Category Archives: Op-eds

How to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and the recession

The government is not providing the same level of support from April as they have this tax year. From April an average household and pensioners, not on pension credit, living in a band A to D Council Tax property will have £1050 less support for their energy bills than this year. Someone on benefits next year will only receive £900. If they live in a band A to D Council Tax property they will have £800 less support for their energy bills than this year.

To ensure people are not worse off next tax year than this year the government should restore the energy price cap back to £2500, restore the £400 for all households; increase the £300 for pensioners to £450; and increase the income tax personal allowance and the National Insurance threshold to £13,040, which will provide those earning above £13,040 with £150.40.

To help finance this measure and ensure that those on above average earnings do not benefit to the full extent from the support the government should introduce a temporary new Income Tax rate of 22% for those earning more than average earnings (£38,000) and increase temporarily by 2% the higher tax rate to 42% and the additional tax rate to 47%. When the energy support ends these temporary rates should be abolished.

Also to help finance this the government should adopt our party’s policy of closing the loopholes in the current windfall tax by ensuring it applies to super-profits accrued since October 2021; scrapping carve-outs that allow oil and gas giants to offset their tax liabilities against investments they were going to make anyway; and setting a target of raising no less than £10 billion over one year, in line with similar taxes implemented in other European countries.

The government should also extend the energy support for businesses for another 12 months until 31st March 2024.

The support for households is likely to reduce forecast inflation by 1% and extending the current energy support for businesses is likely to reduce forecast inflation by a further 2%.

Tagged | 7 Comments

If I were a teacher would I strike?

I taught in schools and colleges for most of my professional life. At one stage I chaired our local union branch and joined in a couple of strikes. So you can guess where my sympathies lie with the current school strikes.

Now I don’t argue for pay parity between the public and private sectors of industry. In many areas of the economy the gap in pay between the top and the bottom of industry is eye-wateringly wide and contributes to inequality right across society. Simply copying what I see as immoral practices in the public sector would simply compound the problem. Instead the public sector, including education, should model a fair and equitable earnings distribution.

Teachers were put under huge strain during lockdown. Their teaching practices changed from day to day, many doing a combination of in-person and online teaching, they took on extra health risks, they had to keep adjusting their teaching plans to match the latest assessment/examination requirements – and doing all this while trying to home educate their own children.

As one teacher told The Guardian:

Teachers are on their knees. I absolutely love my job, I am still passionate after 25 years and have never considered leaving but every year a little more is asked and expected of us: we’re dealing with the creeping effects of growing class sizes, teaching assistants disappearing from the system, higher levels of poverty, inadequate school budgets. This week alone I have worked almost 11 hours’ overtime.

This is not just about pay, it’s about the workload and the impact this has on the students.

Ah yes, workload. Throughout my career I was generally treated as a professional, but not always. One boss would indulge in staff re-organisations every five years or so and that inevitably meant signing a new contract if you wanted a job in the new structure. And the new contracts always increased workload, whether measured in teaching hours or class size. I felt I was being treated as a functionary, hired to do a task. I loved my job, and loved teaching my students, and would normally put in 55 to 60 hours work per week, and far more than most people might think during the “holidays”.

Tagged , and | 5 Comments

Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee punches above its weight

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee recently published its report Sustainability of local journalism.

A Select Committee established in 1997, it oversees the operations of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, which replaced the Department for Culture, Media and Sport which also replaced the Department for National Heritage. The members are five Conservative MPs, three Labour MPs and one Scottish Nationalist MP. The Chair of the Select Committee is Julian Knight (Conservative MP Solihull) “who announced he was recusing himself from Parliament until a complaint made about him to the Metropolitan Police has been resolved”, with Rt Hon Damian Green (Conservative MP Ashford) currently the Acting Chair. Dr Rupa Huq MP is an Independent member, suspended by the Labour Party in September 2022 pending an investigation into her alleged racist comments made at a conference fringe event. Since 2015, no Liberal Democrat MP has served on the Committee, John Leech (MP Manchester Worthington) being the last Liberal Democrat MP appointed to it, replacing Adrian Sanders (Torbay) on 21 January 2013.

In the wake of most independent local newspapers vanishing, the report argues “much of the evidence we received was critical of the corporate publishers, arguing they have presided over a reduction in the quality of journalism from their titles to maximise profits“.

Singled out for special attention is Reach plc, “which publishes some 130 national and local news titles” – notably MEN, the mighty Manchester Evening News. Reach plc told the Committee it is “undergoing a transition towards a digital-based business model, though 75% of its revenues continue to come from print”. The company highlighted several examples of its own self-funded innovation and collaborations with partners, including the development of the “InYourArea local news aggregator platform“. This is email-harvesting to send free subscribers an artificial mix of local news locked into highly targeted local advertising. Trying to send regional Press Releases to the mighty MEN is now tricky, as messages are channelled to a hyperlocal satellite newspaper under the InYourArea brand, such as the hollowed out Stockport Express boasting “trusted news since 1822” at £1.80 an issue. Time will tell if the nationwide InYourArea brand will flourish, with over 300 InYourArea areas in Greater Manchester alone.

The Committee Report draws attention to how Reach plc has straddled its local news gathering and dissemination capabilities with the BBC local news gathering service. Mutual benefit sure; a Trojan Horse in waiting perhaps. A far cry from the successful emergence of a string of real grassroot independent community newspapers: Didsbury Post, Heatons Post, Cheadle Post and Bramhall Post, albeit printed by the printing services wing of Reach plc: “Every day, we manage the delivery of around 2.7 million products for hundreds of clients“.

