Thursday, January 24, 2008

A commuter asks, “So, do I wait, or do I walk?”

As a Londoner and a non-driver, the much vexed question, “ How long do I wait for the bus?” is one that occupies much of my commuting time (far too much, for those of you who are interested). Once you start waiting, you feel obliged to wait just those extra five minutes, in the almost certain knowledge that, if you don’t, the bus will arrive just as you reach the point of no return.

It was, therefore, with a degree of fascination that I read news of research by Scott Kominers, a mathematician at Harvard University, indicating that, in the absence of information, the lazy option is, statistically, the best one.

I live in the north-west London suburb of Kingsbury, sufficiently far from a useful Underground station to make using a bus a viable option. However, I have a choice of two buses, one of which runs more frequently, but takes longer to get to Wembley Park station, the other less frequent, but runs me to Kingsbury station in a shorter time. Kingsbury adds four minutes to my train journey but I get a seat. Dilemmas, dilemmas…

My bus stop has something called ‘Countdown’ which, technically, tells me how long it will be before the next bus comes. The catch is, it isn’t wholly reliable. It might, for example, tell me that there is a bus due in eight minutes, when one is actually coming around the corner. On the other hand, it might tell me that there is a bus three minutes away, which remains agonising that close for another five minutes. Alternatively, it mysteriously disappears into the West Hendon triangle, never to be seen again.

What I really need is a mathematician to tell me what my best option is. Actually, what I really need is a helicopter…

Peter Hain: government isn’t just about making laws, you’ve got to uphold them too…

There is an incredible irony about today’s resignation of Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. Most ministers bite the dust because of financial and sexual peccadilloes, the odd one because they simply aren’t up to the job. Unusually, Hain has gone because of a simple inability to understand that, if you are a senior figure in a political party that has created legislation to control fundraising and spending, you really ought to obey it yourself.

The most worrying aspect of this is that he isn’t alone. Gordon Brown defended Hain, claiming that it was ‘incompetence’. It isn’t simple incompetence, Gordon, it’s a crime. You and your colleagues designed the legislation. You voted it through the Commons and pushed it through the Lords. Now you have to obey it, just like the thousands of other pieces of legislation inflicted on ordinary people by an administration who can’t see a single problem without reaching for the legislative agenda – the same old story of ‘something must be done, this is something, it must be done’ – regardless of whatever laws already exist which can effectively be used to deal with the problem.

The claims that he was too busy don’t stand up either, I’m afraid. Ros frequently reminds me not to take on commitments that I can’t effectively deliver upon, and that represents extremely good advice(perhaps Peter might like to give Ros a call on the subject). If, as an agent, I fail to file the proper declarations at the end of a campaign, I can potentially go to prison, or at least pay a hefty fine. I will be criminalised by a piece of Labour legislation that, to be frank, I fully supported then, and now. Yes, it is an administrative burden, but I’m not claiming responsibility for an entire Government department. Peter Hain was, on the other hand.

So, now he has resigned in order to clear his name. I await with interest his defence. The law is very simple. Did he declare all donations above the proscribed amount within the due deadline? Evidently, he did not, as he has admitted. Was he ignorant of the legislation? I think not, as ignorance is no defence before the law. Did aliens from the planet Zog create such chaos in his office that papers could not be located? Perhaps his permatan caused him to be confused…

In fairness, had he failed to declare one contribution, it might have argued that it was simply an oversight, he could apologise for the mistake, and pay whatever fine was levied. A six-figure oversight, on the other hand, is way more than simple incompetence can justify, and he had no choice but to go. Obvious to anyone with any sense of moral fibre and decency, it is astonishing to think that there are those in our party who thought it necessary to defend him. Perhaps an ethics course might be helpful?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Free trade isn't a panacea unless it is truly free

Last May, I wrote a piece about my concerns over trade talks between the European Union and the various South Pacific island nations. I wasn't against the notion, merely newly aware of the issues of isolated states with predominantly subsistence economies, where competition may overwhelm small-scale local producers. My 'reward' was to take flak from some of our more zealous defenders of a comparatively unfettered free market international economy, in particular, Cllr Liberal Polemic himself, Tom Papworth.

However, it would seem that my concerns weren't a sign of eccentric weakness. Of the Pacific nations within the ACP (Africa, Caribbean and Pacific) group, only Papua New Guinea and Fiji have signed up to the new agreements, with the others, Vanuatu amongst them, demurring at this time.

Now, there are stirrings in Africa. A campaign, led by local musicians with serious followings amongst the population, is being run against the European Partnership Agreements (EPAs), condemning them as 'Enslavement, Pillage and Appropriation'. Their rap, 'We Won't Sign It Now!' is a sign that the allegations of linkage between the signing of EPAs and allocation of development aid are having a detrimental effect on EU relations with under-developed nations.

