Sunday, 3 January 2010

Introducing the Steve Hilton Award for Progressive Gobbledegook

"The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not ... Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.
- George Orwell, Politics and the English Language

We can’t go on with an old-fashioned left-wing class war on aspiration from a government that has seen the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.
- David Cameron, 'We can't go on like this', 2nd January 2010


"David Cameron's first speech of the election year did not contain much new", reported ConservativeHome, which is a friendly voice putting it rather kindly.

A man who, four years ago, earned a reputation as a good political communicator has now pretty much mastered the art of how to speak while saying nothing at all.

Do take three minutes out of your life to read the whole thing;
marvel at that line spacing; and shudder at the thought that he explicitly promises more of the same every day for the next five months.

Well, we can't go on like this, as the good man says. So Next Left has this weekend been inspired and provoked by Dave's speech to demonstrate some social responsibility, and is launching a new award to identify the most profound pieces of political meaninglessness of this election year.

Let us call it, provisionally at least 'The Steve Hilton Award for Progressive Gobbledook'. (We may need a short name too - 'the Hiltons', 'the Gobblies' or something: better ideas very welcome). The criteria are pretty straightforward. I am sure Progressive Conservatives will soon claim that
we all share literary influences too. Since that did not sound yesterday like the speech of a man who found a copy of Orwell's Politics and the English Language in his Christmas stocking, the short aide memoire of what we will be looking for may be helpful.

We'll be watching out for both new confections and old favourites as potential 'Gobbly' nominees. Do please let us know about your favourite pieces of Cameronite meaninglessness too. But we might need some help from elsewhere around the political blogosphere if we are to construct a proper lexicon of Cameron meaninglessness: somebody must be able to work out what 'government in the post-bureaucratic age' is supposed to mean.

And, yes, I fully admit that New Labour often did great violence to the English language, particularly in its almost genocidal verblessness. Do, by all means, feel free to make the search for pre-election gobbledegook open to all of the talents in all of the parties. But I do feel that the strength of Dave's new year opener suggests he will demonstrate a transcendent ability to enter as yet unimagined new realms of gobbledegook.


For me, the hallmark of truly great Cameron-Hilton gobbledegook is found in statements of pure yet unacknowledged paradox along the lines of 'we will reduce poverty by ending redistribution'.

Hence our opening Gobblies nomination from yesterday's speech:

We can’t go on with an old-fashioned left-wing class war on aspiration from a government that has seen the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

What could this mean, if it means anything at all?

As mood music it is intended to conjure up a contrast: in a David Cameron Britain perhaps the poor will get richer and the rich poorer through some new-fashioned right-wing something-or-other though we know not what.

Certainly, he is signalling that he would very much like to narrow the gap between rich and poor, maybe, though obviously without treading into nasty areas like class or redistribution.

But it doesn't quite say that, because it doesn't really quite say anything at all. And yet, in just 28 words, it manages to get a remarkable number of things wrong. Perhaps it is simply missing the point to take the speech seriously at all, but here are ten ways in which Cameron's meaninglessness seeks to mislead.

1. The poor have not got poorer under Labour. Firstly, the incomes of the bottom 25-30% of society have increased in real terms by around 1.5%-2% per year since 1997.

2. Perhaps Cameron 'inadvertently said something else' when he meant to say that poverty has increased under Labour. But relative poverty has decreased under Labour. David Cameron has already failed a Channel 4 fact-check for claiming that poverty had risen.

3. Cameron frequently makes the unsubstantiated claim that extreme poverty has risen. Two authoritative sources which he respects have warned him the statistics he is using are unreliable: the Institute for Fiscal Studies, whose figures are the source of his claim, and his favourite Labour MP (and Cameron fan) Frank Field tells him that this is 'dodgy' data.

4. Cameron complains that the rich have got richer under Labour. Here he surely seems "almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not". The rich have got richer under Labour. Cameron is for this at the same time as he is against it.

