Sunday 30 November 2008

LibDem reshuffle leaks from on high

Nick Clegg is going to have a difficult time with several Parliamentary colleagues after thinking out loud about his next reshuffle with fellow MP and chief of staff Danny Alexander on a plane to Scotland within earshot of the Sunday Mirror.

Apart from the personal comments, his strong preference for David Laws over Steve Webb also reflects a desire to tilt the balance of party policy rightwards,

But more damaging still may be the LibDem leader's comment that he finds a Tory defeat unimaginable.

He even revealed he would consider a coalition but, while he didn’t say which party he’d side with, he added he would only consider it if Tory David Cameron loses the next election.

“I would think about it,” he admitted. “But only if the Tories lose. And I can’t imagine that.”

Saturday 29 November 2008


Steve Richards in The Independent argues that a hung Parliament has become more likely and suggests that the cross-party tectonic plates of British politics have shifted in the economic crisis:

"The emergency debate in the Commons highlighted a significant divide. Labour and the Liberal Democrats agree on the need for substantial government intervention at a time of national crisis. They disagree on what form the fiscal stimulus should take, with the Lib Dems favouring tax cuts for the low paid and bringing forward more capital investment. But both parties accept the principle that intervention is vital. This is also a view shared by a few Conservative MPs, the genuine modernisers. There are even one or two Tories who tell me they support the principle, at least, of tax rises for high earners – a view now backed to varying degrees by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

Cameron's position on Europe was always going to make it difficult for the Lib Dems to support a minority Conservative administration. The Tory leadership's response to the crisis blocks off the route almost entirely. When I put it to an influential Lib Dem that politically the Tory leadership was on a high again, and receiving rave reviews in parts of the media, he observed: "Cameron should be worried. The wrong people are cheering."

There are some echoes with wartime situations in the current crisis. No one knows how long it will last or how grave it will become. It could easily overwhelm the Government and propel Cameron into No 10 with a landslide. But if there is the equivalent to a war time coalition it is suddenly more likely that it will be a partnership between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Whether it would last for very long is a different question".

All very interesting. But I would judge that a coalition is very unlikely. In any hung parliament scenario, by far the most likely outcome is that Labour would leave office. The theory that the LibDems may have become uncoalitionable on left or right is strengthened by their choices after recent PR elections in Wales and Scotland. Cooperation is much easier from a position of strength rather than weakness, but the 1997 opportunity was missed.

So the economic crisis does not yet outweigh several, potentially formidable barriers on both sides to progressive cooperation. There is a mutual mistrust between MPs and activists in different parties; the failure to consummate the Blair-Ashdown project leaves the LibDems suspicious of being led up the garden path again, and there are important substantive policy differences on major issues, most notably civil liberties and electoral reform.

For all of those difficulties, serious voices on both sides do believe that there should at least be greater dialogue between the parties.


Afghan hopes for change

I would like to offer, however, the expectations of the war generation and of all ordinary Afghan people who are neither part of the failed ruling government, nor are they terrorists or Taliban, and I do hope that these unheard voices have a space to be heard.

writes Orzala Ashraf Nemat in an open letter to President-elect Barack Obama.

Women in Afghanistan, despite some claims to the contrary, are not liberated. Nor can an outside force liberate them. They are under-represented in the leadership and political decision-making processes; and moreover, the debates and discussions about negotiating with extremist groups such as Taliban and Hezb-e Islami are indeed endangering the status of women by limiting their access to education, jobs and political participation.


Conor Foley, who has circulated the letter, writes more about it on Liberal Conspiracy.

The low attention span of so many western commentators means that they want ‘instant’ solutions to every problem. Either we can ‘beat the Taliban on the battlefield’, as Nick Cohen predicted a year ago, or we must welcome them into the government, as Johan Hari now favours.

Why are these the only two options?


Orzala’s argument – which you can read for yourselves – is that while the Taliban cannot be beaten militarily, they can be isolated politically. She stresses the importance of supporting local, Afghan-led, peace initiatives and improving the social and economic conditions of ordinary Afghans. Strengthening the justice system, while recognising that 90 per cent of all cases get solved through customary law, improving access to education and supporting initiatives that raise the status of women are not distractions from the ‘real problem’ of tackling the Taliban, rather the re-emergence of the Taliban is a symptom of a wider failure of the intervention to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans.

LabourHome appeal

Alex Hilton of LabourHome is appealing for help with legal costs to defend a defamation action against an article on the website.

Friday 28 November 2008

Secret Tory strategy for the West Midlands marginals

When it comes to football, David Cameron is an Aston Villa fan. Not a particularly massive fan, as he admits.

But his uncle took him to a Villa game, so that's his team. (Of course, his uncle, Sir William Dugdale, was the Chairman of the football club but you can not choose your background, you know).

Clearly this allegiance could be worth a great many votes in the West Midlands' marginals come the next election.

Especially now that the Tory leader of Birmingham Council has had a brilliant idea for a light spot of rebranding.

City council leader Mike Whitby feels that the suburban-sounding Villa does not do justice to Britain’s second city.

He is urging a name change, possibly to ‘Aston Villa Birmingham’, and plans to raise the matter with club chairman Randy Lerner.

How to make Boris Johnson look like an expert.

Don't blame the police - blame the system

Anyone who is interested in civil and political liberties will be appalled by the police's treatment of Damian Green.

But the case points to a basic, unresolved contradiction in the way that the British polity handles the task of holding the executive to account. Both Green and the police are caught up in this contradiction (not to mention any civil servant who may or may not have been leaking stuff to Green). The lesson is that, rather than just criticising the police, we need to end this contradiction.

The contradiction is as follows: on the one hand we say, with a nod and a wink, that it is fair game for MPs to use leaked information as part of the process of Parliament holding the executive to account. It is because most of us think this that we see the police action against Green, even if he has been receiving leaked information, as not merely heavy-handed but as undemocratic. On the other hand, in saying this we are also saying, with that nod and a wink, that it is a normal part of the political process that opposition and criticism of the executive will rely on leaks - in other words, on some people, such as civil servants, doing what they shouldn't be doing. So we end up saying, in effect: 'Its fair play to break the rules!'

But it isn't fair play to those who have to break the rules if they are then punished for doing so - for doing what we, as citizens, implicitly rely on them doing to make opposition and criticism of the executive effective. Nor is it fair to say to those who have the job of enforcing the rules: 'Oh, don't enforce them too much.' Under the rule of law, the police's job is to apply the law - and not to pay attention to the nods and winks of the political elite.

As so often in our polity, the problem lies in the excessive power of the central state executive. If it had less power to limit the flow of information we could conceivably have a system in which Parliament could do its job of holding the executive to account without some people breaking any rules. Cases like this indicate how the 'freedom of information' agenda apparently remains seriously unfinished business.

Broad consensus on Green arrest

Leaks have always been part of politics. Daniel Finkelstein has a selection of Gordon Brown's greatest hits, as a rising star on the opposition benches.

Those examples make a powerful case as to why the government of the day was wrong to oppose freedom of information, which has seen the FoI information request compete with the brown paper envelope as a source of embarrasing information in the newspapers.

As regular Whitehall digger David Hencke writes of Damian Green's arrest, "the action is also very chilling to the normal terms of trade".

Michael White of The Guardian has a well judged column about why this seems an "ill-judged and hack-handed" police operation. He also writes illuminatingly about the background issues of secrecy and whistle-blowing, and

White is surely right that there must be a distinction between civil servants who leak and politicians who receive and use information.

Either way it's hard to understand why Green, a wholesome moderate Tory demoted by Michael Howard (surely worth a campaign medal in itself?), should have the old bill piling into his home and office at all, let alone in offensively large numbers.

It's different for the civil servant, whose duty is clear: one of confidentiality to his/her employer unless issues of conscience are so paramount that they amount to a public-interest defence.

On what we know now, there should be cross-party concern about this issue as appears to be the case. This is the sort of issue where Kevin Maguire will defend a Conservative.

