Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Winter Fuel Allowance - EUReferendum nonsense

As EUReferendum makes it too difficult to post comments (what are they afraid of?), I cut and pasted the nonsense on Winter Fuel Payments in italics below.

The point is that everyone gets the Winter Fuel Allowance - the qualifying factor is not need, but age. So rich OAPs get, OAPs whose rent includes heating costs get it and OAPs who spend the winter in Spain get it. It's a straight supplement to the Old Age Pension.

The government's energy policy may be foolish (fuelish?) - although I would suggest it's too early to say. But it's got nothing to do with payments to old people.

Incidentally, they use the stupid socialistic phrase "fuel poverty" as if it was something special. Presumably, if you are poor, you are also "food poor", "clothing poor" and "package holiday poor". If you are on a low income, you have to choose what you spend it on more carefully than if you are on a high one. It would be perfectly rational to decide to spend less on keeping a house warm in favour of spending more on something else. That is what being poor means. The winter fuel payments are a way of making these choices less keenly felt, and are in many ways (non-means testing for instance) a good thing.

Anyway, here's the nonsense:

There would be some very great sense in tightening the qualifying criteria for winter fuel payments, as this administration is considering doing, if at the same time efforts were being made to keep fuel costs down.

However, it should be remembered that the core policy of the Cleggerons – as it was with the previous administration – is to increase the costs of home heating, so to promote fuel economy and thereby reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

The winter fuel payments, in this context, are a mechanism for mitigating the inevitable effects of increased fuel poverty and the concomitant increase in the death rate amongst the elderly, who are particularly vulnerable to hypothermia.

Not least of the problem here though is that the Cleggerons have such a limited grasp of the effects of their own policies. They are unable to link the effects of two diverse actions.

But then, such an activity would require them entertaining two separate ideas in their foetid little minds at the same time – something entirely beyond the capability of our current rulers. Unfortunately for the soon to die prematurely, the consequences of the linkage are going to be all too apparent.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010


Capitalism is good at creating wealth, but doesn't share it out in ways 'we' approve of.

Housing is an area in which this truism is at its most obvious. And what a muddle we have made of dealing with the result.

  1. Poor maligned capitalism hasn't even been allowed to do what it might to solve the problem. Planning restrictions of one sort or another have reduced the supply of new private dwellings to a pitiful level. The fabled years of Macmillan's time at the Ministry of Housing are often mentioned in this context - some 300,000 houses a year at the peak. Even more relevant to my way of thinking are the 1920s and 30s, with developers still able to build on what is now the Green Belt, when almost entirely unassisted (or impeded) by the government many thousands of perfectly serviceable dwellings were built and useful employment created to boot. Now, I suppose it's not a goer to concrete over the South-East, but stimulating private building seems a total no-brainer to me. It won't cost the Treasury a bean, indeed it will boost tax receipts, and local authorities will gain a useful income stream too. I gather that the coalition has already put a modest incentive in place for local authorities to grant more planning permissions - the more the merrier, I say. And bvgger the nimbies.
  2. Various charitable organisations (Peabody Trust, Housing Associations etc. etc.) have come into existence to house the poor. The problem with these, historically speaking at any rate, is that even non-profit landlords had to charge relatively high rents to cover the cost of land, building and maintenance, which in turn shows why housing is such an intractable issue: it is inherently expensive to provide 'decent' housing in a country like Britain with its inclement weather and high expectations. Moreover, because their margins were low, these organisations could not afford to be particularly tolerant of non-payers (pre housing benefit). Consequently, they tended to house the respectable working classes i.e. not the indigent. No doubt the descendants of the original tenants are now mainly owner occupiers (if they haven't emigrated to Australia).
  3. Thanks to the gap in market left by 1. and 2., and in the absence of housing benefit, the municipal socialists stepped in and created council housing. Key features were that often remarkably high quality housing was offered at lower prices to the working classes and that rent arrears were more often tolerated. Security of tenure was generally good. Houses could often be passed down the family. Since its creation, however, council housing has become a little over-ripe. For one thing, it ceased, often, to be high quality and became associated with cheaply built and indeed horrid high-rises. Increasingly, it was allocated on the basis of need rather than association with a particular area and, however objectively justifiable such a change in policy was, this meant that the social mix deteriorated to the extent that people would actively avoid much council accommodation if possible.
  4. The private rented sector has been through various travails, which included a period in which you had to be mad to be a private landlord because you might as well just hand over your property to the tenant. This was largely dealt with by the Thatcher/Major governments and left alone by New Labour. It seems to work (at a high level anyway - I understand there are lots of objections in the detail).
  5. Housing benefit was introduced as a way of ensuring people didn't lose their homes when they lost their jobs. Predictably, now it ensures they never work again. Because housing is by far and away most people's single biggest cost (see 2. above), any benefit which covers it indefinitely is going to be mighty hard to get off. Moreover, it covers people in private rented, owner occupied and social housing.
  6. As a consequence, we now have a total muddle, in which people who could afford to house themselves live in subsidised social housing, while people who will never be able to afford it live in expensive property (the proverbial unemployed Somali bus-conductor). The Housing Benefit bill has gone through the roof.

