Sunday 28 February 2010

So are they too Tory - or not nearly Tory enough?

Rupert Murdoch may not be impressed. His Sunday Times today reports a two point Conservative poll lead. The party was sixteen points ahead going into the Labour party conference last Autumn at which the Sun newspaper jumped on what they thought was a winning Tory bandwagon. This steady slide in Tory fortunes sees the "don't panic!" lights are flashing at their Spring conference in Brighton tosay.

So what's going on? There are two diametrically opposed accounts of the new Tory wobbles.

Labour's argument is that the Conservatives have changed much less than their image makeover would suggest.

Gordon Brown argued yesterday that cutting inheritance tax while promising an age of austerity and spending cuts, defending hereditary peers in Parliament and promising to bring back fox-hunting doesn't sound like "change".

This morning's Observer editorial offers a more nuanced account - Turn right at your peril, Mr Cameron which notes that the Tory right have made significant advances in most of the internal policy skirmishes - spending and cuts, grammar schools, marrigage and Europe - under Cameron's leadership.

The alternative reading is that the Tories have not been nearly Tory enough.

This view is highly sceptical of the Tories desire to protect the NHS budget while promising to reduce the deficit too, and then seeming to row back sharply on their central cuts message last month.

This is the main message of the Tory "party in the media" and of much of the activist blogosphere too. The ConservativeHome recovey plan unveiled on Friday essentially suggests that the themes of the 2001 and 2005 elections would resonate much more this time around. The main challenge is to the party's failure to bang the drum on immigration.

The right also believes the leadership has spent far too much time on the counter-intuitive theme that Tories care about climate change, particularly since it is now clear that most of their Parliamentary candidates and activists don't think it matters very much, if at all.

The Observer notes the obvious contrast:

With the Tory lead looking brittle, Mr Cameron will come under mounting pressure to appeal to the instincts of his party's restive right-wing activists. But too much deference in that direction has been a major source of his problems. It cannot also be a solution


But it may be that a third possibility is the most plausible explanation. It has been the Conservative attempt to square this circle has led to a diverse and contradictory set of propositions which has left everybody unsure as to what the party stands for.

As Alex Massie points out on the Coffee House blog, the Conservatives this weekend have unveiled six pledges for their election campaign which capture the apparent incoherence of their overall message:

what we have here is a) a pledge to act on the deficit that is accompanied by b) tax cuts and c) a raft of commitments to increased spending.

The Conservative approach has been to embrace the contradictions, with a "trust Dave" message.

So they began the year planning a Presidential campaign, for a candidate and not a party. They retreated in the face of effective mockery - but will effectively return to that theme again today.

However, the almost exclusive focus on Cameron has risked turning an electoral asset into a liability. Cameron's personal ratings have dropped sharply as concerns about depth and authenticity are brought to the fore. Perhaps more significantly, the Tory campaign seems to accept the validity of the central challenge to the party. If David Cameron is the only "change" message that the Conservatives have, then the "have they changed?" challenge becomes stronger.

However, the tendency for campaign analysis focus on leaders, personalities and tactics risks obscuring that broader choices on political strategy and plans for government is probably the main reason that the election battle appears to be tightening.

The central strategic ambiguity about the Cameron project has been about how far it is intended to be essentially a conservative exercise in accomodation to the New Labour legacy (as seemed quite plausible reading from 2005-7) and a recognition that the centre-ground did shift in a social democratic direction, or whether the "brand decontamination" was intended to make possible a significant if gradual rightwards shift couched in more compassionate language.

In response to the economic crisis, the Conservatives found their voice most strongly on the issue of deficits and cuts. They retain a recognition of increased social liberalism - which makes it necessary to choose a more diverse group of candidates - but the idea that the primary test of a Conservative approach is that it seeks to reduce the size of the state has been strengthened.

Over the last decade, Labour won a public argument to put investment in public services ahead of tax cuts, in a debate essentially framed about how to spend the proceeds of growth. The Cameron leadership essentially wanted to concede that argument after three defeats; their activists and right-wing commentators did not. This debate over Labour's spending plans was the most important internal debate inside the party until 2008. Eventually, the leadership changed its position.

The context has changed. That the need for some "cuts" has become common ground between the major parties, leads many Conservatives to assume they must automatically have won the argument about public spending - and so to forget the core message of their successive defeats, leaving them with no way to understand why the public appears sceptical of their message.

A politics of the surplus has been replaced with the politics of the deficit. Yet this does not obscure choices about how they are made, where they fall, and about the balance between spending, tax, the speed of deficit reduction and the role of growth. In fact, the different instincts between the parties become more and not less important.

John Rentoul writes today in a "policies smash personalities" column for the Independent on Sunday:

The big-picture reason is probably that people are more worried about jobs, schools and the NHS than they are about the deficit ... I think the NHS and schools are another example of the disconnect between media and mass opinion. Despite being told by the media that hospitals kill people and schools make them pregnant, most people know that their NHS and their schools are better than they were a decade ago, when public spending started to rise. They still associate the Tories, despite four years of detoxification, with underfunded public services.

This helps to explain why the Conservatives, this month, considerably softened their language about spending cuts, before explaining that nothing substantive in their position had changed.

Yet every attempt to explain the position appears to leave it less clear than before.

So there will be renewed calls from every quarter for the Conservatives to clarify what they stand for before the election campaign begins. Perhaps the only thing that can be said with confidence is that they are very unlikely to do so in any substantive way, instead heralding more (contradictory) micro-announcements as adding up to the core message of 'change'.

The assumption has always been that less is more. What looks shakier is the long-held confidence that this would be enough. But it is almost certainly too late to change course significantly now.

Saturday 27 February 2010

"Make the NHS work for patients not managers" ... or is it the other way around?

So this is the beef?

1785 days since David Cameron wowed the Tory party conference on his way to the party leadership by making a speech without notes, the Conservative party leader will tomorrow respond to concerns in his own party that they "don't really have a message or a purpose" (as one of Cameron's press officers told The Spectator this week) by ... making a speech without notes.

But wait! There's more. Andrew Grice of The Independent reports the Conservatives' exciting plans to use their Spring conference to challenge the idea that they are all soundbite and no substance.

The Tories will use the conference to display "the meat behind the message", highlighting six key pledges: to cut debt; boost enterprise; make Britain the most family-friendly country in Europe; support the NHS; raise standards in schools and reform politics.

And ConservativeHome breathlessly refers us all to an exciting Daily Mail graphic spelling this out.

Let's take "make the NHS work for patients not managers".

At first glance, this sounds like the usual Hiltonesque gobbledegook, served with lashings of motherhood and apple pie.

Who, after all, would pledge to make the NHS work for managers, not patients?

Well, maybe the Tories.

The Spectator's Fraser Nelson has run a consistent campaign challenging Tory Health Spokesman Andrew Lansley as effectively a spokesman for the BMA.

Nelson, like many commentators on the right, regards the Tory pledge to protect current levels of NHS spending as wrong-headed. Where there is broad agreement among commentators across the political spectrum is the incredulity at the lack of interest in accountability or reform to go with the cash.

Former new labour policy advisor Conor Ryan has also consistently critiqued the Tory "producerist" health policy, including noting that:

Nelson worries that he has gone native on NHS spending, after a series of gaffes and unapproved funding commitments. Cameron should be equally worried that Lansley is opposed to any sensible accountability or reform for that money. After all, his every pronouncement is an echo of what the BMA says, and apart from shoving patient records securely on Google, he shows no interest in what patients experience at the hands of their members.

The Independent's John Rentoul said in his 'Take the NHS away from the people' of David Cameron's own deeply contradictory health statement and speech last month.

He must be well aware, meanwhile, of the contradiction between "giving the NHS back to the people" and handing it over to the doctors' trade union, the BMA. He must know that "the people" are in favour of targets for treating cancer within two weeks, yet he happily promised to abolish them. Dire.

Yet another example came when the extraordinarily vague Tory mutual plans oddly proposed public sector worker cooperatives without the user representation which is part of current public service mutuals.

Of course, all of this reflects Steve Hilton's emphasis on "brand decontamination" with public sector workers - which was the Tory campaign theme on the day of the Osborne annoucement.

But it would also seem to highlight the extent to which David Cameron seems to have prioritised electoral messaging over serious policy analysis in preparing a manifesto for government.

In the in-depth four part Financial Times profile of Cameron's Conservatives, George Parker finds that several senior Tories find their leader's lack of interest in policy beyond the campaign slogans remarkable:

“He’s not ideological,” said one senior Tory. “He can pick up a brief very quickly but he’s only interested in policy to the extent it helps to get him elected.”

A shadow minister said: “Can you really tell me what the purpose of a Cameron government is?”

“One of the odd things about Dave is he’s a cipher,” said one policy adviser.

“You present things to him and hope he’ll like them, but you never really get the idea that he might have any ideas of his own,” said another.

