...a blog by Richard Flowers

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Day 3524: No, Captain Clegg is RIGHT; the Institute for Fiscal Studies HAVE gone nuts!


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I really, really wanted to write about how we SHOULDN'T be attacking the IFS, because that is just such OLD politics.

But then I tried READING their report.

I am dismayed… no, I'm ANGRY that something this… ILLITERATE is being passed off as a serious piece of research. Worse, that it is FRIGHTENING people.

Their accusation that the Budget is REGRESSIVE hinges on a KEY assertion:
"…the top half of the income distribution gains on average as a result of increases to the income tax personal allowance and the employer NI threshold."
But this sentence is JUST FLAT WRONG.

The less important part is that the EMPLOYER's national insurance threshold DOES NOT affect the employee's earnings – the CLUE is there in the NAME.

There IS a COMPLICATED relationship between the level of Employer's NI (the 12.8% rising to 13.8% extra that it costs your employer to employ you on top of your salary before tax) and the number of extra people that businesses are willing and able to take on (which is why the Conservatories tediously insist on calling it a "jobs tax"), and that does feed in to overall earnings as more or fewer people are IN employment. But that's a second or third order variable, not a direct effect of tax policy… in other words, that's not important right now!

The more important part is that people paying higher rate tax DO NOT BENEFIT from the rise in personal allowance. The threshold for paying the higher rate of tax was LOWERED so as to CANCEL OUT the gain from the higher personal allowance.

In fact, the HIGHEST earners actually do WORSE out this scheme, because Labour's Mr Alistair Dalek introduced a wheeze whereby if you earn above a hundred thousand pounds, your personal allowance gets TAKEN AWAY – so top earners have an extra slice to pay at the higher rate and NO reduction in their basic rate because they have no personal allowance left even after the increase.

Okay, maybe I'm wrong, maybe I've missed something, and I realise that the tax system is excessively complex – I bang on about it often enough – but it seems to me that this is a pretty FUNDAMENTAL thing to get wrong.

Either, the IFS have failed to include the reduction in the upper rate threshold in their computations, or they have completely failed to understand where their figures have come from.

In either case, how is it possible to have ANY faith in the other conclusions that they draw?

Now, I do think it's fair to say that the Coalition's response to this has been a fair way from BRILLIANT.

I mean, on the one fluffy foot there IS a good case to be made that if the IFS want to create a model for how changes to Housing Benefit (which mainly affect the less well off) affect incomes, then they really OUGHT to be doing the same for changes to Capital Gains Tax (which mainly affect the better off) as well.

Because OBVIOUSLY the budget is going to look regressive if you study the things which impact on lowest income groups and IGNORE then things which affect high income groups.

But then on the other fluffy foot we get Government ministers saying: "and you have to take into account the cuts in Corporation Tax".

No, they really, really don't and we look STUPID for saying it.

Of course we HOPE that cutting company tax will mean that companies employ more people thus taking more people out of the lowest income groups. But they might just trouser the difference. Or spend it on buying new equipment from Germany. Or in paying off that tricky bank loan. Or any number of other things.

It's a gamble to restart the economy, not a personal tax measure, and let's not pretend otherwise.

And I can understand, really I can, why Captain Clegg is "slamming" the report for being "partial". Our WHOLE POINT in joining the Coalition was to get Liberal Democrat FAIRNESS added to the Conservatory budget. AND WE DID.

So this is personal.

But I think – I hope – we all agree that the Liberal Democrats would be EXPECTED to say that.

What we really needed was a senior CONSERVATORY, and I mean Master Gideon, really, to come out and say: "we WANT to be progressive and we are DISMAYED that the IFS figures show otherwise and I will be having my team work over the budget again to be sure, but can I just point out…"

Look, it is not impossible that the IFS's central thesis is RIGHT, and we should be DEEPLY CONCERNED about that possibility

The cost of fixing Hard Labour's recession and overspending should NOT fall more heavily on the poorest than on the richest.

We need to be constantly vigilant to see that that does not happen, and if the facts say it is happening, we must put it right. And we need to be SEEN to be doing that.

Which is why the Office for Budget Responsibility needs to be more INDEPENDENT, why we need the Government books to be AUDITED, and why we should WELCOME scrutiny from independent organisations like the IFS.

But how can the IFS report have ANY credibility if they include such a glaring total misunderstanding of how the personal allowance change works? Simply, they can't.

So, I really, really wanted to say we shouldn't just "stick to our guns"; we should ACCEPT that we DON'T KNOW the answers for certain; we should say we'll TAKE ON BOARD the IFS critique and we'll LEARN from it and TRY TO DO BETTER.

But I'm really at a loss to understand how this report HELPS, other than in reinforcing Hard Labour's hysterical, self-serving lies and making good Liberal Democrats doubt the good faith of their own Government.


Thursday, August 19, 2010

Day 3518: How can BOOKS have a FORMAT WAR?


Okay, confession time. Daddy Richard got a present for doing ten years with his company, and it was the CULTISTS' favourite, an Apple SadPad.

Yes, I know.

But once you've got over shaking you heads, perhaps you can help. No, we don't need an INTERVENTION and DEPROGRAMMING just yet, but we do have a question.

You can choose a widget to turn your SadPad into an eReader, i.e: an electronic book-reader that lets you read books electronically, what with half a kilo of circuitry being so much more convenient than this newfangled paper stuff.

The question is: which widget?

The widgets themselves are free, but you have to pay for the books…

Incidentally, did you know that although PHYSICAL books are VAT free, electronic books are not, in spite of them containing ONLY the memetic part of the physical book, so all things being equal an eBook would actually be (once Master Gideon's badword VAT rise goes through) 20% more expensive. Which is nuts.

Anyway, there are probably more, but Daddy has THREE widgets for reading books to choose from: iBooks from (join us, come and join us) Apple, Kindle from Amazon and one called Kobo backed by Boarders and other booksellers.

The problem is this: if you buy a book from ONE of them, you CAN'T read it with one of the others.

Frankly, it's a bit of a liberty! I mean, once you've PAID for it, it ought to be yours to read however you want. But that's what you get for buying into Apple's (join us, come and join us) "we know what is best for you" culture.

And don't get me started on the fact you can't GIFT other people with eBooks!

It's all the same ridiculous paranoia that has poisoned the world of digital music. Rather than being about sharing the creativity, it's all about stamping down on anyone who might make an illicit copy. Video Piracy. Music Piracy. I mean who ever head of a Pirate BOOK, before? (Apart from Mr Simon's Pirate Book, of course.)

What OUGHT to happen, is that you should be able to buy your eBook from ANY independent supplier, download it, and then read it in any of the readers.

The WORST offender is the Kindle. The iBooks and the Kobo both use internationally recognised EPUB format – but then stick their own digital rights management on top, making them non-transferable (no matter what it says in Kobo's admirable mission statement). But the Kindle uses its own bespoke software so it's not compatible with ANYTHING.

In many ways the iBooks reader is the nicest. Apple are GREAT at design (join us, come and join us) and it shows. You can highlight bits of the text and leave notes for yourself which appear in the form of cute post-it notes in the margin. If you turn the SadPad sideways, the book turns into two pages with a "crease" in the middle, like you're holding a real book (the others just show one page widescreened across the Pad).

But the GENIUS thing that it does is to let you highlight a word and then access the SadPad's onboard dictionary. A great big floating box appears which you can scroll though to read the full definition.

The Kindle does something similar, with a highlighted word allowing you to pop up a definition in a small box at the foot of the page. That's less intrusive, but also shorter and, on one occasion, managed to give me the wrong word ("Sho" not "Shoe") which was less than impressive.

But the Kodo reader doesn't do it at all.

That just staggers me. Surely you would look at what your competitors are doing and you'd realise at once that this is a defining essential feature. It's the one thing that an eBook can do that a paper book cannot – tell you what the words mean right there in your fluffy foot, without having to get up and find where the dictionary has gotten buried this time.

