Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Police violence: time to protest

Tomorrow is the first anniversary of the G20 protests in London, the aggressive police kettling of the protests and the police killing of passerby, Ian Tomlinson.

So here we are, one year on, and no one has been charged yet for Tomlinson's killing.

However, a British judge has today cleared a police officer of assault on April 2 at a demonstration called to protest the death of Ian Tomlinson. Guy Aitchison has posted the video of the police officer's attack on Nicola Fisher, with helpful comment, over at OurKingdom. Paul Lewis and Mark Tran have an account of the judge's reasoning.

I fear the verdict will send a chill down the spine of everyone thinking of going on a protest. The police can do this, and its legal.

How should we respond?

One thing we can do is support the Tomlinson family in their call for people to join them tomorrow in remembering Ian's death and calling for justice.

In the words of the Ian Tomlinson Family Campaign:

PLEASE JOIN THE TOMLINSONS IN LAYING FLOWERS AT THE SPOT WHERE IAN DIED THURSDAY 1ST APRIL 11:00 am

AT CORNHILL BY THREADNEEDLE STREET, LONDON, EC3V (BANK TUBE)

PLEASE ARRIVE AT 10:45 SO THAT WE CAN OBSERVE A MINUTE'S SILENCE AT 11:00

Tuesday, 30 March 2010

Willetts v Katwala

OK, its not quite Darling v Osborne v Cable.

But here's a very special pre-Easter treat for politicos looking for their next debate fix.

Head over to The Economist website, and you can join in the head-to-head debate between David Willetts and myself, where we are debating the motion


This House believes that New Labour has failed.


The format is broadly Oxford Union comes to cyberspace, in three rounds over the next week. An introduction from the moderator Andrew Miller, and our opening statements have just gone online, and the floor is open for reader comments.

I'll be filing a response on Wednesday and a closing statement on Friday. So have your say over there - but feel free to leave me tips and advice for rebuttals here too!

Two cheers for George Osborne

Cheer One: It is always good to see George Osborne on television. Next Left has been rather distressed at the Tory Osborne invisibility plan to keep him out of sight during the campaign.

But let's leave partisanship aside for a moment. One thing which George Osborne said during tonight's Ask the Chancellors debate raises a genuine cheer here at Next Left for something that has changed in the last ten years in British politics.

Asked, should government seek to narrow the gap between rich and poor, all three candidates for Chancellor agreed that it should. In the run-up to the 2005 election, the Fabians were trying to make sure inequality got a mention, and arguing that all parties should say 'yes' when asked the "David Beckham question" about whether the gap mattered.

Here is what Osborne said tonight for the Conservatives:


"At the risk of agreeing with both of my colleagues here, I agree that a fairer society is the objective of a government.

When you have the gap between rich and poor widening, that creates a less fair society and a less strong society, and we don't feel so much part of that society

So I think it is the job of government.

But I don't think the current policies that have been pursued over the last 13 years are working.

Because the gap between the rich and poor has grown.

And child poverty is now rising.

And, indeed, crucially, social mobility - the ability to get on in life, regardless of where you are born - has declined.

So the current policies are not delivering on something that we all agree should be an objective of government.


***
That answer was far from perfect. Yet Osborne's pledge that inequality matters is important - because he agrees that an important 'fairness' test of any government is whether it narrows the gap. Were he ever to become Chancellor, the Fabian Society will be among those offer advocacy and scrutiny on whether he is achieving that.

But we will have to stick at two cheers, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, we should certainly withhold the third cheer until he has a policy agenda likely to narrow the gap rather than widen it. Darling challenged Osborne over narrowing tax credits. Vince Cable scored a very direct hit with how this concern to narrow the gap was directly contradicted by his inheritance tax cut.

Secondly, Osborne's account of where we are now and why is worryingly weak, in a way which would augur ill for his policy agenda, as we shall see.

***
The Osborne reading list on inequality

To succeed in his egalitarian ambitions, I feel that George Osborne would need a firmer grasp on current trends and policy debates about inequality. Here are five things for the reading list of the Shadow Chancellor, his advisers and any other ProgCons who might want the commitment to narrowing the gap to be credible, rather than cosmetic.

1. Britain's war on poverty

The authoriative and detailed study from Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University, published last week, offers an important challenge to Osborne's view that current policy hasn't worked.

Yes, the government has fallen short of its ambitious targets. At the same time, Britain made more progress on reducing child poverty than any other western democracy in this period. Waldfogel says there are many detailed lessons from the British experience, but the most important is that "policy works".

Waldfogel also explains why the British strategy has become an important model which US anti-poverty campaigners believe the Obama administration should emulate:



When Britain declared its war on child poverty in 1999, 3.4 million children - one in four - lived in poverty. Within five years, the chlld poverty rate (measured in relative terms, as is customary in Britain) fell from 26 per cent of all children to 22 per cent as half a million children moved out of poverty. This was no mean achievement given that a relative poverty line moves up as average incomes rise (as they did quite rapidly in Britain during this period).

On an absolute poverty line, like the one used in the United States, British progress was even greater. Child poverty measured with an absolute line fell by nearly half in the first five years of the British antipoverty effort, from 26 per cent to 14 per cent, as the number of children in poverty fell by 1.6 million.


2. The Institute of Fiscal Studies report, published last week, showing how Labour's policies have been highly redistributive. This contrasts with the regressive impact of Conservative policies from 1979 to 1997 which redistributed upwards.

Tory leader David Cameron has said he wants to reduce inequality (which is good), yet that "I am basically a Lawsonian" on flatter taxes (which would do the opposite). These goals might not be consistent, for the reasons Stuart White set out in his overview of the government record.

3. John Hill's national equality panel report.

This shows just how wide wealth inequalities are - and ought to give Osborne pause for thought about his inheritance tax cut. It also offers a concise guide to how inequality has narrowed across 90% of the income range. This could help the Tories to escape the rather strange contradiction - where they are complaining that inequality has increased, while arguing that inequality between the top and the middle doesn't matter. If they want to stick to that position, then they should acknowledge that the inequality they think matters has decreased.

4. I think they're wrong about the gap between the middle and top not mattering, which is why they should read The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Conservatives now increasingly quote this - as David Cameron did in his Hugo Young lecture - but some are sceptical as to whether many have read it.

Given his excellent insight that, with too much inequality, "we don't feel so much part of that society", I hope Osborne might find the Fabian's Solidarity Society useful, particularly its evidence on the importance of universalism in creasing that "we're all in this together" spirit he wants.

5. Osborne sought to imply that social mobility has declined under Labour. This is a common mistake. But the antidote is Next Left's social mobility fact check, which contains all of the key academic references from all sides of the debate, and which quoted the authoritative LSE studies on recent changes in social mobility:


We cannot find any evidence that the sharp drop in mobility observed for children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s has continued. But nor can we find evidence that mobility has improved.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Did Newsnight get it wrong on social mobility?

Paul Mason is embarking on what looks like being an important and thought-provoking series of reports for Newsnight on 'what's wrong with Britain' and the need for a new British economic model.

It will definitely be worth watching.

But I don't think this claim in setting up the opening film was quite accurate - though it is very common, even from leading 'broadsheet' media outlets and from leading politicians too.

