Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Justice Secretary wants one law for the rich and another for the poor

As part of his controversial reforms to Criminal Legal Aid, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, wants to deny the right to choose their own lawyer to anyone arrested who is poor and, therefore, needs to rely on legal aid. This strikes at the heart of a suspect’s right to proper representation. It also runs counter to the usual Tory mantra that choice in public services is essential. A powerful incentive to providing a good service is removed, if a client is allocated to a lawyer and then cannot leave them.

When asked about this by the Law Gazette last week, Grayling said:- “I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts often come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds.”

Such a comment would be crass coming from any politician. Grayling, however, is the Justice Secretary. He ought, therefore, to be concerned about justice for all and not least for those “from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds”. His assertion that such people should be denied the right to choose who represents them because they are not capable of making the choice is breath-taking in its assumptions and factually wrong. 

Who are the people that Grayling wants to deny choice to? Based on my own experience as a criminal solicitor some years ago, a significant number of them are likely to be innocent. Most of those who get involved in the criminal justice system are “mad”, “sad” or “bad” – and those who might be considered “bad” are by far the smallest of these three categories.

And who will these lawyers be, on whom clients will have to rely to establish their innocence or to plead in mitigation? You will have seen the lorries belonging to the Eddie Stobart haulage company. Incredibly, Eddie Stobart is a leading contender in bidding for the new criminal legal aid contracts. There are to be 400 new “mega-firms”. Contracts are likely to go to the lowest bidders. Serco, G4S, Capita and Tesco are all rumoured to be planning to bid.

Grayling claims that the choice of lawyer does not matter. This is plainly nonsense and particularly so in our adversarial system of justice. I have no doubt that Grayling would not take this attitude for himself or someone close to him. It has been notable how the recent rich defendants before the courts, Chris Huhne, Vicky Pryce, Stuart Hall, Rebekah Brooks etc have all chosen to employ top QCs.

Equality before the law is as essential a pillar of democracy as the right to vote every five years. In many ways there is already one legal system for the rich and another for the poor in the UK but Grayling’s reforms will seriously exacerbate the divide.

We are becoming a less decent and civilised country. One more like the USA with its notoriously two-tiered  justice. One that does not much care about miscarriages of justice if they happen to those from the “most difficult and challenged backgrounds”.  

Grayling is trying to bring in his reforms without any parliamentary debate. If you think that, at the least, MPs should debate them, then please consider signing the online petition to “save UK Justice" at
                                                                                                                                 No. 311

Sunday, 19 May 2013

The UK's educational apartheid explains the "Michael Gove mystery"

The “Michael Gove mystery” is how the same politician can be so loathed and so admired at the same time. The answer to the mystery lies in the educational apartheid between the private and state sectors, which has far greater importance in the UK than in any other country in Europe.

In the UK, 7% of children attend private schools and 93% attend state schools. However the products of private schools go on to dominate those parts of society that have power and influence over the rest.

Gove is widely loathed by those who work in state schools and by those whose children and grandchildren go to those schools. Yesterday, normally moderate head teachers passed a motion of no confidence and heckled him.

The state education system Gove took over in 2010 was not perfect but it was certainly not broken as it had been in 1997 after the last Tory government.  Gove has pushed through a raft of harmful policies, which I have mostly written about before. He has pushed much of the state system into near-crisis.

Gove has denigrated, bullied and blustered. He has relied on a tiny coterie of advisers and tends not to engage in rational argument with those who oppose him but rather to subject them to ad hominem attacks by calling them “Trotskyites” or “the enemies of promise” or the like, in a chilling echo of the tactics of Senator Joe McCarthy.

But yet, Gove is admired and regarded as a leading contender for the leadership of a post-Cameron Tory party. He is viewed as one of the few political stars in the Cabinet.

Gove’s perceived success reveals much about power in the UK. The elite – that is to say the “people who matter” - do not use the state education system and often do not know well anyone who does. They are full of admiration for Gove.

It is a deeply held belief for many who use the private education system that the state system is self-evidently inferior (they do not consider that the private system’s “success” might be primarily due to the fact that the playing field is not level but has been sharply tipped in its favour). 90% of the press is right wing and carries frequent articles running down the state system written by journalists who don’t use it, for editors who don’t use it, employed by proprietors who don’t use it. The BBC and the Guardian do not provide much balance. Their editors and commentators tend to be members of the 7% private school elite too.

Our educational apartheid causes immeasurable harm to our country. Our elite are profoundly ignorant of the system that educates 93% of the population. One consequence of that is they have no idea how disastrous a minister Michael Gove is. They may just make him leader.
                                                                                             No. 310

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Hostility to the EU may be deep but it is not wide - Ed Miliband please note

Just because some people feel very strongly indeed about the UK’s membership of the EU does not mean that they should be allowed to place this issue at the centre of the political agenda. Despite the efforts of Nigel Farage, assorted Tories and, crucially, the billionaires who control most of our press, the vast majority of the British people have other priorities.

