It’s my money.


Why George Osborne’s pension shift is a big effing deal, and what Labour should do about it.

Like most middle-aged middle class lefties, I’ve been watching Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle these past few weeks. In the latest episode, Lee talks about taxation, (perhaps elliptically referring to the tax affairs of other comedians). Lee sets observations about the good fortune, social networks, value of insurance and public services that might lead a popular comedian to be making good money against a short, brutal response. ‘No, the money’s mine‘.

What makes this funny, and uncomfortable, and true, is not that this is a ludicrous, childish position (though rationally, of course it is). It’s that this is an impulse that Lee and his nice, left-leaning liberal audience can recognise in themselves.

It’s mine. My money.

Now we turn to pensions, and George Osborne’s decision to end the pensions industry as we know it by no longer requiring the purchase of an annuity with a retirees pension pot.

The arguments for are effectively that we should trust people to do wisely with their pension funds, and not force them to invest in a financial instrument they dislike, or which may not suit them individually. Further, in Australia, we don’t see evidence of pensioner extravagance or wastefulness.

The argument against is that this decision will open the pensions open up to mis-selling, to a moral hazard – if you spend, or are conned out of, or are simply unfortunate and lose your savings, and are then reliant on the state and demanding of its resources, do we really believe a future government will turn you away? Further, does the UK economy really need an injection of capital into, in all likelihood, the Housing market?

These are serious, significant policy arguments. They matter. They are important. But there is a risk, on the left that in paying attention to these significant issues, we ignore how people will feel about this.

What they’ll feel, I suspect is: It’s my money. Mine. The money’s mine.

Why on earth shouldn’t they?

I suspect right now, people in their late forties or fifties with no huge savings or assets except a modest pension pot built up are thinking, perhaps for the first time, about what they could do with it.

Maybe they would like to buy a house, maybe rent it out at first, and then let one of their grandkids live in it at a reduced rent while they save up for a house of their own. Maybe they think the annuities they have to buy can be outperformed. Maybe they’d like to sell their house, take their pension to buy a cottage to let, and go and live cheaply in a warm, growing economy, hoping good returns on the holiday home will give them a decent income.

Does a politician want to stand in the way of this? Do you want to be the person who interrupts this conversation to say. ‘Actually, No, you shouldn’t do any of that. I won’t let you.‘.

I doubt it. This is why Osborne’s move is a big effing deal, politically.

For the first time since the decision to sell off Council houses to their tenants at a discount, the left is being invited to stand between British families and their aspirations.

So what should Labour do about this?

I’d argue the council house sale offers a near-perfect model, politically.

The idea of selling council houses to occupants, and then using receipts to fund new social housing is an entirely social democratic one. People who have been helped by society, but now have a good income can use their prosperity to both create value for themselves, and create a resource that can be used to help others in need of social housing. Yes, they get a subsidy, but then they’d be getting a subsidy from living in a council house anyway, while another family is forced to stay in more expensive housing, probably at state expense.

What’s more through such a programme, you organically create the holy grail of mixed communities. It’s a great idea.

On the other hand, you could hoover up all the money you raise, spend it on tax cuts and completely shaft the next twenty years of housing policy.

There is quite a big difference between the two. It is the difference between a social democratic idea, and a bad idea.

The same goes here, in pensions.

There is an enormous difference between a pensions policy that allows people to withdraw their pension pot to use in a variety of ways, while offering security and encouraging long-term thinking, and one that opens the door to a spiv-topia of mis-selling, dodgy prospectuses, get rich quick schemes and huge commissions.

A strong pensions system would allow people to invest, but offer protections to those who invest their pension funds.

It would incentivise investing for a good annual return, perhaps by offering an advantage by doing so, and it would regulate the financial products offered to people withdrawing pensions tightly. This is more or less what the IMF is saying to Australia, to improve their model.1

So where should Labour be?

First, strong support for the principle of freedom to use your pension savings as they wish. It’s your money.

Second, an absolute conviction that financial markets which have time and again let down people with pensions, should not be ever allowed to do so again. No-one should be allowed to rip you off.

Third, an emphasis on security and long-termism. Your pensions savings should be working for you and your family for the rest of your life, not gambled with or skimmed off in charges and commissions.

This will involve creating a pensions system that both allows savers the freedom to invest and protects them from the rapacious by placing obligations on those who wish to invest that money on their behalf, while supporting those who are considering withdrawing from their pensions to invest on their own behalf. It would involve mechanisms that allow freedom to withdraw and invest, but incentivise income provision well beyond eighty.

How could such a system be designed, one that both gives savers freedoms and protections?

Why not start by asking the Labour prime minister who successfully introduced such a system to devise a model for the UK?

After all, it was Paul Keating who developed the very similar superannuation system for Australian people, and he is a consistent voice on improving the Australian system today, as people live ever longer.

Why not  invite him to lead a ‘Keating Commission’ to consider how removing obligations to buy annuities can be combined with creating a system that protects savers, and builds long-term stability for both the economy and individual families?

The Labour party should never get between British people and their aspirations.

However,  it should always get between them and those who would rip them off, short change them, or disguise a permanent loss with a temporary gain.

By being for both freedom to choose and freedom from exploitation, Labour can be true to our values and to those whose aspirations we exist to support.


(Oh, and one more thing. If you think about it, this reform effectively converts pension pots into just another form of future savings. So why should this one particular form of saving attract suh a huge tax benefit for higher rate taxpayers? Doesn’t this, at least theoretically, open the door to a consideration of what the appropriate tax treatment is for those saving for a pension, and the balance of advantages that currently exist. One might argue, that there should be greater encouragement for those on lower incomes to save for the future, not for the richest. Perhaps this is an issue any Keating commission could consider? It might even lead a labour government in a happy position of offering most people an extra incentive to save)

  1. The IMF advice is really interesting: It is

    • The super system needs to have a relatively high degree of guidance and constraints (including good default systems) in order to protect people from unwise or excessively short-term actions. For example, it needs to

    a) require long-term savings with restricted access prior to retirement

    b) provide income in retirement

    c) reduce risks during both the accumulation and retirement phases

    • There needs to be access to deferred annuities – purchase of which could start in either the accumulation or draw-down stage. This will necessitate the removal of prudential supervision and tax regulatory roadblocks in order to allow the offering of deferred annuities in either the accumulation or draw-down phase.
    • Incentives and default settings should be the initial approach to obtaining the desired outcomes. However, if such arrangements are not effective in producing desired outcomes then consideration may need to be given to introducing a degree of compulsion with respect to the taking of income streams in retirement. For instance, this could be achieved through the application of tax penalties with respect to taking benefits in any one of the following:
    • as a lump sum;
    • in the form of a non-complying income stream
    • if there is non-compliance with either the minimum or maximum drawdown factor of a complying account based income stream.

