Friday, 30 June 2017

Glasto - in praise of the BBC (and Ed Sheeran)

I said last year that, now the Beeb has practically had to pull out of sport, its Glastonbury coverage is not only excellent but, for me, just about the best thing about the corporation these days. And brilliant the coverage was again. I can't possibly watch all of the things I'd like to while they remain available on iPlayer. But the right wing press (ok, the Daily Mail) got its knickers in a twist about political bias because of the attention given to Jeremy Corbyn. I'm not a fan of Corbyn and even less so of McDonnell, whose comments at Glasto about housing and the Grenfell Tower disaster were truly and unsurprisingly awful. I'm not just talking about his "murdered by political decisions" comment, which had two angles. The first was his argument that housing in our country is built only for "financial speculation rather than for meeting a basic human need". Well he would think that because he won't accept that a market  produces better results than a command economy, despite all the evidence to the contrary, including the self-evident fact that the standard of housing provided by the likes of the Smolensk Workers Co-operative would not exactly command a lot of enthusiasm here. The second was fire service cuts, which was refuted by the London Fire Commissioner, Dany Cotton, who said "there were no issues about numbers of firefighters". What one has to recognise, of course, is that when McDonnell blames "governments" and "political decisions" he doesn't just mean since 2010 as he has no hesitation in blaming the Blair and Brown governments as well as Cameron and May since, to him, they are all awful Tories of one kind or another.

But back to the accusation of bias in the TV coverage. Corbyn was invited to speak by the festival organisers. A bad call for me as I think politicians only belong there in the audience, but one the organisers are entitled to make. And it is then only reasonable for the Beeb to cover it, as it's part of the event. The fact that lots of petit bourgeoisie who can pay the nearly £250 a head for the cheapest ticket seem to be overwhelmingly supportive of someone who would tax them hard is remarkable but not surprising as they all get carried away with young person's group think on occasions like this, even if some are ageing hippies. And of course those who have a student loan would love to have it written off, though why they think they should benefit compared to the people of the same age who didn't go to university, or indeed other people who willingly signed up for a loan of any kind, I'm not sure. There'd be just as much logic in writing off the car loans of people under 30. Seems the idealistic young are just as interested in a "bung" as anyone. This seems to me of more import than the BBC briefly covering something that actually happened at an event they were televising. I suppose they could have totally ignored it and not shown or said anything about Corbyn but to me that would have been strange and tantamount to censorship.

The other thing about Glasto that caught my attention was Ed Sheeran having to explain on twitter that he hadn't been miming or using tape recordings, but simply using a loop station to create his own backing riffs and rhythms as part of his remarkable one man show. I must admit I thought everybody knew about loop stations. We first saw someone using one many years ago now at a pub or golf club gig. I was nearly as fascinated as when I realised a similar performer was enhancing his vocals through software on his laptop - I'd just thought he was remarkably good at impersonating all sorts of famous singers till I realised. I thought Sheeran did well, though the set was perhaps a little long: we were losing attention and felt the audience there was too about three-quarters of the way through. Mind, I've had the riff from Eraser on a loop in my head ever since. Its autobiographical lyric is totally risible in some places:
I forget when I get awards now the wave I had to ride
The paving stones I played on that kept me to the grind....
Guess it's a stereotypical day for someone like me
Without a nine to five job or a uni degree
To be caught up in the trappings of the industry....
I used to think that nothing could be better than touring the world with my songs
I chased the picture perfect life, I think they painted it wrong
I think that money is the route (sic*) of all evil and fame is hell....
With my beaten small guitar, wearing the same old jeans
Wembley Stadium crowds, two hundred and forty thou**
And to the next generation inspiration's allowed....
And I'll find comfort in my pain eraser....
You poor sausage, Ed Sheeran MBE. You're all of 26 years old.... and though you had to make quite a few independently produced EPs before you got a record deal (the first when he was 14 and one of which was a minor hit and won a silver disc) it wasn't that slow and long a trajectory to fame aged 20! Most buskers aren't expecting that big breakthrough to come easily, nor do most stars find the trappings of fame tiresome so quickly. But I do think this is a good song, nevertheless. After all there are plenty of risible Joe Strummer lyrics I like to sing along to.

It took me a long time to get Sheeran. My boss told me about him and suggested I might like his stuff. As she's a big Led Zep fan she has taste so I took a listen. Now Sheeran is officially genre-d (a verb I probably just invented) as pop, acoustic and contemporary folk. Well, he clearly isn't folk, but as my favourite man with just an acoustic guitar, Roy Harper, isn't either, I thought he might be promising. This was very early in Ed's career - his first album might just have come out. I checked him out on youtube and was nonplussed. I saw him on several TV shows, including Graham Norton. I remember saying to my other half "I feel I ought to like this guy but I just don't warm to him". I gave him more chances than there are in a monopoly card deck. The song that finally did it for me, perhaps predictably, was 2016 Grammy winning Thinking Out Loud from his second album, Multiply, which I then went out and bought. And I quite liked some of it; though the grime/rap stuff didn't seem to me to fit with the rest of the tracks. Though to be fair, Sheeran has always been as much grime as folk - some of his independently produced teenage EPs were grime collaborations. And it didn't stop me buying the latest album, Divide, because I thought I should and I liked more than its predecessor (though when I go back and listen to X now I think I prefer it). Glastonbury is the first time I've seen a live Sheeran set and I loved it. It's not the first time I've had to see a live performance to really get an artist. I guess this is partly because what you don't see when he does one song on a TV show is the energy he puts in to his set.

But now I really do like him, rather than thinking that I ought to like him. I just had to give him far more chances than I've ever given any artist previously. Mind, I still don't like singing along to rap: I just can't remember that many words that quickly!

*I typed these lyric extracts direct from the official CD inlay, not some dodgy website
**I find this lyric remarkably self aggrandising. On a pedantic point of detail, you can't play to 240 thousand people at Wembley. Well not all at once. The official stadium capacity is 90,000 but it's generally lower for concerts and was about 80,000 a night for Ed Sheeran's "X" tour. The official figure (well, on Wikipedia anyway) for the tour was 229,725 over 4 nights, but that wouldn't have rhymed. They can get more in by using a 360 degree layout, the maximum so far being 92,000 for U2, but for Adele in a few days' time they are going to get 98,000 in. Over 4 nights that will be 392 thou, a new record for Wembley. Eat your hear out Ed, or just use your pain eraser. P.S. Oops, Adele damaged her vocal chords after two of the Wembley gigs....

Sunday, 25 June 2017

The biggest ever endorsement wedge in sport

Which sportsman has earned the most dosh from endorsements in a single year? Not golf's Tiger Woods. Not basketball's Michael Jordan. And certainly not football's David Beckham.

The answer is George Forman. Just about everyone will remember the George Foreman lean, mean grilling machine, a counter-top grill designed to drain out the fat, which rode the early healthy eating wave. Foreman having retired once from boxing, been a preacher and gone back to pugilism, was invited to a trade fair in Las Vegas in 1995. There he met a man who had been trying to market the grill, but with little success. That man saw for himself how popular and personable Foreman was - and also a big carnivore. But he didn't have the cash to do the normal up front endorsement fee. So he offered George a cut of future profits. The men hit it off and Foreman, perhaps surprisingly, agreed to the deal. Rebranded under George's name and face it became a huge success. Foreman, on 45% of the profits, hoped he might gross a million dollars in total out of the deal. After a slow burn start (sorry) they soon couldn't make them quickly enough to meet demand and Foreman's monthly cheques, initially modest, were approaching $4 million by 1999. That year he sold out his stake for a lump sum of $137.5 million, the most any athlete has made from endorsements in a single year. Well that's what I read but not long afterwards CNN reckoned* it was over five years and might have be exceeded by Jordan's unpublicised deal with Nike, though a more recent book** pooh poohs that. But it's a great story and, either way, it's more than George's lifetime earnings from boxing. One can only say "gorgeous", Foreman's nickname.

