Sunday, 18 December 2011

THE ENVIRONMENT SHOULD BE THE MEETING GROUND OF TORIES AND LIB DEMS

Oh dear, we’re back to the 80s. And I don’t mean Thatcherism.

In his autumn statement, George Osborne announced a number of measures that betrayed a clear line of thinking: the environment is a luxury issue that’s all well and good but mustn’t be allowed to get in the way of the interests of business. Such as giving energy-intensive industries £250 million to offset carbon costs, and softening EU nature protection laws.

This was very much the line of thinking that made Labour such a slow convert to ‘green’ issues. As the party that had grown up representing the industrial proletariat, it took the view that the environment was a middle class conscience issue that was fine up to a point, but there were more important things to worry about, like the wages and living conditions of workers. This was Labour’s attitude throughout the 1980s, and only changed when the party realised it was alienating environmentally motivated voters.

In the intervening two decades, all the scientific evidence has made it abundantly clear that what is not good for the environment is not good for the economy. The clearest piece of evidence was Nicholas Stern’s report in 2006 that bluntly stated that failure to take the environment seriously would strangle the economy, but there’s plenty of other evidence that makes the same point.

Anyone with a positive mindset would see this as a challenge. The economy isn’t doomed, but it will be if we don’t embrace the environmental opportunities in it. This should be the meeting ground of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – the environmental awareness of the Lib Dems married up to the business sense of the Tories. It could genuinely be the ‘greenest’ British government ever.

But instead we’re going the wrong way. Business leaders with vested interests (you may wish to call them ‘fat cats’; I’m trying not to make it unnecessary personal) lobby the government for relaxations from environmental rules. In many cases, these business leaders have seen the writing on the wall for years but have decided their short-term profits are more important than investing in environmental research and development, so now find themselves lagging behind and begging for permission to go on polluting.

The car industry is a classic example of this, but by no means the only one.

In 1995, the European Commission said it wanted to set a maximum carbon dioxide emissions limit for the average new car. Very sensible. Its proposal was for 120 grams of CO2 per kilometre by 2005. The car industry screamed that this was entirely unrealistic and unfair. So in 1998 the Commission caved in and allowed a ‘voluntary agreement’ whereby the average new car sold by 2008 would emit no more than 140 g/km.

Guess what? Yup, the car industry as a whole failed to meet its target, despite the fact that some car makers (Fiat, Renault, Peugeot-Citro├źn) had hit the 120 g/km target. In other words, it could be done! Annoyed that the car industry had asked to be trusted and then failed to deliver, the Commission proposed a mandatory emissions limit of 120 g/km by 2012. At first the automotive industry just said no-one was going to boss it around and pretended nothing would happen, but on this occasion, the politicians did stand up for a binding limit. Once again it was heavily watered down by automotive lobbying, so the new mark is a rather pathetic 130 g/km by 2015, but at least a binding limit now exists.

And guess what? Emissions from new cars are coming down. Why? Not just because they have to, but because Europe’s car makers know that if they don’t reduce their emissions, they’ll find their cars won’t be sellable outside the EU as well as inside. With China and California both introducing emissions limits for new vehicles, any car maker that doesn’t embrace environmental technology will be disadvantaged in the global market place.

Unfortunately, today's owners of second-hand cars are paying excessive fuel and road tax bills, because the car makers were too slow to embrace lower fuel consumption 15 years ago.

This is just one example, but one of many in which industry screams ‘You’ll be putting masses of people out of work’, and then when the politicians stand firm, it becomes clear industry has been crying wolf. It’s happening now with the EU’s decision to subject air transport to emissions trading – you’d think it was limiting airlines to one plane each by the hysterical screaming coming from the aviation industry, when in reality this will add just a few cents to the price of the average flight.

This is why George Osborne should be standing up for environmental safeguards, not capitulating to industry's opposition to them. Even in a recession. In fact especially in a recession. The old saying ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ is especially applicable in a recession, so anything that stimulates reducing polluting and climate-changing emissions is to be welcomed. But how are we going to have a climate of incentives if the Chancellor bails out industries that have refused to see the writing on the wall for two decades?

