Saturday, December 16, 2017

Catch the bus, if you can...

As a recently returned member of the Liberal Democrat Voice editorial team, I have the good fortune to receipt a copy of every press release issued by the Party. Well, I say good fortune but, most of the time, I simply delete them as being of little personal use. That isn’t a criticism of our Press team, but is a reflection of the fact that I’m only really an amateur journalist one day per week.

Sometimes though, one of them catches my attention, as it did on Thursday.
Local bus routes slashed by 14% in areas outside London 
read the headline. Given that I live outside London, and rely on buses to get out and about in the absence of both a car and the ability to drive one, I wanted to find out more.

It seems that the number of miles travelled by supported bus routes, which are subsidised by local authorities, fell to 125 million in 2016/17 in areas of England outside London. This is a fall of 20 million miles, or 13.8%, compared to the previous year.

In truth, this comes as no great surprise. My village lost its last scheduled bus service a few years ago, but given that it ran once a week (on Market day) and was so obscure that even my then fellow Parish councillors didn’t know of its existence, its failure to survive was inevitable.

The service was replaced by Demand Responsive Transport, funded by the County Council. I could ring the contact number, talk to Margaret or Francesca, and we would agree pickup and drop off times, based on the needs of other users. It was surprisingly reasonable in cost and very efficient, helpful given that it was my only connection to the outside world apart from a long walk across the fields to either Stowmarket, Needham Market or Stowupland.

Suffolk County Council’s Conservative administration is inordinately proud of its record of freezing Council Tax, and of increasing reserves each year in excess of inflation. The down side of that is increasing pressure on what are seen as non-core services, and rural buses fall into that category, with subsidies reduced year on year.

My bus service was put out to tender as part of that programme of cuts, and the new operator was tasked with reducing the required subsidy to nil over five years. What that meant was a sizeable rise in fares - the cheap return was replaced by two singles (my fare went up by 54% as a result) but, worst of all, the County Council had, by design or by accident, excluded the Mid Suffolk service from the concessionary fare scheme for the elderly. That was hardly likely to help make the service viable, but nonetheless, it was done anyway.

It was noticed that the equivalent services in Waveney, Babergh, St Edmundsbury, Forest Heath and Suffolk Coastal all retained a right to use the concessionary fares scheme, and even in Ipswich, there were plenty of regular buses on which the scheme applied.

But, it was, and is, all about the money. The County Council continue to make cuts, rural bus routes shrivel up and die, and the villages become that little bit harder to get to and from. Once a bus runs on a less than hourly basis, the chances are that more and more people will simply switch to private vehicles. And if you make the schedule unpredictable, you’d better believe that you have problems.i

A death spiral ensues - less people ride the bus, so higher subsidies are required, which the County Council can’t, or won’t countenance. Thus, more cuts, less buses, further passenger switching to private vehicles. I can’t object to the apparently inexorable logic, but there comes a point when rural isolation becomes more of a problem than the cost of the subsidy.

It is no consolation that rural bus services are under threat across the country, as the Save Our Buses campaign notes in its briefings, but at least someone is banging the drum for even a vestigial rural transport. It would be nicer if someone on power was actually listening...

Friday, December 15, 2017

Venezuela: Maduro gets his retaliation in first...

I’ve written here before about Venezuela, a potentially wealthy country brought to its knees by first corruption, then quasi-imperial overreach and finally rampant paranoia. And I return to the subject following the news that President Maduro, a man ill-equipped to run a bath, let alone a country, has decided that, following a widespread boycott of recent municipal elections, those Opposition parties who chose to join the boycott will be barred from contesting next year's Presidential election.

It should come as no real surprise, given his nonchalant disregard for the democratic process. He has, after all, subverted Parliament by creating a Constituent Assembly in his own image to override it, removed an uncompliant Chief Prosecutor (who, by the way, is in The Hague trying to bring a case against him in the International Criminal Court) and done everything possible to paralyse the Opposition in the country.

All of this, remember, against a backdrop of a collapsing economy, with inflation at 650% and expected to reach 2,300% next year, the country said to be in selective default of its debts and with the average Venezuelan thought to have lost 9 kilos in weight in the past year - Venezuela imports much of its foodstuff.

