21 February 2008

More on the Rock... why George ain't got a leg to stand on

This is George Osborne we're talking about here (rather than Dubya Bush) but both are equally clueless, and from suprisingly similar backgrounds: Gideon Osborne is a trust fund kid, Dubya had plenty of funds from his family oil business to buy coke and booze, dodge the draft and set up disastrous companies with names like Arbusto (Spanish for 'shrub').

But we digress... I don't normally take a rabid pro-Labour line in this blog as who the hell wants to hear that? But the Tories are so unbelievably clueless on Northern Rock that it's important to weigh in to point out just how duff they are.

There's plenty in the Northern Rock crisis that the Opposition could justifiably criticise: the government's dithering about, the desperate attempts to court lame-ass bids to asset strip the company from private equity hawks and Richard Branson, the regulatory slackness that allowed Northern Rock to overextend itself so ludicrously in the first place (although hindsight is a wonderful thing - for most of the decade the rock was being lauded as an example of genius financial management in the northeast by 'expert' commentators in the financial media). And indeed, Vince Cable for the Lib Dems has been doing a very good job of asking all the right questions of the Govt's approach.

By contrast, the official Opposition - the Tories - have revealed themselves to be economically illiterate on this one. On Monday when the news was announced Dave Cameron called nationalisation a "disaster". He thus revealed himself as a Tony Blair clone in a very real sense - both of them know shit all about economic policy. Now, this isn't necessarily an obstacle to a future Cameron government being successful - after all, Tony Blair won three elections whilst being an economic ignoramus. But Blair had Gordon Brown to do all the sums for him. Whereas Cameron has George Osborne, who is just as much of a numbskull as Dave is.

Where is the alternative Tory plan for Northern Rock? What would they have done instead of nationalise it? Let the Bank of England take it over? I'm sorry, that's the same policy slightly redressed. Let it fail in September when it got into difficulty? Ballsy, but foolhardy - a banking failure on that scale could have taken other financial institutions down with it and let to a major slump of a scale not seen since the 1930s. Of course, economic failure on that scale would have probably let the Tories in at the next election - and that is probably the point. But don't tell me that these guys have the competence to run a men-only private members' club in Mayfair, let alone the economy. New Labour is deeply unpleasant in many ways but the Tories are a f***ing laughing stock. Which probably explains why they are only about 10 points in front in the latest polls and not 25 or so...

17 February 2008

Northern Rock: the biggest step forward for industrial policy in 30 years

Hooray! They've finally taken Northern Rock into public ownership.

It's about time too. The Government spent far too long faffing about with private sector "rescue" packages which basically seemed to involve giving billions of pounds to either private equity firms or Richard Branson, neither of whom floated my boat.

Still, while the Government was faffing about the share price was drifting down and down... so they (we) got a bargain.

Not since the heady days of British Aeropace and Shipbuilding in 1976 has nationalisation been used as a policy instrument in the UK. And it's nice to see it back. Primarily because, if done properly, Northern Rock could be the template for a new kind of bank... one that actually treats customers with respect rather than ripping them off with sky-high charges and piss-poor customer service at every turn. Despite being ostensibly competitive, the banking sector's record for customer satisfaction is appalling, and an innovatively-run public sector bank would have a lot to recommend it.

We won't get an innovatively run public sector bank, of course: we'll get a badly run approximation of a private sector bank. That's because this is a strictly temporary move, until market conditions return to "normal", at which point the bank will be sold off to the private sector. Which makes some sense from a public finances point of view, but is a real missed opportunity from the perspective of industrial policy. In fact, it's the fact that they were run just as badly as the private sector companies they were intended to improve upon which eventually gave nationalised industries a bad name in the 1960s and 70s.

What does any of this mean for the customers? Very little, probably. But in a pinch, they're probably safer with a government-run concern than with RIchard Branson. Now then, how long will it take for the public to get its £50 billion back? Still, more chance of getting that back than all the money that's been pumped into the railways to go to National Express shareholders...

