Monday, 30 November 2009

The Solidarity Society

The Solidarity Society, the final report of our major two year research project into fighting inequality and poverty, will be published on 10th December.

The report by Tim Horton and James Gregory seeks to make a significant contribution to current debates about how to reduce poverty. It assesses contemporary, historic and international evidence to draw lessons for effective poverty prevention strategies, drawing on our public attitudes research to address how to mobilise resources and public support to reduce poverty and inequality.

Today's Independent carries a preview of some of the main themes of the report.

We could be at a tipping point that sends Britain back towards Victorian levels of inequality and social segregation, and makes the solidarity which could challenge that social segregation ever more difficult to recover." He added: "Inequality in Britain today, on some measures, is at its highest since the early 1960s. And, despite falls in poverty over the last decade, progress is getting harder.

"Significant cuts in welfare spending would push poverty and inequality even higher. And taking the middle class out of the welfare state would set Britain on a path to a set of 'sink services' for the poorest, with a deeply segregating effect on society. History teaches us that nothing would be worse for the long-term interests of the poorest than taking the middle classes out of the services that the most vulnerable rely on."

(The report, rather than the headline, accurately captures that the concern is with avoiding a pathway towards "Victorian levels of inequality and social segregation"; the headline referring to Victorian levels of poverty rather overstates the point).

The newspaper also carries an editorial on emerging debate about poverty between left and right.

The conclusions will be uncomfortable for the Government in that they track a striking decline in the sense of social solidarity in Britain, even as their figures show inequality on the increase again. But they should also be uncomfortable for Mr Cameron and his Conservatives in that they call into question some of their most treasured tenets.

The research project, supported by the Webb Memorial Trust, commemorates the 100th anniversary of the 1909 Poor Law Minority Report, which first called for the abolition of the workhouse and the creation of the modern welfare state.

We will have more on the report as we approach the publication and launch event next week.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

How not to write about inheritance tax

Andrew Rawnsley has an excellent article in today's Observer on the changing politics of inheritance tax. George Osborne's pledge in 2007 to raise the threshold for the tax to £1m was very popular and pushed Labour on to the back foot, so much so that Labour followed with its own move to raise the threshold from £325,000 to £650,000 (for couples). (Quite why only children with coupled parents should benefit from a rise in the threshold was never explained.) But now, in the era of deficits and looming austerity, the Conservative pledge looks less canny, as if the one group that the Conservatives can find some tax relief for in these difficult times are the very rich.

The Observer's Political Editor, Toby Helm, also reports that, in view of the changed circumstances, the government is considering freezing the threshold at £325,000/£650,000, rather than increasing it as planned to £350,000/£700,000.

This would seem to me to be the least the government could do as part of a program for spreading the burden of paying for valuable public services in what are indeed difficult times.

But consider how Toby Helm chooses to describe the issue:

'Homeowners hoping to be freed from crippling levels of inheritance tax could be hit by new austerity measures...'

'...he [Alistair Darling] is considering freezing the threshold at which the tax becomes payable....This means that, if property prices rose, more -not fewer - householders will be liable to pay the 40% tax.'

Let's start with that phrase 'the 40% tax'. The 40% in question is, of course, the marginal rate of tax paid on everything above the tax threshold. So if the threshold is £325,000, and you inherit £400,000, then you would pay 40% on £75,000 - a tax liability of £30,000 on £400,000. So, in this case, the '40% tax' would actually be a 7.5% (3/40) tax.

As a matter of maths, nobody, but nobody, will actually pay 40% of what they inherit in tax because no tax is paid on the amount below the threshold. And the majority of estates which pay tax will probably pay a much smaller proportion than 40%. So referring to it as 'the 40% tax' is misleading. It risks fuelling the misperception that, once the threshold is breached, you pay 40% on the whole estate.

Bearing this in mind, let us now consider the article's opening reference to 'crippling levels of inheritance tax.'

It is not clear to me that even if people inheriting, say, £325,000, were paying 40% tax on the whole lot this would constitute 'crippling' taxation. To retain 60% of an unearned capital transfer in excess of £300,000 strikes me as still a handsome chunk of change which many people would be grateful for.

But as I have just pointed put, the actual level of tax is typically much, much lower than 40%. As noted, a person inheriting £400,000 would pay just £30,000 in tax. 'Crippling'? Bear in mind that this is much lower than the tax you would pay if the £400,000 was earned income.

Am I skewing things unfairly by focusing on the £400,000 case (rather than focusing on a really large inheritance)? No, not so far as Helm's article is concerned. For his point is that if the threshold is not raised, then 'more - not fewer - householders will be liable to pay the 40% tax.' But those who consequently just come in over the threshold will only be just over it. And so, as the above example shows, they will pay a very low level of tax.

More exactly, consider those (single people) who would otherwise not pay tax if the threshold were raised to £350,000. They will pay tax because their estate, while less than or equal to the proposed new threshold of £350,000, is above the existing threshold of £325,000. So the maximum amount they will pay tax on is £25,000. They will pay 40% of that: a maximum of £10,000. So they will pay £10,000 on an inheritance of, say, £350,000, a tax of less than 3% of the total they inherit.

It is a rather peculiar use of the English language to describe a tax of 3% as 'crippling'.

The sort of language Helm uses, while a million miles from the reality of the tax, is what I would expect to see in the right-wing press. For although the language bears little relation to reality, they have a tax-cutting political agenda, after all, and an interest in fuelling the kind of misperceptions and misunderstandings that phrases like 'the 40% tax' and 'crippling taxation' promote.

But Helm is not obliged, as a writer for The Observer, to promote this political agenda.

So why is he using this unreal and misleading language?

The Non-Taxpayers Alliance

Next Left can exclusively reveal that plans are shaping up for a forthcoming launch of a major new right-wing pressure group.

The Non-Taxpayers Alliance is to be headed by Tory ppc and non-dom Zac Goldsmith, with Michael Ashcroft as Treasurer.

Its launch slogan is expected to be "We're in this together - but the rest of you can pay our share".

Registered in the Cayman Islands, the group plans to operate from Westminster. Its campaign "Yes to Representation Without Taxation" hopes to add new perspective to the House of Commons as Goldsmith contests the Richmond Park constituency. The group will argue that more non-doms in government and politics would help to bring unique insights so that the needs of the globally mobile super-rich can be addressed in all areas of policy.

The Non Taxpayers Alliance group will be officially non-partisan, but sources say that everybody involved will be a committed right-wing Conservative anyway, and so the group will have a focus on Conservative policy where they believe they have excellent access to decision-makers.

The group is pleased that several of George Osborne's policies will offer very valuable help to the wealthiest - such as the inheritance tax reforms while the marriage tax break will also benefit the better-off most, but is concerned that those not paying taxes may miss out on this largesse. "Its quite tricky to work out how we can benefit from tax breaks without paying any taxes - but we feel confident George will be sympathetic in wanting to reward our dynamism and creativity".

A source with knowledge of the plans told Next Left that it would have a cooperative relationship with other right-wing pressure groups:

'We want to be clear that this initiative is in no way a criticism of the Taxpayers Alliance. They never criticise non-doms or tax avoidance, so we think that they are great.

But setting up a variety of right-wing groups with different names has worked really well so far and we think we can bring a distinctive candour and honesty while making the same old arguments.

So we are hoping that their director Alexander Heath, as a French resident and non-British taxpayer might agree to serve on both boards so that we can closely link our advocacy with theirs.

We will also be adopting TPA standards of non-transparency when it comes to our funding and operations: as you can imagine, Michael [Lord Ashcroft] will insist on nothing else".

The Other Taxpayers Alliance said they were not exactly surprised, and would press both the first and now the third TPA to take tax avoidance seriously if they wanted to credibly claim to be representing taxpayers' interests.

Speaking on conditions of strict anonymity, one very senior Tory office-holder was enthusiastic about the group's plans.

"I say three jolly cheers and more power to their elbows. The attacks on these chaps are an inverted pyramid of piffle. We can't expect squillionaires to play by the same rules as the rest of us in this globally dynamic age. My friends in the City have asked me to make that clear.

Instead of indulging in this boring old politics of envy, the left should be doing more for hard-pressed and hard-working hacks who are trying to hold down two jobs. Do you know I would be £25,000 a year better off from my Telegraph column if only Dave and George would scrap Labour's 50p tax rate on £150k+? I know its chicken feed to most people but if feels dastardly unfair to me"

Sources said that Shadow Chancellor George Osborne would probably feel he needed to give the group a bit of a kicking in public - "but I think they know that's just pre-election posturing between friends".

