Ozzy's Corner

A view from the Libertarian Left. With no spin


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David Cameron’s UKIP Conundrum

The Eastleigh by-election can described as a hard fought win for the Liberal Democrats or a sign that Ed Miliband’s one nation message has travelled no further south than the Watford gap.

However, the second place by UKIP, dumping the Tories into third, has brought home to the Conservatives the fact that UKIP are a dangerous threat to them winning the next general election. This is the big message from Hampshire.

Eastleigh by-election, 2013
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Democrat Mike Thornton 13,342 32.06% -14.44%
UKIP Diane James 11,571 27.80% +24.20%
Conservative Maria Hutchings 10,559 25.37% -13.93%
Labour John O’Farrell 4,088 9.82% +0.22%
Independent Danny Stupple 768 1.85% N/A
National Health Action Iain Maclennan 392 0.94% N/A
Beer, Baccy and Crumpet Party Ray Hall 235 0.56% N/A
Christian Kevin Milburn 163 0.39% N/A
Monster Raving Loony Howling Laud Hope 136 0.33% N/A
Peace Jim Duggan 128 0.31% N/A
Elvis Loves Pets David Bishop 72 0.17% N/A
English Democrats Michael Walters 70 0.17% -0.33%
TUSC Daz Procter 62 0.15% N/A
Wessex Regionalist Colin Bex 30 0.07% N/A
Majority 1,771 4.26% -2.9%
Turnout 41,616 52.8% -16.5%
Liberal Democrat hold Swing -19.2

The effect of UKIP has been to divide the right. Mirroring the impact the SDP had on Labour in the eighties, UKIP is taking crucial votes from the Conservatives.

Below is a graph showing the percentage lead in each seat the Conservatives won in the 2010 election over the second place party.

UKIP

 

As can be seen, if just 10% of the Conservative vote goes elsewhere and the second placed party just stands still, the loss of seats would be around 80. Is this possible or likely?

Below is a chart showing the change in vote share for the Conservatives and UKIP in the by-elections they have fought this Parliament.

CON UKIP

Of course, by-elections can exaggerate the sort of changes seen in a general election. However, the Conservatives are not only under threat from UKIP. In the north and urban areas Labour is moving strongly against them, without the sort of splits that divided them in the eighties. Eastleigh demonstrated that Liberal Democrat heartlands have a tough core.

There is irony in that two euro-sceptic parties have split the vote, allowing a pro-European party to win the seat. One might think that an electoral pact would help to ensure a bigger voice for euro-sceptics. This is unlikely for several reasons in my view.

Firstly, Nigel Farage, UKIP Leader, now has almost a cult following. He is driven and motivated, and the smell of fear from Conservative HQ will be too strong to resist.

Secondly, the Euro elections loom next year. Given the proportionate system used to elect MEPs and subject being UKIP’s key issue, they are very likely to kick the Conservatives hard. With less than 12 months before the general election campaign, a bruised set of Tory backbenchers will be very nervous about their future. They will be in no mood to talk deals with the very party who threaten them.

Despite claims that the Eastleigh by-election was just another mid-term protest vote, I think the roots of the defeat of the Conservatives in 2015 are growing strongly.

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Really, I want the Lib Dems to do well in Eastleigh…

On Thursday the most interesting by-election of this Parliament takes place.

Eastleigh, recently vacated by the disgraced Chris Huhne, sees the two Coalition parties fight it out. It is a Liberal Democrat stronghold, held since 1994. Even Labour’s 1997 landslide resulted in only a third place with 26.8 % of the vote.

Here is the 2010 result:

General Election 2010: Eastleigh
Party Candidate Votes % ±%
Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne 24,966 46.5 +8.2
Conservative Maria Hutchings 21,102 39.3 +2.1
Labour Leo Barraclough 5,153 9.6 −11.5
UKIP Ray Finch 1,933 3.6 +0.2
English Democrats Tony Pewsey 249 0.5 N/A
Independent Dave Stone 154 0.3 N/A
National Liberal Party – Third Way Keith Low 93 0.2 N/A
Majority 3,864 7.2
Turnout 53,650 69.3 +4.9
Liberal Democrat hold Swing 3

This by-election raises issues for left-leaning voters. Who do you vote for when the only real contenders are in Government delivering policies that are diametrically opposed to your principles?

