The Mountain Laboured and brought forth a Mouse. Or, there is such a thing as (half) a free lunch.

The failure of the Conservative Government to have any sense of proportion about whats important and what isn’t in the less than stimulating stimulus package announced yesterday, is both appalling and predictable.

Faced with a climate emergency that is going to destroy human civilisation unless we make a serious and immediate investment in a transition to sustainability – a policy that has overwhelming public support – the Chancellor of the Exchequer today earmarked just £3 billion to it.

Roll that number around in your head for a moment. £3 billion. Thats

– less than a quarter of the cost of a third runway at Heathrow (£14 billion)

– less than one sixth the cost of Crossrail (£18 billion)

– less than a thirty fifth of the cost of HS2 (£106 billion).

That looks like this.

You wouldn’t want to think that saving human civilisation was as important as any of these would you?

More to the immediate point, it is only one pound for every nine they are spending on roads. That looks like this, showing the balance in Conservative souls between saving civilisation and building some bypasses.

Spending announcements in billions 8/7/20

The enormous gap between what is needed and what they are prepared to do in retrofitting homes is as stark as their plans for school buildings. Last week they announced that they would retrofit less than a twentieth of what is needed by 2030. Today they announced plans for retrofitting just 650,000 houses out of the 15 million that need doing. That looks like this.

Retrofitting announcement 8/7/20 in thousands of pounds

The phrase “Mind the gap” comes to mind.

The £2 billion being allocated to this is well below the effort being made in comparable countries, which can be seen here.

Budget allocation for home insulation

This is also being done as a Voucher Scheme whereby individual households apply for support. This is probably the least efficient way of doing it, but has been chosen because it will work through the market as a series of individualised consumer decisions made by people who think they can afford the outlay and who can navigate the online application process. It could therefore to fall as flat as the Cameron government’s “Green Deal”, launched with much fanfare in 2013 and buried two years later after a derisory uptake that cost more than it saved. Investing in Local Authorities working through entire estates in one go to target people in fuel poverty and take advantage of economies of scale would be far more effective and have more of a sense of a collective social mission to transform society as a whole. Which is why its the last thing they’ll do.

Rishi Sunak’s other measures – offering to subsidise half of a meal out on dull days at the beginning of the week for two and a half weeks in August, a bonus of £1000 (wow) for every worker kept on beyond furlough until January, and a stamp duty holiday for those few who can still afford to buy a house (until next Spring) while having no plans to invest in building more- are little more than gimmicks of mass distraction and serve only to show the imaginative limits of a government structurally incapable and unwilling to do what is needed and hoping to muddle through while whistling into the wind with its fingers crossed.

The B team Strategy

Thanks to Labour Briefing for publishing this. (1)

Labour was defeated in December as the result of a strategic choice by every fraction and institution of the ruling class to crush Corbyn’s challenge. Their serious disagreements on Brexit were subordinated to that.

However, the self soothing myth on the left that “It was (only) Brexit wot lost it” – as if a more pro Brexit policy would have saved us – was one of the factors in a demoralised – and overwhelmingly pro remain – membership voting for Keir Starmer as leader.

Since the election, Boris Johnson’s government has blown its initial dominance– regularly polling at above 50% until mid April – with its appalling handling of the Coronavirus crisis. This is an unavoidable consequence of deliberate policy. The “take it on the chin” approach favoured by the most ruthless fraction of the ruling class – from the Wall St Journal to Dominic Cummings – the subsequent lackadaisical lockdown and premature reopening has given us the worst death rate and deepest economic crash in Europe.

Keir Starmer’s response has manifested a politics that Antonio Gramsci called “corporate”; which he defined as a set of ideas and polices defined and limited by someone else’s hegemonic, or dominant, framework. So, instead of clearly putting people before profit – a hegemonic line in the interests of the whole of society – he has gone out of his way to be understanding of the government’s difficulties and given them the benefit of the doubt, while seeking an entirely unrequited “national consensus”.

The nudges he has given them towards an “exit strategy” have given them political cover to exit too early. Criticisms at PMQs– however forensic – have been entirely tactical. Welcoming the government’s intention to reopen most of the economy on July 4th encourages a demob happy attitude that is already blowing away social distancing. Unions and scientists are voicing the concern that should have been heard louder and clearer in parliament. Caveats and scrutiny are hollow when a blank cheque has already been signed.

This is meant as reassurance to the ruling class that Labour could be a safe B team that would not threaten their interests and might therefore be allowed a sniff at government in the fullness of time. Sacking Rebecca Long Bailey fits into this because she has supported the NEU’s stance that children should only go back to school when it is safe to do so.

