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Saturday, July 06, 2024

Time to redress the media balance

In many ways Nigel Farage's Reform was a victim of its own hype. For a party that has had years of preferential treatment on the UK media and was being touted as winning thirteen plus seats, to end up with just five must have been a major disappointment. 

What is most disturbing though has been the reaction of the many media outlets who seem to believe that because Farage is now an MP and has four other MPs to back him up, then they are now justified in continuing that sort of coverage.

Let's put this in context. The UK Reform Party have five MPs, the Greens have four, Plaid Cymru have four, the Liberal Dempcrats have 72. None of those parties have had the sort of coverage that Farage and his fellow travellers have had. 

The BBC in particular needs to get its act together on this. Their coverage of Farage has defied their duty to impartiality and balance for a long time now.

Farage may be good entertainment but political coverage is more serious than that. It's time for all media outlets to redress the balance and give the other parties a much bigger slice of the cake.

Friday, July 05, 2024

The discredited first past the post system - updated

It is unusual for the Liberal Democrats to actually benefit from the first past the post voting system but yesterday they were one of the few parties whose seat total actually came close to their percentage of votes - seventy one seats so far or 11% of the available seats for 12% of the vote.

The biggest losers were the Tories who with 121 seats, amounting to 18.6% of the total MPs, actually polled 24% of the votes, while the biggest winner were Labour, whose vote share of 34% barely lifted off its 2019 level of 32.2%, but who have secured 412 seats, the equivalent of 63% of the membership of the House of Commons.

In many ways it is gratifying to see the Tory Party, who so strongly opposed proportional representation in the 2011 referendum get punished in this way. Despite this, I'm not expecting them to change their mind on electoral reform, nor is Keir Starmer going to jeopardise his super-majority in the future by doing a u-turn either.

The combined vote of the Labour and Tory parties amounts to just 58% of those cast, but they hold  83% of the seats between them. That is the smallest share of the vote for the two biggest parties ever.

This election result highlights the basic unfairness of our voting system in a very dramatic way. Surely, it is time to change it to a fairer one in which people actually get what they voted for.

Thursday, July 04, 2024

Labour abandons pro-EU voters

The Guardian reports that Keir Starmer has insisted the UK will not rejoin the EU, the single market or the customs union within his lifetime.

The paper says that the Labour leader told reporters on Wednesday he did not think Britain would go back into any of the three blocs while he was alive, all but ruling out rejoining even if he wins a second term in office:

With less than 24 hours to go until polls open, Starmer has largely avoided talking about relations with the EU during the campaign, as Labour seeks to avoid the mistakes it made in 2019 when it alienated Leave voters by promising a second referendum.

Some have suggested this reluctance to talk about the issue masked a desire to pursue re-entry to the customs union or single market during a second Labour term, something other senior figures in the party have failed to rule out. Starmer insisted on Wednesday, however, this was not the case.

Asked whether he could see any circumstances where the UK rejoined the single market or customs union within his lifetime, Starmer said: “No. I don’t think that that is going to happen. I’ve been really clear about not rejoining the EU, the single market or the customs union – or [allowing a] return to freedom of movement.”

He repeated, however, his view that Labour could achieve better trading arrangements with the EU in certain industries. “I do think we could get a better deal than the botched deal we got under Boris Johnson on the trading front, in research and development and on security,” he said.

How exactly Starmer expects to achieve the economic growth that Labour's plans are preditated on achieving without engaging with the EU is not explained. Whatever the answer, it is now clear that those who believe that we need to work more closely with the European Community have no friends in Labour.

If they want to secure higher growth by negotiating deals with the EU and even, perhaps, joining the single community, then their only option is the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, July 03, 2024

Political pariah?

Labour may well be soaring ahead in England, but here in Wales they are not so buoyant and feedback on the doorsteps is that people are disillusioned with their performance in the Senedd, the 20mph default speed limit, £18m a year extra for 36 more Senedd Members and First Minister, Vaughan Gething's donations scandal, and in particular that he is still there despite losing a no confidence vote.

It is no surprise therefore that Nation Cymru has reported that a Labour general election battle bus touring Wales did not have Vaughan Gething as a passenger when it visited the seat where residents’ lives have been made a misery by his criminal donor.

Mr Gething accepted £200k for his Welsh Labour leadership campaign from a company owned by businessman David Neal, who was given two suspended prison sentences for dumping toxic sludge in the Gwent Levels protected landscape.

Another of Mr Neal’s companies has been responsible for the emission of nauseous odours from the Withyhedge landfill site near Haverfordwest for the best part of a year.

