Thursday, 30 April 2009

Thatcherism still divides

This has been a long season of Thatcherism retrospectives building up to the 30th anniversary of the 1979 election. The new issue of Prospect contains a very interesting piece by David Willetts, about which I may well post separately, along with a fascinating poll

Today, just as when she left office, the iron lady splits Britain pretty much down the middle, with 40 per cent of those questioned feeling she made Britain a better place to live, set against 41 per cent who thought she made it worse. Only 6 per cent thought she had made no difference at all.

That Thatcherism did not quite change the souls and values of the British people was a continual theme of British Social Attitudes surveys during her time and after.

And, thirty years on, it is interesting that Prospect and YouGov find that 46% believe she was right to lower the top rate from 60p to 40p (as late as 1988 as has been widely forgotten) while 37% oppose that; and even her policy of curbing the unions is supported only by a plurality of 48% to 37%. Among the least popular Thatcher legacies is privatisation, with 28% for and 58% again.

Yet it is surely to Thatcher's credit as an ideological politician that she was so often willing and able to take calculated risks in moving ahead of public opinion and to seek to change the political weather by doing so.

My own take on Thatcherism and its legacy - and how British politics remains 'In Maggie's Shadow' is shortly to be published in the ippr's public policy review journal. Next Left will do more to address how Thatcherism influences contemporary politics over the next few days.

Zuma And New ANC

Last night I attended a BBC World Service briefing after the South African elections.

The discussion kept coming back to the central question: who is Jacob Zuma and what can we expect from his leadership?* The answer from the panel of World Service experts was a collective shrug. As one commentator unhelpfully but truthfully put it, he could be a great success or a complete failure, with the implication that there will be no middle ground.

The problem is that Zuma’s past as an exiled ANC leader is unknown and he refuses to answer questions about it. His proud self-image is as a ‘simple goat-herder’ at one with the ordinary people of South Africa in contrast to the aloof image of Mbeki, but whether this is just the politics of personality or a real policy shift is another matter. Mbeki was deposed by Zuma and consequently his (Mbeki's) supporters have formed a break-away party, COPE.

Zuma is keen to position his brand of ANC as the new ANC as opposed to Mbeki’s old ANC (where have we heard that debate before?). Above all, Zuma has the populist knack of managing to speak convincingly and to all audiences. For instance, he is supported by the left-wing alliance parties who detested Mbeki’s neo-liberal policies, yet has also convinced business interests that he will support them.

The panel discussion kicked off with the conduct and practicalities of the election. Once again South African voters were incredibly patient while they waited to vote in huge numbers (77.3% turn-out). One complication was that the authorities changed voting laws so that every voter could cast their vote at any polling station (i.e. not necessarily where they are registered) with the inevitable consequence that many polling stations ran out of ballot papers. The lack of violence and tension during the election could be due to the fact that the ANC were so far ahead there was little tension over the result; one commentator suggested things might have been different if COPE had ran their campaign more effectively.

Here are the results of the election (please see my previous blog on Next Left for more discussion):

  • ANC 65.9%
  • Democratic Alliance (DA) 16.6%
  • Congress of the People (COPE) 7.4%
  • Others 10%

A recurrent theory for the huge majority once again given to the ANC (even though it is down a few %) is simply loyalty. After all, it was the ANC which fought against apartheid and gave the vote to most people in South Africa in the first place.

The (new) ANC are obviously still in an impregnable position and will be for the future, despite the presence of COPE and the significant victory in the Western Cape by Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance. However, this is the first time that the ANC have lost a state and apparently many people in the ANC secretly wish Zille was in their party.

As for COPE, there was general dismissal of their long-term prospects as a party. The key point was whether they would merge into the Democratic Alliance or be wooed back to the ANC.

The achievements and failures of the ANC after fifteen years of power are equally stark. On the one hand, the ANC have presided over 14 years of consecutive economic growth and totally defied those who predicted collapse; electricity now reaches 80% of the population; 65% of five year olds are enrolled at school, and social welfare assistance has increased four-fold. On the other hand, unemployment has doubled, crime is still on an astronomical scale in certain areas and millions are still in dire poverty despite the wealth around them.

For the ANC the problem is knowing where it can go next. The ANC have made wildly optimistic promises to redistribute 15% of land to blacks by 2013 and to halve soaring unemployment by 2014. There is little or no sign of either of these pledges will be achieved, particularly in the current economic climate. The question then poses itself:- how long will the electorate continue to give the ANC such a dominant majority if it consistently fail to deliver?

Overarching all of this speculation is the personality of Zuma himself. There are many imponderables, such as whether he can bring the ANC back together, and whether he can manage huge and probably unrealistic expectations in times of economic hardship. Zuma will forever be associated with his past, particularly the rape charges and financial scandals, but perhaps these are more of an obsession for the western media than the South African population who just want their daily life to improve. There is the chance that Zuma will be tried during his premiership, but many interests in South Africa, none the least the business community, want to avoid political instability at all costs. However, nothing is certain with Zuma.

* To be strictly correct this is still to be confirmed as has the cabinet, but it is all but certain.

Banks and the public

Last night’s Fabian event examined various ways to rebuild trust between the banking sector and the public – from bonus restructuring to regulatory reform.

There are many different players in our financial system, all of whom need to take stock and review just how effective they are in the role that they play. Banks, government, shareholders and the FSA have all been engaging in a fair amount of soul-searching of late - and rightly so.

But there’s one key component of our financial system that rarely gets mentioned: us.

It’s crucial that we raise the level of financial literacy in society as a whole. At last night’s event the head of Barclaycard, Antony Jenkins, argued that financial literacy should have a greater role in the National Curriculum.

This doesn’t entail that every school leaver has to have the capacity to debate the relative merits of neo-classical endogenous growth theory with Ed Balls.

But if we ensure that all individuals are educated about the financial system they are a part of, and informed about the products they save with and invest in – then that in itself is an important safeguard, as much as any regulatory body.

Regulation vital to build new era in City

Guest post by Rachel Reeves

Yesterday I spoke at a Fabian Society seminar on Trust and the City. My basic argument was that our interactions with financial markets, like all meaningful relationships, have to be built on trust. Otherwise the relationship breaks down and we walk away. But, during the financial services boom the values that underpin trust - like integrity, honesty, fairness - were tossed out of the window and any notion of shared interest gave way to self interest. In place of casino capitalism, we need now to build a more principled capitalism.

To this end I made several recommendations for what the financial industry could do to re-build our trust - emphasisng that it is up to the financial services industry to regain our trust. So here are some ideas:

  • - banks must pay their fair share of tax and be seen to do so
  • - minutes of the remuneration committees of banks should be published
  • - banks’ boards should be more representative of the communities they serve
  • - shareholder votes should be more than indicative
  • - AGMs should be more than box-ticking exercises
  • - credit rating agencies should be reformed - those paying for their services should be investors rather than the issuers of debt.
  • - banks and near-banks should publish their positions - whether they are long or short a company stock etc.

And while we might hope that enlightened self-interest could deliver the reforms needed, if it cannot, and because there is a role for co-ordination, there is an important role for regulation - both domestic and international. It is now time to put flesh on the bones of the reform urged by the Prime Minister, Chancellor, FSA and in the G20 communique. The new framework of corporate governance and institutional reform is not inevitable. It is up to us to shape it.

There were two broad themes of questions following the panel discussion: whether the retail banking business be separated from the trading arm of banking, and how can we put in place the institutional reform so needed to stop this from happening again.

On the first point, I believe that regulation should be put in place so that retail depositors’ money is not put at unacceptable risk through investing in highly leveraged and complex financial products, but that the same bank could also play in more risky markets - as long as its retail bank activities are protected. On the point about institutional reform, I think the international element is key to avoid a race to the bottom again with light-touch regulation. I also think that building a more balanced, sustainable economy will help reduce the reliance on the city, and its tax revenues. So building a stronger base in a range of industries - manufacturing, green technologies, creative and media sectors etc, will help create a more diverse economy, less beholden to the city.

Rachel Reeves is PPC for Leeds West and a former economist at the Bank of England.

From Ohio to Oxford East

That is the title of a new Young Fabian and Labour staff network publication, which extends the Change We Need theme by asking how experiences from the US election campaign can be translated into practical ideas for the next British General Election.

A series of new Young Fabian publications have been produced, drawing on workshops involving many of the 80 Young Fabians and other Labour staffers who volunteered in the US campaign last Autumn. Several participants have also contributed to an essay collection on lessons and ideas from the campaign.

