Archive for the 'General' Category

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Given the appalling weather let’s be thankful that yesterday wasn’t a general election or a referendum

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

There were 4 by-election taking place local councils yesterday and the results should make interesting reading because these happened on the worst Thursday for the weather across the country in decades.

Who would have thought, for instance, that one of the biggest Premier League matches of the season, Arsenal vs Manchester City, would take place in what appeared to be a half empty Stadium. A lot of people with tickets, and they are not cheap at the Emirates, simply didn’t turn up.

If people who had laid out possibly three figure sums on tickets for a football match were deterred from attending what are the chances for participation in an election in such conditions.

The one result that we’ve got from Devon the turnout was just. 12.4% and my guess is that quite a lot of those votes would have been postals.

This is a reminder why the machines of all the parties love postal votes which can all be handled in advance and take away the risk that something might deter voting on the day.

The weather has forced Downing Street to shift the venue of today’s big TMay speech from Newcastle to London.

Whenever there have been studies on the impact of the weather on election days the analysis has shown that it has had very little impact. But yesterday clearly was something very different and far worse.

Mike Smithson




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Alastair Meeks gives his thoughts on university pensions

Sunday, February 25th, 2018

My first boss was the source of many wise words, some of which I use to this day. “Alastair”, she would often say, “there is no problem in the world that cannot be made to go away with money”. It’s not strictly true, of course, but it is truer more often than is usually appreciated.

That was 25 years ago, at a time when pension schemes almost all had surpluses and the question I was most commonly asked was what the employer and trustees needed to do with it. Nowadays, most pension schemes have deficits and the pensions problems that I am asked to advise on often revolve around how best to deal with the funding hole. This is far more fraught: If you don’t have money, problems don’t go away anything like as easily.

University Pensions deficit

There aren’t many pension schemes bigger than the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS). And the deficit of the USS is correspondingly gargantuan: It was most recently estimated at £6.1bn. That’s the sort of number that would make anyone blanch. To put this in context, the Scheme had assets of £60bn, giving the scheme a funding ratio of 91% on these assumptions. But, on the assumptions previously used, the deficit was estimated at £12.6bn. We are talking huge numbers here, and they are significantly influenced by what actuaries decide they feel comfortable with at any given moment.

Changes proposed

Against this background, the employers are proposing benefit changes for future service, bringing final salary benefits to a close for future service from 1 April 2019 (at the earliest), and introducing a money purchase benefit that would be considered generous by most standards.

These proposals have been agreed with member representatives. However, as the current strikes show, some member representatives seem to be out of step with large parts of the membership. For now, the pension scheme members seem to have the students firmly on their side in principle, with over 60% supporting their actions.

Dispelling the myths

It’s time to despatch a whole shoal of red herrings. First, the salaries of vice-chancellors are not going to plug this gap. Their combined annual remuneration represents a tiny rounding error compared with this deficit.

Next, the proposals for future service are not going to plug the existing deficit. The past and the future are two different things. The past service deficit cannot directly be used as a justification for these changes. That hole still needs plugging, regardless of what is done for the future.

Next, there is nothing inherently bad about money purchase. In fact, for some USS members, particularly younger members whose career trajectory is unlikely to be stellar, the changes might well represent an improvement for them in the short term at least. Defined benefit schemes give cross–subsidies all over the place, with the bulk of the cost of future service provision going towards providing the benefits of those close to retirement. Some of the younger employees on the picket line might reasonably ask themselves who they are striking for. It’s also worth noting that the oldest employees also have little to fear – they’ve already substantially completed their accrual of benefits. The group who really get clobbered are in their 40s and early 50s.

