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Friday, May 25, 2018

Labour need action not words on House of Lords reform

Jeremy Corbyn's decision to require all future Labour nominees to the House of Lords to sign up to abolition of the unelected second chamber is very welcome, but on past evidence the problem lies not in the other place (as MPs describe it) but with MPs themselves.

As the Guardian records, the Labour leader, who is a long-time advocate of replacing the upper house with an elected chamber, has already made the pledge a condition for the appointment of three new peers announced on Friday.

However, when it came to the crunch in 2012 and Nick Clegg needed the support of the Labour Party to put in place a timetable motion that would override the delaying tactics of a sizeable number of Tory MPs, Miliband and his pals bottled it and allowed the reform measure to die a death.

The problem, as Clegg will no doubt testify, is not the determination to reform but the precise nature of any change. There is a clear majority in the House of Commons for the current position to be scrapped, however there is no agreement whatsoever on what should replace it.

Until the reformers, including Corbyn and my own party can agree on a way forward it is unlikely that any of the new peers will ever be asked to vote to abolish themselves.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Has Twitter become an official tool of government?

It is fair to say that Donald Trump has revolutionised the way that Twitter is used by politicians. That has nor always been a good thing. Although he has been able to speak directly to more that 52 million people, his utterances have not always been coherent, whilst the opprobrium he has attracted in return is often unrepeatable in mixed company or indeed any company.

What has surprised many people is how he has managed to avoid plunging the United States into a war through his tweets. After all he is a sitting President who speaks for the nation. He did after all threaten North Korea with nuclear war and shared prejudiced messages from a far-right British party.

Even Theresa May has been forced to gently scold him for his misrepresentations of the UK on twitter. And let's not even get started on his defence of guns in the wake of yet more mass-shootings in the USA. Twitter is not just a means of communication for Trump, it is a fantasy world he inhabits so as to avoid awkward facts.

Now, all of this controversy has come back to bite the United States President with a ruling by a Federal Judge that Donald Trump cannot block critics on Twitter as doing so violates their right to free speech under the First Amendment of the US Constitution.

As the Independent reports, the ruling from Judge Naomi Buchwald said that discussions arising from Mr Trump's tweets should be considered a public forum, as the messages are “governmental in nature":

Judge Buchwald rejected an argument from the Department of Justice that Mr Trump's own rights under the First Amendment allowed him to block people with whom he did not want to interact with.

Blocking users “as a result of the political views they have expressed is impermissible under the First Amendment,” Judge Buchwald wrote in the order, adding the president cannot use Twitter in a way “that infringes on the corresponding First Amendment rights of those who have criticized him”.

The paper says that the judge stopped short of directly ordering Mr Trump, or those who work for him, to unblock users, saying it was not necessary to enter a “legal thicket” involving the power court can hold over the president. They add that the lawsuit also named Mr Trump's social media director, Dan Scavino, as a defendant:

“Because no government official is above the law and because all government officials are presumed to follow the law once the judiciary has said what the law is, we must assume that the president and Scavino will remedy the blocking we have held to be unconstitutional,” she wrote.

So there we have it. Donald Trump's twitter feed is officially an organ of the United States Government. God help us all.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Brexit is costing householders £900 a year

I have noticed that whenever a neutral observer or expert produces a verifiable bad news fact about the impact of Brexit the anti-Europeans jump in and try to claim bias or attribute political motives to the source. It is almost as if the Brexiteers themselves are models of sound commonsense, good judgement, integrity and have no record at all of manipulating or inventing data for their own political purposes.

Sure enough, the moment the Governor of the Bank of England puts his head above the parapet to do his job and pass on economic news the Brexiteers are on their high horse again. In this case, it is, as the Times reports, Mark Carney's assertion that households are at least £900 a year worse off and the economy as much as £40 billion smaller as a result of the Brexit vote. His expert view is that the economy is performing worse than its pre-referendum forecasts in May 2016:

Philip Hammond, the chancellor, who voted to remain in the European Union and favours a soft Brexit, did not contest the forecast in the Commons.

“Real incomes are about £900 per household lower than we forecast in May 2016, which is a lot of money,” Mr Carney told MPs on the Treasury select committee. “That’s just relative to what we were forecasting in May 2016, not adjusting up, as one might expect given the strength of the global economy, to where the economy might have been.”

On the state of the broader economy, he said: “GDP is more than 1 per cent below that [May 2016] forecast despite a very large stimulus provided by the Bank of England, a fiscal easing by the government, and global and European economies that are much stronger than they were expected to be. So if you adjust for those factors, the economy is up to 2 per cent lower than it would have been. That’s a reasonable difference.” Two percentage points of GDP is equivalent to £40 billion.

