Friday, 4 October 2013

Switching to a new blog platform

Hello, I'm moving over to

If you were keen enough to subscribe to my blogposts via email, I'm afraid you'll have to do it again... if you click on the thing with little horizontal white lines on it above the "t" in my name, then you should be able to do it there.  Sorry.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Bad behaviour up on the moral high ground

I know, I know… Lib Dem conference is over and it isn’t normally the kind of thing that one prolongs unnecessarily.  But this has been annoying me for a week so I thought I’d write it down anyway. At the end, the point becomes a little bit relevant to next week too.

The Guardian seems to run a regular series of obtuse/coded articles by politicians that they reprise around this time of year.  A long time ago, in the bad old days when people didn’t agree with each other in the Labour Party, there was at least an element of fun in decoding these things, sort of like a political sudoku.  Now this week, it’s been Chris Huhne’s turn. Chris Huhne is not really important any more.  But the sheer gittishness of this article is astounding and is an insight into a facet of politics that is not commented on enough.

Have a glance through if you can be bothered but there are essentially two key lines.  One is the faux-loyal speculation over Clegg’s future: “Nick Clegg is probably safe until the general election, and certainly until after next May's local and European elections”.  Enough to ruin Clegg’s Glasgow breakfast, not enough to become unpopular with party members. The second is that “One solution [to the problems the Liberal Democrats have had on tuition fees] would be free tuition fees for state school students who win three As at A-level.”  Again, the cowardly impersonal grammar: not, “I think we should do this” but “one solution would be”.  If anyone discovers that he has floated a floater*, he seems to think he can deny any responsibility for the stink.  None of this is deeply immoral behaviour but, even to a non-Lib Dem, Huhne comes across as pretty annoying.

Earlier in the week, Phil Collins asked why anyone joined the Liberal Democrats. It's a good piece but it doesnt spend much time on why anyone joins a political party at all. It probably isn't the main driver for most people but being a member of a political party, especially one you thought would never be in government, is a very good thing if you like to feel morally superior to other people (who might be your opponents but it could be the shamefully disengaged masses too, or the sell-outs and idiots of your own side).  There’s a certain group of political activists – of all stripe – for whom this is a crucial aspect to their engagement to politics.  For much of the last decade they predominantly chose the Liberal Democrats. I fear now that Labour is going to be landed with more of them in the 2010s. 

My worry about them isn’t that they are smug, it’s that they might be dangerous.  I like this paper in Psychological Science because it supports my half-baked theory.  Some participants shopped in an ethical green shop, some shopped in a normal shop.  Then they did another test to see if they told self-serving lies and stole a small amount of money. The group that had shopped ethically were more likely to be bad.  As the University of Toronto researchers put it, participants
“are least likely to scrutinize the moral implications of their behaviors and to regulate their behaviors right after their moral self has experienced a boost from a good deed. This implies that virtuous acts can license subsequent asocial and unethical behaviors.”

Chris Huhne’s high moral tone and his shirtyness in that op-ed – and perhaps elsewhere in the ridiculous story of his downfalll – don’t have to be contradictions.  One could follow the other. And that's a warning for all self-consciously moral parties: watch out for the politicians most convinced they own the moral high ground.  I've only scanned the extracts of Damian McBride's in today's Daily Mail and I don't know if he goes into much detail analysing why Gordon Brown didn't do more to restrain Damian's tactics, despite GB clearly believing in the strength of his own "moral compass".  But if I were writing a book about that relationship, the psychology of moral licensing is where I'd start.

* I rarely blog about policy but take a second to think about this one …  we take money from everyone else and give it to kids with three As.  Sadly, these kids are disproportionately from wealthier backgrounds.  Perhaps more justifiably, they are the ones who, by virtue of their academic success, are likely to earn substantially more than their peers. Either way, we are returning to "free" university tuition - but largely for the children of the richest parents and those who will go on to be the richest graduates. Maybe you incentivise some kids to turn Bs into As, but those ABB kids were going to university anyway. I could go on… there are respectable positions on university fees all the way from 100% free to 100% self-funded but this isn’t one of them.  In fact, it's so bad it makes me suspect the motive: that Huhne isn't really clamouring to get this policy implemented and just needed a policy line for his op-ed.  Which is quite shirty too.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Boring interviews in the service of interesting projects (and vice versa)

I’ve got a lot of time for any minister or shadow minister who gives a “boring snoring” interview and for a chief secretary, it’s almost part of the job description.  An interview before a big speech will always be dull because you should be saving something for the speech itself – otherwise you end up a muted response to already-banked announcements, which may partially explain the response that Ed M received at the TUC.

Either way, to always be interesting for the journalists, you have to accept some of their approach – in particular, their foreshortened time horizons.  And if you decide to be “interesting” because an interview is difficult, it is often to choose to put your own interest ahead of the party’s, avoiding discomfort yourself but creating havoc for your colleagues.  It takes a certain kind of political vanity for a frontbencher to decide that "the line" only has to be taken by the little people - and it rarely comes with a laissez faire attitude if others decide to take an unwelcome but interesting wander across their turf.

