Category Archives: Uncategorized

The DRIP effect of pernicious legislation

This evening I will be putting a resolution to my local Labour party that any legislation such as Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (“DRIP”) should always be subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny and debate. Whilst I accept that surveillance can be a vital tool in tackling terrorism and crime it should not be used indiscriminately. Surveillance needs to be more accountable if it is to maintain public confidence. One step to attain such accountability would be to require surveillance to be legally authorised by a judge.

I was dumbfounded by the lack of transparency and debate that accompanied this legislation which was rushed from announcement to enshrinement in 8 days, or roughly half the time it takes to circumnavigate Eric Pickles. There is staggering arrogance in a bill that places private individuals under greater scrutiny being passed through parliament with none. The fact that this bill requires some level of technical expertise has been ignored in this ‘emergency’.

The government’s definition of emergency would lead to constant hysteria if generally applied anywhere else in life. There was no pressing need identified that made this an emergency. The government has known since April that the European Court of Justice had rejected mass data collection as incompatible with our right to a private life and the protection of personal data.

In part DRIP serves as a legal fig-leaf for corporate entities that are already complying with intercept warrants for much of the information requested by government (see here for fuller explanation: http://jackofkent.com/2014/07/why-drip-matters/). Indeed, it seems that the legal departments of e-mail providers are being given more weight than the individuals who are to be the subjects of this surveillance.

The right to privacy is a qualified right and can be limited in the interests of national security or the prevention of crime. However, the balance is one that requires careful monitoring. The fallacy of the argument that I have nothing to hide and so I have nothing to fear is that it always accords primacy to other interests than the right to privacy.

The nothing to hide argument is false in several ways. For example, we have often seen the potential for abuse or misuse of surveillance powers.  Doreen Lawrence and the De Menezes family had nothing to hide – does that make their being spied on harmless or acceptable? Others to have been subjected to unwarranted intrusion in their private life have been powerful organisations such as Amnesty International, charities like UNICEF, unions, and prominent individuals in the Labour Party like the Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan. If those with power can be so abused we need to think of how it could impact those with none.

All these abuses occurred under what I would consider relatively benign governments. It does not take an enormous leap of imagination to consider less benign forces abusing these powers. A government pursuing a more aggressive stance against trade unions, political activists and charities is not hard to contemplate. We have seen this government criticise charities such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Oxfam for having the gumption to highlight some of the consequences of their iniquitous policies.

Data abuse need not even arise from malign intent. We have seen cases of poor data handling resulting in wrongful arrest, such as Khaled El Masri.  (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/dec/13/european-court-human-rights-cia-abuse-khaled-elmasri) It seems plausible to me that the more ubiquitous the data the more likely it is that these errors will occur.

There is also the obvious potential for this information to spread beyond the confines of government, either through memory sticks being left in the pub, or the government selling “anonymised” data.  

In order to play to the nothing to hide crowd the government has called upon the perennial bogeymen of terrorism and paedophilia to stifle debate. The impending paedogeddon is yet again being used to keep unruly civil libertarians in line. This red-top thinking must be avoided in government. Anything that fundamentally disrupts the balance between the individual’s right to privacy and national security must be very carefully examined and the onus must surely fall on the state to demonstrate why further impingements of our liberty are necessary. This has assuredly not happened with DRIP.

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The prodigal blog returns

I return to my blog after a self-imposed hiatus. A combination of moving house, having another baby and running as a Labour candidate in the local elections meant that I have been, like a donkey on a Spanish clock tower, somewhat on the edge.

 

Running for council was a great experience. It was a pleasant surprise that the majority of people were happy to talk to me about local issues or national politics, and whilst I got told to eff off on occasion it happened less than if I had stayed at home with my wife.

 

However, despite this, with a 32% turnout in my ward (St Mary’s Park, Battersea) it is obvious that there is a lot of work to do to engage people sufficiently to vote in local elections. If 2 out of 3 voters cannot see enough a reason to vote then local democracy looks rather anaemic.

 

There are several factors causing this. In part there is an issue with people not realising the full effect that decisions taken at town hall can have on their lives. Whilst successive governments have steadily emasculated local government the council remains important. Schools, roads and social care all come, to some extent, within local government’s remit.

 

There is also a significant ‘plague on all your houses’ contingent. Quite a lot of people tend to think that politicians are all the same. This feeling is related to a problem with the professionalization of politics and political discussion in the media veering between the banal and infantile bickering. There is a danger of the mainstream parties being seen as two idiots arguing in the corner and not noticing that everyone else has drifted off home (or to an after party at Nigel Farage’s house with Godfrey Bloom playing the bongos).

