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What next for Egypt?

By Andy Mayer
February 12th, 2011 at 11:17 am | Comments Off on What next for Egypt? | Posted in International Politics

The resignation of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, the most populous Arab state, following weeks of protests is a fantastic day for the millions that made it happen, and we hope the progress of liberty and democracy.

This is not assured. The Egyptian military is in charge in the interim, Mubarak’s apparatus of power remains intact, and building a consensus for a new constitution amongst opposition factions will be painful.

Islamists and secularists have different ideas about fundamental liberties and pluralism. Many of the middle-class protesters leading the chants this month, helped keep Mubarak in power previously, precisely to avoid government by the populist movement represented by the Muslim Brotherhood. Many of the bright-eyed revolutionary socialists interviewed by the BBC this week are certain to not get what they want.

It is reasonable to expect though, given the impetus, some kind of pluralist democracy will emerge. The street are unlikely to accept another dictator. The army so far have expressed an interest in stability not any particular outcome. Most protesters will now want to get back to work.

That government will face large internal reform challenges; and difficult foreign policy questions over their relationship with Israel, their new position within the League of Arab States, and a host of new and old friends from the US to China waving their chequebooks in gestures of commercial solidarity.

We will be amongst them. The UK currently imports around £0.5bn of Egyptian goods and exports just under £1bn every year. The opportunities for growth in energy and financial services are not trivial, and Egypt’s economy is far more diversified than most neighbours.

Some of the reporting of the last few weeks has highlighted the Mubarak regime’s relative economic competence. This should not be overstated. It is certainly true they reformed and replaced some of the Marxist central planning legacy of the Sadat era, and have seen inflation fall from a decade of rates over 15%. But with GDP per head at just $5-6,000, 10% unemployment, double digit deficits, and GDP rates closer to Western European than Chinese or Indian levels, they clearly did not achieve the kind of catch-up growth seen in the latter, nor the commodity growth of wealthy Arab nations. We can also reasonably expect a ousted regime to leave a few nasty surprises and loot what they can.

Egypt’s largely young, often poor, but well educated population will expect this to change under the new government. This is a nation of untapped potential yearning for the freedom to prove themselves in the world.

We all must hope the tensions inevitable failures and set-backs will cause does not lead the government to resort to the easy option of blaming and attacking foreign influence. Egypt needs external support to grow, and growth is ultimately what will fund reform and the reduction of external tensions. Let us hope whichever new Leaders emerge have the gifts to turn those aspirations into lasting change.

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Mark, Ming and the meeting of minds

By Angela Harbutt
February 11th, 2011 at 1:34 am | 2 Comments | Posted in Uncategorized

I know for  a fact that Mark Littlewood (formerly of this parish) and Sir Ming Campbell respect one another. Mark was the head of media for the Lib Dems when Ming was leader of the party. They got on. Ming listened to Mark’s media advice .  Mark recognised Ming’s political and international experience and knowledge. They were as one, I think, on civil liberties.

In recent times it would be fair to say, however, that their views have not always chimed on economic issues.

But in the last 24 hours there seems to have been a meeting of Ming/Mark minds. On David Cameron’s Big Society of all things.

Yesterday Mark Littlewood suggested that the libraries of this nation could be saved if the likes of Nicky Wire, bassist of the Manic Street Preachers, multimillionaire Richard Pullman, and indeed all those  who care about libraries, put their hands in their pockets to help save them. 

In much the same way frankly as many football fans – rich and not so rich – have put their hands in their pockets over the years to save their local clubs in times of need, parishioners have done to save their local church roof, villagers have bought their local pub etc.

Tonight on Question Time , Ming Campbell advocated pretty much the same thing as far as I can see. On the issue of  the Big Society , Ming argued that the big society has been around for a long time – local charities, societies, self help groups etc, working voluntarily for the wider benefit of society. People getting on, doing stuff for themselves.

But in these dire economic times, Ming argued, this is the time for those that can afford to put an extra £10 or £20 into their preferred voluntary cause, local group etc should step up to the plate. 

And he is right. It’s the best articulation of the Big Society I have heard quite honestly.

If you care about it – do your bit – don’t leave it all to the state. That’s Ming bunging an extra score or so to his local athletics club, Mark doshing out more to his beloved Saints Foundation and Nicky Wire dobbing something in for his beloved libraries -rather than expecting the state to look after the things we hold dear. …theatre,church, football club, library….. We all have things we think are important – we just shouldn’t always expect someone else to pay for it.

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Revolting times and peer pressure

By Andy Mayer
February 10th, 2011 at 1:07 pm | 13 Comments | Posted in Liberal Democrats

Two factions of the Liberal Democrats have made the headlines in the last 24 hours disagreeing with different aspects of Coalition policy.