Tagged , , , , and | 1 Comment

Keeping prisoners safe – and discussing these matters responsibly

There has been screaming controversy in the media for days now about a Scottish transgender woman who has been convicted of rape. Many misleading media reports have suggested that she would have to be accommodated within a women’s prison. There was outrage when she was initially taken to Cornton Vale women’s prison where she was held away from other prisoners while initial risk assessments were carried out over a 72 hour period.

Once that risk assessment was completed, unsurprisingly, she was moved away from Cornton Vale to HMP Edinburgh. There are few clearer statements of the obvious  than that anyone convicted of sexual assault, violence or raping women should not be incarcerated alongside women.  It was never going to happen in this case or in any other with such a record. There are procedures in place to protect prisoners from other prisoners who might harm them.

The Scottish Prison Service did its job properly.

In all parts of the UK, every prisoner is risk assessed for all sorts of things when they enter prison. Do they have a history of violence? Is there anyone in custody who might be a danger to them? Are they a danger to anyone on the prison estate? Is it safe to allow them to share a cell? That assessment determines the safest place for them and everyone else.

Unfortunately, the media has not missed an opportunity to print scare stories about trans women and the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill. As this has been unfairly blocked by the UK Government, it clearly has no relevance in this case. But even if the prisoner had a Gender Recognition Certificate under the current system, it would have absolutely no effect on where she will serve her sentence. Conflating the two issues, and suggesting that trans women are a danger to other women is wrong and irresponsible.

Scotland’s Equality Network has a very useful Twitter thread explaining the issues involved in this case.

Tagged , , , , , and | 5 Comments

Spring Festival: What shall we call it?

The celebration of a New Year to welcome spring is practised by many people in East and Southeast Asia. The celebration is usually referred as the Spring Festival in China. Chinese people and the Chinese diaspora generally greet each other with Happy New Year or Prosperous New Year (in Mandarin, Cantonese and the many other Chinese dialects). In some other East and Southeast Asian countries, for example Vietnam, the celebration is called ‘Tet’ and the Vietnamese would greet each other in their language with Happy New Year. Similarly, the Koreans celebrate ‘Seollal’ and greet each other in Korean with Happy or Lucky New Year.

Japan used to have a similar celebration but adopted the Gregorian New Year in 1873. In Tibet, the celebration is known as ‘Losar’, which means New Year and the dates are based on the Tibetan calendar. It should also be noted that within East and Southeast Asia there are communities and countries that have their own New Year, such as the Islamic New Year or Hijri New Year. Buddhists, depending on the sect they belong to, will celebrate Mahayana New Year and Theravada New Year.

Nobody in the East and Southeast Asian countries that celebrates the coming of spring says Happy Chinese New Year, Happy Vietnamese New Year or Happy Korean New Year amongst themselves in their own languages. Neither do people say Happy Lunar New Year in their own languages. The problem of what to call the celebration of the coming of spring stems from attempts to differentiate a New Year celebrated by a vast number of people, based on the moon, with the solar Gregorian New Year on 1st January. By the way, the dates for the Spring Festival are not based on a lunar calendar but a lunisolar calendar, which combines both lunar and solar elements.

Tagged and | 3 Comments

How much does your constituency regret Brexit?

New data based on a survey by Focaldata for UnHerd maps current opinions on leaving the EU by constituency. Published on the third anniversary of the UK leaving the EU, it shows that opinion has shifted since the Brexit referendum. The survey estimates that half of in England, Scotland and Wales think it was wrong to leave the EU (54%) while only a quarter Brexit was the right move (28%).

Regretting leaving the EU is not the same as wanting to rejoin. But there is a growing swell of people who wish to rejoin as I discussed here on LDV on Sunday.

This MRP analysis is potentially very important as it gives a guide to where it is beneficial for Liberal Democrats to campaign on a pro-EU ticket. Whether that is campaigning to rejoin or to forge closer relations with the EU is a matter for campaign strategy, national and local policy.

In every constituency except three, more people think that Brexit was a mistake than think it was right. The three dissenters are in east Lincolnshire, and only Boston has more people thinking Brexit was nothing they regret.

Tagged and | 15 Comments

What has Brexit done for us?

Next Tuesday will be the third birthday of the UK’s exit from the EU. I can see nothing to celebrate though we might expect champagne corks to pop in Jacob Rees Mogg Land.

With hindsight it was like a pantomime. Campaigns of lies, deceptions and bluster. An Olympic competition for the biggest lie.

The referendum on 23 June 2016 saw a high turnout of 72.2%, with 48.1% against and a winning 51.9% in favour, though Scotland voted against. The UK duly left the EU at 11pm Friday 31 January 2020.

In the fantasy land occupied by Boris Johnson (now raking in the cash), Jacob Rees Mogg (now of GB news) and some newspapers, everything since then has been glorious. But that is a political fiction.

People realise that. In a poll published by the i this weekend, 49% of those that expressed a view wanted to rejoin the EU and 51% were against. That’s the closest margin yet.

The tide is turning against the Brexiteers.

Tagged , and | 20 Comments

Thoughts from Holocaust Memorial Day

I’d watched a TV programme, been to an event with asylum seekers, and they told me about a talk by a local historian on the Jews on Teesside.

Several things, apart from remembering the atrocities of the genocide of the Jews, struck me hard.

The role of “ordinary people” in the genocide.  I hadn’t realised before how those who had been friends and neighbours were going along to see the spectacle of Jews being shot and falling into the trench to be buried.  How harassed some of the children were by fellow countrymen were as they set off on the Kindertransport to safety.  When listening to Skimstone Radio | Skimstone Arts with the asylum seekers we heard also of more subtle ways of causing distress, adding to what people were already going through.

