Money, Money, Money

29 September, 2007

As speculation grows in the UK that our political season may well be drawing to a closethe US political classis also marking timeas the fundraising quarter closes and campaigns have to report how much money they have raised. Subscribers to US political email lists will have noticed a flurry of recent activity. The DCCC is impersonating Karl Rove. Obama’s current supporters are offering to double the value of new donations as tehy strive to reach 350,000 donor to the campaign. Bill was offering a night ion front of the box with a bowl of chips for 6 lucky donors before Hillary put her foot down and substituted carrots.

The rythem of political life is diefferent on this side of the pond. Spending by UK political parties has been capped though not so low that they don’t have to worry about raising millions. Rightly or wrongly there is a perception amongst the public that large donations mean influence. For political parties that had their glory days in the 1950’s the downward trend of political activism means they are more reliant on megadonors than the puublic would like.

I think there is a common challenge bridging the Atlantic. Namely how does the political class empower ordinary voters and indeed non voters so they they feel they have a stake in the system that governs them?

 More later ….

People in power today have less say over what the general population see, hear and believe than ever before. This is not just about declining trust in politicians, the papers and mainstream TV though that is undeniably a factor. For instance any politician running a health emergency has to rely on doctors to get information out to the public because the public have a much greater trust of the medical than the political profession.

Today we have the technology so that even people with pretty poor computer literacy can blog or watch video on the web. A little more understanding of the technological processes involved and you have your own online TV channel like 18 Doughty street or CampaignTV. I think it is fair to say that both of these stations have a ideological view point that they wish to push in much to same way as the Guardian or the Telegraph have their own world view.

So with the technological possibilities that we now have there will be a much greater multiplicity of channels. There will be channels for cyclists or political junkies or classical music lovers or hoodies. It wont be so much broadcasting as narrowcasting with the number of truly significant national moments, the sense of shared experience amongst the great multitude of the population, less than before.

Freedom of speech will not only be a central virtue to our common culture, lauded even by the ruling class but will become an unstoppable phenomenon. For instance even the state censorship of the internet by the Chinese communists is far from the total blackout that they would want us to believe. People have an fundamental desire to say what is important to them to other people and the technology today is such that government will find freedom of speech increasingly difficult to control

Truth was what used to be defined by a few newspaper and television editors and the rest of us would passively accept what was dished out. Today and into the future things are going to change. Truth will become increasingly contested as more people have access to means of broadcasting their views.

The real change is from a world where we have to get the permission of a publishing company or editor to get our views out to a world where the biggest challenge is to get people to look at what we have done. This to my mind is not going to make for an environment where cool and reasoned debate is prized above all else.

Indeed it will be an environment where Chinese whispers are played out on a grand scale, where one persons version of events will be around the world before another persons has got its boots on.

Legal redress will be available to those who are willing to pay ever increasing sums to the legal profession whatever the merits of there case. The rest of us will have to rely on our own freedom of speech to protect our reputations. Apparently this is progress and indeed it is of a sort.

Alisher Usmanov

27 September, 2007

Reposted from Craig Murray (Original post date was 6th september 2007)

“I thought I should make my views on Alisher Usmanov quite plain to you. You are unlikely to see much plain talking on Usmanov elsewhere in the media becuase he has already used his billions and his lawyers in a pre-emptive strike. They have written to all major UK newspapers, including the latter:

“Mr Usmanov was imprisoned for various offences under the old Soviet regime. We wish to make it clear our client did not commit any of the offences with which he was charged. He was fully pardoned after President Mikhail Gorbachev took office. All references to these matters have now been expunged from police records . . . Mr Usmanov does not have any criminal record.” Let me make it quite clear that Alisher Usmanov is a criminal. He was in no sense a political prisoner, but a gangster and racketeer who rightly did six years in jail. The lawyers cunningly evoke “Gorbachev”, a name respected in the West, to make us think that justice prevailed. That is completely untrue.

Usmanov’s pardon was nothing to do with Gorbachev. It was achieved through the growing autonomy of another thug, President Karimov, at first President of the Uzbek Soviet Socilist Republic and from 1991 President of Uzbekistan. Karimov ordered the “Pardon” because of his alliance with Usmanov’s mentor, Uzbek mafia boss and major international heroin overlord Gafur Rakimov. Far from being on Gorbachev’s side, Karimov was one of the Politburo hardliners who had Gorbachev arrested in the attempted coup that was thwarted by Yeltsin standing on the tanks outside the White House.

