Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Democracy returns to Bangladesh

The first General Election for seven years has resulted in a landslide victory for the Awami League, led by former prime minister Sheikh Hasina. The much delayed election ends two years of emergency rule by a military caretaker government.

As Time reports, competing ideas of Bangladesh were a central issue in the election campaign, with the Awami League campaigning on restoring the vision of secular democracy in the majority Muslim country against the emphasis on the need to "Save Islam" from the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), in office from 2001 to 2007, which campaigned in alliance with four Islamist parties. The Islamist Jamaat-i-Islami party suffered a significant setback, being reduced from 17 to 2 seats in Parliament - though it ought to struggle, given its role not in opposing Bangladesh's independence from Pakistan in 1971, including support for military atrocities.

The Times of India echoes most Bangladeshi media reaction in believing that this is a moment for 'cautious optimism' in South Asia.

The Awami League is credited with favouring inter-community harmony within Bangladesh and a foreign policy based on regional and international cooperation. It is important that Bangladesh, which has been vulnerable to forces of religious intolerance and seen the rise of terror outfits, be led towards social stability and economic prosperity. Muslims across the globe, from Indonesia to Turkey, have embraced democratic political systems in growing numbers. Bangladesh's return to this fold scores an important goal for democracy.

But the scale of the victory - with the Awami League and its allies holding more than 260 seats in the 300-seat Parliament - is causing concern, particularly as both major parties have poor recent records since 1991 when it comes to political polarisation, nepotism and corruption, with incumbency having led to crushing political defeats at the hands of the voters.

Bangladesh's Daily Star newspaper, celebrating the results, offers this warning to the victors:

People of Bangladesh have spoken, loudly, clearly and decisively. And it is not the first time that they have done so. For those who are stunned by the extent of the defeat of the 4-party alliance please remember the election of 2001. The then ruling party, the Awami League, was reduced to 62 seats. If that can be the verdict of the people at that time, then why can't the present results be considered the same?

BNP's devastating defeat is AL's most severest warning. The later must not forget for a moment how our people punish, and most severely so, when ruling parties fail to keep their promise to the people and live up to the latter's expectation of them. Two third's majority has always been a curse to those who got them. That is truer still if the victory is even bigger. The victors of yesterday's election must bear that in mind every moment of their coming five year tenure. More on that later. Today, we only celebrate people's victory over the corrupt.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Tuition fees: scrap the cap?

Student funding has the potential to re-emerge as a major point of contention in 2009 – but the battle lines of debate are already being drawn. The latest contribution to this debate seems to offer some accurate diagnoses of the problems besetting higher education; but unfortunately it offers a headline policy prescription that would be a retrograde step for equality.

The contribution is a Government-commissioned report that recommends axing the statutory cap on undergraduate tuition fees, effectively allowing universities to charge whatever they wish for courses. How high fees could go isn’t broached explicitly by the report’s author, Sir John Chisholm, but yesterday’s media coverage cited potentially £20k a year for a medicine degree and £6k-£7k for a history or English BA at a top institution. (I’ve tried searching out an online copy of the original report, but so far to no avail).

Chisholm, the chairman of QinetiQ and the Medical Research Council, is of course far from a lone voice in advocating universities being able to levy significantly higher fees on at least some of their students. Oxford University chancellor and former Tory party chairman Lord (Chris) Patten described fees – currently capped at £3,140 – as "intolerably" low in a
speech in September.

The new report is Chisholm’s view, not that of the Government; but 2009 is due to see universities secretary John Denham (a member of the Fabians’ executive committee) begin a review of tuition fees. This will come five years after the
2004 Higher Education Act scraped through the Commons with a five-vote majority; the Act introduced the principle of variable fees, although in practice most universities just raised their yearly charges for all courses from c.£1k to the maximum c.£3k.

I don’t think Chisholm will get to see his central recommendation enacted – at least not while Labour remains in power. Fair access to higher education cuts to the core of what it means to be a Labour representative or supporter, and the changes brought in by the 2004 Act stretched at the very bounds of what Tony Blair was able to achieve with a much greater majority than Gordon Brown now commands. Then, backbencher Nick Brown was an initial ringleader of the rebellion over variable fees before a last-minute switch of sides; now he is Government chief whip. His namesake, the then chancellor, was widely reported to have "reservations" over the policy. The Parliamentary Labour Party may have closed ranks over facing up to the economic crisis, but it is showing it is still prepared to flex its muscles over expanding Heathrow and selling a stake in Royal Mail.

While I disagree profoundly with the suggestion we should move to a free market in university courses, some aspects of Chisholm’s report still seem valid (I have no great expertise in higher education and write simply as a BA and MA graduate of the last 10 years). The UK is struggling to keep up with global competitors in terms of research and teaching quality; there is a distorted funding regime that prioritises research over teaching via the Research Assessment Exercise; and there is rightly concern over whether student cohorts are graduating with the right skills mix for the new, hi-tech, high value-added and ecologically sound industries that we need to see prosper.

But can the answer to these challenges really be to allow fees to hit US-style levels? No. There may already be a de facto multi-tier university system (yet surely there should be enough independent oversight of standards to assure students and employers that, say, a first from one institution is equivalent to that from any other?), but at least when it comes to choices and chances of entry between different institutions, academic ability stands as the key arbiter – rather than calculations over the particular level of debt a person or family is prepared to shoulder. I accept there is considerable support currently on offer to poorer students, and postponing the payment of fees until after the graduate is gainfully employed was a major positive in the 2004 Act. But I cannot imagine how in practice this support could be sufficiently extended to counteract the inequity that would flow from such as system as that proposed by Chisholm. Developing a culture of US-style alumni donations to finance scholarships – as Barack Obama benefited from – cannot happen over here overnight. And if we wish to particularly incentivise hi-tech and scientific learning, why should we charge students the most for these degrees, which tend to be the costliest to deliver?

In light of all this, it is incumbent on opponents of a free market system of higher education to build the case for a sustainable alternative. The National Union of Students'
response has been to call for a bigger wedge of cash to go to universities in the next Treasury spending round. The problem is that the medium-term outlook for public spending is tight – spending predictions for 2011/12 and 2012/13 were revised down in the recent pre-Budget Report. Whatever the economic climate, spending on universities always seems to get crowded out as a public priority when pitted against, say, the NHS and primary and secondary education.

A root-and-branch review – plus a thorough public debate – over what type of higher education system we want to serve us as individuals and as a society is therefore desperately needed. Personally, I am a supporter of progressive taxes and the greater use of tax hypothecation (earmarking specific revenues for specific purposes); it is crucial that those individuals and businesses who gain the most from the knowledge economy are pumping enough financial fuel back into its engine, the university system. In his aforementioned speech, Patten urged less Government intervention in the university sector, while admitting the state stumps up most of the cash to pay for it. Yet maybe it is time for even more strategic direction from the Department for Universities, Innovation & Skills – not to stamp on academic freedom and banish entire disciplines from the UCAS handbook; but, for example, to ensure that the study of subjects vital to the industries of the future are properly incentivised and promoted. Companies too should not be able to impinge on academic freedom, but how about forging greater partnerships between universities and the public and private sectors as part of providing for the lifelong learning of employees? And in the arts and social sciences, there may be mileage in aping the natural sciences and strengthening the concept of research centres, whereby individual institutions are centres of excellence in particular sub-disciplines but offer broader undergraduate tutelage.

One rebel MP, Paul Farrelly, said of top-up fees back in 2004: "The Labour party in parliament and the country should never be put in this position again." The Guardian’s Michael White commented: "Labour MPs on both sides of the row agree."

Hear, hear.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Daftest column of the holidays?

Pity the poor Christmas holiday columnists, having to slave away over the word processor to provide pithy and topical reflections for us to fall asleep over.

With no Guardian published yesterday I had more time, while at the in-laws, to spend with both The Independent and The Times. And what a strong early contender for daftest column of the holiday season from Magnus Linklater, whose experience of a dinner party leads him to herald the splendid return of the Victorian tradition of "sending out the ladies".