 

Locally in Wandsworth we have also had many ears of Tory administration which has led some to believe that there is little to no point in voting. The fact that our candidate lost by a handful of votes in the ward of Queenstown should show that every vote does count.

 

Related to all these points is a general ennui, the (partly understandable) cynicism expressed by Russell Brand that nothing will really change. This increasingly pervasive, and ultimately quite dangerous, disassociation with democracy is what we need to tackle. I was told on numerous occasions that whilst I seemed alright they did not think “politicians” were interested in normal people. How can we overcome this?

 

I think that in the long-term it is through a much greater engagement with the community at every level. It is this sort of continuing micro-politics that is the essence of Tip O’Neill’s assertion that all politics is local. Through continuing engagement people will see the real effects that politics has on their lives.

 

I enjoyed talking to local residents that I would not necessarily meet in other circumstances. It was a privilege to be able to help some people and a source of pride when we achieved something, no matter how small, for local residents. I hope that these small acts can help to restore a little faith in the machinery of local politics. These conversations and local involvement can make our communities better and show that politics matters.

 

It was enlightening to see the real and pernicious effects of inequality. In the past I have been guilty of looking at issues through a theoretical and ideological prism. Seeing these things as they are actually being lived by people brings home the casual cruelty of poor policy such as the Bedroom tax.

 

Many of the conversations I had in our local estates arose from the effects of years of disregard by the council. Some are in desperate need of regeneration with barely functioning lifts and dirty stairwells. This environment provides fertile ground for anti-social behaviour, which self-perpetuates. If the stairs are strewn with rubbish the likelihood of fly-tipping grows. The worse-kept the stairs the more likely it seems you will find people taking hard drugs there. This erosion of pride in the public realm has negative effects on us all.

 

These problems are compounded by the fact that these places are the ones bearing the brunt of the worst aspects of austerity and they suffer disproportionately at the hand of the council’s cuts.

 

It is through tackling these issues that we can re-engage communities even if the change can be infuriatingly gradual at times. Local residents want to make their areas better. This energy is there to be harnessed and can help bring about real and effective change in our communities. My hope is that we as a party can help these people and make a valuable contribution to our local life. If we do this then people will have a real and compelling reason to get out and vote.

Blue-rinse budget

The budget presented by George Osborne this week was as concerned with politics as economics. Ironically, given Osborne’s professed loathing for him, I think it also had much in common with Gordon Brown’s later budgets. Remaining (supposedly) fiscally neutral whilst shifting monies around in a way that benefits your target voters – a fiscal carousel with some sweeties thrown to one side and pebbles to the other.

 

The political motivations for the budget are, like so much Tory posturing of late, compelled by their fear of the UKIP threat. The reforms to pensions and ISA’s are squarely aimed at the Home Counties grey vote. This key Tory demographic is the vote that they fear is being lost to the Farage’s golf club bonhomie and supposed straight-talking.

 

The pension reform is a massive decision. I am sympathetic to the argument that people should be allowed more freedom and choice in how they deal with their own affairs in retirement. The annuity market at present is also not working in the way one would wish.

 

My concern stems from several things. Firstly, governments’ track record in pension reform is about as successful as Grant Shapps’ tweets. The fact that this policy has been rushed out for the budget is rather worrying given that it has extremely long-lasting implications for the public finances. This is clearly a policy that should have been subject to the utmost scrutiny as opposed to scribbled on the back of Osborne’s fag packet.

 

Secondly, it must be borne in mind that there is a difference between a pension and savings. The state has offered favourable tax treatment to promote pensions as it means the person saving for their pension will not have to be overly reliant on the state in their dotage. The liberalisation of pension access does raise some questions over this incentive and what happens if the person who accesses their pension early is left, for whatever reason, reliant on the state?

 

Thirdly, without proper regulation there could be a lot of room for many sharks in this brave new world and people could lose catastrophically. It is worth remembering the grotesque mis-selling scandal that arose from previous pension reform.

 

It seems the government has rushed out a policy for headlines when it should have been more thoughtfully implemented. The decision is underpinned by a belief that personal choice is always beneficial – this assumption should have received greater scrutiny than appears to be the case. Choice can be beneficial but only within the right framework and I remain far from convinced that sufficient work has gone into developing the framework for this far-reaching decision.  