So it is that we end up with a Tory pledge to get rid of "wasteful and harmful NHS targets", like the commitment to treat cancer patients within a fortnight.

So perhaps surprisingly "Make the NHS work for patient not managers" might not be quite as meaningless as it looks - if only anybody was interested in trying to rework Tory health policy around it.

Friday 26 February 2010

When twitter met Nick Griffin: the rise of the 'viewertariat'

Many people have a great deal to say about how the blogosphere or twitter are transforming politics - or, alternatively, that they are just a waste of time.

What is often missing is much evidence. And it might well be a daunting task to begin to work out how to properly assess questions like 'how much difference are blogs making to debate within the main political parties?' or 'will twitter make any difference in an election campaign?'

So kudos to academics Nick Anstead (who previously co-edited the Fabian Change We Need collection on the lessons from the Obama campaign) and Ben O’Loughlin who have an embarked on a project to study one of the most high profile moments in British politics last year - the hour in which Nick Griffin appeared on Question Time - in which there was a high level of online engagement.

This Sisyphean project has involved analysing no fewer than 43,730 tweets during the programme, seeking to study the links between what happened on screen and online reactions to it.

Their initial analysis is published in a University of East Anglia working paper, 'The Emerging Viewertariat: Explaining Twitter Responses to Nick Griffin’s Appearance on BBC Question Time', which makes what could well be a successful bid to add to the political lexicon.

There were an average of 673 tweets per minute from the sample during the programme, from 16,852 people, who averaged 2.59 tweets each, though the authors do not identify the individual who tweeted 84 times during the hour!

The paper shows that the peak of twitter activity came in response to Bonnie Greer's funniest attack on the evidence underpinning Nick Griffin's worldview:

Ok, when the ice melted, 17,000 years ago, people came up from the south didn’t they?They couldn’t have come from the north. Where would they have come from? The south. And you know this because you have a 2:2 in history.4 All of us [applause], all of us, all of us are descended from Africa. You wouldn’t disagree with me on that would you?

Ok, now the only, the only people who were here on this continent, and I’ve got a lot of books in fact I brought a lot of stuff for you to read Nick because you need it, the, the, the only people who were here – and I call them people – were the andodols, those were the only people who were on the European continent. Now if you don’t believe that you can come to the British Museum, we’ve got lots and lots of information for you. Because I really wish you would come, because the history you’ve got on your website is a joke.

The researchers are going on to look at a series of questions about what can be learnt from the analysis on online activity, including whether and how this affects media coverage of political events.

Remediation: How do mainstream media report the Viewertariat in the next day’s news? Are the tweets visualized by mainstream media as a selection of the juiciest quotes, as a graph, as a word cloud of most common terms used by the Viewertariat, and so on? Do journalists continue to represent the Viewertariat and its medium of choice (Twitter in this case) either as a fundamentally serious block of the public, or a frivolous and unrepresentative minority presenting entertainment value?

Thursday 25 February 2010

Is a 'living wage' the right answer to low pay?

The political left is defined by the causes we fight for. And the living wage campaigns, in London and elsewhere, have been among the most resonant, high profile and successful campaigns on poverty and low pay in the last decade.

But is the "living wage" the best way to challenge low pay in our society?

The London living wage campaign states its aim as:

"everyone in work is paid enough to provide adequately for themselves and their family. The Living Wage campaign aims to make poverty wages history"

A new Fabian briefing paper, The "Living Wage: the right answer to low pay?" (PDF file) by Fran Bennett and Ruth Lister summaries the long history of living wage campaigns, and interrogates the case for making the "living wage" a core demand of advocacy on low pay.

The authors express several concerns "if the problem of low pay is conceptualised primarily at the failure to pay a living wage".

The authors both have stellar reputations as academic experts on poverty issues with a long track record of civic engagement in anti-poverty campaigning. Both were also members of the Fabian Commission on Life Chances and Child Poverty. So this is clearly a constructive 'inside the tent' challenge seeking to engage campaigners in a debate about how best to challenge low pay and poverty. The briefing reports and builds on an earlier seminar hosted by the Child Poverty Action Group and supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, involving campaigners, academic experts and others to scrutinise this issue.

Bennett and Lister conclude that:

Connecting low pay with family subsistence, and with employers' responsibilities to maintain a workers family may not provide a strategy which is either dynamic or sustainable. Seeing low pay through the lens of household poverty - whether defined as a minimum income standard, or a relative poverty threshold - can only ever provide a partial solution, because it does not place inadequate wage levels in the context of the unequal structure of labour market rewards and the persistent under-valuation of certain forms of paid and unpaid work.

There are a number of different strands here: feminist concerns that the 'living wage' as a family wage continues to implicitly rely primarily on a 'male breadwinner' model; and that the living wage challenge may also seem to situate responsibility to pay a 'social wage' for work - such as caring - with employers, rather than with government and society collectively.

But while living wage formulas discussed in the paper tend to come out at an average of around £9 a hour, successful employer-facing campaigns have usually aimed at a lower figure. So the success of living wage advocacy depends on support for a broader range of policy measures, such as tax credits to increase take-home pay through redistribution, effectively topping-up or subsidising wages through state support.

The living wage campaigns have been most successful in London, where housing and childcare costs are higher, but where there is no London weighting in the national minimum wage.

The paper voices several cogent arguments about the limits of the "living wage" idea in addressing low pay. Yet it acknowledges the point that the living wage is "the only game in town", or certainly that which has proved most effective as a rallying point for mobilisation. This surely has much force too.

David Metcalf argues that "the Living Wage is best viewed as a rallying cry to boost the pay of those towards the bottom of the wage league table".


Personally, I remain somewhat undecided. It feels to me that one might agree with this critique of the "living wage" concept as a philosophy of fair pay, yet still want to support the campaigns, and so keep using the 'living wage' slogan too.

And these Living Wage dilemmas offer just one example of a range of possible tensions in how to link ideas, policy proposals and rhetorical advocacy to bring about political change. Successful campaigning needs to link these three levels in a coherent way, but a fair case might be made for a pragmatic element of fudge.

For example, I would argue that equality is the core value of the Labour party. But I think that "fairness" is the better public banner to march under in a campaign for a fairer and more equal society, so long as there is a sufficiently robust account of what fairness demands to make significant progress towards more equal life chances possible.

But there are limits. This could not be a case for pure pragmatism about what resonates best with the public. It is easy to think of traditional campaigning messages around poverty, at home and abroad, which are eye-catching but disempowering, in othering the poor and making them passive recipients of paternalistic support. Here, large charities may face some real trade-offs, and have become much more aware of these in the last 25 years.

The dilemmas around the "living wage" strikes me as being in a different category from that. A closer analogy might be with "drop the debt" campaigns on international development. Such a call certainly does not exhaust the scope of what is needed for international justice. But it may be a successful rallying cry, and that might well be used to engage a broad audience and offer a starting point for an educative campaign on a broader agenda.

But it might not. A further example of these advocacy dilemmas might be Labour's advocacy of progress on pensioner and child poverty. These were the most popular causes for redistribution, but was that because they ducked, and perhaps reinforced, public attitudes about the deserving and undeserving poor?


It may well be worth thinking more about why the "living wage" idea resonates, if we might want to emulate that success with other campaigns on low pay and other poverty issues.

It seems to me the Living Wage campaigners were successful in doing two things which are important to successful campaigns: they lowered the barriers to getting involved in a low pay campaign, and they gave those involved reasons to stay mobilised over time.

Firstly, while the "what" and "how" of a living wage are complex issues, this can be articulated as a simple fairness argument which seems easy to support and difficult to oppose, even for those ike London Mayor Boris Johnson who would often be opponents of egalitarian measures. No great theoretical argument needs to be won to get across a broad sense that this is a pro-fairness campaign. Rather, it will only be those strongly committed to an opposing ideological viewpoint who are likely to strongly challenge that.

Secondly, by making demands of a range of different actors, it is also possible to secure progress and visible victories. This means that those involved see themselves making a difference, and so are motivated to do more, while others join in too.

That is much harder on the broader argument for greater social equality.

So the "living wage" slogan may well be the most powerful way to secure better pay for some of the worst paid workers - and many of those advocating the slogan may well not intend the slogan to carry too much weight in representing a deeper philosophical argument about equality and fair pay.

So perhaps the right long-term test of living wage campaigns might be this: Can they also persuade those they mobilise to engage with broader equality debates?

Or, in trying to do so, would they lose the appeal which makes them effective?

* The "Living Wage: the right answer to low pay?" by Fran Bennett and Ruth Lister is published as a Fabian freethinking paper. The Fabian blog Next Left would welcome further offers of posts responding to the paper and the arguments for and against the 'living wage'.

Hannan launches British tea party ... the great cause of the unpopular populists

The Tory right is getting a British Tea Party movement off the ground this Saturday.

