Sunday, March 15, 2015

Phil's Election Special

OK, I've decided to include a few off-topic posts in my astronomy blog and I'm going to start with the upcoming general election. It is possibly the most critical general election in recent times and, yet, whoever wins will have to pick up the poisoned chalice.

First, let's be brutal: This country is in a mess. OK, the world is in a mess and many countries are in an even worse mess than we are. What is most frightening is that we will still be in a mess even when the next world economic boom comes round. Despite this, I'm actually proud to be English, British and European in that order, although I'm also loyal to Chile, my wife's country.

Now I'm making this post as objective as possible but will lay my cards on the table. For most of my life, my political leaning has been centre-right. I voted Liberal Democrat at the last election and will do so at this one for both similar and different reasons. Now I'm not trying to convert anyone to centre-right ideology. Vote according to your core beliefs and conscience. I will neither condemn nor criticise you for that. All I ever ask of anyone is to make an informed and careful decision on the day.

Electorates and history (worldwide!) are very kind to governments who preside over times of economic plenty or war victories but are harsh on ones who preside over times of hardship.

Over the next few weeks, I will be covering what I perceive as the key election issues and give as objective view I can on each party. Please feel free to comment but all comments should be constructive and respectful, just as I will try to do the same. Whilst some of my views are controversial, they are sincere and not done out of Hopkinesque sensationalism.

On the surface, I'm not well qualified to be a political commentator, at least in most peoples' eyes. I have not taken part in any political activities for nearly 40 years and do not socialise often, apart from online. This is partly through circumstances and partly through choice. What DOES qualify me is that I have done a lot of business travel and met real people in real situations instead of the sugar-coated versions of countries in holiday resorts. I have been to places where there is no national health service. If you don't have money or insurance, you die.

I will be posting comments on the major issues for the upcoming election and (hopefully) unbiased appraisals of the major and fringe parties.


  1. The reasons that the forthcoming general election is important are twofold.

    Firstly, the recession (according to the dictionary) may have ended but the world and national economy is still worse than it was prior to the banking crisis. The next government has a unique opportunity to start to tackle the pile of problems that this country is facing. Whether whoever gets elected has the courage to do it is a moot point. The next election will probably be too late and the government after this one would do little more than damage limitation.

    Secondly, love them or hate them, we now have a second "major fringe" party (UKIP) entering the fray. A hung parliament is a very strong possibility and it is likely that the two major parties will enter into negotiation with UKIP and the Liberal Democrats to form a government. The numbers may even be close enough for other fringe parties to become part of the mix. Remember Gordon Brown's proposed "rainbow coalition"? A vote in this election may count more than in any previous ones in my lifetime.

    1. Well I saw on the news that Labour are (correctly!) anticipating a high probability of a hung parliament by stating they will not enter any coalition with the SNP. From a personal viewpoint, I am well pleased about that!

    One of the major issues of this election is immigration. It is not a black and white issue. I mean that literally as well as metaphorically. Several individuals and organisations will play the race card, both racists and anti-racists. They are at best misguided and at worst deliberately using a proper immigration debate for their own agenda. As for the “give them a few grand to go home” camp, I would say “yes, as long as we give native British people the same money to clear off somewhere else, too”.
    I can imagine a few closet racists on a weekend having their tongues loosened by Danish lager and their appetites whetted by spring rolls or vindaloo shouting “send them all home!” Those of us of a certain age will remember Alf Garnet’s views being ripped to shreds by his daughter and son-in-law. No, over a period of time our culture has been enriched by various ethnic groups over the years. So: keep the race card out of immigration debates.

