Sunday, 4 October 2015

Would you push the button?

Maybe you could use a smart car as a fallout shelter?
I hadn't made my mind up about nuclear weapons until watching 1st October Question Time. One audience member asked if Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, was fit to be Prime Minister because he said that he wouldn't push the nuclear button. Then the answers came, from Stephen Kinnock: “If you have a deterrent you’ve got to be prepared to use it.” Stephen Crabb and Charles Moore both saying similar things. Honestly, it was the scariest thing I've ever seen. Here we have men of power and influence saying that they would seriously consider pushing the button. That button. A button to end life on Earth as we know it. Click! Boom! How can that not scare you?


Would you press the button? Do you really think that you could do it? The power to destroy everything with just a small movement of your index finger. Would you use that power? In what situation? If Russia invaded France? What about if an armada turned up at British shorelines? Nuking them back if they decide to nuke us (not that it would undo their nuke)? Could you do it?


A nuclear deterrent - mutually assured destruction - is an international game of chicken. Except, instead of bashing heads or crashing your car, we're talking about the destruction of the human race. We expect our politicians to go along with this facade, but no one would actually do it. We expect our politicians to lie to us and tell us that: "Yes, we will launch nuclear weapons."


We all know know that when a politician says that they would push the nuclear button that they're lying, but we accept it because collectively we've bought the argument that a perpetual Mexican Standoff makes us safe. It doesn't. The bluff doesn't work and I don't think for a second that anyone genuinely buys it, we just want to.


"You say you might use it so you never have to." This is a common counterargument to what I'm saying. All this does is prove my point. It's a bluff and everyone knows it. You don't want to use it and you never will, but you say you would so that the other side fears you. You know what? They know it's a bluff too.


The situation in Ukraine was brought up. Ukraine used to have nuclear weapons but got rid of them, and Russia is now in the process of invasion. Let's assume that Ukraine still had them but also that Russia still invaded. Would Ukraine push the nuclear button? Of course they wouldn't.

When people talk about how effective the nuclear deterrent is, I'm reminded of Blackadder Goes Fourth, when Captain Blackadder explains to Private Baldrick how the war started.

Captain Blackadder: You see, Baldrick, in order to prevent war in Europe, two superblocs developed: us, the French and the Russians on one side, and the Germans and Austro-Hungary on the other. The idea was to have two vast opposing armies, each acting as the other's deterrent. That way there could never be a war.
Private Baldrick: But, this is a sort of a war, isn't it, sir?
Captain Blackadder: Yes, that's right. You see, there was a tiny flaw in the plan.
Private Baldrick: What was that, sir?

Captain Blackadder: It was bollocks.

We really need to end this constant lying to each other. No one in their right mind would launch a nuclear weapon and we all know it. I like living a planet that hasn’t been destroyed. I don’t really care if we have nuclear weapons one way or the other, but I am extremely uncomfortable being governed by anyone who is actually willing to use them.

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Conservative Party is now a threat to our National Health, our doctors’ health, and your family’s health.

My bad picture of last night's super-Moon
With all of the spin (and that’s putting it generously) the media have put on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, including a false claim The Times apologised for in the 80s that he gave £45 to a man he thought was an IRA bomber, you’d be forgiven for thinking that, as David Cameron put it, “The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family's security.” Now, I could spend all day refuting these claims but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about, as the title suggests, The Conservative Party being a threat to our National Health, our doctors’ health, and your family’s health.

So why are the Conservatives a threat to our National Health (Service)? I am not going to talk about the pseudo-privatisation of the NHS, because to most people (i.e. not political wonks like me) it could seem rather abstract; this topic deserves its own post with a fuller explanation. Setting that aside, our most obvious point of call is the rather large funding gap between what we should be putting into our National Health Service and what is actually being put into our National Health Service. According to a document published on parliament.uk (I shall be referring to this document several times because it is choc-full of information) that since 2010 a funding gap of £20 billion has grown. This monstrosity of black hole didn’t just appear out of nowhere

Chart showing the NHS funding settlement during the last Parliament was the most austere in its historyWhenever someone criticises the Conservatives: “The Government has cut the NHS,” you always get the same response: “Well actually, we increased the budget by X billion pounds from last year.” This is a sly political trick because… it’s true; under David Cameron’s Tory (and Lib Dem) government NHS expenditure has increased every year, even in real terms. However, this fact is ultimately an irrelevance as NHS expenditure has risen every year - in real terms - since its inception, what really matters is how much the budget rises each year to cope with things such as population rises and price rises for drugs & treatments.

