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David Cameron is planning to restrict Trade Unions ability to donate money to the Labour Party by compelling them to ask members annually whether they want their money to go into the political fund, and thereby (where that union is affiliated) potentially be donated to the Labour Party. Conservative Home is predictably salivating with glee that this could well bankrupt the Labour Party. That aside, what possible objections could any principled person have to asking union members whether they want their union to give money to the Labour Party? Well I have several.

Firstly, unions are campaigning organisations that work for the greater benefit of their members. Some unions (but certainly not all) feel that this campaigning role can be enhanced by giving money to the Labour Party- certainly a Labour government has benefited their members at work directly let alone the myriad improvements to the NHS, schools, and policing that makes life outside of work that much more tolerable. Anyway, I digress. The point I’m trying to make is that people become members of a union because they feel that on balance it will make them better off. If the fact that their union donates money to the Labour Party becomes so intolerable for them, they have two options; leave (and join a union that doesn’t give money to the party) or, given that the trades unions are democratic bodies, stand for election on a platform of disaffiliating from the Labour Party. To say then, as the Tories seem to imply, that the political fund is used against the will of many union members is simply disingenuous.

More broadly, politicians of the right have a penchant for direct democracy when it’s on issues they feel that they can get a knee-jerk response on (Lisbon, capital punishment, etc) but we should see this for the reactionary politics it is. We elect MPs in order to delegate certain responsibilities and allow that person to become better informed on topics than we could become. The whole point of representative democracy is that we pay people to read the green papers, the draft bills, the think tank reports so we don’t have to. Likewise, a Labour government might well be unpopular with certain union members at certain times, leading them to question why it is their subs are funding the party, but union members elect representatives at all levels who have more time to be reflective over the Labour affiliation. To restate an earlier point if they still don’t like it they can either stand in elections themselves, vote for someone who will change the status quo, or join a union that is not affiliated.

The original 10 year consultation period was nothing more than an attempt to reduce the amount of money given to the Labour Party by cashing in on periodic discontentment; reducing it to a year has exactly the intent. How many of those who opt-out opt back in? In the same way that non-unionised employees benefit from the concessions, rights, and improved conditions won and paid for by those in their workplace who are union members, allowing union members to opt out of the political fund has the same effect. It promotes the free-rider. What if I think that Sandra in head office is spending too much time on the phone and not enough time on union business? Can I have an annual ballot on Sandra’s contract? I’ve just purchased something from one of Lord Ashcroft’s firms- can I stipulate on the receipt that he doesn’t use any of the profits to bank-roll the Tories? Or, despite the availability of free schools and hospitals, I make the choice of going private- can I have some of my tax back (hang on a minute, that one actually used to be Tory policy- remind me, who wrote the 2005 manifesto?)?

With this policy then, as with other Tory initiatives from reducing the number of MPs (populist, and benefits the Tories) to equalising constituency sizes,* the Tories are dressing naked opportunism that will gerrymander the political system in their favour, as principled politics. Trades Unions are democratic bodies that campaign for the rights and conditions of their members. Those same members are free to use and participate in that democracy at any time. Failing that, it doesn’t take very long to cancel a direct debit…

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* as an aside, the Electoral Commission already does this. That Labour constituencies have less voters is less because of some vast left-wing conspiracy, but merely because (a) it takes time to redraw boundaries and (b) the broader demographic shift is away from urban (Labour) areas to rural (Tory) areas. However much compensation there is at any given election (and the Tories will make gains based on the new constituency boundaries in place for this year before any change in voting patterns comes into play), this will always be slightly behind the curve of the reality on the ground.

It’s not often that I don my white coat in public, but the absolutely shocking coverage of swine flu is driving me to despair. A classic example of piss-poor reporting is The Sun, where the story “It could be flu” ticks the following boxes:

  1. Sheer scientific illiteracy.
  2. Doom mongering.
  3. Engendering panic.
  4. Blaming the government (naturally).

Before addressing these points, let’s just look at the meaning of the word pandemic, which is being used over and over again to lend an appropriately apocalyptic tone to the reporting. A pandemic is an incidence of disease where there is transmission between humans over a large area. So, people can catch it off each other, and people are catching it off each other around the world (which given the globalised nature of travel, is highly unsurprising- more on the global nature of disease later though). Yes, a worry, but the 4 horsemen won’t be galloping down a street near your anytime soon.