Mason reported that:


Its about the decline of social mobility in the absence of a viable economic model and a deep unease about where we stand in a globalised world. I am going to travel from the eastern tip of Britain to the west in search of answers.

The fact is, in the the last 20 years, social mobility in the UK has declined.

And now, for the first time since the '30s, a generation will grow up poorer than their parents.


The problem is locating the decline of social mobility as something that has happened in the last 20 years, between 1990 and 2010.

The sharp collapse in British social mobility (observed between the 1958 and 1970 cohorts) took place in the late '70s and the '80s.

Let us return to Next Left's social mobility fact check service, which rounds up the key academic references and links.

The authoritative LSE studies reports on more recent trends that:


We cannot find any evidence that the sharp drop in mobility observed for children growing up in the 1970s and 1980s has continued. But nor can we find evidence that mobility has improved.'


This was based on using proxy measures to look for mobility changes for children born around 1985 (the average age for the children of the '58 cohort) and 1999 (for the children of the 1970s cohort).

It found that "the decline in intergenerational mobility that occurred between 1958 and 1970 birth cohorts is unlikely to continue for cohorts born from 1970 to 2000" - but that there was no significant recovery in mobility either.

So social mobility did decline (and sharply) 30 years ago.

In the last 15-20, it would be more accurate to say that it has stabilised.

It is not a technical difference. It matters, because we would otherwise risk as writing off policies as having failed in reversing inter-generational disadvantages, when they have barely yet been given a chance. In fact, some of the early evidence - as recounted in Jane Waldfogel's recent Britain's War on Poverty - is that the policies have begun to provide an important foundation for success in this long-term challenge of breaking down inter-generational disadvantage.

Why painless Gershon savings won't fund Osborne's NI cut

It will be interesting to find out whether or the George Osborne National Insurance cut proves to be, according to choice and political inclination, the political masterstroke which rescues Osborne's credibility as the next Chancellor, or ends up looking more like an ill-thought through clever political wheeze which seals the Shadow Chancellor's reputation as an economic lightweight.

There is much scrutiny of the fairly scant details already. James Kirkup at the Telegraph is among those with some of the good early questions about whether the costing of the policy adds up. As do the Institute of Fiscal Studies and The Times, pointing out that the announcement was not quite what it seemed.

ConservativeHome can claim to have first predicted the new policy - and Tim Montgomerie celebrates the policy as reaffirming the Tories tax cutting credentials, noting they are already committed to inheritance tax cut and a married couples' tax break. (He doesn't mention the existing corporation tax cut pledge too).

But there's the rub. The always excellent Hopi Sen concisely captures the potential coherence risk to the overall Tory message and platform:


1. Say you’ll reduce taxes.
2. Don’t say you’ll cut any major spending programmes.
3. ????
4. Lower deficit!!!!


But surely there is another reason why no party can get an election winning dividing line and expensive policy out of claims to painless efficiency savings.

All Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling would now need to do is send Gershon and Read's rather sketchy four sheets of A4 to the relevant Permanent Secretaries, to judge whether any of the suggestions offer painless savings which can be made immediately.

If so, they could make the savings, to protect other spending or reduce the deficit.

If not, they could explain what the real policy choice is. Either way, George could well then have to find his £6 billion somewhere else.

Where such efficiency savings can genuinely be identified, every party can bank or use them. What they can't provide is a spending-protecting, tax-cutting, deficit-reducing magic bullet.

(For proof, look at how this morning, Osborne has already "banked" the £11 billion of future efficiency savings which government departments announced as future plans after the budget: he appears to be very confident those will be delivered in full, and guessing that there won't be too much overlap with his new savings).

***

Both Hopi Sen and Left Foot Forward have the rather more detailed critique from David Cameron about exactly why the Conservatives would not be doing exactly what they did this morning.


We all know that the easiest thing in the world is for an opposition party to stand up at an event like this and blithely talk about all the efficiency savings we will make in government; how we will streamline public spending, how we can close tax loopholes, how we can move towards a bright future of less spending and less tax with a few well-chosen cuts that miraculously deliver substantial savings without harming public service delivery at all

... The government “efficiency drive” is one of the oldest tricks in the book. The trouble is, it’s nearly always just that – a trick ...

... I do not believe in simplistic lists of cuts. In naive over-estimations of potential savings. Or in cobbling together a big number in order to get a good headline.””


Is that just a media embarassment to shrug off - or a serious blow to the credibility of the new manifesto centrepiece?

Britain is the stuff of Red Tory nightmares

Red Tory by Phillip Blond is published today. Here is the opening paragraph:


Something is seriously wrong with Britain. This is an intuition that everybody, whatever their politics, shares. But what is this malaise from which we suffer? We all know the symptoms: increasing fear, lack of trust and abundance of suspicion, long-term increase in violent crime, loneliness, recession, depression, private and public debt, family breakdown, divorce, infidelity, bureaucratic and unresponsive public services, dirty hospitals, powerlessness, the rise of racism, excessive paperwork, longer and longer working hours, children who have no parents, concentrated and seemingly immovable poverty, the permanence of inequality, teenagers with knives, teenagers being knifed, the decline of politeness, aggressive youths, the erosion of our civil liberties and the increase of obsessive surveillance, public authoritarianism, private libertarianism, general pointlessness, political cynicism and a pervading lack of daily joy.


Blimey! So how does Phillip Blond ever summon up the courage to leave the house?

And don't even think of disagreeing: "This intuition is not a private opinion held by a disgruntled few but a public discernment universally shared though seldom addressed", writes Blond. (It turns out that these are mere symptoms of the malaise which "reflects, and is caused by a wholesale collapse of British culture, virtue and belief", a collapse "best understood as the disappearance of British civil society").

The "general pointlessness" and "pervading lack of daily joy" sound pretty subjective, but that single paragraph catalogue of despair contains more than a dozen verifiable, empirical claims. So the curious may wonder how much of it might be true. Some of Blond's claims may stand up - but in several cases, the opposite is true.

On "lack of trust and abundance of suspicion", international evidence suggests Britain is a comparatively high trust society in which trust has increased. The Pew Global Attitudes (2007) found 65% of us think "most people in this society are trustworthy", up from 55% in 1991. So Britain rose to 4th in the 47 nation study, behind China, Sweden and Canada, but ahead of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the United States.

On the "long-term increase in violent crime", violent crime has fallen significantly across the last 15 years: that unprecedented, sustained fall has largely reversed and eliminated the steep rise in the '80s and early '90s.

Certainly "longer and longer working hours" have in fact been falling, whether one takes the long or short view. Average hours worked for full-time workers dropping from 38.7 hours to 37.0 hours for full-time workers from 1996 to 2008. The average was over 50 hours a century ago, before this fell steadily to 35 hours by the end of the 1970s. Working hours then rose in the 1980s and early 1990s, before starting to fall again from the mid-1990s to now. Despite that fall, more Brits do work longer hours than elsewhere in Europe; though fewer than do so than in the US, Japan or Australia.

On "the rise of racism", I am confident that racism in Britain has declined significantly in my lifetime. 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%.

