Category: Politics and economics

The Independent Group wants us to click on “I Agree”. Unfortunately, I don’t.

The ‘Independent Group’, the seven MPs who have quit the Labour Party has posted a statement of principles on its website.  (Not only do they have a website, they’ve even got a Wikipedia page; not bad for a movement that is less than one day old. )  The site opens on a positive statement of values, which they invite people to agree with.  Presumably they think the principle have a general appeal and that the statement places them somewhere near the political centre.  That may be true, but if so, the centre is a lot further to the right than it used to be.

Ours is a great country of which people are rightly proud, where the first duty of government must be to defend its people and do whatever it takes to safeguard Britain’s national security.

The idea that the first duty of government is defence comes straight out of the neo-conservative playbook, and it’s highly contentious.  The first duty of government should be this: the welfare of the people is the highest law (or salus populi suprema est lex:  when it’s in Latin, you know the sentiment has been around a long time).   In the course of the last  thirty years we’ve seen a proliferation of new states, and while defence matters. it comes well down the list of priorities.  What people want from their governments is practical benefit, and that’s a long way from what any government in the UK has been trying to do in recent years.

A strong economy means we can invest in our public services.

This one has it the wrong way round.  Investing in public services, and investing in people, is the way to have a strong economy.

The barriers of poverty, prejudice and discrimination facing individuals should be removed and advancement occur on the basis of merit, with inequalities reduced through the extension of opportunity, giving individuals the skills and means to open new doors and fulfil their ambitions.

Meritocracy and an emphasis of opportunity – the platform of the Conservative Party in the 1960s – are arguments for an unequal society.  Even the United Nations has been able to sign up to something more promising than this, pledging that no-one should be left behind. Anthony Crosland, who many people think of as being on the right of the Labour Party, wrote:

“in Britain equality of opportunity and social mobility … are not enough.  They need … to be combined with measures, above all in the educational field, to equalise the distribution of rewards and privileges so as to diminish the degree of class stratification, the injustice of large inequalities, and the collective discontents which come from too great a dispersion of rewards.”

Back to the Independent Group.

Individuals are capable of taking responsibility if opportunities are offered to them, everybody can and should make a contribution to society and that contribution should be recognised.

It seems that everyone should make a contribution to society.  But some people can’t.  Some are left out, some are shut out, some are pushed out; some will never be able to fill the gap.  When people are vulnerable and disadvantaged, it’s not a good time to look for a contribution.  Some of us believe that people should be protected.  Some of us even think that people might have rights.

I share many of the Independent Group’s concerns about the direction that the Labour Party has taken.  The direction they propose instead is not, however, the direction I’d want to take.

 

How to bring the Brexit negotiations to a conclusion

There are several possible conclusions of the Brexit negotiations.  This could all could finish with no deal, or with acceptance of the deal that Parliament has already objected to.  A second referendum might even finish with the UK deciding to stay in the EU, but that is unlikely.

The fundamental problem with the existing offer is a simple one:  it is incomplete.  Article 50 made provision for both a withdrawal agreement and an agreement about the future relationship.  The second part is missing.  There is a “political declaration”, but there isn’t a legally binding agreement about the future.  And that’s why the withdrawal agreement had to come with a ‘backstop’.  The backstop is only necessary because nothing has been firmly decided about the future.

We arrived at this situation through a combination of ill-considered procedural decisions.   The EU should not have insisted on postponing discussion of the future relationship until after the withdrawal agreement had been negotiated; that was inconsistent with its treaty obligations.  The UK government should not have consented to the timetable.  Nevertheless, that is what happened.  The way out of the dilemma now is to conclude the unfinished decisions about the future – in other words, negotiating the trade agreement that should have been on the table two years ago.

It might not be possible to make this agreement in the remaining time; that argues for an extension of the notice period.   But a final agreement would not require anyone to revisit the withdrawal agreement, it would have the advantage of saving face for both the EU and the UK government, and it would avoid a situation which none of the parties wants.

Brexit is set to deprive UK citizens of basic rights

I’ve repeatedly argued in this blog that trade with the EU is not the main issue: social rights are.  I wrote before the referendum that

If the UK leaves, UK citizens will lose their rights as European citizens. Those rights include rights to representation within the EU, the right to move and live freely throughout the EU, reciprocal rights to public services, and consular and diplomatic protection from other EU countries when outside Europe. There is something deeply flawed about a process that claims to be democratic but implies that a majority decision would deprive a minority of their rights.

Last March, the House of Commons passed this motion:

this House supports the maintenance of European Union citizenship rights for Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish and English citizens, notes that the range of rights and protections afforded to individuals as European Union citizens are integral to a person’s European identity; further notes that many of those rights are closely linked to the UK’s membership of the Single Market; and calls on the UK Government to ensure that the UK’s membership of the Single Market and UK citizens’ right to European Union citizenship are retained in the event that the UK leaves the EU.