Dan Whittle, who is trade union liaison officer for the Young Fabians, has written a paper Lessons from the US union campaign for Obama. This notes some of the barriers to replicating these techniques in the UK system, and sets out a set of practical recommendations

You can read the publications on the Young Fabian website.

There is also an event to discuss Obama's 100 days and the lessons for UK campaigners tonight.

Thursday 30th April 2009, 6.00pm onwards,
The Abbey pub, Westminster (1 Abbey Orchard Street, SW1P 2LU)

Please join members of the Young Fabians and Labour Staff Network for an informal drinks gathering at The Abbey pub on Thursday 30th April to mark Obama’s completion of 100 days in office and to discuss the publications.

(Kindly RSVP if you intend to attend by emailing Adrian Prandle, International Officer,

Whittle's Young Fabian pamphlet also reveals this little known fact:

The Democrats consistently receive 15% more support from unions in general elections than the Labour Party. Though Obama did well to gain 60% of the union vote, 61% voted for Kerry in 2004. In 2001, Labour won [48%] approximately 2% more of the union vote than they did in 2005, (46%)

That it is a striking and interesting factoid, though partially explainable by the different structure of a multi-party contest. Obama won 53% of the overall vote, while his share of the trade unionist vote was higher by 7%. (The gap was 13% for John Kerry in 2004: 48% and 61%). Labour's overall share in 2005 was 35%, and its share among trade unionists was 11% higher than that.

Whittle's argument that specific efforts to mobilise union members could play an important electoral impact remains a good one, and the recommendations should spark some useful debates and activity in the unions and the party.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Crisis? What crisis?

A contribution from the floor at the Fabian Trust and the City debate has thrown just asked whether all this breast-beating about trust in banking and the city is really going to lead anywhere, and whether the City is really keeping its head down until it can carry on as before.

Indeed, we were told that another (non-Fabian) event on this subject could have been summed up by the view "crisis? what crisis?". The view of the City high-flyers was that they would have to accept some bad publicity and criticism; that there would be five years of attempts to have a more Scandinavian capitalism; that this would inevitably fail and be seen to fail; and then it would be back to business as usual.

Rachel Reeves says the report is "extremely depressing".

Antony Jenkins of Barclaycard is making it as clear as he can that he doesn't want to be part of that 'consensus' view.

"Anybody who takes that view is incredibly naive. We do not take that view. We do not think this is a PR problem. You might laugh at that but we don't. We are going to have to change to restore trust. We recognise that if we do not get this right our business is going to be curtailed. If we don't get it right, we won't have a business".

Manias, panics and admitting what went wrong

'Financial markets are different from other markets - like the market for haircuts or many other things - because they are prone to manias and panics', argued David Coats of the Work Foundation in a contribution from the floor at the Trust and the City debate tonight.

The government's role is to explain that to the public - and to act to contain the impact of manias and panics, he said.

'The difficult part of the story for a government that has been in office for twelve years is to accept that it has not set the stage right. The need for more regulation which has been argued tonight is absolutely right. So, to some extent, politicians have to admit that they got it wrong'.

How to restore trust?

'A bit more humility from bankers themselves would certainly help'.

Fred Goodwin had failed that test spectacularly, and the whole industry was paying the price of increased public mistrust.

But Coats doubted whether trust could be restored by getting employees onto renumeration boards "when the real problem is with the hedgies"?

Government defeat; Gurkhas victory

Tonight's Commons vote to allow all retired Gurkhas to remain in the UK, with the government defeated by 21 votes, (while formally only indicative) must surely now be respected by a change in government policy.

The government had certainly done more for the Gurkhas than its predecessors, as Tom Harris argues, but it was difficult to construct an argument for the halfway house being proposed.

Much credit rightly goes to Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, who has campaigned on this issue for some time, and who has been widely praised for his powerful challenge at Prime Minister's Questions today. Which is not to detract from the work of many other campaigners - from the Gurkhas themselves to Joanna Lumley!

And isn't it good to see a popular - and even populist - campaign recognising that fairness can sometimes mean more immigration too.

After casino capitalism ...

'During the years of the boom, the values that underpinned trust have gone out of the window', Rachel Reeves, Labour candidate for Leeds West and a former Bank of England economist told tonight's Fabian Trust and the City debate.

The values of honesty, integrity and ethics had been lost, said Reeves, agreeing with John McFall that 'compliance' and 'ethics' were not the same thing.

'In place of the casino capitalism we have had, we have to create a more principled capitalism', said Reeves, arguing that banks should no longer ask what they can get away with.

This required a wide-ranging reform agenda, and Reeves set out several measures for a reform agenda - from paying a fair share of taxes - as institutions and for the individuals within them.

Other reforms Reeves proposed to rebuild trust included the publication of the minutes of renumeration committees, shareholder votes not simply being indicative, credit ratings agencies being reformed so that those investing rather than lenders were paying the fees to avoid clear conflicts of interest in the current system.

'The onus has to be on the banks, not the government', said Reeves, as the financial services industry had created many of the problems and needed to get its act together. But there was also an important role for regulation if enlightened self-interest was not enough, she said.

'If it looks like a bank, it probably is, even if it calls itself a hedge-fund'. The shadow banking system needed to be brought within an integrated system, she suggested.

Anthony Jenkins of Barclaycard said that more important than publishing renumeration committee minutes would be financial institutions articulating the principles which underpinned their pay policies in a way which 'meets the smell test for the public: is this fair?'

'We know why people believe bankers were greedy and incompetent'

'The public have lost trust because they believe that senior bank executives were greedy, self-interested and, worse, were incompetent. We understand why they feel that. Banks have to acknowledge that we have made mistakes", Antony Jenkins, head of Barclaycard has just told tonight's Fabian Trust and the City debate.

Jenkins offered a strong 'we get it message' - acknowledging that John McFall MP had offered a "provocative" opening but said McFall had "stolen many of my best lines" because he agreed with most of the critique which had been put.

Banks could regain trust only by showing that they were ready to change the way they operated, said Jenkins.

This meant that there would have to be more effective regulation, higher capital requirements, a less debt fuelled economy and bank renumeration linked to performance and aligned to longer-term shareholder value.

"We are committed to that agenda. We are committed to changing the way we do business. We hope that implementing that agenda will help to regain some of the trust", he said.

Restoring trust was essential since, as John McFall had suggested, banks were the lifeblood of the economy. So Jenkins accepted that the onus was on the banks to show that they would change. The quid pro quo was that - if the banks showed they would change - politicians who were one of the main sources of criticism should acknowledge the change.

McFall - "It doesn't matter which party wins - the public will demand change"

"You screwed up and you need to work hard to regain people's trust," was John McFall's message to the financial world at a Fabian debate.
"It doesn't matter whether it is a Labour government or a Conservative one that is returned, public pressure will bring about change," said McFall, chair of the Treasury Select Committee.
He said trust and confidence has been lost in the banking system has been lost.
"Renumeration will need to be addressed," he argued.
He asked why is "banking unique, where the bankers need to have a big bonus when they get out of their bed in the morning?"
"I tell my constituents it was important to save the banks: they don't understand that."
The financial industry thought that "in a couple of years time that everything is going to be the same. I can tell you everything is not going to be the same".
"The social contract between the financial services industry has broken down now...In future that social contract has to be built up again," said McFall at the Fabians' Trust and the City event.
"It's not business as usual," he added.

Free for all on tuition will embed two-tier world

Graduates leaving university this summer are already worrying about their double whammy of the poor job market and being the first set of students to have paid tuition fees.
According to one survey, two thirds of graduates do not expect to find a graduate-level job once they complete their studies.
On the same day, (the irony, the irony) a set of elite universities have been pushing their case to be allowed to raise the £3,000 per year cap on tuition fees.
Already potential students are worrying about the cost of even going to university, while others are choosing their potential campus based on the price of living in a city, rather than its academic quality.
Typically the cost factor is going to hold back students from poorer families, or families who have previously not attended higher education from applying.
If in the UK, we have a set of universities which charge £10,000 per year for tuition, and another set that charge £3,000 there will be young people who won't even dream of applying to the first more expensive set, and we will embed a two-tier system of higher education even further.
An interesting Sutton Trust report has already shown that Britain is wasting talent. That some of its most talented but poorer school pupils fail to go on to take A levels.
And another report showed that nearly two thirds of young people who chose not to apply to university did so because of fear of debt.
Students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds are far more likely to apply to a university nearby - rather than apply to the best university for their subject. Again cost is a factor.
And here's something not very surprising - pupils from private schools are far less likely to choose a local university than a state school student.
As must be obvious to all of us, rich kids from rich families don't worry about tuition fees and paying them, and poor kids do.
By allowing the cap on tuition fees to be lifted, and to allow a free-for-all in the tuition fee market, these differences will become more and more marked.

