All posts by John Band

Good news, everybody

You’ll be delighted to hear that The Sharpener is back online and that I have a new post there on why it’s right to treat politics as a trivial and irrelevant sideshow.

Also, now that the Sharpener is back up, I’m going to try and get back into the habit of putting my political stuff up there, and random finance / transport / IT geekery / lifestyle stuff on here. Whether that will improve either place is a question for thee and not for me…

On antisocial behaviour

A comment on this Guardian thread, about the prospect of extending the insane Tube drinking ban to – even more insanely – cover all public transport expresses confusion over why this is a problem:

“I haven’t lived in the UK for some time but where I live in Europe I frequently see people drinking in public and have never seen any trouble of any kind.”

Unfortunately, he goes on to wonder why things are worse in the UK. This isn’t the point – the UK is exactly the same as the rest of Europe. Our problem is that we have an unusually high concentration of paranoid nutjobs who think anyone found Having Fun should be arrested, stirred up by the Daily Hate Mail’s propaganda lying that crime and Anti Social Behaviour (whatever that may be) are serious problems.

The truth is that crime is falling, that drinking is fun, that binge drinking is not a serious problem, that you are incredibly unlikely to be the victim of drink-related violence, that even if you are it is unlikely to do you much harm, and that the number of people seriously harmed through drink-related violence every year in a country of 60 million people is sufficiently low that only the statistically illiterate or the paranoid and gullible need worry about it.

[there is one exception, an example of a crime from which a large proportion of the population have suffered in which alcohol is a trigger factor in large proportion of cases: domestic violence. However, this doesn't fit the nonsensical 'terrorised by ASBO yobs' narrative beloved of the tabloids; nor is it visible; nor is it increasing; nor is it more prevalent in the UK than eslewhere...]

If we ban harmless things, then harmful things will magically disappear

It ought to be pretty obvious that banning drinking in a place is completely different from banning drunken louts from a place.

If you ban drinking in a place, it prevents people who aren’t louts but fancy a beer from having one, while doing absolutely nothing to prevent louts who are drunk from causing a nuisance (even if the drinking legislation were actually enforced against groups of rowdy chavs, which it won’t be).

If you actually want to stop drunken loutery, then you need to ensure that drunken louts are arrested, under the existing laws that provide a perfectly good arsenal of charges and punishments against rowdies, harrassers, disorderly conductors and affrayists. You don’t impose a new measure to punish the law-abiding.

Hence, the only two reasons to support Mr Johnson’s impending ban on drinking on the Tube are:

1) a belief that alcohol is inherently wrong and its consumption should be impeded wherever possible; or
2) idiocy

Neither of these are attractive traits, so it’s worrying that the plan is seen as a vote-winner…

Side note: the ban appears to advertised as “making everyone’s journey more pleasant”. Since it will very clearly make journeys less pleasant for those who enjoy drinking while on a journey, this is clearly false advertising, and I’d urge everyone who sees such a poster to report it to the ASA.

How big is Boris’s tent?

A non-Londoner asked me on Saturday what I thought Boris Johnson would be like as London mayor.

I said that I really didn’t know, which was the main reason I hadn’t voted for him (I also can’t stand his Wooster-ish public persona, but I’m quite happy to vote for someone I don’t personally like if they’ve got the right policies and record) – but that there would be a few indicators very soon that would almost certainly give us the answer, and that the most important will be whether he sacks transport commissioner Peter Hendy and London Underground MD Tim O’Toole.

Aside from Ken Livingstone, Hendy and O’Toole were the most important people driving the massive improvement in London’s public transport that has happened over the last eight years.

Ken managed to wrangle the money out of Whitehall; Peter Hendy made the new schemes happen (he was running London Buses throughout the period while they turned from Utterly Bloody Useless to Really Really Good); while Tim O’Toole stopped the Underground from falling over despite everything. They have built a team at TfL that works, and that would continue to massively benefit Londoners if it were to remain in place.

