wanted to see where we might go beyond the inquiry.

We already have a highly polarised, and political, debate.

The great danger – the more political the inquiry becomes, and the more personal, the longer it will take, and the more ensnared it will become. The local MP has called for the inquiry chair to be replaced: she wants ‘somebody with a bit of a human face’. We recently had the Mail seeking to disparage judges and the rule of law, we now have Emma Dent Coad seeking to do the same. Whoever heads the inquiry needs first and foremost to be impartial.

George Monbiot in the Guardian has damned the enquiry as a stitch-up. I don’t believe it will be – or can be. It will, as did Chilcot on Iraq, develop its own momentum. Monbiot has already decided that the Grenfell Tower disaster is a crime pure and simple. He’s linking it with the government’s Red Tape initiative, intended to cut back regulations, including building regulations. Let the inquiry takes its course – the government’s attitude to regulation is already a big issue – let’s see where the evidence trail leads us.

What we don’t need is calls to boycott the inquiry on the one hand, and the kind of sustained disparagement of groups of local campaigners as agitators (the speciality of the Telegraph) on the other.

But the inquiry should be only part of our response. There’s a wider field in play.

What we need above all is a radical focus on building new homes, and a radical reappraisal of the role of tower blocks in public housing. This was for me the main point of our discussion last night – would any significant change, wider social change, come out of the Grenfell aftermath and enquiry?

I want to see us, see the country, the government, establish a different direction of travel. Policy goals and green papers will follow later. But after forty and more years of failure housing as an issue now needs to become centre stage.

Put in simple terms, we need a radical increase in the building of new homes: new homes for the young; new homes in areas of rapid population growth; but above all new homes for the urban working-class, who have been shovelled into ill-kept tower blocks for far too long. Ultimately and long term I’d to see high-rises, with all their empty space around, replaced by something much more low-rise, more community-focused.

Building would need to be of a much higher standard, and funded by local councils to whom the government would devolve funding. Housing associations would be encouraged to build up and not sell off their housing stock.

The Grenfell tragedy has focused minds – we need a rigorous, impartial inquiry – but we also need to look beyond.

Austerity versus stimulus

Don’t let anyone say I avoid the big subjects!

Whatever one’s instincts, where lies truth? Is there any definable ‘truth’ when it comes to this debate – stimulus versus austerity. A good starting-point is a book of that name, just published, a collection of essays edited by Robert Skidelsky and Nicolo Fraccaroli.

The question, as Robert Skidelsky and David Blanchflower argue, ‘is whether Britain should be compared to Greece… Britain could, the Keynesians argue, continue to expand its debt with no risk of lowering confidence in the economy, as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. But does high government borrowing push up interest rates and inhibit private investment? – Friedrich Hayek’s argument.  Is there a danger that people will lose faith in the management of the economy? – Niall Ferguson.

The UK national debt will peak this year at 89% of GDP, the biggest since the 1960s and up 36% from a decade ago.  (Paul Wallace, Prospect, July 2017.) I’ve seen figures for the first quarter of 2015 indicating that the annual cost of servicing the debt was £43 billion, but a third of the interest in that debt is the government paying interest to itself – the result of quantitative easing. On the other hand interest rates are currently very low, and could rise, and in  Paul Wallace’s words, ‘The Treasury is right to worry about maintaining fiscal headroom to respond to a future downturn.’ But if we take out that one-third which the government is paying itself, then it doesn’t look quite so bad.

Comparisons with other countries are helpful, and confusing. My data isn’t up-to-date, but the USA debt was over 100% in 2011, and  Japan’s debt is approaching 200% of GDP. Paul Wallace quotes the IMF, which puts our public debt as the sixth highest of 26 advanced economies. The CIA World Factbook ranked us 18th internationally.

And what about total public spending, another key indicator? Down from 45% in 2009-10 to 39% now – which is its pre-crisis level of 2007-8.  Wallace points out that in the late 1980s Britain spent virtually the same on health and defence. Today we spend nearly four times as much on health.

What this tells me is that there’s a case to be argued on both sides. For stimulus and for austerity. But I’m a Keynesian at heart. Keynes understood that confidence is everything, investment and not retrenchment is the key, and that the private sector is the driver of all successful economies. At the same time there is nothing intrinsically wrong or to be frightened of when it comes to public expenditure.