The Maduro Administration still has some friends - the Russians have deferred $3 billion in debts over ten years - but with $140 billion in debts, just $9.6 billion in reserves and an income stream heavily dependent on oil sales to the United States, it is only a matter of time before the wheels fall off completely.

This has been a slow motion train wreck, in plain sight of the world, in a supposedly developed country, and yet there appears to be no will to do very much. One can see why, perhaps. There is no grounds for military intervention, as Venezuela is no real threat to anyone, and the Government is clearly immune to persuasion. Aid is difficult as the chances of it reaching ordinary Venezuelans is remote, unless they support the Government. And a boycott of Venezuelan oil is likely to put prices up - an unpopular notion - and cause even greater hardship amongst the people.

What remains is to continue to condemn the Maduro administration both as individual states and as collections of states, explaining to the Government that their behaviour is unacceptable, and that assistance is conditional, hoping that desperation leads them back to democracy.

It’s a long game, and the Venezuelan people are likely to suffer more before it reaches a conclusion. One can only hope that, should they be driven to revolution, that it be quick and relatively merciful and that the outside world stays out of it - Latin America has seen enough outside interference over the past two hundred years and needs no more.

May God have mercy on the Venezuelan people - they need all of the help that they can get...

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Is there a best time to take a position if you know that doing so will cost you support?

The Labour frontbench’s decision not to support a Liberal Democrat amendment which would hold open membership of the Single Market was an interesting one. If, as is reported, it was simply an attempt to keep the option on the table, then one might reasonably argue that, by allowing it to be defeated, Labour reduced their own wriggle room in the eventuality that they become the Government.

And they’re entitled to do that, if they see that it is to their political advantage.

But, as a political party seeking to gain the support of those voters who wish to remain in the European Union, it might be a risky strategy. Yes, the options available to Remain voters are quite limited in many ways - the Conservatives and UKIP are obviously ruled out, the Greens and Liberal Democrats are too far back to be credible alternatives in many places just now - but that might not last.

Which brings me to my original question. Labour can, for now, get away with not really taking a clear view on Britain’s future inside or outside the European Union. With the Government displaying quite astonishing levels of incompetence and unreliability, merely not being them makes Labour look better than they might otherwise do. But, at some point, if they get into power (and it shouldn’t be ruled out as the implications finally dawn on the Conservatives that Brexit is not going to be easy, cheap or painless, or even what any of them want), they’re going to have to take a stance.

Less than three weeks ago, I was at a conference of the Save Romania Union, a new political party, who have gone through some teething pains. Having formed as an anti-corruption, pro-reform, pro-European Party, as they have formed a set of working principles, they have lost some of their initial supporters, who don’t want to adhere to those principles, or at least, some of those principles. As policy decisions are taken, you lose people who don’t like that particular choice.

And Labour have the same problem. Take a clear stance on membership of the Single Market, and you risk losing either the support of left-wing Eurosceptics, or of young, pro-Remain, voters. Similarly with the Customs Union, or freedom of movement. But, if you don’t have a clear stance going into Government, you’re not likely to make a good fist of negotiating with the European Union, who do know what it is they are trying to defend.

There’s a possible election to be fought and won,  preferably with the aid of an army of young, committed activists, who may not be quite so committed if they think that Labour are a pro-Brexit party at heart.

So, Labour are in a bind. They need to gain and retain as much support as they can to get elected, but risk early disenchantment of those supporters at the very time they will need loyalists most. What is a political party to do?...

Brexit: Parliament sticks it to the (wo)man...

This Parliamentary democracy thing is an interesting concept, isn’t it? The idea that we, the people, after a campaign in which candidates attempt to persuade us to support them and their ideas, send our chosen tribune to Westminster to listen to arguments and sift data before taking the decisions that affect our lives seems like quite a good one.

Of course, this is the theory. It relies on a number of increasingly heroic assumptions;
  1. That voters actually have an open mind.
  2. That candidates tell the truth, or are at least honest about the options.
  3. That media coverage is objective.
  4. That, once elected, Members of Parliament are not whipped like dogs.
Don’t laugh...

