Monday, 28 November 2011

Strike, By Gove!

Education Secretary Michael Gove has today launched into a scathing attack on the beleaguered public sector workers who are due to go on strike on Wednesday across the UK. The strikes are to highlight plans to cut the pensions benefits and increase pension contributions of workers in schools, local authorities, and other public sector services. While the media and the Deputy Prime Minister have played up to myths about supposed "gold-plated" pensions in the public sector, the fact remains that the average pension paid out is around a paltry £5,600 p.a. - this is actually over £200 p.a. lower than the average private sector pension. The accrual rate is slightly better than the private sector, but it has long been a feature that lower pay in the public sector is compensated for by a slightly better set of pension arrangements than most private employers offer.

There is plenty of evidence the public sector pension pot is perfectly viable in the long run and stands to decline as a proportion of public spending. The Government however is determined to cut it and while claiming to still be negotiating, has essentially adopted a "take it or leave it" approach for some weeks now.

And so on Wednesday there will be a one day strike. It is likely to cause significant disruption around the country, although the nation will not be paralysed - but aside from anything else, the inconvenience caused might highlight to people just how much of the work carried out by public sector workers is not noticed - until it isn't there, when its vital role becomes very apparent.

Mr Gove however has lambasted strike leaders: "I am deeply opposed to this action, and the damage it generates," he has said, claiming the leaders of Unite and other unions are simply spoiling for a fight and keen for confrontation.

Mr Gove hasn't always felt like this. Like many Tories, it always a different matter when its his own wallet he is worried about.

Here he is on strike, trying to shut down his employer when he was a journalist back in 1989.

Sauce for the goose...
A kick up the 80s: Striking Gove - kneeling, on the left! (1989)

Saturday, 26 November 2011


Mother Naure weeps as the ice melts.
There is a myth among the climate change denial industry that the climate of Antarctica is actually cooling rather than warming, and that this disproves the case for global warming. One theory is that the (man made) ozone hole has temporarily cooled the stratosphere and this makes for local cooling in spite of global warming; but needless to say, even this week, outright deniers claim that the thinning and breaking of huge swathes of glaciers is meaningless.

This surprising claim is in the face of the 1.2C average increase in Antarctic temperatures between 1959 and 1996. And it also ignores the plain fact that on a more front line level, there is clear warming taking place - for example, the Antarctic tourist industry (yes, there is such a thing, now) is rubbing its hands with glee at the profitable prospect of being able to take tourists deeper into Antarctica - one tour has been extended from 11 to 14 days because there are far more opportunities to disembark and sight see compared to a few years ago.

And study after study, including this year, has shown increasing thinning and melt of ice shelves, with massive icebergs resulting. while a plague of parasitic crabs moving south with warmer water is currently causing concern for local flora and fauna. By contrast, the supposed cooling evidence comes from data collected at just one location on the Continent - the McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research Station, along with rather a lot of extrapolation.

Antarctica has been described as the canary of the world - perhaps we should be listening harder to its faltering song.

The music and beauty of Antarctica - with film from the threatened south and north poles:

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

More Funny Weather

Today, with supremely smug irony, the British Parliament has been discussing slashing the feed-in tariff (originally designed to encourage the adoption of solar power by domestic consumers) as part of the Government's so-called "green deal". It is being cut by over a half on the spurious argument that it increases the cost of electricity to consumers and consequently pushes people into fuel poverty - I say spurious because the highest estimated increase caused by FITs is £6 per annum onto the average household bill, with some estimates as low as just 30p. This is zilch by most standards and even more so when set against the rise of several hundred pounds per annum that the Government has contentedly allowed profiteering energy companies to add to fuel costs in the last year or two.