Yesterday, despite that, it emerged that if Britain leaves the EU without an agreement, reciprocal arrangements for  health insurance will be withdrawn from UK citizens living in other European countries.  None of the main protagonists in the Brexit debate is focusing on the things that really matter.

 

A second referendum is not the way out of this mess

If there is a second referendum, there is no good reason to suppose that it will deliver the result that remainers hope for.  I’m basing that view not on opinion polls, but on some old-fashioned political science.  There is no such thing as ‘the will of the people’.  What there is, instead, is a mish-mash of different opinions.  Some people voted ‘leave’ because they were unhappy with the EU; some because they were opposed to immigration; some because they were against capitalism; some because they wanted to return to the 1950s; some because they wanted to give the government a kicking.  Some people voted remain because they like the EU; some because of self-interest; some to avoid disruption; some because of their judgment about the economy; and so on.  Lies or fear may have played a part, on either side, but that’s not decisive; nor is the fact that some people will feel empowered to vote leave, or that other people will strain themselves to get a different result this time.  The more complex an issue is, the more likely it becomes that people with different motivations and preferences will cancel each other out, and the closer the result moves to what you’d expect from a random distribution – a 50-50 split.

Once we start from that position, the result is statistically likely to be decided by a relatively small group of people with a strong, settled opinion, if there is no equivalent group on the other side to oppose them.  The source of this argument is L Penrose, The elementary statistics of majority voting, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 1946.    Bartholomew and Bassett wrote, in Let’s look at the figures, that  “2,000 resolute voters in a population of just over one million can almost always get their way.”   (p 125)  And that’s what happened in 2016.   (There might well have been an equivalent group on the other side – Britons in Europe – but they were largely barred from taking part.)     It’s not the polls that count; it’s the mechanism by which the issue is to be decided.  And without very strong reasons to the contrary, we should expect the same mechanisms and the same process to produce the same result.

Thoughts for 2019

Richard Murphy has posted a rather gloomy blog entry, outlining many of the things going wrong in Europe and America.  He points, among other things, to Brexit, populism, growing inequality and economic and political instability. 2019, he thinks, ‘is going to be horrid’.  While I can’t gainsay any of the grim predictions he offers, I think there are other grounds for optimism, mainly from the developing world.

  • There have been marked improvements in the incomes of poor populations in many of the world’s poorest countries – among them China, Bangladesh, South East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.  See the World Bank’s Atlas of Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Around the world, infant mortality is falling.  So is family size – one follows from the other.
  • Maternal mortality is falling.
  • Girls are much more likely to be engaged in primary education.
  • Social protection is being extended.  See The state of social protection 2018.  There is a still a long way to go, with less than 30% of the world’s population experiencing comprehensive social security provision, but safety nets have been spreading across the global South.

2019 might well be horrid, but it may not be quite as horrid for everyone as it threatens to be in the UK.  Happy New Year.

 

 

How May’s government messed things up

While it still seems likely to me that the withdrawal agreement will be ratified, in the absence of anything clearer, the current government bears a heavy responsibility for a botched negotiation.  Regardless of whether one supports the principle of leaving or staying, the government has made a series of unforced errors.  They include:

  • giving notice with no prior negotiation and no plan – they were warned against this by Ivan Rogers, the lead diplomat at the time;
  • agreeing to a timetable, in breach of the EU’s treaty obligations, which precluded adequate discussion of the future relationship;
  • going into the negotiation without any prepared documents, position papers or proposed legal texts;
  • refusing to discuss the issues with other parties or outside contributors – a process fundamental to building consensus;
  • the ‘red lines’, and the withdrawal from other agreements such as Euratom, which were not part of the brief from the referendum;
  • the abandonment of considerations of citizenship, which were treaty obligations on the EU rather than for the UK;
  • failure to engage the devolved governments in questions relating to devolution (the obvious way to avoid differentiating Northern Ireland from other assemblies within the United Kingdom); and
  • repeated attempts to prevent Parliament from debating the issues, to the point of being declared in contempt of parliament.

To make one such error is unfortunate; to make eight stretches some way beyond carelessness. This is, in sum, the least competent administration of my lifetime.

 

The Bank of England wants us to make sure the ship has lifeboats in case of need. It hasn’t asked us to man them.

The Bank of England has offered us a range of scenarios, anticipating potential outcomes from different types of Brexit, based on a long series of assumptions.  These, for example, are possible eventualities relating to unemployment:

Jacob Rees Mogg has been complaining about the ‘wild inaccuracies’ of previous Treasury forecasts.  That’s quite irrelevant.  A projection is a conditional statement, saying what will happen subject to certain assumptions; a scenario is an alternative possible future; a prediction is a statement about what will happen.  Projections and scenarios are not predictions.  Putting lifeboats on passenger ships is not based on a prediction about what is going to happen; it’s a preparation for a particular scenario.  It doesn’t mean the ship is sinking.  Mind, in this case it might be.

