Friday, 30 April 2010

Guardian swing: Lab-Lib paper now Lib-Lab

"The Liberal moment has come", says The Guardian, with the paper saying it would vote enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats while calling for a Labour vote in decisive Labour-Conservative marginal seats, believing that "the cause of reform is overwhelmingly more likely to be achieved by a Lib Dem partnership of principle with Labour than by a Lib Dem marriage of convenience with a Tory party".

The editorial will disappoint Guardian-reading Labour supporters, though it was always likely before the LibDems advanced in the polls since The Guardian had vociferously argued for Labour to drop Gordon Brown as leader last year, and endorsed the LibDems at the European elections.

The paper's line also reflects a readership already evenly split between Labour and LibDem supporters - dividing 48% Labour, 34% LibDem and 7% Tory ahead of the 2005 election according to MORI, suggesting the LibDems would need a 7% swing to secure a plurality among Guardian readers next week.

The Guardian editorial says that it remains a "newspaper that is proudly rooted in the liberal as well as the labour tradition", setting out that it is in 2010 now a Lib-Lab paper, rather than a Lab-Lib one.

If the endorsement is new, The Guardian has supported a greater LibDem Parliamentary presence in every election since the 1988 merger, backing the party or its predecessors in some form in nine out of ten general elections since 1974 (including this one), while supporting Labour in only seven of the same elections. British Political Facts suggests it backed Labour alone in 1987, but The Guardian did not endorse Labour in supporting a Liberal vote for a hung Parliament in February 1974, and the Liberals in the second election, nor in 1983 in supporting the Alliance (wanting it to govern in coalition with the Conservatives). I am relying on British Political Facts - and can't pretend to have all of the clips!

However, the 2010 editorial does significantly shifts the balance of its 2005 editorial argued that "We want to see Labour re-elected to government and we want to see more Liberal Democrats returned to parliament, at whichever other party's expense".

In 2005, the paper also repeated its argument of 1997 that the paper recognised

"without embarrassment or apology that we, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party are companions on the journey down the same broad river of progressive politics" adding that "In 2005, though we have all been tumbled about by some rapids, that remains true. The modern progressive consensus of which Gordon Brown speaks will be the work not of one party alone, but of two".

Though Labour supporters might challenge the conclusion, tomorrow's Guardian editorial makes a well argued and nuanced case about each of the three major parties.

It has an effective, engaged but critical account of David Cameron's political project, noting several ways in which Cameron has sought to bring his party into the poltiical centre, but regarding his policy agenda as thin and contradictory, criticising his neo-liberal response to the financial crisis, and worrying that the Cameronisation of the Conservative party"seems more palace coup than cultural revolution"

His difficulty is not that he is the "same old Tory". He isn't. The problem is that his revolution has not translated adequately into detailed policies, and remains highly contradictory. He embraces liberal Britain yet protests that Britain is broken because of liberal values. He is eloquent about the overmighty state but proposes to rip up the Human Rights Act which is the surest weapon against it. He talks about a Britain that will play a constructive role in Europe while aligning the Tories in the European parliament with some of the continent's wackier xenophobes. Behind the party leader's own engagement with green issues there stands a significant section of his party that still regards global warming as a liberal conspiracy.
The Tories have zigzagged through the financial crisis to an alarming degree, austerity here, spending pledges there. At times they have argued, against all reason, that Britain's economic malaise is down to overblown government, as opposed to the ravages of the market.

The Guardian also invokes Monty Python's People's Front of Judea to note how easily Labour's achievements in power are overlooked:

The salvation of the health service, major renovation of schools, the minimum wage, civil partnerships and the extension of protection for minority groups are heroic, not small achievements.

It is particularly critical of Labour on civil liberties and foreign policy, but does credit Labour with having a stronger record on poverty than its progressive rival

The Liberal Democrats are a very large party now, with support across the spectrum. But they remain in some respects a party of the middle and lower middle classes. Labour's record on poverty remains unmatched, and its link to the poor remains umbilical.

(This praise of an "umbilical link" sits oddly with a critical reference to both Tory and Labour links to "reactionary and sectional class interests" slightly odd: that sounds much more like a generic attack on trade unions as a whole than a challenge to particular organisations or individuals within them).

But for The Guardian, the primary issue is electoral and political reform, along with broader civil liberties and Europe as issues on which the newspaper's priorities are closest to the LibDems.

The paper is hopeful that"this will be Britain's last general election under a first-past-the-post electoral system which is wholly unsuited to the political needs of a grown-up 21st-century democracy" and believes the election could result in a LibDem and Labour partnership which could achieve that.

However, its 2005 editorial quoted the paper's best known editor CP Scott.

"It is quite possible that while Liberalism and Labour are snapping and snarling at each other the Conservative dog may run away with the bone. That would be lamentable."
If such an outcome would have been lamentable in the early 20th century, it would be just as lamentable in the early 21st.

Voting tactically for reform?

Tactical voting has been a significant feature of the last three election campaigns. In this guest post, Michael Calderbank of the Vote for a Change coalition makes the case for tactical voting to prevent a Conservative majority and increase the chances of electoral reform, explaining how the reform campaign's new tactical voting widget as advising voters on how they could vote if they are interested in making a hung Parliament more likely.


A hung parliament remains a plausible outcome of the general election. Polling suggests that a substantial body of the electorate would actively welcome this result. Many voters want to see a change not just in personnel around the Cabinet table, but in the whole character of our politics.

Crucially, a hung parliament would open up the space for radical reform of a bankrupt voting system that no longer revolves around the overwhelming dominance of just two tribes. Hence the Conservatives, alarmed at the prospect of their hopes of a clear majority receding, are doubly horrified since electoral reform could see the consolidation of a progressive bloc which would keep them out of power for a generation.

But if a strong LibDem challenge against their Conservative rivals in areas like the South West is good news for champions of democratic reform, there is a danger elsewhere that they may inadvertently help Cameron by taking significant votes from in crucial marginal seats where Labour is best placed to win. Voting for the governing party as the best way of ensuring change might seem counterintuitive – but voters seeking real reform could be well advised to cast their ballot tactically in order to maximise the chances of a hung parliament.

This is the principle behind a new tactical voting widget launched by the Vote For a Change campaign: the site allows voters to assess their chances of making a difference to the outcome of the election, and offers advice on the candidate best placed to win and contribute towards “hanging” parliament.

Essentially, this means voting for Lib Dems and other smaller parties in seats that they might conceivably win, even in constituencies where Labour is the only other realistic challenger (unless, that is, their victory would unseat Labour’s most committed advocates of reform such as Mark Lazarowicz in Edinburgh North and Leith, formerly Co-Chair of the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform).

Clearly this is not something that many Labour activists will feel entirely comfortable with – though many Labour supporters have voted in the last couple of elections to help other candidates see off a Conservative challenge, and several Labour candidates and campaigns will themselves be looking for tactical votes in some seats.

However, the quid pro quo is that the site suggests that Lib Dems back Labour candidates in the two-way marginals where they are better placed to beat the Tory, the crucial battlegrounds into which Lord Ashcroft has been pouring money to help David Cameron clock up the 326 seats he needs for a clear majority.

Voters otherwise minded to show their opposition to a Gordon Brown government might take some persuading that a tactical Labour vote offers the best chance of breaking the two party duopoly.

But unless reform-minded voters whatever their party loyalties are prepared to grasp the nettle of voting tactically, we risk letting this golden chance of engineering the most favourable conditions for reforming our politics slip by.

How could liberalism deliver on Parliamentary diversity?

I have a short response piece in The Guardian, looking at how the Liberal Democrats could catch up with the other major parties in increasing the chances of black, Asian and mixed race candidates winning selection in winnable seats, an area where I think cross-party progress is important.

The central issue for the third party is that LibDem BME candidates have been very heavily concentrated in areas with high minority ethnic populations, where the party is electorally weak. This contrasts sharply with Conservative selections in this Parliament; Labour has selected candidates in seats both with and without large BME populations.

My piece draws on earlier Fabian research at the end of 2008, looking at how there was a tendency to underestimate progress during this Parliament, and mentions the proposal specifically aimed at the LibDems in my submission to the Speakers' Conference.