This comes in the same week as a World Meteorological Organisation report has revealed that in 2010, in spite of all the talk and more talk by the IPCC and Governments, the rate of increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached its highest yet - an additional 2.3 parts per million, putting us firmly on course to exceed even the worst scenarios previously anticipated by climatologists. These figures endorse an earlier report by the International Energy Agency in May, which produced similarly stark findings. Even if magically all further increase was to stop, temperatures would rise by around 3C by 2050 - it may not sound much, but its impact would be on a level that would spell disaster for human societies in many parts of the world through the collapse of their agriculture and social systems. Less directly affected countries would find the cost of basic needs such as food and water rocketing well beyond the point of social crisis, and mass migrations would almost certainly trigger conflict on an unprecedented scale.

Don't believe it? It would be nice if it wasn't true and tempting to want to think that; and this week, the BBC announced that the global warming episode of its "Frozen Planet" series won't be shown in the USA so as not to disturb the willful ignorance of the US public, who are among the worst polluters on the planet. 

However, aside from the evidence of increasingly extreme weather events, like the fact that British temperatures this past week have been around double the seasonal average - a whopping 18C on Sunday compared to the 9.5C norm for mid-November - the plain science is this:

- the more carbon dioxide there is in the atmosphere, the more heat from the Sun is trapped in our atmosphere. Too little and we would freeze; too much, and we'd fry. The margins either way are surprisingly (and terrifyingly) small - humanity's hold on the planet is tenuous to say the least.

- through our massively increasing use of fossil fuels, such as gas, coal and wood due to the processes of the industrial age from the 1750s onwards, humans have pumped unprecedented amounts of carbon dioxide and other gasses with even greater "greenhouse" effects, like methane and nitrous oxide (currently the fastest increasing gas), into the atmosphere. Indeed, in the last fifty years, we have used more carbon fuel than in the rest of history combined.

- Consequently, since 1750, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million to 389 parts per million. At the same time, temperatures have climbed, sometimes exaggerated or cooled by natural variations like El Nino and El Nina, and even occasionally by sunspots, but overall, the ongoing, underlying trend is up, and has nothing to do with any natural phenomena. Rather, it is created and fanned by human activity for precisely the scientific reasons set out above: burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gas emissions which trap more and more heat in our atmosphere.

The current rate of emissions is in spite of the downturn in economic activity through the global recession - and Britain is as much to blame as anywhere, with a 2.8% increase in emissions in 2010. And as the planet warms, we are already past the "feedback" thresholds for a number of phenomena which will start to cause an exponential increase in greenhouse gas levels. These include the diminishing of the albedo effect as Arctic ice melts and the "whiteout" of the northern hemisphere declines, reflecting less light and heat back into outer space. Similarly in the north, the melting of the Siberian tundra after millennia of permafrosting is releasing dangerous quantities of methane, which is around twenty times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. Eventually, what has been triggered by human activity and could still be at least mitigated by human action, will take on a life and dynamic entirely of its own.

So, just as every long march begins with a single step, every piece of action taken now to reduce greenhouse gas is utterly vital, not to saving the planet - it will endure - but to saving our civilisation and even our species. To this end, the delay and trimming by the Con Dem Government is more than lamentable - it is a betrayal of our futures and a crass denial of reality.

Funny weather indeed. But no laughing matter.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

The Spirit of Free Enterprise

The Guardian newspaper is reporting that the Business Secretary, the foot-in-mouth ballroom dancer Vince Cable, is likely to exempt small businesses from most employment law protection for staff. It isn't clear yet, but the exemptions seem set to reduce further the rights of millions of ordinary people, potentially allowing their employers to bully them, treat them unfairly and dismiss them with some ease. Although the Con Dem Government already accepts that Britain has one of the most "flexible" work forces in the world, apparently some folk are not tugging forelocks far or flexibly enough not to traumatise our nascent entrepreneurs. So what little practical protection exists for swathes of low paid, temporary, part-time, often female staff, will be taken away.