On "seemingly immovable poverty" and "the permanence of inequality", there is clearly something important in concerns about the concentration and generational transmission of poverty and disadvantage. But there is much less evidence of a permanent, entrenched and immobile 'underclass' in the UK (contrasted to the US) than is commonly asserted.

On the long view, Britain had the most volatile and changing (so "movable" and "impermanent") levels of inequality across any western country in the 20th century, largely because we have been a 'swing state' between different conceptions of what's fair. This shows that levels of inequality are not permanent and immutable, but products of our social and political choices. The sharp falls in pensioner poverty, the modest falls in child poverty alongside an increase in poverty for single adults of the last decade again reflect the importance of social, politivcal and policy choices.

***

So a good deal of the evidence about Blond's specific charges again supports The Economist's earlier detailed rebuttal of the general 'broken society' thesis, offering the measured and convincing conclusion that:


It would be idiotic to claim that Britain is perfect. But the story of broad decline is simply untrue. Stepping back from the glare of the latest appalling tale, it is clear that by most measures things have been getting better for a good decade and a half. In suggesting that the rot runs right through society, the Tories fail to pinpoint the areas where genuine crises persist. The broken-Britain myth is worse than scaremongering—it glosses over those who need help most.


***

Blond makes a somewhat more nuanced claim about what's better and worse on page two, albeit as part of an attack on "university lecturers in cultural studies departments [who] claim that everybody has always thought that things were better in the past":


Historically, however, we know now that our elders (who for the most part are our betters) are right. Though some things were clearly worse (income levels and general health), many things were better in the past (familial security, human associations and the percentage of carbon in the atmosphere).


And some of the Europhile liberal-left may be pleased to hear Blond's Will Hutton-like paean to the economies and societies of continental Europe in explaining why it doesn't have to be like this:


Even one trip abroad to France or Germany will show that this arrangement need not prevail. On the continent they still have what one can call a society and they still practice public expressions of a diverse culture. Partly this is because they long ago decided that the interests of the state and the market don't necessarily coincide.


Yet later we have this


It is not too much of an exaggeration to speak of a totalitarian culture developing in Britain ... A culture of suspicion has developed that would be familiar to anyone who has seen The Lives of Others, the great film about the East German Stasi


followed by, when discussing "public drunkenness followed the radical deregulation of pub opening hours, and "the marketing that children are subjected to by our toy and clothing manufacturers":


We fondly imagine that we differ in our private thoughts and opinions - but this is Solzhenitsyn's mechanism for imagining freedom while imprisoned in the Gulag.


I don't think exaggeration really covers that.

There are many things right and wrong about British society - and we can vigorously debate different views of what they are. Let's more vigilantly defend our civil liberties too. But what a misleading and pointless insult to those who have lived in societies of almost total, stifling unfreedom of thought and speech, without any political or civil rights, to pretend that we can not see any moral difference between our society and theirs.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Could sunshine win the day?

Gordon Brown gave a punchy and passionate speech in Nottingham to launch Labour's key election pledges.

It's not wrecking the economic recovery, stupid.

The pledge card is the central tool of a political age in which we campaign in prose more than poetry. John Rentoul has a point when he wonders whether "strengthen families in communities" is English or Dutch.

But isn't the sunshine image on the pledge card very interesting too?

Remember the central message of David Cameron's first party conference as leader in 2006:


Let us show clearly which side we are on. Let optimism beat pessimism, let sunshine win the day.


Or George Osborne


The Conservative Party mustn't sound like the old man on the park bench who says things were better in 1985, or 1955, or 1855.


Yes, there was cynicism. But many commentators thought it was smart. Andrew Rawnsley wrote:


This is the sharpest, most significant and yet also one of the least remarked-upon breaks that David Cameron has made with his party's past. William Hague, IDS and Michael Howard told Conservative audiences that Britain was going to hell in a handcart. They painted a dystopian picture of the country.


Not Dave.

Yet David Cameron has ended up running on broken Britain, the debt crisis and the age of austerity.

He may even have left Gordon Brown taking up the sunshine side of the argument!


If we get it wrong, we face what they themselves call an age of austerity. If we get it right, we can achieve an age of shared prosperity. The economy is more central and the choice more serious in this election than any time in my lifetime.


Funny old world.

Could these be the headlines on May 7th?

At Liberal Democrat Voice, Stephen Tall points out how the tightening polls could throw see the electoral system throw up some ' crazy results.

My Fabian Review essay on the electoral system back in Autumn 2007 imagined what the papers might say if a party with fewer votes won an overall majority (tactfully pitching the timetable forward four years, and introducing weekend voting too!).

Do the closing polls mean that this type of scenario is more likely?

Here's the extract:


It is one minute past ten pm on Sunday 4 May 2013. After a hard-fought campaign, the most expensive pie chart in BBC history spins towards the viewers. Has the New Tory call for 'change' finally worked? Their fetching new sky blue segment at 39 per cent edges the Prime Minister's deeper red back to 37 per cent, and the Lib Dems are squeezed to 21 per cent. Seven nail-biting hours later, Labour is back for a fifth term with a slim working majority of 14. Not because the exit polls got it wrong – they turned out to be uncannily accurate - but because the electoral system did.

Result: meltdown.

"Democracy crisis as losing party wins" reports the Times.

"Labour's Strange Victory – half a million votes behind", says The Guardian.

"Disunited Kingdom: Tory England denied" complains the Telegraph.

"Stolen: The Great Election Shambles", shouts the Mail.

"No Mandate to Govern", declares The Independent.

One question dominates angry radio phone-ins: why weren't we told this could happen?


The secret flaw of first-past-the-post is that it is a very poor majoritarian system if we ever have close elections. It needs a lot of luck to do what it says on the tin - award most seats to the party with most votes - at a national level.

The flaw is hidden because we mostly don't have close elections: 2005 was not much of a contest but it was the first election for thirty years where the two parties finished within 5% of each other. On the six post-war elections where the main parties have been separated by less than 5% of each other, FPTP has picked the "wrong" winner twice.

What we don't know is whether the reaction would be much less sanguine in an era of political disengagement and distrust. As I wrote of my hypothetical scenario:



As commentators observed over the next few days, there were historical precedents. Attlee had won Labour's highest-ever share of the poll in 1951 on 48.8 per cent, yet Churchill, trailing on 48 per cent, won a majority and the Tories governed the age of affluence. (Harold Wilson turned the tables in the first 1974 election, winning most seats when a quarter of a million votes behind).

But few were convinced by the history lesson. The 1951 election had taken place in a different political universe from our own. With no national TV or radio reporting, the local constituency contests were the focus of the campaign. Polling was in its infancy and totting up the final national vote was almost an afterthought.

More importantly, the electoral system had deep and almost unquestioned legitimacy. The institutions had come through the war. The two main parties had 97 per cent of the vote on an 85 per cent turnout. Both strongly supported the system, treating unfair results like bad umpiring decisions, likely to even out over time.

That broad legitimacy lasted almost three decades ... It no longer works. At the next election, a six point lead could give Gordon Brown a majority of 100, while David Cameron could need to finish nine points ahead just to escape hung parliament territory. Labour could expect to be 90 seats ahead of level on votes, and still be the largest party in the Commons even if they were up to five points behind.