As you can see from this graph (right), since the Tories came to power, the NHS has had the smallest yearly budget increases in its entire history, less than 1% average per year.

Most of these savings were made “by freezing staff salaries, squeezing the prices paid to hospitals for the treatment they provide, and cutting back on management costs.” I would like to point out that a pay freeze is politician speak for pay cut, as inflation means your pay is worth less. According to Unite the Union, “NHS workers have had real term pay cuts of between 13%-19% since 2010,” compared to that of the general populous of about an 8.5% pay cut (although this data is admittedly out of date). In any meaningful terms, the NHS has been cut.

Even with these cuts, “Quality... held up on many measures, at least in the initial years of the funding freeze,” but you can't freeze (read: cut) NHS staff pay indefinitely; eventually our medical professionals that we trained at our universities will rightly get annoyed and move to another country or join an agency where they can get paid more (and cost the NHS a heck of a lot more). In fact this is already starting to happen: according to a study by the British Medical Association earlier this year: one third of GPs are considering retiring from general practice in the next five years, another near three in ten are considering changing their hours from full time to part time, 9% are considering moving abroad, and 7% considering quitting medicine altogether.

It’s even more concerning when you consider young doctors, the future of the health service. The same survey revealed that nearly one in five trainee GPs are considering working abroad before 2020. In fact, in April 2015 (when the article was published), 500 GPs had begun the process of leaving the UK to work abroad.

Chart showing Performance against the A&E target slipped towards the end of the last ParliamentThe effects of ever more strained medical staff working for less money is starting to show. The NHS, at current, has a target to make sure that 95% of patients are seen within four hours of arriving at an Accident & Emergency department (side-note: when this target was introduced by New Labour in 2004 it was 98%, it was then revised down by the coalition in 2010). In this graph (right), it can be seen that in 2011 the 95% target was hit fairly consistently; since then, the cuts have been catching up with outcomes. Infact it got so bad in early 2015 that one in 5 patients did not get seen within four hours. In fact, it was so out of the ordinary to hit the target this year that it was a news story when the target was achieved this May. I don’t imagine it will be many years until the target is lowered again.

ADr Clifford Mann, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said that targets have not been met because of, “a shortage of hospital beds.” Other reasons given by the BMA include not enough nurses or middle grade doctors.

This leads me neatly onto the next point about our doctors’ health, firstly, their personal fiscal health. Now I don’t think I need to explain why doctors should be highly paid, but I'll do it anyway. To qualify for a medical course, you need at least an AAB at A-Level (not to mention in the hardest subjects like chemistry and maths), so you essentially need to be in the 90th to 95th percentile in all your subjects. You then need to pass an incredibly intense five year medical degree, then onto two years of foundation training as a junior doctor, then two years of core medical training, then 4-6 years of speciality training or 3 years training to become a GP. And after all of that you still need to stay in what is called “Continuing professional development” which involves going to seminars, taking online courses, etc. They also have to pay subscriptions to various professional bodies. Not to mention their job is keeping the rest of us alive.

So now it’s established that doctors deserve to be fairly paid, why is it that Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary in the Tory government, has decided to take away overtime rates for junior doctors working “unsocial hours”, essentially giving them a 20%-30% pay cut? This does not bode well, we are already in a situation where half of trainee casualty doctors leave the A&E speciality within four years. All this pay cut will do is push more junior doctors over the edge to either move or even quit completely. At a time where we can’t meet basic A&E targets this will do the opposite of help.

Of course, this will do nothing for their physical and mental health either. Having 90 hour weeks with only 30 minute breaks every six hours will do that to you. What doctors that are left in the country will be even more overworked, underpaid, and stressed than they normally are, and stress leads to mistakes.

I’m sure by now you’ve cottoned on to the idea that this will all be seriously detrimental to yours and your family’s health. Chronic underfunding by the Tories and pay cuts has lead to the NHS bursting at the seams, unable to meet basic A&E targets that any social society should. On top of this, the Tories have had the fantastic idea of alienating our only salvation for the future by drastically cutting their pay. Of course this will exacerbate the funding problem because the NHS will have to waste a lot more money on locum (agency) staff rather than their own.

