Friday, 31 October 2008

Blair on Blair: world's eye view

A volunteer from Wake County called Blair had an interesting perspective on politics across the pond today - and her namesake in particular (you'll have to imagine this in Carolina drawl):

"Tony? He was my friend at first. But then he kinda weirded out, dontcha think?"

No comment, Blair. But I wonder if the British electorate agreed...

(If there were any questions as to her political judgement, they were surely answered by her assertion that it was "kneebucklingly cool" to have Brits joining the campaign. Quite)

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Update - linking the Democratic campaigns

A very interesting update to the observation we made yesterday on how the various Democratic campaigns were linking together in this election. Perhaps I was a little hard on Kay Hagan...

1) The fact that John McCain took public campaign finance means that there are very strict rules about how the different campaign committees are allowed link together - and with activists obviously at a premium, it is easy to see where that vast majority of volunteers want to put their time: with Obama.

2) North Carolina is a state that has historically voted Democratic at State level - by distancing themselves very consciously from the Presidential campaigns. Even with Bill Clinton, the kind of local level Democratic support that appeared on stage with Obama at yesterday's Raleigh rally (some 30+ local representatives) was unheard of in the State in any previous General Election. In fact, the joint literature going out at the moment is the first time such a Democratic campaign has been run in the State's history. Everyone wants a piece of the Obama magic...

3) ...Far from riding on Obama's coattails, however, Kay Hagan (Democratic Senate candidate) polls very well in a very different Democratic constituency - rural voters - and is actually improving Obama's numbers outside of NC's urban areas.

It will be interesting to see how it pans out... FiveThirtyEight has the polls incredibly tight (http://www.fivethirtyeight.com/2008/10/on-road-raleigh-north-carolina.html#comments\)

Polled out


Through yesterday, there have been 728 national polls with head-to-head matchups of the candidates, 215 in October alone. In 2004, there were just 239 matchup polls, with 67 of those in October. At this rate, there may be almost as many national polls in October of 2008 as there were during the entire year in 2004.


That fascinating nugget comes from none other than Karl Rove, in his new guise as a pundit.

Rove doesn't hear the fat lady singing yet - but he doesn't sound too hopeful.

Borrowing in a recession

This from Fraser Nelson on CoffeeHouse, while recasting his own case for tax cuts.


I agree with the Tory MP who said that “to increase borrowing to deal with an economic downturn is a perfectly sensible thing to do.” I disagree with the MP who said “increasing borrowing is not a strategy for dealing with recession.” Both quotes came from Philip Hammond in the same BBC interview on Monday, which shows the muddy thinking that needs to be sorted.

Learning to let go

Political parties are a bit like Dr Who – periodically they need to regenerate in order stay fresh and remain successful. Labour’s history clearly proves this. The party of 1923 was very different to the party of 1945, which had radically altered by 1966. 1997 heralded yet another incarnation of Labour.

Why do parties keep evolving? Parties have to work within the social, institutional and technological circumstances they find themselves in. Each of these versions of Labour was an effective vehicle for political competition at the time they were created. However, when taken out of the appropriate context, parties become weak and anachronistic. The question that Labour’s leaders and supporters should be asking now is what forms of political organization will come next?

“New Labour” can best be understood as a response to the chaos inside the party in the early 1980s. Modernizers developed methods to centralize control into their hands and relied on a high degree of professionalization. Measured in terms of electoral success, this approach was wildly successful. But it had its downside too. Aside from a brief surge between 1994 and 1997, membership continued to decline (it should be noted however that this decline predates Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. It was part of a much longer term trend that can be traced back to 1950). Perhaps more significantly, “New Labour” created a culture where activist-driven grassroots politics looked increasingly out of place. As a result, politicians became more distant from ordinary citizens.

Can this situation be reversed? Many Labour activists seem to hope for a return to 1950 (or possible 1983). Such approaches though are essentially conservative. When Labour was created in 1900, its founders did not develop the party’s institutions by looking backwards. Instead, the models they chose were radical and unprecedented. Labour would do well to remember this today.

If we are looking for possible solutions as to how Labour might organize itself in the future, we could do a lot worse than looking across the Atlantic at the Obama campaign. In Yes We Can: how the lessons from America should change British politics, Will Straw and I explore what our parties can learn from the Obama campaign.

It is important to make one point right away. British parties will never be able to replicate the scale and the fervor that the Illinois senator has generated. That is a uniquely American phenomenon, a product of the US’s culture and political institutions. However, there are still vital lessons to be learned.

The great achievement of the Obama campaign was to couple effective campaigning with a vibrant grassroots activist community. His team did this by decentralizing control of the campaign, allowing supporters to self-organize and making barriers to participation as low as possible. This happened both in real world communities and people’s online networks. In the latter case, the campaign’s website and in particular the MyBO social networking tool proved to be vital. Here activists could sign-up for the campaign, indicate what they were willing to do to support Obama, organize their own fundraising events and join groups of like-minded or locally situated activists. In short, the Obama campaign was plugging itself into people’s real lives – their families, friends and communities. Supporters could also use the Obama website as a publishing platform, writing their own blog entries.

While this model of organizing has proved to be hugely successful in the US, it is easy to imagine that British parties, culturally conditioned by the success of “New Labour”  would find it hard to cede this amount of control to their supporters. But this is the most important lesson they must learn: it is not only OK to let go, but absolutely vital.

Ironically, parties need activists like never before. The 1990’s model of national media focused political campaigning is now becoming less and less effective, offering hugely diminishing returns with every passing year. Citizens have so many different conduits to gather information from – 24 hour ruling news, 500 channels on their TV, digital radio, not to mention the Internet. You can’t spin that. The only way to reach voters is through their social networks. The Obama team knew this and the sooner Labour figures it out, the better.

British politicians tend to look across the Atlantic for electoral inspiration. However, it is very easy to misinterpret what is happening. The 2008 American contest does not offer Labour any quick fixes or easy answers for the next general election. Instead it throws down a huge challenge: change your culture and change the way you do things. Only by doing this can Labour be made ready for twenty first century politics.

How linked are the different Democratic campaigns?

North Carolina should be an interesting place to find out.

The Obama staffers we talk to are, of course, very positive about their Democratic counterparts, and their chances of success.

Of slight concern, however, was meeting Kay Hagan, Democratic candidate for the Senate (against the virtually absentee incumbent Liddy Dole, wife of former Republican veep candidate Bob Dole) in a park in Raleigh at a tiny endorsement rally held by the International Association of Firefighters.

Ms Hagan was incredibly warm at the prospect of having an unofficial international Labour Party chapter for her Senate run, and by all accounts is extremely capable. Yet when we returned to the campaign office, only a bloc away, to say we had just ‘endorsed’ their Democratic comrade, almost none of the local FOs or volunteers had met her – and were fairly disappointed at the fact…

North Carolina Day 2, Part 4: Wake County and the African American vote

Wake County, by the way, was lost the Republicans in 2004 by around 18,000 votes.

The large African American communities in certain districts of the County were undervoting by margins of between 8% and 13%. Had they turned out, and voted Democrat as they were polling nationally, the County may have gone blue by anything up to 200,000 votes.

It's fair to say that underpolling is not the mood in the air this time round...

North Carolina Day 2, Part 3: Email

The power of email in this campaign hardly needs to be talked about. I’ll leave it to the stats:

In Wake Country, NC – the county which wins the State – whose entire population is around 800,000, the campaign has collected over 100,000 email addresses.

That meant that when they sent out an email asking for volunteers, with the prize of meeting the Senator at the Raleigh rally, they had over 3600 commitments by activists for the GOTV push.

They have calculated that on average, each activist who has signed up and come down to the campaign office has given around 11.5 volunteer hours.

That’s… a lot of time (do the math) with just the push of a button…

North Carolina Day 2, Part 2: The world outside

The transformative effect of this campaign among the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) of Shaw and St. Augustine universities is incredibly powerful and very moving indeed.

The reception for a group of British kids in Obama t-shirts has been incredibly positive. Many of the students are very plugged in to the idea that the world has a stake in the election. Many, though, are taken aback to learn that people from outside the States might be interested in the outcome.

Taking cars full of students to the local community centre (at one stage they were lining on campus for a ride) to register and vote for the first time has overwhelmed us all. One girl we took came out of the polling booth crying with the emotion. Another, who we had initially had to convince not to get dinner instead of voting, was interviewed by local TV after voting and had become a passionate advocate against student political apathy.

The sense that this is a generational election is palpable.

“We’re doing this for you too” said a young black guy in low-slung jeans said to me, coming out of a library whose sign read: “Education is the way to freedom".

North Carolina Day 2, Part 1: Rally in Raleigh

Barack Obama comes to Raleigh for a rally. No-one expects the numbers that turn up, even at this stage of the campaign. Despite the 40,000 inside the compound, easily 10,000 are disappointed.

Strikingly, at volunteer training the night before, an FO announced (tongue in cheek):

“No external signs – even if a 5-year-old has spent all day making it and you have to take it off them and make them cry”.

The perfect illustration of a campaign with a hugely grassroots feel and which is extremely open to volunteers bringing their own skills, but which is extremely tightly managed, branded and disciplined where it matters.

Many of Obama’s campaign inner sanctum cut their teeth on Howard Dean’s exciting but chaotic Presidential Campaign of 2004, and had their fingers burned by a movement that let a thousand flowers bloom but lacked discipline and organisation. This campaign has come of age.

The Senator was incredible by the way. An incredibly mixed Southern audience was fired up by cries of “That ain’t right!” to lists of the failings of John McCain’s policies, before a march to the nearest community centre (on Martin Luther King Boulevard) for registration and early voting of thouseands more.

Again, the FOs don’t lose a second in pursuit of their twin obsessions: signing up volunteers, and getting out the early vote.

North Carolina Day 1, Part 3: Early voting

Early voting is one of the most fascinating phenomena of this campaign. The Obama FOs are obsessive about getting their supports to vote early, as they can in many states across the US.

An enormous advantage of early voting, as Regional Field Director Zach Koutsky explains, is the ability of the Obama campaign to have been able to “bank” tens of thousands of votes a couple of weeks back when they were as much as 8 points up in the polls. Since then, the Republican attack machine turned their fire on Obama in an attempt to win back a state that seemed a shoo-in only months ago – but the momentum is with Obama.

What is really remarkable are the early voting numbers. Across the three North Carolina counties being run by Zach Koutsky, over 175,000 have already voted. Each FO has a target for their early voting – and many are as much as 10% over already.

The results from this relentless drive for early voting, however, seem to have been mixed. In one of the polling districts we canvassed – predominantly poor and black on the outskirts of the Raleigh – 48 of the 53 people we spoke to had already voted Obama for President and the “straight Democratic ticket” for Governor, Senate, Congress and the State positions. But I got the impression that many people said they had voted early to avoid canvassers – as evidenced by our return to the campaign office saying “everyone has voted!”, but being told that only 8% of the district actually had.

The more savvy Field Organisers can log in to VoteBuilder (the Democratic equivalent of our polling programme, Contact Creator) remotely on their Blackberries, and, using the numbers from voters’ polling cards, let the central campaign office know exactly who has voted early on a live website. These people are then taken out of the GOTV lists for the final drive – but, of course, are contacted as volunteers. Marvellous.

North Carolina Day 1, Part 2: Voter modelling

The campaign has spent some of their vast war chest on data to model people on everything from what paper they read from to what car they driver – as do our parties, as you would expect. Here, the campaign can model the likelihood of an Obama supporter from 10% up to 85% – but are basing it on some 43 points of this purchases information. Expensive, but – judging by the stats – effective.

North Carolina Day 1, Part 1: Customer Service Ethos

You read a lot about it, but to see in practice the customer service ethos which permeates every level of the campaign is really striking. In the Obama office in doewntown Raleigh, NC, “Respect, Empower, Include” (the campaign’s volunteering motto) is emblazened across the door – and is actually repeated in every Field Organisers’ meeting. The campaign plays entirely to its volunteers’ individual strengths and networks. (An excellent description of this in Ohio by Zack Exley is here).

They work to a principle of ‘Lucky 7’, developed out of the Wal-Mart marketing principle that if you make personal contact with someone 7 times, their positive experience will mean that they will buy and keep buying. For the Obama campaign, it’s not just voting – as Barnard and Braggins might have it – but volunteering.

On the Obama Campaign on North Carolina

Tied in the polls within the margin of error, the only state with targeted Congressional, Senate and Gubertatorial races (and the prospect of a woman Senator regardless of the result), and an incredibly motivated African American population: North Carolina is an exciting place to be.

The team here with me is: Cllr Phillip Glanville(Hoxton representative and David Lammy MP’s other researcher), Peter White (researcher to Margaret Hodge MP) Naomi Wiseman (researcher to Shona McIsaac MP), Dimitri Batrouni (researcher to Jessica Morden MP) and Labour activists Rob Vance and Leo Barasi.

These are a series of thoughts, observations and anecdotes from the campaign in North Carolina – which is taking on mythical proportions the longer we are here...

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Civility is the New Punk

I've been puzzling over my reaction to the Ross/Brand controversy. Like a lot of people I feel pretty repulsed by what Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand did to Andrew Sachs and his granddaughter. But I've felt the need to investigate why I feel this way. My thoughts on this have been mingling with those on a recent article in Renewal by Adam Lent of the TUC in which he calls for a new 'Civility Alliance'.

As an ageing (ex-)punk (well, wannabe punk - I had some of the records, but not the clothes) I can't claim that I find things objectionable just because someone - even if a lot of people - find them 'offensive'. Indeed, offensiveness seems often to go along with justifiable - and justifiably vehement - criticism of the oppressive, pompous, superstitious, imperial and generally reactionary. At its best, punk had this kind of targeted offensiveness.

But the Ross/Brand antics have a very different flavour. This wasn't the act of subversives assaulting complacency in the face of the powers that be. It was two very powerful media personalities using their power to play rather cruel jokes on those with much less power. They were celebrating their power, rather like a playground bully.

Now I don't want to get sanctimonious about this. Sadistic power playing is endemic in the modern media. A whole host of shows make use of and appeal to the same sentiments. It is, in a sense, unfair to single out Ross/Brand for criticism because their pranks were representative of so much that now passes for 'entertainment' - which may be why noone at the BBC stopped the program before it went out.

But this also tells us not to fall for the idea that Ross/Brand are wild, taboo-breaking rebels. Their pranks reflect a spirit of dull, unimaginative conformism to the mores of modern entertainment - mores which are, in turn, a reflection of the wider mores of our (post-Thatcher, neo-liberal) society.

In this social and cultural context, it is in fact civility which becomes subversive. Think about how your actions and words might affect other people's feelings. Think about how your demands affect possibilities for others. Adjust what you do and say accordingly. These things sound banal, but are in fact deeply challenging when we seek to follow them consistently. (I certainly don't.) And people are often shocked when you insist that we try to follow these norms consistently (just look at the Fabian 'Chavgate' controversy over the summer). Taking the route of civility - of solidarity - is so at odds with how we actually live so much of the time that people are sometimes offended by the demand that they be civil.

Civility, it would seem, is the new punk.

Long live the party political broadcast

As yachtgate brings British political funding into disrepute once again, the Obama campaign's ability to draw on an unprecedented number of small donors has been one of the novel features of the 2008 US campaign. Few would have predicted in recent years that fundraising in US politics could be seen as a positive part of political engagement and mobilisation, rather than a barrier to it.

Nick Anstead writes for New Statesman online on how some of the lessons of Small Dollar Democracy could translate into reform here. Nick is co-author of a Fabian freethinking paper, to be published tomorrow, on lessons from the US campaign.

As Obama prepares to break new ground by broadcasting a 30 minute 'closing argument' across the major networks in prime time, one thing we won't want to import is the US paid political advertising model.

Long live the party political broadcast!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Listening to Enoch

The new issue of Total Politics carries an interesting interview with UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

In a snap quiz at the end, Farage identifies Enoch Powell as his political hero, and he elaborated on his reasons speaking to the press association.Farage's case for Powell is broader than immigration, but he says:


"I would never say that Powell was racist in any way at all. Had we listened to him, we would have much better race relations now than we have got."


I don't think that Farage - like many of those who would rehabilitate Enoch's views - can be taking Powell's argument and advice to the nation seriously.