The gas chambers did not happen overnight, the climate for such builds up, and this link Holocaust Memorial Day Trust | The ten stages of genocide (hmd.org.uk) leads to a description of the ten stages of genocide.  I won’t go into the detail of those stages here, but reading them brings it home how many of those steps resonate with current attitudes fostered by Government and right wing media.  The whole country may view with horror what happened in the genocide, but can everyone look at those 10 steps and say that as “ordinary people” they are not part of it in any way?

Tagged | 3 Comments

Tom Arms’ World Review

France and Germany

The Franco-German alliance is wobbling. As if to emphasise the problem, this past weekend the entire German cabinet decamped to Versailles in an attempt to improve relations.

The relationship between Paris and Berlin is one of the cornerstones of the European Union. It has been held since 1960 when Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer ended a century of war and suspicion at Reims Cathedral.

Some of the current problems can be attributed to the egos of Macron and Scholz. President Macron makes no secret of his desire to lead Europe. Unfortunately the French economy does not match its president’s ambitions. At the same time the rather colourless Chancellor Olof Scholz is having difficulty filling the over-sized shoes of his predecessor Angela Merkel.

The personal relationship between the two leaders is complicated by important policy differences over China, Ukraine, Russia and energy. Scholz encourages trade with China. Macron is more diffident. The French president also wanted the German Chancellor’s recent visit to Beijing to be a joint Franco-German affair. Scholz refused.

On energy, the French are annoyed that the Germans failed to foresee the problems of dependence Russian oil and gas and remain reluctant to build nuclear power plants. About 70 percent of French energy is nuclear while in Germany it is only 12 percent.

Then there is Ukraine. The French – along with most of the rest of France and Germany’s allies – are annoyed that almost every scrap of German military and economic aid has to be dragged out of the Scholz government. When it comes the aid is often generous, but the “frank discussions” that precede it are causing friction.

India

Don’t mess with the BBC. That should have been the message that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi heeded before trying to ban a documentary attacking him.  The BBC has 22,000 staff, 192 million radio listeners, 294 million television  viewers, the world’s most visited news website. Distribution deals with television networks around the world, and the most trusted brand in world journalism.

None of the above, however, stopped Modi from banning a two-part documentary entitled “India: the Modi Question” from being shown or distributed in India.

The documentary was not Modi friendly. In fact, it was extremely unfriendly The programme strongly implied that Modi climbed to power on the back of divisive Hindu nationalism. Also that while Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 he stood aside and allowed Hindu rioters to massacre 1,000 Muslims . That was part one. In Part two, the documentary accused Modi of trying to disenfranchise the Muslim minority; suppressing freedom of speech, assembly and the press, intimidating his political opponents and moving the world’s largest democracy towards an authoritarian Hindu state.

So, the programme was not re-broadcast on Indian television. But the ban was reported in the Indian press. The resultant publicity meant that  tens of millions viewed it on the internet and at special showings at Indian universities. And as they watched the viewers would have asked: If it isn’t true why has Modi banned it? Of what is he frightened? And finally they thought: the BBC is usually reliable.

The documentary ended with a diplomat saying that the Western world is turning a blind eye to Modi’s political excesses. He said that India was too important as an economy and a counterweight to Chinese influence in Asia.

Doomsday Clock

The Doomsday Clock this week moved to 90 seconds to midnight. This is the closest it has ever been to nuclear Armageddon. The minute hand has been moved to its news dangerous position mainly because of the war in Ukraine.

Tagged , , and | 8 Comments

Observations of an expat: Ukraine tanks conundrum

Supplying tanks to Ukraine is not as simple a matter as it may appear at first glance.

It is an issue that is interwoven with competing and overlapping problems of military strategy, political pitfalls, German guilt, Russian nationalism and expansionist ambitions, Ukrainian self-determination, nuclear blackmail, the long-term prospects for peace in Eastern Europe and the age-old battle of good versus evil.

The solution to send perhaps a total of 200 tanks from various NATO countries to Zelensky’s army is insufficient to satisfy the Ukrainians and more than enough to fuel the Russian propaganda machine.

Ukraine is flat tank country. Ukraine wants NATO tanks – especially the German Leopards – to launch a counter-offensive to regain territory.

NATO initially rushed to Ukraine’s aid with defensive equipment; primarily anti-tank and anti-missile weaponry to stop the massive Russian tank attack from Belarus and to blunt Russian artillery barrages.

It worked. In fact, better than expected. So much so that Volodomyr Zelensky appears determined to build on his success to drive the Russians out of all the territory which Ukraine has lost since 2014 (and Russia has annexed) including Crimea.

This would seem quite reasonable as international law is quite-rightly wedded to the principle of self-determination and in 1994 Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s pre-2014 borders and its territorial integrity in return for Ukraine relinquishing its nuclear weapons and signing the nuclear non- proliferation treaty.

But Eastern Ukraine is predominantly Russian-speaking. The majority of its inhabitants have traditionally looked east to Moscow. As for Crimea, it has been Russian since 1783 and one of Moscow’s most important naval centres.

Tagged , , and | 17 Comments

News out of Outer Mongolia

Embed from Getty Images

Outer Mongolia is a very large independent truly democratic country, landlocked between a pair multi-ethnic giant empires: the sprawling Russian Federation and the multi-ethic Inner Mongolia within the realm of China.

