Services and manufacturing March 11, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Economy, Irish Politics.
William Keegan in the Observer points to some curious facts at the weekend.
Writing about a ’40-year old Tory obsession with services that has served no one’, he argues that:
As I wasted several hours on the telephone last week to various branches of BT stretching from here to India, I reflected on what a farce modern management has made of privatisation.
True, there are those who recall having to wait to get the old, nationalised BT to install a new line; but I seem to remember that in those days if your phone was out of order, you merely rang a three-digit number and called an engineer. Nowadays it requires endless calls and a truly Kafkaesque routine of questions and “procedures”.
And this points to a reality about services that he then outlines, that for all the rhetoric service is overstated, massively so in some instances.
I fear there is a wider problem with modern management. They outsource to cut costs and make life difficult for the customer. And part of their secret is to make the consumer do the work. Indeed, I am lost in admiration for the way some modern businesses have managed to force so many people to “go online” and do the things that the business itself should be doing if it really wanted to provide a “service”.
We can see a particularly pointed example of same in relation to the way the banks here are currently offloading anything that could be regarded as a ‘service’ to customers and charging handsomely for same (indeed the SBP’s money doctor had a piece on same and it is breathtaking how cynical and mercenary that process actually is).
Anyhow Keegan notes that privatisation and service oriented policy/ideology had odd roots:
The biggest joke is that the originators of the drive towards privatisation – Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher – somehow convinced themselves that the future of the British economy lay with the development of “services”. Jim Prior, employment secretary in Thatcher’s first cabinet, wrote of the Treasury ministers at the time: “None of them had any experience of running a whelk stall, let alone a decent-sized company. Their attitude to manufacturing industry bordered on the contemptuous. They shared the view of the other monetarists in the cabinet – that we were better suited as a nation to being a service economy and should no longer worry about production.”
That dislocation between ideology and experience is remarkable, isn’t it? Having worked in the private sector for most of my working life I’ve always been amazed by the rhetorical boosterism by some politicians of an area that is – to put it kindly – problematical. Indeed a lack of proportion in regard to its very real weaknesses (whatever it’s certain strengths) is endemic now – one which surely matches or exceeds the most credulous adherent of the unreconstructed command economy.
Still, I tend to think there’s a more fundamental reason for the reification of ‘services’ and the indifference (shading into antagonism) for manufacturing, for it was in the latter that unionisation in the private sector was at its strongest while in the former it was weaker, and by extending one it was thought that the power of unions would weaken further. So this was intrinsically ideological a decision, and note that economically the concentration on one at the expense of the other seems at this remove to be so deeply problematic that even the Tories are having to make some efforts to to pay lip service to ameliorating the situation of manufacturing in the UK.
And Keegan makes one very basic point when he notes that:
…veteran Labour MP Michael Meacher says in his eminently readable new book, The State We Need – Keys to the Renaissance of Britain: “Any sustainable growth of living standards can only be built on a strong and resilient manufacturing base. Therefore rebuilding that badly weakened manufacturing capacity, halved in the last 30 neoliberal years, should be made an overriding aim for the next Labour government.”
Well, maybe the LP in the UK will do that. Maybe.
Welfare ‘reform’ in the UK and public support. February 26, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in Austerity, British Politics, The Left.
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Also worth noting there is an interesting non-Scotland related question – YouGov repeated a question from last April about the government’s welfare reform package as a whole, freezes, caps, bedroom tax, etc. Back in April 2013 56% of people said they supported them, 31% were opposed. Now 49% support them, 38% are opposed – so still more in support than against, but a significant movement over the last year.
A depressingly high figure of support, but suggestive of a situation where reactionary measures can be pushed back against and that public opinion is far from set on such matters.
The new UK ‘Workers’ Party… February 25, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.
Speaking at the new Conservative campaign headquarters, the Tory chairman will say: “The Conservatives are the Workers’ party and we are on your side.”
BTW, btw… check this out.
