Wednesday, 19 April 2017

The election - a few thoughts

So we've an election. Genuinely a surprise election (anyone pretending otherwise is probably fibbing) and one that's set fair for a large Conservative majority. Not, of course, that I'm making predictions as I'm not very good at them and there are hundreds of other places making election guesses.

The irony, of course, is that the Labour Party could - a few months ago - have prevented this election happening by simply saying that we don't need an election and they wouldn't vote for one in a necessary House of Commons vote. Instead Labour leaders, and not just Jeremy Corbyn, made clear that they believed Theresa May didn't have a "mandate", was "unelected" and that the Party was well up for an election. Having said all this, Labour had no choice but to go into the lobbies all turkey-like to support the Government motion on an election.

Perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised in seeing the first salvo of the campaign being a barrage of essentially personal attacks on Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader. In one respect he brought this on himself by being altogether mealy-mouthed about LGBT issues but it is a reminder how difficult it is to be anything other than a Pretend Christian (a la Blair) in British politics. The questioning of Farron by quoting chunks of Leviticus at him presages an unpleasant approach from the media throughout the election.

The effect of all this is to make the Liberal Democrat leader look old-fashioned without the benefit of being a Tory. Instead of Farron's intended launch involving the endless repetition of the mantra "Brexit, Brexit is bad", we've the spectacle of atheist Liberal Democrats trying to explain evangelical Christian theology without actually admitting that, yes, lots of Christians (and Muslims for that matter) do believe homosexual sex is a sin. But then the same goes for (many such folk believe) sex outside marriage, abortion, female immodesty, and drunkenness. I would wish the Liberal Democrats well in this defence were it not almost entirely hypocritical.

Gazing into the fog of the campaign it seems to me that the media will be the shock troops of attack politics this time. Fed a line, as they were with Farron's Christianity, they will lead on their own attacks: Corbyn's IRA links or Tory election expenses. The actual issues will, as ever these days, get subsumed in agitated questioning about minor verbal errors or historical indiscretions. Most of this really won't achieve anything for anyone's campaign - it's like the Eton wall game, lots of shouting, mud thrown, accusations, eye-gouging and general mayhem but nobody scores.

I have a feeling that, for many voters away from this hubbub, their decision on who to support will be set by a combination of historical habit and their vote on 23 June 2016. It's hard to see a Leave voter, having been called all the names under the sun by Remain Ultras, voting for a party that wants to overturn the Brexit decision. Expect the more ardent Remain Ultras to face this dilemma as their opponents focus on this issue. And expect the use of 'Stop Brexit' as a campaign strategy to be pretty ineffective other than in a very few constituencies.

For Labour their problem is threefold - they've got an incompetent leadership, they're hopelessly divided on Brexit (the biggest issue of the election), and the public would rather trust the economy to a couple of old blokes down the pub that with Corbyn and McDonnell. The Party knows this can't be fixed even if Corbyn falls on his sword and has to deal with facing the prospect of an historic defeat. Some people, with good reason, suggest this is similar to the 1983 election but it seems to me that the better comparison is 1997, at least in terms of expectations and party morale.

For my Party the risks are complacency - not just in campaigners but in our voters. Right now our campaigning capacity is as good as it has ever been. We target better, have learned the Liberal Democrat trick of moving campaigners to where their most needed, and have a consistency of brand and message as strong as at any time in my 40 years as an active member. The weakness is that the political message is unexciting, more about being a safe pair of hands in challenging times than about what Britain should be like post-Brexit. Conservatives have an urgent need to get beyond mere competence and to talk about a positive, exciting future for the nation.

I won't be conducting a running commentary on the election and you know how I'll be voting. But if you meet candidates ask them for a positive view of tomorrow and how they will try and make this happen. Look beyond the Brexit negotiations and there's an exciting future - the biggest transport technology change since the internal combustion engine, the challenge of robots, how to deal with longevity and greater leisure time, and the decoupling of economic growth from resource consumption.

In the meantime, enjoy the election. I hope to. And the result, of course.


Sunday, 16 April 2017

If we can't charge for park runs, what is the point of a local council?

Yesterday lots of people were running around smiling because of an announcement from the Government:
Councils in England will be banned from charging people to take part in weekend fun runs under rules being proposed by the government.