 

The liberalisation of ISA’s is also fundamentally not a bad thing. To encourage savings at a time when the household savings ratio continues to dwindle is reasonable. My concerns here are the fact that it flies in the face of previous policies. This suggests it is not borne of entirely pure motives. More importantly, it is ultimately irrelevant to the vast majority of people who are not in a position to utilise this offer. It is like granting people permission to fly to the moon – it would be nice but is meaningless to most people. The government would be better off focussing resources on policies for the majority.

 

It would argue that raising the personal allowance is the way in which it is helping ordinary people. This is partially true. The raising of the allowance beyond this point does not affect the lowest earners. The lowest paid 5 million workers earn less than £10,000. To truly alleviate the tax burden on the low paid the national insurance threshold should be raised.

 

What is perhaps most worrying though is the chancellor’s willingness to engage in a grand form of temporal teeming and lading. He is handing out actual tax cuts happening now that are being opaquely funded by unspecified future spending cuts. This makes it likely that the cuts when they come are going to have to be even deeper and more painful than anything that has happened as yet. The social ramifications of this could be enormous. If one adds to the mix asset price comedowns as the Bank of England unwinds quantitative easing then the overall picture remains troubling.

Speaking up

 

I realise that to be surprised by over-reactions in social media is akin to expressing shock at the rising of the sun each morning but I must admit I have been a little taken aback by some of the sentiments on my timeline in relation to the tube strikes. A lot of it centres on Bob Crow. His media image, which I think in part he plays up to, certainly allows for him to be a conveniently pugnacious caricature of a union boss.  For the media there is a vaudevillian fairground wrestling aspect to a match up of Crow v Johnson. The Black Crow v The Blonde Bombhsell. (An image I wish I hadn’t conjured as I fear my dreams will now be haunted by these two men in leotards grappling like greased pigs.)

 

It is remarkable that the situation has been allowed to deteriorate to where we are at present and to some extent this represents a failing on both sides. However, the Union is using the power that it holds to cause public inconvenience in an attempt to bring Johnson and Tfl to the table to negotiate. Given the asymmetries in power this tactic is understandable. 

 

Boris has painted the process by which the strike was called undemocratic. The irony in him saying this having been elected on a similar turnout should not be lost on people. In some of his utterances on the strike I think we have seen that once there is a scratch to the carefully cultivated veneer of amiable, Woosterish buffoonery we see his true Thatcherite colours.

 

In London Johnson has presided over cuts to the police and fire service despite election promises that this would not happen. This strike was precipitated by his desire to close all ticket offices despite previous pledges to keep them all open. The resulting loss in jobs represents a hefty chunk of the membership of the two unions on strike.  In my view they are duty bound to protect those workers interests and I do not believe this was a decision they will have entered into lightly.

 

I believe that this form of representation is vitally important in our democracy. Increasingly, as party memberships decline we need people to come together to ensure their voices are heard. Unions are a part of this. What we normally see is those with the wherewithal being able to shout the loudest and ensure their voices are heard by their representatives. The unions were established to give a voice to those who had been marginalised. This role remains but they are not the only outlet for this.

 

The other night I went to the pre-election meeting held by St Mary’s Park councillors. The topics were varied, touching on everything from dog mess (not literally) to affordable housing.  I was pleased that the council seem to be moving away from the misguided notion of removing the traffic barrier at the end of Battersea High Street thereby creating a rat run.

 

What was noticeable about this decision was that the councillors distanced themselves from the decision after vocal opposition from local residents who had attended the meeting to let their displeasure at the plan be known. The power of a small part of the local community working together was impressive.

 

For me though there was a stand out moment to the meeting. A teenager,Virgilio, from the local Surrey Lane estate, spoke to the meeting and asked for support from the councillors and the community to make sure the estate’s playpen was fit for purpose. Virgilio had come as part of the Surrey Lane People’s organization, a local community group. It was refreshing to see this group bring in local residents to this forum who may not have attended in the past.  For too long it has been too easy for local representatives to ignore these citizens’ concerns if they are not involved in the processes of local democracy such as this meeting and voting in local elections. Unions provided (and still do) a vital way for workers to make their voice heard and progress their interests. These sorts of citizens organizations can do the same for local residents in often historically marginalised communities.

 

Local politics needs more groups like this if representative democracy is going to function as it should. The more that people from all across our society feel sufficiently involved and enfranchised then the better our society will be. At the next local meeting it would be great to hear from residents of Badric Court or Totteridge House similarly speaking up for their area and making sure their issues resonate as they should with those who are supposed to represent them.

 

Forever blowing bubbles?