The buzz on the Swiss streets

To continue the debate about living in Switzerland or Britain, a new Mercer poll called the Worldwide Quality of Living Survey, stimulates further debate by placing Zurich and Geneva in the top five.
Berne also features in the top ten, but British cities come almost nowhere. London gets the somewhat faint praise of 8th place for European cities with the best infrastructure. The survey assesses its league table on the base of crime, security, air pollution, schools, supermakets and public transport.
Vienna, rather surprisingly, comes top.
Vienna is great for long weekends and coffee shops, but it does have a very staid quality - not much change, not much energy - and lots of fur coats in winter worn by women with a rather severe look.
But if you are looking for a very good hot chocolate it is definitely up there.
However, back to the Swiss versus GB conundrum - surely we can agree that Switzerland is best for chocolate and lakes and quiet, Britain is better for buzz.

Ethics in The Atheist Capital of Europe

The much sought after (or perhaps not) title of Atheist Capital of Europe belongs to Berlin. According to the Observer, only 36% of people have a religious affiliation.

On Sunday Berlin held a controversial referendum on returning to segregated religious education as opposed to the inclusive teaching of ethics. The two groups of supporters were labeled ‘Pro Reli’ and ‘Pro Ethics’ and fought tooth and nail with the passion that only this issue seems to raise. However, in the end it was rather an anti-climax because the minimum quorum of a third of Berlin voters did not turn up, despite the appeals of none other than the German presenter of Who Wants to A Millionaire. Apparently it was a sunny day perfect for the park or maybe daytime telly, so Berlin still has its ethics.

An authentic Berliner, Victor Grossman, gives a fascinating insight into the complexities of this episode in Political Affairs Magazine.

In Germany church and state are inter-twined, as can be seen by the name of one of the main political party (Christian Democrats). However, a proportion of tax-payers money does not automatically go to the church, but only if you sign up for a religious denomination when you take a job. This is around 8% and may partly explain why many Berliners are atheists! If you do not ‘sign up’, you cannot be baptized, have a church wedding or be buried in a church graveyard. To ‘reverse’ your affiliation is quite a complex matter involving going to the town clerk and signing forms with witnesses. This efficient and burueaucratic way of doing things happily lives up to (or even exceeds) all our stereo-types of Germans.

Most German schools teach religion as part of the curriculum, and parents choose which class their children will attend. Typically the options are Roman Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Muslim or Free Thought (atheist). But, the City of Berlin broke away from this tradition a couple of years ago and in its place imposed a comprehensive and inclusive Ethics class. The religious lobby and the State (including Angella Merkel) didn’t like this and so invoked Berlin’s rarely used right to a referendum.

An interesting point to note is that Berlin is of course comprised of the former West And East and there was a similar split in voting patterns. 60% of former West Berliners voted Pro-Reli and 70% of former East Berliners voted Pro Ethik. Apparently, once Germany re-formed the Church imagined East Berliners would flock back to religion, only to be disappointed. I imagine the taxes have something to do with it. It certainly would put one off having a white wedding or baptism for the sake of pleasing Aunty Ethel.

Personally I am all in favour of a single Ethics (or Ethiks to be German) class as an inclusive way of covering both religious and non-religious ways of life. I believe all pupils should be in the same class and have the same options, rather than being separated due to parental persuasion. This argument can be made both in terms of the human right of the individual (i.e. to have a free choice) and in terms of the cohesion of society. Surely the parents should have no more right in dictating that their child should attend or avoid a specific religious class than to demand their child should avoid learning about a range of political beliefs.

If you feel the same way as I do about this issue, perhaps we should consider moving to Berlin?

McFall - "bankers pay must reflect the wealth they create"

Guest post by John McFall

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a bank as “an organisation offering financial services, especially the safekeeping of customers’ money until required and making loans at interest.” But banks have not lived up to this definition. They have taken risks with customers’ money, and often they have lost the bet.

They will need to work hard to regain the public’s trust.

Society relies on financial services. As recently as the 1970s, it was common for a person not to use any financial products at all – not even a bank account. But nowadays, people who are excluded from these basic financial services can find it difficult to hold down a job or organise their money.

Our prosperity relies on financial services, too. Banks pump financial blood around the economic body. They allow people and businesses to make investments and manage their cash flow. A failure in the banking system creates a thrombosis – putting the economy, and our jobs, at risk.

Trust is at the centre of this industry. More than any other type of business, banks rely on public confidence to keep going. When trust is lost, banks break down, as savers, investors and financial markets all become unwilling to hand over their cash. Only by maintaining trust can we avoid that thrombosis.

But that trust has to be earned, of course. Bankers will need to demonstrate that they know what they are doing, and stop trading in products they don’t understand. They must also show that their pay realistically reflects the wealth they create, both for the bank and the wider economy. And they will need to address the disconnect between the earnings of bank bosses and ‘front line’ employees.

But the public sector also needs to act. It is clear now that financial markets are not self-correcting – so to have confidence in them, we must also have confidence in the regulators. The FSA’s recent change of direction is welcome. It will now need to step up to the mark and curtail practices that could lead to future crises.

There are still some bankers who expect to go back to ‘business as usual’ as soon as the crisis is over. If we are to regain the bond of trust between the banks and the public, then we must not allow that to be the case.

John McFall is the chairman of the Treasury select committee and a speaker at the Fabian event tonight Trust in the City.

Has Dave got Guido's message?

Does the call from Guido Fawkes for David Cameron to mention a Downing Street petition calling for the Prime Minister to go at PMQs today not make it more difficult for the leader of the opposition to do so?

Iain Dale adds his authoritative voice while stressing that he thinks Downing Street petitions are pointless.

But would Dave doing what the blogs want look responsive - or a bit cheap for the man who wants to be PM?

There still seem to be some problems in getting the thing to go viral. There was much talk about a million or two. Now the right-wing websites are spinning up 26,000 as highly impressive. The road charging numbers dwarfed this one. Hannan got several million - almost in the Susan Boyle class. And several million people voted Tory at the last election.

Anyway, this adds to my broader scepticismabout the claim of right-wing blogger Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) that he is an equal opportunity political nihilist, who hates all politicians and would be just as tough on the political right.

Take this post headlined "Osborne wows" from November as an example of some positive enthusiasms creeping through into pro-politician cheerleading.

ConservativeHome calls it an “outstanding performance by George Osborne“, Guido has just got off the phone with Tom Clougherty, policy director at the free market think-tank the Adam Smith Institute, he described it as “the speech of his life”, Matthew Elliot at the Taxpayer’s Alliance has just crackberried over “he passed the test with flying colours. There is still a question mark over providing a coherent alternative plan, but this is slowly taking shape, and we’ll no doubt see more details in the coming weeks.” Even the insouciant worldly, non-partisan cynic Sir Michael White says he “did well enough from the sound of it“, which must mean that Darling was in difficulty.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Oh Jarvis!

We don't need you to remind us of some of the lamer aspects of what the media liked to call 'Cool Brittania'.

Politics and pop really don't mix.

But this blog would never (normally) hear a word said against Jarvis Cocker, the nation's unofficial poet laureate whatever Downing St and Buckingham Palace might tell us.

I assume most of you who are also of the right age to know - ie, a bit too old to have any clue about what is going on now - will agree that the correct answer to the so-called Blur vs Oasis battle of the indie bands was Pulp.

(If we are having transferable voting systems, of course that is part of the broader progressive coalition aligned behind Blur).

That Jarvis' politics are some way to the left of New Labour's is no surprise.

Perhaps he even kept class on the public agenda when Labour couldn't talk about it. (Though His n Hers is even better as an album than Different Class).

What is a bit bloody depressing is his suggestion that a Tory government is 'necessary' or at least inevitable, apparently in the forthcoming GQ.

Fortunately, The Guardian reports that Saint Jarvis is issuing some clarifications.

It sounds like he still hates the Tories after all.

He's just a bit dazed and confused about whether anybody is going to do anything to stop them.

It's all over for ID cards

Today's Independent front-page reported that Cabinet "rebels" want the government to drop the ID cards project given spending pressures.

