The Corbyn phenomenon

Hi all,

I’ve taken a 3-week holiday in the US but have been following developments with interest. Both in the US and the UK, we’re seeing a huge upsurge in support for unusual candidates – on the left, it’s Jeremy Corbyn in retain and Bernie Sanders (Hilary Clinton’s main challenger) in the US. In both cases, the candidates are by no means new to politics, but they’ve caught a remarkably strong fresh wind. So what is happening?

To a significant degree, what we’re seeing is disenchantment with the current state of politics. The classic advice to politicians is to attempt to offend nobody and whip up support with vague slogans – a new beginning, a chance for all, hope for tomorrow, and so on. Any question that they’re not prepared for should be fended off with an evasion or a platitude.

Corbyn is attracting interest partly because he isn’t like that. I’ve known him all my adult life, and what you see is what you get: frank opinions, civility to others and a willingness to consider every question with an open mind. We are used in all parties to leaders thinking up policies on the hoof and expecting the party instantly to rally around them – Cameron’s referendum fudge, Miliband’s electricity price freeze, Clegg’s tuition fee U-turn, Farage’s unpredictable pronouncements.

Corbyn’s style is to say without evasion what he thinks but then to urge a broader debate inside and outside the party. An important characteristic is a willingness to talk to anyone, and that gets him into hot water, but he feels that unless you engage with people you disagree with, you never get anywhere.

Regardless of what we think of individual policies, that’s a healthy approach, and combined with his restrained attitude to expenses and personal glamour, it makes him an attractive candidate. Beyond that, he offers a coherent picture of the sort of Britain that he’d like to see, an economy driven by government investment rather than perpetual austerity, support for the weakest, taxation focused on tax-avoiding large companies rather than individuals and no interest in international military interventions. I’m cautious about practicalities, but I’ve no problem with the objectives.

That sense of coherent vision is something that has been missing from British politics: if Cameron or Miliband or Clegg had any particular view of what Britain should look like in 20 years, I didn’t notice it. It’s unfashionable to like Tony Blair, but it was one of his strengths that he too had a fairly clear picture of the sort of society that he wanted – in his case, strong public services increasingly delivered by the private sector coupled with liberal social attitudes.

So far, the media hasn’t really got to grips with Corbyn. One of the Sky News presenters put her finger on part of the problem – it’s difficult to rehearse an interview with someone who isn’t going to give you a stock answer, since you can’t anticipate what he’ll say. There are obvious risks if Labour picks him, not least his established image in the press as an ultra-left hard-liner. The reality is more nuanced than that, and if it happens it’ll be interesting to see whether he succeeds in reviving real interest and engagement in current politics.

I’ve so far been planning to support Yvette Cooper, the most experienced of the candidates in economic policy and the easiest to see in Downing Street. But I’m reluctant to reject the wave of enthusiasm and engagement with politics that we’re seeing Corbyn generate, and I may switch to him when the ballot papers go out next week.

What’s important is that the leadership contest has generated some fresh thinking. There’s really never been a better time to be involved with Labour, and I hope you’ll want to be part of it.

Best wishes

Nick

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Living wages and tax credits: the debate explained

Hi all,

I won’t try to discuss the whole Budget here, but a lot of people are struggling to understand the meaning of the changes and the pros and cons, so I thought it’d be useful to explain what tax credits are for, and the implications of the changes.

The poverty trap

The origin of the issue is that historically it’s been barely worthwhile moving from unemployment benefit (JSA) and its related benefits like Housing Benefit (which pays all or part of the rent for the very poor) into work – the “marginal tax rate” (i.e. the amount you lose when your pay goes up) was sometimes over 100%, so that taking a job was actually against your short-term interest. When some jobs were paid as little as £2/hour, the contrast was overwhelming. This was called the “poverty trap” – essentially, if you tried to get out of dependency on benefits, you’d find yourself worse off.

The tax credit solution

This was tackled in 1997-2010 in two ways. First, the minimum wage eliminated the extreme cases where people were paid negligible amounts. Second, Working Tax Credit was introduced, which effectively took some of the money you’d have got in benefits and gave it to you when you took a low-wage job. It worked out cheaper for the State (because they were no longer paying you full JSA to do nothing) and it gave you a real incentive to take the job.