11 February 2008

McCain, Mike's 335, and the small prospect of a backlash

John McCain is looking in a pretty strong position after the Republican Super Tuesday primaries. Although he didn't win most of the Super Tuesday states overwhelmingly, he benefited a lot from a split opposition - Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney were both courting the 'real conservative' vote, but Huckabee had difficulty reaching outside the hardcore evangelical Southern Christian base leaving Romney with a motley crew of everyone else in the Republican party who didn't like McCain. As most of the Republican primaries are 'winner-take-all' this meant McCain piled on delegates - he's now more than halfway towards the nomination.

The immediate result of this was that Romney threw in the towel last Thursday. Actually that's not quite accurate; he's "suspended" his campaign, meaning that his delegates will still be in play at the Republican Convention. I'll explain why this is important in just a second. But overall, many will be glad to see the back of Romney, so let's dwell on his misfortune for a second. A slimy cheeseball punk who made George Bush look like an honest man, he spent extraordinarily heavily to low great effect and his campaign ran second only to Giuliani's in its ineptness. To their credit, the Republican voters seem to know an unelectable turkey when they see one. McCain is definitely their best shot at the White House, despite the fact that he is older than Michael Foot was when he was leading Labour in the 1983 UK election. (Now that is an interesting comparison...)

Something weird happened in the primaries this weekend just gone, though. Mike Huckabee suddenly went back into overdrive, winning in Kansas and Lousiana. Could this be the start of a conservative fightback? Mike certainly knows how to strap on a Gibson (at 00:57 in the video), but I think it's all too late. Still, it all depends on how well organised the Christian anti-McCain hard right is (and how many of them actually don't want McCain to win; Bush and selected other right-wingers have already endorsed him so that may well be enough.) I'm still hoping we'll be hearing that 335 a while longer...

Obama moves into the driving seat...

...or very close to it, anyway. Almost a week since Super Tuesday, and I should have got it together to post earlier, but there was just too much stuff going on. Anyway, waiting a few days allows me to incorporate the results from the Democratic primaries in Maine, Louisiana, Nebraska and Washington. Obama was some way ahead of Hillary Clinton in all four of these and unless Clinton can win by a substantial margin in Ohio and Texas in March, it looks very much like her campaign is gonna run into the ground.

That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that Obama is a shoo-in because a few hundred of the Convention delegates are local party appointees rather than being elected. Clinton is - currently - ahead in terms of the number of these 'super-delegates' who have come out in her favour. But it's impossible to know for sure how they will vote as they are representing no-one but themselves (and maybe the local party bigwigs). It's a weird overlay of cronyism on what is basically a democratic selection process, and it could mean that Clinton gets the nomination despite having less delegates than Obama. Which could tear the party apart at the Convention... the Obama camp must be hoping that Barack gets a clear enough lead by the summer that he won't need to rely on the super-delegates. That may well happen if the pro-Obama swing continues, but that's pure speculation at this stage. Next stops Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. It's a constant gravy train...

06 February 2008

Typing this on my wife's new Eee PC!

Great stuff... the Asus Eee sub-laptop, mentioned last month, arrived today having been ordered a couple of weeks ago from play... I was beginning to think that this was 'vapourware' or that stocks had completely sold out, but then... there it was. I did find a stock-checker in the course of my travels, which might be useful for seeing who has one in stock... don't pay more than about £220 for the 4Gb model though.

It's great. Only 22cm wide... the screen has a diagonal of only 18cm (7" in old money) as there are speakers either side of it, but it's very clear, so seeing what you type isn't a problem. Typing on this keyboard is not the easiest for me but then I have big hands... I could get used to it. Anyway it's my wife who's going to be using this one most of the time so I'll get her opinion soon. I must mention the dinky sequence of 4 LEDs at the bottom right of the computer... the wi-fi one is blue, and looks extremely cool. why is it always the little touches that impress most?

I am gonna put a post together on the Super Tuesday results today or tomorrow but it's looking so tight that I want to wait until all the results are in before making comment.

Eee, by gum.