    It’s not at all hard to read this as advice to row back from a market-free for all to a carrot and stick approach to encourage savings retention and annual income []

If I were Labour leader I’d say…


Yesterday I wrote on this blog about the Budget, Labour’s response to it and the challenges presented thereby. This post was then put up over the Guardian, where it received the enthusiastic approbation a Blairite hack can expect from the online readers of that fine newspaper.

To be fair, much of the commentary revolved around a clumsy and ill-judged extended metaphor I had bodged together. The critics were right to sneer at this, and I can only grovelingly apologise.

Among the deserved brickbats (and warming praise from the cognoscenti who agree with me) was one question I thought was particularly fair. Although I had critiqued the Tories, and said things would be terrible after the next election, I had not said in that article what I thought a Labour leader should say, at least if they hoped to somehow win voter approval, rather than sneer at the concerns of voters. I thought it was a good point, so adapted from my reply, here is my quick attempt at a ‘narrative for tough times’, or ‘more or less I’d be saying if by some horrid quirk of fortune, I was suddenly made Labour leader’.

“The next five years are going to be pretty hard, whoever is in power.

We had the crash, and then the recovery was choked off, and now, when the economy is finally recovering, we’re still heavily in debt, our growth is being driven in an unsustainable way by house prices and lower saving, and the pain we know is coming to reduce the deficit has now been put off until after 2015.

Want the truth? It’s going to be ugly.

Given this, there’s a limited amount any government can do.

There’s going to be no spending splurge, because if we borrow a lot more, there’s a good chance of a market reaction we can’t afford, or of a global shock that would leave us exposed.

We can’t tax a lot more either, because that will suck too much out of the economy. There just aren’t enough of the immobile rich to count on.

That means no easy way to increase pay in the public sector. There will probably be little spare cash for anything pleasant. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, pure and simple.

That doesn’t mean the next government doesn’t matter.

In fact it matters more, because what you choose to do when there’s little spare money really matters. Every single decision counts when you’re up against it.

Here’s what we can do.

While still being fiscally very careful and tight, you can still ensure that low and middle incomes families get the most help possible, by asking those at the top contribute a little more.

You could have a government that focuses support on growing industries, and encouraging people in poorer areas to start businesses, and helps smaller businesses get help to expand, and pays for that by reducing help to wealthy pension holders through tax relief.

You could have a government that invests in capital and infrastructure, like more housing and better rail, and uses public money to get those projects moving. You can do that by being absolutely sure where your priorities are. No extra money for salaries, or for give-aways to electorally useful groups, or silly bribes to get a headline. We’ve learned the hard way that this nonsense does no good.

Most of all though, you can have a government that when faced with the hundreds of horrible choices the next government will face, asks itself what will be better for the many, not just the few at the top.

The Tories want you to believe that your choice is between financial competence and treating people fairly. I say the only way to get a good future is by doing both. 

The next government can’t magic away the deficit, or guarantee a boom, or prevent a squeeze on public finances without taxing a bit more or spending a bit less. But it can make sure that every decision is about building an economy and society that gives people who have suffered from the recession, get the gradual steady benefit of a steady recovery.

We can’t spend a lot more. We shouldn’t and won’t spend a lot more, not unless we can pay for it without sucking energy out of the economy, but the next Labour government will do all it can to help raise incomes, keep prices down and stop the few exploiting the many.

Will it be perfect, or easy, or fun?

No. We’re past that. But it will give you a better deal than the Tories will.”








Hurrah for the Dull and Earnest


Ah, Peter Oborne. The ever-spinning bottle of the British newspaper industry. Round and round he goes, where will he land? Nobody knows.

One month Ed Miliband is a brave and adroit leader. When next reviewed, he is all at sea, with nothing to say on the most important issue of the times. David Cameron is a contemptible makeweight, lodged firmly in the sewer. On the other hand, he is a great reformer, who has won all the arguments. George Osborne’s friends are a “conniving coterie of schemers“. A fortnight later, Osborne is triumphant and his chief adviser is “outstanding“. Perhaps Rupert Harrison stands out for his conniving scheming?

What price consistency, when one can be amusingly trenchant?

I am unfair, however. Oborne has two consistent views, and these explain his take on everything, (except perhaps his curious admiration for Russian assertiveness in world affairs).

The first is that things were better in the old days, before the grasping professional political classes threw out the flaneurs, bon viveurs, and eccentrics. In their place came pale-faced, pudding featured non-entities, pole climbers and hacks.  These timid greasers fill Oborne with disgust, and he longs for an end to this era of dullardry. I think of Oborne longing for the tumbrils to roll past his club, carrying identically blue-suited careerists, while the crowd cheers for their new masters, clad in tweed and mustard yellow waistcoats, or perhaps flat caps and greasy overalls.

This brings me to Oborne’s second consistency - an admiration for the proud history of the left, so long as it is passionate, radical, divisive and easily beaten.

Ah well, I cannot blame a Tory for that. I too admire the Tories who stand proudly for principles I see as worthy but feel sure I can defeat. I cheer inwardly for every Burkean who cares not for the views of his constituents. I give a huzzah for every ‘classical liberal’ who tells the curious voter that social security is but a Ponzi scheme, and should be immediately removed from their grasping hands. I long for a Tory party composed entirely of Rees-Moggs. Such Conservatives I love, cherish, and praise. The scary ones are the ones who smile sweetly and seem reasonable. Those swine are dissemblers, knaves and very, very, dangerous characters indeed. I can understand why Oborne feels the same way.

Yet today he goes too far. He has pushed me beyond my limits. He attacks modern MPs for being young and dull.

I must defend the honour of our most earnest, juvenile and ambitious politicians.

I have an interest here. I once craved to be a young and dull MP. I had the suit. The tie in just the right shade of dark lilac which hints of red, but does not discomfit. Now I stand above all that. Or below. My youthful dreams are turned to ashes, or somesuch.  However, I do not disdain the young, dull and earnest MPs I now see about the palace of Westminster. I admire them. I cannot understand how they do what they do, and I have astonished sympathy for the restraint that holds them to a discipline they may not like and I could not endure. I am glad of their commitment, even when I parody or smile at it.