I think the phrase I quote above is key, ‘as long as that debt expansion was used to pay for growth expanding projects’. So – just one example, but an easy one – scrap HS2. Any growth benefits will be miniscule compared to the benefits from investing the money elsewhere – not least in other infrastructure projects.

Where does this leave the NHS? Real spending on the NHS increased at a rate of 1.1% under the coalition, compared to 4.1% a year over the past few decades. In addition, much of social care is in crisis. Benefits will be pared back further in the coming years. Prisons are too often scary and ineffective places…. This where increases in current expenditure have to be focused. Not on re-nationalising energy supply or the railways, whether such goals are worthy or not. As for scrapping student loans – a contributory scheme, an adjustment to rather than a scrapping of the scheme, may be one way forward. Paying off existing loans would not be a sensible use of resources. And what of scrapping the 1% pay increase limit for public sector workers – a highly inequitable restriction, enforced for four years – and now the subject of very public bickering among cabinet members?

This takes us to current arguments about increased taxation, and how effective that might be. Could it be increases in VAT, and /or a mansion tax (highly controversial) – where revenue streams would be certain in a way that that increasing the top rates of tax or hiking corporation tax wouldn’t be.

With continuing impacts from globalisation, and automation, the future is massively unpredictable. My only sure conclusion at this time is that austerity, as currently enforced and anticipated, is unnecessary and counter-productive. But how we spend wisely – and at the same time promote investment and encourage business and international trade – that is another matter.

What is absolutely certain is that we don’t need the tomfoolery of Brexit. And we do desperately need a competent government.

Dare we be optimistic?

We’ve few political role models in this day and age, people who’ve been through it all, and suffered all the slings and arrows, and opprobrium, but somehow now stand above the fray – and we listen to them. In Tony Benn’s case we might not agree. But we listened. Michael Heseltine is another, and I often agree.

John Major – we wonder how he stuck it out.  As for Chris Patten, after losing his seat in 1992, he escaped. And one hell of an escape – to be governor-general of Hong Kong in its last years as a colony. He’s now written a biography, ‘First Confession: A Sort of Memoir’.

There’s a phrase, a summary of his life and aspiration, which I love, his ‘immoderate defence of liberal order [as] a counter to the violence of narrow identity’.

‘Immoderate defence’ – there needs to be, there can be, no holding back.

To quote Jonathan Fenby in the FT Weekend, Patten ‘ is aghast at Britain’s decision to leave the European Union’. He ‘worries about a prime minister who “seems to doubt whether you can be both a British citizen and a citizen of the world” – both of which he clearly sees himself as being’.

‘His greatest admiration is reserved for …John Major, who shouldered the problems of the Thatcher inheritance… and “on one issue after another has been shown to have taken the right decisions and to have been on the right side”’.

Too often we hedge, prevaricate, tread gently… worry we’re going too much out on a limb in opposing Brexit. Witness all the Tory MP s who supported, and still support, remaining in the EU.  There’s a uniquely Tory hypocrisy about all this.

Patten is another kind of Tory. I’d love to have his comments on the recent election. We could with Brexit and especially a hard Brexit be seeing the biggest shift in British politics since the war. But, Fenby speculates, and I think Patten might just agree, that ‘the die may not be cast’. And here he picks up on the optimism I’ve felt, and spoken about, in the weeks since the election.

Optimism – being optimistic has worried me.  Terrible things shave happened since 8th June, but the post-referendum certainties have been shaken. Events could yet, in Fenby’s words, ‘lead to a more reasonable path than appeared likely a year ago’.

Macron, the likely re-election of Merkel, the (still tentative) rolling back of the populist tide in Europe, positive signs from mainland European economies….

Trump on the other hand is still there as a terrible reminder of how asinine politics has become in the USA. So too May, Davis, Johnson, Gove, Fox…

But I’ve long argued that that there are no certainties in politics. (Or life!) Policy goals are all too often for the birds. Apparent sea changes forget that there are tides and seasons.  Where we can have more influence is the direction of travel.

God knows where Corbyn would take us if elected. Into a frenzy of nationalisation and anti-global action… or a frenzy of rhetoric. I think we’d survive a short spell of Corbyn, whether he pushes to the extremes or no. I don’t have that confidence about Brexit – there’s a will to destroy our prosperity and reputation, and a seeking of finalities which won’t easily be pulled back.

I think the direction of travel has shifted in the last month.  We have some small cause for greater optimism. But there remains a mighty struggle ahead.