Brexit and government (in)competence

While we wait for the ‘will it, won’t it’ Cabinet to get the final details of the draft agreement still being hammered out in Brussels – the latest being that Wednesday night is the latest possible date to convene a November summit at EU level – I continue to be astonished by the admission of Brexit Secretary, Dominic Raab, last week that he ‘hadn’t quite understood‘ the importance of the Dover-Calais route for the trade of goods between the UK and Continental Europe. Not only the words of the admission, but also the style of it – Raab shows himself quite clearly to be a man scrabbling about in the dark for the words to describe something that he thinks may be Really Quite Important – is frankly astounding regardless of any consideration of his job as a minister.

It clearly ought to come as no surprise that the most important trade route is actually the shortest – and it takes neither professorial expertise in particle physics to work that out nor even a rudimentary understanding of the importance both to manufacturing companies and food freshness and quality of just-in-time deliveries. But the issue is really one of the extent to which Raab – another committed Brexiteer – has got to grips with his brief. Whatever the political involvement of ministers in the discussions – and I suspect it’s not a lot since the civil service sherpas will be doing most of the spadework – had he really missed his own Prime Minister asking people not to be alarmed about government plans for food and medicines stockpiling? (Don’t panic! Don’t panic!)? Simply failed to spot the import of the physical practicalities of trade links in his own post-lunch/graveyard slot appearance before the Exiting the EU Select Committee when he spoke about stockpiling? Simply missed out on the controversy about turning the M26 into a lorry park? Not in the office that day when his own Department published its technical notices? Or had he simply bought into John Redwood’s (extraordinary) explanation that it would be alright on the night since everything could come through Rotterdam to avoid those pesky French (of course, it can’t since Rotterdam is also in the single market).

It is a cause for worry when the minister with political responsibility and accountability for the state of negotiations is apparently so out of sorts with a geographical map. As well as for the effectiveness of that ‘meaningful vote’ in parliament when MPs will have increasingly little time to digest the content of the withdrawal agreement – clearly part of the government’s strategy to persuade parliament to back a deal (any deal) rather than engage in the chaos of withdrawal with none.

The discussions on avoiding a post-Brexit hard border in Northern Ireland continue to confound everyone (here’s a clue: it can’t be done while keeping both the 10 DUP MPs (hard Brexiteers in their own right – remember that covertly-funded Metro ad?) and the 50 or so extremists in the ERG happy about the terms of the withdrawal – even if the text of the agreement is now ‘almost ready‘ (this might or might not indicate that is is now more than 95% done). Andrea Leadsom was entirely wrong to talk at the weekend about the need to ‘hold our nerve‘ – this is not a case of taking a negotiation to the brink since this is not a normal negotiation: there are red lines, and implications of red lines, that can point only to one end – and that is a deal that Theresa May cannot sell to her own base. These are not problems of the EU’s making – they are entirely domestic in origin and stem completely from UK government failure to recognise the flaws in its own strategy. Ultimately, this point of reckoning has been coming ever since Theresa May chose to ally with the DUP to save her political skin.

The response to a Brexit deal that cannot pass through parliament – presuming that all Labour MPs hold their nerve on this – has to be a general election. This will have evident consequences for the due date of withdrawal. Keeping the UK at least aligned to the customs union and the EU single market (NB: I would absolutely prefer to remain in the EU) is the only way of preventing extremist Brexiteers from achieving their goal of a deregulated economy based on competition and with clear consequences for public services (much less, in a much-shrunken state with much greater financial implications for the individual) and the NHS (conceded completely to the market) – to say nothing of workers’ rights being swept away. Whatever the confusion over what people did vote for back in 2016, I’d be pretty sure this was not it.

Meanwhile, was it not a complete surprise that the UK was so noticeably absent from the Paris commemorations of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice? More than sixty heads of state and government – and, wearing shirt no. 12, er, David Lidington. The choice to make a biblical reading at Westminster Abbey rather than attend the commemoration in Paris sent a very clear, and absolutely shameful, signal. Nevertheless, in reminding everyone that a post-Brexit UK would really rather stay at home it was, instead, a strong pointer to what a travesty ‘Global Britain’ actually is.

Truly, this has been a government of all the talents.

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Pay, productivity and high performance: time to get a MAC?

I’ve resisted blogging about Brexit for quite some time, largely because the amount of lunacy out there is simply astonishing. Brexit remains, in my view, a policy outcome intended in the first place to settle internecine war within the Tory Party but which it is clearly failing to do – and, indeed, which it is turning out to be completely ill-equipped to do.

In such circumstances, while there remains an awful lot of stuff going on that policy needs to settle, there’s little for policy-makers to do but watch on in horror as this the Brexit sh*t show meanders to a conclusion. I’ve watched on in horror as public positions have solidified around the hardest of Brexits in the attempt to appease the Tory Party’s Brexiteers and as the policy debate has shifted further rightwards to the point where Brexit has not become a far-right project – it was always this, from the days before the referendum was called – but an excuse for the public outbursts (and worse) of illiberal, angry boors.

The UK leaving the EU is still the most likely conclusion – though you never know, and that’s no reason not to try – but making sense of what things will be like afterwards is an essential task facing policy-makers. (Were our public debate to mend itself more meaningfully to actual debate rather than false slogans on buses, this is of course the sort of thing that would have happened prior to the referendum. Nevertheless.)