I don't know whether the dinner party will survive the recession - I've been to so few recently that I wonder if it has survived into the 21st century. But if it has, it may be reverting to the customs of the 19th century. At the last one I went to, the ladies retired after dinner, leaving the gentlemen over the port - and instead of causing ridicule and outrage, the thing was judged a huge success.

Now, we may have to ignore that Linklater may have broken a key columnar rule here: I had understood that three anecdotal observations were needed to legitimately declare a social trend.

His main point is that, while the practice fell away because it used to be thought rather sexist, it can now be brought back safe in the knowledge that this would not now be sexist at all. Hurrah!

I think this is going to be hard to beat.

Unless, of course, you know better.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Pinter falls silent

Harold Pinter has died. Michael Billington, biographer of Pinter, has a lengthy appreciation in The Guardian.

An interesting profile/interview several years ago with Stephen Moss of The Guardian discussed Pinter's refusal to discuss his plays:

"Everything to do with the play is in the play," he wrote in 1958, echoing Eliot. "Meaning which is resolved, parcelled, labelled and ready for export is dead, impertinent - and meaningless."

I do not feel qualified to offer a detailed interpretation of his plays. I saw Donald Pleasance revive the title role in The Caretaker, in the 1991 production. I have found some of his other plays something of a struggle, perhaps partly from seeing several in student productions of varying quality. While there has been an on-going and contested debate about Pinter's portrayal of women, I have often found that does a good deal to date his plays and other radical theatre of the 1950s and '60s. (To take another example, fifty years on, it becomes very difficult to read Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger' as a radical counterblast).

There is as much initial discussion of Pinter's political activism as his literary contribution. Johann Hari offers a fierce polemic against Pinter's involvement in the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic, which I think is convincing in concluding that:

The tragedy of Pinter’s politics is that he took a desirable political value – hatred of war, or distrust for his own government – and absolutizes it. It is good to hate war, but to take this so far that you will not resist Hitler and Stalin is absurd. It is good to oppose the crimes of your own government – but to take this so far that you end up serving on the Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic is bizarre.

I found Hari convincing here, partly because his hostile piece also acknowledges both shades of grey and "undeniable achievments" in Pinter as activist as well as artist. (Indeed, Pinter's polemical worldview was too simplistic, and yet President George W Bush did rather too much to rehabilitate this through the wrong-headed simplicity of his own approach).

It is not to gainsay Pinter's fierce commitments to say that he was also more complex than many of the polemics for and against may acknowledge.

That Pinter voted for Margaret Thatcher in 1979 was a petty, parochial response to a National Theatre strike, for which he had much time to repent and bitterly regret. But there is a strong strand of dispositional conservatism, and of loss, in his writing and worldview. His love of cricket was partly about this sense of Eden lost, captured in his (very) short poem about Len Hutton:

I saw Len Hutton in his prime

Another time

another time

With the focus of the last decade rather more on Pinter's public politics than his writing, he was often portrayed (and perhaps portrayed himself too) as a rather one-dimensional figure. His reputation, though, will depend on the plays, and their ambiguities.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

No time for 'fairy gold'

Having just escaped from the furore of Oxford Street this afternoon, I thought of the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan William’s criticisms of the government’s response to the economic crisis. Williams, in an interview for Radio 4 last Thursday, suggested the government’s attempts to boost spending in a downturn to be like "the addict returning to the drug". He argued not only that lessons can be learnt to help us get through current difficulties, but that the credit crunch could act as a ‘reality check’ that could be used to initiate a fundamental re-think of our approach to wealth and consumption. A society based on unsustainable greed and financial “fairy gold” is simply not a good idea, and the fact that the economic arguments behind it are shaky offers an opportunity to move on from this.

The issue of housing seems to be another area where we are failing to learn from the economic crisis. Housing is ostensibly the area where the troubles began, with banks lending money to those ‘sub-prime’ borrowers who stood little chance of keeping up with their repayments.

One very obvious lesson here, then, is that some people cannot afford to take out enormous mortgages. Owning a house is thus not a good option for them. In fact, it perhaps also suggests more widely that the idea that people should generally aspire to home ownership is itself misplaced.

And yet, Boris Johnson in his recent housing strategy speaks of the extension of property ownership to as many Londoners as possible, and indeed ‘raising aspiration’ to ownership. Even where he speaks of social housing, it is with the proviso that this be a means towards the more important aim of people eventually acquiring a property themselves. Boris thus seems to miss the very obvious danger of people who cannot afford to get a large mortgage doing so. He also neglects to note the idea that many people could be well accommodated in good quality social housing, and that this need not represent any lack of aspiration, or lack of fulfilment. And the government is no better, focusing on the expressed wishes of most people to own their own home.

This is poor politics. Taking people’s views as fixed rather than engaging people in dialogue misses much of what it should be to be a politician (Boris failed in this regard in a similarly spectacular fashion when he asked residents and business in the western extension of the congestion charge whether they want to pay to drive there, and, in receiving a negative response, took this to be a sufficient ‘dialogue’ to propose scraping the zone). Of course people are likely to say at first that they want to own their own home (or that they do not want to pay to drive where they used to be able to do so for free). People like the security that property ownership suggests, the idea that you become safer and less vulnerable to the whims of a landlord. People also like the idea that you then have something to leave your children.

The lesson from the economic crisis seems to be that, while you are safer if you are lucky enough to own your home outright, ‘owning’ a home with a large mortgage- as is invariably the case- in fact offers very little security. The whims of the market now seem far more dangerous than those of any landlord.

The emotive arguments surrounding ownership, and the idea that one is then able to leave something for your children, are then arguments which progressive politicians must tackle. And, as with Rowan William’s comments on consumption, the present economic crisis offers a good context within which these arguments can be made. The idea that owning property is important to one’s self-respect, and so on, can be challenged- what is important is the knowledge that you are secure in your home, not that you literally own it. And this can be provided with good quality social housing.

Similarly, the idea about inheritance must be challenged, as a brave Labour government would have done last year when the Tories proposed raising the threshold for inheritance tax (see the Fabian pamphlet, ‘How to Defend Inheritance Tax’). The aspiration that you leave a house for your children- aside from being a reality for only certain privileged sectors of the population- can also be seen as less ‘essential’ if we are to move away from a situation of astronomical house prices which even most well off young professionals cannot afford, and towards a more realistic housing market, in which safe, secure, good quality social housing played a key role. Building new social housing will not be enough, though, if we do not also think about reassessing the presumption in government policy that home ownership is an eventual end-goal we should be aiming for.

'Crisis' and other homelessness charities have already warned that the recession will see a rise in the number of homeless in Britain. It is high time we heed the lessons of our economic errors. Failure to do so will not only increase the likelihood of similar problems repeating themselves; it will present a lost opportunity to reassess what our goals should be, both as individuals and as a society. In the case of housing, is it then the symbolic but largely meaningless notions of ‘ownership’ which is key, or the more simple yet far more substantial knowledge that you are safe and secure in your home, whether or not you own it?

Full of Christmas time

Switched on one of my favourite Christmas films on a cold night last week, ready to snuggle down on the sofa and disappear into escapism.
The film and the fire were crackling, candles lit, big glass of wine in my hand, all good so far. And then it all started to feel a bit less escapist, and a little bit more relevant than normal.
There was poor Jimmy Stewart, he had wanted to go to college, he had wanted to travel, but he never got to go, he had to hang in there and run the good old savings and loan, the family business that helped ordinary people get a home and a better life, when the big, bad bank run by the big bad banking nasty wouldn't have anything to do with them.
Through the general wonderfulness of the Bailey family (that's Jimmy Stewart to you), the world was shaping up to be a better place.
But then there was a run on the savings and loan; people were queueing up to take out their savings – and if they did it would all be over for the savings and loan – and the bank (read financial giants of all kinds) would have won, and society would be lost.
Jimmy Stewart went on to persuade the queue that if they all pulled together they could all be OK. They had all invested in each other's homes; they were all invested in a better society where everyone not just the rich got to improve their lives, and have important things like homes. So if they could just hang in there, help out a friend, and not get all selfish, things would be a lot better for them all.
And do you know what, and I guess you probably do, people listened to Jimmy (George Bailey), and the world continued to edge towards being a better place, at least for a little while.
Here in this little moral movie tale was the whole co-operative movement summed up: if we all combine our resources and help each other then we could do better than if we all struggled individually.
A great, or at least better, society is based on all these interconnections is the not-very-hidden message here, and if you help everyone else, they'll look after you when times get hard, and if not, and everyone sits behind a locked door, counting their coppers, and acting selfishly nothing ever gets better for the mass of society.
And in a schmaltszy kind of way, It's A Wonderful Life feels like a more important film this year. This was a film made just after a recession, and a war, about creating a better society when times were tough. It has a strong – all pull together message. Packed with homilies, but that's fine at Christmas.
Enjoy your favourite Christmas films. For more Christmas nostaglia, see this great BBC collection.