In fact, the Kobo doesn't do the highlighting in any form, so there's no making notes in the margin either, or copy/pasting text for short quotations.

The Kobo reader does have quite a nice clean design. Like the iBooks you can customise the font and while it won't let you turn the paper sepia (if that's important to you) it will entertainingly let you customise the shelving in your virtual library, which is a nice touch. But without the dictionary link, frankly what's the point?

The Kindle reader from Amazon is… okay. Unlike the Kobo, you CAN choose sepia "paper", but you only get the one choice of font which is a rather more tiresome omission, unless you're fond of New Times Roman. And instead of going for the "shelves" look of the other readers, the interface has a graphic of a kid reading a book under a tree that I suspect I'm going to tire of QUITE quickly.

All of which would seem to cont against the Kindle if it wasn't for one thing: backed by Amazon, the range of books available on Kindle is simply many times larger than either of the other two, particularly iBooks where the number of books on offer is pitiful. What is the point of that beautiful reader, if there's nothing to read with it? Well, it would be lovely if you could read books from OTHER sellers, but no, it's our old friend Mr DRM raining on THAT particular parade.

And I'm afraid Amazon are using their market muscle to undercut their rivals on price too. And quite significantly: Doctor Who books available on Kobo cost in the range of £6 to £7, on Amazon they're £4 to £5 (iBooks disqualified on grounds of not stocking any); Andrew Rawnsley's "The End of the Party" (essential summer reading for politicos) is £11.25 on Amazon for Kindle; it's £15.99 on the iBook store and £17.26 from Kobo. Those aren't really the sort of price differentials that you can afford to ignore.

So here's the dilemma. Or rather trilemma.

Kobo is the one that approaches nearest to being open access, buy a book from anywhere and read it anywhere, but they're the most expensive and their reader suffers a massive, and indeed critical FAIL by not linking to a dictionary.

iBooks looks lovely, is stocked with features, but carries all the monoculture problems you'd expect from an Apple (join us, come and join us) product and has barely anything at all to read.

The Kindle is a bit basic but gets the job done and has loads of books at competitive prices. But they're trying to impose their own format on everyone else rather than agree to play nice with the EPUB file format that everyone else has agreed. So they are clearly evil.

Or, as Daddy Alex put it: it's like Amazon are VHS and Apple are Betamax (and Kobo are Video 2000 – no, I had to look it up as well).

I don't want to pay over the odds, I don't want to end up with a load of books in a redundant format but I don't want to contribute to someone who's clearly trying to bust the international consensus either.

And I'd so wanted to download a whole load of books to read on holiday next week. Boo!


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Day 3517: One Hundred Days


So, we made it to one hundred days, a hundred days of the Coalition being "about to be torn apart any moment" by appalled soggy Liberal Democrats or outraged nutter-wing Conservatories.

We'll do the scores on the doors in a moment, but before that I suppose the most significant thing about the Coalition turning 100 days old is the number of commentators who flatly insisted we'd never get here at all.

Have you noticed that recently? The "life expectancy" of the government has quietly dropped from political discussion. It's become accepted that, actually, this government is going to stick.

Only the more frothy Hard Labour chatteristas still insist that the Coalition will split and there'll be another election by Christmas. And that only make them look silly.

If anyone looks likely to split these days, it's Hard Labour, as Leftist Dinosaurs and Blairite War-criminals fall out over whether their Party exists to go for power or for protest. But then "splitting" has always been the obsession of the political left – that explains BOTH the huffing and puffing of that old hypocrit Lord Prescott of Flummery AND the other wise curious (but surprising to absolutely no one) decision of Mr Sunny Disposition of the Labour Conspiracy website to rejoin Hard Labour now that he can have his ideological purity and eat it. (I assume that the renaming of Mr Sunny's website-cum-fabulous-media-career will be happening soon.)

Hard Labour's response to the Coalition continues to be nothing so much more than a particularly pyrotechnic TEMPER TANTRUM. I suppose we should have seen it coming: Hard Labour just turned thirteen, so of course their cry has become, to quote Mr Harry Enfield's Kevin the Teenager: "IT'S NOT FAIR!!!!"

Anyway, enough about them; how have the Liberal Democrat/Conservative Coalition Government been doing?

It's all a bit of a WORK-IN-PROGRESS so far. The Government didn't "hit the ground running" with flashy but ultimately meaningless policy announcements the way Lord Blairimort did in 1997. Policies have to be worked out and talked out in Cabinet before being set in train. But that's a GOOD thing.

Civil Liberties

The big wins here are obvious: I.D.iot cards already on their way out; detention of children of asylum seekers to go as well; and a long-overdue review of Great Britain's draconian libel laws under way.

On the downside, none of this new openness stopped Mayor Bojo the Clown from summarily ejecting the protest camp from Parliament Square. Because nothing says Civil Liberties like seeing the police sweep up a bunch of hippies in a dawn raid. Rolls button eyes.

Marks out of ten: 8


Obviously it doesn't HELP that Mr Iain Drunken Swerve has all the personal warmth and charisma of the CHILD CATCHER from "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", but the IDEA of simplifying and improving the benefit system, helping make work worthwhile, is surely a GOOD ONE.

On the other fluffy foot, does it HAVE to come with all the accusatory language about spongers and malingerers? It's tough enough surviving on benefits without all the language of BLAME. In a recession it's not your fault you're out of work; if you're unwell it's not your fault you're out of work.

Mind you, and I'm sure it is very wrong of me, but I don't half BRISTLE when I hear Hard Labour mouthpieces endlessly repeating the mantra: "cuts in Housing Benefit will hit the very worst off". Housing benefit is to be cut to no more than Four Hundred a WEEK. £400 a week is £20,800 a year and that seems to ME to be quite a lot BETTER OFF than "the very worst off". I'm APPALLED at how LOW benefits are in a RICH and MODERN country like Great Britain, but I do find it a tad difficult to defend the notion of protecting benefits of households receiving over TWENTY GRAND, when there are people getting far, far less than that.

Marks out of ten: 6


Mr Michael Borogove has made a series of entertainingly spectacular badword-ups in his announcements demonstrating arrogance and ignorance almost up to Hard Labour standards. Building Schools for the Future – Mr Frown's almost MARXIST plan to rebuild every school in the country regardless of need – was a stupid scheme that wasted loads of money on crazy red-tape bureaucracy and it needed ending. But the way it was announced – one huge "look at the size of my chopper" cut – was more about playing to the right-wing audience than doing the sensible thing, and OBVIOUSLY it backfired horribly. If they had STARTED by saying "we want to invest in the schools that really NEED repairs" then it needn't have looked like a sequence of embarrassing climb downs.

And, because the Schools Secretary clearly HASN'T learned his lesson, he then followed this up by ramming his Free Schools policy through Parliament.

There are clearly two reasons for the urgency: number one, they remember Lord Blairimort's big failure and so would rather make actual mistakes by doing stuff that goes wrong than make the mistake of not actually doing anything at all; number two, it's the only policy the Conservatories actually HAD so they need it up and running quick sharp to prove to their own that they're getting something out of this Coalition.

Marks out of ten: 3


Enormous reform of the health service came as something of a surprise to everyone, especially after all Mr Balloon's talk of preserving and ring-fencing. Having said that, getting better value for money, especially when it's so MUCH money, and moving control over finances closer to the front line are both laudable aims.

Opening the NHS up to more private services tends to cause unreasoning PANIC among some people, but really it's one of those things where it should be judged on PRAGMATIC grounds – does it provide a BETTER service for the patient? What are the sanctions if it DOESN’T? Hard Labour's Private Finance Initiative schemes, for example, are BAD because they buy these big "prestige" projects that you're then stuck with, tying up your health spending in long, inflexible contracts, with no way to get out of it if it's not what people actually NEED.