There was some eager anticipation on LabourHome at an (unknown) story which might embarrass the Tories, this quickly turned into a discussion sympathetic to Green, asking questions about the actions of the police, and scrutinising the government. There is a similar mood among most centre-left blogs I have seen - for example, Conor Ryan, Hopi Sen, Tom Harris and myself - though there is legitimate annoyance at the offensively loose use of words like 'Stalinesque' and 'Mugabe' aimed at the government by elected politicans and not just anonymous blog astroturfers.

I am reminded of another case, which has tangentially resurfaced today.

To their credit, Tory and LibDem frontbenchers David Davis and David Heath produced a robust statement when there were concerns about the police authorising the bugging of conversations between Sadiq Khan MP and a constituent in prison, despite the Wilson doctrine.

I was especially unimpressed when, at the same time, Dean Godson, the Research Director of Policy Exchange using a column in the Times - "Don't be so eager to bash the Met" - to offer the thoughts that Mr Khan was "no shrinking violet" and "the most Islamist-friendly of MPs".

This was a highly inaccurate as well as offensive piece of innuendo, which could be easily rebutted, as I pointed out in a letter to The Times and a commentary at the time.

A consistency test

On the information which is currently public, the arrest of Damian Green appears a very strange affair. If politicians are to be arrested for the receipt of leaked documents, then the Commons benches could be rather empty.

So let me propose a credibility test for such issues: do we take a similar view about the principles involved, regardless of whether a member of their own party or another party is involved?

Nine members of the counter-terrorism squad to arrest Damian Green sounds absurdly heavy-handed to me. As did the style of the police's treatment of Ruth Turner during the cash for honours investigation. Aside from partisan bias, I can't see any reason to take a different view of those cases on the information which I have.

Chris Huhne of the LibDems seems to me to pass that test in his Today programme interview and other comments.

And while the shameful idiocy of Tory attack dog Guido Fawkes seems to know no limits, Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome deserves credit for having the sanity to remind commenters on ConservativeHome that "Britain is not Zimbabwe". (ConservativeHome rightly criticised the trivialisation of the struggle of Zimbabwe's democrats when a Labour councillor compared a dispute over committee places on Ealing Council to Mugabe).

The issue of how to have oversight and accountability of the police without the improper politicisation of policing does not depend on whether Ken or Boris is Mayor. There may have been that many legitimate criticisms of Ian Blair's record, but the Mayor's approach to how he should be replaced seemed to me to risk excessive politicisation.

There are many legitimate debates to be had about freedom of information, the Official Secrets Act, codes of conduct within the civil service and so on. But the approach to whistle-blowing and government confidentiality can not simply depend on what we think of the issue which the whistle-blower is acting upon.

Nobody believes that civil servants should have impunity to leak anything at all that they personally want to make public.

Or at least I thought that nobody thought that until I read George Osborne, quoted in the Guardian today.

To hide information from the public is wrong.

That is a very interesting blanket principle. It would be interesting to see how a Conservative government would apply it. I imagine they may discover that they think that some other balancing principles and trade-offs need to be considered.

But let us primarily celebrate this liberalising progress on the right. We are so often told that New Labour is authoritarian - but the Labour government has also here been the agent of a "ratchet effect" of liberalisation, however incomplete, on government information.

Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron were the rising stars of the Conservative SpAd classes ahead of the 1997 election when the Conservative campaign guide stated.

"The only group in Britain who are seriously interested in a Freedom of Information Act are inquisitive left-wing busy bodies."

They were supporters of the Margaret Thatcher principle that it should be for government to choose whatever it wanted to disclose or not disclose. As she who must be obeyed put it:

A Freedom of Information Act is inappropriate and unnecessary."

Now, they are quite sure that information just wants to be free.

That might be political opportunism, but it is also progress.

Thursday 27 November 2008

Rush to judgement

There was a discussion on the Today programme this morning of the new book 'No Time to Think: The Menace of Media Speed and the 24-Hour News Cycle' by Howard Rosenberg and Charles S Feldman. And how much more true that is of our own dear blogosphere.

The news that shadow immigration minister Damien Green was arrested broke about two hours ago. Very little information seems to be available yet.

The Conservatives are indignant. It might turn out that have every right to be. (They may know more about the rest of us about the events of the day). (Iain Dale is already quoting Martin Niemoller and campaigning for the Ashford One, though he also mentions the perils of commenting on a live story).

For now, those of us relying on publicly available information just don't know enough about it to judge. There doesn't yet seem to be any information from the police. The BBC 10 o'clock news report didn't cast much light on this.

My view is that it would be depressing and wrong if Labour, LibDem and civil society voices just jumped into a partisan response (as the first celebratory post on LabourHome has done) without bothering to find out some of the facts. The issues involved could turn out to be too important for that.

But, in the interests of being even-handed, if John Pienaar's report is correct, that the government and 10 Downing Street first found out about this afternoon's arrest tonight, then I hope the Conservative frontbench will apologise for immediately reaching for the term 'Stalinesque'. That can only be interpreted as the first thought being how to spin a personal attack on the Prime Minister. It isn't a description of policing. And anyone who knows some history might consider trying to use that term as carefully as Nazi or fascist ought to be used. There are plenty of other political insults available for 'punch and judy' knockabout politics without making a joke out of totalitarian mass murder.

So perhaps that might be better left to the unauthorised Tory attack dog Guido Fawkes rather than Her Majesty's Official Opposition (Guido immediately ran a Brown and Mugabe graphic which still appears in my Google Reader, yet now seems to have removed it).

Beyond that call for the occasional moment of reflection, when we all know something about this - tomorrow, or through the weekend - that might be the time to sound off and let you know what I think.

Once I have had a chance to think about it.

Live long and prosper

Guest post by Lewis Cooper

Hollywood actors who win Oscars live on average three years longer than those who are nominated for an Oscar, but never win one, according to Sir Michael Marmot at the Fabian Health Inequalities conference this week.

Now, it is of course not my wish to make a comparison between Hollywood actors and politicians in terms of their need for public adulation, power or success, but I did think it might be worth checking for similar findings that may exist in Westminster. I thus did a quick search comparing the lengths of lives of Prime Ministers and their deputies. And sure enough: in the post-1945 period, those who achieved the highest office of Prime Minister lived on average 9 years longer than those Deputy Prime Ministers.

(This in fact rises to a difference of 12 years if we include the Wilson and Heath governments, where no official Deputy Prime Ministers were named, leaving it to the deputy leader of the party or leader of the House of Commons to claim the role- perhaps, indeed, this difference following a lack of official recognition itself further supports our 'finding'!)

Clearly then, we need to think about how we might address this issue of inequity: to develop the role of Deputy Prime Minister so that it can be more fulfilling, raising public awareness and recognition of the social utility of what they do, promoting the holder's sense of self-worth, and harnessing their full creative potential…

Whose third sector is it anyway?

Just got back from the annual NCVO Political Conference, where David Blunkett was launching his Fabian Freethinking paper on the third sector, published today.

So what to make of it all?

Firstly, hats off to Blunkett for hijacking the third sector’s major annual conference and using it as a Fabian launch event – one has to admire his gumption. Francis Maude, who joined him on the platform, acknowledged as much, saying ‘it is of course a great privilege to be involved in David Blunkett’s book launch…’

But - more significantly - it was useful to have Maude there, because his and Blunkett’s keynote speeches were quite instructive about the divisions between the parties on all this.

It wasn’t a partisan ding-dong by any means and was all very consensual and pleasant – especially on the changes wrought by recession, which will heighten the importance of volunteering and community (and therefore the third sector, though it was interesting to hear Maude state very clearly that ‘there are of course no good effects of a recession’, not wishing to fall into the Lansley trap), and mean money from charitable donations is likely to dry up.

But there were a few interesting points of division that are worth flagging up.

Mostly what was fascinating was the sharp difference in tone between Blunkett and Maude. Maude began and ended quite touchy-feely, but the meat of the piece fairly accurately represented what you might expect a Tory platform on the third sector to look like: we need a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ to tackle unprecedented levels of reoffending, fuelled by addiction, illiteracy and family breakdown; the state consistently fails to get those who have never worked, lone parents, and those on incapacity benefit back to work; charities should be paid by results; and the third sector is means of saving taxpayer money and delivering services more efficiently and effectively. Regardless of the merits or otherwise of these points, the thrust was clear – the third sector is first and foremost a tool for administering the remedy to ‘breakdown Britain.’ The lack of any surprises was surprising.