This is the kind of issue on which the coalition could crack. With the Greens threatening traditional Lib Dem support, the Lib Dems know they have to use their time in government to establish some meaningful environmental achievements, indeed many Lib Dems will insist on that through conviction rather than electoral advantage. It’s something the Conservatives should be able to deliver without any concessions in their own ideology, as a ‘green’ economy will be good for business. It’s a test of whether the Tories really are interested in helping business in the long term or merely helping today’s big industry protect what it has.

Monday, 31 October 2011

IT MAY BE A BIT BORING, BUT IT’S STILL A LOCAL SCANDAL

I’ve always taken the view that to talk or blog about councillors’ allowances is a real turnoff that’s never going to get people particularly interested. But before you drop off, can I have a couple of minutes of your time to highlight a local development that is actually worth stifling the yawns for?

How would you feel if you discovered that some of your taxes were going to pay people whose jobs weren’t defined? People who might do some work, but you don’t know what they’re doing, or whether they’ve done what they’re supposed to because no-one has set out what it is they’re supposed to be doing?

I don’t want to get too anal about this, and at times you need to give people a certain freedom to act as they see fit within defined limits. But a local Conservative-controlled district council has taken to paying three of its councillors £3,311 per year of taxpayers’ money without saying what it is they’re supposed to be doing. That’s not only wrong, but violates the principle that local government should be transparent and accountable.

Not a lot of people know this, but councillors at district and county level get an annual allowance for their work. It’s in recognition of the fact that they have to do some council work and attend certain meetings during working hours, and therefore may have to forfeit some income to carry out their duties as a councillor. The rate on Lewes District Council is just under £3000 a year, and it’s around £1000 more on Wealden District Council.

Then there are Special Responsibility Allowances. These are given to councillors who take on specific jobs for which there are genuine responsibilities. I have no issue with this in principle – many of these tasks amount to a full-time job, and if you want talented people running your council, you can’t pay peanuts.

But you have to define what special responsibilities you’re paying councillors for. And Lewes District Council currently has three ‘Lead Councillors without portfolio’ who are paid £3,311. This is a scandal.

Guidance from central government and commonly accepted practice states that no councillor should receive remuneration beyond the basic councillor’s allowance for any work that is not clearly defined and can be monitored by the public. So paying money to a councillor without defined responsibilities breaches the principle of transparency of council work.

That’s why I have called on Lewes District Council to allow ‘Lead Councillors without portfolio’ to have the right to sit and vote on the council’s ‘cabinet’, but they should not receive any Special Responsibility Allowance. They could receive a fixed sum for a one-off task, so that the council can make use of some specialist skills from among the pool of councillors, but any such task must be defined so we can know whether the councillor has done the work or not.

Anything less is just a cronyist approach to local government that we should not tolerate.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

SCHADENFREUDE AT EUROPEAN WOES IS TOTALLY MISPLACED

‘Suddenly, the air was thick with the sound of chickens coming home to roost!’ Not my line, I’m afraid, it’s Alan Bennett’s. It comes from his clever if slightly disjointed play ‘Habeas Corpus’. It’s one I’ve quoted a lot over the years, and I’ve been aware of it this past week.

There is a smile on the faces of the Eurosceptics. They believe the chickens are coming home to roost on all things European. The woes of the eurozone have accompanied news that one of the most popular e-petitions on the Downing Street website was one calling for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. And we now even have one of Labour’s most pro-European MPs saying the EU’s institutions are losing credibility.

I wish to issue a very loud call for caution. There are lots of shades of opinion on the myriad issues that carry the ‘euro-’ prefix, including many within the Liberal Democrats. But anyone who wishes the demise of all things European either hasn’t thought things through or is living in cloud cuckoo land.

For a start, there are several euro-issues. There’s the EU, the Council of Europe, the continent of Europe, and the euro currency. All these get treated with the same ‘euro-’ prefix but they are often totally different beasts. Even knowledgeable journalists frequently get the European Court of Justice and the European Court of Human Rights mixed up. (One is the EU’s court, the other is the Council of Europe’s – but how many know which is which?)

