Tag Archives: Steve Walker

When you see news about US torture, remember this – Skwawkbox blog

The news at the moment is full of the ‘revelation’ that the ‘enhanced (or coercive) interrogation’ techniques used by the CIA on so-called ‘enemy combatants’ amounted to torture, writes Steve Walker in his Skwawkbox blog.

These techniques, including waterboarding, extreme sleep-deprivation and forcing people into contorted ‘stress positions’ for hours on end, were devised by a US psychologist who has been called a ‘torture guru’.

When you see these reports, remember this: psychologically-coercive techniques devised by this same individual and his team have been forced upon British benefit claimants at the behest of David Cameron’s ‘Nudge Unit’, via a bogus ‘psychometric test’ that they had to take or else lose their benefits.

Yes indeed – the Nudge unit. Skwawkbox goes on to detail a relatively new use of its techniques, and you are urged to give it a visit for that reason alone, but mention of the nudge unit at this time gives rise to another consideration.

Vox Political has been running a series of articles recently, on the apparent use of persuasion techniques that lead ESA claimants who are disabled or suffering with long-term illnesses to consider committing suicide during stressful ‘work capability assessment’ interviews.

It doesn’t take a wild imagination to put that together with this and suggest that the DWP may be employing ‘nudge’ unit techniques to make people end their own lives, while they are particularly suggestible.

Now that would be an utterly unethical way to behave!

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Middleton & Heywood means nothing like the media/UKIP are saying – Skwawkbox Blog

141010libdemise

BBC News, Radio 4 and others have been giving plenty of airtime and oxygen – as they did for years without justification in featuring Farage on every possible occasion – to the UKIP ‘near-triumph’ of UKIP in the Middleton and Heywood by-election, writes Steve Walker in his too-rarely-updated Skwawkbox Blog.

The claim, in pseudo-rational analysis by pundits and near-histrionic terms by UKIP spokespeople, has been that the result is a scare for Labour and a clear demonstration of UKIP’s supposed threat to Labour in its heartlands.

Here comes the sting in this tale: Nonsense – as a quick comparison of yesterday’s results and the 2010 General Election results will show.

Here are the results side by side:

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The first thing to note is that Labour’s vote is down by 37% – exactly the same as the percentage drop in turnout (36/57.5 = 63%).

Fine – Labour’s vote was exactly the same in proportion to the number of people casting votes, so nobody picked up disillusioned Labour voters. Where did UKIP get its support, then?

The UKIP vote rose by 9,800 – with a massive effort from them to create an upset… The Tory vote fell by over 9,000 and the BNP vote disappeared.

Right! So UKIP mobilised massively but only managed to steal Tory votes and inherit votes from the BNP. You can – and should – read the rest of the article on Skwawkbox.

It seems that Steve has missed a major element here, though – what happened to the Liberal Democrat vote? It fell almost as far as the Conservative vote, and from a lower starting-point, meaning that it was very nearly wiped out altogether. UKIP wasn’t chasing Liberal Democrat voters. The party made it clear that it wanted former Labour or Conservative voters.

So the former Liberal Democrat voters simply didn’t bother. Do they feel so utterly disenfranchised by Nick Clegg’s five-year betrayal of the British people and his own party’s principles that they gave up on the democratic process altogether?

That appears to be the case. And in that – it seems – Clegg’s failure is complete.

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There is no such thing as an ‘England-only’ issue.. – Skwawkbox

On the right: Kate Hoey.

On the right: Kate Hoey.

If you were incensed at Tom Pride’s ‘crackpot’ article, this one should make your blood boil. Here’s Steve Walker of the Skwawkbox blog:

Much talk continues in the media of the ‘inevitability’ and supposed fairness of ‘English devolution’ – which is nothing more than a cynical Tory attempt to neutralise the 58 out of 59 Scottish MPs who are not Tories, preventing them from hindering the Right’s plans to further strip away vital supports from vulnerable and ordinary people and making it far harder for a Labour government to achieve good in government or resist Tory predations in opposition.

The purported logic behind this effective coup is that, if the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have the right to decide issues such as health and education spending and (in the case of Scotland) to raise revenues, ‘then it’s only right’ that English people have the ‘freedom’ to decide on so-called ‘England only’ matters.