And finally, many bystanders, many of whom curiously do not have final salary pensions, have developed schadenfreude at the very definition of ivory tower elitists being confronted with this change. But USS’s own figures show that on average this is a big hit for employees. USS estimates the present cost of future final salary provision at 37.4% of payroll (of which the employees pay just 8%). The future service money purchase benefits are 17.25% or 21.25% of pay (of which employees would pay 4% or 8%). Treating pension as part of the pay package, this means that members are being asked to swallow a cut in their remuneration of, on average, over 12%. Anyone else care gladly to volunteer for that?

To date, the employers have not proposed any kind of transitional measures. Age discrimination laws make targeted assistance difficult, though not impossible. And the members might also focus more on the funding of the past service deficit. A pension promise is all well and good, but it needs the funds to back it up. Right now, the USS still has a substantial deficit. And there isn’t the money immediately available to make that problem go away.

Alastair Meeks




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The big one: Cyclefree announces her Political Awards for 2017

Wednesday, December 27th, 2017

The “Did Somebody Really Budget for This?” Award

It is perhaps inevitable in a country with a government which thinks that the colour of its passport matters that the British Army should have spent money on trying to change its “Be the Best” motto. To what, one wonders? “Be Mediocre”, perhaps or “Best at Being Third-Rate”, maybe. Still, a workforce can only be regarded as sufficiently diverse if a significant proportion is unsuitable for the job.

So, despite the Defence Secretary’s last-minute decision to cancel the change, the Army Marketing Department wins this award for their courageous – if thwarted – attempt to move with the times and turn away from grand foreign concepts such as elitism. I’d say well done but that’s not the spirit at all.

The “Why Classics Matter” Award

This was previously known as The Ken Livingstone Award for Trashing One’s Reputation. Still, rebranding is all these days and university Classics Departments need a boost at a time when education, like much else, is viewed only through the prism of the financial rewards it brings.

Universities should be erecting statues (in place of all the ones being pulled down) in honour of the only possible winner of this one – Mrs Theresa May.

A big hand for the politician who showed us all, in so many ways and in so many locations (from Millom square following Trudy Harrison’s election in February to the lonely drive back to No 10 in June, the sacking of her two loathed advisors and the cough ridden speech at conference in Manchester), the meaning of “hubris” and “nemesis”. And all packed into 9 short months. Who says the Tories don’t understand how to appeal to the younger generation’s desire for instant gratification?

An honourable mention must go to Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s PM, who copied Mrs May’s example to the letter (willy-waving election, speeches before hand-picked audiences in closed venues and humiliating defeat followed by a tenacious hanging onto power). Britain’s influence on its European neighbours is not dead! Hurrah!!

The Chakrabarti Award For Not Understanding Your Own Principles

Only one winner here. Mr Nigel Farage. I know, I know: did he qualify by having any principles? Bear with me: from his remarks on Jewish influence to his interventions on US matters to his cosying up to Germany’s AfD, Nige showed that he utterly failed to understand that the British values he so loudly proclaims mean opposing fascism not imitating it. When Laurence Olivier was given an acting award late in life he acidly thanked the US donors by saying that it would give him great encouragement in his career. This award is given in the opposite spirit: in the hope that the winner will never be heard from or, at least, not taken seriously again.

The Great Escape Award

With one bound he was free! He may not have won the election but Jeremy Corbyn slipped the bonds which had previously held him back (his inability to manage his party, build a shadow Cabinet, inspire respect amongst his colleagues, come up with a consistent policy on the important questions of the day, ask a simple question) as deftly as any Houdini and showed unexpectedly attractive political skills.

A surprise to many (though not the estimable Mr Herdson, who wins the Electrifying Post of The Year Award) nor the poster who wrote this in December 2016 – “Maybe he will turn into the Tortoise of British politics.”

Still, Corbyn has yet to win a race. And his opposite number provides a good example of the perils of taking the result for granted. Less of the “Oh Jeremy Corbyn!” and more “Come On, Jeremy!” if he is to fulfil his promise.