Polices have again become more a matter of what a Labour government would do and not about what campaigns Labour will actively support to change the balance of forces on the ground; leading to defensiveness when such movements erupt outside a parliamentary framework. This can be seen in the legalistic response to Black Lives Matter and failure to challenge the fake Tory narrative that throwing a statue of a slaver into a harbour is some sort of threat to war memorials.

His statement that Labour would not support an extension to the transition period for negotiating deal with the EU gives another green light to the government. In this case to leave the EU with no deal in December; followed swiftly by the trade deal with the US they are already negotiating. This will enable the most sweeping attacks on the working class since Thatcher; as UK labour and environment standards are reduced to US levels and the NHS is handed over to US insurance and pharmaceutical companies. It also means being a client state in other respects with very little room for maneouvre.

This active embrace of a Britain that is “global” primarily by virtue of being firmly wedged under Uncle Sam’s armpit, is expressed by statements from Lisa Nandy and Stephen Kinnock, echoing US sabre rattling. We are in an extraordinarily dangerous moment. The US administration is at war with a large part of its own population, is actively sabotaging global co-operation on tackling climate change, and its trade war against China is increasingly predicted to turn hot. That could kill us all. Being a cheerleader for US aggression is the last thing we need to be.

In a period of “disaster capitalism” in which “recovery” will be marked by ruthless measures from the government that put profit before people, the future of the Party depends on us not going along with any of the above in “the national interest” but mobilising people against it.

  1. https://labourbriefing.org/

Nandy gets it wrong on Huawei.

As we head to a no deal Brexit and serve ourselves up like a trussed chicken to the United States to pick over, any residual resistance from any part of the government to allowing Huawei to retain any input into the UKs 5G networks is evaporating fast.

This is not a commercial or technical consideration. Huawei has the technological edge, and there are no “Western” companies that can match it. Using alternatives to the best technology on offer involves significant costs – both in the expense of the system itself and the effects of having one that does not work as well as it could.

There are a number of spurious arguments put forward for why this sacrifice is worthwhile – centring on “national security” and political alignment, which are curiously lacking in self awareness.

This follows sanctions from the US to prevent Huawei using any technology with a US patent and pressure from other members of the “5 Eyes” international intelligence network ,which binds the US with the old “White Commonwealth” countries (UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and given voice – inevitably – by former Head of MI6 Sir John Sawers, though any old spook would have done.

The presumption here is that sharing anything and everything by way of “intelligence” with the USA – in the fine old tradition of a “special relationship” that trades in “special rendition” – can only be a good thing; whereas inadvertently letting some information slip through to China is the road to some sort of unspecified national disaster.

This requires a presumption of emnity with China that follows from one of two ideas.

One is that China is a Communist country which has been unwilling to trade in the reasons for its successful economic and political rise – essentially state direction of investment – for “Western norms” and this must be a bad thing. President Trump complained last year that the direction of investment by the state gave China an unfair advantage in economic development. In other words, it worked better than leaving things to “the market” i.e. decisions made by capitalists in their own interests. In a reverse of Deng Xiao Peng’s dictum “I don’t care whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice”, Trump’s solution was not that the US should adopt what is clearly a more effective system, but that China should sabotage itself by allowing the private sector the whip hand, thereby “adopting Western norms” and slowing itself down.

The other is that China is just another capitalist country that can be expected to behave like any other capitalist country and therefore the competition is zero sum and ruthless. Often these mutually contradictory ideas co-exist in the same article.

The paradox here is that China’s approach is what it calls “win, win” and it does not favour either political – let alone military – confrontation nor dividing the world into competing trade blocs which exclude each other’s technology. This is working. The IMF projects that China’s economy will account for just over half of global growth in the next two years, while the USA will account for 3.3% and the EU will shrink slightly. The rest of global growth will come from the rest of the developing world. This is reflected in political votes at the UN, where the USA is no longer in an unchallenged position to strongarm majorities as the growth generated by trade with China gives the rest of the developing world a bit of room for manouvre and self assertion.

The presumption that keeping the UK as a self subordinating permanent auxiliary of the USA – the defining foundation of British foreign policy since Suez – can’t be questioned in this situation, leads to some surreal arguments.

Tobias Ellwood, Conservative Chair of the Commons defence committee, for example, argued that China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and crackdown in Hong Kong were reasons to exclude Huawei under US pressure. Trump’s crackdowns on the Black Lives Matter movement, which have involved 26 deaths (none in HK) seem to have passed him by. As has the US handling of Coronavirus. There have been more deaths in the US than CASES in China. If the Chinese handling of these crises has been so bad in his eyes as to cut technological and commercial links, why does the catastrophic performance of the US get a free pass?