Mr Carney, who is due to step down in June next year, said that the economy had been damaged by uncertainty, which had deterred business investment, and inflation, which squeezed real household incomes. His comments came after the Bank downgraded its growth forecast for this year to 1.4 per cent, from 1.8 per cent predicted in February, although forecasts for next year and 2020 remained unchanged at 1.7 per cent.

Mr Carney has compared lost national output to “Brexit buses” in reference to the claim made on Leave campaign buses that exiting the EU would secure £350 million a week for the NHS. His claim that the economy was £40 billion smaller equates to lost tax revenues of about £15 billion, or £300 million a week.

Although Carney is technically independent of government, surely it is unprecedented for a serving Foreign Secretary to directly contradict the Governor of the Bank of England, least of all when speaking from another country. Nevertheless that is what Boris Johnson did. Maybe Theresa May should have a word when Boris returns.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why benefit sanctions don't work

The Guardian reports on a study by the University of York that has concluded that benefit sanctions are ineffective at getting jobless people into work and are more likely to reduce those affected to poverty, ill-health or even survival crime.

The paper says that the five-year exercise tracked hundreds of claimants and concluded that the controversial policy of docking benefits as punishment for alleged failures to comply with jobcentre rules has been little short of disastrous:

“Benefit sanctions do little to enhance people’s motivation to prepare for, seek or enter paid work. They routinely trigger profoundly negative personal, financial, health and behavioural outcomes,” the study concludes.

Despite claims by ministers in recent years that rigorously enforced conditionality – including mandatory 35-hour job searches – incentivised claimants to move off benefits into work, the study found the positive impact was negligible.

It calls for a review of the use of sanctions, including an immediate moratorium on benefit sanctions for disabled people who are disproportionately affected, together with an urgent “rebalancing” of the social security system to focus less on compliance and more on helping claimants into work.

In the “rare” cases where claimants did move off benefits into sustained work, researchers found that personalised job support, not sanctions, was the key factor. With few exceptions, however, jobcentres were more focused on enforcing benefit rules rather than helping people get jobs, the study found.

“Although some examples of good practice are evident, much of the mandatory job search, training and employment support offered by Jobcentre Plus and external providers is too generic, of poor quality and largely ineffective in enabling people to enter and sustain paid work,” it says.

For those people interviewed for the study who did obtain work, the most common outcome was a series of short-term, insecure jobs, interspersed with periods of unemployment, rather than a shift into sustained, well-paid work.

Sanctions generally delivered poor outcomes, including debt, poverty and reliance on charities such as food banks, the study found. Often imposed for trivial and seemingly cruel reasons, they frequently triggered high levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

The chances of UK Ministers taking any notice of this study is negligible. Like the majority of the population they want to see those on benefits secure meaningful and rewarding employment. However, their approach has been too unfocussed, has penalised those with disabilities disproportionately and led to far too many negative outcomes.

There needs to be a much more targeted approach which supports those trying to get into work, incentivises and enables those who have low confidence or self-esteem and takes account of disabilities. That would involve the state no longer looking on claimants as numbers that help them fulfil their targets but as human beings in need of support.

I am not holding my breath.

Monday, May 21, 2018

A 'hostile environment' for renewables?

With future of the Swansea lagoon still in doubt, it is interesting to read in the Independent yesterday that the withdrawal of government support and confusion around future investments have led to a “dramatic and worrying collapse” in green investment.

This is a complete reversal of the very positive investment in renewables and green technology started under the Liberal Democrats in the coalition government. It is yet more evidence of the Tories reverting to type once they cease to be moderated by a more radical party with a real commitment to the environment and to tackling climate change.

The paper says that despite widespread popular support for renewables, running at 85 per cent, according to the latest figures, annual investment in clean energy is now at its lowest point in a decade.

Labour’s shadow minister for energy and climate change says that: “It’s clear there is a substantial downward trend in new investment, which is across the board in terms of investment in clean technology ranging from big wind farms right down to the effective collapse of the solar market.”

It is a view supported by the House of Commons' Environmental Audit Committee. In their report MPs warned this decline posed a real threat to the UK’s climate change targets for the next decade:

Committee chair Mary Creagh said this week: “Billions of pounds of investment is needed in clean energy, transport, heating and industry.

“But a dramatic fall in investment is threatening the government’s ability to meet legally binding climate change targets.”

This downward trend can be traced to decisions made by the government in 2015, particularly its withdrawal of support for onshore wind.

