Monthly Archives: August 2007

Tories (and Lib Dems) in a Pickle over Council Tax

Eric Pickles is getting his knickers in a twist about new government guidelines that suggest that “double glazing, central heating and fixed kitchen units” should all be taken into account when adjusting council tax on the basis that (gasp!) they might affect the value of the property.

The reason for this doesn’t really have much to do with the general evilness of the government. It has far more to do with the fact that, um, council tax is a tax which is at least supposed to be based on a property’s value. And who introduced this state of affairs? Why it would be Mr Pickles and his chums in the Conservative Party.

If the Tories are opposed to property taxes, they should propose scrapping them. To propose never revaluing property again is to say that people who live in houses which have, relatively speaking, devalued in recent years should subsidise the winners of the property market. If you don’t like the invasive nature of government inspections, then this is yet another reason for a land value tax – which isn’t based on things like your kitchen or your windows but on the land values which are externally calculated.

But of course they’d never advocate such a thing: it is hard-wired into their genes, as Lloyd George would be able to tell you. Sadly, the Lib Dems are similarly averse to taxing land values, preferring to tax labour instead, which is why Andrew Stunell here becomes a strange bedfellow with Pickles.

For some sanity, we must cross the Atlantic for a sensible editorial in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Dutiful city taxpayers’ real grievance is with the high percentage of property-tax deadbeats, and with the city for not doing more to collect back taxes, which now amount to more than a half billion dollars, according to Hallwatch.org.

While this new wave of assessments should leave the city property tax system less out of whack, it isn’t the best fix.

The reform commission proposed the better ideas in 2003: A new citywide valuation at full market value (instead of the current, wildly confusing fractional system) and a gradual move to a two-tiered system of taxing land more aggressively than the buildings on it. This “land-value taxation” encourages smart growth while discouraging speculators and slumlords.

Tooth Review: 1550

Despite the name of this blog, I seldom blog much on 2000AD-related matters. I’m going to try to start reviewing each issue from now on. That said, the last time I attempted to do this I ended up finishing Quaequam Blog! 1.0 quite soon afterwards, so the omens are not good!

2000AD Prog 1550

The Cover: Cliff Robinson is always welcome. A refreshingly quirky retro cover which has precisely nothing to do with the contents.

Judge Dredd: Cit Emp. This is a relaunch issue, and this is a very typical relaunch Dredd story. Gordon Rennie is regarded as the best non-Wagner writer for Dredd, although I prefer his own creations more (Caballistics, Inc makes a welcome return next prog).

The object of a relaunch Dredd story is to sum up the city and the main protagonist, preferably in six pages. As such, there are certain boxes you need to tick. Wacky citizens and weird fashions – check. High crime, typically involving guns – check. Dredd arresting someone for some seemingly trivial crime – check. The plot, centring around Dredd being forced to take part in a pilot scheme based on some woolly liberal idea about ‘understanding’ criminals rather than simply smashing their faces in is also a time-honoured Dredd tradition.

In short, there is little new hear, although I’m not sure if I’ve seen Len O’Grady’s artwork before. It’s perfectly adequate, veering into Henry Flint territory occasionally, but a little sketchy in places.

Rennie, via Dredd, gets a bit didactic towards the end and starts sounding a bit John Major-esque with its ‘understand criminals a little less and punish them a little more’ undertones. Overall, nothing new or inspiring, but a neccesary interlude for new readers. Hopefully we’ll get back to the serious business of John Wagner deconstructing the world he’s been developing for 30 years soon.

A.B.C. Warriors: The Volgan War V.2. E.1. Pat Mills has been winning me back over in recent years, after more than a decade of ambivalence. Very much the creative powerhouse of 2000AD (even more so than the more consistent but less strikingly original John Wagner), he lost his way in the 90s and his scripts began sacrificing plot and adventure in favour of promoting his anti-authoritarian, quasi-pagan agenda (an agenda I have at least some sympathy for by the way, but if you insist on lecturing people, at least keep them entertained!). To his credit however, he has begun clawing his way back. I loved the post-Nemesis Deadlock story a few years ago and Savage has just about got the balance right – helped by its deliberate echoes with the ongoing nightmare that has been the Iraq War. The latest Savage run was terrific and he quickly followed it up with the equally good Greysuit and Defoe, which have dominated the comic for the past few months. A.B.C. Warriors though has been his least consistent 2000AD strip (with the possible exception of Slaine), and the first ‘return to Mars’ story was dreadful (the extent to which this should be blamed on Mills or his then-editor is hotly contested).