Even stranger, while Foreman sold the rights to use his name in perpetuity (which generally means 80 years - a commercial manager I know has a saying "irrevocable isn't never, perpetual isn't for ever") he felt he'd been sacked and, while he had some ongoing obligations, willingly continued to promote the product and go to the factory. The story appears in huge detail on CNN's website (see below).

Not that I know of anyone who ever owned one. Oh, maybe one; we remember it being on someone we know's wedding gift list.

* CNN Money, June 1 2003. Gorgeous George - the George Foreman lean mean fat-reducing grilling a phenomenon
**Bouts of Mania, Richard Hoffer, Aurum. The book covers the 6 famous fights featuring combinations of Frazier, Ali and Foreman between 1971 and 1975, including the Foreman-Ali 'Rumble in the Jungle' which Ali won against all expectations, using his 'rope-a-dope' tactic to weather the Foreman storm before knocking him out.

Friday, 23 June 2017

The most successful person in sport in our neck of the woods

Who has been the most successful person, in terms of long term sustained success, in top level sport in the British Isles over the last few decades, if not ever?

There are some small clues in how I phrased the question. The 'most successful person' perhaps implies not necessarily a competitor. So a coach or manager maybe? And the 'British Isles' being the group of islands off the west coast of continental Europe. So including Ireland, then. I realise that particular nomenclature irritates many Irish people but sorry, it's a geographical fact (well, Wikipedia agrees with me) and a useful, if outmoded expression. But it was done not to irritate but to define the question properly and to not completely give the game away, as the person is, indeed, not Sir Alex Ferguson, but Irish.

David Walsh gave me the answer, though he posited it more subtly, by calling horse trainer Aiden O'Brien "the greatest sustainer of success these islands have ever seen". O'Brien was 26 years old and had just 3 years experience of training mostly moderate horses to win mainly jump races, when John Magnier invited him to train horses at his Coolmore stables at Ballydoyle, Tipperary 21 years ago. Aiden O'Brien was the unlikely successor to unrelated namesake Vincent O'Brien, the trainer readers of the Racing Post had voted "the greatest figure in the history of racing". Over a 40 year career Vincent O'B had trained 43 classic winners in Britain and Ireland. The most successful British trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, was some way behind, winning 31 British and Irish classics in a 44 year career. So Aiden O'Brien's appointment might have been considered a gamble, a long odds punt, even a risk. Now he has had the strength of a 200+ team of horses at the modern Ballydoyle behind him. But even so his statistics are remarkable: with his most recent winner, Wings of Eagles at the Derby, Aiden O'B has trained 65 classic winners in 21 years, an average of more than 3 a year and a hit rate he maintained from the off: he won 3 in his first year, starting with a 20-1 shot in the 1997 Irish 2000 Guineas. And Wings of Eagles was a 40-1 outsider, so he doesn't just train favourites. It was his 6th Derby win, including 3 in a row from 2012-14. He's won a lot overseas as well, including 2 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Most of the horses he now trains are sons and daughters of his past champions, from the Coolmore stud machine: he delivers the champion stallions and brood mares, they return him the yearlings.

I'm not an avid horse racing fan, indeed I don't pay it much attention bar a fun day out at the races once a year and watching the Grand National on tv. I didn't see the Derby live. Of course it's a race that often has an exciting finish with jockeys like Lester Piggott bringing a horse late out of the pack and timing their sprint finish. But Wings of Eagles triumph is worth watching on youtube - coming very fast from a long, long way back. A truly remarkable piece of sporting action. And yet another classic for Aiden O'Brien, the most successful person in sport in our part of the world.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Best Musicians I've seen play

A Post Script to my post on Chris de Burgh (High On Emotion, 19 June). A few days after the gig, making conversation on a journey, I asked my better half what I thought would be an imponderable question - which band has been the best musicians we've seen play? Not the best gig, or favourite, simply the best technicians. Surprisingly, given the number of gigs we've seen spanning many genres over 5 decades, within a minute or two we had totally agreed on a very short list: 10cc (the team backing Graham Gouldman in their current incarnation), Ian Dury's Blockheads (the classic 70s line up) and Chris de Burgh's 1980s backing band. (His current band are pretty good, too).

Given we've seen, between us, bands such as Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Jethro Tull, Keith Emerson's The Nice and ELP, The Who, Santana, The Rolling Stones, The Clash, REM, Muse and the Red Hot Chili Peppers with many, many more besides I was very surprised this conversation was so short and lacking in contention. Indeed, it rapidly left us wondering what to talk about next!

I hasten to note that we were talking about groups of musicians playing as a band: if we were talking individual players then I'd have come up with a long list of names including  Keith Emerson, Dave Gilmour, Jimmy Page, Robert Fripp, Dick Heckstall Smith, Rick Wakeman, Carlos Santana and John Frusciante for starters.

Mind, there's a lot more to being a good pop musician than good technique and performance. Now I like classical music and I'm very fond of going to see ballet. But in classical music technique is all. Yes that technique must include playing with feeling, not like a robot, but otherwise that's it, apart perhaps from things at the avant garde end of the spectrum. But creativity is king in pop music - and jazz -  and people who know very little about music theory can make exciting new pieces of music. Maybe because they know so little and take risks or break the accepted rules of composition.

But it's still satisfying to watch musicians who are masters of their instruments.

Another post for another day: best gigs I've been to. I'll need to go and lie down and think on that one for a bit.

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Austerity - who will pick up the pieces?

I've written before that I don't see how the likes of Corbyn, Sturgeon et al can "end austerity" when government spending has actually increased over the period they are wittering on about (Why we can't end austerity 2 June 2017). Nicholas Macpherson has spoken up to confirm that. Who is Nick? He was permanent secretary at the Treasury under 3 chancellors, Brown, Darling and Osborne. Referring to Corbyn's remark that people have had enough of austerity he noted that Osborne's trick was to talk tough while putting in place a programme that was "admirably pragmatic and flexible". In other words keeping the spending taps open. So, while Ireland managed to reduce gross public debt from 86% of national income to 75% between 2010 and 2016, Britain's public debt went from 76% to 89% over the same period. "In short, Britain never experienced austerity" says Nick.

I'm glad Nick agrees with me (er, that phrase sounds a bit familiar?) but David Smith has pointed out why we are both, after a fashion, wrong. It's not about the actual numbers, it's all semantics, of course.

According to Smith, Osborne thought about making real cuts in spending*. In the run up to the 2010 election he was considering 20% across the board cuts, like Canada had implemented, but coalition government made that impossible. (For better or worse? Certainly less traumatic in the early years but as a result we are deeper in debt going into another set of tricky waters. One for future historians to debate, I suspect).

So, while Osborne didn't actually make real net cuts in spending, what Smith goes on to explain to numbskulls like me is that, when people talk about seven years of "austerity" the word doesn't have its normal meaning. While the Cambridge dictionary says it means "a difficult economic situation caused by the government reducing the amount of money it spends", Smith says that it has come to mean any or all of deficit reduction (i.e. borrowing a lot but not quite as much as had once been foolishly planned), falling wages in real terms, rock bottom interest rates or even "the fact that a Grenfell Tower tragedy could happen in the 21st Century" . One can understand people wanting to see rising real terms wages, interest rates on savings that exceed inflation and public sector spending increasing in real terms. Wouldn't we all? But Smith says he has heard "some strange contributions in recent days from people purporting to be economists". Smith concludes that the problem with Osborne's gradual approach (which I actually think was the right approach in the circumstances prevailing at the time) is that it necessarily takes a long time. Many of the things people are tired of cannot be changed at the drop of a hat. As an example, although some hawks on the Bank's Monetary Policy Committee have started voting for an interest rate rise, it will be a long slow haul before anything like 'normality' returns. So he concludes that "however you define it, austerity has further to run".