Think of what we mock them for, these new careerists. Their endless trips to local primary schools, breathlessly relayed as if it bought them great joy to attend a morning assembly. The visits to a village fair, complete with praise of some Damson Jam. Their time on the doorstep, getting a great welcome. Their bizarre willingness to spend their Sunday morning in a church hall, listening to complaints for which they are for the most part entirely without responsibility. It’s so easily satirised, so somehow contemptible.

What do they really represent, these qualities? Hard work. A determination to listen to their voters. A desire to stay in touch, to be available, to understand what others really want. Of course, they seek votes too. This is not selfless work. Yet they do this drudgework because they seek to discover what their electorate requires, and try to give it to them.

Since the electorate seems to want an MP who cares about their area, listens to what they have to say and represents their interests, it seems harsh to condemn them for this attentiveness.

Ah, but this is but a mask. A fakery. While they tour sixth forms and small business centres, looking interested, they return to Westminster and obey their whips, mere automata compared to the free souls of the past. Not so. These hack MPs are far more rebellious and more individual in policy terms than those of the past. The Tory government of the fifties and sixties saw barely a rebellion. Compare that to today. What is happening? It is that their grinding attentiveness to constituents is both buying MPs independence and making them aware of its value to the electorate.

Ah, but they are so dull. So young. How can they be admired?

Well, they are not really so young, compared to when seats were heritable. Churchill in Parliament at twenty-six, at his second attempt. Balfour at the same age.  Austen Chamberlain an elderly twenty-nine, seat gifted by paternal prominence. If current MPs are young in their thirties, what of the scions of the past? If this generation are dull compared to Churchill and his ilk, than perhaps it is because they had to work for approval, for success, rather than being floated on a raft of familial connection and privilege. It is noticeable, after all, how so many of todays ‘characters’ possess unearned connection, wealth and status.

What’s more, we compare the average MP of today with the giants of the past, and find them wanting. Oh, for a Jenkins, a Churchill or a Bevin, cries the nostalgic. Yet you rarely read of a longing return to the days of Reggie Maudling, the corrupt Home Secretary protected by the same conspiracy of silence that granted Jenkins his long lunches, his claret and his freedom. We never hear a cry of “Oh, for a Selwyn Lloyd” (MP at 25).  No-one praises Sir Gerald Nabarro as a great parliamentary character, because while he certainly was that, he was also a racist buffoon who talked publicly of ‘Big Buck Niggers’ and was happy to be chairman of ‘interesting’ Casino businesses on the QT. Public life does quite well without such adornments, on the whole.

So perhaps modern MPs are young and dull . They work hard. They attend to their constituents interests. They climb the greasy pole, less flamboyantly than Disraeli, but determinedly and thoroughly, and under great scrutiny. Perhaps they must threfore be careful as the ascend, because they are not protected by either aristocratic discretion or the respectful code of silence that protected the drunk, corrupt and idiotic MP of the past. This is no bad thing.

For one thing, the rise of the young and dull discourages the likes of me, as I would only really enjoy being an MP if I could enjoy a magnificent disdain for my constituents, safe in the knowledge no one would expose my laziness, my indifference, or my more interesting pastimes, whether Claret based or otherwise.

This may not be good for me, or for the interest of journalists, or the gaiety of the nation, but it is almost certainly good for the constituents a Member of parliament is supposed to represent. In the end, that is what really matters.

So hurrah for the young and the dull. In time, their earnestness and hard work may yet save politics.

Of the wood and the trees


The budget yesterday contained one major transformative policy and a lot of standard Chancellorial blether. The blether can be dealt with quickly. I have a feeling this government will not be satisfied until every acre of land becomes a Graphene centre, full of makers marching to and fro. Yet neither the transformation nor the blether should have Labour concerned. Instead, it was the confidence behind this budget that should make us think

The transformational policy was on pensions, and will have a major impact on how people retire, what they do with their accrued savings, and how the state deals with its responsibilities to those who no longer have pension pots, but may have bigger houses and children with large ISAs.

Of course, If other pensioners are anything like I aim to be, the state may also have to decide what to do about people who are ten years past working age and possessed only of a satisfied smile, a deep tan, a nice car, empty pockets and twenty more years to live.

There is a perfectly good case to let people who have saved money up for pension age spend it how they wish. A pension scheme is, when it comes down to it, just a different sort of saving scheme, and we don’t tell people they can’t withdraw their own money. (Though nor do we give most saving schemes such favourable tax treatment). There are also perfectly good reasons to be concerned by this. The state offers our old people an implicit guarantee – whatever happens, we will not let you starve, or sleep on the streets, or go without the basics of life.

Most of us do not like the prospect of starving whitebeards littering our highways, so this seems a reasonable guarantee to offer. Libertarians, naturally, disagree, and I wish them well in their utopia. For the rest of us, this guarantee does create some moral quandries. If one takes advantage of good tax treatment to save for a pension, a tax benefit offered to encourage you not be reliant on the state1, then cash in your money as rapidly as possible and turn up at society’s door with a winning smile and a guarantee to redeem, what is the appropriate reaction?

In many ways, this is the same situation we have with banks. Just as the State is the lender of last resort in the banking system, the state is the family of last resort in society. This creates obligations not to abuse, and just as families might  seek to restrain a parent who was running through their wealth so quickly they might need to become dependent on their children, so might the state have a view of the conditions under which favourably acquired savings are dispersed.  This stuff is tricky, and a balance of rights and responsibilities and deserves the sort of serious consideration Budgets usually don’t get for a long time.

My objection is not so much to the policy as to the method of announcement. If any policy shift deserved to be a very green paper and the subject of national debate, it is this. Instead, it was announced, it is done, and we have to assume our positions immediately.

That aside, the pensions shift it is interesting in another way. It clearly provides a significant short term boost to economic demand, as the cost of possible future stability in the public finances. What are the implications for welfare spending, for the minimum income guarantee, for adult social care? This moves cuts precisely against George Osborne’s stated belief in long term budgetary responsibility, and may be extremely politically beneficial for him as a result.

As for the rest of the budget, it was more or less small fry. A small shift in tax allowances here, a posture on beer there, an underused investment allowance expanded there. A tiny notch up in R&D tax credits.

What does concern me was that Labour types, and I include myself in this, fell for these trees and did not engage with the dark wood behind it.

We made fun of Beer and Bingo, yet failed to notice that these were merely the sprouting of a Tory strategy. Badly done, perhaps, but meaningful.

Behind this budget was a message. It hurt, and it’s working. We did the right thing and held our nerve. We’re growing faster now, and so must hold our course, and here’s the first tiny rewards for our strength.

