Tuesday, 30 December 2008

My politics

I think I should write a post at this point to outline in bold where my politics are.

This is actually a more difficult task than it sounds as I have a natural distaste for being pigeon-holed. It also seems clear to me that every position has a standardised response by which to oppose it.

Within the LibDems it seems there is a current trend for a 'libertarian' response to balance out the 'social liberal' wing which has long been a mainstay of thought in the party. Then there are the 'economic liberals', as well as various progressives, radicals, mutualists, consequentialists, positivists and objectivists - in fact other than any 'nasty' set of ideas the party is the definition of a broad church.

So long as you have the ability to reason, are reasonably open-minded and are prepared to accept the decisions of the group regarding endorsed action then really what we stand for and in defense against is open to argument and is entirely conditional on the situation to be found at that particular moment (witness our occasional controversial policy reversals on taxation, among other things). There is clearly a fluid dynamic between principle and expediency.

For me however, what a person does says more about their beliefs than anything they could say on the matter - I have a definite pragmatic streak. But I also hope to be proved right over the long run (which is why there is a swelling of pride when reviewing what we've said over recent years on subjects like the 'false prospectus' of the dodgy dossier used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq, or regarding the path of the economy).

I wouldn't describe myself as ideological (as it is simply ridiculous to be fussy about the origin of good ideas), and I'm ambivalent about the thought of idealism (it might be nice to be perfect, but we've tried to push this many times throughout our history in it's various guises of absolutism, extremism and fundamentalism etc, but it is always eventually used to justify atrocities which are impossible to support).

So the best way to describe my political stance, if I am forced to nail my colours to the mast beyond being a liberal democrat, is as one of a 'decentraliser'. Though I recognise that this too has some negative connotations as being too one way or the other for the preference of some, if it really means what is in the word then it must reflect some kind of universal subjectivity and avoid any fixed definition.

I'm happy to listen to all opinions so long as they aren't diktats and I quite enjoy engaging in constructive debate over how to integrate and apply good ideas. I'm also not averse to a bit of digression or randomness if it has some productive value.

Now this may all resonate with the traditional liberal maxim 'everything in moderation', but I am by no means a placid moderate and nor am I a hardcore radical. Moderately radical or radically moderate perhaps, but which, if either, is neither here nor there.

Words like 'balance' and 'coherence' resonate with me far more than 'justice' or 'fairness' - because justice and fairness are the product of balance and coherence. Get the foundations right and you will be able to build from there.

What I am interested in is seeing improvements across the board, and at this time in this country the only way to achieve this is by supporting the LibDems as the vehicle for change.

Successive Labour and Conservative governments have failed even as they have evolved to become more inclusive and open. This proves (to me at least) that our intellectual tradition is sufficiently resolute and rigorous to be winning the arguments and converting our opponents.

Our record of success in continuing to grow our representation proves that the public agrees.

How long it will take is idle speculation, but surely it is only a matter of time before we do return to government.

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Stuck in the middle (east)

Reports like this, this and this really annoy me. And that's not even withstanding what time of year it is (from my own culturally determined perspective).

The Arab-Israeli conflict is an all-round tragedy where people on every side suffer and die for political ends. Even entering into discussion on the underlying conflict can be futile, so wouldn't I be best advised to avoid it where at all possible?

Apologies in advance to all sides, but this is something on which I can't defend the actions of either set of participants: destruction is destructive.

I have my own opinions about what should be done, what can be done and how it is possible to go about doing it, but I will refrain from making any statements in this post (if you wish to draw me into discussion, please use the comments). I don't think the situation is intractable, but it is definitely trapped in a cycle of violence in which each side co-exists in mutually-dependent antipathy.

When will the politicians of the region stand up for common humanity?

This is a subject and a theme to which I think I am bound to return.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The fall and rise of prices (now to include rents?)

Here's one to give all the mutualists and land-taxers in the party something to chew over.