Marks out of ten: 5

Political Reform

If we had a POUND for every time a Hard Labour politician squawked "gerrymandering", we would… well, still be a trillion pounds short of paying off the debts they ran up, but could probably afford a few more sticky buns! The two-faced nature of Hard Labour is never more revealed than through their behaviour over the electoral reform: given a choice between keeping a manifesto promise and opposing a bill that might reduce their unfair advantage they… choose the unprincipled selfish status quo option every time. "Progressive" my big fluffy behind.

There's a huge presumption going around that we are BOUND to lose the referendum on AV. But if that's TRUE, then why are the anti-reform crowd making so much fuss about the date? Clearly THEY don't think that a "no" vote is in the bag, so why should we?

People aren't stupid (no matter what the patronising "the electorate can't cope with more than putting an 'X' in a box" protestors might say). People know that our electoral system is badly broken and in need of change.

And the very fact that we've reached "Day 100" without the sky falling in (unless you count Mr Roger Stavro Murdoch suing Skype over use of the word "Sky") PROVES that all that GUFF about coalitions being "weak governments" was a load of scare-mongering nonsense.

So there's everything to play for.

And the voting referendum – while important – isn't the be-all-and-end-all of the reform agenda. Quietly, Captain Clegg has been getting on with fixing the Parliamentary term. Hard Labour made such a FUSS about the 55% rule that it's going to be INCREASED to a proper SUPER-MAJORITY. And don't forget we'll be getting an elected Upper Chamber.

Marks out of ten: 7

Foreign Policy

Days without illegally invading another country: 100 and counting.

The Captain managed to describe the invasion of Iraq AS illegal from the despatch box. An event that everyone described as a GAFFE. As though SAYING it was somehow more embarrassing than being CULPABLE for it – stares hard at the Hard Labour front bench.

Anyway, Mr Balloon very kindly then went out to show what REAL foreign policy gaffes look like by going to Turkey to insult Israel, to India to insult Pakistan and to America to insult, er, Great Britain.

So far, though, Mr Vague has surprised everyone by being moderately sensible, and sensibly moderate, in talks with Europe. And of course, EVERYONE in Europe LURVES Captain Clegg, because he can apologise for Mr Balloon to them in all of their own languages.

Marks out of ten: 9

The BIGGIE: The Economy

Well, the Chancer of the Exchequer continues to display all the financial skill and economic insight of a man who's only ever played with CHOCOLATE COINS before, but at least it seems clear that he's willing to accept a Werther's Original and sit on the lap of King Mervyn of the Bank of England from time to time.

And we all know that Mr Danny "Champion of the World" Alexander is in charge of the REAL adding up. (With a bit of help from Mr David Outlaw for the really hard bits.)

(The loss of Mr David remains an early BLOW to the Coalition, particularly given the RESPECT he had among Conservatories, which helped bind the Treasury team, and the Parties together. But apparently, Mr Danny is building quite a reputation for himself too, which is good.)

Big picture, though: the Government's economic strategy is both ADMIRABLE and ALARMING at the same time.

There is no denying that the Coalitions agreement to cut spending THIS year is a GAMBLE that might see more people losing their jobs.

The important thing to recognise is that there were, indeed are, TWO threats facing the British economy this year, not just one.

The FIRST threat is the infamous DOUBLE DIP recession that we keep hearing about – the threat that economic growth could falter and fail again.

One of Hard Labour's biggest bluffs is that Government spending is somehow a motor for the economy. This is not true. Only work done by actual PEOPLE generates money. The Government takes money OUT of the economy, moves it around, and puts it back again. That is all it can do.

Government BORROWING can add money to the economy in the SHORT TERM. But in the LONG TERM even that takes more money out than it puts in, because the borrowing has to be repaid with INTEREST.

Hard Labour want you to believe, NEED you believe that government spending powers the economy because they want you to be DEPENDENT on the Government. They may even believe it themselves, because of their belief that the Government is always good and always right (so long as it's a Labour Government, anyway).

The truth is that the Government CAN keep the economy going in the SHORT TERM by borrowing, using that injection of cash into the economy to keep growth going artificially – usually by building things, capital projects, yes, those school buildings that Mr Borogove kind of hasn't actually cancelled – keeping people in employment, maintaining skills, until the private sector can get up off the canvass and take up the slack again. The longer you leave it, the more the private sector has got to grow on its own because it's going to have the Government's borrowing (and interest!) taken back out again.

Labour's sort of argument is that the private economy is not yet off the canvass, and we should still be in the artificial life-support phase of the economy.

(I say "sort of" argument because they would be more convincing if they hadn't been borrowing and borrowing and borrowing to artificially inflate the economy ever since they got re-elected in 2001.)

That is sort of what happened under Queen Maggie back at the start of the Eighties. The Government withdrew its artificial support from areas where there was no private industry, or not enough anyway, and caused enormous misery and hardship. That is what people are so frightened of happening again.

But you CAN'T just KEEP borrowing to keep inflating the economy forever. Or rather you CAN, because that is exactly what Mr Frown did, but when the money runs out you get a TITANIC belly flop, like the one we just saw.

Which brings us to the SECOND risk facing the economy, which is a much BIGGER and SCARIER risk. That is the danger, the very real danger, that the international money markets – the people from whom Mr Frown and Mr Alistair Dalek went a borrowed a TRILLION pounds – might start to see us as a BAD RISK investment.

That is why controlling debt has become especially pressingly urgent since the money-market crisis that struck Greece in the weekend before our General Election.

At the moment, Great Britain can borrow money from the rest of the world (and indeed from our own banks – and a lot of the Government's debt is to British pension funds) for long periods at relatively low interest rates because we've got a pretty good record. Long periods means ten to fifteen years. Low rates means 3% to 3½%. And I say "pretty good"; Japan can borrow at rates as low as ½% because their economic record is immaculate (and remember that, whenever Hard Labour politicos make excuses about Japan having three times as much debt as we do; yes, that's true, but it cost them SEVEN times less to borrow it. In other words, we should have HALF our current level of borrowing to be in the same ball park as Japan.)

If the money markets start to DOUBT Great Britain's economic stability, they will do two things: they will SHORTEN the amount of time they will loan us the money and they will INCREASE the interest that we have to pay. The first will cut Government investment in long term projects. (You are less likely to borrow ten million pounds to build a hospital that will last ten years if you're going to have to repay the cash in five.) The second will just cut Government spending full stop, because there will be less money to spend on anything other than the interest. And as interest rates go up, so does inflation, which undermines growth. And the economy becomes uncompetitive so exports dry up and we earn even less money.

Which of course is what Mr Major Minor managed to achieve in the Nineteen Nineties.

So, basically, you have a choice between the recession of the early Eighties or the recession of the early Nineties.

And like Mr Odysseus navigating between the MONSTER and the WHIRLPOOL, the Government is trying to plot a course that won't see us SUNK. Mr Odysseus choose to err towards the MONSTER, because SHE would only eat SOME of his crew, whereas the WHIRLPOOL would overwhelm them all. Maybe that is why the Government is taking the RISK of the double dip recession, because that way, even if the risk goes badly, fewer people – we hope – will suffer than if the entire economy went under. Again.

Hard Labour, who had, remember, spent MORE than they raised in taxes in every single year since the 2001 General Election (yes, that was seven years BEFORE the Credit Crunch) had a plan to CONTINUE spending more that they raised in tax for every single year of the next Parliament too.

The Conservatories ALWAYS said that they wanted to cut further and faster than Hard Labour, to do the difficult task of getting the Government's spending under control again.

Hard Labour continue to throw up the allegation that the Conservatories have an IDEOLOGICAL desire to see a smaller State. Actually, they say this like it's automatically a BAD THING, and of course it is NOT – the State should have to JUSTIFY all of the things that it does and there's plenty that a good Liberal would say it should not be doing.

But the allegation is not even TRUE.

The aim of the Coalition cuts is no more than to reduce the State to THE SIZE THAT WE ARE ABLE TO PAY FOR. Hard Labour's own DOGMATIC insistence that the State not only CAN do everything but that it SHOULD do everything – right down to micro-managing your diet, exercise, television viewing and bedroom habits – meant spending more and more money – money we just didn't HAVE – doing more and more controlling of ordinary people. Whether they wanted it or not.