The name of the Workers’ party has a long, if less than noble, history. It was the moniker taken by former supporters of the Official IRA, which split from the Provisional IRA in 1969, when they broke from paramilitarism in the 1970s. Provisionals refer to the Officials as “stickies”
The Church of England and the welfare state? February 24, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, British Politics, Culture, The Left.
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Useful piece on Analysis from the BBC recently (available from as a podcast on iTunes) from Andrew Brown on the situation of the Church of England which examines different aspects of issues it is engaging with from same sex marriage to the welfare state, which – and I wasn’t really aware of this consciously – the Church of England was and remains a very strong proponent and supporter of same.
Brown picks apart some thinking on whether belief equals growth, and comes to the conclusion that specific beliefs, whether conservative or liberal, don’t map onto increased growth in popularity for individual churches. There’s some mention of the rather curious evangelical – and conservative – Alpha church at Holy Trinity Brompton, which Jon Ronson had an encounter with some years back. Apparently there’s some crossover into Catholicism. Interesting.
Surely not? February 22, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics.
How to credit this piece, by Steve Richards in the Guardian which correctly in my opinion argues that Cameron was – whatever the emollient language – of his early leadership, without question Thatcherite in inclination from the off. No, that’s not the open to question, and by the by Richards is one of the most astute analysts and commentators on British contemporary political activity. It’s this:
But on the non-Thatcherite side of the spectrum the policies and their impact are noted, which is why church leaders felt compelled to speak out. Even Nick Clegg, who genuinely believed that Cameron was a different type of Conservative in 2010, looked sincerely troubled when he told me this week in a BBC interview that he was surprised at how rightwing the Conservatives had become.
Really? I’m not doubting Clegg said it, but was he really surprised? How could it have been otherwise? For those who have observed the Tories during their wilderness years the idea that they ever softened their approach is simply untenable, proof in part being offered by the succession of right-wing leaders they had during that period, but also by the tone and shape of that party. Any ‘changes’ were cosmetic, and/or tactical, particularly in respect of forging a coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Though as has been demonstrated quite conclusively that latter party was and remains plenty right wing enough.
Beyond belief… February 20, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in Austerity, British Politics.
…here’s an example of contemporary victim blaming, the line put forward by the British government that increased demand for food banks was due to ‘their being more of them’.
But as the Guardian notes today, in a report commissioned by the British government itself:
…found that a combination of rising food prices and shrinking incomes, together with ongoing issues such as low pay and increasing personal debt meant that an increasing number of families could no longer afford to buy sufficient food for their household needs.
Benefits payment problems – either administrative errors that can leave claimants without cash for weeks a time, or the temporary withdrawal of benefits as a result of sanctions – are a factor in the increase in demand for food aid, the report found.
This is in stark contrast to the line put forward by that government:
Ministers have repeatedly said there is no robust link between welfare changes and food bank use, while the welfare minister Lord Freud claimed the rise in food bank use was because there were more food banks and because the food was free.
And as for changes in welfare, the report notes that: “examining the impact of [welfare changes] on food bank use was not a specific part of its remit.”
Expedient – no?
There’s one other point that is central to the reports analysis.
The review warns ministers that while food banks and thousands of other voluntary food aid providers do an important job of coping with short-term hunger problems, government cannot rely on charity to tackle rising food insecurity.
“Increasing numbers of households are having to deal with changes in circumstances which are potentially having negative impact on their food security in the immediate – and possibly longer – term,” says the report.
It adds: “Some see it as appropriate for local groups to meet short-term food needs through temporary, non-governmental provision, but the evidence from international food security research suggests this is likely to be of limited effectiveness.
“A broader approach to sustaining food access, which takes account of longer-term and underlying dimensions to household food insecurity is needed.”
Of course this reliance on the voluntary and charity sector is of a piece with an ideological process of ‘rolling back’ state intervention. But the basic problem is that the state – as with so many areas – didn’t enter into such areas capriciously but did so because the voluntary, charity and private sectors are unable or unwilling to provide sustainable long term services.