This is the dilemma that  First-Past-The Post poses across the country. It turns the decisions made in elections from working out the best choice to calculating the least worst. Framed in this fashion then, what is a Labour and Green supporters least worst option, assuming your priority to to remove this Government?

The answer is quite clear – vote Liberal Democrat. That’s right – vote Liberal Democrat.

In 2015 the Liberal Democrats will be fighting 57 seats. Of these, in 38 the Conservatives are the second place party and Labour are runners-up in 19.

Below is a table with the effect of different swings from the Liberal Democrats to the Conservatives and Labour on the seats that Liberal Democrats would lose.

  1. Liberal Democrat
  2. Conservative
  3. Labour
Swing Achieved Gain for Conservative Gain for Labour
5 % 15 0
10 % 30 2
15 % 37 5
20 % 38 18
25 % 38 34
30 % 38 38

For example, should the Conservatives get a swing of 5% from the Liberal Democrats in these seats, they would take 15 seats. Should Labour get the same swing in the same seats, even a static Conservative vote would result in no gains whatsoever.

Next, seats where Labour are second:

  1. Liberal Democrat
  2. Labour
  3. Conservative
Swing Achieved Gain for Labour Gain for Conservative
 5 % 7 2
 10 % 13 4
 15 % 17 9
 20 % 18 16
25% 18 18
 30 % 19 19

Here a 10 % swing from Liberal Democrat to Labour would gain Labour 13 seats, and the same swing the Conservatives with a static Labour vote would win 4 seats,

The end goal of removing the Conservatives in 2015 is hampered seriously if the Liberal Democrats lose ground in the south, south east and south west where Labour are not contenders. Every seat the Conservatives win makes the job of Labour harder.

By-elections since 2010 strongly suggest that the Liberal Democrats have suffered serious swings to Labour, enough to virtually eliminate them from most urban areas, the north and the regions. Labour have also gained on the Conservatives.

The pincer movement of Labour gains in the north and urban areas and Liberal Democrat holds in the south would be fatal to David Cameron’s attempt to even be the largest party. UKIP making taking Conservatives votes would simply compounds the Conservatives in a triple squeeze

So if you live in a seat Labour are a poor third, allowing the Conservatives win by not voting Liberal Democrat really is cutting of your nose to spite your face.

Perhaps you should try one of Polly Toynbee’s nose pegs?


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The economy will doom the Tories if Labour can come up with a plan

The recent downgrading of the UK by Moodys from it’s AAA credit rating will certainly create problems for the Government.

It will make little difference to the UK financially. The UK’s financial position is well known and money markets will have been building this into prices for some time. Similar downgrades in the US and France have not made a real difference to their borrowing costs.

However, the Chancellor and the Government have had their credibility damaged. The perception of lost credibility is very dangerous, and once lost is hard to get back. In September 1992, just months after a remarkable election victory, Black Wednesday damaged the Major Government permanently.

George Osborne was already looking in a poor position, with his Austerity programme being stretch way beyond the period promised in 2010. Growth has stalled badly.

‘It’s the economy stupid’ is the political reality. It sums the fact that a Government need not be that popular, if the public feel that their jobs and economic future looks secure with them. Analysis of YouGov data since 2010 on this very issue paints the Government in a poor position. YouGov run a tracking poll that asks respondents which party is best for the economy in general. In June 2010 the Conservatives topped the poll with 37% vs Labour’s 26%. However, the poll in February 2013 showed a fall down to 27%. The data is plotted below:

Best Party

The same data has been plotted on a CUSUM chart. This essentially shows the trends beneath the noise:

Best Party Cusum

What is clear is that the Conservatives have been in free fall since around March 2012. This is a reference to the ‘omnishambles’ budget, and they have not recovered since. What is also noticeable is the fact the Labour has not felt any benefit, merely moving from 26% in June 2010 to 28% in February 2013.