This is nonsense. We’re growing in precisely the opposite way than the government intended. Investment is down, confidence is returning through high house prices and deliberately low interest rates. What’s more the pain and agony of public sector restraint has just been deferred for a few years. There are huge holes in the public finances, and the government is simply waiting until after the election to decide how to close them. There is a dark wood on the edge of this town, and the government is pretending it isn’t there.

Prosperity is returning, yes, and thank god for that, but it is because the government has abandoned their strategy, not because they have been resolute. There is huge pain to come because of their decision to cut too soon, and their subsequent fright at the results.

Unfortunately, that wood is so dark, no-one, not even the opposition, wishes to acknowledge it. Sadly, if the left cannot confront this argument head on, which requires a brutal clarity about what a Labour government would and would not do on the big issues of tax and spending, then Osborne and Cameron’s argument that they are halfway to solving the crisis and should be allowed to finish the job will be left uncontested. The claim to be fixing the roof. In reality, they sawed off their foot, and then put up a tarpaulin.

Now, I am a zombie Blairite fiscal conservative, so can say this easily. After all, no-one is going to hold my feet to the fire if I say there is no room for public sector pay increases, or any major new spending programmes, and there isn’t as much money to build houses as people often think. No one will accuse me of selling out my radical instincts if I say that the horizons of progressive change will be limited by an absence of cold hard cash for a while yet.

Yet even if you take the opposite view, and think there would be public approbation for more spending and so more tax or more borrowing, this can’t be hidden much longer, as otherwise the only message for sale is that of our opponents.

We can laugh at Bingo adverts and the foolishness of Grant Shapps, but the real threat is hiding in the dark woods, and we’re not saying what we’ll do about it. George Osborne is hiding too, for now, but will soon be using the danger for his own purposes.

  1. For example, A higher rate taxpayer might take tax relief at higher rate, but only pay basic rate or less as a pensioner []

Oh no, it’s EU again.


I am a member of a tiny minority of the British people. I do not care, in any way, shape or form if we have a referendum on leaving the EU.

I’ve not cared about having such a referendum for all my political life.

My disinterest started, like a dull love affair, in Maastricht, in 1993, when no-one wanted a referendum except a few EU hating backbenchers (and the Lib-Dems). Enthusiasm for the idea grew, so we all promised one in 1997, over the Euro, which I thought I might care a bit about. Luckily, it was a case of premature consultation, because it turned out no-one wanted to join the Euro anyway.

In 2005 everyone promised a referendum on a new Constitution, which I didn’t care about at all, but it turned out we had a treaty, not a constitution, so it didn’t count, but lots of people got very cross and said it did. So the Tory leadership said they wanted a referendum on the Treaty, but by the time they were in a position to have one, apparently they couldn’t, and their MPs were upset because they had suspected their leaders had known that all along, and hadn’t really wanted a referendum, and they decided that next time they’d make them have a referendum, finally and for sure.

So now, we’ll definitely maybe have one. Or not.

My indifference means I’m perfectly happy with the policy Labour announced today, but I’d be equally happy if Ed Miliband’s speech today involved him reciting nursery rhymes until everyone got bored of the whole thing and went home.

My only locatable view on the subject is that if we are to have one, can we please just stop endlessly discussing whether or not we’re going to have one?

So involved are the debates on this subject, that I can barely remember what the party positions are.

I think UKIP want a referendum now, but not later (until later becomes now, when they will want one).

Conservative backbenchers really want one now, but will grudgingly settle for one later.

The Conservative leadership want one later, preferably much later, but have offered one not very much later, after they’ve got some powers back, which they say they will, but others think they won’t.

Labour don’t want one now, but will have one if they give more powers to Europe, which they say they won’t, but others think they will.

The Liberal Democrats wanted a referendum earlier, but don’t want one now, or in 2017, but might want one in the future, if they give more powers to Europe, which they say they might, but others say they won’t let them.


Given how heated the debates are between these positions, we should have a referendum to decide when to have a referendum.

I understand that not caring about this referendum is not a particularly noble position.

On the one hand, I am a narrow elitist who opposes giving the British people a say on the most significant constitutional issue of our generation.

On the other, if you’ve accepted the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, the EU is basically the plumbing of politics, all boring grey stuff you only notice when something goes wrong, or you get an unexpected bill or you end up with some Polish chap in your house for months looking at your drains and telling you should have spent more on maintenance.

If you’re fundamentally against all that free movement stuff, I can see why this would be annoying, and that annoyance drives all the debates on the referendums, but I’m for all that stuff, so I’m not annoyed.

Sometimes, I’m cross that the plumbing is broken again, or the bill is too high, or the hot water is sporadic, but that’s a bit different. So while I don’t mind having a referendum on the plumbing, I’d quite like to keep the flushing toilets part, and the hot water part.

I think this is the problem our politicians have. In their hearts they want to keep the flushing toilets and the hot water, and they think most of us do too. Unfortunately, they worry that if we have a vote on it, we’ll be so cross about the bills and the Polish builders that we’ll vote to rip out all the pipes, which they think would be bad.

On top of that, some of them want to install a wet room and sauna, while others think those are namby-pamby continental innovations, and want to keep traditional British downstairs loos.

So they keep putting off the decisions, and people keep getting crosser about it, and of course, having a vote on plumbing doesn’t sound that big a deal, so it’s hard to say, “Oh for God’s sake, it’s hot water, of course you want to keep it, so lets talk about something else, eh?”

But it is, and we do, so we should.

In praise of immigration


I’ve had it with being balanced on immigration.

As the son and partner of immigrants, I am biased on this point. Naturally so, as I would neither exist nor, having sprung into existence, then been content without immigration.

So forgive me for taking issue with the regular assumption that immigration a bad thing, a problem, something to be discouraged.

Because it isn’t. Immigration is both the sign of and enabler of an ability to live your life the best you can, and what’s more, immigration strengthens, burnishes and gives moral and economic power to those nations fortunate and strong enough to attract immigrants.

At this point, being a tedious bore, I usually go off and quote studies that show that immigration probably boosts GDP per capita, has a minimal negative effect on domestic wages and then subjectively argue that immigration improves cultural life, makes us more tolerant, varied and interesting.

But there’s always a response that argues otherwise.

The sophisticated versi0n of this argument states that immigration might be good for the likes of me, the taco munching, metropolitan elite, but what about those struggling to get by, who are threatened by immigration, whose wages are undermined, or who face competition for homes and public services1?

Well, again, I could be all boring and point you in the direction of reports that make the careful case that’s there’s no evidence for that actually happening, but since those reports have been around for ages and never convince anyone, let me use a different approach.

