30 March 2015

30th March 2015

Tendring Topics……..on line

‘There’s no point in voting – they’re really all the same!’

          That’s one of the standard reasons given by those who can’t be bothered to vote in Parliamentary Elections.   The really sad thing is that they’re not far out.  In times gone by – certainly before World War II and I think for some time afterwards, political parties had a clearly defined purpose and we all had a pretty good idea of their ultimate aims. Leaders and members of the Conservative Party, as their name suggests, thought that the social order in our country and the way that industry and commerce performed were pretty well OK.  Conservatives agreed that some things might need a slight tweak here or there, but generally speaking they felt that history had come to an end and that we Brits were currently living in the best of all possible worlds.

            The Labour Party on the other hand, believed that there was a great deal wrong with our present social and economic system and wanted to change it.  They were influenced by the great reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries, by Christian concern for the poor and disadvantaged (‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek..........He hath filled the hungry with good things and the rich he hath sent empty away) and to some extent by the revolutionary ideas of such thinkers as Marx and Engels.  They thought it possible that they could, by democratic means, create an earthly Paradise – fulfilling William Blake’s prophecy in his great poem Jerusalem ‘I shall not cease from mental fight, nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, till I have built Jerusalem, in England’s green and pleasant land’

            The Liberal Party, originally the Party of the rulers of industry and commerce in conflict with the land-owning gentry of the Conservative Party, sat uneasily between Conservative and Labour, declining in power and influence throughout the twentieth century, though enjoying a temporary popularity at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Love them or hate them, the three parties were quite clear in their objectives and those who had votes (it wasn’t till well after the end of World War I that there was universal adult suffrage, and eighteen year olds didn’t get a vote until after World War II) knew exactly why they voted for the party of their choice.

Now, thanks largely to Tony Blair and his New Labour, all that has changed. All main political Parties now support the Market economy in which everything and everybody has cash value.  Job satisfaction – enjoyed by many thousands (including myself) in the past – has been replaced by a struggle for personal wealth in which everyone grabs as much as he or she can demand for as little as they can get away with.  Leading New Labourites like Lord Mendelson declare that they ‘have no problem with billionaires’; well (while thousands of their fellow Britons are homeless and reliant on voluntary food banks to keep their families fed) they should have problems with billionaires.

            Both Parties accept that top bankers must be paid in millions a year, plus more millions as bonuses – because ‘that’s the only way we can attract the very best brains’ to make Britain great again.  Those ‘best brains’ who demand and receive millions of pounds for their services are the very people who, as was repeatedly affirmed by the recently retired Governor of the Bank of England, caused the current financial crisis.  They were also responsible, if only by default, for the banking scandals that have made the press headlines in recent years.;  miss-selling of insurance (for which the banks have had to pay millions of pounds in compensation),  fiddling interest rates and assisting very wealthy clients to become even richer by tax avoidance.   If those are the kind of things that result from appointing (at enormous expense)  the very best brains to head our banks, perhaps we should find out what the ‘second-best’ brains can do.  At the very least they’d come a bit cheaper – and might not be quite so good at feathering their own nests!

            George Osborne is already set to impose further austerities on a long suffering public sector.  He says that he only proposes to impose the same economies this year as he did last year.  He will be imposing them on already sadly depleted services.  Does he really imagine that if you empty half the water from a bucket one year, you can pour out the same volume of water from that same bucket the next year without emptying it?

So far the competing political parties have been much more eager to denigrate their opponents than to tell us what they themselves propose to do to solve Britain’s problems.  The Conservatives promise more of the same medicine and warn us that electing a Labour Government will create chaos. The New Labourites point out that the Tories are already wrecking the NHS and will probably try to solve its problems by mass privatisation.  Well, my medical practitioner (family doctor) service is certainly not as good as it was when the coalition took over government and the government’s bungled reforms have without doubt played a part in this deterioration.  Now they are proposing that pharmacists should take on some of the tasks previously undertaken by doctors.  That has the potential of creating long queues waiting for service in pharmacies as well as in doctors’ waiting rooms.

              For many years the British government’s annual expenditure has exceeded its annual income resulting in a ‘deficit’ that is filled by borrowing.  Central Government’s strategy must be the reduction, and eventually the elimination, of that deficit.  There are two ways in which this can be done; by reducing expenditure and by increasing income.

            Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrats have all chosen the path of reducing expenditure – not on obviously wasteful practices like maintaining a wildly expensive ‘independent nuclear deterrent’ which is neither independent nor an effective deterrent, maintaining an ‘armed presence’ in the Middle East, and unquestioningly  supporting the USA in such military adventures as the invasion of Iraq and of Afghanistan, not to mention blindly backing the Kiev government in the civil conflict in Ukraine.  No, the government has concentrated its demand for economies on benefits for the poor and the unemployed and on local government services – education, maintenance of highways and footpaths, social services, libraries, public parks and gardens, refuse and recyclable collections and so on; all the services in fact that make the difference between civilisation and barbarism.

            All the main parties reject the other way of reducing the deficit; increasing the government’s income by taxation.  There are ways in which this could be done with minimal hardship.  I have suggested in this blog that all state ‘benefits’ should be subject to income tax – winter fuel allowance for the old, children’s allowances, attendance allowance, free tv licence, free prescriptions and so on. This wouldn’t affect at all the really poor who don’t pay income tax.  It would affect the rest of us (several would affect me!) but they wouldn’t impose a crippling burden on anybody.  It would at least reduce the scandal of elderly millionaires getting exactly the same winter fuel allowance and other universal benefits as the rest of us oldies.

            Nor, I think, would a penny or two-pence on the standard and higher rate of income tax cause real hardship to anyone.  We’d only lose a little of the taxable part of our income.   I’m no mathematician but I believe that penny or tuppence on each pound of our taxable income would make a tremendous difference to our country’s finances.   Yet David Cameron promises that a new Conservative Government would not raise the rate of VAT (he could naturally be expected to prefer indirect taxation that disproportionately penalises the poor).  Much more shamefully, Ed Miliband, Labour leader, promises that if he leads a Labour government, there will be no increase in either the standard or the higher rate of income tax.

