Westminster: August 2008 Archives

It's over, Darling.

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peakoilchart.jpgCommentary on Darling's Guardian interview has largely (and rightly) focused on his view that the economic times faced are "arguably the worst they've been in 60 years". Faced, note: he's not talking about the current economic situation, he's talking about where it's going. The current difficulties don't look worse than the early 80s or the early 90s yet. But where is it going?

While it's often said that the first responsibility of a Chancellor is to talk the economy up, when everyone knows better it just sounds Panglossian and out of touch. So I think he's right this time, albeit for the wrong reasons. 

It's not primarily about a credit crunch. Like the dot com bust before it, we're seeing the end of a bubble spun up by market players and governments to try and fend off something worse. Its symptoms are grim, sure, but the underlying problem is that we're well into the dying days of the cheap oil economy, more commonly known as globalisation. 

Oil prices have dipped again, but as the FT says, this is just a lull in the storm. Colin Campbell and the good people at ASPO told us a long time ago what would happen, and so far it's all following their predictions. 

As global oil output starts to plateau in 2007, they said, prices will spike. Given the total dependence of our economic model on cheap oil, we'll see a serious economic slowdown. This will lead to a drop in demand for oil, easing prices. Demand destruction, they call it. However, with maximum production matching supply so closely (i.e. in the absence of a swing producer), even small threats to production will cause significant price changes. 

So far, so recognisable. We can expect the easing of prices below $100 again to lead to a small economic rally, and thus an increase in demand. My guess is that's probably not due before the spring, although I'm reluctant to make predictions. 

As demand then picks up, and as oil output starts to drop properly, probably 12-18 months from now (click on the chart above for a bigger version), we'll see another spike, almost certainly higher than the $147 peak seen in July, although that partly depends on the strength of the dollar. Cue even greater demand destruction.

No-one in government in London or Edinburgh, nor amongst their main oppositions, has any idea about how to cope with this. They're just hoping it'll all go away, and dammit, it won't. The timescales above may be out, but sooner or later it's coming. 

Darling tells the story of a member of the public who said to him "I know it's to do with oil prices - but what are you going to do about it?". His response? "People think, well surely you can do something, you are responsible - so of course it reflects on me." 

The man at the pump knows more about the problem than Darling, because he knows Darling can do something about it, a fact that seems to escape the Chancellor. Perhaps this random member of the public should do the job instead. 

Of course Darling could do something about it: he could divert spending away from wasteful projects and wars and into renewables, R&D, public transport, etc. He could set an objective of energy independence. Any politician who doesn't tell you that getting off our fossil fuel addiction is their top priority doesn't deserve your vote.

The alternatives if we don't achieve that are likely to be dire. Coal's already back with a vengeance, and there's no dirtier fuel except old car tyres, so any idea that decreasing oil use will help climate change is a pure pipe-dream. The hard right and neo-Nazis may well start to do better as the economic situation worsens. They certainly think so: see point 4 on the top link here (that's a google link -  I'm not directly linking to the bloody BNP's site!).

A lot of the goods and services we take for granted will become incredibly expensive, and fuel poverty will hit levels last seen when Good King Wenceslas famously looked out. Poverty as a whole will rise. I wouldn't bet against more resource wars, either. 

There's no point worrying about it, though, when you can spend your time working to get more Greens elected instead. 

Back to Darling's interview. His economic warning has understandably overshadowed his line that "This coming 12 months will be the most difficult 12 months the Labour party has had in a generation." 

It's a pretty extreme prediction too, though. What, it'll be worse than the last 18 months where you lost every election going? Worse than a million people marching against a Labour-led imperial war? Worse, Darling, than any given part of 1978-1993?  

How has it come to this, for Labour to have no imagination whatsoever about how to use a working Parliamentary majority? Here's a tip: why don't you address the looming energy crisis with something more constructive than nuclear and coal? 

All Labour has left is angst about themselves, fear of being exiled into opposition, and fear of being shown up by the Tories. Their absence of vision is now absolute, and it does indeed sound as though Darling's had enough. Perhaps he, like his namesake from Blackadder Goes Forth, is about to go over the top
deadrose.jpgAndrew Berry, a trade unionist from London and Labour member, recently attended a Scottish Labour leadership hustings, and I recommend his review. Here are some unedited highlights.

On Iain Gray and Andy Kerr: "The two men spoke first and frankly it was vacuous nonsense focused on what positions they held and bash the nationalist no mention of policy, Kerr if anything was to the right of Gray who is apparently Browns favoured candidate."

Cathy Jamieson: "talked about working with trade unions and for the party to be involved in making policy, whilst much of this was vague it was considerably more political and to the left of the other two."