The “boring snoring” interview model is entirely justified in the service of an interesting plan.  If you are a party leader with an interesting plan, you don’t get someone to accidentally announce it on Newsnight because they have been asked a sneering question. You choose either a passionately supportive audience or a dangerously hostile one that you must win over.

That said, and it may not matter at all to the final result, I’m not sure that either David Cameron or Ed Miliband has a very interesting plan for their respective parties.  Both seem to say and do what you’d think they would say and do.  George Osborne responds to better economic figures by… saying there are better economic figures.  A lot of people on the Labour side often seem to think that “attack” is all about establishing that a Conservative politician is, in fact, a member of the Conservative Party.  More than any lurch away from internal reform, the story of both Cameron and Miliband is of a reversion to the basic propositions of either party.  And once the positions are fixed and immoveable, then the only variation is the volume at which we shout at each other.

Osborne would be smarter to give the kind of speech Vince Cable is gave this week.  All these positive stories about different economic indicators could quite soon end up undermining a crucial part of the Conservative argument for 2015: the twin claims that cuts will still be necessary and Labour still don’t get it.

Similarly, if Ed and Ed want to take people with them as they pivot from growth’n’jobs to living standards, they need an interesting route.  The reintroduction of a 10p tax rate and adoption of a "mansion tax" may or may not be the right policies, but they are the kind of policies you expect from Labour.  If you want to be known as the cost of living party, you have to find cost of living controversies:  encouraging supermarkets to expand, for example, or criticising regulations that are popular with the some but come with a price-tag for consumers.

Politics is always “boring snoring” until people change their minds. The surprising thing isn’t that people tend to agree, today, with what they thought last week, and what they thought last year.  The surprising thing is that neither party seems terribly worried about that.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Parliament and foreign policy

It’s a nodalong line to say that no one respects politicians any more.  I think it’s only half true: while people seem very willing to reject the line given by an authority, you can still be a politician and have caps doffed towards you, provided you are also seen as anti-authority.  It’s a nodalong to say politicians are personally ambitious and ridiculously preening but somehow these descriptions get dumped on the most modest of junior ministers more often than they are allocated to, say, a Nigel Farage or a George Galloway.

If you still haven’t read Philip Cowley’s work on the trend towards parliamentary rebellion then make a start with this now before you write something silly in a national newspaper.   Then, if you've got another five minutes, read Adam Lent on the power of a parliamentary select committee that is answerable to no one.  We seem to have found a way of dividing the politicians (boo-hiss) from the tribunes (hurrah-fawn). The idea of being a rebellious tribune seems congruent with a celebrity-influenced culture, while the vocation of becoming a to-be-hated-responsible-politician looks, in that context, upsettingly perverse.

British foreign policy is now passing from the executive to the legislature.  That may be good – legislatures are less prone to departmental capture, individual misjudgement or isolation from “common sense”.  But it’s happened with the background assumption that parliament is packed with these wonderful tribunes.  Without that, a healthy amount of scepticism, let alone the level of anti-politics discussion we normally have in this country, would have us focussing on the potential disadvantages of this new arrangement.

There are some things the UK parliament is very good at but collectively forming a plan and then judging its success or failure is not one of them. As this week has shown, the default if there is no agreement is no action, even if that’s not what either party leader wanted at the start of the week.  If things go wrong after a decision, there are 649 others to blame. Exhaust those and you can say it was a good decision badly implemented.  See a poll result that backs your instincts: say it is the settled will of the British people.  See a poll result that doesn't: say it shows the government has failed to make the case.  Ministers and shadow ministers, whatever their faults, do not have these options and that means they have to take decisions in expectation of a level of scrutiny that no individual MP would otherwise face.

The constituency link is a very good thing, but, without the check of an effective executive, it can lean towards parochialism.  Given the pressure on MP’s time, they tend to specialise on one or two countries if they pay any great attention to foreign affairs – only a very few, like the excellent Mike Gapes, can talk authoritatively about foreign policy across the piece.  It may be a good or a bad thing but I think it is hard to argue against the idea that a more legislative foreign policy will be a less activist foreign policy.

Now that parliament has been given this power, however, there are ways it could be helped to exercise it well.  If MPs make the effort they can find out the historical background to a situation but it's almost impossible to get detail in real-time.  Given that the really important foreign policy decisions are often those after a discontinuous event, like the Arab Spring, it's a bit concerning that the new decision-makers are left with few more effective options than pressing F5 on the BBC news website. Giving our MPs better direct access to Foreign Office country specialists would be helpful. Eventually the intelligence services will have to work out some kind of forum for discussion with backbenchers.  All of this will probably cost money.