(Hat tip to a tweet from tomwilliamsisme of The Young Politico for the Non-TPA idea).

Saturday, 28 November 2009

In this together? Vote Blue, Go Non-Dom

Zac Goldsmith, born in Westminster Hospital, schooled in Richmond and at Eton (prior to expulsion), "has lived in Richmond for most of his life", as his campaign website claims.

Just not when it comes to paying tax on his inherited wealth, estimated at £200 million, as the Sunday Times reports his non-dom status.

He has decided he should change this, say his spokespeople.

No representation without taxation, or something like that. (Unless the Lord Ashcroft exemption applies).

But how much has he avoided paying in tax?

And is he offering to pay it back?

The divine mission of Lord Pearson

Congratulations to Lord Pearson, newly elected leader of UKIP. He has already hit the headlines this morning by revealing that the party offered to disband, or stand down for this General Election at least, if David Cameron had pledged a retrospective referendum on Lisbon, which is quite an interesting day one secret plot revelation for a leader just elected by his members.

Though little known on the left, Pearson is admired and liked by several Tory Eurosceptics, as Iain Dale and Tim Montgomerie testify.

The most interesting profile of Pearson that I have seen was an admiring profile God's Eurosceptic, published in the Sunday Telegraph back in 1997 when he was first promoting a private members' Bill to get Britain out of Europe. There is a link to a PDF of the full Telegraph article as part of the laudatory welcome to Pearson's election from the Archbishop Cranmer blog, which is pleased to see matters temporal and spiritual combined in a new sense of Ukip mission.

Lord Pearson certainly does "do God" - and claims a personal connection with the Almighty which is more direct than any political leader, certainly since Gladstone, after a religious experience in which he believes a messenger from God appeared to him while he was being operated on to have varicose veins removed in 1977.

He spoke in more detail about this encounter with the Almighty in a 2005 article. (Perhaps the Sunday Telegraph could republish that article in full online).

Pearson says that the experience has led him to dedicate his life to the fight against evil - represented by the European Union, bureaucracy, socialism and Islamism.

The 1997 profile also contained what even the Sunday Telegraph found a rather "hair curling" warning to Germany:

If the Germans turn nasty to get their way in Europe, we'll do it again, we'll beat them. I don't see any difficulty about it as long as we retain our nuclear deterrent

(I have not heard anybody else make that case for Trident renewal recently; though the late Nicholas Ridley resigned after saying something similar about the Germans to the Spectator in the final summer of the Thatcher government).

Pearson believes that Ukip should highlight Islamic fundamentalism as just as important a threat to the British way of life as the European Union. (Did the forthcoming UKIP result on Friday influence David Cameron's unexpected decision to raise Islamism and Hizb-ut-Tahir's alleged involvement in schools at PMQs on Wednesday?)

Pearson has already sought to give a high profile to the issue, bringing Geert Wilders to Parliament. But Pearson has seemed somewhat confused in insisting he makes a distinction between Muslims and Islamists, which was certainly not easy to discern in his recent comments about comparative birthrates which are very much of the 'Enoch was right' school, evoking very directly Powell's fear of an alien element having 'the whip hand' in Britain:

Lord Pearson’s own outspoken views about Islam were recorded in Washington DC last month. Asked how much time Britain had before losing control of its cultural identity he said: “What is going to decide the answer to that is the birthrate. The fact that Muslims are breeding ten times faster than us. I do not know at what point they reach such a number that we are no longer able to resist the rest of their demands . . . but if we do not do something now within the next year or two we have in effect lost.”

He later insisted that his remark was directed at Islamists. “One is talking about the violent end of the spectrum,” he said.

Friends and foes might agree that we may be hearing a lot more from Lord Pearson.

How (nottle) to get a hung Parliament

Hyperventilating about hypothetical hung parliaments seems to be all the rage. The New Statesman does not just cover every historical, psephological and constitutional angle, but even editorialises the Lab-Lib concordat for transparency and reform that might emerge from a smoke-filled room next May.

Martin Kettle was at it too. But correctly highlighting the importance of "nottles" - Not Tory and Not Labour MPs - in affecting the chances of a hung parliament led Kettle to a false conclusion, which would risk misleading any (implausibly) enormous bloc of Guardian reading voters who wanted to maximise the chances of a Commons with no overall party majority:

If you want a hung parliament rather than a Tory majority, though, there is only one reliable way to bring it closer – and that is to vote nottle. In most circumstances, and especially in England, that means that a lot of erstwhile Labour sympathisers will have to get on with it and vote Liberal Democrat. Right now, however, there is not much sign of that.

Psephologically speaking, that doesn't make any sense.

Voters actively seeking a hung Parliament would be better advised to vote for any candidate most likely to keep the Conservatives out in any seat that the Conservatives have a chance of winning.

Of course, any real world voter may be weighing up many different factors - but that would be the sensible strategy if somebody's sole goal were to make a hung parliament more likely. (Until and unless the polls were to tighten so much towards neck and neck that one needed to offset the 'risk' of contributing to a Labour majority against that of preventing a Conservative one).

That would probably mean backing any Nottle incumbent, and perhaps other Nottle contenders with a strong chance of victory over a Conservative.

But it would also mean backing Labour in almost all Labour-held seats being targeted by the Conservatives.

Voting Nottle in a Labour-held seat which the Conservatives were targetting would make a hung Parliament less likely, not more (with the possible exception of one or two three-way contests where a Nottle might have some chance of coming through the middle).

Where there is a Labour-LibDem battleground, the outcome will make no difference to whether there is a hung parliament if the Conservatives remain ahead and the question is whether they reach the 326 seat threshold.

And, of course, this is a hypothetical question for any voter in a safe seat, with little or no chance of shifting in any direction. In most currently Conservative seats, voters can do little to increase the prospects of a hung Parliament.


This isn't because the Nottle MPs don't matter - but it is very difficult to see how that will be the decisive variable in whether there is a hung Parliament in 2010.

The rarity of hung parliaments is not some inexorable property of our electoral system: fully half of the General Elections between 1918 and 1945 led to hung Parliaments. It depends on how the distribution of votes fall, and are translated into seats.

The rise of the nottles have meant the conditions for hung Parliaments have been stronger since the mid-1970s.

In the general elections of the 1950s and 1960s, the number of neither Labour nor Tory MPs was 11, 9, 8 and 7 (in the 1950s) and 9, 14 and 12 (from 1964-70).

With the fragmentation of the two-party vote, and the increased representation of Liberal and nationalist parties, that rose to 37 and 39 in the 1974 elections, and after falling to 27 in 1979, rose again to 44 or 45 in each of the 1983-92 elections, the jumping again to 76 in 1997 and then 92 in 2005.

Yet we have not had hung Parliaments in this nottle-rich period. One major reason is that close elections between the major parties have been very rare. (The 2005 contest was the only one for thirty years in which the two main parties finished within 5% of each other).

As Peter Kellner points out, even if there was a slight fall in Nottles from the 92 elected last time, it is difficult to see how it could possibly end up less than 80. There is no chance the number more than halving to leave as few Nottles as in 1992, when John Major needed a 7.5% lead over Labour to just secure an overall majority.

Hence the potential 11-point spread (from a Labour lead of 1 point to a Tory 10 point lead) which Kellner suggests would be likely to give us a hung Parliament.

It is true that the Tories could fall a couple of points short of a double-digit lead and win a majority if they did particularly well in the marginals. But we will almost certainly have a hung Parliament if Labour finishes within 7 or 8 points of the Tories.

While, were Labour more than 10 points behind, no Nottle surge is going to deny the Tories a majority. (An unlikely LibDem sweep of currently Tory-held southern seats could have an impact, but any number of LibDem gains against other parties would be irrelevant in this respect).

In assessing the prospects for a Hung Parliament, minding the gap between the two major parties is surely still the variable which matters most.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Who should rule, parliament or people?

What's wrong with the British constitution?

This question is the title of a new book by my colleague, Iain McLean, which I think is a must read for those interested in political reform. He writes very amusingly and powerfully about it at OurKingdom.

Historically, lawyers have argued that the core constitutional principle at work is that of parliamentary sovereignty. Iain argues that this doctrine is ethically flawed. In line with the tradition of democratic republicanism, Iain argues that it is the people - 'we, the people' - who are properly sovereign, not parliament.

The lawyers say there is no conflict because parliament is elected by the people. But Iain points out that this is obviously untrue. Parliament has three houses: Commons, Lords and monarch (a 'House' of one). Only one of these is elected.