Gordon and Alistair's ice cream moment

Gordon Brown is to unveil Labour's 2010 election pledge card today. He speaks to The Guardian and so one can read the interview, the news story, and now the eggs and bacon blog of the interview too.


He says he wants the Labour pledges, which will be enshrined in a new pledge card to be revealed tomorrow, to be readily enforceable. The five pledges are: secure the recovery; raise family living standards; build a hi-tech economy; protect frontline investment in policing, schools, childcare and the NHS – with a new guarantee of cancer test results within a week; and strengthen fairness in communities through controlled immigration, guarantees of education, apprenticeships and jobs for young people and a crackdown on antisocial behaviour.


Gordon Brown confirming that Alistair Darling would stay as Chancellor if Labour win offers a remarkable echo of the opening of the 2005 campaign - the day of the short ice creams (video) which confirmed Brown's post-election position as Chancellor (and, in effect on that occasion, the leadership succession too).

It is for the same reason as last time. With a post-budget poll showing Brown and Darling now ahead of Cameron and Osborne on the economy, confirming Darling's position is necessary to deploy the Chancellor as an electoral asset.

Labour identified Oliver Letwin as a weak link in 2005. (Poster).

With so much focus on the economy, how much more true is that of George Osborne in 2010.

So Alistair Darling is unassailable. (Of course, you read it here first).

Is George?

***

PS: In the Telegraph, the fiercely Eurosceptic commentator Simon Heffer explains why he would put up with a Europhile Shadow Chancellor. The Tories need to change to Ken Clarke because "the combination of inexperience, opportunism and stupidity is a lethal cocktail when it comes to trying to work out how to govern". Sorry George. (Spectator editor Fraser Nelson wasn't impressed by Osborne's "weak response" to the budget either).

Friday, 26 March 2010

Why pensioners now face a lower risk of poverty than other adults

Labour's record on redistribution is easily underestimated, perhaps especially on the liberal-left. A large part of that is because it has often been a case of 'running up the down escalator': I discuss this in a Progress magazine piece.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies report, covered on Left Foot Forward which rounds-up media coverage does clearly shows how government policy has had an important redistributive effect.

An major new book by Jane Waldfogel of Columbia University 'Britain's war on poverty' this week set out why the government's child poverty strategy is being increasingly championed by US anti-poverty campaigners because it shows that "policy works".

***

But among the greatest, unsung successes of this government is its record on pensioner poverty. Pensioner poverty has been reduced by a million. But the most striking change is this:


Pensioners are now less at risk of poverty than adults of working age, undoubtedly for the first time in British social history.


As The Solidarity Society's overview of both the successes and failures of Labour's record on poverty and inequality explained:


Throughout most of our history, living into old age was for most a passport into poverty. From the early 1960s to the late 1970s, the risk of poverty for a pensioner was around 40 per cent, compared to around 14 per cent for the population as a whole ... Pensioner poverty has fallen very dramatically since 1997 from 29 per cent of pensioners (2.9 million) to 18 per cent (2 million). The key driver of this has undoubtedly been huge increases in welfare benefits for pensioners. Today, the risk of pensioner poverty is 18 per cent, compared to 22 per cent for the population as a whole ... Poverty rates for single female pensioners halved from 41 per cent in 1997 to 20 per cent in 2005.


Conservative leader David Cameron was today announcing a pledge to pensioners. He used the occasion to attack the government's record - "Increase the value of the basic state pension for all pensioners and help to stop the spread of the means test by linking pensions to earnings. You won’t get a repeat of Labour’s mean 75p rise with us".

He might have more honestly praised the government's remarkably successful record on pensioner poverty, and so committed to maintain it. He could have made a virtue of the cross-party consensus on restoring the earnings link too (where the hyper-partisanship we have seen recently over funding social care was thankfully avoided, despite fears that reform would prove politically impossible).

It would be good to hear all parties commit to the principle that in tightening the public finances, every effort should be made to ensure the old, the vulnerable and the poor are not disproportionately affected. It is certainly a test which should and will be applied to every party which aspires to be progressive.

Revealed: why the Red Tories aren't Cameroons

The Red Tory publicity machine is gearing up once again, with Phillip Blond's book of that title published by Faber & Faber on Monday.

Blond is the great thinking hope of the ProgCons. Yet Red Toryism is socially conservative but heavily market interventionist. Cameronism is often the opposite on both fronts: socially liberal but much more free market.

But only now do we have new and surely conclusive proof of the depth of that Red Tory-Cameroon rift: the book launch is at the Carlton Club, where the jacket and tie dress code will be strictly enforced.

I will be in conversation with the great man at Foyles (Charing Cross Road), London next Wednesday night (31st March). (Free tickets are available from events@foyles.co.uk). I am also due to be talking Red Toryism with him on Sky News around 10.30 on Sunday morning, so I had better read the book.

In the new Prospect, Blond picks a fight with Tim Montgomerie and the Tory right, describing Montgomerie's prescription of 'less Red Toryism and more red meat Toryism" as "disastrous". This clash of ideas within the right has long been prophesised: we shall see whether red Tory or blue blood is spilled.

For those struggling to make head nor tail of it, try Next Left's guide Everything you wanted to know about Red Toryism but were afraid to ask.

How could you vote for a hung Parliament?

The New Statesman believes a 'realignment of the left is needed, and has begun a series to debate what this might mean. Editor Jason Cowley argues that "the Labour Party remains the primary means by which to achieve a plural, social-democratic transformation". Yet the series began with Anthony Barnett's "hang 'em" essay arguing very much the opposite.

The highly untribal David Marquand found that a "diatribe" too far, which would surely let David Cameron in. There are further responses this week from myself, from Roy Hattersley and Neal Lawson. (Mine is the only of the three not to throw around references to Militant and the SWP to characterise the new danger of Barnettism! But we all argue that there is no plausible left pluralist governing strategy which writes Labour out of the script entirely).

Let's come back to Barnett's characterisation of Labour another time. Here, I want to make a narrower point. The cover of last week's New Statesman appeared to promise that Anthony Barnett will be advocating a hung Parliament, so advising voters attracted by the idea as how to maximise their chances of getting one.

But he didn't do that. Following his advice would make a hung Parliament less, not more, likely, because he has two different and competing objectives

1. Voting against New Labour and not voting Conservative.

The hope is to kick New Labour out, without helping the Conservatives in.

2. Voting to promote the chances of a Hung Parliament

Anthony Barnett hopes that (1) voting against the big two will lead to (2) a hung Parliament.

It won't. Barnett entirely prioritises (1) to the neglect of (2). So he advocates a quixotic electoral pact in which Nick Clegg and the LibDems would endorse Nigel Farage's Buckingham campaign to get Britain out of Europe, SNP MPs advocating Scottish independence, and honorary major party mavericks Frank Field and David Davis.

Voters who want to"maximise the chances of a hung Parliament would clearly weaken their chances if they followed Barnett's advice. Here's why.

First, what is a hung Parliament?


There will be a hung Parliament if no party - neither the Conservatives nor Labour - win 326 seats (and a majority of 2) in the House of Commons.


Which of these is the most likely "risk" to a Hung Parliament?


The bookmakers make a Conservative majority government 8/13, a Hung Parliament 13/8 and a Labour majority 9/1. (You can get 200/1 on the LibDems having most seats, even if short of a majority).