Mongolia enjoyed a huge economic boom from investments by the Soviet Union and its Comecon satellites in eastern Europe notably East Germany, Bulgaria, Czechoslavakia and Poland. The Mongol workers and elite became fluent bilingual Russian-Mongolian, and a second huge construction boom in military construction ensued as a bulwark against China in the Soviet-China Cold War.  At the peak of booms, disintegration of the Soviet Block and Comecon triggered immediate collapse of Mongolia’s economy due to abrupt loss of all its export markets, spare parts and technicians. Peaceful revolution to democracy succeeded.

Today older Mongol elites speak fluent Russian, but the under 50’s have ditched Russian in favour of English as the second language in Ulaanbaatar: my 22-year old Mongol daughter Mandukhai (“Mandy”) teaches in the capital and is fluent in English. On Skype today she mentioned that the daytime temperature was in the minus 30°Cs and tonight may reach minus 40°C. Ulaanbaatar is the world’s coldest capital city in winter!

Into this harsh land, trickle escapees from the Russian Federation. Much can be gleaned in an article by Antonio Graceffo: Russians escaping Putin’s war face tough sanctuary in Mongolia.

Tagged | 3 Comments

Holocaust Memorial Day: Review of “Jews don’t count” by David Baddiel

There are few books that I have read which have made me stop, think and completely re-evaluate my world view. “Jews don’t count” by David Baddiel was one of them and without a doubt the most important book I read last year.

The author’s argument is simple. There is a gap in the UK and much of the West for recognising Anti-Semitism and standing up against it. He directs his argument not against would be racists but quite deliberately at those who see themselves as progressives. The author frankly states that his personal belief as a British Jew that progressives treat Anti-Semitism as a lower-class concern compared to other forms of racism. The author believes this is the case for two main reasons, because Jews are seen by progressives as being privileged and not a true ethnic minority and therefore white. One is a shameful and misleading stereotype and the other is factually incorrect.

Much of the book consists of Twitter exchanges between the author and other commenters. These are chosen to illustrate the various ways that such people have sought to trivialise David Baddiel raising the spectre of Anti-Semitism. Many of these examples are really quite worrying. Baddiel seems to have quite a good grip on the characteristics and drawbacks for how such debates are held on social media. One thing has to trump another. It is about “owning” not discussing. In between nuance is lost. This has meant that when David Baddiel has called for Anti-Semitism to be given the same level of recognition as Black Lives Matter, sadly some supporters of the latter have seen this as a competition.

Sometimes it takes a good author to articulate what you have been thinking for a while. I thought that when he talked about those who seek to trivialise or downgrade the tragedy of the Holocaust (labelled as a genocide of “whites”), to allow for recognition of more “black” genocide’s such as King Leopold’s reign of the Belgian Congo. This is something that I have personally witnessed on internet debates and have found quite shocking. Is this world so full of suffering that we have to degrade ourselves further by having some kind of genocide Olympics to see which was the worst? Why can’t we just be united in acknowledging that all such chapters are shameful and should never have been allowed to happen? These are difficult things to talk about and confront, yet it is important that we do.

Tagged , and | 38 Comments

The Real Problem with Constitutional Reform

Despite being a Labour MP, House of Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle is opposed to Labour’s plan to replace the House of Lords with an elected chamber. His view is that it would undermine the authority of the House of Commons. This has always been the problem with attempts to reform the Upper House. Change it into something democratic and accountable, and you are bound to ask why it doesn’t have more power. Leave it as a Ruritanian collection of robed elders, and you can defend putting limits on what it can do. For Hoyle it has a part in ‘tidying up bills.’ Like the cleaners, it plays a useful role that should not be criticised.

This will not do, but Labour’s plans for reform (so far lacking detail) may not do either. The trouble is their view of devolution, which has been focused on giving power away rather than sharing it. Yes, giving power away may be necessary to avoid too much centralisation. But often the most important thing is to allow authorities outside Westminster to participate in joint decision-making.

Tagged , , and | 9 Comments

The other crisis: Civil and human rights under attack

Canvassing in South London, I am often asked by residents what Liberal Democrats stand for today. After all, they say, Brexit is no longer a battlefield (although for many it still is), and most of today’s pressing issues are claimed by other opposition parties. Who are we and what do we want to do that is not just anti-Tory? What is our offer, our ‘USP’ to voters that no other political party will prioritise? And why is our message relevant, perhaps more relevant than ever, in today’s world?

Maybe the answer can be found in the history of liberalism: from the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights – defending (religious) freedom against state transgression – to more contemporary ideas – claiming freedom to be and do whatever doesn’t harm others. So here is what I say on the doorstep:

We stand up for your rights.

The right to speak up if things go wrong. The right to breathe clean air. The right to claim asylum if you flee persecution or conflict. The right to be consulted about things that affect you. The right to access information and education. The right to have a decent home regardless of your income. The right to be judged on merit alone. The right to be who you want to be, live how you want to live and love whom you want to love, and the duty to respect others’ rights to do the same.

Have you tried saying this on the doorstep? It is pretty much guaranteed to raise questions about the current state of these rights.

This is exactly the debate we need and Liberal Democrats need to lead.

Tagged and | 16 Comments

Britain can never rejoin the EU, it might join it.

I have passionately supported European integration since I first became aware of the European Economic Community around 1962. I am as die-hard a Remainer as you can find. Despite that, I consider calls within our Party asking our leaders to campaign for re-join to be naïve.

To re-join something means basically to restore what existed before. If I fail to pay my subscription to the Chartered Institute of Taxation, I will be expelled. If I pay the missing subscription in a reasonable timescale, I can re-join and do not need to take any membership examinations; examinations that must be taken by new members seeking to join.

To put it very simply, the UK has left the EU. If it wishes to become a member, it needs to apply for membership. The EU has a detailed process for dealing with membership applications, and of course every single EU member state has a veto.