The plan – for this Parliament – is only to reduce the size of the State to the size of the money that we've got, so we're not adding to the debt mountain.

And the plan is for the WHOLE Parliament.

There will be SOME cuts this year, but this year's cuts will be comparatively modest, less than one pounds in a hundred. Most of the tax rises and spending cuts will not begin to take place until next year.

That's twelve to eighteen months AFTER we came out of the recession. If we go back into recession this year, it WON'T be because of the cuts, or even the VAT rise. It will be because the economy was too weak after years of Hard Labour; it will be because of pre-emptive and unnecessary action by unions and protest groups; and it will be because of FEAR and PANIC driven by people talking the country down and the possibility of recession up, possibly for their own political reasons.

Don't let Labour get you in a SPIN about this; don't confuse the ANNOUNCEMENT of the cuts with the IMPLEMENTATION of the cuts: the Government is NOT going to lop a quarter of spending off THIS YEAR. The Government is NOT going to make cuts "between" 25% and 40% - departments have been asked to LOOK at cuts of up to 40% for two very good reasons: if they have to look at 40% you can be sure they'll be serious about the first 25%, and if we can cut a little more in some departments then we can cut a little LESS in others, maybe education, maybe housing.

The cuts in spending for departments will AVERAGE OUT at 25% less in 2015 than Labour would have spent. Or rather were going to spend, before they announced their own cuts. The forty-four billion in cuts that were going to be SOMEWHERE – they won't say where, except that it’s nowhere the Coalition look at cutting.

So that's 25% less than Labour on average in five years time. EXCEPT in Health and International Development, because those areas are protected. And when you think about the very VERY worst off, those are the people who the International Development budget is spent on. Protecting the International Development budget means that Great Britain CAN give help when its needed, like it's needed now in the Pakistan floods.

People have been somehow SURPRISED that the Liberal Democrats have not just GONE ALONG with these budget plans, but enthusiastically SUPPORTED them. Weren't we supposed to be to the left of Hard Labour?

Well in the first place, HELLO! We had Master Gideon raise the personal allowance by a thousand pounds and pay for it by increasing the capital gains tax paid mostly by rich folks. That's a more genuine and honest redistribution than any of the complicated Tax Credit schemes and wheezes that Mr Frown and Hard Labour came up with.

And in the second place, did you not notice how we'd been BEGGING the Government to try and get borrowing under control since at least 2003. Nevermind the "Orange Book Tendency", that was so-called lefty, Mr Dr Saint Vince "the Power" Cable.

What we said all along was this: thanks to Mr Frown's TOTAL FAILURE OF MANAGEMENT, the economy got blown to bits by the Credit Crunch, a catastrophe to which we were UNIQUELY vulnerable because Mr Frown based so much of our economic well-being on the FICTION of a PERPETUAL winning streak in the gambling dens of the City of London, resulting in a longest recession in, well, ever, so the economy is now in a FRAGILE and DELICATE state.

Therefore, even thought we WANT to bring down the frankly INSANE level of Government debt, we want to do it CAUTIOUSLY, and based on ADVICE and EVIDENCE.

Our JUDGEMENT, without sight of the books – or Father Dick Byrne's now notorious note that "there's no money left", oh hahaha – was to cut more slowly.

Then Greece happened. Then we had the advice from the Governor of the Bank of England. Then we saw the state of the government's finances.

The facts changed. So we changed our minds.

We were persuaded that the whirlpool was more of a threat than the monster.

(Actually, that sums up the whole decision to for a Coalition with the Tories rather than the Labour Party.)

Marks out of ten: in the balance.

In fact, the REAL fact about a hundred days is… that it's just TOO EARLY to tell.

Most of people's fears are so far JUST fears – there's a bit of EXPECTATION MANAGEMENT by our side going on (tell you it's going to be badword diabolical and then hope that things are only dreadful) and a LOT of whipping up by Hard Labour (prophesying doom and disaster just like the completely DIDN'T before THEY ran the economy into the ground, remember!).

This Government is planning to last for one THOUSAND, eight HUNDRED and twenty four day, so this is just the first 5%. There's another 95% to go, with a lot of REAL pain to get through, but hopefully some light at the other end of the tunnel.


Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Day 3509: Mr Chris Grayling should NOT be allowed out on his own


Dear the Coalition, please remember that Mr Chris Grayling is NOT SAFE to be let out without a RESPONSIBLE ADULT present to SIT ON HIS HEAD whenever he starts spouting reactionary nonsense. Thank you.

Mr Balloon knew this before the General Election and had him quietly bundled away and locked in the playpen with Master Gideon for the duration.

But this morning he somehow managed to slip his training reins and get into the The Today Programme studio and, before anyone could stop him, started saying he would set BOUNTY HUNTERS on BENEFIT SEEKERS.

Let me just say this: SIGH.

In the firstly place, would it be REMOTELY possible to get through just one week without pandering to the Daily Hate Mail's desire to criminalise poverty and LAY OFF the people on benefits?

Handy BBC graphic shows us that deliberate fraud costs us THE SAME as mistakes by the benefits people. Here is an idea for FREE: it is CHEAPER to give your own staff proper training than it is to employ some consultants to start snooping through innocent folks credit card histories. So sort out your OWN mistakes before you start getting heavy with the people you are supposed to be helping.

And it's not even a good TARGET. As Auntie Jennie points out, tax evasion costs the rest of us FIFTEEN TIMES as much as scamming benefits!

Just one fraud, the VAT "carousel fraud" – where a fake importer/exporter claims to import stuff, say mobile phones or computer chips or, these days, carbon credits, then sells the stuff to a "partner" who then exports it again (possibly without the goods ever physically moving), reclaiming the VAT on the UK purchase while the first fella makes off into the night without paying the VAT on the UK sale back to the taxman – was estimate to cost the British taxpayer between a half and two billion pounds in 2008/09 according to Customs & Revenue's own accounts (large pdf); and it is estimated to cost over SIXTY billion euros across the EU.

Let me put that another way: if you set out to clear up fraud, you expect some success and some failure. If you target Tax Evasion and your successes only succeed in cutting it by 10%, you will still save MORE money than if you cleaned up 100% of benefit fraud.

Just think about what is REALISTICALLY ACHIEVABLE: clawing back just ONE pound in ten sounds like it might be doable; saying you'll clear up all the cheating on benefits which has defied governments from the hard right (Queen Maggie) to the also hard right (Lord Blairimort)… ridiculous.

And as I KEEP on having to say: the more COMPLICATED you make the system, the more likely you make it that SMART CROOKS will get the money and NEEDY POOR PEOPLE won't!

But in the secondly place, what, I mean WHAT in the name of all that is fluffy are we doing hiring so-called "Bounty Hunters" to start electronically snooping on people?

No, I'm not going to make this a gag about coconut flavoured chocolate bars, this is SERIOUS.

I mean did we not just go to a LOT of trouble to get RID of a Government that trampled roughshod over such trivia as the INTERNATIONALLY RECOGNISED HUMAN RIGHT TO PRIVACY?

Government's SHOULD NOT be routinely spying on their own people, effectively treating every benefit claimant as a guilty-until-forever-cos-you're-NEVER-proved-innocent potential fraudster. Hard Labour showed that governments find it all too easy to stumble from treating their voters as potential Stasi-esque informants to collusion in rendition and torture.

As for Mr Grayling, saying "oh, but the information is commercially available" is NO EXCUSE, you slap-headed NINCOMPOOP. So are LANDMINES but that didn't stop us signing a treaty that said it was MORALLY WRONG to use them ever again.

There are LOTS of things that are "commercially available" – pirate videos, Thai lady-boys, black market uranium – but would Mr Grayling suggest that the Government should dabble in any of those? No, actually, let's not go there.

For all that the Hard Labour opportunists were "milking it" over the weekend, we know that the Coalition IS capable of seeing policies that are BLOODY STUPID and changing its collective mind.