            Perhaps the cynics are right and they really are ‘all the same’.  They’ve certainly all got the same ultimate aim.  No – it’s not to make our country a better place in which to live.   It’s to get sufficient compliant MPs elected to enable them to form a government and, having done so, to hang on to power for as long as they can manage to get away with it. 

It’s still worth while to vote though – and our duty to those who in the 19th and early 20th Century – laboured and endured derision, arrest and imprisonment for the right to do so.  If you can’t bring yourself to vote for a candidate, then vote against the candidate whose policies you most dislike.  Put your cross against the name of the candidate most likely to defeat him or her!

And, of course, in this General Election we’ll have at least two credible alternatives to those of the three traditional parties.  There’s UKIP and there’s the Green Party.  UKIP consists of Nigel Farage and his followers.  He wants to get us out of the European Union and to limit immigration. For other policies he’ll just jump onto any bandwagon that promises a few extra votes, but generally speaking, his policies are well to the right of the most hard-line Conservatives.  A quite astonishing number of prominent Ukippers – MEPs and other senior party members, have departed from Ukip ‘under a cloud’. I can imagine no circumstances under which a Ukip candidate will get my vote.

The Scots the Welsh and the Northern Irish all have nationalist alternative candidates for whom they can vote.  I shall vote Green because they are working towards a fairer and a more sustainable Britain of which it might truly be said we are all in this together.  They won't achieve this in my time but perhaps my grandchildren’s generation will bring it about. As yet at least, the Greens are not tainted by the determination to achieve office at any price –  and I wish them well.

I’m sorry if any –or all – of the above sounds like a history lesson.  It isn’t that to me.  It’s the story of the United Kingdom during my lifespan, from the first quarter of the 20th century to the first quarter of the 21s.  


23 March 2015

25th March 2015

Tendring Topics……..on line

Dear Ernest……….
                                 …….. warm regards, Douglas

            You would probably imagine that the above was the salutation and farewell of a personal letter from a close friend or relative, and that between that ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ there was a communication of great interest to both ‘Ernest’ and ‘Doug’.   It wasn’t; and although presumably it was of interest to the sender it certainly was not to me.

            It wasn’t a personal letter. I have never met, and almost certainly never will meet the ‘Douglas’ who addresses me by my first name and sends me his ‘warm regards’.  Nor was it a personal letter.  It was a circular letter, probably sent to every Tom, Dick and Harry and every Jane, Mary or Kate in the Clacton-on-Sea parliamentary constituency from Douglas Carswell once our Conservative MP but currently, thanks to a lightning conversion and an expensive and totally unnecessary by-election,  one of two UKIP MPs in the House of Commons.

            A remarkable feature of that by-election was the fact that Douglas Carswell the UKIP candidate, was the only one who seemed to make a real effort to get elected.  I was deluged by UKIP leaflets, brochures and at least one of those ‘personal’ letters from Douglas Carswell.  I received a phone call on behalf of UKIP and a canvasser who called at my front door.  He seemed a little shocked when I assured him that I would never vote for any UKIP candidate. There was also – so I believe – a well-attended public meeting addressed by both Douglas Carswell and his political boss Nigel Farage.   I received just one leaflet from the Conservative candidate, one from the Liberal Democrats and one from Labour.  There were also a Green candidate and two independents from whom I received nothing.

            The General Election is now only a few weeks away.  History seems to be  repeating itself.  During the past week or so I have received three glossy brochures or leaflets extolling Douglas Carswell’s virtues, a canvassing phone call, and today (21st March)  this ‘personal letter’ from the man himself.  The content of the letter confirms my opinion that, apart from leaving the European Union and reducing immigration, UKIP’s policy is simply to jump on any band-wagon that offers the promise of a few extra votes.   I have so far received nothing from any of the other candidates.

            Douglas’ circular letter promises that UKIP will abolish hospital parking charges, funding this by ’cutting overseas aid and EU payments’ (could be a vote winner – parking at Colchester General Hospital is difficult and expensive – and getting worse!).  They’ll also ‘defend the NHS, defend winter fuel payments, bus passes and tv licences for older folk’ (there are lots of ‘older folk’ with votes in this constituency) ‘stand up to big corporations’ (I don’t know quite what that means but it certainly sounds vote-catching!) and ‘introduce an Australian-style points system’ to control immigration (locally our most serious immigration problem is created by fellow-Brits driven from the London area by ridiculously high housing costs and the ‘bedroom tax').
            At the end of the letter there is a chart based on figures supplied by www. ElectoralCalculus.co,uk which suggests that UKIP can expect to gain 48 percent of the votes in this area in the general election, and the Conservatives 45 percent.  Douglas Carswell appeals ‘Only UKIP can keep David Cameron’s candidate out of Clacton’.  I’m inclined to reverse that message and proclaim.  Only the Conservatives can keep Nigel Farage’s candidate out of Clacton

            Regular blog readers will know that at the by-election I ‘voted strategically’.  For the first, and probably only time in my life I put my cross against the name of the Conservative candidate in the hope of denying the seat to Douglas Carswell.  It didn’t succeed!    The closeness of the two parties in the forecast tempts me to do the same in the General Election – but I won’t.  This time I’ll vote Green because I am convinced that it is only the policies of the Green Party that offer a cure for Britain’s ills.
Final Note:  

The reason that, in both the by-election and in the months preceding the coming general election I had so much potentially mind-bending material from the UKIP candidate and so little from the others, is not I am sure, because the Labour, Conservative, Green and Lib.Dem candidates and their supporters lack enthusiasm and conviction, but that they have limited funds – and good quality printing and distribution costs money.  UKIP presumably has some very wealthy and generous financial backers – or perhaps Douglas (as he uses my first name I’m sure he won’t mind my using his) has a very considerable personal fortune that he is prepared to use to secure electoral success.

An Anniversary

          We have recently seen the first anniversary of the annexation/recovery of the Crimea by Russia.  It was marked by a public opinion poll in the Crimea that revealed that 93 percentage of the population were happy to remain as Russians and had no desire to be once again citizens of Ukraine.   Ninety-three percent! That’s the kind of result that one would only get in a place like North Korea – it must have been fiddled or fabricated!   Well, that’s what ‘the west’ would no doubt like to believe.  The only difficulty with that explanation is that the opinion poll was carried out by a Ukrainian polling agency commissioned by the Ukrainian government.  That was not the result for which the government in Kiev was hoping!  Certainly in the 1950s when both Russia and Ukraine were provinces of the Soviet Union, the citizens of the Crimea were not consulted when Nikita Khruschev decided that their land (which had been part of Russia since Tsarist times) should become part of Ukraine.

            Meanwhile the fact that we have heard no recent news from the disputed region of Eastern Ukraine suggests  that the terms of the cease-fire are being observed; that hostilities have ceased and heavy weaponry withdrawn from the front line.   I hope that prisoners are being exchanged by both sides and that talks are in progress about the degree of autonomy to be granted to the Russian speaking eastern areas of Ukraine. Meanwhile the British Government, which played no part in the cease-fire negotiations, has supplied the Ukrainian Government in Kiev with armoured cars, and is sending units from our army (depleted by government cuts and by less-than-totally-successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan), to help train the Ukrainian army.  That’s our contribution to the cause of world peace!





19 March 2015

March 2015

Tendring Topics…….on line

This above all, to thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man’

            In Shakespeare’s Hamlet that was part of the advice that Polonius, a Danish courtier, gave to his son Laertes before the latter embarked on a trip to England, then a distant perilous country, full of temptations and pitfalls for a visiting young Dane with money in his pocket. 

 If Nick Clegg had heeded that advice five years ago I think it very unlikely that his Party would now be facing the possibility of humiliation in the coming General Election.  The Liberal Democrats didn’t really have to be junior partners in a very unequal coalition.  They could have let David Cameron form a minority government promising to support it for as long as it was possible to do so without breaking pledges that they had made to the electorate.

            But he allowed the promise of the empty title of Deputy Prime Minister and two or three Ministerial jobs for a few of his lieutenants to lure him into a coalition and – very shortly afterwards – to break spectacularly the pledge he had made to the electorate  about University Tuition fees.

            Before the last General Election I don’t recall that anyone expected it to result in a hung Parliament and an unequal Conservative/Lib.Dem. coalition.  This time two other parties, the Ukippers and the Greens are serious contenders nationwide and in Scotland the Scottish National Party will almost certainly overturn Labour’s domination of the electoral scene.  Few expect either of the two main parties to achieve an overall majority in the House of Commons. If we are again to have a coalition government which parties will coalesce to form one?

            Nick Clegg appears to be confident that the Liberal-Democrats will again hold the balance and have the choice between coalition with the Conservatives or Labour.  The opinion polls suggest otherwise and so, for what it’s worth, do I.   Since the Lib-Dems, in government, broke promises that they made to the electorate before the last election why should we imagine they’ll be any different now?  I voted for them then but they certainly won’t get my vote in May.  I’m not alone!

            In Scotland the SNP has come on in leaps and bounds since the referendum.   Nicola Sturgeon, their present Leader, seems to be a worthy successor of Alex Salmond. The Tories are evidently fearful that they will have sufficient successful election candidates to join a coalition with Labour and form a government. Many Labour hopefuls fear the same. Well, they certainly brought that possibility onto themselves.  If at the time of the referendum they had been a bit less enthusiastic about preserving the United Kingdom intact there would now be no Scottish MPs at Westminster.   Both Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP leader, have said that there will be no such coalition but, of course, politicians don’t believe other politicians’ promises any more than the rest of us do!     

            If there are a substantial number of Scottish MPs I think it likely that they’ll do what the Lib.Dems. should have done last time; support a minority government for as long as its policies are acceptable to them but try to amend or defeat them when they are not.   They won’t get any seats in the government that way but ‘What profiteth it a man (or a political party) to gain the whole world – and lose his soul?’

            A much more sinister, and I fear more likely, outcome of the General Election could be that UKIP will form a coalition with a minority Conservative government, with Nigel Farage as Deputy PM and several Ukip MPs (almost certainly our own turn-coat MP Douglas Carswell would be among them) in senior government posts. The flamboyant and charismatic Nigel Farage would soon outshine the present PM and the Chancellor in the public eye, and probably in the eyes of a substantial number of hard-line Tory MPs.  Farage’s career has, so far, mirrored that of Adolf Hitler in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s.  I fear a future in which he acquired real power.

            But it may well be that all these anxieties and hopes are groundless.  Such is our first-past-the-post electoral system that perhaps, to everyone’s surprise, either the Conservative or the Labour Party will secure a commanding majority and rule the country for the next five years.  If that is so then I can confidently predict  the future outcome:  Britain’s future will not be anything like as happy and as prosperous as supporters of the ruling party promise – but neither will it be quite as disastrous as opponents of that ruling party fear.

            In May I fully intend to vote for the Green Party candidate.  The Greens won’t form a government and it’s unlikely that they’ll be asked to take part in any coalition.  In my own Clacton-on-Sea constituency it’s very improbable that, with our present first-past-the-post electoral system, the Green Candidate will be elected.  I may help him save his deposit though (the Greens rely on the support of its thousands of members.  Unlike other parties, they have neither multimillionaires nor trade unions financing them), and nationally I will add to the number of Green voters.  ‘This above all’ I shall be being true to myself and voting for a party whose policies I wholeheartedly endorse; a party that really does want to make Britain and the world a better place for this and future generations.

            My vote will not be wasted!
A Spendthrift’s Charter?

            I have sometimes wondered if the present government likes having a large proportion of the UKs population in debt.  Perhaps it makes the failure of their policies to reduce the national debt substantially, seem less important.  There are student loans, for instance;. I understand that increases in tuition fees result in some students leaving their colleges with a debt burden of as much as £40,000!  Then, of course, the Government’s obsession with home ownership has made sure that thousands of home buyers will owe thousands of pounds to banks or building societies for the whole of their working lifetimes..

            The latest encouragement to financial irresponsibility is making it possible for those who put aside a percentage of their income every month to provide themselves with a pension on retirement, can now withdraw the money at any time from their ‘pension pot’ and use it as they think best.  The hope is presumably that they will re-invest the money to enrich themselves and to help keep the wheels of industry turning.

            It will surprise me if at least some of those pension investors, with the opportunity to get a considerable sum of money into their bank accounts will say, ‘Blow provision for retirement.  Let’s go on a cruise to the Bahamas.  We’ll worry about “tomorrow” when it comes1’

            I’m glad that I was never able to withdraw cash from the ‘pension pot’ into which I paid 6 percent of my salary for most of my working life.  I wouldn’t have squandered it on a spending spree but, when my wife was diagnosed with pulmonary and laryngial TB, I’d have been sorely tempted to withdraw any money I had saved in the hope of buying her better, speedier treatment.   Perhaps (or perhaps not!) in that way I might have bought my wife a speedier recovery; might even have spared her the major surgery that saved her life but left her with a permanent disability.

            There’s no ‘perhaps’ though about the fact that, without an adequate pension, our sixties and seventies would have been much less comfortable, less worry-free and much less pleasurable.  And now that I am in my nineties and have been a widower for nearly nine years, I would be a poverty-stricken housebound cripple without the pension that has provided me with a warm and comfortable home and, among many other things, my mobility scooter and the lap-top on which I am writing these words. Thanks to that pension I am able to remember generously the birthdays of my young great-nieces and great nephew (I have yet to acquire any great grand-children), and to offer visiting family and friends hospitality in a local licensed restaurant!  As some-one once remarked, 'money can't buy happiness, but it can help you to be miserable in comfort!'

 I daren’t think how miserable and bad tempered I’d be without all those things!  I’d advise anybody – ‘However much you may be tempted never imperil your retirement pension. You will live to regret having done so.  It’s extremely unlikely that you’ll make your fortune by gambling on the Stock Exchange – and even less likely that you’ll make it on the National Lottery!’

The Budget

Regular blog readers will know that my idea of a good Budget is one that narrows the yawning gap between the incomes of the very richest and the very poorest people in the UK.   A bad Budget is one that widens that gap.  It follows that it is a long, long time since I have experienced a good Budget and that the one revealed by George Osborne on 18th March was more blatantly robbing the poor and enriching the wealthy than most.

The threshold of income at which tax becomes liable has been raised.  That means that some low-paid workers will no longer have to pay tax and that every single payer of income tax (including the very wealthy) will benefit.  Those who won’t benefit are the really poor, whose incomes are too low to be taxable.  They will, of course, continue to pay indirect taxes such as VAT and excise duties like those on petrol, alcohol and tobacco.   But that’s not all – the level of liability to pay the higher rate of income tax has also been raised, even higher.  Thus those whom most of us would consider to be very wealthy will receive a double hand-out. Meanwhile, there are to be even more cuts in the  funding of benefits and of public services, which will most  affect the very poor.

Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the news reports was that I didn’t hear a word of protest from Ed Miliband about this particular aspect of the Budget.

06 March 2015

6th March 2015

Tendring Topics……..on line

The New ‘Levellers’

          For many years I would have described myself, if asked, as a democratic socialist.  In today’s market-based society, everything, and everybody, is deemed to have a price.  It’s a society in which it is assumed that everyone’s ambition is the acquisition of greater personal wealth; in which everyone grabs as much as he can for as little as he (or she) can get away with.

            I have learned to survive, even to prosper, in this society.  I didn’t and don’t like it.  I hoped that democratic socialism could develop, if not into an earthly paradise, at least into a fairer and happier society than the one in which we live today.   However reading of the researches of two Quakers, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in their book ‘The Spirit Level’ published in 2009, convinced me that, although public ownership could be one way of producing a fairer society, there are other ways – the co-operative movement could be one, as could employer/employee partnerships like the John Lewis business group.

            Richard and Kate discovered and demonstrated that our society’s greatest evil was the ever-widening gap between the incomes of the wealthiest and the poorest members of our society.  Furthermore they discovered that levelling off incomes didn’t just benefit the poor (though they are the immediate and obvious beneficiaries) but the whole of society – rich, poor, and the great majority of us who are neither the one nor the other.   More equal societies, Denmark, Sweden and Norway for instance, are happier, less crime-ridden, have fewer teenage pregnancies, and are more peaceful and healthier societies.

            The United Kingdom has the most unequal society in Europe and one of the most unequal in the whole of the developed world.  The gap between the incomes of the wealthiest and the poorest in the United Kingdom steadily gets wider.  The Labour Party was created to provide a political voice for working people and the poor.   It is to the party’s shame that during ten years of New Labour government, the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest widened!

            In 2009, in the wake of the publication of The Spirit Level the Equality Trust was formed to draw attention to our unequal society; to promote policies that work towards greater equality and oppose those that widen the gap.  All over the country there are groups working towards those ends.  A newsletter is sent regularly to supporters and below is an extract from the latest newsletter:

February has been a successful if troubling month for exposing some of the forces behind our extreme inequality. Revelations on HSBC’s role in tax avoidance saw the media focus on the incredible schemes used by the very rich to shield their wealth. With impeccable timing it was also revealed than banks themselves have done pretty well over the last few years. The Robin Hood Tax campaign found bonuses paid out by banks and insurers since the start of the financial crisis are set to top £100bn this year.

It didn’t end there either, as a sting operation led to claims that MPs Jack Straw and Malcolm Rifkind were involved in a ‘cash for access’ scandal.  We calculated that Rifkind and Straw command rates of around £2,290 and £500 per hour for some of their consulting work. That’s 197 and 43 times the average wage rate respectively. Once again the question is asked as to how, and how much, our politicians are paid.