I think that this would be both a more permissive and more liberal approach, more likely to be supported in the party, than Nick Clegg's suggestion that he would be bound to consider using all black shortlists if other means fail. (That remains rather unlikely to happen). I am critical more generally of all minority shortlists, but this seems particularly unlikely to provide an effective route to change for the LibDems in any event:

The LibDems will probably not elect any BME MPs next time around. They have only briefly had one Asian MP, when Parmjit Singh Gill won the 2004 Leicester South by-election before losing it after 10 months at the General Election, and he is again the only candidate in anything like a competitive seat. In nine selections in this Parliament in LibDem held seats, the party selected five women but no BME candidates.

The party does select BME candidates at a slightly higher rate (5.6%) than the Conservatives but very heavily in areas with high ethnic minority populations where the LibDems have little chance.

The LibDem party needs to select a non-white candidate when selecting for winnable seats like Winchester, York or St Ives (and not only for areas with high minority populations like Birmingham or East London). The LibDems need to work out how, within their own political culture, they could facilitate the selection of good BME candidates in a winnable seat.

A more effective route than seeking permission to use all-minority shortlists (in marginal constituencies with very low ethnic minority populations) would be to hold a transparent national competition among party members to find perhaps five highly talented BME aspiring politicians who the national party would promote to constituencies and party members for selections for Westminster, Brussels and other elected posts.

One instinctive response has been that the LibDems mostly elect local candidates - and their all-white Parliamentary party simply results from that, in combination with the party's electoral geography.

It is true that the pattern I identify does arise from the combination of a tradition of localism and constituency autonomy, perhaps combining with a traditional approach to multiculturalism as 'community representation'.

Many LibDem candidates have local government experience or are local. But this can easily be overstated too. For example, very few leading LibDem frontbenchers were in fact local candidates in their constituency selections: take Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, Ed Davey, David Laws and Norman Lamb as among the counter-examples to this local candidate rule, covering just about all of the main shadow portfolios.

The party leadership has said it wants to give this issue of representation a much greater priority and urgency, and so will need to think further about the methods they could use to achieve this. The LibDems were always likely to be pressed to think further after this election, even before the increased prominence of the LibDems in this campaign, mainly because the Conservative success in selecting several candidates looks likely to leave the party quite far behind both major parties for the first time.

Thursday, 29 April 2010

Join us for the final debate liveblog

Join us for the live online chat which we are participating in alongside LeftFootForward, Liberal Conspiracy, New Statesman, LabourList and other Labour and left-leaning bloggers.

Surely unfair BNP repatriation policy would fuel white grievance politics

If they thought about for ten minutes, which I recognise might be asking a little too much, I fear the BNP's repatriation policy could create an enormous sense of grievance among their target electorate of white voters who feel that far too much is done for minorities.

There is a lot of mythology in that claim.

Yet, now, to add insult to injury, here is perhaps the largest ever special treatment programme being offered to minority Brits - and by the BNP itself.

Why on earth should the British government spent up to £9 billion offering grants of up to £50,000 to people to leave the country - yet only on an affirmative action basis so that the offer is made exclusively for those (like me) whose parents are from abroad.

This excludes indigenous Brits who might fancy a new life in Australia, Canada or Spain. Where on earth is the fairness in that? Couldn't white Brits sue the government under equality legislation, were such a law introduced?

Perhaps Trevor Phillips could investigate. For Nick Griffin may here have finally succumbed to political correctness gone mad.

The policy suffers massive deadweight costs of subsidising those going abroad anyway. My brother and his wife have gone to live and work in Canada recently. Why on earth would the BNP even be thinking about stumping up £50,000 for him, and not for her? I do not think the Institute of Fiscal Studies would be at all impressed by that, though asking them to fully cost the BNP manifesto may be a step too far.

As Griffin today also seems to think that the Irish are British, perhaps the Katwalas wouldn't qualify for repatriation and could hang around anyway, since my Mum is Irish. And offering me £50,000 to go to live in Dublin would seem a slightly odd use of taxpayers' money, so perhaps the BNP affirmative action project would insist that I went to Mumbai.


Slightly more seriously, anybody interested in the history of the repatriation argument in British politics should read not Enoch Powell's famous Rivers of Blood speech, but the follow up speech he gave seven months later at the Rotary Club in Eastbourne.

This focused on repatriation, which was already a much higher priority for Powell by 1968 than stopping future immigration. I wrote about that speech in an Open Democracy essay on some of the less well known features of Powell's argument.

To give Enoch Powell some credit, the urgency with which he spoke reflected a clear recognition in his 1968 speeches that the argument would clearly be over by the mid-1980s, when the clear majority of the immigrant-descended population would be British born, making the Powellite agenda a quixotic fantasy.

Indeed, even four decades ago, Powell recognised that even taking his advice could not prevent the reality of a multi-ethnic Britain, though he did express the thought in a rather chilling way:

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

50% think Brown gaffe "storm in a teacup", in latest unreported Sun poll finding

Yesterday's incident was certainly damaging for Gordon Brown, as The Sun reports gleefully.

A YouGov poll for The Sun last night indicated he may be toast at the election - with 46 per cent of voters quizzed reckoning he had been exposed as a hypocrite.

Only one in four believed his apology was genuine.

That's a pretty bad snap poll result - and it remains so when you see the full question and result.

Unfortunately, lack of space meant the newspaper were not able to report the full finding of their expensive, instant polling.

Thanks to Mark Pack for retrieving it from the pollster's website.

It’s a storm in a teacup. Mr Brown was simply trying to let off steam in private. We should not think the worse of him: 50%
Mr Brown is a hypocrite – saying one thing in public and the opposite in private. Now we know just how much he despise [question truncated on results sheet]: 46%

Gordon Brown writes new Fabian pamphlet

Gordon Brown has written new Fabian Ideas pamphlet called ‘Why the Right is Wrong’.

It sets out the philosophical case for a Labour government and why ideas matter in politics. It's an interesting companion piece to the manifesto and shows some of the broader thinking behind it. I thought I’d post a couple of short extracts that are in keeping with Next Left's mission to raise the general level of philosophical engagement on the blogosphere... at a time in the campaign when the battle of ideas isn't get much of a look in.

It has just been mailed out to Fabian members, so the best way to get hold of the whole thing is to join the Fabian Society. Alternatively, you can access it here.

First up, on the market and reclaiming Adam Smith:
“The global financial crisis has demonstrated once and for all that leaving markets to their own devices – in the laissez-faire, neoliberal manner demanded by the libertarian Right – simply does not work. I have long been fascinated by the work of Adam Smith, the famous Enlightenment economist who hailed from my home town of Kirkcaldy. Smith fully grasped the vital role that markets and trade can play in generating prosperity, stimulating innovation and creativity, and making everyone better off. But his thought has been fundamentally misinterpreted by many on the Right. In 'The Wealth of Nations', Smith writes of an ‘invisible hand’ at work in the operation of the market, which enables the pursuit of individual self-interest to work in the common good. In an often-quoted passage, Smith observes that 'it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.'

However – and this is the point that is so often not understood – Smith did not see this as the whole story. He did not believe that self-interest always yields public benefit; nor did he believe that public goods can only be produced via the pursuit of self-interest. Indeed, Smith makes clear in his 'Theory of Moral Sentiments' – the book in which the term was in fact coined, and the book of which he himself was most proud – that the invisible hand must be accompanied by what might be described as a ‘supporting hand’: the idea that we should not pass by on the other side when others are in need of our help and it is within our power to help them.

An appreciation of the virtues – but also of the limitations – of markets has always been a central element of Labour thinking, and this element of our progressive philosophy is now more relevant than ever. With the laissez-faire approach of the neoliberal Right now thoroughly discredited, right-wingers have found themselves with little in the way of substantial and coherent principles to fall back on. They have been forced, as a result, to take one of two options. The first option is denial. Some politicians and commentators on the Right still cling to the outmoded idea that government can do no good; this explains their expressed willingness to ‘let the recession take its course’ and their opposition to the measures we took to support the recovery. The second option is a reliance on sound-bites, presentational gimmicks, and intellectual fads to provide ‘mood music’ that conceals a lack of deeply held values and principles."

And here is an interestingly Croslandite section on equality:
“I believe we need to think more boldly about equality. Simply put, equality of opportunity is an ideal that is impossible to achieve without also embracing fairness of outcome. For while some families have more money than others, they will always be able to secure advantages for their children that will give them opportunities that poorer children will not have – private tuition to supplement schooling, foreign holidays to help learn languages, and so on. Equality of opportunity is desirable, but it is only fully possible if we embrace fairness of outcome, too. Does this mean, therefore, that we should subscribe to the ideal of equality of outcome in order to secure full equality of opportunity? I believe not. Incentives are a necessary part of an economy and society; they drive aspiration and encourage people to work harder, do better, and create new ways of doing things. They also, of course, cause some inequality. But this kind of inequality can be justified if it makes everyone better off than they would otherwise be, especially the poorest; this was one John Rawls’s great insights.