The big changes

The current changes do three important things:

  • Tax credits are severely squeezed, so that your income if you get them may well go down substantially: three million low-income families will lose an average of £1000/year.
  • A “Living Wage” of £9/hour is introduced, pushing employers to pay the poorest workers more, to make up for the drop in tax credits. Effectively this transfers responsibility from the State to the employers.
  • There is a drastic and little-noticed cut in Employment Support Allowance for people who are unwell – if it’s thought that you’re not yet well enough to work but can take measures to prepare for it, you currently get £29/week to encourage you. This is being abolished.

Will they work?

Now obviously it’s a good thing in principle if people simply earn more, instead of partly depending on State support – it feels better and costs taxpayers less. The difficulty is that there’s no guarantee that employers will in fact fork out £1000/year in extra money rather than simply lay people off – indeed the Treasury expects 60,000 people to lose their jobs as a result – and if they don’t, then we will end up with more people on the dole, which will cost the State more money after all. Also, even when the minimum wage goes up, there’s no guarantee that slightly higher wages will shoot up by the same amount, so people who are on a bit more than minimum wage will lose the working tax credit while not necessarily gaining big salary increases. In the public sector, we already know the answer – the wage increase will be just 1% for 4 years.

What worries me apart from these direct effects is the return of the “poverty trap”. People out of work often have hurdles to overcome which aren’t insuperable but make it difficult – less than perfect health, a minor offences record or lack of educational qualifications. The traditional way back is to inch back into employment with part-time jobs at minimum wage, gaining experience and working your way back into full-time work. This is going to be harder with the higher minimum wage, but probably on its own that wouldn’t be a decisive snag: Labour was proposing that too, and the CBI rated it as “just about affordable”. The real killer, though, is that when you’ve done it you may again find yourself barely better off, because of the tax credits being taken away.

There is a psychological aspect to this – it’s not easy to get back into work, and if jobs are both fewer and less worthwhile, and at the same time existing support for people who are unwell is taken away, it’s going to be very demoralising. We have been here before: there used to be a large pool of people who had basically given up. It’s bad for them, and it’s not in the national interest either.

Political comment

The economic situation remains difficult, so it’s clear to everyone that either tax increases or spending reductions are needed. But it’s striking that a huge proportion of the impact is being focused on low-income people, while high-income earners actually do rather well out of the Budget. That, to be political for a moment, is what Conservative Governments do. It’s in many people’s short-term interest, but do we really want a more divided country?

Best regards

Nick

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A £50 bn rail project to help in 2033 or a £1 bn project to help in 2019?

Hi all,

Just a short comment. As you’ll be aware, the electrification of the Midlands Mainline has been indefinitely postponed, with priority given to works in the southwest. This work was already under way, and it was among the claims of progress that the Government made at the election last month. The reason it was being done are (a) that it would improve capacity and (b) that it would speed up the connections to the south. The total cost of the project is around £1 billion, and it was to be completed by 2019.

Meanwhile, we are going full speed ahead with HS2. The reasons this is being done are (a) that it would improve capacity and (b) that it would speed up the connections to the south. The total cost of the project is around £50 billion, and it is to be completed by 2019. Building work has yet to start. In addition, the necessary works will cause massive disruption in our area, and we won’t see any benefit for at least 18 years.

What should East Midlands MPs say about this? Isn’t it obvious that if something needs to be paused, it’s HS2, while the existing project is finished off?

And what is Broxtowe’s MP actually saying? She says: “Clearly this is disappointing but given the wider circumstances the decision is understandable.” By contrast, she remains an uninhibited total supporter of the vastly more expensive HS2.

I’m sorry, but no. For our region, the decision to give priority to a long-term prestige project with broadly the same objectives as an immediate project that was already under way and costs one fiftieth of the amount is bonkers. I do appreciate that as a Minister our MP cannot say so and has to pretend to agree with the decision. But the price is that Broxtowe is not being effectively represented in Parliament. And what on earth is the Government as a whole thinking of?

On a less controversial issue, I’ve been asked to give publicity to the commemoration of the Chilwell munitions factory disaster in World War 1.

Beeston Square / Chetwynd Barracks / The White LionA Weekend of exhibitions, performances, films and stories exploring the work of the National Shell Filling Factory No. 6 and the lives of those who were killed there on July 1st 1918.Beeston Square
Exhibition – A visual & audio exhibition on the work of the factory and stories from the relatives of local munitions workers. Free. Sat 4th July 10am-4pm. Sun 5th July 11am-3pm.
The V.C. Factory – a specially created 45 minute show exploring the stories of the workers of the factory and the events of 1918. Free, seating provided. Sat 4th July 11am, 1pm & 3pm. Sun 5th July 12 & 2pm.