The Volgan War has thus far been an interesting attempt to take the strip back to its roots, roots which, with Savage have been twisted in all sorts of interesting directions recently. While Savage and its predeccessor Invasion is based in the early 21st century and is concerned with the Volgans’ (read: Russians) occupation of Britain, the original A.B.C. Warriors was set some decades later with the world coming to the end of a world war fought by robots. The strip then quickly relocated to Mars and finished before it ever really got started. The core characters later turned up again in Nemesis the Warlock, set thousands of years later. This current strip is set, story wise, after Nemesis and back on Mars, but as a lot of the intervening strips involved time travel, it is not very clear when it is set. Just to make things even more confusing, so far the story has been told in the form of flashbacks set at the height of the Volgan War (cue: lots more snarky comments on US foreign policy).

Volume 1 was okay, but a little repetitive as three characters each recalled their encounter with the mysterious Zippo and villainous Volkhan during the war. This Volume promises more flashbacks, but also more actual plot set in the present. Too early to say whether it will be another Black Hole or just another Khronicles of Khaos. I was however amused and delighted to read the references to Howard Quartz this week (Quartz was the owner of Ro-Busters in the strip of the same name which A.B.C. Warriors, and specifically their leader Hammer-Stein, spun out of).

Artwise – and this being a Mills strip the art is incredibly relevant – Clint Langley continues to produce the beautiful CGI he perfected on the Slaine Books of Invasions. Objectively, it is undeniably impressive, but it leaves me rather cold emotionally. How he works at such a high rate of output is remarkable and I recall Mark Harrison’s line about speculating whether he is in heaven or hell producing this stuff (Mark Harrison, which I still associate with Travellers, had a nervious breakdown and nearly died producing CGI for his Durham Red run).

In short, thus far this strip hasn’t blown me away, but nor has it pissed me off in the way that so many previous A.B.C. Warriors strips have. Is it too much to ask for it to actually excite me though?

Stone Island: The Harrowers Part One. Stone Island was one of those uniquely 2000AD strips which came out of nowhere last year, appeared to be an odd mixture of The Shawshank Redemption and Porridge and then quickly spun off in a completely different direction, namely Society-style body horror and alien invasion. It was like having a bucket of cold sick poured onto you when you were least expecting it (unlikely as it sounds, I don’t mean that as a criticism). It stretched Simon Davis, and artist that I am rather ambivalent about because of his over-reliance of photo-reference but is now such a 2000AD stalwart that the comic would feel strange without him. And it seemed very un-Iain Edgington.

The “Andy Dufresne” character having been despatched at the end of the first run, this new strip focuses on the “Stanley Wilson Fletcher” character – now transformed into a weird half alien monstrosity – and the only other character to have made it out of the prison alive, a blond doctor called Sara. Set some time after the first strip, the world appears to have now been completely taken over by the alien invasion. So far, we’re in Survivors/Day of the Triffids territory, with the main characters hiding out in the wild, repelling the odd attack from odd-looking nasties. It’s kept bobbing along quite happily by Edgington’s gift for witty dialogue. Again, we will have to seee how it develops.

A final thought on Stone Island: this is prime material for a computer game franchise. Given that 2000AD owners Rebellion have some interest in that area, I would not be at all surprised if we saw a game based on this before too long. And if its a success of course, a film is sure to follow. Could this succeed in being the breakout hit that 2000AD has always promised but never delivered? You read it here first.

London politics in primary colours?

I find it fascinating that Tories appear to have leapt on this speculation that Labour might be attempting to rig the Conservative primary for London Mayor.

If it is true, then Labour is full of even more morons than I thought. You would have thought they learnt from their attempts to stitch up the Today programme Christmas poll in 1996. There is simply no way they could organise a mass entryist campaign without having to show their hand. There’d have to be a paper trail, an email trail… you know the drill.