So here is the accurate and as impartial as we can be strategic advice to any voters who - unlike Barnett - see making a hung Parliament more likely as a priority.


Voters whose priority is to maximise the chances of a Hung Parliament should vote for the best placed anti-Conservative candidate (who they are willing to support) in any seat where the Conservatives have some chance of winning.

They should follow this advice unless and until there is more chance of a Labour than a Conservative majority in the House of Commons
.


And let's look at the electoral battleground which will decide it.

After boundary changes, Labour can not lose (net) more than 24 seats, so must hold some of its "super-marginals" to retain an overall majority. If Labour can't achieve that, the "hung Parliament or not" question becomes whether the Conservatives make the 116 net gains, targetting these seats to get over the line. (The Tories nominally start on 209 seats, given boundary changes, though won only 200 in 2005). On universal swings everywhere, they could cross the line making 90+ gains from Labour and 25-26+ from other parties. (Peter Kellner suggests that in practice the Tories probably need 105+ gains from Labour, citing the 1979 precedent where 4/7 Liberal incumbents defied a national swing to the Tories sufficient to defeat them).

This reinforces the argument that the Labour-Con battleground will be decisive. In only a handful of those seats is any other party or candidate in contention at all.

Advocating third party candidates as the best choice for progressive pluralists in these seats must depend on following Barnett's argument through to its natural conclusion: that making a Tory majority government more likely (and a hung Parliament less likely) is a price worth paying to hurt Labour. It follows that Barnett must believe either that Labour can never again be a progressive vehicle, or at least that it must lose first before the question can be asked. He means "hang 'em" in the first sense and not the second, but that does entail sacrificing the best chance of a hung Parliament in 2010 to this broader anti-Labour goal.

That would also make sense of Barnett's willingness to endorse David Davis (a vote for a David Cameron majority government, civil liberties and climate scepticism) alongside Labour's Frank Field (as a maverick), yet not to spare even the most stalwart Labour reformers like John Denham (long-time electoral reformer who resigned over Iraq), Martin Linton and many others. Nigel Farage does somehow make Barnett's "pluralist" cut, though I can't see how the Bercow-Farage contest can make any difference to the chances of a hung Parliament either way. If Barnett has arguments for wanting Farage in the Commons, the case for a hung Parliament risks being a false flag of convenience under which to advance them.

***

The number of what Martin Kettle calls "nottles" (Not Tory not Labour MPs) will make a difference. That is primarily because their post-1974 increase has already much increased the 'spread' between a Tory and Labour majority, as Next Left noted in a previous post.


n the general elections of the 1950s and 1960s, the number of neither Labour nor Tory MPs was 11, 9, 8 and 7 (in the 1950s) and 9, 14 and 12 (from 1964-70). With the fragmentation of the two-party vote, and the increased representation of Liberal and nationalist parties, that rose to 37 and 39 in the 1974 elections, and after falling to 27 in 1979, rose again to 44 or 45 in each of the 1983-92 elections, the jumping again to 76 in 1997 and then 92 in 2005.


It does not follow that voting nottle is the primary route to a hung Parliament, which was also Kettle's argument: the gap between the two major parties which will be decisive in determining whether that wider spread matters in the Commons.

Those who especially want to increase the "nottle" contingent further could simply vote for incumbent 'nottle' MPs, and for other non-Lab/Con candidates who they thought could win. Barnett's quixotic joint "nottle" list would do more electoral damage in lost LibDem principles and crediblity (from the pro-independence and UKIP embrace) while bringing very few, if any, further seats into play.

***

Since there are a range of different potential tactical motivations in the 2010 General Election, here again is a neutral description of the strategic options for those with different preferences as to the outcome.

* Voters who fear the possibility of a large Tory majority and whose priority is to minimise that threat should do the same thing as pro-hung Parliament voters, and back the best placed anti-Tory candidates in seats the party could win.

* Voters who want Labour to govern should vote Labour in all Labour-held seats, and anywhere else where they believe the party has a chance of gaining a seat. They could consider voting tactically for non-Labour incumbents (LibDem, Plaid Cymru, SNP) where they believe the Conservatives have a chance in the seat, and that this is the best way to stop them and for other candidates who they think could beat the Conservatives where Labour can not.

* Voters who want Labour out and the Conservatives in would vote Conservative in all of their top 250 target seats as well as for sitting Tory MPs. They could consider voting tactically for other parties against Labour incumbents where the Tories are not in contention, and possibly for LibDem MPs with close Labour challengers, assuming they think the choice of government in a hung Parliament will be between the reds and blues.

* Voters who want the LibDems to govern would vote LibDem in all LibDem-held seats and in pretty much all of the party's top 200+ target seats, in the hope they could increase their vote by more than half to 33%+ and compete to overtake the other parties. They could consider voting for Labour incumbents facing a Tory challenge in seats the LibDems can't win, if (in the event of this political earthquake) they think that the race to be largest party would be between the yellows and the blues, or otherwise consider whether they would prefer either major party to lead a government if in a Labour-Tory marginal.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Are the Saatchis "Change" we can believe in?

To which election argument is the Conservative Party most vulnerable?


"Same old Tories". That's the view of Tory chairman Eric Pickles, without needing a moment to think when asked the question.


So how do the Conservatives deal with may be turning into the longest wobble
in election history?


They call in Maurice and Charles Saatchi.


"We have had a relationship with the Tories for the past 32 years so it seems natural", say their people.

As the Political Scrapbook blog notes, the Saatchi's role is bound to be seen as an embarassing public rebuff to continuing 'lead agency' Euro RCSG, to whom we owe all of that airbrush entertainment. And quite a coup for Clifford Singer and the MyDavidCameron spoofsters, somehow still bedevilling the Tory campaign two months on.

So commuters around me are reading the 'Tories turn to Thatcher ad men' on the front-page of the Standard, above the DON'T PANIC splash headline "Cameron calls in Saatchis as lead vanishes".

Maggie stalwart Tim Bell's explains the strategic logic behind the party seeking to recapture its '80s glory days:


At last, the Conservatives are starting to use professionals who have actually won elections before. If M&C Saatchi can produce the kind of brilliant work that we did, it will have a dramatic effect on the election outcome. This will frighten the other side.


Frighten? Or bewilder? Or delight?

The coverage shows just how much the Labour Isn't Working legend retains enormous resonance in the folk memory of the political classes. Yet "New Labour, New Danger" and Demon Eyes 1997 have inoculated Labour against the fear that the Saatchis have a magic bullet which works even when the Tory party can't quite work out what its argument or message is.

Inside, those iconic images of 'Labour isn't working, the Tax Bombshell and Demon Eyes feature under the headline "Brief is to tear lumps out of Brown".

Bell also says that the Tory mistake in recent campaigns was:

"Trying to be liked".

So welcome back the Nasty Party too?

Team Cameron does nothing when it comes to PR and image management without much forethought. One can only surmise that they think this will be a welcome morale boost for the troops, perhaps calculating that undecided voters simply aren't going to notice or think anything of it.