Free events, organised by the Parkrun group to encourage fitness, attract thousands of runners on 5km courses (3 miles) in parks across the country.

A parish council near Bristol last year proposed charging entrants £1 each, citing the cost of upkeep of paths.
And, of course, you all think it absolutely right that politicians in London ban Councils from deciding on things like what they can and cannot charge people or organisations for doing. Don't get me wrong here, I don't particularly think Councils should charge for park runs (although please note that crown green bowlers, cricketers and football players are charged to use facilities in public parks) but I do think that if we are to go to the trouble of electing local councillors to make decisions we should actually let them make those decisions. And, yes, that might include charging for a park run. If you don't like the decision you get the chance to vote out the people who made that decision. This is how the representative democracy lark works.

Except it doesn't really. I thought through the things we do as a local council - care for the elderly, look after the disabled, protect children, fix the roads, collect your rubbish, pick up the litter you drop, provide parks and hundreds of other services large and small. In every case the degree of genuine local control gets less and less each passing year. Our care services are determined by central government means tests, our children's services by national legislation and the threat of intervention, highways maintenance by centrally determined capital programmes, waste management by onerous EU regulations and, now it seems, Government wants to decide through legislation what we can and cannot do with the parks we manage.

Councils do a pretty good job - amidst a load of criticism - in administering the services we're asked to administer. And local councillors mostly do a great job (especially the Conservative ones) of helping people negotiate the nonsense of bureaucracy. We also provide a reality check on the innate daftness of government administrators. But these days our decision making is more and more limited to how we administer services within central government rules and trying to keep going the small number of non-statutory services such as allowing people to organise running round the park on a Sunday morning.

The park run case is about a council making a tricky decision about its budget. And then seeing a national organisation lobby central government to take away that council's right to make that tricky decision. So tell me, what is the point of a local council?


Thursday, 13 April 2017

London Habits - thoughts on the intellectuals' loathing of England

I give you a toast, ladies and gentlemen.
I give you a toast, ladies and gentlemen.
May this fair dear land we love so well
In dignity and freedom dwell.
Though worlds may change and go awry
While there is still one voice to cry
There'll always be an England
We know that there's a sort of intellectual that loathes England and the English, even while relishing the pleasures and treasures of the nation. George Orwell wrote about such people over seventy years ago and little has changed. What has happened is that many of these people have become essentially rootless, believing that they belong to some global patria - Harm de Blij's 'Flat Earthers' living in David Goodhart's 'Anywhere'.

What I don't understand is why the English members of that Laputan patria are so offended by the idea of England and Englishness. Not even the the football hooliganism bit of Englishness that causes us pain but the unchanging places of England's countryside, the market towns, cricket and the village pub. They've even found a name for it - Deep England:
Forget Little Englanders – Deep Englanders believe that life was better before the evils of industrialisation, foreign competition and, you know, immigration

Name: Deep England.

Born: In the good old days.

Appearance: A glass of warm ale, a sun-dappled larch on the village green, the thwack of leather on willow, a cheeky wink from the milkman.
To most of us this is just...well...England.  But the anonymously authored Guardian piece continues in this vein before concluding with telling us what we should say about this:
“Deep England is regressive and harmful for the population at large.”
You see my friends, those traditions of ours - village cricket, beer, church bells, morris dancing - along with the idea that you don't need to change something if it isn't broken, they are harmful. These are - our Guardian writer asserts - places that voted to leave the EU filled with terrible English people. England is a terrible place and we must stay in the EU so as to prevent England.

We have a rise in self-loathing bigotry among a class of mostly London-dwelling folk who aspire to be one of those 'Flat Earthers' living in 'Anywhere'. It hurts these England-deniers when they're reminded their near neighbours rather like where they live and also pretty much like the way it is right now. The 'Flat Earthers' pretend - contrary to the actual evidence from these places - that the folk living there are unfriendly, unwelcoming, suspicious of anyone who looks a little different.

These 'Flat Earthers' have developed an image of their enemy, a bigoted stereotype of the thick, fat, flushed Englishman - the corrupted image of Skegness's Jolly Fisherman adorning the front of these self-loathers house journal, New European sums up their ignorance and prejudice completely.

