Monday 30 June 2014

We need to overcome the curse of positioning

Listening to Ed Balls last night, he sounded so authentically Labour that it made me smile a weary little smile.  As Balls explained, Jon Cruddas can't possibly have meant it when he said he was frustrated with Labour's treatment of his policy review.  Why, well he can't be, can he?  He was so supplicatory on the phone only a few days ago...

But actually Cruddas, who has been turbo-charging Labour's policy review, was really unambiguous in his rage against the political machinery which could reduce his review to what he called:

"Cynical nuggets of policy to chime with our focus groups and press strategy."

Cruddas is undoubtedly right, and there is no doubt that Labour's in a difficult position.  If its policies are too dull, everyone says that Miliband is failing to inspire.  If they are too interesting, everyone says that man is insane.

The trouble is that this malaise of  positioning goes way beyond Labour.  Michael Meadowcroft, the former Leeds West MP who is the closest the Lib Dems have to an in-house philosopher, was complaining about exactly these same thing in the Lib Dems in the latest edition of Liberator (along with a staunch defence of Nick Clegg, which I entirely agreed with, but not linkable).

And I've been wondering about this because there is no doubt that the curse of the focus group does suck idealism out of party platforms  Yet parties have to know what people think about their propositions.

How do you square the circle?  I think the answer is that, the ecstacy of positioning that characterises Lib Dem economic policy for the past generation may be inevitable - and even necessary - but it works only on two conditions.

First, that there has to be a general understanding about what your party is for (both Lib Dem and Labour have some years ago foregone this).

Second, that there has to be a ferment of wider debate - exemplifying purpose and ideals - that goes on incessantly in and around the party (Labour manages this but the Lib Dems, so far, lack the institutions of debate and the opinion-formers who carry on public debate, though these exist underground).

I must admit I have sat through some vacuous presentations on party positioning in my time.  I have wracked my brains why otherwise intelligent people take them seriously - especially those which rank policy areas in order of importance in the public's mind.  What does it mean if the public put health top, for example?  That they want more beds, fewer beds, less pollution, more NHS spending, more choice, less choice?  The answers are always assumed.

But Cruddas was pointing towards something yet more insidious.  It is the idea that you can create some kind of political crusade out of a series of opinion surveys stitched together.  A series of bright ideas and clever slogans. a paint-by-numbers approach to politics.  It is utterly vacuous and the public knows this as much as anyone else.

The want their politicians to believe something and, if it seems heart-felt and practical, they often give people a chance.  As long as they understand why these ideas hold together.

These are extremely hard things to achieve in these days of negative campaigning, but it is the moral coherence - or otherwise, and their authenticity or otherwise - that people respond to.  And if you ask me for evidence, just think for a moment what influences you.

So don't for goodness sake give up on ideas.  Because, outside Westminster, the ideas are emerging and they have some resonance.  Don't let's carry on as if the world hadn't chanced since 1979 (or worse, since 1945).

Thursday 26 June 2014

Is Farage the next Thomas Cromwell?

As avid readers of Master Shardlake’s chronicles will know, the 1530s saw a political and economic revolution in this country. There were political peculiarities about it which lay behind the way it happened – Henry VIII’s divorce for example – but there are reasons for thinking that it might have been inevitable sometime.

There were two linked events I wanted to talk about here. One was the severing of links between England and the sovereign European supra-national authority, the power of Rome (Rome and Brussels have played parallel roles in our history, as bogieman).

The other was linked to it. It was the privatisation of the social, educational and welfare support system, and the parceling out of the assets to allies of the crown – a set of events also known as the Dissolution of the Monasateries.  Both emerged from a new Protestant critique.

As I read the kind of language used by Conservative MPs recently, about the European Commission’s ideas for tackling something we seem unable to tackle ourselves - our disastrous 30-year house price bubble – I wondered if we were seeing elements of history repeating itself.

UKIP are, in that respect, a resurgent Protestant political force, in revolt against the Catholic power of the European Commission, and forcing the government to resit the imposition of a true Ultra-montanist, Jean-Claude Juncker.

I would not have enjoyed living through the period of the Reformation in this country. I will not enjoy it if that period comes again, but I have wondered over the last few weeks whether – for reasons of history – it is inevitable that the resurgent Protestant force will call the shots long enough to take the UK out of the European Union, and possibly also to sell off our welfare system.

Like the reformers designated the monasteries in the 1530s, there is a Protestant narrative which designates the welfare state as corrupt.

The irony is that the very elements the Protestant reformers hate the most – the mindless bureaucracy of the single market – was a creation of their forebears in the Thatcher government, and will be repeated if we leave in identical form in a new US-UK trade deal.

But is that a case that is likely to be understood in the current climate? Especially if a European Scotland, and its revitalised Auld Alliance with the continent, leaves the English Protestant rump behind?

If this is an accurate parallel, is history likely to repeat itself as farce? And if so, is there some way aof side-stepping it?  Ir is it really inevitable that we have to endure it all over again?

Wednesday 25 June 2014

Liberal free trade is not conservative free trade

Orange_BookFor years, I have been arguing that there is no real division inside the Lib Dems, who are (in my characterisation) – both the Orange Bookers and the Social Liberal Forum – uniformly uninterested in economics, its constraints or its possibilities.

But I went to the Orange Book knees-up conference yesterday, run by CentreForum, and have begun to realise that I have been wrong all this time. And on nearly all counts.

For one thing, listening to David Laws - the co-editor of the original collection of essays - I realised that he is certainly interested in economics. He may see things differently to me, but he is definitely interested, and (despite the way he is portrayed) interested in how you mesh together social and economic liberalism.  As I am.

For another thing, there is clearly a division. It is an irritating one, between two different kinds of economic conservatism, but you only had to look around the conference to realise the division was there. There was a handful of us not in the grey suits and ties of the Westminster mafia, but not many of us. Yes, there is a divide. I got it wrong.

Because I am always hopelessly late, I missed the first symposium about free trade. I had hoped somebody would try and define free market economic liberalism as distinct from free market economic conservatism. I gather that the only person who did so at all was Tim Montgomerie, former editor of Conservative Home.

But I listened closely to David Laws, and with respect – because he is a thoughtful politician, and there are not many of them.

He is also clearly a Liberal in his understanding of the constraints that poverty and social deprivation impose on open markets. He understands that, and ought to get more credit for it than he does – and his record at the Department for Education will bear this out.

But there are three weaknesses of ‘Orange Book Liberalism’ as he defines it.