Usmanov is just a criminal whose gangster connections with one of the World’s most corrupt regimes got him out of jail. He then plunged into the “privatisation” process at a time when gangster muscle was used to secure physical control of assets, and the alliance between the Russian Mafia and Russian security services was being formed.

Usmanov has two key alliances. he is very close indeed to President Karimov, and especially to his daughter Gulnara. It was Usmanov who engineered the 2005 diplomatic reversal in which the United States was kicked out of its airbase in Uzbekistan and Gazprom took over the country’s natural gas assets. Usmanov, as chairman of Gazprom Investholdings paid a bribe of $88 million to Gulnara Karimova to secure this. This is set out on page 366 of Murder in Samarkand.

Alisher Usmanov had risen to chair of Gazprom Investholdings because of his close personal friendship with Putin, He had accessed Putin through Putin’s long time secretary and now chef de cabinet, Piotr Jastrzebski. Usmanov and Jastrzebski were roommates at college. Gazprominvestholdings is the group that handles Gazproms interests outside Russia, Usmanov’s role is, in effect, to handle Gazprom’s bribery and sleaze on the international arena, and the use of gas supply cuts as a threat to uncooperative satellite states.

Gazprom has also been the tool which Putin has used to attack internal democracy and close down the independent media in Russia. Gazprom has bought out – with the owners having no choice – the only independent national TV station and numerous rgional TV stations, several radio stations and two formerly independent national newspapers. These have been changed into slavish adulation of Putin. Usmanov helped accomplish this through Gazprom. The major financial newspaper, Kommersant, he bought personally. He immediately replaced the editor-in-chief with a pro-Putin hack, and three months later the long-serving campaigning defence correspondent, Ivan Safronov, mysteriously fell to his death from a window.

All this, both on Gazprom and the journalist’s death, is set out in great detail here: http://www.craigmurray.co.uk/archives/2007/06/russian_journal.html

Usmanov is also dogged by the widespread belief in Uzbekistan that he was guilty of a particularly atrocious rape, which was covered up and the victim and others in the know disappeared. The sad thing is that this is not particularly remarkable. Rape by the powerful is an everyday hazard in Uzbekistan, again as outlined in Murder in Samarkand page 120. If anyone has more detail on the specific case involving Usmanov please add a comment.

I reported back in 2002 or 2003 in an Ambassadorial top secret telegram to the Foreign Office that Usmanov was the most likely favoured successor of President Karimov as totalitarian leader of Uzbekistan. I also outlined the Gazprom deal (before it happened) and the present by Usmanov to Putin (though in Jastrzebski’s name) of half of Mapobank, a Russian commercial bank owned by Usmanov. I will never forget the priceless reply from our Embassy in Moscow. They said that they had never even heard of Alisher Usmanov, and that Jastrzebski was a jolly nice friend of the Ambassador who would never do anything crooked.

Sadly, I expect the football authorities will be as purblind. Football now is about nothing but money, and even Arsenal supporters – as tight-knit and homespun a football community as any – can be heard saying they don’t care where the money comes from as long as they can compete with Chelsea.

I fear that is very wrong. Letting as diseased a figure as Alisher Usmanov into your club can only do harm in the long term.”

New Europe?

26 September, 2007

It has been an axiom of recent political times that the United Kingdom has a more successful economy than that of continental Europe and is probably the central argument against British membership of the Euro. In particular our flexible labour market is held up as an example to the rest of Europe despite its greater inequality. With the ability of employers to hire and fire at will, it is argued creates a more dynamic economy and increases employment overall.Chatham house international economics programme has brought out an interesting report called Unlocking the Eurozone’s Potential which paints a different and more well informed picture of economic conditions across Europe.The real negative economic effects of unemployment can be felt across the wider economy as it hits the confidence of consumers who then restrict the amount of spending they are prepared to undertake. This could be why consumer spending is only two thirds of the rate of the US and why the savings rate is much higher in Europe.Europe also has a problem with its lower level of productivity as the report notes “Encouraging a trend towards more job switching to higher value added sectors and companies could boost productivity by perhaps 10–20% over the next decade, with growth at higher rates of around 2% or more over the medium to long run.”

Part of the problem is with how employees view rising productivity, namely that it is more work for the same pay. This is a perfectly fair criticism in many cases but on a wider level in the economy the effect of slave driving bosses is much less significant than the structural elements that make up an industry’s productivity. As the report says: “Productivity growth at the macro level is driven by improvements in the structure of the economy as well as by individuals working harder. A better quality environment and more prosperous companies will help boost the quality of the workforce and the chances of the Eurozone sustaining productivity and GDP growth over the longer run.”