The notable beneficiary of this has been ‘None’, moving from  7% to 13%. Quite simply increasing numbers of people feel that no party offers any prospect of improving the economy. They have lost faith in the Conservatives, but don’t feel Labour offers anything better. This finding is demonstrated by the correlation between the Conservative figure and the none figure (-0.75). The correlation of the Conservative to the Labour figure is a much worse -0.29.

The outlook for the UK economy is currently poor for the next few years. There looks to be no prospect of a change in economic fortune that would restore credibility back to the Conservatives. Our main trading partners in Europe are suffering very badly, and the overall picture is one of bouncing along the bottom of a long period of low or no growth.

Labour does have a open goal here, if they can have faith in plan not based on Austerity, but one of serious and sustained investment. The last few months has seen some speeches where Ed Miliband has begun to articulate an alternative, yet this embryonic economic plan needs much more flesh and bone. This plan cannot be Austerity-lite, but something different. The price of not creating and articulating this vision could be to enter the next election giving the Conservatives a chance it simply does not deserve.

Labour failing to beat the Conservatives in 2015 would be unforgivable.

 


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The horse meat scandal – our food culture is to blame

The horse meat scandal grows bigger by the hour. As the number of products and retailers caught up grows wider and deeper, who really is to blame? Did Tesco and Aldi not check their suppliers well enough? Did the FSA fail to conduct their regulatory functions? Did someone somewhere fraudulently put horse meat into the beef food chain? Only time will answer these questions. However, there is a more fundamental issue at stake – is our food culture to blame?

The nature of the food we buy, how we buy it and the extended supply chains involved are in my view highly culpable. Most failures of this nature are not isolated blips, but are the logic result of a complex sequence of events. The different pressures and forces that apply create the motivations, incentives and possibilities  for such failings to occur.

A generation ago food was produced and sold locally by independent butchers, bakers and greengrocers. The local high street was full of independent retailers. The rise of the supermarket simply blew them all away. The selling of locally sourced produce stopped, to be replaced by a range goods flown, shipped and driven in from every corner of the globe. The carbon footprint of your green beans and bananas is huge.

Maintaining food safety over such a long supply chain is near to impossible. The food affected so far has included lasagna sold in the UK, made in France and based on Romanian meat. Tesco had issues with burgers produced in Yorkshire from Irish meat. While various codes of conduct and certification schemes exist, they cannot guarantee everything is as it should be. Documentation stating what frozen meat is delivered to the burger factory is wide open to corruption and abuse.

The rise of supermarket has led to the pooling of buying power. Big supermarkets screw suppliers to floor on price, while being really demanding. This pressure creates a motivation to break the rules. If a company is only making a few pence per burger profit, taking shortcuts on raw materials becomes tempting. The whole buyer/seller relationship is grossly biased in favour of the supermarket. Just ask a dairy farmer about milk prices.

Modern lives have shaped the way we buy food. People are busy and want speed and convenience. This means that driving into a free car park and filling your trolley with convenience meals you can heat up in five minutes is popular. The habit of actually cooking food from fresh ingredients is missing from the lives of many people.

We have also become very distant from food production. Little cellophane packets with portions of meat sliced up bear no relation to the rearing and slaughtering of animals. Bags of weighed and washed carrots of a nice even size are a long way from the varied, crooked and muddy vegetables that are pulled out the ground.

Here is my plan to improve our food culture:

  • Ensure planning regulations give small businesses a better chance over supermarkets
  • Introduce lessons on cooking and where food comes from at school
  • Encourage and celebrate seasonal, locally produced food
  • Encourage co-operative food groups to work in poorer areas, where diets are often worse and good fresh food is less available

So before a scapegoat is found, we must remember our whole food system is currently dysfunctional. Only by tackling these systemic issues can we have a healthier and more sustainable food supply chain.


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The Law Cannot Legislate on Taste

Today Matthew Wood was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail for sending grossly offensive electronic communications.

His crime was to post comments on Facebook about Madeleine McCann and April Jones.