At the weekend, the party battle bus visited the new seat of Mid and South Pembrokeshire. But when a number of prominent Welsh Labour politicians disembarked to be greeted by their local candidate Henry Tufnell, there was no sign of the First Minister.

Early in the general election campaign NationCymru revealed how Mr Tufnell had asked Welsh Labour to tell Mr Gething to keep away from his constituency because of the First Minister’s association with Mr Neal.

Mr Tufnell was told off by party apparatchiks for daring to tell the truth to NationCymru and later he and Mr Gething were pictured eating ice creams together on the Pembrokeshire coast.

Since then a damning Dispatches programme has been broadcast on Channel 4 alleging that Mr Neal is under investigation for “mischaracterising” waste sent to Withyhedge so he makes savings on his landfill tax bill.

A Labour insider said: “ Vaughan’s supporters are quick to claim his crisis is just a Cardiff Bay bubble thing. The reality is very different, Pembrokeshire residents have to live with the stink caused by his associate every day. It is no surprise he didn’t fancy joining this particular campaign stunt, and it’s obvious UK Labour want nothing to do with him.

“Vaughan claimed he would be an electoral asset during his leadership campaign, but he has been incredibly low profile throughout the election. His polling numbers are damning, people have made their minds up and it’s only going to get worse if he doesn’t return the dirty donation money.”

We asked Welsh Labour why Mr Gething wasn’t on the campaign bus, but did not receive a response.

It suits the opposition of course to keep Gething in post, but Labour are clearly suffering because of it and it's not going away soon.

Tuesday, July 02, 2024

Time to rein in the water companies


The Guardian reports that Thames Water has been urged to show greater transparency over its finances and accused of “financial chicanery” after it emerged its board had approved a £150m dividend hours before its shareholders U-turned on providing emergency funding.

The paper says that the board of the struggling water supplier agreed to the payout at a meeting on 27 March. The following day, the debt-laden company said its investors were no longer willing to provide £500m of funding they had previously pledged, raising the prospect that the company may be temporarily nationalised. Thames Water made no mention of the dividend payment at that point:

The water industry regulator, Ofwat, planned to investigate the circumstances around the dividend paid by Thames, sources said. The company was already under investigation over its decision to pay a separate £37.5m dividend at the time the £150m dividend was paid.

Britain’s biggest water supplier said the payment was made from the regulated company to an intermediate parent company, Kemble Water Eurobond, to “settle a pension top-up payment” and “surrender relief” on tax losses.

Gary Carter, GMB national officer, said: “Thames Water has once again shown an alarming lack of transparency.

“Of course GMB wants our members’ pension pots to get back in the black – but shareholders should be topping it up.

“Instead they’re taking money out of the regulated company, money needed to stop spills and pay our members’ wages.”

He added: “Thames Water needs to front up about its financial chicanery, while shareholders need to cough up to fill the pensions black hole – not customers or taxpayers.”

The Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson Sarah Olney, who has called for Thames Water to be put into special administration by the government and for it to be reformed as a public benefit company, said: “This is a scandalous payout while our rivers are polluted with sewage and the company stands on the brink of bankruptcy.

“It is concrete evidence of why we need to abolish Ofwat and create a new water regulator with real teeth and power.

“The public will never forgive the Conservative party for how they have let water firms get away with financial mismanagement and environmental vandalism.”

Thames Water is just the tip of an ongoing scandal in which water companies are putting profit before the environment. That is why the Liberal Democrats have put in place a policy to bring these companies to heel. This involves:

* Setting meaningful targets and deadlines for water companies to end sewage discharges inIntroduce a Sewage Tax on water companies profits to fund the cleanup of waterways.to waterways.

* Introducing a Sewage Tax on water companies profits to fund the cleanup of waterways.

* Reducing the number of licences given to water companies permitting them to discharge sewage into rivers.

* Strengthening Ofwat’s powers to hold the companies accountable for discharging raw sewage into rivers.

* Adding local environmental groups onto water companies’ boards.

At the end of the day, however, the obvious solution is to renationalise the companies and have them working for the public benefit once again.

Monday, July 01, 2024

Can we stem the rising far right tide in the UK?

With far right parties topping the polls in France, if exit polls are to be believed, our thoughts must turn to how we can prevent the same thing happening in the UK. This is not just a Nigel Farage-related question, though his party is certainly benefiting from the disillusion that curently exists with politics and politicians in this country.

The Guardian references a report from the Fairness Foundation which concludes that the next government must take decisive action to reduce inequality or risk unprecedented far-right gains.

