Saturday, 29 August 2009

Parliament's golden age that never was

Daniel Hannan is right to argue that debate is the stuff of politics - and that political parties should not be afraid of debate on public issues on which there is sincere internal disagreement.

But there is a problem with his Telegraph article making that eminently reasonably case. His history is bunk. It may, as ever, be very confidently expressed, but it is demonstrably plain wrong. So it is a curious surprise that Hannan, given that he wishes to express such a deep pride in our Parliamentary history, should turn out to know quite so little about it.

Hannan offers a very common argument about the historic loss of Parliamentary independence. Go into any pub in the land and, if you could persuade somebody to talk about politics, you might well expect to hear something like this.

For most of our history, it was understood that MPs sat in their own right and were answerable chiefly to their local electorate. This meant that, in order to get their programme through, ministers had to humour and cajole the House of Commons, which in turn meant that the legislature was an effective check on the executive. True, all members of the Cabinet were bound by collective responsibility. But the notion that such responsibility should extend to their backbenchers would have seemed outrageous: the whole purpose of Parliament was to hold the administration to account


Then, around about 40 years ago, journalists began to develop the idea that if Person X disagreed, on the record, with Person Y, it was a "gaffe" (a word that exists only in newspapers, never in ordinary conversations). As parties solidified, and politics became professionalised, MPs were increasingly treated by the media as representatives of their parties rather than their constituencies

.... Worst of all, insistence on conformity prevents Parliament from doing its most important job, namely to constrain the Government. When MPs contract out their opinions to their Whips, they cease to represent their constituents.

But that doesn't make it right. Factually, it is exactly the opposite of the truth.

So could Hannan please supply some evidence for this eloquent lament for the loss of the willingness to stand up to party and whip, which Parliamentarians felt so strongly 50 years ago, and have now surrendered?

The academic and Tory peer Philip Norton showed how and why that this very common argument was wrong between 1975 and 1980 - demonstrating that party in Parliament had been much more cohesive and backbenchers more compliant in the supposed lost golden age of independence. To quote a usefully succinct summary from a Canadian academic Christopher J.Kam, who has also written extensively on party discipline in parliamentary history, Norton's ground-breaking work

showed that the frequency with which British MPs voted against their own parties increased dramatically from 1970 onward. Whereas in the 1950s under one division in fifty saw a British MP vote against his or her party, in the 1970s almost one out of every five divisions witnessed this sort of dissent. Government defeats increased in lockstep, British governments suffering sixty-five defeats between 1970 and 1979 compared to just five over the previous twenty-five years (Schwarz 1980, p. 36; Norton 1985, p. 27; Cowley and Norton 1996).

The academic debate has been about why backbench dissent surged over these last forty years, peaking in the last decade.

However, the argument about the increasingly supine nature of MPs has become ever more popular as a piece of conventional wisdom, while the brilliant and enormously informed academic chronicler of backbench dissent Philip Cowley has provided chapter and verse on how the facts have continued to move in precisely the other direction. (It is, in passing, stupefying that ESRC funding for the Cowley, Norton and Stuart Revolts project - a paradigm example of political science breaking new ground and informing public debate - has been lost).

If you want an informed and intelligent discussion of this 'golden age of Parliament' meme, then this British Academy transcript of a 2007 event involving several of the academic A-list is a good place to start.

As Philip Cowley points out, everybody who argues the same thesis as Dan Hannan (and almost everybody does - he cites the Power Inquiry, Roy Hattersley and Simon Heffer, but you could stick a pin into any newspaper op-ed page and encounter the same mythology most days of the week.

As you can see, if you look back to the 1950s, the year of the independent backbencher, the great amateur politician, almost absolute cohesion on the backbenchers. There are two years in the 1950s, two whole years, when not a single backbench government MP defies the Whip. They have absolute 100 per cent cohesion in every single vote. Then there is a sea-change somewhere around the 1960s or early 1970s, there is a bit of debate about when and why, and for the rest of the post-war era, you see a much higher level of backbench independence, and the 2001-2005 Parliament saw the highest level of backbench rebellion in the post-war era. This idea that there has been a decline is not just wrong, it is the opposite of the truth.

Cowley would like to squash the myth. He has been trying for years. He goes a little bit over the top in doing so.

This is a central idea, this idea that there used to be very brave backbenchers, and now, to use Hattersley’s phrase, we have these supine backbenchers ...

There is, as some of you know, a very snobbish academic put down which is to say dismissively that you would not give somebody a 2.2 if it was handed in as an essay. If this was handed in to me, I would not give it a 2.2, I would fail it, and then I would expel them from the University and bar them from any other academic institution in Britain, and then I would hunt down and kill all of their family, and even then I would think they had got off pretty lightly! This is just cobblers from start to finish. None of it is backed up by evidence, however much it might be part of conventional wisdom.

Well, up to a point, Phillip.

Certainly, let's have more scrutiny, more open debate and bravely independent voices too. But, for anybody interested in evidence and not myths, Hannan's argument from history of the lost golden age is a clear fail.

PS: You may have to do your own Hannan-watching next week. I'm off to Cornwall for a week off, and so may try to stay away from the blog.

Thursday, 27 August 2009

Hannan: poor weather forecasts call climate science into question

Alex Smith of Labour List is rightly horrified at calls for Daniel Hannan to be silenced, putting out the call for us to hear rather more about the influential creed that is Hannanism and not less.

I get the impression that Conservative Central office may have a different view - and that Mr Hannan may have agreed to take a rather lower profile, before the current Enoch row blew up.

This is a shame, as 'Daniel Hannan explains modern Conservatism' could become a request show. It is the sort of political education project. I think it could fully merit state funding, even in these austere times. If not, then I am sure Next Left and LabourList would be happy to team up with the Daily Telegraph and ConservativeHome to ensure it reaches the widest possible audience.

Personally, I would be particularly interested to know whether Hannanism accepts that the scientific evidence about man-made climate change is convincing.

After all, given Hannan's influence in the Conservative Party, he could be a powerful cross-party advocate among the 'vote blue, go green' troops for the global climate change deal that Ed Miliband is working so hard with governments across the world to achieve.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that Hannan may be gently sceptical about climate change too - with a pretty convincing knockdown argument that you would normally have to get out of your house and down the Dog and Duck to hear about, taking the opportunity to send a small coded signal to his fan-base on his blog early this month:

If [the Met Office] can’t accurately forecast the weather two months in advance, why should we let them speak with such sacerdotal authority about what the temperature will be a century from now?

Damn! And just when we were doing so well with that cross-party consensus too.

But I wouldn't be surprised if we don't hear much more of Hannan's views of the causes and consequences of the climate crisis before December.

So please don't silence him, Dave, whatever you do.

But if you do want to show us your decisive leadership on this one, perhaps you could make him put a windmill on his roof as penance.

What Hannan gets wrong about Enoch

"For a long time Powell's critics have been saying how extraordinary it is that a man who could have risen to somewhere near the top as a proconsul, staff officer, civil servant or academic should have chosen politics, the one career which seemed certain to defeat him. For the outstanding thing about Powell has been that he is not a politician, which means, quite honourably, a compromiser".

So wrote The Observer as early as 1961 in a profile which Simon Heffer, praises, in his own magisterial biography of Powell, "as perhaps the most insightful piece of journalism ever written about Powell".

So perhaps it is not difficult to see why Enoch Powell should be a political hero of Mr Daniel Hannan, who recently returned from holiday robustly unapologetic about his guerilla campaign to chip away at any sense that Cameroonian brand decontamination has changed in any way what right-thinking Tories believe.

It is probably more than Powell's fervent Euroscepticism. Perhaps it is also that he was almost certainly the most uncompromisingly ideologically driven frontbench politician of the twentieth century.

What Hannan said in an interview with the Reason Foundation in California was this:

Q: "Who are your political influences? I've seen you reference Ron Paul, I believe you have referenced Hayek and Friedman on your blog.

Hannan: "Yeah, all of those guys...In the British context, Enoch Powell. He was somebody who understood the importance of national democracy, who understood why you need to live in an independent country and what that meant, as well as being a free marketeer and a small government Conservative."

Paul Waugh reports that CCHQ is relaxed, because Hannan was not praising Powell's views on immigration or race. Cameron previously defenestrated the Tory ppc and former Birmingham Post Nigel Hastilow for innocuously suggesting that "Enoch was right" about immigration, and refusing to withdraw the remarks or apologise.

While CCHQ are simply seeking to duck or contain the controversy, Powell's views on the nature of national independence can not very easily be separated from his controversial views on immigration or "race". (Powell was adamant that he did not believe in race or racial categories - but his belief in nation involved a cultural essentialism and a 'kith and kin' understanding of who could ever belong to 'a people').