This has, sadly, been cheered on by Lisa Nandy as Shadow Foreign Secretary; who has taken a position in alignment with the Tory hawks voicing US pressure; with an added insular spin calling for “far greater strategic independence from China, which means that we need to have homegrown alternatives for our 5G Network and our nuclear power.” (1)

How these “alternatives” are to be “grown” is not spelled out. The UK has neither the domestic capacity to “grow” it in either of these areas in the time available – even assuming that new nuclear power stations are preferable to investment in genuine renewable energy.

This is a parodic echo of Harold Wilson’s critique of the Tory governments in the early 60’s for cancelling the “home grown” Blue Streak missile and buying into the “Moss Bros deterrent” of the US Polaris system – only to in turn cancel the “home grown” TSR 2 fighter bomber and buy US F111s for the same reason – the UK “alternatives” couldn’t be got to work properly.

The “homegrown” rhetoric is a fantasy to cover a strategic subordination to the US, which is engaged in a new cold war offensive – that, even if their wildest accusations against China were true – and many of them are very wild indeed – is not in our interests.

The bottom line here is that the UK has very little strategic independence from the USA at a time in which the Chinese answers to our fundamental problems

1 Handling the pandemic

2. Sustaining an economic system that allows a hopeful future

3 Working globally to prevent climate breakdown

4 Making sure we avoid a war

are better than those coming from either of the potential US administrations and – for that matter – our own government.

  1. Guardian p10 6/7/20

If this is Johnson’s idea of boldness – save us from his timidity.

Well. he did invite the comparison

Boris Johnson claimed today that his plans for UK government investment stand comparison with FDR’s US New Deal in the 1930s.

The graph above compares the spend per head of population in pounds using today’s purchasing power.*

If you look really hard you will see Johnson’s “bold” plan (£75 per head) as a slight smear on the right. Roosevelt spent the equivalent of £4881 per head.

“Ambition were made of sterner stuff.”

The above was written on Tuesday. At PMQs today (Wednesday) Johnson announced that far from £5 billion being the figure he’d first thought of to kick start the economy – perish the thought, even though this is exactly how it had been reported in the press – the real figure was £100 billion.

Assuming that this is not just Johnson channelling Trump – who regularly inflates the numbers he’s talking about as he runs through a sentence “millions, billions, gazillions” rather like a 9 year old for whom all large numbers translate as “lots”- this is, of course, twenty times better than five billion but still barely a quarter of what Roosevelt did, as can be seen here.

Spend per head at current values in pounds

There are four other considerations.

1. Roosevelt’s New Deal lasted six years. Johnson’s is spread over ten. So, a quarter as much over nearly twice as long.

2. The impact of the COVID crisis is a much deeper and quicker collapse than even the Great Depression and requires a qualitatively deeper stimulus from the state – not nervous tinkering of this sort.

3. We have a no deal Brexit currently being set up by Johnson’s henchman David Frost, a man who manages to look like Crabbe and Goyle at the same time, which will further throw the UK economy into trouble; so this begins to look less like a New Deal more like a fig leaf to cover the all out onslaught we are going to face on labour and environment standards once the replacement deal with the USA is signed.

4. Its not at all clear how much of this announcement is actual new investment. The billion for schools infrastructure appears to be money that they are simply replacing under a different label having already cut a comparable amount, leaves the capital budget below where it was in 2015-16, even if it were all to be spent in 2021 rather than spread over ten years. (1)

1. https://www.tes.com/news/ifs-school-buildings-cash-wont-reverse-decade-cuts

*Thanks to Jeff Lever for the calculations.

Government investment in schools. A thirtieth of what’s needed.

In Billions by 2030. Figures from Teach the Future

This graph shows that the government’s planned investment of £1 billion in the schools estate over ten years is less than one sixth of what is needed just to deal with repairs and just one pound for every twenty three that would be needed to make all our school buildings zero carbon by 2030.

This is not preparing a shiny new future, more “make do and mend” while we wait for the apocalypse.

Teacher verdict: “Must try harder.”

The only way is up?

Public Health England figures for “acute respiratory outbreaks” in schools. Reported June 25.

The trend in these figures is clear. Not quite doubling every week since additional students have returned to school; with the trend accelerating slightly.

We can be sure therefore that the reluctance of parents to send their children back – with attendance figures averaging around a third of those eligible on June 18th – has prevented these figures being worse, and the successful campaign by the Education Unions to prevent a reckless wholesale reopening of Primary Schools at the end of June will have saved lives.