Maybe. But Labour will surely be chuffed to bits at a symbolic reinforcement of its central message - that, whenever the pressure is on, the Tories don't reach out but retreat to the Thatcherite comfort zone. Of course, that really matters when its about the big decisions on the financial crisis and the recession. But that same thing is true of the process issue of who makes the ads too is a handy reminder.

Perhaps this is more evidence for Cameronism as a masterclass in political ambiguity - more evidence that what he stands for is what Tim Montgomerie calls "the politics of and".

He has his ProgCon adviser in Steve Hilton - and his tabloid-focused pub ready right-wing adviser in Andy Coulson.

Does he now have one ad agency to do his sunshine positive messages - and then the Saatchis to put the boot in?

And will all of this help or hinder the problem that people are still not very clear what David Cameron really stands for?

Surely a deeper ProgCon strategy would have turned not to Maurice Saatchi, but to Trevor Beattie.

But what really matters is the brief: authenticity.

If you can fake that, as the old joke goes ....

But if you can't ....

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Where's George?

It's budget day. We've heard from David Cameron; Phillip Hammond is ever-present on the TV screens.

The question being asked on twitter is "Where's George?"

LabourList wonders if Vinay Nair's Fabian conference pitch tipped the Tories off too soon.

Has the Osborne invisibility strategy for the election campaign - "The Tories say Mr Osborne will concentrate on his behind-the-scenes role as the Tories’ Election mastermind and will make occasional public appearances" - already begun?

We want George! Bring back George!

Liberal Conspiracy has a selection from the live budget chat.

Lots of detailed analysis at Left Foot Forward.

Progressive budget 2010 live

If you want to talk about the budget in real-time, you aren't likely to get a better offer than to join the live chat with a blogger and wonk collective, co-organised by Left Foot Forward with LabourList, and Liberal Conspiracy, and the TUC Touchstone blog.

I am taking part among a wide range of panellists in the chat. You can join in from any of the participating sites from midday.

If you spot issues which Next Left should try to dig into afterwards, do let us know in the chat or in the comments.

So why have the polls narrowed? The media-public disconnect over cuts

One should never take any opinion poll in isolation, but the latest results from each of the main polling firms suggest a tightening pre-election race. The headlines - such as over the BA strike - have been consistently bad for Labour, so there seems to be an increasing disconnect between what the national media think is going on, and which issues an uncertain public are thinking hardest about as they prepare to make up their minds.

The biggest disconnect between elite debate and public opinion may well be over the central question of "cuts" in public spending.

The evidence is growing that the public are yet to be convinced by arguments for very heavy cuts in public services. On balance, they are more concerned on the impact of cuts on public services than the consequences of not cutting for the budget deficit. And they appear more open to a balanced approach to spending cuts, tax increases, debt and the pace of deficit reduction than many commentators would like.

The response from much of the commentariat, especially on the right, is to charge the public with denial: 'they just don't get it. National bankruptcy stares us in the face'.

But it doesn't. If one wanted to take a (perhaps excessively) sanguine view of the question, one could take the sole Budget speech of the leading 'progressive Conservative' of the last century, in which Harold Macmillan held fast to his centrist, pro-public services Keynesian outlook:

It was 1956, and the national debt was 150% of GDP. Current projections suggest it could rise to half of that over the next four years.

Macmillan quoted the historian Macauley over the debt fears of the 18th century.


At every stage in the growth of that debt it has been seriously asserted by wise men that bankruptcy and ruin were at hand; yet still the debt kept on growing, and still bankruptcy and ruin were as remote as ever.


"In fact the debt was gradually reduced from these peaks without any heroic gestures", as FT columnist Samuel Brittan has written.

It was primarily growth what did it.

It has been argued that the post-war welfare state was unaffordable - though less often how this insight could have been carried through in the face of overwhelming democratic support for it. It has been more credibly argued that, if Britain was to expand domestic public spending, it needed to move more quickly from a global power to a European one.

Of course, Macmillan remains second only to Heath in the Thatcherite hall of villainy. As a consequence, his status among Progressive Conservatives is far from clear, though David Cameron's press team have characteristically briefed that he has a picture of SuperMac, not Maggie, in his office. Since Cameron seems to entirely reject Macmillan's economic outlook, one might not seem to make so much difference to the choices he would make in government.

Today, the budget deficit is a problem that needs to be dealt with - though one can not simply short circuit the political and policy debates and choices about how to do that.

But, if only progressive Conservatives knew their own history, they would realise that claims of an existential crisis of national debt are bunk.

***

PS: The Conservative opposition has focused primarily for almost a fortnight on suggesting that the BA cabin crew strike heralds an age of industrial militancy, further proving that the "militant" Unite union somehow owns runs a government which opposes its strike. "That line of attack is opportunist, hysterical and historically illiterate, but not necessarily ineffective" suggested Sunday's Observer leader, suggesting a grudging regard for Tory cynicism since they would surely settle for that.

Yet it would all seem to have been highly ineffective too. Mark Pack at LibDemVoice debunks the Sunday Times' claim that the action is "beginning to hurt the government’s standing", noting that this is based on a poll showing that 4% of voters thought it would make them less likely to vote Labour, 1% more likely and 80% no difference; while 22% think the unions too powerful and 19% not powerful enough.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Does David Cameron still oppose Waheed Alli's amendment on civil partnerships?

Channel 4 News tonight ran clips of an interview with Gay Times, in which David Cameron seemed badly underbriefed, and hence somewhat tetchy and confused.

Gay Times was surely bound to ask him about a range of issues relating to both his MEPs' voting record, and the approach of some of their new allies to gay rights.

Cameron today told Cathy Newman that the Tory absention on the 'Lithuanian section 28' was simply because they always abstain on issues about domestic issues in member states. However, as Newman reported, that is not the case, citing a recent vote on Italian media freedom.

Another issue raised in the interview was the Waheed Alli amendment on civil partnerships,covered extensively here on Next Left. In an earlier post, Next Left ran a letter from David Cameron to a constituent who asked him if his party would back the amendment.

Cameron expressed his personal opposition to the measure, while couching his opposition in terms which sought to avoid offending anybody on any side of the issue.

As with his laissez-faire approach to his MEPs' voting on gay rights, Cameron again suggested he could not be expected to influence Conservatives in another place.


As the amendment in question was debated in the House of Lords, I was unable to exert any direct influence over this issue.


But Cameron also expressed his personal preference against the amendment and in favour of the status quo ...


"I think it best for the current arrangements to continue"


... though, he did not give any reason against the change, and suggested he would not rule out some change at some future time.

Perhaps this is "progressive Conservative" according to St Augustine: 'Lord, make me progressive ... but not yet'.

However, this correspondence was before the Lords voted for the reform by 95 votes to 21, after an effective advocacy involving people from a range of different faith groups and none.

The government is now in favour of the measure. The Conservatives could now enable to pass in the wash-up, and there would surely be a clear Commons majority for it.

David, the ball really is back in your court.

This was the text of the Cameron letter to his constituent.


'Thank you for writing to me about civil partnerships in religious buildings.

'I appreciate that many people share your strong feeling about the issue. There are genuinely-held concerns on both sides of the debate, so I am very grateful to you for sharing your thoughts with me. As the amendment in question was debated in the House of Lords, I was unable to exert any direct influence over this issue.