So, moving on. In no particular order, here is some of the absolute crap that I’ve read/been force-fed by 24 hour news:

“We might not have enough antibiotics to combat swine flu.”

Antibiotics kill BACTERIA (small, unicellular life forms such as TB, E. Coli, and MRSA) whereas flu is a VIRUS (not alive, just a complex biological machine that hijacks cellular machinery of things that are alive in order to replicate itself). So even if we had all the antibiotics in the world, they wouldn’t do anything for swine flu because swine flu is a VIRUS and not a BACTERIA (still following at the back?).

“Scientists yesterday warned the pig virus could mutate yet again — by “mating” with lethal bird flu strain H5N1 to become even more powerful.”

Viruses mating. Nice. To reiterate the last point, VIRUSES ARE NOT ALIVE. They replicate themselves by hijacking things that are. Yes, there is a small possibility of viruses recombining (not mating) but there is also a statistical chance of Lord Lucan winning the Grand National on Shergar dressed as Elvis. Or me winning the lottery. On which note…

“Britain’s doctors will use a LOTTERY to deicde which swine flu victims get intensive care during a pandemic”

Well, a) we’re in a pandemic already, but that’s not neccessarily cause to go and hide in a cave with 3 years supply of pot noodles and b) if we get to the point where the health service is near collapse (which we won’t) then we’re all screwed anyway because there’ll be hardly anyone left to run the country/economy. What does The Sun want? A doctor and a nurse for everyone in the country?

MEXICO…….176 flu deaths, 49 confirmed cases, 2,500 suspected — including boy [my underlining]. UNITED STATES….1 death plus 131 confirmed cases of swine flu.”

Tragic as any death is, let’s get some proportion here. 36,000 people died in the US last year of influenza. That’s all kinds of flu. 1 person has died of this one kind of flu.

Will the newspapers be held to account for the inevitable pressure scare stories place on the NHS (people getting worried and going down the GP because they snorted whilst laughing)? Will they balls. Of course, we have to remain vigilant about disease, but the things that are being recommended (catch coughs and sneezes in a tissue, bin the tissue, and wash your hands) are things we should do as a matter of our daily routine. Basic personal hygiene will prevent all manner of sniffles and snot. And if you have got a runny nose, or found yourself enjoying the film Babe a little too much recently, then don’t panic. You won’t wake up tomorrow with trotters: chances are you have a cold. If you are worried, then get it checked, of course, but the health services really do know what they’re doing and the government has very well rehearsed plans in place should things get nastier.

On a broader note, the recurrence of public health as a global issue raises the moral imperative of lifting the world’s poor out of poverty to a practical one (these things more often than not come out of poor, overcrowded, insanitary environmnts in Mexico and Asia). In a sense more literal than any time in human history, we are all our brother’s keeper. The health of the poorest people on this planet is directly linked to the health of all of us, and until we emanciapte the world’s poor from poverty, diesease, ignorance, squalor and idleness we will continue to live in a world characterised by insecurity and fear.

I don’t often become apoplectic with rage, but the caveat in the government’s plans to introduce compulsory sex education from the age of 5, which will allow faith schools to tell kids that…

“having sex outside of marriage, homosexuality or using contraception is wrong.”

…has left me absolutely fuming.

Aside from the fact that surely it doesn’t matter if a person has 1 or 1000 sexual partners if they were all consensual relationships, that marriage is at best an out-moded institution, or that our quite frankly retarded Victorian attitudes to sex and sexuality have done nothing to stem teen pregnancy or rising rates of the clap, why oh why oh why did we get rid of section 28 if it’s OK to teach that homosexuality is wrong. Why do we even bother trying to cut STIs or have a teen pregnancy strategy if some schools are still going to allow crap to be peddled about contraception?

We are seriously letting down our young people in order to save our blushes and appease a few lunatic men in frocks who shouldn’t have any hand in running schools in the first place.

I am, quite frankly, speechless.

So, Maggie is apparently unhappy with how the PM is handling the economy. Strip away the fact that her government legislated to ban Christmas and made it compulsory to jab puppies with knitting needles. Ignore, for a minute, the fact that the big-bang loadsa money ethos of the 80s which created a culture of invincibility in the City and destroyed our manufacturing base got us in the mess we’re in and is hampering our ability to get out of it. No, let’s not dwell on the apartheid-supporting, democracy-emasculating, section-28isms, which, when we look back are kind of endearing. I mean, she never really meant any harm did she?!

Let us instead take a little closer look at one of the underlying arguments that the Lady (and many other Tories) is making. That argument is this: the Tories are the economically competent ones who have always come in to clear up the mess of a Labour government. To see if this is true, or indeed a pile of horse-shit, let’s work through post-war governments of both stripes (with tongue slightly in cheek) and hopefully try and dismantle some of the mythology around Thatcher that she somehow was Britain’s saviour.

OK.

1945-1951: Labour. Despite the fact the country had nearly bankrupted itself defeating the Thousand-Year Reich, the government managed to create the NHS, a universal welfare state, and nationalise pretty much whatever wasn’t bolted down (and a lot of things that were). Yes, there was a devaluation, but this was more than anything brought on by the ridiculously over-ambitious crash rearmament programme that preceded the Korean war. In implementing Beveridge, it aimed for a total employment figure that, whilst well meant, 30 years hence would prove massively inflationary.

1951-1964: Tory. Some good stuff might have happened but I’m not propagandising for the other side. Suez wasn’t so good, causing a run on the pound so epic that Britain was forced into a humiliating climbdown. Later, under Macmillan, the whole Treasury Team (Chancellor and Ministers) resigned because the Tories handling of the economy was, to put in bluntly, piss-poor.

1964-1970: Labour. England win the World Cup, liberalisation of laws concerning homosexuality, divorce and abortion, and the OU is founded/new universities are built offering access to higher education for hundreds of thousands of people. Another devaluation, arguably reflecting the UKs deteriorating industrial performance since the mid-50s onwards (when much of European industry was able to start competing again after being flattened in the war) and the unwillingness of governments of either party to take on vested interests and modernise. In short, not spectacularly competent on the economy, but no worse than the preceding Tory shambles.

1970-1974: Tory (well some of them would like to disown Heath but he was one of yours guys. Sorry!) Anyway, Rolls Royce nationalised, percentage of the economy controlled by the state highest ever recorded. 3 day week. Miners strike. Other bad things.

1974-1979: Labour. Industrial unrest continues. Inflation takes hold (see 1945-1951), unions don’t help. ‘Winter of Discontent.’ BUT by 1976, an ideological shift (if not shared by all Labour members as a whole) had taken place. Callaghan addresses the Labour conference and rejects throwing money at things. Healey goes to IMF and shows signs that he gets it too. In short, much of the heavy lifting for Thatcher is already going on. But boy did she put her own stamp on it…

1979-1997: Tory. That woman (followed by some grey bloke). Rather than saying, yes, Britain suffers from some serious structural problems (outdated industry, over-mighty unions) that with work, patience and courage can be turned around, she unleashes an economic blitzkrieg which, when dealing with the ossified Morrisonian public corporation dinosaurs only means one thing. Unemployment. Massive, intergenerational unemployment. Crime rockets. Homelessness soars. Riots in Toxteth, Notting Hill and Trafalgar Square. Wearing of red braces and stripey shirts made compulsory within the square mile, as are phones the size of hot-hatches. Sunshine privatised and metered back to the poor… Then Major comes along and does something. No-one remembers what exactly it is he does (except for muffing it up royally on Black Wednesday and losing an MP in bizarre circumstances). Also, the Hamiltons. Don’t forget them.

1997-?: Labour. A new Jerusalem. Death and illness are abolished. Poverty and suffering outlawed. Commentators complain when budget surpluses and proceeds from wavelength auctions are used to pay off national debt. “Surely a bit of debt doesn’t matter?” they say…

So, to wind up an overly long piece, what I’m saying is that post-war economic management by governments of both colours was pretty ropey. But, and this is a big but:

1. Labour governments still managed to do some pretty awesome things whilst we were going to hell in a handcart.

2. Callaghan (and Healey) are the ones who deserve the credit for bringing us to our senses. As Oliver Kamm puts it, “[Callaghan’s] greatest single achievement was to destroy Socialism as a serious proposition in British politics. The principal turning point… in the past 60 years was not 1979, when Mrs Thatcher took office, but 1976” (see 1975-1979 for the reason why).

