Latest Scottish seat predictions

I’ve just had a look at the latest betting for constituencies in Scotland. I last looked at this on 1st January, and since then, things have changed quite a lot – in a bad way for Labour and a good way for the SNP. Here then are my latest predictions based on the current odds, against what I predicted previously:

Current seats Jan 1st   Predictions Feb 27th Predictions
SNP     6       25       29
Labour    41       29       23
Lib Dem    11        4        6
Tory     1        1        1

There’s been a general tightening in the odds with prices on Labour drifting and SNP falling. Not sure whether that’s because people are putting money down, or caution from the bookies. I’m working on the assumption that the SNP’s poll lead will fall between now and May. Whether this is a good assumption or not, we’ll have to wait and see. Only 69 days to go!

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Number of people on zero hours contracts increases by over 100,000 in last year

From the ONS:

  • Number of people employed on a “zero-hours contract” in their main job was 697,000 for October to December 2014, representing 2.3% of all people in employment. In the same period in 2013, this was 1.9% of all people in employment (586,000).
  • The number of people saying they are employed on “zero-hours contracts” depends on whether or not they recognise this term. It is not possible to say how much of the increase between 2013 and 2014 is due to greater recognition rather than new contracts.
  • Number of contracts that do not guarantee a minimum number of hours where work was carried out was 1.8 million for the fortnight beginning 11 August 2014. The previously published estimate was 1.4 million for the fortnight beginning 20 January 2014.
  • The two estimates of contracts should not be directly compared. They cover different times of year so changes in the numbers may reflect seasonal factors.
  • On average, someone on a “zero-hours contract” usually works 25 hours a week.
  • Around a third of people on “zero-hours contracts” want more hours, with most wanting them in their current job, compared with 10% of other people in employment.
  • People on “zero-hours contracts” are more likely to be women, in full-time education or working part-time. They are also more likely to be aged under 25 or 65 and over.
  • Over half of businesses in Accommodation and Food Services and a quarter of businesses in Education made some use of no guaranteed hours contracts in August 2014.

Some thoughts about “Meet the Ukippers”

I’ve just watched the BBC’s “Meet the Ukippers” doc about the South Thanet branch of UKIP. This was heavily trailed because of the comments by one of its (now former) councillors about her feelings towards black people. More of that later.

My initial thoughts were that it showed a local party that was charmingly inept. The local members seemed to be mainly elderly, retired or semi-retired people, not really ready for what was about to hit them in terms of the media scrutiny following Nigel Farage’s decision to stand in their constituency.

The doc focused on four or five members of the local party. The chairman. The local press officer and her husband, and the now expelled councillor Rozanne Duncan. The chairman, Martin Heales had previously received negative media coverage due to his previous membership of the National Front. He seemed reasonably amiable to me, although the way he reacted to a constituent saying he had lost his job to EU migrants disturbed me a little (his reaction was to say “this is political dynamite which we can exploit”, or words to that effect). I felt some sympathy for him though. Previous membership of an extreme group ought not to disqualify you from participating in mainstream politics in the future if you renounce those previous affiliations. A former colleague of mine was a member of the National Front. He was a good guy, he just didn’t know any better, and once he did, he left.

The local press officer and her husband were treated most sympathetically in my view. They seemed like good honest people engaged in the thankless task of herding the cats that are the UKIP members of South Thanet, trying to prevent them from saying anything stupid. In the end, I think they stood down from active roles in the party, probably for the sake of their sanity.

This brings us on to Cllr Duncan who literally 30 seconds after the press officer explained why members had to be so careful about what they say, said she had a real problem with black people (or people with “negroid features” as she called them). After UKIP high command learnt of her comments, she was expelled from the party immediately. Interviewed afterwards, she couldn’t seem to fathom why she had been expelled and thought she didn’t have anything to apologise for. She is of an age where it was common to use racist language in every day conversation. We probably all know or knew people like this. While they use(d) what would today be branded racist language, I wouldn’t say they were racist, as they still treat everyone with respect and as they find them regardless of colour or creed. What separates people of their time like that from people like Cllr Duncan though is that she openly admitted she would treat black people differently to others. An elected politician cannot do this. They must represent their constituents equally and without favour or prejudice. This is why UKIP had to expel her. (She also had an odd fixation with people’s noses, saying “negroes” had wide noses and Jews curved noses).