If Johnson were to sack Hendy and O’Toole because of their assocations with Ken, bendy buses, congestion charges and other sensible but unpopulist things, then that would have an immediate, significant, real and negative impact on London.

If he were to keep them in their posts, not only would the effects on transport be good – it would highlight a more general willingness to accept the good things that the old regime brought, and to put London’s needs above petty point-scoring.

So, which is it going to be?

Conservative Assembly Member for Ealing Richard Barnes quoted here appear to think that sacking them would be a Good Idea (how dare anyone “make life unpleasant for motorists”, would seem to be his main point), and is tipped to be Johnson’s deputy.

However, the latest couple of reports seem to suggest that Johnson is likely to keep them in place. For London’s sake, I hope the reports are right…

100% hindsight, 100% of the time

Justin is looking for constructive suggestions on what Labour could possibly do to get over their steamrollering. Mine include:

1) keep the 21% basic tax rate; abolish tax credits; and use the money saved by abolishing the 10p band to raise the personal allowance;

2) abolish NI and raise the basic and higher tax rates to compensate [this helps part-time workers, who don't earn enough to pay income tax but are currently forced to pay NI anyway];

3) assume an acceptable public sector deficit level of 5% this year and 8% for 2009. Keep spending flat as a % of GDP and use any “surplus” cash to further raise the income tax threshold

4) Bring in a few daft-but-populist-and-fairly-cheap things: halt post office closures (even though nobody uses them, they clearly have talisman value to Middle England); bring back matrons (this probably involves renaming ’senior charge nurses’ to ‘matrons’ or similar); raise the state pension by a few bob; accept that the justice system is too beholden to the tabloids to get prison numbers down so build more (small, local) prisons; etc.

5) change the electoral system to make sure the Tories don’t get as much power as Labour had if they win: introduce some kind of PR (probably a Scottish Parliament kind of thing), create more elected mayors, devolve more central responsibilities to local authorities, give the GLA the same responsibilities as the Welsh Assembly (double-bonus: short-term, you look statesmanlike for handing power over to Boris; long-term, you get even more PR benefits when he messes up…)

However, I don’t think they’ll be anywhere near enough. There’s a small possibility that David Cameron is the Tories’ Neil Kinnock, and Labour will just scrape in at the next general election amid concerns over his competence despite popular loathing for the incumbent party, but it’s more likely based on last night’s results that the Tories will win next time.

…which brings me to my main point: Gordon Brown’s worst political move, both in terms of the Labour Party and his own legacy, was calling off the snap election last autumn. Even at the time, it was clear that he had a chance of winning – but it’s become clear since that losing would have also been a better option that what really happened.

Imagine if a minority Tory government, with limited and unofficial Lib Dem backing, had just taken power to be battered by the credit crunch, Northern Rock, rising fuel bills and House Price Carnage. Labour could have confidently and straight-facedly played the “if only the people who knew what they were doing, and who gave you 10 years of prosperity and good times were in charge” card. It would have worked, even if the Tories had only floundered as much on NR as Labour actually did (i.e. for a couple of months before doing the right thing).

With an inexperienced, toff-ish team trying to battle against a worsening global economy, with Labour attacking them on everything they did, with some of the press still vaguely on the Labour side (remember, nine months ago every commentator in the press didn’t hate Gordon Brown), with flaky Liberal support and with the Old Tory / New Tory divide re-emerging, the chances of lasting out for a five year term would be pretty damn limited. The prospects for an old hand coming back to take charge of Labour at the emergency post-collapse general election (Jack Straw PM, anyone?) would be looking pretty bright…

Instead, we’ve got two years of collapsing farce followed by five – probably ten – years of Tory misrule to look forward to. Luckily, I’m just about eligible as a skilled migrant under New Zealand’s point-based immigration scheme

If you disagree with this, you have no soul and no brain

Simon Jenkins:

No good is served by incarcerating an illiterate drugs “mule” in Holloway for 14 years for a first offence when she had no clue what she was doing and has left four children on the streets of Jamaica. She will be sent back in seven years, after Britain has spent £250,000 turning her into a drug addict and a wreck. Not since deportation for poaching has British penal policy been so heartless and so stupid.