    The immigration issue is (at least conceptually) simple. It is down to ethics and economics. Few people would argue in favour of either a completely open door or completely closed door policy. The problem we have at the moment is that our economy and resources cannot support our current level of net immigration. It comes down to the simple fact that we have to restrict the number of people coming in or encourage more people (irrespective of race) to leave.
    The question of refugees I will cover in a future post. As for EU migrants, the basic answer is quite simple, even though the implementation could be rather difficult. We could leave the EU or we can work within the EU to work out possible solutions. Personally, I don’t believe that unrestricted migration of people looking for work for indefinite periods is fair on the UK and several other countries, like Germany. Definitely, countries should not have to pay benefits to migrants looking for work. Either this should be the responsibility of their native country or (better still!) the EU budget. Constituent countries are paying billions into the EU budget. There is a case for making the people looking for work in other countries to fund themselves while they are looking for work. We don’t expect the US government to pay benefits to would-be British actors going to Hollywood. However the reality is not black and white. Many migrant jobseekers are not rich people and are often leaving families behind whom they hope to support remotely.
    In fact most migrants are more successful at finding work than many native British people and will often take jobs that native British people don’t want. As a longer term issue, they contribute to our economy (rather than drain it) and many immigrants have started business that employ people and that is no bad thing at the moment. In short, the question is should a country be economically responsible for migrants looking for work? My view is that it should be the collective responsibility of the EU countries.
    Now other people come to the UK for other reasons. Whilst I’m as against sham marriages to gain entry to a country as anyone else, UK residents have the moral right to bring their spouses and offspring here. I’m actually horrified by spouses being kicked out of the country on a whim. Now the question arises of elderly dependents who are perceived by many British people as being “a drain on the NHS”. Well actually you don’t have to be elderly or an immigrant to be a drain on the NHS. The cost of my NHS treatments from birth is probably greater than the portion of my national insurance contribution that goes to the NHS. So should we bar immigrants on their age or medical history? If not, then who foots the bill?
    To sum up, any country’s immigration policy has to be fair. It has to be fair to applicants but also to the people living in the country, regardless of the nationality or ethnicity of the applicants and the residents. It has to be humanitarian but must not over-drain the resources of the country concerned. In the case of the EU, I firmly believe the cost of net immigration to countries should be borne by the EU as a whole and, in some cases, by the migrants themselves. In the specific case of the UK, I am in no doubt that immigration has enriched our culture and not diluted it. My only doubt is that the current level of net immigration in the current economic situation is not sustainable.
    Whether any of our political parties will tackle net immigration realistically and ethically without playing the race card I don’t know. I will not hold my breath!

    Many claim it is unethical. I say it is no more nor less ethical than the “first past the post” system that makes it possible.
    Many would argue that there’s no such thing as a safe Liberal Democrat seat but I live in one that is about as near to it as you can get. Consider the plight of a Labour supporter in my constituency. There is a very real possibility that Labour could be the biggest single party in Westminster but lose their deposit here and even be beaten into 4th place by UKIP. Labour simply cannot win here. The Conservatives could and the best chance of a Tory victory is a large swing from Liberal to UKIP. I did consider that a huge local AND national scandal involving the Lib Dems and Tories might let Labour in but it would also have to involve UKIP as well as most disenchanted Tory and Lib Dem voters here would tend to vote UKIP.
    In my opinion, it is the swing from both Tory and Lib Dem to UKIP that will ultimately decide the fate of the constituency. Any swing to Labour from any party won’t get them in and is only likely to affect the result if the votes are exceptionally close. So the options are:
    • Choose who you like most/hate least out of Lib Dem and Tory and vote accordingly
    • Vote Labour anyway. You wish to send a clear message that Labour is the party of your choice. You accept that the majority of the electorate will vote Tory or Lib Dem and you will have no decision on who wins.
    I did consider the possibility of someone voting Labour in the hope that they don’t lose their deposit but I sincerely believe that the Labour and Tory parties are sufficiently well-funded that they can afford a few lost deposits. In some constituencies one might consider voting for your favourite fringe party to help them keep their deposit. There are also arguments in favour of voting for a party that can’t win in the hope that their vote will grow over time and one day get in.
    My opinion is that the key issue, wherever you, are is to vote according to who you prefer or hate least who stands a realistic chance of winning. In most cases this will be the party that won or came second last time round. Do not consider voting for a party that came third or lower unless they need to increase their vote by less than 20% to get in. Taking a long term view is pointless. You could be wishing to vote for a different party at subsequent elections.
    Despite the plight of Labour voters in my constituency, at a national level the “first past the post” system favours the two major parties and penalises the fringe parties. Is it not time for a change?