Bernard Crick: for and against

Stuart White has posted on Monday on the legacy of Bernard Crick. I had also been thinking about and returning to Crick's writing over the weekend.

OurKingdom have published my appreciation, 'On Reading Bernard Crick' which tries to put across how and where Crick's work helped to inform and influence me in several ways.

1. First, his writing much deepened my understanding of and engagement with George Orwell as a political writer.

2. By the early 1990s, the political writing particularly in Crick's essays was an important influence on me. He was particularly among the first writers I read to place the national questions of these islands at the heart of political and constitutional reform, offering an important rethinking of the assumptions and myths of British political history.

3. Over time, In Defence of Politics has grown on me considerably. Though it no doubt speaks to the book's central thesis about the perennial nature of our contemporary discontents, I am astonished that so urgently contemporary a book was written in 1962.

As Andrew Gamble wrote in essay on Crick for the Fabian Thinkers pamphlet:

What he [Crick] has to say to us now is in one sense what he has always been saying to us, though we are now more ready to hear it because political apathy and disengagement are on the rise, and the need for a revival of democratic citizenship is widely recognised

I think Stuart is right both to identify the minority (he says "dissident") nature of Crick's argument in Labour thought, and that this strand of democratic republican thinking could be more influential in Labour's future.

There is also an interesting dissenting note from Anthony Barnett (published below my essay), who was founder and director of Charter 88, and who challenges this high estimation of Crick. Barnett recounts the clash which saw Crick resign from the Charter 88 council ahead of the 1992 election. For Barnett, he was always a party man first, and so put party before civic project, which perhaps highlights the tension in my description of Crick as a 'Labour pluralist' (particularly as Crick was often viewed as unorthodox, unsafe and off message by many Labour figures). I would score one point to Barnett: the idea that the Charter cost Labour the '92 election is absurd, though the leader's ambivalence on PR proved damaging in the final week: one part of the broader public concern about whether Labour was ready to govern, which proved decisive. Beyond the merits of that particular dispute, the question of whether (or how) one can be both pluralist and partisan is important. (Crick consistently placed the emphasis in Orwell's claim that "no writer can be a loyal member of a political party" on 'loyal', and indeed Orwell was a member of the ILP when he wrote that).

Barnett enters polemical territory with his charge that:

In this sense I am not convinced that Crick was a "democratic republican" as Sunder states. A bit more principle and stomach is needed to qualify for what should remain a noble epithet.

As Stuart White is emerging as among the leading keepers of the democratic republican flame in the academy - he is co-editor of a recent collection on the theme, and a short Renewal essay can be read here, perhaps that charge is something he will want to return to in the next week or two.

Though I hope Stuart will giving priority to the mince pies and Christmas through the eyes of a small child - as I will be myself when the rest of the house wakes up - I hope that fleshing out further a discussion on the potential, challenges and perhaps the limits too of democratic republicanism will be something we can develop on the blog after Christmas and in the new year.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Catching up with Crick

Bernard Crick died on Friday; Andrew Gamble provides an interesting obituary in The Guardian.

Bernard Crick made a hugely important contribution to the thinking of the post-war left. In a sense, it was a dissident contribution, unfashionable in its time, but one that the left is still struggling to catch up with.

One way to see this is to return to David Marquand's recent book, Britain Since 1918, which Sunder recommended as holiday reading a few posts back. Marquand - in many ways a philosophical ally of Crick's - identifies four traditions of political thought in modern British politics. They include: Tory nationalism; Whig imperialism; democratic collectivism; and democratic republicanism. The 'left', in Marquand's view, draws mainly on the collectivist and republican traditions, the major difference between them being how much they trust ordinary people to make the best of their own lives given the requisite power and opportunity. The republicans stand for popular participation and the diffusion of power; collectivists for professionalism and the concentration of power.

At a time when the collectivist tradition was in the ascendant on the left, Crick stood for the republican counter-tradition. He articulated his version of republicanism in a number of ways. It is there in his hugely influential In Defence of Politics and in his much more recent, and very impressive, Democracy: A Very Short Introduction. It is there in his biography of George Orwell - still, after almost 30 years, the best biography of the man there is. Not least, it is there in his longstanding commitment to citizenship education as a crucial part of the school curriculum. It was one of his former students, David Blunkett, who, with Crick's advice, helped see this commitment come to fruition.

However, while New Labour has been willing to select a few republican ideas here and there, its basic model of governance is, in Marquand's terms, more like some peculiar hybrid of collectivism and Whig imperalism.

In the face of this, Crick's message remains as urgent as ever. Popular participation is essential to social democracy, because without it, it is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain the kind of the civic culture which social democracy needs. Without it, decisions become the preserve of technocrats and demogogues, and liberty itself is gradually surrendered.

Alienated by some of the faddishness of the 'New Left'(s) in the 1950s and 1960s, Crick might have seemed a tad anachronistic to some of his contemporaries.

But perhaps, at last, the left is ready to catch up with him.


We would like to welcome a new regular blog author to Next Left. Former Danish Prime Minister Poul Nyrup Rasmussen is now joining the throng. He has already left a guest post, but will be adding regular posts as an author in the New Year. We look forward to hearing his thoughts.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Why we will get fixed election dates (one day)

Ben Brogan reports that Gordon Brown has ruled out an early 2009 poll, a non-story that still had the potential to cause political trouble, and which he has wisely closed down.

The same logic could take him further, to fixed term elections. The main argument for this is straightforward: fair play. Most people think it odd that one of the team captains should have the referee’s whistle. (There is a Fixed Term campaign backed by OurKingdom, Unlock Democracy and Iain Dale among others).

But most people think this won’t happen. Not out of principle but just a ‘Turkeys and Christmas’ argument. Why should any Prime Minister give up the power to set the date?

But I am not convinced.

An observation: the power to choose the election date has done post-war Prime Ministers more harm than good.

And a prediction: one of our next three Prime Ministers will come to think that it is in their interests to give up the power, and move to fixed election dates.

As the 2007 party conference began, I proposed that Brown should close down the election speculation, before it got out of hand, with another ‘Bank of England’ moment.

"Conference, I will tell you and the country the date of the next election - it will be in May 2009, and this will be the last time that the Prime Minister gets to choose.

I want the focus of the next 18 months to be on the changes that Britain needs to be better educated, stronger and fairer as a society. I don't mind the opposition knowing when the next election will be - it won't help them when they haven't got the ideas to win it."

I was sensible enough to write “don’t hold your breath” too. But the case for a Prime Minister making that move is much stronger than most people have realised. (Indeed, the report that Brown may also be effectively ruling out a June 2009 election now, he would have pretty much confirmed a Spring 2010 election, confirming that he thinks it is in his government’s interest for there to be certainty, not ceaseless speculation as the price of the power to spring a surprise).

My (back of the envelope) reckoner can identify two post-war examples where the choice of election date proved a powerful advantage: Harold Wilson in 1966, where calling another election increased his majority from 4 to almost 100; and Anthony Eden’s decision to call a snap poll on becoming premier in 1955. (However, Eden’s case, this was pretty natural timing; his problem was that Churchill had hung on and on before resigning. There was little reason at the time to think that a 1955 or 1956 poll would have been much different, nor would it have been assuming an election would have preceded the Suez misadventure).