Worth noting as well that the report was held back since last summer. That too is expedient.
Libraries…redux January 15, 2014Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Culture, Economy, The Left.
This is an amazing period of history, amazing – though – in the most negative sense of that word. I read this on the Guardian a short while back and thought it was perhaps hyperbole, a piece by Patrick Wintour which argued that ‘George Osborne is engineering a seismic change in the role of the state’. Wintour notes that Osborne has now jettisoned claims of future, or immanent, prosperity, in favour of a TINA line, one where state expenditures on welfare are slashed yet further (though, as Wintour notes, tellingly, not expenditures on pensions – I don’t mention that in order to get into a sterile argument about intergenerational equity, but simply to observe that there is an hierarchy of expenditures in Osborne’s mind, or more likely, an expedient analysis as to what the public will bear in terms of cuts).
So Osborne is not just admitting that the state is going to have be permanently smaller. He is engineering a fundamental change in what it does. By ringfencing spending on aid, pensions, health and schools, as well as some military spending – nearly £100bn of state spending is now protected – he is putting an extraordinary squeeze on what remains. The money being extracted from the remaining mainstream public services – local government, policing, business support and environment – will leave them unrecognisable.
Now, I in my innocence, thought that last was probably a stretch, but not at all for news comes of another ‘initiative’ by the Tories, this in relation to the area of libraries. Catherine Bennett in the Observer at the weekend notes the following.
Describing it only as “very impressive”, the culture minister, Ed Vaizey, has been too modest about a recorded explosion in the number of volunteer librarians, up 44% last year, from 23,400 to 33,000. Admittedly, a simultaneous 7% fall in the number of full-time librarians might look like a slender pretext for national jubilation. Yet this massive saving in our libraries is not merely a victory over Big Society sceptics, but evidence that Vaizey is achieving the unprecedented and seemingly miraculous: the delivery, for virtually nothing, of a treasured public service.
Bennett is, of course, being ironic. And yet. The idea of ‘volunteer librarians’ is one that even five years ago would have been near enough absurd. And so here we have a situation where the state is retreating from provision of library services and instead of replacing trained and qualified individuals is instead willing to hand over the process to untrained volunteers.
This is dressed up in the language of the ‘Big Society’.
As Bennett notes:
At this stage it remains mysterious by what curious arts the notoriously reclusive library hater, Vaizey, discovered that hundreds of Britain’s public libraries could be harmlessly transferred to amateurs, and whether there are any basic standards or other criteria to which these random operations should conform. But the minister has done some personal research. “All the volunteers I come across say they are running their libraries far more cheaply than the local authority was doing it,” was his response to the above volunteer figures, in which some diagnosed a certain disregard for reading, to say nothing of professional sensitivities. If only for a quiet life, Vaizey might want, before opening his mouth in future, mentally to substitute the word “Romanian” for “volunteer”.
As it is, so far from regretting the rapidly falling number of already low-paid full-time staff, Vaizey anticipates a day when the free community model is actively preferred, not only as a euphemism for eventual closure. He told a newspaper: “We would at least do the work for them in terms of sourcing the equipment – we can provide them potentially with access to our book stock.”
And this is only the start.
Potentially there could still be difficulties with entirely untrained librarians with no understanding of the books over which they might (stock permitting) preside, but this objection, too, Vaizey has anticipated. “We can provide them with training, and a lot of these community groups would happily pay for them if they were raising money.”
We’re now seeing the social democratic compact unravelling before our very eyes. Libraries are engines of progress, vital resources that are needed at times like this – in periods of high unemployment, low job security and so no, more than ever. And it is depressing and worse to see this occurring.
There was a comment on CIF a while back which I think encapsulated what this process is envisaged as leading to. One where – and this is openly discussed in sections of the Tory party, the state will retreat to a US position (or worse) with a thin and cosmetic layer of health care provision, some nod to state education and so on. Add to that the rolling back of labour legislation and protections in the workplace, and the essential removal of safety nets.