One of the policy organisations trying to get on with life after likely Brexit is the Migration Advisory Committee, the government’s advisory body on issues – largely but not exclusively to do with the labour market – concerning the impact of migration. The MAC has been charged recently with coming up with a report on what effects migration has had on the UK’s economy and society, which it did last month in the background of a focus on its (almost certainly false) equation of wages with skill levels, and its recommendation to impose a £30,000 minimum salary requirement on labour immigration visas.

Last week, Professor Alan Manning, Chair of the MAC, appeared before the House of Lords Home Affairs sub-committee to discuss the findings. One of the issues raised was the (very) lukewarm recommendation to engage with a seasonal workers’ scheme for agriculture – though not for care – on the grounds that the sector was absolutely dependent on EU workers and there were no prospects of what we might call ‘domestic re-supply’ taking their place (I’m deliberately avoiding repeating the nauseating terminology of ‘settled workers’). You can watch the appearance here (relevant bit at c. 11:15.50) or else read the BBC’s report which contains a full quote of the statement behind this post.

The reason for the lukewarm nature of the recommendation is the low levels of productivity (stemming from low wages) in the agriculture sector, against the background of the government’s desire (in its ‘Plan for Britain’) to turn the UK (I think this is what it means) into a high productivity, high wage economy; and the view expressed by Professor Manning in his appearance, but which isn’t at all a conclusion of the report, that low-skilled migration has been ‘fiscally negative’. (Indeed, the report specifically says that there is no evidence that low-skilled migration has any negative impact on productivity, innovation or training – though it does say that high-skilled migration is (entirely unsurprisingly) ‘better’ in all these areas.)

Now, I’m very much in favour of the principle of a high wage, high productivity economy – except in that, like a lot of things this government does, having a plan is all very well but what is also required is that someone must actually do something to achieve it (it’s not going to be happen by wishing on a unicorn). Furthermore, an essential part of any plan must be the proper taking care of the local economic, employment and social impacts none of which can be left to the market, and this is somewhat missing from recent government pronouncements. (Had we taken greater care over the last forty years of those things that cannot be left to the market, we might well not be in this mess.)

Startlingly, Professor Manning said in his appearance that the loss of seasonal produce markets ‘wouldn’t be the end of the earth for the country as a whole’ and that giving agriculture ‘privileged access to labour’ wasn’t a way to achieve a high-productivity economy. I think this is both arrant and shockingly complacent:

1. agriculture is a market that is rigged by the big retailers. The demand for lower prices by the big supermarkets, the natural effect of the cut-throat competition facing them, is what will continue to keep wages in the sector down. At the same time, falling prices won’t provide the conditions for farmers to invest in automation to raise productivity, even if the incentive might be there to do so. The same rigged market is, by the way, also present in the care sector: it’s called austerity and the resultant cash strapping of the local authorities who fund care. The government can end austerity – but, in the context of agriculture, it also needs to do something to tackle the power of big retailers to force farm prices downwards

2. it is ridiculous to suggest that the appropriate policy response to the loss of soft fruits and asparagus is to import them instead. There is the issue of quality, with large areas of Scotland, e.g. The Carse stretching along the side of Tay from Perth to Dundee, having natural advantages for the growing of premium quality soft fruits. More than that, however, one of the focuses of the environmental debate is, quite rightly, reducing the food miles involved in the transport of our food from source to plate. It makes no environmental sense to import soft fruits that can be grown, and successfully, in the UK – and there is the issue of the use of preservatives to extend lifetimes, too. Yet, green issues and concerns are apparently absent from considerations in this debate

3. agriculture constitutes less than 1% of UK GDP. It is extremely facile to think that low productivity in agriculture is somehow holding the UK back from becoming a high productivity economy. Even more so when we are specifically speaking about low productivity in one tiny (see Table 2.2 under previous link) sector within the agriculture industry

4. Brexit is already likely to lead to up to 25% of farms in England going to the wall – and probably more in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if there is knock-on effect on budget subsidies to the devolved administrations. If this was an EU country, there would be consultation, a social plan and a desire to provide re-training programmes to provide a degree of support and re-orientation for those involved. But, this is the UK, and a country which is heading out of the EU

5. MAC suggests a (higher) minimum wage in agriculture will be required to provide upwards pressure on wages in the event that a seasonal workers’ scheme is introduced so as to raise productivity and in view of this ‘privileged access to labour’. I’m in favour of a higher living wage across the UK but I’m not sure that a minimum wage in the already distorted agriculture market, in isolation from a higher living wage particularly elsewhere in the food supply chain, will act in the way it thinks

6. to gain a high productivity economy, we would need, firstly, a more advanced manufacturing industry as a launchpad for a high skills, high technology revolution. However, Professor Minford, the economist that Brexiteers most like to listen to, was already prior to the referendum predicting (and indeed welcoming) the elimination of what little manufacturing industry we have left; although his post-referendum analysis is somewhat less apocalyptic predicting UK manufacturing profits ‘possibly higher than pre-Brexit levels’. (He’ll probably be right about something one day, at least on an infinite monkey basis.) Secondly, all workplaces, regardless of industry sector, need to be adopting much more of the sorts of high performance practices that create productivity and to which trade union general secretaries, for example, have pointed, and repeatedly. But, as EEF’s budget submission this week highlighted, there is precious little evidence of that. (The EEF submission also highlights that foreign-owned workplaces are more productive than ‘domestic’ ones. Funny that.)