And they’d have to be pretty sure they were able to get tens and tens of thousands of people to do it, each one willing to cough up £1.50. Ten thousand Labour supporters registering would make the Conservative Party £15k, and Labour would probably need more than that to assail Boris. Just how much cash is Labour planning to plough into the Tories’ coffers in the name of a dodgy stitch up that might not even work anyway?

In fact, Labour would have to be beyond stupid to try such a thing, notwithstanding the actions of a few mavericks (I note that this particular maverick is one “John Harris” – presumably the journalist who is at best semi-detached from the Labour Party). I simply can’t believe it.

Scratch beneath the surface though, and what are the underlying messages of this story? Firstly, Labour is terrified of Boris Johnson and want to avoid a fair fight at all costs. Secondly, the Conservatives are running a primary that any Londoner can take part in. Thirdly, all the other candidates in the primary are no hopers. In short, all the messages in this story are unequivocally good news for the Tories, and Boris Johnson in particular.

And of course, accusations about grand conspiracies of which there is no evidence whatsoever for is something that at least one Conservative MP seems to specialise in (I could of course mention Lord Rothermere and the Elder Protocols of Zion at this point and talk about ignoble Tory traditions, but I suspect that would upset some sensitive souls).

Two final points: I’m glad to see that the primary is being run by the Electoral Reform Society, so either way the reform movement makes a buck out of this. Secondly, if you have a vote, Vote Ewok. You know it makes sense.

Those Redwood tax cuts – a question of priorities

I’ve been going down the list of tax cuts that John Redwood is proposing. Scrapping inheritance tax, lowering corporation tax, raising the super tax threshold, restricting capital gains… to be brutally honest, I regard all of these as good things in principle, but even leaving aside the affordability issue, how can they be said to be priorities?

Inheritance tax, for example, certainly does hit a lot of middle-income families these days. But what would you prefer? A tax cut on your estate when you die, or a tax cut on your income now? I know that I for one would prefer the latter. Happily, I’d also argue it is better for both the economy and society more generally.

As I’ve argued before, the accretion of wealth within an ever declining number of families is not a particularly healthy thing for our society. It creates a situation whereby, because of historical accident, some individuals end up higher up on the ladder than others. If that wealth is bound up in property, it is a finite resource and our existing financial system creates a situation whereby the more property you own, the easier it is to acquire more. As it is a finite resource, that means that, over time, private ownership becomes nothing more than a dream for more and more people and an underclass emerges.

To a certain extent you might argue that is inevitable, but if anything ought to be a candidate for taxation, it is this. Indeed, the creation of IHT and other fiscal tools in the last century have done much to create a more egalitarian society which we now seem to be slowly slipping away from.

IHT’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t do this terribly well. Nothing a half-competent financial adviser can’t wriggle around any way. There are better ways of taxing wealth such as a land value tax. Needless to say, this isn’t top of Redwood’s wish list.

For me, the “Competitive Challenge” is to ensure that the fruits of people’s labours and entrepreneurship are kept by the individual to as great an extent as possible. IHT doesn’t make our economy uncompetitive; income tax does. The point at which the 40p rate for income tax kicks in isn’t the main issue: the 20p rate and the level of personal allowance are. And then, of course, there’s VAT (which Tories historically seem to love).

But if I don’t understand the economic case for Redwood’s priorities, I understand the political case even less.

It’s a gift to the Lib Dems: not only are our policies better targeted at people at the lower end of the scale (I’d go further, but that’s another issue), we explain how we will pay for it. Redwood’s case, by contrast, is tax cuts for the relatively well off, paid for by vague, amorphous cuts in ‘red tape’. I for one would relish that particular fight.

Gideonics

Jonathan Calder points us to a fascinatingly revealing quote from Gideon Osborne:

“Of course we want a very dynamic and successful City of London. But Britain cannot just be the City of London and then 50-odd million people living off the back of those who work in financial services.”

This line has clearly been carefully crafted to simultaneously look like a genuine concern for the poor, while making it absolutely clear to the city that the Tories not only are not having a go at it, but consider it to be the main source of wealth. According to this rubric, a speculator who has been profiteering on the selling on of financial products based on unsecured loans to the poorest in society is creating wealth, while someone who works a 48 hour week in a factory (longer, if Gideon and John Redwood have anything to do with it) is a parasite. The conclusion is that the rich City stoke broker must pay less tax while the “recipient” (i.e. everyone else) should be prepared to make up the shortfall.