What is to be done? People must be given incentives to behave rationally with property. What does this boil down to?

  1. Free developers to the maximum possible extent. Personally, I favour something close to a free for all, but if that's too rich for the public then some system should be found to incentivise locals to favour development. Cash payments by developers (via auctions for planning permission?) would be the most transparent method.
  2. The British obsession with occupying as much housing as possible should be curbed. There are, I suggest, two or three ways of doing this: i) CGT on all residential property (at the moment it only applies to privately rented property and second properties). But I hate CGT and think it's a deeply flawed tax for all sorts of other reasons, which I may go into at some point. ii) raise Council Tax and increase the number of bands so that it hits expensive properties harder. I think this is probably the best option, politically, since it incorporates elements of the LibDems' mansion tax and the collection machinery is already in place. But iii) Land Value Tax is almost certainly the best option, as it gives an incentive to develop as well as one to trade down. I am not as messianic on this as some, but I will no doubt discuss more at some other time.
  3. I think Housing Associations are here to stay, more or less unchanged. The point is sometimes made that their tenants often don't really need to be in 'charity' housing and perhaps a more rigorous system of auditing to ensure that they justifiy their tax privileges is justified. But as more or less private organisations, they provide a test-bed for innovation in housing provision and, provided they do not depend too much on the public purse, ought to be left to their own devices.
  4. The provision of subsidised housing ought to be rationalised. It makes no sense that someone is better off depending on whether or not they were lucky enough to get a council house. It's equally mad that someone might effectively be propelled into the upper middle classes (by income, anyway) simply because housing benefit pays for a house in an expensive part of the world. This, I agree, is easier to write than to achieve but the solution lies no doubt in a withdrawal of automatic cheap long-term tenancies in council housing (I stress cheap, for if tenants can afford market rents, then why shouldn't they pay them?) combined with some form of more or less universal housing benefit payable irrespective of the housing solution favoured by the recipient which is either not means tested or which has very low rates of withdrawal. I do not see why recent arrivals to this country should be entitled to any form of housing assistance except in the direst need.

There are my modest proposals, impractical and very possibly unaffordable - but surely we can't go on like this. The government will no doubt attempt to tackle things in a piece-meal way (e.g. recent cuts in housing benefit) - I'm just attempting to set some principles aimed at ensuring that housing policy:

  1. Allocates scarce resources in a rational way.
  2. Ensures that all are housed to an acceptable minimum standard.
  3. Minimises the cost to the taxpayer.
  4. Deals with all types of person equitably.

I'm expecting a flood of comments on this one!

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

The Conversion of the Bulgars to Christianity

"[Pope] Nicholas saw his chance. At once he dispatched two more bishops to the Bulgarian court with meticulous answers to every one of the 106 items in [Tsar] Boris's questionnaire, making all possible concessions permitted by canon law and, for those that could not be granted, explaining the reasons for his refusal. Trousers, he agreed, could certainly be worn, by men and women alike; turbans too, excepting only in church. When the Byzantines maintained that it was unlawful to wash on Wednesdays and Fridays, they were talking nonsense; nor was there any cause to abstain from milk or cheese during Lent. All pagan superstitions on the other hand were forbidden, as was the Greek practice of divination by the random opening of the Bible. Bigamy, too, was out.
The Bulgars were disappointed about the bigamy, but on the whole more than satisfied. Boris cheerfully swore perpetual allegiance to St Peter and, with every sign of relief, expelled all Orthodox missionaries from his Kingdom. Their Catholic counterparts were not slow in coming."
- A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich.