In a piece for OurKingdom and OpenDemocracy on Powell's less well known speech in Eastbourne, seven months after 'Rivers of Blood', I set out just what listening to Powell would have entailed. Powell's view of the nation is of no use to Britain in 2008, however Eurosceptic you might be.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Osborne would have had to resign as Chancellor, says d'Ancona

The yachtgate fallout dominates the Sunday political columns. Matthew d'Ancona in the Sunday Telegraph, Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer and Martin Ivens in the Sunday Times all say that yachtgate should be a further wake-up call for the political classes. If the news pages focus today more on Peter Mandelson more than George Osborne, the commentators see particular dangers for the public repositioning of David Cameron's Conservative Party.

Andrew Rawnsley notes the irony of George Osborne's conference speech claim that the Tories are "not bedazzled by big money. We respect wealth creation but unlike New Labour we don't fawn over it".

Matthew d'Ancona gets a sinking feeling from yachtgate. The well connected Spectator editor states categorically that Osborne would have been forced to quit by his leader had this happened with the Conservative party in power:


There has been a terrible warning for the Cameroons in this episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous which they ignore at their peril. Mr Osborne's greatest fortune is that this happened to him in Opposition. Had he been chancellor of the exchequer when the caviar hit the fan, he would have been forced to resign, and fast.


Simon Jenkins, signing off from his Sunday Times column with a clarion call in defence of liberty while John Rentoul discovers that academies will be safe under Ed Balls in the post-Adonis era, manage to steer clear of Corfu. (In an aside, Martin Ivens suggests the very sensible abolition of SATS at 14 is a setback for 'big state Fabianism', but he might find that the national curriculum, testing and league tables were championed by the Conservatives as much as the left, on the grounds of accountability to parents).

On the US race, Alexander Cockburn isn't buying into Obama and gets his betrayal in first in the Independent on Sunday revealing that he "can not muster a single, positive reason" for anybody on the left to prefer the Obama-Biden ticket to McCain-Palin. Its a pretty silly and strangely apolitical column, but if Cockburn really does think Obama has similar views to Bush and Cheney on the constitution then he may be in for a pleasant surprise.

But Republican disunity and fears of meltdown are the major theme in the US papers. In a hard-hitting Washington Post column, former Bush speechwriter David Frum says its tiem for the GOP to reduce its focus on the Presidential Race and adopt a Senators First policy to salvage what they can on November 4th.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

If the headline asks a question, try answering 'no'

Andrew Marr's advice on how to read a newspaper rarely fails.

Sunday Telegraph

Is Gordon Brown pondering an early election?

No.

(As Ben Brogan wrote just over a week ago, this is a non-runner. A good thing too - this blog certainly does not want to have to start shooting anybody).

Helping the have yachts

"You're only writing about this because it involves a yacht," the Tory aide told Independent political editor Andrew Grice about his front page story yesterday.

But with yachts in the headlines, many people will be wanting to know more about how they can join the 'have yacht' classes.

Here is a helpful guide.

Doesn’t everybody already own a yacht then?

Sadly, no. Only Roman Abrahamovich is said to think that.

How much does a yacht cost?

“If you have to ask you can’t afford it”, as JP Morgan is said to have said. (Except he almost certainly didn’t. “Morgan was a singularly inarticulate, unreflective man, not likely to come up with a maxim worthy of Oscar Wilde”, according to his biographer Jean Strouse).

What he actually said was less pithy – probably something like "You have no right, or business owning a yacht if you ask that question”. But he may have enjoyed the put down even more since he was talking to Henry Clay Pierce, said to be one of the four richest men in America. (But he is unlikely to have been rude enough to call him “oik”).

But in real money?

About £25,000 - £30,000 a square foot, so somewhere between £1.25 - £1.5 million up front for a 50 foot yacht, and about the same again in maintenance costs over the next five to seven years, after which the costs would ‘increase dramatically’.

But don’t forget that would be a rather small yacht. Mr Deripaska’s Queen K cost around £80 million and is 238 foot. It is thought to be the 72nd largest yacht in the world.

But only 72nd. So what a delight it was to hear Michael Heseltine on Tuesday’s PM programme remarking that it seemed to him rather a "modest" vessel. (And this from a man once accused of the social sin of buying his own furniture by Mr Alan Clark).

Politicians like to talk about increasing social mobility. How could public policy seek to increase yacht ownership?

Good question. An imaginative approach would be to raise inheritance tax thresholds for the wealthiest as yacht-loving Shadow Chancellor George Osborne has proposed.

The government has now made it possible to leave an estate of £300,000 before paying any taxes, or £600,000 for couples, rising to £700,000 from 2010. But tax will still be payable on the proportion of the estate above this. The Conservative Party’s plans to increase the tax-free threshold to £2 million will be particularly valuable to those who inherit estates worth considerably more than £700,000.

This shows how a party which is serious about the broader vision of a ‘yacht owning democracy’ needs to target help effectively.

Critics like Treasury Minister Yvette Cooper who complain about “tax cuts for millionaires” and point out that this will reduce social mobility overall, doing nothing for 99% of people miss the point entirely. There is nothing sensible that can be done to increase yacht ownership among those people who may not even have a foot on the property ladder. The Tory targeted approach could give the asset-rich - like the 19 millionaires in the Shadow Cabinet – the lift that they need to get onto the ocean waves.

Those pesky critics will point out too that this policy does most of all for those who will already own yachts. However, some may aspire to another yacht - and that would boost the economy in these difficult times.

Since yacht owners have a reputation for being such generous hosts, this is a ‘spread the wealth’ policy to be proud of.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Time for a change

Nothing half-hearted about the New York Times' endorsement of Barack Obama for president. It dismisses McCain as running a campaign based on partisan division, class warfare and even hints of racism, while arguing that in this election America's future hangs in the balance, and Obama is the man to rescue it. The endorsement is woven through with a level of hyperbole about a political candidate that it is harder to imagine in the UK's media. The Americans really believe in the political system and its underlying democracy in a way that is not so obvious in the UK.

It's fascinating to discover who else the NYT has endorsed throughout history. Yes, it came out for Abraham Lincoln, and Ulysess Grant, supported FDR for two terms and then switched to Wendell Wilkie. However, its recent strike rate of choosing the winner has not been so hot, let's hope they got it right this time.

Obama and McCain would 'talk to Taliban'

Time's Joe Klein has a significant interview with Barack Obama.

It includes a potentially important development in his thinking on Afghanistan.


Actually, Obama and Petraeus seem to be thinking along similar lines with regard to Afghanistan. I mentioned that Petraeus had recently given a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in which he raised the possibility of negotiating with the Taliban. "You know, I think this is one useful lesson that is applicable from Iraq," Obama said without hesitation. "The Sunni awakening changed the dynamic in Iraq fundamentally," he said, referring to the Petraeus-led effort to turn the Sunni tribes away from the more radical elements of the insurgency. "Whether there are those same opportunities in Afghanistan I think should be explored," he said.



Wired's Noah Shactman, one of the most respected reporters on security issues, has, perhaps significantly, got a McCain campaign source to respond consensually.


"There are differences over timing, strategy, etc. But there is consensus that at some point there will need to be an effort to talk with some of these [Taliban] guys and peel off more moderate elements".



This might be surprising in the final phases of a campaign when there could have been a late partisan advantage to be made in politicising (perhaps misrepresenting) Obama's position on 'talking to the Taliban'. (Maybe Schactman has got a view informed more by McCain's foreign policy advisers rather than his political operatives).

That Obama is here endorsing the emulation of an important part of the Petreaus strategy in Iraq may have a good deal to do with that. But perhaps, and despite all recent appearances to the contrary, 'Country First' is still an argument which holds some sway with the McCain campaign on issues that really matter.

PS: Even outside of the campaign context, the British experience shows why politicians can be wary of this debate in public.

Last December, British discussion of strategies to "split" the Taliban generated front-page Brown: It's time to talk to the Taliban headlines. A Parliamentary statement which generated We will not negotiate with Taliban, insists Brown headlines the following day.

The proposed strategy was always, rationally, somewhere in between. Or as Paul Woodward of War in Context put it: 'We will not talk to the Taliban who we won’t talk to, apart from those who we will talk to'. That is more sensible than it might sound. And it appears to be the policy which both US candidates are converging on too.