The Empty Vessel Award

Three main contenders here: Donald Trump, David Davis and Boris Johnson. But some late legislative achievements by Trump disqualified him. So our Brexit and Foreign Secretaries jointly win this for their unparalleled ability to open their mouths and talk nonsense, tell untruths, distort the meaning of plain English words and casually insult others. A period of silence from them would be very welcome. Even better would be May copying Attlee’s dismissal of a junior minister by telling them “Afraid you’re not up to it”.

The No Grace under Pressure Award

Responding to questions from journalists is a pretty basic political skill. A smile and “l’ll get back to you” can’t be that hard, surely? So congratulations to Tulip Siddiq who, despite politics being a family business, spectacularly failed to deflect a question, made snarling threats and topped it all with a bitchy remark to a pregnant woman. (Members of the Women and Equalities Select Committee have to really earn their place after all) And all on prime time TV (well, Channel 4, but let’s not be fussy). What a girl! Someone should remove the reference to Ken Livingstone, the master in such matters, from the Labour Party’s Training Manual for new MPs.

Hopeful Development of the Year

IS can still inspire others to kill, sadly, but the loss of its lands in Iraq and Syria was a long time coming and all the more welcome for it. Christian and other minority communities in those benighted lands have long been shamefully ignored by the West (being seen, in Regis Debray’s words, as “Too Christian for the Left and too foreign for the Right”) but are, very slowly, starting to return. Peace may still be far off. But perhaps there will be less unimaginable cruelty. We can but hope.

Hero of the Year

PC Keith Palmer and Tobias Ellwood MP win this. The former showed us what public service can, at its most extreme, mean. The latter demonstrated what real character is. Both men an implicit rebuke to some of their sleazier and less scrupulous colleagues and an example to others. Both were trained by the Army. Maybe aiming for the best is not so pointless?

But that is where I came in. So time to say goodbye to 2017 and wish everyone a happy, prosperous and fulfilling 2018!

Cyclefree



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Christmas Day on PB wouldn’t be Christmas without the St. John Christmas Crossword

Monday, December 25th, 2017

ACROSS

1 Isn’t a rotten borough firstly one that favours a politician? (10)

6 War intelligence protects soldiers (4)

9 Former Tory MP Gilmour opposed such squalid conditions (10)

10 Bute for example had his lead cut (4)

12 OK to spoil then invent urban regeneration? (6,3,5)

14 Black out resulting from left wing legislation (6)

15 Poll contest before each point of government (8)

17 Built on a Latin state (8)

19 In May she was here (2,4)

22 Socialist Blair half knew in Scottish village as Prime Minister (9,5)

24 Art gallery abandoned by toothless politician (4)

25 I once chased a maiden over to pass the cricket test? (10)

26 Principal candidate for the Presidency once (4)

27 Dangerous driver in a former Irish system of government (10)

DOWN

 1 Present day church welcomes a rebel (4)

2 King Henry drowned in alcohol (7)

3 Type to cover disturbance involving European Member of Parliament (6,6)

4 Mad monarch half heartedly supported in Sweden (6)

5 Political group still drinking gin before a reversal (3,5)

7 Hold back minister again (7)

8 War as Ascot’s race takes off (5,5)

11 Lincoln for instance drunk one during a blessing; it’s ridiculous (12)

13 Open department for politician (5,5)

16 A film society hosted by academic Tory (8)

18 In that case it’s May (7)

20 Bush’s unfashionable following (7)

21 Tusk oddly omitted extra description of Brexit voting area (2-4)

23 Roosevelt’s only self-referential term (4)

Thanks to StJohn for once again producing his Christmas Crossword. It has become an excellent tradition.

Happy Christmas to all PBers.

