Saturday, 23 July 2011

US debt talks: The Republican Party are mad

The sheer scale of cuts Obama has offered the Republican Party in the latest round of talks on raising the US debt ceiling has shocked many Democrats. And yet, even this apparent victory for the austerity-fetishists on the political right in America wasn't enough.

The truth is, for a group increasingly dominated by the Tea Party, the Republicans would seem happy only to see the federal government dismantled altogether. They are extremist ideologues, with no grasp - or interest in - reality.

And the strain of dealing with these people is showing on the normally unflappable president, as yesterday's news conference showed:

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Cameron's Big Society has nothing to say about corporate excess

The recent scandals that have engulfed News International have - despite the recent efforts of parts of the Tory press to downplay them - shocked many people. The sheer scale of apparent collusion between the legal establishment, the press and the political classes have been surprised even to the most cynical observers.

News International, and its parent company, News Corporation, appear to have wielded such immense power, that they were able to exert influence over the key established power centres of a liberal democracy. That they were able to do this surely leads to one conclusion: that they are too big.

It isn't just political influence that comes with such immense size. As the banks amply demonstrated, large corporations can act in a manner that may be detrimental to the general population. That is because large corporations can become too big to be worried about the concerns of ordinary people. Even individual customers without major wealth ultimately become unimportant.
Strikingly, David Cameron's Big Society agenda - which is relentless in its attacks on the dangers of 'big government' -  has nothing to say about the problems that big business can create. Amazingly, despite the abject failure of a deregulated approach to the banking sector and to the press, Cameron's project remains firmly concerned with dismantling the supposed 'barriers' to business growth.

It is this failure to address these issues that creates cynicism about the Big Society project. If it genuinely is about localism, about returning power to local communities, then surely it would have something to say about how large corporations can - and do - act to disempower ordinary people.

And that is why Ed Miliband's recent comments on corporate irresponsibility are so important. Indeed, in identifying the increasing lack of power held by ordinary middle class people (alongside lower income groups), he may have finally rediscovered the purpose of a social democratic party - to represent the collective will of people whose individual voices are increasingly marginalised. 

And that is a potentially very powerful message.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Will energy price rises invite calls for a new windfall tax?

The news today that British Gas will follow Scottish Power with huge price rises - in the case of the former, price increases of almost 20%, following on from a 7% rise at the end of last year - raises significant problems for a large number of people and a major headache for the government.

These significant rises - set against falling household disposable incomes, a weak economy and inflationary pressures - will hit people even harder than the headline figure suggests.

What can the government do? Well, its already been reported that Chris Huhne has met with smaller energy suppliers to try to increase the diversity of providers in the market. Now, this is a very free-market, neo-liberal approach to tackling this issue. Rather like the Republican Party in the US and their reaction to sky-high medical insurance premiums, the preference of right-leaning parties will always be for trying to increase competition as a method of tackling high prices, rather than using more direct regulation.

But intervention and regulation - proper regulation - can be far more effective than this more hands-off approach. And one piece of intervention that would be both hugely popular and would be a useful source of revenue for the government would be to resurrect one of Tony Blair's earliest policies - a windfall tax on utility companies.

The original tax in 1997 raised an estimated £5billion. The level of income in 2011 would be much higher, and could be used to stimulate the green economy or fund tax relief for households.

How tempting this would be for the Government, despite their ideological hue.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

NHS reforms: Health Tsar resigns

Sir Roger Boyle, the Department of Health's heart tsar, has resigned this week, as it becomes clear that the revised Health and Social Care Bill retains - albeit in carefully chosen language -  many of its most controversial elements. This follows on from the BMA's rejection of the revised Bill.

Jacqueline Davis, co chair of the NHS Consultants' Association, has written an article over at the Guardian's Comment is Free expressing concerns that the supposed 'u-turn' by Lansley was not quite as dramatic as many seem to believe.

The government, meanwhile, continues to peddle misleading information regarding the NHS, clearly in the hope that a revised timetable will enable the reforms to go ahead as originally planned with minimal public opposition, although perhaps not as fast as they would have wanted. Many of the criticisms of the original Bill, supposedly addressed and satisfied after the 'listening exercise' are worth revisiting over the coming months.

BSkyB takeover: 24 hours to respond

It is worth drawing attention to the official Notice of Consultation on the proposed takeover of BSkyB by News Corporation.

It remains unclear whether the government is minded to reconsider their decision to approve the acquisition. Those who think they should - particularly on grounds of media plurality - can respond here.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

The NHS: smaller isn't always better

Central to the Cameron project are two key concepts: first, that the state should no longer be the default provider of public services and, second, that the fewer large, hierarchical public sector organisations there are, the better. Better still that the invisible hand of the market determines priorities than central planning.

The NHS reforms, of course, were an attempt to do just that: GPs, clinicians and hospitals are to become ever more autonomous. Previous posts on this blog have discussed the problem this poses for accountability that this approach would bring.

Calum Paton, professor of health policy at Keele University, has penned an article that addresses this issue, amongst others. In it, he makes the very valid point that the very same government that condemns public sector hierarchies ignores the fact that in business the approach is wholly uncontroversial:

"The hardest-nosed businessmen have no problem with accountability upwards within integrated organisations. Ironically, every time the Department of Health or the media calls in a Gerry Robinson or some other troubleshooter, the absence of a clear hierarchy based on accountability is the main diagnosis – not the absence of an elegant quasi-market".

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Mail reaches new depths...

Even by the standards of the Daily Mail, today's story on the tragic death of a girl takes the biscuit. Before the weight of complaints forces them to change the text, here is a screen grab: