Sunday Blog 24: A Time to Reflect

July 12th, 2020

Public Services and Frontline Workers

During the unique (thus far) pandemic emergency it has been striking and heartening to witness how ordinary frontline workers, not just in the NHS,  have kept going, at varying levels of personal risk, to keep the fabric of our integrated and civilised society working. The NHS staff, right at the ground zero of the crisis, have rightly acquired iconic status for their dedication, courage and commitment. Many have lost their lives. All of this has been achieved upon a foundation of years of cuts in the funding of every nook and cranny of our public services, to the point where preparation for, and supplies of, everything needed in a national emergency were run down, inadequate and in the worst cases, non-existent.

The Governing Establishment

Has failed at every level, the government worst of all. Lack of preparation, bad modelling, faulty interpretation of science, ignorance of vital data, fumbling delivery, mixed messaging, clumsy announcements, delay and indecision have been the hallmarks, in England, of the crisis experience. Not so in the devolved administrations where the outcomes have been better and public confidence in the governing authorities much higher.

At the heart of these failures towers to disheveled and bumbling Boris. Surrounded by Brexit junkies, he appointed a Brexit cabinet with very little depth of experience, nationalist and narrow, which has been largely overwhelmed by the magnitude of everything. The outstanding exception in Rishi Sunak. His star is rising so bright that it dazzles. Does he threaten Boris? That depends on how successful his programme to invest his way out of the Covid induced depression turns out to be. If it reduces unemployment and kick starts growth in real jobs, yes, he may well threaten his bumbling next door neighbour. But if he fails and unemployment soars, they will both go down together.

China

China is a fact. It is not in the general sense a choice. It will soon be the number one superpower. It will never become a democracy on the Western model. It is infinitely more powerful than the original Soviet union because as well as being a Communist State it is also a capitalist one. Its economy is now at least as powerful, perhaps more so although not yet quite as big, as that of the United States.

For many years we have cozied up to China and wrecked our own manufacturing base, by exporting most of our skilled jobs and manufacturing capacity East. We now make almost nothing we use as everyday consumers. China is also technologically very advanced. At first it mainly copied Soviet stuff, then American, but now it does its own and it’s good. Very good. Anyone using a top Lenovo laptop or Huawei phone will testify to that. And in 5G it is way ahead of everybody else. And we need 5G now as part of our recovery plan from the pandemic recession and Brexit reboot.

GCHQ has the capacity to protect against and deter with counter measures any Chinese cyber aggression. The UK has thus far enjoyed excellent relations with China, now deeply imbedded in our economy at many levels. Certainly we do not approve of much of China’s domestic agenda, but we are in reality no longer the power we once were, and there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. What we have to do is become far more self sufficient in every aspect of our daily consumption, so that we rely less, even for our strategic core supplies, on other countries, including China. And we really do have to start making phones, mobile equipment and much else here in the UK.

But in the end the world will be made up of two sorts of countries. Those who can get along with China and those who cannot. Prosperity will envelope those who can. The rest will struggle. Because the other great truth in the geo-political world is that America has passed its high water mark and is now a waning power. Its inability to offer its own 5G system and its failure to manage Covid 19 are but straws in the wind.

Sunday Blog 23: Is the Ending of Lockdown Working?

July 5th, 2020

According to most reports the answer appears to be yes, with both businesses and the public careful to stick to the rules. As expected a small minority abandoned social distancing as the booze began to flow. That resulted in general overcrowding of streets and public spaces in some areas. This may lead to a spike or spikes, which in turn end in local lockdowns. But that is a far cry from the idea that a second wave will flow uniformly over the nation and require a national retreat of the population behind their own closed doors, plus the closing down of much business activity.

Whether that happens depends on test and trace working properly. According to ministers it is functioning well. According to some credible insiders it is not anything like as effective as it should be and needs to be. We must hope the government is right.

Boris’s Speech: Much Ado About Nothing

June 30th, 2020

It was trailed and trumpeted. It was well delivered in the heroic barnstorming style. He likened himself to FDR and his 1930s New Deal. Sadly Boris did not impress many, if any. There was grand rhetoric but next to no money. £5 billion for repairs and stuff and a lot of talk about building. But nothing concrete, forgive the pun. To re-engineer the wrecked British economy and to set it on a completely different path of fully funded public services, higher productivity and earnings, increasing self sufficiency in food and industrial production and all the levelling up promised, will require government investment over not many years of approaching £2trillion.

It is possible that Boris understands this in principle, but is shot to ribbons over his grasp of detail, especially the figures. More importantly, he shoots off his mouth thinking himself a great figure of history, unaware that he is fast on the way to becoming a figure of fun. Critically there is now wide public disbelief in his ability to deliver what he promises and mounting anxiety about his government’s performance. Shocking world beating C-virus death ratios, the continued malfunctioning of test and trace, with the current muddle and confusion surrounding the new local lockdown in Leicester, are but three of a long list of missteps and failures.