The first, headed by Richard Kemp is an alliance of Council Leaders who have decided to enrich the Murdoch pay wall by writing a grumpy letter to the Times. The gist of the letter is that the local government spending is being cut too fast and should be slowed down.

“This front-loading means councils do not have the lead-in time necessary to re-engineer services on a lower-cost base and ease staff cuts without forced, expensive redundancies.”

Most UK companies in 2008/09 were forced by the recession to make rapid redundancies and seek efficiency savings. Some did it quickly, some chose to phase restructuring programmes over several months or a year. Most are now emerging from the recession, essential services intact.

Councils whose £100m+ budgets make them like large businesses are not going to enjoy this pain, but there is no reason to believe delaying decisions will make for better decisions. Long consultation processes, usually involving expensive external consultants, are no substitute for effective leadership focusing the Council’s activities on things that really matter, and staff that really deliver. 

Meanwhile the redundancy point is simply wrong. Delayed redundancies mean more expensive settlements from accrued wages and benefits and cause huge morale problems for everyone at risk or not. Those under-performing or in the least essential roles can’t move (they lose the likely pay-off), and have little incentive to fight for jobs unlikely to be saved. Those working with them, particularly high performers, get frustrated waiting to get on with the changes.

The second revolt was that of unofficial Treasury spokesperson Lord Oakeshott, a former Labour Councillor and property fund manager who has long-standing and strongly held views on reform of the banking sector.

His principle concerns with ‘project Merlin‘, the government/bank sector deal, appear to be ‘net lending’ targets, bonuses, and transparency. These are underwritten by a general concern about how the deal will be perceived by the public. Something his outburst has influenced in a negative way, distracting attention from the large increase in funds targeting loans for SMEs.

Net lending targets, specifically whether or not loans to small and medium sized businesses will increase is not an issue on which either the banks or governments can win over public opinion. Lending expectations were set by the pre-2008 cheap credit boom. The credit was cheap becasue it was mispriced. That in turn undermined the banks most exposed to the worst risks.

If the banks return to those practices, another default is assured. The ‘right’ level of credit then will be lower than pre-crash demand. However neither politicians, nor the banks, can plan where that level should be. It’s a price, supply and demand issue based on thousands of transactions in an ever shifting equilibrium that responds to external events like rising commodity and property prices, currency fluctuations, and innovation. I.e. it’s a market.

So I’m quite unclear what target would satisfy Lord Oakeshott, the marginal businesses that shouldn’t have been given loans in the boom, and the good businesses unused to paying rates more in line with risk. Nor what impact that would have on recapitalisation.

Bonuses are also a no-win situation. The government could ban all bonuses in those banks under public ownership. In doing so they would breach employment contracts and lose the staff they most need in order to sell on the banks in future. Any bonuses above zero will meet with public disapproval. There is no ‘right’ level, and these are operational decisions best left to the banks. By suggesting politicians should get involved in pay negotiations, Ministers have exposed themselves to blame.

Disclosure is an interesting point. There is already much disclosure by public companies. We can see for example from Lord Oakeshott’s own company OLIM that his main Value and Income Trust vehicle increased their investments in UK financial institutions (mainly HSBC)  from 9.2% to 11.2% between 2009-10, receive property rents from Lloyds Bank, Abbey National, and Clydesdale, and that he didn’t get paid a performance bonus due to the fund doing worse than the FTSE All-share index.  With that information you may decide whether or not you wish to invest in VIT.

A prize of our entirely inexpert advice is on offer is you can discern from the VIT report or OLIM website exactly how much Lord Oakeshott is rewarded in total for all his fiscal wizardry. Good policy is best led by example I think.

The banking debate though tends to be in respect of special disclosure for the high pay of individuals who are not Directors. Some recommend publishing lists of the number of people (unnamed) in certain high income bands (e.g. “£0.5-1m).

This is all political. It wouldn’t make any difference to pay levels, only to the cost of reporting them. It’s not clear why bankers, and not media executives, footballers, or other star performers. High pay in all these areas tends to reflect the left ideal of worker power and liberal one of meritocracy, not the conservative preference for secrecy.

Lord Oakeshott and various Council groups I’m sure will continue to attack policy from the sidelines. But they could first assist the national debate by issuing a clear set of alternative proposals. We get winks and nods from these media discloures and the sense of frustration, but largely all the public get is a sense of division.

Neither revolt leaves us with the impression that liberal dissenters from the Coalition have a structured Plan B, let alone a good one.

So why has the BBC banned the term “electoral reform” ?

By Angela Harbutt
February 7th, 2011 at 8:58 pm | 4 Comments | Posted in AV referendum, BBC

About a fortnight a story emerged that BBC journalists had been sent an internal document from the top brass demanding that their staff stop describing “electoral reform” as “electoral reform”.