Upward-only rent assessments.

Until 1990 commercial leases for retail property usually tied tenants to 25-year contracts. A changed approach to regulation since then has been one of the motivating factors behind the recent retail boom as barriers to new business have been removed from the sector.

The big land-owning companies responded by bringing in inducements similar to the introductory offers store card operators used to lure customers into taking out contracts. And in just the same way as all credit contracts, introductory offers such as an initial 3-month rent-free period carried a trade-off. And there's the rub - they often also included quarterly payment in advance, longer leases and extortionate punative clauses for breaking the contract.

These moves were designed to ensure security of tenancy for the retail property developers and operators, without which the financing terms for the 42-acre Liverpool One or west London's mammoth new Westfield Centre simply would not have been met. Multitudinous regeneration projects have been and still are based upon associated retail plans as a driving component: we are and must be, it seems, just as much a nation of shoppers as a nation of shop-keepers.

Now this might have been hunky-dory had the economy continued it's vertiginous ascent, but as new figures released today show, we are on the edge of an official recession.

Arcadia Group boss, Sir Philip Green, is leading the charge against the "medeival" behaviour of inflexible contracts, describing it as "wrong in principle", while the British Retail Consortium is backing moves to renegotiate, describing the contracts as an "ancient practice" not given to the digital age and harmful to both retailers and consumers.

Arcadia's House of Fraser (35% owned by the troubled Icelandic retailer Baugur) has now done a deal with landlord Hammerson (which may be a precursor to a buy-out to prevent a rival take-over). This matches an agreement secured by other retailers earlier this year and follows a similar deal reached earlier this month by smaller retailers with three or fewer shops and less than £50,000 annual rents.

But quarterly advance payments are only the start. Professor Neil Crosby has long campaigned against upward-only rent reviews , which often hit independent retailers harder due to a lack of experience or good advice prior to negotiations. As many as 95% of such contracts were tied into upward-only assessments, but while offending clauses have been easier to remove during lease renewal negotiations resistance to negotiate resulting from the economic downturn may now be causing additional damage to the economy as trade volumes reduce and overextended companies get further into difficulty.

Some landlords have resisted abolishing this sort of contract arguing many small retail businesses would not be able to get off the ground without the low initial rents such deals enable, but this presupposed any economic downturn of the sort we a seeing currently - the business challenge is now no longer encouraging start-up, but ensuring survival - it is important to prevent the situation from developing that just when retailers are suffering from worsening conditions, they are hit with the second blow of structural inflexibility.

This is one campaign I think LibDems should get behind - we would be seen as the consumers' friend as well as sympathetic to some large and influential employers.

Thinking inside the box

I like Steve Coppell.

The understated manager of Reading FC has a degree in economic history to add to a variety of awards gained during his distinguished footballing career, so when he lobs a hand-grenade in from left-field you know it's directed close to it's intended target.

Reading are searching to bounce immediately back after relegation from the Premiership last year and moved into the second automatic promotion place after recording their fifth win-in-a-row on Saturday when they won away at fellow contender Birmingham City.

In the previous match they were the beneficiary of a late and controversial hand-ball decision against Norwich and Coppell has offered his thoughts on a potential solution to the problem of refereeing inconsistency:

"First of all I defy any referee or someone to tell me what is handball and what isn't. What is deliberate? Some referees give them when it's smashed at you from a yard away and some don't."

"If it's clearly deliberate give a penalty, obviously, but there are so many grey areas that it'd be easier to just give an indirect free-kick."

So, if there's any doubt, why not just give an indirect free-kick in the box? It wouldn't require a law change, only for the authorities to take a lead on using the flexibility already afforded them within the law to make a different interpretation and reach a less punitive solution.

For the good of the game why risk the damaging controversy of upsetting either side for a reason which has a dubious basis in fact - the results of which have massive financial implications for the clubs involved?

So the lesson is, when faced with one of life's grey areas, get creative!