For Powell, these questions were inextricably linked, and formed the core of his political beliefs. And the priority he gave to the existential question of national identity trumped his instincts as a 'small government' Conservative.

Now I very much doubt that anything of the "dog whistle" is intended in Hannan's argument, though I do rather expect that he may take some mischevious pleasure in tweaking the Cameroonian tail by praising Enoch while not crossing the line.

I take Hannan to be sincere in his Hayekian liberalism, which makes him a liberal on race and on immigration too.

However, I very much doubt that those views can sensibly be combined with any substantive praise for Powell's views on the nature or meaning of national independence.

This seems to me indisputable if one reads not just the famous Rivers of Blood speech, but in Powell's next speech on this topic given in Eastbourne seven months later (full text) which is rather less well known.

I wrote about this speech in detail on Open Democracy last year to show why Nigel Farage - who also has libertarian instincts - must be mistaken in his understanding of what Powell was advocating to make the claim that "Had we listened to Enoch, we would have much better race relations now than we have got", which reflects a commonplace mythology about Enoch's impact on the immigration debate.

I don't wish to deny Hannan his right to pick his own political heroes or talk about them in public - but he might do well to acknowledge that Powell's understanding of nationhood must be of very little use to any modern, libertarian or non-reactionary Euroscepticism today.

Certainly, no libertarian Eurosceptic could find much use for Powell's views of the essence of nationhood and national independence.

"Sometimes people point to the increasing proportion of immigrant offspring born in this country as if the fact contained within itself the ultimate solution. The truth is the opposite. The West Indian or Asian does not, by being born in England, become an Englishman. In law he becomes a United Kingdom citizen by birth; in fact he is a West Indian or an Asian still.

Could any "small government Conservative" ever advocate this?

People seriously underestimate the scope of the policy and thus neglect and despise the chief key to the situation .... A programme of large-scale voluntary but organized, financed and subsidized repatriation and re-emigration becomes indeed an administrative and political task of great magnitude, but something neither absurdly impracticable nor, still less, inhuman, but on the contrary as profoundly humane as it is far-sighted ... The resettlement of a substantial proportion of the Commonwealth immigrants in Britain is not beyond the resources and abilities of this country, if it is undertaken as a national duty …. organized now on the scale which the urgency of the situation demands, preferably under a special Ministry for Repatriation or other authority charged with concentrating on this task".

And Powell gave perhaps his most chilling expression of what constituted a people and a national polity, when admitting that his project was already a reactionary one in 1968.

"We can perhaps not reduce the eventual total of the immigrant and immigrant-descended population, much, if at all, below its present size: with that, and with all that implies, we and our children and our children’s children will have to cope until the slow mercy of the years absorbs even that unparalleled invasion of our body politic".

It is quite clear that this cultural essentialism is foundational to Powell's understanding of both citizenship and national independence. Having been a romantic Imperialist, turned after the loss of India to a distinctively English (and not British) account of a nation which had "come home again from many years of distant wandering".

Nor could Hannan - with his extravagant love of the United States - share Powell's pessimism about the inevitable tragedy of any liberal multi-ethnic societies,

Time is running against us and them. With the lapse of a generation or so we shall at last have succeeded – to the benefit of nobody – in reproducing ‘in England’s green and pleasant land’ the haunting tragedy of the United States"

This reflected Powell's lifelong antagonism towards the US, a once popular British right-wing tradition which has now almost entirely vanished. Indeed, Powell once answered the question of whether he was anti-American by saying "most people are. The only difference is that it has become a term of abuse".

Still, despite these differences, there may be other reasons why Hannan might take Enoch Powell as a model.

After all, Powell must be one of very few practicing politicians who could praise Margaret Thatcher for her skills in the art of political compromise, telling the Sunday Times in 1989 "her remarkable characteristic, which stamps her as a superb politician, is her ability to put up with things and go along with them, even though she doesn't agree with them, until the time comes when they can be dealt with. Now, not possessing that quality myself ... I admire this". (Also quoted in Heffer).

So, unless we were to find Hannan becoming similarly (but uncharacteristically) as moderate as Maggie, it will surely make sense to distinguish this 'wet' Thatcherism, which still dominate the modern Conservative party, from the true believers in the principled creed which is becoming known as Hannanism.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Chuka Umunna: The primary motivation

This is a guest post from Chuka Umunna, responding to the recent debate for and against the use of primaries to select candidates, here on Next Left, LabourList and on a range of other political websites in response to the Progress prime time campaign for primaries.


A debate about primaries is raging on the blogosphere in and around the Labour Party. Good. We all know the way we do things needs to change and we are desperately trying to work out how, hence our utter obsession with the Obama for America campaign.

Some will say now is not the time to engage in internal naval gazing but I don’t think it should be characterised as such. There will never be an appropriate moment to discuss primaries, so why not now? Its August and we have time to reflect; come late September the relentless march towards the General Election will be in full throttle and the focus will rightly be on constructing a proper offer for a Fourth Term (Summer Hannan bashing does not a winning manifesto make).


On the primaries issue, I find myself sitting on the other side of the fence to many with whom I agree on most things; I may not sit comfortably where I am but it would be dishonest to plant myself anywhere else. I have been in favour of primaries for some time. I agree with the majority of the points put very eloquently by Sunder Katwala in his Next Left post but my principal motivations for supporting primaries are to help break the grip of the “hackocracy” over selections and a desire to select people who, if elected, will question more and not be so willing to accept the old ways of doing things.

I don’t think this is a left/right issue - I arrived at my position having gone through a gruelling, 10 week long parliamentary selection process last year and it is that experience, above all else, which has shaped my view, in addition to this year’s expenses debacle.

Let’s be clear: this issue has provoked so much emotional discussion because the power of selection - be it of your local council candidate, PPC or the party leader - is the last remaining tool that gives party members any real clout. There is also an undeniable attraction in primaries for those who see party members as akin to embarrassing, eccentric relatives and want to ignore and usurp them: this rightly invites deep suspicion. It is why, after all, David Cameron, likes them - his touting of primaries as illustrative of his desire to take politics to the masses is totally disingenuous; he cannot trust his members to pick candidates who resemble modern Britain, so he turned to this mechanism instead when is “A” list ran into trouble.

Therefore my support for primaries comes with a condition: if we are to move towards them, their introduction should be in tandem with other reforms designed to re-enfranchise and rejuvenate our membership. In 2006 Jon Cruddas MP and John Harris wrote a pamphlet, “Fit for Purpose”, which made many sensible suggestions in that regard which I want to see implemented.


We were very lucky in Streatham when we held our parliamentary selection between January and mid-March last year. It was always going to be intense and, at times, fraught. However, as a local party, we were left to get on with it, with no outside interference. We were also blessed with an incredibly diligent local team of officers who ran a tight, efficient ship.

So what I say here is in no way a reflection of how my parliamentary selection was run. What I take issue with is the architecture of the process, as provided for in our national party rules.

Before parliamentary selections kick off, there is internal wrangling over whether there should be an open or all women shortlist. I’d like to think that purely objective decisions are made as to where to impose an AWS in every case and that considerations of who might stand (and their patrons) do not impinge on such decisions, but many think otherwise. Then there is the shortlisting process, which is ridiculously complex, before the actual hustings itself. By that stage, it was a relief just to make it to the hustings venue, despite the need to give the speech of your life once you got there!

I would not have succeeded without the advice of many insiders who had been through the process before, with and without success, and advised me how to navigate it. My occupation is not in Westminster (nor in public affairs more generally – I’m a solicitor) but more than half a decade of activity at a local and national level gave me access to these insiders who provided me with invaluable insight. I drew on their experiences and learnt how to run a selection campaign – I would otherwise have had little chance of becoming the PPC in the constituency I grew up in and love.

Regardless of the occasional meddling of the party machine which, lets face it, happens (did I hear any one say “parachuting”?), the actual framework of the process massively advantages those with access to insiders and connections - what I call the “hackocracy” (the inhabitants of the Westminster Village). Is it any wonder there is dearth of people from other walks of life being selected in winnable or Labour held seats at present, when the framework of the process so obviously advantages this class of people.

Hazel Blears, some time before the broach incident and her resignation (the less said about that, the better), made a good speech to the Hansard Society in which she said the following:

“Politicians must not live on ‘Planet Politics’ and behave in ways which are alien and strange to the electorate.

“This happens partly because there is a trend towards politics being seen as a career move rather than call to public service. Increasingly we have seen a ‘transmission belt’ from university activist, MPs’ researcher, think-tank staffer, Special Adviser, to Member of Parliament, and ultimately to the front bench.

“Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of those jobs, but it is deeply unhealthy for our political class to be drawn from narrowing social base and range of experience. We need people from a range of backgrounds – business, the armed forces, scientists, teachers, the NHS, shopworkers – to make good laws.