But I can not see that they will be 'rebels' for long since.

As was noted here yesterday, this is fast becoming a statement of the blinking obvious. And that has been confirmed with a surely decisive blow today being struck by David Blunkett, who says that the government could drop the ID card element and mandate biometric passports instead.

That is surely a significant move, though many will also want to debate the details of a new policy, since the policy debate has often been as much about the biometric database as the ID card itself.

Blunkett's diaries report how he was apocalyptic in the summer of 2005 about Tony McNulty's attempts to recalibrate the government's argument about ID cards at a Fabian event, which led to headlines like 'ID cards won't fix anything, says Minister for ID cards'. Blunkett was on holiday but threatening to return and tour the studios unless the pro-ID cards policy was put back on track.

The official line today remains that the government's position has not changed.

But it surely will.

It would probably be as well to get on with it.

The Independent story also reports that Trident remains on track in Cabinet, not least because there are concerns over the impact on jobs. Of course, the primary argument for Trident renewal can not be as a Keynesian economic stimulus and job creation scheme. You could get a lot more jobs for £20 billion.

Women still face political glass ceiling - in all parties

The Times leads on a series of interesting reports noting that David Cameron is struggling to meet his commitment to move towards equal opportunities to women in the Conservative Party, headlined Women take a back seat in Cameron's Tory Party

The Cameron leadership has often given the impression it believes in pictures more than words, so it is ironic that this digging into their progress seems too have been triggered in part by photos of Sunday's Tory platform being an all-male affair. Alice Miles suggests that "The Tory party is still in its white, male comfort zone and that, in the end, is what that photograph represents".

A leading article says that the slow progress is "disappointing" and a "serious electoral liability". It is good that the Times makes this an issue not just about counting heads, but also power and seniority, noting that the Tory economic team is all male, and that the Cameron inner circle is heavily male dominated and rather narrow in its experiences.

The prominence and scale of The Times coverage signals an important cultural shift over the last decade. There will still be voices which decry the discussion as trendy political correctness and a distraction. But this discussion is now a mainstream one, not confined to the liberal-left. And it is about the representation of (just over) half of the population. (While ConservativeHome has reacted defensively, but only to stress that some progress is being made; the coverage will be taken seriously by a Conservative leadership which might well agree with a good deal of the critique).

Tory progress - but slow progress

David Cameron began from a low base: the Conservatives have 17 of the 125 women MPs. There are 98 Labour women and 10 LibDems. So 8.5% of Conservative MPs are women at present, compared to 16% of LibDems and 27.5% of Labour MPs.

As this graph of the history captures, the Conservatives have been slow to catch up to Labour's breakthrough in this area. In 2001, the Tory parliamentary intake consisted of 37 white men and 1 woman.

But the Conservatives are still not doing nearly enough to catch-up, despite paying much more attention to the issue.

As a result, it seems clear that a Conservative victory will see the number of women MPs overall fall. That is difficult for the party.

69 of the 331 prospective Conservative candidates are women. So the party hopes it would have 50 or more women MPs if it wins a majority in Parliament. If the Conservatives won a majority of one, the parliamentary party on current projections would be 15% women and 85% men. The proportion of women would probably fall below 15% if the Conservatives were to win a larger victory, as women are doing better in winning candidacies higher up the target seats list. (More accurate
projections will be possible just ahead of the campaign).

Particular efforts to have women replace late retiring MPs could yet raise it by a percentage point or two (though But the Times also reports that several current candidates are struggling to sustain the financial and time commitments demanded.

Clearly, David Cameron will struggle to meet his goal of having women make up one-third of his goverment as they are likely to be less than one-sixth of his Parliamentary Party.This would mark some progress on the Tory benches themselves. He will risk legitimate charges of tokenism if the pool of talent is not deep and broad enough in the first place.

The cross-party picture

The Times briefly mentions Fabian research into the current rounds of Parliamentary selections, which shows new selections of women candidates are running at similar rates across the parties

Labour has many more women MPs, but should not be complacent about this issue either. .

My research compared recent Parliamentary intakes to selections during this Parliament up to the start of November last year: I have made a submission to the Speakers' conference based on it.

Leaving out current MPs, women were winning new selection contests 24.9% of the time for Labour, 26.6% for the Conservatives and 25.8% of the time for the LibDems. So the picture in all parties is very similar: when a new candidacy comes up (ie one where the sitting MP is not standing again), there is a one in four chance of it going to a woman and a
three-quarters chance of it going to a man

Each of the major parties are doing better than that in new selections in the seats which they are most likely to win. This partly reflects pressure from the top to try to make faster progress. If we just take seats where a sitting MP from that party is standing down, then the LibDems selected women in 5 out of 9 selections (55%), the Conservatives in 13 out of
332 (40.6%) but a lower proportion in their target seats, and Labour in 10 out of 26. (38.5%).

(Of course, the sample sizes are fairly small. The percentages for the overall candidate numbers are not going to shift a great deal now, but the number of MPs elected could change particularly with last minute retirements).

The other parties will remain behind Labour in the proportion of women in Parliament, because it made an earlier breakthrough and they have felt the need to compete and catch up. But Labour should now note that it is no longer selecting women at a higher rate than the other parties, even though it is the only party of the three using a positive action approach of all women shortlists.

It follows that women are now doing considerably worse in open selections in the Labour Party than in other parties. (Only one woman was selected in the first sixteen open contests to replace a sitting Labour MP, though that does not include the victory of Rushanara Ali in an open selection in Bethnal Green, the one gain Labour is confident of making). The causes of this are not simple: the stronger candidates have an incentive to contest the all-women shortlist seats.

But I think it is also a sign of the risk of complacency at all levels in the Labour party: the party believes that the shortlist mechanism has 'sorted' the issue, and is paying too little attention to pushing the cultural changes which shortlists were
supposed to catalyse. This has created a 'ceiling effect', where women may be even less likely to win open selections than they once were.

Why does this issue matter?

I think common arguments about "positive discrimination" simply miss the point. Unless people want to argue that men and women do not have broadly equal talents, or that women are simply much less interested in or suited to politics, then we would anticipate a fair political system seeing men and women coming through in broadly equal numbers.

My goal is not "Parliament as a microcosm of society" but "equal chances and no unfair barriers" for all candidates.

It might not be that each intake of new MPs is always 50-50. Perhaps sometimes it would be 60-40 one way, and at other times 40-60 the other. If there is a systematic bias over time in one direction, that is cause for concern and evidence of barriers to fair chances.

Can anybody seriously claim that there is not currently systemic
discrimination in favour of men
in our political system when it comes to getting into Parliament?

The systemic "gender penalty" does not prevent some women making it. All of the evidence is that it remains much easier for mediocre men to make it than average and above-average women, despite some ingrained prejudices suggesting the

My research into recent and current rounds of Parliamentary selections suggests that much of the debate is too pessimistic about progress on black and Asian candidates being selected (where I present evidence suggesting that the Labour party has overturned the historic 'ethnic penalty' in candidate selection), and too complacent about the chances of women being selected, where the 'gender penalty' remains stubborn, despite some progress being made. That is
certainly true in the Labour Party; it is a good description of where the Conservatives are now getting too. (The LibDem situation is reversed: the party has an all-white parliamentary party and that looks set to be the case again next year, but the party has now sped up its progress in terms of women winning good seats).

I think there are probably two reasons for this mismatch of perceptions and the data.

Firstly, the famous pictures of the Labour 1997 intake showed unprecedented progress for women. Secondly, because one party (Labour) has used a specific measure - all women shortlists - there has been a debate about "something" having "been done" for women, and some sense of grievance that this has not been extended. Both perhaps sent the message 'job done'.

The data challenges this common framing of the debate. In fact - and counter-intuitively - there has been much more rapid progress in breaking down the "ethnic penalty" than there has been in breaking down the "gender penalty". So the really interesting emerging question (and under-explored by academics) is why the ethnic penalty has been easier to break down, in Britain at least. This challenges a lot of assumptions in previous studies, which is that measures like minority shortlists would be the only way to achieve this.

I suggest three possible reasons, though a good deal more digging into this issue is required.

1. Cultural changes
There was some suggestion of a 'competitive grievance' politics: that women were being prioritised and ethnic minority candidates were going to the back of the queue. But it was not as zero-sum as some suggested. In fact, the shift in the image of who could make it to Parliament may well have helped to accelerate the chances of BME candidates, alongside other generational shifts for emerging black and Asian candidates.