Also posted in Europe / International | Tagged , and | 68 Comments

Tom Arms’ World Review

Ukraine

Ukraine is tank country. It is part of the flat and fertile North European plain which stretches from the Urals to the North Sea. That very same corridor has throughout history doubled as a military highway for invading armies head East or West.

This geopolitical fact is why Russia started the Ukraine War with a massive arsenal of 10,000 tanks and Ukraine had 2,500.  Since the fighting started nearly a year ago, the Russians have lost about 1,500 of their tanks. But relatively speaking to the initial size of their forces, the Ukrainians have fared worse with a loss of about a quarter of their tanks.

The Ukrainian losses on the tank battlefield, coupled with the importance of armour in the flat terrain, is the reason why Vlodomyr Zelensky is pleading with NATO for more armour.

The three countries that have tanks to spare are the US, Germany and Poland. The UK and France decided ten years ago that another North European war was unlikely and ran down their tank forces. France has only 200 main battle tanks and the UK about 220.

The US is well short of the Russians at 6,612 tanks, but if you add Germany’s 2,761 Leopard tanks and Poland’s fast-growing arsenal, the Ukrainians could match Russia tank for tank.

The problem is that the Germans are reluctant to be seen to escalate the conflict and the Biden Administration needs a strong European (which in this case means German) commitment to justify sending state of the art M1 Abrams tanks.

This leaves Poland, with some help from Finland and the Baltic states, to fill the yawning gap in Ukrainian armoured battalions. In the meantime, Ukraine is preparing for Russia’s inevitable tank-led spring offensive.

New Zealand

Jacinda Adern, has voluntarily, out of the blue, resigned. The prime minister of tiny New Zealand is one of the most respected international figures. She successfully introduced strict gun laws after the Christchurch mosque shooting left 51 dead; led her Labour Party to an historic landslide victory and organised one of the few successful containments of the covid virus. But Ms Adern has decided her work is done and is stepping down.

Now compare the New Zealand leader to other Western politicians who are prepared to lie, cheat and twist the law to cling to power. Britain’s Boris Johnson and America’s Donald Trump immediately spring to mind. Trump with his unfounded claim that he won the 2020 presidential election and Boris with who claimed ignorance of Downing Street parties during the covid lockdown. Ms Adern led by example when she was in office and she is doing same with her departure and is being praised for doing so. Politicians who are concerned about their legacies should take note.

USA

The moral high ground is where every politician wants to be. Donald Trump has never managed more than a foot or two up the mountain and his failure to climb higher was a factor in his 2020 electoral defeat at the hands of “relatively honest” Joe Biden. Now, Biden has suffered a major downhill slide: classified documents have been found where they should not be – in his office and even his garage.  Their discovery has inevitably been compared to the discovery of classified material in Trump’s Mar-a-lago home and led to another special counsel investigation of another president.

However, document-gate does not appear to have adversely impacted on Biden’s popularity. His approval ratings have actually gone up this month from 38 to 44 percent.  Pundits believe that the voters are inured to moral shortcomings but have been impressed that the US is enjoying record unemployment, lower inflation and impressed by the Democrats’ performance in the mid-term elections.

Tagged , , and | 10 Comments

Observations of an expat: Shrinking China

China is shrinking. India is growing. Sometime this year the sub-continental nation will usurp China as the most populous country on earth.

This and a number of other ineluctable facts will have a profound impact on China, India, Asia and the rest of the world.

Every economy needs workers to produce goods and services.  The more workers – especially relatively cheap ones – the faster a country’s GDP grows.

There are other factors at play. China’s pensioner population is rapidly growing. The proportion of retirees has expanded from 37.12 percent in 2010 to 44.14 percent in 2020 which means fewer workers and .greater social care costs. India, by comparison has an average age of 29.

Then there is covid. Xi Jinping’s decision to end his zero covid policy has let loose the deadly virus at the same time as hundreds of millions are travelling for Chinese New Year. To make matters worse most of the travellers are young people going from covid-infected cities to visit vulnerable elderly relatives in the less affected rural areas.

According to the University of Beijing, 900 million Chinese have been infected with the covid virus. The exact fatality figure is a government-protected secret. But it is known that healthcare services have been stretched beyond breaking point.

The pandemic has forced the closure of many Chinese production facilities and this year growth is expected to be only 3.2 percent. This is higher than the US, EU and the world average, but China starts from a lower base and the Chinese Communist Party’s hold on power is built on ever-improving living standards. The World Bank is predicting 6.9 percent economic growth in rival India.

Beijing’s mounting domestic problems – short and long-term – will force the Chinese Communist Party to focus its attention on internal issues. These means fewer foreign adventures and an effort to stabilise relations with the US, Europe, Japan and elsewhere. A recent visit by German Chancellor Olof Scholz was seen as a big win for the EU and other visits are planned by French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Tagged | 6 Comments

AI is being used by students to produce essays and projects

A story has been appearing in the regional press about a cross-bench peer, John Pakington (Baron Hampton) who is, unusually, also a working teacher. He is concerned that students are using Artificial Intelligence systems to produce essays, technical designs and even works of art and then passing them off as their own. He says:

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence, at the moment, that suggests that students are using AI for everything from essays and poetry to university applications and, rather more surprisingly, in the visual arts subjects. Just before Christmas, one of my product design A-level students came up to me and showed me some designs he’d done.