I have always seen myself on the Eurosceptic wing of the Lib Dems, but even that needs some qualification. As someone who has lived in Germany and Switzerland and thus speaks fluent German and nearly fluent French (and these days a smattering of Spanish), I am totally transnational in my outlook.

But I have for many years been reluctant to concede more powers to the EU, because I feel its institutions are too weak to withstand the periodic pounding they’re subjected to from lobbying by whichever industry is flavour of the month. I also believe in decentralisation, so no more decisions should be taken at transnational level than absolutely necessary.

I have also been uncomfortable with the idea of Britain joining the euro, even when the economics made the case plausible (about 10 years ago – it’s hard to imagine now, I know). I was never comfortable with the idea that one currency can fit both the affluence of Germany and the relative poverty of Greece, to say nothing of the different work ethics in those two countries. Britain being outside the euro has allowed the Bank of England more freedom in setting interest rates.

But does this make me an EU-sceptic? Heavens no! And am I rejoicing at the euro’s turmoil? Of course not. Britain may be outside the euro, but our economy is heavily dependent on trade with mainland Europe, so if the euro suffers, so do we. That’s why the Schadenfreude at the euro’s woes is totally misplaced.

And at one level the EU has been a phenomenal success, so successful that we have even forgotten – or are too young to have known – the problem it solved. The current EU was conceived in the 1950s to ensure that powerhouse economies like France and Germany never had the incentive to go to war again. War in western Europe is now inconceivable. We all got a bit of a shock in the 1990s when Yugoslavia descended into bloody civil war, but one ex-Yugoslav state, Slovenia, is now an EU member, and the other five are queuing up to join.

We see enough television programmes and films, and read enough Sebastian Faulks and Andrea Levy novels, to understand what trauma war can bring. The EU has effectively eradicated the likelihood of war in Europe. For that we should be truly grateful – and utterly contemptuous about the argument that Britain should withdraw from the EU.

Friday, 8 July 2011

WHEN WILL WE REALISE THAT THE PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER TO STOP DISREPUTABLE JOURNALISM?

I never thought I’d see myself writing this, but the decision to close the ‘News of the World’ is truly terrible.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no liking for the NoW, which has clearly engaged in some disreputable and disgusting activity. But for it to disappear from the landscape is a bit like a rapist and murderer being caught red-handed and then fleeing the country before he comes to trial. No, actually it’s worse than that.

One of the major paradoxes about British society is people’s unwillingness to see just how much power they have over newspapers. If enough people don’t buy them, the newspapers don’t sell and can’t function. We understand our power when it comes to certain consumer boycotts but can’t bring ourselves as a society (I personally don’t buy ‘tabloid’ newspapers) to boycott newspapers.

When Princess Diana was killed in Paris in 1997, the initial reaction was that the paparazzi had hounded her to her death. After a couple of weeks it became clear that this was a somewhat simplistic interpretation of events, yet for the first week or so, that was the perceived wisdom.

So did sales of the newspapers that paid for the paparazzi’s pictures go down? No – they actually went up! We moaned about the malign influence of those beasts in the press, yet we kept feeding them.

One of the most distasteful aspects of the NoW hacking scandal is that it only blew up this week. This issue has been going on for several months, but somehow the victims never registered strongly enough with us for it to become a major story. It’s like we accept that a Premiership footballer or a publicity agent or an actress can have their phones hacked, but once the parents of a murdered schoolgirl or 7/7 victims or soldiers killed in Afghanistan have theirs hacked, then it becomes a scandal, one that brings down a 168-year-old newspaper.

Well, no. Apart from police activity when there is good reason to suspect criminal activity, phone hacking is both illegal and morally wrong, whether it’s a disreputable celebrity or parasitic sportsman whose phone is hacked, or the grieving parents in an awful human tragedy. The NoW scandal was every bit as bad six months ago as it was this past week.