There are three and a half weeks to the end of term. Extrapolating the trend in these figures would mean acute respiratory outbreaks in schools running at 80 at the end of this week, 144 the week after that, then 264 at the end of the third week and 374 by the end of term. The Summer break will then be a natural firebreak until September.

There are a number of issues with mechanical extrapolation, but its fair to say the following I think.

  1. The more students go back before the end of term, the more chance there is of an acute viral outbreak.
  2. The wider reopening of the economy – that the government has encouraged without either adequate test and trace, a functioning App tracker, clear legislation to require health and safety measures and guidelines that change with the latest pressure from business lobbies – is as likely to increase the rate of infections as have similar measures in the United States.

With the news (1) that official SAGE has advised that track and trace must be in place before widening access to schools and the absence of any credible timeline for the tracing App actually functioning, this makes the prospect of schools fully reopening in September another “cross your fingers and whistle in hope” operation by the government. Consultation and negotiation with the teaching unions and local authorities should be happening now to plan for a number of contingencies with the NEU’s 10 point plan as a starting point (2).

1.https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/26/improve-test-and-trace-before-schools-reopen-sage-report-says

2. https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/coronavirus-national-education-recovery-plan

A very hungry – and rather scary – caterpillar.

Cue Jaws Music

I believe this to be a Gypsy Moth caterpillar crawling along under our letterbox. We discovered another exploring our kitchen ceiling on Saturday night and removed it carefully – which is just as well. Its unfriendly appearance (and apparent immunity to predators) is not accidental. When stressed, the fine hairs that cover its back are released and have been known to cause respiratory problems and rashes in people; so no wonder the birds and foxes leave them alone.

It is not small but it is, like the caterpillar in the children’s book, very hungry indeed. This is the impact of a plague of them on the beech hedge out front; which was healthily green until a couple of days ago.

The locusts have struck.

Last night my downstairs neighbour was spraying something on a clutch of them steadily munching their way through the few remaining leaves. They paid no attention and just kept chomping through the leaf, systematically from right to left, leaving nothing but bare brown stalks.

They have now moved all the way down and devastated the hedge in front of the flats either side and are crawling up the outside walls completely impervious to possible predation.

Not so much a mountain more a roller coaster?

If you look at figure 11 in the government’s latest coronavirus weekly surveillance report (1) which covers the sites for the spread of infectious respiratory disease going back to last autumn, you will notice several things.

1. Schools can be a very serious hub for disease transmission. Weeks 46 to 52 – the end of the autumn term – show schools as the main hub for transmitting last winter’s seasonal flu.

2. Schools were beginning to be a hub for the spread of Coronavirus at the end of March (week 12) until closing them for the overwhelming majority of pupils snuffed that out.

3. Now that more students are going back – even in relatively controlled conditions – schools are again becoming a hub for transmission. This is still quite small thankfully, but in week 23 (the week from June 1st – which was the first week that the government wanted students in Nursery, Reception and Years 1 and 6 to go back) there were 14 outbreaks in school settings. An outbreak is defined as two or more people getting the same illness which “appears to be linked to a particular setting”. Two points should be stressed. This is a real but small increase. It remains to be seen if this is sustained. But this is in the context of relatively few, even of the students the government had targeted for that week, actually going back. More went back in week 24 and yet more from this week (Week 25). The next report will indicate the impact of this.

4. The overall number of acute respiratory infections went UP for the first time since Week 15 in mid April, indicating that passing the peak is not the same as controlling the virus.

1.https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/891721/Weekly_COVID19_Surveillance_Report_-_week_24.pdf

Life and death in a time of plague.

Our UKIP voting neighbours now keep their St George’s cross flag on display at all times; hanging down the front of the house from the upstairs window, waiting for the 6 Nations to recommence. Throughout “lockdown” it has been impossible not to think of the red crosses painted as a warning on the front doors of plague victims in the good old days.

Since the “easing’ of “lockdown” a sign of frantic commercial activity has been the reappearance of the local ice cream van – which now comes round with relentless regularity playing its tinkly alpine tune which is redolent of happy Nazis in lederhosen yodelling at Berchtesgarden. Given the prospect of a second spike, the death march might be more appropriate.

The traffic is coming back. Noisy, smelly, polluting, moving too fast, making everything even more edgy. A lot of drivers wearing masks, staring urgently. Honking horns are just too loud, expressing fear thats bottled up.

There has been a double murder in our local park. A secluded place that feels like the countryside once you’re in it. A place people would escape to for peace and quiet and to help their children feed the horses, watch a heron flap slowly up from a pond, take in the view and breathe. A place full of memories of moments of reprieve – now overlaid by crime tape, a photo of two forensic tents, photos of the two dead women stabbed at midnight, bunches of flowers mourning both them and everyone’s loss of a sense of safety.