“And we need more MPs in Parliament from a wider pool of backgrounds: people who know what it is to worry about the rent collector’s knock, or the fear of lay-off, so that the decisions we take reflect the realities people face.”

I felt a tinge of irony re-reading Hazel’s speech this weekend but she was absolutely right. I think primaries could go some way to addressing this, breaking the grip of the hackocracy over selection and opening up the process to those outside of “Planet Politics”. In a primary, you will have to do more than impress the party faithful; you would also need to galvanise support amongst the party’s local voters – Westminster connections will be of little assistance in so far as that is concerned (bye bye parachuting). And any attempt at rigging the process for a favoured person in a primary is far more likely to cripple that favoured person because - if selected - they will lack legitimacy before even reaching the ballot box, which would be capitalised on by opposition parties.

Because the architecture of selection promotes the candidacies of Westminster Village people, many people enter parliament who are already part of the system and therefore less likely to challenge what they find on arrival. “I was acting within the rules” was the favoured refrain of those found wanting in relation to allowances and expenses but why, when they knew the rules were wrong, did they not do more to challenge the rules on arrival? I am convinced that if more outsiders entered the Commons, there would have been a far greater clamour for change and, thus, reform before the Telegraph printed a word this Spring.


What of the various objections which have been raised? Those who claim the system will become corrupted by money forget that it is already deeply affected by it. Selection candidates already spend thousands of pounds on the process - increasingly those without means are excluded and this needs urgent attention. The solution is quite simple – set a low expenditure cap of, say, £400 and enforce it in law in the same way as the expenditure limits imposed on candidates for public office in elections, with similarly tough sanctions.

There should still be a role for party members in weeding out those wishing to stand who do not share the party’s essential principles and values in the primary process. Accordingly, a long listing process should be conducted by the local party concerned beforehand to ensure every candidate is “Labour” and one which they could work and campaign for.

I also doubt the public, if given the chance, will select a bunch of celebrities. There is the famous saying that “politics is show business for ugly people” but I think the public approach politicians differently to celebrities. They demand far more of you once you step into the political arena given your influence extends beyond,say, what people listen to and wear to the pound in your pocket and your civil liberties. Look across the pond – Congress is not stuffed full of Hollywood startlets.


So lets take a serious look at primaries, as a way of reviving politics. I would be more than happy to go through one myself, if the party changes the rules in the future to provide for them: what is there to fear? There is another way of reforming politics about which I am extremely vexed - our voting system (AV plus please!) - but that topic is for another post.

* Guest post from Chuka Umunna, who is parliamentary candidate for Streatham Labour Party.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Boris must know Grayling's Wire argument is piffle

Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling offers an eye-catching but silly comparison for the August newspapers.

The Wire used to be just a work of fiction for British viewers. But under this Government, in many parts of British cities, The Wire has become a part of real life in this country too.

As Michael White points out, the comparison is hyperbolic and absurd, when it comes to the facts.

And Paul Waugh suggests that Grayling has neither watched the series, nor understood its central political message about why the type of posturing which he is engaged in fails, quoting David Simon's hope that politicians who use and abuse the series in which way will be told they are "full of shit".

But since Grayling's agenda is to get the Tory 'broken society' argument back up, somebody might tell Simon that the correct British expression for Grayling's speech is the rather politer piffle, as Boris Johnson previously said of his party's broken society argument.

So it is certainly to be hoped that the Mayor of London will be pointing out why Grayling's inaccurate stigmatising of "many parts of Britain's cities' is dangerous too.

Grayling's pose is progressive - "when the Wire comes to Britain, it is the poor who suffer" - but the analysis is not.

Grayling has little to say about the causes of social breakdown.

Why are these problems greater in the United States of America? Why, in his view, are we witnesssing "cultural changes going back a generation or more"? David Willetts tells us the Conservatives are now convinced by Richard Wilkinson's evidence about the importance of inequality in explaining the scale of social problems. There is no sense that Grayling has read it: there is not even a nod in the direction.

Instead Grayling does offer us a root cause: the benefits culture: "I remain convinced that this is the biggest problem at the core of our broken society, and that it has engendered a culture of irresponsibility in many parts of the country".

Why was an increased in these social problems triggered not by the introduction of universal welfare provision in the 1940s but following the enormous rise in social inequality in the 1980s? Perhaps Grayling believes that benefit recipients engineered a "culture of irresponsibility" among MPs and bankers too?

Finally, there is a very important strategic idea behind the way the modern Tories express this concern for social breakdown and the poor.

Everything Grayling says - under the cover of social concern - is intended to "other" and segregate "the poor" from the rest of society.

This is perhaps the most important strategic goal of the narrative of the "broken society' - developing the earlier right-wing argument about a crisis of "underclass".

This allows concern for 'social breakdown' to be expressed in a paternalistic way - while consciously undermining the sense of a universal approach. This deliberately separates issues of social breakdown from questions of the broader distribution of opportunity and power in British society - and is strategically designed to break-up social and political coalitions between the bottom and the middle.

When The Wire is invoked, it inevitably evokes a racial othering too. (Unwittingly on Grayling's part? Well, perhaps. But I would be surprised if the highly image-conscious Tory media team are flabbergasted at what picture desks might do with the story).

In many parts of Britain's cities, people are living lives that might be straight out of The Wire.

Not Grayling's. Not Middle England's. Not mine. And not yours - whoever you are, given the hyperbolic exaggeration involved.

But "theirs".

This is a myth and a lie.

But Grayling won't mind demonstrating his ignorance of The Wire - and he probably wanted a row about the state of our cities.
For the myth is being propagated for a political purpose - and it is not a progressive one.

This must be what matters to Grayling. Talking piffle is a small price to pay.

Talking piffle is probably a small price to pay.

A Rawlsian defence of top pay?

Don Paskini notes strong public support for a top pay commission, suggesting that the support of 63% of Conservative voters, 66% of Labour voters and 70% of LibDems challenges Tom Harris' claim that the proposal had "securing our core vote written all over it", and would make it difficult for Labour "to continue to win the support, not just of our core vote, but of those Thatcher and Major supporters who switched to us in 1997 and who stuck with us for another one-and-a-half elections".

Harris is not backing down, responding in the comments at Liberal Conspiracy that he does not think it would survive scrutiny but that his objection is to the principle rather than the politics of scrutiny of pay at the top.

Even if it turned out this policy was well thought through, enduringly popular, saved the Labour Party from defeat at the general election and was actually set up by the Labour government after the next election… I would still believe that it’s the wrong thing to do.

Harris' argument has been primarily about political strategy - about the 'framing' and 'signals' sent - and he continues to believe the policy would be politically mistaken, despite the polls.

His principled opposition seems slightly harder to pin down - though I think David Coats is right to note that the unlikely idea of a maximum wage has polarised debate about scrutiny of high pay. Few supporters of a top pay commission would think that sensible or workable, and flying the flag for it has skewed this debate.

Indeed, as Harris has acknowledged that anger at excessive bonuses is fully justified, his position appears to entail sacrificing some legitimate scrutiny of rewards which do not reflect economic success or which cause economic instability because of a 'slippery slope' fear about where this may lead in the 'court of public opinion':

This proposal has “securing our core vote” written all over it. Except it wouldn’t, because once you’ve addressed the understandable anger at certain individuals’ exorbitant salaries, pensions and bonuses, you’re left with the principle that a Labour government is setting a ceiling on individuals’ wealth. And that’s not what governments should be doing, because once you’ve established that principle, once you’ve raised a few cheers by ostentatiously depriving some bankers of their bonuses, where do you go next?

The answer to this must surely be to establish a principle about 'unfair rewards' or 'unearned rewards', rather than one of 'setting a ceiling'. (The means would surely be regulation and taxation, rather than pay ceilings).

Or does Harris believe that Labour's challenge to the "unearned rewards" of "fat cats" like Cedric Browne of British Gas was incompatible with the message of aspiration before 1997?

There is evidence from the detailed Fabian study on public attitudes to inequality for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation that a broad coalition for addressing inequality at the top can be constructed more easily than one for tackling poverty and inequality at the bottom, somewhat against the conventional wisdom of the last 15 years.

That doesn't settle the argument about what it is right to do - though it does suggest that the issue of fairness - 'how did you get it?' as much as 'how much?' is powerful in the public and political debate.

Meanwhile, Luke Akehurst, ventures into egalitarian political philosophy to dismiss the Compass campaign, but appears to advance a Rawlsian argument for something close to the current pattern of inequalities of income or wealth.

Have Compass never read John Rawls' "Theory of Justice" which makes the logically impeccable case that social and economic inequalities should be arranged so that "they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society" i.e. an unequal distribution of wealth or other resources can be just when it maximizes the benefit to those who have the lowest allocation of resources - the Maximin theory?

Rawls' argument is one of the most debated in recent political philosophy. If Akehurst believes Rawls' argument is "logically impeccable, he will by the same token believe that all inequalities which are not beneficial to the worst-off can not be justified.

There is very strong evidence that the historically unprecedented explosion in bank renumeration over the last 30 years did not create wealth but simply redistributed it upwards, while creating dangerous systemic risks for the whole economy. That is succintly summarised by Robert Peston.

Luke Akehurst must surely agree that this fails his Rawlsian test. There is a legitimate debate about what reforms would be effective in addressing this very important if sector-specific problem; and also about the most effective strategies for addressing inequality more broadly.

While there was once a fashion for attempting to use Rawls to justify Reaganomics - what became pejoratively called "trickle-down" theory, the thrust of the Rawlsian argument is surely with Richard Wilkinson's evidence that the social consequences of greater equality would benefits across society, not just for the worst-off.

This has convinced some on the right, though this increasingly appears to be something of an embattled minority position. David Willetts writing recently of how the social science evidence on the importance of relative position challenges the Thatcherite view that inequality does not matter, and was simply "the politics of envy".

She was not interested in how people were doing compared with others — she thought this was the politics of envy. I remember doing some calculations for her which showed that the value of unemployment benefit in the 1980s was not much below average male earnings after the war. So what were people complaining about? Now the work of people like Michael Marmot and Richard Wilkinson has persuaded me that inequality matters too. There are of course limits to what governments can do, especially about the petty differences between us and people we know, which are often the inequalities people worry about. Nevertheless in dismissing all this as just the politics of envy we showed we did not understand something which does affect wellbeing.

Whatever the debate about how best to address it, Labour should be able to unite around a commitment to a fairer and more equal society (as Akehurst argues, recently criticising John Denham on this basis).

But there is surely no Rawlsian defence of current levels of inequality at the top in the UK.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

How to win the argument for fair rewards

The proposal for a High Pay Commission is fine as far as it goes, but the brief is a bit woolly and the idea that policy prescriptions can be recommended now (before the Commission has done any work) looks a bit odd, writes David Coats of the Work Foundation, responding to the campaign launched by the pressure group Compass this week.

The salary cap is where the media will focus their attention and the risk is that the debate becomes polarised and the real issues get obscured. This suits both the orthodox right and the ultra-left. It is so much easier to push the discussion to extremes:"if you're against high pay you are anti-business" versus "nothing will change until we have transformed capitalism".

Following the Low Pay Commmission model doesn't seem quite right - the Low Pay Commission is a permanent body with a clear and simple task: recommending increases in the level of the National Minimum Wage. What is needed here is a process that gathers evidence and tests arguments over (say) two years before making any recommendations.

Of course, there has to be some foundation of principle on which to build. The simplest starting point would be to say that pay across the whole earnings distribution must guarantee the rate for the job and offer felt fair differentials. In other words, articulating a principle of fairness is essential for the political legitimacy of the exercise. Public confidence in the process will be low if any other approach is adopted.

This suggests in turn that the inquiry should look at the whole of the earnings distribution - not just the top - and diagnose why the middle and the bottom are falling behind.

More specifically the inquiry should address the following questions:

* Is there a relationship between talent and reward? What explains the escalating pay of those at the top? Which factors are important?

* How does the labour market for the highest paid actually work? Is it true that these rewards are driven by nothing more than the desire to recruit and retain the best? Or is there collusion and mutual backscratching generating the upward spiral of top pay?

* Is it true that most of the high value financial services sector would decamp to Dubai or New York if an effort was made to curb excesses at the top? If people did leave then how would this affect the UK economy? Would it matter at all?

* Are we talking about an exclusively Anglo-Saxon phenomenon here or have all developed countries seen an explosion of excessive rewards at the top? How have countries achieved more equitable outcomes? Where is the balance struck in those countries between regulation, taxation and social norms?

* Would it be practical to use salary caps (or average to top ratios) to restrain the exceses of the highest paid? What other instruments would work in the UK? Are corporate governance reforms needed - more transparency in the reporting of pay for eg?

The goal must be to get the rich to change their behaviour and establish a robust consensus about fair rewards. Of course people are legitimately angry about the excesses in the City, but the return to business as usual suggests that anger and headline catching initiatives (like the proposals for the Top Pay Commission) are unlikely to bring about the change that we need.

The New Right in the 80s and 90s removed the stigma associated with excessive wealth. Conspicuous consumption, which disappeared for most of the period between 1945 and 1980, has become a source of approbation over the last twenty years. If we want to establish equally effective social norms in the future then we must be clear that this is the nature of the enterprise.

The arguments of City (and business) apologists must be tackled head on through an accumulation of evidence rather than a polemic driven by the politics of envy.

The advocacy of simple solutions may make us all feel bettter. But achieving a fairer distribution of earnings is a complex process (what can we do about the reliance on low pay despite the successes of the National Minimum Wage?

How can we achieve fair shares for those in 'middling' jobs?

What can be done to restrain excess at the top?

Rising to that challenge demands a comprehensive strategy with a clear economic policy narrative ("if we do this we will do capitalism better").

Progressive political leadership is all about distilling straightforward stories from compelling evidence, enabling people to make sense of the world in which they live. So far, the centre-left in the UK has failed to offer a critique that avoids the seductions of either socialist transformation on the one hand or the desire for a return to post-war social democracy on the other.

Responding to that challenge is essential if we are to meet the admirable objectives endorsed by the supporters of the Compass statement.

The annual 'dumbing down' debate isn't helping anyone

Another August, another set of GCSE and A-level results released. Now just wait for the onslaught of commentators arguing exam results are not worth the paper they are printed because children are achieving higher grades than ever before. Hang on. Doesn’t this mean the state education system is working?

Apparently not.

Despite grades rising across the board year on year, the recent report from Alan Milburn shows there are still massive barriers against children from state schools accessing top professions in the country. For all the media flurry, it hasn’t really told us anything we didn’t know already - that privately educated children earn more money, get better jobs and generally have a higher standard of living compared to their state school counterparts – but it did highlight some uncomfortable figures for those that believe we are in the age of Equality of Opportunity.

With 75% of judges, 70% of finance directors and 45% of top civil servants having attended private school, even though they account for just 7% of all pupils, there is something institutionally skewed here in favour of those who can afford to pay for education.

Lord Mandelson, having now swallowed up higher education into his business empire, has proposed that in order to iron it out, universities should follow in the path of Leeds University who are offering lower grade acceptances to those from certain deprived regions. This, it is hoped, will increase the number of state school children applying to leading universities and go some way to reducing institutional inequalities in employment.

But this is just a quick fix. It plays right into the ‘dumbing down’ argument. And therefore, won’t work.

If you read interviews about why children don’t apply to universities, a common response is that they feel they won’t fit in. By giving candidates a green pass to jump to the front of the admissions queue will do nothing for self belief in your own intelligence if you didn’t make the grade everyone else did. And it certainly won’t help when sitting around a seminar table of debating team pros from private school and expected to contribute with similar confidence

Short of getting rid of all private schooling - after 12 years of Labour professing ‘choice’ in everything, and now with Tory Councils talking of propping up parents to pay for their fees, this is never going to happen. We should however, be promoting integration between private and state sectors wherever possible. Oh, and what the hell, academies, faith, foundation and special needs - lets mix it all up. This would mean private schools opening up facilities to the community and other schools in the area, something the Charity Commission is trying to make a requirement as we speak (and the ISC are fighting against). But this also means sharing ideas about best practice between teachers, tackling snobbery at both ends, and taking kids away together to view leading universities before any decisions about A –Levels have been made. And it means competing in joint sports days, providing access to music events and instruments, taking part in debating contests, or putting on fete’s and jumble sales together in a way that visibly and actively integrates children and their parents from all socio-economic backgrounds and across a variety of educational sectors.

Leaving it until its time to apply for university is leaving it much too late to intervene. Increasing access to professions for people across all social backgrounds is more than just passing exams and getting into the right university. Any education policy designed for this effect must be tailored towards learning the soft skills children need to succeed in life and the social skills to deliver them. But more than that. Schools should expose children to the reality of diversity within society, in a safe and supported environment, so they can make informed decisions about who and what they want to be when they leave.

Guest post by Genna Stawski

Wednesday, 19 August 2009

John Harris: why primaries would help the right

This is a guest post from John Harris replying to Sunder Katwala's post in response to John's Guardian column.

The Guardian also publishes a response to John's column from David Lammy.


I'll start with one point that demands to be made. I don't want to 'close down' any discussion about anything - I think the argument about primaries, on the left at least, is interesting, partly in that it necessarily takes in discussion about the nature and future of political parties, the concentrations of power in the political system more generally, the prospects for meaningful left politics and so on. Just because I'm opposed, doesn't mean I'm not up for the discussion.