But this is a complete red herring, because there is no such thing as an ‘England only’ issue.

This was highlighted and elaborated by an excellent comment by a reader called ‘Pete’, who runs another blog:

The false premise behind all these comparisons between England and Scotland (and Wales and NI) is the assumption that they are in some way comparable: they’re not. England has 80-odd percent of the UK population, London alone has more people than Scotland and Wales combined. Scotland’s GVA per capita looks good – ranking it 3rd behind London and the SE in English regions – however is only the 6th UK region by gross GVA – behind 5 English ones. Those disparities mean there is *no* change to English tax, public services, inflation, employment legislation, company law, trade union law … that *does not* affect Scotland. A reduction in English VAT, for example, would instantly have an adverse affect on Scottish manufacturing, retailing, pay rates and more. Because of its relatively very small population and economic activity, the reverse is not true to any meaningful extent. England is 80-odd percent of the UK changes there will always affect the other 15/17 percent – i.e. Scotland, Wales, and NI.

(emphasis mine)

The media, from the BBC to the vast majority of the written press, appears to be completely (deliberately?) ignoring this very obvious fact in their coverage of this issue and are giving free rein to various right-wing politicians to voice this ‘obvious truth’.

They are also giving excessive weight to a handful of ‘blue’ Labour MPs who are shamefully supporting the right, such as Kate Hoey, who claimed that Labour should back the moves ‘even if in the short term it looks that it might be a disadvantage to our party‘, describing a few dissenters as ‘serious pressure’ on Ed Miliband.

To read the rest of the article, please visit Skwawkbox. In the meantime, let’s all make a note of Kate Hoey’s name, in preparation for the day when Labour ejects the neoliberals.

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Scots reprieve but Tories still aim to profit cynically from referendum – Skwawkbox Blog

[The] announcement that Scotland has voted ‘no’ to independence is a narrow escape for the rest of the UK. While I have every sympathy with those Scots who want to put themselves beyond the reach of the predations of the right, a ‘yes’ vote would have been a disaster for every ordinary person in England and Wales, writes Steve Walker in his Skwawkbox Blog.

The loss of 41 Labour MPs (and all but one of the rest from left-leaning parties) would have condemned the rest of us to longer and even worse periods of Tory-led government, with Conservatives feeling emboldened to accelerate and intensify their attack on the rights and support of ordinary people and especially the disadvantaged – and would have left Labour, the only realistic Parliamentary resistance, far less able to prevent them from doing so.

The loss of 41 MPs wouldn’t make a Labour majority impossible. But it would make it far harder to achieve and would mean Tory or Tory-led coalitions far more likely.

But the Tories are now aiming to have the best of both worlds – keeping the Union to appeal to their ‘little England’ members, while eliminating the impact of Scottish Labour MPs anyway.

To see the rest of the article, visit Skwawkbox. After that, your opinions are welcome.

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From the DWP to the economy – the Coalition’s growing credibility chasm

All the wrong things for all the wrong reasons: The evidence shows no good reason for George Osborne's economic austerity policies - other than, possibly, an intention to rob this nation of everything possible before 2015.

All the wrong choices for all the wrong reasons: The evidence fails to support George Osborne’s economic austerity policies – the only likely explanation seems to be an intention to rob this nation of everything possible before 2015.

The more we learn of the Tory-led Coalition’s policies, the wider the gap grows between what it is doing and what it should be doing.

Look at the sham psychometric tests, exposed by fellow blogger Steve Walker in a series of articles on his Skwawkbox site. It is now firmly established that the DWP – aided by the Cabinet office ‘nudge unit’ – set out to pressgang put-upon benefit claimants into taking part in a crude piece of neuro-linguistic programming – no matter what answers you provided, the test always pushed out a ridiculously upbeat appraisal of your character and then tried to get you to act according to this verdict in your jobsearching activities. The theory is that this will make a jobseeker more confident and finding a job easier. The problem is that it’s quite utterly ludicrous.

If you haven’t already, you can read the Skwawkbox exposure of this particular caper on that site – there are plenty of links to it from this one. The reason it is mentioned here is that it provides a useful set of questions with which to analyse any government activity: First, is the theory behind this activity sound? Second, if that theory is being used to support a particular course of action, is that action justifiable?