She won his support, but it was hardly wholehearted: "I came out of the husting believing that was I in Scotland I would have little choice but to vote for Cathy Jamison despite the history of privatising the prison service and her dreadful appearance on question time were she seemed to support DNA collection of all UK citizens from birth."

He thought Bill Butler was clearly the best candidate for deputy, but: "didn't entirely agree with every thing he said such as his view that PFI should compete on a level playing field with other public sector financing, why it needs to be in the field at all I don't know."

Does anyone know why anyone with views like this, so antithetical to the modern Labour Party, would continue to support the party of PFI, war, privatisation, ID cards, and the rest? It's a mystery to me.

A grim tale involving asbestos.

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rosyth.jpgLast week, at John Macdougall's funeral, Labour high heidyins mingled with his family. 

They included Des Browne, top Minister at the War Office, and therefore ultimately responsible for the decision to deny John Macdougall compensation for his asbestos-related lung cancer. 

He had worked with the stuff at the Navy's dockyard in Rosyth many years ago, and it killed him, eventually. 

Last November, having had that compensation claim rejected by Browne's Ministry, he started legal proceedings against the Government, but died before it could come to court.

Only the Sunday Times appears to have the story so far

In Glasgow East, the Labour candidate and the Labour campaign tried to distance themselves from David Marshall and his unusual approach to expenses. In Glenrothes they'd planned to associate themselves with a man many admired. But the truth is less convenient for them.

Foxy 1, Liberals 0.

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foxy.jpgIn case you're wondering what Liberal MPs get up to in their spare time, I'd like to draw your attention to the following spurious complaint to the Advertising Standards Agency. It was made by Don Foster, their so-called Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

He disputed an advert for Foxy Bingo (Foxy seen left with the ever-classy Jordan) which offered free money to play bingo with on the traditional "hey kids, first sample free" basis. 

Except not kids, because, well, it's bingo.

Have a look at the third paragraph of the assessment, in which the ASA show how players either lose their free tenner or get to take their winnings out. Shouldn't a Shadow Secretary of State have been able to work that out? Do real Secretaries of State do stuff like this? Why am I even wasting my time writing about it?

Update: I recommend the following judgement against "Margaret". Now there's some unsubstantiated claims!

Facing both ways.

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makeithappenclegg.jpgNick Clegg recently published a summary of his views, coincidentally called Make It Happen (pdf link). 

Whether it's party policy or just his policy isn't clear - if you search for it, Google thinks it's called "Front Page Nick Only". They seem to have decided to go really personal, because they think that's worked for the Tories. 

Anyway, one of the sections caught the attention of a friend. On page 7, Nick says (emphasis mine):

"Labour have let us down. They make big promises about cutting emissions, but then they back dirty coal-fired power stations and plan another runway at Heathrow. And they build expensive new roads instead of funding proper public transport."

Just like Liberals when they get into power. Tavish Scott and Nicol Stephen, as Transport Ministers, rammed through a series of expensive new roads, including the Aberdeen Western Peripheral, the M74 Northern Extension (against the Inquiry's report), and the M80 project (delivered through PFI). 

But where's the Aberdeen Crossrail? The Glasgow Crossrail? Languishing still, despite four years of Liberal Transport Ministers and eight years of Liberal coalition with Labour. 

The page this hypocrisy appears on is ironically titled "Why is it so hard to go green?" Actual Greens find it pretty straightforward to go green, but it certainly seems impossible for the Liberals.

Thanks to Rayyan Mirza for the delighful montage to the left. 

teddytaylor.jpgWhen New Labour was still new to power, I was down in London with the Ancients, the non-NUS student unions, arguing that the abolition of grants and the imposition of tuition fees would deter poorer students. We were right, of course.

Labour-run NUS Scotland was "bravely" arguing for their poorest members to lose their grants, incidentally. Labour most recently voted to impoverish students in December last year, but fortunately there were enough SNP, Liberal & Green votes to overturn the fees that Labour and the Liberals had brought in.

Anyway, we worked out of Andrew Welsh's office that week, and made good contacts with the Tories, in particular David Willetts and Teddy Taylor, both of whom were very hospitable solely because we were there to try and make Labour's life more difficult. Teddy was particularly impressed with a bit of research we'd done, and waved a copy of it at the Minister during the debate. 

That was the first and last Commons debate I ever went to, and I left thoroughly depressed by it, except for the passing satisfaction of our report being used in anger. I had had low expectations of Labour Ministers, but still thought they'd be an improvement on the Tories. 

However, when I closed my eyes, I heard Labour (I think in the form of Brian Wilson) making Tory arguments about competitiveness in higher education, indistinguishable from their predecessors in government.

Meanwhile, Willetts and other Tories were making the social inclusion case for poor students, arguing for equality of opportunity, just like their predecessors in opposition. 

It made me think of that 70s anarchist graffiti - no matter who you vote for, the government always gets in. And something Teddy said to us over tea has stuck with me.