So, unsurprisingly it appears that Lady T is talking rubbish.

There’s been a lot of coverage of the call by retired generals to scrap the planned replacement for Trident. This will undoubtedly be grasped by many people (especially our friends on the left) as a further sign that replacing Trident will be a massive waste of money/militarily useless. However, there are several health warnings about the advice of the generals.

Firstly, generals will always (understandably) be a partisans for their service: Trident is a piece of naval equipment and therefore only serves to give prestige to the Navy. Ergo, the army don’t like it.

Secondly, the time frame required to replace Trident is exceptionally long: no security/defence analyst now can honestly predict the strategic environment that we’ll be faced with in 20-30 years. Replacing it is therefore a very good insurance policy: the recent resurgence of Russia is a case in point and would have taken an extremely high level of prescience to predict during the mid-nineties. Furthermore, other countries are likely to retain nuclear weapons for the time being: putting it simply, having nukes means that people listen to us. Putting it crudely, we want to retain our relative power position in the world in order to pursue a robust foreign policy where necessary.

Thirdly, deterrence is a necessary option for a country of our size: during the Cold War it was often repeated that all the Red Army needed to invade Britain was enough boots. We are a small nation in terms of population/forces we can put in the field: given that it is not inconceivable that another state power may wish to coerce us by force in the future, it’s absolutely necessary the UK possesses something that could make them think twice.

Lastly, whilst I sympathise with the plight of the army (I would like to see funding for the military increased to address pay/conditions/kit issues that the Generals rightly bring to the fore), it is frankly a bit rich for the army to talk about obsolescence when the army order of battle has changed itself so little from the Cold War period. If we want to talk about ineffective weapons systems lets look at tanks. Impossible to deploy quickly (so much for rapid reaction), only useful against other tanks (and there are much better means of killing tanks), the number of cavalry regiments remains artificially high simply for the reason that they have a greater social cachet (and therefore more friends in high places) than infantry regiments. The same goes for 90% of the artillery.

Massive resources are tied up in army equipment that has a role that can be better performed by something else. Yet, when the army last restructured the number of infantry regiments was cut whilst cavalry remained the same: to reiterate this point, the continued requirement for cavalry/artillery regiments to do ‘dismounted’ tours (i.e. as infantry) acts as a pretty stinging indictment of the current order of battle. In this regard then, the army needs to have a long look at itself before criticising other services (and there are undoubted criticism of the navy and air-force that can be made that move well beyond Trident).

So, whilst I welcome the chance for a healthy debate about the future of defence spending, I think it’s necessary for people to be aware of the problems surrounding the general’s advice. Trident is a vital part of our defence posture and needs to be replaced.

A great piece in Tuesday’s FT by Vernon Bogdanor, Professor of Government at Oxford. I would hope, what with Miliband’s intervention yesterday as well, that there is still not only time, but also more importantly the desire (too many people are indulging in fatalism) for Labour to re-find a sense of purpose whilst still in office and renew itself for another term.

Some people say that if you can’t beat them, join them. I say that’s rubbish: if you can’t beat them, cheat.

Before I get charged with opportunism, I’ve always been an advocate of voting reform- some kind of AV system would probably do the job best- but the problem with voting reform is that the minute a party gets a majority, the minute voting reform is ditched.

So, given that experience of the last 30 years probably demonstrates that thumping majorities don’t do the parties that have them any good, perhaps it’s time to bring voting reform back onto the agenda?

I was reminded by this that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Apparently, the opening of the beautiful Öresund bridge linking Denmark and Sweden has seen an increase in traffic by a particular type of man from Sweden (where paying a prostitute is illegal) to Denmark (where prostitution is tolerated).

Now Sweden has a fair few things to be sorry about: Ulrika Johnson and flat-pack furniture are but two imports we could do without. However, their attitude towards prostitution, which requires the operation of a Stasi-like surveillance network, belies a worryingly authoritarian mindset. Unsurprisingly, Harriet Harman, also known to have a penchant for social authoritarianism, has backed the introduction of Swedish-style laws here in the UK.