Everyone’s health is at risk if we allow the Conservatives to continue with their plan of ideological NHS cuts. Think of your friends, your family, yourself, and if you really want to see anyone suffer ill health because we entrusted the NHS with a party that frankly doesn't care about its, and by extension your, health.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Why I am supporting Stella Creasy for Labour’s Deputy Leader

Train tracks.
As I sit on a Metropolitan Line train on the way home from an event by Stella Creasy, I can't help but feel very impressed by what she has to offer. Stella doesn't have dozens of ideas, and that sounds like a criticism, but it's far from it, it's one of her strengths. Stella is steaming ahead with her campaign on one main platform, creating power by putting it in the hands of everyday members. Allowing them to come up with ideas and have them nurtured by the leadership, instead of the current diktats from on high that don’t invigorate the membership. Stella wants to turn what is seen as, what she calls, the Labour party "machine" (cold, calculating, and centrally controlled) into a social movement with that spreads like wildfire.

If you've read my blog, you know I like left-wing policies and that I will vote for Jeremy Corbyn for leader. Putting that aside, Stella has made an excellent point that a shift left or shift right is not really the issue, it’s whether Labour will “shift out of focus all together.” What she means is that it’s useless having this massive debate about what Labour’s policy will be if we don’t effectively campaign for it. Currently, Labour members cannot campaign effectively when all of the ideas and orders are coming from only the politicians, and are just being told what to do, like a patronising boss, rather than having their own ideas expanded upon. Stella has promised (not that much from a politician, I know) just that; the much needed dialogue between the membership and the leadership (and I say it that way round for a reason, members need to tell the politicians what to do, not the other way around).

It’s pretty simple, the ideas aren't new, but that doesn't stop them being very good. Honestly, I'm surprised that she’s the first to campaign for it. It’s a lot easier to campaign for something when it’s your idea.

It’s not all just hot air either, in 2011 Stella effectively campaigned for a cap on the rates payday loan companies (or legal loan sharks as she calls them), and bear in mind that this is while in opposition. This campaign ended with cross-party support and a change in legislation to stop these companies screwing over the poor and desperate.

In the next election, Labour needs to make sure we have a strong vision, that was why we lost. Ed Miliband, as much as I liked him, failed to deliver a consistent vision for the future. That’s where the Tories had us; they said what they were going to do and why it would help. Labour said what we were going to do, and not really that much else, especially not how it tied into a larger plan. Stella’s campaigning vision can provide this because her engagement with the membership with galvanise it, and hopefully support for the party as a whole.

So what have I written here? A very long-winded way of saying I am voting for Stella Creasy to be deputy because she wants to engage with the membership, has a proven track record of effective campaigning, and gets the fact that Labour needs a clear message for 2020.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

The housing crisis or “Why millennials are screwed”

I think everyone knows that it is much harder for millennials to buy a house. At least I hope everyone knows. I’ve been thinking about exactly how much harder it is, so I did what any normal person would do, head to gov.uk and the Office of National Statistics.


Goodbye house!
At the beginning of 1999 the median value of a house in England and Wales was £66,950, by the end it was £75,950; a very large increase in one year, and possibly the beginning of the very housing crisis that plagues Britain today (morbid).  If we put these numbers in today's money we get £105,330, £119,489, respectively. Today, the median price of a house is £179,696.


The average house price is currently over 80% more expensive than it was at the beginning of 1999.


This is worse in the South East, where median property prices have shot up from £84,250 in 1999 (£132,550 today) to £236,000 in 2012 (£248,910 today). Extrapolating from the data I would guess the median cost of a house in the South East to be around £250,000 today.


Sources: gov.uk & data.gov.uk

In 1999 the average UK yearly salary, before tax, was £14,400, in 2013 it was £21,000. Adjust for inflation for today and we get £22,655 and £22,149 respectively. Britain has taken a 2.25% pay cut in the last 15 years.


Source: gov.uk
Inflation calculations: This is Money


This leads to one undeniable truth, it’s almost 85% more expensive to buy a home than it was 25 years ago.


If you want to get a mortgage on the median wage then you can get, at most, a £100,000 mortgage (and it wouldn’t be advisable). For that, you could buy half of a two bedroom flat in Stevenage.


This has had a very severe impact on the ability of young people / millennials / generation Y / Dappy from N-Dubz to be able to afford a home, and I’m far from the only person who has noticed. A recent article in The Economist, produced this graph, which demonstrates my hypothesis to be true on a massive scale.


We have gone from 30% of 25 year olds owning a home in 1985, to just 8% today. That’s absolute insanity, and clear evidence of all of the wealth being retained by the old and rich.
But why are houses so expensive? It’s really simple economics of supply and demand; as a country, we’re not building anywhere near as many houses as we should. In 1978, we finished the construction of nearly 280,000 homes. In 2014, we finished the construction of just under 140,000 homes. In fact, we are building less homes now than we ever have (there probably was a time when we built less, but it hasn’t been recorded).
Source: gov.uk


Our population growth rate is much higher than it was in the 70s so we should be building more homes, not less!