Absolute equality of outcome has never been advocated by those on the mainstream Left, whatever caricature the Right might present of the progressive position. Equality of outcome, as many progressive thinkers and politicians have argued, is contrary to human nature and inimical to liberty and personal autonomy. It is important to realise, though, that this is not the same as saying that we should not care about inequalities of outcome at all. Any genuine commitment to the principle of equality of opportunity entails achieving fairness of outcome; in other words, limiting inequality of outcome to some degree. For, as we have seen, inequality of outcome in one generation leads automatically to inequality of opportunity in the next, as parents legitimately use their resources to give their children a head-start in life.”

Bigoted or not? How to tell the difference

"So does he think we're all bigots?" is the lead headline on the Daily Mail website to trail their coverage of the Prime Minister's disastrous remarks about a voter in Rochdale.

Clearly, that would be quite wrong and absurd.

Immigration is a major public issue. (That is why it has been endlessly discussed in political and public debate, with enormous amounts of legislation passed on it too).

So we all need to be much clearer about the difference between a rational and a bigoted discussion of immigration.

Where should we draw the line?

Coincidentally, the reporter on today's Mail piece is James Chapman. I believe that he was also author of the Mail's news report last year complaining that British-born children and grandchildren of immigrants were not classified as immigrants. (I think, from memory, that Chapman was the reporter: the initial article seems to have been pulled from the online archive).

That report complained that:

although the figures from the Government’s Office for National Statistics show an increase in numbers of foreign born people they still fail to record the true impact of immigration because they record their children as British rather than second or third generation immigrants.

That was wrong. On an ungenerous day, one might regard it as bigoted too.

Perhaps that is controversial, but I think I could make some case that it could be "unreasonably prejudiced and intolerant” to declare that my children, aged under five, should be classified as immigrants and considered less British to boot, because their grandparents came to this country forty years ago.

But we should always remember that sinners can repent. To their credit, the Mail were responsive in apologising when challenged.

They ran my letter to address the mistake.

So progress is possible. And I will always regard the Daily Mail's journalism over the murder of Stephen Lawrence as one of the most important and effective tabloid newspaper campaigns of the last twenty years.

Yet even the sincerely repentant can sometimes lapse.

Unfortunately, the Mail has returned to discussing who is "British by blood" rather too frequently in this election campaign - targetting Nick Clegg, Steve Hilton and other persons of suspicion across the political spectrum over their foreign parentage.

Mr Paul Dacre, the agenda-setting, editor-in-chief of the newspaper, is said to have a close personal relationship with Gordon Brown.

So the Prime Minister would never, of course, call his friend Mr Dacre a bigot.

With so much less cause in Rochdale, you might have thought that Gordon Brown would have learnt to hold his tongue.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Want to say you've been let down by Labour? Get some cash from The Sun

The Sun's political editor has been reported saying "It is my job to see that Cameron fucking well gets into Downing Street”.

Despite earlier rumours, BBC political editor Nick Robinson has suggested tonight that The Sun did not, after discussions, buy the story or any exclusive interview with Mrs Gillian Duffy after today's political storm after Gordon Brown's insult, because they did not think it was "interesting" enough.

Now Left Foot Forward reports that journalist and author John Naughton has published an email apparently from Sun reporter Jenna Sloan

Here it is:

From: [redacted]
Sent: 27 April 2010 11:15
To: [redacted]
Subject: request from Jenna Sloan, The Sun

If you have relevant information for the media professional concerned please click this link to reply:

Request deadline: Thursday 29 April, 2010, 4:00 pm

Contact me by e-mail at

My request: I’m looking for a teacher and a nurse to be case studies in The Sun next week.

This is for a political, election feature and both must be willing to say why they feel let down by the Labour Government, and why they are thinking about voting Conservative.

We’ll need to picture them, and also have a chat about their political opinions.

We can pay the case studies £100 for their time.

Please do let me know if you think you can help.

Rather more authentically, even the page three girls are warning about the dangers of a hung Parliament.

But, remember, everybody is just doing their f-ing job!

Proof that Murdoch and Dacre help Clegg's cause

An interesting poll finding from LibDemVoice - the right-wing press opposing the Liberal Democrats makes voters more likely to vote for them.

Opposition from the Daily Mail, The Sun and Daily Telegraph to the Liberal Democrats actually makes people more likely to vote for the party.

Asked the impact on their voting intention of those papers opposing Nick Clegg becoming Prime Minister, 15% said it made them more likely to vote Liberal Democrat and only 4% said it made them less likely, making for a net +11% saying they are more likely to vote Liberal Democrat.

What this perhaps underestimates is how the intensity of newspaper attacks have been highly mobilising for younger voters in particular. The strikingly desperate tone of right-wing newspapers who are partisan supporters of David Cameron could undermine the Conservative leaders' claim to represent "change".

But David Cameron is lucky in one respect which is that, while blogging and social networking has led to more scrutiny of the press agenda than in the past, the media remain rather reluctant to discuss the partisan role of the newspapers in this election campaign.

Yes, the theatrical absurdity of James Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks bursting into The Independent editor's office got several mentions.

But the claim by the political editor of Britain's biggest-selling newspaper, The Sun, that "It is my job to see that Cameron fucking well gets into Downing Street" has not been thought of as newsworthy by a single newspaper reporter or print commentator.

[UPDATE: With the honourable exception of The Independent, at least. See comments. Google News is not returning any results for the search, but is not exhaustive].

What we do and don't know about twitter and the election

If you could put today's media and online coverage in a time capsule, future Martians could find it enormously valuable in understanding the nature of media and political communications in 2010. And if they could get a message back, perhaps the rest of us would be a little bit less confused about it too.

Failing that, here is a excellent incisive and excessively sensible post, written just before the bigotgate story of election 2010 broke, on what we do and don't know about twitter.

Its from Paul Mason of Newsnight, whose ten theses on twitter.
mean he should surely henceforth be known as Professor Mason of the Twitterati.

A couple of snippets:

Twitter has the power to amplify the impact of any political event. Because users create their own social network, by choosing who to follow, Twitter has the potential also to distort the impact of any political event, reinforcing existing political opinions and prejudices. Twitter and 24-hour rolling TV news tend to feed off each other during breakthrough-level mass events, to an extent that has not been properly understood.

Twitter is, at present a) a tool for realtime qualitative research; b) a reliable, but still legally constrained, tool to evade censorship; c) a sporadically effective means for the mass of people to force behaviour changes in the corporately-owned media; d) a highly-inefficient and ultimately self-defeating vehicle for propaganda; e) an effective transmitter of news; f) a collaborative tool for professional journalists.

One of Mason's points is that we need to know much more, but that the necessary information is not easily available. Nick Anstead and Ben O’Loughlin have engaged in one academic project to study the role of the viewertariat on the occasion of Nick Griffin's appearance on BBC Question Time, while tweetminster captures information and raw stats on their blog.

But the post also highlights what might well become a new theme for political reformers - a campaign for greater Twitter transparency.

Brown was wrong - but politicians need to disagree with voters too

The election campaign coverage today will be dominated by reaction to Gordon Brown calling a voter he had just met a bigoted woman. Gordon Brown has immediately apologised for a bad mistake. He will be hoping that, some time over the next 36 hours, the agenda returns to the broader campaign and the economy debate tomorrow.

The irony is that this has been an election in which politicians seem to have very rarely challenged the voters on anything. So perhaps the most disappointing part of the Brown encounter is that any disagreement ought to be expressed in the meeting with the voter, not privately afterwards.

The parties are this morning rightly under pressure from the Institute of Fiscal Studies for not being open with the public about cuts. It is because they all take the view that the voters would punish any party that was.

Could it ever be different? Well, we can imagine anyway.

Take, for example, the famous "voter moment" with Tony Blair at a Birmingham hospital in 2001, and Meg Russell's suggestion as to what the Prime Minister might have said in her Fabian pamphlet 'Must Politics Disappoint?'

Overpromising is in part linked to the consumer culture and politicians' reluctance to admit the extent to which social change depends on the actions of individuals as responsible citizens. The danger here is that parties are seen as products and politicians, afraid of offending the public, seek to behave as if the 'customer' is always right ... [Russell cites criticism of government for failing to curb traffic growth and obesity] ... The changes desired can only be accomplished by partnership between politicians, the public and other groups. A failure to be frank about this can only fuel disappointment.