1. Save to invest, which Laws says is a key principle, clearly implies investing to save. But it is ‘invest to save’ that is the really big Liberal idea, and where the difficulties are and which needs wrestling with. For those of us Liberals who still believe in thrift – a defining feature as far as I’m concerned – then investing to save is absolutely crucial. It has to be if it is going to prevent public services from being overwhelmed by need.

2. Choice and competition. This emerged in the debate rather often as two sides of the same coin, but – when they are linked together like that, as if they meant the same – they are both defined vaguely. One of the reasons that choice seems to me to have got so stuck under the coalition is because it is not defined precisely enough.

3. Monopoly. Here we get to the nub of it. By their failure to develop the Liberal understanding of free trade over the past two generations, it seems to me Liberals have allowed a their idea to slip out of their hands, and into the hands of those who believe it is just about deregulation. The prevailing understanding of free trade is dominated by American conservatives. Liberal free trade, the original version, is all about tackling the tyranny of monopoly, state or private. The prevailing interpretation of free trade, as understood by the IEA for example, is far too cosy to private monopoly, and – by letting monopoly off the hook – is not really free trade at all.

Liberal free trade is about enterprise, innovation and imagination. It is about the right of the small to challenge the big. It is not about giving absolute power to the wealthy and powerful. Quite the reverse. But who is articulating the Liberal interpretation of free trade?  I'm not sure I heard it articulated yesterday.

There was a telling moment when David Laws said that, unlike previous economic collapses, the 2008 crisis did not lead to an insurgent new understanding of economics. I have been wondering about this ever since, because he is both right and wrong.

It is quite wrong that there is no challenge to the prevailing, broken understanding of economics shared by the Whitehall machine. The combination of Piketty’s concern about equality and the emergence of the sharing economy is powerful but, so far, incoherent.

And yet, and yet, the sharing economy - the resurgence of mutualism in its broadest sense - is an example of precisely the kind of insurgent economic liberalism that I am talking about. But did the suited wonks in the room recognise that?  Had the hard-faced men who-had-done-well-out-of-the-coalition ever heard of it?

Because I find that, when I’m told that there is no emerging alternative in a room full of Westminster suits, all my contrarian instincts begin to emerge....

Tuesday 24 June 2014

Amazon might still save the high street. Here's how

Rolling Acres shopping mall in Akron, Ohio
Have you noticed how the discussion about whether or not our high streets can survive has disappeared from our collective media radar?

So 2013, wasn’t it...

My article inthe Guardian yesterday suggests that there is a reason for this – the cheerleaders for out of town shopping are finding that the sums just don’t add up for them any more.

To the surprise of many of us, last September’s figures showed that out of town shopping centres were losing shoppers faster than high streets.  Even the Great King Clone of the retail world, Tesco, is on the slide.

I don’t think we realised back in the days of the Clone Town Britain campaign how the market would change – these days you either have to be cheap and convenient or local and authentic.  The economic writing is on the wall for anything in between.

In other words, the high streets appear to be on the winning side, for a change.

What I didn't say in the article – because I only had the regulation 700 words – is that the survival of high street shopping is certainly not assured either.  Three other conditions have to be met before they come anything close to thriving again...

First, they need an economic raison d'etre.  The preferred high street solution depends on there being space for culture, fun and eating out – what James Rouse used to call the 'festival marketplace' – but there is a problem here. For a secure future, high streets and town centres have to provide an economic underpinning. It can't just be pop-up art installations in the empty shops. Despite Mary Portas, who is right I have to say, we are not there yet.

Second, they need to escape the clutches of our pensions.  If the big property companies think they can still rake off the kind of rental profits that they wee used to in the days of upward only rent reviews, then the whole delicate edifice really can't survive

But the last one is the most important.  The tax anomalies that give such an advantage for the online providers have to be sorted out – the government simply must cannot turn a blind eye to the way Amazon routes its sales through Luxembourg in a way that John Lewis can't.  It is unfair, destructive and it is anti-business.

So when Hamish McRae in the Evening Standard last night asked why the government's tax take is going down even as the economy rises, it might be worth looking at the growth of online shopping as one potential explanation.

If we are heading for the imminent demise of what we might call Bluewater Mind (the tendency to spend a couple of hours sweating on a motorway sliproad just for the chance to consume), then we are paying for it by giving tyrannical power over us to the internet behemoths.

The current control that Amazon has over the economy is unsustainable and potentially tyrannical – and the failure of the coalition to act on their tax avoidance is one of its most important failures.

Monday 23 June 2014

Can the new American revolution happen here?

"This is probably the most important period of US history bar none – I include the American Revolution – because we’ve run out of options. Either we develop a new way forward or fascism is a possibility or we will see growing decay."

This is a fascinating take on the future history of the USA, by the political activist and historian Gar Alperovitz, interviewed in New Start by Clare Goff last week.  Alperovitz is increasingly prominent in the political debate around the edges of politics, which takes a rather longer view (not hard actually) than the day-to-day debate.

It is the most important period of American history because there is an emerging sense, not just that the old systems are failing, but that radically differebt economic solutions are within reach.  Appealing to the self-determination of the American Revolution won't work over here, but it carries a sense of economic liberation which is intentional.  This is what he says:

"The systems that we have are generating great pain and are not capable of solving the problems we have. Whether it’s unemployment, the environment, or poverty, across the board you see growing pain. Most people take it on existentially and say 'I’m a failure' but people are beginning to say 'No, there’s something wrong here'. The traditional model for social democracy – the Democrats, Liberals, Labour party – has played itself out in its capacity to alter trends. The only awareness – and this is a profound change – is that there are no answers. A few years ago people would say that if we elect a Democrat all would be okay. No one believes that anymore. There’s not quite the awareness that we face a systemic problem, but there is awareness that something is wrong with the old system..."

Alperovitz is a fascinating figure, the author of What Then Must We Do?.  We have no real equivalent over here.  He is a compelling speaker - I heard him hold an audience spellbound on a winter night in a small town in western Massachusetts for an hour and a half, speaking without notes.  He is a Washington insider in the sense that he has worked in and around the Senate and House since the 1960s, and yet he is preaching a doctrine of complete economic renewal - based on mutualism and a new generation of economic institutions.

I believe he is right, and I am beginning to sense a new mood here too.  At the moment it is just a public distaste for greed (the treatment of Gary Barlow, for example), and a growing understanding that the banking system is no longer designed for most of us - but this is yet to translate itself into a clear political direction.  It is in a sense, the very quiet other side of the coin to the Ukip revolt.

The sheer pragmatism of the Lib Dems means they are not well placed to hear the signals from this new mood, or understand the new direction when it emerges.  The lack of pragmatism among the Greens also makes it hard for them to respond.  Both Labour and Conservative parties are so riven with disagreements about their political direction that we can't expect much from them.  Ukip is too blinkered.