Cross-posted from World After Bush.

Does Cameron think he's Cantona?

Asked if he would sack Mr Osborne if it turned out he had not been telling the truth, the Tory leader said: “If my mother had wheels she’d be a bicycle", reports The Times.

Mon Dieu.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Antidisestablishmentarianism

Watching Question Time, as Phil Woolas makes more news by not appearing than any Minister has by going on. Roy Hattersley is proving amusingly effective in highlighting that Sayeeda Warsi is clearly winging it - she's just been called by members of the audience on some fairly ill-informed comments about how sex education is taught in schools.

Anyway, it was not just the immigration controversy, but also Woolas' prediction that the Church of England would be disestablished within 50 years which led to his being pulled from the show.


“Disestablishment – I think it will happen because it’s the way things are going. Once you open debate about reform of the House of Lords you open up debate about the make-up of the House. It will probably take 50 years, but a modern society is multifaith.”


As one would hope, this called forth a lengthy Church and Nation editorial in The Times yesterday which notes that "there remains a powerful case for antidisestablishmentarianism" yet comments that


Disestablishment would in a sense allow the Church of England to be more Christian. Its concerns would be less expansive, and a more distinctive voice might thereby emerge. Whether that is the right course for the Church and for the nation is a conversation worth holding.


But disestablishment is not the only way to deal with the public role of religion in a society of many faiths and none.

I have argued in a couple of essays on this subject - not freely available online, but summarised in this Guardian letter and news story - that we do need to renegotiate the role of religion in public life but that a limited co-establishment, within a human rights framework, could produce a rather more British settlement.


A ‘pragmatic secularism’ would offer a different approach to a new settlement between religion and the state. This would determine which of the current privileges of the Established Church would end and which could be shared with other major faiths ... that the boundaries will be established by political negotiation means that pragmatic empiricism to the relationship between religion and the state will not deliver an entirely coherent blueprint. This may be a particularly British approach, reminiscent of George Orwell’s claims in The Lion and the Unicorn that his new post-revolutionary England “will not be doctrinaire, nor even logical. It will abolish the House of Lords, but quite probably will not abolish the Monarchy. It will leave anachronisms and loose ends everywhere, the judge in his ridiculous horsehair wig and the lion and the unicorn on the soldier’s cap-buttons”.


PS: The famous Blackadder reference:

Dish and Dishonesty
Prince George: Get him here at once!
Blackadder: Certainly, sire. I will return before you can say 'antidisestablishmentarianism.'
Prince George: Well, I wouldn't be too sure about that! Antidistibilitsmin... anti-misty-linstimbl...
title card: Two Days Later
Prince George: Anti-distinctly-minty-muntanism... anti...
[Blackadder enters]
Blackadder: Sir Talbot Buxomly!

Let's worry about saving lives rather than speed cameras

Rants against speed cameras and parking fines seem to be all the rage in papers such as the Daily Mail and for car-obsessed Jeremy Clarkson. As if the worst thing in life that could possibly happen is that you should get caught for speeding, or that it is somehow an infringement of your civil liberties to get a ticket for parking somewhere illegally, when you might be making everyone else's life miserable.

Ironic then that Top Gear's Richard Hammond reckoned this morning that it wasn't speed cameras that were causing accidents it was selfishness and bad driving. But the point, Richard, is that bad driving is accentuated by speed and speed makes a difference to the severity of the accident. And it is actually selfish to speed through a town just because you might be in a hurry.

There's a very British school of thought that feels that breaking motoring law is alright really, while breaking other laws would not be. And the whole thing is rolled up in a coating of macho-ism that accuses anyone on the other side of the argument of just being a big woolly liberal do-gooder - as if these were bad things to be.

Now Tory-controlled Swindon council is taking down its speed cameras because they don't think they are stopping enough people's lives from being saved on the roads.

But the Department of Transport and the Advanced Institute of Motorists says there is evidence that road safety is greatest at fixed camera sites. The AIM says the move to withdraw cameras is foolhardy.

Swindon council wants there to be more police out on the roads, but surely the best answer is to have a combination of both. No one is saying you can't have police on the roads and speed cameras, are they?

This is emotional policy making at its worst, pandering to the worst kind of public opinion, rather than worrying about saving people's lives.

David Evans RIP

In a funny way, David Evans - the former Conservative MP for Welwyn and Hatfield who died this week - has a good claim to be right up there with Margaret Thatcher, Neil Kinnock and Norman Tebbit as among my formative political influences.

Collecting signatures for a petition against the national identity card scheme for football supporters was, at the age of 14, my first piece of direct political activism.

Evans had persuaded Margaret Thatcher to pursue the policy, though this was dropped not just due to supporter's campaigns against it, but because Lord Justice Taylor's report into the Hillsborough tragedy concluded the scheme should be dropped on safety grounds. (Football's transformation from sporting pariah to fashionability after Italia '90 might otherwise have been impossible).

As Chairman of Luton Town Football Club, Evans claimed to have a hotline to the masses.

In football, he was a utilitarian opponent of the beautiful game, with his plastic pitch and ban on away supporters.

In politics, he was proud to shock and sought to be the most outspoken champion of the "nasty party' agenda - vocally backing not just hanging, but flogging too. Today's Times obituary also notes his penchant for straightforwardly racist and homophobic comments.

Evans' felt he was the victim of social snobbery within his own party when seeking a seat - "I didn't have the right accent" - and in the liberal media. As John Mullan wrote in a piece on changing attitudes to accents in the Guardian in 1999:


Scarcely any Guardian or Independent article involving David Evans, former Tory MP for Welwyn and Hatfield, failed to mention his car-salesman's accent, a sound to chill the blood of any liberal - it seemed the incarnation of Thatcherite brutalism.


Yet Evans also embraced this thuggish persona with gusto and made it his political calling card - even if today's Telegraph obituary quotes a friend who believes this populist public persona was "David being flippant – the froth on the pint of beer. He was a seriously good guy")

Hmmm. Speaking to sixth formers ahead of the 1997 election, Evans attacked had attacked Melanie Johnson, his unmarried Labour opponent, as "a single mum with three bastard children". So his heavy defeat on a 12% swing - like that of the homophobic campaign of Adrian Rogers in Exeter and the failure of attacks against Gisela Stuart for being German-born in Birmingham Edgbaston - also seemed to symbolise a rejection of thuggish populism which was no longer as popular as its advocates thought.

Evans tended to go rather further than most of his Parliamentary colleagues, because he was confident that his was the authentic voice of the Tory grassroots.

He may have been right in the 1980s. Let's hope he would be wrong today.

I am not sure there is a direct heir to David Evans on the Tory backbenches now. The disappearance of his Alf Garnett-style xenophobia from mainstream politics would certainly be a sign of social progress.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

McCain's quest for a narrative

Why elect John McCain?

The shifting search through various campaign narratives is the theme of a mammoth 8000 word feature by Robert Draper in this Sunday's New York Times magazine and already available online - The Making (and Remaking and Remaking) of the Candidate. .

Chavgate: an apology

Perhaps its a blessing that Next Left was not up and running during 'chavgate' in July.

My esteemed colleague Tom Hampson penned a short and rather moderate Fabian Review piece arguing that nobody who considers themselves progressive should use this term of 'class hatred', and then escaped on his holidays so the rest of us could face the music as debate raged around the world.

Over on The Social Work Blog, Andrew Mickel couldn't see the point at all.

Now, he's been mugged not by reality, but by the Daily Mail - and rather gracefully explains why he's changed his mind, even going so far as to write 'I was wrong'.

Osborne broke yachtgate holiday to make poverty speech

A small but telling detail reported in The Times:


With Mr Osborne having to break his holiday – to make a speech on poverty in London – it made sense for his wife to have the company of Nathaniel Rothschild and the collection of financiers and their families. When Mr Osborne resumed his holiday, however, there followed three days in which the worlds of high politics and business would collide to spectacular effect.


Oh, the dilemmas of the modern progressive Tory, shuttling between the have nots and the have yachts.

It is always good that the Conservative now feel they must make speeches about how they will take poverty seriously. Beyond that, the Osborne poverty speech does not stand up too well, with its central premises at odds with the facts confirmed by the new OECD inequality study.