The Brexit agreement is not great, but it’s all we’re going to get.

The Brexit agreement is  largely a pragmatic document which tries to steady the ship, rather than a major breakthrough in any direction.  Fisheries, for example, are not resolved – they’re simply put into abeyance before the next round.  The whole document looks like a draft, with loads of white space around sections – when a Labour spokesman talked yesterday about it being 600 pages and ‘tightly spaced’, it was clear he’d not even looked at it, because he couldn’t have said that if he had.

Some elements in it are disappointing, but to my mind the sections which most prompt concern almost certainly reflect the negotiating position of the British Government.  I’d point in particular to

  • Article 15(1), which gives people a right of residence only after they’ve been in athe host country for five years.  That is an abdication of responsibility both by the EU (which guaranteed movement as a fundamental right) and the UK (which made the same guarantee to its own citizens).
  • Article 92(5) and Protocol IV.7, which bind the UK not to offer state aid to business; and
  • Protocols V.17 and 18, which void elements of contracts which have non-commercial justification, a principle used to negate local minimum wages and agreements with labour unions.

It’s also important to note what’s not there: protection for the rights of citizens who might reasonably expect to live and work abroad but have the misfortune to be domiciled in their home country  at the moment, cross-border families in the same situations, or derogations from EU law relating to internal management of the British economy.

These are not, I know, the issues that most excite our politicians.  I’m sure someone will notice that the protocol with Northern Ireland stresses the importance of  access to the UK for goods from the province (pp 304 and 313), but not vice-versa.  It’s possible that the whole agreement will founder on that.

The agreement could have been better.  It would have been better if the government had thought through its position at the start; if it had consulted with interest groups, rather than keeping negotiations secret; and if it had used EU law to hold the EU to its treaty obligations.  It probably would not, however, look a lot different from the document we have now.  Ultimately I expect Parliament to fold, but even if we were to go through another election, any commitment to implement the referendum decision as it stands will end up looking something like this.

Brexit should be stopped, but I’m not convinced that the way to do it is by a second referendum.

Brexit should be stopped.  We can debate what the duties of a government are, but I’m fairly sure that it doesn’t include a direction to drive the bus over the edge of a cliff.

However, I’m not convinced that the way to do this is by another referendum.  That would imply that if the referendum was to confirm the original decision, we should abide by the majority’s decision, and I do not accept that we should.

There were three obvious problems with the referendum in 2016, and all of those problems are still there.  The first problem was that several million people were directly and immediately barred from voting.   Those people included British citizens living in Europe, and European citizens living in Britain. There is no possible revision to the electorate which will not lead to one side or another crying ‘foul’.

The second problem was, as we now know, the combination of illegality and downright lies that characterised the campaign to Leave.  There is no reason to suppose that the next campaign would be any cleaner.

The third problem would be true of any referendum.  It is democratic to encourage people to express their views, and we have a convention that decisions are decided by majority rule.  However, it is not democratic for any majority, ever, to deny rights to minorities.  We should not tolerate a situation where half the population votes to extinguish the rights of the other half – and that, in effect, is what has happened.

When the government accepted the brief to negotiate exit from the European Union, their first responsibility – and the first responsibility of EU authorities on the other side – was to defend the fundamental rights of citizens.  Both sides have a clear, unequivocal, treaty-based legal obligation to safeguard individual rights.  Both sides have failed to do so.

Labour: time to rethink benefits policy

The Labour party – or, to be more accurate, John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor – has now come slowly to the conclusion that Universal Credit doesn’t work: it is not sustainable and it “will have to go”.   An article last month in the New Statesman blamed  the state of Labour’s policy on social security on the lack of vigour shown by their previous social security representative, which left them with no spending plans to pay for changes in policy.  The problems run much deeper.

A large part of UC is a legacy of ‘welfare reform’ in the last Labour government: the belief in ‘personalisation’, the dependence on means-testing in Tax Credits,  the policies on overpayments, and most of all the muddle between the role of benefits and the task of preparing some people for work.   The last Labour manifesto, in 2017, didn’t challenge any of that. They included a clutch of measures to switch the system back to what it was a short time ago – sanctions, the bedroom tax,  Housing Benefit cuts and the like.  Then there were tweaks to make disability benefits and UC work a bit better.  And there were a few aspirations, such as improving the culture or removing barriers for people with disabilities, which weren’t tied to specific policies at all.  The shift in relation to UC is a welcome move in the right direction, but Labour needs to think rather more thoroughly and deeply about what social security is for and how it might be changed.