A lot of people won't like this, but anyway: Sunder et al's big problem, it strikes me, lies in an implicit denial of where we are politically, how much power has already passed rightwards, and how the Tories' pushing of primaries is a pretty naked bid to squash the argument for PR. They didn't expend all that energy and money on Totnes for nothing.

As I said in the Guardian piece, there have been two broad responses to the expenses crisis- delusional anti-politics (witness Martin Bell's latest wheeze), and convincing calls for constitutional reform, and a change to the voting system in particular.

Self-evidently, the latter spells trouble for the Tories, so they're leading the charge on primaries, but implementing an increasingly centralised, strangulated style of party management (again, see my piece) that surely reduces the whole thing to window dressing.

I cannot stress this next point enough: inwardly, I'm hardly optimistic, but this is surely the best moment for a move forward on PR in years. You might be in favour of electoral reform - but even if you're horrified at the idea of hitching yourself to any Tory wagons, backing primaries in the current context will assist the right in their attempt to kick that issue to the margins. That's not necessarily fair, and it's not the stuff of high debate, but it's the truth. The somewhat arcane details of who supports
what in high Labour circles simply isn't that relevant to where all this is going.

Now, a few other points. Yes, Labour politics could do with a lot more participation and participants. But what has played a key role in emptying the party and wider movement out? Answer: the fact that, aside from a say in choosing candidates, it's very hard to say what influence or voice being a member of the party brings any more (before anyone starts, I don't have a
rose-tinted view of any supposedly lost idyll of internal Labour democracy, but even theoretical influence is better than none at all). Moreover, one of the effects of this absence of voice has been the leadership regularly defining itself against the party, adopting policies that few Labour people would want to go out and argue for, etc. Sunder's 'church' analogy is telling: there's a real danger in the primaries argument of going the last mile to reinventing Labour as a vague mass of supporters/participants, with a tightly-drilled, centralised leadership who are accountable to no-one (I confess, I don't know that much about PASOK, but I'm pretty up to speed with power relations within the Catholic Church).

As to money. I like James Graham's point in the previous discussion thread: "the Totnes spending limit of £200 was ridiculous and rendered it to the status of beauty contest. You NEED candidates to be able to campaign in primaries, otherwise they don't achieve anything".

It really is time primary advocates started having a serious debate about this instead of insisting that their solution both a) improves participation and b) magically won't cost any money." Moreover, if you read my Guardian piece again, you'll see that I really went for the money argument having highlighted the possibility/likelihood of primaries spreading up through the political system, from Westminster constituencies, through mayoral contests, to leadership elections. At each stage, the importance of money would surely increase.

An illustrative fact: Nicky Gavron spent a cool £42,000 communicating with thousands of Labour members when she successfully went for the Labour mayoral nomination in London. How much would be required when the selectorate ran to millions? What level of spend would be needed by a candidate for the national leadership? I'm unconvinced by claims that the business of meaningful communication could somehow be solved by email, or cash from the Electoral Commission - and I don't trust the political class with supposedly reliable caps on anything (to be mischievous and somewhat tangential, the likely future of tuition fees maybe isn't a bad example).

Following on from this, there's something Sunder doesn't touch on. In The Guardian, I wrote: "courting the more reactionary parts of the press would often be crucial, and debate would always be in danger of being reduced to the currency of name and face recognition: as one British academic recently told me, 'it's big money, or it's Arnold Schwarzenegger' (or rather, Esther
Rantzen)." God knows, both of those - and the first in particular - inevitably bedevil our politics, but primaries would lock them in from the get-go. And again, there's a question of trust here: I'm not sure where the Alan Sugar-for-Labour mayoral candidate project is up to, but primaries would make nonsense like that even more tempting to party high-ups, which is where the importance of money would transcend any formal caps. This point would apply just as much as the constituency level: what guarantees pre-existing celebrity/help on the doorstep/whatever better than wealth?

Oh, and one other thing. Sunder writes: "I do think Harris and Lawson overestimate not just the ruthless cunning but the organisational capacity of the New Labour high command." I hear the latter might be waning, but on the basis of their centralising, emasculating record, I wouldn't take any chances.

In short, back primaries if you want and let's have the debate. But bear in mind that context is all, and on both sides of politics, some people are surely pushing the idea of a new democratic dawn while continuing to plan for what I'd understand as the precise opposite.

Nefarious? Something like that, yes.

Exposed: the primaries conspiracy

John Harris wants to close down the emerging discussion about whether Labour might adopt some form of primaries to select Parliamentary candidates. But his Guardian column did not engage with the arguments of what he calls "the pro-primaries crowd", instead attributing to them two ignoble hidden motives: that they aim to "kill off" political parties and distract attention from electoral reform.

Harris' central argument was about money dominating politics. He correctly acknowledges that donation and spending caps could address this - then writes that these could not prevent "an expensive new age of cold-calling, multiple mail-outs and unprecedented political advertising". Of course, they could. Tory rules in Totness capped spending at £200 per candidate.

(How to finance primaries themselves is a more important practical hurdle. While the most plausible Labour model - where party supporters would register - would cost less than the Tory experiment in balloting the electorate, a large part of the point would be to make candidate selection part of a significant attempt to recruit and retain new supporters, volunteers, members and activists for future campaigning).

But I want to show why neither 'hidden agenda' claim about the push for primaries stands up.

That doesn't prove primaries are a good idea - it does mean we could try a genuine debate about their pros and cons.

A party deathwish?

Harris writes that, because political parties have emptied out, "the political class decides that the only option is to kill them". Primaries are designed to achieve this, it seems.

But who does he think has decided to kill the parties?

Labour advocates of primaries believe - whether they are right or wrong - that they could reinvigorate party politics, and be one of a number of ways in which Labour could help to forge a broader progressive 'movement politics'.

There is good evidence, that lowering barriers to participation in party politics, and changing the culture and organisation of parties in ways which increase the voice and efficacy of members and supporters, are the most important ways to revive party politics. The Fabian pamphlet 'Facing Out' set out detailed analysis of motivations for and barriers to political engagement and, through YouGov polling, identified a cohort of 2.5 million voters, politically active outside party politics, who identify their politics as "Labour" but have never been party members. One in ten thought they might join the party; majorities were attracted by other forms of participation if these didn't mean taking out a party card.

Is the idea of wider participation to revitalise parties a pipe-dream? David Miliband cites how primaries and other reforms have seen the Greek Socialists involve 900,000 people with PASOK, as party members or friends of the party. That is 8% of the Greek population of 11 million, so might equate to four or five million Brits taking part in Labour party activity. Would that kill the party or save it? Perhaps we should find out more about the pros and cons of the Greek experiment - on which there has been little detailed analysis in the UK - before we write the discussion off. (Shouldn't G2 be sending John on a fact-finding mission to the next Pasok conference?)

There are choices - even dilemmas - here for current members. Are these "outsiders" a threat to our status and privileges who, if they were really committed, would surely plunge in? Or potential allies to enlist for our causes? Anybody who thinks that, if non-members can take part, "what's the point of membership" is a slam dunk argument to end the debate may just risk confusing a political party with their gym or golf club. The Labour Party is not a private members' society: its mission is to create social and political change in accordance with Labour values. Shouldn't a political community think of itself more like a church? Might opening the doors also mean recognising that, while the cash generated by direct debits is important, it is not the only way to demonstrate a commitment?

Granted, there are genuine tensions too. One can not jump to empowering non-members if members feel disempowered. Facing Out set out a range of cultural and organisational reforms where offering current members real voice and lowering barriers to participation for non-members would naturally go together, arguing that both a top-down leadership and activists and members ourselves had to promote and accept a cultural shift, including greater acceptance of internal disagreement and a less hierarchical and rigid organisational. Nick Anstead and Will Straw in the Fabian pamphlet The Change We Need said a "cultural glasnost" was needed in the Labour Party. David Lammy has vocally critiqued 'the politics of control' while a minister in government.

Harris worried that the point about how parties have failed to keep up with " online pluralism, non-hierarchical organisation and the rest" has not been made? It is, in fact, the main motivation for these changes.

Harris may be right or wrong that Conservatives who promote primaries want a post-party politics. Perhaps some do. But I doubt the most prominent Tory advocates of primaries Dan Hannan and Douglas Carswell see them as a route to a non-ideological, mushy centrist politics. In their 2005 pamphlet, Direct Democracy, they advocated primaries as part of a broader strategy to mobilise the kind of movement politics and advocacy - inside the Conservative Party and beyond it - to often shift public arguments on taxation, Europe and immigration - for ideological purposes. So Harris is right that part of their motivation is anti-statist, and the left certainly might worry if anti-politics is being mobilised to that end. The question is how to counter that and mobilise troops of our own. Does the current model seem likely to do it? We may need to think more creatively about the role of parties and political organisation on the left to do that.