So let’s turn once again to George Osborne’s reasons for pursuing economic austerity, as described in the letter Vox Political received from the UK Treasury last month.

Firstly, the letter warns against the perils of losing market confidence. By this, we can see that it means we should fear any downward revision of our credit rating by the credit agencies, as “a one percentage point increase in government bond yields would add around £8.1 billion to annual debt interest payments by 2017-18”.

What’s being said is that a drop in our credit rating would mean the people and organisations that have invested in UK government debt (by buying our bonds) might move their funds to others, meaning the government could be faced with an interest rate rise, leading to increased difficulty in borrowing.

But we know that this isn’t true. The UK’s credit rating was downgraded only a few months ago. Did interest rates rise? Was our ability to borrow hindered at all? No. There’s a reason for that.

As Professor Malcolm Sawyer notes in Fiscal Austerity: The ‘cure’ which makes the patient worse (Centre for Labour and Social Studies, May 2012), “It is well-known that a government can always service debt provided that it is denominated in its own currency. At the limit the UK government can ‘print the money’ in order to service the debt: this would not take form of literally ‘printing money’ but rather the Central Bank being a willing purchaser of government debt in exchange for money.” This is what is happening at the moment. Our debt is in UK pounds, and we can always service it. Our creditors know that, so they remain happy to continue financing it.

This means that the Treasury’s next point, that “any loss of investor confidence in the UK’s fiscal position would not only affect the UK, but also the global economy” is also meaningless. There won’t be a loss of investor confidence, so there won’t be an effect on the global economy.

We move on – to the Chancellor’s claim that fiscal austerity is required to prevent the slowing of economic growth that happens when the national debt hits 90 per cent of gross domestic product (or thereabouts).

You’ll recall that my letter to the Chancellor was prompted by the revelation that the academic paper on which he relied most often, by Reinhart and Rogoff, had been proved to be mistaken. The Treasury’s response pulled out a series of references to other academic works suggesting a fiscal cliff similar to the Reinhart-Rogoff model, off which we would drop if the national debt passed an arbitrary level around 85-90 per cent of GDP. These were published by the International Monetary Fund, which we know isn’t quite as keen on austerity as it used to be; the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which this blog marked out as “schizoid” only a few days ago; and others.

Obviously I haven’t had time to look up eight academic works to support any opposing theory I may wish to create – and I think I would be foolish to try. I don’t have any grounding in economics beyond what I’ve been able to pick up by following the national and international debates.

But, then, according to Dean Baker of the Center (yes, it’s American) for Economic and Policy Research: “As a general rule economists are not very good at economics.”

He writes: “Most economists are unable to conceptualize anything that someone with more standing in the profession did not already write about. This is the only reason that the Reinhart-Rogoff 90 per cent debt-to-GDP threshold was ever taken seriously to begin with.”

That prodded my curiosity to check some of the papers listed by the Treasury in support of its stance, and the three that I checked (The Real Effects of Debt, Public Debt and Growth, and How Costly Are Debt Crises?) all listed the Reinhart-Rogoff paper in their supporting references. So Mr Baker is right.

“Debt is an arbitrary number,” he continues. “The value of long-term debt fluctuates with the interest rate… The value of our debt will plummet if interest rates rise… This means that we could buy back long-term debt issued today at interest rates of less than 2.0 percent for discounts of 30-40 percent. This would sharply reduce our debt-to-GDP ratio at zero cost.

“Bonds carry a face value, meaning the amount that will be paid off when they reach maturity. This is what gets entered in our debt figure. However bonds also carry a market price, which fluctuates inversely with interest rates. The longer the term of the bond, the more its price will vary with interest rates.

“If interest rates rise, as just about everyone expects over the next three-to-five years, then the market price of the bonds we have issued in the current low interest rate environment will fall sharply. Since we count our debt at the face value of the bonds, not their market price, we could take advantage of the drop in bond prices to buy up… bonds at sharp discounts to their face value.

“The question is why would we do this, we would still pay the same interest? The answer is that the policy would make no sense for exactly this reason.

“However, if we accept the Reinhart-Rogoff 90 per cent curse, then reducing our debt in this way could make a great deal of sense. Suppose we can buy back debt with a face value of 60 per cent of GDP at two-thirds its face value, or 40 per cent of GDP. In our debt accounting we would have reduced our debt-to-GDP ratio by 20 percentage points. If this gets us below the 90 per cent threshold then suddenly we can have normal growth again.