Look beyond the caricature here with it's UKIP scarf and spot instead at the discarded ice-cream cone, the litter on the beach and the brown sea. This is how the 'Flat Earthers' see the world outside their bubble - loud, lewd, dirty, common. What they don't see it that their world is closing in. The faces of the people outside that world are now pressed up against the bubble of 'Anywhere'. And the 'Flat Earthers' are scared. Scared of those ordinary folk who've suddenly realised they're just as important as the great and good in London.

I remember a boss of mine talking about visiting his soon-to-be wife's parents out in the sticks somewhere (Hampshire if I recall correctly). They'd had a lovely day, a pleasant evening, nice food, company and some wine. After everyone had gone to bed, Tom (my boss) was creeping along to his fiancees bedroom for a cuddle, only to hear his putative mother-in-law call out in a loud voice, "and we're not having any of those London habits here."

None of us provincials and suburbanites think everything is perfect or even that leaving the EU is some sort of panacea to society's ills. Rather, we would like to be seen as people rather than something to be either sneered at or patronised. Above all, as English men and women, we think our country is great, has done great things, and is worth preserving as a place rather than a mere brand in a nebulous, purposeless 'Anywhere'.


Wednesday, 12 April 2017

My speech on Bradford City centre to Politics in the Pub

For those of you who missed last night's Bradford Politics in the Pub event, here is my short speech about the regeneration of our City centre and the Council's current proposals. We were asked "how do we solve a problem like Darley Street?"

"Forgive me for not answering your question. I really do think it’s the wrong question for all that we’re rightly concerned about the future of that street.

It’s more important, I feel, that we think about the longer term, about the future of the high street and the role of City Centres like Bradford.

When big and successful centres like Leeds and Manchester are starting to question the size of their retail footprint – about shrinking the centre, as it were – it seems silly of Bradford to think in a different direction.

The idea that retail alone – or even in large part – can deliver a future city centre is, I fear, delusional. Those things in your pockets and handbags ensure you can buy stuff at the flip of a finger and have it delivered to your door – city centres will never compete with this shopping offer.

We need a different answer. One that works for Bradford.

14 years ago, Bradford asked Will Alsop to provide a city centre master plan. I posted the result – or at least the video that accompanied the plan – on the Politics in the Pub facebook page – if you’ve not seen it, it is easily googled.

Once you got past the teddy bears and blobby architecture, Alsop’s plan was genuinely radical.

So genuinely radical that we ignored it.

Alsop proposed an anti-development masterplan. A completely different take on a city centre. One that played to the uniqueness of Bradford as a place and to the city’s challenges with land values and investment.

Alsop said ‘knock down the ugly stuff, the results of Wardley’s 1960s redesign of the City Centre, and replace it with a park.’

That was pretty much it. For sure there were bits of detail. Some debate about whether there should be no planned new development or just very little.

It’s time for us to look again.

What are centres for?

Here’s a list from American ethnographers Susie Pryor and Sanford Grossbart:
“…dining; window shopping; strolling for relaxation; jogging for health reasons; pub crawls; wine tastings; book clubs; language clubs; craft guilds; charity events; art events; parades; demonstrations; mass celebrations following major sports victories; and meeting friends.”
You might care to add to this list but I do know that, when Bradford City are promoted to the Premiership it won’t be celebrated by buying stuff on Amazon – the flags, parades, banners and beer will be here in the city.

Imagine that in a place that’s like a park? For a fleeting moment Bradford has a glimpse of that dream.

But we put it away. Searched instead for “high value demographics”, “enhanced land values”, and “new investment profiles”. Development bollocks.

Bradford doesn’t have the values right now to deliver shiny retail, grade ‘A’ office space or high quality market housing. So simply moving bits of the city about – fixing Darley Street by shutting down the main generator of footfall in the ‘top of town’ seems to be simply robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So let’s do to the top of town what Alsop told us to do – turn it into a park. A destination. That might just work. It seems right now a better bet than waiting for millions of private investment in housing that probably isn’t going to arrive in Bradford city centre any time soon."


Saturday, 8 April 2017

"Tell 'em I lied". Why politicians aren't truthful.