An anti-reform conspiracy?

Harris suggests there is another problem with the primaries debate. They distract from proper constitutional reform. This is what motivates the Tories - and some Labour people too, he argues. Here, Harris closely follows Neal Lawson of Compass who wrote of primaries that "In another setting at another time, they would be worth experimenting with. But not now". Like Harris, Lawson also argues that primaries would now be the death knell of the Labour Party, and a distraction from real reform, by stopping proportional representation.

A nefarious plot indeed.

So let me ask this: who is doing the distracting? This 'anti-PR conspiracy' theory lacks any agency unless we can find some committed Labour opponents of electoral reform jumping on the primaries bandwagon. Perhaps they exist. As it happens, I can't personally identify at present in the Labour party.

I think Harris and Lawson will find that their opponents on electoral reform are very often their allies on primaries.

There is no necessary connection. Some will be persuadable on both issues, and may combine support for one issue with opposition to another. But it already seems clear that the most vocal Labour opponents of electoral reform are vocal opponents of primaries too. That is the instinct of the traditional Labourist left and the traditional Labourist right. Both are hostile to cross-party cooperation and coalition politics, and fear that Guardianista liberals are all too willing to sacrifice a system which might win Labour a majority. Neither is keen to open up "this great movement of ours" to part-time less Labour and non-Labour voices either.

So here is New Labour loyalist and tribalist Tom Watson - traditionally a vehemently pro-first-past-the-post and anti-PR voice who is a recent tactical convert to AV. Watson just about summarised John Harris's column, before he had written it, in 140 characters in recently twittering to David Lammy that

@DavidLammyMP They're an idiotic notion.They price the poor out of representation. Don't want US style politics in the UK thank you v. much.

It is also true that the most prominent advocates of primaries almost all seem to support electoral reform: Progress, for example, are campaigning for primaries and for PR too. Chair Stephen Twigg has been an advocate of PR for over a decade. This seems a fairly common position among those who have been long-standing advocates of constitutional reform, among those who can be described as 'New Labour pluralists' like Twigg and 'soft left' voices.

Will Straw, author of The Change We Need, wants the government to back Jenkins' AV+ in a referendum. The Fabians have given a lot of space to the argument for a more pluralist party. And the current Fabian Review devotes a lot of space to constitutional reform - and my editorial argues for a constitutional convention and electoral reform. Other long-standing primary advocates like Anthony Painter and David Lammy favour AV, and make both arguments on their merits.

Again, the link is not absolute. Luke Akehurst on the loyalist right is a long-standing supporter of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform while being sceptical about primaries.

The evidence that primaries are being advocated as an anti-electoral reform front is not just weak; it is non-existent.

If there are die in the ditch Labour first-past-the-posters advocating primaries, I have yet to spot them. Harris quotes Tom Harris, who is anti-electoral reform. But Harris' post was sceptical about primaries. He used the example of a leadership primary as a warning to demonstrate that "there the arguments in favour of primaries start to break down a bit" though suggesting that the momentum behind primaries may be unstoppable "for good or ill". Harris is agnostic about primaries.

I don't yet see any convincing argument as to why one debate needs to be closed down for the other to succeed - issues of national constitutional change and party reform have a rather different locus and constituency.

Of the options for electoral reform, only the Single Transferable Vote sees voters choose between candidates of the same party. So LibDems might naturally focus on that rather than candidate selection reform.

But STV has never had significant Labour support, and few observers - including its advocates - think a switch from FPTP to STV is a particularly likely option. Under the German-style PR system used in Scotland and Wales, under the AV+ system proposed by Roy Jenkins, or under an Alternative Vote system which is reportedly being considered inside government, the issue of candidate selection still arises.

Supporters of electoral reform need to win that argument on its merits.

It should be straightforward to acknowledge that primaries do mitigate one particularly egregious feature of the current system: that the votes of those in most constituencies don't make any difference. Primaries mitigate this in a limited way: they give either the dominant party's supporters, or those voters who want to participate, a greater say over the identity of their candidate within the dominant party. It gives them no greater say at all over the question of who governs the country.

Supporters of electoral reform who think they need to oppose primaries to win an argument against the current electoral system simply betray a lack of confidence in their own case.


So, we have a conspiracy without conspirators. Now, perhaps I am wrong, and there is a tightly organised conspiracy. Unfortunately, if that is true, it is so tightly organised that I have not had the memo. (But then I would say that, wouldn't I?).

But I do think that both Harris and Lawson significantly overestimate not just the ruthless cunning but also the organisational capacity of New Labour high command.

There is one final missing premise in their argument. Far from New Labour high command advocating primaries for these nefarious purposes, I can't see any evidence that they are advocating them at all.

As far as I can tell, number 10 and party HQ are agnostic about primaries. Even those who think that the idea is interesting can see all of the practical hurdles, and are hardly looking for a punch-up about party organisation in the year before an election.

To that extent, throwing around polarising accusations of this kind could well succeed if the aim were simply to block change in favour of the status quo. That seems to me a fairly miserable objective - we all seem agreed on how few people think the status quo works. But that doesn't mean it won't work.

The truth is that this debate which has been driven outside Parliament - within think-tanks and pressure groups in and around the party, the emerging Labour and progressive blogosphere, and particularly driven by those like Anthony Painter, Sunny Hundal, the Young Fabians and Labour staffers who took part in the US campaign and tried to lead practical debates about the lessons for the UK, not just on primaries but on union campaigning, I suspect Agent Lammy and Miliband may even have been breaking with the 'command and control' model and setting out their own views.

Anyway, here's the good news.

John advised his readers to take the primaries debate seriously if the points about constitutional change and party culture were acknowledged, writing that:

Who wouldn't enjoy great national and local democratic carnivals, enlivened by the idea that everyone has a real say? That's actually what our existing elections should provide, but our creaking voting system sucks the air out of them. Take the pro-primaries crowd seriously when they accept all these failings, and one other democratic deficit: the fact that as the wider world has embraced online pluralism, non-hierarchical organisation and the rest, British political parties have either failed to keep up (the Tories) or moved in the exact opposite direction (witness the Soviet-esque emasculation of the Labour party)

I think I have shown that the pro-primaries crowd have met both of those conditions in spades.

So let's call the conspiracy off. Might that more serious discussion now begin?

Hannan: I determine Tory manifesto without hassle of leading party

Dan Hannan is currently on his hols and keeping his head down for 10 days.

When he returns, I doubt the NHS row will have cost him much of his confidence and chutzpah. Of course, he doesn't necessarily win every policy argument. But he is pretty sure he wins many more arguments than he loses.

I was amused to see this blog post from last month sets out Dan Hannan's confident claim that he is having an enormous influence on the Tory manifesto, without the hassle of leading the party.

What’s better than leading a political party? Getting to determine its manifesto without any of the hassle of actually, you know, leading it. I’ve observed before that, line by line, chapter by chapter, The Plan: Twelve months to renew Britain is becoming official Tory policy. My friend and co-author Douglas Carswell is miffed at the lack of acknowledgement, and you can see his point: David Cameron’s policy wallah, Steve Hilton, has cut and pasted bits of our text with neither alteration nor attribution.

All the more reason for taking Hannanism seriously.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The impeccably New Labour case for scrutiny of top pay

Tom Harris is worried about calls for action on top pay, fearing we are on the slippery slope to repudiating New Labour.

This seems to be driven by Harris's specific worry that "I imagine the so-called High Pay Commission would have the aim of setting a national maximum wage".

I think that is very unlikely and almost certainly unworkable. (I wrote about that a few months ago, when Kevin Maguire pitched a 10-1 ratio to the Fabian dragons at our New Year Conference. The Compass proposal is also to consider maximum ratios within organisations. As David Aaronovitch grumpily but correctly observed at the Fabian conference, there is little inherently fair about the tea lady or receptionist at Manchester City being paid oodles more than at Altrincham FC. And there was an impeccably Brownite objection from the conference floor: 'what public services will you cut to replace the lost revenue).

But a maximum wage is not the only way to address top pay, especially as the explosion in pay at the top was more about shifting social norms than it was about legislative change.

But I fear that Tom may be forgetting an important part of the history of New Labour - which was concerned from the start about unfair rewards and social responsibility at the top - and so overlooking an impeccably New Labour case for scrutinising top pay too.

Yes, he is right that the minimum wage was a New Labour policy, because it was part of the argument that social justice and economic success were not incompatible, and one of the measures introduced (with tax credits) to "make work pay". But New Labour also voiced anger at "rewards for failure" and "undeserved rewards" at the top. We heard a lot about fat cat Cedric Brown, and the "windfall tax" was adopted on the fairness grounds that privatised monopolies had been guaranteed an excessive return, and that part of this windfall should support social inclusion.