The paper says that the Foundation has concluded Britain will become more unfair and unequal over the next five years, with growing inequality in health, housing, poverty and the north-south income divide:

More than 30 people from business, academia and civil society have backed the report’s findings in a letter to all party leaders which expresses their dismay at the “lack of political will to address unfairness and inequality” in the UK.

“We believe that this is not only morally wrong, but is causing deep damage to our society, economy and democracy, and undermining the fight against the climate crisis,” they say.

“Failure to act now will make us less healthy, productive, efficient, resilient and cohesive.”

The new report, Canaries, warns that the number of children in relative poverty is set to rise from 30% to 33% by 2028, due to a freeze in housing benefit, the end of cost of living payments and the two-child benefit cap.

It also says that the number of children who live in overcrowded homes will rise from 1.8 million to 2 million by 2030, as housing becomes more expensive.

The average person in south-east England is £195,400 wealthier than in the north, a gap that is expected to grow to £229,000 by 2029 due to the unequal inheritance of wealth.

Education attainment gaps are likely to rise because school budgets are set to decline over the next five years.

Only 25.2% of disadvantaged children get five or more good GCSEs compared with 52.4% of their peers without disadvantages – a gap that has been widening since 2017.

And the earnings gap between chief executives and their employees is also likely to grow. FTSE350 CEOs earn 57 times more than the median wage of their workers and earnings inequality has grown by 20% from 1980 to 2019.

Will Snell, chief executive of the Fairness Foundation, said that most people in the UK agree that we must urgently address inequality. “But all the evidence points to the fact that Britain is a deeply unfair and unequal country,” he said.

“This undermines the very foundations of our society, damages our economy and endangers our democracy; and unfairness in Britain looks set to get even worse over the next few years. The canaries in the coal mine are no longer singing, and the next government needs to pay attention.”

Unfairness means people in deprived areas are more likely to fall ill for decades to come, the report says. These types of inequality act as a brake on economic growth, reduce social mobility and fuel social unrest.

Shabna Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, said: “There is a real threat that, unless a new government delivers swift and meaningful change to inequality, we will see far-right parties capitalise on desperation and despair and become a real electoral threat.”

The report’s recommendations include a plea to scrap the two-child benefit cap and adopt advice from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Trussell Trust to introduce an “essentials guarantee” – a minimum level of Universal Credit support.

It also backs the Resolution Foundation’s suggestion of creating a £10,000 “citizens inheritance” given to all 30-year-olds, and a “universal savings account” merging pensions, Lifetime ISAs and Help to Save.

If the next government doesnt address this crisis then there is a real possibility of the far right here replicating the success of their sister party in France. Labour, the most likely next government, really needs to step up to the mark on this agenda.

Sunday, June 30, 2024

Did lobbyists block Sunak's smoking ban?

The Guardian reports on claims that Rishi Sunak abandoned his “legacy” policy to ban smoking for future generations amid a backlash from the tobacco industry in the form of legal threats, lobbying and a charm offensive aimed at Conservative MPs.

They say that the UK had been on course to become the first country to ban smoking for future generations, via the tobacco and vaping bill, which Downing Street hoped would help define Sunak’s place in British political history. 

However, an investigation by the Guardian and the Examination, a non-profit newsroom that investigates global health threats, has uncovered how the UK’s largest cigarette companies fought against the policy, which would have raised the smoking age by one year every year:

After months of fierce opposition from the industry – and intervention from MPs and thinktanks with ties to tobacco firms – the proposal was excluded from the “wash-up” process, when outgoing governments choose which policies to fast-track and which to drop.

The policy, which in effect banned smoking for anyone born after 2009, was left out despite MPs having voted in favour of it.

Documents and freedom of information requests reveal how four of the world’s largest tobacco firms – the UK’s Imperial Brands and British American Tobacco (BAT), Japan Tobacco International (JTI) and US-headquartered Philip Morris International (PMI) – put ministers on notice of a legal backlash.

Imperial and BAT wrote to the health secretary, Victoria Atkins, in February, to claim the consultation process preceding legislation was “unlawful” because industry views had not been considered.

The Department of Health and Social Care has said it did not need to consider industry views, pointing to guidance included in a World Health Organization global treaty, signed by the UK, that says governments should form smoking policy without influence from cigarette companies.

The Marlboro-owner PMI and JTI, which makes Camel and Benson and Hedges, said the treaty permitted interactions with cigarette firms if they were “necessary”.

Imperial, which owns Lambert and Butler and Gauloises, followed up its warning with a legal letter threatening a “judicial review” challenging the consultation process.

Government lawyers responded by saying legal action might “derail” a bill that ministers believed could save tens of thousands of lives and billions of pounds in NHS costs.

