Friday, 29 April 2016

It snowed this morning - a comment on "normal politics in Bradford"


It snowed this morning. Not an unusual occurrence in Bradford as the massive grit pile at Denholme attests but late April is pushing it for snowstorms. Because I chose to stay in rather than head into town, I found myself reading a piece in the Independent by the writer, Ben Judah where he - with some justification - tears into the politics of Bradford:

Were you shocked by Naz Shah’s outbursts on social media? Were you baffled that an aspiring MP would call to “relocate” (that is, destroy and deport) Israel to America? Did you baulk, wondering why on earth a self-respecting politician would ask supporters to vote in an online poll because “the Jews are rallying”?

Don’t be. Because Naz Shah, and everything she said, is normal politics in Bradford.

Ben goes on to recount his experiences of visiting Bradford including a terrifying and terrible racist assault. The picture painted in the article is a pretty bleak one filled with references to the poverty, depression and segregation of the City. I bridled a little at the suggestion that all politics in Bradford is shaped by events in Israel and Palestine and, as a result, got into a spat with Ben on Twitter.

Nevertheless, the view about Bradford's politics that Ben put across is understandable when all outsiders see of that politics is this:

I contacted all the candidates vying to replace him. Most had photos exhibiting themselves at pro-Palestine rallies. One Labour hopeful responded, rather bizarrely, to my request for an interview with a video of herself speaking at a pro-Palestine rally.

From the sectarian mania of George Galloway - he would be a comedy act had his words and actions not damaged Bradford so much - through to the recent reports of anti-semitism, the public face of Bradford politics is exactly as Ben Judah describes. As another writer recently asked of me - "does everyone have to say this sort of thing to get elected in Bradford?"

My answer to that writer was that, in 20 years as a Councillor, I've never found the need to make inflammatory, racist statements in order to get elected. And I'm sure the same goes for many of my colleagues from across the political parties in Bradford. It is indeed depressing that the picture painted by Ben Judah is painfully close to the truth but it is only part of the truth. And it's that other truth about Bradford that still gives me hope.

This is the truth about the men from Bradford Council of Mosques who helped raise the funds to repair Bradford synagogue. This is the truth of a City that's not simply a Muslim enclave in a non-Muslim Yorkshire but is a varied, interesting and at times exciting place. Muslims make up little more than a quarter of Bradford's population yet the public discourse about the City is almost completely captured by the issues that minority are focused upon.

As I said, it snowed this morning. So there weren't any horses clip-clopping along the bridleway behind our house. But there will be tomorrow. This is the other Bradford, the place that visiting writers never see, the place that isn't described in comments like this from Nigel Farage:

What has happened, and I think what has happened in Bradford, is that left-wing support and sympathy for anti-Israel/anti-Israeli views has now become allied to a very big growth in the Muslim vote in this country.

"I think what you have in Bradford is sectarian politics and I loathe it because if we think about the other part of the United Kingdom that has been plagued by sectarian politics, it is called Northern Ireland with Protestant v Catholic and look where that has got us."

When I've talked to Muslim audiences during this year's election campaign, I've stressed that this is a local election, I've told them that the Labour Party takes their votes for granted, and I've told them that we need to focus on getting the basic services right if we want a better City. What I haven't mentioned is foreign policy, the familiar litany of other places grievances that have infected politics in Bradford - Palestine, Kashmir, Syria.

That message is the same one we put out everywhere - make savings, deliver good services, help improve schools. And that everywhere includes the World Heritage Site at Saltaire, it includes the village of Thornton where the Brontes were born and Haworth where they lived. It includes a City centre with a nightlife of bars and restaurants that's starting to thrive again. And it includes Cullingworth where I live. Bradford is a great place filled with many fantastic people and I'd love for Ben Judah to visit again so we can, by way of asking for forgiveness, show him the good side of the City to balance the bad side he experienced.

I hope that my message - that you don't need to be a racist sectarian bigot to get elected in Bradford - is the right one. And rest assured that, if the only way to get elected in Bradford is by being anti-semitic, then I'd rather not be elected.

As I said, it snowed on Bradford today.


Thursday, 28 April 2016

The new vaping regulations are wrong. We shouldn't introduce them next month.


I could turn this post into something of a rant about the iniquity of the EU and all its works. After all the new vaping regulations are contained in the 2015 Tobacco Products Directive (TPD for short) steered through the European Parliament by Yorkshire MEP Linda McAven and then ignorantly - quite literally as she'd no idea what she was voting on - agreed to by the UK's Public Health Minister (then Anna Soubry MP) at the Council of Ministers. In the latter case after the amendments removing some of the anti-vaping provisions of the TPD were ignored by the European Commission in its recommendations to that Council.