Blunkett was engaging and obviously takes this stuff very seriously. He also admitted and addressed some of the flaws in his paper – it contains ‘very few new ideas’, and the compulsion that might be necessary for some of his proposals to have teeth isn’t possible because ‘voluntary means voluntary’ – but what was striking was his stress on mutuality; the importance of community; and the strength to society that comes from volunteering. It was less about using the voluntary and community sector as a means of delivering a service and more about people giving their time to improve their lot and the lot of those around them. He also talked a fair amount about ‘strengthening the glue’ of society – and as someone remarked to me, first as Home Secretary he downgraded cannabis and now he’s strengthening the glue…

So Blunkett and Maude highlighted two different models of the third sector: community versus efficiency. As people are increasingly saying, after a longish period of wafer-thin wedge issues, the policy and philosophical differences between Labour and the Conservatives are reasserting themselves, and they were clearly on display here again.

Are the rich different in 2008?

Are the 21st century's rich people less likely to give to charity than those of the past? Victorian paternalism may be dead, but has the desire to help the community where you grew up or where your massive company disappeared too?
In a new Fabian paper today David Blunkett argued that the rich in Britain need to donate more to charity. His suggestion is that the British rich list are not pulling their weight as donations flatline, and the number of givers decline.
The recession should not be an excuse for ignoring your obligations to help the world around you, he argues.
Is it different in America? Bill Gates and Warren Buffett say they were inspired to give away large amounts of wealth by the example of celebrated 19th philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie.
But for those that argue that extraordinary giving is a feature of a US culture of extremes of wealth and poverty, it is worth noting that the second biggest charitable foundation in the world is the Swedish Stichting Ingka Foundation, topped only by the Gates Foundation.
Surveys show that in Britain those who have least often give a far higher proportion of their income to charity than the rich, and charities are reliant on a small core of givers.

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Tory leadership accepts new top rate. Does the party?

So what position will David Cameron and George Osborne take on a new top rate of tax for the top 1% of earners?

They are preparing to accept it.

Not being a Tory myself, I couldn’t easily predict which way they would jump (though my immediate hunch was they would not oppose it). So I put that question to Mr Iain Dale - one of the nicer that Tories I know and the grandest fromage in the Tory blogosphere - as the news broke on Sunday night, leading Mr Dale to be among the first to declare the "Death of New Labour'.

"I am certain that a clear majority of Tory voters will back this .. Are you sure you know which way your leadership will jump on this", I asked.

“Yes, I am sure”, he replied.

As Iain will have much, much better sources than I do, I would be interested to know if he’s still just as sure as he was about that by the middle of this week.

Some confusion could creep in, because the Tory frontbench has been briefing the opposite to the broadsheets.

Financial Times
David Cameron will not pledge to reverse the 45 per cent income tax rate for high earners, senior Tories said on Monday … We’re not falling into a classic Labour trap by opposing the 45 per cent rate and then being accused by Gordon Brown of only wanting to help our rich friends,” a senior Tory said.

The Guardian
Significantly, the Tories, focusing on the projected borrowing figures, said they would not fall into the trap of opposing the new 45% rate of income tax, adding that it would not be a priority to reverse the measure if they came to power in 2010.

The Independent
Senior Tories said they would not walk into a "trap" set by Gordon Brown where they appeared to oppose tax rises for the better off. "Reversing this will not be a priority for a Conservative government," one Tory source said. "We do not support the increases in income tax, but our priority will be to reduce the tax burden on low-income families."

This doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Labour proposes that the new rate comes in after the next election, because of its 2005 manifesto pledge on income tax rates. If the Conservatives were to win, it will not yet have happened. They would have to decide to continue with its introduction, or to drop it. Will their manifesto really be silent on what we have been told is one of the most significant tax changes in British politics for twenty years?

If you believed – as I believe most Conservatives do – that this was the wrong policy, you should say so. If you believe there are strong moral, economic and political arguments against higher taxation on top earners, then you would make that case. After all, your luck would really, really be in if your political opponents had declared the death of New Labour, vacated the centre-ground of British politics, abandoned Middle England and all the rest of the things you have all been saying over the last 48 hours.

Where’s the trap in that? It sounds like more of an open goal.

If that’s right, all Dave and George would have to do is to bang the ball into the net - stand up for their and your principles, oppose the policy, occupy the centre-ground and be carried shoulder high by the grateful denizens of Middle England into Downing Street.

So, what’s stopping them?

Are they insufficiently committed to the argument for lower taxes?

Having opened up the dividing lines on tax, spend and borrowing, are they about to start blurring them again?

Or is it just that they realise that it might not quite be to ditch New Labour, lurch left and desert Middle England if you do something that a majority of voters across all parties, including on the right, in all social classes and in all income groups think is fair?

If that is the Tory leadership’s strategic instinct, I can see why they are keeping it as quiet as they can. But the argument inside their own party is yet to begin.

After all, it is only a week since the Tory netroots won their most significant strategic and policy victory, as the leadership finally responded to the concerted campaign – admirably marshalled by Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome, with strong support from Fraser Nelson and friends in the CoffeeHouse, and much other right-wing commentary and activism – to persuade them to ditch their support for Labour’s spending plans.

But that might feel like a pretty pyrrhic victory if – within a week – they were preparing to re-impale themselves on a New Labour tax increase for top earners.

There has been a significant argument about progressive taxation within New Labour over a decade. The largest intellectual contribution came from my predecessor Michael Jacobs when he was running the Fabian Society, and there was support from Robin Cook, Peter Hain, Tony Giddens, Chris Leslie and others to keep the argument about taxation and inequality at the top alive.

Within Labour, and in the long-run, the result has been a significant victory for Fabian gradualism.

But we could be back to permeation too - and to Keith Joseph’s ratchet effect - if, when the moment came, the key battle was won without the Tory leadership firing a shot.

For now, the question remains: do the Conservative Party want to oppose a new top rate of tax on the top 1% of earners, or not?

A series of numbers for serious times: polling peril for Conservatives

Food for thought from the YouGov poll today. So 50% of people think the Tories are dithering and can't make their minds up on how to handle the crisis and 65% think the Tories are spending too much time blaming the Government and not enough time saying what they would do different.

And the Conservative front bench are obviously exuding the wrong vibe as 43% of those polled felt that party was "too complacent". Labour is doing better than the Conservatives on trust and looking after the interests of ordinary people.

Interesting numbers for serious times. Is this a sign that the public now thinks Cameron and his team are not serious enough? The numbers would suggest so.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Speculation, speculation

This blog has, not unreasonably, argued that anybody stirring up election speculation should be taken out and shot - metaphorically, or otherwise. Since it really isn't going to happen, perhaps we can calm down now.

So, while we all have more important things to think about, we naturally take a good deal of interest in Mr Martin Bright engaging in a small bit of sport speculating about speculation about who may be doing the election speculating over on the New Statesman blog.

Bright reported last week:

As one former cabinet minister who spent a long time at the Treasury told the New Statesman: "Gordon has to get the Obama visit out of the way then call an election. There really is no other option."

He is not seeking to "out" his election speculating source - but to exonerate ex-Treasury Minister Geoffrey Robinson, pointing out that he was never a Cabinet Minister. Until Bright flagged that up, James Forsyth's deduction that Robinson could well be the source for both Bright's article and Friday's Standard splash seemed very plausible.

Since Martin seems to be inviting us all to play a guessing game, let's see what we can work out.

There are at least three current Cabinet Ministers - apart from the PM and Chancellor - who spent a long time in the Treasury: two Eds and an Yvette. Thank God that they can not fit the description, or we really could be heading for trouble.

It is of course not possible to work out who Bright's source is - but it is possible to find several candidates for a shortlist. So who are some of the "former Cabinet Ministers who spent a long time at the Treasury"?

Former Chief Secretaries Byers and Milburn did not spend long at the Treasury in either case. Unless Martin was very deliberately trying to lay a false scent, this would also be a pretty unorthodox way to describe those particular sources.