A final point I want to make about the show is the treatment of UKIP by what I’m going to call ‘outraged lefties’. There is a certain group of left-wing people who have decided that UKIP are just like the Nazi Party in the 1930s and that they must stop them at any cost. The result of this seen in the film was a vocal group of protesters shouting down a UKIP candidate who had come to speak in favour of a ban on the live export of animals (a cause the protesters agreed with). They then surrounded the UKIP guy calling him a neo-nazi and a racist. It was all rather ugly. My thoughts on UKIP are that they have some policies I agree with (on Europe and a points-based immigration system), but also some rather alarming ideas (on climate change for example). I could never vote for them though as I dislike Farage’s penchant for using dog-whistle tactics against immigrants. While he persists in doing this, he should not be surprised that racists are attracted to the party.

Overall then, I thought it was quite an interesting programme. I suspect if you made a doc about a local Conservative or Labour party group, you would find similar people saying similar things (although I doubt the central parties would allow such a doc to be made). A lot of UKIP party members seem to be of another time. A time when you could say “poofter” or “chinky” and nobody batted an eyelid. This is probably still true of the Tories as well though I would imagine. The people represented were all slightly odd (as I suppose you have to be to give up so much time for an often hopeless cause), but committed and well-meaning. What they are not (even the aforementioned Cllr Duncan) are bad people. Clearly unsuitable for public office, but nevertheless representative of quite a significant minority of the public at large I would guess.

Tittle tattle is replacing proper debate and the consequences are not good

Via Chris Dillow, I came across this piece by comedian Frankie Boyle. It’s on the topic of “Offence and Free Speech”. Part of it talks about the modern phenomenon of ‘outrage’. Someone says something that could be interpreted in different ways, it’s stripped of all context and written up as someone saying something unequivocally awful. Boyle writes:

“I find it incredibly worrying that we no longer need to hear the actual content of the thing we’re told to be offended by. We hear of people being arrested for tweets without the tweet being reported; comics are blasted for routines that aren’t printed; newspapers hire lip-readers to find something to get offended by at the tennis and then print the resulting fuckfest as asterisks. And who decides whether we should be outraged at something we haven’t seen or heard? The press. Our seething collective Id. None of us would trust a journalist to hold our pint while we went to the bathroom, yet we allow them to be ethical arbiters for the entire culture.

I don’t read newspapers anymore – I just lie to myself and cut out the middleman, but I think it’s important to note that the press themselves are not actually outraged by what they report on as being offensive. No tabloid journo -whose life is invariably a shattered kaleidoscope of prostitutes, gambling, cocaine, self-loathing, literally going through a strangers bins, erectile disfunction and cocaine-  is genuinely offended when some students dress up as the Twin Towers for Halloween. Outrage just makes good copy. It’s easier to write, and simpler to understand. A tabloid hack knows that their average reader can barely read and they’re not going to try to communicate anything like ennui in the vocabulary of a ten year old.”

I’m seeing examples of this every day, I may even have shared and commented on some of it myself. There is now a whole industry created by people who seek out Tweets, Facebook posts and even photos posted to Tinder to try and whip up a storm, usually about somebody nobody has ever heard of. In the realm of politics, the aim is to damage ones opponents, force a resignation, or just imply guilt by association.

This has two damaging consequences in my view. First, now we know it’s open season on everyone’s social media histories, anyone with any even wild aspirations to get into politics will refrain from expressing any opinion which might be deemed offensive (which rules out a hell of a lot). The result will be bland, boring politicians operating within a tiny box of acceptable opinion.

The second, related consequence is that rather than the media discussing important political issues, where the parties differ, and – more likely – where they are the same, this discussion is replaced with mere fluff – tittle tattle, “He said this isn’t it awful?” “Why did they say that, what point were they trying to make?” “Doesn’t matter. Isn’t it outrageous?”.

Here’s a rather trivial example. A UK candidate (who in my opinion is an idiot), made a slip of the tongue and said “What happens when renewable energy runs out?”. She meant subsidies for renewables, but the media and various blogs reported along the lines of “isn’t she stupid to think renewable energy will run out?”. Well yes, she probably is stupid, but not for that reason. Her mangled question could have sparked a decent debate about energy subsidies for both renewable and non-renewable sources, where technology is likely to take us, and therefore how best to proceed policy-wise, but  instead, that hole was filled with silliness.

Anyone who is interested in progress, social change and improving the country we live in should be concerned by this. When we are replacing political debate with fake outrage and trying to ‘expose’ opponents for saying not very controversial things, we have a problem. There are many things that seem offensive when stripped of all context, but if people actually took the time to understand their opponents arguments, they might find they actually have interesting ideas, even if they disagree with them.