All of that said, our system of democracy contains a series of checks and balances that protect us - a neutral Civil Service, an independent judiciary - and which we can mostly rely upon to protect us from an over-mighty Executive.

And, occasionally, Members of Parliament act according to their conscience, as in last night’s vote on Amendment 7 to the EU Withdrawal Bill. In truth, one should really wonder about the 305, mostly Conservative, ones who concluded that Parliamentary sovereignty is only really necessary when they’re in opposition.

It’s funny really, in that I had rather more respect for those Brexiteers who purported to be most concerned about a loss of sovereignty. It is true that, in pooling sovereignty with others, you lose personal autonomy. If that loss is counterbalanced (or better) by benefits of various kinds, that is probably a decent trade-off. “Sovereignty” Brexiteers don’t believe that the benefits meet that test, and whilst I think that they’re wrong, it is at least an honourable argument.

At least, it was, until they were offered an opportunity to take a stand on the right of Parliament to have the final say. It turned out that they actually believe that Parliament is only sovereign if it agrees with them. Just like their concept of freedom, their belief in sovereignty turns out to be conditional, partial, incomplete.

In other words, in order to deliver something they want, they are willing to sacrifice the very principle which underpinned their stance on Brexit. It’s hardly an edifying stance...

Meanwhile, my Conservative MP, Jo Churchill, clearly doesn’t believe that she should be allowed a say on the terms, and trooped loyally through the lobbies as per instructions, despite her stated support for remaining in the European Union.

Brexit may well continue to its fruition, the rebel Tories may decide to back the deal in the end, but at least tonight, we saw the Executive thwarted and a glimmer of democracy return to the Mother of Parliaments. And a damned good thing too...

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

What does my Conservative MP think about Brexit?

It’s a genuine question, borne out of a degree of frustration.
You see, during the Referendum campaign, she was in favour of remaining. As she noted, 53% of the region’s exports go to the European Union...

and the European Union is a vital source of research funding...

It provides security...

And voting remain was a vote for East Anglia!

And so, on 23 June 2016, she voted to remain. So far, so consistent.

It didn’t take her long to bend to the supposed will of the British people though... On 27 June, she wrote;
As many of you will know, I campaigned to remain within the European Union. I am proud to say that whilst I am personally devastated at the decision this country has come to, it is my duty as your Member of Parliament to respect the democratic decision of St Edmundsbury, Suffolk and the UK on the whole, to leave the European Union
Yes, it took her just four days to decide that the will of 52% of those who had voted, was enough for her to conclude that, no matter how bad an idea it was, she was going to respect it. The fact that it was bad for the country, its economy and its people was clearly not sufficient for her to challenge the new orthodoxy. Perhaps the fact that her local association’s members were probably significantly pro-Brexit might have been a factor.

And, since then, she has consistently entered the lobbies for the Government, not a word out of place, not a whisper of discontent.

So, has she changed her mind, and if so, why, beyond the “will of the people” I hear so much about? She seemed pretty certain prior to 23 June.

Alternatively, she is simply supporting the view of the Government, regardless of what that view is, even if it is contrary to her previously expressed views, which leads you to ask how important her principles are as opposed to the needs of her Party.

And then, there’s the alternative that I’d rather not believe, that her pro-remain stance was simply because it was that of the then Government, and now that the Government’s view has changed, she is simply shadowing it, in which case, how sincere is she?

Now I don’t dislike Jo Churchill. Yes, she’s a Conservative MP, but she seems harmless enough in the generality. I don’t approve of her voting record much, but then, I am a Liberal Democrat and would make different, hopefully better, choices. Her Twitter feed is full of congratulations for various local voluntary groups, many of whom are carrying out tasks that were once done by Government (and might still be better done at one or other tier of government). She does not dissent, repeats whatever the line of the day is from Conservative Party HQ faithfully, doesn’t rock the boat. She’s a bit ‘identikit Tory’, but our modern politics does seem to drive out personality.