But given there's a debate about our membership of the EU going on out there, I'm going to hold fire on all that for another post nearer the June 23 referendum date. Instead I think that the UK Government has sufficient grounds - evidential grounds - for saying to the European Commission and our EU partners that it would be a mistake to enact the regulations. Not only does the UK Government have the independent report produced by Public Health England that demonstrated how vaping is at least 95% less harmful than smoking but today we also have a comprehensive report from the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) building on this evidence:

The RCP report, published yesterday, acknowledged the need for proportionate regulation but said rules should not be allowed to significantly inhibit the development and use of harm-reduction products, such as e-cigarettes.

The RCP said the long-term negative effects from vaping were ‘unlikely to exceed 5% of the harm from smoking tobacco’.

The regulations under the TPD - bans on advertising, product strength limits, volume controls for e-liquids and an onerous product approval process - in effect put e-cigarettes into the same position as smoking with the result that smaller producers and many retailers of vaping products will simply close. Only the biggest producers and the e-cigarette brands owned by tobacco companies will be able to survive. Vaping is, in effect, denormalised in the same manner that public health has approached the control of smoking. It's true that vaping will still be cheaper (although the EU is discussing imposing taxes on vaping products) but it will no longer have a visible high street presence as a much safer alternative to smoking.

The Government should simply say to the EU that the evidence is that, while the TPD as a whole will benefit public health, it would be even more of a benefit if vaping was allowed to develop freely as an alternative to smoking. Indeed the Department for Health's own impact assessment says just this:

Its impact assessment (pdf) on EU rules to be enshrined in UK law also acknowledges that higher costs for e-cigarette manufactures could lead to price increases and reduction of choice for consumers, leading people to switch back to smoking, which public health experts regard as far more dangerous.
It recognises too that regulations might create new barriers for small- and medium-sized companies, a concern that comes as public health doctors warned of possible consequences from tobacco giants becoming more involved in making e-cigarettes.

The TPD effectively leaves the vaping market to be captured by large companies able to deal with the cost of approval and regulation, which amounts to capture by either or both of the pharmaceuticals industry or big tobacco companies (far be it from me to suggest that this might just explain the enormous investment from these two sectors in lobbying the EU, MEPs and Governments over the TPD). This is not in the interests of public health, small businesses trading legally now but unable to once the regulations arrive or the two-and-a-half million former smokers now getting pleasure from vaping.

I hold out little hope here. But it would be a sensible government that saw when something is wrong and changed what it is doing accordingly.


Wednesday, 27 April 2016

A funny old week....anti-semitism, suspension and the problem with social media


Was always going to be quiet on the blogging front - there being a local election and all that jazz. But it has turned out to be a most peculiar week. It started with this:

A Labour MP has argued Israel should be “relocated” to America and praised the “transportation costs” of deporting Israeli Jews out of the Middle East. Naz Shah, who defeated George Galloway in Bradford West, shared a highly inflammatory graphic arguing in favour of the chilling “transportation” policy two years ago, adding the words “problem solved”.

Three days later it resulted in this:

“Jeremy Corbyn and Naz Shah have mutually agreed that she is administratively suspended from the Labour Party by the General Secretary. Pending investigation, she is unable to take part in any party activity and the whip is removed.”

As I said, a strange old week. Not only is it a lesson (again) about social media but it reminds us that hatred is easy to get sucked into - from putting 'hates Tories' on your Twitter profile to posting anti-Semitic tropes. A sense of injustice about Palestine is entirely understandable as is criticising the Israeli government but the next step, depersonalising Jews is a problem. I suspect Naz Shah knows this and knows what she posted was wrong - not because some people might be offended by those posts but because anti-Semitism itself is wrong.

There may yet be more to come on this story, I don't know who trawled through Naz Shah's social media, but whatever the personal cost I hope that the result is that my fellow politicians challenge anti-Semitism more strongly wherever it rears its ugly head.


Sunday, 24 April 2016

Free range chicken isn't healthier or more sustainable. It's just tastes better and costs more.

I'm prepared to accept that free range chickens taste better. I also know that the way those chickens are bred means they cost a whole lot more than the chickens produced in batteries or other intensive farming methods. But this argument is wrong:

Despite the fact that sustainable poultry production systems deliver huge benefits to the environment and public health, the producers using these methods have no option but to compete on an unlevel playing field. Worse, we are paying for the damage caused by industrial food production in hidden ways, through taxes, in the form of misdirected subsidies from the common agricultural policy, through water pollution clean-up costs and through national health service treatment costs.

Firstly there's no evidence that intensive farming is more damaging to the environment than traditional or organic methods. In fact the reverse is true - traditional and organic methods are less environmentally-friendly:

Agricultural economists at UC Davis, for instance, analyzed farm-level surveys from 1996-2000 and concluded that there are “significant” scale economies in modern agriculture and that small farms are “high cost” operations. Absent the efficiencies of large farms, the use of polluting inputs would rise, as would food production costs, which would lead to more expensive food.

So far from there being an environmental benefit from moving away from agricultural intensification, the reverse is true - if we want a less polluting agriculture then intensification is the right choice. This is quite simply because that supposedly "sustainable" system is less efficient. We get expensive food and a more damaged environment.