Remember the difficulty Tony Blair found himself in at one widely broadcast moment of the 2001 General Election when collared by an angry voter outside a Birmingham hospital. The Prime Minister sought to placate his critic, who complained of slow progress in reforming the NHS, alleging that "you are not prepared to pay for it". Although the midst of an election campaign was hardly the moment for a sudden change of approach, the correct response from Blair might have been to say "We, madam, have only the money that taxpayers consent to give us. It is therefore you who are not prepared to pay for it!"

Might there even be some public credit, albeit risk too, for one of the party leaders to look down the lens on Thursday night, and explain why they respectfully disagree with the majority on a significant public issue.


There was no evidence at all in the public footage I have seen to justify Brown's remark about the individual voter he met: he has apologised publicly and reportedly to her personally.

Yet, to make a much broader point not about the particular example, politicians and canvassers will of course meet some bigoted voters.

But it also seems that it would be political suicide for any politician to even answer a question like "Are some voters bigoted?" in the affirmative. And that is even the case with regard to BNP voters. The media and political classes consistently stress that it would be wrong to stigmatise those voting BNP as racist, despite their voting for a racist party, as this would be to fail to deal with their genuine concerns.

Up to a point. Of course, bigoted voters with strongly racist opinions are a small minority of those concerned with major public issues such as immigration. But there is a tendency to wish them away and pretend they do not exist.

Analysis by Peter Kellner of YouGov's polling suggests that about half of those who voted BNP last June (1% of the total electorate) appear to be motivated by strongly racist opinions, and about half by broader grievances and discontents

The BNP won 6% of the total vote in the European elections. But only one elector in three turned out. That means just 2% of the total electorate voted BNP. And YouGov research for Channel 4 News found that (depending on precise definitions) roughly half of the BNP’s voters are truly racist; the other half are people who feel insecure and alienated from the main political parties. So just 1% of the electorate were racist BNP voters last week.

There are many good reasons to be optimistic about the decline of bigotry in Britain. Who, just 20 years ago, would have imagined that the mainstream media, and not only activist groups, would do so much to scrutinise and challenge the party's commitments to gay equality as a test of whether they were electable?

As I blogged recently, there is good evidence that racism is steadily falling in Britain, but that is far from the same thing as claiming that it no longer exists.

The British Social Attitudes series shows gradual but sustained intergenerational falls in racism and indicators associated with racial prejudice: for example, 60% of those born in the 1910s oppose mixed-race marriages compared to 24% of those born in the 1970s. The 25% saying that they regarded themselves very (2%) or a little (23%) racially prejudiced in 2000 had fallen from 35% (5%, 29%) in 1985. In a 2002 MORI poll, 59% of us agreed that Britain is a place with good relations between people of different ethnic backgrounds, while 20% disagreed (+39%); interestingly non-white Brits were more optimistic (+51%), agreeing by 67% to 16%.

LibDem tax fairness? The IFS verdict

There was a very spirited and actively contested debate about the merits of the LibDem proposal to raise the income tax threshold to £10,0000, following Left Foot Forward's critique of the tax plan written by Tim Horton, Fabian research director, and tax modelling expert Howard Reed of Landman Economics.

The Left Foot Forward report argued that the £17 billion LibDem plan "failed the fairness test" because 70% of the gains went to the top half of society while leaving the poorest households out. LibDem politicians and bloggers argued that the critique was unfair, because funding the £17 billion tax cut from taxes focused mostly on the wealthiest meant it could be defended as a progressive tax fairness move.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies has now published its detailed analysis of all three major party manifestos, which therefore can be used to assess both sets of arguments.

Its analysis of the income tax cut is very similar to that published by Left Foot Forward.

The IFS verdict on the overall LibDem manifesto is that it seeks to redistribute from the best-off towards middle-incomes rather than to poorer households. The IFS report also suggests that it is misleading to advocate the tax threshold policy as a response to the high proportion of tax paid by the poorest.

The IFS conclusion on the overall LibDem approach is that:

"Broadly speaking, the Liberal Democrat package would redistribute from the well-off to middle-income families – augmenting the progressive pattern of Labour’s pre-announced measures but doing little for the poorest households. This latter feature might appear odd given the Liberal Democrats’ often-expressed anger at the relatively high rate of tax paid on the gross income of the poorest households."

Here is what the IFS say about the distributional impact of increasing the tax threshold to £10,0000 on different groups:

The poorest households:

Those individuals with incomes too low to pay tax will not gain at all from this. In 2009-10, only 62% of the adult population had a high enough income to pay income tax ... in any given year around one in four families contains no income tax-payer. But these figures are a reminder that income tax cuts are not well targetted to help the poorest in society.

The impact on low-paid income taxpayers:

In 2009-10 there were 3.6 million taxpayers with incomes below £10,000, paying a total of £1.1 billion in tax. Thus around 7% of the money spent increasing the personal allowance would go to these 3.6 million people, who would gain just over £300 per year on average.

The impact on most low, middle and higher-earners:

Those aged under 65 with earnings between £10,000 and £112,950 would gain £705 each.

The gains are much smaller for most pensioners who pay income tax, except that those pensioners earning over £23,000 would gain more, and pensioners earning over £29,000 would gain as much as middle-earners under 65:

Those aged over 65 currently have a higher personal allowance - £9490 for those aged 64-75 and £9640 for those aged 75 and over - and so an increased to £10,000 would mean a much smaller giveaway to them: £102 and £72 respectively ...

But above income levels of £22,900 older taxpayers would gain more, and those with incomes above £28,930 (if aged 65-74) or £29,230 (if aged 75+) would gain the full £705

So the IFS summarises the overall impact of the LibDem proposal to raise the tax threshold as follows:

Those with the lowest incomes would not benefit from this reform. And families with two taxpayers will benefit more than families with one taxpayer, who tend to be worse off.

Thus, overall, better off families (although not the very richest) would tend to gain most in cash terms from this reform.

But clearly £705 would be less valuable to those on higher incomes than to those on lower incomes as a percentage of income: the largest gains are around the upper-middle of the income distribution rather than at the top. In isolation, this giveaway could not be described as progressive, but to consider the distributional impact of the Liberal Democrats' package as a whole we must also consider who would lose from the tax rises they would introduce to pay for this tax cut ...

Broadly speaking, the Liberal Democrat package would redistribute from the well-off to middle-income families – augmenting the progressive pattern of Labour’s pre-announced measures but doing little for the poorest households.

The IFS graph of page 50 also show that LibDem tax credit and benefit changes would have a (smaller) negative impact on the middle income deciles, peaking at a loss of £100 a year for those in the 6th decile.

Overall, the IFS reports that "the LibDems would increase the size of the net 'takeaway' by about a quarter, and would do so in a way that would make the pattern of losses more progressive, by redistributing from the wealthy to those on middle-incomes (but not so much to those on low incomes)".

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Is Vince reopening the LibDem child benefit argument?

Vince Cable refused to join the Labour and Conservative parties in ruling out the means-testing of child benefit, on Newsnight tonight. Cable emphasised that this did not mean the party would target the benefit, simply that he was ruling nothing out.

But that could reopen a topsy-turvy debate in the party after an earlier rapid leadership u-turn on the issue. Nick Clegg clearly stated as the campaign began that universal child benefit was not in question, when questioned about earlier statements last Autumn where both he and Cable personally favoured means-testing child benefit, a position rejected by the party's frontbench spokesman Steve Webb.


After all, Nick Clegg told Jeremy Paxman on the opening Monday of the campaign:

"We are not putting child benefit into question. I never have and he hasn't either", referring to himself and Cable, and excusing Cable's reference to means-testing child benefit in the Chancellor's debate as a simple vebal slip.

Since this was three days before Cleggmania broke out, nobody except Next Left seemed interested in reporting that the claim that Clegg and Cable had "never" put the benefit into question just wasn't true.

Clegg had told The Guardian as his party conference opened last September that he did want to look at means-testing child benefit: "I find it odd that people on multi-million pay packages from the city get child benefit. That's patently silly and patently unfair", an interview which coincided with Cable proposing, in an Reform pamphlet, that child benefit should be targetted, "by assimilating it into tax credit". He wrote: "It is certainly incongruous to many people that the very rich receive child benefit. The IFS estimates that £5 billion or more could be saved by no longer making child benefit universal ... Such a reform would be easier to make if income tax were cut for standard rate payers. I favour making this reform in principle, but more work needs to be done on how to manage offsetting tax cuts".