Chairman of the bench, magistrate Bill Hudson, said his comments were so serious and “abhorrent” that he deserved the longest sentence they could pass, less a third to give credit for his early guilty plea.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-lancashire-19869710

This is just one of a number of cases where comments on social media have led to criminal charges being brought.  As a libertarian, it is of great concern when the law steps in to adjudicate in what are matters of taste. A basic feature of human beings is to make jokes about current events. I can remember following various tragedies, the rounds of inevitable jokes flowed within hours. The death of Diana, the death of Freddie Mercury, the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry, the list is endless. In the age of text messaging, the internet and now social media these jokes  and comments spread faster than ever.

The question of offence often arises. Is it okay to offend someone?

The truth is that a free society that allows the freedom of expression, creates the chance to offend in equal measure. Removing the ability to offend removes the freedom of expression. What is offensive to one person is not the same as what is offensive to another. Any attempt to frame offence legally is bound to fail as a result. Surely judges cannot  be allowed to determine what is ‘grossly offensive’?

Offence can lead to serious consequences. The publication of articles and cartoons that depict the Prophet Mohammed has led to the death of people by others who feel their own beliefs justified the killing of them. Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’ and Martin Scorcese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ led to global protests by Christians claiming blasphemy. In a free society blasphemy should an alien concept. Blasphemy laws simply legalise the suppression the views of one group in society that another doesn’t like. This dilemma is currently causing huge issues in Pakistan, and the serious suppression of minority groups.

The freedom of expression is vital to our society. We balance the freedom hold our own values with the fact that others will disagree. Matthew Wood’s comments were probably unpleasant, but that is not the point. He has been criminalised for expressing them. We should be our own arbitrators of taste. I follow this in my own life. If there is a TV or radio programme I don’t like, I turn it off. If someone at work or on Facebook who says something I find offensive, I ignore them. For similar reasons I would never buy a tabloid newspaper. I would never, ever buy one. Period. However, banning and censorship should not be considered. Just pick something else.

Comedians like Frankie Boyle and Jimmy Carr are not everyone’s taste. They do push the limits of comedy, but they also serve a useful role in society. They remind us that freedom of expression is sometimes difficult to hear and very uncomfortable. They challenge our concepts at the limits. This is a useful thing to be reminded of. Of course, if you don’t like them, you have an off button.

Freedom of expression and speech are essential in a democracy. They are too important to be left to politicians or judges.


The Lessons of Nick Clegg’s Folly

I really do feel sorry for Nick Clegg at times.

When taking the Liberal Democrats into the Coalition, he must have known the history of minor coalition parties. He entered the fray with the calm of a World War 1 Officer – ‘chin up chaps, never mind the machine guns, shells and certain doom, we’re British you know!"

The Coalition has provided satirists with an endless stream of calamity and cock-up. Satire has so often been a key part of our democratic system from the writings of Swift, the etchings of Hogarth and the cartoons of punch to TV’s Spitting Image, Brass Eye and sharp-witted bloggers such as Tom Pride.

While this is humorous and politically important, it is also vital that the left seriously looks at the nature of the Coalition and learns from the problems it has.

As time passes FPTP looks worse and worse. In 2010 the Tories won the election with 23.5% of the eligible vote. In 2005 Labour secured a working majority with just 21.6% of the eligible vote. Our system is broken. FPTP simply does not deliver a Government that reflects the view of a majority of the electorate. The solution is to adopt Proportional Representation (PR).

The issue the left must face is that PR mostly leads to coalition Government. If the progressive left wants a better electoral system, coalition Government needs to work. The wholesale trashing of Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats undermines the acceptance of PR. Many Local Authorities are run with parties working together. However, national politics is far too often tribal and shrill. Prime Minister’s Questions demonstrates this perfectly. Tribalists love seeing one side putting the boot into the other, but to the many non-aligned voters out there it looks like nothing more than points scoring. Nothing of substance is asked or answered – it’s an exercise in prepared lines, leading sycophantic questions and diversionary answers. In short, while people are sat home worried about their job, mortgage and school, Parliament looks like a sixth form debating society.