All to help unleash the spirit of free, but evidently not fair, enterprise.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

They Came In the Night In the Land of the Free

New York police have cleared the Occupy Wall Street camp in the dead of night. Arriving at 1 am, they gave demonstrators 20 minutes to pack up and leave, arresting 70. The authorities told the demonstrators they were to remove all "private property" (like tents!) and could return presumably to stand all night in the open, in November. Allegedly, the camp in Zuccotti Park, was a health and safety hazard (sounds familiar to St Paul's protest in London?) and followed the clearing of a similar Occupy camp in Oakland in California a few hours earlier.

So much for freedom of speech and assembly in what is meant to be the land of freedom. If Egyptian police had done this in Tahrir Square, they would rightly have been condemned for squashing freedom of expression. Likewise, in many other countries, like Ukraine during the neoliberal "Orange Revolution", the USA squarely backed and even funded demonstrators as they brought down the mildly socialist government.

Different then when it is in their own backyard. Different when it is protest against the greed and excess of the 1,000 corporations and their political puppets who run our planet and rip us all off. These demonstrators have got it all wrong, it seems.

Freedom has its limits, it seems, if you are opposed to the Establishment. And so, as well as all the powers of surveillance and detention built into laws like the ludicrously named Patriot Act, they authorities will use by-laws to ensure that, in effect, prevent the protest continuing - as winter deepens, who on Earth will be able to stand in the streets of New York in the middle of the night, night after night?

Health and safety risk, the Powers-that-be claim. Yeah? Who's exactly?

Chilling, in more ways than one.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Your Employment May Be At Risk

The Guardian reports (10 November) that Home Secretary Theresa May has been told by Government lawyers that the head of the Borders Agency, Brodie Clark, is highly likely to win his claim of constructive dismissal followingher very public intemperate outbursts about his alleged handling of passport checks over the summer and apparent background briefings at her behest that he was a “rogue” civil servant. She gave him no right to defend himself although he had been suspended and she pre-empted the outcome of any investigation and hearing into his conduct. She may not have been his immediate boss, but was part of his senior management line and so this breach of both civil service procedure and good practice, coupled with her damning comments about him, put him in a strong position to claims around £135,000 of public money in compensation.

It is far from reassuring to know that someone as closely connected with the workings of government so readily dispenses with (or perhaps simply does not recognise to begin with) the most basic premises of natural justice – that someone alleged to have done something wrong should have a chance to defend themselves through some sort of fair process and be presumed innocent until found guilty (even under the lesser test of “reasonable belief on the balance of probabilities” applied to employers dealing with their staff as opposed to “proof beyond reasonable doubt” required for court cases). Yet here we have May, who does appears on most levels to be a rather "rogue" operator herself, supported by the Prime Minister in her frankly dysfunctional, blame-shifting behaviour.

But at least Brodie Clarke will be able to defend himself by taking a claim to an employment tribunal. Unlike a growing number of British workers, he had employment protection against unfair treatment by his employer, a right that used to kick in after twelve months service.

Lib Dem Employment Minister, Ed Davey, has now decided to increase this qualifying period to 24 months – so, if you or anyone else has less than two years service, your employer will shortly be able to treat you just as badly or even worse than Brodie Clark experienced at the hands of Theresa May, and you will have absolutely no redress.

Likewise, while ruling out supporting recent proposals by David Cameron’s adviser (and also funder and holder of various seven-figure public contracts), Adrian Beecroft  to allow employers to dismiss staff without any explanation by giving them a payment equivalent to state redundancy pay (capped at less than £600 for each year of service), Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has repeated his own wish to introduce a right for employers to have “protected conversations” with staff that cannot be used in any subsequent tribunal proceedings.

Such a right already exists where there is a dispute such as a performance management, disciplinary or grievance case ongoing – employers can have a “without prejudice” discussion, usually linked to agreeing some sort of compromise payment with the member of staff. However, Clegg wants this right to exist even where there is no active dispute. Basically, he wants an employer to have the right to talk to an employee off the record, regardless of the issue. So, your boss could say to you “I think you are useless, you should leave your job as fast as possible or I will make your life hell” and, if he or she has declared it a protected conversation, you could do nothing about it even after two years’ service.