So where is the new direction going to emerge?  The answer is - in the cities.  Once they wake up and realise that the ball is in their court.  Nobody is going to save them.  They will have to act themselves - and, when they do, I suggest they go to Gar Alperovitz for advice.

Thursday 19 June 2014

Why inequality makes house prices rise

I spoke on the same bill as the comedian and fridge-carrier Tony Hawks last night, at a Bristol rally called Make Billionaires History.  Hawks is very jovial about it all, but he has a plan: an agreed maximum wage, above which very high earners will be expected to give the rest away to charity.

It sounds unworldly, especially as the tax system is an increasingly voluntary business for the ultra-rich.  But it seems to me that our morality is turning against greed in a fascinating new way.  And, assuming the Hawks plan is enforced by moral sanction alone, I have a feeling that this - or something like it - is the direction we are actually going.

We don't say any more that, as Peter Mandelson famously said, we are relaxed about people getting filthy rich, because we sense that it damages us.  And exactly how it damages us provided me with the subject of my own contribution to the evening.

So this is what I said last night:

"I’ve got a confession to make. I am middle class. I admit it.  I’m not actually the little boy in the chair, but I might as well have been.

Not old fashioned middle class. I don’t have doilies or use laxatives. I’m not the one in the middle here. I’m new middle class.  I have obscure food allergies. I worry about school catchment areas. And you should see what I eat for breakfast.

So this isn’t your usual rant about inequality and poverty. I’m not saying I don’t care about that – just that my subject this evening is the middle classes.

Because there’s a peculiar paradox about the middle classes.  Every government in my adult life has claimed to represent them, to govern on their behalf. You know the kind of thing: hard-working families better off and so on – home ownership, school choice.

Yet look at the middle classes and you can see there’s a problem.

They don’t have any pensions – which used to be the definition of middle class life. They’re in a blind panic about schools, arguably because they’re never given the information they really want. The curriculum is dull and technocratic. And they can’t afford to live in the areas they were brought up, just as their children won’t be able to afford to live where they live now.

This is where I was born.  It was a slum in 1958.  It was only a recently retired red light district. Alf Garnett lived downstairs.

But I went to a dinner party recently and met the people who now live in the attic. The flat we lived in is now occupied by the head of Benetton Europe.  I can’t even afford to sleep rough there. There’s the problem.

Now before you dismiss this as a London phenomenon alone, have a look at this.

This is how much Bristol house prices rose in a quarter of a century (450%).  And Edinburgh (509%) and Truro (530%).

This is my house now.  It isn’t a mansion by any means. It was built in 1937 and cost £700. Mortgages in those days were usually paid off in 15 years.

If prices had increased at the compound inflation rates since then, guess how much it would cost now. £45,000.

This is what it actually is worth (£550,000) - not that I will see any of that.  It will go to cover my pension and social care.

If prices increase in the next 30 years like they have in the last 30 years, this is what it will be worth in 2045 (£2.7m).

Scary isn’t it. And I don’t believe for a second wages or salaries will increase like that.

So this is what awaits our children. Such narrowed choices about their career – if they are going to afford to rent or somewhere to live. This isn’t just about owning a home.  Indentured servitude to Big Landlord PLC.
And a new kind of economy where there are no middle classes. A miniscule elite who own everything and a vast sprawling proletariat, and no ladder between the two.

Timed when they go to the loo.

Here’s the Amazon warehouse where we’ll all work.  In Bentham’s panopticon. No old age pension except the state one, because it is – as the elite put it – uneconomic.

So let’s finish by looking at why and what this has to do with billionaires.

We are constantly told by Mark Carney and David Cameron, and practically everyone else, that the reasons house prices rise is that there aren’t enough homes.  This is, of course, true.  But it isn’t the whole truth. Because there are two reasons prices rise. Too few goods being chased by too much money.

There always was and always will be a scarcity of homes – though not as much as now, perhaps. Homes are scarce.

Here’s the graph of house prices rising since they abolished the corset, which regulated how much money went into the mortgage market.

Now, look at this. This is where the corset was abolished and the mortgage finance rushed in...

This is where Nigel Lawson reflated the economy after the 1987 crash...

This is when buy-to-let mortgages began to take off...

I’m not saying we shouldn’t build more homes. Of course we should. But there’s something else important here. When money pours in, the prices rise.

Do you remember the amazing television programme about Portland Road, and what the banker said: “Where do you think all that taxpayer’s money went from the bailout,” he said. “It went into banker’s housing”. So of course do the banker’s bonuses. £2.4 billion for Barclays alone this year. That’s £50 for each of their customers worldwide.

It’s actually very basic economics. When society is hugely unequal, the prices of the scarce things people need begin to rise. Billionaires create inflation for the rest of us. Not just in housing, though that’s bad enough, but in the price of holidays. Or education. Or leisure.

We should build more homes. We certainly should.   But it won’t solve the problem while billionaires funnel money into the UK housing market, and while 70 per cent of bank lending is on property.

It won’t solve the problem because the very rich cause inflation.  It isn’t their fault. I don’t blame them but, in the end, prices rise to suit their pockets and not ours.

That’s a problem for us. But it is an absolutely massive problem for our children.  We tell them they can do what they dream they can. We encourage them to change the world with their talents.

But the truth is, unless we act politically, and act politically, and building the new institutions we need, then they won’t.

Because they’ll have to go into financial services to pay the vast rent to Big Landlord plc.

Because there will be no retirement.

Because that’s the problem with an economy that produces billionaires. We just can’t afford them."

Find out more in my book Broke.

Wednesday 18 June 2014

Why billionaires create inflation

Earlier this week, my colleagues at the New Economics Foundation published a fascinating graph comparing the growth of economic inequality in the UK with the rise of average house prices.

They got a proper pasting below the line, as is proper on these occasions - a proper pasting below the line is what we bloggers deserve these days and often get - which came from economists who said that there could be no connection and, finding one, would imply changing the definition of inequality.

The graph is pretty impressive nonetheless, but it shows a six-year time lag between the pattern of inequality and rising house prices.  Perhaps that is to be expected - if there is a link.

It so happens that, today, I'm going to Bristol to speak at a rally called Make Billionaires History tonight, and the peculiar link between billionaires and rocketing house prices is exactly my subject.  The problem is, as I shall explain, that billionaires create inflation/

So if you want to join in the debate, do come along!  If you can't, you can find out all about it in my book Broke.