BAT, JTI and PMI were named as interested parties in Imperial’s letter, giving them the right to join as co-claimants if a judicial review went ahead.

The article says that as the government pressed ahead with its plans despite opposition, tobacco firms courted rightwing and libertarian Tory MPs with a number of them attending hospitality events staged by the industry. 

The government also came under pressure from rightwing thinktanks funded by the tobacco industry during the consultation process.

They suggest that as a result of this pressure the plan was dropped.

Saturday, June 29, 2024

Suppressing the vote

We are now in the last week of campaigning before voting in person takes place on 4th July, and thoughts are going out to those whose vote has effectively been taken off them because of the Tory Party's suppression tactics.

Individuals attending polling stations will have to produce either a specified photo identification document like a passport or a pre-approved Voter Authority Certificate. Apart from the low turnout Police Commissioner elections eight weeks ago, this is the first time this provision has been in force this side of Offa's Dyke.

Nation Cymru reports that nearly 100,000 people in Wales face losing the opportunity to participate in the general election because of this change in the law.

They say that UK Government figures show that since the July 4 election was called there have been just 57,418 applications for Voter Authoruity Certificates, which can be used at polling stations as proof of identity by people who do not have any of the accepted forms of ID they need to vote:

The deadline for VAC applications was 5pm on Wednesday June 26). The figures also show that there have been only 214,051 applications for VACs since January 2023, when they were introduced. However, that figure is still dwarfed by the nearly two million voters estimated to not have an accepted form of ID. VACs do not expire but they have a recommended renewal printed on them that is 10 years after the date of issue.

The Electoral Reform Society (ERS) is warning that the rules around voter ID risk causing further confusion at polling stations on election day after thousands of voters have already been caught out by voter ID rules at local elections.

Jess Blair, Director of the Electoral Reform Society Cymru said: “We know thousands in Wales aren’t likely to have the correct ID to vote in next week’s election, and these figures suggest many have missed out on their chance to be able to cast their vote.

“Voter ID has only been used in one election in Wales so far- in May’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections, which had a turnout of only 17%. That means that for many voters the general election will be the first where they turn up to a polling station and are asked for their ID.

“There is also a real risk of confusion in Wales. Other elections, such as the Senedd and local elections do not require voter ID, so we are left with a confusing patchwork of rules, where barriers are in place for some elections but removed for others.

“The next UK Government should look again at this damaging policy that risks many being turned away next week.”

In England, at least 14,000 people were prevented from casting their vote at the 2023 local elections due to a lack of accepted ID. This fiasco was repeated during the 2024 English local elections, with more people being caught out, including a decorated Afghanistan veteran who was unable to use his veteran’s ID card, and even Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister who brought in the voter ID laws.

Polling day next week could prove to be yet another occasion when thousands of people are denied their opportunity to have a say on who will govern the UK for the next four or five days.

Friday, June 28, 2024

Raking in the cash

The Guardian reports that companies linked to Conservative donors have collectively received £8.4bn in public money since 2016, more than 150 times what the party has received in support.

They say that government spending and political donation records reveal that key contributors have given £53.7m to the Tory party since January 2015, while controlling firms that have received billions in government and NHS contracts over eight years:

An anti-corruption charity has called for a ban on parties accepting donations from companies with public contracts, which would bring the UK in line with the US and other countries in Europe.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor, said: “The British public are understandably still angry that so much money from the public purse ended up with the friends and donors of the Tory party.”

There is no suggestion that the individuals or companies named have broken the law or committed any wrongdoing. But the analysis shines a light on the high value of contracts handed to political donors, and raises questions about the risk of conflict of interest.

The donors include:

* Frank Hester, whose company The Phoenix Partnership has received £427.7m from the NHS and Department for Health since 2016 and who has donated £15.3m to the Conservatives since 2023. The businessman, mired in a row about comments condemned as racist and misogynistic, gave the Conservative party £5m in January.

* JCB Service, which donated almost £3.3m between May 2017 and September last year. Companies within the same corporate grouping have directly received £566,161 between April 2016 and April this year.

* Richard Harpin, who has donated £2.7m between May 2016 and March 2024, including a donation from a company he has significant control over: Growth Partner LLP. His firms Harmony Bridge Limited and Liberty House (Hull) Ltd received a combined £730,980 from Homes England between May 2019 and August 2021.

* Dr Selva Pankaj, who has donated £727,000 to the Conservatives since November 2015. His company FP(GB) LTD (formerly known as Fortress Properties) received £4,733,336 from Homes England between November 2020 and August 2023.