If you’d like to know more about the Equality Trust and its work, the address is 18 Victoria Park Square, London, E2 9PF.   Its email address is info@equalitytrust.org.uk and its web site is www.equalitytrust.org.uk

The major parties are setting out their policies in attempts to persuade us to vote for their candidate in the General Election which is now only weeks away.  It seems to me that the only Party attempting anything more than a slight nudging in one direction or the other of the present grossly unfair economic and political system is the Green Party. I was surprised and heartened to learn that the Greens now have more members that the much more publicised Ukippers. Green policies are not all that different from those of the Party for which I voted and which won the election in 1945 at the end of World War II.  They do promise the hope of a fairer, more equal society.  The Green Party candidate will get my vote.

That General Election in 1945, held just after I had returned to England at the end of World War II in Europe, was the first opportunity I had ever had to vote. I voted I thought, for a fairer Britain and a more peaceful world. The vote that I hope to cast in May this year will almost certainly be my last opportunity to vote in a general election. I shall cast it with exactly the same hope of a fairer Britain and a more peaceful world, not for myself this time (I certainly won’t see any sign of it in my lifetime!) but for my grandchildren.

There’s no place like home……..

……….and no vote-winner like ‘homes for all’ or, as far as the Tories are concerned ‘Home ownership for all’.  At least that’s what all the Party leaders think, because they’re competing with each other to promise 100,000 200,000 (why stop there – the sky’s the limit as far as promises are concerned) new homes if only they’re elected in May.   To hear them talk you’d think they were going to don the overalls and hard hats they wear for ‘photo opportunities at the workplace’ and go out and build those houses themselves.  A blog reader and regular correspondent, who has expert knowledge and experience in the field of housing explains the rationale of David Cameron’s promise of 200,000 cut-price homes.

He is promising to build 200,000 new homes and sell them at a discount to first time buyers under 40 (a high age limit, but that’s how long it takes to save a deposit these days!)  He claims this “scheme” will cost nothing to the public purse. Developers are apparently very enthusiastic.

The London Evening Standard explains, as no other news medium  is doing, that these homes are to be built on “brown field” and ex-commercial sites, not normally available for housing.  When Local Authorities allow these sites to be built on for a major development (as Croydon Council is  doing right now), they normally get money from the developers for building infrastructure, of £45,000 per home. They also have a requirement that 20% will be “affordable homes” and are sold to a Housing Association. Both of these rules are being scrapped for this scheme, thus “allowing developers” to sell the homes at a 20% reduced price. Presumably, for the concession, they are forced to sell at this reduced price (but in a market economy this doesn’t make much sense). If the buyers sell within 5 years they have to return the subsidy (I don’t understand that, because it isn’t really a subsidy, just a concession, which cannot be reversed). I don’t know who they would return it to? The homeless families who are being short changed by this scheme?  It sounds like a good 5 year savings plan to me, to buy a 250K flat and get a 50K discount, wait 5 years while you live in it, then sell and get the 50K back, plus the value of house price inflation which probably means it would be worth 100K.

The reality is, that this is another calculated move to help core Tory voters – middle aged, middle class people aspiring to buy their first home – while robbing would-be Labour-Voting Social Housing Tenants of potential housing.  In the end, this isn’t reducing the cost of housing, but rather it is increasing it, by increasing the supply of inflated owner-occupied housing at the direct cost of the supply of the shrinking supply affordable rented housing.  However, it makes a good headline before an election; about as meaningless as many of the other promises being made right now.

It is worth remembering that much, if not all, of our country’s current housing problems date from the Thatcher years when ‘right to buy’ legislation compelled local authorities (but not private landlords) to sell, at bargain basement prices, houses and flats that had been provided by their predecessors to eliminate homelessness and overcrowding from their districts; ‘buying votes with other people’s money!’  Prior to the ‘avaricious eighties’ local authorities had a right and a duty to provide homes in their districts for letting and to allocate them to those with greatest need.

‘The Government giveth – and the Government taketh away!’

I recently commented in this blog on the Government’s proposal to hand over all health and welfare services in the Manchester area to the local authority for that area. That’s quite a responsibility!

Today I have just heard on ‘BBC Breakfast’ that, in connection with another public service,  the Government is interfering in the very minutia of local government administration.  Motorists nationwide parking their cars in municipal car-parks are to be allowed an extra ten minutes before any action is taken about their over-running the time for which they have paid.  Furthermore local authorities mustn’t use illegal parking fines as a source of revenue.

Goodness – local government can be trusted to run the health and welfare services of a large conurbation but  can’t be trusted to administer its own car-parks!   It couldn’t, I suppose, be anything to do with the fact that a great many supporters of the present Government are owner-drivers of cars – and that a general election is only a few weeks away?






27 February 2015

27th February 2015

Tendring Topics……on line

Is our economy safe in their hands?

            One of the main points of the Conservative Party’s election campaign is that the country’s economy is safe in their hands.  Vote for any party other than the Conservatives, they say, and you’ll have Ed Miliband as Prime Minister. Our economy – your money – is safe with David Cameron.   Well, I’m not all that keen on Ed Miliband but I really don’t think his economic policies are materially different from those of David Cameron.  It doesn’t seem to occur to either of them (or perhaps they’re both too scared of well-off voters to mention it) that cutting essential public services is neither the only nor the best way of reducing that deficit. 

The deficit is the difference between the government’s income and its expenditure.  Why not try increasing its income?   A penny on income tax would hurt no-one (even with the skewed-in-favour-of-the-wealthy income tax system we have today) and would have an instant effect on the deficit.  Instead David Cameron is talking about cutting income tax!  Both he and the Liberal Democrats are convinced that they’re doing a tremendous service to the poor by raising the level at which income becomes liable, thereby taking some low-paid workers out of the income tax system altogether.  Sometimes they say, ‘Out of the tax system altogether’, as though income tax were the only tax we all pay.

In fact, by raising the  threshold at which income tax becomes payable, they are helping everyone who pays income tax – but they are not in the least helping those whose income is already too low to be subject to taxation.