But the Clegg-Cable plan was overruled by Steve Webb the day after the Clegg interview, speaking with me at a Fabian/CentreForum fringe in defence of universalism:

“We’ve been able to conduct the review speedily over the last 24 hours – and I am pleased to say that the policy won’t be changing. I read ... we were going to look at ‘middle class child benefit’. I have looked at it – and I have rejected it,”

That seemed comprehensive, and appeared to be confirmed by Clegg's Paxman interview, which had gone as far as to wipe his personal u-turn from the memory banks.

This was tonight's Newsnight:

Kirsty Wark: Can you rule out means testing child benefit in the first Parliament?

Vince Cable: "We can't rule anything out, but we are not arguing for that. We are arguing that we should restrict child tax credit, as opposed to child benefit, should be restricted to people on people on middle and low incomes".

Tory spokesman Phillip Hammond was prepared to give a clear commitment, giving an answer happily rather more in tune with the Fabian Society than the think-tank Reform, which has been leading a push to cut "middle-class benefits"

Phillip Hammond: We have made a decision to rule out means testing child benefit because it is a universal benefit. Talking to people, one of the things they appreciate about child benefit that it is universal and easily understood. To start to means test it would erode it ... It reassures them about the availability of the benefit. If you start means testing it, if you start slicing away at that universality, then people are going to ask where you are going to stop".

With which Liam Byrne fully agreed, ruling out the means-testing of child benefit under Labour.

Cable reiterated that his position remained open, but that this did not mean that he was not committed to means-testing, but that it was a question the party would keep open.

Wark: There you have an answer from the Conservatives and Labour at least on child benefit.

Cable: We are not arguing for means testing child benefit.

Wark: You are not arguing for it but you are not ruling it out.

Cable: Of course not. I am trying to be honest and saying we have a serious problem and we are going to look at everything.

11.6 million married people excluded from Tory tax break because husband and wife both work

The real message sent by the design of the Tory marriage tax break was immediately clear.

The Conservatives value marriages where one partner stays at home.

So the Tory tax break would give £150 a year to a married couple with one earner on £35,000 and the other not working, but would not apply to a married couple both earning £15,000 each, unless one stops work or more than halves their income. I have yet to see anybody explain why that is fair, even among those who disagree with JK Rowling's powerful single mother's manifesto and so think a pro-marriage tax break is a good thing in itself.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies had previously set out why fewer than three in ten married couples benefit.

But the IFS' new detailed manifesto analysis of tax and benefits proposals today reveals for the first time how many married couples are excluded from the tax break because husband and wife both work, and earn over £6500.

The answer is that 5.8 million married couples - so 11.6 million people in all - won't get the marriage tax break because they both work and pay tax, and so have no unused personal allowance to transfer.

That is very close to half of all of Britain's married couples who can't qualify because they don't follow the 1950s sole male breadwinner model which the policy rewards. (Another 0.8 million single earner married couples have the wage-earner paying higher rate income tax: they are excluded by the "ProgCon" amendment of excluding higher rate-taxpayers, to avoid a sharply regressive distribution, rather than the underlying "TradCon" policy design that excludes married couples who both go to work).

As today's Institute of Fiscal Studies report sets out:

The only families which can gain from this policy are married couples where only one partner has an income high enough to be paying income tax and the taxpaying spouse is a basic-rate taxpayer.

Out of 12.3 million married couples in the UK, 5.8 million would not benefit because they are both already taxpayers (so there is no unused tax allowance to transfer), 1.6 million would not benefit because neither are taxpayers (meaning that there is no benefit to either partner from a higher personal allowance) and 0.8 million would not benefit because, although only one partner is a taxpayer, they are a higher-rate taxpayer. Four million couples would benefit, a third of all married couples.

David Cameron perhaps rather misleadingly evaded this point by telling Jeremy Paxman on Friday: "No, that's not true ... it depends what they earn". It is rather a technicality to defend a "stay at home" incentive because those who earn less than £5750 could still get £150, when the policy clearly excludes most married women who work.

It also might surprise people just how poorly targetted the tax break is in helping married families with children, though the IFS has also set out why the evidence that marriage causally improves child outcomes is weak:

As the IFS reports:

Even if marriage did improve child outcomes, though, it is not clear that a policy where pensioner families make up more than a third of the beneficiaries and receive 31% of the gains is well targeted. In fact, only 35% of the families who gain from the policy have children, and only 17% have children aged under 5.

Next Left has also pointed out that - despite the symbolically positive and (legally unavoidable) inclusion of civil partners, labour force surveys show they are somewhat less likely to live in the "approved" household structure than other married couples.

So nobody has yet identified a civil partnered couple who do qualify!

That is a further challenge which ought to be put to Tory frontbenchers, in media interviews defending this flagship policy.

The fantasy of a minority Labour government

Over at LabourList, Brian Barder has been making the case for a minority Labour government in the event of a hung parliament 'regardless of the outcome in terms of votes or seats'.

Even if Labour came third in the popular vote - indeed, if I have understood him, even if Labour is behind the Tories in seats - Barder argues that Labour can and should assume the role of government under Gordon Brown. It should proceed to present a Queen's Speech and test the nerve of the other parties - in particular the Lib Dems - to vote it down.

Barder envisages Brown producing a Queen's speech with plenty of goodies - he refers to 'Lib Dem shibboleths' like civil liberties - to woo the Lib Dems.

Barder thinks the Lib Dems would draw back from voting Labour down. Why? Because if they did vote Labour down, the Tories would then get to form a minority government. They would probably offer the Lib Dems less. What would the Lib Dems then do? Vote this government down? Barder argues this would precipitate a fresh election in which the Tories would romp home with a nice majority, thank you very much. Indeed, he confidently predicts that the result of this fresh election would be a Lib Dem 'wipeout'.

Now if the Lib Dems rationally anticipate all of this, then of course they will stop at the first step: they will support Labour's Queen's speech.

As the saying goes, let's 'get real'. Any argument of this kind has to be based on a serious estimation of the costs and benefits to the various parties of various courses of action. What makes Barder's story fanciful in the extreme - aside from being so objectionable in democratic terms - is the way he selectively ignores some obvious and substantial costs while hugely exaggerating others.

First, and foremost, any attempt by Labour to hold onto office on its own in such circumstances (in particular being third in the popular vote and/or being the second party in terms of seats) would drain the party of credibility in the country. Labour is lower in the polls at the moment than it has been since the 1983 general election. But I dread to think how low the poll ratings would go if Labour attempted to cling on to office in the way that Barder describes.

Second, because we can anticipate that the attempt to cling to office will be so unpopular, we can also anticipate that it is likely to be strongly opposed from within Labour's ranks. Could the party's leader carry the party with him on such a journey?

Third, there is an obvious, huge cost to the Lib Dems of voting or allowing through a Labour Queen's Speech in these circumstances. They throw away their hard-earned credibility as the 'party of change'.

But what about the supposedly nightmare consequences to the Lib Dems of failing to support a Labour Queen's speech? Am I not ignoring these?

It is here that Barder's analysis switches from a convenient refusal to acknowledge costs of action to an implausible exaggeration of costs.

So let us imagine the Lib Dems do vote Labour down and a Tory minority government forms. Either they offer enough goodies to the Lib Dems to stop them voting them out, e.g., a referendum on PR, or they don't. If they don't, why won't the Lib Dems vote them out too? Barder's claim is that this would (a) precipitate a fresh election which (b) the Tories would win and (c) would see a Lib Dem 'wipeout'.

Every single one of these assertions is questionable. Assume, for the sake of argument, that elections do get called. Barder has no basis whatsoever for predicting that the Tories would comfortably win. If a Lib Dem - Tory deal fell through, why wouldn't that reflect badly on the Tories? Why wouldn't fresh elections, occurring against this sequence of events, produce a revulsion against both Labour and the Tories and a further Lib Dem surge?

If Labour fails to win a parliamentary majority at this election it had better respect the wish of the British people - something for which Barder apparently has very little respect - which would have spoken clearly against having a Labour government.

It could and should seek to go into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, not in order to 'cling to office', but on a basis of a genuine sharing of power and constructive cooperation on policy. In circumstances like those we have been assuming, Labour can reasonably stake a claim to be in the government; it cannot reasonably attempt to be the government.

Stuart White is a lecturer in Politics at Oxford University where he directs the Public Policy Unit. He writes at Next Left in a personal capacity and is not a spokesperson for the Fabian Society.