Labour Leaders past and future

New Leaders of the Labour party are chosen either following the death, defeat or resignation of the incumbent Prime Minister. Let's list them. Chosen after defeat:
Hugh Gaitskell
Michael Foot
Neil Kinnock
John Smith
Key point: not a whiff of electoral success between them. Incidentally, I record here my mystification at the secular canonisation of the late John Smith. Nice guy he may very well have been, but he had the word loser stamped all over him (or, if not loser, "fat dull bank manager"). His floundering performance as Shadow Chancellor at the 1992 General Election may not have cost Labour the election, but must have hurt it significantly. He showed early signs of "Gordon Brownitis", i.e. excessive worthiness and Scottishness, which would in due course have no doubt succeeded in alienating the English voter. Obesity isn't a good look in the television age either. His death, sad and untimely as it was, must have been a blessing in disguise for the Labour party.
Next: chosen after the resignation of an incumbent Prime Minister:
James Callaghan
Gordon Brown
Key point: went straight on to defeat and political oblivion. A definite poisoned chalice (after all, both Gaitskell and Kinnock got second chances).
Finally: chosen after death:
Harold Wilson
Tony Blair
Key point: definitely the way to go. 6 General Election wins between them, only one defeat, 18 years in Downing Street, both got out in time. Both subsequently vilified, not least by their own supporters. No one seems to love a winner when they've retired, particularly not the Labour Party. Minor points: both English, both Oxford, both middle class, both on the right of the Labour party (although Wilson of course had positioned himself on the left in opposition, rather cunningly). Both had some or a lot of "south appeal". Wilson very very clever (and a little bit charming), Blair very very charming, if you like that sort of thing (and a little bit clever).

If you take this seriously, it means it may not matter too much who Labour picks this time, as they aren't ever going to take office anyway. The best bet would be the one most likely to die, as that will pave the way for a charismatic successor. On that basis I would go for Ed Balls, as he is clearly the fattest with the most suppressed rage, but they all look depressingly young and healthy (from Labour's point of view).

In fact, I would probably go for Ed Balls anyway. This election is not about picking a Prime Minister after all, but a Leader of the Opposition. To use the horrid "Apprentice" phrase, Ed Balls is the one with fire in his belly (along with a large number of pies) [clearly, fat is a socialist issue] who will stick it to the Tories and rally the troops. Worrying about whether the Labour leader gets on with Obama or Merkel is premature at this stage.

Of the others, David M. is not a bad sort, although clearly an enormous poltroon. Brother Ed. is said to be more a man of the people - I guess it's all relative - but has an irritatingly nasal voice and a rubbery face. The other one is a non-entity.
Final point: Celts are bad news for Labour: Kinnock (Scottish ancestry, Welsh); John Smith (Scottish); James Callaghan (the Englishman from Wales with the Irish name); Gordon Brown (need one say?). Blair made jolly sure no one would ever think he had had anything to do with Scotland. Perhaps it's the curse of Ramsay MacDonald. You may rightly say that's not an issue this time round. But the odds of picking a (non-practising) Jew are fairly good. Not an issue in these enlightened times, one might think, but interestingly it's not an ethnicity anyone seems to think worth making anything of in the midst of all the claims that the contenders are all white, middle class, male etc. I think I'm right in thinking that pretty well no political party has been led by anyone remotely Jewish either before or after the (Anglican) Disraeli, although there have of course been many distinguished Jewish ministers. I guess we'll have a few years before having to chalk it up as a plus or a minus.
Of course, I haven't reckoned with Diane Abbott getting enough nominations. She would clearly put the cat amongst the pigeons as far as some of the above is concerned. Personally, I should have thought her too alienating to win, in any case, and if elected too languid to be a good opposition leader (or indeed leader of any sort). That said, she is probably as unhealthy as Ed Balls, so not too bad from that point of view.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Labour win in London?

It's widely said in Labour circles that Labour had a good result in London and that this is part of the surprise non-meltdown in Labour representation at the General Election.

On the face of it, this is true. Have a look at and, sure enough, you can see that the Labour to Conservative swing was a mere 2.5%, with Labour picking up 38 of the 73 seats on offer; Labour won 36.6% of the vote, the Tories 34.5%. This contrasts with a national vote share of 28.1% and 39.6% respectively, in England, or 29% and 36.1% in the UK as a whole.