Ultimately, if we’re to have a high productivity economy, we need our policy-makers to pay less attention to what is happening in agriculture and more to proselytising about high performance workplaces and putting clear incentives in place to encourage the adoption of high performance practices. Meanwhile, we know that a lot of people in primary industry areas such as agriculture voted for Brexit. But, funnily enough, I never saw ‘Vote Brexit: lose primary sector jobs and pay higher food prices’ on the side of a bus, either.

Solidarity forever

We’re just back from spending a week in Gdańsk, having travelled to attend a friend’s wedding. With an unexpected spare day to myself as wedding preparations continued, I had a daunder up Góra Gradowa, the low hill overlooking Gdańsk’s main train and bus stations. This houses Napoleonic era fortifications, in the brick-built, grass-topped bunker style that you can also see elsewhere in modern-day Poland for example at Modlin and in Giżycko (Polish required); as well as a science museum devoted to the Polish-born astronomer Jan Heweliusz. Once you get above the tree line, as I knew, Gradowa affords a fine view over Gdańsk’s (inevitably rebuilt) old town to the south-east – but with my eye drawn, as it always is, to the north-east, to the cranes of Gdansk’s extensive shipyard Formerly Known As The Lenin Shipyard.

With the day fair, I left Gradowa in the direction of the shipyard, walking past the shipyard train station and the bits of the yard that are still working (with the approval of the EU’s state aid authorities, I might note), past the slightly edgy clubs set up amidst the abandoned bits and in old shipping containers (for those that like their dance culture to be intermingled with the smell of industrial paints) and back towards the town via the famous Gate No. 2. It was here that the 21 demands of the August 1980 inter-enterprise strike committee, written out on boards of plywood, were attached to the Gate (the boards once again present in situ – though surely a facsimile – which wasn’t the case on my first visit here back in 2012).

These days, the Gate (still emblazoned with Solidarność favours) is emblematic rather than functional and the immediate contextual setting for the European Solidarity Centre aiming to provide a museum for the role played by the wider Solidarity movement (and of which NSZZ Solidarność, the trade union, is listed as a founder). I wandered in, and then back out again, slightly deterred by the (albeit very modest) admittance fee (20zl; £4) but attracted back more by the Memorial to the Fallen Shipyard Workers which stands adjacent to the Gate.

The establishment of such a Memorial was one of the demands of the 1980 shipyard strikers. It doesn’t feature as one of the inter-enterprise strike committee’s 21 demands, which, drawing on strikes elsewhere in Poland, had moved on substantially from the bread and butter trade union issues which had sparked the strike in Gdańsk towards mounting a political challenge. The demands in Gdańsk included the re-instatement of Anna Walentynowicz, the crane driver and independent union activist whose dismissal five months before retirement had sparked the strike there (and in tribute to whom there is currently a series of information boards around the Memorial), as well as that of Lech Wałęsa (sacked from the shipyard in 1976) himself (and with whom Walentynowicz clearly had major disagreements). These were issues that had been settled within Gdańsk itself, with the Memorial arising out of the subsequent Gdańsk Agreement (interestingly, not only are the originals of the Agreement missing; no links are immediately available online either).

Regardless, the Memorial (unveiled within just a few months of the Agreement being signed) is dedicated to those killed in the 1970 riots across northern Poland over price rises and whose three crosses, topped with ship anchors, were inspired by the first three workers from the shipyard to have been killed. What I hadn’t noticed previously about this substantial memorial, at 42m standing almost as high as Gradowa, was that the ship anchors are ‘crucified’ with metal nails and ropes to the tops of the crosses – thus underlining in one stroke the commemoration of the fallen workers as martyrs and the significant role the Church played in the activities of August 1980. The tribute slabs at the front carry – in Polish, German, English, French and Russian – the message:

A token of everlasting remembrance of the slaughter victims.

A warning to rulers that no social conflict in our country can be resolved by force.

A sign of hope for fellow-citizens that evil need not prevail.

Other critical messages are included in the design of the Memorial itself and, along with Wałęsa’s own comment about this being a harpoon in the body of the whale, it is impossible to see the authorities within Gdańsk as having failed to recognise the significance of that to which they had agreed in establishing the Memorial.

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Whatever the subsequent failures of the Solidarity movement in snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, the trade union-driven aspects of the inter-enterprise committee’s 21 demands, including the right to establish independent trade unions, with acceptance of the right to strike and with protection for strikers, continue to have resonance, as the TUC debated earlier this month. So indeed does the demand for (effectively) shorter working time and for improved workplace rights for parents. Getting all these back on the agenda, in the era of applications of artificial intelligence and post-Brexit, continues to be a challenge for real trade unions whether in Poland or in the UK; as much as in today’s ‘gig economy’ as in 1980s shipyards.

It’s also a useful reminder that much trade union activity, and regardless of its industrial origin or context, has a profoundly political character. Introducing change in the workplace, and change within the societies within which workplaces function, continues to be a political act.

Integration of the western Balkans – Sofia 2018

Just back from Sofia, where I was attending a symposium for the 20th Anniversary of the SEER Journal, which I founded along with my good friend and colleague, Peter Scherrer, and which I still help to edit alongside Bela Galgoczi, Senior Researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (and who has capably edited the Journal for three-quarters of its life). If Peter and I were the parents then Sofia was the maternity hospital, so Sofia as a location for the 20th Anniversary symposium was well-chosen – and those invited, including some who contributed articles to the very first number, as well as the SEER’s welfare guardians (its Editorial Board, and researchers and leaders of trade unions from the western Balkans) – meant that the birthday celebrations were attended by many friends and supporters.