"We'll do what we can for you now, but don't trust us if we ever get back into office."

Good advice, I always thought. And it came to my mind again this week when I read comments on air travel from their transport spokesperson, Teresa Villiers. She apparently told Today that the economic and environmental case for a third runway had yet to be proved. The BBC quote her saying:

"There's no serious research on the value of transfer passengers. Neither the government nor the studies on this have looked at the cost of the increase in pollution in the area around Heathrow."

They also report her view that "the government had not costed the carbon impact of international inbound flights", and apparently "one of the alternatives the Tories were looking at was high-speed rail".

Tories considering rail instead of air? Not expanding airports? Concerned about pollution? Actually carbon-costing things? I'm with Teddy on this, I'm afraid. I bet you a first class air fare to a day saver bus ticket this kind of greenery gets dropped the day they take office. 

Category mistake.

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kittenglasssmall.jpgLabour are in a total mess over post office closures. Jack Straw, for instance, campaigns to save them locally, but Public Whip reports he's strongly against being against closures when actually voting. He's not the only one, and hiding behind that double negative won't help him.

In case you're wondering what the peak of Labour hypocrisy is on this issue, I give you ... the Minister responsible for Post Office closures arguing with himself.

Darling now faces the same decision. Campaign against himself locally? I doubt it. He really sees them as loss-making businesses, owned by the Government but for some reason not ready to be privatised. 

Leave that craziness to the Liberals and just run it down instead, that's Labour's solution.

Post offices are not just a business. They're a vital public service, in the same category as hospitals or schools. They bring some money in, true, just like the NHS charges for prescriptions, but we don't complain that the NHS or the police "make a loss" each year. All Labour's problems in this area come from not understanding this simple point.

After all, where else are you supposed to go when you need to fill in some ridiculously long government form? Or post something that's too large for a letterbox? Or buy a tacky card with a kitten sitting in a cocktail glass? OK, there are alternatives for that last one.

Simon Jenkins did a good piece on this earlier in the year. Apparently the total cost of all the UK's non-profit-making post offices is £150m a year, or £2.47 a head. That's the same annual cost as the Royal family, for instance (despite the spin). 

Alternatively, the £76bn cost of replacing Trident could fund all these post offices for more than 500 years, if you don't want to see the Queen out delivering mail. 

Labour's decision not to fund and support this service is the kind of short-sighted ideological idiocy which will drive them from office. It's a political deathwish. Please don't break too much more before you jump, that's all I ask.

(disclosure: my local post office is scheduled for the chop too - thanks, Labour)

An odd slip.

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Thumbnail image for cochrane.jpgRegular readers will know I am a fan of Alan Cochrane's writing, however much I disagree with his actual politics. 

Get your regular Cochrane here.

However, his most recent piece has a weird conclusion. Skip through the Prescott-hating (hey, I never liked him much either, but he's gone now and it's not clear why anyone would feel the need to pummel him at this late stage), and then take a look at the last four paragraphs.

Scotland's proud Last Unionist backs a scheme from Prof Antony King to reduce "strains on the Union" around the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula. The bright idea is to cut the number of Scottish MPs further. But didn't we just do this? In 2005 we went from 72 down to 59, and the next Scottish election saw a distinct rise in SNP support. Would going down to 45 be an effective way to "dish the Nats"?

In what sense would giving Scotland even less of a say in UK governance (war, social security, much of the economy) tackle those strains? Scots who care about those issues would be more likely to feel that Westminster isn't listening. English people aggrieved about the excess of Scots MPs aren't likely to be satisfied until they're all gone.

No, this would be a step towards having zero Scottish MPs in Westminster, which can't be Cochrane's plan, unless there really are no Unionists left.

There are only two ways to fix the West Lothian Question. First, devolve similar powers to either an English Parliament or to regional assemblies (which get a further slating in that same article). Second, independence.

comb.jpgNeal Lawson and Robert Philpot still believe Labour is the answer to this country's questions. But what kind of Labour? A Blairite sort, with Choice? Or a more leftwing version, with Windfall Taxes? 

Their debate in today's Guardian is illuminating, but not in the way they may have hoped. Philpot thinks letting poorer parents, jobseekers and even truant schoolchildren manage budgets for their own improvement will work. Actually, the childcare one isn't nonsense to exactly the same degree, but the others show he's drunk so much of the Blairite Kool-Aid that there's no hope for him.

Conversely, Lawson argues for the following policies:

"... we could start building council houses, mandate a living wage, create a national well being index, provide fee school meals for all primary kids, stop taxing people earning under £10,000, place a ban on advertising to children, introduce a fair voting system, drop ID cards, elect local health boards, introduce a graduate solidarity tax instead of fees and phase out our reliance on oil."