Because even if the facts of the case are disputable, the sentiment of the argument is right.

Even if immigrants don’t actually undermine wages, it feels like they might because they’re competition to the existing workforce, and competition, even when ultimately beneficial, is disruptive, scary and disturbing.

I know this, because I fear my competition.

Can I tell you about the new arrivals who really scare me?

Young people. There are loads of the baby-faced little sods , all of whom got here more than a decade after I did, and they’re everywhere.

Not only are they willing to do my job for less money than me, they’re now doing jobs I’d rather like, editing newspapers and magazines, being government ministers and having newspaper columns.

Oh, sure, these young people go on and on about how they work harder than I do, and have to endure worse living conditions and job insecurity and they mutter angrily about how they’ll end up paying for my pension while working in the public services I need for a pittance.

But I say they threaten my sense of place. They  increase the competition for housing in poor areas, they push up prices until they’re unattainable for working people. They cause me to meet the huge expense of providing extra school places with their offspring. They demand public services and crowd the roads.

What’s more, isn’t it reasonable that I should feel discomfited by their strange cultural traditions, their intrusive music, their odd clothing choices?

You see, these new arrivals don’t understand what it really is to live in Britain as it used to be, before they turned up and ruined everything. I barely recognise central London on a Saturday night now.

The East End used to be all immigrants. Now it is full of creatures in beards and confusing trousers, babbling an argot I barely comprehend.

Yet suggest that my rights should be protected by limiting the flow of young people into the British economy, possibly by means of some sort of cull, and people look at you as if you’re some sort of loony.

Look, I’m a grumpy, increasingly middle-aged man.

I get why people feel threatened and insecure. I am threatened and insecure. But feeling threatened and insecure isn’t a good reason to stop immigration.

It’s a reason to manage the consequences, yes, to provide a strong social safety net, to invest in public services, to build more housing, just like we do, or should do, because of the steady stream of disruptive young people, but it’s no good reason to stop immigration.

Because ultimately, immigration is a kind of competition, and the first thing we have to recognise is that competition isn’t always bad for you. Sometimes it pushes you to try new things, do new stuff.

What’s less palatable though is even if it is bad for you, even if you are exposed to the downsides of competition, and you understandably want to wish it away, the competition won’t disappear simply by not being immediately present.

If I deported every under-qualified twenty year old in the country tomorrow, they wouldn’t stop doing things. They wouldn’t stop coming up with ideas, or trying to do things differently, or seeking to do my job better than me.They’d just do it without me being able to see it, or be part of it, or benefit from it in any way. Eventually, they’d succeed.

The same goes for immigrants. Stop them coming here, and they won’t cease making new computer programmes, or exciting tacos, or building houses, or a host of other things, but they’ll stop doing it here, and we’ll not only lose their creativity, energy and cultural contribution, but we won’t be able to adapt and cope and benefit from the gains they give us.

Oh, sure, you might say, that’s true of the best immigrants, the programmers and the scientists, but come on, do we need the street cleaners and the supermarket till operators?

The answer, is yes, for the same reason you need young people who don’t get five good GCSEs. Partly because you can’t predict who’s going to come up with a brilliant idea, with a startling innovation.

Partly because they’re not going to stay doing what they’re doing. Partly because they pay taxes and have kids who contribute. Partly because it’s just a mark of a healthy, growing, exciting society to have people wanting to come, who-ever they are.

It’s also because if they weren’t here they’d be somewhere else, doing all that stuff for someone else’s grumpy, insecure people, and that economy would be more efficient, more productive, more innovative as a result.

That means it’s that if you’re an undereducated, low skill British worker, the future doesn’t look great any way we pan it out. Unless you change, any short-term protection we offer you is just going to be that, short-term. The great danger is that you end up like the British car industry, protected until you’re totally obsolete.

So yes, even for you, it’s better to adapt. The good news is we can do something about that.

It’s not unreasonable to feel insecure by such competition and seek insurance and protection from its disruptions and nor is it impossible to act to help those who feel threatened. That’s why I’m a social democrat, not a libertarian.

That’s not an argument against competition, it’s an argument for managing its consequences well. The NHS does not prevent the young taking the jobs of the old, it just gives the old a better chance of not dying, or becoming incapable, and so keeping their jobs. We can insure people, and help them succeed in a hard-edged world, and help those who struggle, just as we do in many other ways, for many other disruptions.

But there’s another important, non-economic argument.

For all it means insecurity, immigration also makes people happy.

It makes me happy, because I exist, and because I have a partner. But it also makes me happy because I have friends, and am exposed to new ideas, and new experiences.

It makes me happy in the same way that young people make parents happy, because it’s not good to close yourself off from the new and the unexpected. Cut yourself off from this and you’ll ultimately be weaker, sadder, less content.

Not least, it makes immigrants happy, and we are our brother’s keepers.

So immigration is good for us. We need it. It’s those youngsters we need to watch.

  1. If you don’t like that argument, other, stupider arguments are available. For example, there’s the ‘Mexican restaurant argument’, which states, as Nick Griffin does, that although immigration might bring some transient cultural benefit, once you’ve got the recipes, you don’t need the immigrants. To which I say try eating a proper Taco al Pastor, not a bloody Chiquito in an Odeon car park, then tell me you’ve got the bloody recipe. What’s more that delicious, amazing dish, was created because of Lebanese immigrants to Mexico, then taken by the Mexicans to America, and now by trans-atlantic immigrant osmosis, they’re coming to Britain in New York rip off hype restaurants and street carts.  It’s an immigration quadruple threat. So, Nick, as you stare into your car park wheat and cheese monstrosity, and wonder why it’s so rubbish, can I tell you what makes the difference between being ripped off at a Chiquito and getting a great Taco or Burrito? Immigrants, who won’t eat that shit. That’s why they’re even better in New York than in London. There are more immigrants there. Say Thank-you. []

A much needed perspective.


As has been said often in recent days, Russia has a legitimate interest in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

After all, lots of people in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine are native Russian speakers, or ethnically Russian, and as all ethnic minorities know, linguistic origin and ethnic origin are perfectly legitimate ways of deciding national loyalty. That the campaign by this ethnic majority for Crimean transfer to Russia coincided exactly with the arrival of unmarked troops in Crimea is clearly the spontaneous  expression of national spirit.

Further, the Crimean autonomous assembly has voted for a referendum, to be held in two weeks, about whether to join Russia? How is that different to a referendum in Scotland? Who are we to object?