He’d taken a cardboard model, photographed it, put it into a free piece of software, put in three different parameters and had received, within minutes, 20 high-resolution designs, all original, that were degree level – they weren’t A-level, they were degree level. At the moment, it’s about plagiarism and it’s about fighting the software – I would like to ask when the Government is planning to meet with education professionals and the exam boards to actually work out (how) to design a new curriculum that embraces the new opportunity rather than fighting it.

Tim Clement-Jones is our Digital spokesperson in the House of Lords and he agreed with his fellow peer:

This question clearly concerns a very powerful new generative probabilistic type of artificial intelligence that we ought to encourage in terms of creativity, but not in terms of cheating or deception.

Some 30 years ago I was studying AI as part of my Masters degree. Many of the same tropes were circulating then as now: “AI will make people lazy”, “Many jobs will be lost to machines” – similar sentiments have been expressed whenever there is a substantial shift in technology, from Jacquard looms to automated car production. But this time there is the added fear that AI will “take over” and we will become the redundant playthings of super machines. In practice, many of the techniques that I was looking at then are now embedded in our technologies; they improve productively and are hugely beneficial to society. They support and amplify our activities rather than replace them, although, as this evidence suggests, they can also present new challenges.

Andy Boddington had some fun with the latest AI chatbot, ChatGPT, and generated a passable short essay and some rather dubious poetry. When I say “passable” I mean that it is almost impossible to tell that it has been generated by software and not by a real person.  It is also possible that ChatGPT could pass the Turing Test and win the Loebner Prize.

Of course, the issue of plagiarism has dogged educational assessment for many years. Academics routinely use plagiarism detection systems for essays, and I have a couple of examples from my own professional experience.

Tagged and | 8 Comments

Ardern: A graceful resignation from an inspiring leader

It came as a surprise. People in the UK and elsewhere woke up to the news that Jacinda Ardern, the admired prime minister of New Zealand is to step down next month. She announced the news in an emotional speech at the Labour annual caucus meeting on Thursday.

I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility. The responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.

In resigning, Ardern is once again a role model for the world. History is littered with despots and politicians who have clung to power for too long. Hung on when, even if they are not exhausted, citizens are exhausted of them. In this country, Blair, Johnson and Thatcher come to mind and worldwide, too many despots to mention.

Ardern has always been different. Caring not cruel. Dedicated more than ambitious and avaricious. She had earned a reputation as a compassionate and credible prime minister, admired internationally, perhaps more so than she currently is at home. She steered her country through the pandemic, the Christchurch terrorist killings and the deadly Whakaari volcanic eruption.

Tagged and | 7 Comments

Mark Pack’s monthly report: January 2023

The year ahead

It’s possible, just possible, that British politics may return to a relative normality in 2023. We might have a year without any change of Prime Minister, without a general election and without a pandemic. We will certainly have a year with a failing Conservative government, vital public services under strain and an important opportunity to continue our recovery with the May local elections.

Rishi Sunak has already demonstrated he brings neither competency nor moderation to replace the incompetent extremism of his predecessors. He didn’t use his political honeymoon to make difficult decisions for the long-term. He’s treating promises to take an issue personally as a substitute for action, and kicked so many decisions into the long grass. Whether it’s reforming social care or building onshore wind farms, time and again his response is to dither rather than to act.

Looming over all those issues is the continued failure of Brexit. As Daisy Cooper put it to Times Radio, “This Conservative Brexit deal isn’t working for Britain”. Instead, she set out the Liberal Democrat alternative four-step plan to improve our trade relations with Europe.  (Take a listen here.) That’s the way both to make an immediate difference to people’s lives and to help prepare the way for the longer-term battle over Britain’s future with the EU.

To succeed, we need to continue to rebuild our grassroots campaigning strength, to build our membership and supporter base, to raise our game on diversity and inclusion, and to invest in the best data and technology.

Watch out for more news on all of those through the year – and I’d really encourage everyone planning campaign work through to May to include talking to supporters, getting them to help and join, as part of that. Local parties can secure cash bonuses for members recruited or renewed; details here.

York conference – in person!

I’m looking forward to meeting members in person again at a federal conference, with our first in-person one for so long coming up in York on 15-17 March. It will include keynote speeches, policy debates, training, fringe meetings and more.  You can find out more and register here.

How Lib Dems are tackling homelessness

The BBC reported over Christmas a great example of the difference we can make to people’s lives:

Tagged , and | 4 Comments

Jardine challenges Scottish Secretary over Gender Reform

Women and Equalities spokesperson Christine Jardine challenged Scottish Secretary Alister Jack to come up with a single clause in Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill which undermined the provisions of the Equality Act. Spoiler, he couldn’t. She accused him of playing fast and loose by the Union by attempting to block the Bill.  Watch her comments here.

Later he issued a flimsy Statement of Reasons for issuing the Section 35 Order. In a later speech, Christine said that to call it weak would be to flatter it. There certainly is much in the way of conjecture within it and absolutely zero evidence to back that up.

At this point it is worth remembering that, not only was a Labour amendment stating the primacy of the Equality Act on the face of the Bill, but even before that every major feminist organisation in Scotland supported it. I can’t see how they would have done if they had thought for a second that it would harm women’s rights. They have certainly not held back in criticising government legislation before. This is one of the most scrutinised pieces of legislation ever, with several consultations, a draft Bill and, finally, the Bill that has been passed.

Tagged , , , , , and | 1 Comment

If Not Us, Who? If Not Now, When?

Why does Ed Davey never talk about Europe? To be clear, I am not advocating launching a campaign to rejoin the EU. Although party policy supports this as a longer-term objective, there is no chance that the EU would treat an application from the UK seriously until a new government has taken steps to rebuild the EU–UK relationship –the kind of measures we set out in the policy paper Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe, endorsed by conference last year. This set out a detailed strategy for moving progressively towards a closer relationship with the EU, including ultimately joining the Single Market. These are of direct benefit in themselves, as well as steps the UK will have to take if we are to rejoin one day.