  5. THE EU

    You will have probably guessed by now that I’m a Europhile. Broadly speaking, that is a correct assumption. Put bluntly, there should be an EU and, if there is an EU, the UK should be part of it. An EU with the UK sitting outside it may not be the worst possible scenario, in some peoples’ views, but that scenario is nothing like what it was before we joined the UK.
    Firstly, even the most committed Europhile will admit that the EU, as is, is far from perfect. It does not always act in the interests of members states and tends to favour the interests of some member states above others. Many will complain that the interests of the UK are not particularly favoured at present but other countries can argue the same point.
    Firstly, the case for the existence of the EU. With closer ties between the USA and China, the future seems more inclined towards the G2 summits being more significant than the G7/8 and G20 summits. Despite their rich histories, countries such as Germany, Greece, Holland and Portugal (as well as us) cannot kid themselves that they are “world powers” in their own right. Surely, being part of a “European” voice is better than having no voice at all. In fact, I have often argued the point that all the big world decisions are taken in Washington and Beijing. Not that I have any issues, per se, with either the Chinese or Americans but (in my opinion) they have no more right (apart from weight of numbers) to dictate to the rest of the world than the Rumanians or the Spanish.
    One can rightly claim that many key decisions are also made in Brussels. This will continue whether the UK is in the EU or not. On a practical level, much of our trade is with the EU and this will inevitably reduce if we leave. Many multinationals employ people in the UK and one of the big reasons that they employ people here is that we are in the EU.
    Now the counter-argument is that we can trade more with the Commonwealth countries instead but, in politics, people can have inconveniently long or short memories. I doubt if many of our former trade partners would welcome us back with open arms.
    Now, as I understand it, the main reasons for people wanting us to leave the EU are the size of our contribution to the EU budget and net immigration. Certainly, I would not argue with the people who think that our budget contribution is too big in the current economic climate. I fully support any future UK government to negotiate a reduction in our contributions for the medium term. I honestly haven’t made up my mind on this one but one thing we must be clear about in the longer term is to what extent the UK and EU should be helping poorer countries inside and outside the UK. I’ll do a separate post on that.
    I’ve already posted my views on immigration, so please read them. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong for people with firm job offers to live in the UK. I have reservations about jobseekers coming here indefinitely and collecting benefits funded wholly by the UK taxpayer. Yet there is the long term issue of philanthropy (and I’ll do a separate post on that).
    Now if you think our EU contributions, immigration and other issues are justification for us to leave, I’ll respectfully disagree with you. Otherwise, consider what an isolated UK and maybe even isolated England would be like in the 21st century. I doubt it will be a pleasant place to live.