There are two other (fairly marginal) cases of good timing. Alec Douglas-Home may have reduced the scale of Tory defeat by hanging on to the bitter end in 1964. It seems intuitively plausible to think that John Major’s decision to play it long was important in 1992. But what was most striking was that the Tories led Labour by over seven points: the decisive dynamic was that, when voters concentrated on the choice, they decided that Labour was not ready. That suggests Major could well have achieved a similar (perhaps even better) result had he gone in Spring or Autumn 1991 (though the narrower parliamentary arithmetic could be used to argue that getting the timing right mattered).

Meanwhile, I can identify five examples of the power to choose the date blowing up in the face of the premier. Three of these resulted in catastrophic (politically fatal) damage to which mistakes over timing made a decisive contribution - Attlee in 1950/51; Heath in 1974; Callaghan in 1979. In two further cases, tactical gambits over election timing came badly unstuck: Wilson’s defeat in 1970 and the (slightly different) case of Brown’s non-election in 2007.

I can’t see much reason to think election timing made any difference in the case of the pretty standard four year parliaments which ended in 1959 (Macmillan), 1983, 1987(Thatcher), 2001 and 2005 (Blair). I am sceptical it made much difference in 1964 (Douglas-Home) or 1992 (Major) either. Nor did the October 1974 second election resolve anything much other than that asking similar questions would generate similar answers, suggesting that timing was not decisive.

Proper historians (and improper ones too) are very welcome to take issue with some of the specific cases – but I am pretty confident that the “more harm than good” hypothesis will remain solid.

The Callaghan case – singing and all – is pretty well known, and the mistake with the most far-reaching consequences.

Heath’s February 1974 contest was very much an ‘election of choice’, not necessity. It was the most unusual in its timing and framing of any post-war election. It counts as among the most significant self-inflicted wounds for any PM. (Whether and how far Heath might have fared better in a more conventional, non-crisis election the following May is hard to judge).

Yet Saint Clem has a good claim to have made an even worse decision than either Heath or Callaghan, doing more to throw away power than anyone by making the wrong call about election timing. (Of course, Labour achieved an immense amount from 1945 to 1948, and was intellectually, politically and physically exhusted by 1950 to 1951).

The 1950 and 1951 elections took place in a different world to ours. It was a bad decision, but through excessive deference to the wishes of the King.

The Parliament had run for just twenty months. Given the strength of party discipline, there was no chance of losing significant legislation or a vote of confidence for the foreseeable future. (How Wilson, Callaghan and at times Major would have dreamt of a majority of five!). Nor was 1951, and an Autumn election, good timing for Labour: George VI was keen to have the issue resolved since he planned to be out of the country for a lengthy tour. (In fact, the tour was cancelled as the King's lung condition developed, and he died in February 1952, and the wish to resolve the political situation may have been related to this).

Clem’s Labour were dealt a raw deal by the electoral system in 1951 – winning a quarter of a million more votes than the Conservatives, who won an overall majority of 21 – but why was there any need to take for the battlefield for another three or four years? Whether Labour, given the chance to oversee the transition from austerity to prosperity, could have renewed itself instead of descending into factional civil war is another unknown, but it was a chance that was thrown away.

(But let us balance the scorecard by giving Attlee some credit for the odd case of 1945, where the opposition effectively determined the election timing. Labour rejected Churchill’s preference for extending the national coalition until after the defeat of Japan. However, three months difference would not have altered the landslide outcome).

Another (perhaps less decisive) mistake about timing: Harold Wilson’s surprise, summer election in 1970, the campaign in which he was accused by Whitelaw of going up and down the country “stirring up apathy”. England were defending the football World Cup during the campaign too, and that was not a coincidence. But Wilson’s tactical political gambit needed Sir Alf Ramsey to make better substitutions in Mexico where – with Gordon Banks ill, he took Bobby Charlton off to rest for the semi-final, only for England to throw away a two goal lead to crash out to Germany. The match was four days before the election. (There were some bad balance of trade figures too, but which affected the national mood more). There was a late swing to Heath, and Wilson was out. For want of a nail ... (The ‘What If?’ questions include how the battle for the soul of the Tory party between Heath and Powell would have developed after a Tory defeat). Perhaps Wilson rued not calling the election ahead of the quarter final instead or the semi-final. He probably missed the bigger lesson. Even the World Cup could not disguise the government’s lack of an argument as to why it merited re-election. The timing gambit failed, but tactics on timing couldn’t help because of a broader failure of political strategy.

An objection to my argument could be that the history just shows that prime ministers would get more out of the power to choose the date if they used it effectively - if Callaghan had gone in 1978, for example.

Up to a point. But this strengthens a counter-argument: that Prime Ministers inevitably have a natural tendency to over-estimate the awesome nature of this election date power (the ‘loneliest decision’ and all of that) and no doubt have a natural tendency too to believe that they will be one of those who bucks the history.

That may well be a self-defeating desire. Note too, with the exception of Attlee, the mistakes were made by those who thought most about election timing. Governments that were re-elected won on their underlying strength, not electoral tactics, and mostly on a pretty routine timetable.

There are two further arguments about why giving up the power now would make more sense than in the past.

Firstly, the changing nature of the media. There was some discussion of election timing in 1966 and 1978. But nothing like on the scale we have now. Governments often struggle to shift attention from process to substance. Making election date speculation a non-issue for good would defuse its destructive power to get in the way.

Secondly, do not underestimate the political credit to be gained by being seen to give the power. That is partly because many people will think it right and a good reform. (What are the chances of such a move, once made, ever being reversed?). But it looks like fair play too, and justly so, though partly because the election date power looks rather more awesome than it is,

That is an argument which Gordon Brown understands, having made the decision for Bank of England independence a decade ago. (And the substantive value of that was clear this month: if the Chancellor was setting interest rates, recent decisions may have been overshadowed by political arguments about whether they were politically motivated, with accusations of panic, whereas the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee can demonstrate the evidence base for its decisions).

Brown’s experience of election speculation in 2007, and trying to contain it now, may mean a reasonable view that this particular issue is now one to steer clear. (Still, why not the best of all worlds: at least set in train, as the PM seemed inclined to do last summer, the process which would codify our constitution, and make this issue one of those which can be debated and decided within that).
I could certainly imagine David Cameron making such a move too, partly because the now fiscally conservative Tory Mods will be thinking about other counter-intuitive moves to strike a liberal attitude.

But if neither current leader makes the leap, I do not think it will be too long before a premier or party leader wins plaudits for dispensing with this apparently awesome personal political power. Even if it is one from which so few Prime Ministers appeared to have derived any political benefit.

(A quick final word: I recognise there are other, substantive, objections to fixed term parliaments. I am unconvinced. The most substantive ones are about cases where there are (non-partisan) advantages to flexibility over the election date, but it is possible to design a system which enables that where there is sufficiently broad support. But that will have to be for another post).

Friday, 19 December 2008

Rasmussen: "More needs to be done on pan-European recession plan"

Guest post by Poul Nyrup Rasmussen

Last week the European Union agreed a European Economic Recovery Plan supposedly worth 1.5% of GDP. I think such a plan is absolutely essential. Furthermore, if those investments – coming mainly from the member states as the EU’s own budget is very small - are made simultaneously and in a coordinated way, the spill-over effects will almost double the impact. Problem is reaching a non-binding agreement is easy. The reality may be somewhat different.

The Party of European Socialists has attracted some rather unfavourable comment in the FT and The Economist (and much positive coverage elsewhere) on our manifesto for the 2009 European elections – agreed by all member parties including Labour at our meeting on December 1 in Madrid: check it out at The FT disapprovingly quotes our manifesto “The conservatives often talk about economic and social crises as if they are unavoidable, a law of nature… Conservatives have pursued a policy of blind faith in the market - serving the interests of the few rather than the general public…”. They didn’t like that. But now we can see that it is only social democratic governments that are really mounting a fight against the recession. How is Europe going to achieve a 1.5% of GDP stimulus package when of the big EU economies only Gordon Brown’s Labour and the Socialists under Zapatero in Spain are investing more than 1% of GDP in growth?