I can identify four or five other possible candidates - Paul Boateng and Andrew Smith were both in the Cabinet as Chief Secretaries to the Treasury, while Ruth Kelly was both Economic Secretary and Financial Secretary. Helen Liddell was Economic Secretary, as was Patricia Hewitt, but only for a year in each case, before going on to other Ministerial roles and the Cabinet.

(I admit I could be missing somebody else. But I am assuming we are looking for an ex-Cabinet Minister was in office since 1997 - rather than, say, Ken Clarke, or a member of the Callaghan government: the phrasing implies their time at the Treasury gives them some insight into Mr Brown's thinking. There may have been other junior ministers at the Treasury who went on to the Cabinet, or somebody from the Lords, perhaps who worked there as an adviser or civil servant before serving in Cabinet in a non-Treasury job. But I can't think of anyone).

Paul Boateng and Helen Liddell are currently High Commissioners to South Africa and Australia respectively. That does not rule them out. but it may make them less likely.

I don't think Hewitt's year at the Treasury would count as a long time.

However, Ruth Kelly seems to meet Bright's criteria: she was a Treasury Minister for three years, having previously worked at the Bank of England. But, as an MP who is standing down at the election, she might be less likely to be debating its timing.

So my guess - and I stress it is purely a guess - is that Mr Andrew Smith of Oxford East might seem to be the most plausible secret source from my shortlist, simply through that rough process of elimination, though I have no information whatsoever about his views about the timing of the next election.

Monday 24 November 2008

Popular myths about the voters and tax

There have long been strong public majorities for higher tax rates on the highest incomes. Politicians have been sceptical about this, in large part because of the folk memory of the 1992 General Election. (And we are seeing that the Conservatives now believe that a return to Majorism is a winning argument).

But let's dig a little deeper.

Mark Gill of MORI, writing in the Fabian Review back in January 2005, provided the number crunching which shows that a great deal of commentary on tax and electoral politics is based on some popular myths, showing that Labour's pledges on income tax were not nearly so central to the electoral successes of 1997 and 2001 as is so often claimed.

The notion that tax-rising parties cannot win power seems to be a hangover from the 1980s, when Conservative governments were elected on tax-cutting manifestos, and from Neil Kinnock’s defeat in the 1992 election. It draws strength from the myth that Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election because he promised to raise taxes, and that Tony Blair won the 1997 one because he promised not to.

The flaw in this argument is that although Tony Blair pledged not to increase income tax rates in 1997, the key voters didn’t believe him anyway: in MORI’s 1997 final pre-election poll for The Times, 63 per cent said they expected that a Labour Government, if elected, would increase income tax, only 3 per cent lower than the 66 per cent who expected a Kinnock Government to do so in 1992.

This point was reinforced at the 2001 election. As early as December 1999, the public was convinced that taxes had risen under Labour: 28 per cent thought that the Government had kept taxes down since it had been elected, while 57 per cent thought it had not. By January 2001, when asked for their ‘thinking about all forms of taxes’, 48 per cent thought taxes had gone up since 1997 ‘for most people’ and 41 per cent that their own personal taxes had risen. Furthermore, few expected a re-elected Labour Government to have a better record of keeping its tax promises: at the end of May, 74 per cent thought that Labour would increase taxes if re-elected, and only 16 per cent thought it would not.

All told, the voters elected Tony Blair with a landslide in 1997, expecting him to increase taxes, and re-elected him in 2001 believing that his Government had done so, and would do so again.

Mark Gill - Let's finally talk about tax, Fabian Review, winter 2004/5

Sunday 23 November 2008

Two cheers for Sarko

Puffed with the Gaullist tradition of a French global role, Nicolas Sarkozy couldn't wait to get his hands on the rotating EU presidency. But look beyond some of the pomp and grandstanding, and this could be one of the most impressive presidencies of recent times. I say 'could' because a lot will depend on what happens over the next 18 days.

Of course the big member states will always want to leave their presidency's mark on the European project. The usual approach is to focus on one or two headline issues - Blair choosing international development in the 'Make Poverty History' presidency of 2005; and Merkel singling out an agreement on EU climate targets for 2020 in 2007 (of which she should be reminded over these next days), for example.

But Sarko clearly thought he could do rather better than that.

Ambitious French presidency plans had been long trailed: for historic shifts on EU defence policy (on which I wrote in last winter's Fabian Review); for a grand new union of the Mediterranean countries (with France at its centre, bien entendu!); for a common European immigration policy; and for a leading role for Europe in the next international climate change negotiations on a post-2012 deal, amongst others.

It hasn't quite worked out like that, but let's give the French president a bit of credit for his ambition, energy and enthusiam over the last 6 months. While not producing the results the Elysee had planned, Sarko's time at the EU helm has so far done the image of Europe as a global player no harm at all.

Three major global events (will) have shaped this presidency. Sarko has put the EU on the global map in response to the first two. All eyes are now on him to see if he can deliver on the third.

When Russia invaded South Ossetia, the EU were first on the scene, Sarkozy the broker of at least some sort of ceasefire agreement, for all its imperfections. The EU wasn't sidelined for being too slow to react to events in its own backyard, but instead appeared during the hot moments of the crisis for once as rather responsive, constructive and relevant to geopolitical affairs.

Then, when the financial crisis exploded with the implosion of Lehman Brothers in the US, the presidency faced an economic challenge unparalleled in the history of European integration. Early jitters were soon set aside for an EU stabilising role that makes the case for EU, and perhaps moreso Euro (are you reading, Gordon?) membership in the age of 21st century global capitalism, as the FT recognised on Friday.

But the biggest test of Europe's role on the global stage comes at the final hour of the French presidency. On October 12th at the next European Council in Brussels, EU heads of state and government will announce the final shape and substance of Europe's response to climate change until 2020. The date coincides with the final day of the next UN negotiations on a global post-2012 climate deal in Poznan, Poland.

What Europe announces on that day may determine whether such a deal will be reached by the Copenhagen summit in 2009 - the deadline set last year at Bali. It will also determine whether Europe can continue to see itself and be seen by others as a global leader in the fight against climate change. The stakes could not be higher.

The much proclaimed EU Climate and Energy Package, the weighty collection of European directives designed to realise those groundbreaking targets announced by EU heads of state under Merkel's presidency last year - for 30% cuts in CO2 emissions and 20% of EU energy to come from renewable sources by 2020, is now reaching its legislative climax.

Sarko has been adament that a deal on the Climate Package would be reached during his presidency - no doubt allowing him the limelight of a special announcement to the world's media during the Poznan summit. And there is little doubt a deal will be struck, the question is at what cost.

In facing up to the implications of those bold targets, many member states are seeking to row back on their commitments. Whether it is Italy's Berlusconi complaining of the underestimation of the costs of implementation; Poland's Tusk pleading over the impact on Polish fuel prices; Germany's Merkel - the previous year's EU climate champion - lobbying for German industry's special interests; or our own Brown looking for loopholes to 'meet' the UK's ambitious renewables targets, the danger of a weak deal looms large.

And a weak deal will be easily exposed by international partners at Poznan. The EU's credibility is on the line. If they construct a brittle shell of a climate policy for the next 12 years, their climate leadership role will be lost. The cry from the rest of the world will be that countries in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

So it's over to you Sarko to cut a deal that will cut the mustard on the international stage.

The picture is a devilishly complex one, but there are at least two major things to look out for when the announcement comes:

1. A clear commitment from the EU to move beyond a unilateral 20% cut in CO2 emissions by 2020, to 30% when an international agreement is struck. Only a 30% cut is anything like what is needed - if other countries make comparable efforts - to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
2. A major financial commitment to help developing countries cut the growth in their emissions and adapt to the climate change caused historically by the developed world.

These are two of the crucial building blocks that will be needed to keep the world on track to a global deal by the end of next year, and to keep Europe in its place as a global leader in the fight against climate change.

If the EU delivers, it'll have earned that title. And if Sarko can find compromises with enough environmental integrity, he'll have earned the three and more cheers for his presidency that should then ring out around Europe.

[You can tell your EU leaders it's time for Europe to lead the fight against climate change on December 12th by going to]

Public will back tax fairness at the top - Tory voters included

The BBC is reporting that the pre-budget report will introduce a new tier of income tax of 45% on incomes above £100,000. The report suggests that may be introduced after the next General Election, given Labour's manifesto commitments on income tax.