Things that definitely are George Osborne’s job

The Guardian have a story up today headlined “George Osborne says HSBC tax evasion prosecutions not his job”. This comes in the face of ongoing revelations about HSBC’s Swiss operation and anger over reports that to date only 1 out of 1,100 individuals for which there is evidence of tax evasion have been prosecuted. George is technically quite right. Evidence of criminal activity should be gathered by bodies like HMRC and the Financial Conduct Authority, and decisions about whether to pursue prosecutions taken together with the Crown Prosecution Service. This does not let Mr Osborne of the hook however. There are a number of things that definitely are his job (or the job of others in government) that he should be doing in relation to this issue. Here are a couple:

1. Make a clear statement and back it up by announcing that the tax authorities will have all the resources they need to pursue cases (however complex) if they are in the public interest. This is not happening however. I’ve seen it quoted on several places that while the DWP employs over 3,000 people to investigate benefit fraud estimated at £1.2bn, HMRC employs only 300 people to investigating tax abuse totaling several orders higher than benefit fraud (if someone can find an official source for these stats, please let me know). This suggests the Government’s priorities may not be quite focused in the right direction.

2. The Government are responsible for appointing financial regulators, and the message sent out to banks and others flows from that. If the Government appoints regulators who want to stamp out abuses (and who have the resources to do so), then it would restore confidence in the system. This also does not seem to be the case. The CEO of City regulator the Financial Conduct Authority recently told a committee of MPs that he was unaware of any specific claims about misconduct at HSBC until the last few weeks. Isn’t it his job to know, particularly when by all accounts it was pretty common knowledge what they were up to? He also said:

“He said the FCA had not been handed details of the latest HSBC scandal by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

‘I am not aware of a direct channel of information on this particular case,’ said Mr Wheatley, adding that he did not know whether HMRC had any obligation to do so.”

To which ex bank regulator Bill Black incredulously wrote:

“To review the bidding, Wheatley says he doesn’t know anything beyond what he read in the newspapers, has no “channel” (as in English “channel”?), to the UK tax authorities even though any banking regulator has to work closely with the tax authorities, and doesn’t know whether his agency and the UK tax authorities even have a system of informing each other of vital information about bank frauds.”

Quite. So come on George. While prosecuting tax evasion may not be your job, appointing experts up to the job, who are properly resourced with the teeth to impose harsh penalties for wrongdoing most definitely is!

Is this really news? Nigel Farage edition

Chelsea fan Josh Parsons with Nigel Farage.

Recently, a video emerged of some Chelsea fans in Paris who pushed a black guy trying to get on a metro train and then sang “We are racist”. Today, the Guardian splashed on this story about one of the people present in Paris previously having had his photo taken with Nigel Farage. That’s the story. As the article itself says, it’s not at all clear that this guy was even involved in this unpleasant episode. Even if he was, it still isn’t news. People’s champion Nigel Farage poses for photos all the time. If someone asks a public figure to have a picture taken, most politely agree. People used to ask for autographs, now they ask for selfies.

There’s a more sinister aspect to this story though. It seems to have become part of popular culture now to conduct trials by social media. This guy has now been branded a racist (fairly or unfairly we don’t know). By naming the guy, the Guardian story – whether consciously or not – encourages us to seek out this guy on social media (he’s already had to delete all his social media accounts). People will be trying to find out where he lives, where he works and try and get him sacked. Even id this guy is a nasty piece of work, this is not how justice works. This kind of campaign can quickly turn ugly. It’s very popular now to trawl the social media accounts of people we disagree with to find anything that could be stripped of all context and blown out of all proportion. Here’s what can happen.  People say and do some pretty dumb things when they are young. That’s always been the case, but in the era of social media, these things can come back to haunt you in all sorts of ways. It’s a kind of mob rule that I think is incredibly unhealthy, and I think it needs to stop.

Spot the difference between the two main parties on tax avoidance

Noam Chomsky once wrote “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum….”. There’s been a very lively debate recently about tax avoidance, following revelations from Switzerland about HSBC. Labour and Tory Ministers and Shadow Ministers have been chucking accusations around with abandon, but I can’t really see what the difference is between them. Here’s two examples.

1) Ed Miliband calls out Tory donors for tax avoidance. Ed Miliband avoided inheritance tax after the death of his father (kind of). George Osborne talks of cracking down on tax avoidance, but in a former life as a backbench MP, felt comfortable handing out advice on how to avoid tax. There are different types of tax avoidance. All are legal though. How can we trust MPs from either party to actually do something radical to ensure all pay their fair share of tax, when they are all hypocrites when it comes to tax?