Back in 1998, we reckoned we could pull together enough interesting material to fill one volume, so to be still going 19 years later, 70 regular issues and nearly 800 articles on from our first number, plus several special issues and two paperbacks, including in the language of the ‘western Balkans’ as well as in German and in French, represents a pretty good achievement for which we are very grateful to our sponsors: in the first place the Hans-Bockler-Stiftung, and latterly the ETUI, as well as Nomos Verlag, our publishers. Pleasingly, we have also now completed a full 76cms of SEER – the internal width of one of my bookshelves. Vol. 21 will start bookshelf no. 2.

Our keynote was given by Christophe Solioz, whose formal symposium paper ‘Europe from the post-Wall era to post-crisis future’ can be found in .pdf form on his website and which we’ll be carrying in edited form in a future issue. Other colleagues, including KNSB President, Plamen Dimitrov, and Luben Tomev, the Director of ITUSR, KNSB’s research institute, also brought welcome comradely greetings.

For me, apart from looking back over our history, I also focused a few remarks on the impact of Brexit on EU integration, especially as regards the potential loss of budget finance within the EU’s post-Brexit multi-annual financial framework for projects like integration of the western Balkans post-Brexit (e.g. here); as well as on the shadowy figures behind Brexit and the increasing organisation of extremist nationalists amidst not only the current ‘rogue’ regimes in Hungary and Poland, as well as in Austria where they form part of the government, with key ministries, but also given the tensions within Bosnia and Herzegovina concerning the increasing militarisation of Republika Srpska and the explicit support being given by the government of Croatia – a member of the EU, let’s not forget – to nationalists in the Croat-dominant cantons in the south. It is no surprise that extremist nationalists – some having been ejected from Hungary – see the western Balkans as fertile territory (here and also here).

Here’s Cde. Scherrer and myself at the symposium:

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(Thanks to Bruno S. Sergi for the photo.)

The book that Peter is presenting me with, by the way, is Paul Strand’s Tir A’Mhurain: a typically thoughtful gift being not only about South Uist – The Land of the Bent Grass (or marram) – but also a book which has a complex and quite astonishing political history, according to the introduction by Fraser MacDonald (linking to his Twitter since his blog is, unfortunately, quite literally unreadable) in The Guardian to this, 50th anniversary, collection of photos documenting life in South Uist at the time of the installation of the MoD rocket range. Indeed, many islanders were fearful that the range would bring immense changes to their lives and so a documentation of exactly what that was, both in photographs and in text, is extraordinarily useful. I was aware of the book – a regular visitor to bookshops in Scotland, I could not possibly be unaware of it – but I had no knowledge of its fascinating origins. Following up, it is interesting to note that prints of some of Strand’s photos – authorised in their production by Strand himself, and thus as rare as hen’s teeth – have quite recently been bought by Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery.

We timed the symposium to coincide with the summit for trade union leaders from the region organised by the Bulgarian trade unions KNSB and ‘Podkrepa’, and in conjunction with the ETUC and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with the intention of drawing up a statement to go to Thursday’s EU-Balkans summit, also being held in Sofia under the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU for which integration of the region with the EU has been a priority. You can read the trade union summit declaration here at the ETUC website (in English) or here at the KNSB website, if your Bulgarian is good enough (along with the following two entries for 9 May further down the page). Like a lot of these things, the words of the statement need to be turned into a practical, workable agenda for action – noting that wage convergence is an achievable target, in the context of the region’s productivity reserve, as well as a principle – but these things are not easy to co-ordinate and produce, and it is good to see the many trade unions of the region come together in support of a common goal.

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Hands clasped in friendship and in solidarity outside the headquarters of KNSB, in one of the perhaps lesser-photographed examples of this style of architecture still prevalent around Sofia (though its history is actually a lot more modern, dating from 2004, I think).

I’ve argued before that what we need is a bold vision of integration from the EU, not more warm words, progress reports and initiatives. Not least in the face of the problems that the western Balkans faces outlined above, the need for concrete proposals, investment and a clear prospect of integration continues to be clear – as does the path of continued destabilisation where these things continue to be lacking. Thursday’s summit needs to deliver on an agenda targeted towards solid progress on accession, a prime requirement for which is that the EU lifts its head from its own problems – of the divisions of the sort which marked drafting discussions over the summit declaration – towards a contemplation of the problems to which inaction will surely lead.

These are troubling times but the SEER Journal will, in its next period, strive to carry on providing a platform for discussion on the western Balkans’s path to the EU. In the meantime – happy birthday, zhiveli and, of course: solidarnost!

Book review: Autumn

Just this side of Easter, Spring having sprung; and Calvin is writing about autumn. He must spend his hours wishing his life away.

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Our first 2018 daffodil (taken last Monday, 10am)… now joined by dozens more daffs and narcissus. This, of course, is ‘Spring’.

And this, of course, is ‘Autumn’. By which I mean Ali Smith‘s first in Seasonal, a series of a promised four stand-alone novels (‘Winter’ has indeed already arrived, a signed copy of which sits on my shelf) documenting life in modern Britain. It may well be the first ‘post-Brexit’ novel, although the publishers here have done little favour to a tale that, while written substantially after the 2016 referendum, is not about Brexit but one which brings to the fore the ever-constant themes of time (as befits a series of novels on the cyclical aspects of nature) and of love – mental, emotional, physical; between men and women; between mothers and daughters; of books and literature; of art; of ideas, and of the idea of vivacity; and of country, of what it was and what it is becoming – against the backdrop of the social and relationship changes in the UK brought before, and then by, the referendum itself.

