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Avoiding a Trident debate at Labour conference should allow full discussion

Why the decision that the Labour Party Conference should not debate Trident is such a blow for Corbyn I cannot understand. It is one of those issues which is going to take time to debate and possibly reach a consensus.

If there had been a debate this week, it is unclear what it would have been about. It could have been about the UK abandoning nuclear weapons. That is how it has been framed in much of the media.

But it could also be about how or whether to replace the existing Trident systems. That is not the same as nuclear disarmament.

The existing Trident was designed during the Cold War with Russia, a part of the MAD (Mutual Assured Destruction) deference strategy. The world and the UK’s strategic needs have changed since then but the proposed Trident replacement appears to be a more modern version of the old one.

A full and open debate in the whole county, not only the Labour Party, is needed before a decision is made. We should hear what military experts as well as politicians think. It may be that the conclusion is that the UK needs nuclear weapons but that a Trident replacement does not meet the country’s strategic needs in a much changed world.

Or it could be to continue patching up the existing Trident submarines and kick a replacement decision further into the future.

Corbyn is quite clear that his personal view is there should be full nuclear disarmament and many support that view. Referendum and parliamentary elections in Scotland has made it clear that that is not a fringe position. The SNP wants a Scotland with no nuclear weapons in its arsenal and none stationed there if it gains independence.

Let’s have a full and open debate before there is a vote at Westminster next year.

Osborne: robbing the poor to pay foreign businesses

George Osborne is looking increasing like one of the most profligate Chancellors of the Exchequer we have ever had, robbing the poor to pay foreign businesses.

  • Hinkley Point C nuclear power station £24.5bn
  • HS2 (high speed rail link from London to the North £46.2bn
  • Trident replacement £23.4bn

All those figures are almost certainly under estimates but still total close on £10obn, nearly enough to run the entire national health service for a year.

Hinkley Point is only possible by bribing the French state-owned EDF electricity company with the promise of  £92 Per megawatt-hour (to rise with inflation) which is twice the current wholesale electricity price. And then he promises the Chinese communist government to guarantee a loan. The private sector and bankers have looked at the scheme and won’t touch it.

If Hinkley Point goes ahead Sizewell C in Suffolk is almost certain to follow with a similar price and guarantees. Both these power stations are on low-lying coastal land subject to storms and total surges. Fukushima was safe until the tsunami.

HS2. The need for this project is hotly disputed with campaigners suggesting better ways of improving the rail infrastructure. Osborne has invited Chinese business to tender for work on the project.

Trident. Even the military is questioning whether this would be money well spent. One study of military opinion found “significant concerns about the costs and role of Trident. The funding crisis facing the Ministry of Defence means that spending on nuclear weapons is increasingly seen as unjustifiable when conventional equipment is needed and many in the armed forces have lost their jobs.” It looks like applying a cold war solution to the UK’s defence in a very different world. A US design for the submarines’ power plants is part of the plan.

Why Osborne thinks any of these projects is value for money or the British economy remains a mystery. In his budget this year Osborne cut £12 from the welfare budget.

I have bought a new car (petrol) and want to know how the engine is programed

I bought a new VAG (Volkswagen Audi Group) car a couple of weeks ago. At my wife’s insistence our new Skoda has a petrol engine. She will not go near a diesel engined car if she can possibly avoid it.

Diesel fumes make her feel ill and her ability to detect them seems almost extrasensory. Sometimes when we are following a couple of hundred metres behind another car she will reach out and turn the ventilation control to recycle.

Invariably when I get close enough to see the back of the car clearly it turns out to be a diesel.

We wanted our new car to be as green as possible and be in the zero tax band. That is difficult with a petrol card. One which looked suitable turned out not to be available with the automatic transmission wanted.

The other zero tax car we looked at was a hybrid but a test drive ruled it out.

In the end our choice was between a VW Polo and the Skoda Fabia which share the same engine and automatic transmission and are in the lowest band where tax is payable. The Polo had one feature we wanted but after a talk with our broker who told us it would cost £75 a year less to insure the Fabia the decision was made. The reason seems to be the Fabia’s collision avoidance system.