Even as Cameron attacks Labour on the grounds that 'the rich get richer', he opposes the measures introduced by the government in the 2008 and 2009 budget and pre-budget report, where half of the additional revenue raised comes from the top 2% of earners. These measures will reduce inequality. Cameron has an alternative proposal, to increase the threshold for inheritance tax, which will increase inequality. He has enthusiased about the Red Tory idea of 'recapitalising the poor' but his policy agenda is much clearer about how he will recapitalise the rich.

5. Cameron is probably trying to say that inequality has risen under Labour. He thinks that is a Bad Thing, and quite right too. Yet he also says that he doesn't care about the inequality which has risen under Labour.

So Cameron could be right about rising inequality, but that would depend on agreeing that the Gini coefficient was a good way to measure inequality. That has risen, a little bit, under Labour because of the growth in incomes of the top 1%, so it would be of concern to somebody worried about "the rich getting richer" (as Cameron is, and then isn't).

But it turns out that Cameron does not think the Gini coefficient matters much as an inequality measure. He explained in his Hugo Young lecture that caring about inequality, but does not think "we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom". (What less 'mechanistic' measure he would have of inequality is, naturally, unclear).

6. Cameron's broader argument was that, instead of worrying about inequality at the top, "we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle". That idea was challenged as missing the point by the Equality Trust of Richard Wilkinson, whose work Cameron was citing as his reason for caring about inequality. But if this is what David Cameron means by inequality, then he should be arguing in his own terms that Labour has narrowed the gap. Inequality across the middle 80% of society has reduced (on the 90:10 measure of inequality).

6. While attacking Labour over inequality and "the rich getting richer", Cameron has stated "I am basically a Lawsonite", favouring flatter taxes and a shift from direct to indirect taxation. This would certainly prove regressive in distributional terms, and would redistribute from the poor to the rich as Left Foot Forward have set out.

So Cameronism does therefore need to find a way to sound pro-equality in theory while actively promoting more inequality at the top would appear to be not just be an accidental feature of his current policy agenda but the core of his broader economic and political philosophy.

7. At the same time as Cameron attacks Labour over "the poor getting poorer", he also proposes to tackle poverty by reducing the amount of state redistribution to the poor. Tim Horton of the Fabians has sent Cameron the evidence that this flies in the face of all of the international evidence on poverty reduction. Demos Director Richard Reeves was rather blunter, in writing recently with Phil Collins in Prospect that "it makes literally no sense to argue that inequality needs to be reduced and then to call for a reduction in state benefits. The issue is not ideology; its not politics; its just arithmetic".

While complaining about Labour making the poor poorer, the Conservatives have said that redistribution to the poor through tax credits can simply 'disguise poverty', by giving people more money. As James Purnell has said, "I don’t know about you, but I think giving people more money is a hell of a way to disguise poverty". Again, the Conservatives have consistently attacked tax credits, while also saying that that they are 'a good thing', which they support.

9. Cameron complains about an old-fashioned left-wing 'class war'. This is a myth: the policies usually said to be part of a class war can be shown to have broad cross-class support across society. And Cameron has said it is right to be angry about the bonus culture in the banks. His party voted for the Equality Bill, which has (absurdly) been cited as a major example of a 'class war' approach. Cameron tacitly recognises the importance of breaking down class disadvantage by talking about the problem of the lack of social mobility: this is another term for the entrenchment of social class across generations. This offers a polite way for politicians to talk about how class structures British society without ever quite realising that they are doing so.

So Cameron does gesture, perhaps unwittingly, at reducing class disadvantage in British society, while appearing insisting that it is illegitimate to talk at all about class.

10. Cameron has said that the Prime Minister making a joke about his being educated at Eton when challenging his inheritance tax policy was a 'petty' and 'spiteful' example of 'class war' politics.