The past couple of weeks have seen much debate centre on the notion of ‘secular stagnation’ as outlined by Larry Summers in his speech to the IMF. Summers examined whether real interest rates needed for full employment may now be negative. When one looks at the performance from 2008 in the UK and G4 economies this would appear to be the case: (http://blogs.ft.com/gavyndavies/2013/11/17/the-implications-of-secular-stagnation/)

 

If this is the new paradigm for mature economies Summers speculates that the economy may actually need bubbles to get somewhere near full employment. Given the absence of inflationary pressures in economies that have had supposedly loose monetary policy there would seem justification to accept this viewpoint.

 

There are limits to the extent to which an economy whereby growth ultimately rests on bubbles is feasible economically and morally. An asset bubble in property is one thing (and plausibly quite socially detrimental) but a bubble in natural resources, say food or oil, would have disastrous effects on society at large and a disproportionately damaging effect on the most vulnerable members of our society. There is some debate to be had as to whether Summers is offering this theory as an observation or a normative proposition.  

 

Overall the theory looks to me fairly compelling, This being the case it is worth examining other factors related to this phenomenon.

 

The mature economies in the neo-liberal consensus period have also seen a massive increase in inequality, increases in private debt and the labour share of national earnings decreasing against capital.

 

These factors are interrelated and to some extent complementary. The growth in inequality has led to enticing poorer people to borrow more. It also sees the rich able to save more and accrue more earnings via wealth.

 

To what extent are these elements causes or symptoms of ‘secular stagnation’? It is difficult to assess. However, if one looks at some of the elements surrounding the UK’s period of growth 2003-2007 and the current promising economic indices we can certainly see support for the notion of growth powered by blowing up bubbles. The London property market seems set to float away again and the government are hoping to engineer confidence with their frankly insane commitment to Help to Buy. A delirious connection to demand side fixes to what in Britain is fundamentally a supply side problem. Personal debt levels are on the rise again. The recovery remains perilously imbalanced.

 

These factors were all, and continue to be, exacerbated by policy decisions.

The privileging of capital (wealth) against income is hard-wired into the UK tax system. The famous example of the hedge fund boss paying less tax than their cleaner due to this disparity has not led to a sufficient levelling of this playing field. Nicholas Ferguson’s comments in 2007 were deemed shocking but were still insufficient to prompt any real action to be taken. If Summers is correct and bubbles are now a feature of the western economy then this situation could worsen as capital gains more via appreciation in asset prices.

 

As such it should fall upon government to structure the tax regime in a fairer way and in a way that seeks to redress the perilous imbalance being created towards capital. One way in which this may be ameliorated would be to adopt a unitary earnings tax so all earnings whether via income or capital would be taxed at the same rate. This would be equitable, fair and encourage economic performance. Another possible solution would be to massively reduce taxation of income from work and instead raise revenues via a land value tax. This has the benefit of encouraging productive endeavour whilst discouraging land speculation. A Land value tax could be a way in which to prevent the blowing up of one form of bubble.

 

Further to this the government should examine the growth in inequality that is linked to this type of ‘bubble’ economy. The increase in inequality has seen the earnings of those at the top motor away from the sluggish growth of the median wage earner and into a different stratosphere from those at the bottom end. This group on the wage scale have seen real earnings decline to 2005 levels. (http://stats.oecd.org/). Meanwhile the average FTSE 100 CEO saw an average 10% increase from 2011 to 2012 as per the Manifest survey on executive pay.

 

There are two responses to this disparity. The first response, and I think most important, is to raise the pay of the lowest. The second is to strengthen corporate governance to tackle any excesses at the upper end of the scale.

 

We have seen the purchasing power of the normal British worker deteriorate due to prices increasing at double the rate of wages. Even in the current period we are seeing wages grow at a measly rate of 0.7%. The Economist estimates that 891,000 workers would benefit by £2,500 per annum from an increase to a living wage. Given that those at this end of the earning scale are more likely to spend their money this would have a dramatic effect on demand in the UK economy.

 

I also think that if we accept the measure of the living wage then it must fall upon us as a society to ensure our workers are paid at that level. Can we as a society really accept the notion that we pay workers below a level at which they can actually live a reasonable existence?

 

The question then becomes how to make this happen. I think a fiver year forward guidance plan to move towards a living wage would be a reasonable way to achieve this without causing too much turmoil to employers. The minimum wage commission could be tasked with reviewing employment indicators and have the power to defer it to a later date if it looked as though the move would derail employment.

 

Another way in which to ease the burden on employers would be to implement an employer’s NI tax break on employment of the young. This could be a very promising movement to reform of the labour market that was of benefit to the young and the low paid whilst not being detrimental to business.