The truth about coalitions is that compromise is an essential element. Give and take is required. No one will get all they want, and will probably have to accept some things they don’t like. This is life at work and at home. Every work place and every family operates on these lines. The question is how this can work in national Government. In countries across the world where PR is embedded, they have years of experience, and are therefore more politically mature at dealing with this. The present Coalition is a novelty, and quite frankly we are metaphorically just learning to walk.

Ed Miliband hopes he can secure a majority in 2015. If he does, it will be under the same inequitable system that requires change. Will he have the will to change a system that unfairly benefits his party for the good of national democracy? I am doubtful. If Labour doesn’t secure a majority, it will have to work with other parties to some degree or another. The list of likely partners is very short indeed. The chance of a Coalition being required is substantial, so Labour had better consider how this would work.

Peering into the hole that Nick Clegg has dug himself into would be a good start.


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The New Housing Plan is Flawed

This week the Government announced a series of measures designed to boost the building of new houses. Sadly, but predictably, they completely fail to address the housing crisis facing millions of ordinary working people, especially the young.

One of the proposals is to reduce the number of affordable houses that local authorities often tab onto the planning permission of new housing projects. This will have the consequences of reducing the number of affordable homes built in the real house price hot spots, such as London.  Developers would love to not have to build properties that  are affordable, when instead they will be able to build more homes aimed at the richest in society. The clear profit motive will drive this. Expensive areas will become increasing devoid of anyone but the very wealthy.

A second proposal is to allow the building of house extensions, with little or no planning permission required. This has a number of problems. The people who have the type of property and the equity or finances to do this will not be young people or first-time buyers. The current constraints on mortgage criteria means that once again only the wealthy will have the means to pursue this option. Once their house is larger, its value will rise. The rise in prices will further increase the lack of affordability that is a real barrier to first-time buyers.

First-time buyers are critical. The housing ladder is like a food chain. Fresh buyers need to come into the market at the bottom to get the housing ladder moving. They buyers are seriously constrained by the tighter mortgage criteria commonly in place. How many young people can raise a sum, often need around £ 30,000, to get a deposit together?

Crucially, when are we going to ween ourselves off the idea buying a house is something that must be done, and they must rise in value – that being a good thing? This view has led an asset-bubble that has driven house prices way beyond increases in wages:

In 2001 the average price of a home in England was £121,769, and the average salary was £16,557. In 2011 the price of the average home was £236,518 – an increase of 94% – while wages had risen by just 29% to £21,330, the National Housing Federation said.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2012/aug/17/house-prices-rise-faster-wages

There is a clear need for an expansion of homes for rent in the UK. As social house building has declined sharply in recent years, the private sector has provided an increasing number of homes to rent. There are some terrible private Landlords, providing slum dwelling to the most vulnerable in society. This private sector is highly deregulated, and much the worse for it. A boom in house building at affordable rents would be best performed by either Councils or Housing Associations.

Another source of housing is the refurbishment of empty properties. In November 2011 Homes from Empty Homes reported that 720,000 homes were stood empty. 279,000 had been empty for more than six months. Legislation exists that allows these to be taken in local authority hands, but is barely used. Also, many former industrial or business premises exists, closed and dilapidated. For example, where I live in West Yorkshire, lay a number of old mills that could be converted in literally scores of new flats. This creates homes, jobs and clears up environmental eye sores.

These new homes could be build to high environmental standards, reducing energy consumption – good for the pocket of their tenants and good for the slowing down global warming. Another benefit would be the driving out of slum landlords over time.

The financing of this building boom is important. I have proposed brick bonds in a previous post, based on raising the money from savers.  One could also mention that billions of pounds are being lent to the banks at very low interest rates. It would a worthy use of this money to spend on social housing and affordable home to buy.

It must be remembered that house building creates jobs, from brick layers to apprentices and the whole supply chain, and this brings money into the Treasury. Benefit payments fall. Councils and Housing Associations have capital assets that will create income year after year.

So this week’s proposals on offer are not a solution to the UK’s housing crisis.

So what are they?

I suspect they are no more than a gimmick to make middle-class home owners feel better, and hopefully buy off those votes.