The White Lion
Beeston Tales and Excavate present an evening of WW1 related storytelling featuring Simon Heywood’s Out of the Silence. (£6) Sat 4th July 7.30pm.
The Killing Factories – special screening of the BBC1 film. Local historian and author Maureen Rushton will also talk about the canary girls of Chilwell. Free. Sun 5th July 7pm.

Chetwynd Barracks
A unique open invitation to visit the memorial to those who gave their lives working at the munitions factory. Pedestrian entry frm Chetwynd Rad; vehicular entry from Swiney Way where photographic ID will be needed to gain access. Free. Sun 5th July 10am-2pm.

Best regards
Nick

 

 

 

 

 

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The Labour leadership / Any progress from the Tories?

Hi all,

As part of my semi-detached role these days, I’d like to offer some comments on the Labour leadership, perhaps especially aimed at those who are members or who are paying the £3 to become registered supporters. The latter is open to anyone who doesn’t at the moment want to get fully involved, but supports the general objectives of the Labour Party and would like a role in choosing the leader and deputy leader (details are here: http://support.labour.org.uk/).

We have increasingly Presidential politics in Britain, so it’s unfortunately true that not just the policies but also the image of the contenders for 10 Downing Street matter. Ed Miliband clearly suffered from the perception that people couldn’t see him as PM. And if we’re not careful, we’ll end up with Boris Johnson as PM, who is as telegenic as anyone could want, but would be a truly awful Prime Minister (I’ve sat on committees with him: he really cannot be bothered with serious discussion).

I know three of the candidates personally. Indeed I’ve known Jeremy Corbyn for decades – he was the Labour agent in the first election when I canvassed as a teenager (I’ve got a funny anecdote about that which I’ll add below).

Yvette Cooper is undoubtedly the one who I can see in Number 10 most easily – balanced, intelligent and a steady hand, she has the right brain for the job. Her problem is that her TV personality doesn’t meet our demand for engaging charismatic personalities. Will voters take to sober competence?

The thing about Andy Burnham that I’ve not seen highlighted is that he’s the most policy-oriented candidate and the most willing to challenge accepted wisdom. As Shadow Health Secretary, he offered to support a cut in NHS spending, if it would be used to improve the care services – arguing that it was better to keep more people out of hospital than throw more money at them when they got in. Most politicians routinely fight for more money for their pet projects and never think outside the box.

Liz Kendall is interesting because she’s iconoclastic – no Labour position is beyond challenge to her. Even when I don’t agree with her, I agree with the principle: we need to be willing to ask ourselves what is really important to us and what we’re willing to change. What I’m missing is a sense of a coherent vision of what she wants. Perhaps it’ll come.

Jeremy is the closest we have to Tony Benn, in many ways – the same socialist ideals, the same dedication, the same personal frugality (a recent quarterly expenses claim was for… one printer ink cartridge), the same scrupulous politeness to opponents. He’s personally what a politician should be, and I’m tempted to vote for him, but I think he’s pre-demonised by the media and has no more chance of winning than Michael Foot did. In the end we do need to be able to win.

For deputy leader, the choice is easier for me. Stella Creasy deeply impressed Broxtowe Labour members when she came up to speak, and I quizzed her for two hours on the train back. Charismatic, creative and passionate, I think she’s exactly what we need.

The anecdote? I was sent out by Jeremy’s dazzlingly beautiful ward organiser to knock up voters on polling day. Instantly in love, I rushed round, only to find everyone was out except one burly figure. He said, “You are the sixth person to ask me if I’ve voted. I voted at 7 this morning. No offence, mate, but the next person to remind me will get a thump on the nose.”

I reported this back to the angelic organiser. “What?” she snarled. “He’s a f***ing liar. Go back and ask him again!”

Did I go? Ahem. Party loyalty and love both have their limits.

To conclude, some local comments. After the re-election of Broxtowe’s Conservative MP and an overall majority for a Tory Council, I suggested five challenges for actual action, rather than just making speeches, writing to Ministers and so on. http://www.nickpalmer.org.uk/five-challenges-for-broxtowes-conservatives/

So here’s an update:

The challenges were, in summary:

  1. The Green Belt – will they build on it?
  2. Council funding – will it be revised?
  3. Tram enquiry and compensation – will they happen?
  4. HS2 – what are the implications?
  5. Open-cast mining – will the relief exit to the M1 be approved?