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Labour takes credit where none is due

Credit Unions are a great thing, serving an important niche in the financial market, which is vital at a time of economic uncertainty for the most vulnerable among us. For anyone who doesn't want or can't get a bank account, wants additional flexibility over their savings and wants a more locally accountable and ethical way of investing their money they are literally a saving grace of the current system.

Essentially they function in much the same way as small-scale building societies did before they were demutualised, but membership is more restrictive in that they require you to live locally or have some other common bond such as belonging to a housing association or trade union.

So stalwart local Labourites have seen this a prime territory to push them as a policy which can be of real help to people in need. Unfortunately national Labourites have a habit of neglecting their basis in human reality and see them as a partisan tool at odds with their actual political ends.

My local Labour MP makes a big song and dance about getting the local Credit Union wider recognition which has been operating since mid-2007, but it has been the local LibDems which pushed hardest for the funding to set up a shop from which they can do business.

So what do we hear now?

Well of course we hear that Labour is proposing to charge interest on short-term emergency loans.

The department for Work and Pensions is consulting on charging up to 27% apr on sums provided from a £500m social fund - an interest rate some loan sharks would blanche at!

Considering the Bank of England has been reducing interest rates under pressure from the Prime Minister to record lows to try to keep the economy ticking over as it throws billions around in an attempt to bail out the feckless rich, it seems they want to punish the victims of the state-sanctioned banking fraud a second time.

So what we see is Labour saying one thing to our faces and doing another as soon as our backs are turned, just because it suits them and they can.


Journalists often ask this question to help increase identification between their subjects and their readership.

It's quite a good way of indicating sympathies, but it is wide open to manipulation - which politican, for example, is going to say that Nelson Mandela didn't set an example worth following (whether for representing a popular movement so eloquently, or because he lead that movement into office and used his tenure to good effect)?

I think how a person responds and the reasoning they give is more informative than what name they provide. So the person who responded with the line "normal people don't have heroes," struck a chord with me (I won't name them, they'll know who they are), though I don't necessarily agree (aren't we all abnormal?).

Most important is to be original and speak from the heart.

So I'll provide my answer.

I'm inspired by people I know personally (of which there are a few in the LibDems), but if I had to name any famous names I think I'd say Neil Armstrong.

Why? Not because he was the first man on the moon, but because of the way he conducted himself having been entrusted with such an iconic responsibility.

This crowning triumph of Cold War propaganda for his nation was absolutely demolished in preference for a univeral common humanity by his completely apt and appropriate line on taking that first small step. With those simple words he enabled people on all sides to share something unique, something which resonated far beyond that short moment.

Heavens above

Today is my birthday (21st December).

It is the traditional date of the winter solstice, the day when the sun reaches it's lowest point in the sky as the Earth reaches the extreme limit of its axial inclination. It is also the last day of Saggitarius in the zodiac.

While the constellation Saggitarius is known as 'the archer', the asterism is commonly described as 'the teapot' (with the trace of the Milky Way itself emanating from its supposed spout, it being densest closest to the galactic centre).

Interestingly it is reported that this is the most likely location for the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy where the relativistic plasma jet known as Saggitarius A* is found (that's the big yellow one in the middle).

Is there a relationship between the location of the centre of the galaxy and the timing of the solstice, or is it mere coincidence?

It's an interesting one to ponder and the implications for astrologic geometry would be profound if a tenable connection between the two could be established. I'm not convinced however that Mystic Meg is capable of doing the sums, let alone anyone in the Labour party.

Friday, 19 December 2008

It was either this or...

...spending forever commenting on other people's blogs.

Well, it's a bit early for a New Year's resolution (I'll have to think of another), but it's never too early to get started doing something productive, constructive or creative.

If this little contribution helps in any way at all, then it will have to be considered a worthwhile project. And if I can keep it going until the New Year, I'll see where we go from there.