“Yes, this is really stupid, but if you believed the Reinhart-Rogoff 90 per cent debt cliff, then you believe that we can sharply raise growth rates by buying back long-term bonds at a discount. It’s logic folks, it’s not a debatable point — think it through until you understand it.”

I found Mr Baker’s piece after asking Jonathan Portes of the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR) for his opinion on the Treasury letter. He described it as “Predictable and largely irrelevant”.

So despite my lack of economic education, we have a working theory that suggests the Treasury has built its economic castle on the sand; that its justification for austerity is unsound. What about the austerity measures themselves? Are they justifiable on any level at all?

Evidence suggests not.

Let’s go back to our other friend in this matter, Prof Malcolm Sawyer. “Fiscal austerity and cuts in public expenditure do not work – there is a limited, if any, effect on reducing the budget deficit, and any return to prosperity is severely undermined.” We can see that this is true, using the government’s own figures. It managed to cut the deficit from £150 billion to £120 billion in 2011-12, mostly by axing large projects that invested in the UK economy. How much did it cut from the deficit in 2012-13? Less than £1 billion. The benefit cuts that created much of the fuel for this blog have not helped to cut the deficit at all.

“The reduction of the budget deficit can only come from a revival of private demand which is harmed by an austerity programme,” Prof Sawyer continues. Again, we can see that this is true. Austerity measures such as benefit cuts and the axing of infrastructure investment projects means there is less money available to the people who are most likely to spend it – the working- and middle-classes, and those who are unemployed. People with less money have to spend just about everything they receive in order to cover their costs. That money passes into circulation and the economy grows, through the fiscal multiplier effect. An attempt to explain this effect appeared on this blog within the last few days. The point is that demand increases when the people who earn the least have more to spend.

Therefore we see that Prof Sawyer’s next statement, “Deficit reduction requires investment programmes and reduction of inequality to stimulate demand”, is already proved.

So the answer is to reduce the unemployment rate by creating more jobs and closing the jobs deficit, as highlighted in this blog only a few days ago; to raise incomes by significantly increasing the minimum wage and adopting the proposed ‘living wage’, as promoted in this blog frequently; and investment in infrastructure projects.

What has Osborne done, along with his economically-illiterate chums?

He has created high unemployment.

He has depressed wages.

He has cut infrastructure projects.

He has, therefore, sucked all the demand out of the economy. What effect has this had?

Economic growth has, in the single word of Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, “flatlined”, borrowing has remained high and the national debt is continuing to rise.

In other words, this part-time Chancellor’s strategy – a plan on which we have all been asked to judge the entire Coalition government, let’s not forget – has failed. Hopelessly.

I return you to Prof Sawyer, one last time [bolding mine]: “The austerity programme is economically irrational, socially irresponsible, and lacks credibility that it can reduce the budget deficit and secure any return to prosperity. The time has come to rebuild through investment and through a major assault on inequality.”

Waiting for the ‘snail media’ to catch up

'Snail' media: The BBC News website was nearly two months behind the political blogs in its reporting of a major story.

‘Snail’ media: The BBC News website was nearly two months behind the political blogs in its reporting of a major story.

“On Tuesday, this was a serious Conservative Party policy proposal, being reported in national newspapers. Now, it’s ‘never’ going to happen,” trumpeted web campaigners 38 Degrees in an email last night.

They were, of course, referring to the Tory idea that it would be all right to restrict consultations with an NHS doctor to three per year per person – presumably the Rupert who dreamed it up thought everybody who mattered would have private health insurance instead, and this seems to be borne out by the material in the rest of the policy document.

I’m perfectly happy with this result. In fact, I think it is blogs like Vox Political that helped make it happen because – as you’ll know, o loyal reader – Vox reported on this particular scandal on Sunday, two days before.

I’ll admit, the material in the article was sourced from the newspapers, but what’s interesting is that it took a further two days for the mass – or as I intend to call it from now on, the ‘snail’ – media to cotton on that the whole idea is utterly ludicrous and the public won’t fall for it.

