Friday, 23 January 2015

It must be hard to be Ed Miliband

It must be really hard to be Ed Miliband. Never really the first choice of his Parliamentary companions, he hasn’t quite gotten to grips with leading the Labour party, whilst being perceived by some as a champagne socialist out his depth with the realities of modern British life.

The truth of the matter is far more complex. Mr Miliband’s father was a celebrated intellectual of the old left. The skill set that he engendered plays badly to the modern electorate, where charisma is as important as brainpower in a cut-and-thrust age of frontline technopolitics. It has left the Leader of the Opposition cutting a lonely figure over the last five years. No-one can deny that he has worked hard at his narrative, consistently and dependably.

For all of his five years as Leader of the Opposition, his greatest achievement – in the eyes of most voters – is the founding fratricide which secured him the role. Yet that is to undervalue the man who describes himself as being tested for the role of Prime Minister of our country.

We can be more generous. Ed Miliband’s leadership has not lacked energy. Indeed, he came to his present role having been Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Some critics might suggest that he has not changed the political climate very much, but even that is harsh. Back in 2010, who could predict that the Labour Party would struggle to hold their seats in Scotland. Indeed, at the last general election, Labour’s vote in Scotland was growing and strengthening – at precisely the time that it was collapsing elsewhere.

Then there is the matter of context, where bad news is good news, politically at least. This week’s unemployment figures were good news for the nation, but not so much for Labour. It was possible to get some Labour front-benchers to admit this – through distorted faces. But they fail to admit that good economic news doesn’t happen by chance: and it is time that they confessed that their vision of a return to 1970s socialism would inhibit prosperity (just as it did back then).

Miliband has been loyal to his narrative. I do not doubt that he is a man of genuine conviction and a kind heart. In that respect, the cards which he has been dealt have been especially harsh. True, there’s not a great deal in his agenda with which I have much sympathy, but that doesn’t diminish the human qualities of the man. So, whether it be his admission that there need be no change in our membership of the European Union; his failure to remember the public finances in his conference speech; his calls for price fixing through freezing the costs of energy at the market peak; his demands for rent control; his passion for punitive taxation which fail to increase the revenues generated; or his absolute capitulation to Labour’s trade union payments – the one message which is very clear, even to Labour supporters, is that their platform is irrelevant.

So how can a man of inherently good qualities go so badly wrong? There are two key reasons.

Firstly, he was one of the primary lieutenants under Gordon Brown. The last Prime Minister’s legacy still keeps floating past us in the pool of Westminster. Every charge levied against the Coalition Government over cuts, pay restraint and public finance squeeze has its root cause in a Treasury that was so badly managed it’s taking us years merely to get this far in unravelling the killer deficit without breaking the economy.

The truly fatal flaw in Miliband’s leadership, however, is his shadow Chancellor. Labour has been unable to establish any credibility on the most significant issue of the Parliament. Each and every call on the economy ends up one of two ways: it either falls flat straightaway or ends up disproved in time. The very presence of Ed Balls has removed from the Leader of the Opposition the space needed to create his own agenda and escape from the horrors of the past. The Green Party has already proven that having two leaders is a system of failure. At least in their case it leads to collective blame and responsibility.

Still sat alongside his bumbling Shadow Chancellor, it must have been a miserable few years for Ed Miliband. Unable to craft the policies that must have spurred the young man into politics in the first place, bound by the dogma of a party at war over its very soul. On one flank he has his Shadow Chancellor, acolyte of a former Prime Minister, with ambitions of the leadership. Other young pretenders circle around him – or indignantly walk out of television studios - bearing aspirations of their own.

I wonder how long before the man himself gives up on the whole rotten business.

Friday, 16 January 2015

It's all about tolerance

No religion justifies the actions of those responsible for the terrorist murders in Paris last week. But these killings are a symptom of a relationship with faith that has gone horribly wrong. The Islamist reaction is the most extreme, but the levels of hurt being inflicted goes far deeper and creates much unnecessary pain.

I share the horror which has been expressed so widely at the outrage of slaughter. The image of a young Muslim police officer pleading for his life on the ground before being assassinated at close range highlighted the incoherence of the cold-blooded killers. Nobody is authorised to kill in the name of God, and to do so requires a distortion of faith.

But the reaction to the psychopathic slaughter in Paris has acquired a momentum which obscures the principal message. And it is both brave and helpful that the Pope has sought to draw attention to the fundamental point. Rights are always combined with responsibility – and it is an inescapable fact that no-one can say whatever they like about other people without engendering hatred. That someone is capable of causing egregious offence does not mean that they should.

In the rush to express sympathy with the victims of the terrorist atrocity, I fear that we have become blind to a distorted secularism which believes that it has the right to show a profound disrespect for others and their beliefs. I do not justify violence in the cause of offence, but am uncomfortable with the hypocrisy which has characterised the response.