But the most important change would be to start interviewing tribunes like they’re just politicians: not “so, Sir Ming, is there anything you would like to tell us about the problems with the government’s policy” but rather, “so what’s the Sir Ming plan for Syria then?” Backbench MPs (and frontbenchers who act like backbenchers) need to face the same interrogation as the executive – so more pieces like this one from Richard Spencer please, particularly if they feature David Davis.  Only the media and the voters can hold the tribunes accountable for decisions (or the gaps where decisions should have been) and they will both need reminding to do so in the future.

Saturday, 31 August 2013

August music

Best new album...
The Silver Gymnasium by Okkervil River

Best new EP...
Optimism by Elizabeth Morris (pictured with her normal band, 'Allo Darlin')

Best gig...
The Ballet at the Lexington

Lost weekend by Lloyd Cole

Running to...
I Need Your Mind by Singing Adams

As I write this...
The East River by Jeffrey Lewis

Saturday, 24 August 2013

How we won or lost

Anna Karenina starts with the idea that  “all happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”.  Political parties are the same: everyone usually agrees on why a party succeeds and everyone has a different theory about why a party does badly.

If Labour win in 2015, Labour people won't argue about why: the reasons they will give will all be alike. This week's John McTerrnan article gave them: "the return of the 'Iraq War refugees'" from Liberal Democrat to Labour, "an insurgent Ukip – tempting [the Conservatives] to veer to the right" and the public's desire for "economic optimism" after years of voter-grumpiness on economic issues such as the cost of living.  How do I know that everyone will agree?  Look at the furiously positive response to John's article: as well as dozens of Labour activists, it was retweeted by numerous MPs and PPCs, including current and former shadow cabinet ministers and even the Shadow Chancellor (despite the fact that John cleverly snuck in the line that Ed Miliband "is breaking the link with trade unions" which many Labour MPs would normally run a mile from ever endorsing).

By contrast, if Labour lose, everyone will explain the defeat in their own way and it'll be quite a row.  The sounding off of the last few weeks has given us a preview of some of the arguments that will be used if things do go awry.  For some people it might be a case of insufficient shouting, for others it could be because Labour stopped talking about Ed Miliband's moral economy plans. Some people would then say that we lost when we stopped defending Labour's record in office.  I would put money on someone responding with the perennial analysis that Labour was insufficiently different from the Tories and had, by this point, failed to provide the ideological clarity that the disenchanted working classes demanded.  Perhaps the most unusual preview was from a little earlier in the year, when Jon Cruddas warned that "if the party simply put forward an agenda that I would want then it wouldn’t win".

I remember two theories of our defeat in 2010.  Amidst the storm of contradictory explanations being thrown about both in the media and in the party, these ones kept recurring.  One was that Labour had "lost touch".  This got repeated because it disguised disagreement: we could have lost touch over Iraq or immigration, we could have lost touch with people who didn't vote or those who switched to the Tories and so on.  The other theme that got a bit more circulation was simply "Gordon".  This created a strange unity between those who couldn't stand the man and those who thought that there were no failings in the Brown Government's political or policy approach in 2010 and put any problems with "Brownism" down to personal limitations they ascribed to one individual.

Hopefully for Labour, all of this will be irrelevant.  No one will have time for long expositions about the path to victory: the winning team will be running around frantically trying to govern and win re-election despite extremely tight public finances.  But if the election does not go our way then the disagreements about why will matter a great deal and, for that reason, it's worth keeping an eye out for when draft versions are floated.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!

Where do all the boring political tweets come from?  It’s not as important a puzzle as how to stop anonymous abusive and threatening tweets, but I find it interesting.   There were 13,982,026 tweets in response to President Obama’s re-election.  Those tweets didn’t provide news (everyone knew – it was the biggest news story anywhere in the world that evening) and they were wasted as argument (the voting had just ended).

The best are the MPs.  “Tennis is a great game for everyone not just Andy Murray. Lots of places to play around the country” [Update: with this link after the tweet] is a real tweet from a very nice and intelligent Labour MP – and she only got listed as the tenth worst example in this list.  The great Sadie Smith created the #tweetlikeanMP idea:
The mutual backslapping from politicians of the same side (“gr8 speech from @MaryMcMemberMP!”) is only slightly less edifying than the use of the Blackberry to make snide remarks about your opposition number whilst they’re speaking (“@CoalitionMinister is victim of #factfail. LOL!”).
The standard twitter biography includes some variation on “RTs are not endorsements” but the rule often only applies one way: I retweet you thinking it is with a sardonically raised eyebrow, but when you retweet me I will always believe it to a huge pat on the back.  Jokes about your opponents get retweets, jokes about your own side don’t.  Calls to rally 'round the leader, or listen to the members, or defend the record, or get out on the doorstep are very easy to retweet. Doubts, ambiguities and any admission that you'd rather be in bed than canvassing on a Sunday morning must be kept concealed.

If the twitter abuse phenomenon has something to do with anonymity then this stems from the opposite. Your name and political career are attached to every tweet.  If you're even a part-time politico, that means you must beware anything you may later change your mind on and must never say anything internally controversial - because one easy way to get a retweet is to denounce someone else's loyalty to the Party.