My more gung-ho, academic friends have to realise that the politics of perception inevitably come into play when it comes to international trade agreements. Poor, underdeveloped nations, once looted by the colonial powers, are rightly suspicious of the motives of the major trading blocs in seeking such agreements. Whilst an EU/Vanuatu agreement is hardly a subject for lengthy and animated debate on the streets of Madrid, Manchester or Maribor, it is of massive significance in Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital. The discrepancy in terms of power between the two parties is vast, an inevitability of creating a European Union and, indeed, one of its much-trumpeted advantages. Vanuatu's indigenous industries have much to fear from better-resourced European competitors, especially given subsidy levels to EU farmers, and the comparative economies of scale that major European businesses have.

This is not to say that such an agreement is bad for Vanuatu, merely that there are sensitivities that we, as 'rich Westerners', have to be aware of. The simple mantra that free trade is a good thing just doesn't address the genuine fears of the people we are claiming to want to help. Liberals believe in the empowerment of individuals and communities. How does that square with the effective imposition of trade agreements perceived, rightly or wrongly, as lopsided?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Et tu, Ros?

And so I have become part of a multi-blog household(s). Ros launched her new oeuvre into the for now warm waters of the blogosphere on Wednesday, and received a friendly welcome from some of you (thank you for your kindness, by the way).

When I first started dating Ros, my view of the House of Lords was more cliche than reality. Images of elderly gentlemen sleeping off an excellent lunch and occasionally waking up to deliver a rousing condemnation of the various works of whatever century they happened to believe they were in were foremost in my association with the Upper Chamber. Since then, I've had a crash course in the role of the House of Lords and, in particular, the activities of the Liberal Democrat front bench, and highly educational it has been too.

I'm therefore delighted that Ros's activities will get a wider audience. Given that our side actually win votes on various pieces of Labour's increasingly shambolic legislation, and, that as our Lords spokesperson on Communities and Local Government, her work impacts on those of us who are active in local government as councillors, employees and activists, it should prove to be an interesting insight to Government 'thinking' and a warning of what is to be done in the name of Brownian Labour.

And hopefully, it will encourage me to improve the frequency of postings here...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Time to look tough by beating up on the public sector again…

Yes, it’s that time of year once again, when the Government decides that the best way to look like it is cracking down on wage inflation is to offer below-inflationary pay rises to civil servants noting, as usual, that MPs will be offered a rather more generous settlement.

In my own beloved Revenue & Customs (HMRC), we are in the midst of a programme to cut staffing numbers by 25,000 over six years, i.e. a staffing reduction of 26%. I have no fundamental objection to that, if we can deliver the level of service that the public demand. We are, alongside that, being asked to deliver a 5% reduction in costs, year on year. Again, no fundamental objection there, after all, we are a public body, accountable to, and paid by, the public.

But, in truth, we are being asked to lay our bodies on the line for the Chancellor and his boss. Morale has been low for some time, and too many of my colleagues, whose capabilities I respect, are talking about their retirement with more anticipation than is good in an organisation which has much to do amidst rapid change. The expectation is that our reward for being co-operative is a real terms pay cut, to be delivered over three years.

Curiously enough, there are already stirrings of discontent beyond the walls of HMRC buildings. “Taxation”, described as ‘the market-leading magazine for tax practitioners’, has started a campaign against further staff cuts (we’re about halfway through the programme, I’m told), triggered by the recent loss of those pesky CD’s, but focusing on the alleged deterioration in the level of service provided by HMRC. I can’t really comment on that, for a whole bunch of reasons, but I’m sure that they can provide plenty of evidence to support their contention.

In order to achieve the required cut in staffing numbers, recruitment will dry up (as will advancement opportunities), and departing staff will not be replaced. Whilst staff are moving around to fill the gaps, and retrained as necessary, pressure will build on those remaining, lowering morale further. A real pay cut will exacerbate the problem and encourage the best and the brightest (at least, those who haven’t become institutionalised, as I have) to flee to the private sector (the bigger accountancy firms have a pretty good idea as to the quality of HMRC training – and can pay rather attractive salaries to our technically trained Inspectors, especially in London).

And, once we finally start to recruit again, whenever staff numbers stabilise, salaries will be less attractive, less competitive, and we will struggle to recruit the quality of staff required to provide a decent service both to the public and to the public purse.

So, if you’re reading this Alastair, give it just a little thought before you make the expected derisory offer. You’ve had a tough introduction to the job, so a few friends might be a useful investment for a rainy day…

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Choice is a good thing. Isn’t it?

I have been following the ongoing choice debate with some interest, especially given my predilection for free market economics (yes, I admit it, I’m on the right wing of the Party, whatever that means…). However, as a bureaucrat, I have some reservations, based predominantly on the concept of provision of real choice for real people.

Firstly, let’s be realistic about the extent to which the offer of choice will actually apply. In rural areas, where service provision is limited by viability and geography, a meaningful choice of schools, doctors and, to some extent, hospitals, will be decidedly limited. Don’t get me wrong, this is not an argument against offering choice, merely a note to be borne in mind when the great campaign for choice is rolled out. To some extent, choice is an urban issue, whereas in villages and hamlets across the country, having a viable school within reach at all is the pressing concern. Doctor’s surgery? If you’re lucky, although you’ll probably have to go to a town, where you’ll be competing with locals for a place on their list.