Iain also points out that large sections of the British political elite have been perfectly willing to relax or revise the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty when parliament has looked as if it will use its sovereign powers in ways they don't like. A.V. Dicey, exponent of parliamentary sovereignty par excellence, made some sudden and unexpected (but convenient) revisions to the doctrine when a Lib-Lab-Nationalist Commons, having tamed the powers of the Lords, looked set to deliver Home Rule for Ireland.

Iain's proposal is to recast the British state formally and rationally on the principle of popular sovereignty. This would mean an elected second chamber and, of course, an elected head of state. His suggestion for a new Senate to replace the Lords, elected on a PR basis, and for long single terms, has already had some influence on the government's latest proposals for areformed second chamber.

For those of us who believe in popular sovereignty, however, it is important that the process of reform itself express this principle. A constitution for and of the people ought to be made by the people.

This thought has underpinned widespread calls this year for some sort of citizens' convention to consider proposals for reform of the political system. One admirable effort along these lines is that of Power 2010.

The first step has been to invite the public at large to send in their own ideas for reform. Anything. Whatever you like. If you have an idea, and you haven't sent it in yet, then send it in quickly because there are just a few days left before the deadline. My idea was utterly unoriginal but one I felt needed to be emphasised: PR (for Lords/Senate and Commons).

The next step of the process will be to convene a citizens' panel which will discuss the proposals and identify five to be put to a wider public vote.

It will be interesting to see how far the resulting proposals look like the recommendations developed by Iain McLean in his new book.

Either way, this book and the Power 2010 campaign are two welcome signs of a growing interest in shifting the basis of how we are ruled from the antiquated notion of parliamentary sovereignty to the republican ideal of popular sovereignty.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

'We can not be seen as a party of climate sceptics'

That was part of Australian Liberal leader Malcolm Turnbull's argument as to why his party must stick to his agreement to back Kevin Rudd's Labour government and its Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme and emission trading scheme.

Turnbull said:

We must be a party committed to action on climate change. Anything else is irresponsible,"

But this has split the Liberal frontbench and parliamentary party down the middle - with a major grassroots revolt on the Australian right, and several resignations from the Liberal frontbench.

It looks likely that the Australian climate legislation will pass the Senate - but also that his stance could cost Turnbull the party leadership in the next week.

The Howard government had previously refused to sign up to Kyoto; reversing that was the first (symbolic) act of the Rudd administration, but the substantive policy depends on cutting future emissions.

In the UK, the opposition Conservative party avoided a split over its high-profile support for a climate bill in 2008, by the device of having a one-line whip so that only a fifth of its MPs took part in the vote, allowing sceptics to quietly abstain.

Climate scepticism remains strong among the grassroots Conservatives, especially among Conservative bloggers, but this has had little impact to date on the leadership's public championing of the issue.

A Red Tory marriage of convenience?

Perhaps one way to deal with any concern that Red Toryism could lead to a backsliding on social liberalism was that the launch of ResPublica at the Royal Horseguards Hotel rather resembled a swanky civil partnership ceremony.

The dark suits filling the wedding-style chairs were not asked 'red' or 'blue' on the way in.

But we were all kept waiting for at least half an hour before David Cameron and Phillip Blond walked together up the central aisle.

With his Blond standing alongside, in gazing adoration, the party leader vowed to engage with the ideas of the new think-tank - in government as well as in opposition (he would hope) and (he was at pains to make clear) in disagreement as well as in agreement.

"He wouldn't agree with everything Phillip Blond has said, or will go on to say" but that he was confident the think-tank would produce interesting ideas.

The familar reprise of Cameron's 'conservative means to progressive ends' refrain in the hope of the happy thought of 'not just a rich economy but also a rich society' was a reminder that his was a renewal of vows, after 10 months rather than 10 years in these speeded up times, as Cameron had said much the same thing at Blond's Demos progressive conservativism launch in January.

Having bestowed his blessing, while keeping his distance, the leading man scarpered sharpish, leaving Blond to muse abstractly on the nature of conservatism.

Onlookers are concerned at potential tensions from there being three people in the marriage.

The think-tanker was rather more muted in his critique of Thatcherism than media briefing suggested, with The Times among those to report.

In an attack on Thatcherism he will say that the “loadsamoney” ideology of the 1980s “quashed the last vestiges of public morality and, in turn, fed the growth of the State, since society was so out of control that government had to grow even more intrusive”.

That particular Blond on blonde heresy was missing from the speech. Still, to fully commit to Red Toryism would may require a Tory leader prepared to put through a decree nisi with Thatcherism.

And Cameron isn't quite ready to choose between Blond and the blonde. Rather, the current Tory leader likes to point out that his argument about the strong society draws on Thatcherism.

But there's the rub. Thatcher was for the free economy and the conservative society, never acknowledging how the one disrupted the other. She too talked about spreading
opportunities to own - yet wealth became more concentrated. Ultimately, markets were trumps.

I put a question from the floor to Blond: it seemed to me likely that modern Conservatives will find the associative society language warm and attractive mood music, yet would shy away from his economic agenda to localise the economy for fear it was too protectionist and interventionist. Did he agree that it had to be taken as a package, if it was to have any serious account of what had happened in the 1980s, or a contemporary agenda to strengthen social bonds?

Blond said he agreed with the thrust of the question.

"We do have to have that radical localised political economy", said, arguing that the way we value the macro-economy and finance "prices out the local economy".

He emphasised that he was prepared to talk about the recent history, and offer a constructive critique of what he thought the Conservatives got right and wrong in the 1980s. (However, what he didn't say is that the Tory frontbench seems unable or unwilling to offer any substantive account of Thatcher's legacy).

The Red Tory thesis often seems to talk left on economics and right on society.

Yet the economics seems the least likely part of the argument to be taken up by the Conservatives, often sounding more similar to the arguments of the New Economics Foundation or the Compassite left of the Labour party.

If the market critique is stripped out of Red Toryism, it may no longer offer a critique of Thatcherism but a rather rhetorical restatement of it.

For richer or poorer? We may have to disagree about that.


UPDATE: Fellow wedding guest James Crabtree makes a similar observation for Prospect.

Climate Camp gets its day in court

In April, following the furore over the policing of the G20 protests, Next Left posed the question: Did the police break the law at Bishopsgate?

We are delighted to report that this question will now have its day in court. Climate Camp have succeeded in the first stage of their legal challenge to the Met over policing of the demonstration at Bishopsgate on April 1.

According to the press release from Bindmans, the law firm representing Climate Camp:

'Protestors who were ‘kettled’ and beaten during the Fossil Fool’s day protest outside the Climate Exchange on 1st April 2009 have won the first round of a battle to hold the senior Metropolitan Police officers involved accountable. Granting permission for their judicial review to proceed to a full hearing, Administrative Court Lead Judge Sir Andrew Collins commented that the claim concerned, “issues that can properly be regarded as suitable for the Administrative Court”, including the decision to deploy force which was made minutes after officers had noted a “party like atmosphere” at the demonstration.'

Climate Camp is challenging the legality of a wide range of police actions at Bishopsgate, including the use of kettling and the inappropriate use of force. The key issues are:

'(1) the decision to use ‘containment’ to impose a ‘kettle’ around the Climate Camp between 7.00 p.m. and around 11.30 p.m. on 1 April 2009, purportedly under common law powers to prevent a breach of the peace;

(2) the failure to make appropriate, timely release arrangements whilst the ‘kettle’ was in place;

(3) the prevention of would-be protestors from joining the Climate Camp because of the ‘kettle’;

(4) the decision/s to deploy force (including the use of batons, shields and striking with open palms, fists and boots) against those who were ‘kettled’;

(5) the failure to give lawful and adequate guidance and instructions and orders to officers regarding the use of force against those who were ‘kettled’; and

(6) the decision to give directions / impose conditions, purportedly under section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, to disperse those taking part in the Climate Camp protest.'

The Bindmans press release also helps give a sense of the sometimes brutal reality resulting from these decisions:

'The judicial review is brought by three representative claimants. Chris Abbott, a researcher and academic who was punched in the face when Police Officers suddenly surged forward, Hannah McClure, a Masters’ student who mentors foster children, who was pushed over by an officer who then stood on her stomach, and Josh Moos, a Plane Stupid campaigner, who was knocked to the ground as a baton-wielding officer vaulted over him. Mr Abbott’s complaint has been dismissed by the Metropolitan Police on the basis that any officers who may have been involved cannot be identified.'