Though maybe not so much in Northern Ireland, given the DUP's position of strength. The province already benefits from public spending that is £5437 a head more than taxes raised there. Now it's only right and proper that less affluent areas of tge country are subsidised by the rest. But the Northern Ireland subsidy is already nearly twice the figure for Scotland (£2824), when even the Spectator says that Scotland's deal is unfair on England and called for the Barnett formula to be reviewed**. But the DUP want to tone down austerity. I think they actually mean "pump up the volume". Wouldn't we all like to have a fairy godmother?

Nevertheless, I am reminded of Humpty Dumpty, for whom a word "means just what I choose it to mean". And we all know what happened to Humpty.

*Austerity has further to run, however you define it, Sunday Times 18 June 2017
**Yes, Scotland does receive an unfair share of public spending. Probably. Alex Massie, The Spectator 11 March 2015. Public sector spending in Scotland is 116% of the UK average, in Northern Ireland 124% and in Wales 110% (says the BBC, Treasury: soending in Wales is 110% of UK average 22 November 2013) which is why the Welsh government doesn't want tax raising powers before a review of Barnett.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Some good news on Brexit

Yes, really. I read some great news on the day the negotiations started.  You could be forgiven for thinking there isn't any (and I'm guilty for adding to the gloom) but the Times reports* that, contrary to the doom mongers who have consistently said we don't have, and can't get, the people with the knowledge to do the necessary deals, that we've got ourselves a star on trade deals. And just in time for the start of the season, to make a football transfer analogy.

His name is Crawford Falconer and he was New Zealand's ambassador to the WTO. He has been appointed Britain's chief trade negotiation adviser and second permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade. He has more than 25 years of trade policy experience with New Zealand, one of the most outward looking countries, and with the OECD. He has worked on some of the thorniest international trade issues, including the dispute between the EU and the USA on subsidies to Airbus and Boeing.

Not only that, he thinks it's a do-able task. He is hugely positive about Britain's potential, the experience we have despite 'taking a cup of tea' while Brussels has done all the recent negotiations and, though he says there are plenty of highly paid people who are inherently difficult and will come up with 10,000 reasons why there's a technical difficulty, he damned them as bureaucrats with a personal financial interest in stringing things out like a Japanese kabuki play. He says the next 2 years is partly political, partly technical but he doesn't see it as problematic. "That'll be a lot of hard work for a lot of bureaucrats but actually, in the political sense, it's not fundamentally complicated".

Sounds like my kind of guy and the best signing of the transfer window. What with him and Pickford and Klassen joining Everton, that's cheered me up a lot!

* Britain has put its post Brexit trading future in good hands, Ian King 19 June

Monday, 19 June 2017

High On Emotion

 Which artist or band have you seen play live the most times?

It won't surprise many of you to know that, for me, the answer is Roy Harper who, perhaps eccentrically, I consider if not the greatest living musician and poet, then at least my favourite. But, given my liking for bands like the Kinks, through Jimi Hendrix, progressive and punk rock, to REM and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the identity of the artist I've seen next most often might be a surprise: it's the deeply unfashionable Chris de Burgh, who we saw for a 6th time at the Liverpool Philharmonic recently.

Indeed, we'd have seen him at least a couple more times if it hadn't been for the boycott initiated by my wife - initially a bigger fan than me but a deeply unforgiving person at times - after de Burgh's egregious affair with his children's nanny in 1994 while his wife -  the lady in The Lady In Red - was lying in hospital recovering from a broken neck incurred while horse riding. Fortunately for de Burgh his daughter, Rosanna Davison, who won Miss World in 2003, is more forgiving, blaming the nanny, while admitting that it takes two to tango*. For himself, de Burgh admitted to being "guilty as hell" but he and his wife are still together. Either way, we hadn't seen de Burgh since a gig at Alton Towers in 1990.

We first saw de Burgh when we were invited to join a big buddy of mine from the football club we played at for a gig at the Liverpool Empire in the early 1980s. By that time he was touring his 6th album, The Getaway, with an extensive back catalogue. But, despite avidly reading a weekly music paper all through the 70s and early 80s and listening to a lot of radio, I knew nothing about him and had hardly heard a single track of his. He was deeply unfashionable years before he became deeply unfashionable after the mega success of The Lady In Red, described by one reporter as "a mawkfest which only James Blunt has been able to come up with songs more irritating than"#.

So I was a bit surprised in nineteen eighty whatever to find a sold out Empire Theatre, with a clearly passionate audience enthusiastically welcoming songs they knew very well. And to find that de Burgh was more of a quirky story telling troubadour than a conventional balladeer singer-songwriter. Indeed, his second album, released in 1975, was called Spanish Train and Other Stories. It contains his best known song at that time, A Spaceman Came Travelling,  which has become a standard on Christmas playlists despite being an almost anti-Christmas song, the thesis of the story being that the star in the east was some kind of flying saucer and the shepherds and co were of course afraid of the alien being who emerged to speak to them. Spanish Train is quirkier still, the Lord arriving at a dying railwayman's bed to claim his soul, only to find the devil has got there first but is offering to play poker for the soul, then upping the ante to 10,000 souls. The devil, of course, cheats to win before
And far away in some recess
The Lord and the devil are now playing chess
The devil still cheats and wins more souls
And as for the Lord?
Well, he's just doing his best
The song ends melodramatically with de Burgh imagining his own soul is at stake:
That train is still on time
And my soul is on the line
Oh, Lord, you've got to win.
With changes of time and tempo and a driving riff of a chorus this is a truly great song. De Burgh always plays these two songs live, together with another from the same album, the crowd pleasing Patricia the Stripper.

By the time we accompanied our friends to the following year's gig at the Empire (de Burgh has always liked playing Liverpool and probably gets as warm a reception there as anywhere) we'd bought a compilation album and were already bemused that songs like High on Emotion, Don't Pay The Ferryman and Ecstasy of Flight (I Love The Night) had been very minor chart hits, if they had made any impression at all. They are high quality pop-rock dance songs which come across well in large auditoriums; all they needed was airplay.

In practice, de Burgh's commercial success was limited and very patchy before The Lady in Red. Bizarrely his first album went to number one in Brazil: it didn't chart anywhere else. The second, Spanish Train, reached the top 40 in the UK and Norway. The next two didn't chart, but his 5th album was a number one seller in Norway and the sixth in Norway and Germany, achieving platinum sales, as did the seventh album, Man On The Line, which was his first big selling album in the UK. That second gig prompted us to buy several of these albums from his back catalogue and get into his stuff properly. And one track on his first album, 1974's Far Beyond These Castle Walls, called Satin Green Shutters, became one of my wife's favourite ever songs. It's a bit of a Romeo pre Juliet ballad, i.e. in love with the idea of being in love, but beautiful none the less.

In another staple of his set, Borderline, he imagines a couple of mixed nationality split by the onset of war as the man returns to his own country to fight against that of his lover:
And it's breaking my heart
I know what I must do
I hear my country call me 
But I want to be with you
I'm taking my side
One of us will lose
Don't let go, I want to know
That you will wait for me until the day
There's no borderline, no borderline
And as he makes his way to his homeland:
We're coming to the borderline
I'm ready with my lies.....
Walking past the border guards
I want to break into a run
But these are only boys and I will never know
How men can see the wisdom in a war
At this last line, mid-song, the audience broke into spontaneous applause. Well it might have been spontaneous 40ish years ago but most of the audience know exactly what's coming and de Burgh always builds in a pause before going into the chorus to allow the applause to fade. The story could be about any war, but it has the feel of WWII and the sequel to the song, Say Goodbye To It All from a later album implies the man is German and the woman French. Leaving aside the obvious question of whether there could be wisdom in a war against fascism, Borderline is a very good song. The new songs he played also went down well. One that made an impression on me was about a refugee from Syria, his difficult journey across land and sea and his wish to one day go back to a peaceful homeland.