Tuesday 17 June 2014

Why governments find it more difficult to act

Mary Dejevsky is one of the most interesting columnists on the circuit. She is the only one to see the Lib Dem contribution in government clearly. She is the only one who really gives Nick Clegg his due as one of the most intelligent operators in government.

She is also invariably right, and she was right again yesterday when she talked about the vital importance of competence in government.

It is all very well getting the economy right, as the coalition appears to have done in the short term, but they still haven’t cracked the other competence issues and they will need to if they are going to win the support they need. That kind of sums up her message.

I'm not sure that passports are the best example, though it is a potent political symbol, because no department can deal with an unexpected influx.  But she is still right.

I have written before about why the administration of modern government is so difficult these days and it goes beyond Mary Dejevsky’s diagnosis (which is that it is all about failures in outsourcing).

Part of the problem is the absolutely firm and unshakable belief in the UK government system in one simple solution to all things – which you might perhaps characterise in faith in the quick fix – when all the evidence suggests that any problem worth solving will operate on several interconnected levels at once. That explains something of Whitehall’s preference for tackling symptoms rather than causes, acting on the symbolism in the hope that it feeds through into reality. That is a cultural problem, but it is a big one.

Part two of the problem is utilitarian. New Labour in particular believed that you could somehow operate government like a vast humming computer programme. You could simply input the targets, programme the standards, press the button marked Go and the machine would do the rest. That was stymied by the failure of numbers to adequately describe the real world, and but it has added another layer of complexity to the problem of competence. A blind, bowlderised government machine doesn’t help.

Part three, and the bit that exercises me at present, is the sheer complexity of modern government. Any tweak to the system is bound to have unpredictable, unknowable knock-on side-effects which nobody intended and which – when revealed in the media – will make the minister look stupid. On balance it is often easier to do nothing.

All of these frustrate the best efforts of the most enlightened ministers daily.. They know how long and difficult it is to make anything happen. There are no levers, and those that used to exist have long since been outsourced..

Here is the fundamental problem of government and Mary Dejevsky is right. We will not trust government unless it takes risks to make things happen, but it is not set up to allow this to happen at all easily.

This is both the side-effects of the success of democracy and its greatest threat. It renders our democratic institutions vulnerable to challenge from rabble-rousers with half an idea in their heads. And that, more than anything else, that demands a solution to this conundrum.

Government has to be able to act, but it isn't set up to do so.  Nor is outsourcing an instant solution because, although businesses are set up to act, when they take over public services, they become as inflexible and bone-headed as any corporate monolith anywhere.  There lies the great problem of our times.

Monday 16 June 2014

The fatal moment that divided doctors from patients

“It’s a very frequent saying and a true and honest thought; /That, if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught." So says Oscar Hammerstein in the lyrics for The King and I. I certainly found this to be so. In fact, I spent a fascinating few days last week talking to doctors about co-production and learned a great deal myself.

I won’t say what city I was in, in case I betray confidences, but what was interesting is how enraged they are about how they are increasingly taking the flak from politicians for the pressure on A&E departments.

Whether there is really more pressure on A&E departments, I don’t know. I haven’t seen any evidence and rather doubt it, but there is certainly pressure. There always has been.

What seems to me to be undeniable is that:
  • There is an attempt by Conservatives to blame the perceived A&E crisis on the short hours that some GP surgeries work.
  • It is certainly difficult getting an appointment at some surgeries in the morning, as you would expect from the rising pressure there.
  • There is an issue about weekend coverage in the NHS – and clearly no extra resources to solve it.
But there is something else which is hard to pin down, as I learned from the various patients in the room. It may not be the fault of GPs individually, or even collectively, but the fatal decision to commission separate services to run their out-of-hours service in 2003 has tended to poison the relationship between doctors and the public.  Not between individual patients and doctors, but collectively.

This may have been a wheeze dreamed up by the Labour regime at the Department of Health, but it is still perceived as GPs opting out of the trusting relationship with patients. Leaving them at the mercy of the miserable contractors who run these services.

Many of the doctors I talked to were convinced that the contracted out-of-hours service was more expensive than the previous co-operative coverage by GPs on duty which it replaced. I know from experience in Croydon that the standards of the out-of-hours service the only time I ever had to use it was pretty shocking – a huge room full of white faced patients, some of them collapsing, processed very slowly by three nurses through the night (no doctors to be seen).

The real tragedy is that, as a by-product of the 2003 decision, there is no going back. The weight of demand on the new out-of-hours services is out of all proportion to what it was before. Under the old system, people used to think twice before forcing their GP out of bed – even if their was actually taking a turn at night duty – but have no compunction about doing it when it is a private contractor.

The other problem is the extra £5,000 or so that every GP is required by insurers to cover them if they so much as try a hand at out-of-hours. Someone will have to cover that, if we were to are to go back in any way to first principles.

One of the positive developments of the health reforms by the coalition has been that GPs have been taking some responsibility – in a way that was taken from them by the great bureaucratic monoliths that were the PCTs (yes, I know, the PCTs are also being recreated at great expense, but we are not there yet in most places).

But they are taking responsibility for a situation that they did not create, in a vastly more difficult environment. The way forward, if there is one, is going to have to involve a new sharing of responsibility and time between the GPs and their patients.  Is that possible?  Is there any forum where it can be hammered out?

What would I do in the meantime?  Well, I wonder how useful it is to pay for two services at night - the out-of-hours and the A&E - often through doors that are actually next to each other.  

I would use the out-of-hours money to beef up A&E and have done with it.  If that's the way people want to access healthcare at night, there must come a point when we stop wasting resources to fight it.

Thursday 12 June 2014

The emergence of allotment chic

"Does pattern have to be superficial and imitative or can it capture a fleeting moment, the fingerprint of a place or even the spirit of a person?"

That's the question posed in the Dora pattern blog (full transparency: she's my wife) - and the question behind it: is it possible to create a pattern with soul?

The result of her experiments go on show at the Chelsea College of Art Degree Show at the end of this week: five garments with patterns made for specific people in the huge Spa Hill allotments near Crystal Palace.

The allotment movement has been driving ahead in recent years, with more than six million people hoping to get an allotment and the waiting lists in one London borough now topping 40 years (see my history On the Eighth Day God Created Allotments for more details).  It is time that allotments developed distinctive clothing and patterns of their own, and what Dora has done here seems to me to be a giant leap in that direction.

You can see more on her blog and watch her short film about the people behind her patterns here.  But check out especially the blue overalls (see above) - dyed in indigo with a pattern of leaves taken from the shadows through by real leaves from the allotments onto a large sheet.