Mike Smithson




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The dangers of reverse-reasoning: a Christmas parable

Saturday, December 23rd, 2017

Beware starting from a conclusion and working backwards

“This time next year, we’ll be running the country”, as Jeremy Corbyn didn’t quite say a few days ago in his interview with Grazia. It’s a near-repetition of his prediction at Glastonbury this June – except that there he was talking about Christmas 2017 rather than 2018 – and for those not favourably inclined towards him, might bear a passing resemblance to the unsubstantiated optimism of another Christmas staple. Admittedly, Del Boy did eventually become a millionaire but it took him 15 years and an extraordinary slice of luck. Corbyn may also end up being right but if he is, it too will be more down to luck than judgement. The error in his prediction is in starting with a conclusion he wants to be true and working backwards from there.

Not that this is anything new. The original Christmas story should be warning enough of the dangers of reverse-reasoning, if we discount heavenly interventions.

The Sky At Night broadcast a good Christmas Special two years ago, investigating what the real Star of Bethlehem might have been and considering six astronomical options. Three stood out: a triple-conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, a nova, and a comet. All three have solid evidence behind them (though the nova and the comet are an either-or as the historical reference, from the Chinese, is to a ‘broom star’, which could be either).

If we transport ourselves back a little over 2000 years, a conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn would be astrologically significant: the planets representing the gods of kings and of change. A rare triple-conjunction – where the pair followed each other through the sky for some months, as they did in 6BC – would re-emphasise that significance. But how to apply that knowledge? The appearance of a nova or a comet the next year would provide that answer. The rarity of the conjunction, the astrological nature of the planets involved and the sudden appearance of a guesting celestial body shortly afterwards would be exactly the sort of thing that would send wise men – as those who studied and interpreted the heavens would be – scurrying west.

Would it be enough to find a specific child? Herein lies the problem of having already reached the conclusion. If you follow the stars west and then south, as the heavens might well have guided the magi, you could indeed end up at Bethlehem and, having so arrived, would no doubt be able to find a child born at the relevant time, after local enquiries. The biblical story may well be true in as far as the visit of the wise men is concerned (and if it was, it’s the sort of thing that would have been well-documented as well as being remembered locally – particularly if Herod’s response is as the Bible records – so could well have formed the basis of a Gospel written 70 years later), but just because they set off to find a child and were successful in so doing, that wasn’t necessarily of any greater significance.

Put another way, on a purely rational basis, the logic suggests that extraordinary astronomical events did not appear because of the birth of Christ; instead, Christ was born (or identified) because of extraordinary astronomical events.

We could take this further and suggest that given the paucity of historical evidence for Christ’s early life and the likelihood that if the Bethlehem story is grounded in fact then it would have been remembered thirty or so years later, then it wouldn’t be too difficult for a would-be prophet of about the right age to assume the identity of the child the magi found: why not harness the power of the prophesy? But here we enter controversial and speculative territory.

The relevance to today – or to any time – is simply in the message that it is all too easy to start with a conclusion you want to be true and then rationalise the supporting analysis and logic; for the wish to be father to the thought. Mostly, that just ends up with bad bets. Sometimes though, it changes worlds.

David Herdson





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The sun is rising in the East

Saturday, November 25th, 2017

Never mind the crocodile: the dragon is now the power in Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe is probably not a man much amused by historical irony. That’s a shame because if he was he might appreciate the various mirror images between his enforced retirement and the downfall of the Nawab Siraj-ud-daulah of Bengal in 1757. The Nawab – at 24, nearly seven decades younger than Mugabe – was deposed by the East India Company after it bribed his commander with the offer of the crown provided he betray his prince at the Battle of Plassey, which he duly did. That action laid the foundation stone of the British Empire in India. Mugabe, by contrast, led Zimbabwe into independence and in so doing, set the sun on the last large piece of territory in the Empire.

However, what goes around, comes around. 37 years after closing the door on one empire, his downfall might well mark the point at which another finally broke cover.

The British press have naturally been fairly quiet on this point. Mugabe has for years been a comedy villain for them (comedy being easier when it’s 5000 miles away) and Mugabe was happy to keep revisiting alleged British interference for domestic purposes. It’s all refighting imaginary battles from a vanished world order – as is the question of Zimbabwe’s status in the Commonwealth: who cares?