This really is the world turned upside down. I’m looking forward to the Jock Coats response.

Ah! That delicate frisson of A-level result lesbionics!

I’ve just realised that its taken me until 4pm on A-level results day before seeing my first A-level result blonde (on the front cover of the Evening Standard).

A quick skip around the news websites:

  • The BBC has four multi-ethnic girls jumping for joy. Only one of them, however, might be blonde (hard to tell). Cliche rating: 4/5.
  • The Times opts for a classic: two cute blondes. Shame they aren’t hugging, but you can’t have everything. As an afterthought it gives you an alternative picture of some boys, but in case your heterosexuality is challenged by this, click again and you find a picture of a cute girl running, wearing a t-shirt that highlights her breasts. Cliche rating: 5/5.
  • The Telegraph keeps it simple: blondes; hugging; smiles; waving paper. For England and St George! Cliche rating: 5/5.
  • The Guardian relies on the same levitating multi-ethnic girls as the BBC, and then only temporarily on the front page. It’ll probably be gone by the time you read this. Bloody commies. I bet that girl in the headscarf has got an A-level in bomb-making. Or something. Cliche rating: 4/5.
  • The Independent have two girls looking pensively at their results. There isn’t even the merest hint that they may have snogged once (on the other hand, that may be why they look so uncomfortable). Weird. At least they’re girls. Cliche rating: 3/5.
  • The Sun: Mickey Mouse breasts girl again. Cliche rating: 4/5.
  • The Mirror: a black girl. Hard to say if she’s laughing or crying. She doesn’t even have highlights. Cliche rating: 3/5.
  • The Daily Mail has a picture of boys! Disgusting! Paul Dacre is a national disgrace! Children will be corrupted. Cliche rating: 2/5.
  • Fortunately, the Daily Express saves the day with Mickey Mouse breasts (again!) AND… wait for it… TWINS! HUGGING! Result!!! Cliche rating: 5/5.

They really ought to officially designate today as Groundhog Day. Here’s to doing it all again in twelve months time.

Racist or clown?

Just a bit of housekeeping from my appearance on 18DS’ Vox Politix on Monday (it’s still available to view at the moment), to follow up on an issue that has been bugging me.

Caroline Hunt took great exception to my reference to the various attacks that have been made about Boris Johnson’s views on black people in recent weeks. To be clear, I didn’t call him a racist; that isn’t an argument I’m particularly interested in having (I note however, that it was an argument the Tories were jonesing for a few months ago). What I was trying to say before we were moved on is that public figures are accountable for the words they say and write and that it is thus entirely justifiable for political opponents to attempt to make capital out of them.

Johnson’s feeble jokes about ‘watermelon smiles’ and ‘picaninnies’ may not count as explicit racism, but they are appallingly insensitive. It simply isn’t good enough for him to say that he didn’t expect to be taken seriously when he wrote that article while simultaneously demanding that we take him seriously now. There are far more extreme examples of politicians’ utterances being used against them. Jody Dunn springs to mind, and compared to her experience Johnson has got off lightly.

His views on the Macpherson report are more interesting. After 8 years, it is time we cast over this report with a critical eye. Its definition of ‘institutionalised racism’ and that effectively racism in the eye of the beholder are problematic for any liberal. It is hard to see what progress we have made in race relations over the past decade. But, to be brutally honest, it is a third rail issue and one that it will be difficult to tackle without being portrayed in the most unflattering terms. Frankly, if Johnson was serious about wanting to do something about them now, having a back-catalogue of less-than-nuanced articles behind him is not going to help.

The question is, will Johnson make anything of this issue in his campaign, or is he going to shy away from it completely? It will be a tough call. His rivals will pore over his every word and be eager to make hay if they can. If he tries to sweep it to one side on the other hand, then it will look as if he lacks the courage of his convictions; not a good thing to be labeled in a campaign if you are also a dilettante who has cultivated such a comical public image. And there’s a serious democratic issue too: if he runs away from the issue, we can have no idea what he would do if he got elected.