 

On point 1, the signals are that the answer is going to be “yes, they’ll build on the Green Belt”. Before the election, the rhetoric of local Conservatives was that they were by no means giving up on the battle to stop the Core Strategy, and when elected they would protect the Green Belt. This appears not to be the case: they seem to be moving towards saying that “The Core Strategy is a done deal, sorry about that”.

This is nonsense: the Council can reopen it if it wants to. The problem is that that Government policy forces each local council to build new houses rapidly, so it well be the only sensible response. If it’s not possible to change Government policy, then reopening the Core Strategy would merely open the whole borough to speculative development. That’s why the Lab/LibDem coalition adopted it. But it’s not what the Conservatives said when they wanted your votes, is it?

On points 2 and 3, silence reigns. Ms Soubry said some time ago that she’d written to the Minister to ask about the fact that we had the worst settlement in Britain. Did the Minister reply? What did he say?

On point 4, however, we do have more information. The first in a series of regular progress reports from the HS2 Residents’ Commissioner has been published: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/first-report-published-from-hs2-residents-commissioner Some details of the compensation scheme are emerging here too and are not, so far, helpful to our area.

On the London-Birmingham stretch, which is rich in rebellious Tory MPs, homes have been categorised into 4 zones depending on how close you are to the line: https://www.gov.uk/claim-compensation-if-affected-by-hs2

Here, however, is the current pathetic position as I understand it so far in Broxtowe:

1) You must prove that you are unable to sell your property because of HS2.

2) You must have bought the property before 28 January 2013 and

3) You must be able to show hardship by not selling (e.g. because of your job). Only the full valuation is payable without additional expenses

Now, the HS2 Residents’ Commissioner has offered to meet MPs all along the line. This invitation needs to be taken up with alacrity and the Commissioner needs to be urged to get a faster, better deal. I made an election pledge that I would put residents affected first, even if that meant voting against my party. By contrast, Ms Soubry just expressed enthusiasm for the project, and the risk of that is that it may take forever to get decent terms. After all, if we think the project is wonderful, why would we need compensation?

We can surely all agree that Broxtowe should be treated as well as the Home Counties? No better, no worse. Part of the problem is that the Government doesn’t seem to want to decide on the exact route through the East Midlands for another year. For a £50 billion project they can surely afford to offer to buy up probably affected properties without making them wait for years – if the route ends up going elsewhere (which is unlikely), the properties can be resold. As with the Heathrow/Gatwick saga, they should get on with it, one way or the other.

Finally, on point 5, Ms Soubry has responded to the challenge by saying she is “pressing ahead with her campaign” to get access from the open-cast mine to the M1. What she has done is write to a fellow-Minister. This is good, as Ministerial consent is indeed needed. However, in May, Highways England, replying to my petition from residents on the issue, pointed out that permission would need to be granted by Moto, and that “We’re not aware that Moto have been approached yet to understand their view on the proposal”. Ms Soubry and/or the Council should talk to them without further delay, so we can get this common-sense issue resolved.

Best wishes

Nick

 

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A failure to protect Trowell/Tram launch update/Benefits – some hard facts

Hi all,

Two short news items, and then a discussion of benefit cuts.

  1. A probable “no” to routing open-cast traffic directly onto the M1

One of the more minor challenges I proposed for the Conservative leadership in my last email was to achieve the common-sense policy of routing traffic from the impending open-cast mine next to Trowell service area directly onto the M1 through the service area, instead of sending it on a tour through back roads, with delays for the company and congestion and pollution for residents. It ought to be a no-brainer, and I sent in a large petition to the Department of Transport on the issue. Ms Soubry, in turn, brought the Secretary of State for Transport to the area before the election, and gave the impression that she was pressing the case.

I’ve now had an official response. The Department has passed the buck to Highways England, and they say that they “fully understand” the concerns, though it’s not their usual policy. They have told Ms Soubry that she (or others) could apply for a departure from the policy, but would need to provide evidence why this should be done. They suggest that Moto, who operate the service area and might need some compensation or assistance to make it work smoothly, should be asked for their opinion, but are not aware that anyone has approached them.

It doesn’t appear that anyone has pursued the matter further. In what way is Ms Soubry pressing the issue, if she hasn’t even bothered to ask the owners of the site for their opinion? I don’t wish to be cynical, but I suspect that the visit of the Minister of Transport was purely organised to give the impression that something was being done, when in fact it is not. There is still time for that to change. May I suggest that an effort be made?