Nor does Bruce Anderson's endorsement of the new poverty narrative in response to the speech, making on the fatalistic - and wrong - grounds that:


It is almost certain that throughout the 2010s, the gap between rich and poor will grow. Although this will not matter if the foundations of a successful anti-poverty programme are being laid, there will be a political difficulty.

Abortion in Northern Ireland: what does the public think?

Diane Abbott’s amendment to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland seems unlikely to be put to a vote today. It was probably unlikely to be carried - on a free Commons vote – but the vote would have broken an important public and political taboo.

Abortion is probably the most ‘hot button’ issue where equity and devolution clash. Opposition to reform unites the Northern Irish parties and the political class, with the Unionist parties reject the argument of ‘British rights for British citizens’.

On the surface, little seems to have change since a Stormont Assembly vote in 1984 saw just one vote in favour of extending the 1967 law. Usually, it would be good to find issues and causes which transcend religious and political tribalism – but uniting people against women’s rights on abortion is one to avoid.

This is not a simple issue. On the age of consent and civil partnerships, equal rights trumped local sentiment. But entrenching rights depends on winning public arguments too. Can progress be made without this becoming a ‘Westminster versus Northern Ireland’ issue?

And there is now a brave and active local 'safe and legal' campaign, demonstrating that the issue is contested within Northern Ireland, with local campaigners calling on Westminster to act, to contest the campaigning of anti-abortion groups.

Let me suggest two modest proposals which might seek to build on that.

(1) As well as the Commons voting, at some point in the future, on extending the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, perhaps there is a good case to put another ‘stepping stone’ reform on the agenda at the same time: mainland MPs should also propose to make women from Northern Ireland eligible to have an abortion on the NHS in the rest of the UK, until and unless the NI law is changed. I can not see what ‘devolution’ argument the Northern Irish politicians could make against that.

This would be a highly imperfect step forward – but it would also perhaps open up the local debate: requiring Northern Ireland politicians, opinion formers and the broader public to address the charge of simply seeking to ignore and export the problem.

(2) Secondly, there is very little good information on public attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland - and a non-partisan study of public attitudes could help to create a more informed and less polarised debate.

It may perhaps not be in the partisan interests of neither side to admit to the complexity of opinion.

It would complicate the claim that there is united opposition to reform: that this is about views being imposed on Northern Ireland.

Meanwhile, those promoting reform have this week released a poll with a clear majority in Northern Ireland for the right to abortion in the cases of rape and incest – with 60% in favour and 20% against.

I don't know if they also polled the public on the support for the extension of the 1967 Act itself: if they did, the figures do not seem to have been released. (It would be a reasonable hunch to say that there would currently be public a majority against: it is reported (PDF file) that there was 25% to 30% support for abortion at the request of the woman in Northern Irish polls in 1992 and 1994. I have not seen any more recent information).

It would be a good idea for an academic or media organisation to try to find out how opinion currently stands.

This is not an argument for government by opinion poll and referendum. But would help to open the question of whether the Northern Irish political elites would consider any reforms at all. If the status quo is kept, Westminster might well then want to consider a series of amendments - perhaps starting with the case of rape and incest, where the local parties give no voice to majority local opinion, through to the full equalisation of the 1967 law.

The poop deck, the oligarch, and the doo doo

Not to be missed, Peter Brookes cartoon on the oligarch affair today. Gives a whole new meaning to the idea of a poop deck.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

George Osborne's real problem

What really worries me about George Osborne ...

is not so much Ben Wegg-Prosser's worry about George coming unstuck for being a blabbermouth,

nor yet Adam Boulton's observation that Osborne's narrowly framed denial is sidestepping several unanswered questions, about whether the party discussed taking an illegal foreign donation

and not even what we should infer from John Redwood publicly batting so hard to save Boy George from the Shadow Chancellor's Tory critics

No. Today's OECD report is a reminder of why government policy matters is increasing opportunity and narrowing inequality. But George Osborne's tax proposals are focused on increasinginheritance tax thresholds at the top

So - for me - there is an even more important question about George Osborne than why he took the party's chief fundraiser to the boat party

And that is why the tax plans of the new Tory progressives would do so much more for the have yachts than the have nots.

Toynbee or Thatcher: the Tory choice on inequality:

David Cameron is for 'conservative ends to progressive means'. His argument is the following:


Labour has done little to advance progressive ideals. A government that promised social justice and economic efficiency has in fact delivered neither ... Take the fight against poverty. We can see that in the 20th century, the methods of the centre-left – principally income redistribution and social programmes run by the state – had considerable success in relieving poverty. It would be churlish to pretend otherwise. But those methods have now run their course. The returns from big state intervention are not just diminishing, they are disappearing.


Today's OECD evidence on inequality conclusively shows why his two central 'progressive Conservative' claims are wrong:-headed
(i) that the Labour record proves that 'the state has failed' to reduce poverty or inequality
(ii) that Conservatives will be more effective in addressing inequality because they know that progress is made by other means, without using the failed old methods of state redistribution.


The real choice for the opposition is this:
(1) substantiate the claim to be different and new 'progressive Conservatives' - by accepting much of Labour's political and policy legacy, and seeking to deepen it
(2) OR to return to the Thatcherite principle that reducing inequality is not something that Conservatives should address.

It is no good talking about inequality if your policies will widen the gap. That is what President Bush did with his compassionate conservatism, quoted in the OECD report as evidence of concern about inequality


‘our citizens worry about the fact that our dynamic economy is leaving working people behind. Income inequality is real; it's been rising for more than 25 years’.


But regressive tax redistribution increases inequality by transferring income and wealth upwards; progressive tax changes and investment in public services are needed to reduce it. The Tories have focused on reducing inheritance tax for estates up to £2 million. They risk repeating the Bush pattern: talking about inequality, while actively widening the gap, as Paul Krugman has consistently show

The message for the Conservatives: you can't be pro-Polly Toynbee on relative poverty and pro-Margaret Thatcher in believing that the state should not promote greater equality at the same time.

The party would - I think - prefer the latter. Does their leadership agree?

Narrowing the gap: policy matters

Listening to the Today programme this morning raised the hope that those oft repeated mistaken points - 'Labour has increased inequality' and 'social mobility has fallen under Labour' might finally be challenged by a more informed and nuanced debate.

The new OECD study finds that the UK had a "remarkable" record in challenging and beginning to reverse widening inequality, with "the largest fall in inequality of any developed country, when inequality is mostly widening internationally".

The gap started to narrow after 2000. Why? Because public spending began to increase after 1999; because there was an active labour market policy to get people into work; and because tax credits increased the income of those in work.

There is a useful and detailed media brief (PDF file) summarising the report.

One big message comes across from comparative evidence and the history of inequality in the UK. It is this: policy matters. What governments do matter..

The inequality gap remains wide, by international standards, in the UK. We were one of the more equal European societies prior to 1975; we became one of the most unequal in the 1980s. The quiet progress made more recently should be used to challenge fatalism. The gap matters. And it can be closed.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Comrade Bush

Former deputy PM John Prescott is in chipper mood, writing on LabourHome, about the party's fightback and his Go Fourth campaign.

Probably his best line:


He's [Gordon Brown] even nationalised the banks and convinced Comrade Bush to do the same too!


I wonder whether Prezza knew that Hugo Chavez had got there first?

"Bush is to the left of me now. Comrade Bush announced he will buy shares in private banks", Chavez said last week.

A new Popular Front perhaps?

Obama not Socialist, say Socialists

The Chicago Tribune has worked hard to ferret out a few American socialists - mainly Marxists and communists as it happens - who are pretty clear that Obama is not one of theirs.

And, if an opinion from the Fabian Society - which did a good deal to invent the non-Marxist, democratic socialist tradition - is of any relevance: clearly Obama is not a socialist.

Rather, Obama is a moderately liberal, centrist Democrat.

While it draws on different strands of political ideas, the US liberal Democrat tradition of FDR, JFK and LBJ has shared a number of common features with social democracy in Europe, not least in saving capitalism from its own worst excesses.

That helped to give the market economy public legitimacy: the gains from growth in both the US and Europe benefitted wide swathes of society, and there was a social safety net in place (though not universal healthcare in the US).