De Burgh was born in Argentina, son of a British diplomat, Colonel Charles Davison and an Irish secretary, Maeve Emily de Burgh, whose father, Sir Eric de Burgh, had been Chief of General Staff in India in the World War II.  The family settled in Wexford at Bargy Castle, a dilapidated 12th century castle which Eric de Burgh bought in the 1960s and turned into a hotel, where the young Chris sang to entertain guests. The environment clearly influenced his story telling as the themes of his early albums like Far Beyond These Castle Walls and Crusader show.

De Burgh went to a public school (Marlborough). Public school alumni are, apparently, disproportionally represented in successful acts: I knew about John Mellor, aka Joe Strummer of The Clash and the members of Genesis and Radiohead come to mind, but in more recent years it's an epidemic: James Blunt, Chris Martin, Lily Allen, Mumford and Sons and so on, leading to articles like one in the New Statesman** bewailing the lack of ordinary Joes in pop and claiming that pop culture will be doomed as a result. (Hmmm, Joe Strummer seems to give the lie to that chestnut, surely? But maybe these days ordinary Joes are too busy with smartphone games to pick up a guitar.)  Either way, even the NME said in 2011 "it's wrong to hate bands for being posh".

With the release of his 8th album Into The Light in 1986 featuring The Lady In Red, de Burgh revealed a more mature and smoother sound, with his ballads now stripped down, confident and, ok, lowest common denominator. Gone was the Romeo, wondering just what love would really be like, as The Lady in Red and Missing You became huge chart hits and, with platinum selling albums in the UK and Germany and Gold in the US, suddenly everyone had heard of him.

Now you might think it's easy to write simple love songs but I recall one of my progressive rock heroes, possibly Robert Fripp, telling a music journalist who was sniffy about pop music "if we could write songs like Abba, don't you think we'd all be doing it?"

Of course, how often you've seen a performer is influenced by many factors: opportunity, your own availability, availability of readies, who friends and family want to see etc. Nevertheless, de Burgh is worth seeing and listening to and I willingly admit I'm a fan. You don't get to sell 45 million records if you can't write a decent song.

And as those around us in the cheap seats belted out the words to Patricia the Stripper after de Burgh had everyone on their feet for High On Emotion, I reflected that I've seen plenty of bands leave the house rocking but, perhaps surprisingly, none more so than Chris de Burgh.

We also met up with my old football chum who we hadn't seen in the 30 years we spent moving up, down and across the country, so it was a great night.

If you want to hear some of de Burgh's stuff you might not have heard, including Spanish Train, A Spaceman Came Travelling and Borderline, has links to many of the songs he's been playing on his tour e.g. here. I'm never sure whether these sites treat artists properly but the pathetic royalties they get from streaming wouldn't be material to Mr Davison, though the fact that these links often get taken down imply otherwise. Either way you'll find some good songs out there.

# Actually, I quite like some of Blunt's stuff too and also the way he sends himself up in interviews.
** Stuart Maconie, The priveleged are taking over the arts - without the grit pop culture is doomed, New Statesman 4 Feb 2015.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Another fine mess

Journalists on The Times are getting ever more upset at the Tories for the Laurel and Hardy-esque situation they have plunged the UK into.

David Smith (14 June, May and Cameron deserve to be castigated for destabilising Britain) refering to 2 economic experiments in 12 months, says two successive Tory PMs have inflicted unnecessary damage and instability on the economy and that Business is entitled to be angry at what their political leaders have thrown at them. He accuses Cameron of apalling mismanagement as he held the referendum sooner than needed without obtaining the concessions he sought and with no white paper. While Whitehall is always told to prepare for any election outcome there was no prep done for Brexit, even though Cameron had said Article 50 would be triggered the next day. As for the gloating George Osborne, having great fun at the worst Tory campaign in living memory, Smith notes that the former chancellor was responsible for the second worst  in recent times, i.e. the Remain campaign. To his earlier list of woes (the Brexit devaluation and downgrading of our sovereign debt rating, the Brexit induced increase in inflation which is driving the Brexit fall in real wages and therefore the economic slowdown) he adds the deterioration in public finances, noting with amazement that Boris Johnson is daft enough to still be associating himself with the mythical £350 million a week bonanza when the reality will be larger budget deficits and rising debt and further concerns about the ratings agencies.

He notes one crumb of comfort for the agencies and markets: that the lack of a Tory majority has increased the prospect of a softer Brexit, perhaps staying in the single market and customs union. Smith debunks that thought brutally, describing it as clutching at straws. He quotes a dude from JP Morgan, an assiduous debunker of Brexit myths, who says out of the EU means out of the customs union (several countries have negotiated agreements but they don't give all the same advantages) and a trade expert Professor from Sussex Uni who says access to the single market is not the same as being in it and is inferior.

As a result, Smith concludes that 'soft Brexit' is hard to define in any meaningful sense and bound to be inferior to EU membership. He also sees no comfort in the expectation of the demise of  'no deal is better than a bad deal' as the clock is ticking and the government fragile. Like me (point 4 in my list of thoughts on 9 June, the day after the election) he worries that the government will collapse during the negotiation and that, unless the 27 countries agree to an extension of the timetable, then no deal is what we will crash out with.

Daniel Finkelstein (14 June) quotes Nobel prize winner Kenneth Arrow's "Impossibility Theorem" which he paraphrased as saying that voting between different options can turn into a mess with no clear and consistent preference emerging. He notes that there may not be a Parliamentary majority for any obvious option and that Labour has set its policy to be able to oppose just about anything and everything. But he thinks this means the only viable option is to stay in the EEA and therefore the single market while we sort out what to do. (Oh, that horrible transition that worried me so much in the run up to the referendum).

Meanwhile Matthew Parris (17 June) is waging a campaign for Theresa May to step down asap. Noting her 'fatal precaution' (er, not in calling the election, hey?) which led to her ducking tv debates and going a bit late to see the Grenfell Tower survivors, he recalled seeing her, years ago, speak to Tory activists in Derby. Her speech was warm, well judged and well received. Then Edwina Currie asked a critical question about May's attitude to the police. The question was "hardly an exocet" but May went to pieces. One surprise question blew her out of the water. So Parris was not surprised by her discomfort with the unscripted. No wonder she has a reputation as a control freak. Parris notes these things go deep in people. They do not change but can be propped up by a good PR machine, a big majority, public ignorance of what they are like:  none of whic May has. "She has quite simply been rumbled, as were - though more slowly - Ted Heath and Gordon Brown." Unless May goes soon, Parris sees her being a John Major figure, doomed to eventual defeat and on the same scale.

Matt Ridley (12 June) is more optimistic and gave 10 reasons to be cheerful (shouldn't that be Ian Dury?) including Corbyn didn't get in, Scotland isn't going independent and increased political engagement of the young is a good thing.  Rose tinted optimist!

The quotation from the 1930 film, Another Fine Mess, is actually "here's another nice mess you've gotten me into". But none of this sounds particularly nice or fine: Smith prefers "almighty mess" and I can't take issue with that.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Global Credit Impulse has plunged. Should we be worried?