Fact-checking Cameron's first-past-the-post mythology

"I want us to keep the current system that enables you to throw a government out of office", David Cameron told The Observer.

This is the "line to take" for Conservatives, constantly repeated on Question Time, Any Questions and in press conferences.

It is somewhat odd that having first "invited" everybody in the whole country to join his government, the man who wants to be PM now insists that a Hung Parliament would be pure chaos as he hates the idea of his negotiating or sharing power with anybody at all.

At least he wants to make it easy to vote him out again. Or so he says.

But fact-checking his claim suggests that it's nonsense, so I hope that other media outlets will look in the detail at the claim and challenge it when repeated.

(1) The British have changed governments only twice in 35 years

It set me wondering why, having been born in April 1974, I've only seen the British government change twice in my 36 years on earth. Nor is that unusually low. Twenty-seven British general elections since 1900 have seen nine changes of government at the ballot box: we would have an above average rate of voting governments out in the post-1975 period were Labour to lose this time. (The 1945-79 period of the pendulum stands out as exceptional).

(2) There would have been as many British governments kicked out under AV or AV+

Cameron is simply wrong to claim that alternative systems would stop voters from kicking governments out. Nor does the evidence suggest it would be more difficult.

The Jenkins report sets out that both the Alternative Vote and AV+ would have seen a similar rate of government turnover in post-war British elections, or perhaps slightly higher, as they would also have led to a Hung Parliament rather than John Major's re-election in 1992. AV is a majoritarian system; AV+ a more proportional system which would still have given majority governments in most post-war elections. (Peter Kellner looks in detail at likely post-war AV outcomes in his submission to Jenkins).

Voting behaviour would change under different systems. But it is ludicrous to claim that electoral reform would stop voters being able to vote the government out. If anything, the international evidence suggests it could become easier.

(3) Britain is bottom of the international league for kicking governments out.

David Cameron has a particular focus on claiming that FPTP allows voters to remove the head of government at the ballot box, and that other systems can't do this. He seems confused: his main argument is that the system won't work if people vote for the candidate and party they want to.

He is also simply wrong, as the international league table shows.

Kicking the rascals out? heads of government/governing parties defeated at the ballot box post-1975

Ireland (Parl, PR): six (1977, 1981, 1982, 1982, 1987, 1997)
Sweden (Parl; PR): five (1976, 1982, 1991, 1994, 2006)
Canada (Parl; FPTP): five (1979, 1980, 1984, 1993, 2006)
Australia (Parl; AV): three, or four (1983, 1996, 2007)
Spain (Parl; PR): three (1979, 1996, 2004)
USA (Pres; FPTP): three+ [five*] (1976, 1980, 1988 + 2000, 2008)
Italy (Parl: PR/mixed): two+ (five*) (2001, 2006) (1994, 1996, 2008)
Germany (Parl: PR): two (1998, 2005)
Japan (Parl: FPTP; mixed FPTP/PR post-'93): two (1993, 2009)
Britain (Parl; FPTP): two (1979, 1997)
France (Pres; FPTP): one+ (two*) (1981) + (1995)

France has changed its PM in parliamentary elections more often too (eg 1986, 1988, 1996, 2002) though the table shows Presidential results.
[a] Would be four if Whitlam 1975 counted as a government defeat: the PM was dismissed for a caretaker government, with an election 4 weeks later.
+ Incumbent PM/president defeated at polls;
* Incumbent party defeated at polls (under new leadership), eg Al Gore in 2000.

(4) Britain has a long history of incumbency.

Many voters have no chance to vote anybody in or out, as Mark Pack has shown.

Three in ten Commons seats have not changed hands since 1945.

50% of English seats have been held by the same party since 1970

Cameron opposes all efforts to deal with safe seats, including the relatively modest (Alternative Vote) proposal that each MP should at least need to seek 50% of their constituency vote. He (implicitly) argues this lack of democracy at the constituency level is a price worth paying because it makes it easier to change the government overall. There is, however, no evidence to back up his claim.

On the long view, in British political history since 1900, there have been five decades in which no government was voted out by the electorate, and only two decades saw more than one government defeated at the ballot box.

Government defeats at British General Elections by decade.

2000s: None
1990s: One (1997)
1980s: None
1970s: Three (1970, 1974, 1979)
1960s: One (1964)
1950s: One (1951)
1940s: One (am counting defeat of PM's party in 1945, to party which was part of the national governing coalition)
1930s: None
1920s: Three (1923, 1924, 1929)
1910s: None
1900s: None (1906 landslide somewhat similar to a government defeat, but new Liberal government took office in 1905).

In fact, there are two somewhat contradictory arguments for first-past-the-post.

The traditional argument stresses stability and strong government: this is consistent with the tendency not to throw governments out or make that easier.

By contrast, Cameron's new argument seeks to appeal to anti-politics claiming that it is easier to kick governments out, despite the lack of evidence for this.

Can you guess which argument genuinely appeals most to David Cameron, and to his press cheerleaders in the Sun and the Daily Mail?


What Cameron is trying to oppose is the (clearly exaggerated) idea that electoral reform - especially PR - means that governments don't change at the polls, but in parliamentary manouveres between elections.

For example, in Germany there was a change of government in 1982, which the voters then accepted (or could have rejected in the 1983 General Election). And he overlooks the fact that exactly the same thing can happen in British system, and could be quite common in an era of multi-party politics.

Examples include the major changes of British government ahead of the 1906, 1918, 1922 and 1931 general elections, each of which then voted for the new administration to continue.

Post-war Germany is an unusual case, because political elites on both sides retained a very strong post-war concern about democratic instability right up to the 1990s, though democratic power did shift between right and left under Adenauer/Erhard, Brandt, Schmidt, Kohl, Schroeder and Merkel, including straight election defeats (1998), changes of Chancellor (1969; 2005) and shifts in the make-up and direction of government (2009) at general elections. And governments have been thrown out at the polls in PR elections elsewhere, rather more often than in Britain.

Monday, 26 April 2010

A game of three halves

If you want to see those seat calculators and hung Parliament wallcharts come to life, then head over to Heggerstone Park on Sunday May 2nd to watch a game of three-sided football on a hexagonal pitch between teams representing Labour, the Tories and the LibDems.

My old friends at Philosophy Football are working with the Whitechapel Gallery gallery's writer-in-residence Sally O’Reilly, to put on the game "to echo the alliances, competition and connivances" of electoral politics.

I am not totally sold on the rules, which were invented by the Danish situationist Asger Jorn in the 1970s.

That scoring goals doesn't count - only the number each team concedes - seems tailor-made for negative campaigning. And the game might better represent the election battle if there were two balls in play at once.

No doubt a key tactic would be to trick another team into thinking you are going to form an alliance with them, before counter-punching.

So come on you reds!

And I hope the blues get trounced.

But will anyone put the ball into the yellow net?


The gallery is advertising the event with a snapshot of Bob Paisley, alongside that ghastly workhouse Emlyn Hughes and his political hero Margaret Thatcher, that most anti-football of premiers, posing with the old league trophy.

Which reminds me ...

We know that Gordon Brown is genuinely devoted to the lost cause of Raith Rovers, though their valiant campaign this season fell just short in the Scottish Cup semi-finals.

And that David Cameron isn't really much of a fan but supports Aston Villa, having been taken to a game by his Uncle, the club Chairman. (Dave missed a great opportunity this weekend to support the local Tory council leader's wheeze of changing Villa's name to add Birmingham to it).

But what about Nick Clegg? As he was born in 1967, could it really be beyond Mr Dacre's minions to indict him with excessive enthusiasm for Johann Cruyff?

Why decapitation strategies don't work

The Tory blogosphere and some of the media are excitedly talking up "decapitation" strategies against Labour ministers. But it would make much more sense for the Labour blogosphere to do so.

CCHQ in encouraging the story, in an attempt to boost party morale and distract from the admission that many LibDem targets may be out of reach, appear to have forgotten what they learnt in defending against the LibDem widely trumpeted attempt to decapitate Michael Howard, Oliver Letwin, David Davis, Theresa May and others in both 2001 and 2005, which proved a comprehensive failure.

The voters don't like it.

Don't take it from me; take it from not-Lord Ashcroft himself, on page 305 of Dirty Politics, Dirty Times, available to read in full online all the way from Belize:

My polling uncovered many interesting facts, including that voters in the Liberal Democrats' decapitation seats were less inclined to vote against the sitting Conservative MP when they were told of the decapitation motivation.