These echoes of the past have distracted from the actions of the present. The most telling feature of the Zimbabwe coup was that it was clearly green-lit by China. As in Bengal 260 years ago, the subordinate assumed the crown on the overthrow of the former leader backed by the shift in allegiance of the army and undoubtedly with the approval if not outright connivance of the great power.* Gen Chiwenga, the commander of the Zimbabwean army, was in China only a week before the coup. It’s inconceivable that he didn’t discuss it while there, not least because it’s equally inconceivable that it would have gone ahead had China been opposed.

The simple reason why China has an interest is money. China is Zimbabwe’s biggest foreign investor and its key supplier of military equipment. It has an interest in the political stability and economic welfare of the country (note – that means it doesn’t have an interest in democracy). Neither of these were being served by Mugabe. Can we know for certain that it wasn’t a purely domestic matter? No, and to be fair, the timing may have been forced given what looked like an incipient purge from the Mugabes of their opponents but all the same, the meshing of interests is clear.

Nor is Chinese investment limited to just Zimbabwe. In 2015, China had 107 companies operating in Zimbabwe, which meant it didn’t even make it into the ten most active trade partnerships (Nigeria, with 334, was top, followed by South Africa on 229 and Zambia on 213). Overall, China is now Africa’s largest trading partner. It’s also a key supplier of low-interest finance for infrastructure investment. With money comes power, as Britain well knew.

And the flip side is that the trade and investment is at a level which forces China to take an interest in the domestic stability of these countries. The goods it’s buying – raw materials, above all – are essential to its economy. Africa is the second-largest regional supplier of oil to China, after the Middle East, for example. As with all great global trading powers, particularly those with large and growing overseas investments, core national interests demand open and reliable sea lanes, reliable partner regimes and overseas military bases to protect not only its economic interests but also its people (there are now more than a million Chinese in Africa). It is not that China is actively seeking a scramble for Africa – on the contrary, it’s been remarkably tentative about using its power – it’s that the outcome is an almost inevitable consequence of having grown as it has.

The true mark of a superpower is the ability to act contrary to the world’s norms, with impunity, providing that the action does not cross the essential national interests of another superpower. The US and Soviet Union used to sponsor regime change and before them, the European powers did likewise when they didn’t take a more direct interest. Nawab Siraj wasn’t the first and certainly wasn’t the last to suffer at the hand of proxies.

Why does this matter now? Because it’s symptomatic of the West’s weakness and lack of strategic capability. The foreign policy of the US is a scream in a vacuum and that of the European powers is introspective and ineffective. While Britain struggles through Brexit with the hope of global trade deals, China simply gets on with it. But then China has the financial and diplomatic muscle to be able to build its new order.

David Herdson

* There are obviously some differences too: Zimbabwe’s transfer of power was bloodless, including – so far – Mugabe himself; also, the army was a more direct actor this time. All the same, the parallels are striking.



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Marf on the dramatic events in Harare

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

A coup or not a coup?

Dr Julia Gallagher, Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, said:

“This has all the hallmarks of a military coup. It looks like this is direct consequence of President Mugabe’s sacking of his Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa last week. Mnangagwa is an unpopular figure, widely associated with brutal repressions in Matabeland in the 1980s, and with election violence more recently. However, he is supported by Zimbabwe’s military, who want him to succeed Mugabe.”

Mike Smithson




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From Core TV – focus on PB, Brexit, the “Democrats”, the Tory leadership and more

Saturday, August 19th, 2017

No David Herdson with his usual Saturday morning post this morning but instead this TV feature on PB and many of the issues we’ve been discussing on the site over the past few weeks.

This interview, by Rob Double, was recorded yesterday afternoon for Core TV the new online news and politics channel.

My views and assessments won’t be unfamiliar to regular PBers.

Mike Smithson