Tuesday, December 31, 2019

India - a challenge ahead for HMS Brexit...

Declaring an interest as someone of half-Indian extraction, I’ve argued on occasion that, whilst much attention is given to China’s emergence as a world power, both military and economic, there should be more attention given to its democratic counterpart, India. It’s an uphill struggle, I acknowledge, but still an important one.

In terms of the domestic debate here, India falls under the category of “obvious trading partner” post-Brexit, i.e. someone we can increase exports to. Now, putting aside the fact that United Kingdom governments have treated Indian citizens in a manner akin to leprosy victims in terms of visa access over the years, the action of Theresa May in effectively vetoing the proposed EU/India Free Trade Agreement, is hardly an encouragement to the Indian Government to prioritise us over, say, the European Union.

But, of course, some of the more lacking in self-awareness supporters of Brexit believe that, as part of the (jolly old) Empire, the Indians will be only too eager to sign something - fifth largest economy in the world, you know, Commonwealth ties, old boy.

Except that, according to the Centre for Business Economics and Research, with its Conservative-friendly world view, Britain’s economy is already smaller than India’s, and with India’s trend growth rate far higher than that of the United Kingdom, the gap will grow fast. In whose interests is a trade deal then, who will be able to drive the harder bargain? Not a difficult question to answer, is it?

Any trade deal will require significant visa liberalisation, and thus more Indians coming to Britain to work and study - a tough sell to those who voted for Brexit, and indeed for the Conservatives, in order to reduce immigration. And the net figure will be worse still, as the chances are that few British citizens will wish to make the reverse journey.

It gets better though. By 2034, India is predicted to be the third largest economy, with the likes of Indonesia, the Philippines and Bangladesh in the top twenty-five. And they know that. The bargain will get harder, not easier, and the Hindu nationalist administration that runs India is hardly likely to hold back from  using that growing power imbalance to settle some old scores.

Meanwhile, the European Union will be keen to gain preferential access to the Indian market. It has quite a lot to offer, isn’t as attractive to Indians seeking to work abroad but offers plenty of opportunities for the rapidly growing number of middle-class Indians to spend money as tourists. It also offers access to a market six times larger and, in significant cases, wealthier than that of the United Kingdom.

Negotiations with the Modi administration should be interesting, and something of an eye opener for the Johnson-led Conservative Government. How they respond to the challenge may be a guide to the future economic prospects of the United Kingdom, and the ability of the Conservatives to deliver their rather generous promises.

They’d better learn fast...

Monday, December 30, 2019

More adventures in media choice...

I wrote, a fortnight or so ago, about giving up The Times, in part because of its recruitment of Quentin Letts, but in truth because it has become a source of anger rather than disagreement. The unremittingly negative coverage of transgender issues, the continuing employment of Rod Liddle, the increasingly desperate attempts to smear Jeremy Corbyn (and, for that matter, anyone who isn’t a Conservative Party politician), all added up to a conclusion that giving them £10 per week to annoy me was a pretty poor use of the funds.

So, how am I getting on? 

Well, it’s early days yet, and as my subscription doesn’t expire for another three weeks, I’m still taking advantage of it, but I’ve made two financial commitments and taken up one newspaper that is still free online and apparently not looking for money.

I’ve always enjoyed The Economist, and whilst it can be a little dry at times, its tendency to rely on facts and, where an opinion is being offered, its clarity as to the difference, is welcome in a time where the line between news reporting and opinion is increasingly blurred. For £215 per year, I receive my weekly copy of the dead tree version, plus access to the digital version online, as well as daily e-mails with stories that might interest me. I’m still £305 a year better off, and probably less annoyed.

Ros reads the New York Times, and is quite impressed with their coverage of British politics, but there seems little point in both of us paying for it, so I’ve signed up to The Washington Post. They ask a mere $30 for an initial annual subscription to the digital edition, rising to $100 thereafter, and whilst that may turn out to be more than I really want to pay, at that price, what do I have to lose? And I’m still £282 a year better off...

I know that The Guardian is free online, merely begging for money endlessly. A bit of me wants to give them some, for I am taking advantage of their largesse whilst only offering them potential advertising revenue. But, for the time being, I will resist the temptation to contribute towards Polly Toynbee’s salary. Instead, I’ve downloaded the app for The Times of India, a newspaper my great uncle once worked for. They appear not to want any payment, although that may of course change in the future. It offers me a very different perspective on the world, links me to the family home and is likely to give me an insight into what is likely to be one of the world’s top five economies before very long.

So, there you have it, three very different mediums, each offering a very different perspective, all of which are highly respected. We’ll see how it goes...

Friday, December 13, 2019

Some light music for bedtime...

It's been a long time for many of my friends and colleagues, so here's something to soothe the troubled brow, "Ich will dir mein Herze schenken", from Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion...