The McCain campaign believes that Obama's wish to "spread the wealth" has let the socialist cat out of the bag. But this does not seem to be nearly as effective with voters as they think.

Obama's answer should be a simple one. US economic growth used to spread the wealth well - but it no longer does so. And much of that has been due to a political choice - to transfer the wealth to the top. Never before in US history have such a small number gained so much while the majority stand still.

As Paul Krugman put it in a 2006 essay for Rolling Stone on 'the great wealth transfer'


Rising inequality isn't new. The gap between rich and poor started growing before Ronald Reagan took office, and it continued to widen through the Clinton years. But what is happening under Bush is something entirely unprecedented: For the first time in our history, so much growth is being siphoned off to a small, wealthy minority that most Americans are failing to gain ground even during a time of economic growth -and they know it.


This stagnation for the majority during a time of plenty has also threatened the nation's ability to make economic gains: rising protectionist sentiment reflects the fact that the gains of global trade have left most Americans out.

So Obama's ads have been putting across his message of tax cuts for most Americans (he says 95%) with an increase only for those who earn more than $250,000 a year more effectively than anything McCain is saying.

He also won all of the viewer polls after the debates, mainly because he connected on the need for action to address the economy, while McCain always returned to the need for government to cut spending and do less.

And, as Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution, told the Chicago Tribune. "I think it's hard for McCain to call Obama a socialist when George Bush is nationalizing banks."

Did Barack "Spread the Wealth" Obama Just Blow the Election?, asks James Pethokoukis and several other over-excited right-wingers.

But this seems to me to fit the usual rule: if a headline asks a question, and the answer 'almost certainly not' seems to answer it, feel free to move on.

Reverse Bradley effect could apply

On the Fabian website today pollster Peter Kellner argues that the reverse Bradley effect could apply to the US election results if groups of people who have never voted before turn out.

In polling, as in so much else, the United States does not do things by halves, he argues. Kellner has just come back from visiting the YouGov offices in California and suggests that pollsters may be currently missing the curve.

The Bradley effect has been discussed in detail for months, but the reverse Bradley - which has the sound of an American football manoeuvre - is less obvious.

The argument, in summary, is that the polls may be missing groups such as young people and black Americans who have previously had a low turnout at national elections.

One thing is for sure, the Democrats would rather no-one yelled about this too loudly in case those much vaunted new voters don't turn out on the day, if they think they just aren't needed.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

McCain futures market was rigged

Trading in political futures on the leading InTrade market gives Obama an 84% chance of the White House, against 16% of McCain.

Check out the graphs - and notice how late the Obama surge broke.

And now we know why. InTrade has revealed in a statement that a single institutional investor spent hundreds of thousands to make McCain look more competitive on the market than he was. This reduced the Obama probability of winning down by around 10 points over a month. (This is not simply counter-cyclical betting by somebody who thought the herd were getting it wrong: they were deliberately betting at much worse odds on InTrade than were readily available elsewhere).

CQ has all the details of how it was done. I heard about this on Paul Krugman's blog, but even the Nobel winner has to doff his hat at Nate Silver, who spotted something suspicious and worked out from the betting patterns a few weeks ago. (Sliver's www.fivethirtyeight.com blog takes political numbers to a new art form).

But there wasn't enough of a future in it. You can buck the market for a while. But you can't buck the election.

'I can live with defeat says McCain' probably isn't the best headline in the momentum stakes either.

After the crisis: the social democratic case.

Just back in London after speaking to the SP.a - the Flemish Social Democratic party - at their conference this morning. I was the international speaker and warm-up act ahead of party leader Caroline Gennez's keynote.

You can read my speech here. (There is a slightly extended version of the argument on the Fabian website).

The right intervened despite its principles in this crisis. I argue that Social Democrats must now make the political argument to get the right international and national response to have the markets we need.


what happened to the argument that government is always the problem, and that whoever governs least governs best? That market fundamentalist argument has been very prominent in western politics in the last 25 years. In this crisis, that view went missing in action, rejected even by its friends in the White House. The ideology of leaving everything to the ‘hidden hand’ of the market provided no more useful practical advice than the equally discredited Marxist fringe view that there is nothing to do but wait for the collapse of capitalism – whatever the pain caused – to see what new utopian possibilities might arise.


This was the first SP.a conference to include a 'fringe' with several other European and US speakers, and I will write more about the debates

Saturday, 18 October 2008

The mystery of Bush's Belgian appeal

About to catch the Eurostar to speak to the Flemish Social Democrats' conference in Brussels tomorrow morning.

This could also be a chance to investigate a mysterious quirk in yesterday's international poll on the US election, carried by The Guardian, Le Monde, Le Soir and other newspapers.

The public in all eight countries preferred Barack Obama to John McCain, with the lead ranging from 17 to over 60 points, and majority support for the Democrat everywhere except Poland (43-26) and Mexico (46-13)

A second question asked Since the start of the Bush Presidency, how has your opinion of the US changed?

In seven out of eight countries, opinions of America had changed for the worse.

But not in Belgium. Voters there do back Obama over McCain by 62% to 8% - quite a similar result to those in Britain and France. Yet 52% of Belgians have improved their opinion of America since 2000, while for 39% it has deteriorated. That's a 13% positive Bush bounce in America's global appeal among Belgians, compared to deficits of 44% in Britain, 64% in Canada and 68% in France.

Why? I shall try to ask around and report back ...

Friday, 17 October 2008

Blink, not Nudge: the new Cameron doctrine?

David Cameron's speech on the economy got a lukewarm reception. The political tactics of choosing when to renew a partisan attack were less important than the question of content: fully 81% of PoliticsHome's insider panel felt the speech lacked substance. That is a criticism made by several Conservative voices.

The speech tries to weave between several different, usually opposing, arguments. To say that Labour, having become pro-market, did not do enough to scrutinise what types of market it wanted is a broadly social democratic point. But Cameron also warns against increasing intervention as a result of the crisis, which is itself then modified with a rejection of laissez-faire.

The Goldilocks quality to the speech - "It is not enough for Government to get out of the way – they've got to get involved" - is not untypical of David Cameron. Wherever possible, he prefers not to show his hand or be pinned down.

So, perhaps the most interesting moment in the speech comes right at the start, where Cameron asserts that what matters most in politics - more than political values, vision or policies - are "judgement calls":


Politics is about many things – the words you speak, the understanding you have of the problems we face, the vision you have, the policies you draw up and your ability to implement them. But all of those rest on the shoulders of one thing – the decisions and judgement calls you make.


This new Cameron Doctrine is less about 'Nudge' but the previous pop psychology best-seller Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. (Subtitle: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking).

It seems that Cameron's central claim to the Premiership is that he, personally, would make the right calls.

He believes that his political leadership has been characterised by coolness under fire, in winning his party's leadership and when under pressure from the 2007 Brown bounce.

And, if that is the test, then he can avoid pinned down ideologically for longer. So, in some ways, this is just another version of politics as managerialism: to compete on competence, rather than on a distinctive argument or set of values.

Though oppositions can ride their luck in this way, there is no credible basis - except hindsight - for Cameron's claim that he would have spotted the dangers. No serious observer believes that the Tories would have seen the need for more regulation, not less. And that is because of the party's ideological values and instincts.

And so the real call which Cameron faces remains a political one, dramatised in the two most interesting political commentaries in today's newspapers.

Jeff Randall has made waves in Westminster today by an attack on George Osborne which vents the views of the party's right: not just accusing 'boy George' of going missing in action and, perhaps more importantly, the Tories of not opposing action which offends their core principles. John Redwood has consistently opposed the nationalisation of banks during this crisis: the Tory leadership has not.

Alternatively, Steve Richards' incisive column today, suggests that the Tory leader can see the case for making a more substantive break with the laissez-faire instincts of his party, while recognising the political tensions in doing so.

But Cameron has become rather more cautious and conventionally Conservative during a year in which he has been on top politically, than he was in his insurgent bid for the party leadership. Perhaps his preference will continue to be to pick and mix, articulating parts of these contrasting views, while avoiding making a choice between them.

As Richards suggests, Cameron made today's speech before deciding what his line is.

And that choice would not be about character and gut instincts - but about politics after all.