Its being organised by the Freedom Association, perhaps making Hannan heir to Norris McWhirter of "Norris on the spot" Record Breakers fame.

And so the battle to be Britain's Sarah Palin is joined in earnest, with Hannan moving decisively to rein in the early lead taken by The Spectator's Fraser Nelson and ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomerie.

Might it be time for a British Palinwatch on the political blogosphere to help keep score?

As we will no doubt hear again and again, its a good moment for an anti-tax revolt.

After all, the 2010 British Social Attitudes survey shows public support for tax cuts and spending cuts has doubled since 1997, from 4% to 8%.

Public support for increasing taxation and public spending is now at its lowest level since the early 1980s. 39% support this, down from 62% in 1997. Only 8% support cuts. The most popular view, held by 50%, is that spending and taxation levels should stay as they are.

It will be a long hard road to Libertopia, even if those who gather on Saturday may understimate that, but perhaps the Tory revolutionaries do realise that their real battle will be with their own leadership.

And perhaps the launch of the tea party should also prompt fiscal conservatives on the right to take on the fiscally ludicrous "oppose all tax rises" fundamentalism of the Taxpayers' Alliance and their allies.

Do Tory wobbles mean the end of Cameronism?

Do the Tory party understand why they are slipping in the polls?

And do the party strategists know what to do about it?

Broadly speaking, no and no.

That, at least, seems to be the conclusion of the best informed and must-read piece of the week on the state of the opposition is from political editor James Forsyth in The Spectator, already previewed by John Rentoul, who picks up on the 'dead shark' dramatisation - Jaws meets Damien Hirst? - of the fears and frustration of the Tory inner circle.

Forsyth reports on the discussions among the inner circle and the shadow cabinet:

Tory MPs are torn between schadenfreude and panic. They have been largely ignored by the leadership for the past four years and they complain that if only Cameron had listened they could have alerted him to some of these weaknesses before they became so damaging. The shadow Cabinet — which has been bypassed for most of Cameron’s tenure — is now being consulted. It met for more than two hours on Tuesday — after the Cameroon powwow in Notting Hill — and had, unusually, a proper discussion of the political situation. One member tells me that almost everyone spoke at the meeting. That this is considered news says a lot about how the shadow Cabinet is normally conducted.

The piece suggests a lack of clear lines of authority within the Cameron inner circle, along with tactical differences, for

Steve Hilton "is unconvinced by the quality of the party’s polling, so he just doesn’t use it, and instead relies on his own instincts and knowledge".

George Osborne is struggling to combine the campaign co-ordinator and Shadow Cabinet role.

Andy Coulson, with George Bridges, have been shooting down Hilton's ideas to put out more policy, on the grounds that they are half-baked.

David Cameron has decided it is time for the Tories to go much more negative, get Michael Gove to knock some heads together, and project William Hague much more prominently as the face of the Tory future.

(Back to the future indeed. And this rather suggests to me that Mr Positive significantly underestimates just how negative his core messages have been since at least 2007, somehow maintaining the self-image that he has been running a positive and less 'punch and judy' campaign while doing the opposite. David Miliband's challenge to Cameron's myth-laden miserabilism skewered that rather effectively).

It strikes me that this is not simply an issue of tactical differences about whether to go into more or less detail, potential crossed wires on the campaign organogram, or making unforced errors through being underprepared as the kitchen heats up. Forsyth's account suggests that what remains unresolved are the major strategic questions of the Tories' campaign message ('‘We don’t really have a message or a purpose', says one of the Tory press team to Forsyth), and, beyond that, their strategy for government.

The Cameronism of Hilton and the Cameronism of Coulson have been lauded as "the politics of and" offering something for everybody and all things to all people. But they are also quite different accounts of both the Tory campaign and the Tory future, in clear tension with each other.

Cameronism is either supported (or tolerated) by most of the party on the 'brand decontamination' grounds that it can rehabilitate the core instincts of Thatcherism in gentler language for different times; there has been a smaller inner core who insist that the project is much more than that, without ever quite explaining what it is.

That is the account not of their critics on the left, but of those on the right who sympathise with the project.

Take Julian Glover in Prospect last Autumn, the most detailed sympathetic account to have the inner circle try to explain what Cameronism is, and which found that "these thinkers, although confident that they’re right, seem stumped for the popular language to get across their proposals, which are sometimes simplistic".

This bid for power is full of paradoxes: revolutionary and modest; intensely centralised and profoundly devolutionist; traditional yet potentially transformative; open and yet run by a tiny group of a few dozen true believers. More striking still is that Cameron has become Britain’s likely next prime minister without conveying to his fellow citizens, except in the sketchiest of terms, the least idea of what he intends to do ... In pessimistic moments, the small group around the leader wonder if they will be able to make their modern Conservatism a reality. They are trying to ride a party whose instinct, when it hits trouble, will be to buck them off.

Or take James Forsyth's Spectator account of why there is no such thing as Cameronism.

He is a Tory pragmatist. He knows that nothing can be achieved without power and is relaxed about ideological inconsistencies.

If there was some clearer sense of what Cameronism is really about, the Tories would have a clear compass to steer by now. Choppier waters were inevitable at some point - not even the most gilded can expect to glide elegantly to power - and they would have had a very clear sense of what to do when they got here.

But they don't. And that will make the traditional 'clear blue water' drum beat from the party's right, in the media, online and among candidates, rather harder to resist.

And so, reports Forsyth:

The next task is to activate William Hague. Mr Cameron describes him as his ‘deputy in all but name’ — but no one really thinks that this is true. Hague is now being called upon to appeal to the Conservative base, some of whom fret openly that Mr Cameron has made too many concessions to a discredited Labour government.

Is that change we can believe in? Or might the outcome of the campaign wobble be that Cameronism almost over before it ever really began.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

Darling, you are unassailable

"My Chancellor is unassailable", declared Margaret Thatcher of Nigel Lawson in October 1989. Lawson resigned seven days later.

But that is surely an accurate description of Chancellor Darling.

In a short Guardian Comment is Free piece on that subject today, I also suggest that Andrew Rawnsley's new book will cause less turbulence inside the government and Labour party than they would have done a year ago "in large part it is because the long battle of the New Labour factions is finally, thankfully, over ... though many doubted whether there were ever many more than a dozen hyper-partisans on either side".

Kellner's four election fronts ... and why the LibDems could stop Cameron winning

Peter Kellner, writing in the new edition of Prospect, offers "seven pillars of electoral wisdom for the 2010 general election" as a guide against error and ignorance.

The piece merits careful study in newsrooms and by campaigners. Kellner's wise words point in the following direction. (Each of these is nuanced in important ways, and so you need to have read the Kellner caveats to make proper use of this psephological bluffer's guide. I will add a link when the issue is online):

1. The Tories need friends in the north, as well as the south, to win.

2. Marginal voters don't get you across the line on their own if parties have not nurtured heartland votes too.

3. Media chatter about "Worcester Woman" type archetypes is "invariably nonsense".

4. The LibDems could deny David Cameron victory.

5. "Valence" matters more than issues in deciding how most people vote.

The political nerds hold strong positional views on issues, but most voters, and a majority of swing voters, don't: "they care mostly whether politicians are decent, honest, capable and on their side".

6. The polls have improved, but aren't foolproof.

7. Campaigns are unlikely to be decisive ... though "stuff happens".

Kellner cites the 2002 German and 2003 Spanish elections as exceptional elections upended by events.


The most interesting device for thinking about the election battlefield is Kellner's suggestion to think about it as a battle over four zones - broadly the south, the midlands, the north and a western Tory-LibDem battleground.

To over-simplify a bit, the broad idea is that the south will decide whether Labour can win (as it contains 16 of the 24 supermarginals which Labour would need to hold); the Midlands who is the largest party (since it contains many of the next 40 marginal seats; sweeping these would see the Tories ahead), while progress would be needed on the tougher northern and western (LibDem-Tory) fronts for the Conservatives to win an overall majority.

Of particular interest is the analysis of how it will be more difficult for the Conservatives to make gains against well dug-in LibDems than the arithmetic may suggest.

When the Tories last won an election in 1992, the Liberal Democrats took 20 MPs. In 2005 they won 62. Almost all of those 42 are in natural Tory territory. Can Cameron win them back? Probably not ... The Tories face another handicap in the 17 seats won by Margaret Thatcher where they have fallen into third place. Nine of these were won off them by Labour, but have in turn been taken by the LibDems. Alost all are out of reach for the Tories this time around. All in all, it will be surprising if net Tory gains from the LibDems climb above single digits.

Kellner cites the 1979 election when the Tory gain of 8 points and the Liberal loss of 4 would have been enough to take seven of the thirteen Liberal seats had it been matched in those constituencies, but in fact only 3 of those seats fell.