    None of the parties has (to my knowledge) put this on the election agenda. Put simply, philanthropy (in this context) is the deliberate or accidental act of transferring money from wealthier countries to poorer countries or their citizens.
    I was debating whether to write next about the NHS, tax or refugees. Having said that, much of those issues have a strong component of philanthropy.
    When it comes to giving, we’re very good at sticking our hands in our pockets or crawling on our hands and knees from Land’s End to John o’ Groats to raise money for natural disasters abroad. Significantly, people from the lower half of the income spectrum contribute a higher percentage than higher earners. There are countries where individuals contribute higher percentages of their income to one-off appeals than we do but we are rather good.
    Many people also choose to donate a regular sum to charities but are generally reluctant to hand money to beggars at home and abroad. For one thing, one does not know how genuine they are, as some people pretend to be poor out of pure greed. OK, they are in a minority but I have heard of at least one beggar owning a luxury car. One is naturally considered to be “wealthy”, even if one is there on business and might be having financial issues at home. Which brings us to another point.
    Someone who is waiting in a queue at a food bank or whose employer has gone bankrupt will not consider themselves “rich”. Many people here are rightly feeling a sense of deprivation. Their incomes are lower than pre-2008 levels and may have had to go without rather more than their nightly pint down the pub. Conversely, many people from poorer countries still consider us a “wealthy” country and are even prepared to risk their lives to gain illegal entry. They might be aware that not all residents of this “wealthy” country are wealthy individuals but will often think their poverty is their own fault. In many countries, an extended family will rally round to help a poor relative but this is not common here. First of all, it is alien to our culture, secondly our cost of living is so high that most people simply cannot afford to help anyone outside their household. Thirdly, if a family suffers hardship, we are unsympathetic if we felt that they contributed to their own problems by over-spending. By contrast, many extended families abroad will give assistance unconditionally.
    Now here lies the problem: despite being “wealthy” our individual and collective means to help others is less than what it was. Certainly, as a short-term measure, we should certainly “freeze” publically-funded philanthropy at the current level. We should also look closely at who deserves our help (not just who can best support our interests abroad) and the best way we can do it. Many countries donate goods manufactured in their own country, rather than “hard cash”. This also has the advantage of reducing the amount of aid that goes to line foreign politicians’ pockets. Surely you don’t think our MPs’ expenses scandal is the only or worst misuse of public funds in the world?
    Whilst most of us would agree that we should play our part in reducing world poverty, we have two major problems: Firstly, neither the UK government nor individuals have bottomless pits. Secondly, it is virtually impossible to support the poor worldwide without losing something here. If we work on the assumption that the UK economy will neither shrink nor grow much over the next 10 years, we are left with the inevitability of our standard of living being reduced in order to allow that of the developing world to increase. With the economy being more global, government policy or not, jobs have been moving overseas simply because the labour costs are cheaper. In this way, our minimum wage policy has the effect of helping just that. It depends on just how “socialist” or “nationalist” one is whether the general principle of our government accidentally losing jobs from the UK to the developing world is acceptable. What if it is one’s own job that is being offshored? Volunteers?

    Firstly, many thanks to Tom Watson, MP, for bringing this to my attention. He is right that this should be an election issue.
    Housing is in crisis at the moment. It is easy to blame the current government, the previous government but the truth is that successive governments of all political leanings and the Great British Public have all played their part. I’m sure many people living in 3rd world countries would think we’re making too much of it and having 3 generations crammed into a 2 bedroom house is the norm for them. Yet, that is not for us. Rightly or wrongly, we feel entitled to better living conditions than in a 3rd world country. As an example, most divorced men do not like to move back in with their parents.
    One issue is a hard fact: we live in an over populated island. Land costs are naturally higher than most other countries. Consequently, our housing costs are naturally high, irrespective of government policy. The big hike in house prices in the 1970s was due largely by the building societies deciding to take joint income into account. It was to help make homes more affordable but had the opposite effect. I cannot vouch for too much about what happened prior to that because I was young and there wasn’t so much media about.
    I have to confess that home ownership was one of my main life goals. In that way, most of the people I worked with were the same. It is inbuilt into our culture and has led to an unhealthy obsession with the value of our homes. As well as the status implications, a high value home can be sold to help fund retirement when our children grow up. It can also be used as security to borrow money for things we don’t really need and in some cases things we do need but cannot otherwise afford. Ironically, many of us won’t be able to downsize when we retire as we’ll have to house our adult offspring for a lot longer, due to the housing crisis!
    Now I thought (naively!) that the right to buy was also about generating money to enable councils to build more social housing. It wasn’t. Yet, whilst many of us agree that more social housing needs to be built, nobody wants it on their doorstep! It will lower their house values and increase their commute times. There is also a perception that it could increase drug-related problems but my understanding is that all socio-economic groups consume roughly the same amount of illegal drugs. Yet the “not on my doorstep” attitude is a very good reason (or excuse) that social housing is not being built.
    Only the most naïve of people would say that immigration does not add further pressure on our housing resources but it is probably a lot less than most people realise. Immigrants do not generally have the British sense of entitlement and are more willing to cram more people into smaller properties. Family break-ups probably add more pressure than immigration because those leaving a relationship aspire to live alone than move in with someone else.
    So, yes, I agree with Tom that housing is in crisis. I could cynically say commentators have been saying this for as long as I can remember. I don’t think it was caused by the current and recent governments but they are collectively guilty of not doing anything about it. One thing the next government must do is provide funds from somewhere to build more social housing and be brave enough to build it on someone’s doorstep if they have to, preferably mansions owned by politicians of all political flavours!