It's usually attributed to Huey or Earl Long both, back in the day, Governor of Louisiana. Presented with the truth about a campaign pledge and after deciding to go back on this promise, the Governor says to his advisor, "tell 'em I lied". It sort of reinforces the public's opinion about what politicians will say to get elected - I'll fix that, stop this, build something, make something. Promises that, like April snow, vanish at the first ray of sunshine.

Seems there's a reason:
We know from public choice theory that lying is more rational for a politician than for individuals in other walks of life. A politician's lies are less likely to be noticed or remembered by the "rationally ignorant" voter. Rational ignorance means that the individual voter has little incentive to invest time and money in gathering and analyzing political information because he will not be able, with his single vote, to change the election result. The politician running for office also has an incentive to lie when deprecating his opponents' character. If he wins, there will be no way to know whether or not his opponents would have been as bad as he claimed. And since the politician has no property rights in his office, the discounted value of his political reputation over time is very low, giving him an incentive to trade long-term credibility for short-run victories.
This observation (from a super article by Pierre Lemieux) is compounded by two additional problems. The first is that the voter wants to be lied to, wants to believe that government can solve whatever problems that voter has in his or her life. And as politicians we are only to happy to indulge this delusion by saying "of course, do you want that in green or blue?". The second problem is that truth is, as anyone looking at 'fact check' websites will know, often a matter of degree or emphasis. There's a lot of shouting about 'post-truth' and 'fake news' but this anger is limited - it doesn't touch on things that aren't true but that the public really believes are true. Here's Tim Worstall:
Perhaps a red flashing cop light beside an article which contains any of the following lies?

The minimum wage does not cause job losses.

Corporations should pay more tax.

Global inequality is rising.

US child poverty is over 20%.

We have widespread poverty in the UK.

17% of UK families cannot afford enough food.
What? You think these things are true? You read angst-ridden articles about them in the Guardian? Us politicians lie because you think things like imports being bad and exports good, that 'dumping' steel or solar panels is bad for our economy, and that regulation supports markets.

If you want truth then the most grown up thing you can do as a voter is to assume that the government is not interested in making your life better, is not concerned about the things that you're concerned about, and has the primary function of sustaining its current size, structure and powers regardless of their actual value to society. And, that politicians lie because you want and expect them to lie.


Monday, 3 April 2017

Keep the Faith - a thought on atheism and belief

Atheists, or many of them, have an issue with the idea of faith. Much of this stems from a misunderstanding, from the belief that faith and religion are, if not the same thing, close enough so as to be used interchangeably. The approach of public agencies doesn't help here either as they universally use faith as a convenient cipher for religion - 'Faith Organisation', 'Faith Group' and 'Faith Leaders' are, in public policy speak, simply ciphers for religions, churches and priests of one sort of another. The problem is that this misrepresents the idea of faith.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Heb. 11:1)
That's how St Paul defines faith in his Letter to the Hebrews. It doesn't talk directly of god or religion or worship merely that faith is our evidence for things we cannot sense. It is the riposte to that sceptical urge for evidence - Thomas thrusting his hand into Christ's spear wound. A rejection of the empiricist idea that things without evidence, without Christ's blood on your hand, are not true or unreal - myths, fairy tales, trite stories. We are serious people for heaven's sake!

"Keep the Faith" is the joyous cry of Northern Soul fans:
Singing and playing sax is still my main occupation these days, but whilst I still possess the same enthusiasm for 60s soul tunes and making people smile - I will continue to try and "Keep The Faith" !

Now some youngsters of today's generation may read this and laugh their heads off - and that's OK - because now is your time. But when you reach 50 I hope you are still as passionate about your music and that you too have lots of genuine friends who like you have also remained resolute throughout in their beliefs.
That faith's an intangible thing, hard to explain to those who don't have it, who aren't Northern Soul people. But it's real and important - as that quote above makes clear it really matters, it's part of identity and belief. A feeling familiar to football supporters loyally slogging through the rain week after week to see their club - dreaming that one day greatness will arrive but knowing differently: sharing this with others among the faithful.