If something similar happens this time, that in turn, requires a better performance from the Conservatives against Labour.

116 Tory gains would give the party a majority of 2 if the party (nominally) begins on 209 seats after boundary changes. Over 25 of those seats are LibDem or Nationalist held.


Despite the warning against Essex Man and Worcester Women type ciphers (and who now remembers William Hague's patronising pitch to the Pebbledash People and myriad other attempts?), Prospect does also contain an engaging piece in which Sam Knight rides the Thameslink line from Beford to Brighton, claiming to be on a quest for the "Thameslink Tories".

St Albans' Tory MP Anne Main may be one to watch in the campaign. Her expenses claims came under scrutiny and she tells Knight: "People will have to pick their poison when it comes to MPs. We're all pretty horrid" ... I ask her if she thinks it will be a clean campaign. "Dirty as hell", she replies.

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Miliband's mission and Labour's pluralism challenge

Not a lot of people know that David Miliband has hit Andrew Rawnsley. On The Observer journalist's own account, it was a punch "in the solar plexus" combined with much cursing, as a joshing yet perhaps heartfelt response to the poisoned chalice of being tipped as Labour's next leader for the first time way back in 2002. There have been no calls for an inquiry.

But the Foreign Secretary has this afternoon been focusing on taking Labour's fight to their political opponents, fleshing out the Prime Minister's argument for voters to take a second look at Labour and a long hard look at the Conservative alternative in a speech to Demos. LabourList have the full text.

Miliband has an effective challenge to Cameronism and the coherence of progressive Conservatism, building on Tory wobbles in the tightening opinion pools, in challenging the idea that offering 'conservative means to progressive ends' emulates New Labour's shift towards the political centre.

one reason the Conservative leadership are currently tied in policy knots – backing away from health reform, back to front on government’s role in sponsoring marriage, facing both ways on economic policy - is that they have felt it necessary to assert that they too seek progressive ends, contrary to the history of conservatism. It is quite a bizarre situation. New Labour was built on the application of our traditional values in new ways. The Tories are saying that they have got new values – in with social justice, out with no such thing as society - that will be applied in old ways, notably an assault on the legitimacy and purpose of government itself.

New Labour said the values never change but that the means need to be updated. The Tories want it the other way round. They say the values have changed, but, miraculously, the policies should stay the same. They even boast about not needing a ‘Clause IV moment’.

Miliband suggests that a "hope versus fear" contrast captures the core instincts of left and the right, acknowledging that a "declinist" pessimism may resonate, but arguing for greater Labour confidence in the many myths and misrepresentations of the "broken society" argument which forms the Conservative's core narrative.

The kernel of his analysis of Britain today was this: “There is less expectation to take responsibility, to work, to stand by the mother of your child, to achieve, to engage with your local community, to keep your neighbourhood clean, to respect other people and their property”. It was declinist. It blamed government for all ills. And every single assertion that can be measured in his list was wrong. Divorce rates are falling. School achievement is rising. Volunteering is up. Crime is down. The Tory dystopia of modern Britain relies on a picture of what is actually happening in Britain that has as much basis in reality as Avatar does. They need to believe that 54% of children born in poor areas are teenage pregnancies for their politics to add up.

The speech also offers an account of the political vision which should underpin Labour's future manifesto offer. I felt there were two important challenges for Labour's advocacy in seeking to make the Miliband case.

How can the argument for government resonate?

The central difference between Labour and the Conservatives remains a different account of government, making the case for an enabling state as essential to spread the distribution of power.

That principle is that power needs to be vested in the people, but we do not reveal a powerful populace simply in the act of withdrawing the state. In fact a powerless government simply means more power for the already powerful

Miliband suggests the left, in contrast to a "zero sum" view of state and social power on the right, recognises three essential commitments from the state to spread and distribute power.

* "First that it guarantees what markets and self help cannot provide".

* "Second, the role of government is to provide a platform for markets and civil society. Strong government can nurture citizen responsibility not stifle it".

* "Third, government only works as an ally of powerful people when power is situated in the right place – starting locally". This subsidiarity argument recognises the need for multilateralism.

That is the social democratic core of Miliband's argument, combined with a greater liberal emphasis on the means by which power is distributed. It is good analysis, though I am not sure that any leading Labour figure has yet found quite how to make this argument about means resonate publicly, and to make it a cause to fight for in an election campaign.

Miliband's articulation of the fight against fate, some time ago, remains one of the best shots at bringing the animating mission of the political left to life. Labour needs to make this idea - that "fairness doesn't happen by chance" - central to its campaign narrative.

A liberal revival?

Miliband's consistent argument that the British left's future lies in a fusion of liberalism and social democracy is an attractive one.

But there is a weakness in the apparent advocacy of this today as largely representing a 'New Labour continuity' agenda.

Miliband told Demos today:

In the 1990s, spurred by David Marquand’s book The Progressive Dilemma, Labour embraced a more pluralist centre-left politics, in a conscious effort to draw on its liberal as well as social democratic heritage. That coalition has now dominated politics for a decade, bringing together individual rights in a market economy with collective provision to promote social justice.

I am proud of the long lists of changes in each category. I think we have changed the country for the better. The liberal achievements - gay rights, human rights, employee rights, disability rights - on the one hand. The social democratic ones - childcare, university places, health provision - on the other. And then those areas that fused the best of both: a New Deal for the Unemployed that uses the private and voluntary sector, devolved budgets for disabled people, the digital switchover, Academies, all combine government leadership with bottom up innovation and engagement.

Reviving the argument that there are big progressive causes - climate change, development, inequality and political reform - which can unite progressives across party boundaries against the right is important. Gordon Brown made that pitch on Saturday, having returned to the idea of a new constitutional settlement and electoral reform.

But rebuilding that argument and renewing those potential coalitions, will not be easy.

A good, though counter-cultural, argument for Labour as an agent of liberal progress can be made particularly for the first term from 1997 - 2001. This achieved more in decentralising power, particularly in political reform, than any British government since 1911.

So that legacy of Labour's half-conversion to political pluralism in the 1990s should count in the ledger, as at least a plea in mitigation against New Labour's reputation for authoritarianism. But it is equally important to understand why the government is so widely viewed as having so little instinct for liberalism, pluralism or civil liberties, and to develop an account of the need not for continuity but for a much deeper further shift in the political culture of both the British political system and the party itself.

David Miliband's repeated advocacy of a reset referendum, including fixed election dates, could provide a foundational moment for a full constitutional settlement.

But this also requires rather more of a critique which demonstrates an understanding of why that is necessary.

That is certainly harder for David Miliband or for Gordon Brown, in government, than it was for his friend James Purnell outside of it in his own speech on power at the LSE last week.

And the arguments for a politics of apology set out cogently by James Crabtree and extended by Jessica Asato just before Christmas break all of the rules of political campaigning in an election year.

And yet it is a challenge which can not be ducked, sooner or later, if Labour's renewed interest in political pluralism is to persuade voters to take a "second look" and to engage with the broader progressive audiences it seeks.

Civil partnerships: will the government do the right thing?

As Sunder has posted, this morning saw a letter to The Times signed by a number of prominent Anglicans calling for the House of Lords to assent to Lord Alli's amendment to the Equality Bill. This amendment would make it legal for civil partnerships to be registered on the premises of religious associations who are willing to do so - without creating any obligation on the part of those religious groups who do not wish to do so.

Lord Alli withdrew his amendment following the debate of January 25, but he is putting it forward again when the Lords returns to the Equality Bill on March 2.

A leader article in The Times supports the amendment.

Ruth Gledhill and Rosemary Bennett say in an accompanying article that '[s]enior bishops in the Lords have told The Times that they will support an amendment to the Equality Bill next month that will lift the ban on civil partnership ceremonies in religious premises'.

Gledhill and Bennett do not say how many bishops will support the amendment. But the fact that some will - indeed, the Bishop of Leicester signed the letter to The Times - is wonderful news.

Gledhill and Bennett also report that the amendment 'is likely to be backed by the Conservatives'.

So, that's The Times, some Anglican bishops and the Conservatives all on board - or at least 'likely' to be on board - for the amendment.

But what about the Labour government? According to Gledhill and Bennett:

'The Government has yet to decide whether to back the amendment. It wants to avoid another confrontation with church leaders, having had to back down recently over the employment of gay staff in religious organisations...'

So the question is posed: Will the government do the right thing?

I hope Labour bloggers and tweeters everywhere will send a clear message to the government to have the courage of its convictions and support the amendment.

Blessed partnerships

The Times reports on growing pressure for the right of those religious congregations to register, celebrate and bless civil partnerships if they wish to do so. Senior current and former Anglican Bishops are among those backing Lord Alli's amendment to the Equality Bill, making the case in a letter to The Times.