Put simply, people no long trust him. If he is to win back their trust, he has to do a lot better. And soon.

Sunday Blog 22: Boris Has To Do More Than Make Speeches

June 28th, 2020

He has to deliver. Next Tuesday he is booked to make a widely trailed speech themed that, post lockdown, there will be no return to austerity. Instead the government will pour huge sums into  infrastructure projects, in the hope that it can invest its way out of the unfolding economic crisis. There will be no return to austerity. The economy will be expanded and renewed to provide real jobs that pay better money to replace those breadline service jobs eclipsed by lockdown, many never to return. This is all good. But it has to happen.

Unfortunately Boris has proved a disappointing leader since the Covid crisis broke. His lack of attention to detail, with a style of bumbling, bluster and boasting leading to a string of promises and predictions, which in reality are not delivered or fall way short of his rhetoric, have eroded public trust. Now is the time to make the speech certainly. But it must be followed by delivery of all it promises. The public may forgive a mishandling of the Covid crisis, particularly at the start. But there will be no forgiveness if he blows the recovery as well.

More from me when we have heard the speech.

Sunday Blog 21. June 21 2020: Labour’s Soul Searching

June 21st, 2020

A new Report sets out out in pretty forensic detail the many reasons why Labour lost in the general Election of 2019. A central theme is that, starting from the early Blair Government years, the bedrock working class base in the crumbling former industrial heartlands, was drifting away, often towards a sullen refusal to come out and vote. These communities, without which Labour cannot again govern at a national level, felt Labour had lost its connection with them and was no longer their champion. I have been arguing this for years and the evidence is that the Corbyn leadership understood it. The huge increase in the Labour vote in 2015 underscored that.

Since then the party became ambiguous and quarrelsome. The leadership was isolated and weak. Anti-Semitism appeared beyond solution. The 2019 manifesto was just too good to be true and few believed it could be delivered. Corbyn, once the darling of the young, seemed to them to have become scratchy, old and out of touch. On Brexit the position was impossible to explain, such were its many faces, so that it became derision on the doorstep.

Now we find ourselves in the Covid 19 crisis, with the reform potential of the post pandemic new world. This should be Labour’s golden moment. We will have to see if it can grasp it.

 

 

More on Schools: A Test for Boris’s Leadership

June 18th, 2020

Following through on the vexed education issue, including a briefing from a front line teacher, it is clear to me that the present directives from the government are unrealistic except in the very short term.

At the beginning of the pandemic the government was cavalier in its attitude to the risks and over confident in its ability to lead the country though the coming crisis with minimal cost and disruption. It bought into herd immunity and let the rest go. Testing and lockdowns were not for clever us in the UK. When it became clear that the government was on course to preside over a biblical scale catastrophe though not paying attention and listening to the wrong advice, it underwent a skidding U-Turn experience in which we all took part. Sadly the mess is acknowledged to have cost thousands of lives.

The resultant loss of confidence at the centre, the nervousness of Boris, and the binge on endless reviews of issues for which the answers are already known, is symptomatic of an unwillingness to take any risk at all. There was a time when that was right, but not now. It is not possible to be safe. But it is possible to manage risk. The government is trying to eliminate risk. That cannot be done without a universal vaccine. Not only is this paralysing decision making and threatening economic recovery with unworkable restrictions, but it is also frightening very many people.

Time is running out. By July 4th the government must relax social distancing to one metre and from the beginning of September, eliminate social distancing altogether inside school gates in all schools, all year groups. It must have in place all the measures necessary to trace, track and isolate any spikes and outbreaks, which will for sure occur and end the bumbling confusion in pandemic infrastructure delivery which has been its trademark since March. If it cannot do this the Tory party must find new leadership which can measure up to the challenge. Dumping leaders is what it does best.

Get Children Back To School: Labour and the Unions are Wrong

June 17th, 2020

Sir Keir Starmer is wrong not to come out firmly with a statement encouraging parents who can, to get their children back to school. Widespread anxiety among parents, made worse by the posturing of the teaching unions, which the Labour leadership is doing far too little to dispel, is handing useful political capital and scoring points back to the beleaguered government in general and Boris in particular.

Of course it is not absolutely safe for children and teachers to return to school, even with the current limitations on year groups and class sizes, but it is safe enough. We are in a pandemic certainly, but it is under far better control than it was, and we have to take responsibility for getting our economy up and running and normal life restored through managing risk, not eliminating it. Only a universal vaccine can do that.

