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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

From the Guardian: 2013, year of the coalition climbdown | Alex Andreou

Here are the top U-turns of the past 12 months. I'm sorry if your favourite didn't make it, but there were a lot to choose from
Alex Andreou

Monday 30 December 2013

January: the horsemeat hash heats up

The coalition parties renew their vows in the now infamous "Ronseal" speech then immediately start bickering again. But January was really all about food. There is horsemeat in your burger – although probably not the posh kind George Osborne buys. The government categorically denied that this had anything to do with budget cuts and deregulation. A National Audit Office report in October concluded it was everything to do with budget cuts and deregulation. Meanwhile, minister for public health Anna Soubry reckons she can tell poor people by their weight. Also, she is shocked poor people don't have dining tables. Oh and eating lunch at your desk is disgusting.

February: Gove backtracks on the baccy

Having had to abandon his plans for a return to O-levels in September 2012, Michael Gove is forced into an even more humiliating retreat over his proposed English baccalaureates. He still vows to reform GCSEs radically; he just doesn't know exactly how. The auction for the sale of 4G rights yields £1.2bn less than Osborne had anticipated. Only problem is that, in an act of brilliant political manoeuvring, Osborne has already used the money. The loss of Britain's AAA rating a day later hardly came as a surprise, except to Osborne, to whom most things come as a surprise. Meanwhile, in the Eastleigh byelection, the Tories' 11th target seat, they come third behind Ukip. Cue much immigrant bashing by all.

March: help is offered to the housing bubble

Jeremy Hunt is forced to rewrite regulations opening up the NHS to further private provider involvement four weeks before they come into effect. Iain Duncan Smith succumbs to pressure and announces a host of exemptions from the bedroom tax three weeks before it is due to come into force. The chancellor (fresh from defending bankers' bonuses in Brussels) delivers a budget which hides disappointing economic figures behind Help to Buy schemes while denying they might fuel a housing bubble. By November, the Bank of England will act to rein in such schemes amid fears they might fuel a housing bubble.

April: IDS's budgeting bunkum blows up

On April Fools' Day, most of the coalition's cuts take full effect. Osborne reckons Mick Philpott, convicted that week, is an interesting case study for the state subsidising "lifestyles like that". Duncan Smith reckons he could live on £53 a week. When asked to prove it, the quiet man goes really quiet. Then Margaret Thatcher dies and for a few weeks everything goes soft-focus and mournful. Parliament is recalled for a marathon session of tributes, much to the surprise of the Speaker, who saw such a recall as a reaction to national emergencies only.

May: Ukip upsets the immigration cart

Ukip does very well in the local elections, to the detriment of all established parties. The two coalition parties are left particularly bruised by the encounter. David Cameron reacts swiftly by inserting tough talk on welfare and immigration in the Queen's speech, but his implacable backbenchers are not satisfied and press ahead with a private members' bill on an EU in-out referendum. The month ends as it started for the Tories – badly – with Patrick Mercer MP resigning after being embroiled in a "cash for questions" scandal, brought to light by the BBC's Panorama programme.

June: George hits the world stage – as Jeffrey

George Osborne
George Osborne – or is that Jeffrey? Photograph: Ray Tang/Rex

It is revealed that a company controlled by Conservative party chairman, Lord Feldman, gave thousands of pounds in donations to the party, while paying no corporation tax. Kay Sheldon, the Care Quality Commission whistleblower, accuses Andrew Lansley of threatening to sack her. Osborne tries to capture the world stage by making a big presentation on tax avoidance at the G8 summit, but his plan is foiled by Barack Obama referring to him repeatedly as Jeffrey. Jeffrey ends the month with yet another spending review which clobbers welfare and council services, including a plan to make the newly unemployed wait a week before being able to claim benefits.

July: cigarettes and alcohol slide

More coalition wheeling and dealing, with Cameron forced to bring forward plans on tax incentives for married couples to avert yet another backbench revolt, and the Lib Dems reportedly pushing for concessions on the tax-free personal allowance in return. G4S, one of the government's key private partners in the privatisation of criminal justice services, faces a fraud investigation for allegedly overcharging. In need of a drink and a fag, the government scraps plans to introduce minimum pricing for alcohol and softens its attitude on cigarette packaging, amid allegations regarding Lynton Crosby's relationship with tobacco companies.

August: Cameron kicks up a stink over Syria

The month is dominated by the Syrian crisis and ends with the biggest blow to Cameron's authority as prime minister. When parliament refuses to vote in favour of future military action, the PM throws his toys out of the pram and rules out any such action for good, even if circumstances change, with huge repercussions across the world. This is a impetuous leader at his irritable worst.

September: everyone gets excited about energy

The month starts with two coalition U-turns in two days; on introducing "lowest bidder wins" rules into legal aid contracts and controversial lobbying legislation which, charities claimed, would impact their ability to campaign. It ends with, probably, the single biggest headache for the government this year – Ed Miliband's announcement that he will freeze energy prices should he be elected in 2015. What follows is a dazzling display of accusations that he is a conman, harebrained schemes in response, begging to the big six providers behind the scenes, advice to wear woolly jumpers and crackdowns designed to deflect attention from the story that just will not go away.

October: the rules are broken, the rules are changed

Iain Duncan Smith
Iain Duncan Smith 'retroactively changed the rules'. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA Wire/Press Association Images

Royal Mail shares go on sale at what most commentators thought was the vastly undervalued price of £3.30 each. At the end of December the price is still hovering roughly £2.4bn above the government valuation. After judges decide that the state flouted its own rules by forcing Cait Reilly to work for Poundland, the Department for Work and Pensions spends vast sums of energy and money to fight the decision on appeal, before finally being defeated in the supreme court. Instead of changing the offending conduct, Duncan Smith has already retroactively changed the rules. An honourable mention must go to the environment secretary, Owen Paterson, who accuses badgers of "moving the goalposts" when the pilot cull does not yield the results expected.

November: U-turns are made on U-turns

A new record; three U-turns in three days! These came at the end of the month on payday loans, with the government agreeing to cap the overall cost after years of resistance, proposed leverage ratios designed to make banks financially more stable and finally proposals on plain packaging of cigarettes being miraculously revived. Since this last one is a U-turn on a previous U-turn, experts disagree as to whether an entirely new political manoeuvre needs to be established – the full double spin – but the degree of difficulty was certainly high.

December: shuffling the statistics pays off

The chancellor delivers his autumn statement, in which, it turns out, things are going much better than we all thought. Having revised the forecast for 2013 from 2% down to 1.2% last year, then to 0.8% in March, the chancellor was able to revise it back up to 1.4%. For this he was hailed a genius and named "Briton of The Year" by the Times. Cameron is criticised by the judge in the Grillo trial for saying he is in Team Nigella. Having considered a negative advertising campaign to convince Bulgarians and Romanians that the UK really is a horrid place earlier in the year, ministers decide that having Keith "do you love this country?" Vaz man the borders personally is a much cheaper and equally effective alternative.
Happy new year, coalition!

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Saturday, 18 May 2013

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Democracy 2.0: is it possible to improve "democracy"?

The conservative party is pushing forward the hypothesis of a referendum on EU in 2017, and it is very easy to follow the reactions and gauge some of the feelings from different sides of the country. Many articles and blogs, with thousands of comment are open to scrutiny and they all lead to a question: does any vote really count the same? 

I do wonder, for example, what type of matter could be a subject for a popular referendum and what not. What are topics deemed too "complicated" to be decided by "direct" democracy and which other are indeed destined to be indirectly managed by elected politicians? It is surely not an easy matter to elaborate on such a distinction, however there might be a fairer way to extend the mandate to the people, taking away much of the burden from our troubled politicians of any orientation. It would be indeed plausible, to involve the people in referendum-like events, in which every voter is called to have its say on multiple matters, but ONLY after showing a minimum amount of competence on any of those matter. For example, a voter called to decide for the UK to stay or leave the EU, there should be few questions before the vote (yes, even multiple choice ones), in order to validate its vote. No knowledge = no meaningful vote. 

Using such an approach, everyone even vaguely interested in politics would automatically be engaged in learning more, debating and eventually reaching a more educated position on any matter. The system would basically purge the voting system from the "noise" coming from deeply mislead and often substantially unfounded ideas, rooting in tabloid-culture and pub-talking, which do actually poison the system, generating a useless and dangerous background noise. 

Many politicians should also take the test and much probably some of them would fail it. Populism and demagogy are not indeed instruments of democracy: particularly in a world becoming more and more complicated, networked and informed. Let's get a new way to be democratic.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

From the Guardian: Thatcher's reckless acolytes don't know when to stop | Polly Toynbee

Me thought you might be interested in this link from the Guardian: Thatcher's reckless acolytes don't know when to stop | Polly Toynbee

David Cameron and George Osborne are crude copies, who lack her brains and believe conviction is all it takes to run a country

Polly Toynbee

Tuesday 9 April 2013

The Guardian


All can agree that Margaret Thatcher changed the heart of British politics more than any politician since Clement Attlee. She all but erased his political legacy to stamp her own image on the nation, so Britain before and after Thatcher were two different countries. Where once we stood within a recognisable postwar social democratic European tradition, after Thatcher the country had rowed halfway across the Atlantic, psychologically imbued with US neoliberal individualism. Too timid, too in thrall, the 13-year Labour government rarely dared challenge the attitudes she planted in the national psyche.