That the parliament building was occupied by armed forces, and shortly afterwards voted to depose the Prime Minister and select in his place a man who had achieved four per cent of the vote at the last elections at the head of his Pro-Russian party, simply shows how democratic processes are being respected.

Further while international observers are temporarily prevented from entering the autonomous region by entirely autonomous defence forces, what could lead us to suspect that the referendum might not  be an entirely freely expressed and  clear electoral process?

What’s more isn’t the Ukrainian government illegitimate? After all, President Yanukovich, for all his murderous and corrupt faults, was elected, was he not? That he signed an agreement to form a National Unity Government, then  immediately fled the country for parts unknown, making the formation of such a government rather problematic clearly represents an unconstitutional seizure of power by his opponents, who had been entirely dishonest in signing the agreement with him the day before, even if subsequently his own supporters abandoned him and voted for his replacement. Still, no matter. Yanukovich is clearly the legitimate President of Ukraine, wherever he may be.

What’s more, we must be careful not to overemphasise the significance of the consequences of this situation. After all, there can be no global security risks if a former nuclear power, whose territorial integrity is protected by internationally binding treaties, then discovers that those treaties are not binding on the signatories. No-one will see that as suggesting there is great value on securing nuclear weapons, little value on international commitments.

Besides, who are we to judge Russia’s response? We have intervened ourselves, after all,  and we have all seen the UNSC resolution on Ukrainian Chemical Weapons usage, their genocide of the Marsh Ukrainians and Ukrainian Kurds and Bosnian Ukrainians, and we have all witnessed the Ukrainian military sweeping towards the Crimean capital threatening a rain of fire on those who resist.

Those atrocities provide an urgent and important rationale for military intervention, entirely different in quality to any previous military interventions, which were entirely illegitimate, as they were never debated at all by international bodies, not represented any sort of responsibility to protect or response to aggression.

Further, there are clear legitimate reasons for super-powers to intervene in the domestic affairs of smaller, weaker neighbours when their economic interests are threatened, as members of the Cuban and Venezuelan Solidarity campaigns will attest. It is important we reflect maturely on such interventions, and not allow emotions to run ahead of the facts.

What’s more, the Ukrainian government has unpleasant elements. Why should we protect the national integrity of such a government? In comparison, the Libyan, Syrian, Iraqi and Taliban governments had few such elements, which is why their national integrity was so vital to the international order. Those who saw unfolding human rights disasters, genocide, a history of military aggression or chemical weapons usage in such states should compare them to the awful record of the Ukrainian government in provoking their neighbour by seeking to associate themselves with a possible future economic agreement with the EU.

When we consider these factors, it becomes vital to take a mature, thoughtful view on which policy choices being made today represents a threat to both Ukrainian and Crimea citizens and to the wider region.

We surely need some cool, calm reflection on this point.

In which I protest entirely ineffectively.



Ukranian Demo outside Russian Embassy

Ukrainian Demo outside Russian Embassy

I really don’t like demonstrations and marches. They’re usually a pointless waste of time which only give the converted a chance to show how passionate they are, without actually  persuading anyone. Not all, obviously, but most. Also, as a younger chap, I spend far too much time on protests, vigils, marches and demonstrations, and I literally can’t think of many that worked. Maybe the poll tax demo?

So how come I spent today wandering round Central London looking for a “Hands off Ukraine” type demo to tag on to, knowing it would make absolutely no difference to anything?

Mostly because several people I agree with on this issue, and me too I think, were mocking the “Stop the War coalition” for their silence on this invasion (still nothing on their website as I write) and asking various leading figures of the occupy anti-imperialist aggression left position whether they were going to demonstrate. I began to feel this was taking snark too far. If I can’t be bothered to protest against such aggression, why on earth should I expect someone else to do it for me, especially someone I’m just being horrible too?

I wanted to show that on this issue, it’s possible for both liberal interventionists and advocates of tight interpretation of ‘international law’ to agree, and not slag each other off. What’s happening in Ukraine is neither responsibility to protect, liberal intervention, or legal under any interpretation of the UN charter or Russia’s own international obligations. So we should be on the same side here, whatever differences we have elsewhere.

So I decided I should go along, fully expecting a pointless, ignored, entirely ineffective day of mild protest.

I started off at Trafalgar Square, because I’d been told there was a protest there at lunchtime, and I’d said last night I’d start there. What I didn’t realise, having done absolutely no research, that Trafalgar square is today hosting a Russian cultural festival. So ninety per cent of the Square was barriered off for that.

You could get in, but there was a lot of security, and besides, If I’d gone in, I’d probably have bought a snack because I was quite hungry and I really like Russian food. I somehow felt that would be inappropriate, so stood outside, trying to look disapproving, and hoping to spot a demo somewhere. My solo protest was undermined by two things. I had no way of identifying why I was there, and second, I was standing next to a human statue of Yoda. I think people thought I was disapproving of the Phantom Menace Trilogy.

There was no overt nationalism around, though a couple of guys had Russian flags wrapped round their shoulders. It was a bit weird though, that today of all days, Trafalgar square was flooded, not with protestors against aggression, but a cordoned off festival to celebrate Russia, sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’m sure it was arranged as some sort of Sochi-tribute, and I’m not saying it should have been cancelled, but it jarred. It definitely jarred.

I subsequently discovered the Demo at Trafalgar square had been moved to three. So then I headed off to what I’d been told was a proper demo outside the Russian embassy. On the way there, I passed an Aberdeen Angus Steak house, which was absolutely rammed. I thought about protesting outside there too, as I was feeling militant about unhappy tourists getting bad, overpriced food.

photo (1)

The demo outside the Russian Embassy was indeed proper. I’d guess five or six hundred people there, overwhelmingly Ukrainian. I asked two of the people next to me to translate one chant, and neither spoke English.

The fact that it was a Ukrainian demo seemed to mean everyone was very tall, and/or wearing very high heeled shoes. It was a demo with sharp cheekbones. Also, more fur hats and coats than we used to get at the CND vigils.

Photo from AP

My favourite sign read ‘Make Blinis, Not war‘.  Another was held by a couple – one with a poster pointing to the other saying ‘My Ukrainian friend” their mate with an arrow pointing back saying ‘My Russian friend‘. As well as the Ukrainians, there were a fair few Russians, Georgians, Latvians and Lithuanians. I saw two British flags there. I actually saw more European flags, which reminded me what a big thing the European issue is for people.