Say it ain't so Joe: the politics of tax

So Joe the Plumber doesn't have a plumbing licence, doesn't own the business he works for, and wouldn't pay more under Barack Obama's tax plans if he did.

Given that the McCain campaign barely vetted his Vice-Presidential pick Sarah Palin, they were never likely to check out the blue-collar icon of the final Presidential debate pitch. Let's hope the media frenzy doesn't warn off any other normal voters thinking of engaging with the political process.

It reopens the debate about the public politics of taxation. Can progressive parties put tax and spending plans to the electorate and win?

The Obama plan - that nobody earning more than $250,000 will pay more in taxes - has gone down well with undecided voters in the Presidential debates. (There are clear majorities, across voters for all parties, for higher taxes above similar levles in the UK).

But the Joe the Plumber story demonstrates the risks of voters much further down the income scale believing they will shortly earn much more and get hit, or that politicians who pledge taxes at the top - and also of being misrepresented by political opponents or the media, as when Labour was mugged over its shadow budget in 1992 by the 'tax bombshell' campaign. That experienced seared, for a generation, the message: Don't talk about tax.

Dig a little deeper, and the key issue is about trust in whether and how the money will be spent. That was Labour's problem in 1992.

Despite New Labour's pledges not to raise income tax rates (and the basic rate has been lowered), Mark Gill of MORI has shown how voters in 1997 and 2001 expected spending and taxation to rise. That can be a vote winner, but there must be confidence that the money can be well used.

It seems unlikely that the story of Joe the Plumber - whatever the truth - could cost Obama the election, when voters are sceptical about whether John McCain and the Republicans have the response they need to the economic downturn.

Silly Sarko

Indignation!", "An affair of state!" splashed the front pages in France yesterday.

Never mind the financial crisis, the European summit or the tensions of the Sarkozy-Merkel relationship.

Nicolas Sarkozy seems to want to declare a national emergency over the booing of the French national anthem before Wednesday night's the football match against Tunisia.

There have been Ministerial summits, urgent press statements - and a new policy. It is already an offence to insult the anthem. But, in future, the President says the French football team will not play if the anthem is booed.

The more likely outcome of the furore will be that the French will not arrange any Paris fixtures against African teams, which seems to be the policy being advocated by Sports Minister Bernard Laporte:


"Let's just stop organizing these kinds of matches so these kinds of people will be deprived their team,

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Free Mansour Osanloo

In a rainy Brussels, where Gordon Brown is seeking a new Bretton Woods to reconstruct the global financial system.

In the European Parliament tonight, the Silver Rose Awards marked the 60th anniversary of SOLIDAR,the pan-European network of civil society and labour movement organisations working for social justice.

The International Solidarity Silver Rose Award, presented by John Monks, was awarded to the Iranian trade union, Syndica Sherkat-e Vahed, which represents the workers of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company. The union founded in 1968 was disbanded by the revolutionary government in 1979. Re-established in 2005, it has struggled against government repression and violence.

But the union's President Mansour Osanloo could not be in Brussels, as he was imprisoned last Autumn for five years for 'endangering national security'. The award may help to raise the profile of his case and of trade unions in Iran.

To find out more, watch the video 'Freedom will come: the story of Mansour Osanloo' on YouTube.

You can support the ITF campaign at www.freeosanloo.org

King Cable consolidates as shareholders attack

The warning that the "value of shares can go up as well as down" is clearly marked on the packet. Yes, as the market shows right now, it does what it says on the tin.
So why then do some people who have invested feel that when the government stepped in to save the whole banking system closing down, and a major run on banks on the high street, that they have personally been short changed.
A representative of the UK Shareholders Association was on the Today programme this morning raging at Vince Cable about how he didn't understand finance or the way shareholding worked, and that Bradford and Bingley shareholders deserved better than having their bank nationalised.
After which there was a silence, as the world held its breath, and Vince actually got very slightly riled, and said he thought he did.
I imagined the listening public were not very sympathetic to Vince's protagonist.
The point here is investing in the stock market is risky as most people should know, and when the government stepped into "save" Bradford and Bingley it was undoubtedly looking to stabilise the financial system in general.
So why should B&B shareholders feel hard done by when they knew risk was involved?
Surely more deserving of our attention are pensioners who have saved for a rainy day and are now finding their costs rising; or members of the public who are losing their jobs in housing firms as they lay off staff.
Even the members of the Moneysavingexpert forum, not usually the most forebearing or altruistic in their outlook, were firmly in the Cable camp after the Today debate.
There is a world of difference between guaranteeing savings and paying out to shareholders, as anyone who is an expert on shares should know.
Meanwhile, Cable continues to consolidate his role as man of the people, who understands where the financial world is coming from.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Top secret Tory thinking: a brilliant plan

Governments can govern - but oppositions don't have that option.

Their task - were young Osborne and Cameron were to get a little bored with having to look as engaged as Vince Cable in the sobriety of grown-up scrutiny - is to engage in the strategic media politics of trying to look as serious and governmental as they can without looking like that is their motivation.

And so it is that the Conservatives have strategically leaked their top secret thinking to ConservativeHome.

Here's a quick summary.


Gordon Brown is doing well: the bastard. Surely that can't last. (It might last for a little bit; so let's say we were expecting that). Nobody cares what we think. We don't mind at all about that. (Clue: this might not be the whole truth). However, all will be well. We have a secret and brilliant plan to focus "like a laser beam" on having a secret and brilliant plan. (Has anybody got Vince's number?) It should be about the 'real economy', not the pretend one. People won't want the awful state to do anything about it; they will want to know that we empathise.


So the main thing I learnt from the exercise is that they certainly (and rightly) think that ConservativeHome is a jolly important website.

And I assume somebody at CCHQ has already sent it to Professor Krugman for his approval. Novices, huh? That'd show 'em.

No early election!

Governments can govern. Sometimes, it becomes very clear why governments are needed. And, just sometimes, governments manage to carry out those responsibilities well.

That goes a long way to explain the change in the political weather.

There were some attempts as long ago as the weekend to accuse the government of exaggerating the international influence of the British policy. Now that this is the one thing the French and the Americans can agree on, it is churlish to deny it.

As to the longer-term political fallout, the fact is that absolutely nobody knows. If anybody says they do, don't believe them. Or, at least, ask them to prove that they predicted all of this.

Surely to govern well is the point. This might have political benefits; it might not. But the best way to reap any political benefits is not to think about them.

There are three things that both Labour backbench MPs, commentators and any of us assorted hangers-on who have an interest in the party's future could do, which might all be summed up by a general 'first, do no harm' injunction.

1. Behave sensibly. At all costs, avoid triumphalism about an economic crisis, however well the Prime Minister handles it.

2. In particular, could anybody banging on about the Falklands please stop it. It is in very poor taste all round.

3. And, particularly particularly, if any MP wants to say 'when the crisis is over, perhaps there might be an early election', perhaps arrangements could be made for them to be quickly taken out and shot.

To be fair, that particular madness is largely at the level of media commentary: Jackie Ashley may have started it with a brief, depressing mention of talk of a 'quick poll' yesterday; other commentators may keen to stoke up the circus.

So I am wary even of pointing out the sheer insanity of that discussion when I very much doubt there is any reality to it. Indeed, as the immortal Basil Fawlty once said:


I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right.


Please eat and destroy this message after reading it.

And with that said, Let silence fall. Please!

Burying good news, not bad?

Meanwhile in education ... the timing of the decision to scrap nationwide SATs tests at age 14 is explained by the window of opportunity created by the cancellation of the five year contract with ETS, following its shambolic failures in marking and delivering this year's tests.

The move has won cross-party support. There are good reasons to be wary of the blanket argument against testing - but the case against a nationwide test between age 11 and GCSEs is a convincing one.

Following the closure of the 42 days issue, there has been a small (and perhaps temporary) retreat on the provision to allow some coroner's inquests to be held without a jury, in exceptional circumstances. This proposal, which has drawn criticism from legal professionals and human rights groups, is being dropped from the counter-terrorism bill, but may reappear in future legislation.

Perhaps it is a shame these changes might be overshadowed by the dominant economic news. These are going to be widely seen as positive changes by significant progressive constituencies and, particularly in the case of the changes to testing, by the broader public too.