After every economic shock you will read about the people who predicted it. These are usually people who predict a crash every year, so once in a while they are right. On Monday, I read the usual mix of bull and bear. The four letter word ending in -it wasn't appended to either term, but easily could have been. The one that struck me as most dodgy was by Alex Brummer, City Editor of the Daily Mail, under a headline that proclaimed the world economy was on the brink of a boom and the UK was perfectly placed to benefit. In a facts light piece he noted that the government had failed to project an uplifting vision of what a post Brexit Britain, open to world markets, would look like and there was a need for it to reach out to business and the City and to reassure the whole country that free market trade will deliver benefits to households. Reading it again it looks like the bullish headline writer didn't actually read Brummer's piece.

The report that gave me more pause for thought was in the Telegraph business section, under a headline saying that the global credit bubble was at risk of bursting. A key tracking indicator, the Global Credit Impulse, has fallen as dramatically in recent months as it did during the onset of the Lehman crisis. So what is this measure? It is known to specialists as the "second derivative". As I was reading this in the business pages I had financial products (you know, the kind they bundled up dodgy sub-prime debt into) in mind. But then I realised they were talking about, rather than the volume of credit, the "change in the change". Ah, right - we're talking maths then and the second order differential equations beloved by engineering students - the rate of change in the rate of change!

Fortunately they showed some graphs and I could see that, in 2008, the global credit impulse fell from about 0% of GDP to -6%. In recent months it has, indeed, also fallen by 6% but from 4% to -2% and not as sharply. Moreover, the correlation between the credit impulse and the trajectory of domestic demand in the US is only 0.73, which sounds like a pretty weak correlation to me, though I am happy to stand corrected by any mathematicians out there.

So I don't personally think there's anything much in either of these snippets. What I found more concerning was the UK credit impulse, which the Telegraph said was the highest it has been since 1982, at about 12%. Mind, the graph showed it was nearly as high in 2012 and in 1982, where the graph started, it was about 5% so I don't think much of their business journalist's grasp of maths and numbers, even if he is grandly named Ambrose Evans-Pritchard.

Nevertheless, the Bank of England is concerned and has launched a review into credit quality. Britain's credit impulse, though high, has turned down recently as lenders tighten standards. UBS says the credit impulse will fall by 8% of GDP in the next 12 months. Plummet might be a better word. If so, says Ambrose, "batten down the hatches". Now that did sound a bit worrying.....

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Are Christians an endangered political species in the UK?

I found Tim Farron's resignation statement tough reading. The poor chap (I didn't agree with him on lots of stuff but he seems totally genuine and well intentioned) sounded traumatised:
"To be a leader, particularly of a progressive liberal party in 2017 and to live as a committed Christian and to hold faithful to the bible's teaching has felt impossible for me."

I said (Today's dose of political non-correctness, 15 April) "the only group that can now legally be discriminated against is old, white Christian males". Christians are truly an endangered species. As someone brought up in the Anglican Christian tradition, albeit agnostic bordering atheist now, I find that very sad.

Tim Stanley, writing in the Daily Telegraph (13 June, It has become politically toxic to be a Christian) debated the Farron problem before his resignation, saying that he is "constitutionally liberal" i.e. he doesn't want to tell others to live, he just wants the freedom for everyone to live in peace. "But that's not good enough now. You can't simply tolerate. You must celebrate. If you don't there's no place for you in politics." Stanley, a Catholic, said that the vilification of the DUP, who after all Gordon Brown tried to do a deal with in an attempt to stay in power only 7 years ago, is the latest sign that faith is viewed with hostility. He noted that far more had been said about the DUP's views on sexuality than their views on the Pope. "They have failed the modern religious test....they have the cheek to say they believe in God in 2017." He thinks that now, for any religious person, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, wharever, their faith will be on the ballot. I'm not sure about that - the signs are it's special treatment for Christians, as I will come to below.

It seemed elements of the media had it in for Farron during the election with a pre-planned blitzkreig aimed at what his innermost feelings really were about about gay sex, as he had abstained from a Commons vote on same sex marriage, although he did support the bill at all its key stages. Despite saying he did not think gay sex was a sin, this didn't kill off the questions, forcing him to say that he didn't want to get into "unpicking the theology of the bible". (As an aside this was just as well as any sensible person, though maybe not zealots,  would conclude that a 2000 year old text, mainly written post hoc rather than contemporaneously by lots of different authors and translated multiple times will be inevitably ridden with contradictions and doubtful propositions as well as being a product of its times).

Now I can see that this line of questioning can be argued to be valid, aimed at revealing the underlying value set of a political candidate as a way of understanding how that person may view future issues. But I still see it as an extreme example of the way we expect our politicians to be unrealistically perfect and blameless, some kind of higher life form than the general population. And it is partial and arguably racist as well because I don't see the equivalent questions being directed as persistently at adherents of other religions. Or they are quite reasonably allowed to gloss over the fact of their religious beliefs and deflect questions back to their core campaign messages, as Sadiq Khan successfully did in his London mayoral campaign. (I don't have a problem with Khan, who seems to be doing ok as mayor, but he was undoubtedly cut more slack by the media than Farron).

For the moment, if you are at the watered down end of faith, like Cameron or May, you can get away with it. Logically they could be asked about inconsistencies in the position of the Anglican church, but that isn't particularly salacious. And the current legal position, which is logically unsupportable as it discriminates against heterosexuals by denying them the opportunity of a civil partnership, doesn't seem to bother the people who get het up about the slightest discrimination against the EBS. (This is my new acronym. As I can't keep up with whatever the current LGBT+ jargon is, EBS means Everyone But Straights. If that's too pejorative for you, tough).

As Anglicanism continues its steady progress towards being a non-religion then maybe its toxicity will decline. I'm all in favour of this watering down process by the way. Now Anglicans are close to accepting women as full members of the human race all it needs to do is get rid of the mumbo jumbo - I've never subscribed to original sin, who could when you look at a newborn baby? Or transubstantiation - the communion ritual has always struck me as weirdly cannibalistic. I know it's symbolic but, basically, WTF? As most of the senior Anglican clerics probably don't actually believe any of this guff and neither do much of their flock, the process of focussing on the core New Testament messages of love, tolerance and helping others will hopefully accelerate, leaving a gentle, lowest common denominator faith focussing on doing good rather than feeling guilt that no-one could reasonably object to. (I realise I am at risk of ironic comment here, preaching tolerance while deriding the sincerely felt - if to my mind risible - beliefs of people with faith).

The only problem will be that, by the time it gets there, the congregation will have fallen to zero. As will the number of elected Christian politicians. An endangered species indeed.

Whatever happened to tolerance?

Friday, 9 June 2017

So Theresa May did save the Labour party....

....though not in the way I originally thought when the election was called with such a huge lead in the polls, by a crushing win giving new life to Labour moderates. Instead she has saved Labour by breathing life and conviction into Labour and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, seen almost universally as a hopeless duffer until a few weeks ago.

How did she live up to her nickname in some quarters, Mrs Mayhem, by plunging the country into even more uncertainty?

I wish I had written a blog on something I said to my other half at the time the campaign started: you can't run an election on a single issue. Ted Heath tried it in 1974 (note for youngsters: the issue was who runs the country, the government or the unions?) The result was a hung parliament and a minority government. May tried it 43 years later, on Brexit, with a not dissimilar result. But a general election is always about who the electorate trust to to run the country for 5 years over a range of issues and stuff always comes up in the campaign. But I didn't think they would also make the mistake of releasing a hopeless manifesto (pun intended - it offered no real hope). As one Tory said, they shot themselves in the head.

I've just watched the ever plausible - and therefore very dangerous - John McDonnell discussing the 1974 election, and the prospect of a further election soon as happened then, with Andrew Neill. He made exactly the same point about an election never being about a single issue. It's the only time I have ever agreed with him.