In other words, a 95% Green agenda. A living wage is less radical and effective than a citizens' income, sure, but it's a step in the right direction. We wouldn't add a new tax on graduates - they pay more already, see, because they earn more. 

Equally, I'm not sure how you'd prevent children seeing any advertising. Ban all billboards, commercial television, and bus-stop ads? Actually, that sounds quite appealing. Overall, though, PR, no ID cards, end reliance on oil? Sure, about time.

But what an odd debate. One of these two numb-skulls thinks that a Labour party enmired in marketisation and resisting change will win the next election. And the other thinks that a Labour party which has been hollowed out from the inside by Blairism is ready to become more or less the Green Party. 

My advice to them both? Mr Philpot, congratulations, you're on the very left of the Conservative Party. Mr Cameron will be delighted to have you because you'd prove he was "progressive", and you'll find it's better than opposition. Mr Lawson, you've not got the best political antennae, but please do nevertheless join your local Green Party. 

This Labour Party you're squabbling over, it's finished. 

vincecincometax.jpgVince Cable is clearly over-lionised, and working for Shell in 1995 was a morally questionable choice if you ask me. 

However, you have to admire his courage to put across potentially unpopular positions, such as: house price falls are "painful, but necessary". 

And the Stalin to Mr Bean thing was an excellent line.

Today he's also mulling over a shift in Liberal policy from Local Income Tax. Nowhere in this piece is the actual policy rationale for such a shift set out, but no matter. If he does decide to swing the party that way, they'll apparently "defer a decision on their own policy until they have seen the implications of the SNP policy, and its feasibility". 

John Swinney'll be pretty annoyed to hear that, because he's expecting the Liberals to sit down and discuss LIT with him shortly, and they're the only semi-supportive voice for LIT in Holyrood. Unless, that is, you subscribe to the conspiracy theory that the Nats want their tax plans to fail in the Chamber so they can campaign against Council Tax again in 2011. Which isn't entirely implausible, although less likely if Labour do decide to be constructive.

However, the Cabinet Secretary should rest easy. Even though Cable is briefing the Guardian on the Scottish situation, he can probably only set federal policy. Which, in the looking-glass world of Liberal internal structures, only applies in England.


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drinkcabinet.gifTaking one's drinks cabinet out around the country is a simple way to look more engaged. Never mind that the meeting involves the same people, your Ministers, or that the locals don't get a look in. They feel engaged, and that's what counts.

This old idea reappeared thanks to Alex Salmond: no surprise there. But for Gordon Brown to copy it the same day? Did they think no-one would notice?

Update: others subsequently came to the same conclusion.

Your place in history awaits.

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gordonbrownef.jpgThe further they recede into history, the more simplified a Prime Minister's reputation becomes. Those who can claim a substantial achievement or be blamed for a gross failure are eventually known just for that one thing: the top line in their obit. Others fade completely.

Sometimes the summary is obvious. How else would Churchill be remembered except as the victor of WWII? Eden is known only for the failure in Suez, while Callaghan is remembered for a misquote, Heath took us into Europe, and so on. 

Thatcher and Blair are too close to have been simplified yet. Neither will be forgotten quickly, though. 

Barring some extraordinary reversal in Labour's fortunes, Gordon Brown will rank pretty low down in future lists of this sort, just below John Major, in all probability. He'll fade fast, be largely blamed for the poisoned chalice which is the Labour Party he inherited, and be lucky if even one achievement stands from his Premiership.

Instead, he risks becoming a cautionary tale about the desire for power without purpose. After all, has there ever been a Prime Minister who strived so hard for the top job over so long a time, who took the crown, and who then had absolutely no idea whatsoever what he wanted to do with it? 

If Gordon Brown had retired last year instead of becoming PM, he could have held a reputation as the most successful Chancellor in modern times (despite the flaws in the metric such things are judged by). Instead, those ten years will be the set-up for a punchline which is all about a failure of vision. I almost feel sorry for him.

Smog gets in your eyes.

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jetsmog.jpgSo it turns out that all that stuff we buy from China does have carbon consequences. And that - shock horror - those aeroplanes do too. If you ignore those two awkward facts you can indeed claim emissions have fallen, as Labour would like to do. 

The reality is (see that first link) that they've underestimated the carbon Britain's responsible for by a staggering 49%. 

Remember this next time you hear John Denham, David Miliband, Gordon Brown, or other Labour drones claiming that the Labour government is "leading the way on climate change". It's exactly the same sort of trick that the Tories used to pull on unemployment, and which Labour are also still doing. 

They're leading the way with fiddling the figures, that's all. And given Labour's determination to be outflanked on climate change even by the Tories, you can see why they've gone down this route. Tragic.

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About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Westminster category from August 2008.

Westminster: July 2008 is the previous archive.

Westminster: September 2008 is the next archive.