BBC News at One

Off to Cornwall and beyond the news, and truth and post-truth, for a few days. But before I go…

BBC news reporting has so often impressed me, but in these post-truth days it worries me – the standards of presentation, debate, argument, balance, integrity have to be so much higher.

Taking a News at One programme from a few days ago as an example.

Martha Kearney: trying to get an answer to her question, why had there been no increase in participation by young people 16-25 in sport as a result of the Olympics. The Sports England director of sport, Phil Smith, answered valiantly, pointed to an overall increase since 2005, made the point that there were increasing pressures – distractions if you will – for young people, against which sport has literally to compete. (Where would we have been without the Olympics? –  declining rates of participation a real likelihood.) She wanted a quote – an admission – a headline. In the best, and worst John Humphreys tradition. Instead of pursuing a wider knowledge, she was seeking a story.

A debate regarding statues in the post-Charlotteville (Alt-Right demonstration, and an anti-racist protestor’s death): the ‘debate’ disguised the story, and ambled round the David Aaronovitch’s argument in the Times that statues should remain but with explanations. The BBC treatment completely missed any shading in the argument – the dark shade, the statues out up in the 1920s as political Jim Crow-era statements – re-asserting the old slaveholding anti-bellum America: for every African-American passing by they are a reminder of a cruel and bitter world. Whereas the Cecil Rhodes statue in Oxford (my college, Oriel) is high on a wall, all but out of sight, a thank you to a benefactor – not a political statement. You can (indeed I can) argue the Rhodes statue shouldn’t be there, but explanation could be, and I think will be, the way forward in this case.

More recently, late night, BBC News, Professor Stephen Hawking has come out strongly arguing that the government has been selective in its use of evidence for the 7-day working week for hospitals. We then had the Secretary of State for Health’s strong denial – all right and proper. But they then quoted just the kind of selective evidence Hawking was referring to – and didn’t quote any of the other studies. The bare facts as portrayed by the government were even given display boards. ‘Labour-supporter Stephen Hawking’ – that was the final way of damning his argument. It was poor stuff. The arguments on both sides were never properly addressed.

Going back to the News at One I remember they ended with a Tory MP being given space to argue for entitlement cards for immigrants, which as Martha Kearney pointed out, implies identity cards for all of us. David Davis has strongly opposed these, I understand, but the Tory MP argued along the lines of ‘special measures for special times’. The vast inconsistencies in this as in most Brexit arguments was hardly touched on.

And there are other stories. I feel like the Mail – on BBC watch all the time. But the Mail belongs in the post-truth era, and has for many a year, long before post-truth. I am of course just the other side of the argument these days. It does make it so much harder to make a case…

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.

Out on the right wing

Reading the press in recent days I’m struck by how out-of-touch the old-style Tory commentators are. They influence, and reflect, opinion. It’s a closed circle. They have long been part of the problem.

There are other closed circles of course, more than ever within social media, as we build up our friends and followers, creating and extending groups of the like-minded. Not of itself a bad thing of course. But many on the left don’t have, and don’t wish to have, an understanding of the business world.

Back to the Tories …

Matthew Lynn in the Telegraph talks about giving the young more of a stake in the free-market system: he suggests building more affordable houses, and giving away shares.

What’s missing is any sense of the social divide, social justice, the importance of inclusion and opportunity, the focus on individual human rights. Corbyn voters to Lynn’s mind need to be weaned away from the hard left, but arguing about the benefits of the free-market system is not going to get him there.

Affordable homes aren’t some kind of panacea. They have to be part of a wider social action agenda.

Janet Daley in the Sunday Telegraph, an old blinkered warhorse of the right, thinks the ‘public’ are in the mood for idealism, and looking for a bit of passion in their politics. ‘The spirit of Michael Foot has returned.’  The Tories she thinks have made little effort to combat ’old-fashioned state-socialist’ arguments, ‘perhaps because they think the arguments are self-evident’ – they need to explain how higher corporation tax would kill job growth, hurt the people Labour wants to help – the right must make a moral case.

The realities are rather different.

The young, people in their 30s, the millennials, haven’t suddenly seized on idealism and state socialism.  Idealism is an essential part of growing up, and losing it is, I’d argue, the worse thing about growing old. Patronising arguments about corporation tax aren’t going to butter any left-of-centre parsnips. (Labour proposes an increase to 26% – it was 28% in 2010, lower than many European countries, much higher than Ireland, at 10%. The extent corporation tax is linked to ‘killing’ job growth is not a question I’m competent to address. Nor I suspect is Janet Daley. But see teh current Economist -which suggests the jury is out on whether cutting corporation tax makes any significant difference.)