Religious correspondent Ruth Gledhill has more on her religious affairs blog: one of the best examples of how specialist correspondents can offer in-depth online coverage beyond what national newspapers put in the paper. As Gledhill notes, Iain McLean, at OurKingdom and elsewhere, and Stuart White for Next Left (both among today's letter writers) have argued eloquently that the objection to the amendment makes a nonsense of the religious freedom argument with which the Church is defending the right not to be coerced into celebrating civil partnerships.

The paper's leader writers are convinced by the argument, offer a thundering objection to the 'feeble' slippery slope objection, writing that:

In a letter to The Times today, a distinguished group of mostly Anglican clergy correctly point out that “straight couples have the choice between civil marriage and religious marriage. Gay couples are denied a similar choice”. That clearly discriminates against homosexuals who are also believers, and three faith communities — Liberal Judaism, the Quakers and the Unitarians — now wish to register civil partnerships on their premises. A legal amendment permitting them to do so is expected to be debated in the House of Lords next month.

The Church of England has so far resisted change, arguing that if some religious groups are allowed to hold civil partnerships then the pressure on the C of E to follow suit will become intolerable. It is a feeble argument. No one is arguing that any church should be forced to conduct a civil partnership. But willing churches should not be precluded from doing so.

Whether or not the C of E should itself be a willing church in this respect is a further question, which is clearly contested within the Church. Those that think it should not have no coherent case for denying the religious liberty of other faith groups who disagree.

The Times argues that for the Church of England to maintain its claim to special status as “a part of our liberties, a part of our national character”, it should recognise that "our liberties today should include the right of homosexuals to register the most important promise of their lives in a church".

Newington Green Unitarian Chapel is holding a Marriage Equality Day conference on Saturday.

Monday 22 February 2010

Child Trust Fund: are the Lib Dems embarassed?

Readers of Next Left will be familiar with my argument that the Liberal Democrats are wrong to want to abolish the Child Trust Fund.

But have the Lib Dems had second thoughts?

Back in 2005 the Lib Dem general election platform was summed up in a list of '10 reasons to vote Liberal Democrat'. One item on the list was their proposal to scrap the Child Trust Fund and use the resulting £1.5 billion to cut class sizes.

On a recent visit to the Lib Dem website - changed in colour tone from the traditional fiery orange to a greenish-blue - I find it is replete with the usual thoughtful policy documents. There are lots of one page summaries of party policy on education, the economy, families, etc, and a 21-page summary of party policy as a whole.

But where is the proposal to abolish the Child Trust Fund?

So far as I can see, none of the policy documents makes any mention of it.

Somewhat confused, I ring Lib Dem HQ. I speak to someone who tells me that all policy proposals are in the documents on the website. I point out that this policy isn't. They give me the number of someone who will know. They are out of the office. I leave a message. They haven't rung back.

So has the party dropped the proposal?

I don't think so. Nick Clegg mentioned it in his conference speech in 2009. And Vince Cable mentioned it in a speech to Demos in January of this year. A Lib Dem friend I contacted by email tells me that the policy must still hold because otherwise the party's fiscal arithmetic won't add up.

Clearly, however, the policy is no longer regarded as deserving quite the public airing it had in 2005.

Meanwhile, one more policy from the class of 2005 remains firmly in place - and far more in the public view than the proposal to scrap the CTF. This is the policy to scrap tuition fees.

The policy remains despite the efforts by Nick Clegg at the 2009 autmun conference to shift the party away from it. An excellent analysis by Julian Astle of the Lib Dem thinktank CentreForum makes two highly pertinent points: since participation in higher education is heavily skewed towards young people from higher socioeconomic groups, abolition of tuition fees will disproportionately benefit people from higher income groups - two thirds of the benefit will go to the richest 40%; and, second, there is no evidence that tuition fees have deterred young people from lower socioeconomic groups from going to university.

So the progressive case for abolition of tuition fees is non-existent.

But the party rebelled and a phased abolition of tuition fees remains central to the Lib Dem policy agenda.

Not that anyone has provided an answer to Astle's tightly argued critique of the party's policy. The sad fact is that many in the Liberal Democrats now treat the abolition of tuition fees in exactly the same way that some in Labour used to treat nationalization: as an article of faith, a totem of progressive intent that is beyond rational scrutiny.

Now the Lib Dems often justify their proposal to scrap the CTF by arguing that the resources could be used to fund something better. But since they are also proposing to lavish scarce public funds on an abolition of tuition fees, one is surely entitled to ask: Would it be fairer to keep the CTF rather than use scarce public funds to scrap tuition fees?

The CTF provides a small sum that goes to every child, providing the seed of a capital endowment for all young people at 18.

So the question is: Is it fairer to use scarce public funds to provide generous subsidies which will only be enjoyed by a minority of young people who come disproportionately from advantaged backgrounds, or to provide the seed of a capital endowment for every young person?

Is it fairer to use scarce public funds to provide a launch into adulthood for just some, relatively privileged young people, or for all?

I think the answer to the question is obvious.

No wonder the Lib Dems now seem reluctant to trumpet their policy of scrapping the Child Trust Fund.

Saturday 20 February 2010

How to get on in PR (and politics)

There is an enjoyable and somewhat informative David Cameron: the PR years Guardian profile of one of the less well known episodes that made the man who would be Prime Minister: his spell as head of PR and communications for Carlton television.

This is usually glossed over as a brief hiatus when describing Cameron's journey from Eton and Oxford to Conservative Central Office and ministerial spaddery to Norman Lamont and Michael Howard before later going into Parliament. We are all the product of our experiences and, as the Guardian notes, a spell of seven years in his early thirties made this an important period of Cameron's professional development.

The most embarassing part of the account may be how he got the gig.

The manner in which he obtained the job says much about how men of Cameron's background tend to progress through life. The future Tory leader, whose credentials at Conservative central office were already well-established after periods working for Norman Lamont and Michael Howard, believed a stint in the private sector would benefit his political career. With no experience outside politics, he did what any old Etonian might do and worked his contacts. The mother of Cameron's then girlfriend Samantha, Lady Astor, was friends with Michael Green, then executive chairman of Carlton and one of Margaret Thatcher's favourite businessmen. She suggested he hire Cameron, and Green, a mercurial millionaire, obliged. The 27-year-old was duly recruited on a salary of about £90,000 a year (the equivalent of more than £130,000 today).

One former Carlton executive remembers Green often found jobs for family friends and social acquaintances. "At one stage I was asked to find a job for Michael's daughter and also for Suzie Ratner [daughter of Gerald Ratner, whose jewellery business collapsed after he described his own products as 'crap']. On one hand [Carlton] was kind of a global conglomerate, on the other it was like a family business. It would be 'my neighbour's nephew's daughter' or 'someone I met at the synagogue or at Arsenal' – and not 'Would you give them a job?' but 'Give them a fucking job'".

Though Cameron (rightly) says that where he went to school isn't particularly relevant to his claim to national leadership, he has also said the opposite too, telling the Tory party conference 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".

On that basis, the Guardian account suggests that David Cameron could also be particularly well placed to bring some inside insights into Alan Milburn's social mobility drive to open up the media and the professions, and break open a cosy and clubbable "who you know" closed circle to meritocracy and talent.

James Robinson and David Teather, as experienced Guardian media and business reporters, seem to have worked their contacts well to get some insider accounts on background terms. There are certainly no scandals. The account is slightly racily written but is not unfair and offers some interesting insights into the character of a man who is necessarily somewhat steelier than his nice guy public image.

The Carlton PR years may also do something to explain the strong eye for communication and media which Cameron has brought to political leadership and his core concern to 'decontaminate' the Conservative party's "brand".

Collapse of Dutch government offers Wilders opportunity

The Dutch government collapsed early on Saturday morning, with the Dutch Labour party leaving the coalition over a disagreement with Christian Democrat Prime Minister Balkenende's proposal to extend the country's military commitment in Afghanistan, beyond the coalition's earlier agreement to withdraw by the summer with all Dutch troops leaving Afghanistan by the end of the year.

The 16 hour long Cabinet meeting had led Labour leader and deputy PM Wouter Bos had pulled out of Friday's progressive governance conference in London, at which British PM Gordon Brown was joined by centre-left premiers and party leaders from around Europe.

Labour's withdrawal from the Cabinet leave the government without a majority coalition, and will lead to new elections within three months. The parties face local elections on March 3rd. Dutch public opinion backs the Labour stance on withdrawal, though is equally divided over whether the issue ought to end the government.

The Netherlands has had the most volatile politics in western Europe in the last decade.

Geert Wilders' populist anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV) hopes to make significant gains, having won 9 seats as the fifth largest party in the last elections in 2006.

Wilder's PVV finished second in the European elections, ahead of Labour, and Reuters reports that the most recent national opinion polls now have the PVV in second place.