The list of donors receiving public money includes many developers and property industry firms. Since 2016, 124 donor-linked companies have received more than £1bn from Homes England, the body that funds new affordable housing. A Guardian analysis of donations last year found that at least 10% of donations received by the Conservative party since 2010 had come from people or companies linked to the property industry.

The figures are almost certainly an underestimate, because transparency thresholds for donation declarations and government spending mean that not all information is made public. The Guardian used public spending receipts provided by the government procurement data provider Tussell.

Previously, any political donation over £7,500 had to be reported and published by the Electoral Commission. Since January 2024 the reporting threshold has been raised to £11,180.

Some donors, such as Frank Hester, may have started donating money after their companies were awarded contracts in the public sector. Others will have been donors before their companies were paid by the government.

A separate analysis by the Labour party shows that £4.5bn in contracts were awarded to Conservative-linked firms without competitive tender during the pandemic.

Interestingly, Labour's response to this research stops short of promising to implement the call for the UK to do what the US and many of its key allies in Europe do and ban political parties from taking donations from companies (and their bosses) that bid for public contracts.

Presumably, that is because they don't want to cut off any possible funding sources when they are in government.

Thursday, June 27, 2024

Wales facing cuts whoever wins on 4th July

Wales-online reports that Wales will be left out of pocket if either the Conservatives or Labour win the forthcoming general election.

They say that new analysis by Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre (WGC) suggests cuts are likely to hit rail, bus, and road transport as well as business support, communities and regeneration, arts, culture, and sport, and housing and homelessness whoever wins the election:

It is hard for members of the public to get an idea of what party manifestos will mean in real terms. This is especially hard for people in Wales because so much of the money we have here is dependent on what is spent in England.

It is clear from the analysis, put together by Guto Ifan and Dr Ed Gareth Poole, that Wales is in for a really tough time regardless of whether Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak is sat in Downing Street.

These are the key headlines:

* Both the Conservative and Labour manifestos largely maintain the trajectory of existing UK Government spending plans. If they stick to their manifestos the Welsh Government would face “serious budgetary challenges”. This means it would have to implement further deep cuts to non-protected spending areas to fund increases to health spending.

* These non-protected spending areas include rail, bus, and road transport, business support, communities and regeneration, arts, culture, and sport, and housing and homelessness.

* Under Conservative plans the Welsh Government budget for day-to-day spending would increase by an average of 0.8% per year in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29. Assuming the Welsh Government directly ‘passes on’ consequentials from NHS and schools spending in England a further £870m of funding would be required by 2028-29 to avoid real-terms cuts to non-protected areas of spending.

* Under Labour's plans the Welsh Government budget for day-to-day spending would increase by an average of 1.1% per year in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29. Again assuming the Welsh Government directly passes on health and education consequentials an additional £248m of funding would be required in 2025-26 to avoid real terms cuts to non-protected spending areas. This gap which would grow to £683mn by 2028-29.

* It is unclear therefore how these plans would fulfil the promise of 'no return to austerity’ under Labour. The additional consequential spending for Wales projected from the 2024 Labour manifesto amounts to just 5% of the consequential spending included in Labour’s 2019 manifesto.

* Welsh Government capital spending (which funds multi-year infrastructure projects such as building schools, roads, and hospitals) will also be cut in real terms under both parties’ manifesto plans. Under existing plans the block grant for capital spending is set to fall by 7.7% in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29. The Labour manifesto contains additional investment spending under the Green Prosperity Plan worth some £60m per year for the Welsh Government. This would still however see the Welsh Government’s capital budget falling by 5% in real terms from 2024-25 to 2028-29.

* Crucially both parties’ plans are highly dependent on a swift return to economic growth. Neither the Conservatives nor Labour intend to loosen the current chancellor’s fiscal rules and both parties have also ruled out increases to the main revenue-raising taxes. These pledges will seriously limit the next government’s ability to pump additional resources into public services.

* Moreover the outlook for the public finances is underpinned by Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for the economy (and for the resulting tax receipts) and these forecasts are significantly more optimistic than those of the Bank of England and the IMF.

Just how the Welsh Labour Government reacts to this will be interesting especially as the BBC reports that it is unlikely that they will be able to pass a budget while Vaughan Gething remains First Minister.

The BBC point out that should ministers be unable to strike a deal with another party then the budget for this year would be effectively rolled over into the next, but with a cut.

Labour does not have a majority in the Senedd and since the passage of a no confidence motion none of the opposition parties are inclined to assist him in keeping his government on track. 

The latest news of Gething flying in an upper class seat to India and staying in a luxury hotel for a two and a half hour meeting with Tata steel when their senior executives were in London only the previous week, is not likely to help his cause either.

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