One of the key aspects to meaningful choice is access to the information needed to make a good choice. School league tables, operative success rates and the like are freely available, but predominantly via the Internet. Whilst the question of the ‘digital divide’ is still an open one, and it really isn’t one that I’ve heard any political party address recently, the chances are that the poor and the elderly will be restricted in their access to the information they require. Yes, public libraries and internet cafes are a solution, although access to them is somewhat limited, but is that sufficient, and are we willing to provide extra resources to connect people to the information they need?

I am reassured to some extent by the talk of empowerment, although words are cheap. There will necessarily be a role for the state in gathering, collating and providing information to those wishing to exercise their right to choose, and we need to decide how that role is delivered, and by whom. We will also need to provide support to ‘customers’, and a decision on how that support is best provided is one that will come with costs.

However, my primary concern is that choice, unless properly supported, will create yet another divide in our society. The very wealthy have choice because they can, quite simply, pay for it. The middle classes will have choice because they are ambitious enough to seek it. On the other hand, the child of parents who lack ambition for themselves and their loved ones (and I acknowledge that there are generational and other issues here) are less likely to seek the best options and therefore more likely to accept what the state ‘gives’ them.

I am a child of the 1960’s. Partly because of the change of culture over the intervening years, and partly because my parents very wisely brought me up without a burning desire to have ‘stuff’, I tend to the view that there are people out there who ‘want it’ more than I do. I’m not desperately ambitious. On the other hand, there are people out there who are, and if I’m not careful, there is the risk that I will be trampled to death as an innocent standing between them and what they want. Choice is like that. Thus, it is my contention that, in a liberal society, you don’t simply give people choice, you actively empower people to make the best choices.

Such a stance comes with a cost, at least as far as a government is concerned. However, if we genuinely believe in choice for all, we are going to have to address that cost in a clear and measured manner. I trust that those who are most enthusiastic in pursuit of the choice agenda will bear that in mind…

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The bureaucrat's choice for President of the United States...

So, it seems that I'm a Democrat - as a member of Americans for Democratic Action, I should hope so! I'm pretty mainstream too...

87% Chris Dodd
85% Barack Obama
81% Hillary Clinton
79% John Edwards
79% Bill Richardson
78% Joe Biden
74% Dennis Kucinich
71% Mike Gravel
48% Rudy Giuliani
44% John McCain
36% Mike Huckabee
34% Mitt Romney
27% Ron Paul
24% Tom Tancredo
24% Fred Thompson

Watching the candidates… why Obama looks like the best thing since sliced bread…

Having been in the US for more than a week in the run-up to the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, I’ve been keeping more than one eye on the campaign.

On the Democratic side, it is clearly becoming a two-and-a-half horse contest, with John Edwards likely to hang on in the hope of becoming the Vice-Presidential nominee – it worked last time so why not this?

Hillary Clinton’s campaign has weaved a rather crooked path thus far. She has talked up her involvement in foreign affairs, and talked about her experience, as opposed to that of Barack Obama. There is a clear problem here, in that the Clinton administration denied that Hillary was playing a key role in foreign policy making at the time, and her claims merely remind people that they weren’t keen on such involvement on her point at the time.

Unfortunately, the Obama message - change - has proved to be very attractive, so Hillary has begun to claim that only she can deliver change. Unfortunately, the people running her campaign are exactly the same people who were running things during Bill’s presidency. Can they actually change things, or would they run things the same way as before? The latter seems more likely, especially if you have traded on their experience previously.

So now, it is time to attack Obama for promising more than he can deliver. John F Kennedy would weep to hear such an argument, and the concept that giving people hope should be a negative one, for me, says far too much about the ambitions of a Hillary Clinton presidency. So far, hope has been triumphant, and with rough parity in terms of resources, Hillary is going to have to work awfully hard to save this.

Her big advantage is that the Party leadership is broadly supportive, although there is always the risk that supposedly loyal allies will peel off if they believe that Obama can win.

So, why does Barack Obama appear so credible? He is, I must say, a pretty inspirational speaker. He name checks the key figures, the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., and he talks of hope whilst looking serious. He can smile, and does it often enough to appear likeable. He also looks like a leader and a visionary, and appears to understand just how unpopular America appears to the outside observer – although that’s an interesting point in itself.

He is convincing in terms of building a ‘big tent’, rather than a ‘rainbow coalition’, the latter being something which has been a dream of the Democratic Party leadership for so long without ever becoming a reality. On the other hand, building a coalition from across the political spectrum can, if done sincerely, win elections and allow meaningful action.

I hope that Obama can win the nomination, even though he will find it harder to win the Presidency than other potential Democratic nominees might. The notion that we might have an American president with whom we can share common values is one that we should relish, especially if we are serious about changing the world by example rather than diktat.

Happy New Year to you all…

I’ve been rather out of touch with this blogging stuff for the past fortnight or so, due to my absence from most things Liberal Democrat in Washington and Denver. So, I really ought to catch up… watch this space…