But it is the job of our MP to seek the best outcome for her constituents and for the country, and that means asking the difficult questions and taking a stand based on her principles from time to time, and far from being a critical friend, as she claimed she would be, she has become mere lobby fodder, to be relied upon without question.

That’s a pity, as I strongly suspect that she entered into politics to make people’s lives that bit better, as most of us did. But principles matter, Jo, and as far as Brexit goes, you appear to have sold yours too cheaply.

She’s not alone though. All seven Suffolk MPs, all Conservatives, campaigned to remain. And although Ben Gummer lost his seat in June, not one of them has even been rumoured to have questioned the Government’s strategy or direction. 

If it was wrong and bad eighteen months ago, ladies and gentlemen, it is wrong and bad now. And if you have any reason for supporting it now beyond “the will of the people”, perhaps you’d like to enlighten us. For when the story of Brexit is written, it will not be the ardent Brexiteers who will be blamed - they at least were consistent in their beliefs - it will be those of you who knew it was wrong, but went along with it anyway, who will have betrayed our nation and its people.

Was that what you went into politics for?

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The problem with Europe is that it’s really quite complicated...

So, another ‘big vote’ and, again, the Labour front bench vote with the Government. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised, given Jeremy Corbyn’s ambivalence, at best, over the concept of Britain as being part of a European Union.

Europe is, after all, a useful thing to have to blame for things not being as you’d like. From a socialist perspective, you’re never going to get a socialist Europe, especially given the poor performance of Labour’s sister parties in such places as France, Germany and the Netherlands. Mainstream socialism appears to be being usurped by more ‘authentic’ left wing movements, such as Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and the populists such as Jean-Luc Melenchon in France. One could argue that Labour’s resurgence here is down to their move to the left, although given the incompetence of the Conservatives, and their adoption of a stance likely to be unpopular with young voters and those born after the sixties, that may not be lasting.

So, you have a Conservative Party committed to leaving, with a membership base predominantly supportive, and a Labour Party whose elected representatives are not so sure but who defer to their leader, even if they don’t really believe in him, who also wants to leave. His membership believe in him rather more than they believe in Europe, it seems.

How then, can the argument that remaining in the European Union is the right thing to do be won?

Ironically, the modus operandi of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords may offer a solution, albeit a long-term rather than a short-term one. Asking questions requires ministers to either think about the answers, or to get someone to do so on their behalf. What research has been done on the impact of Brexit on X, or Y? What analysis has been done on this element or that?

In other words, cast doubt on the Conservative’s big idea. Support them on the nature of any future relationship where we agree, and arguing for alternatives where we don’t. Make the case for working together on justice issues such as Europol, or on fishing arrangements in the North Sea, which we’re going to have to co-ordinate with the other states with territorial waters there in any event.

At the moment, we seem to be joining in the yah boo politics, when we should be the grown ups in the room. We should be talking about the issues, highlighting our philosophical approach to internationalism and sovereignty, as well as our understanding that, by pooling defined degrees of sovereignty in return for equally defined benefits, we make the country wealthier and stronger. It’s ultimately about working with others for mutual advantage not, as the Conservatives see it, a world where you become richer by seeking advantages over your neighbours, regardless of the global arrangements.

We also need to explain that capitalism works, as long as you have a strong and effective regulatory framework, designed to balance the needs of consumers and producers. And yes, it’s complex. Using very simplistic arguments has got us to where we are now, and you can’t really claim that it’s a good place, can you?

You can criticise the voters, but they were given a data rich, fact poor information environment, where one side traded in untruths that were never intended to be cashed in, and the other focussed on an almost apocalyptic picture of a post-Brexit Britain. And, eventually, someone is going to have to treat them like adults, explaining how international trade deals work, how sovereignty is not complete or absolute, how some problems and challenges are better faced together.

If we want to persuade former Leave supporters to openly change their views, you have to bring them along with you through persuasion and the casting of honest doubt. It’s time that we started on that task...

Thursday, December 07, 2017

So, where has the lying stopped, and just how many ministers are implicated?