I am sure that Climate Camp will be grateful for any contributions we can make to cover their legal costs. Let's give generously.

(A very grateful hat tip to John Halford at Bindmans for supplying me with full information on the content of Climate Camp's legal challenge.)

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

California to rediscover politics?

The confusion between politics and anti-politics has been a regular theme here on Next Left, and is the theme of my essay in the recent ippr collection on democratic reform.

The Economist's World in 2010 predicts that California will comfortably pass the vote - in a year's time - to call a constitutional convention.

Among the quirks in California’s current document are: 1) a requirement, from 1933, for two-thirds majorities in both houses of the legislature to pass a budget; and 2) the same two-thirds requirement, added by voters in the infamous Proposition 13 of 1978, to increase any tax. Two other states (Rhode Island and Arkansas) have this requirement for budgets and several others have it for raising taxes, but only California has it for both.

The element of direct democracy exacerbates the situation ... Voters pass, for example, “tough on crime” sentencing laws with nary a thought about paying for more prisons. When their elected representatives subsequently cannot muster two-thirds to raise taxes or cut another part of the budget, voters then profess shock at their incompetence.

Thus the state lurches from one fiscal crisis to the next.

Britain's democratic difficulties are very different to California's. Still, a constitutional convention would also be a promising way to attempt to resolve them politically.

PS: The author of the Economist report has an interesting blog at

Everything you wanted to know about Red Toryism but were afraid to ask

The think-tank world welcomes a new arrival, as Red Tory thinker Phillip Blond will be joined by Conservative party leader David Cameron to launch the ResPublica tomorrow.

There is a small element of deja vu all over again here.

It is 10 months since Red Tory thinker Phillip Blond was joined by David Cameron to launch the progressive Conservative project at Demos in January this year.

And I think that the challenges set out in my analysis of Red Toryism as both an ideas and political project for Liberal Conspiracy 'Will the Red Tories spill blue blood?' remain very much on the table.

Cameron's promotion of Blond is causing some disquiet among the Tory frontbench, according to the Times today. But it is not entirely clear whether the problem is the anti-Thatcherite apostasy of Blond's localist and protectionist market-scepticism, or rather his unkempt hair, rather unkindly challenged in two separate articles by Francis Elliott and by Alice Thomson in the top people's paper today.

Next Left has not previously commented on the Blond top-mop, which we find endearingly floppy, preferring to engage with the Red Tory thesis at the level of ideas, as the ideological map shifts.

Here too there is a legitimate scepticism about how far the Blond agenda will influence policy, beyond political narrative and mood music.

A major issue is that Red Toryism is an almost absurdly ambitious philiosophical and political project.

It seeks to offer a profound critique of the welfare institutions created after 1945, the social changes of the 1960s and the economic changes of the 1980s. Blond has argued that he wants nothing less than the remoralisation of society, the relocalisation of the economy and the recapitalisation of the poor.

Blond's new medievalist advocacy of refashioning complex overlapping social and political relationships like those of the Middle Ages allowed me to make some perhaps excessively knockabout points about 14th century progressivism during our head-to-head debate at the Compass conference this summer, to which Phillip replied here.

The intellectual and theological influences on this agenda were accessibly set out in Jonathan Derbyshire's New Statesman profile, and by Theo Hobson for the Spectator.

Stuart White has challenged Blond's account of liberalism, as something of a straw man, while Blond stresses he is anti-liberal but not illiberal.

It may be harder to see the contemporary politics of this, particularly from a Cameroonian perspective.

The critique of social liberalism may go against the grain of the Tory mods' drive to get their party to adapt to social change.

The challenge to the market would, taken seriously, overturn the foundation of the party's political economy.

A substantial commitment to a new focus on distributing resources, power and opportunity to the poorest would be very welcome. But there does not seem to be a significant Tory constituency for substantive redistribution of wealth to 'recapitalise the poor' in a party which remains enthusiastic about the inheritance tax cuts at the top (which Blond has criticised), or to counter the ability of the middle-classes to benefit most from public services. And Stuart suggests that Red Toryism itself remains rather pale pink in its substantive proposals on assets and ownership.

They all seem very significant barriers to the Red Toryism, but it would be too simple to say that it will therefore come to nothing. After all, why would David Cameron spend so much time promoting Blond's ideas and projects?

One interesting answer was given by an unnamed shadow minister in John Harris' Guardian profile of Blond.

When I speak to a shadow minister and Cameron ally, he says that "self-consciously nostalgic" aspects of Blond's thinking are difficult to square with the Tory leader's emphasis on modernisation, but that doesn't mean that he isn't being listened to, as Hilton's admiration of Blond proves.

"Core to what David Cameron feels," says the source, "is that a Toryism that is all about the price of everything and the value of nothing, is arid and inadequate, and not him. He wants to find an account of the world that is rightwing and Tory, but which also explains why he doesn't want village post offices to shut. Phillip Blond provides him with that." This, he says, is more a matter of mood music than hard policy. "If you look to Phillip to come up with five proposals that could form the core of a white paper, you search in vain. But if you look to someone who can reinforce an intellectual climate, he can provide."

One hopes that, as a political thinker, Blond will resist the temptation to trim his ideas to fit what is politically convenient.

But politicians may always tend to be wary of ideas which might prove dangerous.

The leader's offices comments in today's newspapers that:

a senior Conservative source said it would be quite wrong to suggest Mr Cameron’s attendance at the launch meant he embraced Mr Blond’s thesis. “David likes some of what he says but by no means all of it.”

That exemplifies my instinct about where Red Toryism might fit in to David Cameron's High Tory court politics.

Cameron is a pragmatic high Tory: his generation has broadly Thatcherite beliefs, but his dispositional conservatism makes him inclined to wear these relatively lightly. So he will, by design, have a Green Tory in Zac Goldsmith; a Red Tory at Demos; Ken Clarke in his shadow cabinet; as well as tax-cutting and Eurosceptic pressure from the grassroots. All will have his ear, and none his full allegiance.

Paradoxically, a leadership which sees merit in taking no firm view about the ideological direction of the party cannot take a laissez-faire view about the internal debate. That is the lesson of the slow death of John Major.

A Tory court politics is only possible if there are competing views in the party. But Thatcherism left the party mainly thinking one thing – that less state equals more freedom – while the Eurosceptics have organized effectively in constituency selections. Cameron is sponsoring alternative views because they would barely exist without his patronage. It does not mean he agrees with them.

But if Cameronism may be interested in the mood music of Red Toryism, without its policy prescriptions, then it remains unclear what "social responsibility" will mean, particularly when it comes to resolving the tensions between the disruptive impact of market economics on social practices, institutions and traditions which conservatives value.

David Cameron now accepts the need to offer an account of the role of government, though his Hugo Young lecture did not particularly clarify what this might be, while his skipping straight from 1968 to 1997 again showed how difficult it is for him to have an account of the Thatcherite 'rupture' in Tory thinking.

We shall see whether his engagement with ResPublica brings him any closer to filling in those central question marks over what his substantive agenda might be.

If Hizb should be banned, why not the BNP too?

David Cameron again called for the banning of the extremist but non-violent Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir at Prime Minister's Questions today.

Like the Conservative leader, and politicians across all of the major parties, I have no time for Hizb-ut-Tahrir. They polarise and poison community relations, propagating the reactionary view that being a British citizen who participates fully in our democracy is incompatible with being a faithful Muslim, an argument that the vast majority of British Muslims reject.

But should they be banned?

In a Fabian speech, Being a British Muslim, back in 2006, Sadiq Khan argued that they have an analogous impact to the BNP - and that these extremist groups need each other to polarise social relations:

Let me be quite clear. Hizb-ut-Tahrir quite deliberately have the same effect on race relations as their mirror image the BNP. They encourage hatred and their preaching is used by the BNP to foster fear of Islam.

That seems to me a relevant analogy.

Yet, despite its racist and reprehensible nature, there are very few calls to ban the BNP.

I imagine that most people would think it would be likely to be counter-productive as a matter of strategy and tactics, probably allowing the far right to claim to speak for far more people than is the case. And many liberals may think it would be wrong in principle too to ban a non-violent group, even a reprehensible and extremist party.

Indeed, the BNP's recent electoral success has seen a marked further shift against the "no platform" approach to the BNP, with the dominant argument now being that 'sunlight' and democratic scrutiny will be the best way to counter the BNP. There are certainly some who doubt that. But it might be difficult for those who take that view to argue that a different approach would be more effective in countering the appeal of Hizb-ut-Tahrir among their target audience.