Liberal Democrats in Suffolk - how did it go?

Let's be honest, had there been any prospect of a Liberal Democrat gain in Suffolk, we'd have been in 1906 territory, but you do have to look forward some of the time, especially after a night like this one just past. And, if things go as badly as some suspect, Conservatives in local government may be the first harbingers of public unhappiness. And maybe, just maybe, if we do things better, we might persuade the electorate to turn to us.

So, how did we get on?

I'll start in Waveney, now part of East Suffolk District Council, as it has been a bit of a black hole for us for some years despite the gallant efforts of a small hardcore of activists. Our vote there over the three elections since 2015 has gone as follows;
  • 2015 - 1,055 votes, 2.0%, fifth place (out of five)
  • 2017 - 1,012 votes, 1.9%, fifth place (out of six)
  • 2019 - 2,603 votes, 5.1%, fourth place (out of five)
We did save our deposit, which is great news, and it is a very "brexity" neighbourhood, with Lowestoft at its core, and thanks to Helen Korfanty for flying the flag.

Heading to the other end of the county, West Suffolk has no Liberal Democrat Councillors at County or District level, following retirements in 2015. Our vote there has gone:

  • 2015 - 2,465 votes, 5.0%, fourth place (out of five)
  • 2017 - 2,180 votes, 4.2%, fourth place (out of five)
  • 2019 - 4,685 votes, 9.1%, third place (out of four)
That's not a bad result from Elfreda Tealby-Watson, who must be getting used to the place by now, having fought the seat on each occasion. And, another saved deposit.

We have a presence in Ipswich, with a county councillor and three borough councillors, but as it's a key marginal, voting Conservative in 2015, Labour in 2017 and now Conservative again, we tend to get squeezed;
  • 2015 - 1,400 votes, 2.9%, fifth place (out of five)
  • 2017 - 1,187 votes, 2.3%, fourth place (out of six)
  • 2019 - 2,439 votes, 4.9%, third place (out of five)
Bad luck for the returning Adrian Hyyrylainen-Trett, who was forty votes short of saving our deposit, but selflessly led campaigning teams to Cambridgeshire to support our more likely prospects there. Thanks, Adrian, you were a star.

Next, I turn to South Suffolk. I've always felt that it was the sort of seat where, with the right combination of candidate and activist base, Liberal Democrats could win. But, for whatever reason, we don't. This time, we improved quite sharply;
  • 2015 - 4,044 votes, 7.8%, fourth place (out of six)
  • 2017 - 3,154 votes, 5.8%, third place (out of five)
  • 2019 - 6,702 votes, 12.5%, third place (out of four)
David Beavan has dragged us back towards respectability, but it's a far cry from the 30.8% we achieved in 2010.

I can see Central Suffolk and Ipswich North from the end of our lane, and it's another seat where we had a solid vote prior to the Coalition, but not since;
  • 2015 - 3,314 votes, 6.1%, fourth place (out of six)
  • 2017 - 2,431 votes, 4.3%, third place (out of five)
  • 2019 - 6,485 votes, 11.5%, third place (out of four)
I'm pleased for James Sandbach, in that he seemed to enjoy the campaign, and was a fine ambassador for Mid Suffolk Liberal Democrats.

The last seat contested was Suffolk Coastal, which probably saw more activity than in recent years past;
  • 2015 - 4,777 votes, 8.6%, fourth place (out of five)
  • 2017 - 4,048 votes, 7.0%, third place (out of five)
  • 2019 - 8,719 votes, 15.0%, third place (out of five)
The Jules Ewart campaign was certainly busy and prominent, and there's definitely something there to build upon going forward.

You'll notice that I haven't mentioned Bury St Edmunds, my own constituency. We were stood down in favour of the Greens as part of the Unite to Remain alliance. I can't say that it went down all that well, but sometimes you have to compromise in search of an over-riding goal. The Greens came third, with 15.7% of the vote, and it's probably one of their best results in the country, but as Jo Churchill ended up with a majority of 24,988, it probably didn't affect much.

So, looking at it in the round, we're back in third place across the county, and whilst that might not seem like much of an achievement, it is at least progress in the right direction. Our vote share increase averaged out at 5.4% across the six contested seats, slightly better than the Party did nationally, and we averaged 9.7% in terms of vote share, a bit behind the national performance, but a reflection of the relative weakness of the Party in sleepy Suffolk.

Setting aside the Police and Crime Commissioner election, our next county-wide contest is the County Council election in 2021, which will be fought on new boundaries. Here in Mid Suffolk, our strategy is pretty obvious, I suspect, but it might be worth paying some attention to the boundary changes. The consultation phase ends next month...

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Thanks to Quentin Letts, I suddenly have rather more money in my pocket...