In January 2013 a joint Economist/Ipsos Mori poll set out the top ten issues that voters thought were facing Britain. The EU did not feature at all. In February, Harris carried out a similar poll of the top 15 issues. The EU was ranked 14th out of 15 priorities.

Once asked specifically about the EU issue, it is true that the public are in favour of a referendum. However, if asked specifically in an opinion poll, people would no doubt say that they were in favour of referenda on a host of issues e.g. the NHS, education or tax. People naturally like the theoretical idea of having their views counted on issues. (Personally, I would like a referendum on a binding commitment to abolish child poverty and also one every twenty years on the abolition of the monarchy – everyone may have their own wish-list)

The rise of UKIP is taken as evidence that the UK’s membership of the EU is a major issue in the electorate but this is not borne out by detailed polling. In December 2012, Lord Ashcroft published the results of the most comprehensive ever poll into the attitudes of UKIP voters and “considerers”. He reported that only just over a quarter of UKIP supporters put the EU in their top three most important issues facing the UK; only 7% put the EU as their top issue.  Ashcroft concluded that it wasn’t the EU issue that attracted people to UKIP but their “outlook”. UKIP attracts people who think the country is going to the dogs, loathe political correctness and want to take Britain back to a time when things were “done more sensibly”. 

If David Cameron had studied Lord Ashcroft’s research he would know that he is as likely to alienate UKIP supporters by his gay marriage proposals as anything he does on the EU.

As for Ed Miliband, he must resist the siren voices and the bullying press telling him he must offer an in/out referendum after the 2015 election. The UK’s membership of the EU is not a priority issue for the British electorate.  They are far more concerned with growth, jobs, education, skills, housing, the NHS and other issues. 

If Miliband were to offer a referendum it would probably blight his premiership. In opposition the Tories would be unrestrained in their Europhobia and, backed by Murdoch and the rest, they would probably win a referendum. That would destroy Miliband’s government and worse, in the words of Vince Cable, the UK once out of the EU would “end up like Ukraine”.
                                                                                                                                      No. 309

Saturday, 11 May 2013

ONS graph for Tory time-bomb and Tony Blair piece

Labour urgently need to defuse Tory time-bomb and may need Tony Blair's help

The Tories have a plan to beat Labour at the election even if the economic situation remains dire. They will tell the voters - “don’t blame us - it is Labour’s fault”. This could be highly effective. Polls show that more people still blame the last Labour government for the state of the economy than blame the Coalition. Unless Labour takes action urgently to change public perception, this issue is a ticking time-bomb which could explode and cause serious damage in 2015.

The Tories are likely to fight a far more disciplined and ruthless campaign in 2015 than they did in 2010. They have hired Lynton Crosby as their election supremo. He is known as the “Australian Karl Rove” – a reference to the “evil genius” who used highly aggressive tactics to secure two victories for George W Bush. Crosby will have noted how Barack Obama used the economic legacy of the Bush regime against Bush’s fellow Republican Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama’s pitch was – "Why hand the keys back to the guys who drove the car into the ditch?"  It is easy to imagine Tory posters grouping Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband and Ed Balls above that question.

Obama may have been right about the blameworthiness of the Republicans. However, Labour has a good argument that the economic crisis in the UK was not principally its fault but was the result of an international banking crisis with its roots in the US.

The central Tory charge is that Labour over-spending is to blame for the country’s economic woes. The ONS graph below illustrates very clearly that the facts do not support this. Labour did not spend excessively. Immediately before the banking crisis struck in 2007/8, the UK’s debt was significantly lower as a percentage of GDP than it had been when Labour came to power in 1997. It was only after the crisis and as a result of the ensuing economic mayhem that debt increased very dramatically. Furthermore, it is fair to note that David Cameron and George Osborne were pledging to match the level of Labour’s spending right up until the banking crisis.

ONS graph in next post following.

It is right that Labour cannot escape all responsibility for the fact that the banking crisis itself occurred. The Labour leadership has already admitted fault and apologised for failing to regulate the banks tightly enough. However, here too, Cameron and Osborne’s attack is undermined by their own actions - they were calling for even lighter touch regulation at the time.

Labour can never hope to comprehensively win this argument. However, they can hope to neutralise it so that the next election is fought on the record of the Tories post-2010 rather than of Labour pre-2010.

Labour needs to start the task of persuasion urgently. After the 2010 election, the Coalition was highly disciplined in constantly reiterating their narrative that it was all Labour’s fault. Labour was deflated, disorganised and distracted by its own leadership campaign. The Coalition’s version of history is now well embedded in the mind of the electorate. If Labour waits until the next election to challenge it, they will find it is far too late.