It seems to me curious that this shift in the 'no platform' debate about the white far right does not yet seem to have influenced or been linked up with other often hotly contested and polarised (and often pretty complex) debates about which organisations and individuals democratic civil society groups should legitimately engage with, platform or publicly challenge in particular questions or contexts.

Certainly, the analogy between the BNP and Hizb-ut-Tahrir is not a precise one in all respects. Both groups target the highly alienated, though the Hizb appeal often targets a more educated alienated strand within British Muslim communities than the core target audience of the white far right, so that its emphasis on ideological argument often makes its modus operandi more similar to that of the far left, while boots and fists play more of a role than ideology on the far right.

It seems to me that there would need to be clear links between Hizb-ut-Tahrir and violent extremism, or support for terrorism and violence, for a ban to be appropriate. (Other Islamist groups such as Al Muhajiroun and several various offshoots have been banned, with broad political and civic society support).

The government has considered banning the group, and announced in 2005 that they would do so. But the decision was reversed: the balance of informed opinion was that this would do more harm than good.

Hizb-ut-Tahrir explicitly disavows violence; evidence that it acts as a gateway to violent extremism is contested and appears to be fairly weak. (I would be interested in recommendations about the best academic and expert studies on this).

For all of those who are concerned about the broader social impact of Hizb's advocacy, the question remains as to what the best strategy is to challenge and diminish its influence.

Many universities, student groups and other institutions continue to have 'no platform' policies, which is a different issue from whether an organisation is legally proscribed. (And, somewhere in between, there are debates about which organisations might be incompatible with working in particular types of public service, for example policing or teaching: again, there seem to me to be plausible arguments about that for groups like Hizb and the BNP, particularly in the case of policing. Opinion appears more finely balanced in the case of teaching).

But is there a reason why Hizb should be banned, and is it one which would not also apply to the BNP?

HMIC versus ACPO? The second report of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary on the policing of protest

Back in October one of my colleagues felt so strongly that the BBC was wrong to invite Nick Griffin onto Newsnight that he decided to see if there was a protest outside the BBC studios in Oxford. There was indeed a demonstration, which he joined, of about 12 people. It perhaps does not need saying that the 12 protestors were accompanied by two police officers. Alas, it will also come as no surprise to many readers of Next Left to hear that one of the police officers was carrying a camera. (The other, apparently, was carrying a rifle.) The camera-wielding police officer gave my colleague a phone number he could call if he wanted an answer to any questions about why he was carrying the camera....

Such is the state of protest in Britain in 2009. The event just described was not as dramatic or tragic as the G20 protests or as heavy-handed as the mass preventive arrest of protestors in Ratcliffe-on-Soar earlier this year. But it is very telling in its own way. Particularly the presence of that camera.

However, things might be about to change.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary have today issued their second report and a set of recommendations on the future policing of protest in the wake of the controversy surrounding police operations at the G20 protests. The Guardian has an overview of the report and reactions to it. The report itself is available on the HMIC website.

I hope in the near future to take a close look at the report for Next Left. But at first sight it looks as if the HMIC have built constructively on their earlier report in July which made major criticisms of the police's handling of the G20 protests on both legal and philosophical grounds. The earlier report claimed that the police had an inadequate grasp of the law (e.g., on kettling, which is only lawful under certain specific conditions) and that the police approached protest from the wrong philosophical standpoint, seeking to prevent unlawful action rather than seeing their job as facilitating peaceful protest.

Now back to the camera-wielding police officer. If the role of the police is indeed to facilitate peaceful protest, then there must be a very large and bold question mark over the Association of Chief Police Officers' initiative to (in effect) photograph large numbers of peaceful protestors for inclusion in a database of so-called 'domestic extremists'. For fearing that one will end up on such a database must act as a strong discouragement to many citizens to go on protests that they might otherwise be sympathetic with.

The HMIC report seems to bite this bullet. It calls for:

'Clarification of the legal framework for the use of overt photography by police during public order operations and the collation and retention of photographic images by police forces and other policing bodies.'

And, in addition, it calls for:

'Review of the status of the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure transparent governance and accountability structures, especially in relation to their quasi-operational role of the commissioning of intelligence and the collation and retention of data.'

There is, of course, a lot to unpack here. But the direction of travel looks promising. I'll try to give a fuller assessment in the not too distant future.

Miliband v Miliband

Is the wrong Milibandwagon now rolling fast? That is Jenni Russell's concern in her Guardian column, making the case for her friend Ed over his brother David.

In the personality politics stakes, Ed Miliband had probably the best week of any frontbencher in Brighton, and has impressed many in the party in the run-up to Copenhagen. But Westminster wisdom sees him as the main loser from his brother's decision to turn down the role of EU foreign minister last week, which has been taken as surely confirming that David Miliband intends to be a candidate whenever Labour is next electing a party leader.

If Ed Miliband would be close to joint favourite, and among the leading two or three candidates 'with a run', but his brother's candidacy near the head of the field too would appear to present a significant roadblock to his own prospects.

Firstly, both Miliband brothers have handled any sense of an emerging rivalry admirably. They could be cast as the Blair and Brown of their generation, having been key policy advisors to the 1990s principals, but comradely fratricide seems an unlikely outcome. (However, among the ex-Brown proteges, Miliband E may even be doubly squeezed by a two Eds as well as a two Milibands dilemma).

Secondly, this all remains very premature. In the event that Labour were to be defeated at the General Election, it would be very well advised to wait until after the Autumn conference before beginning a leadership contest, as the Conservatives did in 2005. No potential future leadership candidate has really yet offered a pencil sketch of the contours of a substantive future agenda. And the party will certainly want and expect candidates to focus all of their efforts on the General Election in the next six months.

Thirdly, when the time comes, the party should indeed want a fraternal and open debate where it can choose between all of the leading contenders.

For now, the future leadership stakes should certainly include both Miliband brothers, along with Yvette Cooper and her husband Ed Balls too.

Considerably more implausibly, Next Left suggests that perhaps they should all remain in the field for the contest itself too.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Can you keep a £61 billion secret?

Is there a legitimate case for not revealing an additional £36 billion for RBS and £25 billion for HBOS advanced by the Bank of England as lender of last resort in Autumn 2008? Faisal Islam of Channel 4 news can see the case after the Northern Rock experience the year before.

But, no doubt rueing the scoop that got away, the BBC's Robert Peston is sceptical. He notes that the precedent could create uncertainty as to what 'covert ops' are underway.

Julia Finch is among those to note that the disclosure can be taken as a sign that market confidence has returned.

The scale of the further loans demonstrate how near collapse those banks - and the banking system were. Which makes it all the more surprising that so many in the financial sector now think they might be largely successful in getting back to business as usual.

Human Rights Watch call for torture collusion inquiry

David Miliband has robustly challenged claims that the UK goverment has been "complicit in torture", stating this was a 'misleading' and 'dangerous shorthand', when speaking at the Fabian fringe in Brighton this Autumn.

But the government is coming under increasing pressure over what the UK knew about specific cases of torture and coercive interrogation, conducted (in different cases) by the intelligence agencies of both Pakistan and the United States.

Human Rights Watch today releases a report detailing the cases of five British citizens who were tortured in Pakistan between 2004 and 2007, and calls for an independent judicial inquiry.

The human rights group report that they found no evidence of UK officials directly participating in torture, for which the Pakistani authorities were responsible, but argue that UK complicity is clear. Ali Dayan Hasan, senior South Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch said:

"British intelligence and law enforcement colluded with and turned a blind eye to the use of torture on terrorism suspects in Pakistan. British officials knew that Pakistani intelligence agencies routinely used torture, were aware of specific cases and did not intervene"

Norman Geras, among the principal authors of the pro-liberal intervention Euston Manifesto, concludes:

HRW's finding of British complicity in torture is therefore a matter for serious concern and its demand for an independent public inquiry fully justified. Crucial in this regard is the finding that:

In... five cases, British officials and agents first colluded with illegal detention by the Pakistan authorities and then took the collusion further by repeatedly interviewing or passing questions to the detainees between or during torture sessions.


Generalized statements by government ministers on this matter do not answer to the gravity of the findings in HRW's report. An inquiry is called for.

The government is also currently appealing against the release of information about the US coercive interrogation techniques which were used in the case of Binyamin Mohammed, though the FCO has been very much struggling to convince the judges that its national security objections stand up.

Clive Stafford-Smith, who has seen the classified evidence, sets out as much of the background as is possible at present, while the appeal proceeds.