I used to be a Guardian reader which, given that I'm a Liberal Democrat, might not surprise that many people. And yes, there were annoying aspects to it - Polly Toynbee, for the most part, but I could put up with that. But, about six years ago, I switched to The Times, newspaper of record and all that. Their sports coverage was quite good, and whilst I didn't necessarily feel comfortable with either their editorial line or, to be honest, their ownership, I took the view that I'm enough of a sceptic to consciously filter out their right-wing bias.

One of the features that I follow particularly closely is the parliamentary sketch, and I'd grown used to Patrick Kidd's style but then, a few months back, I noticed that he had gone, replaced by... Quentin Letts. I loathe his writing, his rather snide, sneering approach to people who, for all of their failings, are mostly trying to do a job of work, and their best of society. They're also paid considerably less than he is, I suspect, part of which comes from my wallet.

I put up with it for a while but my sense was that the paper was drifting towards the knee-jerk right, and so, this morning, I rang the subscriptions department to cancel (interestingly, they don't appear to offer an option to do so online - at least, I couldn't find it). After pressing a few option buttons, I was put through to a very polite young (I thought) man, sitting in an office in Colchester.

"I'd like to cancel my subscription.", I said, politely. "Really,", he replied, "may I ask why that is? I see that you've been a subscriber for six years.". "Quentin Letts,", I said, "I really don't like his attitude or style.". (I paraphrase here...).

The young man tried to convince me to change my mind. "We do have some other excellent columnists - Melanie Phillips and Rachel Sylvester were the two names he used to persuade me to stay. He was unfortunate in his choice, in that I can't bring myself to read much of Melanie's diatribes, and Rachel Sylvester has not really drawn my attention.

No, I insisted, I'd like to terminate my subscription. He hesitated. "Let me talk to my manager for a moment. I'll put you on hold and get back to you.". I waited, patiently. After all, I'm a polite soul, and he was simply doing his job.

He returned. "I've spoken to my manager, and would a half-price subscription for three months change your mind?". No, I said, it's not about the money, it's about a principle. I don't like Quentin Letts and his works, you've employed him, and this is the consequence.". "Would six months at half price change that?". "No, as I said, it's not about the money.".

"It's sorry that you're leaving, you'll miss our excellent sports reporting and range of columnists. I'm sure that, in a few months, you'll be back.". "I'm afraid not,", I replied, "and as I think about it, adding Rod Liddle to the list, I'm almost surprised that I've lasted this long.".

Eventually, he gave in to the inevitable. I wasn't going to change my mind, and it was agreed that my subscription would lapse on 19 January. A reference number was generated, so that I could monitor whether or not they try to continue taking my money, and we brought our conversation to an end.

It dawns on me that many people in this country don't read a daily newspaper any more, for a range of reasons. And I don't have to either. There are plenty of free news sources online, there are more reputable options, and I can now explore those. And, best of all, I don't have to read the parliamentary sketches by Quentin Letts any more. 

Frankly, John Crace is much better...

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Democracy - it seems as though they had to destroy the concept in order to “save” it

In elections, winning matters. There are very few politicians or political activists who would suggest with an entirely straight face that, by taking part, you influence the debate and that winning is thus not so important. Yes, I acknowledge that your better, more attractive ideas will be stolen by your opponents, which is on the whole fine, but it’s how you implement them that really counts. Someone who steals something shiny probably won’t understand the basic mechanics that make an idea truly effective.

So, winning matters.

But, in a democracy, you ideally want voters to be properly informed, able to make choices based on a range of fact-based ideas so as to elect people likely to make their communities better (the definition of “better” may not be wholly inclusive, of course...). And that makes the notion of truth important.

In advertising, you are obliged to be able to demonstrate that your claim for any particular product is true. The Advertising Standards Authority takes a dim view of false claims, and this is obviously in the interests of consumers - especially when a false prospectus can have serious effects. We label food products to prevent mischance, for similar reasons.

We have no equivalent for political campaigning, of course. After all, politicians are promising that, by doing X, Y will improve. There’s no certainty - economic circumstances are not wholly within the control of nation states, political theories are only really tested in the actuality - and so there’s quite a lot of aspiration involved. If taxes are raised, what will be the likely impact? And what will be the actual impact?

Many politicians have been blurring that for some time. “We will increase the number of nurses in the NHS by 50,000.”, for example, rather depends on there being 50,000 people who want to be, or remain, nurses. Appointing people and retaining them is difficult, especially if you don’t address the underlying causes of nursing shortages. So, you would be more truthful in saying that you believe that the NHS needs 50,000 more nurses, and here are my ideas for achieving that.

For people who care about process, that can be a bit frustrating, but given that most people are only really interested in direction of travel, that level of detailed argument is probably a pipedream.