The plot centres on Elisabeth Demand, a thirty-something art lecturer in an insecure, untenured world; and her relationship with Daniel Gluck, a centenarian and wordsmith who arrived in the UK from war-torn Europe, a neighbour whom she first gets to know as a young girl and from whom she learns many life lessons. Gluck is near death – a source of and explanation for the novel’s many dream sequences – and the symbolism of the key events in his life for the UK’s relationship with the rest of the continent on which it sits, so often uneasily, is clear. As, indeed, is the wise old man-enquiring young girl-in-search-of-a-(grand)father-figure symbolism; and it’s fair to wonder why Daniel Gluck could not, instead, have been Daniela: a wise old woman occupying the same role, and in charge of the same dynamic impetus, is definitely a character in search of a novel.

Ali Smith fans will know what to expect from ‘Autumn’ – endlessly, energetically and artistically inventive with both prose and punctuation, and with textual layout (half of me thinks she must be a nightmare to sub-edit; the other half, a dream because there can be no requirement for subbing), ‘Autumn’ consists of a playful rolling and tumbling of words off the page; parenthetical asides from author to reader; dialogue entirely without speech marks; a timeline that jumps around all over the place; characters who talk to themselves in realistically incomplete, sometimes coherent, sometimes incoherent sentences; and dream sequences that take the reader on apparently unconnected flights of fancy. All this plus the non-linear narrative won’t make this a book which will please everyone and neither, I suspect, will it turn unconverted Smith fans into proselytisers – by itself an interesting comment on the state of public discourse on the big issue of the day.

The way that Smith manages to thread into her novel her research and her reading – chiefly into pop-art and sixties London, again a contemporary theme, judging by one London hotel I’ve recently stayed in – is likely to subject her to criticisms that she has clumsily shoe-horned a ragbag of material into it. This, in turn, and owing to the deliberately short timescale of the novel (it seems to incorporate even a pun on the title of the novel of eventual fellow-shortlisted, and actual Booker winner, George Saunders) is likely to entrench criticism that the book was (too-)hastily written (and, in that context, over-hasty in its search for the tag ‘gifted’ it by the publisher). Rather, I would see this – in combination with the ways in which Smith has adroitly weaved her themes into the novel; her characterful vignettes of modern UK life and the absurdities of the interface of ordinary people with bureaucratic regulation; and of the juxtaposition of the profound and the mundane – as emblematic of the collages of Pauline Boty, the actress, model and pop-artist whose work underpins both the development of the plotlines in ‘Autumn’ and in its overall approach: a riot of colour and apparently abstract thematic disconnectedness but which nevertheless tends towards a statement, a position, a theme, or a development in time. Much, it would seem, like autumn itself.

I’m writing this review on the day ‘celebrating’ the one-year anniversary of the UK government’s triggering of the mechanism to leave the EU. The hope is that, like autumn gives way to winter, but then to spring, the events brought by the referendum will, perhaps eventually and after a painful period, bring new growth and new life; the fear is that, as cyclical as these things are, this may instead lead to a return of the UK to its time of Empire, a retreat into the past in an era when the problems of our time can only be resolved by coming together. Either way – and just as how ‘Autumn’ draws to an end on an unexpectedly positive note – we can take comfort in taking the long-term view: that things are never constant and subject always to change, however difficult and full of foreboding they might look in the short-term. Time is, as Smith herself might have put it, timeless.

Trade and workers’ rights

The end of the working week and my inbox brings me good news via the TUC’s International Department that the European Economic and Social Committee – an EU advisory institution bringing together representatives of workers, employers and civil society more broadly – has almost unanimously agreed an Opinion on the trade and sustainable development chapters of EU free trade agreements.

The EESC’s own-initiative Opinion, which plays an important part in the EU’s consultative decision-making process, makes a number of recommendations of interest to trade unions in the area of the EU’s future free trade agreements, including – amongst others – that:

– governments and companies should demonstrate respect for standards set out in the ILO’s Decent Work agenda, including – but not limited to – ratifying and upholding core ILO Conventions

– free trade agreements should establish an independent labour secretariat and collective complaints mechanism to oversee commitments to uphold ILO Conventions

– a dispute settlement procedure should be started without delay, with a mandate to substantively enforce compliance, where abuses are detected

– civil society monitoring mechanisms should be established in free trade agreements with a view to independent triggering of investigations where there are violations of the commitments to uphold ILO Conventions.

All well and good – and some of the reportage is focused on the failings of current free trade deals largely with the far east, as well as with TTIP/CETA (and other) proposals for free trade deals for which the EU has come under sustained criticism, and with some justification, in recent years.

Except that it is impossible currently to review the normal work of EU institutions from within the UK unless through the unique prism of Brexit. Once the UK has, er, regained its sovereignty, and is free to sign free trade deals with whomever it wants, then the ‘bespoke’* free trade deal it is seeking with the EU is likely to (should, in theory) feature precisely the sorts of commitments and obligations that the EESC is requesting the EU takes to future trade deals. Much depends on how the European Commission responds to the Opinion, but it is bound within the checks and balances under which the EU’s decision-making structure works to find it persuasive, aided not least by the near-unanimity with which the Opinion was agreed within the EESC. This is particularly important with Brexit in view not least in the context of the discussion which has been circulating around a UK/EU free trade deal based on a ‘Canada+++’ model (were, indeed, this to be on offer), and the impact this might have on employment and worker rights.