2. Time and Money

But why have those cultural changes not helped women candidates as much as they have BME candidates?

My own hypothesis is that the image and 'stereotype' of 'what does an MP look like' may well have been an important barrier 20 years ago. I think it is less important now than the impact of economic and time factors. Overall, women candidates are considerably more likely to have caring responsibilities. This affects the overall group of aspiring women more than it does BME candidates overall; while the economic factors have a strong class impact, but again somewhat more impact overall on women than men.

A small but revealing ConservativeHome survey found would-be Tory candidates spent an average of around £20,000 trying to get selected,
and over £34,000 if lost income was accounted for too.

ConservativeHome suggests financial support for less well-off candidates, and has won support from The Economist for this idea.

Each party needs to do more to scrutinise these biases in their selection systems. The time demands - campaigning across the country to show keenness - demand a professional job, and make little allowance for family commitments. So women, working-class candidates of all races, and those outside the elite do not get a fair shot.

3. Scale

Ultimately, it is much easier to give fair chances to groups who make up 8% of the population than to candidates who make up 50% of the population. The demand for cultural change or the power which current elite and over-represented groups need to cede is much less.

To generalise a little too much, I would suggest that the ethnic penalty has been tackled in large part by black and Asian Oxbridge and Russell Group graduates and lawyers who fit the current mould of politics finding they can compete and win on equal terms, in parties which are keen to show that non-white candidates get a fair shot. That is progress - why should they be denied the chances which other lawyers and graduates of leading universities have had to join the political class, and become Tory MPs too?

But it is not deep progress, which requires tackling gender, class, ethnic and disability barriers to fair chances in a more integrated way.

I think that future Parliamentary intakes which were 50% female would probably bring about greater changes to the Westminster culture, on which Labour's class of 1997 has made only an incremental and gradual impact to date.

The Conservative Party has made an unprecedented breakthrough in selecting two Asian women in safe seats. But this has not prevented it selecting two sibling members of the Rees-Mogg family, children of the former Times editor and ex-Tory candidate, and an admirably gender balanced pair of Rees-Moggs at that. (Of course, Rees-Moggs have every right to be considered on merit too, but this is intended to illustrate that the party establishment has not ceded its place at the

Finally, if Labour does badly at the next election, there remains a strong case that the number of women in Parliament will fall, while the number of non-white MPs could stall, or (more probably) increase by a small amount. This strengthens the importance of efforts across all of the parties and not (as was the case until very recently) in just one party. Diversity in Parliament of all kinds should not be at the mercy of the political pendulum.

Monday, 27 April 2009

South African Elections: The Zuma Era

The South African election results were never in doubt. It was simply a case of how much the ANC’s populist leader, Jacob Zuma, would win by. Crucially, he fell tantalisingly short (0.7%) of the two thirds majority needed to change the constitution.

Here are the results, as show in yesterday‘s Observer:-

  • ANC 65.9%
  • Democratic Alliance 16.6%
  • Congress of the People 7.4%
  • Others 10%

Such an imbalance inevitably puts a strain on democracy, particularly a relatively new multi-racial democracy in a country with so many scars. However, for the all-powerful ANC the only real threat seems to be an internal one. The Congress of the People (COPE) are a recent break-away splinter movement (about half a year old), whose polling may only be 7.4% but this is more than enough to deny the ANC their coveted two-thirds majority.

The ANC are split by politics of personality and have been ever since Nelson Mandela stepped down. The former president, Thabo Mbeki, has fought bitter internal and public battles with the fiery and controversial Jacob Zuma. COPE are comprised of disillusioned former ANC supporters of Mbeki, and so we do not know as yet if they will be a long-term party or one of short-term protest against an individual. Africa has long suffered from the politics of the Big Man, and the danger is that South Africa will eventually turn against democracy for the easy ‘solution’ of such a saviour.

As an outsider, I can see some general similarities between politics in South Africa and Eastern Europe. Both South Africa and Eastern European states experienced a momentous political and social upheaval twenty to fifteen years ago, and politics and society are inevitably still in the shadow of this event. For most ordinary people nothing can match the brief period when they thought their lives would be transformed for the better, only to find the reality just presents a new set of problems.

A significant note of optimism for South Africa is that people are still voting in huge numbers. According to The Observer, there was a 77.3% turnout. This figure suggests people still have faith that their vote will improve their day to day lives, unlike in many parts of Eastern Europe where turnout has dramatically fallen to below 50%.

Let us hope that Zuma can live up to the faith of the South African people, and can get this country back on the right tracks. In order to do this he must resist the temptation to undermine the very democratic rights that gave him power in the first place.

n.b. On Wednesday I am going to a BBC World Service parliamentary briefing and I hope to report back for Next Left. Please give me your thoughts on the South African elections.

Better citizenship education for the police?

One of New Labour's achievements has been the introduction of Citizenship Education in schools. But do we need to make sure that better citizenship education is included in the kind of training received by various professions, such as the police?

Consider the recent evidence. The police have been paying individuals to act as informants inside environmental campaign groups. The aim seems to be to get enough inside information to know what environmental protests are planned so that the police can take action to prevent them if they are unlawful. Only a couple of weeks ago, the police preemptively arrested 114 environmental protestors prior to a planned protest. The protestors were released the following day, but often with bail conditions which prohibited them from going near any power stations. And, of course, there is the aggressive kettling of the April 1 G20 protests, including the overwhelmingly peaceful Climate Camp at Bishopsgate.

Increasingly, it seems, the police see their job as preventing any environmental protest with an unlawful, civil disobedient, but peaceful element. Where this is not feasible, as with the Climate Camp at Bishopsgate, their policy has been one of disproportionate containment.

However, as I pointed out in an earlier post, non-violent civil disobedience has a legitimate, indeed important, role to play in a democratic society. So if the police philosophy is one of simply preventing such action, the police are setting themselves against an activity which is, as said, legitimate and important in a healthy democracy.

How far do the police understand this? How far do police officers - particularly those responsible for making police policy - grasp the legitimate and important role that civil disobedient protest has in a democratic society?

How far does the kind of training which the police get equip them to understand such issues?

Given their recent actions, I am not at all confident that the police do understand the place of civil disobedient protest in a democratic society. If so, then this is a matter of grave concern. It means that, in one important respect, our police force is not competent to carry out the job of policing in a democratic society.

And how are we to address that problem, if not, in part, by demanding a review of police training so that it includes better education in the basic principles of democratic citizenship?

Support Ed Miliband: protest against his policies!

Last week, Ed Miliband, Minister for Energy and Climate Change, announced that future coal-fired power stations can go ahead only if they commit to using a technology of carbon capture and storage (CCS) to cut their carbon dioxide emissions. The move has been widely welcomed. An editorial in The Guardian praises the move: '...the shape of real climate change policy is beginning to emerge.'

Others have been rather less enthusiastic. George Monbiot has argued that the plan is more or less meaningless. The envisaged CCS technology might not arrive, or not in a commercially viable form. What happens then, with the coal-fired power stations already up and running? It is virtually inconceivable that a government would then close them down. In other words, Miliband is making a commitment which is unenforceable - and so not a real commitment at all. Until the CCS technology is up and running, we simply should not go for more coal-fired power stations.

With critics like Monbiot in mind, the Guardian editorial acknowledges that 'deep greenies' might object that the plan leaves 'too much wriggle room' to energy companies. But it concludes that 'given that he had to meet the challenge of technology that is still unproven on such a scale, Mr Miliband is to be congratulated for what he has achieved rather than berated for what he has not.'

In other words, its a step in the right direction.

Now Fabians are very keen on 'steps in the right direction'. Fabians are gradualists. They see that big bang social change is usually unfeasible, and sometimes undesirable since it often requires a heavy concentration of power in the state which is liable to misuse (step forward, V.I. Lenin).

But gradualism has its limits.

Imagine a business that has systematically spent more than it earns for years. It faces bankruptcy. It responds by cutting its spending, though it still spends more than it earns. The managers of the business say: 'Well, at least we're heading in the right direction.' But because the fundamentals haven't changed, the business still goes bankrupt. It doesn't succeed, albeit slowly. It simply fails.

There is a strong case for saying that this is where we are at the moment in the politics of Climate Change. What we need are not simply steps in the right direction, but radical measures commensurate with the risk of catastrophic and irreversible climate change that we now face.