So why has it taken this long to come to crisis? Simple – because people still want to pay a few pence for the news that comes out of phone hacking. The NoW’s sales should have been falling all year, as people refuse to fund the tactics used by the paper to get its stories. But sales have been remarkably solid.

The reason the NoW’s demise is truly terrible is that I suspect this week would have been the first time there would have been something of a consumer boycott. It would have given the whole country a chance to see readers refusing to buy a specific newspaper, and that would perhaps have set a precedent that could be followed.

Whether that was in the back of Rupert and James Murdoch’s mind when they took the decision to close the NoW I have no idea. There are so many elements to this fast-moving story that it’s impossible to keep up. But it’s clear that if a new Sunday emerges from the Murdoch stable to replace the NoW, it will be much harder to associate it with the practices of the departed predecessor.

Nonetheless, in a world where we feel so powerless, this week’s events serve to show that we as a broad mass of the population could have nipped the phone hacking scandal in the bud, simply by refusing to buy papers whose methods of finding stories are clearly below the belt.

Monday, 25 April 2011

IT’S NOT JUST THE LIB DEMS WHO ARE SHORT-CHANGED BY THE VOTING SYSTEM BUT THE WHOLE COUNTRY!

Something very strange is happening with the referendum campaign, which perhaps explains some of the nastiness and in-fighting that’s currently going on.

We have a situation where one side ought to be streets ahead, but it’s neck-and-neck. When this happens in sport, it’s very exciting, but when it comes to the once-in-a-generation (if not a lifetime) chance to change the voting system, there’s ample scope for despair.

As a sports journalist, I rather enjoy watching an inferior player or team fighting against much more gifted opposition through determination and clever tactics. It’s part of the romance of sport. But I get absolutely no satisfaction out of the way the No campaign is cynically trying to defend the indefensible interests of yesterday’s politicians.

The latest opinion polls say the No campaign is slightly ahead of the Yes campaign. The number of Don’t Knows is high enough for the result to be still very much in the balance, but the fact that it is in the balance is the shock for me. The Yes campaign ought by rights to be absolutely home and dry by now, yet it has been fighting a rearguard action all the way, and is by no means guaranteed victory.

Let’s get back to basics. Why do we vote? Answer: to have people making decisions on our behalf who reflect our general view of how we should be governed. Therefore, our representatives have to be in rough proportion to the public’s general views.

Do our representatives need to be 100% proportional? Answer: not absolutely 100%, because a secondary requirement of representation of the people is that it has to provide viable government. So, for example, you have the system in Germany which is proportional, except that any party getting less than five per cent of the overall vote has no representation, so you cut out all the tiny parties that can make governing such a mess. But it mustn’t get too out of kilter.

And our system is badly out of kilter. When Margaret Thatcher got her biggest majority (144 seats) in 1983, she did it on less than 44 per cent of the votes. When Tony Blair was elected for a third term with a majority of 66 in 2005, he got less than 36 per cent of the votes. Is that right? It’s not just the Lib Dems who are short-changed by the current system. It happens to take an average of 120,000 voters to elect a Lib Dem MP, as opposed to 35,000 for the Conservatives and 33,000 for Labour, but don’t think we’re the main ones who are disadvantaged – the whole country is!

Does the present ‘First past the post’ or the proposed ‘Alternative Vote’ provide the desired system? Answer: no. The right system for a modern democracy would be proportional, and neither is that. But experience has taught us to favour the evolutionary over the revolutionary, and we have got rather attached to our constituency-based way of electing MPs, so the AV system being proposed is a constituency-based step that is a little more proportional. It won’t make a massive difference, but it’s the right evolution.

I pride myself on being a bridge-builder, on seeing the other person’s point of view, even if I disagree with it. But I cannot find a single convincing argument for the current ‘First past the post’ system. The No lot said they would fight a positive campaign highlighting the virtues of FPTP. Positive? – my foot! All they’ve done is denigrate others, including the audacious step of accusing Nick Clegg (who appears in all the No literature – is that positive?) of breaking his promises, when what he did was compromise a Lib Dem pledge to form a coalition government. It’s breathtaking, yet perhaps not surprising when there’s nothing to defend FPTP with.