Which brings us to the Milan Kundera quote above: it is his definition of kitsch in Soviet-run Czechoslovakia.  Kitsch isn't enjoying being moved but enjoy the fact that like other people, you have been moved. To aim for retweets is to aim for kitsch: choosing to say things where everyone in your group can bask in the warm glow of feeling the same way.  So: your opponents are uniformly bastards, every other member of your party is a fantastic person and if you happen to be doing something that your constituents also do - like watching the tennis or going for a curry - then you tell people about it immediately.

Why does it matter?  It might just be me becoming more jaded, but I’ve started to think that all the main parties in UK make more unforced political errors than they used to and I think twitter has something to do with it.

Take broadcast interviews, articles or speeches.  Now, you often don't need to watch them yourself: you can just wait for the tweets to come in saying how excellent or awful they are. Some politicians even appear to line up their twitter reaction ahead of time.  And if that is the internal metric that MPs are using to rate each other, it creates an even greater propensity towards the tub-thumping and an even greater barrier to self-awareness.

Worse are the implications for political strategy.  How many Tories tweeted, after the 2012 Budget, "Bit worried that this 50p tax thing could bugger us for almost a whole year"?  If they did, they didn't get a retweet.  On the Labour side, in the last parliament, blogs meant that our MPs and activists could read more about national politics and could seek out more left-of-centre opinions.  Now every one of our MPs has their most active constituency party members' views constantly piped onto their phones 24 hours a day and gets a small psychological reward every time they say something which pleases those activists.  I'm not sure we've fully appreciated the consequences of that fact and I suspect they are not entirely good.

Any retweets of this blogpost will be welcomed as knowingly ironic.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The potential alliances in today’s Labour Party

About a month ago, Rafael Behr worried about the lack of “a prominent and powerful phalanx of ardent ‘Milibandites’” and this week Dan Hodges made a similar point.  It got me thinking – not about how strong or weak the “Milibandites” might be – but about alliances in politics.  People often seem to think about the strength of a particular faction within a party but I suspect factions don’t wax and wane very much in any party: what shifts about are the relations between different factions.

There are only so many possible combinations but, as the labels can be quite vague, I thought I’d make this taxonomy of the potential alliances in Labour politics today with named politicians.   They’re there as archetypes that could find common ground, rather than joint-leaders of any faction.  I'd say Ed Miliband came to power on the back of the Michael-Michael combination but there are days when he looks more keen on the other two possible alliances.

The Peter-Peter Pact
Peter Mandelson (2010 leadership election David #1) and Peter Hain (Ed M #1)
Would coalesce around…  pro-Europeanism, electoral reform, active industrial policy, potential coalitions with the Liberal Democrats
Could breakdown over… public service reform, foreign policy, welfare reform, fiscal discipline
Heroes… Chuka Umunna
Villains… Damian McBride
Make the deal… over a nice South African red.

The Two Johns League
John Spellar (2010 leadership election Ed B #1, David M #2) and John Reid (David M #1). 
Would coalesce around…  tough on crime, Trident, Israel, attacking the Liberal Democrats, apprenticeships, defending Labour’s record, Euro-realism, knocking on doors, no to AV
Could breakdown over…  public service reform, trade union influence, fiscal discipline
Heroes… Louise Casey
Villains… Charles Kennedy
Make the deal… half-way through a canvassing session.

The Michael-Michael Axis
Michael Dugher (2010 leadership election Ed B #1, Ed M #2) and Michael Meacher (Ed M #1, Diane Abbott #2)
Would coalesce around…  fiscal stimulus, attacking the Conservatives, tweeting, moving on from New Labour
Could breakdown over…  foreign policy, deals with the Liberal Democrats, Trident, crime, immigration
Heroes… Ed Miliband
Villains… Dan Hodges
Make the deal… it probably has to involve Little Italy at some stage.

And that's it.  Each one of those combinations, when they are working in harmony, has enough support to run the Labour Party.  Would be interested if anyone could do a Tory or Lib Dem version…

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Pip Miliband

On Wednesday, Len McCluskey said that trade unions “have been taken for granted by people who welcome our money, but not our policy input”.   It’s the first time in a while I’ve seen the link between money and policy so explicitly made by someone on the Labour side, although the key word of “input” is a usefully vague one.

If an individual - wealthy donor or general secretary - could go into Ed Miliband’s office and say, here’s £500,000 conditional on a change in Labour’s policies, most people would be outraged.  But when you get beyond quid pro quo things become more complex. The private donations a party gets inevitably depend on the policies it articulates.  Take up a business-friendly policy agenda and you will tend to receive more business donations, take up a union-friendly policy agenda and you may well receive more union funding.  On the other hand, run a campaign like Ken Livingstone’s last one then you can’t really complain if you then get fewer Jewish donors.  It seems people are accept there will always be some kind of relationship between money and policy, but have problems if the relationship becomes too precise.