The Commission should make a quick, and positive, response ensuring that the Opinion does indeed form the EU’s approach to future free trade deals.

It is the case that the UK has ratified all eight of the core ILO Conventions mentioned chiefly by the EESC – although it is occasionally up in the dock even on these, including on freedom of association; and, most recently, in the context of its record on tripartite consultation (p. 430). However, the UK isn’t, so far, a serial abuser. Nevertheless, the warm words coming out of No. 10 on protecting workers’ rights after Brexit – and being countermanded by mavericks like Johnson, Gove and Whittingdale – with the debate here being most recently summarised by Owen Tudor at the TUC, may well melt away in the heat of the fires of desperation once Brexit realities start to bite. Brexit changes everything and, apart from no-one sensible trusting a Tory with their rights anyway, the future is – as the folks at the European Research Group have cottoned on – entirely up for grabs. In this context, the paper promises of No. 10 are worth precisely nothing, in contrast to which the EESC Opinion offers valuable protections. Even without the reference to core ILO standards – and, as I say, the UK is not guilt-free on these either, despite having ratified all of them – the sorts of review and monitoring mechanisms set out in the Opinion, including civil society (q.v. trade union) involvement, are likely to prove anathema to the ERG, Legatum et al. for whom it will, of course, be more ‘red tape’ bureaucracy and another reason why the UK needs to reach its own deals. They are, indeed, another set of rules by which the UK will have to abide – and not just in the interim if it wants trade with the EU to continue on as frictionless a basis as possible.

As such, these provide not only a valuable contribution to making sure that free trade has ethical, sustainable and people-based dimensions, but are also one more thing which must also be taken into account in defining the precise nature of the UK’s future trade, and people-based, relationship with the EU.

I’m sure that the EESC didn’t have Brexit uppermost in its mind when it was going through the process of developing its Opinion. But it’s good to know that, with the Workers’ Group supported by representatives both of the TUC and the ETUC, it may well be taking care of our own, both in the UK and the rest of the EU, on the crucial issue of trade links as the UK continues its stumbling, shambolic, shameful approach to becoming a third country with respect to the rest of the EU’s member states.

* Has there ever been a more ugly word than bespoke? At once both pleading, smug and conveying a full sense of superior entitlement in just seven ordinary characters…

Book Review: Talking to My Daughter About the Economy

As someone the titles of whose blog posts feature their fair share of musical references, I was delighted to see the recent publication in English of Yanis Varoufakis’s book which seems to reveal Varoufakis as a Billy Bragg fan (and/or of Vladimir Mayakovsky, of course). Given the subject matter being dealt with both in Varoufakis’s book and on Bragg’s best LP, and Varoufakis being at the University of Essex in the 1980s researching his Economics PhD, the links between a Greek economist and my generation’s finest songwriter is not as fanciful a reference as it might appear on the surface.

Not on my current reading list, I picked Varoufakis’s book up from a well-known airport bookshop outlet as part of a BOGOHP offer, teaming it with his more weighty memoir of his tumultuous term as Greece’s Finance Minister, Adults In the Room, having forgotten to pack any other reading material for my trip.

I make it that Varoufakis’s daughter would have been nine or ten years old when the book was first written (in 2013, predating that term by two years); at that age, I was lapping up the adventures of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog and I’m really not sure I was then capable of much greater intellectual rigour, bright enough as I then appeared to be among the rest of my classmates. Perhaps nine year olds are a little more precocious these days – or perhaps the daughters of politicians and economists are, which does have a comment or two to make in itself about social mobility. While his daughter (who lives on an entirely different continent) is certainly his muse here, I suspect that this was really Varoufakis’s attempt to ensure he remained grounded at a time of increasing political activity; and, after all, being able to explain complex things in a simple way is an important academic discipline which all of us frustrated academics need to apply from time to time.

Mostly, he succeeds, although writing a ‘brief history of capitalism’ (the book’s rather racy sub-title, which I imagine Varoufakis had little hand in) can sometimes lead to over-simplifications and an unfortunate loss of nuance. It’s also rather less such a ‘brief history’ and more an attempt to provide a clear background to the Greek debt crisis, building on a variety of disciplines – history, myths and legends, economics and philosophy, and modern film narratives (The Matrix is refreshingly well explained and applied in a context fourteen or so years later) – to explain how Greece and, more specifically, its bankers had reached the point of bankruptcy and what that meant in the development of capitalist/market society relations. Using the language of myths and legends to explain the workings of dry capitalism is indeed a form of talking to the taxman about poetry as Varoufakis, clearly a romantic, would have appreciated. And, as was clear in the case of Varoufakis’s time in office, with about as much effect and impact in practice as might be expected from as scant a meeting of minds.

An economist by training, Varoufakis certainly has polymath tendencies and his approach is, as a result, original. Whether this diversity, coupled with his own temperament, made him the best negotiator for Greece at that point is a different story, although Varoufakis’s short time in office, before the pressure to replace him told with Alexis Tsipras, suggests not although this is best reviewed in the context of his later memoir. Which, by the way, is a compelling narrative, to judge by its opening chapters.

May in Florence

Poor* Theresa May. Upstaged in her long-trailed traipse to Florence to talk substantially to the UK media and her own immediate Cabinet colleagues (no-one from the EU actually being there) about her ‘vision’ for the future, firstly by her own Foreign Secretary [firewall] and secondly, and far more importantly, in Rome the day before by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, this was a speech whose prospective import was, as it turned out, far greater than the actual substance.