You may think drugs are awesome fun or unspeakably evil, but either way it’s difficult to deny Mr Jenkins’ point. The really weird – and mildly encouraging – thing, if you ever read the comments on Commentisfree, is that none of them object to the article…

Final mayoralty

Diamond Geezer’s coverage of the mayoral race has been entirely on fire. The latest, possibly last, and definitely funniest summary of the campaign I’ve so far seen, is the London Mayoral Hustings 2012:

Paxman: Ahhhhh yes, transport. What are your priorities for the next four years?
Boris: Crossrail, yes, er, that’s something I’d really like to get a chance to finish. I know I still haven’t got the funding yet but, you know, the forms were jolly complicated and I didn’t quite fill them in properly. In the meantime, my cut-price petrol loan scheme has proved terribly successful, helping ordinary Londoners to fill their Landrovers more cheaply. So, cripes, it’s not all bad news.

and indeed:

Paxman: Some people were extremely surprised in 2009 when you started writing a twice-weekly column for the Evening Standard. How do you live with your conscience?
Ken: Look Jeremy, it’s very simple. When Andrew Gilligan left the paper to become the BBC’s ethics correspondent, the Standard suddenly had a vacancy for someone to write vicious spiteful copy attacking the Mayor. I was only too glad to step in

More clarifications of the obvious

If you think that Gordon Brown carried out a tax raid on pensions in 1997, which was the main cause of the end of final-salary pension schemes in the UK private sector, then you are wrong.

In 1997, the government did indeed abolish the tax relief on dividends paid by firms into pension funds. But on the same day it cut corporation tax by 2%, such that the final outcome of the legislation was revenue-neutral. Profits were taxed less in the first place, in exchange for which people lost the ability to get some of the tax money back if their shares were held as part of a pension fund rather than just as shares. The net effect on the income that flowed from the companies to the people was zero.

There were three real factors which led to the move away from final salary pension schemes in the UK – all of them are based on the fact that before 1997, the cost to a company of offering final salary schemes was understated:

1) Changes in life expectancy: average male life expectancy in the 1950s, when most final-salary schemes were created was 65; it’s now 80. This makes schemes that provide a defined benefit from age 65 onwards an order of magnitude more expensive than they were. Perhaps actuaries should have allowed for increasing life expectancy over time when calculating the costs of these schemes 20, 30 and 40 years ago – but they didn’t, and now it’s payback time.

2) Unwinding of contribution holidays: if you’re a plc, there’s an incentive during the good times, when your pension fund temporarily rises in value because stock markets are booming in general, to cut contributions as the pension fund is nominally overfunded. This is silly. Yes, if you’re a short-to-medium term investor, it’s rational to keep trading within the bubble – but if you’re investing for 30 years ahead, then you are grossly fiscally irresponsible if you base your required contributions on market fluctuations rather than, say, applying historical P/E ratios to your stock portfolio.

3) Introduction of FRS17: the accounting standard FRS17 forces companies to recognise pension fund deficits on their corporate balance sheets. Which is fair enough, as in the long run they’re ultimately accountable for them. However – especially as FRS17 forces mark-to-market on pension fund assets – companies are reluctant to show their financial statements swinging wildly each year based on an institution over which they have absolutely no control.

Overall, it does not make sense for an engineering company or an oil company or a retail company to take financial responsibility for an enormous pot of money (in the case of many companies, a pot of money larger than the market value of the company itself) on which its shareholders have no claim; nor is it especially sensible for an individual to base their retirement plans on the continued existence of an engineering company, oil company or retail company.

People who had private sector final salary schemes before 1997 have done very, very well because of the changes in life expectancy now compared with expectations when the schemes were set up. But this makes them the lucky beneficiaries of actuarial miscalculations. It does not mean the schemes as they existed in 1997 were sustainable, and it certainly doesn’t mean that Labour are evil pension thieves because the unsustainability of the final salary model became apparent on their watch…