I didn’t see any British MP or political figure I recognised, nor any of the main campaign groups for left-wing groups that often come to such things. However, I was at the back, so I’m not saying that for definite. One nice thing was we didn’t get the parade of empty ‘Solidarity’ speeches from the ego-windbags you usually get. One guy from Georgia spoke while I was there, and the rest of time was mostly chanting. ‘Hands off Ukraine’, ‘Putin Out’, ‘Ukraine is not Russia’, ‘Ukraine is Europe’s frontline’ ‘Hands off Syria/Georgia’ and one about how Russia and Ukraine should be friends, not enemies.

The near total absence of the ‘regular’ left meant it was strange to be at a Demo without SWP front groups giving placards out. Indeed, all of the posters seemed homemade. One of the biggest said “Want them to give up seeking nukes? (pictures of Iranian, North Korean flags) Ukraine gave up her Nuclear Weapons for international security guarantees. Live up to your promise‘ You can see it here, it was quite a big poster. There was one lefty group there, selling this paper ‘The Militant’, but the seemed a bit lost and didn’t even try to sell me a copy, so I’m not sure who they are.

Finally, I realised this campaign has almost no media awareness. After we chanted for a bit, it was declared that there would be another Demo, tonight, at 7pm outside Downing Street. I think that’s right.

Obviously that’s like news dead time. So please, if a Sky/BBC news producer reads this, take pity on them and get someone to do a piece to camera out there.

Anyway, I’m not going to tell anyone they should go to the next Demo for Ukraine, because there are loads of demos I “should” have been on, but I will suggest that whether you’re a liberal interventionist, a UN international law legalist, a ‘immediate threat responsibility to protect’ type, we should all be on the same rough side on this one, at least when it comes to protesting aggression, rather than arguing over what the right response is. I hope more people do come on that basis.

Even though it will, naturally, be entirely ineffective.



Second Generation rent controls: Solving a problem that doesn’t exist.


Hooray, let’s come back to rent controls.

This time, we’ve got an article by David Lammy, who joins Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral hopeful rent control club with this article in the New Statesman.

Lammy says he’s not advocating ‘old-school’ Rent Controls, which don’t work. Thank heavens for that, at least.

Instead, he favours a system as practised in Germany. You can’t go wrong praising Germany these days1.

Unfortunately, the system Lammy proposes appears to solve a problem that probably doesn’t exist.

How so?

Lammy opens with “The facts are stark. Private rents in London have risen nine per cent since December 2011.” Unfortunately, he doesn’t provide a source for this fact.

As far as I can tell, it’s from the Valuation Officer’s Agency data, which tracks the rent of properties being offered and agreed in the marketplace at any given moment2. This is dull but important, because the ‘raw’ VOA data shows a greater increase than either the CPI rental data, or the ONS’s Home rental data, both of which takes that same data but focus on a matched sample, so we can see what rent is being paid for the same property over time, whether or not it has been re-leased.

In fact, both the CPI data and the ONS data suggest that rental increases are running at below inflation levels, roughly 1 per cent a year. (Their similarity should not be surprising, as they are based on the same source)

This is a tedious but important technical point because one of the crucial things about the housing market is that landlords tend to hold down rents to keep existing tenants, then put them up when the  property is re-let.

Imagine a couple who’ve been paying rent for a year. If the landlord increases the rent and they left for somewhere new, the rent on their house would go likely go up. However, it’s often not worth the Landlord’s while to push the issue, as lettings fees, redecoration and perhaps a month with no rent while reletting would eat up any conceivable rent increase.  Plus, what if you replace a good tenant with a bad one? Tenant in hand beats rent increase in bush.

So when you look at the data which best factors in the rolling over of existing tenancies, you see that private sector rent increases have not been rising sharply.

Indeed, the ONS data suggests rent increases, even in London, have been below inflation for some time, and have not gone above 2.5% a year in any month since the current data began in 2006. Further, private rents have increased by less than either council or registered social landlords rents.3


If you accept this data, the picture that emerges is not landlords imposing sharp increases on tenants, but consistent below inflation rent increases.

So what explains the claims made about steep rent increases? Well, perhaps what we’re seeing is flat rents for existing tenants, but landlords increasing the rents on the open market when reletting the property. This would most adversely effect new entrants onto the housing market,  those who move around frequently, and who wish to live in housing hotspots.

This perhaps fits with the fact that the anger on this issue comes from younger, mobile, professional tenants, often those moving to London, or who have moved often due to a shared tenancies ending, who fit precisely this profile. Their picture might be substantially worse than that for older tenants, in relatively long-term tenancies, or in less fashionable areas, where both tenancies and rents are more stable. They would naturally protest more, and be right to feel they were getting the shitty end of the stick. Still, if Hackney matters that much to you, you’ll pay for it.

Unfortunately Lammy’s proposal would do nothing about their (real) problem. It couldn’t.

Imagine the situation for that same imaginary couple, if they  wish to move house because they’re expecting children and want a place with a garden. Under either scenario, their new prospective Landlord would be able to offer a market rent4. They’re no better off than they would be under the existing system.

What’s more, if their existing tenancy is controlled and happens to be in a property hotspot, they will be less likely to move out of their property and purchase/rent elsewhere, thus reducing the supply of rental properties in their current location. Unless supply increases (which it might do) you might even see new rents in high demand areas increasing more sharply than they do now, as existing tenants can’t move out. Indeed, over the last decade, German rents have been increasing far faster than British rents, although from a far lower base, possibly because of this phenomenon – residential building stalled in the recession, those in controlled rents do not wish to move, and demand for the remaining properties has cause dramatic rental increases.

Picture a new couple arriving in London when existing tenants benefit from rent controls. They are not protected, so have to pay a higher market rent as Landlords exploit shortage of supply and protect themselves from future pricing controls. There may be few homes to rent that suit them in the areas they wish to live in, as the existing tenants are staying put to keep their rents low. Absent more building, or more vigorous price controls, they will quite possibly face higher rents. This is, by the way, one of the reasons British commonwealth immigrants got such an awful housing deal when they moved to the UK.

So, it’s quite possible to imagine that in producing a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist in the way they think it does, advocates of second generation rent controls could make rent increases sharper than they would otherwise be, absent a major increase in property supply, while making things worse for immigrants and the most mobile renters.

Does this mean there’s no room for reform in the lettings market? Of course not. There’s always room for smart reform.

First, we do have a problem with insecurity of tenure.

We probably would benefit from a longer period tenancy that would offer security to both landlord and tenant. This is more or less Shelter’s proposal for a fixed five year tenancy. If many tenants showed a preference for a longer tenancy this would likely encourage larger landlords and discourage smaller landlords, which might in turn make it easier to regulate standards and quality in the sector, which is another major issue in the private sector.