If New Labour always opposed 'rewards for failure' and unearned rewards, it has considerably more reason to do so not just on the fairness grounds that one can not privatise gains and socialise losses; but also because the entire economy has been sharply affected by mistakes made in the financial sector.

Harris worries about 'raising a few cheers by depriving some bankers of their bonuses'. But that risks sounding like a defence of whatever institutions decide to do or individuals can get away with, whatever the consequences. In which case, why do we have financial regulation at all? The evidence set out by Deputy Bank of England Governor Andrew Haldane in this speech is compelling. Robert Peston offers a useful summary of how the historic explosion in pay and bonuses in the financial sector was not based on creating wealth yet created systemic risks for the financial system and entire economy.

So reform of bonuses is needed not for cheap political crowd-pleasing but to uphold Tom's New Labour principles of financial stability and ensuring rewards are earned. More scrutiny might have led to social and political pressure on institutions to adopt safer practices. It might help to embolden shareholders to have challenged the patent absurdity of contractually "guaranteed bonuses earlier. (And there is a broad consensus on that - "Certainly, the Masters of the Universe need their wings clipping, but the way to achieve that is through effective regulation", writes David Blackburn of The Spectator today).

Peter Mandelson bemoans the fact that his critics do not acknowledge that his intense relaxation about people getting filthy rich had a condition - "as long as they pay their taxes". Tom's New Labour principles of "something-for-something" and "rights and responsibilities" legitimise a strong scrutiny of tax avoidance as of

And Roger Liddle - who was co-author with Peter Mandelson of one of New Labour's founding texts 'The Blair Revolution' before 1997 - set out several good social democratic and rather New Labour reasons to worry about income inequality and unearned rewards at the top in a Policy Network paper, which also also called for a Top Pay Commission in January 2008.

A Top Pay Commission to match the Low Pay Commission that would scrutinise pay awards to top executives in the private as well as public sector, with a remit to expose unnecessary excess and create a more open debate about just and proportionate rewards.

Tom is right that New Labour was worried about being seen to "level down", as Liddle acknowledges. For this reason, even though it adopted very clear policy commitments to reduce inequality, it shied away from describing them as such. Tony Blair committed in 1999 to reducing and eradicating child poverty. The government, of course, defined poverty in relative terms; something which the Conservatives now accept too, but there was a reluctance to acknowledge what logically followed: that the government's strategy was to reduce income inequality; this was reflected in its 'progressive universalism' approach to redistribution, though in practice this proved an exercise in 'running up the down escalator': sharply rising inequality was curbed; it was not reversed.

In fact, inequality within the middle 90% of the income range has been reduced; but the Gini coefficient has gone up because inequality has increased at the very top.

So Liddle seeks a New Labour response to this, which is more explicitly able to discuss inequality at the top while noting that was always part of the new Labour argument:

What is needed in the UK is a change in political culture and discourse about questions of income and wealth. In The Blair Revolution published over a decade ago, I wrote “New Labour should use the tax system to attack unjustified privilege, without
weakening incentives for risk-taking and hard work.” In crude and simple terms, we need to move from a society that is afraid to ask “How much have you got?”, to one that is prepared to question “How did you get it?” This was how Winston Churchill as a radical Liberal sought to turn the political argument in defence of Lloyd George’s redistributive 1909 budget.

In the early 20th century it was landowners who were seen to enjoy gross excesses of income and wealth, for which in Neville Chamberlain’s wonderful use of Biblical language “they toil not, neither do they spin”. The gross excesses of 21st century Britain are in different social categories: directors whose compensation packages have little or no justification in terms of their
contribution to the profits and success of the companies they lead; investors who take advantage of Britain’s generous capital gains tax provisions but are not genuine risk takers, building a business from scratch through their own hard work; individuals who owe their comfortable circumstances to inheritance rather than their own efforts. What is needed in the UK is a change in political culture and discourse about questions of income and wealth

I don't know if Tom would think that is the "politics of envy" - but these are now sentiments expressed, if with differing degrees of emphasis and sincerity, across the political spectrum.

It is not surprise that Iain Dale champions Harris' concern that scrutiny of top pay would be to retreat to a 'core vote' strategy.

However, I do not think that either of them have any evidence for this claim. Certainly, there is much solid evidence, including in the recent Fabian study for the JRF that the centre-ground of public opinion is wants considerably more scrutiny of the 'how did you get it' question, and from a deep-rooted sense of fairness rather than an envious motivation.

This reminds me of all of those arguments that New Labour was 'abandoning the centre-ground' with its new top rate, when two-thirds of the electorate back it. Funny centre-ground that.

Meanwhile, David Aaronovitch in today's Times does not want a Pay Commission but goes rather further. He would like tax returns made public.

This Swedish style pay nudity policy would break a considerable Anglo-Saxon taboo. It seems unlikely to me. A pay commission could, however, examine what the international evidence suggests as to what effect transparency has on issues like gender pay gaps and levels of inequality, perhaps suggesting other routes to bringing more sunlight to the issue of pay and renumeration in organisations, without necessarily adopting Aaronovitch's full monty suggestion.

Certainly, there must be ways to improve a woefully underinformed public and media debate about what the facts about incomes and inequality in Britain are, despite the valiant efforts of the TUC to set out where the real middle is - and that the median income is £20,000 - are woefully underinformed about this.

As Aaronovitch summarises today, discussing the Fabian research.

£120,000 per annum puts you in the top 1 per cent of salary earners, £60,000 in the top 5 per cent, £32,000 in the top 25 per cent. And £25,000 makes you average — if you’re a full-time worker.

Across the income range, participants in the Fabian/JRF research workshops believed that they were around the middle.

Everybody does - from people on the poverty line to Alan Duncan on his parliamentary rations.

And then there is the astonishing ignorance of top earners who think the poverty line is at £22,000, that median earnings are twice that, and who believe that 10% of us earn over £162,000, according to the focus group with the best and brightest captains of business, finance and the law held for the Polly Toynbee and David Walker book.

Some of our own rather less super-rich participants also simply refused to accept the claim that an income of £42,000 was 10% from the top and challenged that as a mistake. But then I have often had that experience speaking to national newspaper journalists about what the income distribution actually is.

So anything which creates a more informed public debate about the basic facts of the society we live in has to be worth considering.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Spectator, not Labour, in 'send' mode

Are Labour still in 'send' mode? asks David Blackburn, on The Spectator's extremely good Coffee House blog (which has topped the TotalPolitics poll as number one media blog on politics).

Kerry McCarthy did not think the Guardian's headline 'Labour appoints twitter tsar' a good description of her role in new media campaigning which she discusses at length on Labour List.

But she is definitely the right choice. Very few MP blogs can match her Shot by both sides for authenticity and voice, and any Labour twitterers will know that she is embedded into the twitterati in a hyper-engaged and responsive way.

Authenticity. If you can fake that ...., as they say, but of course you can't.

So I think Blackburn is just dead wrong in his claim that

But McCarthy is stuck in “send” mode. Her emphasis is on MPs talking to the people, putting their human side forward, rather than engaging with the public

Meanwhile, here's The Spectator's twitter account

No fewer than 3634 tweets.

All generated directly on a 'transmit' feed from the website - with no engagement with followers or interaction at all.

Stuck in send mode, it would seem.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

George Osborne's dishonest defence on inheritance tax

What was to be an important week for the Conservative Party to stake out its "progressive credentials" has ended with the party leadership firefighting against Dan Hannan's attacks on the NHS.

So George Osborne speaks to John Harris of The Guardian to seek to get the ProgCon script back up and running. (With Phillip Blond interviewed last week, it is beginning to look as if the main aim of the Progressive Conservatism is to secure column inches in the Guardian).

The effect is slightly spoiled by Osborne offering what must be either a deeply confused or a dishonest defence of his policy to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1 million.

Harris asks, "how can he say it's a waste of resources to give tax credits to people who earn around £50,000 a year, and yet still propose to raise the inheritance tax (IHT) threshold to £1m – funded by a levy on so-called "non-doms" – which would only benefit those at the very high end?"

Yet Osborne has a very different view of who gains from this policy:

We're not talking about multimillionaires," he says. "We're very clear that millionaires should pay inheritance tax. But people who have worked hard, bought their own home, sometimes it's a council house that they've bought …

... The proposal, as you know, is to lift the inheritance tax threshold to a million pounds," he eventually says, "so that includes all sorts of people with inheritances of less than a million pounds."

This is obviously nonsense as a description of who benefits from Osborne's proposed tax break - and on both fronts too.

Two small problems of fact here.

1. Could George Osborne please identify say a dozen 'right to buy' owner occupiers of their former Council Houses who would be currently liable to pay inheritance tax when estates are tax-free prior to the threshold of £650,000 for married couples or £325,000 for individuals?