  8. TAX

    There is a common belief in the UK that we are over-taxed. I believed this for many years but came to the conclusion that, over my lifetime, the general level of taxation is about right!

    I have visited lots of countries with low rates of tax and quite frankly I’m glad I don’t live there! In the UK we have a sense of entitlement that many people abroad don’t. Some of it (rightly in my opinion) is that we pay a high level of tax, so if we become ill or lose our jobs, we are not going to die, nor have to choose between starving to death or stealing. We should be grateful for that. We do not, generally, have a culture of wealthier extended family members picking up the bills of poorer members. So the state pays. Fair comment. For the state to pay, the state has to be adequately funded and, in general, this should be done by taxation and NOT government borrowing. Only the most extreme people would be happy to see people die due to lack of medical treatment. Actually some people do but the removal of universal free health care would make this much worse.

    So we are highly taxed but not, generally, over-taxed. If we want to keep our benefits, we should shut up and pay and sleep a little bit better at night. Now how the tax burden is distributed is (rightly!) a matter of debate. I think many people pay too much tax and we need to lower corporation tax to help job creation.

    Love it or hate it, many Tories believe in controlling the money supply using interest rates. This may well control inflation and may well stimulate the economy BUT I firmly believe that we should use tax instead of interest rates to control the money supply. We should tax more heavily during booms. During the leaner times, we can lower tax using the money that we prudently “salted away” during the booms. So we should be paying a slightly overall rate of tax right now using the money we salted away. Hold on, we DIDN’T save money during the last boom! Ask all governments since the war why we didn’t!

  9. Sorry I forgot to make another important point: Reducing tax too much at the wrong time can cause hyper-inflation.

    This issue is a rather sensitive one. Few can argue against the principle that rich people can afford to pay a greater amount on tax than the poor. Most people will say that it is the moral duty of the rich to help the poor. However, one must remember that most rich people do not think the same way as most of the rest of us. That may well be one of the reasons they are rich and we are not.
    A lot of press is (rightly) given to rich people who unlawfully “fiddle” their tax in order to pay less. What is a lot more common is people who use perfectly legal means to pay less tax. This is known as “avoidance”, whereas if it is unlawful (such as withholding details of income), it is known as “evasion”. It is part of the human condition that we think that everybody should pay a fair amount of tax, except ourselves. If we can find a legal way to pay less tax, we will do it.
    Many would say that we should simply block “loopholes” that allow people to legally avoid tax. There is little doubt, in my mind, that the tax system is over-complex and keeps tens of thousands of people employed, helping people to avoid tax and “policing” people to make sure there is no evasion going on. Some tax rules, such as the Business Expansion Scheme, were designed to encourage people to invest their income in new businesses, which was intended to help economic growth. So some of these tax breaks are intended to help the country, in general.
    As well as rich people seeking legal (and sometimes) illegal ways of paying less tax, they are quite prepared to emigrate to countries where they can pay a lot less tax. Not only might they pay less tax abroad, they are also more likely to start up or invest in their countries of residence. So, like them or not, we need rich people here to pay their taxes and (hopefully) employ people.
    The dilemma for a government is knowing how to keep taxes for the rich low enough to encourage them to stay and even attract other rich people from abroad and yet high enough so that the lower paid do not feel too much sense of injustice. So the principle of tax breaks for the rich does not seem right or fair but it can benefit the country as a whole.