Clegg’s words make clear that he is pretty well signed up to the belief that employers should have much stronger powers to discipline and sack staff than even Margaret Thatcher allowed; he forgets that 85% of workers are employees and, although there is a striking blindness among many that such arbitrary powers won’t affect them, I have come across all too many people from all walks of life who have been astonished when it has been their turn to be on the receiving end of pernicious behaviour by their employer.

Deregulation did nothing for the banking industry; why should anyone think for a moment that it will help the employment relationship which, at its deregulated core is still founded on the centuries old laws of Master and Servant?

Clegg and his allies are proposing nothing less than a bullies’ charter.

Theresa May must be licking her lips.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

OCCUPY CONSTANTINOPLE – Back to the future with Byzantine Economics

“The more powerful should not injure the less powerful, but that everything should be weighed by a just measure...”                        
                                   Prologue to the Byzantine “Book of the Prefect”, 912 AD.

Last week came the news that, at the same time as they have been urging wage restraint by their workers and insisting that the “bloated” public sector needs to be slashed, Britain’s bosses have dug their snouts even deeper into the trough. In the last recessionary year, the Chief Executives of the Top 100 Listed Companies in the UK have been awarded 43% increases in their pay packages, while the next level down of Directors has gained even more – 49% increases on average.

There was much awkward wringing of hands by Government Ministers, embarrassed by the extreme extent and blatant arrogance of these people, many of them funders and supporters of the same Tory regime that has assured the suffering public that “we are all in it together” in facing the economic downturn. But none of them undertook to implement any hard and fast action that might change this utter fest of rapacious greed.

Finally breaking the Church of England’s silence over the demands of the Occupy London protesters, the Archbishop of Canterbury last weekend asked “Are economics too important to be left to economists?”, positing the need for some ethical underpinning of the economic framework – including supporting the so-called Robin Hood tax on financial transactions. And yet, is capitalism capable of delivering such a benign outcome at all? So how do we deal with these people? If not capitalism, then what?

Given that the entire raison d’etre of capitalism – the maximising of profit – inevitably drives this grasping process of exploitation of resources to exhaustion coupled with the excessive accumulation of wealth, the long-term answer can only be through adopting a new economic ideology – one embracing sustainable stewardship of resources and a genuine redistribution of both power and wealth. It is a measure of the success of the capitalist media’s propaganda that socialism remains a dirty word even among many progressives, but that makes the need for new solutions and the potential for a new society no less possible, nor any less imperative.

All economic systems have to accommodate choice and exchange in some way – the central question has to be whether this is determined by wealth measured and expressed by monetary power or by human need identified and agreed by a wider social construct. In this, market mechanisms may have a greater or smaller role to play according to the culture of the society in question – and this has as often as not in human history depended on ethics or morality as much as on cash in hand.

For example, ninth century Byzantium, the eastern successor of the Romans and the most successful state of its time, purposefully adopted an economic ideology based on self-sufficiency and just distribution. The Emperors, driven in part by Orthodox Christian theology and in part by political considerations, adopted a series of laws which held “just exchange” to be at the centre of any market transactions. In particular, policy focused on tackling the rapacious excesses of the dynamoi, the powerful nobility, over the poorer citizenry and especially the peasantry.

And so, in a society that was significantly monetised in its exchange process (as opposed to barter which remained a significant component in other contemporary economies), we find a series of edicts which, among other things, forced the free return of land bought from famine-struck peasants by their exploitative lords for less than half the assessed “just value”. We find laws rendering void any contract where the workman had agreed a rate lower than the “just wage” and in the realm of lending, the rich were forced to charge lower rates of interest than less prosperous lenders. In the capital, Constantinople, craft guilds were established to licence producers in such a way that, while competition was permitted within a particular sector, even the most successful producers in one field could not diversify into others and come to dominate the supply of goods to the consumer. The Prefect of the City regulated the production of key goods to ensure sufficiency of supply to the population, with the Government intervening where this was threatened (especially in terms of staple foods like bread and fish), and to prevent “unreasonable profit” – an established principle in Byzantine law.