In place of cuts

With spending cuts dominating political debate, there has been very little policy or political debate about the role of taxation. If we don't debate spending, cuts and debt in the round, it is difficult to see how informed public choices can be made.

The new Compass report 'In Place of Cuts' is well worth reading in full. Its authors George Irvin, Dave Byrne, Richard Murphy, Howard Reed and Sally Ruane set out a clear and detailed case as to what a progressive redistribution of the tax system could look like.

Taxation, spending and distribution are some of the most deeply contested issues in politics. No doubt, there will be debates about the revenues from and the merits of some of the specific measures proposed.

But the overall approach taken by Compass' authors is a promising one, particularly in showing how a public political argument could be framed around 'fair contributions' and win public support for a redistributive shift.

For example:

78% would like to see a tax system whereby the richest 10% at least pay the same percentage of their income in tax as the poorest 10%, only 14% disagree

It was interesting that Tory MP Michael Fallon's response on the Today programme this morning was to go for a generic catch-all 'threat of exit' argument, rather than to engage with the different proposals made.

Compass say that the package proposed would see 90% of the population as net gainers, so that the burden falls almost exclusively on the top 10% of the income range.

YouGov polling for the pressure group finds that 62% of the public back the package as a whole.

The new Compass poll findings chime with the polling and deliberative work carried out by the Fabian Society on attitudes to inequality and fairness, published by the Joseph Ronwntree Foundation.

That a more progressive taxation system could well be popular does not end the argument. Opponents may argue that the changes would be economically damaging, even if broadly popular.

But, if both the public case and the specific measures are framed in the right way, the political limits to redistribution are not necessarily as tight as the conventional Westminster wisdom often suggests.

Lawson steps up climate sceptic challenge

The loneliness of Nigel Lawson was captured in an unusually personal interview in Saturday's Telegraph, in which Lawson gives an impression of trying to live out the life of the Rational Economic Man to be found in the classical textbooks.

But the Tory Peer and former Chancellor might expect his latest venture - the Global Warming Policy Forum - to find him many new friends among the climate change sceptics who dominate the Tory blogosphere.

Lawson argues that Copenhagen will fail - and quite right too. Left Foot Forward were unimpressed - but very willing to debate the evidence in a factual and rational way.

Lawson is telling media interviewers that the new body will focus on challenging the policy response to climate change, rather than the evidence for global warming itself.

That isn't entirely the impression I got from the early material on the website, including the "global cooling" graph icon on the home-page. This seems to offer a good idea of what the GWPF's stated mission - "to restore balance and trust in the climate debate" will mean. Scientific advisors include Ian Plimer who is polemicising against the hoax of global warming, among a large number of 'great and good' voices from different backgrounds and parties.

Lawson himself wrote in The Times that he "has no idea whether the majority scientific view" is right. While he is pretty keen to raise questions about that too, his main argument is that the policy response would be wrong if the science was right.

The new foundation is a registered educational charity, but there does not yet seem to be any acknowledgement or public information about its initial financial supporters at this early stage.


Those who want to see a strong cross-party consensus deepened and maintained will be glad that the Conservative frontbench are continuing to stress their commitment to green issues, including climate change in a series of speeches. (Something that is going down very badly with commenters at ConservativeHome).

There is now quite a lot of evidence that support for strong action on climate change is very thin in the Tory party, outside the Shadow Cabinet.

While the Tory party officially backed the climate change Bill, only about 40 Tory MPs voted for it, the vast majority frontbenchers. Indeed this followed the decision to impose only a one-line whip because a sizeable rebellion was threatened: this led most Conservatives to stay away, while five voted against.

And 86% of Tory activists in a ConservativeHome poll were sceptical about giving higher priority to climate change than energy prices and availability.

Monday, 23 November 2009

The PLP dog that didn't bark

A dramatic day at Westminster, where Tony Lloyd MP has been elected unopposed as Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

"This seemingly innocuous piece of non-news is actually highly significant" blogs Jon Craig for Sky News though, funnily enough, after a great deal of earlier interest in the PLP leadership, nobody else in the Lobby seems to be reporting the conclusion of this gripping tale.

As Craig writes:

The rebels' aim was show the strength and depth of opposition to the Prime Minister in the PLP.


One of those malcontents tells me they have abandoned Plan A, which was to challenge Tony Lloyd, and are now considering Plan B or C.

I imagine that Hopi Sen might suggest we are a little way further down the alphabet than that.

65 leaders to go to Copenhagen .... and counting

Gordon Brown has sent an open letter to Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen, accepting the formal invitation to attend the summit and setting out what the British government believes must be achieved.

Yesterday the Danish government announced that 65 heads of government have confirmed that they would attend the conference, with no refusals to date. Others to confirm include Chancellor Merkel (Germany); Presidents Sarkozy (France), Hatoyama (Japan), Lula (Brazil) and Yudhoyono (Indonesia); and Prime Ministers Rudd (Australia), Reinfeldt (Sweden, as Presidency of the EU), Zapatero (Spain) and Stoltenberg (Norway); the chances are tilting in favour of President Obama attending if he believes he can help to secure a substantive deal.

But the most important part of Brown's letter is the argument that there should be no lessening of ambition on the content of a climate deal.

Over the next four weeks leaders must together work towards an ambitious and comprehensive agreement under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change that will put the world on a trajectory towards a maximum global average temperature increase of 2°C. The Copenhagen Agreement must allow for immediate implementation of its provisions, while also including a clear commitment to convert the agreement into an internationally legally binding treaty as soon as possible.

The agreement must include all the key elements of the action plan reached at Bali two years ago, including economy-wide emissions reduction targets for developed countries, nationally appropriate mitigation actions by developing countries which will contribute to reducing global emissions, a substantial climate finance package to assist developing countries both to adapt to and mitigate climate change, and a strong set of arrangements for measurement, reporting and verification and pre-2020 review.

The recent acknowledgement that the summit would not conclude a legally-binding Treaty confirmed what had long been obvious to observers of the talks. The danger is surely that the content of a political deal is allowed to slip far short of what is needed.

There are two tests here.

One is about process, where Brown endorses the goal recently set out by the Danish Prime minister that Copenhagen must still be the deal, in all but its final legal form, so that countries should and must agree the full set of commitments which will subsequently be embodied in the legal treaty.

The other is about content, that the goal should that the Copenhagen agreement must put the world on a trajectory towards a maximum global average temperature increase of 2C. Here, Brown argues that this depends on meeting each of the objectives set out by the UN at Bali in 2007. These were:

* specific economy-wide emissions reduction targets for developed countries
* ‘nationally appropriate mitigation actions’ (policies and measures of various kinds) by developing countries to slow the growth of their emissions and contribute to global emissions reduction
* a substantial climate finance package to assist developing countries both adapt to and mitigate climate change
* a strong set of arrangements for measurement, reporting and verification
* and a clear commitment to review progress and if necessary adjust it, well before 2020 (probably around 2015)

The mood inside the preparatory talks was captured by John Harris' Guardian feature at the weekend tailing Ed Miliband, in which Miliband argued that a political deal "without numbers" would be a stark failure.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Tories to value marriage ... on forms

Almost nobody outside the political classes has yet heard of Chris Grayling, the populist, telly-themed soundbite obsessed shadow Home Secretary.

But while his colleagues attempt a liberal love-bombing strategy by posing as progressive, Grayling is already gearing up for what could prove a very successful bid to achieve Michael Howard and Ann Widdecombe levels of notoreity.

Here's his latest headline-grabbing wheeze.

Tories to demand: are you married? reports The Sunday Times.

Official forms will routinely demand to know whether a person is married under Conservative plans to promote stable families.

Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, claimed that, under Labour, marriage had become a “non official institution”. In an interview with The Sunday Times, he pledged that a future Tory government would make it a priority to raise the status of married life. “Marriage has almost disappeared from official forms, from official documents,” he said. “I think that needs to change.”

It is very strange that Conservatives love to lecture Labour on the limits of bureaucratic tinkering, critiquing a caricature of Fabianism as the belief that pulling government levers with micro tax and benefit changes can affect deep social and cultural changes in society.

Except on marriage, where the policy appears to consist only of eye-catching initiatives of exactly that kind, based on the idea that a tax-break will have a deep affect on couples' willingness to get hitched or not get divorced.

(Of course, being pro-marriage was also a big issue for the Thatcher government. In a decade, her policy unit came up with no substantive policy attempt beyond the rhetorical).