Under pressure from a group of MPs calling onshore wind “inefficient and intermittent”, the Conservatives made a manifesto pledge to remove subsidies from new onshore wind projects.

“It’s one of these issues that had a very niche political purpose, which was to assuage the concerns of some marginal consistencies in England, and to give the public more of a say over infrastructure in their neighbourhoods,” says Whitehead.

However, what was not clear at that time was that the cost of onshore wind was set to plummet, making it the cheapest form of electricity generation.

Unfortunately, the withdrawal of support and subsequent policy changes mean onshore wind is now essentially banned in the UK, with planning applications for new developments plummeting by 94 per cent since 2015.

At the same time, a 65 per cent cut to subsidies for households installing solar panels and a budget that declined to provide new support for renewables before 2025 led to new private investments falling off a cliff.

If this continues then the Government's own climate change targets will become unattainable.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The award for most bizarre Royal Wedding promotion goes to....



Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tory hypocrisy on House of Lords goes into overdrive

It was only last week that the New Statesman published an article by George Eaton asserting that Tory MPs and the Daily Mail have no right to complain about the House of Lords.

Mr. Eaton started by stating the obvious: 'The House of Lords is a national embarrassment. Britain’s unelected second chamber - the largest in the world after China’s National People’s Congress - is stuffed with party placemen, dodgy donors and failed politicians. The 26 Church of England bishops make the UK the only state other than Iran to reserve seats for clerics in its legislature.'

He points out how, in 2012, the coalition government’s attempt to introduce an 80 per cent elected chamber was defeated by Conservative rebels and titles such as the Daily Mail. And yet, following the Government's 14 defeats in the Lords over Brexit legislation, demands for reform are emanating from the unlikely source of Tory MPs and the Daily Mail. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Iain Duncan Smith and Bernard Jenkin were among those denouncing “these traitors in ermine”:

The great irony of Brexit is how its advocates have turned on British institutions one by one: the judiciary, the civil service, the free press, the BBC and, now, the House of Lords.

Jenkin said of the upper house: “They have become drunk with their own prejudices in defiance of how the people voted in the referendum and the last general election.” Rees-Mogg warned: “It is not a loved institution, it is a tolerated institution when it obeys the constitutional norms, if it ignores them it has very little support left. They are completely obsessed by the European Union. They are people who have devoted their whole life to it. Their whole aim is to stop Brexit.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bernard Jenkin were among the 28 Brexiteer Tories who voted against Lords reform in 2012. Whilst in 2012, the Daily Mail branded Lords reform “irrelevant and dangerous”. As George Eaton points out during the Blair Government, the Mail frequently heralded the defeats endured by Labour on issues such as fox hunting and Section 28:

“The truth is this prime minister [Tony Blair] hates the robustly independent Lords which has proved a more effective check on an over-mighty executive than the Commons,” it declared in an editorial on 19 September 2003. 

Now the shoe is on the other foot. An independent, unelected Lords is not so convenient when it is spoiling the Brexiteer's own pet causes.

And how does Theresa May react? She adds to the problem by appointing nine new Tory peers and one DUP peer in the hope of reversing the tide of common sense washing over her hard Brexit solution. King Canute she is nor. At least he knew the limits of his own power.

Jeremy Corbyn, a live-long opponent of the unelected House of Lords joins in with three peers of his own. I don't blame him for that. Theresa May has the power to replace the Lords with a properly accountable, elected second chamber, Corbyn has to work with the institutions that are there. His choice of peers is another matter of course, but for now we will leave that controversy with the Campaign Against Antisemitism.

As ever in politics, it is what is convenient at the time that matters, not the overarching principle that should lead to proper, meaningful and lasting reform.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Another UKIP leader ousted

As a party UKIP reached their existential crisis some time ago and continued to fall apart. However, there remains a small bridgehead in Wales, where their group of five AMs plus one currently sitting as an Independent must wait until 2021 for a reckoning.

In the meantime they continue to exist in their own personal Idaho, rowing with each other, stomping out of the group in a huff and seeking to play out their petty divisions in personal attacks on each other.

And so it came to pass this week that the formerly disgraced Tory MP, resurrected as a UKIP AM, Neil Hamilton, who himself emerged as Welsh Leader in a coup, has been replaced by one of his colleagues, following a stormy meeting which it is alleged could be heard reverberating around the corridors of Ty Hywel.