I raise it now (late) because having missed the revelation at the time I assumed “word had got out there” about it, so I let it pass. I am however surprised to find how few people who are usually “in the know” – don’t know. Here are the basics….

In an internal BBC memo leaked to The Independent, Ric Bailey, the corporation’s chief political adviser, said: “Please can we make sure that we don’t describe this – in our own scripts, headlines, etc – as the referendum on ‘electoral reform’. When the [BBC’s] Guidance is published ahead of the referendum period, it will make clear that, in the context of the referendum, that is not an impartial term – ‘reform’ explicitly contains a definition of ‘improvement’.”

 So if “reform” is “not an impartial term” why is it that changes to the public services and laws of this country can be described in terms of “reform” by the Government – and parroted by the BBC…. NHS reform plans will strenthen NHS,says Government. BBC October 1st 2010. Welfare benefit reforms unveiled by Government. BBC October 2010. Government to press ahead with radical NHS reform plans. BBC December 15th 2010.  “When ministers drew up their plans for radical reform of the NHS, schools and the welfare system..” Norman Smith Chief Political Correspondent, BBC Radio 4 , February 2nd 2011. and so on……

Why is it that a term such as “electoral reform” causes such offence to the BBC but all other Government reform is OK?

You could argue I suppose that the reason why”electoral reform” is on the forboten list and “NHS reform” isn’t, is because there is to be a vote on electoral reform. But then surely that must mean that the BBC is openly admitting that it frankly doesn’t give a toss about the language it uses day-today, but does care when it comes to a vote.

Slack, lazy reporting on a day to day basis BBC? Maybe. But I suspect that it is not that. Could it be that the BBC is running scared of the Government? Could it be that the BBC has been got at by the highly influential No campaigners with their slick suits, armed with promises of who-knows what  post election by those in the corridors of power?  So BBC,  are you incompetent, lazy,or just plain “got at”. It doesn’t look good any way you look at it.

And here is why this is oh so puzzling.. “electoral reform” is a term that has been around longer than the BBC. It is part of the language of politics. Of democracy indeed. We all know what it means.

Significantly it was this Government  that made a pledge to introduce a vote on electoral reform. Not “electoral change”. Not “electoral alteration”.. It is there in black and white. A vote on electoral reform.. We will bring forward a referendum on electoral reform” … (Coalition Agreement)… Next May, there’ll be a referendum on electoral reform”; (David Cameron speech to Conservative Party) ..

And so, The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill 2010-11 has thus been called, ever since, as the “electoral reform bill” by all the main news sources in the UK – including the  BBC….. “Lord Falconer and Lord McNally debate whether the house of Lords should pass the electoral reform bill”  (source BBC)….  “Peers’ threat to AV voting reform referendum defeated” (source BBC)…

 So if the Prime Minister and the Coalition Government can and have promised this country a vote on electoral reform -and  the newspapers and broadcasters of this land have thus described it, and the bill that will enable it, as “electoral reform” / “electoral reform bill”, for the last 12 months, why has the BBC decided in its infinite wisdom to ban the term now?  On whose say so?

The BBC should not be allowed to rewrite history, or skew the debate. Nor should any shiny suited boys, with an eye to their own future prospects, be allowed to threaten or cajole the BBC into actions that suit them now.

 Yes to Fairer Votes are writing a letter to the BBC condemning this action, which you can sign here: Reform” isn’t a dirty word: Cosign our letter to the BBC.  It is a start but it is almost certainly not enough if what we get in May is a free and fair vote. We need more questions raised in every public place, and to the BBC at every opportunity. And frankly, a lot more answers…

Oh…. and if any BBC employee  out there is willing to spill the beans and tell us what is really going on – please email me – I will happily publish your post – anonymously if necessary. Surely one of you cares more about journalism than just plain self interest?

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Alain de Botton argues for a nanny state

By Simon Goldie
February 6th, 2011 at 10:06 pm | 6 Comments | Posted in freedom, Nudge Dredd

The philosopher Alain de Botton has made the argument for the nanny state on the BBC’s website.

Part of his reasoning is that he believes that the libertarian notion, that we must be free, has won. Those who argue for a liberal society, a society where the individual controls their life, might be surprised to hear that as they tend to think there is more work to be done to establish a liberal world.

Putting that to one side, many people take the view that people cannot make decisions on their own and need help.

Reading de Botton’s piece I was struck that there was something missing from his argument. What would be fascinating to know is what sort of nannying would de Botton like? I am assuming de Botton needs nannying as his argument is that we all do.

I have no idea if de Botton reads Liberal Vision but if he does he is more than welcome to comment and tell us.