Let's have a look at the comparable results from 1992, a year chosen because it too delivered a narrow Conservative win, albeit with an overall majority and a higher share of the vote (we may perhaps wish to revisit this election, for it is worth noting that over 14 million people voted Conservative at this election, in contrast with the 9.9 million who did so at the latest election). Nationally, the Conservatives gained 41.9% of the vote (around 6% more than 2010) and Labour 34.4% (more than 5% more than in 2010). The London scores were 45.3% and 37.1% respectively, giving the Tories 48 out of 84 seats.
What are the key trends?
Nationally, the combined two party vote fell from 76.3% to 65.1%; this is old hat, of course, the secular decline of the two party system being well known and documented. In London, the fall was from 82.4% to 71.1%, so in line with the national trend but with less third party support than elsewhere; perhaps not so surprisingly given the historic weakness of the Liberals in London and the absence of any Nationalist interest.
Labour support has (in fact) declined slightly, from 37.1% to 36.6%; this has been masked by the plummeting support for the Conservatives, which has allowed Labour representation to grow very slightly (from 35 to 38, the number of seats allocated to London having fallen from 84 to 73).
Tory support has fallen dramatically. From being significantly more Conservative than the country in 1992, the city has became markedly less so in 2010.
Why should this be? Economically, the London's relative position is little changed. Any Conservative misdemeanors from the 1990s should have been as least as forgotten here as they have been elsewhere. The obvious point is that London's hugely altered demography since the early 90s - and in particular the massive influx of immigrants - is the crucial difference. For multiple reasons, the Conservatives have been unable to attract significant additional support from this quarter. But neither has Labour.
The political changes brought in by New Labour - the mayoralty and assembly - don't seem to have made much difference. It's worth remembering that only one of the three mayoral elections has returned an official Labour candidate (and in that case one very clearly detached from the government) and London voters seem to have shown an admirably independent or ungrateful streak in this regard. The Labour government's fumblings over matters such as the Olympics, the Millennium Dome, Cross-Rail and the Third Runway didn't, in my opinion at least, distinguish them from their predecessors.
Note that this has not translated into increased support for Labour - who have at best maintained what was, after all, a losing position, but have declined less rapidly than the Conservatives. Third parties - the Liberal Democrats mainly - have continued to grow.
It would be superhuman of Labour not to take comfort from what was one of their best performances in a bleak national picture. But the risks are surely on the down side. Many of their traditional supporters - and new supporters for that matter - are highly conservative in their social attitudes. Even if they don't swing to the Conservatives, they have at least three alternatives: the Simon Hughes wing of the LibDems have shown that they can make inroads into white working class support; there is always the BNP for those who can't stomach the immigration; and, perhaps most interestingly, Respect shows what might happen to immigrant voters who feel they have been taken for granted. Their perhaps inevitable implosion under the egregious Galloway can't hide that this could be the most worrying development of all.
A more minor point - and another one worth revisiting - is that London illustrates in microcosm the failing nature of the electoral system. A "pure" proportional system would have given Labour 27 seats (11 fewer than actual) and the Conservatives 25 (3 fewer). The smaller number of voters (for all sorts of reasons) in Labour seats again masks their actual poor overall performance. The prospect of electoral reform should again be a cause for concern on Labour's part. Rising representation based on falling support cannot, after all, be a recipe either for long-term success and is likely to to be accompanied by ever increasing disenchantment on the part of the electorate.
Finally, there is the obvious point is that London's representation is declining. Given that there is no actual sign of significantly falling population, the obvious explanation is that too few of the incomers are entitled to vote to warrant the retention of the London seats. This is an unexpected consequence of the Labour open door on immigration and one which does them no electoral favours. It may be evidence that this is a policy with diminishing returns from a political point of view (and this position seems to be born out by Mr. Balls's recent pronouncements).
Update (belated)
An esteemed friend has pointed out another possible reason for Labour's London outperformance, namely that, since 1991, Labour has greatly improved its middle and upper middle class appeal. Since these classes are more common in London than elsewhere, this is an alternative or supplement to the 'ethnic mix' argument.

Overheard at the park...

Kensington Memorial Park that is, none of that Shebu nonsense today. BTW, the water park is a must for those with young children on a hot day - it's lamentable that nothing similar exists in Hammersmith and Fulham; one can but hope, I suppose. The overheard bit? "...then I had a breakdown... then I had an overdose... then I was in a scanner in the hospital.... I had a scar on my brain... when I was little, they put me in an icebath to bring down a fever and that gave me a scar on my brain, they're not allowed to put you in icebaths anymore... I had an operation to remove the scar, but it wasn't a success... now I'm on drugs to treat my scar... I was in a drugs trial..."

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Are MPs too old?