Apart from the rolling political theme of May’s evident lack of domestic authority amongst her Cabinet and her lack of judgment wrapped up in her (absent) treatment of Johnson’s own, reverse Churchillian, two-fingered salute to her, I doubt that history will be too kind on the Florence speech. Critical assessments abound already, not the least David Allen Green’s erudite Twitter feed, InFact’s own observation of May as flip-flop queen and Michel Barnier’s own measured, polite but oh-so-critical response pointing, essentially, to the all-too-evident reality gap.

Barnier is absolutely correct in observing that May’s speech needs to be turned – and urgently – into substantive negotiating points which the respective teams can tackle in the next, and subsequent, weeks. The obvious point to make is that, six months into a (maximum) two-year negotiating period for exit (which encompasses the time to secure the necessary approvals, including from the European Parliament), this is no time to be (re-)setting out a vision for the future. If the UK needs a two-year extension to the negotiating period, this is symbolic only of its own lack of preparation prior to triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process, and the absolutely shambolic domestic political process which has succeeded it. Furthermore, May’s observation that ‘throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union’, and that the EU ‘never felt to us like an integral part of our national story’ was both rude and ignorant. What – never at home despite all the opt-outs which the EU granted the UK, on adopting the Euro, on Schengen and on the European Social Charter? Never at home despite the single market being the singular idea of Lord Cockroft, Thatcher’s own EU Commissioner? Never at home despite the maths of the referendum vote failing to provide any sort of endorsement for such a view? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt less at home in the UK in the period since the referendum – based, substantially, on the petty nationalism that has come to mark our national political discourse, bank checks on immigration status being but the most recent example. If we’d made more effort to integrate, to understand the EU’s political processes and, more so, to involve ourselves in them, such an observation might have been better founded. But, we did not and, therefore, it is not. We never even tried.

More to the critical point, we still have no strategy for Brexit, no graspable endgame. it’s not so much that the UK government isn’t levelling with people on the trade-offs that will be required to make any sort of a purse out of the sow’s ear of Brexit, it’s that – as the TUC’s statement in response correctly observes – we have no realistic negotiating strategy at all. Quite simply, we don’t know what we’re doing.

I wanted, however, to make one critical observation of my own. For a speech whose title was ‘shared history; shared challenges; shared future’, May spent an awful lot of time talking about ‘me’. The section on citizens’ rights – so critical to the lives of so many people here in the UK and in the rest of Europe, and so important to the EU’s negotiating agenda – was just 255 words long but featured the pronoun ‘I’ no fewer than nine times, and the pronoun ‘we’ no more than five (and some of those being part of May’s attempt at rhetoric). (Aside of no fewer than three references to ‘I want’, which would have got me short shrift as a child!) In the rest of the speech, May referred to herself in the first person singular no fewer than forty times. An odd thing, don’t you think, in the context of a speech whose text was ‘shared’? And in the context of seeking a deal in the best interests of the UK, not to speak of favours, with the skilled, expert, well-prepared negotiators sat on the other side of the table? Unless, of course, May was indeed using the occasion to rehearse her speech to the Tory Party Conference next month, and to support her ever-declining level of authority in her own Party. But, then again, that is really what Brexit is about, isn’t it: the Tory Party’s own attempt to settle its own internal politics regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU. Our own domestic politics – and despite the outcome of the election – has become simply subservient to the selfish interests of the Tory party whose packing of House of Commons committees is simply the most obvious symbol of the failure that our democracy has become.

* Sympathy somewhat limited, obviously.

Knowing which way the wind is blowing

There was some interesting news on electric cars this week with Volvo announcing that all its new cars will be at least partially battery-powered from 2019; and France announcing, one day later, that it will ban the sale of cars with an internal combustion engine by 2040. There’s a plethora of links in these two articles – on a side note, blogs seem to have become media articles these days while media articles seem to have become blogs – which are well worth exploring, too.

On top of this, the Queen’s Speech promised legislation to ‘ensure the United Kingdom remains a world leader in new industries, including electric cars‘, with the accompanying notes referring to an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill whose purpose would be – among others – to improve the national charging infrastructure. With the government being supported by the DUP, whose own green credentials leave something to be desired and whose programme features a strong element of climate change scepticism, this is an interesting inclusion in a Queen’s Speech which doesn’t otherwise feature a lot else of substance, Brexit apart.

Volvo will, of course, still be producing existing models with internal combustion engines after 2019; and it will continue to produce a range of hybrids (cars with some level of electric/battery input alongside an internal combustion engine, which can be as minimal as simply managing fuel efficiency); while a policy announcement that takes full effect in 23 years time is, perhaps, little more than virtue signalling given shortening policy timescales. We were all, after all, an awful lot younger in 1994.

Nevertheless, the direction that the wind is taking is clear and it is, on the whole, a good one in terms of reducing carbon emissions. It is worth pointing out that international agreements on carbon reduction have provided an important impetus to the development of the electric vehicles market, not least in the light of the role in total carbon emissions played by aircraft travel and the more readily available technology that battery-powered cars provide in terms of achieving the necessary reductions targets.

Much remains to be done, however: globally, sales of electric cars total no more than 2m, about 30% in China and Japan and a further 25% in the US. Within Europe, the Netherlands and Norway look to me be leading the way. In the light of this, it it no wonder that progress is slow, and incremental. It does need a bit of a kick and the toes being dipped in the water by Volvo and the French government simply aren’t sufficient. Better instead, to do more in the way of encouraging manufacturers to bring end prices down.