So, never mind Dog, the Bounty Hunter; this is a DOG of a POLICY. Let's send it to Battersea Dogs home. Along with the MILK.


Thursday, August 05, 2010

Day 3504: Hard Labour Betray You Again – They have Nothing Left But Their SPIN

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Today's Grauniad features a Call to Arms by the ORIGINAL "Phony Tony", Mr Wedgie Benn.
"It is time…" he says "…to organise a broad movement of active resistance to the Con-Dem government's budget intentions."
What the fluff does THAT mean? Strikes? Roadblocks? Burning lorries at major interchanges? A network of underground bunkers? Seizing control of the television channels? Strongly worded letters?

I realise, with "the A-Team" back in action, it's like the EIGHTIES never went away, so it's REALLY no surprise that Hard Labour, like the A-Team, are shooting off all over the place without ever hitting a target.

The former Viscount Stansgate continues:
"They plan the most savage spending cuts since the 1930s…"
That would be the Coalition's plans for savage cuts, just to distinguish them from Hard Labour's "more savage than Thatcher" cuts.
"…which will wreck the lives of millions by devastating our jobs, pay, pensions, NHS, education, transport, postal and other services."
Okay, couple of points first: "NHS" That would be the NHS with its spending ring-fenced, guaranteed an increase year on year at least as much as Hard Labour would have given. How is THAT going to be "devastated"?

(Oh, "the reorganisation" – please, DO explain how channelling finding to the front line and cutting out middle management is INEVITABLY bad?)

"Education" That would be the education system that has been specifically protected from the worst of the cuts, and where the Coalition will be INCREASING funds to the schools for the worst off kids under the Lib Dem's PUPIL PREMIUM policy. How is THAT going to be "devastated"?

(Oh, "the free schools" – please DO explain how City McAcademies are GOOD under Hard Labour and BAD under the Coalition; go on, tell us how CHOICE is good under Hard Labour but people volunteering to set up more schools for MORE choice is BAD under the Coalition.)

"Pensions". Those would be the pensions where the Coalition has just RESTORED the link to earnings, something Hard Labour NEVER DID in thirteen years, where in fact the Coalition has gone further with a triple lock protection that will see state pensions rise by whichever is MOST of earnings, prices or 2.5%. How are THOSE going to be "devastated"?

(Oh, the "raising of the retirement age" – please DO explain how you were going to PAY for people to go on living longer and longer with fewer and fewer people of working age to support you all in your evermore extended retirement.)

There ARE going to be cuts, and they ARE going to be TOUGH, but these HORROR stories are really OVERPLAYING the Hard Labour hand.

How painful does it have to be?

It's often said, if you ask someone to cut 10% of their spending, they will grimace and grumble and find a way to do it, but if you ask them to cut a QUARTER of their spending then they will think it's IMPOSSIBLE.

But you've got to remember that the Coalition's proposals are not for 25% cuts THIS YEAR. We are proposing 25% cuts "in real terms" over the five years of the Parliament.

"In real terms" here means "if inflation were zero" or "you're allowed to spend a bit MORE for inflation before you work out your cut".

Look, just suppose we are looking at a Labour budget and they were going to spend £100 this year. Let's assume that inflation is the Government's target of 2%. Each year we will try to spend 4% less.

This year: we spend £96 when Labour would have spent £100.

Next year: we spend £92 when Labour would have spent £102 (that's £100 plus 2% inflation).

The year after: we spend £88 when Labour would have spend £104.

The year after that: we spend £85 when Labour would have spent £106.

In the fifth year: we spend £81 when Labour would have spent £108.

£81 is 25% less than £108. We've actually got to the Coalition's target by cutting JUST 4% each year.

Does that sound a bit more manageable now?

I don't want to oversell this. Cutting 4% in Year 1, I think we could all see that as doable. I'm sure we can all think that there are things that the Government does that it doesn't need to do. But once you've taken out those things, the so-called "low hanging fruits", it's going to get harder to keep on tightening the belt year on year.

Pay freezes will help. Recruitment freezes will help. There's no denying that those things are going to be painful, though: they mean people doing more for the same money, while prices go up (not least because we're putting up VAT!), so they get relatively poorer. And they mean young people not having as many opportunities to enter the workplace. These things are HARD.

But Hard Labour isn't interested in doing things that are HARD; they want to take the EASY route of FRIGHTENING people, and LYING to people to say that it's not necessary, that we don't need to cut spending, that the magic pixies would keep on giving us gold from the end of the rainbow (China).

Oh look:
"The government claims the cuts are unavoidable because the welfare state has been too generous. This is nonsense. Ordinary people are being forced to pay for the bankers' profligacy."
Oh yes, I thought we'd come to this: it's ALL the BANKERS fault. That's Hard Labour's only excuse. You can't blame US; it's ALL the BANKERS fault!


Who BORROWED all that money from bankers, eh? Hard Labour, that's who! Mr Frown was spending WAY more than the country could afford for YEARS before the credit crunch. And it was all ON TICK. All those extra jobs in the public sector – paid for with other people's money; all those arts grants and community schemes – paid for on the never-never; all those promised school rebuilding programs – paid for with money that never even existed. Typical Hard Labour, expecting someone else to come along afterwards and pick up the tab for them.

And what about the rest of us? That housing bubble didn't come out of nowhere. It was inflated by people borrowing money against assets that weren't worth it.

Oh yes, the bankers were COMPLICIT – complicit up to their eyebrows, some of them – but it takes TWO to TANGO. People borrowed, and Hard Labour encouraged them to borrow, money to fund a nice life. But it wasn't ever REAL. Sooner or later the money would run out.

We were ALL profligate. Whether it was personally or whether it was because Mr Frown was buying an army of pen-pushers in our name, we all, as a country, spent far too much.

No more boom and bust was a LIE. It was the lie that Hard Labour told to keep us all running those credit cards.

Saying that the recession was "all the bankers fault" is Hard Labour's NEW lie to excuse their own GUILT.
"The £11bn welfare cuts, rise in VAT to 20%, and 25% reductions across government departments target the most vulnerable – disabled people, single parents, those on housing benefit, black and other ethnic minority communities, students, migrant workers, LGBT people and pensioners."
I don't know about you, but I don't know that I LIKE my gay daddies being classed as a "most vulnerable" by this hereditary politician. I don't know that I like seeing people bundled up in a SHOPPING LIST of "categories", either, as though we just OUGHT to owe allegiance to the Great Nanny of Hard Labour just because of some quirk or characteristic or other. I've never really liked Hard Labour's habit of putting people on LISTS… it's SINISTER… it's just a short step from that to their habit of ROUNDING PEOPLE UP. And then come the "detention orders". No, I don't like this AT ALL.

Explain to me HOW the Coalition cuts TARGET minorities, signle parents, gay daddies, and AGAIN with the pensioners? We don't even know what the cuts ARE yet, so either you can see the future (so you should have seen this coming) or you are MAKING THINGS UP.

The people who will see the cuts first aren't the people on your list; they are the people who've signed your letter who MAKE A LIVING OFF of the people on your list, those "community spokespeople" and "local organisers" who make little empires out of Government grants. Maybe we'd take you more SERIOUSLY if you were suggesting that we could save a few NURSES jobs by cutting back on some of them.

Or are you just trying to FRIGHTEN as many people as possible?

"Women are expected to bear 75% of the burden."
Oh you ARE just trying to frighten people. "Expected" by whom, may I ask?
"The poorest will be hit six times harder than the richest."
Yes, that was "proved" by the FIB-ian society, wasn't it, and has quickly become an old favourite in the Hard Labour song book. Of course it's total nonsense, because it assumes that every single penny of Government spending reaches the "frontline", that everything they spend OUR cash on has a "cash value" to each and every one of us. And we are worse off by cuts according to how much we would have to spend to make up the difference. So it assumes that if the Coalition cut the armed forces by 10% it assumes we would have to pony up the equivalent cost to provide mercenaries to fill the shortfall. It assumes that if the Coalition cuts a layer of middle management, we would shell out to employ the bureaucrats ourselves. I suspect we might just make do with fewer bureaucrats. (Sorry Lady Mark!)