  1. Tram starting point approaching

We are all used to Tramlink announcing an expected start date and then moving it, but the unofficial prediction hasn’t changed for some time, and it’s probably worth taking it more seriously. It‘s likely that operation will start by August, and possibly in late July. The Civic Society is vigorously pursuing discussions of how to develop the Square and we look forward to the Council putting forward its ideas on Phase 2. Whether or not we supported the tram, its actual start is a critical turning point for Beeston, and it’s crucial that it’s used to draw people to the area.

  1. Benefit cuts – some frank analysis

A significant aspect of the new Government’s policy is the projected £12 billion of welfare cuts. People are ambivalent about these –“It seems a bit hard that people at the bottom should bear the brunt of savings, but these are difficult times and maybe it will help shake up the benefits culture” is probably an average view.

All major parties are notably cautious about opposing them – the nasty electoral fact is that people dependent on benefits often tend not to vote at all, while people who are gung-ho about cuts tend to vote with enthusiasm.

One of the advantages of not expecting to be standing for election again in Broxtowe is that I don’t need to fret about such things, I can just say what I think. First, please have a read of this piece, on a Conservative blog:

http://archbishopcranmer.com/an-open-letter-from-a-disabled-christian-to-conservative-voters/

Specifically, is it right that severely disabled people should be NINETEEN times more affected by cuts that anyone else? And should the company that is assigned to assess claimants really have a financial incentive to turn them down, even if the decisions are later overturned on appeal?

Like any former MP, I have seen plenty of cases of people on benefits, and like any other group they vary. At one extreme you have people whose benefits have simply gone wrong for technical reasons – the person who assessed them made an unreasonable decision, they were given the wrong form, the computer system has a bug, whatever. If most of us have a hitch like this, we manage without too much difficulty while it’s sorted out. For people with no other income or savings, it plunges them instantly into desperation. At the other extreme, you have people who cynically work the system by pretending to be disabled when they aren’t. Do they really exist? Of course they do. Is it the normal case? No, it isn’t.

In between, you have a lot of people in a grey area. They would really, genuinely, like to get a job, or move up from a minimum wage job to a better one, but there are lots of objective reasons why it’s not happening. Their education isn’t very good, or they have some sort of disability, or they have a minor conviction which deters employers, or they just don’t come across very well at interview. With plenty of applicants to choose from, employers go for someone else who doesn’t have any of these snags. Some people in this grey area just keep trying, again and again. Some give up and just go through the motions.

Punishing people in this group doesn’t help. They wanted to get a job, they still want to. All we’re doing is making it harder to survive without one. The benefits cap doesn’t affect single people: what it affects is families with children. That’s why a Government report says that reducing the benefits cap will drop 40,000 children into poverty unless the effect is that the parents get more or better-paid work:

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/may/29/household-benefit-cap-plunge-40000-kids-poverty-memo

Perhaps in the long term this will mean that families at risk of unemployment don’t have children. Many people argue that this is an important objective – why should we pay benefit to people who choose to have several kids? In the short and medium term, however, the children are already there, and if we squeeze the family income without offering a way forward, we will create more deprived children. The effects of that are well-documented – fewer life chances, more illness and higher crime levels. It makes it more likely that we’ll be grappling with just the same issues in 10-20 years when they grow up. I’m in favour of earmarking part of child benefit in kind – children’s clothing, healthy food, and so on. But if you cut family income you can expect everyone in the family to be affected.

What can be done? In my view, either we should get serious at helping people in the grey area get into better work, or we should decide that it’s too difficult and stop bashing them. I’d prefer the first. That costs money (which means that deficit reduction needs to come from somewhere else). It means things like the subsidised jobs guarantee for long-term unemployed young people (proposed by Labour and thus rejected in the election this month), extensive investment in adult education, childcare and support to get to work, and reinforcement of the crumbling network of support agencies like the CAB, most of whom are currently getting less funding rather than more.

What we should not be doing is cutting all these things in order to give high-voting segments like wealthier pensioners a guaranteed rising share of income (that famous triple lock, which pushes up pensions by 2.5% a year even if inflation is zero) and promising people on high to middle incomes a tax cut. Why is the Government pampering people in this position (which includes me), while cutting benefits to someone who is struggling? Because they think we’ll vote, and a person struggling with multiple sclerosis probably won’t. It’s as simple and nasty as that, and if you vote for it when elections come round again, I’m afraid you are part of the problem. Sorry to be blunt!

Best wishes

Nick

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