Oliver Letwin clearly understood the message because when he was interviewed by Ann Treneman of The Times during the campaign, he asked her to use the word "decapitation" a lot because he said it would help him to get elected

While Ed Balls is said to be the prime target, I have seen reports that the Tories believe this strategy will help them to unseat several other candidates who also have very strong local profiles, and where outside attempts to flood the constituency with additional campaign cash may not go down so well.

Targets include Sadiq Khan in Tooting (a local lad, born and bred), John Denham in Southampton (a councillor from the early 1980s, who was fighting the seat for the third time when he won in 1992) and Jack Straw in Blackburn (who was widely told he could not survive after Iraq in 2005).

My advice to them all - make sure your local press and voters on the doorstep know you are on the national Tory "decapitation" hitlist.

The broader reason that the Tories have not cruised to victory, as they always anticipated they would, is that they have consistently looked at events through hyper-partisan blue spectacles, and then imagined everybody else sees it like them. Th Tory blogosphere is helping to raise cash - but its echo chamber effect can may also often help insulate online party activists from reality.


I was in Enfield Southgate on 1st May 1997 doing a tiny bit that happy day to help Stephen Twigg over the finishing line, along with others who had decided any "key seats" targetting could go hang in the final hours.

So that was never part of a strategy cooked up in national headquarters; quite the opposite.

Nor, as Twigg noted in thanking tactical voters for helping him win, was the "Portillo moment" the partisan property of one political party.

Rather it became a shared national experience, capable of being voted Britain's third favourite Television moment of all time.

Could the Tories emulate that? In your dreams, Tory Bear.


PS: Just before posting this, I've spotted that George Eaton of the New Statesman has already made the general point.

Economic republicanism: a basis for Lib Dem - Labour cooperation?

Dan Leighton and Richard Reeves have a very interesting essay in this week’s New Statesman arguing that this election is an important ‘republican moment’ in British politics.

Part of what they mean is that a hung parliament will produce irresistible pressures towards much-needed reform of the political system, including the introduction of PR.

But republicanism is not just about the political system. In common with Will Davies, and with posts here at Next Left, Leighton and Reeves argue that republicanism is also about how the economy is organized:

'...the republican concern with arbitrary power and public interest does not stop at the frontiers of the state. The economic crisis was a product of unequal power relationships as much as the flawed assumptions of neoliberal economics....The crisis has made it clear that what is good for the City is not necessarily good for the country.'

Economic republicanism is centrally about preventing the emergence and exercise of arbitrary power - the power to interfere in the lives of others at one's discretion, with no accountability to those one has power over - by spreading wealth and democratizing how it is controlled.

Judged by this standard, the manifestoes of the Lib Dems and Labour both have important republican elements. And they are much stronger when taken together than when taken alone.

On the one hand, the Lib Dems have a commitment to banking reform that will disperse economic power. They are also committed to a 'mansion tax' which will rightly take for the community some of the unearned wealth gains recently enjoyed by the richest home-owners.

However, the Lib Dems run counter to their own philosophy and traditions by calling for the abolition of the Child Trust Fund. (The claim that 'we can't afford it' is risible when one bears in mind how much the proposed Lib Dem income tax cut costs.) Labour rightly remains committed to this policy which helps to ensure that in future all young people start their adult lives with some capital of their own. It is a crucial step towards what Paddy Ashdown once called 'Citizens' Capitalism'.

Outside of the manifestoes, there are other economic republican ideas which might offer a basis for a joint programme in government. Vince Cable is on record as sympathetic to a land value tax. This is an idea with a long history within both the Liberal and Labour traditions, reflecting their joint origins in opposition to the power and privilege of the land-owning aristocracy.

Could a Lib Dem - Labour coalition work on a much needed reform of local government finance, seeking to replace the Council Tax with LVT?

Promotion of employee share ownership and the creation of new rights of consultation and decision-making within the firm is also a point of possible convergence between the two parties. Labour's recent enthusiasm for 'mutualism' is not only a rediscovery of something neglected within Labour's tradition, but of something that has, once again, also long been important within the Liberal tradition.

Those of us who would like to see a Lib Dem - Labour arrangement in the event of a hung parliament should beware of expecting proportional representation to do all the work of cementing cooperation between the parties. When push comes to shove, the Conservatives may well be willing to concede a referendum on PR if that is the only route to office....

So there is a need to think about the basis for wider cooperation between the two parties of the centre-left.

As Leighton and Reeves' article suggests, economic republicanism, drawing on the philosophical traditions of both parties, offers one promising basis for genuinely constructive - and progressive - cooperation.

Stuart White is a lecturer in Politics at Oxford University where he directs the Public Policy Unit. He writes here in an individual capacity and is not a spokesperson for the Fabian Society.

Now, even Murdoch fears that Murdoch is going over the top

Michael Wolff, Vanity Fair columnist and Murdoch biographer, is widely seen as a a credible though critical observer of the Murdochs, and so has been taking an interest in the media shenanigans around the British General Election.

It appears that Murdoch senior is not sure his son James his associates have been playing a blinder. They risk making media power an issue in the election campaign - specifically by so publicly protesting The Independent's offensive assertion "RUPERT MURDOCH WON'T DECIDE THIS ELECTION. YOU WILL".

Murdoch senior knows that the power of the media is not always subtle - but seems to feel that being too quick to boast about it may perhaps rather spoil its public influence.

So the Murdoch pro-Cameron strategy may not be best served by the most intriguing quote, something that Wolff reports was allegedly said recently by The Sun's political editor.

“It is my job to see that Cameron fucking well gets into Downing Street,” proclaimed Tom Newton Dunn, political editor of the Sun, to a group of journalists from rival papers, recently.

Did he really say it?

The New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan suggests it would be a "dynamite" quote if it can't be credibly denied (which may also depend on who else was there), and hat tips lefty blogger Adam Bienkov with spotting the Wolff report.

It also appears that Murdoch is not keen to start a spat with Mr Lebedev, on whom Murdoch junior reportedly declared open warfare in the Indy office's spat. This seems to reflect the age-old Treaty of Westphalia style non-aggression pact between propreitors rather more than any ethical consideration.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

So, WHY are Dacre's minions stalking Clegg's wife?

Paul Dacre never learns - and he is losing his grip on Middle England. Take the pointless, prurient information-less snooping on Nick Clegg's wife which he runs on the news pages of tomorrow's Daily Mail newspaper as part 76 of his class war on Nick Clegg.

Revealed: The story of privilege behind Nick Clegg's wife's lingerie shopping trip

Apparently, "The picture of the politician's wife will fuel increasing criticism that Clegg is not as in touch with the man-on-the-street voter he professes to be".


This is more likely to backfire with his readers, who may more be impressed that the LibDem leader's wife can supports her husband while carrying on with her own career than taken by the news value of Mr Dacre's minions stalking her around the shops.

At least they were too ashamed to put any poor hack's byline on tomorrow's story.

Who knows. Perhaps "Daily Mail Reporter" is the editor in chief himself playing peeping Tom.

(The Mail editor's Taliban-lite tendencies extend to a ban on pictures of women wearing trousers, on the testimony of Rachel Johnson's account of "Dacre Rules").

UPDATE: Thanks for comment spotting that the Mail in fact lifted the story from the News of the World, though the NOTW account is somewhat more in the 'celeb spotting' mould than the Mail's account of privileged lingerie as a key election issue. So I feel the core point pretty much stands.

So, sorry, but we may have to make Dacrewatch an almost daily feature for the next fortnight.

Of course, the Daily Mail has always been the real home of the "politics of envy" in British politics. It can potent voice the discontents of what Fabian attitudes research has anatomised as the "angry middle" - except that Dacre's temper tantrums at the "utter irrationality" of the electorate may now be clouding his judgement.

And if Dave does blow it for Dacre, the Mail won't spend long looking for a scapegoat who lacks both Tory instincts and a British bloodline.

Take the priceless tiny photo story in the Mail on Sunday The only thing that looks Tory is the tea as Dacre's oh-so-busy minions also spotted Steve Hilton having a cup of tea with Andy Coulson and George Osborne in Bristol before Thursday's debate. (You have to scroll down to the third item at this link).

With the garish Lib Dem orange sleeves of his sweatshirt, he could have been mistaken for a Clegg aide.

The laid-back Hilton refuses to wear a suit and tie.

But it would seem that afternoon tea, served from a china pot, is one of the few English customs Hilton, whose parents were Hungarian, cannot resist.

By the way, did we mention that his parents were Hungarian?