"Internal Treasury documents estimate 1.3 million job losses in public and private sectors."
And ALSO expect more people to be in employment; you can't just take the job losses and ignore the potential gains. Well you can, but it's DEEPLY DISHONEST.

We reject this malicious vandalism…
Again, resorting to name calling. You don't have an ARGUMENT so you just ascribe ill-will rather than address an alternative point of view. No one is allowed to think thoughts the Wedgie does not allow.
…and resolve to campaign for a radical alternative…
Which would be WHAT, exactly?
…with the level of determination shown by trade unionists and social movements in Greece and other European countries.
Because RIOTS and STRIKES are SO helping put the Greek economy back on a sound footing.

This government of millionaires…
More name-calling; what's WRONG with being a millionaire?
…says "we're all in it together"
We are.
…and "there is no alternative".
No, that was the REAL Eighties; come back from the Time Warp.
But, for the wealthy, corporation tax is being cut, the bank levy is a pittance, and top salaries and bonuses have already been restored to pre-crash levels.
Corporation Tax is a tax on the profits of companies, not on "the rich"; I know it's NICE to conflate the two, but not ALL businesses are super-massive corporations. Most, in fact, are not.

Cutting Corporation Tax is to encourage home-grown businesses to grow and foreign businesses to invest here, so that there will be more JOBS for those working people you claim to speak for. And the Bank Levy is set to be more than the banks save in lower Corporation Tax.

As for the bonus culture, do you see anyone in the Coalition DISAGREEING with you? Aren't we actually doing MORE than Hard Labour to tackle excessive bonuses and force the banks to do actual banking and lend to businesses in need?

An alternative budget would place the banks under democratic control…
Like British Leyland that Wedgie nationalised so successfully in the Seventies?
…and raise revenue by increasing tax for the rich…
which the Coalition did already, see Capital Gains Tax
…plugging tax loopholes
with you there
…withdrawing troops from Afghanistan
er, that doesn't raise any revenue
…abolishing the nuclear "deterrent" by cancelling the Trident replacement.
, um, likewise. Though you'll notice that the Liberal Democrats want Trident to be IN the defence review. Unlike Hard Labour.
An alternative strategy could use these resources to:
No, you've missed the WHOLE POINT. You can't just say you will DIVERT the overspending from things you don't like to things you do like.

I will say this very slowly and clearly.


Basically, the rest of his no-longer-lordship's manifesto is to OPPOSE for the sake of OPPOSITION because Conservatories are just BAD and the Liberals DON'T COUNT and are SELL OUTS anyway.

It is WORDS without POLICIES. It is POLITICS without MEANING.

How many times have you heard phrases like: the Lib Dems "sold their principles for power", the Coalition is "gerrymandering" or "partisan"; policies are "ideological"?

Which principles are we supposed to have sold out? Is it not the Labour Party's aim to get into power again? Does that mean that you've sold your principles too or that you do not have any?

If we're "partisan" for saying that a system that disproportionately favours the Labour Party must be made fairer, how does that make you NOT "partisan" for opposing that? In fact, how is it POSSIBLE for one Party to be partisan and the other not and still disagree?

And what's WRONG a bit of ideology? We just had a General Election where people supposed chose the ideology that represented them – yes, the outcome we got was a bit of a MIX of ideologies: Liberal, Conservative, whatever-it-is-that-Labour-are-supposed-to-stand-for-now-they've-dumped-Socialism. That's DEMOCRACY.

In a proper argument, these words and phrases ought to MEAN something, but Hard Labour are just using them all as synonyms for "bad".

Hard Labour have NOTHING to say. They are using LANGUAGE rather than POLICY to oppose the Coalition. They want to FRIGHTEN rather than PERSUADE anyone of an alternative. In the absence of something to say, they are just using the only thing that is left to them. SPIN.

That is the REAL irony here: Hard Labour are the ones, by their actions, who are saying "there is no alternative".


Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Day 3503: Oh God! Have I Turned into a Tory?


So, here we are, ninety days into the Coalition and life in Government doesn't seem like it's as much FUN as I expected.

Sure if you're actually IN Government I bet it's LOADS of fun, with all those actual levers of power to pull, but for those of us SUPPORTING a Party that's at least kind-of in power, there's a whole load of uncomfortable accommodating to get used to.

Plus we have to put up with being the butt of all the JOKES on "Mock My Week Up" and the "Not Now Show". Yes, play the World's smallest violin.

The problem isn't so much putting up with the jokes – it's not like they've become any less FEEBLE since the "party conference in a taxi" days – it's more finding yourself suddenly shouting at the radio: "no, you idiot, the Government HAS to do this because…" (a sentence that increasingly finishes with a combination of the words: "Hard Labour", "money" and "wasted all the"), and realising with a bit of a SHOCK that you are DEFENDING the Government. Worse still, you actually AGREE with what the Government is proposing!

Case in point:

For a while now, I have been arguing that we should make tax and benefits SIMPLER.

Only blow me if Master Gideon isn't saying we should simply the tax system and if Mr Iain Drunken Swerve isn't saying we should simplify the benefit system.

Oh crumbs, have I turned to the DARK SIDE?!

I think that this is a simple question of FAIRNESS: people should be able to UNDERSTAND what they are being asked to contribute or what they are getting. Firstly, I think that that give people more control over their government if they can see what is being raised. Secondly, I believe that if people can understand their tax more then they are less likely to try and avoid it.

It is well known that UNIVERSAL benefits have a much higher take-up rate: because there is less STIGMA attached (it's something everyone is owed) or perhaps because there are fewer forms to fill in and hoops to jump through. This means that the BEST benefits for reaching those most in need are the ones everyone can get: pension and child benefit.

The DOWN SIDE of a UNIVERSAL benefit, of course, is that there is perceived to be a lot of "waste" spending money on people who "don't really need it".

(Actually, there's a whole road you can go down about "who DECIDES who needs what",; and about how some needs can be disguised by apparent wealth in a partner or family when it's not being shared about; and about inclusivity of treatment if we ARE supposed to be "all in it together" then telling the better off they don't get anything out and have to put everything in is going to alienate your all-important tax base, who in the end have to PAY for the benefits for other people – i.e. you don't want to convince them to vote for something much FURTHER to the right.)

It seems to me that the simplest you can make the system is one called a "Citizen's Income" linked to a "flat tax".

How it works is this: everyone over the age of sixteen gets an "income" from the state just for living here. Then everything you earn, however you receive it whether in cash or shares or moonbeams, is all taxed at a single tax rate. You get NO personal allowances and NO tax credits, but equally you get no withdrawal of the Citizen's Income: you are ALWAYS better off if you do even just a bit of work than if you do none.

You could suggest a system that was something like £100 a week in Citizen's Income, about the level of the current state pension (or 50% more than a lot of benefits), and a tax rate of somewhere in the thirties, let's say 35% for neatness.

Unfortunately I've tried bashing Daddy Richard's calculator and it's just not that easy to make the maths add up.

Hold on to your Carol Vorderman's; here we go:

If there are sixty-two million people in Great Britain, and let's guess that 16% are 16 or under (that's about right), then £100 a week each for everyone costs: (62m x 84% x 100 x 52) two hundred and seventy-one billion pounds.

If the average salary is twenty-five thousand pounds (pdf), and twenty-eight million people (pdf) are in employment, then the total "earnings" of the country is: (25 x 1000 x 28 x 1,000,000) seven hundred billion quid.

So you'd need a tax rate of 39% just to break even.

But what you've got to remember is that the Government DOESN'T just break even on the tax and benefits, it pays for stuff like the NHS and schools and the army out that tax too.