So the message is. If we want to have a successful economy we need to go higher up the added value chain. More skills, more research and development, more investment in technology. So the government is right to have the 50% target for 18-30’s going through higher education but universities have a duty to provide courses that will seriously add value to the employability of their students.

Small is beautiful

25 September, 2007

It must have been difficult writing Gordon’s first speech to party conference as Prime Minister. All that dead air to fill without mentioning the date of the next general election. Then there is the need to find some new policy announcement.  This time the environment has benefited from the party conference tradition as the number of new “eco-towns” the government is set to see built doubles to 10. It appears there is some work to go on the fine details of what these towns with “low and zero emission homes” will look like. A key test of actually how green these eco towns are will be the extent to which they use environmentally friendly forms of  decentralised energy.

What is decentralised energy? 

It’s environmentally friendly energy that is locally produced to where it will be used. It actually covers a fairly wide variety of renewable technologies from solar panels on the school roofs, to windmills on houseboats, to geothermal boreholes at Buckingham palace or micro hydroelectricity

What is wrong with the centralised electricity system we have at the moment?

Actually lots. Only 22% of the energy input into the electricity system is actually used, The rest is lost during inefficient generation, transmission over vast distances through the national grid or in domestic energy inefficiency. When it comes to coal or gas powered power stations this represents a terrible waste of a finite natural resource.

The current system engenders a culture of energy passivity amongst the population. We just pay the bill when it arrives or even better leave it to Direct Debit. It puts power in the hands of large energy companies rather than empowering the consumer to think about the energy they use.

The technology used in centralised generation tends to be old hat and damaging to environment. Coal, gas, nuclear all have their problems. Environmental damage from the former two and nuclear waste that last centuries. Imagine if the Romans had had nuclear we would still be clearing up after them. Not intergenerational justice in my book.

Centralised electricity systems are also much more vulnerable to disruption in a variety of forms. I still don’t think that we are taking the threat of a truck bomb or plane attacking a nuclear power station seriously enough. It is also inherent in a centralised system that adverse weather events, which with global warming will increase in frequency, cause more damage when power-lines supplying thousands of homes can be brought down in one go.

Gas makes up 39% of our primary energy and oil 35%. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, UAE, Russia and Algeria are amongst the countries that are the world’s biggest producers of oil and gas. It can hardly be beneficial to our national interest to be reliant for a very significant section of our energy supplies from countries which have a serious track record of authoritarianism, war, terrorism and human rights abuse.

 What are the benefits of changing to decentralised energy?

It’s greener. Renewable technology by definition wont run out causing shortages and price inflation, it also doesn’t emit greenhouses gases that would damage the ozone layer and cause global warming 

It’s more efficient power. This is for two main reasons. Firstly the power that is generated is not dissipated by putting it through the national grid. Secondly the change from being a passive consumer to an active producer will mean more people taking an interest in their use of energy and consequent improvement in its efficiency.

Energy security. Decentralised energy is simply the most secure form of energy. Impervious to foreign interference, more resistant to extreme weather events, a target poor environment for terrorists and immune from fuel protester style civil disobedience. 

Local government could agree an emissions target for their area in agreement with Whitehall who could set a national minimum floor. It would then be left to local government to devise ways to meet the target which national government could incentivise. It would be a good combination of national responsibility and local autonomy.

There are also serious financial benefits as there is no need to construct a massive transmission network. Energy policies incorporating decentralised cogeneration, renewables and energy efficiency measures could deliver global cost savings of the order of $2.7 trillion as against an estimated expenditure of $16 trillion to 2030 under the business-as-usual model. While this scenario predicts that generation costs would be higher given higher proportions of renewable generation, it also anticipates savings of 40% in transmission costs and 36% in distribution costs – potentially cutting overall costs by as much as 20% compared to the business-as-usual scenario.

What should the government be doing?

First up the government should produce a Decentralised Energy White Paper. It is important that the government show convincing leadership over the direction of travel that it wants to move energy policy in. Both the industry and more importantly the people would see substantial changes to how they use energy for which they should be properly prepared and support won.

All new building should have DE technology of one sort or another. I don’t think the government should get to caught up in some debate of solar panels verses windmills. People and companies are perfectly able to decide what technology would meet their needs. Governments role should be to insist on the standards that we require to meet our environment and social justice obligations.

All electricity suppliers to be required to purchase surplus electricity from domestic power generators, at rates that will ensure the take-off of domestic generation.