Perhaps you also recall Cameron's dramatic resignation from the Opposition frontbench and his subsequent refusal to write the 2005 election manifesto for his mentor Michael Howard, over Howard's jibe at Tony Blair that "This grammar school boy isn't going to take any lessons from a public school boy" at Prime Minister's Questions in 2003?

Cameron (mostly) says that where he went to school should be irrelevant to his credentials as Prime Minister. Strangely, he has also, himself, in two separate party conference keynote speeches in 2007 and 2009, claimed that having been educated at Eton gives him special insights into the needs of the state education system, saying that:

I went to a fantastic school. I’m not embarrassed about that because I had a great education and I know what a great education means. And knowing what a great education means, means there’s a better chance of getting it for all of our children, which is absolutely what I want, in this country.


Silent Hunter said...

The poor have not got poorer under Labour. Firstly, the incomes of the bottom 25-30% of society have increased in real terms by around 1.5%-2% per year since 1997.

I note that you 'conveniently' don't say that under the hated Thatcher, the incomes of the bottom 25-30% of society, increased far more than under Labour. LOL

And she was awful! But let's not let the truth stand in the way of a good rant.

PhilH said...

Silent Hunter, is that increase under Thatcher nominal or real terms, and how much by?

As there was significant inflation in the 80s, I suspect that there is a big difference between the nominal and real terms values.

I'm left-leaning but by no means in any one ideological camp, by the way, so I'm rather skeptical of your claim mostly because you don't provide any figures or references.

The original rant is also not about Thatcher - you've brought up a potentially interesting side point, but you haven't actually challenged the argument that David Cameron is an expert bullshitter.

Sunder Katwala said...

Thanks for responses.

SilentHunter - what you say about the incomes of the bottom 25-30% increasing more under Thatcher than Labour is wrong.

The evidence seems pretty clear, and is in one of the links in the piece: the Institute for fiscal studies chart comparing income growth in real terms between 1979-97 and 97-08 reproduced by Left Foot Forward.

It shows pretty clearly that the the Labour period was better for the lower 50%, while the Tory period was better for the top 40%. This again shows why Cameron's soundbite was such nonsense.

(You say the Thatcher years while the chart is 79-97: but the IFS reports suggest that the effect and the contrast would be somewhat greater between Labour and the Tories if the comparison was 79-90, as the Major years 90-97 saw a rather more equal distribution of income growth, particularly through the impact of the 90s recession).

Newmania said...

Orwell was of course referring , in this essay , to the proto Spartist cobblers spouted by the “Intellectual “ left .Speaking of elephantine propaganda ,Sunder I have no objection to your being paid by the Labour Party , or its allies , but if you are going to try to be funny I would caution you that people who enjoy humour for other than professional purposes sidle for the door .Its all a bit “Ministry of OO`mour “
The ..“Competition” ..undergraduate I enjoyed previous post
Radical redistribution was practiced on a vast scale in the Soviet union and its satellites as well as in Africa with results that must make you swell with pride . Throughout this period the Fabian society were explicitly committed to producing the same paradise in this country which would , I suppose have resembled the British version of East Germany . The relatively impecunious USA was a fitting subject of pity
What is meant by class war the populist and in fact quasi fascist use of primitive resentment to impoverish the Nation whilst installing yourself into power , well paid power as we know .
For such a tactic to work it must be perceived that one group of people are irreconcilably separate from another and that they are immutable tribes . The illusion that an economy is really like a big finite pie must also be maintained .This becomes rather awkward when universally mocked predictions of helter skelter growth are simultaneously required to make the Chancellors sums add up. Maintaining those circumstances is the reason for Labour Party cash hand outs and and attempts to stop the spread of capital by taxing it at death.
How do you encourage aspiration by taxing it Sunder ?
Interesting subject. Sweden ( which I gather is where you would like to live ?) has a less redistributive tax system than ours after transfers , it has a larger state sector but that is not the same thing .Your suggestion that anyone on over £20,000 pa was upper middleclass gives me some clue as to who ought to fear New Labour “redistribution”