Charles Dickens would have had fun with that distinction.  The Dickensian problem is often what money can and cannot buy. He’s not a revolutionary: money’s role is accepted but the novels play with the boundary between its legitimate and illegitimate role.  An inheritance is a good thing, but what if it comes with requirements on who you marry?  “Great expectations” from a wealthy benefactor may be fine, but characters often find out that their benefactors are not who they seem.

A starting point could be to change Labour’s rules to forbid, on pain of expulsion, anyone making a donation, in cash or in kind, dependent on a specific policy or policies.  I suspect if you were determined to maintain a transactional relationship, you could get around such a rule.  But it would mean, at least, if you cock up and say it out loud or put your demands in an email, you might get into trouble.

But there’s another way policy and money could be linked: targeting donations to those local parties where the MP or candidate agrees with your policy.  For example, twenty Labour MPs signed Early Day Motion 2720 (Session 2010-12) which referenced Dickens’ bicentenary in calling for authors to receive their due from intellectual property.  Twenty donations of a few thousand pounds would put me to the top of the pro-Dicenksians’ Christmas card lists.  It might make those MPs more likely to win re-election. And some other Labour MPs, who actually thought Dickens was a longwinded moraliser and irrelevant to debates about copyright today, might suddenly decide that they liked EDM 2720.

One of the less commented on parts of Ed Miliband's recent speech on Labour and the unions was a commitment that Labour would immediately "establish standard constituency agreements with each trade union so that nobody can allege that individuals are being put under pressure at local level."  It'll be interesting to see how these work but I'd be tempted to go further and include large individual donors to: requiring individuals and national union funds (not local branches) to either donate to the single constituency where they happen to be are based, or to the party nationally.

Why all the Dickens references?  Well the Ed Mili-as-Pip reading of Great Expectations hasn't been done yet and in the cut-throat world of Westminster commentry, you have to bagsy your literary allusions before anyone else gets them. Pip arrives in adulthood with a fortune he isn’t allowed to ask questions about. Eventually, he finds out that it’s a gift from an ex-convict called Magwitch.  The money isn't stolen and Magwitch wants nothing in return for it:
"I lived rough, that you should live smooth; I worked hard that you should be above work.  What odds, dear boy?  Do I tell it fur you to feel a obligation? Not a bit."
Initially, Magwitch horrifies Pip.  He has become a gentleman with a great future ahead of him, but the source is corrupt.  Eventually, he comes to realise that Magwitch isn't a villain, just a strange obsessive who actually means Pip well.  But nevertheless, Pip can't go on taking the money: he chooses a more modest, less successful life, without any of Magwitch's money.

The analogy is not perfect.  The unions didn't take Ed Miliband from being a blacksmith's apprentice and make him leader of the Labour Party.  Len McCluskey certainly isn't any kind of criminal, though to be fair to Magwitch, he never tells Pip what to do.  If Labour is to stop accepting huge cheques written by general secretaries on behalf of their members, it won't impoverish Ed himself or the parts of the Labour party he is most personally dependent on as leader of the opposition, as he these are all state funded.  There's flavour of the same dilemma in both stories, however.

More state funding or a low cap on donations would resolve the problem, although both face huge political obstacles.  While party finance still exists in what is effectively a Victorian economy, it will continue to present these Victorian predicaments.

Friday, 26 July 2013

July Music*

Best new album...
I Blame Society by The Ballet

Running to...
Don't Swallow the Cap by The National

Best new EP...
Rumours by Standard Fare (pictured)

Best gig...
First Aid Kit at Somerset House

Eighteen with a bullet by Pete Wingfield

As I write this...
GMF by John Grant

*AKA the bands I'd plug in my resignation letter to Ed Miliband

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Record collectors

Last year, as a country, we only committed half the crimes we had carried out in 1995.  You can mess about with the different set of figures but it’s hard to argue that crime has not come down since its peak around twenty years ago.  For the reasons why, go and read The Economist  and the LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance.   Some of the drop has happened under this Government, most under Labour: both tried to claim the credit at the time.         

You can get a big cheer at a Labour Party meeting (or twitter equivalent) if you say "we have to defend the record".  Alistair Campbell does it eloquently here about New Labour reform in education, the other day Polly Toynbee sang the same melody with different lyrics.  You get a big cheer because everyone can cheer, as everyone is allowed to define which bits of the record are being referred to.  The argument is always incomplete but it's now part of the Labour commonsense that somehow the Conservatives successfully blackened Labour's economic reputation, and might now be trying to do the same thing on health.