A Feb. 14 Maurice de Hond poll put the [Christian Democrat] CDA on 27 seats, followed by the anti-immigrant Freedom Party (PVV) on 25 seats and the centre-right Liberal Party VVD on 22 seats. A Feb. 18 Politieke Barometer poll put the CDA on 32 seats, the PVV on 24 and Labour third with 21.

There are likely to be major political developments ahead of the campaign.

It has been widely anticipated in the Netherlands that Balkenende to be replaced by the Christian Democrats as party leader before the election, with Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen likely to take over.

That change may well prompt a change in the Labour Party leadership too, with Wouter Bos having twice led the party into elections against Balkenende.

Bos' modernising campaign achieved a significant Labour recovery in the 2003 elections, reversing much of the damage of the heavy defeat in 2002 in a campaign which saw the rise and assassination of the populist Pym Fortuyn. But Bos' Labour Party then had a disappointing result in 2006, as it lost seats and failed to emerge as the largest party. It is much less clear who the next Labour leader might be, with an open field of several potential candidates if there was to be a leadership change.

One outcome of the political crisis will be to make any future Christian Democrat-Labour alliance a very unlikely outcome.

The Christian Democrats have not ruled out forming a coalition including Gert Wilders, and nor has one other centre-right party, the economically liberal VVD, of which Wilders was a member until 2004.

However, the third party in the outgoing coalition, the moderate conservative Christian Union has done so, joining the social democratic, liberal, socialist and green parties in forming a "cordon sanitaire" in which the parties have said they have "unbridgeable differences" which mean that they could not join a government with the Freedom Party.

Hannan responds with a plea for Iceland

Daniel Hannan has maintained a courteous approach to the intellectual stalking which Next Left attempts of his ideological project.

So he has now responded by answering our "Did the collapse of Iceland's economy lead you to change your mind in any important way?" question.

Hannan writes:

Still, as a dog that returneth to his vomit, Sunder returns to my pro-Iceland stance yet again, asking whether the collapse in that cold country has led me to reconsider my support for Euro-sceptic capitalism, and whether I now believe that the problem was too little regulation rather than too much.

In short, Hannanism survives:

The short answer is that, under the terms of the European Economic Area, one of the few aspects of Icelandic law that had passed almost wholly under EU jurisdiction was the regulation of financial services. This point cannot be repeated too often.

There is more detail in the Telegraph post.

Unsurprisingly, I am sceptical about this defence.

In October 2004, the Hannan explanation of a unique Icelandic prosperity was that "they have no more desire to submit to international than to national regulation". That surely remained, in 2008, the distinctive feature of Iceland in comparative perspective.

Nor am I persuaded by the idea that the UK government's response during the Icelandic collapse proved decisive in the course of events as the astonishing financial overreach of the country's three global mega-banks unwinded. (None of the Icelanders interviewed in Michael Lewis' in-depth Vanity Fair feature about the collapse mention the British role).

However, Hannan has a contemporary argument too about what the fair treatment of Iceland now should be, and thinks he might on this point persuade some here on the left too.

Of course, I don’t expect to convince Sunder or the readers of Next Left in this post. Our disagreement goes way beyond Iceland: the chief difference between Left and Right turns on our attitude to state intervention – an issue on which good people, acting from decent motives, can disagree.

I hope, though, that I might persuade at least some Next Left readers of something else: that there is neither sense nor honour in the repayment terms that we are demanding from Iceland.

To repeat, Gordon Brown, by collapsing the last solvent Icelandic bank through anti-terrorism laws, massively exacerbated that country’s difficulties, and made it far harder for it to meet its debts. None the less, all Icelandic parties accept that they must stand by their obligations and satisfy their creditors. Is it really reasonable, in the circs, to charge a 5.5 per cent interest rate, at a time when global interest rates are barely above zero?

Faisal Islam has an interesting Guardian column today which spreads the blame around, and notes the even gloomier prospects for Iceland if no deal is done and the repayment bill is rejected in a forthcoming referendum.

UPDATE: Reuters report that the British and Dutch are about to table a revised deal to Iceland on Saturday, to specifically address the concern about the interest rate:

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source familiar with the situation said the offer's main feature is a floating interest rate designed to ease Iceland's burden as it repays $5 billion (3.24 billion pounds) to the two European Union countries.

The offer maintains other elements of a deal the three sides agreed in October, including full debt repayment and a 7-year grace period, the source told Reuters.

Friday 19 February 2010

James Purnell: hello to the philosopher politician?

James Purnell seems to have become an expert in the art of the unexpected.

First, he resigns from the cabinet. No one expected that.

He moves to Demos to direct their Open Left project. Once there, he could have decided that the future of the left was simply a warming over of Blairite New Labour. That would have been the safe thing to do, and what many a leading politician in his position would have done.

But he begins to develop a new perspective which integrates aspects of New Labour - choice in the public sector, welfare conditionality - with a quite different conception of 'empowerment' based on community organizing and setting democratic limits to the market.

Then, in the very week that he launches a key, initial report from the Open Left project, and is quite reasonably touted as a potential party leader, he stands down as an MP.

And then he announces he is to retrain as a community organizer with London Citizens.

Following his announcement that he is standing down as an MP, Jessica Asato wrote eloquently at CiF on the theme of 'Farewell to the philosopher politician'. But as the story fills out, perhaps we should see this also as a case of 'Hello to the philosopher politician'?

The Open Left project continues. And by retraining as a community organizer, Purnell will not be so much abandoning politics as finding a new way to be politically engaged. But a way of being engaged that also allows freedom of thought and expression.

There, of course, is something that should give us pause. Isn't it worrying that someone has to leave parliamentary politics to feel they can engage in this way?

Amongst all the commentary about Purnell's resignation today, I was particularly struck by this comment by Stephen Tall at LibDem Voice:

'Perhaps the bigger blow, though, is to the role of the professional politician. Whether you agree with Mr Purnell or not, like him or not, he is intelligent, articulate, youthful: he adds to public life, and will presumably wish to contribute to it still. What does it say about Parliament, or about the life of an MP, that he would much rather operate from beyond Westminster?'

A future fair for all

That is Labour's election 'strapline' for 2010, with The Guardian reporting on the campaign planning and interviewing Douglas Alexander.

It is good to have fairness central.

In terms of political values, this comfortably outperforms the "Forward Not Back" slogan of 2005.

Grammar has not been the strong point of recent political sloganeering. "For all" may be superfluous as "fairness" might imply universality. (Could 'a future fair for some' be offered? Perhaps by those who favour the few, not the many, with their tax plans).

The main objection may be whether anybody can say they are against fairness, which means promoting a clear choice about what choosing a fairer Britain should entail.

That's why we have been promoting, over the last two years, the idea of "fairness doesn't happen by chance" as the central narrative for a political campaign which could put the idea of a fairer and more equal Britain at its heart (including making that the theme of our 2009 new year conference a year ago).

Slogans - even "now win the peace" - don't win or lose elections. But "A future fair for all" seems a good signal of Labour's intention to put its best foot forward in its campaign argument.

The rulebook tendency

Martin Kettle has an interesting Guardian column musing on hung parliament possibilities.

He notes the very strong likelihood that there would then be a minority government rather than a coalition of any combination.

And I think he is right too that it would be enormously difficult for a governing party, in a hung parliament situation, to change its leader and the PM. Above anything else, there could well be a major legitimacy problem with the emergence of a new Prime Minister just days after a General Election, when they were not a leader in that election.

So, in practice, I would agree with him that any such scenario is very likely a non-runner. But the barrier is not the one which Kettle gives, of the Labour party rulebook.

He writes that:

Today parties are encumbered with more rules. If Brown goes, Harman automatically becomes Labour leader until a party leadership election is held.

But, with the party still in government (as would clearly, technically, be the case until another PM kissed hands or another government was formed), the Labour leadership rules do not automatically elevate the deputy leader, but rather give the decision about an acting leader to the Cabinet, in consultation with the NEC.

A deputy leader might very often be the leading choice in terms of the politics, but there is nothing automatic about this.

When the party is in government and the party leader is prime minister and the party leader, for whatever reason, becomes permanently unavailable, the cabinet shall, in consultation with the NEC, appoint one of its members to serve as party leader until a ballot under these rules can be carried out.

Read the rules here.

Thursday 18 February 2010

Georgia on Hannan's mind

They won't be dancing in the streets of Tbilisi tonight at the news that Georgia is now the new Hannanite model of Libertopia. (Hannan MEP is even advocating that Georgia should join the Commonwealth, though not, one presumes, also the EU!).

Left Foot Forward notes that the Georgian opposition have pointed out several inaccuracies of fact in the 249 word article.