The result seems to me to provide something genuinely organic.  I've never seen anything like it before.  You can almost smell the earth.  See if you can. 

Wednesday 11 June 2014

The fundamentalism of Ofsted

They don’t really make the connection at the BBC, where they are not used to making connections in case it is too political, but there is a storm brewing about what we call these days ‘accountability’

The coalition inherited a vast and ferociously expensive edifice of reporting, targets, standards and inspections. They articulated a critique of it in 2010, but failed to understand their critique enough to drive through the necessary changes.

Now the edifice is coming apart. Not just in the ridiculous spectacle of Ofsted putting schools in Birmingham into special measures sometimes only months after they judged them ‘good’.

Or in the latest care home scandal, where the CQC seems to have failed to notice the abuses and administration going seriously awry in the Orchid View care home in Sussex.

In both regimes, the original idea – tick-box standards and target reporting – is being abandoned where possible, but it is too late and it isn't clear what they can be replaced with.  The logical extension of centralised inspecting on this scale, as Roy Lilley pointed out this morning, is that we need to inspect the inspectors.

There is hardly anywhere in the public sector where the systems of accountability are working, and – where they are working – they are squeezing out the innovation and wasting money, as whole organisations shift their energy to meet the targets rather than to do an effective job.

But there is an irony here when it comes to the fear of religious fundamentalism behind the so-called Trojan Horse affair in the Birmingham schools.  Fundamentalism is when – whether it is promulgated by Christians or Moslems - a few rules are granted divine status and forced to apply to every situation, regardless of their relevance, complexity or humanity.

They do so in the face of evidence that Jesus Christ regarded himself as battling this kind of fundamentalism too ("the sabbath was made for man not man for the sabbath”).

But the numerical standards that are still applied to our public services, via targets or so-called 'evidence-based policy' (not actually about evidence at all), are also a kind of fundamentalism, and in the same way.  They are a pseudo-scientific kind, applying bowlderised definitions backed by supposedly evidence-based numbers.

It attempts to make the world seem simple, just as the religious bigots do,and it is just as distorting and just as inhumane.  When you try to run the world via numbers, which can only ever by an approximation of complex truth - and when you stop believing in that all-important gap between the numerical data and the real world - you are a fundamentalist.

At either end of the scale, from the world of faith to the world of scientific administration, we are beset by fundamentalism. Those of us who can still see things clearly need to be able to articulate the case for complex human truth.

Tuesday 10 June 2014

The next Turing test: can you fall in love with a computer?

There are two reasons to be a little sceptical about reports that a computer has finally passed the Turing Test. A little background: this is the one set out by the computer pioneer Alan Turing to decide mathematically if computers could ‘think’.

The reports suggest that 33 per cent of judges were convinced by a programme which persuaded them that the computer they were communicating with was a Ukrainian teenager called Eugene. That was above the threshold set by Turing back in 1950 so – if it really has been passed – they will be breaking open the champagne in Artificial Intelligence circles.

One reason to wonder is that this is actually ‘Turing Lite’, a version of the test designed to be more entertaining to meet the requirements of the American inventor Hugh Loebner.  Loebner made the first really concerted attempt to encourage engineers to take the Turing Test, offering a prize of $100,000 to anyone who could build a computer that could pass it.

The Loebner Prize Competition in Artificial Intelligence took place for the first time in 1991 in Boston, with the philosopher Daniel Dennett chairing the judging panel.

Dennett pointed out the immediate problem, which was that Turing’s test was extremely tough and there was absolutely no chance that any existing computer was going to pass it. So he lowered the bar. There were ten judges and ten terminals and they would all spend fifteen minutes with each terminal. Six would be computers and four would be human and the judges would have to work out which. Even then, Dennett did not expect to have to hand out any prizes. This latest experiment only exposed the judges to each terminal for five minutes each.

Back in 1991, Dennett lost his nerve during the actual judging and went to the office to knock-up a certificate just in case. In the event, he gave out three. “The gullibility of the judges was simply astonishing to me. How could they have misjudged so badly?” he wrote. Often, as it turned out, they were simply doing what Turing suggested and giving the machines the benefit of the doubt.

You can read more about this and the background to the test in my e-biography of Turing.

But the issue for Eugene is how much the judges gave the contestants the benefit of the doubt, especially if they are Artificial Intelligence enthusiasts. How much did they ask themselves, not ‘is this a human being?’ but ‘is it possible that I could be convinced that this is a human being?’ Not the same at all.

But there is another reason to take a look at this, which is the implication that the media draws from the experiment – about robots overtaking human beings.

The truth is that, in many areas, that has long since happened. The victory of IBM’s Big Blue computer over chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997 was the crucial moment. There are some things that computers will always do far better than humans.

So there seems to be a broader debate emerging about what it means to be human in the light of the Turing Test. The Turing Test never claimed to be able to verify anything metaphysical, but that is where the debate is going. It is really a debate about what it means to be human and whether machines can be in any sense human too.

It isn’t about conventional intelligence, but love, care and generosity. Turing believed that intuition was computable. That remains the heart of the test.

So we need to update the test in the light of this. So forget the Turing Test, for a moment. What we need is a Boyle Test (let’s call it that for the time being). It needs to show whether those elements that seem uniquely human can be displayed by a computer. In other words, can you develop a relationship with one?

Before you say you can’t exactly marry a computer to find out – there seem to be huge swathes of the population who appear to be able to fall in love online or over the phone. Well then, let’s test the proposition.

So here is the Boyle test. Is it possible to fall in love with a computer? Could you forma relationship with one? Would you want to stay in touch? That will need more than a random collection of mildly autistic responses from a pretend teenager.

Find out more about the Turing Test in my ebook Alan Turing: Unlocking the Enigma.

Monday 9 June 2014

The real meaning of bucolic names

You can't beat a good old-fashioned bucolic name. If the new NHS chief Simon Stevens had said he wanted a new generation of 'Intermediate Treatment Centres', everyone would have been immediately suspicious that this was some kind of sleight of hand. As it was, a new generation of 'cottage hospitals' went down very well.

In the same way, if Nick Clegg had urged the establishment to designate a new generation of new towns, the world would have come down on his head. But three quarters of the population say they back ‘garden cities’.

Yet this is not just a cynical exercise in spin. Garden cities deliberately refer to something specific and so do cottage hospitals. They are popular, not just because they sound rural, but because they sound human-scale in a technocratic world.

Of course, garden cities could turn out to be concrete wildernesses, and cottage hospitals could turn out to be target-driven hellholes. But the public recognises the symbolism – they understand what is intended here – and the disappointment will be all the greater if these models turn out to be inhuman or technocratic.