The public health issues are equally misplaced. There is no evidence at all that organic methods are healthier than methods using modern pest control or fertilisers. - it's just that all those healthy looking chickens scuttling about in feels give us the impression that eating them will be healthier.

So when the Sustainable Food Trust tell you their methods are healthier and have less environmental impact they aren't telling you the whole truth. And, when they call for the system to be skewed to support their methods, what they are doing is making you pay more for food with the only benefit going to the organic farmers' bank balances.


Millionaire migration...


When we think of people moving, we tend to focus on the traditional sort of economic migration or the terrible consequences of war, oppression and terror. There's another collection of mobile people who don't get talked about - millionaires.

In a fascinating article for New Geography, Joel Kotkin looks at where there millionaires are moving to and from. And he starts by reminding us how important the spending power of the rich people is to many urban economies:

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has suggested that today a successful city must be primarily “a luxury product,” a place that focuses on the very wealthy whose surplus can underwrite the rest of the population. “If we can find a bunch of billionaires around the world to move here, that would be a godsend,” Bloomberg, himself a multi-billionaire, said toward the end of his final term. “Because that’s where the revenue comes to take care of everybody else.”

You don't have to be comfortable with this dependency on the very rich to understand the realpolitik of Bloomberg's observation. And Mayor Mike knew it is an issue because the very rich aren't moving to places like New York, nor are they moving to London:

The biggest winners are not the elite global cities, like New York or London, but ones that are comfortable, and boast pretty settings and world-class amenities. The leading millionaire magnets in 2015 were Sydney and Melbourne, gaining 4,000 and 3,000 millionaires, respectively, many from China. In third place is Tel Aviv, a burgeoning high-tech center which is attracting Jews fleeing Europe, notably from France.

Dubai ranks fourth, luring many Middle Easterners seeking a safer, cleaner business locale. Then comes a series of some of the most attractive cities on the planet, including Seattle (seventh) and Perth (eighth). In many cases these cities are gaining from “flight capital” from Asia and the Middle East.

Kotkin observes that the migration of millionaires seems driven by two factors - the safety of money and the safety of the millionaire. As a result millionaires leave Russia and China where property rights are weak and leave France because they don't feel safe (the big French exodus is of Jews and it's striking that they feel safer in Tel Aviv than they do in Paris).

Countries and cities need to worry about the exodus of millionaires - here's the impact of just one individual switching US states:

The movement for example of one billionaire — hedge fund manager David Tepper — from New Jersey to Florida could leave the Garden State with a $140 million hole just from his change of address. Overall New Jersey depends for 40 percent of its revenue of income taxes, one-third of which is paid by the top 1 percent of the population.

And the two top destinations for millionaires? The USA and Australia.


Quote of the day - tax fraud as a thought crime


Quite amazing:

Despite this new evidence providing the artist had paid his taxes, Nerdrum was sentenced in June 2014 to one year in prison for tax fraud after the case had been appealed twice “because he had admitted to considering evading his taxes,” says Molesky.

All-in-all a strange story involving Icelandic citizenship, allegations of state corruption and the mixing of paint by an artist with the splendid name, Odd Nerdrum. Plus an arcane "when is a painting a new painting or an old painting" debate. It does appear that the artist paid his taxes in full through a scheme that could be used to avoid taxes.

Governments, dontcha just love 'em!

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Officials are officious - which is one reason why we have politicians


I know, I know. We're a shower. Useless. Self-seeking. Incompetent. But you really do need us. Really, you do. And here to illustrate is an example of what happens when politicians don't have a say:

"I fully understand that nowadays people are interested in what goes on at the count and those who attend would like to share their experiences on social media.

"However, I have a duty to uphold the national legislation, which is in place to ensure the confidentiality of the count process.

"This is why I am not allowing the use of electronic devices on the count floor.

"I do not want those responsible for counting to be distracted or intimidated by photography or filming. We all have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of the count.

"Electronic devices may be used in other areas at count venues, but at the discretion of local returning officers."

So let's unpick this. The Returning Officer has decided that she will ban us having 'electronic devices' in order to uphold the 'national legislation'. Now I can't imagine that it has changed much from the guidance at the 2015 General Election. Which says:

You should also decide on a policy for the use of mobile phones in the verification and count venue.

That's it. The guidance also says that the count is not 'confidential' as it should be conducted in full view of those 'entitled to ' watch the count. The Returning Officer and her officials already have the ability - again the guidance is pretty clear - to remove anyone from the counting floor who is interfering with the counting process or distracting those conducting the count.

The decision taken here is, frankly, overkill. Officials have all the powers needed to deal with any interference with the count and this decision is merely for the convenience of the Returning Officer. It is officials being officious.

And this is always the case. Public officials will always prefer blanket bans, restrictions and controls to accommodation and flexibility. In my experience much of this officiousness gets blocked by politicians applying common sense.