I'm not sure the public reacts well to politicians talking about what they've done.  Peter Hoskin of ConHome reported on a big qualitative research exercise on immigration commissioned by Lord Ashcroft.  Hoskin found Ed Miliband beating the Government on immigration:

A live “worm poll” was simultaneously constructed out of everyone’s responses, as pictured to the right.... Miliband – yes, Miliband – seemed to come out on top. He was followed by Cameron and then Clegg. ... What lost it for Clegg was disbelief, even laughter, at the government achievements he claimed. When he said that the Coalition had cut net migration by a third, you could almost hear a collective “yeah, right” ripple through the audience – even though the Lib Dem leader was speaking the truth. And this response wasn’t just reserved for Tuition Fees Nick. Cameron got some of it, too. 
If people take what politicians say face value, then talking about your record is a good idea.  "A 22% rise in good things and a 33% fall in bad things, you say?  Well well done you." If people don't trust politicians very much then, if they are listening at all, they are using what politicians say as a heuristic. If they hear you talking about the deficit, then they think you are going to make cuts.  If they hear you complaining about cuts, they think you are going to spend more.  And, saying "we halved crime" can be quickly translated into "we don't think crime is a problem now".  And there were still 3.7 million crimes recorded, even in this record-low crime year.

I'm not saying that political parties shouldn't be interested in how they are remembered.  How experts and editors talk about your record really matters and is worth fighting over - politicians normally overestimate how much they can "shift" the debate with their own speeches and press releases, and underestimate how much such disinterested and geeky bodies like the Institute for Fiscal Studies actually end up setting the parameters of a public debate.  And a record can be part of an ongoing story: "We want to do x, our first step was to introduce y but now we are focussing on z" and so on.

But if you're listing your own achievements, even if your own side go wild, I suspect that it's a sign that you're losing.  We could call it the Peter Davison rule, based on the horror above, possibly the crappiest thing* I was ever involved in producing in a Labour election campaign. Even when you're right, defending your record is about you and the past, not about the voters and the future. A 50 per cent fall in crime is an extraordinary statistic. But nobody gets to take a bow.

*Overall, I think our broadcasts were better than the Tory ones in 2010, given the material we had to work with - especially this one. The awfulness of the video above was entirely the fault of me, the other politicos and the chaos of the campaign, rather than the lovely Silverfish team who did the production.

Friday, 12 July 2013

Book review: Left without a future? Social justice in anxious times by Anthony Painter

People have different reactions to a break up.  Some embarrass themselves, chasing just about anything they come across when they really should know better.  Others get morose, spotting all the pitfalls in any new entanglement and predicting that the problems of the last relationship will recur in any new one.  Sometimes one extreme follows the other.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that Labour has behaved like this since being dumped by the country in 2010.  Anthony Painter’s new book plays with both options, which he describes, in the context of the Republican Party after its defeat in 2008, as a choice where “one side lacks sanity and the other lacks authenticity”.  There have been a lot of ideas flying around the centre-left debate in the UK and US since 2010 and Anthony engages with all of them. If you want to be caught up on exactly where the debate in the Labour Party has reached since 2010, this book will do it.  That breadth makes it hard for one thesis to break through but it also means that different sections of the book will appeal to very different audiences.  The book turns on the rarely contested idea that “the economic collapse was a moment of disruption: a critical juncture” but it sees this as an acute symptom of wider social and industrial change.  It then looks at how the left should respond to this change in various different areas, from economic policy, to constitutional reform to party structures and campaigns.

To a large degree, Anthony leans towards the cynics, like me, but he does it in a characteristically generous and friendly way.  He was one of the In the Black Labour authors who announced Labour’s eventual economic policy two years before Ed Balls and Ed Miliband and that is there to be seen throughout the book.  His analysis of how the adoption of Keynesianism, while sensible at the time, became “the new means of the left avoiding the very real constraints it faces”, is particularly good.  On immigration, he is too smart to think that popular anti-immigrant feeling can be wished away with a few more houses and a higher minimum wage, but he also avoids the fallacy that the public will always prefer the party that most loudly echoes its prejudices.  His call for “honesty and pragmatism” on immigration is both boring and right (I wrote something a bit similar here).   Most enjoyably, he devotes a little time to gently teasing out the contradictions of “Blue Labour” – possibly the best example of cringe-inducing post-rejection behaviour since Labour lost office in 2010, with its propensity to devolve into either moral hectoring or moral abdication. 

Anthony jokes about the left’s sometimes painfully needy embrace of Keynesianism in the face of cuts, but some of his choices have this feel to them too.  A lot of the book’s economics relies on employers, unions and voluntary groups reaching unenforceable agreements to substantially increase everybody’s wages.  How this might actually happen is under-discussed, as are the downsides of how this model could, in Anthony’s words “create unemployment and inflation, and result in lost output”.  There are vague but scary predictions that “it is only a matter of time before there is a politicisation of Englishness” which, unchecked, could lead to a “rhetorically moderate and populist form of fascism” emerging.   Anxiousness about Englishness always baffles me, I think it’s the like electoral reform: an apparent answer to political disengagement but in reality one that can be debated for months without ever shifting a single voter from one political party to another.

Since Crosland, the idea, approximated pretty closely during the Blair years, was for strong growth to create tax revenues that good Labour people used for redistribution and public services.  Across the moderate wing of the party, there is an acceptance that the next Labour Government will find that much harder because of today’s substantial and growing public sector debt.  Some people have not woken up to that fact and Anthony makes short work of them in the book. 