This is why you have to take your hat off – in a very perverse way – to the No campaign, for making it still a contest. This should be a 65:35 win for the Yes campaign at the very least, yet the No lobby seems to be slightly ahead. I sit here thinking ‘Surely the British people cannot fall for this’ – yet I fear they might.

The No campaign has coined a lot of sporting metaphors in recent weeks, I guess because ‘first past the post’ comes from sport. Yet most sport is more akin to AV than FPTP. An Olympic final follows heats, in which the weakest drop out, leaving the strongest in the final round. Even television programmes like The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing work on AV – if they didn’t, the winner would be chosen in the first programme with about 15-20% of the vote. And they say the British people can’t understand AV!

The best sporting analogy for me comes from last year’s football world cup final between Spain and the Netherlands. Spain had all the talent, and tried to play beautiful football, while the Dutch knew their only route to victory was in a cynical, physical approach that hacked down Spain’s gifted players. Justice just about prevailed with Spain getting a winning goal six minutes from the end, but it was excruciating to watch.

I only hope the Yes campaign can get a winning goal six minutes from the end. Anything else and you really would have to say people have a death wish when it comes to choosing their politicians.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

A LITTLE MATURITY NEEDED – NOT HYSTERICAL INDIGNATION

Journalists, eh! We’ve all had a moan at the media. We love them, we hate them, we love to hate them. I’m the same, and I am a journalist.

As a result of our love-hate relationship with the fourth estate, I’ve become moderately relaxed about things that get written in the papers, but something published the day after the Commons debate on whether prisoners should get the vote really got my blood pressure up.

It was the lead story in the Daily Express. Under the headline ‘Britain in the EU: this must be the end’, the paper launched into a tirade against the European Union, saying the vote by MPs against giving voting rights to those in prison should be a launch pad for Britain leaving the EU.

What utter ignorance! There is a fundamental flaw at the heart of that analysis that beggars belief.

The ruling that said Britain should allow at least some prisoners the right to vote came not from the EU but from the European Court of Human Rights. This is a Strasbourg-based court that monitors compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights. The EU does have a judicial arm, but it’s the European Court of Justice and it’s in Luxembourg (the EU’s parliament is in Strasbourg).

In other words, it’s a totally different court that has nothing to do with the EU. What the Daily Express has done is as fatuous as suggesting that British Gas and British Airways are the same thing because they both begin with ‘British’ and they’re both based in London!

Of course, the Express journalists and editors almost certainly knew this. They will have taken a simple decision: we don’t like the EU, we can whip up a little hatred with the ECHR ruling, so why let the facts get in the way of a good story? It’s a disgraceful way to supposedly inform people, and the Express doesn’t deserve to be called a ‘newspaper’.

I personally don’t think the issue of prisoners getting the vote is a big one. I see no signs that prisoners are pining for the right to vote, and there are bigger problems to be addressed in the realm of penal reform. But there is a bigger issue here.

That is that we cannot pick and choose which parts of human rights we support for others and which we reject for ourselves. Britain signed the Convention as a way of showing it wanted respect for basic human rights the world over. Of course the biggest concerns are those in developing countries, where human rights are frequently violated. But if we say we don’t like the ECHR telling us that our laws contravene basic human rights, what right do we have to lecture even the worst tin-pot dictators on improving their human rights records?

It’s not as if the ECHR has told us what we have to do. It has just said the situation in which anyone behind bars forfeits the right to vote is not consistent with the human rights Convention. That means it's still up to us to decide what we want to do. I would like to see some wording of a revised Act that allows those prisoners to vote who are clearly candidates for rehabilitation, as distinct from those who are behind bars to protect society from them.

How that is done must be left to the lawyers. But we need to be mature about this and actively look for a civilised rewording of our own laws – not get all indignant and seek scapegoats in an institution that has nothing at all to do with this particular issue.