R rate increase makes this a crunch week

The Virus is still very much with us. The R rate for London is back up to 0.95 from the 0.4 that was being cited just last week. The lowest rate in the country is back up to 0.89 – very dangerous territory and becoming more so.

If this government – which has presided over one of the worst death rates in the world – continues reopening the economy despite this increase in the R rate, it is declaring that it is putting profits above people; and that their strategy for the second wave is to “let it rip” (as Martin Wolf of the FT puts it). 
 
Its clear from what they have done during the crisis what the government will do after the crisis (or, more to the point, during its second phase). 

They have used it as an opportunity to divert resources away from the NHS into private provision in a way that has made the services provided incoherent and inefficient; and the result has been lost lives.

Why set up track and trace though outsourcing to SERCO when you can do it through GPs – which would have worked better? Why outsource tests to US labs – which makes turn round times absurdly slow – rather than using resources in the NHS?


They will seek to divert the costs of recovery onto Local Authorities by not funding them to cover the additional costs. These will not be cuts to the bone, but cuts through it.

The “stimulus package” that they have provided during the crisis has been to save companies not jobs. George Osborne is now arguing that – because smaller scale private companies will be unable to survive without it – the state will have to subsidise them – with no strings or social obligations attached; and that the cost of doing so will have to be borne by the rest of us; in the same way that we paid up to keep the bankers in the manner to which they were accustomed after 2008. That will mean a significant transfer of wealth from those least able to afford it to those who already have more than they know what to do with. That is why Stock Markets have been booming during this crisis. They see the outcome as potentially profitable.


There is a clear alternative. No funding for companies that avoid tax, underpay workers, or refuse to meet environmental obligations is a bottom line. But state led direct investment in the green transition has to be the backbone of ant recovery that actually allows us to recover. If we don’t do that, recovery from COVID19 is just giving us a little while longer before civilisation crashes and burns under the impact of global heating. We should all be pushing that alternative. Check out the Build Back Better Campaign being launched on Monday by 80 different organisations from Greenpeace and FOE to the NEU, UKSCN, UNISON, PCS, MEDACT and many more. https://www.buildbackbetteruk.org/


Already, companies – like BA – are beginning to offer workers a choice between losing their jobs or being kept on on cut wages. The reduction in government support for the furlough scheme will bring a rush of these. If this becomes widespread it means a) poverty and b) a longer recession – because people with lower incomes buy fewer goods, which leads to lower demand and so on down into a depressionary spiral.

These measures have been much more common in the US up to now – which may be one reason why discontent with their government has exploded more spectacularly than it has with ours so far (though there are obviously other reasons, not least the failings of US private health care, the failure of the state to provide income support during lockdowns and, of course the structural racism that runs through US society and policing).

The government will attempt to divert attention from their failures by blaming a few thousand young people going on Black Lives Matter demos for the rise in the R rate; even though the government is getting millions of people to go back to work. Tube journeys were up by 10% in London within two days of the government easing restrictions.

These spontaneous demonstrations of anger and fear are partly an expression of the grotesque discriminatory effects of the virus in the UK as well as the US, hitting communities that are worse off, live in more overcrowded conditions, often have poorer health and disproportionately work in front line services (even without the scandal that BAME health workers have been disproportionately deployed on COVID wards and found it harder to get PPE).

So standing with BAME communities this week is also urgent.

The government is on thin ice. Johnson’s approval rating is in very sharp decline. The extent to which they can get away with any of the above will depend on the extent to which they run into opposition.

So hitting them hard in the immediate crisis over the increasing R rate is crucial.

Everyone, as an individual or part of every organisation we are in should

1 Call for an immediate pause to lifting lockdown restrictions – as lifting the restrictions lifts the death rate. 

2 Councils should advise schools to delay widening access until the R rate is manageable.

3 Support the Stand Up to Racism take the knee demos at home every Wednesday at 6pm and support the online rally on Sunday. Details here. http://www.standuptoracism.org.uk/taketheknee-next-actions-after-major-day-of-action-involving-thousands/

The National Education Union has opposed wider school reopening precisely because the R level is too high (and testing, tracking and isolation is not in place). As a result, it has strengthened as an organisation – with an additional 20 000 members joining up and 2 000 of them coming forward as school Reps. more importantly, its campaign – leading the other education unions, has significantly pushed the government’s schedule off course, thereby slowing down the increase in the R rate, which would have been even worse if all schools had done what the government wanted; and thereby saved lives.