Yes there will be spikes and frights. Yes there may be renewed local restrictions and lockdowns. But priority has to be given to restoring and beefing up the education of our children, because each day they grow older and those idle days cannot be relived. The chance of children and young people becoming ill with the virus is tiny statically and for teachers no different to any other occupation.

The education of the rising generation comes first and above pubs, shops and football.

Sunday Blog 20: One Metre Or Two?

June 14th, 2020

One metre is essential and soon.

We are losing sight of what we are trying to do. We cannot give absolute priority to saving life until we have the power to do so. It is right to lock everybody up and shut everything down for a short period when, in an unforeseen emergency, that gives the state space to take remedial action to deal with the threat. We did not spend the whole of WWII in air raid shelters, only when the threat was extreme with bombs and missiles overhead. We all took considerable risks going about our daily business. 67,000 civilians died, many in or near their homes.

Locking down for Covid 19 was necessary because the state had failed to prepare, taken wrong decisions and had lost control. It was necessary when the risk was extreme. But it cannot last until the danger is over. The state now has a  pretty impressive arsenal of remedial measures which enable risk management at an acceptable level and provide for special restrictions  to suppress regional or local spikes. There will certainly be many more cases and sadly more deaths but, until there is a vaccine, that cannot be stopped. We have to take precautions and accept risk, but understand that life cannot be lived six feet apart in all circumstances and the economy itself will essentially collapse if it continues to be imposed, as will vital services which define the difference between civilisation and mayhem.

The government  has no option but to lift the two metre rule and reduce to one quite soon.  Hygiene measures and cleansing of public spaces and facilities will have to be ramped up, track and trace and all the other faltering pieces of pandemic infrastructure and planning must run like clockwork, masks should be worn in public. There is quite a list of unfamiliar behaviours and disciplines which will become the norm, until a vaccine either zaps the virus altogether, or reduces the risk to everyday levels. We have to face the facts that not only has the economy got to be restarted pronto, but we there follows the daunting task of rebuilding a new one.

Because the old model with its greedy and selfish values is entirely shot to ribbons.

 

Sunday Blog 18: A Fumbling Government?

June 7th, 2020

It is now clear that this government is a disappointment even to its enthusiastic supporters. It is not an ideology issue, nor even one of party. It is not actually about politics. It is about competence.

At the centre is the pandemic with it horrific death toll of over 50,000 if you include all deaths where Covid 19 is mentioned on the death certificate, or 40,465 if you include only those who tested positive. Either way is the worst in Europe and the second worst in the world. Until an inquiry unravels the sequence, advice and decisions we will not know upon whose shoulders blame may fall, but Boris is the prime suspect.

All along we have listened to the refrain  ‘led by the science’. We know this not to be true, because we all have access to science which demonstrates an avalanche of government missteps. These may be due to choosing to follow bad advice, or choosing to ignore good advice.

There is a sense of knee jerk decisions being made on the hoof when problems predicted by everyone else, suddenly manifest themselves to a blind administration. Everywhere there are issues with programmes not working properly or failing to meet demand. Real anxiety now permeates society about the risks of easing the lockdown, while elsewhere the risk to the economy is beginning to give rise to real fears of mass bankruptcies and unemployment.

At the centre of it all is the calamitous misfit of the hour, the prime minister himself. That broad brush, big picture motivator, hater of detail, spontaneous and wayward, Boris Johnson. It is now clear that this is the very last person you need to cope with the interwoven detail and conflicting priorities of the crises now engulfing him and threatening all of us.

Sunday Blog 17: May 31 2020: America’s Faultline

May 31st, 2020

Everything seemed  well in Trump land. There were political arguments about impeachment, Russian interference and Chinese trade. There was also the wall on the border with Mexico. But the economy boomed, stocks soared, employment was at record levels. Foreign policy was all over the place, but mainly Americans bought into America First and were not fussed about snubs to foreign leaders they had barely heard of and cared less about. Risks were run with the trade war, but Trump was certain he was winning. Then came the pandemic. That was and remains bad enough.

But now we have the riots. Once again. The whole world is stunned to watch a video of four policeman apprehending a man alleged to have passed counterfeit dollars into the till of a nearby store in exchange for a few goods. He is on the ground. He pleads for air. He pleads for life. Before our eyes he dies, murdered by the police. The now deceased man is black. The police are white.

From the beginnings of the founding of America, first as a collection of colonies and later as an independent union of sovereign states, there has been a thread of acceptance of legitimacy for the notion of white supremacy. Indeed the original signatories of the hallowed U S Constitution included a number of slave owners. In spite of all the upheavals, protests and violence including the Civil War, this cancer remains. America led the world in the establishment of true and complete democracy, but the prospectus it offers remains one diminished by the existence of this faultline in its structure, which even after 400 years has proved impossible ever fully to repair.

One of the many tragedies of Trump is that he has made it worse.