The Byzantine Economy  - putting the Just into Justinian?
 Perhaps of greatest contemporary relevance, it was the Byzantines establishment of the practice that, while supply and demand might inevitably affect the costs of producing goods and that Government might be limited in its long-term ability to temper this, it was both possible and indeed a moral imperative that there should be a legal limit on profit margins. Consequently, Patriarch Nicephoros in the ninth century set this as no more than 10% of cost, a figure so low that it would have many a modern venture capitalist choking on his swill.

And yet, in the precarious Medieval world, Byzantium’s adoption of an ethical, redistributive economics worked highly effectively. With a million inhabitants by 1100, Constantinople flourished as the wealthiest city in Europe and the Near East, inevitably incurring the envy and desire of predatory neighbours.

Briefly, it is of note that the effective end of the Byzantine Empire did not come through economic ruin. Rather, the death blows fell through a combination of the violent reassertion of power by the military aristocracy, who rolled back many of the laws during the turbulent late eleventh and twelfth centuries, and then through the sacking of Constantinople in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade, led by the avowedly mercantilist Venetian Republic. Although the Empire lingered on in various forms for a further quarter of a millennium, these two forces – the propertied and the moneyed – between them destroyed what had been one of the most successful and long lived civilisations in the Mediterranean world.

Sustainable and ethical economics, and equitable distribution of wealth, were not new even at the height of Byzantium. Aristotle had written of justice in exchange in 360 BC, Roman law incorporated the concept and the 4th century Church Fathers advocated justice as including material equity. And all accepted the role of the State as the “judge” (Aristotle’s concept) in “restoring equality between those who have much and those who have little, by giving to one what he takes from the other”.

Indeed, for most of humanity’s existence, societies have functioned on the basis of a “steady state economy”, where output expanded slowly and in tiny increments, if at all. Consequently, how resources and material wealth were shared inevitably became a central policy issue. It has only been since the early Renaissance that first long distance trade and then the technological and productive potential of the Industrial Revolution led to the fairly recent capitalist construct that wealth can be skewed horrendously disproportionately, yet everyone can be better off.

Plainly, with so many key raw materials near or past peak production while demand rises inexorably, if this nostrum ever contained any truth at all, it no longer holds. With growth rates now facing long term decline, the capitalist system is morally bankrupt and in the coming decades will be practically bust. Even beyond the current recessionary cycle, resource scarcity looms and the need for an Aristotelian Judge has never been greater – we need to re-embrace an economics where, once again, as one economic history has described tenth century Byzantium, “...individual economic action is limited by the needs of society as a whole.”(as succinct a definition of contemporary ecosocialism as I have seen).

The question for our society and our world is whether we wait for our system of economics to collapse in pain, blood and violence, or whether we take control of our contemporary dynamoi now and begin the transition to a happier, more egalitarian, and sustainable future.

Brief Encounter or The Life of Brian?

Sometimes life has strange coincidences.

Returning from London on the train the other evening, I ran by chance into Green Councillor Andrew Cooper (author of the blog Greening Kirklees), who was not long finished at a consultation session between environmental groups and Greg Barker, Tory Energy Minister and deputy to the Lib Dem Energy Secretary Chris Huhne. Professionally, Andrew is an expert in the renewable energy field and he was lamenting the reversal in Government policy over renewable energy feed-in tariffs, a great incentive for consumers to install microgeneration in their homes, especially solar panels, and which pays them for electricity they generate but don’t use (it is instead fed into the national grid, hence the micro-producers’ payment from the electricity companies).