There is no new stimulus package from conservative-led Germany, who prefer instead to make unduly harsh – and in my opinion inappropriate – criticisms of Gordon Brown for what I and most PES party leaders consider to be a very good stimulus package.

As for the EU’s recovery plan, a lot more still needs to be done if we are to going to prevent recession turning into mass unemployment. That’s what you get with a conservative majority in Europe, whether the FT and Economist will admit it or not. Instead we see the Commission rather overselling the Recovery Plan which risks creating disappointment and eventually more disillusionment. The fact is the Recovery Plan is not enough to maintain employment levels – and only Gordon Brown and José Luis Zapatero are acting decisively enough.

Some misinformed doom-monger is spreading an anti-left myth: that there are only four Socialist Governments in the European Union. This is false. While it is true that the conservatives are in a majority at the moment we do have eight socialist and social democratic PMs in Europe – in Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain and the UK. We also have parties in Government coalitions in Belgium, Cyprus, Estonia, Germany, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and following recent elections should soon be entering a coalition Government in Romania.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

No election update (move along please)

Let's try to keep this brief - and sorry to be boring. But I don't want to have to shoot myself.

Another not too bad poll for Labour (ICM in The Guardian) confirms the trend in public opinion back towards the government. That does capture the initial public response to the political debate over the economic crisis. But I doubt the polls - good or bad - will tell us too much about future voting intentions for some months yet.

So stand by for a few pre-Christmas days of February election speculation - with silly season written all over it.

Why? Three things.

1. The commentariat's job is to speculate, especially with all this blog space to fill too. (Anthony Wells points out that both Martin Kettle and Julian Glover write about the poll by assessing the impact on election timing. That makes the claim that the Guardian poll will stoke a debate a self-fulfilling prophecy - yet neither gives any sense they think it likely.

2. The Conservatives are genuinely jumpy about how the polls have closed, because of anxiety about their approach to the economy. It won't help morale that the current ConservativeHome poll of polls now projects Labour as the largest party in the Commons. This is driving a panicky clash between strategy and tactics. Fear at being pinned with the "do nothing" label is leading to a somewhat contradictory hyperactivity.

3. But, slightly more craftily, even if the Conservatives do work out that it isn't going to happen, it is in their interests to try and stoke another non-election drama. So do expect the Iain Dale rumour mill to be in overdrive for the rest of the week. Just don't bet the bank on the rumours standing up, as Ben Brogan notes.

Unlike Autumn 2007, almost all of the noise about this is coming from the right, and it is based on absolutely nothing substantive. Meanwhile, Paul Linford's perfectly sensible, sceptical column reminds me that I have not read nor heard a single thing from anybody with a decent claim to know much about Labour who thinks this is serious.

So don't believe the hype. We will all have forgotten about February by Christmas. The June 2009 speculation may then begin on New Year's Day but I still think the crystal balls will be clearer after the Spring, and pointing to 2010.

Which reminds me of what I thought about this in the Autumn of 2007: fixed election dates, please.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Say no: ban 0870 from public sector

Does anyone hate high-rate 0870 numbers as much as me? Possibly not.

They have the potential to send my blood into boil mode because of the unfairness of being stuck in a system where the longer you wait the more you have to pay. So by the time I get through to a real person, after the hell of being stuck on a rotation of grating lift music, I am not in the best of moods.

First of all, many people have negotiated with their phone companies deals that allows "free" calls to landlines, but premium rate numbers are not included.

And often when you call premium rate numbers you are reporting a fault, and therefore it doesn't appropriate for you, the consumer, to have to pay extra to report something to get it fixed.

Even more unfair than this, it seems to me, is being asked to pay a premium rate for the pleasure of calling your GP for an appointment.

Some practises have defended this measure by saying the money they raise from high-rate calls goes into the surgery. Call me old-fashioned but I already felt I was helping pay for the NHS with my taxes, and it seems wrong to ask people to pay to report to their GP that they are ill and need treatment. I hardly think this is the time to add even more stress to their day.

Dave Anderson MP agrees with me, and wants to do something about it which is why he is calling on the government to stop the public sector using premium rate numbers in an article for the next Fabian Review.

Dave says: "The government needs to act on this: the use of expensive numbers by GPs should be explicitly forbidden."

Who could disagree?

Why Middle East peace is (still) possible

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has been meeting Gordon Brown at Downing Street today.

The British government want to work for a fair peace settlement, and there are promising signs that the new US administration does too. But the most important decisions must come from the principal parties. The conundrum is that all of those involved know what would need to be done but need to find sufficient will, and mutual trust, to do it.

Olmert is now a lame duck premier, minding the shop before elections next year. I recently caught up - thanks to the New York Review of Books - with the important "soul searching" interview which Olmert gave, hours after handing in his resignation, to Israel's most popular paper, Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he stated that "what I'm saying here has never been said by a leader of Israel. But the time has come to say these things. The time has come to put them on the table":

Ehud Olmert: We have a window of opportunity—a short amount of time before we enter an extremely dangerous situation — in which to take a historic step in our relations with the Palestinians and a historic step in our relations with the Syrians.

In both instances, the decision we have to make is the decision we've spent forty years refusing to look at with our eyes open.
We must make these decisions, and yet we are not prepared to say to ourselves, "Yes, this is what we must do."

We must reach an agreement with the Palestinians, meaning a withdrawal from nearly all, if not all, of the [occupied] territories. Some percentage of these territories would remain in our hands, but we must give the Palestinians the same percentage [of territory elsewhere]—without this, there will be no peace.

Yedioth Ahronoth: Including Jerusalem?

Ehud Olmert: Including Jerusalem—with, I'd imagine, special arrangements made for the Temple Mount and the holy/historical sites.

Ehud Olmert: I think we're very close to reaching agreements.

Yedioth Ahronoth: With both the Palestinians and the Syrians?

Ehud Olmert: Yes, also with the Syrians. What we need first and foremost is to make a decision. I'd like to know if there's a serious person in the State of Israel who believes that we can make peace with the Syrians without, in the end, giving up the Golan Heights ...

I was struck by how uncannily close Olmert's interview was to the peace-making script imagined for him by Tony Klug's brilliant and much acclaimed 'How peace broke out in the Middle East' - an imagined 'future history' of how peace finally came to the Middle East, which the Fabian Society was proud to publish in the Spring of 2007.

Here is Klug's fictional Olmert, while he still had time to save his political career:

The comment that sparked it all off, during a flying visit to London, followed a run-of-the-mill, on-the-record lecture at the prestigious Chatham House, ... In response to a question from the floor - which some commentators believe was planted - Olmert casually affirmed that in the hypothetical event that a full and genuine peace with the Palestinians and the Arab states were obtainable, Israel would “of course” be willing to withdraw fully from the West Bank subject to agreed minor land
exchanges – a formula that would allow Israel to hold on to the large settlement blocs in close proximity to the old green line while relinquishing the more distant settlements. “This has always been Israel’s position”, he went on, “didn’t we withdraw from Gaza - and Lebanon too? But we have constantly been forced to defend ourselves in the face of the other side’s murderous attacks and their intention to destroy us”.

The chair of the meeting, visibly perplexed, tentatively asked if Israel’s preparedness to withdraw in exchange for full peace applied to all territories captured in 1967, “including on the Syrian front?” “Why not?” came the instant reply. “Of course we would insist on the demilitarization of the evacuated area, monitored by an international force, similar to the arrangement in Sinai which has stood the test of time. But if the Syrians and the other Arabs are serious at last about full peace and they stop attacking us, threatening us and bad-mouthing us, then we too are ready in principle for full peace.

Hassan Naafa has an interesting commentary in Al-Ahram arguing that (the real) Olmert's statement still matters, particularly given his history as among the strongest advocates of Greater Israel.

For the first time an Israeli prime minister dared to ask his fellow citizens, openly and in Hebrew, in a message directed more to local than for foreign consumption, to let go of their dreams of a "greater Israel" with Jerusalem as its eternal capital. It was now time to seriously contemplate the setting of final, internationally recognised borders for the state of Israel so that the international community could deal with it as an ordinary state. Olmert also seems to have realised that Israel must accept the pre-June 1967 borders as the final boundaries or, in the event that it annexes portions of Palestinian land upon which major Israeli settlements have been constructed, it must give the Palestinians an amount of territory elsewhere.