A few other thoughts:

  1. Despite the fact that there is a hung parliament, this isn't like 2010 and the coalition government. We are back to 2 party politics big time, with the combined Tory and Labour vote over 80% of the overall vote for the first time since 1979. Even though it is clearly a huge failure, the Conservatives won over 42% of the vote, not far off what Tony Blair got in his landslide win of 1997. The Tories increased their share of the vote by 6 percentage points - but Labour increased by 10 as the other parties all got squeezed.
  2. Labour's electoral machine got back in gear. The key decision was the positioning on Brexit. Unequivocally backing Brexit while emphasising the need for a good deal and staying in the single market was brave, decisive and successful. It neutralised the Tories' main line of attack. The possible vulnerability on single market = freedom of movement = no 'control of borders' didn't materialise. The Labour back room fed Corbyn with well scripted platitudes to fend off difficult questions as he turned from rabbit in the headlights to passably competent in media terms. In contrast it was the Tories who froze and, compounded by the 2 terror incidents, they lost control of the agenda totally as May got badly damaged by her screeching u-turn on care costs, undermining the "strong and stable" mantra that sounded very empty by the end of the campaign.
  3. In most campaigns, for all the talk of volatility and late swings, there is usually very little movement in the polls. Often the gap narrows but only by a few points at the most. Not this time. It was very uncomfortable watching the egeregious Len McCluskey purring today over the performance of his acolyte, Corbyn, in the campaign. The movement in the campaign was astounding and probably unprecedented. It just goes to show what offering hope can do.
  4. The DUP will back May if only because they would die rather than be on the same side as IRA appeasers Corbyn and McDonnell. But the last minority goverment supported by Irish MPs, Jim Callaghan's, ended ignominiously. We are in the greatest period of uncertainty I have ever known: Brussels is ready to negotiate, even if we were ready we are not now and whatever gets negotiated could easily fail to get through the Commons. It must be more likely than not that there will be another election before the negotiations are complete. Indeed, it is easy to imagine the failure to get a draft deal approved in Parliament being the trigger for an election. Rather than us deciding no deal is better than a bad deal it may be Brussels that decides whether to grant extra time for the negotiations or not. Who could blame them for saying "away with you", or words to that effect. (What does "go forth and multiply sound like in 27 languages simultaneously?) I note Paddy Power is offering 5/4 against another election in 2017. Perhaps for the same reasoning as mine they think an election is more likely in 2019 than 2018 or 2020, with their next lowest odds, 11/4, being on the new Parliament going to 2021. It's gonna be a rocky ride.
  5. The Labour entryism project to produce our first Marxist government is now tantalisingly close to succeeding. Although they only got about the same number of seats as Kinnock in 1992, getting less than half way to winning from where they were, they got a whopping 40% of the vote. Corbyn is now seen as credible. All they need is for the Tories to become unpopular, say by losing their remaining credibility for organising anything short of the proverbial piss up in a brewery and then a crisis to precipitate an election. Both easily forseeable. Then they most likely win easily. After all, Blair won handsomely with 36% in 2005. I've written before about how governments get stale or unpopular and the other lot get in because it's "time for a change".  Next time the Labour manifesto might not be so blatantly impracticable - having established their credentials, they don't need to throw as much in. I'll save for another post why this prospect, which now seems a probabilty rather than a possibility, is so terrifying, mainly for the benefit of the young people who have supported Corbyn so strongly but do not have experience of what it's like to try to get a nationalised company to provide any level of customer service, let alone the risks to our economy and security. (I should emphasise this is not because it's Labour per se, but because it's Corbyn-McDonnell et al, an entirely different prospect from Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan, Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown or even Miliband).
Mrs May hasn't just saved Labour, she may well have paved the way for them to form the next government. A remarkable achievement when, within the last 12 months many Labour MPs could not envisage a Labour government for at least a decade.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

What would the exit poll mean for our exit?

Wow. What would that mean for Brexit?

The exit poll isn't often bang on for seats though they usually nail the share of the vote - so why don't they quote that at 10pm now? It would allow us to form our own view of the seats prediction - in 1992 I called the Tory win at 10pm on the vote share numbers and went to bed long before Basildon was declared and the pundits started to realise there might not be a hung Parliament . And when they finally gave us the vote share numbers in 2015 it seemed clear to me why the Tories had a majority.

But back to my question. If the exit poll seats were to be right then Tories = Lab + SNP + LibDem so the balance would be held by PC and the Irish. It would be impossible to get a "hard" Brexit through that Commons.

So there would be two winners. Labour and Corbyn would be one, though a modest "win", still miles off forming a government.

The other?  UKIP. No seats and few votes, yes. But when we exit the EU but stay in the single market and customs union, with the concomitant freedom of movement, budget contributions and bowing the knee to the ECJ, UKIP will have a strategic reason to exist once again.

An EU exit in name only might be a good outcome for our economy but one would wonder why be in the EU apart from having any actual representation.

One would also expect internecine war to break out again in the Tory party.

Even if the Tory seats are underestimated at 314 this could still be the outcome.

So the election may prove to have been all about Brexit after all.

The first two results, in safe Labour seats, don't tally with the exit poll. I'm off to bed - the real results will be there in the morning.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Some reasons to vote for.....

The Tories

  • Because you are a multi-millionaire and like the sound of a cap on care costs, even if it's pitched as high as half a million, because you'll be quids in
  • Because you are in work but low paid - just above the income tax threshold (the Tories have pledged to increase the threshold to £12,500 and surprisingly this would probably help you more than anything Labour or the LibDems are suggesting*)
  • Because you are wealthy but are terrified at escalating private school fees and fancy sending your children to a state grammar school
  • Because Brexit means Brexit means OUT OF EVERYTHING don't you understand? And then just leave me alone!!
  • Because you are a real man, like a strong, female leader and still miss Maggie (be careful what more you say Phil, this could sound S&M....)

  • Because you don't think we should use nuclear weapons, even if we have been attacked with them - what's the point, everyone's already f***ed
  • Indeed because you don't think we should fight anyone, anywhere, ever (though police shooting terrorists actually in action is maybe now just about ok, says Jeremy)
  • Because, like Jeremy, you've supported every right-on cause and demo from CND in the 60s, through Greenham Common all the way to Stop The War. Indeed you still have your Che Guevara T-shirt, even if it doesn't really fit any more
  • Because, like Jeremy, some of your friends have been terrorists
  • Because you are wealthy, have a big house and are being cared for at home (Labour say they won't set your care costs against the value of your house for recovery after you die. But don't forget they are muttering about reducing thresholds for inheritance tax and planning some form of land tax.....)
  • Because you reluctantly accept the EU referendum vote but want to keep freedom of movement and be in the single market and customs union even though it will mean paying just as much in to Europe to subsidise the French farmers and Spanish fishermen and the European Courts will still be able to boss us about with random judgements drawn out of a hat - and, as a bonus, there might not be another unpredictable referendum to achieve this
  • Because you are (or were until recently) a card carrying member of the Socialist Workers Party and the Labour manifesto is a good way towards what you've been campaigning for all these years with no-one listening
  • Because you are about to go to university and, given you have chosen a subject which is highly unlikely to lead to any worthwhile employment, you'd be much happier if soneone else would pay your fees
  • Because it's not inclusive to insist on people in public life all being competent, it's only fair to have some balance in the Cabinet. (You'll be sorry then to hear that Diane Abbott has been stood down on "health grounds". Maybe the health grounds were that even Jeremy got sick of her gaffes?)

Lib Dems
  • Because you love campaigns and voting and can't wait to have another referendum on our EU membership
  • Because you believe in fairness and generously think EVERYONE should pay an extra penny on income tax, even those just above the tax threshold (just don't do the sums on how much that would actually raise compared with what they are saying needs to be spent**)
  • Because you like smoking joints, maaaan
  • Because you think that there should be a gender balance in everything, even down to individual jobs. Therefore it is essential to have a woman and a man doing the same job at the same time, be it party leader, Prime Minister, premier league goalkeeper, monarch.....