Estimating a bit here, from last year's red book (pdf), let's say the Government CURRENTLY hopes to get in something two hundred and fifty billion from taxes on earnings (income tax and national insurance). It then spends say a hundred and forty billion of that on benefits (which it wouldn't have to do) and a further seventeen billion on tax credits (which would go) leaving it with net money coming in of about ninety-three billion pounds, so that's money you'd still have to raise or else cut something truly eye-watering.

Ninety-three is a bit more than 13% of seven hundred, so you're looking at a "flat tax" tax rate of (39 + 13) more than 52%.


Actually, there IS a bit of a fix for that: those taxes on earnings include the EMPLOYERS' share of National Insurance (that thing that the Conservatories always call the "jobs tax"). Well, if you DON'T abolish the Employer's National Insurance when you create the flat tax, then you can use that to trim the flat rate down a little, to maybe somewhere nearer 45%.

But that's still quite a HARSH tax rate if you are trying to encourage people that work is worthwhile. Almost every other penny they earn goes to the taxman. And it doesn't give you a lot of room for adding a Local Income Tax on top, either.

And I agree, £100 a week DOESN'T sound a lot to live on, either, particularly when you include the cost of housing (although it would be a bit easier for couples who get two lots of £100). Just think about the GRIEF that the Coalition are getting for limiting housing benefit to £400 a week, and then ponder what it might be like to tell people it will be abolished altogether!

Ouch again!

In pure cash terms, almost everyone IN WORK who earns LESS than the National Average would be better off; almost everyone who earns MORE than the National Average would be WORSE off, and perhaps substantially, although ironically the very highest earners (currently paying 50% tax plus 2% NI and with their personal allowance withdrawn) would actually be better off again. A lot of people on benefits could be a good bit better off; but a lot of people could be worse off too – the system is just too complicated to know without a lot of time on the Treasury Master Computer Brain to work it out.

Here, though, is where I think I depart from Mr Drunken Swerve.

If SOME people do not want to work, if they think they can survive on £100 a week… I say good luck to 'em.

My aim is to LIBERATE people. Primarily, I want to liberate them from the ELEPHANT TRAP BENEFIT TRAP that means that it is often worth more to remain stuck in dependency than to go out and better yourself.

What I DON'T want to do is replace one form of TYRANNY with another: to replace dependency on State handouts with some Puritan ideal of compulsory work.

Now, I realise there IS a risk involved in this: if TOO many people decide that work is too much trouble then the whole system will fall to bits. I have to rely on a good half of the population sticking with the British Work Ethic or it all goes kabloohey.

The way I see it, there will always be people who are not able to work: they might be ill or old or pregnant or caring for someone else or any number of things, and it's really not my BUSINESS to make some MORAL statement about whether they should or shouldn't be working.

This system would make sure that they are looked after. A bit.

Equally, there are always likely to be some people who are too lazy to be bothered or clever enough to work the system who want to skive off. And there ALWAYS WILL BE.

So let's not PRETEND that we can devise systems that can stop that. Particularly not systems that are going to have to be run by an underpaid, understaffed civil service. Making the system more COMPLICATED only helps the scammers – if the people OPERATING the system don't understand it (and at the moment it's so complicated that NO ONE understands it!) then how are they supposed to know when they are being conned?

You can't legislate laziness out of existence, nor can you be clever enough to put cleverest conmen off of cadging off the rest of us, at least not without SERIOUSLY penalising the people who really can't work and don't deserve to be punished for the p-taking of a very few others.

So, at the end of the day, I think I've convinced myself that I'm NOT turning into a Conservatory after all.

Which is a relief.

And which can only mean one thing: if I'm not becoming more Conservatory, then the Conservatories must be becoming more LIBERAL.

Maybe there's hope for this Coalition yet.

Now… what do I do with this nice RED LIGHT-SABRE that Mr Balloon has sent me?


Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Day 3501: DOCTOR WHO: Amy's Choice


Well, with this now available on shiny silver disc and shiny blu disc, it's way past time Daddy Richard got the last of his reviews of this year's Doctor Woo done.

It's DEFINITELY the best episode for ELEPHANTS.

Dr Woo says Amy's got all ELEPHANT-y; then he mentions an ELEPHANT in the room (it's Mr Rory's pony elephant tail) and there's even a BOUNCY ELEPHANT in the playground. Tops for elephants!

I have to warn you, though, there's a HUGE twist, which Daddy is going to blow in about three paragraphs, so if you're at all SPOILERPHOBIC: look away now!

This has to be a candidate (up against "Vincent and the Doctor") for best story of the season, cleverly interweaving a two-for-the-price-of-one pair of adventures, one inside and one outside the TARDIS, one in the Doctor's world and one in Rory's. It's a thinking story, and as such it may not quite win the kids over immediately in the way that colourful Daleks can, but, as with stories like "Kinda", "Warrior's Gate" or most obviously "The Mind Robber", it may be one to come back to again later.

And of course, it's how to do "Fear Her" and do it right.

Toby Jones as our host the Dream Lord brings a delicious mix of bitterness, melancholy and whimsy to what is, let's say it, a dream of a part. Two parts god to two parts Mephistopheles to one part evil House Elf, he's the best of many, many brilliant things here.

Watched the first time, he's both a diabolical adversary with a witty line in repartee and an intriguing puzzle to figure out: the Doctor knows who he is, so who is he? The Master of the Land of Fiction? The Celestial Toymaker? One of the Guardians? Penry, the Mild-Mannered Janitor…? Something even more fanwanky? Actually, no.

Watched a second time, knowing that he's the Doctor, obviously he's the Doctor, of course he's the Doctor, then he's a devastating critique of our hero's insecurities and self-doubts.

His first appearance is in a dishevelled version of the Doctor's own get up, mocking the Time Lord for his quirks, mocking him for his bow tie as he stands there in a bow tie. It transforms the Doctor's repeated catchphrase that "bow ties are cool" from self-confident assertion of style to repeated self-justification in the face of worrying he looks like a tit.

Then look out for the way that the Dream Lord reveals some of the Doctor's other traits too. He appears as "lord of the manor", a sure sign of the Doctor's Time Lordly arrogance, and as a "butcher", hardly insignificant. And as for the brief glimpse he affords to Amy of himself in his louche dressing gown… well, let's just say that the Doctor's thoughts about her might not be quite so pure and innocent as we might otherwise suggest.

Alex points out how in Rory's dream world, Rory gets to be a proper doctor and the Doctor is relegated to his junior. Except then the Dream Lord enters and promotes himself to consultant, as something nasty in the Doctor's subconscious pulls rank on Rory once again.

He also gives himself away twice. Once in each dream. The Doctor only spots the second time.

In Upper Ledworth, in the butcher's shop the Doctor bolts the door to stop the possessed old-folks getting in. The Dream Lord cheerily unbolts it. He clearly, unambiguously affects the physical world, thus proving it to be a dream. Sadly the Doctor's too busy trying to stay awake to notice.

In the TARDIS, he physically affects the console, releasing them from the grip of the "cold star". Only this time the Doctor does realise the discrepancy and hence blows up the ship, ending the second dream too.

He's almost a metaphor for Brecht's "estrangement technique", constantly drawing attention to the unreality of the situation to try to teach the Doctor to think, to realise that "reality" is as much a "constructed object" and is a changeable as these dream world. Essentially, he's the living embodiment of "history can be rewritten". Mind you, if it is Brecht, it's Brecht staged for the TARDIS crew, with us watching them watching the Dream Lord. The fourth wall is alluded to but never actually broken. It's a play within a play that can have its postmodernism and eat it.

Is there any way that we can say that the Dream Lord isn't the Valeyard?

I mean obviously, putting them into a lethal dreamworld powered by their own darkest thoughts, he's clearly the "despair squid" from "Red Dwarf's" "Back to Reality". The Doctor even quotes the title of that episode the first time they "wake up" in the TARDIS. As Timothy Spall might say: "it's a clue, that; it's a blatant clue".

But as a distillation of every dark thought that the Doctor ever had, he's definitely got the Valeyard's job description.