We went into our search for a new car with open minds and looked at a lot of cars, One thing was very clear, the officially claimed petrol consumption figures are nonsense: everyone has known this for years. They are only useful to show a comparison between cars which all have to go through the some rolling road test which has little in common with the way humans drive.

The official combined mpg for our new car is 61.4. In reality we are getting about 10 mpg less.

At the heart of the Volkswagen diesel scandal is the computer program which runs the car. Clearly the settings are designed to get the best under rolling road test conditions.

It is apparently quite straightforward to get the settings changed for either economy or performance: just put “car chipping” into Google to see the huge number of businesses offering this service. But the car makers say this invalidates their guarantees: a restrictive practice?

Our Fabia, in fact, has two program settings: “normal” and “sport” which changes the speeds at which gear changes take place and reduces fuel economy.

I can see good reasons for not tinkering with the program. But we need to know how petrol cars as well as diesels are programed.


Nice to see The Observer airing its policy differences as publicly as Labour

To be a fly-on-the-wall at the Observer’s editorial meetings last week must have been a treat. Today, long-serving writer Ed Vulliamy is given space to say why he disagrees with the paper’s stance on Jeremy Corbyn. He writes:

I felt we let down many readers and others by not embracing at least the spirit of the result, propelled as it was by moral principles of equality, peace and justice. These are no longer tap-room dreams but belong to a mass movement in Britain, as elsewhere in Europe.

And on the business pages, William Keegan the veteran economics editor, writes, under the headline Modern capitalism needs an opponent. It needs Jeremy Corbyn:

But there is little doubt that Corbyn is there because his rivals in the leadership race failed to distinguish themselves sufficiently from the Tories: suddenly there has been a grassroots revolt against austerity, especially among the young. As Corbyn says, austerity was not inevitable: it was a political decision.

Andrew Rawnsley, the political editor, sticks by his anti-Corbyn line:

Jeremy Corbyn’s first week as Labour leader hasn’t gone as planned, because it wasn’t planned. It has been authentic, all right; authentically amateurish. For sure, even if his debut had been sparkling, he would never have got warm reviews from his many enemies at Westminster and in the media. What’s more interesting is that even sympathisers have been taken aback by the absence of preparation for the transition and the shambles that has ensued

He predicts there will a “crunch point between leader and parliamentary party”.  It will certainly be interesting.

I could come as early as the party conference at the end of the month when we will see how much support the majority of the parliamentary party has among the wider party. On the evidence of the ballot it is limited.

As a diversion it is good to see a newspaper airing its policy differences as widely as the Labour party has done in the past week.

Why is Waitrose adopting pricing habits that gave Tesco a bad name?

Waitrose charges £3.65 for a pack of Percol Colombian ground coffee but has a “special offer” of two packs for £5. Just up the road in Ipswich, Lidl is selling Percol Colombian ground coffee for £2.49 a pack.

On the face of it Lidl is cheaper by a tiny margin but look at the packs more carefully. Waitrose has reduced the size of its packs to 200g while you get 227g for your money in Lidl.

Why is Waitress adopting the pricing tactics which make shopping an exercise in constant mental gymnastics and turned so many people off Tesco?

Note for those who don’t like doing mental arithmetic in every supermarket aisle: Waitrose £12.50 a kilo. Lidl £10.97 a kilo.

Is part of the Labour party joining with much of the media in trying to destabilise Corbyn?

It looks as if there are people in the Labour Party setting Jeremy Corbyn up to fail by demanding clear policies on a range of subjects including Europe and the Economy.

It is unreasonable to expect him and his largely novice shadow team to be able to come up with detailed policies in his first week. They all have to develop greater  understanding of their briefs and listen to what the membership and supporters think.

The people who have just lost, largely because they disregarded the party when drawing up policy, should be the first to understand that a consensual approach will take time. The party conference also has to be taken into account — that was part of the winning pledge.

It takes place at the end of this month and should be seen to have an influence over policy.

Policies drawn up this week or next in haste would be sure to fall apart under scrutiny. And that would be the deposed a chance to get back into power.

Alistair Darling, the former chancellor, is the latest to snipe, telling BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “So far this week I do not know where he is going, what he stands for.” Among other things Darling wants to know what the economic policy is.