Before I carry on, there are of course some important points to acknowledge:

1. Many women are on the streets to fund a drug habit- this habit has often been encouraged by a pimp as a further means of control.

2. There is a link between human trafficking and prostitution- many brothels are directly linked to the trafficking of women.

3. There is a link between prostitution and violence against women- many working girls are raped/assaulted.

Even with these points in mind I would argue that prohibition is not working and can never work. We need to create a system that is better than the mess we currently have. Firstly, we must recognise that in criminalising prostitution we have only pushed it underground and into the hands of some very unsavoury characters. Therefore I’d argue that there needs to be a measure of legalisation with regulation and regular health checks for sex-workers. If two consenting adults wish to exchange money in return for sex, that is their affair (the principle of consent is paramount here: the girl mustn’t be working under duress). Importantly, by legalising prostitution, we can free up resources to tackle organised crime, violence against women, and human trafficking.

Secondly (and crucially) this all needs to be joined up with other parts of policy. There has to be a more sensible attitude to drugs and better support available for people with serious substance abuse problems: locking up drug addicts doesn’t help anyone and it should be clear that part of the health-check for sex workers carries a proviso that a drug addiction is a disqualification. There also needs to be better general provision of support for women who are victims of violence: this means more in terms of social services and more safe houses.

I’m not saying that any of this is the perfect answer. However, the way we deal with prostitution exposes broader problems in our approach to drugs and violence: in all of these areas our attitudes need to change.

I was at dinner with Lord Justice Scott Baker (he of Diana inquest fame) last week: the food was mediocre and the wine execrable but the Judge did have some valid points to make. Given that we promised to be tough on the causes of crime as much as crime itself, it was interesting to hear a legal professional make the point that by the time young people get the attention and care that they need, they have often offended. Part of me thinks that this is a real failure of the system given that we only intervene once something has gone wrong. But the other part of me is sceptical as to how much a government, either through legislation or expenditure or whatever, can achieve on its own.

With this in mind that it is perhaps interesting to think what the causes of crime are. Social breakdown is certainly one. A lack of economic prospects perhaps another. Many would argue that the move away from a traditional family structure plays a large part. In all of these cases though, the government can only play a minor part in the solution.

I asked the Lord Justice whether he thought that building ever more prisons and locking ever more people up demonstrated a real lack of imagination from us as a society. This was in response to his stating that the money being spent on prisons could be better spent at an earlier stage. He agreed but also higlighted the problem: the tabloid press screaming for ever harsher and harsher sentencing when more nuanced punishments would often be appropriate.

How any party that wants to look electable even starts to try and debate a nuanced criminal justice policy is beyond me. But until we do, I fear much more money is going to be wasted on sticking plaster remedies.

Apologies for the pun but David Hockney, Art-God and all round hero, has been grumping about again. Not that I can blame him: not only do I admire his work, his radical libertarian instincts are right up my street.

What’s got his goat this time is the plans by Angela Eagle to ban drawings of children. Hockney points out that this makes a good deal of great art child-porn, to which Eagle replied that the law wouldn’t be used to ban legitimate works of art. So, not only (in words borrowed from Proudhon) are we ‘watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, [and] commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so’, those same creatures are now going to decide what is ‘art’ and what isn’t. Zut Alors.

More Hockneyisms

On Gordon Brown:

“a dreary atheistic Calvinistic prig, who I’m sure will never be elected in England. He goes along with a ‘health lobby’ whose view of life itself I detest.”

On Cannabis:

“Why is the stuff still illegal? I assume it’s the power of the alcohol lobby being behind most things. Alcohol has damaged and killed friends of mine, but I’ve never known anyone harmed by the weed, whose relaxing pleasure I have enjoyed for 40 years.”

On Climate Change:

“Oh no. Here’s another hair-shirt person coming towards me and telling me to ride a bicycle. I blame computers. They can make predictive models of anything, and tell us we’re all heading towards doom. But in our grandparents’ day, what do you think people were worrying about? Hellfire and eternal damnation caused by our bad conduct. Global warming has just replaced God. Something to feel guilty about. The new religion.”

On refusing a Knighthood:

“I don’t value prizes of any sort. I value my friends. Prizes of any sort are a bit suspect.”