 One way in which the Government has wasted our money is in the maintenance of our Trident Nuclear Submarine ‘independent Nuclear Deterrent’.  It is not independent (can you imagine us using it – or even threatening to use it – without the OK of Washington?) and it hasn’t deterred any of the many acts of aggression that have occurred in the post-war years.  When the Falklands were invaded by Argentina neither our ‘nuclear deterrent’ nor our ‘special relationship’ with the USA were the least help to us.  Nor does everyone think that the lavish cost of an all-but-a-state-funeral of a politician who deeply divided the country and whose flagship ‘right to buy’ legislation is responsible for our current housing crisis, was money well spent.

Perhaps though the most absurd and obviously crazy way in which the Conservative dominated coalition government has frittered away our money has been the replacement of area Police Committees with directly elected ‘Police and Crime Commissioners’ with power to appoint and sack Chief Constables and to determine the general direction of police work though operational control remains, thank goodness, with the Chief Constables.   The former Police Committees were, so the coalition claimed, ‘undemocratic’.   How can one man or woman, elected by a tiny fragment of the total electorate, possibly be ‘more democratic’ than a committee, at least some members of which had been elected locally?

The obvious way to make the police answerable to the local public was to make them the responsibility of the local county or unitary authority council. They would elect some of their members to serve on a ‘Police and Crime Committee’ with the same responsibilities as those of Police and Crime Commissioners.  These police committees would be more representative of their whole area than any single individual could hope to be.  They’d also be much better able to co-ordinate police activities with those of other local or regional services such as education, social services, highways, and parks and gardens, for which the County Council or Unitary Authority is responsible.  What’s more, they’d cost less, which I would have thought would have been a prime consideration of our Prime Minister and Chancellor.

You’ll recall that the public showed its contempt for the whole idea of directly elected Commissioners (an idea imported from the USA) by failing to turn up at the polling booths.  Nationwide the percentage of those bothering to register their vote was the lowest recorded in any election – and Essex set a splendid example by having the lowest turn-out of the lot!

Of course there has always been the possibility that those of us who were convinced that the appointment of Police and Crime Commissioners was a costly mistake were quite wrong. There could have been a dramatic fall in crime and rise in the detection rate, and we might have all been sleeping easier in our beds in the knowledge that we had a Commissioner looking after our interests.  Essex’s own Commissioner – Nick Alston - seemed a pleasant enough chap.  Perhaps he could work miracles.

Headlines in the local Daily Gazette suggest that he can’t; It’s official……crime is rising in Essex.   In fact, that is only partly true.  The number of domestic abuse cases rose from 9,222 to 10,825 in 2013 and there was 35 percent rise in prosecutions against Class A drug dealers. The solved crime rate fell to 27.63 percent.   On the other hand there was an 11.6 percent drop in the number of burglaries and there were 900 fewer incidents of rural crime.

 While the government exercises tight control of the purse strings there is little that either the Crime Commissioner or a Police Committee can do to reduce crime.  Mark Smith, chairman of the Essex Police Federation is quite sure that the politicians are to blame:

 It is quite clear that what we are being told by the politicians is not true.  They say crime is down.  It is not and we are not even recording new crimes like cyber crime and ‘grooming’.

We have already had cuts of £72.5 million and have heard that in the next five years we are going to have to save another £80 million. We will probably lose 200 officers this year, so we will have gone down from 3,600 to 3,000. In five years there will only be about 2,000 if the cuts go ahead.

I’m not a great Ed Miliband fan and intend to vote Green in the General Election. However I’d support Ed Miliband’s promise that a future Labour Government would put more coppers on the beat and pay for the change by scrapping those expensive and largely impotent Police and Crime Commissioners.

Yet another NHS reorganisation?

In this blog I have again and again criticised the action of successive governments – both Conservative and Labour – of stripping local authorities of the powers and responsibilities that were theirs in the 1930s.   When in 1937 and aged sixteen, I stepped onto the very lowest rung of the staff ladder of Ipswich Corporation’s Public Health Department in 1937 the Department was responsible for a General Hospital, an Isolation Hospital (infectious diseases like diphtheria and scarlet fever were much more common, and deadlier, in those days), a Maternity Home and a Tuberculosis Sanatorium. The department was also responsible for the domiciliary midwives and district nurses and the school medical service, as well as the environmental health services for which it is responsible today.  There may well have been other services of which I was not aware.  I was very young, on the very lowest staff level – and my local government career was interrupted after just two years by the outbreak of World War II!

After the war I was older and, I hope, wiser than I had been.  I was one of the returning servicemen who voted for Clem Attlee’s Labour Government – but I was a little dismayed when all those local health and medical services were taken over by the NHS.  However I thought that the advantages of a truly National Health Service outweighed the disadvantages, and – until the last year or so – I have had no reason to think otherwise.   I wasn’t impressed with the Government’s last NHS reorganisation.  It sounds wonderful to make GPs responsible for all their patients needs – seeing a consultant, getting a bed in a hospital and so on.  But GPs are fully occupied examining patients, treating them and passing them on to consultants when necessary.  They really didn’t have the time for administrative work.   I wrote in this blog that they were getting rid of one layer of bureaucracy and replacing it with dozens of smaller layers as GP practices took on extra staff or formed consortiums to deal with this work.  Now it seems the Government is really trying to localise the Health Service in at least one part of the UK.  They are making the local authorities that comprise Greater Manchester a single comprehensive Health and Welfare Authority, responsible for both Health and Social Services.  It sounds a brilliant idea but there are several matters on which I’d like further clarification.

The government will fund this new authority.  This government isn’t famous for its lavish support of public services.  Will there be adequate funding?

He who pays the piper calls the tune.  Are we quite sure that this new authority will not find itself directly under the thumb of bureaucrats in Whitehall?

Just now the new authority will be under democratic control by elected councillors.  But I understand that within a few years the area will have an all-powerful ‘Mayor’.  Will a Mancunian equivalent of Boris Johnson dictate Health Service policy?