In a twitter of panic, Labour shadow ministers sent out pleas yesterday: "Hoping all Labour supporters will respond with dignity and respect to news of Baroness Thatcher's death." Dignity and decorum ruled the day - except in the poisoned anonymity of the internet. She certainly was divisive, bisecting the country politically and geographically: hard-hit regions in the north of England, Wales and Scotland may be notably less civil in their farewells. But every prime minister since has bowed to her legacy, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown eager to be snapped with her on their doorstep. The pomp and circumstance that will crown her funeral was proffered by Brown, to some shudders from his own side.

Superlatives can be agreed: a remarkable first woman PM; the first winner of three elections in a row; brave; tough; relentless; clever; sleeplessly driven by a self-confident conviction that overawed her enemies. Every quality had its obverse, but she had a myth-making charisma to capture the world's imagination. Watch a million words pour out today placing her anywhere from Boudicca to the wicked witch of the west.

That's history, but what matters to us is her legacy now that her heirs and imitators rule in her wake. The Cameron and Osborne circle are crude copies carried away with the dangerous idea that conviction is all it takes to run a country. Seizing her chariot's reins to drive it on recklessly, they lack her brains, experience and political skill. Above all, they lack her competence at running the machinery of government. Thanks to the comparison with Cameron, we are reminded that the Thatcher reign was more circumspect and well-managed than it seemed at the time. Until her final poll-tax hubris, she knew when swerving was the better part of valour and despite that famous one-liner, she was sometimes for turning. Her imitators swerve all over the place, with 37 U-turns at the Telegraph's latest count on matters from forests and pasties to buzzard nests and caravans. But on their catastrophic economic policy, it's full-speed ahead into the concrete wall. She would, say some who knew her, have a found a way to finesse a change of direction by now.

The romantic image of the lady in the tank spurs them on. Where she privatised state-owned industries, they go much further, seeking to dismantle the state itself. She usually knew the limits to public tolerance, gauging how much of the spirit of '45 abided, so even if it was between gritted teeth, she forced herself to say, "The NHS is safe in our hands": she reorganised but did not privatise it. No such alarms ring in Cameron's ears.

The Cameron generation wrongly see in the 1980s a revolution to emulate, starting with an economic crisis just like hers, as a chance to reshape everything. But look at this typical difference between her and her imitators: where Cameron has charged into Europe, taking his party out of the influential European People's party of natural allies, making enemies and building no useful coalitions, it was she who signed the Single European Act, understanding its importance for British trade, careful to make allies as well as swinging her handbag. Not until well out of office, angry and lacking her old judgment, did she lead the rabidly Eurosceptic renegades.

While some remember her as a national saviour, others only see her ruthless demolition of flailing state-owned industries. As coal, steel and shipbuilding fell under her wrecking ball, whole communities were destroyed. Was it cruelty? Tim Bale, author of The Conservative Party: from Thatcher to Cameron, says it was conviction. She fervently believed the market would soon repair their loss. Creative destruction was capitalism's necessary agent, so equilibrium was bound to be restored. It never was. Large parts of society never recovered, while Germany and other countries managed the transition without such brutality. North sea oil was squandered when it should have seeded new industries. Instead, her Big Bang blew the roof off City profits and property booms filled the gap where productive industry should have sprouted. Her heirs have not learned that lesson, with no sign of their promised "rebalancing". No sign they learned from her that markets don't move in to fill the gaps when the state is rolled back – not then, not now.

When she walked into Downing Street promising harmony instead of discord, only one in seven children was poor and Britain was more equal than at any time in modern history. But within a few years, a third of children were poor, a sign of the yawning inequality from which the country never recovered.

True, Labour, James Callaghan and the unions played their part by blocking Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife attempt to create German or Nordic co-operation between unions and industry that might have rescued unions from Thatcher's crushing. The tragic upshot has been the steep erosion of wages for the powerless bottom half, as income, wealth and property is sucked up to the top.

The endemic worklessness of her era was never repaired – now her successors blame the victims. Cameron's crew crudely imagine she intended it. That gives them the nerve to set about cutting benefits and the public realm with a glee they don't bother to hide. They are acolytes of a raw Thatcher cult they have rough-hewn and exaggerated in their own image. In towns and valleys poleaxed by the Iron Lady, there may be glasses raised at her passing. She will be for ever unforgiven by those who now see worse being done in her name to another generation. She undoubtedly rescued the prestige of the country from its postwar nadir, but at a high cost to the generosity of its political and social culture.

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