Garden cities in particular were a model put forward to relieve the population pressure on London, which were designed by Ebenezer Howard to decentralise the population to a new settlement, where the land was held in common, built to a high environmental standard.

They are not 'garden suburbs', the alternative put forward in the Edwardian period.  Those are just design-led enclaves for the very rich, and do not prevent the elephantiasis of London or any other city.

So when Sir Michael Lyons reports to the Labour Party that it is time to expand the cities, he will find himself – it seems to me – on the same side the Labour Party has always been on, and it's the wrong side.

The problem with an enormous expansion in the city populations is that, without any other measures, it will mean London, which is already growing far too fast, with the most intense pressures falling - as they always fall - on the poorest.

Rapidly expanding cities has always meant impoverishment for the poorest, living in the hutches designated for the poorest on the outskirts of the cities.

It is true that Lyons looks set to propose other means of land assembly. Let's be fair to the Labour Party, back to Attlee; they have always sought out more innovative solutions to he problem. They also backed the new towns programme from 1946 onwards. But despite all that, the hutches for the poor proliferated no less exuberantly under Labour than they did under Churchill, Eden and Macmillan (especially perhaps Macmillan who was responsible for the worst excesses).

There is, or perhaps there ought to be, a clear distinction now between the different parties and their approaches to housing a growing population.

There is the Conservative Party, dedicated to winding up planning controls so that developers can build, but also to removing legislation which forces them to include social housing in the mix.

There is the Labour Party, if they back Lyons, where they always were: dedicated to increasing he size of cities.  There is something about the Labour mind which enjoys the sight of a vast urban population, fitting into their little flats, as far as the eye can see.  It is the old puritanism emerging.

And there is the Liberal Democrats, back where the Edwardian Liberals were, dedicated to a new generation of garden cities, but without articulating the innovative baggage that needs to go with that – that people must have a stake in the land, where the rise in land values can provide the necessary infarstructure - and not just at the beginning - and where there is potentially a thriving local economy.

This seems to me to be the only potential way out of poverty.

Friday 6 June 2014

Qatar, the Shard and the Magisterium

I watched the film The Golden Compass again over the weekend, the movie version of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, which has to be one of the most important children’s books written in the second half of the twentieth century.

I was fascinated to look at their version of London ruled by the so-called Magisterium, which is in the film rather less of a version of the Roman Catholic Church without a Reformation, and more like a mildly religious version of Big Brother.

Their headquarters is a huge skyscraper, towering over the city, an architectural version of tyranny.

Regular readers of this blog (if there are any) will know that I believe that architectural styles don’t just reflect political mores, they actively shape them. If you design buildings that undermine human dignity, or belittle human beings, as the Shard does – then that becomes the prevailing political atmosphere.

Now, here is the link with the news this week. The Shard was the creation of Qatari princes, and there is something of the Magisterium about it – that is, after all, their ruling style. Qatari officials are currently accused of bribing their way to a World Cup in 2022 in 40 degree heat.  This matters because the UK economy is increasingly intertwined with theirs.

The Qataris own a quarter of Sainsbury’s, a large chunk of Barclays and Heathrow Airport. They have asked for priority status for other pieces of UK infrastructure. When we hear about bribery in FIFA (again) related to the Qatar, that is not a small country of which we know little (as Neville Chamberlain might have said), it is a major force in our own infrastructure and business life – and, via the baleful influence of buildings like the Shard, in our political atmosphere and sense of ourselves.

Does it matter that countries like Qatar and China have such a hold over our infrastructure?

I’m not sure, but am not entirely convinced that it doesn’t. Yes, they have to abide by UK laws and standards. Yes, the influx of money is important. But if it matters for the self-determination of Africa that China owns so much of the land, and if it matters that so many businesses in Scotland turned out to be foreign owned – as the No campaign claims – then it certainly matters for the UK as a whole.

The Australian thinker and financier Shann Turnbull argues that we overpay investors by giving them lifetime rights over their investments, when actually they only need returns for an investment horizon of about 25 years – after which the ownership needs to return to local people.

I can’t think of a measure that would do more to shift the inexorable way that the proceeds of investment cascade towards the richest.

In other words, we are paying the sovereign wealth fund of Qatar inefficiently – more than they need to invest in our infrastructure, giving them permanent rights. Qatar and China represent a new kind of capitalism – a free market for the few, and political tyranny for the many.

If we are going to welcome their investment, we need to find ways to make sure we do not also hand over permanent political power as well. Or the Shard really will be the Magisterium building.

Thursday 5 June 2014

The BBC, Twitter and the first news of D-Day

Seventy years ago this morning, allied troops established the beachhead in occupied Europe and founded the modern world.

What is interesting to me, and the story hasn't been told before, is the complexities of how the news around the landing was handled.  Noel Newsome, the director of the BBC European Service, was one of those few civilians with knowledge about the date of the invasion.  He had built his reputation there, and torn the service away from the bureaucratic grip of the BBC, with a commitment to truth as propaganda and an awareness that - in the war he was fighting - getting the news out first was the most powerful weapon he had.

But he could hardly ignore what was going on and wait to be told what to say.  What was he to do? This is how he described the decision in his autobiography:

"Soon after dawn, we began to receive flashes from the monitoring services and the news agencies, saying that the German News Service was reporting Allied landings in Normandy and in the Calais area. We had every reason to believe that the reports of the Normandy landings must be correct, but believed that those of attacks in the Calais area were false, as we knew of no plans for landings there. But if these were false, might not those of the Normandy assault also be untrue? Might they have been put out by the Germans to enable them to claim, if bad weather had again prevented the invasion, that we had been repulsed? My instructions were to wait for the SHAEF communiqué, not due for many hours even if landings had begun. On the other hand, our broadcasting services had built their reputation on the speed, as well as the accuracy, of their news. My own overpowering instinct as a newspaperman was to report the news from whatever source as soon as I got it. 

"Half-an-hour passed and German reports of Allied landings continued to come in thick and fast. I took the bull by the horns and ordered that we should start transmitting the German reports, with a statement that there was no confirmation of these in Allied quarters. Meanwhile, I took immediate steps to check the true position with SHAEF. This was not easy. Perhaps naturally, SHAEF was in a state of high excitement and it was impossible to get a clear telephone line for some time. 

"Eventually, I got through and secured confirmation that the invasion was on, that we were ashore in Normandy, and that a feint attack had been made in the Pas de Calais to sow confusion in the German defence. This was a great relief. Obviously, we could help the feint to achieve its purpose if we continued to relay German reports about the Calais attack as if confirming them. This we did..."