   Services inside the new authorities’ area will inevitably be different (not necessarily either better or worse) that those outside.  What will happen when someone complains that ‘That woman over the road got into hospital immediately.  I’ve been told I’ll have  to wait two months – it’s just a post code lottery?'



20 February 2015

20th February 2015

Tendring Topics…….on line

‘Immoral Earnings’

          Tax evasion (strictly illegal) and tax avoidance (legal but often distinctly dodgy) have been a recurring theme in this blog. I regard income tax as our annual subscription for the privilege of British citizenship. We should be proud to pay it, not reluctant. There is nowadays a thriving business in advising already-wealthy clients how to avoid paying anything like their fair share of income tax – in some instances how to avoid paying any income tax whatsoever.  This new ‘profession’ is surely parasitic and ’living on immoral earnings’, much the same as brothel keepers and the like; and deserving the same punishments as them if or when they are brought to justice.

             I was astonished when I learned that BBC investigative journalists had discovered that Britain’s largest Bank HSBC, was among  the foremost of these ‘financial pimps’ – and that one of their multi-millionaire clients had lived in luxury for years without ever paying a penny in income tax.  HMRC – the government department charged with the collection of taxes and customs duties believed that this particular client was living somewhere in Spain, but – surprise, surprise! – had been unable to contact him.

            There seems to have been a remarkably cosy relationship between HSBC, the HMRC and the government that employs the latter to collect money owed to them (our money in fact).   A former Chief Executive, later chairman of HSBC, on leaving the bank was ennobled (just like our own Lord Hanningfield!) and given a job in the government.  Nothing wrong with that perhaps – I have always thought that the Kray brothers would have made excellent Police and Crime Commissioners!    Rather more worrying is the fact that, on retirement, a former senior official of HMCR was given a senior position with HSBC.  Poacher becoming a Gamekeeper is one thing – but Gamekeeper becoming Poacher is something quite different.
            I wouldn’t pretend to understand exactly how multi-millionaires were advised on avoiding the taxation that the rest of us have to pay.  It seems though that at the centre of this operation was a Swiss ancillary of HSBC. We are told that that ancillary has now been thoroughly reorganised.  ‘Lessons have been learned’ from the mistakes.  They were made a few years ago and we must now draw a line under the past and move forward into the future.

            I bet that those ‘celebrity paedophiles’ who are serving prison snentences for incidents that occurred forty or fifty years ago, are wishing that they could have said the same thing – and got away with it!

The Prime Minister’s response

          David Cameron’s response to the revelations about HSBC and HMCR was as we have come to expect.  No government, he claimed, has done more than his has to stem aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion.  That says no more than that no government has ever done very much in that field.   Understandable enough – start taking money from the super-rich and they’ll be less inclined to offer financial support to the party that they had relied upon to look after their interests.

            Probably though Mr Cameron, like me, doesn’t really understand how tax avoidance works, and how it can be prevented.   He swiftly moved on to a field in which he and his chancellor have become experts; penalising the poor and vulnerable to avoid inconveniencing the really wealthy.  They hadn’t previously noticed that some of those who receive benefit do so because they are suffering from obesity or alcohol or other addiction.  These are curable conditions.  Cut their benefit unless they are positively seeking a cure and you’ll not only improve their medical condition but you’ll encourage them to seek work and save a few quid to reduce that deficit.

            I’m reminded of a somewhat cynical story that was circulating in Germany in the early post-war years when every firm and every organisation was struggling to rid itself of the taint of Nazism.    One keen German gardener meets another:   ‘What have you been doing today Fritz?’ ‘I’ve been denazifying my carrot patch’. ‘Denazifying?’   ‘Yes, denazifying – you know; pulling out the little ones so that the big ones will thrive and get bigger’. 


           Three times I have started to put on paper my thoughts about the situation in Ukraine and three times I have failed.  The situation changes day by day, almost hour by hour.  Hope of a peaceful settlement almost dies – and then flickers into life again. One thing that is certain is that the outlook on both sides has hardened as a result of the conflict. Before the killing started I am quite sure that the rebels would have been satisfied with a limited autonomy within a loose Ukrainian Federation.  Now, I think, they’ll be striving for full independence.   Similarly, many on the government side would, I think, have been willing to grant that limited autonomy.  Now hard-liners will be satisfied with nothing less than the ethnic cleansing from Ukraine of all Russophiles (hundreds have already been killed and thousands driven into exile) and the obliteration of the Russian language and of Russian culture from the country.

In this conflict it is the rebels (always referred to in BBC news bulletins as  ‘Russian-backed rebels!) who are the victims.  They feared that the Kiev Government intended to destroy their language and culture.   At first they tried to prevent them by peaceful means – do you remember the tv pictures of unarmed civilians, men, women and little children trying to stop the progress into their country of Kiev government tanks and armoured cars?  Since the fighting started it is the rebels’ homes that have been flattened by shellfire.   The million people driven from their homes and seeking refuge in Russia are all from rebel held towns and villages.  I have little doubt that they comprise most of the 5,500 dead.

Angela Merkel and the French President are at least trying to keep the flame of peace alight.  Our government?   Well, we’ve supplied the Kiev Government with sixty second-hand armoured cars.  They’re unarmed at the moment but the Kiev government can soon mount some machine guns onto them and send them into the conflict.    Oh yes – and our Defence Secretary has announced that any armed Russian incursion into the Baltic States will be resisted by NATO.  Over a quarter of the population of two of those three Baltic states are ethnic Russians. The Defence Secretary (who clearly isn’t old enough to remember the true horror of a European War) would be better occupied urging the governments of those Baltic States not to treat the ethnic Russians as second-class citizens, and to give the Russian language the same status as the local tongue.  Switzerland, Belgium and Wales all have more than one ‘official language’.   So could Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.   

If the Baltic ethnic Russians have no grievances they’ll have no inclination to revolt and seek Russian help.