Ultimately, Johnson’s problem is not that he is a ‘colourful’ character. British politics could do with more mavericks and he is surely that. His problem is that he lacks authenticity. His stock in trade is vagueness and it will be tough for him to present himself as anything other than even more vague every time someone trots out another potentially embarrassing thing he wrote or said in the past. He’s also the top hatted toff to end all top hatted toffs. For a certain demographic that is screamingly hilarious and endearing. The same demographic thought that voting for Robert Kilroy-Silk would be a good idea and look how that turned out. Even if he won, he’s in danger of making the Conservatives look less like a serious party of government than they were before the election.

Scottish Lib Dems don’t need Perfidious Albion butting in

Alex Salmond’s White Paper on the future governance of Scotland has brought forth another round of English Lib Dems (and supporters of other parties such as Pravdale) bemoaning the fact that the Scottish Liberal Democrats are ‘undemocratically’ not backing the SNP’s support for a referendum. As I’ve said in the comments on Lib Dem Voice, this is a ridiculous argument as the Scots both voted against independence in the last Scottish Parliament election by two-thirds and reject independence by the same proportion in opinion polls.

But what annoys me most of all is that these people have ignored what the Scottish Liberal Democrats are actually calling for. What they are arguing for is not the status quo, or even for their own Steel Commission to be introduced verbatim. Instead, they are joining the growing call for a new Constitutional Convention, independent of Government and Parliament, to sort the issue out.

They aren’t alone either. The campaign for a Scottish Constitutional Convention is backed by a growing number of Scots. Iain MacWhirter made similar noises on CommentIsFree yesterday, as did Unlock Democracy.

The Scottish Lib Dems could do what Perfidious Albion is advising them to do, go meekly along with a referendum on independence that the majority of Scots don’t want, wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers money in the process and embedding the idea that Scottish politics is entrenched into unionism versus seperatism with the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dems squashed together in an impromptu alliance on one end of the spectrum. Or, they could stick by their instincts and hold out for a process that has a strong chance of getting what the majority of Scots do appear to support: greater powers for the Scottish Parliament. In the process, they can put clear distance between both the the SNP and the nay-sayers within the Tories and Labour and present themselves as the champion of centrist Scottish politics.

When I see these two options before me it looks like a no-brainer, so what am I missing?

Foolball economics

I’m confused about what Don Foster wants us to do about the price of football tickets in the UK:

“This just goes to show that rip-off Britain is alive and well.

“If European clubs can keep their prices down, there’s no reason why English clubs can’t follow their lead.

“Despite the recent enormous TV cash windfall and the promise to freeze ticket prices, many clubs are still massively overcharging their fans.

“Last season we saw empty seats at premiership grounds – when will clubs wake up to the fact that ordinary fans are the lifeblood of the game?”

Now, I should preface this by mentioning that football is not my greatest passion, but isn’t all this just a consequence of the business model adopted by football clubs in this country, as opposed to, say, Spain?

UK football, at least at the top level, isn’t a sport, it’s a business. Global brands compete with each other on a world stage, trying to attract the attention of Indians and the Chinese as much as English football fans. Foster is just plain wrong to claim that English fans are the ‘lifeblood’ of English football; if that was how it works, this wouldn’t be an issue. Lowering prices would hurt them in two ways: firstly it would diminish the amount they could extract from TV companies (if people can just turn up to watch a football match locally, complete with all the ambience of a live match, why would they bother watching it on TV?); secondly, it would harm their sales of corporate seating. You can be sure that the price they charge for tickets maximises their profits.

Football fans know all this, and while they like to whinge they are always ultimately happy to cough up, so what’s the problem?

If you do have a problem with it, the answer is very simple: switch your support from a team in the Premiership to a team lower down in the pecking order. People are doing this. On the other hand, if you want soulless corporate football, you have to pay for it.

Don Foster’s intervention implies, although does not state explicitly, that the government ought to do something about it; otherwise what does it have to do with a DCMS spokesperson? His allusion to “rip off Britain” is just plain daft: you can’t simply ‘buy’ a team in mainland Europe in the way that you could buy a car to avoid the over-pricing that was rife in the motor industry a few years ago.

There are lots of things that you could argue the market cannot adequately manage. Football is not one of them. The fact that most fans are chumps is another matter.