Source: gov.uk
The problem is further exacerbated when you consider the rising cost of rent across the country.  A recent article revealed that tenants in England spend half their income on rent, showing the scale of the problem where people are trapped into an endless cycle of rent, without being able to live a reasonable life at the same time as saving up for a deposit for a house. In fact, half of people under 40 will be living in private rented accommodation by 2025 if we keep going in the direction we are headed.


Source: gov.uk


So what is causing the rise in cost of rented accommodation? I’m going to sound like a loony lefty when I say this, but it’s very obvious what has caused the housing crisis: Right to buy. For those that don’t know, right to buy is a government policy introduced in the Margaret Thatcher era which currently allows people inhabiting council houses and certain housing association homes to buy the property for up to 70% off the market price after living in the property for several years.


Now this sounds great; but it isn’t; it drives up the cost of rent for everyone, let me give you the timeline of right to buy property:


Council property → Bought at a 70% discount under right to buy → Sold by the new owner at a massive profit to a buy to let landlord → Let out to new tenants at a price much higher than before


This, coupled with the fact that we are building an exceptionally low number of council houses (we are building less houses total than just the council houses we built in the 50s), which should provide a decent quality, low cost baseline of rented housing, means that private landlords can essentially charge what they want with even low quality housing… because there simply isn’t enough.

So this is how we, the young, live. We rent a house that’s far too expensive because there isn’t enough social housing keeping the prices down; we then can’t save enough money to buy a house that’s too expensive anyway because there aren’t enough houses in general. The young are trapped a system of high rent with no escape apart from to become a very earner or to move somewhere with no jobs worthy of a graduate, because the government also refuses to invest in infrastructure in anywhere but London... but that's a whole other story.

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Why it is fair and right that the wealthy pay more tax

In the run-up to the election, Ed Miliband very often said that, "Those with the broadest shoulders should bear the biggest burden," referring to tax increases on the wealthy in the form of a proposed mansion tax on homes over two million pounds and re-increasing incoming tax to 50% for those earning £100,000 or more
. It's all very well and good saying this, but this again typifies what I see as a very major problem with the Labour election campaign, never explaining their position. Why is it fair that the wealthiest should pay the most tax.

Don't park in the bus stop
Well the most obvious answer is a moral one, if you can still live very comfortably after your taxes have been taken then why shouldn't your taxes be used to help people who need it, the sick and disabled, the elderly, the jobless, etc. But there's actually a far more important argument than that, I think. If you are very wealthy then, chances are, you have benefited from the state far more than anyone else.

A lot of wealthy people are business owners, if you run a business you need workers. Those workers need to be educated, healthy, and possibly more importantly, be able to get to your place of business. All of these things are funded by the taxpayer: Your employees have almost certainly used the NHS, even if you have private healthcare; unless you are an insufferable snob, a large proportion of your employees were educated in a state school, and even if they didn't, went to a university funded by the taxpayer; all of your employees either use state funded roads or state funded public transport (privatised rail and bus services still use government subsidy) to get to work.

It seems fairly self evident to me that employees remaining happy and healthy benefits the employer, and unless employers, small and large alike, want to start paying for this out of their own personal pocket then I suggest that they be happy paying the lowest rate of corporation tax in Europe.

The companies don't just benefit from their employees though. Without customers who can easily get around, the businesses will suffer also. The same roads and public transport and health will mean that it is easy for customers to go to their shops, the agencies, etc. If the government provided infrastructure does not exist, business, and specifically new businesses, cannot be facilitated.

Of course, there are other ways to become wealthy, but listing every sort of wealthy person would take far more than one blog post and, arguably, business owners are most deserving of their wealth when compared to those who inherit vast sums of money or those who bought property 20 years ago.

If the state ceased to invest in the futures of its own people, then businesses that rely on educated workers, transport… nearly every business would fail. Businesses need the state to provide healthy, educated workers; businesses need customers. Without that… no businesses.