This so-called satirical publication seems to have caused offence with a sense of impunity. That it chose to spread its unpleasantness so widely and so repetitively is hardly a mitigating consideration; that only the most extreme Islamists elected a homicidal reaction does not mean that others have not been hurt or offended by its appetite to belittle and demean other people’s most profound and sincere beliefs. True, those producing and reading Charlie Hebdo found some amusement in the hateful scorn they directed towards religion and politics, but is it possible to construct a cohesive society around such a profound absence of mutual respect?

My belief in free speech is profound; but I worry at the growing absence of tolerance and respect. For most people of faith, their religion is a source of that very tolerance and respect – God is not vengeful. Yet this gratuitous secularism cannot ignore its responsibility to those others in the society in which we share. Knowingly degrading and insulting other people’s beliefs is hurtful, and hateful. Whilst no religion justifies a violent reaction, one is entitled to query the creed of those who choose deliberately to inflict that harm upon fellow human beings.

It is right to question and challenge the orthodoxies of religion and politics in a mature society. But perhaps we need to do rather more to consider the consequences of where unadulterated free speech has taken us? I regret that, in defending the right of those to express themselves as they wish, it seems that only the Pope has stressed the need to be mindful of the way in which that will be received by others.

In the aftermath of those dreadful murders, many have said that they stand up for free speech – and procuring a copy of the publication has been seen as a positive gesture of solidarity. We have seen the gathering of political leaders in accordance with that very principle. Ministers have promised yet again that they will be as intolerant of intolerance as they will be tolerant of tolerance. But I would rather that, when it comes to toleration and accommodation, there was more of an instinctive desire not to sneer and deride those whose profound beliefs are different from one’s own, but to exercise the greater strength of seeking not to harm, hurt or offend others. Surely that should be the greater priority?​

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The true cost of a railway industry unresponsive to its passengers

It has become a depressingly familiar ritual: rail passengers from Northampton – as elsewhere in the country – receive their New Year clobbering at the hands of increased rail fares. For those commuting from the town to London, the price of their journeys is now an eye-watering figure more than £6,000 – with the price of monthly season tickets amounting to a figure just under £7,000 a year.

Notwithstanding that the level of service which these passengers receive is far from satisfactory this figure is stretching the affordability of our railways to those who depend upon it for work. Northampton has embraced the opportunities for growth, and the re-development of our station should provide a more effective portal to new economic potential. In part driven by the colossal house prices nearer to London, but also given the increasing attractiveness of Northampton, our town is set to grow significantly in coming years. We have embraced that, but we risk creating a situation where, in the words of a former Transport Secretary, our railways are the preserve only of the wealthy.

There is some evidence that the Government get this. Despite the immense pressure on our public finances, the Chancellor has restrained growth in regulated rail fares for the last few years. Passengers continue to pay an increasingly larger part of the costs of the industry, but that does not mean that taxpayers should share in the frustration at the spiralling expenses of a railway which delivers poor value for money combined with an inadequate level of service.

Part of the problem is structural. Our railways were privatised in the mid-1990s, but the benefits of innovation and passenger focus were frustrated near birth. Labour’s approach to franchising was excessively-prescriptive, and the few who tried to address the needs of rail passengers were expunged. We were given a Strategic Rail Authority which was abolished for putting together a strategy. Be in no doubt, there is very limited room for train operators to face their passengers direct: all of the levers of our rail industry are now pulled by officials in the Department for Transport.

That is combined by frightening levels of inefficiency. As a businessman, I fail to comprehend how the industry can be so nonchalant about the growth in its costs – it can only be that they do not feel any pressure to address them. Our railways have become flabby and unresponsive, a case demonstrated unequivocally by the evidence compiled by Sir Roy McNulty in his report of 2011. He identified that around a third of the cost of the railways could be reduced, which would make a big difference to passengers. Most businesses carrying a third of their costs as inefficiency would go under and deservedly so; why should the railways be any different?

Labour argues that we should just pour more taxpayers’ money through increased subsidies. Given that they were responsible for much of the industry’s subsidy dependence in the first place, merely throwing more money at the demand side will do nothing to cosset passengers against further increases in runaway costs. And those others who believe that reversing privatisation – or attacking individual franchisees – miss the point. Short contracts and civil servant micro-management deprive franchisees of the opportunity to get to grips with a business model which is flawed; we need something far more fundamental, as suggested by Sir Roy McNulty.

Consider the implications of addressing that inefficiency: cutting a third off the annual fares from Northampton would deliver between £1,150 and £1,800 back into the pockets of every London commuter. Yes, the price of around £4,000 would be relatively expensive, but I am sure that this would do far more to multiply the effect of our economic development efforts in Northampton. Replicated across the country, the impact could be phenomenal, and overwhelmingly positive.

I share the frustration and anger of commuters from Northampton, and elsewhere, at the seemingly uncontrollable cost of using our railways. It should no longer be a question of whether taxpayers or passengers should carry on picking up the tab for an industry unwilling to sort itself out; we have borne this unacceptable practice for far too long. ​

Railway Companies must concentrate on improved efficiency and productivity and not allow their poor performance to be masked by evermore state support. That is the lesson of the McNulty report and that is what the Government should concentrate on.