I am sure that asking those who have done best to pay a little more will strike a chord with the public. This is something that is consistently and significantly underestimated in media and political discussion of taxation.

For example, YouGov carried out an equality poll in Autumn 2007 for the Fabian Society. This found that 67% supported a 50% top rate for earnings above £100,000, with only 25% opposing that. And remember, that two-thirds majority was for a more radical measure than looks set to be proposed, before any public case has been made, and before the shift in the economic climate.

What was most striking was that there was clear majority support across all parties, all classes, all ages and all regions.

Indeeed Tory voters were in favour of a higher top rate, by 55% to 40%, while that was 78% to 18% among Labour voters and 80% to 18% among LibDems.

ABC1 voters backed the measure by 68% to 26%, and C2DE voters by 67% to 24%.

Those earning over £50,000 backed a higher top rate by 57% to 39%, along with two-thirds of those in other income brackets. Those aged

There was 60% support in London, 67% in the rest of the South, 67% in the Midlands and 70% in the north.

The Fabian Society has consistently argued for a more open public debate about taxation and spending. The Fabian Tax Commission, under my predecessor Michael Jacobs, took on the idea that taxation should be a taboo topic in British politics, and provided much of the script for the national insurance increase to increase health spending. That was widely reported as a massive gamble. It was also New Labour's most popular budget - and probably the most important social democratic moment in British politics

But the Fabian Tax Commission's call for a new top rate was rebuffed. As, ahead of the last election, my call for the manifesto to omit the pledge not to raise income tax rates, and the call of the Fabian Life Chances Commission for more tax at the top as part of a strategy to meet the pledge to end child poverty.

Still, some commentators could find some signs that the debate was beginning to shift among Labour's next generation.

Others were more dismissive. John Rentoul regarded the joint advocacy of the Fabian Society and the ippr for a more open debate on taxation at the top as representing the "siren voices of Old Labour", insisting that:

Writing a New Labour election manifesto is easy. The first line is: "We will not raise the basic or top rates of income tax." That's what it said last time and the time before. It's negative. It's uninspiring. The party doesn't like it. But everyone knows that it has to be in there.

Not next time, though.

The Tories know what their gut instincts will tell them. But the Conservative leadership may also know that they are going to be on the wrong side of public opinion - and their own voters too - if they can not engineer another sharp handbrake turn tomorrow.

I don't know which way they will jump. But my (hesitant) prediction is that, despite internal wailing, their manifesto at the next election won't dare to oppose it.

Cameron refights election '92

The Conservative party is refighting the 1992 General Election campaign from the opposition benches in several newspaper advertisements this morning.

This dramatises Paul Linford's declaration of the end of "the era of political cross-dressing" in his Newcastle Journal column.

That dynamic was driven by a politics of mutual fears, where both of the major parties remained in the shadow of their most recent election defeats, as I argued in my Fabian pamphlet 'The Vision Thing' (full text, PDF file).

This is the central paradox of British politics. Even after a decade in power Labour fears this is an essentially conservative country, where the centre-left are interlopers in power, while it is the Tory leadership which knows that the reality is that of a social democratic Britain, to which they must persuade their party to adapt. This is because both parties remain haunted by their most recent election defeats. The Conservatives do not want to lose again on ‘investment versus cuts’ as in 2001 and 2005, yet the shadow of 1992 still haunts Labour.

As the two parties shadow box over the centre-ground, nobody is quite sure where ‘the new centre’ of British politics will end up. Hence the political cross-dressing as David Cameron claims to be ‘heir to Blair’ while Gordon Brown seeks tactical advantage in paying tribute to the Thatcher legacy which the New Tories discard. On public services and spending, social democrats have set the agenda. On crime and immigration, the right calls the shots

Resisting his party's clamour for tax and spending cuts was to be David Cameron's "clause four" moment.

Gordon Brown will again want to campaign on a favourite election theme – the choice between ‘public investment’ and ‘cuts’. That sent Oliver Letwin scurrying into hiding in 2001 and saw Howard Flight defenestrated by his leader in 2005 simply for expressing what every Tory believes: that the state should be smaller. David Cameron and George Osborne are torn: they share that belief, yet are desperate not to fight the same campaign again. Hence their tactical decision to accept Labour’s spending plans. But they are struggling to hold the line against an emboldened right-wing argues that ‘tax cuts work’, following their own inheritance tax coup.

So it is difficult to understimate how significant a change of political strategy last week's u-turn has been.

But it does mean that the Conservatives can probably make considerable savings on the cost of their next general election campaign.

Saturday 22 November 2008

David Cameron's economics homework

A web savvy and effective pre-budget report salvo from Labour HQ.

Peter Oborne's selective history

Peter Oborne uses his Daily Mail column today to make a ludicrous argument against the possible appointment of Caroline Kennedy as Ambassador to Britain, writing:

This would insult Britain, Mr President
... Before making such a decision, he ought to reflect that giving the post to a Kennedy would be an insult to Britain. Some of her family were long-standing supporters of IRA terrorism during the Irish troubles. Nor should it be forgotten that Caroline's grandfather, Joe, himself American ambassador to Britain in the Thirties, notoriously favoured Hitler over Churchill.

There are two things wrong with this.

Firstly, whatever we mght think of a US system which meant we had an ambassador to London who knew more about breeding horses than diplomacy at the time of 9/11 , the merits or otherwise of Caroline Kennedy's appointment should depend on what President elect Obama believes she would bring to the role, not the views of her Joe Kennedy. The Spectator's James Forsyth advocates Caroline for London, believing that the combination of her own skills and the mystique of Camelot would gain the US a major public diplomacy boost.

Secondly, however, were Oborne right about the central releavance of what Caroline Kennedy's grandfather did as Ambassador seventy years ago, it would surely then be the height of hypocrisy to use the Daily Mail to prosecute that argument.

Joe Kennedy was a staunch advocate of appeasement as Ambassador to London from 1938 to 1940.

So, "notoriously", was Lord Rothermere. Among the British elite, there was probably no more prominent, enthusiastic or valued public advocate of appeasement, European fascism and Mosley's British blackshirts than the founder and propreitor of the Daily Mail.

An illuminating selection of his public comments can be found on the Rothermere profile of John Simkin's Spartacus Education website.

After Joe Kennedy took up his London posting, here is Rothermere's post-Munich telegram in 1938 congratulating his dear Fuhrer on the annexation of Czech territory.

My dear Fuhrer everyone in England is profoundly moved by the bloodless solution to the Czechoslovakian problem. People not so much concerned with territorial readjustment as with dread of another war with its accompanying bloodbath. Frederick the Great was a great popular figure. I salute your excellency's star which rises higher and higher.

Joe Kennedy continued to push for a negotiated peace after the outbreak of war (and was finally pulled as Ambassador for his outlandish public statements about the end of democracy). So, along with foreign secretary Lord Halifax, did Rothermere. They were both firmly on the wrong side of history, whatever John Charmley and other historical revisionists argue.

Clearly both Caroline Kennedy (born 1957) and the fourth Viscount Rothermere (born 1967), chairman of Associated newspapers today, find themselves at the centre of public life because of what, in different ways, they have inherited.

Even so, there must be a limit to how far either can be held responsible for everything in their family histories.

42 votes out of 135,000

That is the margin by which Segolene Royal (with 49.98%) has been defeated by Martine Aubry (50.02%) in the run-off election for the French Socialist leadership.

The Royal camp is refusing to accept the result and calling for a revote. But in any event the result may do little to determine the political direction of the divided party.

Thursday's first ballot saw Royal lead with 42.5% of the vote from Aubry with 34.7% and the left's candidate Benoit Hamon MEP on 22.8%.

There are shades of the Healey-Benn Labour deputy leadership contest of 1981 here - where Healey won 50.426% to Benn's 49.574%.

This time, it is the left which has won by a razor thin margin. Hamon will claim the decisive influence after calling for his supporters to back Aubry in the run-off ballot and Aubry's call for the party to be "anchored in the left".

However, it is less clear as to what was at stake in this election. Despite the animosity between the two front-runners, the policy differences between them are not immense. While Royal has been open to an anti-Sarokozy alliance with the political centre, Aubry has also - like Royal - talked rather hazily of the need for modernisation of the party's platform. But no candidate seemed to offer much definition about what this might mean.