It seems as though the Secretary of State for Brexit may have been wilfully inaccurate in his statements to Parliament, to the media, and to the public. Either impact assessments have been made, as he claimed on multiple occasions, or they haven’t, as he claimed before the Brexit Select Committee yesterday morning. Both statements cannot be true, unless one stretches the definition of truth in the manner of saltwater taffy.

Fine, it should be a hanging offence, especially for a Government whose assertions of taking back control emphasise the importance of Parliamentary sovereignty. And whilst the Conservative/DUP majority can prevent a formal censure, if David Davis fails to do the honourable thing, and isn’t sacked, the level of misconduct required to end a ministerial career reaches new depths. Given that it seems almost impossible to get sacked by Theresa May, that’s going something.

But, it leads to the question, “who else is lying?”. After all, various junior ministers in DExEU have referred to these mythical sectoral analyses, claiming to have read some, or part, of them. Theresa May herself has apparently read some, or part, of them. And yet they don’t exist.

Perhaps the likes of Steve Baker, Robin Walker and, yes, Theresa May, should be called in and asked to swear, under oath, to the veracity of their earlier statements. Because, whilst lying about policy is one thing (morally and ethically unacceptable though it might be), on the grounds that you don’t necessarily know what the impact of any particular decision might be, telling people something that you know to be untrue undermines our demos to the point where the public have every right to loathe politicians even more than they purport to do currently.

The referendum was won on the basis of a series of big lies - £350 million per week for the NHS, Turkish accession to the European Union, remaining in the Single Market, to name but three - and it seems as though there are elements of the Government who have lied their way through the negotiations.

Yes, they may win the war in terms of Brexit, but if you were a potential trading partner, or a regional bloc, could you really negotiate a trade deal with a country whose senior politicians demonstrate such disregard for the truth? You might, with the right safeguards, but you’d be very cautious.

This Government has, in two years, trashed our reputation in the wider world. Increasingly, our friends think that we’ve lost our collective marbles, and our enemies relish our discomfort. We will pay a price for that over time, although I suspect our poor and vulnerable will bear much of the cost. But, as I’ve often said in the past, credibility is hard won and easily lost, and you wouldn’t fancy Boris and David to help that much.

So, we’ll see if the truth comes out, and what the punishment will be, if any. For the Conservatives have to understand that, if you allow your people to show such disregard for the truth, you can hardly be surprised when your enemies do the same thing. And complaining is unlikely to meet with much sympathy…

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The reality of the Government’s broadband rollout plans

For those readers who live in cities, towns or even reasonably sized villages, the existence of decently fast broadband is a given, and in an increasingly digital world, you can easily take for granted the ability to makes transactions online. Accordingly, the Government is targeting the rollout of superfast broadband to 95% of all homes by the end of this year and, if you’re not in that 95%, you will have at least 2Mbps.

Well, it’s December, and I don’t have either. My village of two hundred or so souls, with two hundred and seventy-five residents in the Parish, is part of the 5% not considered to be worthy of having that sort of communications access, and thus on the wrong side of the digital divide.

What that means is that school children from villages are left at a disadvantage to their more urban colleagues - how can you do research online with slow internet access? - and running a business from home is, to put it mildly, challenging. The Government want us, for example, to file tax returns online, but if you can barely download your e-mail, how likely is it that you could do so easily?

The response of the Government is not encouraging. According to the Better Braodband for Suffolk site, we are scheduled to be upgraded at some point between now and 2020, which means potentially three years of unsatisfactory access to broadband. On the other hand, our MP has advised that we’re scheduled to be upgraded into Q1 of 2018/19, which sounds more promising, albeit that I’ll believe it when I see it.

The Government seems determined to make life harder for rural communities. The decimation of village schools and rural bus services, combined with closures of pubs, post offices and bank branches, makes it imperative to be able to do more and more online, yet compared to our urban neighbours, who have all of these things relatively close at hand, our ability to do so is less than theirs. And we don’t get the range of services provided by local government in towns either.

That’s fine, as we’re pretty self-sufficient in many ways. But we’re taxpayers too, and it’s hardly an encouragement to pay one’s dues if you don’t appear to get very much for your money. So, perhaps the Government might like to pull their collective finger out?...