Drivers of electric cars are likely to continue to be worried about the availability of charging stations – especially, for longer journeys, the availability of rapid chargers which allow the current generation of electric cars to be fully charged in about 45 mins (30 mins to about 80%). The focus of the UK government’s initiative on electric vehicles – that petrol re-fuelling stations would be compelled to offer electric charging points – is thus an interesting one. The Bill will indeed require the installation of charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service areas and large fuel retailers, and on the basis of a common set of technical and operational standards.

Precisely what will be required, and where, and the cost regime that is envisaged along with any subsidies on offer, remains to be seen. If electric cars do take off, then petrol stations would need to change their business model anyway and, while it is easy to see a conversion of some facilities to coffee shops (and hopefully something more welcoming than just the coffee areas to the side of existing facilities that is currently substantially the provision), it is a lot harder to see the profit in selling two or three cups of coffee and possibly a cake or two while people wait for their cars to charge against a £30 fuel sale (by the end, a full tank on our BMW was costing £70). We might see this as the government providing a bit of a nudge to service station providers ahead of the deluge that will otherwise befall them, but the better option, if the government wants to get involved, would be to facilitate the provision of charging points away from petrol stations but put them in car parks, park and ride facilities. The smart move, if we’re talking about town centre regeneration, would be to put a mass of charging points in, or very close to, town centres, too. There’s absolutely a role there for councils and it would be good to see the government working closely with local councils instead rather than nudging petrol stations to do what the market will force them to do anyway.

The other major issue of course here is, as with anything else, Brexit. Renault-Nissan has a 20%+ market share of 2m electric car market (and hence the Macron government’s lead on this); and the UK claims to be the largest market for electric vehicles in the EU (though the Netherlands looks larger), while one in five electric cars sold in the EU in 2016 were made in the UK. Nissan does, of course, have a plant in Sunderland – our new Leaf was made there, and on the basis of an internal competition within Nissan to be a site featuring production lines for the higher-output models. The leading role of Nissan-Renault in the global electric car market – on the back of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement announced this week – will clearly be a major feature in the Brexit negotiations. Precisely what Carlos Ghosn (who has now moved on from Nissan) got out of Theresa May when they met last October – a discussion that we know encompassed electric cars (Q112-Q115) – continues to be a highly-relevant point for discussion. It is to be hoped that the new Chair of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, when elected this coming week, will see it as a priority not only to pick up the threads of its inquiry into the electric car market but also to recall its earlier desire to get to the bottom of that infamous letter.

[18 July edit: a letter has also been sent in highly similar circumstances to Toyota. The Committee – with Labour MP Rachel Reeves in the chair – has an urgent task in keeping the activities of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under review as Brexit talks get underway.]

[18 July update 2: it’s actually the Treasury Committee which is taking charge here and, by the look of it, it is on the case.]

Brexit and EU citizens: A practical note

The UK government’s announcement yesterday of its plans for EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit contained one or two nasty surprises, not least among them that EU citizens will be forced to hold some sort of documentation proving the right to stay and work in the UK after 2018 – a prima facie case of discrimination vis-a-vis UK citizens who do not – and should not – have to carry any such documentation.

Aside of the understandable outrage here, and here, that May should consider such discrimination to be ‘fair’, and that many EU citizens have already gone through a lengthy process of securing permanent residence documents only for these now to be useless, as well as that this is not a situation of fact, simply an opening ‘offer’ in the Article 50 negotiations process, one of the interesting issues around this reference is the practical logistics around documenting 3m people in the time available. Those who have gone to the trouble of securing permanent residence rights, via the infamous 85-page form, are promised a ‘streamlined’ and ‘user-friendly’ application process but there are clearly doubts about the ability of the appropriate government departments to be able to deliver on that, not least stemming from the bureaucratic delays that as few as 150,000 people experienced in applying for PR to government departments that were simply overwhelmed. Let alone 3m (+).

There is little detail on the document as to what the government means by ‘streamlined’, although there are vague (and inevitable) references to it being ‘digital’ and the days of the 85-page form seem to be numbered.

However, there are doubts about the ability of the UK to deliver on this score, too. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, publishes a continually-updated scorecard on the digital single market – which, of course, we are leaving – called the ‘DESI composite‘ (this is the Digital Economy and Society Index, not this one). Overall, across the five components of the index, the UK is above average – it’s actually in seventh place among the EU-28. However, one of the constituent components is ‘digital public services’, which measures a country’s ability to deliver e-Government services, including the provision of pre-filled forms and online service completion. Here, it might not be a surprise to learn, the UK is doing rather less well – not only is it below the average for the EU-28, it’s actually fallen as far as 18th place.

(As an aside, I can recall a previous government vowing that the UK would have the best superfast broadband in the EU by 2015: we don’t – on the DESI composite’s ‘Connectivity’ sub-index, we are sixth, rising above only Finland among the other nations above us on the overall list – which are Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. We were sixth in 2015, too.)

So, there are some quite deep-rooted capacity issues which need to be resolved. We can well imagine that these ought to have been resolved before the UK government could even make such an offer – since it is not doing so from a position of strength – and certainly by the time any agreement may be implemented. Perhaps the UK government might look to other EU governments for advice on how to deliver the sort of ‘streamlined’ digital public service that would be required to document 3m EU nationals in the way this proposal envisages – perhaps from other countries which are higher up the DESI list than the UK. Perhaps we might ask Poland, for example.