  • Er, seriously, I can't even think of a whimsical reason
I hope you have a better reason than any of these for casting your vote, whatever it is and whoever it's for. But, as someone who has seriously thought about voting Monster Raving Loony on occasion (because it seemed far less daft than any of the other choices available), I would say any reason for voting is better than none. Go do it!

*I included this serious one because it seems funny peculiar that this is the case
** The Guardian says here that the Lib Dem plans would raise £16bn annually but cost £30bn. The IFS says 1p on income tax would raise £5.5bn annually, so it would only enable a 0.7% increase in public sector spending, estimated to be £784bn this financial year. So almost in the noise really, can't see that making a whole lot of difference to the NHS, education and social care. Sorry to be a spoilsport, Tim. Of course the simple fact is that 1p on income tax is a traditional Lib policy, like legalising dope. If they ever got to do it, would they say in each following year that they needed another penny increase until the sums added up?

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

So did Theresa May save the Labour party?

I asked (post of 19 May) whether Theresa May had saved the Labour party by calling the election before the Corbynistas could complete their entryism project by de-selecting moderate Labour MPs. As I should have realised, my theory was far too complex. After all, I often say it's cock up rather than conspiracy and that certainly fits here. With several opinion polls showing their lead closing to within the margin of error (usually quoted as three percentage points - but they've got it more wrong than that on occasion!) have the Tories cocked up? Have they done "ready, fire, aim" and shot themselves in the foot?

They have certainly run a lacklustre campaign, offering only blood, sweat and tears according to one commentator and certainly little in the way of hope. "Strong and stable" became trying to stay upright in a screeching handbrake turn over the care costs cap, but as they haven't said what the cap would be we don't know which way they are facing at the end of the manoeuvre.

But the polls are still showing a range of numbers for the Tory lead, ranging from 1.1% to 11% on the most recently published (makes you wonder if someone can't do decimals, doesn't it?) but averaging about 6-8%. In most campaigns the politicians talk about things being volatile but this is normally tosh - there is usually very little movement after the gun has been fired. But not this time if we believe the trend of all the polls: Labour has strengthened considerably through the campaign despite, or because of, a "dumb, snake oil" economic manifesto (see my post of 19 May).

In practice, of course, it was the Tory manifesto that turned out to be really dumb: why on earth did they feel the need to be so specific about their care plan, branded the "dementia tax" by their opponents even though it isn't either. Parties that expect to win comfortably have the luxury of being a bit vague - accusations of lack of detail don't hurt them if the electorate trust them, which is where the Tories started the campaign. A motherhood sentence on the lines of "We will establish a fairer system for funding care in care homes and at home which takes due regard of ability to pay, protecting vulnerable people's home ownership and inter-generational fairness" would have sufficed. As long as what they then do in government is indeed fair, reasonable and done quickly they have plenty of chance to explain it and let people come to terms with it.  After all, Labour have one sentence in their manifesto (it's on page 86 if you want to check) on what has become known as their "garden tax":

"We will initiate a review into  reforming council tax and business rates and consider new options  such as a land value tax, to ensure local government has sustainable  funding for the long term."

It has taken the Tories until the last few days to pick up on this and claim that it would force up council tax bills by thousands of pounds for many people - far too late to make Labour come out of the long grass on what could be a very significant change which they would undoubtedly claim a mandate for.

One reason given for Labour's apparent surge is that lots of young folk have registered to vote, but the numbers are said to be overstated: many had forgotten they were already registered. D'Oh! And although many of these youngsters say they support Labour, the stats show that the biggest increase in voter registration is in safe Labour seats, so they might just pile up larger majorities there.

The polling companies have changed their models since the last general election and the referendum and they will presumably be watching the election result nervously. I read that one polling company is assuming a higher turn out by younger voters - as high as 82%. Given their propensity for getting it wrong, this seems a brave assumption, especially since only 43% of under 25s voted in 2015 and many couldn't be arsed voting in the referendum. Nevertheless, the changed models, which have sought to rectify the persistent under-estimation of the Tory vote (think 1992, 2010, 2015), represent a major doubt. It would be interesting to know how the parties' internal polling compares. The Tories aren't in total panic, so I guess their polls must show a larger gap than the narrower end of the publicised polls. Some commentators are still predicting a significant Tory win, which would put further egg on the faces of the pollsters.

The Tories shouldn't take comfort from the referendum result or the Trump win. Labour's positioning as pro-Brexit but wanting to ensure a sensible deal backed by Parliament seems to me to have hit a good note with a lot of the electorate - it has certainly worked better than the LibDem 2nd referendum policy. But perhaps more significantly, Corbyn is the anti-elite, anti-establishment candidate in this election.

Nevertheless, the best measure of how people will vote is usually reflected by their rating of the party leaders. Last time Cameron rated higher than his party and the same is also true for May. With both faced by opponents who rate badly with public, this has always pointed to a comfortable Tory win. Indeed, at the start of the campaign, less than half of Labour voters thought Corbyn would make the best PM. But May's standing has been damaged by her U-turn - we'll see whether fatally.

Whatever, Corbyn has had a good campaign and has got more and more comfortable in his skin. The Labour machine has got in gear and their spokesmen have proved adept at producing platitudes in response to the many hostages to fortune Corbyn, McDonnell and Abbott have left for the press and their opponents over so many years. I've found it surprising how apparently successful these non denials have been. An increased share of the vote compared with Ed Mil looks quite likely and would presumably mean Corbyn keeps his job. Who knows what this would mean for the future of Labour, though internecine strife seems likely to be resumed unless they start to look like a government in waiting.

An increase in the Tory majority from 2015 and Corbyn still across the despatch box from them seems entirely likely - and that would feel like a good result for most Tories, after the squeaky bum time since they published their manifesto and it all went downhill. Whether they would deserve it is another matter. But a thin Tory majority looks possible and it wouldn't surprise me to go through another election night like 1992 and 2015 with the exit polls saying "Tories largest party but no overall majority" only for there to be a Tory majority when we get up. No overall majority would make May's gamble look as suicidal as Cameron's referendum call, would make the Brexit negotiations even more difficult and would probably mean another election - and maybe another EU referendum - within 2 years. We would be in even more uncertain times and having a General Election or referendum could become an annual event - I doubt many would be happy at that prospect!

Almost time to place your final bets. I've always thought that the bookies were at least as good a forecaster as the pollsters and note that Paddy Power are currently offering 16/1 against a Labour majority, 4/1 against Corbyn as the next PM, 1/4 on for a Conservative majority and 3/1 against no overall majority. Those odds on Corbyn must be a lot shorter than a few weeks ago.

Oh, and also almost time to place your vote, unless you are under 25 in which case - can you be bothered? Whatever......just don't complain about the result if you don't!

Sunday, 4 June 2017

The questions that should have been put to the prospective PMs

The Tories were up in arms about the biased BBC audience on the 7 way TV debate. They claimed one of the polling organisations supported them but what they actually said was that, with 5 leftish speakers to 2 from the right then it would always seem as if the 2 were being ganged up on. There was certainly a lot of finger pointing, very bad manners! Actually I suspect it was more that the left sympathisers in the audience either spontaneously, or briefed on social media, set about making more boisterous noise and so it sounded as if the audience wasn't balanced. Either way, that programme and the leaders' Question Time with May and Corbyn demonstrated that the audience should be selected on ability to ask an intelligent question, not just balance.

Of course it's the job of the professional moderator to ask the sharp follow up questions. Dimbleby tried to do it a it, but not enough, and it was Paxman's job, but he's clearly past it. So here are some of the points and questions I thought should have been put.