But what might worry both the government and people of Georgia rather more is whether they might now be heading the same way as the last Hannanite model for us all to emulate, the blue eyed sheikhs of Iceland of whom he wrote, with his characteristic certainty and confidence:

Being outside the EU, Iceland has been able to cut taxes and regulation, and to open up its economy. For 70 years the Althing has been dominated by the splendidly named Independence party, which has pursued the kind of Thatcherite agenda that is off limits to EU members
Icelanders understand that there is a connection between living in an independent state and living independently from the state. They have no more desire to submit to international than to national regulation.

That attitude has made them the happiest, freest and wealthiest people on earth.

How mean. Did we need to mention that again? And isn't national bankruptcy all just part of the creative destruction that makes the most unfettered capitalism possible just great?

So here's the deal. Its well known that we take Hannanism seriously here on Next Left. We might even leave the embarassing subject of his Icelandic advocacy alone, one day, though it would obviously be a wrench, were we to ever get an answer to our earlier question to Dan Hannan and the Hannanites:

To remind you:

Did the collapse of Iceland's economy lead you to change your mind in any important way?

Or will his argument turn out to be that even Iceland's collapse was due not to too little regulation, not too much?

Wednesday 17 February 2010

Rawlsphobia, part 1: a reply to John Milbank

As Sunder notes, a number of recent contributions to the discussion of equality have sought to distance themselves from the ideas of John Rawls. John Milbank's latest comment on the subject is a case in point.

While I am far from thinking that Rawls's is the final word on this subject - witness (shameless plug alert!) my own book on equality - I do think Rawls makes an enormous contribution to our thinking. Moreover, it is a contribution that builds on, and develops, ideas in long-standing social liberal and ethical socialist traditions. So I am frequently puzzled by the negative way his ideas are treated (or just ignored) in contemporary comment, including comment on the left.

The issue of what might be termed 'Rawlsphobia' is a broad one, but for the moment I am going to focus specifically on John Milbank's latest comment.

The two principles of justice

What does Rawls argue? What is his main claim?

In his A Theory of Justice, first published in 1971, updated in Justice as Fairness, Rawls argues that a socially just society must satisfy two principles:

(1) Each person has the same...claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties...

(2) Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they are to be to the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).

The principles are also presented as having an order of priority: securing a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties has priority over the second principle.

Roughly speaking, then, what Rawls is saying is this. If you want a just society, the first thing to do is to ensure that everyone enjoys a secure set of 'adequate basic liberties'. These basic liberties include freedoms of conscience, expression and (within certain limits) association, and political rights to vote and stand for election. They do not include (for example) unlimited rights to private property.

Next in your search for a just society, you would have to secure 'fair equality of opportunity'. The aspiration here is to a strong form of meritocracy in which individuals with the same natural ability and motivation have roughly the same opportunity of ending up in a given occupational group regardless of their parental background. This implies a commitment to preventing disadvantage due to discrimination. But it also has implications for things like education and the transmission of wealth across the generations.

However, in Rawls's view this kind of meritocracy, enjoyed against a background of adequate basic liberties for all, does not suffice for social justice. For even under the most perfect meritocracy - which we will anyway never achieve (more on this below) - there will be inequality in rewards due to the unequal abilities that individuals are born with. But if it is unfair for people to be disadvantaged by their bad luck in the social class they are born into - the intuition behind fair equality of opportunity - then surely it is no less unfair for people to be disadvantaged by their bad luck in the genetic lottery - that is, by being born with less marketable ability.

On this basis, Rawls argues that inequalities of reward are not inherently deserved, but can be justified (only) if they improve the position not only of the talented worker but the less talented as well. This gives us the famous 'difference principle' which, simplifying somewhat, says that reward inequalities should be arranged to maximise the position of the group least able to command market rewards.

Milbank's objection

Having set out in very rough and ready terms Rawls' theory, we are now in a position to consider John Milbank's latest intervention.

Milbank's objection to the Rawlsian view is stated as follows:

'What is the problem with the Rawlsian model as regards delivering equality? The following I think: Rawls is bound to be limited to equality of opportunity and this leads to an aporia. It’s true that he expands liberalism to include levelling out of disadvantages of birth etc but only in the interests of a Lockean or Kantian equality of negative freedom. Why is this aporetic? Because logically it would require one to abolish in every generation for the children the acquired and legitimate meritocratic differentials established by their parents. When we remember that ‘generation’ is an artificial construct because new children are born every day, one can further extend this aporia into pure insanity. The Rawlsian agenda would require one simultaneously to allow and to destroy every properly emergent and rule-legitimated inequality! But let’s assume that generations can be tidily separated. This still suggests that really children should be removed from their parents by the state – or that maybe all parents should read to their children the same amount of storybook every night etc -- and such idiocies have indeed been suggested by contemporary liberals. So at this point one is somewhere between tyranny and impossibility.'

I am not sure that this passage is altogether coherent. It starts by saying that Rawls's view is 'bound to be limited' to equality of opportunity. But then, as if aware that a cursory reading of Rawls' work would reveal him to be arguing for something more, Milbank immediately acknowledges, rightly, that 'he expands liberalism to include levelling out of disadvantages of birth etc.' As we have seen, these 'disadvantages of birth' include, for Rawls - as for Young and Crosland - those of genetic inheritance and natural ability, and so take us to a view that goes well beyond equality of opportunity.

But this is to avoid addressing Milbank's main point which is that, insofar as Rawls is committed to equality of opportunity, Rawls must end up calling for something which is either impossible or tyrannical. For the only way to get true equality of opportunity is to abolish the family.

However, once we place Rawls's commitment to fair equality of opportunity in the context of his overall theory of justice, we can see why he is not committed to anything impossible or tyrannical.

First of all, the commitment to equality of opportunity is bounded by the prior commitment to uphold an adequate scheme of basic liberties for all citizens. It might be argued - and I would certainly argue - that the freedom to form and enjoy some form of family life is tied up with certain basic liberties. Forming a family is an aspect of freedom of association. Reading bedtime stories to your children is part of freedom of expression. If family life is linked to specific basic liberties in this way - and one might think it a test of the adequacy of a theory of basic liberties that it does connect with family life in this way - then 'abolition of the family' is ruled out by the priority Rawls gives to the first principle of justice over the second.

This does not mean that equality of opportunity sets no limits on family life. It almost certainly sets some limits on bequest and inheritance, on nepotistic employment practices and, perhaps, on the right to buy a private education. But Rawls's theory does not commit us to the family's abolition.

Milbank's rhetorical strategy here is one we often also see at work in Phillip Blond's writings. We might call it the mad monomaniac strategy. The strategy is to pin a concept, X, on someone or a school of thought (Rawls, liberalism); push X to a logical extreme; show that something daft or appalling then results; and, hey presto, conclude that Rawls or liberalism or whatever is daft or appalling.

This is argument by caricature. For in almost all cases, when we actually look at the thinker or school of thought concerned, what we find is that that while they do believe some version of X, they also believe Y and Z etc., and their belief in X is qualified and tempered by the other beliefs they have. The Milbank-Blond picture of the intellectual universe is a remarkable one, full of strange, mad monomaniacs roaming around affirming absurd ethical positions, while they stand in brave defiance to them all. But it is a self-dramatising nightmare of their own imagining.

Rawls agrees with Milbank that there is a tension between the institution of the family and equality of opportunity. But he also seems to take it as obvious that we are not going to abolish the family. The point he makes - Milbank, incidentally, makes no reference to Rawls's own discussion of the issue - is that this reinforces the argument for complementing strong meritocracy with the 'difference principle'. (See A Theory of Justice: Revised Edition, pp.64, 447-448.) Given that the family remains, inequalities of market reward will reflect differences in ability due to genetic differences and due to differences in family circumstances. All the more reason, then, to make sure that the inequalities of reward we allow do work to the benefit of those least able to command market rewards.

In a way, this seems to bring Rawls's position quite close to Milbank's. Rawls appears to be saying that in a just society, some people will have greater opportunity than others because of family-based advantages that we could not eliminate unless we abolished the family (which we are not going to do). But they may benefit from this advantage only to the extent that this raises the life-prospects of those born into less favourable family circumstances. Their good fortune is a gift to be used for the benefit of all, not just themselves. Isn't there here, perhaps, just a touch of the idea of noblesse oblige?


So, what at the end of the day, does Milbank's intervention amount to?

Again, he proceeds by defining his own position in opposition to a rival one, but that rival position is mischaracterised, indeed caricatured, in the process.

On the other hand, when we engage in a careful analysis of the rival position we find that it may in fact have some common ground with Milbank's own. If all Milbank means to say is that we have to accept that perfect meritocracy is impossible (or undesirable because it would require abolition of the family) and that those who are favoured by residual inequalities of opportunity should understand that their good fortune ought to be put to the benefit of the wider society, not just their own, then Rawls and Rawlsians will agree.

Though they might wonder at the political utility of making this point here and now.