2. As for claimng that those poor multi-millionaires who will miss out, of course, the full benefit of the new threshold can only be realised by those with estates worth £1 million or more.

A single person bequeathing an estate worth over a million or more will get a tax break of £270,000, as they would currently pay 40% of the last £675,000 and will now pay nothing. No estate worth less than £1 million can do as well as that.

The biggest gainers of all from Osborne's policy will be couples with estates worth over £2 million, who are currently in a position to bequeath £650,000 of that tax free. Here, Osborne is offering a tax break of over half a million pounds, so that no tax is paid.

That makes Osborne's claim that the Tories are "very clear that millionaires should pay inheritance tax" another misleading description of the impact of his own policy. As The Telegraph noted in disclosing the £2 million threshold for couples, the Conservatives had not sought to publicise that the £1 million threshold would be transferable. Meanwhile, estates worth £5-£10 million or more would also receive the maximum possible benefit from the change, while those worth less than £1 or £2 million would not.

The foundation of the progressive Conservative project was presented as being the party's commitment to redistribution to narrow inequalities with the pledge to judge all future Tory policies would be judged by their impact on the worst off.

This a tax break that does most for millionaires, despite Osborne's claims. And it does nothing at all for those who have brought their council houses, despite his claim to the contrary.

So which would be more worrying: that the would-be Chancellor doesn't know who his flagship policy would benefit? Or that the standard bearer of the progressive Conservatism knows very well who the gainers are - but wishes to pretend that it isn't the case?

Friday, 14 August 2009

Taking Hannanism seriously

Jerry Cohen, the Oxford political philosopher who died this month, dedicated a lifetime to the political principle "to each according to need". But he would also have understood very well what motivated Dan Hannan's unpopular attacks this week on the Marxist "NHS".

As Cohen wrote of ideology in politics.

Considered as practical proposals, the theories of Friedman, Hayek and Nozick were crazy, crazy in the strict sense that you would have to be crazy to think that such proposals (eg abolition of all regulation of professional standards and of safety at work, abolition of state money, abolition of all welfare provision) might be implemented in the near, medium or long-term. The theories are in that sense crazy because they are uncompromisingly fundamental: they were not devised with one eye on electoral possibility. And, just for that reason, their serviceability in electoral and other political contest is very great. Politicians and activists can press not-so-crazy right-wing proposals with conviction because they have the strength of commitment that depends upon depth of conviction, and depth comes from theory that is too fundamental to be practicable in a direct sense.

(With thanks to Jonathan Rutherford for the link to Cohen's 1994 New Left Review essay, in the thread discussing Stuart White's tribute to Jerry Cohen's work last weekend).

Yet look at how quickly Dan Hannan's fairweather friends foresake their hero now.

Was it not ConservativeHome which successfully campaigned for Hannan to get a keynote speaking slot at the Tory spring conference. Indeed 87% wanted him to get a keynote slot this Autumn?

And why not, Dave. Why not?

Now one editor Tim Montgomerie notes that Hannan's deriding the NHS as Marxist has "zero relevance" to Tory health policy. His co-editor Jonathan Isaby twitters that he will be on Sky News between 7pm and 7.30pm tonight "wondering how a backbench Tory MEP can provoke such a media storm". With apologies for being sacriligeous, you may well hear the cock crowing three times if you tune in.

Yet Hannan's real model is John the Baptist - also known as Keith Joseph - who acted as an outrider for Margaret Thatcher by maintaining an ideological Hayekian position when it was politically off the agenda. Hannan is equally committed to sticking to the fundamentals of his deeply ideological position in public debate even if, and especially when, it is politically inconvenient.

So let this be said in praise of Dan Hannan. He believes that ideas matter in politics - and he knows what he believes.

Granted, his ideas are often quite mad. Many of us stuck here in the "reality-based community" were bemused when Hannan's advocacy of the complete national and international deregulation which made Iceland a model of freedom and prosperity for us all changed not one iota when that country went bust.

YouGov polling shows that his view that the NHS was a mistake from the start is shared by 1% of the British population. But Hannan is irrepressible in the face of such opposition. I have no doubt he will be thinking that there is a constituency of half a million Hannanites from which to build, right there.

So, of course, the Conservative Party knows that it would be political and electoral suicide to be entirely Hannanite. And David Cameron has been expressing his own support for the NHS today.

Yet here are three reasons why Hannanism matters rather more than some of its slightly more moderate supporters will want to admit this weekend.

1. The big idea: Hannan is both the most strident and the most feted contemporary British advocate of what has been the dominant idea in the Anglo-American right for the last thirty years.

The idea is that "less state equals more freedom".

There is still every reason to think that this remains the dominant ideological belief in the Conservative Party.

Listen carefully to debates on the right and objections to Hannanism are often matters of strategy and tactics. Many Conservatives disagree with the vehemence with which Hannan expresses his views. But these are usually differences of degree, rather than differences of directionality. Few want to go as far as Hannan in taking arguments to their logical conclusion.

So the content of Hannanism - less state, less tax, less regulation, less Europe - remains the content of most Conservative public advocacy.

This is why Hannan does often succeed in framing debates within the Conservative party, and why he has often proved effective in creating ideological space for more moderate right-wingers.

He has not won the argument for getting out of the European Union, but he is confident that he is advancing quickly. And he can point to significant successes in holding his leadership's feet to the fire. When David Cameron finally had to face up to a choice between breaking a pledge to Hannan's Eurosceptics or a deep diplomatic rift with Merkel and Sarkozy, it was not Dan Hannan who ended up disappointed. (I have written before than Hannan is something of a Tory Trot, but you would struggle to find comparable policy successes of Labour's Campaign Group left within their own party in the last twenty years).

2. Generational change:

This generation of Conservatives were deeply influenced by the Thatcher-Reagan counter-revolution of the 1980s. They understand the need to modernise the party's image. But, on the whole, they do not accept that there is a case for a deep shift in the party's underlying ideological and political beliefs.

It is fair to say that this comes across fairly strongly in surveys of the next generation of PPCs, conducted by ConservativeHome and The Guardian.

It is never difficult to hear from "outriders" who believe that Cameron will succeed if he is bold in becoming more right-wing in office. Fraser Nelson, Tim Montgomerie, Iain Dale and all in different ways promote a modern Conservatism as the politically successful rehabilitation of the party's Thatcherite core beliefs. A more Hannanite view still is expressed from outside the party in the populist libertarianism of Guido Fawkes.

By contrast, you may search the blogsophere in vain for prominent Conservative grassroots voices who are "outriders" to the left of the frontbench, upstream of the occasional delphic progressive arguments of Mr Letwin or Mr Willetts. The uber-modernisers are a small group party strategists, journalists and think-tankers. They, so far, lack any significant constituency in the party. The so-called progressive Conservativism has been much more discussed in The Guardian, at Demos, on Liberal Conspiracy or on Next Left than they are in right-of-centre think-tanks and websites.

3. Where is the alternative?

Perhaps the main reason that Hannanism retains its grip because David Cameron has not identified an alternative position of any substantive depth or coherence.

That does not mean that Cameron is not aware of the dangers and limits of Hannanism. One Tory frontbencher David Willetts cleverly described himself as a libertarian who had had children; other Tory frontbenchers might be described as Thatcherites who have looked at the opinion polls. Boris Johnson's London Mayoralty, with its equality strategy and centrist noises, demonstrate the difficulties of Hannanism in power.

So Cameron has attempted a more pluralist Toryism. He has tried to sponsor delicate blooms of Green and Red Toryism which would barely exist without his patronage. But nothing has yet put down any significant roots in the party iself.

This is why Cameronism has often looked like a media strategy in search of a big idea. As one Tory frontbencher told John Harris recently, David Cameron "wants to find a view of the world which is right-wing and Tory yet which explains why he doesn't want village post offices to shut". Cameron is something of a dispositional Conservative: he doesn't want his party to become narrowly libertarian, fearing that a Toryism "that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing" is inadequate.

Cameron gets "mood music" on this from Phillip Blond. But even the party leadership recognises this is work in progress at best, and freely admits that the 'progressive' Cameron agenda at the top is a very elitist, top down project, involving perhaps a dozen people at most.

This lack of any coherent alternative also helps to explain why the Tory frontbench's response to the recession saw it so quickly return to the comfort zone of Margaret Thatcher's household economics, eschewing the Tory progressive tradition of Macmillan's Keynesianism.

So Dan Hannan has dug in for the long-game. He surely knows that he will never entirely prevail. But that may be to miss the point.

He can already claim to be the party's most influential backbench voice, all the more impressive when billeted between Brussels and Strasbourg and not in Westminster.

And, beneath the sound and fury of Fox TV, Hannan may already be having rather more of an uncharacteristically quiet influence than many recognise.