Don't be surprised if it turns out to be the foreigners wot lost it.

Office parties and bicycles? How Cameron lost faith in his marriage tax break

Those retaining a memory longer than that of a goldfish may hazily recall that the whole point of the Conservatives' proposal to "recognise marriage" in the tax system is to send a clear message about why marriage matters.

I’ve always said, this is more about the message than the money”, said David Cameron, responding to criticism that £3 a week would't make any difference.

So can anybody explain his increasingly bizarre analogies with which the Tory leader is telling the public that government tax breaks aren't really saying anything at all?

On BBC's election call on Friday, he was challenged by a caller who said this would discriminate against other types of family and that, as a man who was not married, it would make him feel like a "small person".

Cameron noted that:

There's a tax relief for having an office party, but I don't think that penalises people who choose not to have one.

Now he tells The Observer that nobody is losing out:

"Well, you're giving a tax advantage to marriage because marriage is a good institution. There is tax relief in our system for taking a bicycle to work. Are we discriminating against non-bicycle riders?" After this rather bizarre comparison, he gets back on track, arguing that it is "a very progressive policy" because the £3 a week will go only to people on basic rate tax with a low- or non-earning spouse.

That's an odd defence of a proposal to give £150 to a married couple with one-earner on £35,000, while excluding a married couple earning £15,000 each unless one of them gives up work (to earn under £7000).

Surely this can't be the same man?

"I absolutely feel at my very core that recognising that relationships matter, that commitment matters and, yes, that marriage matters is something we should not say quietly but something we should say loudly and proudly.

And to those who say that somehow supporting marriage is wrong let me take them on directly, let me fight back against this sense that we shouldn’t speak up for marriage .. Frankly I don’t care whether it is popular or not, I care whether it is right or not ... Why are we so frightened of standing up and saying what we believe in?

Cameron-watcher and ally Matthew d'Ancona has written:

David Cameron has an “irreducible core” of beliefs: convictions so close to his heart that they are non-negotiable. And none is more deeply-felt than his faith in marriage as the cornerstone of society.

So watch out if he ever has to defend a policy he doesn't fundamentally believe in.


The "flagship" policy has turned into a car crash. JK Rowling has memorably slammed it as unfair: for her, it sums up the "same old Tories" charge, in discriminating against single mothers, as well as the widowed and divorced.

But the Tories were looking to pick that fight. What might concern them more is how badly their policy does what it said it would do on the tin - rewarding and recognising marriage in the tax system, to reflect the evidence that this is good for children and society generally:

* The IFS have shown that only three out of ten 4 million out of 12.3 million married couples qualify;
* The IFS have also shown that the evidence on child outcomes doesn't stand up, because the outcomes from marriage largely reflect the characteristics of those who choose to get married.
* Two-thirds of those who receive the tax break don't have dependent children anyway; only one in five families with children qualify.
* It would be more accurately called not a marriage tax break, but a "stay at home" tax break, as it discriminates against married couples where wives go out to work.
* Civil partnered couples are even less likely than other married couples to qualify. It would be quite difficult to find many civil partnered couples who do qualify, making their much trumpeted inclusion mainly symbolic.
* And, despite all the flak, traditionalists are disappointed by its meagre scale, and believe the Conservatives have bottled out of the pro-marriage commitment.

David Cameron seemed unable to offer any coherent defence of the policy design in his interview with Jeremy Paxman, misleadingly trying to imply that it does not exclde two-earner couples (because it allows the second earner to earn up to £6500 per year and still qualify).

At 19 minutes 45 seconds

Paxman: One of the tax breaks you propose is marriage. You propose about three pounds a week being given to people who decide to get married, to a particular pattern of marriage. Now, obviously you don't believe that £3 a week is going to make feckless person who isn't going to get married to get married, but its to encourage a particular kind of marriage, isn't it?

Cameron: what do you mean?

Paxman: It's only payable, is it not, when one member stays at home and look after the children?

Cameron: No, that's not right.

Paxman: So if both partners work, they would still get it?

Cameron: It depends what they are paid. Look, Let's rewind a bit and try and make the argument. The big argument here is that we should recognise marriage in the tax system.

Paxman: Why?

Cameron: Well, I think marriage is a good institution. I think we should encourage commitment. And so that's why we thought we should recognise marriage and civil partnerships. And then we thought, well, how best to do that, and that's why we have targetted this tax change on the relatively low paid and said that's its a transferable tax allowance between husband and wife.

So you could for instance have an example of a two people both working but one earning less than the income tax threshold who could transfer a bit of that unused threshold to the other person in the marriage. That seems to me very sensible. We are recognising marriage. We are helping people who are relatively low earners. And we are helping them have greater flexibility and choice in their lives.

Paxman: But it will incentivise people in relationships where one of them stays at home, assuming they both pay tax, assuming one of them pays tax.

Cameron: Well, what it will be is that if they both earn below the threshold{*}, or rather if one earns below the threshold and one above, they can transfer. If one of them stays at home, they can transfer. Its a small element of transferability in the tax system which I think we should encourage.

Paxman: Do you think more married people should stay at home?

Cameron: I am not giving anyone a lecture to anyone in how to live their life. I think we should support people in the choices that they make"

Well, support some of them in some choices anyway.

{* this was a mistake: two earners under the threshold can not gain anything}

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Revealed: Dave's secret plot to stop Boris

David Cameron surely proved this morning that he is not serious about constitutional reform. Martin Kettle says that his "extraordinarily facetious" proposal that "it is hard not to think that it is proof that the Conservative leader is simply making it all up as he goes along".

After all, when Cameron promised Guardian readers a "massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power" he failed to identify what it might mean, except that he would seriously consider fixed term Parliaments. Today, he plucks a contradictory proposal out of the air: that any Prime Minister who takes office mid-term should call an election in six months.

It is very easy to predict that, were Cameron elected, neither proposal would resurface to trouble the statute book before 2015.

As Kettle outlines, Cameron wants to imply the Brown premiership is somehow unconstitutional - sweeping through those of John Major, Jim Callaghan, Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home in our Parliamentary democracy too.

Yet one Prime Minister did adopt Cameron's proposal: Anthony Eden, who won a thumping victory just a month into his disastrous year and a half premiership. Insisting on an immediate post-Suez election might well simply have forced an entirely broken PM to be propped up in office.

But let's do the man who wants to be Prime Minister in a fortnight the courtesy of taking his proposal seriously for a moment.

It would have, in practice, a paradoxical effect.

Not more elections under new Prime Ministers - but, rather, it would insulate unpopular Prime Ministers and make them much more secure until the eve of an election, because the nuclear threat of a quick election would be a reality.

Cameron's proposal would have cost the Conservatives the 1992 election: not, as it implies, because John Major would have had to go in the Spring of 1991, but because it would have prevented the party changing its leader at all.

I doubt Cameron is being sneakier than we think - but any incumbent PM would be a significant beneficiary of his proposal. So might he have had in mind not the past, but the future, not Gordon Brown, but Boris Johnson!

If David Cameron does wobble across the finishing line, with the Tory press gnarling, the 'sceptics champing at the bit, the economy in trouble, and the ever so helpful Boris lurking across the river, might there somewhere in the subconscious mind lurks the thought that he could use an insurance policy to make himself coup proof if it all goes wrong?

Though depriving the Tory party of its much cherished potential to wield the knife on its own leader when in power could be harder than it looks!

PS: There is a more coherent idea lurking underneath the surface. Cameron appears to believe, in effect, in directly electing Prime Ministers. And anybody who was seriously committed to the majoritarian principle of democratic elections - that full governing power should go to the leader or party with more votes than any other - surely ought to be moving away from the Russian roulette that first-past-the-post has become.

Advocating a directly elected Prime Minister, instead of crossing your fingers over the electoral geography, could be the only coherent way to make majoritarianism work.

If he thought about it, David Cameron might think that. But he probably hasn't.



Hopi Sen has been through the post-war card - and suggests Cameron's proposal could have seen Thatcher lose in 1976.

Cameron gets a bit snippy when The Observer suggests that proposing a major reform in mid-campaign is panicky, but he has a priceless defence of the problem of a 1940 snap election:

There were changes of prime minister during both world wars: from Asquith to Lloyd George, and from Chamberlain to Churchill. Under his proposal, there would have been snap elections in the middle of these conflicts. The forehead furrows, then he rallies: "This is a proposal for the future, not the past." He adds that "in the modern world people feel rather cheated" if they haven't voted for the prime minister.