An idea of what a serious agenda to support the family could look like was set out earlier this year by my colleague Tim Horton in an essay for the Fabian Review special issue on the theme, which looked at how a pro-family agenda should focus on the quality of relationships, including the need to address the pressures on families today.

While Grayling bids to become a liberal bete noire, there is much expectation from his fans and supporters.

And Grayling's appointment in place of the cerebral liberal-leaning Dominic Grieve has been credibly alleged to be a condition of The Sun newspaper's support for the Conservatives by the usually well informed Conservative insider Tim Montgomerie.

Indeed, several months before The Sun switched sides, the ConservativeHome site had reported that "One of the chief obstacles to winning back The Sun was removed when David Cameron replaced Dominic Grieve as Shadow Home Secretary".

The impressively in the loop tabloid had also speculated about the change of roles on the morning it was made, ahead of the official announcement.

Cameron Conservativism, 1895-style

Ethnic minority representation in the House of Commons did not begin with the important post-war breakthrough of the class of 1987.

In a piece for the history section of the latest issue of Total Politics, I look at how the long history of black and Asian MPs in the House of Commons has reflected a range of shifting - and politically contested - ideas about race and representation in British politics. Read the piece here.

The early history is a strikingly cross-party affair. I thought Next Left readers might enjoy some background information about three fascinating characters elected in the 1890s and 1920s.

That the voters of Finsbury Central were represented from 1892 to 1895 by Dadabhai Naoroji, a prominent campaigner against the iniquities of British rule in India, perhaps symbolises the fashionable progressive radicalism of London Liberalism in the early 1890s. (Often with a dash of entryist Fabian 'permeation' in those pre-Labour party days). And the first Labour Asian MP Shapurji Saklatvala was a Communist candidate in Battersea North, to whom the Labour Party offered a (highly unusual) endorsement, influenced by Saklatvala's local popularity in the Independent Labour Party and trade union circles.

But I would particularly like to put in a slightly tongue-in-cheek claim for Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree, elected for Bethnal Green in 1895, as among the very first of the Cameron Conservatives.

Bhownagree certainly would have needed few lessons from Steve Hilton in the value of counter-intuitive publicity for the Conservative cause, persuading the party running an Indian candidate on a pro-Empire and strongly patriotic ticket could challenge the idea that Indian voices were overwhelmingly pro-Liberal and reformist (as the overwhelming majority were).

These were the days before the A-list, and being offered the Tory candidacy for Bethnal Green North-East may not have necessarily seemed a sure fire route to Parliament. The trade unionist and Chartist George Howell had held the seat for a decade, as one of the Lib-Lab candidates of the period.

Howell had been a long-standing campaigner for universal suffrage but he was not at all pleased to be swept away by Bhownagree's pro-Empire, anti-Disestablishment and anti-Irish Home Rule campaign:

After ten years hard labour in Parliament ... I was kicked out by a black man, a stranger from India, one not known in the constituency'

But the result was part of a tide in which the Tories won 51 of 59 seats in London in both 1895 and the Khaki election of 1900, on both occasions putting a strongly pro-Empire argument in terms which they felt would appeal to the newly enfranchised skilled working-class voters.

So I admit that Bhownagree's strong support of the British Empire may just make him a little too right-wing to be a modernising Tory icon. In many ways, his views might place him closer to the Heffer-Dacre school of thought.

Awarded a knighthood and made Companion of the Indian Empire, I rather doubt that Bhownagree would have felt any social inferiority among the rather aristocratic and expensively educated Conservative frontbench of his day (or indeed of ours, come to think of it). Here he is, looking rather dapper, in the National Portrait Gallery.

So his opponents in both Britain and India certainly had reason to disparage him as 'Sir Bow and Agree'. (Apart from his political advocacy, he had done Queen Victoria the service of translating and publishing a Gujerati edition of her Highland Journals).

But, out of fairness, let us also acknowledge that his pro-Imperialism found space for some compassionate conservatism too. Bhownagree did make common cause with his Indian nationalist foes, including Mahatma Gandhi, to press the government to investigate the conditions of indentured Indian labourers in the Traansvaal. He was an effective Parliamentary advocate on the subjectt, persuading Colonial Secretary Alfred Milner that the conditions were intolerable.

The legacy of Bhownagree's Victorian career is now best left to the history books of Empire; modern Conservatives might do well to emphasise that they are the party of Iain MacLeod as well as Enoch Powell.

Still, let me suggest one rather contemporary modern lesson which black and Asian Conservative would-be candidates now might still take from Bhownagree's career: the colour of your skin shouldn't matter at all - but you would be very well advised to make sure that you're a pretty hardline Eurosceptic.

(This post is indebted to the pamphlet on Bhownagree by Professor John Hinnells; the best online account of his life and political career which I have seen is at


Even 114 years after his election to Parliament, I suspect that an application from Sir Mancherjee Merwanjee Bhownagree would not have impressed Orpington Tory Councillor Peter Hobbins. This might be chalked up as another example of how some of those who probably think of themselves as extremely proud of their history don't seem to know much of it.

Hobbins' emails complaining about would-be Tory candidates with "foreign names" rather than "a normal English name" were published by LibDem blogger Duncan Borrowman on Friday - and Hobbins swiftly resigned from the Conservative party and from the Tory council group. That action by the party was surely both inevitable and appropriate.

(His quasi-apology "My comments were unintentional and meant in no way to offend. I am not and have never been a racists in any capacity" does suggest a rather weak understanding of what racial prejudice involves).

Friday, 20 November 2009

Fighters, believers and...authoritarians

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Don Paskini recently posted an interesting piece on the Labour Party's PPB, 'Fighters and Believers'.

As I pointed out in the comments thread, I think it is interesting that Labour is now looking back to its pre-1994 history and trying to darw some sense of meaning and inspiration from it. Rather than emphasizing the discontinuity between 'Old' and 'New' Labours - surely a key part of the New Labour rhetoric - there seems to be a desire to emphasize the continuity between Labour today and the Labour party of the early and mid-twentieth century.

This is surely welcome. And, to an extent, it is also more accurate since the discontinuity between 'Old' and 'New' Labour was always somewhat exaggerated. (In many ways, New Labour has been impeccably Croslandite, using economic growth to spend more on public services and consistently enacting redistributive budgets which have had an appreciable impact on poverty.)

But to watch 'Fighters and Believers' is to be struck forcefully by one big and important discontinuity between the tradition of dissent and protest it invokes and Labour in government today.

Much of the footage appearing early on in the broadcast is of people - workers, suffragettes, anti-apartheid campaigners - protesting and demonstrating.

As I also pointed out in the comments thread at LC, if these demonstrators were on our streets today, the police would quite likely be photographing them and logging them on the ACPO-initiated database of political activists ('domestic extremists'). Confusing 'peaceful protest' with 'lawful protest', the police would be doing their best to prevent any protest activity with a civil disobedient element. They might even be kettling them.

And this would be done with the acquiesence, if not support, of a Labour Home Secretary who thinks he can defuse profound questions about civil liberties with avuncular joshing.

In a recent post here at Next Left, bemoaning what I perceived as the lack of engagement with civil liberties issues in the Labour blogosphere, I wondered if Labour wasn't in the process of transforming itself into a party of executive authoritarianism, fully and finally disconnected from its roots in the tradition of radical dissent and protest. This is hyperbole. But the disconnect between the 'Fighters and Believers' footage and Labour's policy towards protest in recent years is clear.

And 'executive authoritarianism' more widely? Over at Liberal Conspiracy and OurKingdom (not part of the specifically Labour blogosphere) there is grave concern about the draconian and disproportionate powers that Peter Mandelson is seeking for the state to clamp down on online piracy.

Still, one should be grateful for small mercies. At least the government isn't proposing to make it compulsory for us all to give DNA samples to the police on the grounds that, after all, we are all potential criminals.

So I welcome the Labour Party's desire to reconnect with the 'fighters and believers' - and with the spirit of a libertarian socialism. But let's not underestimate the extent of the change in Labour's outlook - in its culture - necessary to make this more than an exercise in nostalgia.

Perhaps this meeting (advertised at Labourhome) might help.

Sceptics for federalism?

Some Eurosceptics don't seem to have thought much about their soundbites this morning.

So those who argue for a European Union of democratic nation states are complaining that the appointments of the President of the EU Council of Ministers, and the high representative for foreign affairs, have been chosen by the European Union's 27 elected national governments.

Why, they complain, were Europe's voters not given a direct say in who filled the post?

There's a word for that: federalism.