Naafa argues too that, in several respects, Arab countries are not yet ready for what Israeli acceptance of the plan would entail. This again reflects a central part of Tony Klug's thesis about a strategy for peace. Nothing is possible if the shared assumption is that the 'other side' will act in bad faith paralyses action. Yet it is striking just how far an exercise in reciprocal bluff-calling could carry.

Tony Klug argued in a new Comment is Free piece yesterday, responding to a critique from the Israeli Ambassador to London, that the Arab Peace Initiative is a potentially significant and often underestimated opening for the negotations and compromises that all sides now would be needed.

For all of the pessimism about the prospects for Middle East peace, the shape of a just settlement offering peace and security to Israelis and Palestinians and a normalisation of the region's politics is clearer than ever.

It could still be done. The conundrum, choices and strategic logic facing the next Israeli premier will be the same again. And yet the danger is that next year's Israeli's elections could seal this as among the most important - and perhaps the last - of the many missed opportunities for a shared peace settlement in the Middle East.

The case for free school meals

The LibDems are finding this a good day to break bad news, as Michael White notes.

LibDem education spokesman David Laws tells The Guardian that

"For the most disadvantaged children, a school dinner can be the only hot meal they get. As times get tough, paying for school lunches is going to be a real struggle for more and more families"

He's right about that. So is Laws proposing the extension of free school meals? It would be a good step in the right direction if he was, but I am not so sure about that.

Many in the Labour party have been pushing this as a policy for the next election manifesto.

Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson is a long-standing advocate: he was pushing the argument in Fabian Review back in 2004.

Sharon Hodgson MP has led a campaign backed by 70 backbench MPs, Unison, the Child Poverty Action Group and others. The push to extending free school meals was one of the policy outcomes of Labour's Warwick National Policy Forum on the next manifesto, and Ed Balls has set up pilot schemes to evaluate the policy.

It would be good if there was support across political parties for this.

But the initial (and successful) locally-funded pilot scheme in Hull was scrapped by the incoming LibDem administration. And the LibDems have been sceptical about SNP plans to extend free school meals in Scotland (though there are genuine issues about funding the move), while the LibDem-led Liverpool council has been reported to be considering such a policy.

So will David Laws' comments herald a LibDem push for free school meals? Or will they prove to be simply media-savvy opposition politics without any policy follow through?

Paul Krugman on the Germany row

His latest New York Times column on European crass warfare.

Right now everyone sees the need for a large, pan-European fiscal stimulus.

Everyone, that is, except the Germans. Mrs. Merkel has become Frau Nein: if there is to be a rescue of the European economy, she wants no part of it, telling a party meeting that “we’re not going to participate in this senseless race for billions.”


Germany’s leaders seem to believe that their own economy is in good shape, and in no need of major help. They’re almost certainly wrong about that. The really bad thing, however, isn’t their misjudgment of their own situation; it’s the way Germany’s opposition is preventing a common European approach to the economic crisis ...

a coordinated stimulus effort, in which each country counts on its neighbors to match its own efforts, would offer much more bang for the euro than individual, uncoordinated efforts. But you can’t have a coordinated European effort if Europe’s biggest economy not only refuses to go along, but heaps scorn on its neighbors’ attempts to contain the crisis.

Krugman goes on to argue that the German opposition is unlikely to last, but that a delay could prove damaging.

The point that a coordinated fiscal stimulus would prove much more effective has been a central argument of Gordon Brown's from the start of the crisis.

On his blog, Krugman provides some maths to demonstrate the scale of the difference which coordinated action could make.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Compass' call for a windfall tax aims at the wrong target

Received another email from our friends at Compass today calling for a redoubling of efforts to lobby the government for a one-off windfall tax on the profits of the UK power sector.

The argument goes that energy companies are failing to pass on the lower cost of oil in prices paid by consumers. It is strengthened by the claim that while customers continue to receive record bills, companies continue to make record profits.

But as I've said before on Next Left, while the intention here is sound, it's a rather short-sighted strategy. A one-off windfall tax is hardly an answer to our long-term energy crises.

But there is another way.

First, we need to remind ourselves from where these 'windfall profits' of which we hear so much actually came.

The answer is Brussels (in a roundabout sort of way!)

The EU emissions trading scheme launched in 2005 requires heavy industry to have permits to cover their CO2 emissions. In the early phases of the scheme, most of these permits were handed out for free. Yet companies internalised the extra costs of the carbon, and passed these on to consumers.

So the answer to 'windfall profits' is not a 'windfall tax', but a reformed ETS that will deliver regular flows of additional finance into government coffers - the perfect target for a campaign for progressive hypothecation.

At the end of last week EU heads of state met to thrash out some of the most contentious issues under the EU's plans for tackling climate change from 2013, including the reform of the EU ETS. A key principle on the table for discussion was the amount of permits that European industry would have to pay for in auctions (producing a genuine carbon price signal, instead of unearned profits).

As the FT recognised in its editorial today, and as European NGOs pointed out forcefully in their reactions last week, the final deal was a major let-down in many respects.

But before becoming overly depressed at all that (my Euro-convictions are still to fully recover), it's worth noting that 100% of the UK power sector will have to actually PAY for their emissions permits from 2013.

This won't lead to a fall in prices for consumers, but at a price of around 20-30 euros per tonne CO2, this will generate massive additional revenue for the government - to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds each year and every year. And the UK, always one of the defenders of the market auctioning principle (shame they didn't shout as loudly in Brussels about this as they did about carbon capture and storage... but that's another story) have even started to auction some permits already.

With a ballooning decifit, one can imagine why.

So the question for progressives concerned with spiralling fuel poverty this year and over the coming decades, is how these new revenues should be spent.

Surely better to argue not for a one-off tax on the energy companies to help people out this year only, but for the government to ringfence these regular additional revenues to be spent on energy efficiency improvements in fuel poor households every year.

Like the would-be reform of another EU policy - the Common Agricultural Policy - reforming the EU ETS gives policy wonks everywhere a picnic in deciding how to spend new money.

My pitch is for climate friendly, progressive causes at home and abroad. That's a long-term vision for tackling fuel poverty and climate change I think we should all get behind.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Christmas reading

Being a sucker for a 'must read' political book, I have returned from a week away to the welcome sight of a bulky Amazon package containing Team of Rivals, Doris Kearn Goodwin's biography of Lincoln and his Cabinet.

At 750+ pages, it looks a pretty solid insurance policy should everybody fall asleep on Boxing Day. I don't expect to gain too many insights into the Obama model of political leadership, but it will be interesting to learn something about Lincoln the politician. And the recent attention has been good luck for the author of a history which had already won a good deal of critical acclaim on publication.

I also hope to dip into the Hugo Young papers on a truffle hunt, if I manage to recover the review copy which came into the office a couple of weeks ago.

So much for recommending books which I haven't read yet.

Of those which I can recommend by virtue of having read them, David Marquand's Britain since 1918 would be enjoyed by anybody with an interest in political history. There is plenty to argue about and with too: Fabians are often cast as the villains of the piece in contrast to the democratic republican tradition, which Stuart White has been championing on Next Left this past week in his posts on both Milton and Oliver Postgate. I have reviewed the book for the forthcoming Fabian Review, and will write more about this at the end of the holidays.

Two very enjoyable novels which cast light on major social and political themes without being in any way didactic were Rose Tremain's The Road Home, a novel addressing one of the great themes of now with its empathetic account of an East European everyman's experience of coming to London, and Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a short and pacy novella, cleverly using the device of a first person monologue to tell the tale of a young and ambitious Pakistani student's experience of America, Princeton and Wall Street before and after 9/11.

Away from politics, Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher deserved all of the many plaudits which it received: a fantastic achievement in combining a murder mystery whodunnit, social history particularly on the very modern convulsions of public opinion fed by press sensationalism, and literary criticism on the rise of the detective story.

