Sunday 11 June 2017

Abraham Lincoln comments on the UK 2017 General Election

Some things never change and the British electorate has once again demonstrated this simple truth. The famous quote from Abraham Lincoln about the politics of 1860's America is a very apt description of what happened in the UK elections last week. Theresa May and her government chums, cheered on by a fact-free press have been found out by a younger electorate that have started to see through such arrogant foolishness. May has responded with the usual Tory trick of finding someone else to take the blame as her advisors fall on their swords but the solution of enlisting support from the DUP to prop up her minority in the House of Commons (will it be ConDUP or DUPCon?) is already floundering. Theresa May's response to the message from an increasing number of voters that the country does not want to be dragged to the right on Brexit and a whole raft of domestic issues is to cling to power via an alliance with the ultra right of Northern Ireland. That she also ignores the warnings of senior voices in her own party is the height of folly and will only result in an early demise.

The Tories campaigned with the apocryphal warning that voting for Jeremy Corbyn would result in a "Coalition of Chaos" but what we have ended up with is the "Chaos of ConDUP" They conjured up a vision akin to this painting.
Nicolas-Antoine Taunay Triumph of the Guillotine in Hell 1795 (Musee de la Ville, Musee Carnavalat, Paris)

We should not be surprised

The sheer folly of a Prime Minister calling an election when the only message she had for the electorate was, "trust me because I'm better than the other bloke who would be a disaster" had many of us shaking our heads in disbelief (and not just on the left). Trying to understand the logic of her thinking is difficult but we are left none the wiser after looking at her appearances on television and a whole slew of newspaper articles of which this piece in Premier, a Christian commentary website is typical. It reminds us of her vicarage upbringing where she obviously did not pay enough heed to her scriptures: A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences (Proverbs 22:3)

There is a way forward

What is now evident is that there is little appetite for the hard Brexit that May was proposing. That the Tory negotiation strategy was based upon the idea that the tenets of the World Trade Organisation were a reasonable alternative to the EU free market makes it obvious that they now have no idea how they will conduct themselves when confronted by the EU next week. They do however have a way out of this impasse if they take heed of what Labour's Keir Starmer (Brexit must be reset after the election result) and Yvette Cooper ( Guardian article referencing Labour ideas on how to proceed) propose. In a saner world we should expect a cross party consensus to emerge but it takes a wise leader to countenance such an idea ......... and we demonstrably do not have a wise head leading the country. Events may yet overtake us as the reality of the seriousness of the position we face sinks in during the first few days of negotiation.

Apophenia or Pareidolia

This must seem like a bit of a jump but bear with me. The working title for this post was "Apophenia"  which is the tendency to perceive patterns in random data or, as is determined by the word "pareidolia", the ability to see faces in clouds or the likeness of Jesus on a piece of toast. This is relevant because for some years we have been assailed by politicians and the media claiming that the ills of society can be blamed on the EU, the feckless poor and religious or ethnic minorities. Over many decades the fat finger of prejudice has relentlessly pointed at random skeins of data and, by suggesting spurious connections have managed to fool the majority of the people. (Do you see how artfully we have returned to Abraham Lincoln?). The significance of this 2017 general election is that a fresh generation of voters have joined those of us who have never bought in to the right wing myths such as the left is economically incompetent or that immigration has caused the housing crisis, (or the problems of the NHS  ............ or ........... well fill this in yourself). This unblinkered alliance of the objectively minded electorate has finally reached the tipping point of a majority. The subjective views of the right which promote illogical ideas of cause and effect could only muster 45% (Tory 42%, DUP 0.9%, UKIP 1.8%, plus sundry others 0.5%) whilst the so-called alliance of the left gained a 53.2% vote share (Labour 40%, SNP 3%, Lib Dem 7.4%. PC 0.5%, Green 1.6%). It is my contention that those of us on the left (and I do include Lib Dems in this as they have now learnt the lesson of supping with the devil) see the data for what it is and do not swallow the false assumptions that fuel the bias of the right.

In conclusion 

As usual BelperStuff concludes this post with a carefully chosen video that is supposed to add something to the debate. In researching for this piece I came across this delightful song by the Canadian group Tasseomancy, busking in Shoreditch with their song, Apophenia. Here is the link for those who cannot see the embedded video. If you like it just let the video run on to their track, "Diana".or sit back and enjoy another version of "Apophenia" on their album, Palm Wine Revisited.

Thursday 1 June 2017

2017 General Election ..... Campaigning with Labour's Alison Martin at Belper Railway Station

The Labour candidate for the Mid-Derbyshire seat, Alison Martin was about early this morning campaigning at Belper Railway Station.

Alison Martin and Labour supporters campaigning at 07:30 this morning (Photo: BelperStuff)
Alison Martin
The message that Alison brought with her was one that Belper commuters well understood as they crammed onto the two coach train for their journey into Derby or Nottingham (sometimes it's just one carriage). The board being held up by Alison and her supporters puts Labour's pledge in a nutshell,

Alison adding:

"Ticket prices have gone up by 27% since 2010. Travelling by rail should be affordable and hassle free. Labour's plans for rail will improve things for passengers".

Below is the leaflet that was being handed out and Alison said that she stood by every word.

Labour Party Policy on Rail

The Labour pledges are very specific and deliverable, for instance the plan to cap rail fares can be implemented within current franchise arrangements: Labour promises to save average rail commuter £200 on a season ticket - article in the Guardian and ensuring safe staffing levels will be good news for Southern Rail passengers who have been plagued by the failure of Connex to provide an adequate service. Free Wi-Fi is enjoyed by first class passengers on some routes so extending this to all trains and all passengers is in keeping with the Labour slogan of "for the many not the few" ......... and it costs comparatively little. Modernisation is touched upon later in this post.

On a more general note it has become very clear that the Labour Party policy to renationalise rail is very popular with wide support, not only with voters but also with industry experts ............. as the Guardian comments in a recent article Labour renationalisation ............, "Academics have found private operators no more effective or efficient than public owners. Money is usually the key. The trains are safer and popular with buckets of public investment".

At the moment, those buckets of investment provide rich pickings for the 23 private companies who operate the rail franchises with an average annual profit margin of 3.4% (see here the Full article) but research by the Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change in a report entitled "The Great Train Robbery", highlighted the fact that private rail operating companies invest very little of their own money, in fact earning a return of 147% (sadly the links now seem to be broken).This is what the Nobel prize winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz named as "renting", where a private company is allowed to make a profit from public investment (just enter the name Stiglitz in the search box to the right of this blog to find out more).

If you've followed all those links you will now know that the rail network is already owned by the state (that's us) and that renationalisation of the passenger rail franchises would not cost a penny as the state would simply take over franchises as they come to an end. It would take a few years but you could find that some companies would choose to hand back the franchises early to avoid late franchise costs ( as was done by National Express who handed back the East Coast franchise which was then run by the state between 2009 and 2015). Privatised railway economics is an absolute minefield but using the state run East Coast franchise as a yardstick (annual average payment to the exchequer of £200 million, foregoing a profit of £19.9 million a year) we can see that renationalisation alone could make an extra £304 million a year available for investment in more carriages to reduce the chronic overcrowding, help lower fares or improve service levels and frequencies. If you factor in the whole edifice of franchise bidding (£5 million per company per bid) plus the extra levels of management involved in activities like financing and contract negotiation then the annual net savings could be far more than that.

Putting this into perspective, to add a single carriage to the trains that stop at  Belper on the Matlock service would cost at most £1.5 million to build and add additional costs per year for fuel and maintenance (back of fag packet calculation - somewhere in the region of £250k per year - if anyone can provide a more accurate figure then please leave a comment). The East Midlands franchise makes an annual average profit of £16.6 million which, if reinvested, would fund many more carriages and help pay to run them. 

It should be noted that environmental, engineering and safety standards have changed in the past 30 years (the trains operating the Matlock service were built in 1987) so a decision to increase capacity by simply adding a carriage could involve a more general refurbishment of the existing carriages -----  so it's not that simple.

However, the opportunities that follow from renationalisation are very apparent. Before anyone asks, these calculations do not include freight operations which play a minor part in the overall cost of railway provision and we haven't even mentioned the Tory failure on electrification but if you want to know more type the word "electrification" into the search box to the right. Then of course there is the big question of who exactly owns all these trains? Successive ministers of transport crow about the millions being invested in new trains but whose money are they spending?