This is why Ed Miliband is indeed to be congratulated for his comments over the weekend about the need for popular mobilization around Climate Change to put additional pressure on politicians for effective action. The Guardian is probably right that Ed Miliband achieved the best deal he could over CCS in the current situation. That, however, is not only a cause for congratulating Ed Miliband. Even more, it is a cause for realising just how much more pressure politicians need to face if they are to take action on the sources of climate change which isn't as flawed as the Miliband plan appears. (For I can't see any fault in George Monbiot's criticisms.)

Ed Miliband comments that people are welcome to protest against him. Excellent. For the best way to support ministers like Ed Miliband against the powerful energy and business lobbies is to go out and continue environmental protest.

Its our job to support Ed - by protesting against his policies.

Scrappy families

The new Fabian Review is out - details here - and thought i'd post Teal's cartoon for Mary Riddell's IDS interview, which is a pretty good representation of his pot shots at Tory colleagues and sacred cows...

Dan Hannan: dazed and confused

We promised on Saturday to bring you Dan Hannan's thoughts on Iceland's left landslide.

Here they are.

He thinks they will come as a surprise to us, he's said exactly what I predicted on Saturday: that he will now be forging new alliances with the Eurosceptic Left-Greens. Indeed, this blog noted the EU Observer report that a majority of voters were opposed to membership, and predicted that the real argument over the EU would not begin.

It must be a crushing blow when the one country which was pursuing Hannanism so vigorously swings so far left, so we must forgive him for being dazed and confused.

Strangely, Hannan seems particularly keen to tell his readers that he can never quite tell apart Sunder Katwala (who has been GenSec of the Fabians for five years, and blogs here at Next Left) from Sunny Hundal (who runs Liberal Conspiracy).

He thinks we are interchangeable, and compares us to Ant and Dec.

He knows he was on TV with me, but now pretends it was Sunny. (Slightly strange: Dan and I spent over an hour together as we were doing Question Time Extra ahead of the London elections: I found him good company, and indeed learnt a good deal from his analysis of who can really be trusted on Euroscepticism in the Tory party).

Is this funny?

As far as I can tell, the humour depends on a 'don't these chaps have funny names' piece of side-splitting hilarity, or may be a nostalgic attempt to revive the sadly neglected 'why is it so hard to tell Asian people apart' humour that many people thought was getting a bit stale back in the early '80s when I was at school.

Grow up Dan. Its 2009. No doubt, Hannan will stress that his motives are benign, but its at the puerile end of schoolboy humour at best.

Though I realise its just a distraction technique to move us on from the great Hannan's advocacy of the Icelandic economic miracle. (On the radio recently, again with me, he was keen to stress how irrelevant Iceland's collapse was to his critique of Gordon Brown).

I've been warm about David Cameron's efforts to get his party into the modern world, so that that is one of the ways that we do manage to tell Dan and Dave apart over here on Next Left.

Though if Hannan gets his own way on policy, that will get more difficult.

ID cards on the rack?

Stephen Byers' call for the government to rethink the ID cards and Trident renewal programme, when he has been a supporter of both, may be a significant political straw in the wind, albeit that this is in large part a statement of the bleeding obvious.

Public spending will be extremely and perhaps unprecedentedly tight. There are some areas where pressures for more spending will be very hard to contain - given the demographic impact on healthcare and social care. There are other areas which many of us will want to prioritise - especially youth unemployment during the recession, greening the economy, and reducing child poverty. A politics of priorities inevitably means working out what not to spend as well.

So I can not see how the Labour government could possibly convince its own supporters, or the broader public, with an argument about tight spending priorities while still pushing ahead with the ID cards programme.

I admit that I have never an enthusiast for ID cards, arguing that a willingness to rethink would have been an important way for Gordon Brown to demonstrate his 'change' agenda; put flesh on the bones of his speech on liberty; and would help in rebuilding a Labour electoral coalition too.

But my objection to them has been more pragmatic than theological. It must surely be for those proposing the change to make a convincing case for their benefits, and to demonstrate that these justify the costs involved.

That has not been done - as Tony McNulty candidly admitted at a Fabian seminar back in 2005.

I do not think it has been done since then.

Very few will think that it could be done now.

A broadly similar case might be made about Trident renewal. But I think it is probably an issue which might best be handled differently, particularly to limit the extent to which spending on national defence becomes a heated party political controversy.

I think it would make sense to see if a cross-party approach to this issue is possible, as was largely successful in the case of the Adair Turner Pensions Commission. Perhaps some modern version of a Royal Commission - involving senior politicians from across the parties such as Paddy Ashdown and Ming Campbell, Malcolm Rifkind and Charles Clarke, along with military and defence practioners and experts - could make a useful contribution to a more informed and not excessively politicised public debate about future options.

There is a legitimate debate about whether an independent nuclear deterrent makes sense for Britain in the post-cold war world, with the sceptics now including some senior military voices, and how this fits with the broader push for multilateral disarmament to which the government is committed and which the Obama administration has placed high up the diplomatic agenda.

It has also been suggested by some supporters of Trident renewal, including Malcolm Rifkind, that the 'middle way' option should be explored, of freezing the current renewal programme so that the life of existing submarines and missiles, due to leave service in 2024, could be extended to 2042.

After Rhodri

Tom Bodden of the Daily Post reports on the Fabian fringe at the Welsh Labour conference in Swansea. Huw Lewis, Merthyr Tydfil AM and among the frontrunners to take over from Rhodri Morgan, later this year was among the speakers.

Given an opportunity to set out his stall inside the conference hall earlier, he declared: "The neo-liberal experiment is dead and we must now articulate to an angry country what will replace it. "That must be a country where markets serve people and not the reverse."

He told the Fabian Society event that it was 'time to let Labour be Labour'. Welsh Labour had an opportunity to "lead the charge" on combating child poverty, he said. He estimated that Labour's target of halving child poverty by 2010 would cost Wales an extra £150m.

"That's a do-able deal," he said. "That's a level of commitment that's achievable by the Welsh Assembly Government. The fear of a spending squeeze during the economic downturn must not "paralyse" Labour into believing "that really all you can do is to retreat into a bunker of political management". "We need to attack this recession not just manage it."

Another potential leadership candidate Carwyn Jones AM was emphasising a green jobs agenda.

Lewis also suggested last week that both he and Jones both believe in challenging the culture of Welsh politics, arguing that 'smeargate' could prove a wake-up call for a political culture where personal attacks too often crowd out a battle of ideas.

Finance Minister Andrew Davies (who also spoke at Saturday's Fabian fringe), Health Minister Edwina Hutt and Glamorgan AM Jane Hutt have all been mentioned as possible candidates.

Wales on Sunday has some speculation about possible runners and riders, though I am not well placed to know how accurate this is.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

Personality politics

It has been an interesting weekend for political interviews and books.

The Times magazine carries Peter Mandelson's most personal interview since returning to government, though he is mainly speaks candidly - "I was the third person in the marriage" - about things that are already well known about his relationship with Blair and Brown.

It has seemed quite difficult to find a newspaper without a Boris Johnson interview. Indeed, he was in the middle of being interviewed for Saturday's Telegraph at the moment Thursday's Standard interview suggesting he might only stand for one term appeared.

There are two particularly revealing pieces from the authors of well sourced books.

An Times extract from the updated paperback edition of the Cameron biography by Francis Elliott and James Hanning, which paints a picture not just of wary rivalry and potentially clashing ambitions, but of mutual incomprehension.

While for many the clever, funny, loveable Boris has enlivened the political landscape, Cameron sees a man who, carried away by his own verbal brilliance, is forever having to issue apologies for his lack of restraint. Who was sacked from The Times for inventing quotes? Whose extramarital affairs resulted in at least two abortions and deep distress to at least two women? Whose idealism and loathing of priggishness prevented him from understanding why his mistress would not be happy to go on a Johnson family holiday? Who lied to the press and to his boss about an affair? If Boris regards Cameron as stodgy and conventional, Cameron sees Boris as being dangerously spirited and lacking the necessary moral cut-out or internal alarm system to be a serious politician.

Cameron is quoted saying: “I sometimes think there are people in politics who ought to be in journalism and there are people in journalism who should be in politics, but I’m certainly not going to say who.”

Corroboration can be found in a very entertaining Spectator feature by Boris biographer Andrew Gimson Boris for Prime Minister which suggests that the deepest rivalry will in fact between Boris Johnson and George Osborne, who are shaping up for a post-Cameron leadership contest.