'When civil partnerships were first introduced it was intended that they would be treated in the same way as civil marriages, which are also not allowed to take place on religious premises or include religious aspects in a marriage ceremony.

'However I know that many people in civil partnerships would like to change the current arrangements so that civil partnership ceremonies can take place on religious premises, or can at least include some religious aspects in the ceremony. I understand these concerns and I do not rule out changes in the future, but for the moment I think it best for the current arrangements to continue.

'Thank you for taking the time to write to me.'

Can Tories suppress calls for Osborne to go?

I wonder who Ridley Grove is. That is the pseudonym used by a London think-tanker who wants George Osborne to resign, because he is an electoral liability. In a great spot, LabourList noticed that his ConservativeHome post had been published - and quickly disappeared. They have helpfully republished it, for the record.


The economy is the number one issue in this election and Osborne is still a liability - behind Cable and Darling in all the polls. Cameron can't sack Osborne, but Osborne can resign. He could say that he is damaging the partys chances and has decided to put the country and party before his own personal ambition.


Tim Montgomerie of ConservativeHome explains what happened:


After his post appeared last week, however, I rang him and questioned whether it was a sensible thing to write. I worried that, this close to a vital election, it would be presented as a ConHome view by a journalist careless about the true author. He agreed to take the post down with a view to rewriting it. He since decided against doing so and the post has not been republished ...

Some will say I was wrong to ask Ridley to take his post down. Perhaps, perhaps. But there has to be a certain responsibility from a site like ConHome's so close to an election.


(Tim Montgomerie reports that he also, perhaps sensibly, changed a headline about the execution of the North Korean Finance Minister having initially offered the headline 'A warning to George Osborne': obviously a joke, and quite a funny one if taken in the spirit intended, but which somebody or other might have synthesised outrage about).

Still, there is little doubt that Osborne's future does remain the subject of a good deal of discussion in the party. David Cameron stated on the record that he would be prepared to sack him if it was the right thing to do. Even if a statement of the obvious, it may do little to discourage speculation.

And the somewhat less repressible Spectator editor Fraser Nelson began an amusing parlour game of "coalition reshuffles" in an entertaining Guardian column last week, and also suggested the Shadow Chancellor may fall short of getting to No 11 if the Tories win.


Any formal coalition would have to be made palatable to the grassroots of both parties, who will hate the idea. Cameron would have to prove he was being politically canny, inviting Lib Dems into areas that are most likely to explode. And Clegg would have to show that he was propping up the Tories not just to find ministerial office for himself or his friends, but to change the nature of Cameron's government. For example, he might demand that Ken Clarke is made chancellor. There is no prospect of Vince Cable being made chancellor: to cede control of the economy would move Tory MPs to mutiny. Losing George Osborne is something they would handle far better.


The main problem with this theory is that the europhile Ken Clarke would surely be more unacceptable to the Tory backbenchers than Vince Cable - though the Tories have chosen Clarke to be a face of the campaign while keeping Osborne out of view.

Iain Martin at the WSJ has a similar account of what the LibDems would want.

But there is not going to be a Tory-LibDem coalition. (Julian Astle of CentreForum counts the many reasons why in his well-informed recent report).

The LibDems do now seem pretty much pre-committed to ensuring the 'supply and confidence' viability of a Tory minority which won most seats and votes. (This would probably be achieved through abstention on an emergency budget, assuming there was not a detailed concordat on the content). Whether they could trade that for the power to alter the personnel of a Tory minority government might be in doubt. Perhaps there would be little harm in trying.

So some senior Tory watchers believe the LibDems could then be offered Phillip Hammond in Osborne's place. That delivers a symbolic scalp, but may fall short as it does not change the nature of the government. This could, indeed, strengthen the focus on cuts, which the LibDems on the whole would not welcome, despite Clegg recently outflanking the Tories on the right over spending cuts in preference to any further tax rises.

Still, I rather suspect that Rebekah Wade, Dominic Mohan and Rupert Murdoch may retain more power over who would be in a Cameron cabinet than Nick Clegg, even if the red top's decapitation of Dominic Grieve and promotion of Chris Grayling has not quite been the triumph that many anticipated.

***

John Rentoul suggests that Cable for Chancellor is the likely outcome of Labour winning more seats.


So, if Labour is the largest party, Brown could offer Clegg a deal. Already, Labour offers the Lib Dems the Alternative Vote – a limited electoral reform that would give the Lib Dems significantly more seats. Because it will be in Labour's manifesto, Brown should be able to deliver his MPs. Then he could offer Clegg a two-year agreed recovery programme, given that the parties are close on economic policy. Does anyone doubt that, if necessary to keep him in office, Brown would also offer Vince Cable the post of Chancellor? Labour MPs wouldn't like it, but as the price of power? The Lib Dems would be deeply suspicious, but as one Lib Dem source told me: "There is a limit to what Nick Clegg can say No to."

Monday, 22 March 2010

Labour must do more for "the real squeezed middle" says John Healey

"We have seen that those people whose incomes have fallen most are those in the middle, not those in the bottom. As we plot the way out of recession, we need to do more to support those who have been squeezed the most", Housing Minister John Healey told a Fabian Society and TUC event on "The Real Middle England" tonight.

"Sometimes we get a distorted view of who the real middle Britain is. If we allow it to be defined only by the metropolitan media, then they are likely to choose Tunbridge Wells as representative of middle England", he said.

Healey noted that the author Julian Baggini who wrote a book based on six months researching and living in the place which statistically most defined the average experience of middle England: "he didn't choose Tunbridge Wells, he chose part of Rotherham as typical of Middle England's income and Middle England's psychology", said Healey.

So who are the 'real' squeezed middle in Britain today?


"Our first focus should be the median income. The median income among households in Britain is £22,000 of households in Britain. So the seven million families that truly, statistically are our middle Britain have household incomes of between £14,500 and £33,500 a year. These are the real squeezed middle in Britain.


Healey said that families in this group would have around a quarter of their income left after housing costs and utility bills. Research from the Resolution Foundation showed their incomes had come under most pressure in the recession.

"That's about £100 per week. For some in the metropolitan middle-classes that might be the price of a good meal out for two at a restaurant in central London around the corner from us here at Congress House", he said, noting that this would have to pay not just for eating out or entertainment, but for children's clothes, nappies or the cost of a washing machine breaking down.

Healey was speaking alongside Paul Nowak of the TUC who argued that "a much clearer message about who the real middle Britain are" could play a crucial role could help to build broad coalitions to support public services and promote social solidarity in tough times, in a debate which drew on the TUC's real middle Britain research and the Fabian Society's evidence in its Solidarity Society report.

Healey set out how several Labour policy changes benefitted this group.

"This is the group that benefits most from tax credits, from the national minimum wage, from free nursery places", said Healey.

Six million families were supported by tax credits which had not existed in 1997.

Healey noted that, in the recession, 400,000 families had seen their working tax credits "flexed up" to reflect a drop in their incomes, helped by an average of an extra £37/week

"That is the system working as it is meant to", he said.

He stressed the importance of housing to this group, and said he wanted to propose a 'new housing offer' which would meet the needs and aspirations of this group.