For there is, surely, an awful lot more we can and should do to diminish inequality of opportunity before we start running up against the inviolable core of family life. And, in the meantime, we could and should do a lot more to shape the reward structure of our economy, its distribution of income and wealth, in the direction of the 'difference principle'.

To be continued...

Milbank is hardly alone in his dismissal of Rawls. In Rawlsphobia, Part 2, I'll take a broader look at the criticism - or simple neglect - of Rawls on the left.

The Oscars adopt the Alternative Vote

Hurrah for Hollywood! The Vote for a Change campaign for electoral reform has received an unlikely but welcome boost with news that you will need 50% support to win the Best Picture Oscar as Hollywood adopts the Alternative Vote system this year.

The House of Commons last week voted by 365 votes to 187 (a majority of 178) in favour of a referendum on whether to change to the Alternative Vote being held by 2011.

Hendrik Hertzberg of the New Yorker explains the Oscars' switch:

From 1946 until last year, the voting worked the way Americans are most familiar with. Five pictures were nominated. If you were a member of the Academy, you put an “X” next to the name of your favorite. The picture with the most votes won. Nice and simple, though it did mean that a movie could win even if a solid majority of the eligible voters — in theory, as many as seventy-nine per cent of them — didn’t like it.

Those legendary PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants don’t release the totals, but this or something like it has to have happened in the past, probably many times.

This year, the Best Picture list was expanded, partly to make sure that at least a couple of blockbusters would be on it. (The biggest grosser of 2008, “The Dark Knight,” was one of the better Batman adventures, but it didn’t make the cut.) To forestall a victory for some cinematic George Wallace or Ross Perot, the Academy switched to a different system. Members — there are around fifty-eight hundred of them — are being asked to rank their choices from one to ten. In the unlikely event that a picture gets an outright majority of first-choice votes, the counting’s over. If not, the last-place finisher is dropped and its voters’ second choices are distributed among the movies still in the running. If there’s still no majority, the second-to-last-place finisher gets eliminated, and its voters’ second (or third) choices are counted. And so on, until one of the nominees goes over fifty per cent.

The Oscars therefore join the X factor (as well as all of our political parties when selecting leaders and candidates) in deciding that preferential voting is the fairest way to pick a winner with most support. The "Jedward objection" to first-past-the-post was argued by Martin Linton in the Commons voting reform debate last week.

Are ten nominations too many for best picture at the Oscars? Certainly not in 1939, perhaps the greatest ever year of the Hollywood movie. In 2010, the argument could be made either way. Still, the recognition that the voting system needs to change to get a fair result when there is a greater pluralism of choices makes sense in Hollywood - and beyond it.

If you need 50% of the vote to win something as trivial as an Oscar, might the same principle be applied to electing our MPs?

Hat tip: My brother for spotting the New Yorker piece. Its very well worth getting hold of the print edition (February 15th & 22nd)for the magnificent portfolio of veterans of the civil rights movement.


PS: James Purnell writes of greater political pluralism in the new Demos pamphlet 'We Mean Power, published today:

A majoritarian approach may have worked when the two main parties had 97 per cent of the vote, as they did in 1951. This approach is neither possible nor desirable now ... Those who are worried about moves to a more pluralist politics need to find something else to worry about - it has already happened. Whatever the rules of the game, the votes people are casting have made it so. The question is whether we can accomodate that pluralism within the system, or whether it gets expressed outside and against it.

On virtue and equality: Milbank responds

A recent Guardian piece saw Phillip Blond and John Milbank challenge equality of opportunity in the name of a new 'Red Tory' synthesis, which would reject a value-free meritocracy by combining an "Old Labour" concern with the distribution of resources and assets with an "Old Tory" defence of privilege, as "a way of providing the appropriate resources for the wielding of power linked to virtue". That sparked some head-scratching and much discussion here on Next Left, with Stuart White asking who would decide about how virtue would be conceptualised and rewarded, and with Stuart White and John Milbank among those to join an 'equality of what?' thread discussing opportunity and outcome.

With ResPublica have now joined the blogging think-tanks in their new Disraeli Room blog, the think-tank has interviewed John Milbank about the responses sparked by the piece.

The ResPublica post includes Milbank's argument that Rawslian liberal egalitarianism must collapse somewhere between 'tyranny and impossibility'.

The comments on the (Guardian) article indicate some utilitarianism but also much Rawlsianism which gives greater priority to equality in terms of negative freedom of choice and autonomy. Clearly it is this which Blond and I most of all reject. We’re with Sandel etc and not Rawls.

What is the problem with the Rawlsian model as regards delivering equality? The following I think: Rawls is bound to be limited to equality of opportunity and this leads to an aporia. It’s true that he expands liberalism to include levelling out of disadvantages of birth etc but only in the interests of a Lockean or Kantian equality of negative freedom. Why is this aporetic? Because logically it would require one to abolish in every generation for the children the acquired and legitimate meritocratic differentials established by their parents. When we remember that ‘generation’ is an artificial construct because new children are born every day, one can further extend this aporia into pure insanity. The Rawlsian agenda would require one simultaneously to allow and to destroy every properly emergent and rule-legitimated inequality!

But let’s assume that generations can be tidily separated. This still suggests that really children should be removed from their parents by the state – or that maybe all parents should read to their children the same amount of storybook every night etc - and such idiocies have indeed been suggested by contemporary liberals. So at this point one is somewhere between tyranny and impossibility.

It is a two part interview. The second part promises a Red Tory case for preferring cricket over football, which may perhaps provide a key to the virtue puzzle by taking non-relativism into a new and hotly contested sphere. We will link that second part here when it appears tomorrow.


A "how do we stop parents reading bedtime stories" egalitarianism is a crude caricature, implying the bulk of the egalitarian left is simply pursuing Pol Pot's agenda by gradualist means. If "such idiocies" have indeed been suggested by serious contemporary liberal thinkers (who?), this is an illiberalism which has surely been at the margins of egalitarianism. So there once again appears a danger that Red Tory accounts of the contemporary liberal-left are debating straw men.

As Tim Horton has argued (in a Fabian Review essay which coincidentally notes in passing that "to stop parents reading to their children in the name of equality of opportunity would be quite mad"), social democrats should respond to the ever increasing weight of evidence on how much family background matters to life chances with a richer account of why the family matters, valuing this not just as a 'transmission' means (where concerns about how family background entrenches inequalities might dominate) but also on family as an end in itself. A more equal life chances account would seek to support the broader distribution of 'relationship goods', and might also find some common ground with some non-market fundamentalist conservatives in recognising the pressures on family life come from the market, and not only from the risks of an excessively intrusive state.

I am not convinced by Milbank's argument that accounts of the acceptance of "justified inequality" have been primarily instrumental and utilitarian (for example, about economic incentives), as opposed to rooted in conceptions of fairness. There are, of course, a range of differences, depending in part on what type of egalitarian you are, as typologised for Next Left by Stuart White.

This (non-instrumental) motivation seems very clear in Tawney's famous encapsulation of his own argument for greater equality as freedom:

"While natural endowments differ profoundly, it is the mark of a civilised society to aim at eliminating such inequalities as have their source, not in individual differences, but in its own organisation. Indeed, individual differences are more likely to ripen and find expression if social inequalities are diminished."

Similarly, John Denham's recent "fairness challenge to a purely needs-based egalitarianism (itself strongly contested by Roy Hattersley) was founded neither on instrumental efficency arguments nor the tactical need to chime with what Denham has long argued is a "fairness code" of robust public intuitions about what's fair.

Rather Denham's central claim was that this idea of reciprocity represents an important core of the Labour tradition's socialist egalitarianism, though one less prominent for the post-1968 left (perhaps partly through the public and political influence of Rawls' Theory of Justice in the years after its publication in 1971).

This sense of fairness is based on the idea that there is a set of obligations and opportunities that should underpin British society. When people say 'it's not fair' it is usually because they believe that the balance of duties and rewards, of right and responsibilities, has been upset.

(These issues are debated further in the "Is equality fair? collection responding to the Fabian/JRF inequality attitudes research last year).

Interestingly, there is a (much less fully-frontal) critique of Rawls in the very interesting We mean power collection, published by Demos today. In their introduction, James Purnell and Graeme Cooke write:

For adults, there is a more complex interplay between our concern for equality, the reality of structural disadvantages, and our respect for effort and merit. People deserve a share of the proceeds of their work, whether through money, status or recognition. The liberal egalitarianism of John Rawls seems to neglect this moral intuition.

I am sympathetic to that challenge to Rawls. And, if I can get away with asking an instrumental question about political philosophy too, it did always seem to me that an academic debate which seemed to revolve primarily about whether Rawls' difference principle had legitimised too much inequality (by allowing inequalities which were in the interests of the worst-off) was one reason for a disconnect between how political ideas might inform an effective social democratic political project.

But perhaps Stuart may wish to mount a defence of Rawls' relevance from these different challenges from both right and left.