There could be no man less likely to await orders from the small but gifted general staff around Mr Cameron. Mr Johnson is happy to accept reinforcements from that quarter, but its timidity is repugnant to him ... For him, one of the great merits of having no explicit doctrine is that he can avoid digging massive fortifications at what will most likely turn out to be the wrong place, and can instead fight a war of movement, reacting at lightning speed to unexpected events and expressing the public mood before the public even knows what its mood is. To his detractors, this looks like opportunism, and recalls Lord Beaverbrook’s remark about Lloyd George: ‘He did not seem to care which way he travelled provided he was in the driver’s seat.’ But it can more generously be described as an adventurous pragmatism.

Finally, the new issue of Total Politics - which is a 1979 election special - has an interview with Paddy Ashdown where the former LibDem leader says of the abortive Blair-Ashdown partnership:

I remain of the view that he was intending to do it and the problem was far more that it was the big thing he wanted to do, but it was never the next thing


I remain of the belief that the realignment will happen. The big event is for the centre left to realign. Then the Conservatives are in real trouble.

A response to Shiraz Maher

And they thought it was all over! Shiraz Maher reopened the argument about Nick Cohen's attack on the Fabian Society (and entire liberal-left) for betraying liberal Muslims in an Observer letter and longer Harry's Place commentary last weekend

Maher challenged readers' editor Stephen Pritchard (the paper's independent ombudsman) who judged the Cohen-Maher charge unfounded.

Perhaps this is just the players (or fans) criticising the ref in the pub after the match? All reasonable observers now know why the charge was unfounded.

But Maher extended the attack with a new nonsense charge: the slur that the Fabian Society has "extended a platform to some of the most reactionary elements within the Muslim community".

My letter in today's paper challenges this.

Shiraz Maher's letter (last week) falsely claims that the Fabian Society has "extended a platform to some of the most reactionary elements within the Muslim community" and so resuscitates a charge rejected by the readers' editor in his recent column. Maher turns out to be making an absurdly hyperbolic objection to Sir Iqbal Sacranie debating with Ben Summerskill of Stonewall and being challenged over gay rights in 2006. Maher calls that a mistake. I call it important democratic engagement. Maher writes that it is "hugely depressing" that his "adolescent politics" are thought relevant, yet last month deployed them in his Daily Mail article "We must be mad to give £90m to these fanatics - and I should know, I used to be one". He can hardly have his ex-Hizb ut-Tahrir cake and eat it.

I think the episode highlights how often the tactic of 'condemn and polarise' has been deployed in an undiscriminating way.

I think it is worth doing more to examine why this now makes strategies and coalitions to challenge extremism more difficult.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Iceland's left landslide will reopen EU argument

I tuned into Daniel Hannan's blog rather hoping that he would be gearing up for live coverage of Iceland's elections today.

Alas, nothing. We will be sure to bring you his thoughts when we have them.

Meanwhile,The Guardian reports that the final polls suggest a close race - but between the Social Democrats of caretaker Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir (polling 35%) and her Left-Green coalition allies (on 28%) in what would be an unprecedented and historic election victory for the left in Iceland.

Regular readers may recall that Hannan is an enormous fan of "the splendidly named Independence party, which has pursued the kind of Thatcherite agenda that is off limits to EU members ... and [who] have no more desire to submit to international than to national regulation. That attitude has made them the happiest, freest and wealthiest people on earth". They have been the dominant force in Icelandic politics for 70 years, but now lag badly in spite of his heartfelt advocacy with that policy having brought the country to deregulated ruin.

EU membership has been the central theme of the campaign. But it is far from all over. Indeed, the argument will now begin in earnest. I expect Hannan will be forging new alliances, with the Eurosceptic argument now being led by the Red-Greens. As The Guardian reports, they are "a party of old-fashioned socialists whose roots are in 1930s Marxism-Leninism, allied with younger environmentalists".

EU Observer has a useful report for those of you who have not been following the campaign.

On Monday (21 April), the Social Democratic prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, said that the country must apply for membership in the bloc immediately after the elections and that if her party won, they would make such a move their top priority.

"It is important to apply for (EU) membership right away, so that people can see what we can get," she told the Morgunbladid paper.

"I predict that in four years we will have adopted the euro," she added.

Her partners in the Left Green Movement meanwhile argue: "Iceland's economic life is better situation outside of the EU than within it. They believe that the bloc is too pro-free-market and its structures are not sufficiently democratic.

However, the party has left the door open to membership in saying that it would support a referendum on whether to start negotiations on entry with the EU and a second referendum on whether to join.

The people themselves strongly back the idea of opening talks with Brussels, but they equally strongly oppose joining.

A March poll showed that 64.2 percent favour beginning negotiations, but just 39.7 in favour of entering the EU.

A range of commentators and analysts meanwhile have argued that remaining outside the union would result in a second, deeper crash, or kreppa in Icelandic.

Meanwhile, Hannan may also be disappointed that his offer to facilitate Iceland's membership of a new Sterling bloc did not set the hustings alight during the campaign, with the Left-Greens expressing more interest in a currency union with Norway.

Lance Price's New Labour mythology

Lance Price has written an obituary of New Labour for the Telegraph.

The Telegraph over-eggs the pudding a good deal, offering us a reworking of the Sun's 1992 lightbulb attack on Neil Kinnock, as if great hordes (of the top 1%) really are about to foresake London for Geneva. The paper also describes Price as an "architect of Blair's victories", though the author's text more accurately states that he was at the BBC until 1998 and so was an observer of the creation of New Labour, before playing a key role for the party in the victorious 2001 campaign, leaving afterwards.

But Price does plenty of over-egging of his own too. I find his analysis unconvincing. But I think it matters as an example of an insider's mythology of New Labour which retains several significant adherents, even if the claims fall apart under scrutiny.

And this is about the party's future and not simply its recent past. There are too many people - on both the left and the right of the party - who seem to believe that the debate we now need will involve everybody instinctively restating everything they thought fifteen years ago on the eve of New Labour.

Firstly, Price overstates the importance of the income tax pledge to Labour's 1997 victory, and particularly to the re-election campaign of 2001. Price writes:

Like so many others, I watched the audacious land grab on the centre ground with awe in 1997. The bold colour posters signed personally by Blair, including one that said ''no rise in income tax rates'', were devastatingly effective ... The promise was central to New Labour's appeal to those who had never trusted the party before and was explicitly repeated in the 2001 election, that I helped plan, and again in 2005.

But the voters did not think that Labour was promising not to increase taxes at all. Indeed, they thought the opposite. Labour ended the campaign arguing that it had 24 hours to save the NHS. Those who hold to what Mark Gill of MORI has called "the myth that Neil Kinnock lost the 1992 election because he promised to raise taxes, and that Tony Blair won the 1997 one because he promised not to" rarely engage with some convincing evidence to the contrary. As Gill argued convincingly in Fabian Review back in December 2004:

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

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

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

There was always a decent case both for and against the tax pledge. I think there was a strong case for the tax pledge in 1997, given Labour's need to destroy the mythology of 1978-79. Equally, as was debated extensively in opposition at the time among New Labour's architects, the New Labour script could easily have accomodated a new higher rate on those earning over £100,000, while guaranteeing the current higher and basic rates for everyone else, using the resources for some specific social purpose. Indeed, that would have been popular, just as the windfall tax was a popular New Labour tax increase.

By 2001, the tax pledge risked becoming a totemic symbol not only of New Labour's centrism but also of Labour's caution in making the argument for its own policy agenda. Several of the commentators sympathetic to New Labour such as Donald MacIntyre saw a powerful case for ditching the pledge, noting the Fabian Society's evidence that a politics of reconnecting spending to taxation. Andrew Rawnsley also made the case for honesty as the best policy, noting that a stealth strategy was feeding the idea that "that there is something fundamentally shameful about tax". This closed down the space for New Labour's own agenda of investment and reform, argued Rawnsley, which had to involve "remaking the case for taxation". The tax issue caused some considerable wobbles early in the 2001 campaign.

Secondly, Price shows no understanding of the damage done by sticking to a once-successful script beyond its sell-by date, just as New Labour's critics can fail to acknowledge its successes. Treating the 1997 tax formula as if it were some magical mantra has got us into quite a lot of trouble. The disastrous final Brown budget that caused so much political damage over the 10p rate was rooted far too much in the anti-tax New Labour instincts of the 1997 script, as Charles Clarke noted with devastating clarity in the New Statesman last Autumn.