 

The assessment posited by Larry Summers poses interesting questions for the Western economies. I have outlined my preferred response. It will be interesting to see how the UK government chooses to react, if at all.

Links:

http://www.imf.org/external/mmedia/view.aspx?vid=2821294542001

http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a2422ba6-5073-11e3-befe-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=uk

 http://www.economist.com/blogs/freeexchange/2013/11/inequality

 

http://www.economist.com/news/britain/21589440-bad-plan-deal-britains-low-wage-recovery-all-work-and-low-pay

Time for Twenty?

As a result of writing a blog on London’s cycling infrastructure yesterday I reviewed several statistical releases about casualties arising from traffic incidents. One figure struck me and got me thinking about the issue of road safety in Wandsworth. In 2012 there were 9 fatalities on 20 mph roads as opposed to 595 deaths on roads where the limit was 30 mph. [1]  I cannot find any figures that allow me to flex these figures for miles of road that are 20 mph and 30 mph but it seems a compellingly stark statistic.

it is also worth nothing that pedestrian fatalities are disproportionately spread amongst the moe vulnerable age groups. Children and the elderly comprise 48.3% of all pedestrian fatalities and 48.7% of all serious injuries. [1]. Transport for London have produced a report which shows a 42% reduction in casualties in 20 mph zones, with the main beneficiaries of this reduction being children aged up to 15 [2]. I think that we owe these people the highest duty of care. If one believes that it then seems remiss not to tailor our speed limit to reduce the danger to them.

Wandsworth has one of the highest percentage of residents not owning a vehicle in the country (55.7%) [3]. Despite this much of our urban landscape in the borough is seemingly designed to prioritise the motor vehicle. The safety of our citizens should be paramount and yet it would appear that we as a borough have been catering more to the structural needs of others. 

To offer a local example, crossing Battersea Church Road can feel rather like playing the old computer game Frogger. The turns make it very difficult to reliably judge traffic and when best to cross. This is exacerbated for the more vulnerable pedestrians such as the elderly and those with a pram who inevitably would take longer to cross the road, and in the case of the elderly be more likely to have problems with seeing and hearing.

Wandsworth has had a trial of  20 mph in West Putney and Dover House Road and seen a drop in the casualty rate from 7 to 2.18 in West Putney and from 3.66 to 3.27 in Dover House Road. [4]. As such it has been shown that the scheme could have a beneficial impact on safety locally and the council has agreed that if 25 per cent of people living in an area give their approval then a 20 mph limit can be introduced. I hope that it is introduced in St Mary’s Park ward soon.

[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/245387/rrcgb-2012-complete.pdf

[2] http://www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/20-mph-zones-and-road-safety-in-london.pdf

[3] http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/publications/re-reference-tables.html?edition=tcm%3A77-286262

[4] http://ww3.wandsworth.gov.uk/moderngov/documents/s28018/13-430%2020mph%20Review%20OSC%20-%20Report.pdf

Carnage on London’s streets

It has been a grim period on London’s roads with 5 cyclists being killed and a further 3 left fighting for their lives in the past 9 days.

Pressure must now be maintained on the Mayor of London to significantly upgrade cycling provision in the city. A strip of blue paint is woefully insufficient. It is not a mystery why these tragedies are occurring. The only mystery is why it is taking the Mayor and Transport for London so long to do anything about it.

The tragic accidents conform to a pattern in that they involve HGVs and cyclists and often occur at traffic lights and junctions. To allow our most vulnerable road users to share space with the largest, that often have limited ability to see what is around them, is asking for trouble. It is obvious that there is a real problem on the interaction of HGVs with other road users. It is not beyond the wit of man to design and implement an infrastructure that keeps these interactions to the bare minimum. 

The mayor’s guru for cycling, Andrew Gilligan, has said that there will be a review in 4 months and that implementation of this would take another 11 months. Hopefully we will see improvements in that time. However, given the failure of the Mayor to match word with deed in his past proclamations and promises about cycling it is vital that Londoners keep up the pressure on the department.

The facilities in the Netherland are widely admired and with good reason. It is worth noting that they did not just appear from the ether. They were the result of concerted pressure and protests from Dutch citizens pressing for adequate facilities to protect lives.  If we want to progress to similar facilities in London we must follow in these footsteps.

Cycling is a wonderful way to get around the city, with many benefits to the individual and society at large. The time has come for the city to provide the safe infrastructure for cycling that we need and deserve.