Naturally to reach that point will take quite some time. There’s a lot of state left. But when one sees what is happening to libraries…
Saturday’s radio — two items December 29, 2013Posted by Tomboktu in Bits and Pieces, Britain, Human Rights.
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I had the radio on this afternoon when the BBC broadcast a repeat of an interview with Cressida Dick, Assistant Commissioner with the Metropolitan Police in London. You can hear the 17-minute interview here.
She was the “Gold command” officer in charge of operations when Jean Charles de Menezes was shot dead by police on 22 July 2005. She has since been promoted, three times. As the BBC notes at the start of the intereview, she was cleared of all blame.
In the evening, I had switched station to Lyric FM, and had Blue of the Night on. Among the songs played was ‘Hollow Point’ by Chris Wood.
Reality and perception… December 23, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Politics, Economy, Irish Politics.
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A useful piece this weekend listing ’10 things I hated about business in 2013′ by Heather Stewart in the Observer. Stewart isn’t anti-business as such, she’s the Observer’s economics editor, but she makes some pertinent points as to what is… well… wrong with much of business. And business related matters.
This one is perhaps the most important, if only to point up yet again, the gulf between the rhetoric and the reality in British political discourse.
2 The “culture of worklessness” and benefits as a “lifestyle choice”. Handouts for the unemployed make up 2.57% of the £200bn benefits bill; tax credits and other top-ups for working people, 21%; pensions and benefits for the elderly, 42%. It’s a complete nonsense to suggest, as George Osborne and David Cameron repeatedly have, that the burgeoning cost of the welfare state is a consequence of the failure of some in society to throw up their blinds in the morning and get on the bus to work.
With unemployment now falling rapidly, and universal credit, when it is eventually rolled out, set to blur the lines between in-work and out-of-work support, there is some cause for hope that the Tories’ “skivers” rhetoric may be (ahem) redundant. But with the chancellor conceding recently that he envisages cutting “many billions” from the welfare budget in the next parliament, don’t bank on it.
We’re not quite at that stage here, for obvious reasons: the nature of the crisis, perhaps the forces in Government here and their relationship with the society (though given time and inclination who is to say what will happen, and there have been low level efforts in that direction), perhaps even the fact that there are other targets, and that in a context with double figure unemployment pointing the finger at those on benefits is markedly more difficult to do.
Here’s another, which unfortunately, is creeping in…
10 Scrooge employers whether, and how rapidly, real wages start to rise as the economy picks up will be a central question for policymakers in 2014. But alongside sagging wages, the downturn has seen an explosion in questionable employment practices, ushered in under the banner of the “flexible labour market” – including the burgeoning use of zero-hours contracts, as revealed by Vince Cable’s department last week. It’s time for downtrodden workers to fight back.
Though perhaps another way to put it would be that it has never really gone.
Austerity as politics… December 17, 2013Posted by WorldbyStorm in British Labour Party, British Politics, The Left, Tories.
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William Keegan in the Observer at the weekend asked a very sensible question about the direction of UK economic policy and its political meaning. Keegan notes that the general reception of the autumn statement has been that it had two key aspects, one being the rise in the pension age and the other being the problems Ed Balls had in responding to it. But as Keegan notes:
The real significance is that – as the statistics in the statement itself and the report from the Office for Budget Responsibility confirm – George Osborne’s strategy has proved a lamentable failure, and that, not content with that, we are in for more of the same. Instead of attacking the economy’s broader problems, not least its debilitated manufacturing sector and associated weak overseas trade position, this government continues to be obsessed with balancing the budget and not the economy.
And that’s a fair point. And he notes that this it is the internal contradictions in Tory/Liberal policy, though heavy on the Tory in that equation, that are generating problematic outcomes for them. Or, are they problematic?