The new leader of the UKIP group of AMs is their semi-visible South Wales West member, Caroline Jones. She was on Radio Wales earlier explaining how she wanted to bring a new 'positive edge' to UKIP in the Assembly. So no more mentions of 'Carwyn Jones concubines' then? She also claimed that she was active around her region and that there is photographic evidence for this. So that will be this then:


It is difficult to see what a party whose whole raison d'etre lies behind them can contribute to Welsh politics, even under a new leadership. UKIP's willingness to resort to racist propaganda, their own troubling relationship with many of their members including full time MEPs, some of whom in the past have ended up in court. and their faction-riven nature must surely mark them out for extinction.

That moment cannot come too soon for the health of devolved politics.

Update: Neil Hamilton has told the BBC that he was informed by text that he had been ousted as leader. He has accused the group of ambushing him. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Did the vote leave campaigns cheat during the referendum?

It is most probably far too late to get anywhere in challenging the validity of the EU referendum result, but nevertheless the extent to which the Vote Leave campaigns were prepared to break the rules to win is well worth noting.

It is already a matter of record that the campaign group Leave.EU has been fined £70,000 for breaches of election law in the 2016 EU referendum. According to the Electoral Commission, this group, which was separate from the official pro-Brexit group Vote Leave, failed to report "at least" £77,380 which it spent.

The Electoral Commission said Leave.EU had exceeded the spending limit for "non-party registered campaigners" by at least 10% by failing to include at least £77,380 in its spending return - the fee paid to campaign organiser Better for the Country Ltd - and added the overspend "may well have been considerably higher than that".

Its spending return also did not include services Leave.EU had received from a US campaign strategy firm, Goddard Gunster, and the group "inaccurately reported" three loans totalling £6m from Mr Banks - including who had provided them - and did not provide invoices or receipts for 97 separate payments, totalling £80,224. The Commission has referred Leave.EU chief executive Liz Bilney to the police, saying it had reasonable grounds to suspect she had committed criminal offences over campaign spending.

The Electoral Commission's investigation also looked into whether Leave.EU had received any services from Cambridge Analytica which should have been declared on its spending return, but found no evidence that the group received donations or paid for services from the political consultancy.

Now, the Guardian reports that Vote Leave, the lead campaigner for a Brexit vote, and BeLeave, a campaign group run by an activist named Darren Grimes, used identical data to target audiences, according to a letter from Facebook to the Electoral Commission. This raises new questions about potential coordination between the two groups:

Vote Leave spent millions of pounds buying targeted online advertising through AggregateIQ during the referendum campaign, pushing up against its strict £7m spending limit. However, in the closing days of the campaign, Vote Leave donated £625,000 to Grimes, who then also spent the money with AggregateIQ. At that time Grimes was regularly seen volunteering in the Vote Leave office.

Both Vote Leave and Grimes have insisted that there was no coordination between the campaigns on how the money was spent, which could potentially have broken electoral law.

The new letter was sent from Facebook to the Electoral Commission as part of its ongoing investigation into potential breaches of campaign finance rules and was published by the parliamentary committee investigating fake news. It reveals that Vote Leave and BeLeave appear to have used three identical datasets during the referendum campaign to locate potential recipients of targeted pro-Brexit Facebook adverts.

“They were the exact same audiences,” said Facebook’s Gareth Lambe, who also revealed that $2m (£1.5m) of AggregateIQ’s entire $3.5m Facebook advertising spend over the last four years appeared to be associated with the EU referendum.

In addition to Vote Leave and BeLeave, AggregateIQ ran adverts for the Democratic Unionist party’s pro-Brexit campaign, as well as another campaign group called Veterans for Britain.

If this collusion is proven then it could be another serious breach of electoral law. We will now need to see whether the Electoral Commission is prepared to take its investigation further with this new information.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Labour leader rules out Norway option but what is his alternative?

The Guardian reports that Jeremy Corbyn has told Labour MPs that a Norway-style option cannot be considered by the party, but faces a party split after rebel Lords passed an amendment to the EU withdrawal bill which would keep membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) as an option.

EEA membership, which is often described as the Norway option gives countries full access to the EU’s internal market, allowing it to trade goods with EU states without customs fees, except food and drinks which are subsidised by the EU. Iceland and Liechtenstein are also members of the EEA, but the terms mean accepting freedom of movement and, as a non-EU state, the UK would have to accept EU regulations with no seat at the table in Brussels.

It is unlikely that option would satisfy either side and yet Corbyn's objective is apparently to unite both leave and remain supporters. At some stage he is going to have to get off the fence.

Labour's present position just offers succour to Theresa May's objective of a hard Brexit. Some of the frontbenchers talk the talk but so far they have been unable to get the leadership to walk the walk.

Whilst Jeremy Corbyn continues to rule out options, we wait for baited breath to see what his alternative is. Will he have one? It is looking more and more unlikely.

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