Public shares: asking strategic questions

The government's partial nationalization of major banks is an emergency measure aimed at preventing an economic disaster. But having taken this step, we urgently need a discussion on the left about what we see as the possible long-term significance of this shift to public share-holding. Is this to be seen only as an emergency measure? Or is this an opportunity to think strategically about our political economy and new possibilities of democratizing the ownership and control of capital?

On a day when the new Nobel Prize winner in economics, Paul Krugman, has been announced, it is perhaps fitting to recall the ideas of another Nobel laureate economist, James Meade. Meade served in the post-war Labour government, was close to the Labour revisionists in the 1950s/60s and was later an influential economic thinker in SDP/Liberal/Lib Dem circles. Over a long career, Meade developed an account of an ideal 'partnership economy' which would combine 'liberty, equality and efficiency'.

At the heart of Meade's model lay the idea of public shareholding. In an ideal 'liberal socialist' economy, he envisaged the state owning 50% of the nation's productive capital. The state would not seek to own and run specific firms and industries, but would seek to build up a portfolio across various firms and industries. Funds for the development of the portfolio might come from a capital levy or a scheme of capital dilution in which firms would be required to issue new shares each year to a public scheme of this kind. Through such a fund, the state would enjoy part of the return on capital, plus capital gains, providing funds for public spending over and above those from taxes on labour incomes. Labour toyed with the idea in the 1950s, as did the SDP and Lib Dems in the 1980s. (Would that the Lib Dems were so radical today....)

More recently, Robin Blackburn has revived the idea of creating a public share fund by means of capital dilution as a way of developing a second pension scheme to complement existing public pension programs which operate on a PAYG (Pay As You Go) basis. More so than Meade, Blackburn stresses the idea that management of these funds could be put in the hands of fora which include representatives of unions, community groups, and so on. Combined with a democratization of existing occupational pension schemes, so as to bring these schemes more under the control of their ultimate owners, Blackburn sees potential here for the gradual development of a system of 'complex socialism' in which the ownership and control of capital is democratized (see www.havenscenter.org/realutopias/2004) .

My grasp of economics isn't good enough for me to say how the emergency measures taken by the government might or might not be linked over the long-term to the sort of perspectives we find in Meade's and Blackburn's work. But I do think we need a discussion about how they might be linked. The point of the left, after all, is not simply to save capitalism from its excesses but to develop an alternative political economy that can better deliver on the aspirations to distributional equality and democratic sovereignty.

Monday, 13 October 2008

The public art of the dismal science

Paul Krugman has won the Economics Nobel for "his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity" (and not, of course, for his lauding of Gordon Brown and the UK government's financial bailout plan in his final New York Times column before the prize was announced).

It is certainly the case that Krugman's new theories of international trade have had an enormous impact on the field of international economics. The Royal Swedish Academy have provided an accessible summary (PDF file), with the briefest of footnotes to his academic contribution under 'Other endeavours'.

In addition to his scientific research, Paul Krugman is highly appreciated by his students as a pedagogical lecturer and author of textbooks. In wider circles, he is better known as a lively blogger and spirited columnist in the New York Times.


This emphasises that, like the John Bates Clark Medal, the prize is awarded on academic grounds. But what is most valuable about Krugman has been his equal insistence on economics as a public science, and of the importance of expert contributions to policy scrutiny and public discussion. Part of Krugman's genius has been his ability to write for and reach very different audiences - as his official web-page demonstrates - long before his New York Times columns made him among the most prominent economic and political commentators. (And his supplementary blog to his NYT columns is an exemplary case of both public communication and perhaps also all-too-rare commentarian accountability).

My first job after leaving university was in book publishing, working for Macmillan for whom I commissioned the academic economics and politics lists. One slight downside was that my birthday always seemed to coincide with the Royal Economic Society's annual conference, which was the key UK gathering of the economics profession. And it did not help that, by contrast to the Political Studies Association conference, there seemed to be an ever decreasing probability of a non-specialist walking into a session and understanding something of what was going on.

There were certainly exceptions - and energetic attempts to communicate a few eye-catching findings to the newspapers - but the legacy of Keynes seemed at great risk of being lost in a flurry of econometric models and stochastic equations.

The causes of the narrowing of this public science may be many and varied. They certainly include academic funding regimes which focus on the quantity of articles published and places little value on public contributions. A long and unresolvable debate could be held about how to judge what balance should be struck between the intrinsic value of academic work and its public communication. This might not be a fair point in medieval history, botany or many other disciplines. But in the social sciences, if there is barely any attempt whatsoever to communicate outside the academy, it is difficult to understand quite what the point is.

So those first rate academics who insist on breaking the mould provide an important and undervalued public good.

Of course, personally, I am attracted to Krugman's writing by his liberal (and social democratic) values, as well as his punchy and pugnacious style: he has made important contributions to the debate about inequality in the global age, showing how increased inequality in the United States has been a product of political and governmental choices, and not simply technological change.

But, whether you agree with him politically or not, Paul Krugman stands very much in the tradition of Keynes - and indeed also of Hayek, Friedman, Ricardo and Adam Smith - in understanding what economics, as a public science, should be for.

Never rule out race

Stryker McGuire is right to point out to all those enthusiastic Obama supporters who think their candidate is just going to stroll it that the competition is never over until the votes are in, and counted.
The race factor cannot be ignored. And as pollsters know, when people tell you their voting preferences they are not always truthful.
In Pennsylvania, on the Ohio border, last week, I ran into some people from Michigan and ended up chatting over breakfast about the upcoming election. We quickly got into a discussion about voting trends.
One of them, a black sociologist, felt that race was still going to be a factor, and more voters were going to vote Republican than were admitting it. Those who knew they looked too stupid if they said they were voting Republican because they supported Palin, were using McCain as an excuse, even when it was purely about being racist, she argued.

One friend who works in Atlanta says she has been told by life-long Democrats that while they might vote for Obama, the parents' generation wouldn't, and this would be all about race.
Early voting may help to create momentum and drag people in who like to be on the winning side, and be with the big new thing.
That's one reason why the Democrats are pushing the use of early voting. Two friends from northern Ohio, told me they were going to get their votes well ahead of election day, for just that reason.
They were still pretty worried about the south of the state, and were hoping to help create a state-wide piece of momentum.
Recent polls might show Obama putting some clear Blue water between him and McCain, but never forget these things can turn in a moment.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

A deserved Nobel

Has the Nobel prize lost its glitter?, the Observer asked this week. Like the rest of its panel, I didn't think so.

There are good tributes to this year's peace prize winner Martti Ahtisaari from fellow Finn Reijo Ruokanen and from ex-Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans for the International Crisis Group. But celebrations in Aceh or at the Martti Ahtisaari Primary School in Namibia may best capture the reasons for the award.

If securing Namibia's peaceful independence is Ahtisaari's proudest achievement, the award of the prize this year was also intended to bring renewed attention to Kosovo. The International Crisis Group - which is among the most focused and valuable of any foreign policy think-tank - has recently published a report recommending how to support Kosovo's fragile transition.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Troopergate: why we should care

I'm new to blogging, and I may be breaking a rule of blogging etiquette by taking issue with another blog posted on the same site....but then I don't think Next Left should be afraid of a little respectful, comradely disagreement. So here goes....

Sunder's blog 'Troopergate: who cares?' strikes me as profoundly mistaken (unless it is intended ironically, and I am not getting this, in which case ignore what follows).

Sarah Palin is seeking election to the second highest executive office in the USA. It is by no means inconceivable that she could become President if John McCain were to die suddenly. So the question of her executive ethics is of paramount importance. Does she understand, at a basic level, that those who hold public office hold office as a public trust and that they abuse this trust when they use public office to pursue purely personal agendas? Do they grasp that one of the key bulwarks - indeed, the key bulwark - against arbitrary power is the practice of keeping the rule of power-holders within the bounds of the law and related norms of impartiality?

It seems clear from the 'Troopergate' case that she simply does not understand these things. This disqualifies her from holding high executive office.

What is at stake here is not a minor matter of concern only to the citizens of Alaska. It speaks to the essence of what executive leadership is, or ought to be, in a democratic society.

So who cares about 'Troopergate'? I do. And so should you.