Over the last few months hardly a week has gone by without someone arguing for this, both here in Lib Dem Voice and in the mainstream press. So why isn’t our party leadership talking about it? I’m not defending their position – I think it’s wrong – but it’s worthwhile thinking through the reasoning behind it to see whether it’s justified. Although Ed Davey hasn’t shared his thinking with the party at large, I think we can identify three main reasons behind his consistent avoidance of the topic.

First, because, like Keir Starmer, he’s worried about alienating former Leave voters, particularly in the party’s 30 or so top target seats, almost all of which are Conservative-held. But opinions change – and over the last year they’ve changed significantly. Compared to most of 2021, when more people supported being outside the EU than inside, by the end of 2022, average support for reversing Brexit had reached 57 per cent. This is mainly due to Leave voters changing their minds: in November, one in five Leave voters told YouGov that they regretted voting Leave – the highest number yet recorded. In December Savanta found that 47 per cent of all respondents would favour a closer relationship with the EU compared with 14 per cent who wanted to be further apart. Even 30 per cent of Leave voters said they wanted the relationship to be closer, while 18 per cent wanted to be further away. So our position, of rebuilding the UK–EU relationship, has substantial support.

Tagged and | 60 Comments

How do we stop the war in Ukraine?

Last February I had an idea, which was to try to beat Vladimir Putin’s censorship machine. 

Early in the invasion of Ukraine, it became clear that Vladimir Putin is very scared that the Russian people will find out the truth about the war. So he’s censored for news very heavily. 

As well as arresting protestors, he brought in website censorship. So if you go to a news website in Russia, you would find that your internet service provider blocks it. 

I’ve fought dictatorships my whole life, from being a teenage Amnesty member, to getting arrested by Zimbabwean police and helping English students in China to evade the great firewall. And I’ve spent the last 15 years working with charity campaigners and marketers to find new ways to get messages through to people.

Tagged , , and | 9 Comments

Paying for Social Care

The current crisis in the NHS should be persuading us to re-consider the idea of a 10 per cent retirement levy to pay for social care. Everyone knows that bed- blocking is at the root of the over-crowding in our hospitals and the long waits for ambulances and in accident and emergency departments. But “delayed discharge” cannot be solved without more resources in home care and nursing homes. Massively more resources.

The lack of political courage over this issue is shameful, from all parties. Back in 2011, the Dilmot Report called for something to be done. Since then, Andy Burnham’s attempt to introduce a 10 per cent retirement levy was abandoned, even by his own Labour Party. It was ignored by the Coalition. Theresa May and Boris Johnson made various suggestions but quickly backed away from them. And Rishi Sunak thinks that by spooning out a little more money for the NHS will solve the problem.

The issue is much bigger than that, with Britain’s population aging as fast as it is. Age UK reckons we need £10bn a year extra to fund a National Care Service similar to the NHS. To raise that kind of money, we need a radical solution. An obvious source of money is a tax on wealth, and most pensioners have plenty of it.

Tagged , , and | 25 Comments

We really must stand up for the NHS

The NHS is once again in the news and not in a good way. It is fast becoming a basket case with ambulances unable to deliver critically ill patients to hospital in anything like acceptable times, operations often delayed with unacceptable waiting times, people unable to make GP appointments and now a series of strikes because the Tory Government cries crocodile tears instead of funding the NHS and its staff properly.

There is a dangerous myth that has been around in our politics for far too long that the public sector is inefficient and that as much of it as possible …

Tagged , and | 15 Comments

Tom Arms’ World Review

United States

The Kevin McCarthy election fiasco will have far-reaching consequences for Speaker McCarthy, Donald Trump, the Republican Party, the conduct of US government and the rest of the world. Let’s start with Mr. Trump. He endorsed Mr McCarthy. The “Never Kevins” in the far-right Republican Freedom Caucus ignored him. The voters ignored his key endorsements in the mid-term elections. Trump’s star is still in the firmament, but on the wane.

Now for the Republican Party. The battle to secure McCarthy’s election exposed a split. A small group of 20 right-wing extremists were able to delay and nearly blocked the election of Kevin McCarthy against the wishes of 202 of their party colleagues. They have also wrung key concessions out of the Speaker. The Freedom Caucus have discovered power. They will use it.

What are these concessions and what impact will their implementation have? First of all, if any one member of Congress does not like something that Speaker McCarthy has done they can table a vote to remove him. At the very least, this has the potential to seriously disrupt and delay congressional business. .  This means that McCarthy will be much more politically circumspect then he might have been otherwise.

Next, the Speaker has agreed to give more time to debate and amend legislation on the floor of the house. The Freedom Caucus are also known as “Disrupters” and they are particularly keen on disrupting or blocking any spending bills, especially those related to Ukraine and foreign aid. And if it means stopping the machinery of government, then, according to Freedom Caucus members, so be it.

France

The British NHS is not the only European health service with problems. The French are also wringing their medical hands. The problem? Not enough staff and – as in Britain – the looming threat of strikes. As the New Year dawned some Paris hospitals reported 90 percent of staff reported sick in protest at working conditions. The country’s second largest health union has called for an “unlimited walkout” of nurses followed by a strike by GPs.

President Emmanuel Macron is throwing money at the problem but so far it is not working. Forty percent of French nurses are planning to leave the profession this year despite an extra $10 billion wage package.  Wannabe doctors are being offered a $50,000 golden handshake to enter the profession.