That said, I’m very wary of where Corbyn might take us should he suddenly find himself with untrammelled power. Many Corbyn supporters have a negative view of business, and that can easily slide into a form of ‘state socialism’, a pejorative term for many, but not for Corbyn or John Mcdonnell.

Again, back to the Tories….

There are wiser voices on the Tory side, and Tim Montgomerie (of Conservative Home), writing in the Evening Standard, I thought would be one. (Not least becasue he’s writing in London’s newspaper – it would have served him better to remember his audience isn’t made up of diehard Tories.)

Montgomerie also belatedly into building more homes in the south – and infrastructure up north. His main concerns are finding a new leader as soon as possible, and an agenda for social renewal as much as for Brexit.  (Note the way he equates the two.) And his reasoning: ‘With both established there is a real chance of stopping the momentum building behind Jeremy Corbyn.’ The argument it seems is how best to stop Jeremy Corbyn. Building houses might just do that. As a device – not out of a passion for social welfare. I’ll leave aside the idiocy of devoting energies to Brexit. If you want to connect to the young, Tim, get Brexit out of your system.

All three, Lynn, Daley, Montgomerie, need to spend more time on the front line. They are talking party politics, maybe understandbly given the current crisis in their party. But they won’t gain any friends in the wider world that way.

Above all, they need to engage, and Montgomerie did at least mention this, with social renewal. The big argument now and for the future is how to balance social justice and enterprise, the one interacting with the other. Yes, it’s the old liberal, the old social democratic argument. Not of the London dinner party kind, but the everyday kind – social action, commitment, linking enterprise and wider social needs.

Take a look at the new apartments sprouting up in Vauxhall, south of the Thames, built to the highest specifications, priced far out of reach of local people. They are a powerful example of where we’ve gone wrong.

UK election 8th June 2017 – where do we go from here?

I’ve resisted for a little while any comment on last week’s election. It was a seismic event, watching at 10pm on election night, and knowing by 10.01 that it looked likely we’d have a hung parliament. Then watching till 4, rejoicing in seats gained, sadness in one or two cases at seats lost, but a sense deep down that at least the terrible tide the referendum prompted, and the vote confirmed, was finally if not turned then stayed. For too long there’s been a sense that the tide had overwhelmed the liberal attitudes of old, and we against all better judgements were set on a catastrophic Brexit course.

London and other cities, and above all the young, spoke out. Some extraordinary vote registering had gone on below the radar, press and opinion polls were hardly aware. May was a disaster, and remains so, the Tory campaign and manifesto likewise, and Corbyn came out of a shell many of us thought was the real Corbyn to reveal a performer, yes, a performer, with a sure touch, and a degree of ordinary human sympathy, and humour, which struck a chord with me and many another.

Talk to the under 30s and most, almost to their surprise, were voting Labour. Not just the Corbynistas who took to the barricades two years ago. I could have voted Labour, voting tactically, living as I do in a constituency where the Lib Dems have little chance, but old loyalties held me back.

Let’s assume we can stay and even reverse the Tory tide. What will replace it?  The centre is recent times has not held, and there’s a pull of gravity to the left that could take us too far.

The gulf between the Corbynite left and the traditional liberal centre is a big one – a gap in practice, outlook, traditions, as well as pure politics. But, accepting all the risks, could a new devil (who may yet cast off a horn or two) be better than the old disastrous devil who has been calling the tune too long – and still of course aspires to. I’ll be returning to these words in coming months, and checking if they are wise, or foolish, or somewhere inbetween.

For my part I’ve little time for the old trade union connections, for industrial warfare which is a hangover from another age, for pseudo-socialist alternatives such as Hugh Chavez, which have over the years drawn Corbyn in. I’ve no principled objection to renationalising the railways, where the free market finds it hard to operate successfully, other than cost. Energy generation and distribution would be a lumbering giant in the hands of the state.

Student loans are a vexed question: I’ve supported the principle until recently (and indeed in an earlier version of this post), but it’s more than apparent that the system needs radical reform. Levels of debt are spiralling. The rate of interest, 3% above RPI, is now 6.1%, and average debt on graduation £44,000. To quote the Independent, based on a lower debt on graduation of £33,000, ‘a graduate on a salary of £55,000 at the end of the 30-year period (after which loans are written off) will have paid back just over £40,000 on £33,000 borrowed, with a remaining £58,000 unpaid.’ The debt is extraodinarily high when you’re starting out, and you carry it with for thirty years. Then any balance is cancelled.