    So why is the UK in a mess, over and above the mess the world is in? Some call it "The British disease" and many have written books on it. I could but I've got a lot of other books I want to write.

    The basic problem is this: we don't really do much! Just look at the job ads. Most of the vacancies are in care homes, catering and retail. Where are the jobs in industry? We are now net importers of just about everything, including high technology products. It has been the best part of a century since we grew all of our own food.

    Now this does not imply that we are all lazy. Indeed, I have met many hard working people over the years that are inspirations. In western Europe, we work one of the longest weeks, although far behind the USA and Japan.

    I don't think it was done deliberately, but we have exported most of our manufacturing jobs abroad. Many British companies (Dyson being a recent example) have made the majority of their UK workforce redundant and moved production to low cost countries. Had he not done so, it is probable that his company would have ceased trading and there would be no jobs left in the UK.

    People of great ability tend to be attracted to academia and service industries and not to manufacturing. Also, our costs are too high. Being an overcrowded little island, land prices are expensive which forces up the cost of business premises and wages.

    We also have a sense of entitlement, which is present in some other countries but not all. We feel that we should not pay for medical care and moan about the price and availability of parking spaces around hospitals. We expect the taxpayers to bankroll our lifestyle if we find ourselves without work. If we work more than the "normal" 37 hour week, we expect to be on a high salary or to receive payment by the hour.

    In many ways, we can say, we have a sense of entitlement because we pay high taxes. In countries with low taxation, there is often more poverty because the government does not have enough money to feed and house the poor. (Remember I said that I don't think we are over-taxed.) The problem is that high tax demands high wages and this, too, drives jobs abroad. I think I'm in a minority of one on this but I think our minimum wage drives jobs abroad, too. In my opinion, I prefer to see more people working, even if state benefits are needed to boost their income to enable them to live.

    Unfortunately, I don't have a magic wand but I feel that future governments could at least mitigate some of the damage.

    Maybe these would help:

    1. Reduce corporation tax, business rates and other expenses to make it more attractive for companies to employ people in the UK

    2. Create an environment that is business-friendly

    3. Freeze the minimum wage BUT increase in-work benefits for the low paid

    4. DON'T borrow money during an economic boom but Increase taxation. Reduce tax during times of austerity by using the "bonus" tax collected during a boom

    5. Invest in sustainable "green" transport during recessions to reduce our costs to industry and individuals

    6. I'll upset a few more people here: local interest or not, we MUST increase our airport capacity. Airlines using UK airports as a hub are actually making this country much-needed money

    7. Finally, whether one is right, left or centre, the priority is jobs. Jobs pay for social benefits, like health care

  12. I started a new job, so didn't have time to maintain this thread. I'd just like to add that NOBODY came round to persuade me to vote for them. So, Chippenham candidates, if you think my daughter or I should have voted for you, you only have yourselves to blame for not coming round!

  13. I'd like to thank my outgoing MP, Duncan Hames, for answering my questions and showing his support for local issues during his time in office. Up until the result, I wanted to make this blog as neutral as possible. I really hoped, not only would Duncan have been re-elected, but that the Lib Dems would continue to hold the balance of seats.

    Alas, it was not to be. The people have spoken and have chosen a majority Tory government for the next 5 years. We must respect that decision and hope that the Tories do not demolish the NHS, take us out of Europe nor let vulnerable people starve.

  14. Thanks for those kind words Philip. Sadly it wasn't to be, but I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to work for our area as a Member of Parliament. Now it is for someone else to show what they can do. Best wishes, Duncan