The French desperately needs them. Rural areas are especially short of medical staff, some communities have been without a doctor’s surgery for several years and the situation is only likely to worsen as about half of the French doctors are over 55 and fast approaching retirement age.

UK

There is a stand-out villain in Prince Harry’s book “Spare” – the press, especially Britain’s tabloid newspapers. I, in common with most of the public, have some sympathy and understanding with Harry’s views especially as one of the worst elements of the tabloids – the paparazzi played a major part in his mother’s death.

Tagged , , and | 6 Comments

It must be said

There will be many who will criticise Tory MP Chris Skidmore’s 340-page Mission Zero report.  They’ll probably say it doesn’t reach far enough, is far too obsessed with business benefits, and doesn’t question the UK’s woefully inadequate 2050 Net Zero target.  

Climate activists may be appalled that the report doesn’t call for radical overhaul of capitalist norms, whilst climate change objectors will also be aghast that the consequent work schedule will overshadow all other get-rich-quick opportunities.  And, for extra discomfort, this report highlights how many great opportunities have been squandered on their watch.  Both camps will be outraged in equal measure: a sure sign that this report is a small, practical, step in the right direction and probably the best we can hope for this side of a General Election or a national uprising.   

Tagged and | 15 Comments

Observations of an expat: Latin Fandango

South America is in a mess. The problems stretch from Patagonia to Cartagena and further north into Central America and Mexico.

Almost everywhere there is violence, political instability and economic problems.

The main spotlight has been shone on Brazil. The Portuguese-speaking nation is the economic giant of South America. Its GDP is four times the next largest Latin economy and the eighth largest in the world. Brazil has tremendous potential and political problems.

It is deeply divided after left-winger Luiz Inacio da Silva (aka Lula) narrowly defeated right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro in October elections.

Bolsonaro and his supporters has claimed the elections were rigged and demanded a re-run. Thousands of Bolsonaristas (as they are called) stormed government offices in the capital Brasilia including Congress, the Supreme Court and the presidential palace. 1,200 have been arrested.

But the real problem is not the validity of the elections but the deep divide between Brazil’s political left and right. Conservatives, which include the military, police, middle classes and growing Christian evangelical movement, view Lula as a crypto-communist set on destroying Brazilian democracy and taking their country down the path of Cuba or Venezuela. Bolsonaro’s opponents worry that he will return Brazil to a military dictatorship.

To the south, Argentina is suffering another bout of Peronism and a division at the top of the country’s political structure. President Alberto Fernandez and Vice-President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner simply don’t speak to each other. On top of that, Ms Kirchner has been convicted of fraud totalling $1 billion.

The resultant political vacuum and distractions at the top of the Argentine political tree, coupled with Peronism’s irresponsible spending has left the country with a crippling debt and 100 percent inflation rate. Thirty-seven percent of the country live below the poverty line.

Tagged , , , , , , and | 1 Comment

Church of England creates community fund as compensation for investment in the slave trade

The Church of England has committed £100 million to a fund to “address past wrongs” over its investments in the slave trade in the 18th century. Of course, people will say it is too little, too late and will not reach those most affected, and I have some sympathy for that reaction. But it is nevertheless both a substantial commitment and a symbolic act which will hopefully encourage other public bodies to follow suit.

As an active member of the Church of England I applaud the stance of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Faced with demands for compensation he commissioned the “Church Commissioners Research into historic links to transatlantic chattel slavery“. (The Church Commissioners are the trustees responsible for the charitable funds of the Church of England.)

He has now set up an oversight group to manage the new fund “with significant membership from communities impacted by historic slavery”. However he does not use the term “reparations”, as the fund will not pay individuals; instead it will finance community projects in areas most affected by the slave trade.

Nothing can ever compensate for the greatest crime in western history, but that does not mean that nothing should be done.

Tagged , and | 24 Comments

Britain and Europe: Turning Around

Keir Starmer promises to do no more than tinker with Britain’s EU relationship during his ‘first’ term of government. By accepting the EU’s regulations on food safety and animal welfare, Labour will ease the worst problems facing Northern Irish trade. But Starmer’s stated intention of “making Brexit work” is no different in principle to that of Rishi Sunak’s. That leaves the field wide open for the Liberal Democrats.

Many Lib Dems would like the UK to rejoin the European Union as soon as possible. That will not happen. Leaving aside the necessity of surmounting a divisive referendum campaign, unless the UK accepts the goal of political, economic and monetary union it is not eligible for full EU membership. There is really no appetite in Brussels to make a special case for the UK as a prodigal member state. On the contrary: once bitten, twice shy. In any case, EU enlargement is stalled and will remain stalled unless and until its constitutional treaties are revised in a federal direction.

Tagged and | 11 Comments
Advert



Recent Comments

  • David Evans
    Peter, I am sad to say you seem to be more set in your choices than David Baddiel has proved to be. When you say things like - 'considering his history,' (f...
  • Jenny Barnes
    "The Bill ... seeks to halt the installation of prepayments meters until April." It's not very ambitious, is it. So nothing about existing pp meters, and the...
  • Christopher Haigh
    Mel Braithwaite - Shell reported profits of £68 billion. Analysts somehow adjust this figure for taxation and accounting comparability with other companies e.g...
  • Nonconformistradical
    I agree with Chris Moore. Charisma without political nous is dangerous. Politics is the art of the possible. I beleive Ed also has a good track record as ...
  • Peter Martin
    @ Chris Cory, "I was reading recently about fears of large scale mortgage arrears and a collapse of the housing market in Canada." There are si...