The state will lose vast sums because many loans will simply be written off after thirty years. Graduate debt in the UK is higher than in any other country in the English-speaking world. Scrapping the whole damned system is one option. A contributory system, with lower levels of interest and repayment, is another.

What I don’t know is how Corbyn proposes to replace student loans. But I can see very clearly why it’s a major issue for young people.

As to Labour’s tax proposals, they transparently won’t bring in anything like the revenues the Labour manifesto suggests. Higher tax rates for the affluent have natural justice of their side, but aren’t likely to be effective in raising significant revenue, and taxing companies – increasing corporation tax – can easily be counter-productive. But I don’t for a moment share the Tory obsssion with tax reduction at all costs.

So why support Corbyn – albeit a tentative and watchful support ?

1] Relax the austerity obsession. Improved infrastructure (not including HS2) can only improve economic performance. And cuts to social welfare have to be pared back, and the NHS funded maybe on LibDem lines – an extra 1p in the pound on income tax. The national debt (approx 82% of GDP) looms large, fed each year by a budget deficit, the elimination of which keeps being postoned – Brexit being the latest culprit. Far better to prime the economy, and as a consequence increase the tax intake, than pursue the black hole of the May/Davis nexus.

2] Bring compassion back into politics – bring the poor, the unemployed and the disabled back into the heart of things. They have been stigmatised too long, though the fault is not with them. The dependency culture is in great part a right-wing figment, an excuse for putting them both out of both mind, and as far as possible, out of sight. The budget deficit has driven cuts in recent years – but a highly inequitable treatment of the less fortunate cannot be the answer.

3] Enlist and keep on board, as Corbyn has done, the young, to counter-balance all the caution and backward-looking disposition of the over-60s who to their shame have closed minds and ranks in support of a spurious UK – or English – identity.

4} Support the immigrant population, and allow future immigration to be dictated by the requirements of the economy – from Europe, from India, and elsewhere. Not least students coming to our universities. To be open to refugees, to be open instinctively – which doesn’t mean we open our ports, but it does mean our first response is to help and not to stigmatise.

5] Implicit in so much of the above, to maintain our close ties with Europe, with the EU, with EU institutions, maintain our trading links, and that wider humanity, concern for the individual, for rights, for equality, for the environment, which is so much the European tradition. We and Europe are so much more effective in a world of big power blocs (USA, China, Europe) if we speak with one voice.

6] Related to the above, maintain our influence in the world, which Brexit would, in the name of a spurious sovereignty, surrender: where better to exercise our sovereignty than within a continent where we’re listened to, where we share traditions. What chance when we argue our case on our own, a small island with an inflated idea of regaining glories which belong to vastly different world?

Corbyn is wary, more than wary, of globalisation, more than wary of big business. His old socialist instincts worry me. But it’s chance I’ll take. The Brexit route is guaranteed to bring disaster, and I don’t believe that the Labour right, or the wider country, would, come a future election, allow a luddite Corbynism to prevail.

But there is risk here. Under Corbyn we might find ourselves pursuing a new identity politics, where we close our minds to the impact of automation, try and hold on to old industrial practices, hold back the rise of new companies and new industries, and resist the changes in communication and trade that business, and big business, will inevitably take forward. Getting the balance right between the old and new will be vexed and require all our attention, and debate, and financial support for those who suffer. Likewise keeping our focus on the environment, and climate change, and the population and resource issues which have to be addressed.

The Trump and Le Pen agendas are there to remind us what could happen – and Corbyn will surely be well aware of the dangers of trimming in that direction.

But I have to trust that the young, the under 30s, the under 40s, will haul him back. It is their world, even more than mine, and we have to trust them to make it work. Who will lead when Corbyn is gone, and will she or he will retain their support – they are big questions. But a ball has been set rolling, and while I don’t trust all the routes that it might take, we do finally have a counter-course to stay the Brexit obsession.

Politics will never take the course we anticipate. Never has and never will. But we can work to set a direction, and argue both in political and practical terms to hold that direction as best we can.

No mention here of the Lib Dems, where I remain a member. They will pull strongly to sanity and to the centre, and will now be under a new leader. Their role is this regard will be similar to the Labour right, the new Labour rearguard. Just how the centre of British politics works out in the year, and years, to come is another of the great imponderables.

But to quote Nigel Farage, at least there are signs we might yet ‘get our country back’. Farage of course had never lost his – he’d conjured a country which simply didn’t exist.