Of course, it is taking a long time to do that, not least because its de facto anti-growth approach actually limits its ability to raise revenue and reduce the deficit – a deficit, incidentally, that the Debt Management Office has no difficulty in financing, with average debt maturity of 14 years or so.
And Keegan reminds us of one very pertinent fact:
The story so far is that George Osborne supported Labour’s spending plans in the runup to the crisis in 2007-08, opposed the 2008-09 economic stimulus that prevented the economy going into freefall, then withdrew his support as soon as he became chancellor.
His withdrawal was rationalised by the almost laughable argument that the state had to draw back in order not to “crowd out” a revival of private sector investment that, of course, never came. Somehow or other, monetary policy was going to support the economy, despite the fact that the banks had forgotten that their primary function is to lend money and give credit.
And he quotes some astounding figures are regards the UK fiscal contraction, which was the largest in the G7. This was a political, not an economic decision, and as Keegan continues, this was shaped for a very particular purpose, even if it is only now that that purpose is being publicly admitted:
But the real significance of the autumn statement is not that Balls had an off day but that Osborne has dug in and set the seal on a policy of years of further contraction of the public sector, with all that means for the poorer sections of the population.
A leading Conservative summed up the true significance of Osborne’s promise of yet more austerity in the second term – if, that is, this disturbing coalition is undeservedly returned to power. It was Andrew Tyrie, the MP for Chichester, whom I have long admired for his impartial chairmanship of the Treasury committee, but who came out in his true-blue colours with a fawning tribute to the chancellor and a plea for a small state and tax cuts.
As Keegan continues:
You see the point? As far as the right is concerned, the austerity policy that held back growth for three years, and is particularly directed at the poor and vulnerable, is not really about the need to cut the deficit; it is about making the room for tax cuts.
And that’s it really. Austerity isn’t a glitch, it’s the feature. This is the purpose of the exercise, not an unfortunate, but unavoidable, catalyst for recovery. Keegan has a few pertinent thoughts for Osborne, not least being that for all the rhetoric the eurozone remains the UKs ‘biggest export market’. But it is the central point that austerity is a political policy, directed in such a way as to maximise as best as can be achieved, political outcomes for the Tories.
That it appears to be failing even on its own terms is ironic, but one few will take any great satisfaction in given the trail of human misery that it represents in relation to unemployment, changing labour market conditions and so forth.
It seems clear that in some respects the Coalition in London is perhaps the worst possible government to have arrived in power at this particular historical juncture. And despite the bullishness of the Tories, one wonders if they realise that as it stands there is a very real disconnect with much of the British electorate (though it is also apparent that a significant divide has widened in relation to the geographic support for Toryism in Southern England in particular).
It’s always worth keeping a close eye on UK Polling Report, from YouGov’s Anthony Wells which has a good, and dispassionate overview of British polling data (and also some useful material on the winding path of the current Scottish referendum in relation to support or otherwise there for the central contention).
Well’s polling average is telling. Tories on 33%, Labour on 39%, LD’s on 10%, UKIP 11% and others 3%, and an overall Labour majority forecast of 78 seats. Polls demonstrate a consistent LP lead since 2011 (bar a number of outliers) and an absolute lead since 2012.
It seems to me that Osborne’s plans were long in the making, but it is possible that given the resilience of the LP vote they were given a more emphatic push as a bid to claw back support from UKIP. In some ways that has worked, UKIP is generally down from the high teens votes it has enjoyed at various times across the last number of years, but it’s not worked well enough, because it hasn’t consolidated in an enhanced Tory vote.
And there’s always the danger of a backlash. Miliband has had a good year, there’s little reason that can’t continue. The fact of coalition in some respects undermines Cameron and Osborne’s ability to craft an entirely coherent message to attract voters. Does that mean a Labour government is inevitable? No, absolutely not. Indeed a lot of political analysis points to Labour being the largest party and being dependent upon the Liberal Democrats, what remains of them. Should that eventuality come to pass…