The objective is clear: a more equal society reversing the trend of recent decades under Labour and Conservative governments to greater wealth inequality.

There has been pressure to define a range of policies. I was glad there will be support for continued EU membership but a full policy takes time especially as Cameron has yet to fully define his objectives in forthcoming negotiations.

In pressing for clear policies now the anti-Corbyn minority in the Labour Party is joining with much of the mainstream media in trying to destabilise the new leader. They can only be thinking that if they can get him out of the job they can take over again.

It would be better that they sulked quietly and thought about how they could again be part of the leadership team of the changed party. If they are ever to have influence again they have to accept the party is now very different.


Corbyn faces fierce battles with those who benefit from inequality

The Labour parliamentary establishment is squealing like Footsie 100 executives whose bonuses are being taken away. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as his party’s leader has exposed the gross inequality in policy influence which has developed in recent decades.

Go back to the 1970s and 80s and the annual conference debated and decided policy. Since then conference has become a jamboree and power centralised. This policy grab has followed a similar timeline to to the increasing pay differential between the well paid and the poor which has risen faster in the UK than in most western countries.

The reaction of some of the Labour figures who have chosen the back benches above support for the new leader is likely to be as nothing as Corbyn moves to reduce the “gross inequality” of income in the UK, his first priority. In 1986 the top 10 percent in the UK earned eight times more than people in the bottom 10 per. By 2008 this figure has risen to 12 times, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

I believe one of the reasons why pay inequality has grown so much faster in the UK is the emasculation of the trade unions under Margaret Thatcher which Labour failed to roll-back when in power. Working as a industrial reporter I saw how, in the 70s, unions used pay inequality as a bargaining tool: companies were restrained in raising top pay by the knowledge that information in the annual accounts would be used by the unions to energise their members.

Giving power back to the unions which has to be a part of Corbyn’s attempt to reduce income inequality will unleash vicious attacks from the wealthy.

It is not just the left that sees this as an issue. The OECD sees rising equality as a threat to encomium growth and social stability. This video uses average figures fro OECD countries.

The situation in the UK is worse. The tables below are from a 2014 OECD report.

The first table shows that the wealthiest one percent’s share of UK income is second only to the United States and has risen more than any of our European competitors. Some countries have seen no or relatively small rises.

income surgeincome surge

The second table shows how the top 10 per cent have grabbed half of the total income growth in the UK.
income growth



Westminster journalists failed to grasp what was happening to Labour Party

Media commentator Roy Greenslade’s blog post this morning is as predictable as its headline: “Jeremy Corbyn’s first day and press coverage, predictably, is hostile.”

Writing in the Guardian, it is not surprising that he did not analyse the paper’s coverage beyond the editorial. But it is the handing over of two important comment slots to writers who are not part of the Westminster village that seems to be to be significant.

Gary Younge, freshly back in the UK after 12 years in the USA, is given a front page spot and it is clear why none of his parliamentary new colleagues could have written it. He says:

Party grandees thought his [Corbyn’s] presence would offer a debate about austerity; few assumed he would win it. His candidacy was supposed to be decorative but never viable.

From the moment it was clear that assumption was flawed, the political and media class shifted from disbelief to derision to panic, apparently unaware that his growing support was as much a repudiation of them as an embrace of him. Former Labour leaders and mainstream commentators belittled his supporters as immature, deluded, self-indulgent and unrealistic, only to express surprise when they could not win them over. As such this reckoning was a long time coming. For the past couple of decades the Labour leadership has looked upon the various nascent social movements that have emerged – against war, austerity, tuition fees, racism and inequality – with at best indifference and at times contempt. They saw its participants, many of whom were or had been committed Labour voters, not as potential allies but constant irritants.

Yes, Guardian and Observer writers must be included those who were unaware that they were being “repudiated”.

The main comment space inside the paper is handed over to Zoe Williams who writes under the headline: “By ripping up the rulebook, Corbyn is redefining our politics. Whether or not he can win power Labour’s leader has a chance to give opposition a new meaning.” I mentioned this article in my previous post, suggesting it reflected the views of many who voted for Corbyn.

It looks as if there was a rapid recognition among Guardian editorial chiefs that given their record in the past few weeks, these prominent comment spaces could not credibly be given to the Westminster reporters whose lack of understanding of what was happening has been apparent in recent weeks.