UPDATE: The BBC has a good press review of what the French commentators are saying.

Friday 21 November 2008

Winning the economic argument may not be enough

There is probably no current writer on economics who writes with greater clarity and economy than Samuel Brittan.

He has a reputation as a stout defender of classical liberalism. Indeed, he defended Margaret Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe from the famous challenge from 364 economists in 1981. But Brittan can not be easily pigeon-holed. In one of the best recent glut of columns on the return of Keynes, he staked his allegiance to both Keynes and Milton Friedman. He is against equality but advocates redistribution, including land taxes and a basic income, as a 'redistributive market liberal'. And he writes with most passion in denouncing arms sales.

Brittan's must-read column today offers a lucid overview of the arguments for and against a fiscal stimulus of lower taxes and extra spending - and argues that critics of the Brown policy are wrong.

The government is clearly winning the economic argument among informed opinion. The Conservative position is, day by day, being forensically unpicked by voices who might often be sympathetic.

But Cameron and Osborne are now gambling on that not mattering very much at all in the public debate. Their talk about "maxing out the national credit card", seeking to update Margaret Thatcher's homilies about household and national economics, demonstrates that they are focused on "common sense" appeals to gut instincts and the battle of the soundbites.

And, as Brittan notes:

The next objection is that an already high budget deficit will be pushed into the stratosphere by the extra borrowing. This is psychologically the most difficult hurdle. Too few people understand that a government’s budget is not like a family’s or a company’s. It is precisely when the private sector is cutting down and saving that the government needs to spend more as an offset to maintain a reasonable level of total expenditure in the economy.

Brown is winning the battle of economic ideas, internationally and domestically.

But the political argument has not yet begun. Next week, it will.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Most Americans want more government, not less

51 per cent of Americans now believe that government should do more to solve problems, with 43 per cent say it is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.

That was among the most striking findings from the US election night exit polls. For the first time since pollsters began asking the question in 1994, when 56 per cent thought government was doing too much, most Americans want more government, not less.

The centre-left is often - even in America - on the popular side of the argument when it comes to concrete things that government does, even at times when the abstract argument for 'less state' is in the ascendancy. Newt Gingrich didn't realise that: trying to apply his political rhetoric in practice led to the rapid failure of his Republican revolution.

That even the abstract argument is for more government provides the opportunity for a realignment in political ideas. This may not be confined to the United States. The key to Obama's election victory - and the failure of the right's attacks on him, was the high priority which voters place on government action to protect citizens against the worst risks of an economic downturn.

But the US Republican leadership remains in denial about this, as a Time interview with re-elected House Minority Leader John Boehner demonstrates.

BOEHNER: America is a center right country.

TIME: Still?

BOEHNER: Yes, no question. When you look at all the exit polling, Americans don’t want bigger government, they don’t want higher taxes. And frankly, I think the Congress is still a center-right Congress.

This is more evidence to suggest that cutting government is not nearly as popular or as easy as its advocates think.

The British Conservative party - back in its comfort zone arguing for less spending, tax cuts and a smaller state - may be making the same mistake.

Back to the future

The Guardian asked me to write a commentary for Comment is Free about the prospects for a snap election.

I am sure that is (still) froth and nonsense.

But I also look at how the political dividing lines are now taking shape after the Tory u-turn on spending and taxation.

The central strategic message of Cameron's leadership has been to tell his party that it was futile to refight the battles lost over tax and spend in 2001 and 2005. That was his clause four moment. And now, Cameron has changed his mind. So the most telling moment at Cameron's press conference on Tuesday came when the Tory leader was challenged to identify any time in the last three years when he has advocated spending restraint. Cameron's response was to reclaim his personal authorship of the party's 2005 general election manifesto for Michael Howard, usually an embarrassment for a leader who wants to stand only for change.


Labour's strategic decision is about whether running on experience is enough. It isn't. The party needs to contest the argument about change – to set out that there are two different approaches to the role of government, to the political response to an economic downturn and the broader politics of fairness and opportunity.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Kaletsky: Cameron reverts to failed policies of Major and Lamont

Anatole Kaletksy of The Times, among Britain's leading economic commentators, has been a fierce critic of Gordon Brown's government, writing last Spring that "Mr Brown was a great Chancellor but is a terrible Prime Minister".

But David Cameron and the Conservatives get both barrels from Kaletsky in a scathing must-read Times column attacking the economic illiteracy of a new policy which puts the Tories "at loggerheads with almost every government and central bank in the world".

The good news for the world economy is that Mr Brown has become a leader of global stature, filling the policy vacuum created by the clueless dithering of the Bush Administration and the surprising failure of Barack Obama to step into the breach. The bad news for Britain is that the Tories have chosen this moment to self-destruct, leaving no plausible alternative to Labour

But it gets worse for David Cameron:

Talleyrand's famous remark about the House of Bourbon - that they had “learnt nothing and forgotten nothing” - seems to apply with equal force to David Cameron's Conservatives ... Mr Cameron showed that he had forgotten nothing by suddenly reverting to the policies of John Major ... These were policies that Mr Cameron used to advocate when he worked for Norman Lamont. The leader of the Tory “modernisers” was supposed to have forgotten all this nonsense when he left the side of the former Chancellor on Black Wednesday, but he has now reverted to type.

No wonder there's a shortage of social workers

Fair point, well made by Polly Toynbee about society's need to vilify social workers whatever their decisions. Who'd be a social worker with the massive responsibility for people's lives in their hands? Many of us worry about our jobs but how many wake up in the middle of the night worrying we have wrecked people's futures or that a decision made or not made led to a child's death? No wonder then that there is a shortage of people who want to take on that heavy and responsible role.

New English alliance with Scots need to kick in

And over to you to report on the Scotland/Argentina game, at the ground the only thing the media are talking about is that hand of god moment, and back to you in the studio in London, George.

If there is anything more likely to unite the Scots with the Argentinians it is that the majority of the coverage about their upcoming match with the famous South American team has been reflected around the result of that famous England game of yesteryear.

It's enough to get right up your nose if you are Scottish that yet again all the mostly London-based media cares about is what is relevant to England, so when they actually show a flicker of interest in a Scottish game the fact that it turns into a reflection about England footie is more than slightly annoying.

There's a serious point here for Britain as a whole, the non-English parts of the UK generally think that the alliance is tilted south, with parts of England hardly acknowledging that Scotland or Wales are not in England.

For a healthy future alliance it's time for the four nations of the UK to have a more level and grown-up relationship.

Tuesday 18 November 2008

If cutting spending was so popular why didn't Thatcher or Reagan achieve it?

That's a question that I address in a commentary in this week's Newsweek, which the magazine titles 'How Big Government Never Left', and which happens to coincide with the return of the politics as spending and taxation to the centre of British political debate.

The too easy answer to the post-defeat inquest on the US right is that Dubya has not stuck to small government principles.

That's clearly true - but too shallow. After all, the difference with past conservative administrations is one of degree, rather than direction. The frequently offered contrast with the golden age of the Reagan ascendancy is largely a myth if the quest is for greater intellectual consistency in politics.

"Government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem", said Reagan. But government spending grew all the same - and there was an increase in the number of civilian Federal employees. (In contrast, there was a reduction under Bill Clinton!).

In truth, as George Packer noted in an excellent New Yorker essay:

[Reagan] had failed to limit the size of government, which, besides anti-Communism, was the abiding passion of Reagan’s political career and of the conservative movement. He didn’t come close to achieving it and didn’t try very hard, recognizing early that the public would be happy to have its taxes cut as long as its programs weren’t touched. And Reagan was a poor steward of the unglamorous but necessary operations of the state.

In Thatcher's Britain, the Prime Minister probably did wake up every day asking how she could shrink the state.

And yet, the Institute of Fiscal Studies will confirm that, to quote

During Margaret Thatcher’s premiership public spending grew in real terms by an average of 1.1% a year, while during John Major’s premiership it grew by an average of 2.4%. (Source: IFS PDF file, page 3)

In Britain, public spending as a proportion of GDP was 43 percent in 1980 and 41.9 percent in 1996.