However, Anthony then reassures us that the New Jerusalem isn’t any further away, we just need to go via a different route.  Without that different route, things look disconcertingly grim.   That’s what, I suspect, makes Anthony and many others so ready to embrace ideas that, in the cold light of government, may not look too pretty.  The alternative is deeply depressing: that we may have to lower our sights and that what we might have planned to achieve by the end of a first Labour term in office, may not now hope to be finished until mid-way through a third.

Everyone is still paying a price for the decision to prevent acute economic collapse in 2008, even if it was the right judgement at the time.  Individuals and families have deferred and downgraded many of their plans because of unemployment and higher taxes but social democratic policy types seem to think we can still get everything we wanted and just as quickly.

Since 2010, the standard left-of-centre seminar title has been “What’s the point in progressives when there’s no money to go around?” I don’t think the answer is “none”.  But the fear of saying “probably a bit less than we thought” is one we need to get over.

Post script – I wrote most of this last night but Policy Network have now put the video of the launch up online . Am annoyed I missed it: looks like Phil Collins and Alison McGovern were on especially good form.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

I can run faster than any of them

Sometimes there are moments in politics, after which, nothing is ever the same again.  And sometimes there are moments in politics that change absolutely nothing (other than costing taxpayers £76,300).  

Today is the fifth anniversary of the Haltemprice and Howden by-election, caused by David Davis MP and very possibly the least momentous event in my political lifetime. Daniel Knowles of The Economist once wrote, slightly cruelly, that Davis is "inexplicably treated as a political heavyweight".  This is unfair: Davis is a great reminder that success in politics is relative and ability is only measured in comparison to your contemporaries. The Tory party up to 2005 was the kind of environment where a David Davis could truly shine.

David Davisisms were one of the few things that got some poor souls in Victoria Street through the dark years of 2005-2010: here are a few of my favourites for you to enjoy on this special day.

DD on DD

DD on belief

DD on his by-election

DD and charm

DD on people

The boy's got balls. He passes the testosterone count of the Davis camp. (The Independent, 24 October 2005, sadly not online)

DD on choice

Martha Kearney: “Okay, I have been dared to ask this one - boxers or briefs?” 
David Davis: “Briefs.”
Martha Kearney: “Coldplay or the Scissor Sisters?”
David Davis: “Coldplay.”
Martha Kearney: “Blonde or brunette?”
David Davis: “Blonde…I shouldn't have said that, my wife is brunette! [Laughs]”

BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, 9 November 2005

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Why we don’t understand marriage tax breaks

Every time David Cameron proposes tax cuts for married couples, much energy is then spent trying to prove that they are a bad idea.  This week we have had Nick Clegg, Kate Green and George Osborne’s biographer Janan Ganesh each pointing out the problems (Ganesh’s is repeated on the right because it is admirably efficient).

The proponents of marriage tax breaks seem obtuse to a lot of people.  Of course £150 is not going to make anyone get married.  Of course any marriage for tax advantage is pretty grim.  Of course getting married does not make you more needy and of course subsidising marriage is a strangely indirect way of substituting stay-at-home parenting, if that is what the goal is.  And when someone is being obtuse, we often start speaking louder, as if that will persuade them.

To understand why this dialogue always fails, I think it’s important to distinguish between conservatism and the wide array of political creeds that all have some links back to liberalism.  Free marketeers and Fabians disagree on what works but they agree on what would count as a success or a failure.  They agree on a deliberately anonymous language of incentives, needs and distributions – even if they passionately disagree on how they work and which matter more. 

Conservatism is not anonymous and it is not necessarily about measurable results.  That is why Tories talk about “recognition” of marriage:  using symbols to set societal standards.  It's very different framework for political beliefs and it is a perfectly legitimate one to hold to.   Ideas of respect and charity are quite hard to fit into the more liberal lexicon.  It's how a lot of people think about the world - especially when the issues seem separate from legal or economic concerns. 

We’re doing it a lot more in the  Labour Party now.  We’re talking about giving priority in social housing to people who have been resident in area longer or who do some charitable work.  As an incentive it is odd (we wish to dissuade people from moving house?) and length of residence doesn't make you poorer.  But as a conservative policy it makes sense.  Labour also seem to be considering taking benefits from people who have worked for two years consistently and giving the savings to people who have worked for five years consistently: while the distributional consequences seem likely to favour men and older people, the symbolic standard setting is what is seems to matter.  Subsidising employers to increase wages is sometimes talked about as preferable to tax credits: targeting the subsidy on employers has a symbolic advantage, even if it ignores questions of need.  Given all this, why couldn’t marriage tax breaks for the low-income households be a Blue Labour policy?

I suspect this division between conservatives and people with some variety of liberal belief is the cigarette paper between David Cameron and George Osborne: Cameron is a conservative, while Osborne is a rightwing liberal.  This has been Conservative tax policy for over eight years and yet Osborne has managed to say almost nothing on the subject for that entire time.  It makes me like Osborne a little more than his boss.  Winning the argument that marriage tax breaks are silly on any liberal reading is easy: winning the argument that we should judge things in some sort of liberal fashion is much harder.  It might mean being a little more ready to work with the Osbornes and the Cleggs, and being a little less keen to endorse conservative ways of judging things, even when they are popular.