It will not be at all easy to tackle this issue. It is rarely enough in politics to be right or even to have the best arguments. Labour will need to grab media and public attention for what looks like a stale issue. They also need someone delivering the message who has credibility with crucial swing voters. It seems unlikely that any of the Shadow Cabinet could do this particular job.

If Ed Miliband were to think outside the box he could consider asking Tony Blair to help. 

If asked, Blair might well agree. The issue concerns not only Labour’s electoral prospects but his legacy too. It is important to him. He wrote about it recently in the New Statesman - “Labour should be very robust in knocking down the notion that it “created” the crisis.”  He was clear that the cause of the crisis was the “financial tsunami that occurred globally, the US.”

Asking Blair’s help would have an element of risk for Miliband who has been at pains to distance his party from Blair and New Labour. Blair himself is deeply unpopular in sections of the Labour Party. 

However, Blair can undoubtedly grab attention and he is has significant credibility with many of the target swing voters. He is, for example, considerably more popular than any other former or current prime minister (Major, Brown or Cameron). He might be the only person who could do this crucial job. If so, Miliband should ask him.
                                                                                                       No. 308  

Sunday, 5 May 2013

Political dynamite! Bank of England confirms that rich are made richer due to QE

The British public are not aware that the rich have become much richer, while the poor have not gained at all, as a direct result of the policy of Quantitative Easing (QE) – which is essentially “printing money”. However, it is not a secret. Most people inside the Westminster bubble should know. 

QE has cross-party support and is credited with having prevented even worse an economic calamity than the UK has experienced since 2008. It has had, as a predictable side effect, a dramatic redistributive effect in favour of the rich.

Since QE started in 2009, the richest 10% of households are on average each between £100,000 and £350,000 wealthier as a direct result of the policy. These gains do not appear directly in their bank accounts. They have been made in the value of their financial assets e.g. property, shares, paintings, antiques etc.

The reason why QE has increased asset prices is not straightforward but at root it is that, as a result of printing more money, the value of money itself diminishes and so the value of other financial assets increases.

The sources which back up the figures above are impressive – the Bank of England and the Office for National Statistics. The story was reported in the Guardian, the Spectator, the Mail and the Independent in late August 2012 but seems not to have been covered in the media since then.

Fraser Nelson, the Conservative supporting editor of the Spectator has described QE as “the biggest transfer of wealth to the rich of any government policy in recent documented history.”

QE is a significant part of the reason why, at the same time that most of the UK is undergoing the worst squeeze on living standards for over 80 years, some parts of the economy are doing fine. Large corporations are sitting on record cash mountains; shareholders are currently experiencing the FTSE’s best period of growth for 30 years; property in places like London is doing well; it’s a good time for people who invested in paintings, antiques, fine wine or racehorses. The luxury market - from cars to handbags - is booming. 

Since 2009, Governments – first Labour and then the Coalition – have, through QE, been engaged in an unprecedented money printing operation on an extraordinary scale. All the numbers involved in QE are huge. Since 2009 the Bank of England has created at the click of a mouse £375 billion which it has used to buy gilts (government debt). To give some perspective, £375 billion is equivalent to around a quarter of the country’s total GDP or a third of its national debt. There has been remarkably little parliamentary or press scrutiny of QE, in marked contrast to Budget measures which are often small beer in comparison.

In August 2012 the Bank of England released a report with the snappy title, The Distributional Effects of Asset Purchases. It explains that the effect of QE had been – as was intended – to boost the value of financial assets e.g. property, shares, antiques etc. The report calculates that the QE program at that time – and there has been £50 billion more QE since – had increased the value of the financial assets in the UK by no less than £600 billion.  It notes that that sum is equivalent to around £10,000 for every person in the country if everyone had the same amount of financial assets. However, such assets are not shared equally. 

The Bank’s report says:- “In practice, the benefits from these wealth effects will accrue to those households holding most financial assets…”  The effect of QE is to make those already with financial assets richer. Those with the most financial assets are, obviously, those who already richest.

The report does not spell out the actual distribution of the £600 billion windfall among the population but it is possible to work it out by looking at the ONS data on wealth distribution. The journalists who reported the story in August 2012 did the maths. Their figures for how much each of the top 10% of households had benefitted from QE range between £100,000 and £350,000. 

As QE has made the rich richer it has widened inequalities that already existed – not only between rich and poor but also between young and old, the South East and the rest of the UK and so on. 

The richest 10% of households have received a windfall gain from QE. Today it is reported that millions of the poorest people in the UK are struggling with the costs of food. Will a politician have the courage to make the case for measures to deliberately redistribute from rich to poor if only to correct the redistribution that has taken place in the opposite direction as a result of QE?

                                                                                                            No. 307