In her "Bourgeois Virtues", Deidre McCloskey quotes philosopher J. Budziszewski:
No argument can be so completely drawn as to eliminate its dependence, conscious or unconscious, on undemonstrable first principles.
On faith.

McCloskey continues later:
The Faith, in other words, need not be a faith in God. Many secular folk believe in a transcendent without God, though approaching him.
The way in which we live, the communities we build, the exploring of our world, the speculation about the universe and the hope for the future we hold - all these things in part depend on us taking things in faith. Without trust our society works poorly and to trust someone, in business or in our personal lives, is an act of faith. For sure we can apply rules to enforce that contract implicit in trust but wouldn't relying on enforcement make for a dreadful world? Isn't it better to have faith in our fellows and act accordingly?

Without first principles we are speculating in a fog. So we take some things as axiomatic and construct argument accordingly. And we are able to appreciate that one person's axiom is another's nonsense - my Dad used to end political arguments proclaiming that 'the dialectic is axiomatic'. Without faith, without acceptance of the unprovable, it is difficult to sustain argument and to promote speculation - to get closer to that thing of faith be it god or non-god.

So when atheists construct an argument from the assumption that there is no god they start with that undemonstrable first principle (no god) of Budziszewski's. It is an act of faith to make this argument. And none the worse an argument for being so.


Sunday, 2 April 2017

A note on Conservative euroscepticism

There's a fairly common retort from those who still wish to remain in the EU when it's pointed out that we've had a referendum that voted to leave and parliament started that processs of leaving. It goes something like "Brexiteers had forty years of moaning about EU membership so they've no room to talk".

Now I'm sure we can probably find some few folk who, having opposed continued membership in 1976, continued to bang on about it from then onwards. Where you won't find them is in the Conservative Party. Aside from Teddy Taylor and a few unreconstructed Powellites, the Conservative Party was completely united in its support for our membership of what was then the European Economic Community (EEC). What opposition there was to membership came from the left - indeed Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, John Prescott and other enthusists for EU membership fought and lost the 1983 General Election on a platform of leaving the EEC.

In that election I was agent for John Carlisle, MP for North Luton. I think it fair to say that John was as far to the right in the party as you could get but we still included support for EEC membership in the election address. Our membership simply wasn't an issue for Conservatives.

Between this time and the 2001 general election something happened. During the selection meeting for the parliamentary candidate in Keighley, I was asked a question about the Euro. My response was that membership of the Euro should only come following a referendum but that I didn't think we'd have one. I suggested that the next referendum would be about our membership of the EU not the Euro, and that I didn't know how I would vote come that day.

The something - well somethings really - that happened between 1983 and 2001 was all about money and the approach of government. Firstly we had the debacle of the UK joining and then leaving the Exchange Rate Mechanism, then the long drawn out Maastricht Treaty ratification process, and finally we had the creation of the Euro. Tory euroscpeticism was born. But even then it wasn't about leaving but rather that Britain should be less supine in its dealings with the EU and more assertive in opposing moves leading to federalism.

It wasn't until the mid-2000s when the Better Off Out campaign was launched with support from a few Conservative MPs like Philip Davies and Douglas Carswell that we saw a group within the Conservative Party committed to leaving the EU. The long war over ERM, Maastricht and the Euro had scarred the Party and the membership placed the blame squarely on the pro-EU leadership - men such as John Major, Michael Heseltine and Ken Clarke.

It is important, therefore, not to rewrite history as some sort of rationalisation for seeking to overturn the decision to leave the EU. There has not been a 40 year campaign to leave - UKIP wasn't formed until 1993 and James Goldsmith's Referendum Party campaigned for a referendum on further federalism (and did very badly) in 1997. Even then the media position on membership was overwhelmingly supportive and the Conservative Party remained committed to membership albeit with a somewhat grumpy attitude to the EU.

None of this is to suggest that Remainers should shut up but rather to observe that their claim of a long media campaign supported by the right of the Conservative Party is largely untrue. The important question to ask is how the Conservative Party transformed from an enthusiast for European economic cooperation firstly into a scpetical and questioning party and then, in large part, to an advocate of leaving. If we're looking for the reason we left, it happened on 7 February 1992 when the EEC stopped being a free trade alliance and became a nascent 'superstate', the EU.