Friday, 28 June 2013


Lord Ashcroft has done another one of his large sample polls.  Large sample polls mean you can play around with tricksy little subsets that politics is really all about.

For fun - yes - I thought I'd do a little visualisation: sort of a political Dulux colour chart.  Here are the biggest groups of voters in the Ashcroft poll who have changed their political allegiance since 2010.  The big ones are, unsurprisingly, Tory to UKIP and Lib Dem to Labour.  The interesting thing, I think, is how small all the other stripes are.

(These are the nine largest groups and each is shown with the 2010 party colour on the left and the 2013 voting intention on the right.  In order of size, they are Conservative → UKIP, Lib Dem → Labour, Lib Dem → Don't Know, Conservative → Don't Know, Lib Dem → UKIP, Labour → Don't Know, Lib Dem → Conservative, Conservative → Labour, Labour → UKIP.  The full data is on page two of this pdf)

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Ed Miliband: Escape Artist

I thought George Osborne’s spending review idea was rather clever.  In government, you spend a lot of your time infuriated that no one is interested in the opposition.  This was a way to dominate a month of politics with a conversation about cuts and put the question to Ed Miliband that every opposition fears: “what exactly would you differently?”  It was hard to see how Ed could escape the iron logic of Osborne's trap: either you match this, you borrow more or you find the money in a vote-losing fashion.
It hasn’t worked out that way. There have been major news stories outside Westminster: the Woolwich attacks, Prism, Syria and the G8, for example.  Some Tory ministers decided they wanted to be seen standing up for their departments more than they wanted to put Labour on the back foot.  But the biggest reason that the spending review has not been a disaster is that Labour announced some economic policies.  The front page of the Sun the day after the spending review was supposed to have been something about Labour having a joke of an economic policy.  In the absence of much political news in the spending review, Osborne's burger preferences were judged more interesting.

The fact that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband have done this is interesting.  For two years, the emphasis has been on persuading the country how different Labour's goals are to the goals of the Conservatives.  It is the first time Labour has deliberately taken a step in precisely the opposite direction . A month ago, some people in the Labour Party would've passionately denounced such tactics as conceding the "frame" to the enemy and diluting Labour's appeal.  Now, these manoeuvres are becoming part of the Balls-Milibandite orthodoxy.

The way they did it was interesting too. Winter fuel allowances snipped but kept for 95 per cent of pensioners with incomes of up to about £40,000 a year.  Child benefit restrictions not accepted, but not a priority for redress. Cuts for people who have been in work for two years and lose their job, but only to pay for extra benefits for those who have been in work for five years.  Ruling out borrowing for tax cuts or new public sector jobs, but refusing to rule out an increase in capital spending to be funded by additional borrowing.

Tactically, it has proved enough and the Conservatives can hardly complain: when he was leader of the opposition, David Cameron got through dozens of interviews with little more than a vague pledge to spend the same as Labour and a moan about cost over-runs in government IT procurement.   When you are in opposition you are rarely interesting enough to be interrogated on the detail (unless you’re fascinatingly disastrous).  Ed Balls and Ed Miliband’s speeches did enough to make the Government, not Labour, the main story of the spending review – exactly what Osborne did not want.  They did it while conceding the absolute minimum necessary.

Sometimes I puzzle over exactly what Labour is up to, but my latest theory is that they are attempting to gain the maximum number of votes with the minimum number of moves like these, on areas where they feel uncomfortable.  It must be very tiring and it isn't the approach I'd choose, but, like the escape artist who can get out of heavy chains and locks using only a concealed toothpick, it deserves a bit of applause when it is done well.

Monday, 24 June 2013

Happy birthday Eric

George Orwell's 110th birthday is tomorrow.

Since the fall of communism, I think there’s been a bit of a trend to miss the anti-totalitarian politics out of Orwell’s writing and turn him into a middling civil liberties campaigner and nothing more.

I don’t know if Orwell today would be writing about Syria or the CCTV cameras in Islington but the Shamified version of Orwell seems to be the one you see more and more of. "Orwellian", the adjective, may be to blame.  As an antidote, if you have half an hour this week, please read or reread “Looking Back on the Spanish Civil War”.  

It’s the sense of discomfort that I think gives it its moral force: every single position he takes is done after looking at its most brutal and upsetting consequence.  The word I'm looking for here is "unflinching" - it's what Orwellian should mean. 

The quote below is just one example, and it goes from good to great because of the last fifteen words.

“If the Leader says of such and such an event, 'It never happened'–well, it never happened.  If he says that two and two are five–well, two and two are five. This prospect frightens me much more than bombs–and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement.”

That’s very rare in any political writer and completely absent from the writing that cites Orwell as just some patron saint of slippery slopes.