However, this isn’t consequence free – while you could probably get away with fixing rents within such contracts, tenants would probably have to pay a premium for such security, as Landlords who offered this would want to hedge against interest rate shocks (in much the same way that fixed mortgages and energy bills are more expensive).  That risk is probably worth it, though. We could probably do with a few big, well run, private rental companies with high standards and long-term financing in place. A sort of private housing association, really. You might even want some actually housing associations to expand in this way, to promote mixed tenure developments.

Second, everything comes back to supply. One of the points about the German model is that it is much easier to build in Germany than in the UK. Germany has consistently built more than we have.

This isn’t to do with social housing, as Germany’s social rented sector is much smaller than the UKs (about a third of the size of ours), but that there is a much stronger presumption in favour of building generally. So if you want to make even very loose rent control work, you must have a huge loosening of supply, not just in the social rented sector, but generally.

So, if there was a major increase in the supply of rental property, that would probably reduce rents anyway (Indeed, one of the interesting factors of the last two decades in the UK rental market has been the near doubling of the private rented sector, which is probably one reason rents are low, along with incredibly low, stable mortgage rates).

So if we want to fix the UK housing market, we need to fix supply, first and foremost. Everything else is pretty much fiddling around the edges.

Some of those fiddles will be helpful – like more stable contracts, and better landlord regulation.

Others, like rent controls will be neutral to negative. But without an increase in supply, they’ll all be marginal.

The problem comes in trying to fund and locate that supply. That’s the hard bit, and the bit that really matters.


  1. Though sometimes it is worth pointing out that Britain is not Germany. After all, one reason the German housing market is the way it is that Germany specifically encouraged private companies to build homes for middle class families to rent after the second world war, to ease the chronic housing shortage of that time. That quality private rented housing stock probably doesn’t exist to the same extent in the UK []
  2. It’s either that or from one of the lettings agency based surveys []
  3. Anecdotal experience seems to confirm this – rents in our apparently booming area of London for two bedroom houses are flat or slightly down to two years ago – though this may be due to a 2012 Olympics effect in Greenwich []
  4. though perhaps within a boundary of twenty per cent of similar properties, as Lammy suggests. To me, this seems either tautological or a mistake, as it depends on your definition of ‘similar properties’. If a luxury two bed flat is twenty-five per cent ‘nicer’ than another two bed flat in a local council block, but just as nice as another luxury two-bed flat, surely should I pay twenty-five per cent more than for the cheaper flat? Who gets to decide what is similar, and on what basis? If it’s simply by square footage or bedrooms, then we’ll just destroy the rental market at the higher end, or right next to tube stations, or in areas with good primary schools, or nice victorian terraces []

Top Ten political cliches that would be great band names


Regular readers may know that I’m a big fan of the US alt-country-folk singer Todd Snider. I’m not alone, he’s a beer drinking buddy of Rahm Emanuel.

Todd’s new band is called Hard Working Americans, and their self-titled new album was released in the UK this week. It’s brilliant, and you should all buy it. (Especially you, Stewart Wood, as I half wonder if a left slanted country rock album featuring Neil Young, Randy Newman and Bottle Rockets covers wasn’t made specifically for you)

Anyway, what I really like is the band name. There aren’t enough political clichés that have become band names. So here’s my top ten political clichés that should really have been band names. (Thanks to many people on Twitter for inspiration)

10. Squeezed Middle

Britain’s Eurovision entry for 2004 were the Cheeky Girls of their moment. Effectively an advert for corsetry in pop form, Squeezed middle’s brief pop career was followed by a somewhat longer Reality TV career for their three pneumatic vocalists.

9. Tough Choices

Originally a hard metal band from Pittsburgh, Tough Choices ended up as poodle rock pioneers whose choices mostly revolved around whether to get drunk or high. Their 1987 multi-platinum sophomore effort ‘Lines to take’  explored these themes exhaustively, as did the band, leading to their break up.

8. The Promise of Britain.

(This is an odd one, as it’s a cliché even though only Ed Miliband uses it).

The Promise of Britain are a neo-prog rock supergroup. Their first album, ‘Together in the National Interest’ is ranked with British Sea Power as the definitive album for University Engineering students.

7. The Third Way

Achingly cool nouvelle vague, whose thirteen minute ‘A new dawn has broken’ is a caustic hymn to the morning after the night before.

6. Innovation Nation

Cruelly dubbed ‘Birmingham’s premier Krafktwerk tribute band’, IN haven’t let the sneers stop them build a career as Electronica for the dubstep generation. ‘A race to the Top’ is no ‘Autobahn’, but it’s no M25 either.

5.  On Your Side

Nineties boy band OYS pioneered the “Gay Club to Pop charts” route to fame.  OYS had three years of mega-stardom before apparent gangland links of lead vocalist Muley led to their rapid fall from grace. Still, we’ll always have ‘Forward (Not Back)’.

4. Hear Hear

Reggae pioneers Hear Hear might not have had the fame of Marley, but they never lost their audience. Still touring to packed arena halls today, Hear Hear have outlasted almost every band of their generation, and their recent album ‘Mister Speaker’ still topped the US Reggae charts.

3. Up And Down The Country

Johnny Marr’s post Smiths’ Country band showed that the guitar legend could play a mean slide guitar. Before their time, they never went mainstream, but their second album ‘These strikes are wrong’ was a savage indictment of post-Thatcher Britain with a country twang.

2. Beer and Sandwiches

They’ll never be cool, but forty years of touring and seven Gold albums tells you there’ll always be a good audience for Pub rock with half an eye on Britain’s music hall tradition. Don’t pretend you can’t hum ‘Time for a Change’. We know you can.

1. Metropolitan Liberal Elite

Turned down by seventeen record companies, Newcastle’s MLE persevered and their big break came when touring as support to Depeche Mode on a massive US tour. (Intriguingly, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were going to have that gig, but pulled out.) Suddenly, MLE had an audience of thousands of American twenty-somethings, and their soulful arena-rock with added Synth overload topped by wistful, even downbeat vocals was the sound of the mid nineties.

Soon, MLE were the REM college boys could like. They confounded these expectations with the mega platinum ‘Partisan Pointscoring’ whose stripped down acoustic sound was an instant classic and remains the definitive album of Rock’s post Nirvana reflectiveness. MLE haven’t stopped making hits since, are friends with Presidents and own half of Twitter. Weirdly, they’re the only band ever that are now accused of slowly becoming their originally ironic name.