What I find fascinating about this is not just that Newsome broadcast the news about D-Day based on German reports, ignoring his instructions - in retrospect the least suspicious thing he could have done for the listening enemy - but just how modern this all is in the days of Twitter and competing internet news coverage.

Newsome is now a largely forgotten figure, quite wrongly in my view - though he broadcast anonymously three times a week as the ‘Man in the Street’ - but during the war his influence was immense.

By force of personality and amidst furious controversy, he built the organisation that transmitted to Europe throughout the war, broadcasting on three channels and in 20 different languages for a total of 36 hours a day – the biggest broadcasting operation in the world then and now.  As Director of European Broadcasts, he shaped the daily line against Goebbels, and dominated the voice of Britain from the BBC, and then the voice of the allies at SHAEF from Radio Luxembourg.

"Would you risk your life to listen to that?" he scrawled on official scripts - demanding that people listening secretly to illegal wirelesses around Europe deserved the straight-talking truth. Such was his success that, by 1945, 15 million Germans were risking a death sentence to listen to his programmes every day.

But at VE Day he was told he was too much of a crusader for the post-war BBC, and he never broadcast again. They never forgave him for wresting control of the European Service away from them. The most recent BBC history of the World Service only gave him a footnote.  It was 25 years before Asa Briggs, in his history of broadcasting, called him "the central figure in the organisation... and the most industrious, lively and imaginative of all its wartime recruits."

It was under Newsome’s direction that the organisation that was to become the BBC World Service gained its European reputation for trust, and the art of broadcast ‘propaganda’ was developed into a fine and largely forgotten art.

It meant keeping the good news in proportion, reminding people of the discredited claims of the Nazis. But most of all, it meant a daily struggle to make sure the bad news – especially the embarrassing news – was got on the air before the other side.

It happened at such speed that there was no time to wait for orders.  Even without official backing, he pushed the limits of his editorial control to the utmost, twice taking it upon himself to reject Hitler's peace offers to Britain over the radio, without any reference to higher authority. But he was most controversial in his conviction that British propaganda had to have a 'moral core'. By this he meant that the news should be recognisably British, and that the ideals for which the nation was fighting should shine through every broadcast - through religion, art, literature and the whole orchestra of free culture.  This is what made the European Service so effective.

"There is one way in which the British, despite the narrowness of their political thinking, are ahead of us," Goebbels warned in a newspaper article in 1944. "They know that news can be a weapon and are experts in its strategy."

Newsome believed that the range of different languages included in his organisation, filling Bush House, would allow his pan-European broadcasts to provide the basis of a pan-European institution at the end of the war.  The British government were not keen, which was a historic tragedy.  But what strikes me now is how modern this kind of news was - in hour-by-hour struggles with the Nazi broadcasters. 

We are reinventing news along these lines now, with 100 million people a month using the Guardian's website, updated 24 hours a day, and the objective primarily being 'traffic' - as Newsome's was.  Just getting people to tune in to find out something critical they could find out nowhere else, and to trust it.

That meant the news had to be recognisably British - it may not have been the whole truth (how could it have been?) but it wasn't spin.  It also had to build civilisation rather than undermine it.

"If I were to try to describe in one word the character which I sought to give our broadcasts I would reply 'civilised'," Newsome said in his farewell talk from Radio Luxembourg on 23 May 1945. "There were many who told us that we were failing at our task because we did not employ tricks and devices as clever as those of the Nazis. Others said we did not adapt ourselves sufficiently to the tastes and susceptibilities of our audiences. Our bitterest critics were those who objected to admissions that the Allies were far from perfect and had made mistakes, and that our enemies were not all, to a man, woman and child of them, villains beyond redemption. Yet we sought to tell the truth: not only the true facts about the war, but the truth about human beings at all times - that no-one of any race or nation has a monopoly of virtue or viciousness, that in everybody there is a glorious goodness and bestial evil which fight for domination."

Wednesday 4 June 2014

The heroism of Steve Webb

article-2485612-0DFB940200000578-49_634x1094.jpg (634×1094)Here is a little calculation you can do about what happened to our pensions.  We have been through a generation where the British system of occupational pensions all but disappeared as a reliable prop for retirement, and where the institutions created to make it possible to have that comfortable retirement have all but disappeared too - partly thanks to over-regulation, partly thanks to an outrageous and disastrous political fix.

We have entered a new world where people save less than half as much as they used to for their retirement, and where they are systematically fleeced by the financial sector – providing them with future retirement incomes at least 20 per cent and sometimes 70 per cent lower than they were.

And despite all this, hardly a word has been heard in complaint, and I explained why in my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis

What we have instead is 'defined contribution' personal pensions.  Here's the difference (and I'm indebted to Morris and Palmer for their calculations here).  The old defined benefit pensions used to take a mixture of contributions from you, your employer and the government amounting to of about 22 per cent of your salary. For personal pensions, which define your contributions but not what you get out (defined contribution), the average is only 9 per cent – even though you might be paying exactly the same amount into both schemes. Big difference.

It means that if you pay into a personal pension for forty years, you will get out 41 per cent of what you would have got from a defined benefit occupational pension. But then an implacable arithmetic kicks in. For the personal pension, there are entry and exit charges. There are annual management charges and other hidden charges, some explicit, some not. Imagine that the annual charges are around 1.5 per cent a year. It seems like an insignificant amount, but it builds up implacably. For many people, 1.5 per cent a year over forty years will eat up almost half the contributions you make into your pension pot – a whacking £45,000 from payments of £108,000.

Then there is the cost of an annuity - which thanks to the Lib Dem pensions minister Steve Webb, you no longer have to buy - which is 10 to 15 per cent higher for people in personal pensions. The terrifying conclusion is that your pension will be about a quarter of what it was if you had paid into an old-fashioned occupational pension. A quarter. That is a huge difference, and not one that was ever mentioned during that whole debate a generation ago.

Because the debate in 1985, leading to a huge battle in government between Norman Fowler and Nigel Lawson, ended with the 1986 Pensions Act and the advent of personal pensions.  Partly because of the row, the personal pensions project - designed as a kind of Thatcherite antidote to 'socialist' collective pensions where you share risk - excluded some kind of combination of the two: shared risk but also portable.

Unfortunately for the middle classes, they believed that the pensions industry was still a middle-class institution and fundamentally on their side. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The problem was that, deep down, politicians of both the Labour and the Conservative parties hated the pensions industry. To the Thatcherites of the 1980s it looked like a form of corporate socialism. To the Blairites of the 1990s it looked like a corrupt form of capitalism. The temptation for Gordon Brown as Chancellor in 1997 was too much, and he raided the so-called ‘surplus’ with a £5 billion tax (a precedent set originally by Lawson himself).