Cutting government sounds popular in the abstract. But it is much less so when it comes down to anything concrete and the real political choices, once we get past the obligatory soundbites where all parties offer a 'war on waste'.

Whether it is child protection, saving post offices, investing in health, education and childcare, getting the mortgage market moving again, or protecting us from the worst risks of a recession, all of the concrete calls are for government to do more, not less.

Smaller government is much less popular than the right imagines. And even their most ideologically motivated political champions knew it.

News values: Ross and Brand trump Dave

Working from home this morning.

I see both Sky News and the BBC News Channel have cut away from the Leader of the Opposition taking questions on the economy, and his major decision to drop Conservative support for Labour spending plans, for live coverage of the Select Committee scrutinising Mark Thompson and the head of the BBC Trust over what is being billed on screen as the "BBC phone calls row" - the Russell Brand-Jonathan Ross affair.

SoS Hilary

Hilary Clinton will be offered and will accept the role of Secretary of State reports The Guardian, making that call, after several days of speculation, well ahead of US outlets

US outlets and blogs are sceptical about the Guardian's decision not to indicate anything about its source, notes Telegraph US editor Toby Harden in an informative post unpicking the clues. His hunch that Sidney Blumenthal could well be the source makes sense; the idea of an intervention from Gordon Brown to break the story seems slightly less likely!

Politico's report on the (incomplete) vetting process appears to confirm that Hilary Clinton is the number one choice for the role. (If that were not the case, the restoking of the Obama-Clinton rivalry would be a major unforced error in the opening fortnight of the transition).

Bringing the Clintons in was always going to break with the "no drama Obama" rules of the President elect's campaign.

Whichever way it goes, the Guardian's report makes it more likely the post will be formally announced sooner rather than later.

Sunday 16 November 2008

Give Parliament a free vote on organ donor law

The Times revealed on Friday that tomorrow's Organ Donation Taskforce report will advise against a change in the law on organ donation to introduce a system of 'presumed consent'.

The Observer has been running a Donor for Life campaign for presumed consent. Today. it reports the Chief Medical Officer's opposition to the report's decision.

There are arguments to be made on both sides of this debate, including about how much difference a change in the law would make. I find it difficult to see what philosophical objection there could be to a presumed consent system if it were to include provision not just for individuals to opt out but also for their families to object even if they have not done so. (It is difficult to see how a 'soft' approach to presumed consent, applying fashionable 'nudge' theories, involves any loss of individual autonomy).

The Observer's editorial makes a good point about one of the arguments which the Taskforce is expected to make against a change in the law.

The taskforce also believes that the public is not ready for presumed consent. This is a strange argument since no concerted attempt has been made to explain the idea. A sensible debate has not properly begun.

This raises an issue which goes much broader than organ donation, about the boundaries between politics and expert advice.

It is sensible for government to commission expert and stakeholder groups to advise on the evidence base for and against policy changes, to clarify the issues at stake and particularly questions of policy design and effective implementation.

But we should be wary of a tendency to contract out issues of ethics, which are properly the realm of politics and of democratic accountability.

So MPs from different parties should now take on the responsibility for beginning an informed public debate about organ donation - and deciding how the different trade-offs involved should be resolved.

The Observer earlier this year reported a good groundswell of backbench cross-party support for a change in the law, which was particularly strong among Liberal Democrat and Labour MPs. Those MPs should now seek to persuade majorities both in Parliament and among the public. If the Prime Minister and Cabinet continue to believe in a change in the law, they should make that case too.

The government should make time for a Commons debate. Should an MP bring forward a Private Members Bill after the next ballot, there would be a good case for offering government time for Parliament to decide whether or not to change the law, while making clear that the outcome would be decided on a free vote, as is traditional on ethical issues of this kind.

Andrew Gilligan and the sock-puppets

Sounds like it could be a half-decent indie band.

But Dave Hill has a good backgrounder to a curious tale about Evening Standard journalist Andrew Gilligan's apparently close associations to comments challenging his critics and praising his own work, under the handle "Kennite", some of which used arguments and phrases which then later appeared in his Evening Standard journalism. Credit to the Tory Troll, a Boris-scrutiny blog, for spotting the links.

Hill's post elicited an explanation from Andrew Gilligan in the comments thread:

Kennite is my partner. Is that allowed? ...

But it seems that not everybody is convinced. Such appalling cynicism.


As the Tory Troll reports, City University Journalism Professor Adrian Monck had, a year ago, worked out that "anonymous" third party comments in defence of Gilligan came from:

Someone who is:

using an Associated Newspapers IP (publishers of the Evening Standard, Daily Mail etc);

online in the middle of the night - possibly entirely nocturnal;

linking from a technorati search set up to track all blog postings on the name Andrew Gilligan.

Could anyone solve this conundrum?", asked Monck.

As Hill writes, the ethical boundaries between commenting anonymously or under a pseudonym and "sock-puppeting" can be blurred, but he endorses the distinction in Wikipedia's definition that "the key difference between a sockpuppet and a regular the pretense that the puppet is a third party who is not affiliated with the puppeteer".

Saturday 15 November 2008

A tale of two polls

A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times has Labour within five points of the Conservatives, and back at the 36% which the party polled in 2005.

But the Independent on Sunday has a ComRes poll with an eleven point Tory lead, a rise of two and three points on their last Indy and Sindy polls. However, as John Rentoul reports, there are mixed views in the polling detail, with the charge of being "lightweight" sticking to the Tories and a marked decrease in those who think Labour will lose.

Conclusion? Politics is in flux again. And I doubt that polls between now and the end of the year are likely to prove a great guide to the electoral politics of Spring 2010.

Why George Osborne will stay

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne may have survived his latest encounter with Peter Mandelson at the Spectator Parliamentary Awards, but he has faced rather more intense friendly fire from Conservative voices over the last week than he did during yachtgate.

The usually mild mannered Michael Brown, Independent political commentator and ex-Tory MP, is calling for his head, along with Iain Martin of the Telegraph and a host of other commentators in the paper.

Contrary to Guido Fawkes' attack on The Telegraph, the pressure on Osborne can't be dismissed as a media invention, nor something being stoked by a government machine which has got its act together. These Tory-friendly commentators are clear that they are reflecting the heated debate at all levels within the party which is breaking out into the open.

Today, Tory peer and former party Treasurer Lord Kairns says publicly that he wants Osborne replaced, and his job given to David Davis. Backbenchers are pursuing their concerns about the Treasury team's performance through the 1922 Committtee. William Hague is being promoted most prominently as a replacement, with Chris Grayling. the pro-European Ken Clarke and even John Redwood all having their supporters.

In response, Osborne is reported to be stepping back from his Conservative Central Office and party strategy roles as 'unofficial party chair' for several months at least.

The Guardian reported yesterday that Osborne "admits in private that he is being bested by Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling", recognising that momentum and the ability to make the political weather have now shifted back to the government.

That explains why Osborne is desperate to get back onto the front foot. But the aggression of his attack, warning of a collapse of Sterling, this morning is a high risk move: it could well become seen as another unforced error of judgement.

So the pressure is clearly on. But I would confidently predict that the Shadow Chancellor will stay in post.

In part, the scale of public criticism would now make moving Osborne too great a climbdown for the leadership.

And that is especially true because Osborne has become a lightning conductor for a concerted challenge David Cameron's political and policy strategy - on both tax cuts, and on how to oppose the government - by those who want a significant change of direction without wanting to be publicly critical of the leader himself.

So David Cameron can't afford to respond to the pressure with the defenestration of his closest political ally.

But nor does that necessarily mean that Cameron will stand firm. The height of his modernising agenda was in his party conference pitch for the job. Since then, he has from the early days of his leadership much more frequently given ground to pressure from the party's right than has been recognised. He has kept the party in its comfort zone, praising the party for already having modernised (by electing him) and rarely challenging members on the need to change further.

If the Tory right keeps up the pressure on Osborne, the signs are that they may well get some substantive shifts in Tory policy rightwards on spending and tax.

If they fail to also get the symbolic scalp they are calling for, they may not mind too much about that.

Friday 14 November 2008

Inside intelligence

Obvious prediction: the Obama transition is going to be just as tight-lipped and disciplined as the campaign.