Notice how the Dream Lord takes the Doctor's characteristics and twists them while remaining essentially true to his nature: the "student chic" becomes decidedly un-chic chic; the cleverness becomes the condescension of a know-it-all; charisma becomes weaseliness and improvisation becomes manipulation; the Doctor's wit, humour, desire to explain become sniping that is positively snide…

"Ask me what happens if you die in reality… you die, idiot, that's why it's called reality."

…And then remember that the Valeyard, tall, gaunt, pale, dressed in unrelieved black and yet still a one for the grandiloquent turn of phrase – "sagacity" – stands as an imperfect mirror to the flamboyant, bombastic, larger- not to mention louder-than-life and altogether alliterative sixth Doctor.

Alex suggests that unlike the Valeyard, the Dream Lord doesn't have "agency", essentially he's just a symptom of the magic fairy dust, not a being in his own right.

Yet he seems perfectly sentient. He's capable of being surprised by the Doctor, which suggests a degree of independence. If his objective is to keep the Doctor and companions trapped in their dreams, does that not leave him taking over the Doctor for the remainder of his lives? And, without getting too much into "The Trial of a Time Lord", the existence of the Valeyard as a separate entity required "special conditions" too, not least access to the "dreamscape" of the Time Lords' Matrix. In the sand dunes, where the Valayard makes his big speech (oh you know the one; it's the "Catharsis of Spurious Morality"), he flits from point to point, his presence discontinuous but his speech carries on without missing a beat. Just as the Dream Lord does around the console room. The Trial, with its visions of past, present and future, is modelled on "A Christmas Carol" where the visitations of the Spirits pass in a single night, again suggestive of dreams.

And, while I do realise that it's a visual metaphor, the brief moment at the end of the Dream Lord reflected in the console presents the possibility that he persists, at least if no more than in the Doctor's mind.

The disturbing possibility occurs that the Doctor may, in fact, have engineered the entire scenario, set this all up in order to "sort Amy out". The appearance of the Dream Lord's face there not as a reminder that he must still exist, suppressed, within the Doctor's psyche, but as a glimpse of guilt for having done it all deliberately. Then the much-derided magic space pollen may have been as much his excuse for all that just happened as it is the writer's.

It's not beyond the eleventh Doctor to be that manipulative, as we have seen at the end of "The Eleventh Hour" and will see again at the end of "The Big Bang".

Because really this story is really about the Doctor's choice, how his subconscious (or conscious?) is given an opportunity to make Amy pick Rory or rather to make her realise that she has already picked Rory.

So the title is a bit of a cheat. To suggest Amy has an actual choice – between the Doctor and Rory – was only ever going to be true if they both loved her back. In which case, Jennie would be perfectly correct when she says: "well why can't Amy choose both?"

But the Doctor doesn't love Amy. The Doctor loves Rose.

He loved Rose for the best part of two lifetimes and we've no particular reason to think he's stopped. It's almost been a bit shocking – if you take away the all-change attitude in the producer's chair – that he hasn't mentioned her, hasn't even alluded to her all this season. And it's not like she wasn't the last person her saw before crashing his TARDIS into Amy's garden shed, so she's hardly out of his mind, unless the regeneration "healed" those particular synapses too…

He sees Amy as a "companion". It's rather lovely at the end to see that he picks companions who are bright and shining people to compensate for the sense of darkness in his own soul. That's such a good and obvious explanation, so much better than ones we've had before: it's not just about him enjoying the Universe by sharing their wonder at the newness, it's not just about him needing someone to stop him, it's about him wanting to be around people who will make him a better person. It may also help to explain, if not excuse, his behaviour towards Martha.

But it does mean that for him there's a jarring mismatch between the way he sees his friends-who-share-the-TARDIS and the sort of people he might flirt with (see Todd in "Kinda" or Jabe in "The End of the World" if you think he's above flirting!). This may in fact be the biggest character flaw revealed in an episode that is all about the Doctor's character flaws.

Or to put it another way: how can you expect anything other than a great big "fail" from the Doctor in an episode where his idea of sorting out relationship issues is to come up with a warped version of himself to inflict hell on all concerned? Isn't the whole point of this story that the Doctor is so screwed up he can't even talk to his best friends without rendering them all unconscious first?

And of course, it's worth remembering that the TARDIS crew are saved by rejecting both choices, rejecting the false idea of choice altogether.

The episode manages to contrive the impression of a "bottle show", one all made on standing sets and with few more than the regular cast, which is of course only half true: specifically the half set aboard the TARDIS. Well, all right, it's all really set in the TARDIS, but I mean the half in the TARDIS-dream. And yet, there's actually quite a lot of location footage and quite a lot of stunt work and quite a large cast of extras in the Ledworth scenes: not just a regular army of old people possessed by the Eknodine – a superbly spooky effect, by the way, the eye, another eye like the Atraxi and after the significance of eyes in the Angels' story, emerging from the mouth making them seem much more "hollowed out" than any Slitheen skinsuit – but also quite a lot of people who the Doctor rescues in the minibus before dropping them off to take shelter in the church, and a good few children, last seen playing in the castle grounds.

It may be off-screen, but how many Doctor Who stories get away with slaughtering a dozen children? Oh yes they do – just count the piles of ashes. And they say Torchwood's "Children of Earth" is grim.

The "Day of the (nearly) Dead" sequences, as zombie OAPs attack with various unlikely garden tools, are both disturbing and hilarious. Rory shows his special charm as he can't quite bring himself to club an old lady until Amy orders him to do it. (Add to that his sweet apologies when he repeatedly bumps her sleeping body up the stairs. And then he goes and drops her head!)

It was a shame that we didn't see Annette Crosby or Arthur "Cully" Cox from "The Eleventh Hour" again, which would have added a touch of verisimilitude to the dream-Ledworth's continuity – but Alex was particularly pleased to see once-upon-a-time Aggedor Nick Hobbs as elderly Mr Nainby. "Aggedor's the one who growls when he's thrown off the dormobile!" he says delightedly.

It's possible that the name of the home where the unnaturally-long-lived oldies reside, "Sarn", is another clue, being as it's also the name of the planet in "Planet of Fire" where you can find a longevity-inducing volcanic gas.

The twittering of birds as the Dream Lord shunts them from one version to the other seems to be a misdirect to make the Ledworth world seem the more real one – after all, they hear the birdsong in the TARDIS too. But then, almost magically, the rain in Ledworth turns to snow, as though the cold from the "cold star" is bleeding through from the TARDIS-dream to the Ledworth reality too.

Of course, it's not a "cold star at all; it's an accidental bit of precience, as it's the CGI sun from "The Big Bang" with the yellow taken out.

This blending of dreams and reality is, of course, where the episode perfectly captures the essence of "fairy story" where Stephen Moffat has said he sees the series as being. The inherent warning to "be careful what you wish for", the way that things which seem too good to be true really are, the way the "bad fairy" is vanquished by trusting to what you believe, slaughtering the cute kiddies: these are all very Grimm tropes.

And yet, ironically, this is also the story that has the harshest words to say about believing life is like a fairy tale.

"What's the good of you, then?" Amy protests when the Doctor admits that he doesn't save everybody every time.

It's the cry of the little Amy who still keeps all of her childhood dolls and drawing of the raggedy Doctor, who still plays dressing up games, who could never bring herself to grow up, because growing up means leaving the fairy tale world and facing the harsh world of no happily ever afters.

In a sense she accepts marrying the man she loves, but still rejects the fairy tale ending of the wedding dress. In a way, that leaves Amy's Choice unresolved, and quite right too. In traditional drama, the midpoint – as this is – of the "dramatic W" should see events build to an anti-climax, which leaves tension unresolved until the true climax at the end. And Amy's Choice will remain unresolved until the end of the season, which this episode strongly foreshadows.

Final thought: In one dream, Rory dies. In another dream, the TARDIS explodes. And then they all wake up. I'm just saying.

Next time… You can thank your lucky (cold) stars that I've already done Master Chibnall's festival of all things Pertwee, and we can move straight along to a review of the whole season.