Economic "Blairism" was also defined by opposition to increasing taxes. This reflected the Reagan/Thatcher economic consensus, reinforced by Labour's 1992 shadow budget, that tax-raising political parties lost elections. This belief underpinned the disastrous and unfair basic-rate cut, financed by abolition of the 10p rate, of Gordon Brown's 2007 budget.

By contrast, as it happens, Brown's most popular budget was his 2002 which included the public case for an increase in taxes to support increased NHS spending. In fact, this was more favourably received by the public than any tax-cutting budget from the Conservative years. This is not to argue that higher taxes are always more popular than lower taxes. But it does show that Labour did well on the one occasion when it decided to engage the public in a mature debate about the trade-offs between public spending and taxation, and struggled when it did not.

What Price caricatures as a debate between New and Old Labour has always been a debate within New Labour as well as beyond it. It is entirely ahistoric to claim that a higher top rate was some unreconstructed Labour demand. The Fabian Society did most to reopen debates about inequality and progressive taxation.

But it was not only New Labour's "soft left" - such as Robin Cook and Peter Hain - who supported these calls. Several Blairites and Brownites were among those to do so too. The case for higher taxes at the top was cogently made by Tony Giddens, guru of the third way, and Patrick Diamond (the ex-Blair advisor and previously director of now back in Downing Street), and by Chris Leslie, who had a strong New Labour pedigree as a Minister and who coordinated the Brown leadership campaign. Roger Liddle, co-author of The Blair Revolution with Peter Mandelson, argues that income inequality at the top must matter, calling for a Top Pay Commission. (He notes too that the original Liddle/Mandelson book argued for " “New Labour should use the tax system to attack unjustified privilege, without weakening incentives for risk-taking and hard work").

The debate about a fairness case for a modest increase in taxes at the top was never one simply between Old versus New Labour. Nor were there fixed Brownite versus Blairite positions. Sometimes, it was a generational question. And a plausible case could be made that a convincing case was made in terms of both political strategy and policy, while those who gave priority to communications had presentational objections and were nervous of allowing the discussion to take place at all.

It is a shame that Labour did not change its position earlier and from a position of strength, to discuss the real political choices and trade-offs between spending and taxation much more openly. The problem was less the tax policy, but turning it into a totemic shibboleth that Labour dare not talk about. That position that largely united Number 10 and Number 11, with the latter defending it most vigorously after 1997 once Brown had lost the argument for a 50p rate in opposition. The political strategy of "progressive universalism' was an important and effective one, but the public argument for fairness which provides the essential foundations for this has come much later.

Finally, what Price now offers as a future agenda is gob-smackingly thin. He writes that:

Brown is largely silent on the kind of totemic policies that once defined New Labour, like choice in health and education through foundation hospitals and city academies. If, as the party's polling expert Lord Gould once called it, New Labour is an Unfinished Revolution, then its vanguards have been in retreat for two years now ...having delivered three remarkable election victories, the chances of it reviving in time to help secure a fourth are receding every day.

Is that it? 'More of the same' stopped being the tight answer a long time before 2009. And voters seem to be protesting the closure of post offices rather more than protesting the failure to develop a new vanguard agenda for the Foundation Hospital:

Indeed, I would argue that the 2001 General Election campaign should be seen as Labour's defining missed opportunity, as I also suggest in contributing to James MacIntyre's analysis of 'the fight for Labour's heart' in the New Statesman this week. (Of course, I do not suggest that those calls on political strategy were in Price's hands to make; they were primarily the co-decisions of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown).

One can absolutely understand why the leadership had a single-minded focus on securing a second term for the first time. What is striking is just how nervous they were about whether they could do it. William Hague's populism proved singularly unpopular. It is striking just how much Labour took media enthusiasm for this as a sign that it was resonating with voters. A party heading for a landslide defeat did a remarkable amount to frame the election agenda.

Labour's strategy was to close down those issues. Blair was planning a big push on Europe and the euro in the Autumn, so was keen to keep the issue out of the campaign. Brown was working out how to raise the money for increased health spending, so used the characteristic tactic of the Wanless Review to park the issue to the other side of the election campaign.

But this strategy had an enervating effect on Labour's own domestic agenda too, which lacked the political edge it had in 1997. With hindsight, it might not have mattered so much. Nobody knew that 9/11 was about to change everything. But somehow a technical policy agenda about the governance of public services - which may have had many merits as policy, but was only comprehensible to the policy wonks - was punted as a transformational big political idea.

But Labour's message was "investment and reform". Reform was important to sustain public confidence that more money would be used well. It is obvious that the question of where the money is coming from is foundational. (More choice is more expensive too). There is no doubt at all that Tony Blair changed his mind about public spending during the 1997 to 2001 Parliament. Having believed that current spending could be redirected, he began to advocate higher spending, particularly the ambitious commitment to match the EU average on health spending on the Frost TV sofa. Of course, this needed to be funded. Blair had also pledged an end to child poverty by 2020, making the explicit policy commitment to redistribution and 'narrowing the gap' in relative income terms, though he was strangely unable to acknowledge when pressed during the famous Jeremy Paxman interview in the 2001 campaign that this was indeed the policy that he had set out for his government.

Overall, the 2001 campaign was somewhat better than that of 2005. "Schools and hospitals first" did at least have some political content. Labour's argument was to prioritise public services over tax cuts. (By 2005, the slogans "Your family better off" and "Your country's borders safe" offered no contentful clue whatsoever as to which political party might attach its logo to them). Once again, heading into an election that nobody thought that Michael Howard could win, the opposition leader dominated the political agenda, as themes of MRSA and immigration framed the public debate. By the end, Labour's main argument was the implausible one that Howard and the Tories could genuinely win).

Unlike the post-Iraq election of 2005, the 2001 mandate was Labour's great realignment opportunity to redefine the centre-ground of British politics. It did well to almost exactly replicate its 1997 majority, on a much reduced turnout. It had run a personality-based campaign decked in purple to re-elect its Prime Minister. Yet after the election, Labour had little confidence that it had won a mandate for an argument it had been careful to make only in code. It would have won a similar landslide had it had the confidence to put its (popular) case on the table too. But the instinct to run away from the Tories' unpopular populism meant there was a campaign remembered only for John Prescott's right-hook.

Both the victors and the defeated were not entirely sure as to what it was a mandate for. Labour's lack of confidence in its own message also helps to explain why it took the Tory opposition a further Parliament to have a serious inquest about their successive defeats. Like Bill Clinton, who in 1996 campaigned for a four year term to "build a bridge to the 21st century", New Labour had the bully pulpit of British politics and too often chose not to use it. (Indeed, Blair's stock response to critiques of Clinton, such as those offered by Douglas Alexander, was to note that Clinton had done the most important thing: he got re-elected).

I entirely reject the idea - the frame of too many internal debates - that being elected and being Labour are alternatives to be traded-off. (Indeed both right and left of the right of the party betray a shared lack of confidence in how Labour values can chime with the public). I am sceptical that a great dose of ideology being offered from opposition will get us to the New Jerusalem: the evidence for either right or left on that is weak. So what really really matters is how you use the bully pulpit of power when you have it to make public-facing arguments. Is it possible to govern and campaign for re-election while shifting the frame in which future elections take place? Reagan and Thatcher did. The key test of the Obama Presidency may prove not simply whether he wins a second term, but what argument he seeks to fight for a second term on.

Certainly, New Labour has shifted the centre-ground of British politics too. It has done so mostly through policy, and often by stealth. David Cameron's ambiguities reflect New Labour's own deliberate blurring of its own public identity. This is why one reason none of us really know where the new centre-ground of British politics will end up.

New Labour made much of its cautious management of expectations ahead of 1997. But how much more radical and political that manifesto, shaped in opposition, looks to its policy-heavy successors formed in government for 2001 and 2005. (Those manifestos are practically identical: I wonder how their authors would fare in a pub quiz of 'spot the difference').

This is a problem for a party whose mission is one of social change. And most of Labour's legacy achievements in power - the minimum wage to devolution - come from that first term. The tax pledge was a means to those progressive ends. And, as both Jon Cruddas and Chris Leslie have noted, ministers would often balk at the populist fairness language put up in 1997.

So I can not see what Lance Price achieves in penning his obituary for New Labour when he seems to have entirely neglected to set out any positive purpose which might resonate about what he might advocate resuscitating New Labour for.

Our political choice is not between Labour's greatest hits of 1996 or 1976. Both would fail now. The hard truth is that everybody is going to have to dig quite a lot deeper than that.