In the mid-1960s, just over 8 million people were in company pension schemes, so-called defined benefit schemes, which meant that they were protected by sharing the risk and knew what kind of pay out they would get – usually two thirds of their final salary. Nor would they have to worry about annuities or investments.

For all the good intentions of Norman Fowler, the pensions industry never tried to recreate something along the same lines for a wider mass of people – leaving individuals increasingly at the mercy of the industry.

Far from innovating to reproduce effective and secure pensions for everyone, they provided a means by which individuals could gamble away their savings. Far from providing a choice of charges and competitive rates, the industry colluded within itself to keep charges high and to obscure information about their real costs. 

So when we look back on the coalition years, it seems to me that - very quietly in the background - one of the heroes will be the pensions minister Steve Webb.  It helps of course if the minister happens to be one of the nation's experts on pensions, but don't let's pretend that any of this is easier - especially in a department shaped by those two ideologies.

His work to release people from the grip of the financial services industry over annuities is now being followed by the introduction of 'collective' pensions, which define the contribution like personal pensions, but allow you to share risks and rewards with other members.  It is an absolutely vital reform.

Tuesday 3 June 2014

A tale of fundamentalism in economics

My unscripted, if not wholly impromptu, event at Hay on the plight of the middle classes has been bizarrely well reported, if not entirely accurately.

The Telegraph has even written a leader about it.

I believe that those newspapers which reported it were relying on the notes made by one journalist and, inevitably, they didn’t get everything right.

The trouble is that badly articulated answers to questions (badly articulated by me, that is) have been fed through the prism of a number of different reports - until the final version can sometimes be wholly incoherent.

Then the incoherent version goes and rattles the cage where they keep the Adam Smith Institute.

Seeing my link to their great foes at the New Economics Foundation, their bloggers have moved into action and produced this denunciation.

It is based on the idea that I suggested that house prices should be pegged.  Actually, I said no such thing.  What I did say was that there is a disagreement about the many reasons why house prices rise. The true believers at the Adam Smith Institute seem to believe it is primarily because there are not enough homes.

And of course it is, partly.  But I don't see how – with investors pouring in from the Far East - there will ever be enough homes to bring down the prices. The main reason we get house price bubbles is that too much money is pouring into the property market – especially in London where the bonuses are paid and the mortgage terms are lengthening to make borrowing less expensive.

If there is any way to ratchet house prices down, we are going to have to control how much money is going into the property market – as we used to, with varying degrees of effectiveness, until 1980.

Far from suggesting that new homes should keep the same prices, I was actually talking about social housing.

I believe in home ownership, and for everybody, not just for the wealthy - and increasingly it will only be the rich who can afford it. I don't see why the rich should own and the poor should rent. I was proposing that new social housing should be given away not rented, and you might have imagined that the Adam Smith Institute might feel the same way about that.    Apparently not.

What I was suggesting, in a very outline way, was that it might be more cost-effective to build social housing and then to give it away at a nominal sum – and that nominal sum would be in return for a very long lease that could only be exchanged at the same price.

Would that also have the effect of putting a downward pressure on prices?  Would it cost as much as some of the regeneration efforts of the Blair government?  Would it be more effective?  I don't know.  What I do know is that we will destroy the middle classes if we allow house prices to rise in the next 30 years like they did in the last - and it isn't clear what will stop them from doing so.

The real problem is that, as the Adam Smith Institute blog said, prices are information.  They certainly are, but they are clues rather than the definitive truth.  They require interpretation.  They are not obvious  and unvarnished.  They are not holy writ to be bowed down and worshipped.

The problem with the Adam Smith Institute is that they appear to be committed to a kind of fundamentalism as virulent as religious fundamentalism, and based on the same mistake - that truth is revealed simply and that interpretation must be stamped out.  Hence their economic lunacy jibe at me.

I believe in free and open markets, because they underpin other freedoms - but those freedoms are shrinking for us because the worship of prices as divine revelation is undermining the practical and intellectual case for freedom.  Price fundamentalists are their own worst enemies.

More on the house prices issue in my book Broke: How to Survive the Middle Class Crisis.

Monday 2 June 2014

It was banking policy that frustrated Lord Oakeshott

It is no great secret that one of the policy areas that most frustrated Lord Oakeshott about the coalition was banking.

I can't speak for him, and in any case I'm not sure exactly where he stood, except that I believe he felt - as many of us do - that the big banks were still a threat to economic stability and had failed to change their risk-taking behaviour, just as their bonuses still encourage insane and corrosive speculation.

It is ironic therefore that his great friend, Vince Cable, was partly responsible for financial policy, and we might assume also frustrated by the slow progress an unreformed Treasury was making towards reforming the banks.

I don't know how much the compromise position that has been enacted, which fails short of breaking up the banks, satisfied Oakeshott.  It doesn't really satisfy me, but it is at least action.

Where the coalition has not been effective at all is on the other side of all this - not so much regulating the risk-taking of the big banks but providing us with an effective banking network to support small and medium sized enterprises.  In fact, Oakeshott resigned from the front bench over the wholly ineffective Project Merlin in 2011.

One of the Lib Dem frustrations of the coalition is that, while they can intervene to prevent poor policy going ahead, there is little they can do - without extraordinary skill and energy - actually to initiate major changes.   Banking is one of these area which needs distinctive Liberal Democrat action and never really received it.  I've no idea if, in the end, a solely Lib Dem government would have been more effective on this in 2010, but the coalition certainly hasn't.

But the figures released last week should give any party pause for thought.  It appears that despite the recovery, the amount of money being lent to small business is still falling in the UK.  In fact, there are only two nations in Europe where SME lending hasn't recovered to 2008 levels: Hungary and the UK.

It is no longer possible to ignore this.  The big banks no longer want to be involved in the SME market, and it is no longer conceivable that an effective policy might be to wait hopefully for P2P lending to growth to the size it needs to be, or to wait around for the banks to change their minds (respectively the policies of BIS and the Treasury).

I didn't agree with Lord Oakeshott's verdict on the Lib Dem leadership - quite the reverse, I believe that Nick Clegg is one of the most effective leaders the party has ever had, operating in extraordinarily difficult conditions - but he was absolutely right about the banks.

Luckily, I believe the Lib Dems are likely to make effective local banking a key plank in any future policy platform.

I hope they do, because providing the UK with the local banking infrastructure that most countries in Europe already have - and using that as the cornerstone of a policy to support SMEs - seems to me to be the basis for an effective and distinctive Liberal economic policy.