To May:

When you have said you stand for fairness and your manifesto made a start at trying to balance the tricky questions of funding care in old age and intergenerational fairness, why did you run for cover at the first sound of gunfire? It is clearly inequitable that an old person's house value is up for grabs if they go into a care home but not if they are cared for at home. Why didn't you argue for your policy instead of leaving it up in the air that there will be a cap but you don't know what should be? Will the cap be set to protect the wealthy, the really rich or only the stinking rich? Unless it's the last of these, how does your policy help to provide more resources for social care?

The economy is highly likely to turn down before too long. Maybe because of Brexit or maybe because of some other trigger in the world economy or just because we reach the end of a growth cycle. How are you going to be able to support businesses and individuals through a downturn when the deficit is still so high? Why didn't the Tories complete the mending of the roof while the sun was shining?

The Tories are meant to be the party of low taxation. So why are so many people in every day jobs paying higher rate tax?*

To Corbyn:

You've made a lot of hay about the Tories "dementia tax". But it's not a tax is it? A tax takes money from those who can afford to pay for the needs of the less well off and society in general, but the Tories proposals are just that old people who need care at home are treated in the same way as those who need to live in a home, irrespective of whether they have dementia or are just frail. They would be covering their own costs, which can't remotely be called a tax. Why do you want wealthy pensioners to avoid paying for their care in order to leave more money to their children? Or is that, actually, you want to tax ALL wealthy people who die via inheritance tax, so you get the money when they die whether they have dementia, some other illness or just pop their clogs?

You have supported a cap on care costs for the elderly. Doesn't this benefit the very wealthy? Indeed doesn't it benefit people more the richer they are? Isn't this perhaps the most anti-progressive proposal ever made by the Labour party in its history?

Isn't it stark, staring bonkers to talk about raising corporation tax at the same time as leaving the EU? What better way could you think of to ensure that businesses that are thinking about relocating into Europe actually do it?

You've made it clear that you would never make "first use" of a nuclear weapon and you've implied you wouldn't ever want to push the button, while pretending it's hypothetical without knowing the precise situation.. What if the Russians were overwhelming us with a conventional attack? Wouldn't it be sensible that they at least paused for thought? The whole idea is not whether you think you would push the button, but whether they think you would. You clearly don't understand deterrence or are trying to undermine the concept so you can say the weapons are useless anyway and make the case then to get rid of them - which is it?

You are very proud that you have opposed anti-terror legislation since you got into Parliament in 1983 (note 1). Would you repeal any of our protection against terrorism acts? If so which? Would you be prepared to bring forward new legislation to provide additional powers to the police and security services if they need them?

You have said "I have spent my political life working for peace and human rights and to bring an end to conflict and devastating wars. This will almost always mean talking to people you profoundly disagree with". Isn't it the fact that you profoundly AGREED with the Irish republicans? Why won't you condemn their actions, hiding behind mantras like "all bombing is bad" when they were the major culprits in loss of life?

You have claimed that contacts like yours with the Irish republicans helped to lead to the peace process. So why did you vote AGAINST the Anglo-Irish agreement which helped to convince Sinn Fein/IRA that they weren't going to succeed in bombing and shooting their way to a united Ireland and actually paved the way for the peace process?

What on earth makes you think that you could talk in any sensible way to ISIS? Not only do they profoundly disagree with you, they profoundly want to see you and your way of life extinguished. They hate all those who don't believe in Allah; and they hate our secular, liberal way of life. Their minimum demand would be the abandonment of our form of democracy and submission to Islamic law. But Jeremy, please feel free to go any time to Raqqa and try to talk them round**. We won't expect to see you come home. Isn't this a battle between good and evil as Donald Trump has said? Shouldn't you be supporting him on this issue - the only western leader to say clearly that radical Islamic extremism must be extinguished? Don't we just need to drive them out, as he said in Saudi Arabia?

Oh, some of these points and questions reflect my personal views and some are just me being devil's advocate but, having been in Warrington with one of my sons 20 minutes before the bomb exploded just around the corner from where we had been, I can't take a dispassionate view of this subject. Corbyn makes my blood boil when he dissembles and evades the point. The IRA bombed Warrington. I don't remember loyalists bombing Warrington or Manchester.

* The evidence for this is that record numbers of people are paying higher rate (40%) tax - it was 4.4 million people in 2014, up from 3 million before 2010: e.g. see the New Statesman:

** this specific suggestion came from Dominic Lawson's excellent column "Put the nail bomb down - Jeremy wants to talk"

Note 1. Actually it seems from what I read that JC has voted against every piece of proposed antiterrorism legislation, whether brought forward by a Labour or Tory government, on just about every occasion. Another with a similar record is Diane ("every defeat for the British state is a victory for all of us" - context Ireland) Abbott. Whereas Theresa May and David Davis have backed some and not other proposals. Davis famously resigned his seat and stood for re-election in 2008 to raise awareness of civil liberties issues, including extension of the detention period for terror suspects from 28 to 42 days. These are people with a conscience, who cast their vote with thought: Corbyn is just a rebel.
You can see Corbyn and May's full voting record on anti-terrorism measures since 2000 here

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Did you see this damning critique of the Tories?

I'm not the only person saying that there isn't a pro-business party in this election (my post of 19 May) and David Smith isn't the only Sunday Times journalist who is deeply unimpressed by the Tories and their manifesto. An editorial column* by Iain Dey, the paper's business editor, on 21 May was remarkable for its tone and language as well as its content. Dey's piece read more like one of my rants - remarkable stuff in an editorial, let alone of a Murdoch newspaper. His comments included:
  • to be lectured about meritocracy and the cult of "selfish individualism" by May reeks of hypocrisy. She got to where she is due, in most part, to the incompetent plotting of others
  • "running through all 84 pages of her manifesto is a snide, chippy assumption that everyone at the top of business somehow got there by rigging the system"
  • noting that business is more meritocratic than politics and that chapter one of the Tory manifesto, on the economy, makes no mention of financial services, our biggest source of tax receipts, he said "If she wants to find a great British meritocracy, the PM could ask her husband for a tour of the square mile - if he isn't too busy taking the bins out"
  • "When I challenge front bench Conservatives on their anti-business stance they look at me askance. They seem ignorant of the damage they are doing"
  • "...the message running through everything they do and say is that business is only a good thing if it is small and local. Very few business people want to stay small"
He concluded by saying that "A nation of entrepreneurs is a nation of selfish individualists. Collectively, their efforts generate growth" and quoting John Stuart Mill from On Liberty: "The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each as seems good to the rest."

In his column the following week he noted that some prominent business figures, including Sir Mike Rake (chairman of BT) and  Edward Bonham Carter (founder of Jupiter Asset Management) had attacked May's "lurch to the left". But, constructively, he offered the Tories some pointers from his discussions with business leaders on what a pro-business manifesto would look like:
  1. the new industrial strategy should make some big bets on a handful of industrial sectors (something I don't think we could do while in the EU) and
  2. address the skills shortage and offset the damage the clampdown on immigration will cause  by stealing part of Corbyn's policy of scraping university tuition fees - but only for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects.
I've often thought that the market feedback signals to students selecting their subjects (employment and pay levels) are too weak and too slow to work effectively. I've suggested in the past having "quotas" in different subjects according to the needs of the economy which get some form of subsidy - so you can study what you want but there is a way of encouraging people to study useful subjects in the numbers we need. The annual quota would be thousands in medicine, science, maths and engineering and might be rather lower in sports science and media studies: but if that's what you want to do you can still get a loan and do it. Dey's idea is much simpler and , even as a free marketer, I think it's a good one.

*Who Speaks For Business in this Election? Iain Dey, Sunday Times 21 May 2107