We are in for two months of endless speculation - and very little hard news - where everybody will be talking and guessing out loud with the exception of the few people who know what is going on.

So what is the press corps to do?

They will be reporting things like this.

We got word the Obama family's Secret Service code names: Barack is Renegade; Michelle is Renaissance; Malia is Radiance; Sasha is Rosebud.

But what on earth is the point of secret service code names that are published and not secret at all?

Wouldn't Barack, Michelle, Malia and Sasha serve just as well?

The real waste of royalty

There is a striking photograph of Prince Charles on the front page of today's Guardian, festooned with royal regalia on his 60th birthday. Very helpfully, the editors have provided a guide to the regalia for those of us who can't tell an 'aguilette denoting aide-de-camp to the Queen' from a badge denoting the 'Most Ancient and the Most Noble Order of the Thistle (Knight)'.

I was interested to see that Charles has a set of medals. Now back when I was in the Cub Scouts - the 4th Bedworth (Baptist) troop - swearing weekly oaths of allegiance to the Queen, I learned that medals were for doing something. So what has Charles done to earn these medals? It turns out that some are commemorative medals, e.g., the 'Silver Jubilee Medal, commemorating the Queen's 25 years on the throne', along with the 'Golden Jubilee Medal, commemorating the Queen's 50 years on the throne'. These aren't so much medals for doing something as for, well, just sort of being there when things happened (to someone else). Admittedly, Charles does have an 'Order of Merit' which is apparently given to those with 'great achievement in the fields of arts, learning, literature and science'. But this just seems silly. Being moderately good at water-colour painting is an achievement, to be sure, but worthy of an OOM?

My point is NOT to have a go at Charles as an individual. My point is that this photograph illustrates beautifully one of the reasons why monarchy is such a wicked institution.

Charles has spent his entire adult life trapped in the role of monarch-to-be, a role which has set severe limitations on what he can do with his life. If he tries to use his position creatively, he always runs the danger that critics like Geoffrey Wheatcroft will complain that he is not acting as a good royal should.

Absent monarchy, maybe Charles Windsor would have enjoyed a career of perhaps modest but real achievements - and, of course, even trapped within his role he has some real, significant achievements to his name. But trapped within this princely role, his freedom to really strike out and have a life of one's own is non-existent. Sure, he gets medals for being there; but I imagine he feels terribly unfulfilled. What an awful injury to human potential.

Thursday 13 November 2008

Poor Sarah Palin

So the claims from anonymous McCain aides that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a continent and couldn't name the members of NAFTA were a hoax, part of an elaborate spoof on media gullibility.

The New York Times has the fullest account.

It didn't help that Palin's denial was not exactly convincing, seeming rather to confirm but downplay the rumours.

“I remember having a discussion with a couple of debate preppers,” she said. “So if it came from one of those debate preppers, you know, that’s curious. But having a discussion about Nafta — not, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know who is a part of Nafta.’ ”

“So, no, I think that if there are allegations based on questions or comments that I made in debate prep about Nafta, and about the continent versus the country when we talk about Africa there, then those were taken out of context,”

Rumours that the Palin vice-presidential nomination was itself part of an elaborate hoax by John McCain, after a bet with Joe Lieberman, and that Katie Couric actually interviewed Tina Fey by mistake instead of Palin have not been confirmed.

But perhaps its a case of a hoaxer hoaxed - or maybe Sarah Palin was qualified for the Presidency after all.

Roll on 2012!

Wednesday 12 November 2008

Taxing times

With competing arguments and proposals for a fiscal stimulus in the economy dominate Westminster yesterday, the politics of tax, spending and borrowing are the focus of the political and economic commentators.

Andrew Grice, Today in Politics, The Independent

Cameron made the new dividing line in British politics whether the Government should finance any tax cuts from even higher borrowing. He says No, Brown says Yes. But the momentum in the great tax debate is with Brown for now, not least because he can take action that will affect people's pockets rather than just call for something.

The Guardian, editorial, How to spend it

“Should the money go on lower taxes or higher spending? The immediate political pressure is to go down the tax-cutting road … Even so, the prime minister would be wise to siphon some of the available funds through government programmes. For one thing, the poorest third in society - many pensioners, many disabled people and many one-parent families - pay no income tax at all. For another, Labour is never likely to win a tax-cutting auction, when its most important achievement in office has been to improve public services by spending more. Besides, an anxious public might bank up its tax cuts as savings - dampening the economic effect - whereas public investment will more directly stoke demand”.

The Telegraph, editorial, Cut spending, cut taxes

“No doubt anxious to seem "responsible" in the way a party that sees itself as a government-in-waiting should, it succeeded only in looking timid and unambitious. The plan to give a tax break to companies taking on unemployed people is excessively complex, does not put money into people's pockets - surely the priority in a downturn - and is far too modest in its scope. Costing £2.6 billion, just half of one per cent of the total tax take, it would barely be noticed”.

The Times, editorial, Time for Prudence

A strong argument ... is weakened by uncertainty over what kind of stimulus would actually work. There are three broad options. The first would be to bring forward spending on key public projects - but planning law and other glitches could mean such spending comes too late. A second option would be income tax cuts. But across-the-board cuts would be likely to raise saving, not spending. Channelling money to the poorest would probably result in spending, and would help those most in need. This is particularly attractive to some Labour MPs, who sense a last opportunity to redistribute wealth. But it is also risky: co-ordinated international action would be needed to prevent the extra cash disappearing into imports. A third and more effective option would be targeted and temporary tax cuts. VAT, for example, could be cut by up to 2.5 per cent under EU law, with a promise that it would revert to its current level in a year's time. This would have the benefit of being easy and quick to achieve, and would create an immediate incentive to spend.

Larry Elliott, The Guardian, We just can't afford tax cuts

Most people will save the windfall rather than spend it, knowing payback time is just around the corner.
Were the government to be proposing targeted tax cuts for those on low incomes or for small businesses, paid for by a new top rate for the well-off, the scrapping of indentity cards or Trident, it would be a different matter. That would be affordable, and could do some good. Brown, though, has fallen into the old trap of thinking bad economics makes good politics.

Hamish McRae, The Independent, Cut taxes but don't expect miracles

The world has a lot of experience of the effect of fiscal and monetary boosts, and that experience is not encouraging. Japan gave a huge boost to its economy in the 1990s, driving interest rates down to zero and running a fiscal deficit that ran at 8 per cent of GDP. It didn't work. This year the US has given a big boost to the economy and demand did perk up in the summer. But now the country is heading into recession, along with everyone else.

Tuesday 11 November 2008

Republican's Gestapo gibe at Obama

One of the problems that the Republican Party having lost the Presidency and both Houses of Congress is grappling with the idea that their opponents have democratic legitimacy.

Idiotically, Rep. Paul Broun of Georgia has given an interview comparing the rather uncontroversial idea that the US needs a civiiian corps for reconstruction alongside the army to Hitler's Gestapo.

"We can't be lulled into complacency," Broun said. "You have to remember that Adolf Hitler was elected in a democratic Germany. I'm not comparing him to Adolf Hitler. What I'm saying is there is the potential of going down that road."

Well, that's an interesting "non-comparison" for us all.

But, to British observers, the remarks echo a considerably greater politician than Broun will ever be - Winston Churchill's somewhat hysterical remarks during the 1945 General Election campaign about the threat of a Labour government (run by Attlee and Churchill's other colleagues in the wartime coalition).

Churchill said in his pre-election radio broadcast that:

No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the √ěrst instance

The following night, Clement Attlee coolly produced perhaps the greatest of all campaign rebuttals:

When I listeded to the Prime Minister's speech last night in which he gave such a travesty of the policy of the Labour party, I realised at once what was his object. He wanted the electors to understand how great was the difference between Winston Churchill, the great leader in war of a united nation, and Mr Churchill the party leader of the Conservatives. He feared lest those who had accepted his leadership in war might be tempted out of gratitude to follow him further. I thank him for having disillusioned them so thoroughly. The voice we heard last night was that of Mr Churchill but the mind was that of Lord Beaverbrook"

Labour won a landslide - and created the National Health Service to provide universal healthcate.

History may repeat itself, but a more democratic way that Rep. Broun fears.