2) A stupid row broke out after Ed Balls suggested people should always get a receipt – even for odd jobs they are paying in cash for, as to do otherwise would be facilitating tax avoidance. Iain Duncan Smith called this “absurd”, saying this demonstrated “Labour’s complete lack of understanding of how business works and how people get by”. It does seem a bit daft to expect people to do as Ed Balls wants, but he is saying nothing different than Tory Treasury Minister David Gauke did, when he said in 2012:

“Getting a discount with your plumber by paying cash in hand is something that is a big cost to the Revenue and means others have to pay more in tax.

“I think it is morally wrong. It is illegal for the plumber but it is pretty implicit in those circumstances that there is a reason why there is a discount for cash.”

Ed Miliband at the time refused to agree cash in hand payments were morally wrong, saying instead:

“What I say is that the job of government is to pass the right laws to clamp down on tax avoidance – that’s the most important thing of all.

So Tory makes a statement, Labour criticises. Labour makes identical statement, Tories criticise. Lively debate then within an incredibly narrow spectrum. Or two cheeks of the same backside as a certain Bradford MP loves to say.

Has the writing of Tory welfare policy been outsourced to the Daily Mail?

The Tories announced two new welfare policies this week. The first was their plan to remove benefits from those with drug and alcohol problems or who are obese and who are refusing treatment, while the second, announced today (not for the first time?), seemed to be all out work for the dole for 18-21 year olds.

I was listening to a talk show discussion on the radio yesterday about the first policy, and was struck by how there was a neat divide between those who worked with addicts or in the healthcare sector in general, and those who seemed to me the type of people who think what’s printed in the Daily Mail is the unvarnished truth. The healthcare professionals universally thought it was a ridiculous idea, while the Daily Mail readers thought it was simple common sense. Guess which these policies are designed to appeal to?

There was a Tory MP called Alec Shelbrooke on the programme to speak in favour, and he was basically spouting the hardworking taxpayer funding lifestyles line. When asked what would happen to a person whose benefits were stopped, he declined to give an answer, but it seemed fairly obvious his view was “fuck ’em”.

There’s no doubt policies like this are popular with a sizable chunk of the public who are quite keen on poor-bashing, but I think policies like this should at least be based on some semblance of evidence. Welfare policies should be designed around what works rather than what will make ‘hardworking taxpayers’ give a little less thought to how hard they are being screwed. At the moment, though the Tories seem to be taking their manifesto pledges directly from the Daily Mail. Both these policies seem to be of the traditional ‘nasty party’ variety. From what I was hearing on the radio about the addiction/obesity policy, it just won’t be effective at turning people’s live around, and seems just about being vindictive. On the 18-21 year olds policy, I just think, why not give them a job, rather than making them pick up little for the same as Jobseeker’s Allowance?

UPDATE: Via Twitter, someone sent me this link, which details how the Government already ruled out the drug/alcohol benefit withdrawal policy, giving good reasons why it wouldn’t work, so they are now seeking to go against their own advice.

William K Black on HSBC, “the world’s largest criminal enterprise”

William K Black is an Associate Professor of Law and Economics, and a former bank regulator. In a post on the New Economic Perspectives blog, he discusses the latest HSBC scandal, and the unwillingness of today’s regulators to do their job:

HSBC’s most recent scandal is the perfect holiday gift. Whatever genre of entertainment one favors – from blood diamonds to drug cartels to rollicking royals to sport stars HSBC was happy to aid the wealthiest stars of your genre to illegally evade their taxes. Taxes were once termed the price we paid for civilization, but they now represent the price the wealthy brag to each other about refusing to pay as they pillage civilization. Because the City of London “won” the “regulatory race to the bottom” it is the worst “vector” for the epidemic of sleaze led by our most elite bankers.

Read the rest here.

Huge differences emerge between three main parties over spending on education

Or not.

David Cameron

“We are saying very clearly, when it comes to schools, that money that follows your child into the school, that money won’t be cut.”

Ed Miliband

“The next Labour government will protect the overall education budget.”

David Laws (Lib Dem education spokesman and expenses cheat)

“Liberal Democrats will protect the budgets for schools, early years and 16-19 education in real terms.”

Bizarrely, having announced an identical spending plan to Labour, Laws went on to say:

“Labour would fund their education plans through excessive and reckless borrowing, leaving today’s schoolchildren to pick up the tab when they start work. The £4bn that Labour would waste on debt interest payments would be better spent on schools.”

Anyway, take your pick. Do you prefer Blue fixed spending on education, Red fixed spending on education, or Yellow fixed spending on education?