Huhne’s department, in spite of claiming to be part of the greenest government in history, has just decided to slash the subsidies supporting solar power and the tariff (from private companies) by 50% on the spurious grounds that the 30p added to the average annual household fuel bill by the tariff arrangement pushes poorer people into fuel poverty. The Government also for some reason adds the cost of the tariff to the public deficit, in spite of there being no public funding involved and hence utterly no reason for doing so.

We grumbled a bit more about Huhne’s turnaround on nuclear energy as well – from decrying it as dangerous and expensive in his days in opposition to now advocating it as an essential part of Britain’s energy supply and adopting the bizarre view of it as being a source of green energy.

Bidding Cllr Cooper farewell, moments later, on a connecting train, I was hailed by an old acquaintance, now a recently elected Lib Dem MP, who out of residual personal affection shall remain nameless.

He was looking a bit downhearted, apparently having just rebelled, clearly with some difficulty, against one of the Government’s welfare plans. I asked him how he was finding life as an MP and heard him say how awful it all was, how essential the dreadful cuts were to tame the deficit, how Plan A wasn’t working but they had no choice, etc, etc. My suggestion that some good old Liberal Keynesianism might help seemed to go down like a bucket of cold water in a rainstorm, but he tried to appeal to my environmentalism by telling me, “We have done some good green stuff. Chris Huhne has introduced some new green energy initiatives.”

Well prep’d from my discussion with Cllr Cooper, I responded, “Well, hasn’t Chris Huhne just slashed the feed-in tariff...?”

“Yes, yes, he has...but before last week, he had done some good stuff.”

“Well, I don’t like his turnaround on nuclear energy...I remember watching him talk about that in the past and he was really anti but he seems to have changed his tune...”

“Er...yes, but at least there won’t be public funding for it...I mean apart from the tariffs and nuclear...we will eventually do more solar panels...I think...”

“It would be good if money was spent on solar now...its a labour intensive field and if you invested in jobs, the multiplier effect would generate tax and get the deficit down. But I think I read they are cutting back on funding community schemes for renewables...”

“Yes...but....apart from these...I think in time we will do more green things... our Green Investment Bank, when it gets will... well, it’s difficult...”

And then, as our brief encounter threatened to turn into a reverse parody of Life of Brian, it was his stop.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Visiting St Paul's

I walked the Occupy London encampment outside St Paul's Cathedral today - a wonderful mix of people, with a huge range of views; but filled with hope. The good citizenship of the protesters was evident in every way - from the orderly nature of the layout, to the solar panels powering some of their gear, the recycling bins in the centre, and the "artistic wall" surrounding the cathedral emergency exit, with its injunction not to post banners as these might create a health and safety hazard.

What was immediately evident was that there was never any need at all for the Cathedral to be closed - there is acres of space for tourists to access the building and there was no need for the wedding a couple of weeks ago to have gone in the side entrance. But that seems to be history now anyway as even the Archbishop of Canterbury has today spoken sympathetically of the demands of the camp and supported the "Robin Hood Tax".

"There are even right wingers here," one man told me as he handed out leaflets. "They support capitalism - but not the nasty sort we've got."

As he spoke, the speculators and bankers were having their lunch breaks around the square, tutting at the riotous visual display, their nearby offices and restaurants neatly cordoned off by the police - presumably to stop the violence that never comes, the riot or damage that the demonstrators do not inflict, do not threaten and do not want. Throughout, they have repeatedly offered to talk - to the St Paul's authorities, to the City of London as well as to the bankers, until now with little response.

Things have changed a little in the last day or two, but it is clear that both Church and State hope that their new tactics will reach the same end of moving the demonstration on without effecting the real, systemic changes we need to end the inequality and poverty that have moved the Occupy movement around the world. Still they are derided as either wasters or dreamers - "St Paul's Mob Wins the Day", the Sun headline proclaimed today.

"Nice" capitalism - now there's a notion if there ever was....