Prompted by this:
The gist of the question is this: not only is the average age of an MP around the 50 mark, but there are very few MPs under the age of 30. This situation is contrasted with that in the past, say 100 years ago, when there were often 100 or so MPs in that category.
Funnily enough, I've just been reading the Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England (of which, no doubt, more anon). The point is made that because life expectancies were low and the period of vigorous life so much shorter than today, it was common for mighty responsibilities to be assumed at very young ages. The example of Edward III declaring war on the Scots and leading an army into battle at the age of 20 is given. No doubt the fact that power so often stemmed from birth rather than success in bureaucratic infighting accentuated this tendency.
One doesn't need to go back as far as the Middle Ages. The President of the United States, for instance, is constitutionally bound to be at least 35 years old. Stanley Fish argued that an age that would today be more consistent with the original intentions of the framers of the US Constitution would be 50, given increasing longevity. So no Barack Obama, no JFK, no Bill Clinton. Incidentally, Mr. Fish was making a point about the nature of law rather than age. And we are quite happy, I think, that the age has not been increased; but neither is there any pressure for it to be reduced.
Coming back to the MPs, I think the point is this. We live in an society which is not only on average much older than those of the past but in one that continues to age rapidly. To demand younger MPs would be to make them unrepresentative of much of the population. And, in a time when the perceived lack of life experience of MPs is increasingly decried, it would seem perverse to increase the problem. In fact, what is incomprehensible to me is that the voting age itself should have come down from the age of 21 to 18 with talk of it coming down to 16. No MPs under 30 and no voters under 30 either! Let's make the most of the wealth of age and experience available to us and leave the young to the gaining of wisdom, rather than depriving them of their youth.

Political Betting

Another blog I have linked to. It is, as I understand these things, quite a substantial operation, headed by Mike Smithson and supported by various others.
Clearly, the McGuffin is the making of money by betting on the outcome of political events. In itself, this is of little interest to me, although I admit to having had the odd flutter now and then. What makes it compulsory reading is the wealth of data on the standing of the various political parties and detailed consideration of the factors that might be driving those standings.
This is, in my view, one blog which, although it clearly draws considerably on the reporting of the msm, adds enough analysis and comment of its own to be able to stand out as being head and shoulders above the typical newspaper's coverage. The single minded focus on the betting leaves little room for the fancies that individual papers indulge in, driven as they are by their traditional party leanings.
One (minor) quibble is that the sheer volume of comment on every post makes for dull reading and there is clear dominance by a few hard core followers, of whom one can one only wonder what they do all day (and I think I'm bad!). It also, for me at any rate, makes adding comments of one's own a fairly pointless exercise. Still, a minor quibble and not one to lead one to any conclusion other than this being one of the very best blogs around.

North Sea Oil

It occurs to me every once in a while that just about nobody ever mentions North Sea Oil anymore. It used to be quite a common cause for comment.
In the seventies, it was thought of as the magical coming source of wealth that was going to transform Britain into the new Kuwait. In the eighties, it certainly allowed the government to cut (other) taxes faster than would otherwise have been the case. There were perennial worries about the Dutch disease of uncompetitiveness caused by an inflated exchange rate coupled with excessive domestic consumption. David Owen, iirc, wanted us to create a national provident fund on the Norwegian/Kuwaiti model - a sovereign wealth fund if you prefer - which would have neutralised the economic impact; it would also, and not in my opinion coincidentally, have cancelled out the political boost which accrued to the Tories.
Now, of course, production is in rapid decline and the positive boost to revenues and balance of payments is being reversed. Perhaps this is why no one wants to talk about it. But it seems to me that it must be, if not the elephant in the room, at least the hippo. For as long as the revenues continue to decline, there will be a permanent gap in revenues which must be replaced with additional taxes on the remaining productive sectors of the economy. The extraordinary boom which ended in 2008 must have masked this effect. But it would be very interesting to know how big it has been and will be.
I wonder if anyone has done any analysis on this point. Do let me know if you know of any!

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Shepherd's Bush Blogs

Here's one:
The author is pretty passionate about the area and I would recommend it if you wish to learn more about the main issues and the goings on at the local council. Personally, I think there are bigger fish to fry, but sometimes something pops up and this would seem to be a good place to get a local take on it. The fact that we have just had three years of a Tory administration following supposedly radically different policies from those pursued by Labour for the previous 30 odd years seems to me to have made precious little difference to anything that concerns me, although them that care seem to get very heated about it.
That said, the council tax has been going down and I like that. But that's for another post, I think.

My First Post

The world is full of blogs and certainly doesn't need another one. So I'm writing to left off a little steam, which my wife and children might be grateful for, but probably won't be. If anyone reads this and wants to comment, that's fine.
I'm a middle-aged white man, interested in books, films, history and the law. I live in Shepherd's Bush, West London and, if you count an earlier stint in neighbouring Hammersmith, I've been here for some 16 years. So I think I qualify for the "Bushman" tag as well as many. I'll probably have a few things to say about the place, but I don't really share the passions of the true localist and will probably talk more about other things.
So now I've opened my account, I shall move on...