We currently live in a society where the poor pay the largest proportion of their income of their tax and the richest only pay a slightly larger percentage than everyone else. The wealthy only pay slightly larger percentage of their income than most people in tax, despite having their benefit from the state being far greater in more cases than not, because of the reasons described earlier. Fundamentally, this is unfair. The rich deserve to pay more not only because it’s the moral thing to do, not only because it makes the most actual sense, but because, in a modern society, business owners benefit the most.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Corbyn Conundrum - Don't vote for him

I like Jeremy Corbyn. However (how do you like that, Michael Gove?), I have seen a worrying number of people saying that they will vote for him. However, this in itself is not a problem, I will probably vote for him myself, but I've seen many Green Party members saying that they are going to pay their £3 to register as a Labour party supporter, vote for him and then leave. Not only does this go against codes of the both the Green Party and the Labour Party, as they don't let you be a member of two parties at once, but it's also incredibly underhanded. If you want to actually support the Labour party then please do join the party, but don't join just to select the leader that's most like the party you actually support. If you are a Green Party member reading this, remember that it's undemocratic, and that you're taking away the value of the vote from actual Labour party supporters, who may vote for Corbyn, but could equally vote for Liz Kendall, Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper, and while you and I may disagree with them, their views are equally as important as the Labour members who like Corbyn.


A slightly more worrying trend, is the hashtag #ToriesForCorbyn. This is particularly smug and self-righteous, with a small number of Tory members and supporters paying their £3 to the Labour Party (why you would want to give money to a party you disagree with, I don't know) to vote for Corbyn in the upcoming leadership election under the assumption that he will be completely unelectable as a prime minister and help the Tories. This is basically the political equivalent of corporate sabotage. However, I don't personally think it will work. It's pathetic that some Tory supporters feel the need to try and destroy the opposition, rather than let them do it of their own accord or even better rely on their own merits.

So, why should you vote for Jeremy Corbyn? Well, there has to be a prerequesit that you actually support the Labour Party. You should avote for Jeremy if you believe in proper socialism, an end to austerity, and think that he's a pretty cool bloke. That's it. However, please only vote for Corbyn if you actually support Labour because if he does win, I don't think anyone, including him, want it to be because of some sneaky members of other parties and have it hanging over his head for the tenure of his leadership.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Scrapping the student maintenance grant will divide Britain

My view from the Bus
Newsnight has recently revealed Conservative government plans to scrap the student maintenance grant. At its most generous, this grant is worth nearly £3,500 (nearly the same as the full maintenance loan) and is only given in full to students whose household income is below £25,000 a year and is given to some half a million students each year, at least in part.

At most universities, the approx. £3,500 loan barely covers the cost of accommodation,  or not even that in some cases. If the grant is removed, where does that leave students who cannot rely on their parents? After rent they will have no money left to live on, or to buy course materials such as textbooks.

The government has failed to comment on how this scrapping will be implemented; whether they intend to replace the grant with an addition to the maintenance loan or scrap the additional support completely. The first scenario is understandable, if not strictly agreeable, as it will not create a cash flow problem, but will still unfairly saddle poorer students with larger amounts of debt. The second scenario is completely unacceptable, and will create a cash flow problem and force less-well-off students to get high interest commercial loans or even scare young adults from going to university due to the high levels of risk, purely for having the audacity to want a university education while not having rich parentsI see no scenario in which this won't prevent some less well off students from attending university.

Note: The "get a job" argument does not hold, unless you expect 500,000 jobs to spring from nowhere.

A 2013 paper from the Department for Business Innovation and Skills lists the many benefits of higher education: Social mobility, lower crime rates, increased tax revenue, economic growth, increased employability, engagement in democracy. These are only some of the fairly intuitive benefits of getting a higher education. If the government goes ahead with these plans, the divide between the wealthy and the non-wealthy will only get bigger.

If the changes go ahead, these advantages will fall by the wayside, not just for working and middle class individuals, but for society as a whole. If this gets passed, expect tax revenues to go down because of less people taking higher paying jobs that go with degrees. Expect economic growth to stagnate, as those who might be able to do groundbreaking research, innovation, and business enterprise, may now never get that opportunity. Expect crime to increase. We will run out of doctors and nurses, we need to encourage people to do medical service degrees, not disincentivise; the NHS is under enough strain as it is. I tried my best to make this section less scary, but the sad truth is that I'm not really exaggerating that much.

This cut will widen the divide between the rich and the not-even-that-poor; the government is reserving "The University Experience (TM)" for those only who can cough up the dough (from their parents), leaving everyone else being forced to live at home, severely limiting their choices of university. Students not from money will have to go to a local university or nowhere, even if they have the academic ability (higher or lower) to go to a further afield university.

What the government is doing, whether intentional or not, is dramatically raising the barrier to entry for a higher education and therefore impairing, or blocking, those not born to wealth. I know that without my grant I would not have been able to attend university, and without the continuation of the grant, the government are knowingly locking those not from a wealthy background out of higher education. Britain will no longer be able to say it is a nation that promotes equality. Individuals from low income backgrounds will suffer, society as a whole will suffer, and a nation will be divided by class if George Osborne goes ahead with these plans.