And I would be interested to hear about your books of the year or recommendations for holiday reads.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Strictly voting fiasco

Those of us who watch popular entertainment with particular reference to electoral systems could find some new material on Strictly Come Dancing tonight.

There are lots of cases where the Electoral Reform Society should step in and sort out television democracy. The Eurovision song contest has been famously wrecked by the abolition of the old (and often bizarre) indirect 'jury' system for pointless public expressions of neighbourly allegiance. The X Factor uses an elimination system in which conflicts of interest are endemic. Where judges are not being asked to vote for (or, technically, against) the acts which they manage, the balance of power will usually falls to the 'neutral' judge who therefore routinely has the option to vote tactically to eliminate their strongest rivals by letting the weakest candidate through.

And it is striking how often these programmes which have become a byword for instant democratic gratification in fact favour the rule of experts, almost always giving a Caesar-like veto over eliminations to the judges, and not the voting public. (And even then, the 'Strictly' judges seem to want to extend their power and to encroach further on the public's choices - in exerting pressure to drive John Sergeant from the contest when the public would not give them the chance to eliminate him).

The Strictly Come Dancing system fell over tonight.

It works something like this: the judges score the various performances, and the bottom act is given one point, the next to bottom gets two points, the next gets three points. These are worth half of the overall totals. The phone lines are then opened, and the viewers' votes (on a similar system) are worth half of the total too.
(The scale of victory or defeat in either the judges' marks or the public vote is worth nothing at all). The bottom two acts enter a dance off, and the judges choose between them.

But the judges' tallies were tied for the top two candidates. And each of them were given three points, while the third place candidate had a single point. They could not escape the dance off by winning the public vote, making their public votes were pointless. My wife, as a dance teacher primarily interested in the dancing and the choreography, was not particularly impressed by my explaining this when the scores were revealed earlier on. I admit that even I thought it was a nerdy point, rather than a public scandal.

But I had not quite anticipated how jumpy the BBC has become about phone line scandals. As the programme returned, the lines had been suspended. It was not quite clear on what basis they could then eliminate anybody. And so they put all three candidates through to the final, broadcasting earnest assurances that tonight's votes will count then.

To avoid a few people being charged for a phone call which might not "count", everybody had spent their time watching an entirely pointless warm-up rehearsal.

I am not sure that the problem would be so very different had the votes not been tied. The system doesn't work well once you are down to three candidates. The third placed candidate can only escape the dance off if they win the public vote, and if the other places are exactly reversed so that the winning act comes third as well. All that does is tie all of the candidates on four points. I don't know what the tie-breaker rules are. (Perhaps the public votes are trumps). In earlier rounds too, with larger fields, it is all but mathematically impossible for the leading couple with the judges to finish in the bottom two, and yet the phone lines are open for them anyway.

Somebody with even more time on their hands than I have might be able to work out some better voting rules.

Much as the restoration of light entertainment on Saturday nights is an impressive achievement, the best approach would be to ensure that no television channel or production company can do anything other than recover the hard costs of running voting lines, removing the temptation to needlessly exhaust the public's appetite for exercising our democratic rights while watching TV.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Time for an exchange

Suddenly joining the euro doesn't seem such a bad thing as the pound plummets and we can no longer swan around southern Europe with our big hefty pound buying a shopping bag of bargains.
A sterling slump gives grist to the mill of those who have made the argument to join the euro club since inception.
But somehow when we were surfing joyously on a flattering exchange rate, the prospect of waving goodbye to the old money didn't seem that delightful.
Economists could make the argument for greater transparency, competition across the zone, price crunching when you could easily compare and contrast across borders, but Brits tended to feel that when there is a change/no change argument to choose from then of course no change was the best way to go.
And then there's the history (aside from the fact that the pound, derived in part from the Romans bringing to Britain their pan-European ways); we liked the idea of the pound in our pocket, the young pretender "euro" just didn't seem do the trick.
Perhaps as others including Denis MacShane have argued recently the PM should be thinking seriously about the euro right now.
But then again, politically is this the time? Can you imagine the uproar? The editorials?
Well, no one said being in charge was easy.
If you remember the introduction of the congestion charge in London and the mountain of newspaper columns written about how disastrous it would be, you would have thought that Ken could never survive.
What joy it was then to wake up on the first day of charge, walk through the City and discover it had all happened smoothly.
None of the disasters predicted had come to pass, and the roads were emptier than they had been for many a decade.
Mind you, if I was a euro-zone country and Britain suddenly announced it wanted in, I would make it squirm. No-one likes a latecomer as we learned to our cost when it came to joining the EEC.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Oliver Postgate and the Guild Socialist tradition

Oliver Postgate has died. There is an excellent obituary by Philip Purser in today's Guardian.

As Philip Purser points out, Oliver Postgate was born into the British left. His father, Raymond Postgate, was a Communist in the early 1920s, before he wised up, mellowed, gently expanded and edited the Good Food Guide. Oliver's auntie, Margaret Postgate, married G.D.H. Cole, the one twentieth century British socialist who managed to be somehow quintessentially Fabian and anti-Fabian at the same time. All three were active in the Guild Socialist movement of the 1910s and early 1920s.

One of the great treats of parenthood is having an iron-clad excuse for revisiting one's childhood loves - or what one now imagines them to have been. And Oliver Postgate's corpus is high up there amongst the things I have been busily revisiting with my son over the past two or three years. We have the DVDs of Ivor the Engine, The Clangers and Bagpuss. We have a couple of Noggin the Nog books.

Is there any connection between these classic children's TV programs and the sort of radical milieu which Oliver Postgate grew up in?

Philip Purser suggests as much, and Zoe Williams explores the point further. I agree. The programs and books have a definite ethos, without ever being preachy.

In Ivor the Engine, the characters are defined by their jobs ('Jones the Steam', 'Dai Station') and, although capitalist relations of production are there in the background, they clearly see their jobs in terms of simple good service to the community, rather like the imaginary good citizens of a Guild Socialist utopia. The community itself is a strong, but benevolent, force.

Aside from this cooperative social ethos, the programs often have an implicit environmental agenda - the Clangers (whom my 5 year-old son refers to as 'the Quakers') are continually having to free their beautiful planet of unwanted rubbish, such as Earthly televisions which broadcast speeches by pompous dictators. Admittedly, the world of Noggin is a tad more hierarchical; but his authority is always being challenged and subverted by children, whales and moonmice.

As Postgate himself implies, the programs and books also embody a distinctive approach to production with firm roots in the socialist tradition. They seek not simply to satisfy an existing preference which the child 'consumer' has, but to develop and expand the child's imaginative range. The programs and books treat the child not as bundle of wants to be satisfied, but as a being full of potentialities which need to be nurtured and encouraged by exposure to new and strange (yet familiar) worlds.

Thus, although Postgate's programs didn't excite me as a child as much as, say, The Six Million Dollar Man ('We can rebuild him...'), they have left a deeper imprint.

And I'm not alone in this. I recently went into a second-hand bookshop in search of Noggin books. Not finding any on the shelves I asked the bookseller if she had any in stock. 'Oh no,' she said. 'That's Oliver Postgate. His stuff gets snapped up immediately.'

Postscript: there are lots of good Oliver Postgate links supplied by Harry Brighouse at Crooked Timber.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Let's celebrate Milton's birthday

Many thanks to Terry Eagleton for reminding us that today marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton.

As Eagleton explains, Milton was a key figure in the English Revolution which saw the temporary establishment of an English Republic in the 1650s. He defended the rights of free speech and popular sovereignty (though he was by no means a democrat in any straightforward sense). As Quentin Skinner has argued in depth, Milton belonged to a generation of 'neo-roman' thinkers of this time who saw the central evil in politics as arbitrary power. To be unfree is not simply to suffer interference from another; it is to live under the shadow of potential interference which lies at someone else's discretion. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was echoing Milton's thinking when he wrote that 'the worst thing that can happen in human affairs is to find oneself living at the mercy of another.'

Milton's conception of freedom as 'non-domination' (to use the term coined by Philip Pettit) retains all its force and relevance for us today. Not least, it continues to provide a vital standard against which to judge the British executive and its impatience with inconveniences such as the Human Rights Act which act as a break on its arbitrary power.