Martin Kettle has a more incisive analysis of the post-Lisbon EU in The Guardian.

When it came down to it last night, the EU's 27 member states opted for the quiet life not the exciting life, and for the status quo rather than the great unknown. They decided that they preferred to remain the 27 biggest fish in the European pond, though some will always be decidedly bigger than others, and not to import a pair of unbiddable sharks who might start to gobble them all up ... Last night's Brussels summit nevertheless sent a very strong signal to anyone with the objectivity to read it properly. It signalled that the appetite for European constitution building that dominated European affairs for the past quarter century is over for the foreseeable future. It signalled that Europeans now want a period of efficient consolidation rather than change. It signalled that nation states still want to be Europe's final arbiters. And it signalled that the federalist project is stalled.

But what does Europe want to do in the world?

So much attention to the question of who gets which job in the European Union; but why so little as to what European governments might want to try to achieve together and why on the world stage?

Even before Tony Blair's candidacy was jilted for a safe Benelux pair of hands in Herman Van Rompuy, there was always a good case for regarding the high representative for foreign affairs, Cathy Ashton ('she who must not be called Europe's Foreign Minister'), as a more substantive role for than that of presiding over the EU Council, and seeking to nudge 27 democratically elected heads of EU governments towards consensus.

Yet the challenge for a coherent EU external policy is a similar one, with European powers grappling with the strategic question of where they can - individually or collectively - hope to influence major global issues in a new age where the growing importance of the US-China relationship sees much discussion, albeit slightly premature, of a new G2 age of Great Power politics.

The Eurosceptic fear that the Lisbon machinery creates the institutions of an EU superstate rather misses the point.

Whether the new Henry Kissingers will call Ashton, van Rompuy, Barroso - or rather Merkel, Brown or Sarkozy and their foreign ministers - will depend on how far EU governments wish to act collectively, even when it appears in their interest to do so.

Indeed, Javier Solana's budget for EU foreign policy was less than that spent by the European Commission on cleaners in Brussels, according to Mark Leonard, director of the European Council of Foreign Relations, speaking today at a Chatham House conference where the 20th anniversary of 1989 provided a moment to try to assess the challenges of the next two decades. The budget will now increase, but not very dramatically, and the evolution of a new EU external action service, and its relationship with and relative status compared to national diplomatic services, will take some time to develop.

A coherent EU strategy on the world stage is not just a question of institutional arrangements, shared interests or even political will, but also of the national imagery which are central to the psychology of international politics.

There is a must-read discussion of these questions in the ECFR's excellent power audit of EU-US relations.

Jeremy Shapiro and Nick Witney's punchy new pamphlet sets out a powerful argument that the Obama administration has a strategic vision of how to prepare for a "post-American world", yet the European Union does not.

Since "a sense of relief at the change of President is not the same as an agenda", the advice is that the EU would do well to emulate the declared pragmatism of an Obama administration which is pro-European but in the sense that it would like to judge its partners by results, not the warm glow of shared history.

The myths by which we make our national foreign policies explain a good deal of the reluctance to do this. Nor is this a distinctively British problem. The authors set out how at least half of the EU believe their own 'special relationships' give them a comparative advantage which makes bilateral relations with the US - not just British loyalty but France's revolutionary sisterhood of Republicanism; Irish ancestry, Lithuanian diasporas, the personal and ideological affinities of the new Czech and Polish democracies, and many more besides.

This leads to European national policies dominated by "lighting candles to the Transatlantic relationship" but with a needy fetishising of attention - who will win the race to the White House? - further exacerbated by "a love of process over substance and a European compulsion to crowd everybody into the room". The authors report Barack Obama's incredulity at listening to 27 different heads of government speak in turn at the Prague summit, while his officials wonder how the G20 managed to expand 24 seats at the table, including 8 Europeans.

The authors argue cogently that the inability to think strategically is captured most starkly by the vacuum in serious European thinking about national and European interests in Afghanistan, because of uncertainty about what it is that the Americans might decide to do next:

"The problem is that they can not begin to accept the new US strategy as their own until they know what it is, and in the interim are left rudderless"


But it is not at all clear whether these strategic debates will take place at all in Britain, outside the Foreign Office.

There is a real 1990s sense of deja vu all over as the question of "Europe" again becomes a domestic political argument about whether Britain has ever quite decided whether we are in, out - or now wish to be somewhere in between.

Certainly, that is the only live discussion going on on the right, as is very well captured in Fraser Nelson's fascinating recent Spectator dispatch from the No Turning Back group dinner.

Fittingly enough, the No Turning Backers seem very clear, seventeen years on, that it is still only half-time in the long battle of Maastricht.

And the tactics set out for the next five years of guerilla warfare are interesting too. Revealingly, diplomacy with EU partners is seen as largely pointless way to pursue British interests.

There is much the Eurosceptics believe can be done without recourse to the largely ineffective diplomatic route. A practical Euroscepticism can be deployed not as a strategy for summits, but as a day-to-day policy for dealing with Brussels. It is time, in other words, to go rogue.

I couldn't help feeling that the core Eurosceptics resemble, in their tenacity and stamina, something of a parliamentary Taliban, in their willingness to head for the hills and take the very long view of a battle to overturn a thirty year interruption to their vision of national sovereignty unsullied by such foreign entanglements as EU membership demands.

Of course, there is an honest case for getting out of the European Union, made by UKIP and by Tories like Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan - though many Eurosceptics do more quietly fear that putting that question again could lead to a defeat which could set their cause back for thirty years. That is part of why there is little sign that even the most Europhobic think any day of reckoning could be less than five years away, though this is a question that may well need to be settled for another generation.

At least "in or out" is a question which makes sense. But the alternative "in between" position of renegotiated membership seems no better defined than when it provided a populist slogan without obvious content for William Hague's unpopular populist bandwagon back as Tory party leader in 2001.

But there may be more than one way to end "a thousand years of history". The irony may be that, if this is the only European debate we have in the next few years, that Britain might just, without really noticing it at all, be quietly retiring from any significant aspiration to influence the course of international affairs.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Queen speaks

I am not a fan of the political ventriloquism of how the Queen’s speech works.

It is a good thing to have some pomp, ceremony and history associated with the opening of Parliament. But a better approach would be for the Queen to be able to speak as Head of State about the value of Parliament and the democratic process, with her government’s substantive programme of legislation then set out by the Prime Minister and government ministers whose words these are.

The opening line today “my government’s overriding priority is to ensure sustained growth to deliver a fair and prosperous economy for families and businesses” – captures how the speech is inevitably caught awkwardly between jarring effects if it gets any closer to the language of a political manifesto ("my government will govern for the many not, the few") and being unable to say anything at all about why the measures are being introduced, so that the Queen must simply read out a staccato shopping list of legislation.

Still, it is very good to hear the Queen set out that her government will push on to “enshrine in law its commitment to abolish child poverty by 2020”.

That is a reminder too that the legislative ambitions set out in the Queen’s speech need to be combined with choices on priorities for spending and taxation in the pre-budget report and budget to show how to values of fairness can best combine continued commitments to tackle poverty and reduce inequality with the commitment to halve the current budget deficit across the next Parliament.

The personal care Bill is probably the most important long-term policy measure in today's speech.

“My government will work towards creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons” refers to the Washington disarmament talks next Spring. I suspect that may be bolder language than the Queen has been asked to use previously on aspirations to multilateral nuclear disarmament, and may perhaps offer a further hint there of the willingness to put Trident renewal on the negotiating table

On constitutional reform, even if there were barriers to an electoral reform referendum, it is a missed opportunity not to legislate for a later referendum to put the issue to the electorate, perhaps in 2011.

Brown's challenge over the Tories stubborn refusal to ditch their inheritance tax cuts was effective:

This must be the only tax change in history when the people proposing it – the opposition leader and the shadow chancellor – will know by name almost all of the potential beneficiaries.

John Rentoul quotes an unnamed shadow cabinet minister as saying of Oliver Letwin and David Cameron's John Rawls like commitment that the "The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich" that it may be the test, "but that doesn't mean we have to pass it".

One strange thing about David Cameron's response was, while challenging the government over the symbolism and politics of some of the proposed Bills, he also argued for more of them.

Cameron said that what was most striking about the Queen's speech was the legislation that was missing.

"Where is the immigration bill?" he asked and where was legislation to fulfill government commitments on directly elected police representatives.

He added: "The NHS – not a mention. Not government's priority?

Perhaps demonstrating why no modern government is ever likely to kick the habit of showing what it cares about by legislating about it.