Some later thoughts

This morning (Friday 20th February) I have just heard that an influential committee of the House of Lords has declared that, due to inept policies pursued by inexperienced foreign office officials, we have ‘sleep walked’ into the situation in Ukraine.  My own fear is that we may be sleep-walking into World War III.

 Nations, as well as individuals, should make a real effort to see the world through the eyes of their opponents.  Russia sees itself surrounded by a hostile NATO alliance extending from the Baltic, round the frontier of the Russian Federation to the Black Sea.

We may well think of that NATO alliance as being purely defensive – but how would we feel if the Irish Republic, the Netherlands, Belgium and France were to become part of a potentially hostile alliance?   How would the USA feel if Mexico and Canada did the same?

In the case of the USA we know what would happen.  In the 1962 the Soviet Union attempted to supply its ally Cuba with missiles to defend itself from the very real threat of invasion from the USA. President Kennedy – by no means the most bellicose of American presidents – was prepared to bring the world to nuclear war to prevent it.   Fortunately Nikita Khruschev, then President of the USSR, had more sense.  He withdrew the missiles – but there was no further attempt to invade Cuba from the USA.

13 February 2015

February 2015

Tendring Topics……..on line

Tendring Topics……..on line

The tragedy of Ukraine

            Regular blog readers will know that I have a personal concern about the conflict in Eastern Ukraine because of the thought that those engaged on both sides in that conflict may be that grandchildren of the Russian and Ukrainian conscripted ‘slave workers’ who were my good friends and comrades in Germany from 1943 till 1945 when I was an ‘other rank’ British POW also compelled to work there.

            I was delighted when the political leaders of France and Germany, having had talks with the President of the Kiev Ukrainian government, discussed with Vladimir Putin, the Russian President, their plans for an immediate cease-fire leading to a permanent peace   I had hoped that these talks would be successful though I was not convinced that either the Ukrainian President had absolute control of the government forces (there are, I believe, a number of private ‘militia’ groups supporting the Kiev government)  or Vladimir Putin control of the rebels..

            There have now been over 5,000 fatal casualties in this unnecessary civil war.  Although we don’t know who these casualties are I’d be very surprised if the majority of them are not civilians and victims of the relentless shelling by the government forces of towns and villages under rebel control.  Certainly most of the thousands of  refugees whose homes have been destroyed and who are seeking refuge in Russia, are from rebel-held areas under constant attack.

             It wasn’t really surprising that that first peace initiative failed. It was never likely that an agreement that had been welcomed by the Ukrainian President could possibly be immediately acceptable to the rebels.  Both sides needed to compromise if there were to be a lasting cease-fire.  A few weeks ago there had been hope as the prisoner of war exchange agreed in Minsk in September took place.  Since then the fighting has flared up again.  It is assumed by our press and the BBC that the rebels were responsible – but were they?  It really does take two to make a quarrel – or a war.

            After the failure of the German and French peace initiative, hopes of a cease-fire flickered but were not totally extinguished.  Fortunately, neither Angela Merkel or her French counterpart were prepared to take ‘no’ for an answer.  They arranged a meeting on 11th February, this time with both Vladimir Putin and Barak Obama, Presidents of the Russian Federation and of the USA, taking part. Once again there were no representatives of Russian speaking East Ukraine present.  This was not because no representative of the rebels was prepared to come, nor yet because President Putin had advised them against coming; but simply because the representatives of the Kiev government refused to speak to them!

It must have been a strange peace conference that barred one of the combatants from participation.  However it permitted the Kiev government to persist in the fiction that the rebels were under the direct command of Russia, and effectively prevented them from publicising their reasons for armed resistance to a government take-over.
            Discussions went on throughout the night.  With the dawn came news of a hard-won agreement that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said gave ‘just a glimmer’ of hope.  There is to be a complete cease-fire effective from midnight on Saturday 14th February.  Both sides are then to withdraw their forces to leave a ‘peace corridor’ between them.  Prisoners are to be exchanged and talks to begin about the degree of autonomy that is to be accorded to East Ukraine.

            The Foreign Minister of the Kiev Government has already said publicly that the plan will fail and, of course, his government has the power to make sure that it does so – and to put the blame squarely onto the rebels!

            The only way to ensure that the peace plan has any chance of succeeding is for the cease-fire to be rigorously policed by a considerable number of neutral observers from France and Germany.  They might, at the same time, see if there is evidence of the Russian Army Units that ‘the west’ seems to be quite certain are now fighting in Eastern Ukraine.  On the BBC tv news recently we have had several reports from correspondents behind the rebel lines in Eastern Ukraine. None of them has mentioned the presence of Russian Military Units.

            My own guess is that the Russian government probably has given the rebels some artillery because we have recently heard of the rebels shelling government army positions.  Previously it was the government troops doing all the shelling.  I think too, that it is probable that Russian Army volunteers have been granted leave to allow them to support their brethren across the frontier.  Had the Russians sent an armoured division in to help the rebels – as has been claimed by the Ukrainian President – I believe that the Russian flag would now be hoisted over the Kiev Parliament!

            I believe that by far the best solution would be for both sides in Ukraine to be disarmed and for Ukraine’s neutrality to be guaranteed by both NATO and the Russian Federation.  Further I believe that both the Russian and Ukrainian languages (are they really very different?) should be made official languages in Ukraine and given equal status, and that Ukraine should be given free trading access to both the EU and the Russian Federation.

             Without the financial burden of defence spending, with easy access to the world’s markets, and with the financial help needed to rebuild their shattered country provided by their fellow Europeans both in the EU and in Russia, Ukraine’s recovery could be spectacular, and a model for other defence-burdened countries to follow. No – of course I know it isn’t going to happen.  It would spell the end of civilisation as we know it.  Think of all the jobs that would be lost in the ‘defence industries’ (not to mention the loss of dividends to share holders!) if it did!

            Late News – I have just (13th February) heard that if the cease-fire to begin at midnight on the 14th is broken, further sanctions will be imposed on Russia by the EU.   Don’t those blinkered idiots even consider the possibility that the cease-fire might be broken by Ukrainian government forces?