In addition, as later republicans saw, it offers an important basis for evaluating our economic and social institutions. How far does capitalism render individuals vulnerable to domination in the workplace, for example? What kind of institutions do we need to prevent domination in the workplace and in the home?

Also important is Milton's conception of politics and civic life. As David Marquand reminds us in his recent book Britain Since 1918, Milton belongs to that dissident tradition of 'democratic republicanism' in British politics which insists on seeing politics as a matter of active participation and 'sinewy discoursing': not the counting of heads, or the passive reflection back to people of their preferences, but common deliberation and mutual learning animated by a commitment to find a common good.

So let's raise a glass - if you're a Puritan tee-totaler, it can of course be a glass of orange juice - to John Milton and to the unfinished, but ongoing project of republican transformation.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

LibDem donor quits over tax policy tiff

Not many people in politics, outside the House of Lords or the Liberal Democrat party, will have heard of Lord Jacobs of Belgravia, though both learner drivers and fans of baked potatoes may owe him a greater debt than they realise.

But the news that the LibDems largest (legal) donor is quitting the party will be a blow to Nick Clegg, in the week of his first anniversary as party leader.

Sam Coates of The Times, who has broken the story, also comments on the Red Box blog that "he is quitting over policy rather than personality - and in particular Team Clegg's failure to implement his detailed plans".

If that is the cause, this may simply exemplify that the wealth of large donors does not necessarily give them the level of strategic and policy genius that Jacobs clearly believes he possesses.

The Times report his view that:

Mr Clegg and Vince Cable “feel society wants the rich to pay more, whereas I’m arguing the rich could pay less provided the poorest pay nothing or very little indeed.”

Brilliant! Lower taxes all round. Why hasn't anybody else thought of that before? Jacobs is also keen to stress his progressive, rather than "regressive" principles, but this must be a blast from the "slash spending massively" school of progressive politics (without telling us where the reductions will fall). Cutting out "waste" perhaps?

Ironically, Nick Clegg is much more sympathetic to that argument than any of his recent predecessors. So it does seem rather erratic for Jacobs, reported to have been an active Liberal since 1972, to argue that Paddy Ashdown was "great" and to apparently be an enthusiastic supporter of the party when they were an explicitly higher spending and higher tax party, playing a valuable role in keeping the argument about a higher top rate open.

A major donor quitting because he has failed to get his way on tax policy would not go down well in any party. Given that Jacobs' is very much a minority view of tax policy in his party, the content and style of this departure may strike many LibDem members as particularly egregious.

There is also a suggestion that Jacobs could yet join one of the other major parties. The Tory modernisers have put a great deal of effort, and made quite a lot of noise, about the possibility of parliamentary defections, but have come up pretty empty. Perhaps they might have a shot here - except that Jacobs' views sound rather more like those of the Tory grassroots than the leadership.

UPDATE: The Times also has a resignation letter. I rather approve of the sharply worded riposte from the leadership.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Floating above history in Ulster

David Cameron’s speech to the UUP today offers an uncannily Blairesque floating above history. That is the problem of the speech, and yet it could form part of its attraction too. For whatever the many evident flaws of such an approach, the nagging suspicion remains that an escape from history could just, one day at least, be what politics in Northern Ireland needs.

The argument for politics in Northern Ireland having much more to say about public spending, education, health and the mundane, quotidien stuff of democratic politics is certainly a good one. But how to get there?

In principle, the idea that the mainstream British parties should offer Northern Ireland citizens the chances to participate in politics that the rest of us have seems an attractive.

But there have been at least two significant barriers. One has been principled: the risk of destabilising progress towards a secure political settlement. Whatever the stops, starts and Stormont politicking, it may not be too optimistic to think that this has diminished in importance, and should do so further. (And open alliances of this sort might prove no more, and perhaps less, problematic than horse-trading in tight parliamentary situations).

The other has been rather more tactical: even were the main three parties to put up candidates, the chances of their breaking the stranglehold of the local parties has appeared slight (as previous recent Tory experience has shown).

Cameron feels the decline of the UUP has offered a new political opportunity for the Tories. The details of this new political force are very much still at the drawing board. But this is unlikely to ‘break the mould’ of Ulster politics if that is best judged by whether cross-community voting on political and ideological grounds normal. This is unlikely to do that, and it is difficult to see how any one of the UK parties could achieve that if their rivals were not also present. Cameron’s move could increase local pressure on Labour to organise in Northern Ireland, but few think the party would make much impact if it were to stand. (And mirroring the Tory move through deeper links with Labour’s sister party, the SDLP, would entrench rather than challenge a community-based census as the primary political dividing line).

The worst line in Cameron’s speech was his assertion that:

It's in my own selfish interests, too

He wanted to make the perfectly decent point that he wanted a government open to talent from Northern Ireland, as from anywhere else. But Cameron surely intended the allusion, which everybody in his audience will have recognised, to Peter Brooke’s historic statement that “Britain had no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland”. That seems to me a strange, and somewhat shallow, decision.

Brooke’s statement that Northern Ireland was part of the United Kingdom simply on the basis of consent maintained the Union, yet paved the way for Britain to act – alongside the Irish and US governments – as an honest broker in securing a political settlement

The very modern Cameron Tories appear to be returning to the simple integrationist and sovereigntyist propositions put by Enoch Powell – that North Down was as British as Wolverhampton or Guildford, no more and no less, and that the interference of foreign powers should be as unthinkable there as anywhere else in the Union. Cameron’s reference to “nearest neighbours” may also have been a nod in this direction. (Perhaps this all cheers up his Eurosceptics, though it perhaps shows an unusual set of strategic priorities to be trying divorcing Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy’s parties in the European Parliament while getting engaged to Sir Reg Empey in Belfast).

But the most unusual and counter-intuitive aspect of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was her recognition that this was not true in the Anglo-Irish agreement of 1986. Everywhere else, she made a simple argument about the superiority of British values and the unique virtures of Westminster model. And yet she could acknowledge that, in Northern Ireland, those rules could not apply.

If the mass resignation of Unionist MPs to fight protest by-elections against the Thatcher government marked the low point of the Conservative and Unionist relationship, was that not a far sighted and necessary ‘betrayal’? Ultimately, the protest was against the approach which, through 1993 Downing Street Declaration and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, sought to bring peace and a political settlement to Northern Ireland.

David Cameron floats above this history. I am sure he would recognise and acknowlege, if asked, the enormous efforts which both John Major and Tony Blair made in Northern Ireland. Still, with a nod and a wink, he signals his desire to reject – or at least rewrite – those foundations which now make his voicing of simple Unionist homilies possible.

How much does that matter? Perhaps it does not. Indeed, an alternative view could be that this was always a major part of the point of the process: to make it possible to move on, if not quite so recklessly to forget.

Few can confidently predict how much impact the Tory move will have. The Conservatives will be pleased with the mood music it sets on the mainland, though that does not rule out their motivation in Northern Ireland being sincere too.

Perhaps Cameron’s move could yet change politics in Northern Ireland, even if the odds and history seem against it. And perhaps the attempt to challenge political history with this claim for 'normal politics' is no bad thing.

But Northern Ireland is still Northern Ireland. Change may come, but it will likely come dropping slow.

Tory leadership trivia quiz

Andrew Porter notes that David Cameron's third anniversary as Tory party leader means he has already demonstrated more stamina than six of his predecessors - including Lord George Bentinck (1846-1847), compared to whom Andrew Bonar Law probably counts as a celebrity politician.

Andrew thinks its no longer possible to have a pre-Christmas trivia quiz in the age of the internet - but here's my favourite Tory leadership pub quiz question anyway.

Cameron's three predecessors as Conservative leader (Michael Howard, Iain Duncan Smith, William Hague) never made it to Number 10 Downing Street. But who was the last Conservative party leader before William Hague not to become Prime Minister?

Well done to any fellow anoraks who knew the answer without googling it. No prizes I'm afraid - unless the first person to get it right in the comments wants to claim a free copy of the next Fabian Review!

And doesn't it powerfully capture something very striking about recent British political history?