Falsehoods are a different matter though. For example, claiming that homelessness had fallen sharply over nine years of Conservative administration, as Sajid Javid did, when the truth was the reverse, is a falsehood. Deliberate or accidental, only he can tell, although the fact that the error was clearly in his favour leads one to be sceptical about his honesty. But his error was then reported as truth by a mostly friendly media with little or no incentive to fact check him.

And then there is the out and out lie. You can, for example, sieve through every policy motion passed at a Labour Conference, put an estimated price on it - your estimate, mind, not necessarily an independent one - add them all up and claim that that’s what a Labour government would cost. No government ever does everything its members want it to, it trims its coat according to the available cloth - yes, even Labour governments. And, of course, the expectation is that additional means can be found to pay for additional spending.

Social media now allows something new and altogether more troubling - the co-ordinated mass lie. The story of the young boy lying on a bed of coats on the floor of the A & E department at Leeds General Infirmary was not a good image for an administration seeking re-election. But the number of Twitter accounts all suddenly claiming to have a close friend working at Leeds Hospital who knew that the story, and the image, were a set-up, was no coincidence. The fact that they were all the same smacks of cynical news manipulation, but it will be effective. Most social media users will only see one or two of them, whereas if they saw the same claim on a poster, for example, or knew that two hundred or more people were tweeting exactly the same thing, perhaps their suspicions might be aroused.

There are those who will claim that, in order to protect the country from X, there are no tactics that are unacceptable. They will argue that, if a Corbyn-led Labour administration is elected, the country will be ruined, and so must be prevented at any cost.

The problem is that lying is cumulative, that foul play is cumulative. And, if rewarded, sends out a message that, in order to win, you have to do the same. And thus, any hope of an informed democracy is destroyed, leaving a toxic wasteland of lies, misrepresentation and voter alienation.

And, if you’re willing to do those things, what else are you willing to undermine? The independence of the judiciary? The neutrality of the Civil Service? In other words, if winning is all that counts, have you actually forgotten what you were winning to protect?...

Monday, December 09, 2019

It's been a tough few weeks for supporters of the BBC...

I am, on the whole, a glass half-full sort of person. I have a worrying tendency to assume that people are acting for the best of motives unless there is evidence to the contrary. Most people are, after all, broadly honest, kind to animals and want the best for those around them.

But, and let's be honest here, this election campaign has been to truth what Attila the Hun was to good neighbour schemes. And it's not just politicians who should carry the blame - the media have their share of responsibility too.

Today's incident when Laura Kuenssberg tweeted that one of Matt Hancock's team was punched by a Labour activist turned out not to be even vaguely accurate was perhaps the nadir of the campaign. She claimed to have two sources, neither of whom she is even now willing to name, despite the fact that the video was out there, demonstrating that her report was untrue - and no, I can't give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that it was a simple mistake.

I don't know who her two sources were, and she is within her rights not to tell, but it appears that she took their word at face value, and is happy to protect them from the consequences of their lies. In other words, she accepted the word of people who clearly had an interest in a particular slant to the story, and broadcast that to 1.1 million people without even a basic fact check. That isn't journalism, it's propaganda, and even if she didn't mean to promote the views of one or other party, that's exactly what she achieved. A lie, propagated by a notional credible, neutral source, was off around the world, and she is to blame.

She wasn't alone, of course, as Robert Peston was equally quick to point the finger. And yes, they have both subsequently apologised but the basic premise of journalism seems to have been lost by both of them.

And the sad thing is that, at a time when the BBC should be striving to be as neutral as a state broadcaster should be, and in the face of calls for it to be stripped of its state funding via the licence fee, such "mistakes" drive its natural supporters to shrug their shoulders and countenance a world without its key public sector broadcaster.

I would consider myself to be, in principle, a defender of a public broadcasting service, dedicated to entertaining and informing in equal measure. But what do you do if said institution turns out to be, in all honesty, as much part of the problem as it is the solution to media bias? Can politicians and political activists really defend the BBC against the charge that the licence fee is anti-competitive and, in an age of mass media, a subsidy from Sky TV viewers to those who watch BBC1 or BBC2? And, more importantly, will it be defended with any great enthusiasm?

And yet, there has to be an alternative to privately-owned media, free to pursue their own political agenda. For private media are, in the main, owned by the wealthy, whose interests tend not to be those of the general public. Most of our broadsheets are owned by people who prefer not to pay their tax here (or anywhere else, come to that), and thus have little interest in the quality of public services except as a stick to beat politicians with. They also tend to be less favourable towards redistribution, equality and diversity - all of which tend to work against their personal interests. And it is their right as private citizens to hold such views. It's just that they seek to persuade other people, whose interests might not be quite the same, to vote in a particular way, and have the means to do so. Not exactly an level playing field for political campaigners and perhaps worthy of scrutiny.

Today, the Leader of the Conservative Party brought into question the future of the licence fee, and there wasn't exactly a rush to defend it. In such ways do our institutions crumble and die...