It has long been held by many journalists that their specialist colleagues get too close to their subjects to be reliable reporters. That has certainly happened in this case. On the other hand specialist reporters are needed for their understanding of their subjects and the Westminster reporters will recover quickly.

Corbyn needs the freedom to oppose the Tories without being stabbed in the back

If you want to understand the depths of the problems Jeremy Corbyn faces, look not at the opposition he will face from the Conservative benches in parliament but at some of the people in his own party.

Roy Hattersley, party grandee, now Baron Hattersley, make an extraordinary statement in the Guardian today:

Corbyn said nothing that even acknowledged that half the Labour party is deeply opposed to his policies.

That is nonsense even if it is based on excluding the votes of supporters and affiliates (full voting figures). Among the quarter of a million full members, Corbyn was only about a thousand votes short of an absolute majority over the the three other candidates combined. To assume that everyone who voted for other candidates was “deeply opposed” is arrogant.

Hattersley seems to be thinking of the “parliamentary party” as the “party” which is the attitude which got Labour into the mess it is in. First in Scotland and then in England it failed to listen to its members and supporters.

When Hattersley says Corbyn, “is incapable of leading the Labour party to victory at the next general election” he could be right. But he forgets that a reason why many voted Corbyn is that they believed none of the other candidates were capable of winning the next election. There was a chance if the parliamentary party listened to supporters, found is soul again, it might be able to win.

Also in the Guardian, journalist Zoe Williams takes a more nuanced position (it is well worth reading as I think it reflects the views of a lot of people who want to feel it might possible to vote Labour in 2020) and writes

The question… is whether or not a Corbyn-led Labour party can lodge effective opposition to the Conservative government. This should be asked in the context of a pre-Corbyn Labour party that was lodging no opposition at all (the failure to vote against the welfare bill was one of the most cynical and alienating acts I can remember).

At the moment effective opposition, rather than ceding that job to the SNP, is what is needed from the parliamentary Labour party. Worrying about the next election can wait until the party has decided what it believes in.


Why I have signed-up as a Labour Party supporter

I last voted Labour in the election before Tony Blair became leader in 1994. Since then I have voted Green or Lib Dem. But this week I signed up as a Labour supporter to vote for Jeremy Corbyn as he promises a serious debate about progressive policies and offers hope of reform that might just make the party electable.

When Corbyn made it onto the ballot I did not think he was a potential prime minister. I still don’t. But then, none of the other contenders look like potential PMs and seem to be campaigning in a strange, policy-free way with their messages boiling down to “I want to lead the Labour Party.” Where they want to lead the party, I have no idea.

They seem to have learned nothing from annihilation in Scotland or failure in most of England. Under threat their campaigns have turned nastily negative. When Alastair Campbell talked about a car crash my reaction was to register as a Labour supporter. Blair’s outburst in the Guardian today – “The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched, over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below.” – validated my decision.

If Corbyn wanted to bring back Clause 4 (ownership of the means of production), which I don’t think is what he said, he would not be able to. He would have to work with the parliamentary party to reach a policy consensus.

This goes for much of what he has been saying. What we have is a clear direction of travel with a lot of things that command wide support. Renationalising the railways and not renewing Trident (also SNP policy) would be popular.

When you look at a lot of what he is saying it is more nuanced than the headlines. For example, on coal mining he was talking about the possibility, if prices rose, of getting high quality coal from South Wales again. The Daily Mirror had a fair report on his energy ideas which centred on developing the green energy economy to create jobs.

Some of those who nominated Corbyn said they wanted to widen the debate. He has tried to do that by presenting a raft of policies but the other contenders have refused to join the debate. They could have said they disagreed, why they disagreed and the alternative policies they would espouse. They have not and so show they are  unfit to be leaders.

The Labour Party needs to debate all these issues and that would certainly happen under a Corbyn leadership. I still don’t think he is the man to take the party into the next election but I have a feeling that he would be happy to stand down well before that time.

He would also make his party look more like the opposition to Government, a role which has been largely conceded to the SNP since the election.

I will be voting in the hope that will again feel able to vote Labour as I have done for most of my life.