Inefficient, centralised power stations to be heavily penalised to reflect the damage they cause and to ensure that the most polluting are closed. One way to do this would be to tighten up the European Emissions Trading Scheme. In addition, supplementary fiscal measures could be enacted at UK level, such as a tax on waste heat.

Presently domestic users pay alot more for there energy than industrial users. If we forced energy companies to charge the same price for all their users this would instantly create an industry for environmental power generation for industrial sites as making your own would be cheaper than buying it in.

 We should put power in the hands of the consumer. Local sustainable electricity systems to be encouraged through the removal of current limits on the development of private wires. Limits on the export of power from these sustainable local systems should be raised. Together these measures would enable electricity consumers increasingly to choose clean local power over dirty centralised power.

Reform of Ofgem. It needs to be less obsessed with the wholesale price of energy and more concerned with the total cost that consumers pay which included the cost of transmission through the grid an which decentralised energy would largely remove. It should also seek to change the market removing barriers to DE.

 Hattip Greenpeace

Road to nowhere

24 September, 2007

The Department of Transport needs a major sort out if we‘re going to keep Britain moving.

The Department of Transport’s response to the changing transport and environmental needs of the nation make the turning circle of a supertanker look sprightly. There is an institutional unwillingness in the department over many years to embrace radical solutions to Britain‘s transport needs. Alternatives are met with the haughty distain that flat earthers once handed out to heretics. Labour came to power ambivalent to road building especially with the conservatives experience of road protesters but now has a road building programme costing billion after billion despite a remarkable lack of evidence of its effectiveness at reducing congestion. Yes Minister may be off air but Sir Humphrey is alive and well in the Department of Transport.

There is also failure to see transport connected with other policy agendas. Meeting Britain’s environmental commitments seems to have passed the Department of Transport by. According to DEFRA transport is the only sector where emissions of greenhouse gases are set to rise between 2000 and 2020. The only thing that gets recycled at the department of transport is the policies of road building and airport expansion.Similarly cycling and walking have a huge role to play in tackling obesity as well as transport. Not that you would know about that from the departments spending priorities which prizes major infrastructure projects over inexpensive alternatives like safe cycle routes which not only reduce congestion but also have immense health and environmental benefits.  

So what should be done? The Highways Agency, a redoubt of immense profligacy, should be abolished. No more road eye wateringly expensive widening schemes at £1000 per inch like the M6. Instead a Highways Safety and Maintenance Agency should be responsible for the upkeep of the present roads network but crucially take away the institutional incentive to ever greater road building.On road pricing what we need is not piecemeal one off solutions like the congestion charge but a national system locally controlled by councils who have the specific knowledge of their areas. If it works for London then the rest of the country should be able to benefit as well. Sure the people who signed the anti road pricing petition on the Downing Street website aren’t going to like it but their not going to like ever increasing congestion, delay and illness inducing pollution either. This government set up and spends £10 million per year running Cycling England. This should be welcomed but it would only buy 250 meters of a fourth lane on the M6. Holland has a cycling culture that plays a large part in explaining why they have half the rate of obesity that the British do. It’s not expensive either especially when the burden on the NHS is taken into account and we should shamelessly emulate them.Post Hatfield the railways have had a successful few years with both passenger numbers and safety up. Overcrowding, a problem of success rather than failure, remains particularly at peak times. Ruth Kelly’s recent statement to the Commons setting out the Rail White Paper had much to commend it not least an extra 1300 carriages and some significant station capacity developments but it was a no to high speed rail or electrification. If continental Europe can have a large and growing high speed rail network, if China and Japan can invest in it as well why can’t the country that invented the railway in the first place not get the significant environmental and economic benefits of high speed rail other than on Eurostar?

When New Labour came to power it set out to be radical and bold but when it comes to buses it has been New Labour’s bete noire Ken Livingstone who has in London greatly improved bus usage against an unfavourable national picture. London buses should be used as a model for the rest of the country and the Oystercard scheme made national.

Domestic air travel on a small island like ours and private flights are an ecological absurdity and ought to be very heavily penalised by the Chancellor. Government is able to regulate the numbers of domestic flights, it should also be willing. After all the world will not end if people can’t fly from London to Manchester every week but it may do if everyone does.

We need a new covenant between people and government on transport. It should cost more to take environmentally inferior forms of transport such as the private car or domestic flights. In return we will dramatically improve the rail network with high speed lines, metro systems will become a common feature in our towns and cities, high quality bus services will be plentiful and our cycling and walking facilities will make even the Dutch green with envy. We have the ideas and resources to reduce congestion, protect the environment and tackle obesity all we need now is the political courage.