During that time, the Vox article went viral, and Vox readers have never really been known for keeping their opinions to themselves.

A ‘snowball’ effect then ensued, leading to reports in the papers of the public reaction and the 38 Degrees petition, which resulted in Jeremy Hunt’s grumpy tweet: “In case being misled by ‘neutral’ 38Degrees e-petition, it IS NOT and WAS NEVER going to be Conservative policy to limit GP appointments.”

He’s only upset because we spoiled his fun, I expect.

Vox Political was not the only blog covering this story, as far as I’m aware, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that it was any more instrumental in this little victory than anyone else. What I’m saying is it demonstrates that bloggers are starting to drive the political agenda.

The problem is the length of time it takes the mass – sorry, ‘snail’ – media to catch up.

Consider this story on the BBC News website (powered by Atos, in case anybody forgets) yesterday:

Under the headline ‘Incapacity benefit test claims ‘conflated figures’ – watchdog’, it states: “Suggestions that 878,300 benefit claimants dropped their claims rather than take a medical test have been challenged by the statistics watchdog.

“Tory chairman Grant Shapps was quoted saying that nearly a million people had “taken themselves off” incapacity benefit instead of sitting the test.”

Again, it’s great that this nonsense has been challenged, and the challenge has been reported. What’s not so great is the timescale.

Because the Skwawkbox blog, run by Steve Walker, challenged this nonsense almost two months ago.

The comment in the BBC story – by Andrew Dilnot, the now famous head of the UK Statistics Authority – was that “research by the Department for Work and Pensions suggested that one important reason for those cases being closed was because the person ‘recovered and either returned to work or claimed a benefit more appropriate to their situation’ instead.”

That is uncannily close to Steve Walker’s comment that “this represents nothing more than ‘churn’ – a turnover of claims withdrawn because of perfectly normal things like people getting better, or finding a job they can do even if they’re ill” – published on April 2!

I’ll accept some people may dispute the blogs’ influence on the outcome of the ‘NHS consultation’ issue, but on this one it seems unlikely there can be any doubt. Mr Dilnot’s letter followed an inquiry from Sheila Gilmore MP, who follows Vox Political and is certainly likely to have read my report on this matter. It seems likely that she also follows Skwawkbox. The amount of time between those articles’ appearance and the piece on the BBC website is the time it took for her to receive a response to her inquiry on the matter from Mr Dilnot.

Isn’t it a shame that the BBC didn’t do any fact-checking for itself?

So there you have it: If you want proper political news – and proper analysis of events – forget the ‘snail’ media and go to the blogs. We’re faster and more accurate, and what’s more, we make things change.

For the better (in case Iain ‘We’re changing their lives’ Smith was wondering).

NHS stealth-privatisation – get an email in to the Lords!

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This is a quickie because there isn’t much time.

I just received notification from fellow blogger Steve Walker that today is the deadline for submission of evidence and concerns to the House of Lords ‘Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’ (SLSC) to ask for a full Lords debate on the undemocratic attempt to force privatisation on the NHS via the new Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs).

Steve has written an excellent analysis of the redrafted SI 257/2013 regulations, explaining why they are a minefield likely to push CCGs further into the privatisation trap than any other outcome. You can read it here.

Rather than waste time trying to do the same job twice, I have emailed the Lords to ask for a debate, referring them to the same articles. Here’s a copy of what I have written. I would suggest that anyone who has strong feelings on the subject could use this as a template to email the Lords themselves. Here’s the email address:

[email protected]

And here’s the text of my email:

Dear Sir/Madam,

I understand that you are looking for submissions regarding the government’s ‘section 75’ secondary legislation. May I add my voice to those asking for a full Lords debate on this undemocratic attempt to force privatisation on the NHS via the new Clinical Commissioning Groups?

I do not intend to provide supporting arguments myself but instead would like to refer you to an excellent blog article – http://ccgwatch.wordpress.com/2013/03/12/revised-section-75-regs-mire-ccgs-in-a-legal-minefield/ – by Steve Walker, written following a careful reading of the government’s revisions to SI 257/2013.

It identifies serious concerns with the legislation, which does nothing to change the substance of the original instrument – and in fact uses uncertainty as an additional tool to tie the hands of CCGs to include private bidders for health service contracts.

With regards.

Over to you.