We could call this "rent plus". This would allow people to have a home that suits them, at level they can afford, and build up savings, or options to part buy, that give them options over time into home ownership

"This would be a way to meet housing needs and aspirations at the same time, giving this real middle Britain a chance of housing that they currently don't have", said Healey.


Healey said that the 'real middle' had experienced increases in prosperity that their parents and grandparents could not have anticipated, but were also under real pressure and that policy-makers needed to respond to this.

"In recent decades we have seen huge economic change. Since the early days of Labour, we have seen many modest and middle earners in this country better off than they have ever been before".

The values of "hard work, fairness and often of proud independence" had not changed, he said.

"It is time that we did more to reflect more in our Labour policies those Labour values that are there at the heart of the real middle Britain", he said.

***

Healey was asked by an audience member whether his argument was compatible with an election which would be decided by swing voters in marginal constituencies.


I have never believed in a core vote strategy. We will win the election only by having a broad appeal. But we will not win the election with a broad appeal if our core vote does not support us.

There are a high proportion of people that say we have better policies than the Tories on housing and social housing, even than on education or health. The problem is that they are less likely to vote.

We have to make clear the choice that faces them, and the consequences that face them at the next election. I see that as a key factor of the campaign. And if you look at the constituencies where the election will be decided, you will find that there will be five, eight or ten times more social tenants than the majority that we have to defend.


UPDATE: More on housing and the election in Paul Sagar's account at the Bad Conscience blog.

Michael Gove changes his mind (again)

He thought Michael Ashcroft was destroying the credibility of the Tory claim to have changed - but then found he could defend the party's non-dom billionaire deputy chairman for his party.

He led the charge on union militancy last week - without mentioning his own experience on the picket line which turned up in the Sunday papers.

And Michael Gove also last week lavished praise on New Labour telling Andrew Sparrow that it was, "at its best, a recognition that the values of enterprise and aspiration could be fused with a commitment to social justice and fairness", so that he could take Cameronism back into 'heir to Blair' territory.

"We are the party most squarely in the centre ground".

That won't please right-wing commentators. If they are short of have time to put that anger into words, I doubt if their argument has rarely been more strongly expressed than this.


"No location is as undignified as being ‘in the centre’, somewhere the lowest common denominator and the highest public spending meet" ... an arid region where no principles can take root, no insitution can be sure of its foundation, no banner can be firmly placed. For that reason, it is a particularly shameless place for politicians to be ... The natural inhabitants of the centre are those politicians of easy virtue, prepared to massage public opinion but never challenge it"

That was Michael Gove, The Times, April 1999.


What had enraged Gove quite so much?

It was Tory deputy leader Peter Lilley's rather mild attempt in his 1999 Rab Butler lecture to argue in that the party would have to accept that "the free market has only a limited role in public services", which meant that the Conservatives would never be trusted on health or education if they seemed ideologically hostile to publicly funded services. (The Gove quotation appears in Tim Bale's excellent The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, and John Rentoul referenced it at the time of its publication).

The vitriolic Tory reaction to Lilley's 1999 speech led William Hague to abandon his early centrism. By that Autumn's party conference speech, Michael Gove was praising Hague for having "the guts" to stick to true Thatcherite principles.

So how far, if at all, would Gove claim to have changed his mind in any substantive way over the decade?

Gove's best defence - though it may be too candid, except to select audiences - would be to argue that the Cameron project is both Thatcherite and centrist, reconciling the two by arguing that the tactic and positioning of centrism will make a deeper radicalism possible in a way that it was not while the Tories were unelectable.

That is an argument which David Cameron has made - if quietly, and at different times and to different audiences.

David Cameron's approach to the 30th anniversary of 1979 was rather simpler than Lilley's had been to the 20th anniversary: to declare the Thatcher governments as providing an "awe-inspiring" example he would seek to emulate.

Perhaps the most striking and audacious thing about the progressive Conservative project is how far it seeks to maintain and embrace these contradictions.

This is part of what Tim Montgomerie calls "the politics of and". So that talking about poverty, the environment and international development gives the Tories permission to take forward their core agenda on cutting spending, the smaller state, immigration and crime.

This may well allow Michael Gove to be a centrist and a Thatcherite too.

But it may be an argument which may rely on the progressive Conservatism amounting to rather less than meets the eye.

Who will take on the vincible Monsieur Sarkozy?

The Socialist-led left alliance won in 21 of the 22 French regions of mainland France, with only Alsace re-electing the right, as the second round of the French regional elections dealt a significant mid-term blow to President Sarkozy and the French right.

Le Monde reports:


"The Left obtained 59% of the votes in six metropolitan regions where it dueled with the Right, according to TNS-Sofres/Logica. In 12 regions where there were triangle races joined by the National Front, the Socialist Party and its allies scored 49%, against 33.5% for the Right and 17.5% for the National Front"
("La gauche confirme son succès, l'Alsace reste à droite" Le Monde; via Monthly Review)


Around 49% of the electorate did not vote, a record level of abstentions, compared to 34% in the second round of the 2004 regional elections.

While the National Front has improved on its weak European election showing, the first round showed Daniel Cohn-Bendit's Europe Ecologie green party in third place ahead of the FN, as part of the victorious red-green-left alliance.

The unusual spectacle of a united French left and a disunited right means that the 2012 Presidential election now looks open. But both the candidate and the political direction of the left's challenge to Sarkozy remains very open too.

The Guardian editorial writers this morning suggest that Martine Aubry's chances of a Presidential run have been much strengthened:


Martine Aubry has been the Socialist heroine of this election. The daughter of Jacques Delors, she has struggled to impose her authority over a party dominated by large political egos. With one wobble (a row with the president of Languedoc-Roussillon, who made an antisemitic allusion to the former prime minister, Laurent Fabius). Ms Aubry held the show together and formed a valuable alliance with Daniel Cohn-Bendit's Europe Écologie. Having, for the moment, seen off the former Socialist presidential candidate Ségolène Royale, and faced with the possible return of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who may find that running the IMF does not make the strongest springboard for the presidency, Ms Aubry is in a good position to press the case for her own candidacy against Mr Sarkozy in 2012.


British Labour MP Denis MacShane writes in Newsweek on the prospects of a Dominique Strauss-Khan candidacy:


As Sarkozy fiddles, France's new Socialist Party leader, Martine Aubry, has calmly been building her team. This quiet approach paid off in the recent elections, as the French voted against their anything-but-quiet president. And the Socialists hold a powerful card they have yet to play. The current head of the International Monetary Fund is Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a Socialist who won plaudits as Europe's best finance minister in the 1990s. Now, like a latter-day de Gaulle, Strauss-Kahn lurks in the wings, preparing to challenge Sarkozy's lackluster administration in the 2012 presidential race. Bad midterm elections with a low turnout are not precise guides to the upcoming national contest. But Sarkozy has lost his invincibility and, for France's Socialists, that just might make the difference.


Strauss-Khan now tops the Paris Match popularity league table of French public figures with a 76% approval rating, and led Sarkozy 61-37 in a Presidential match up poll last month. But he would have to quit his IMF role, where his term does not end until October 2012, early to contest a Socialist Primary in 2011. So he would want to be pretty certain of being the candidate, but gave a decidedly non-Shermanesque response to speculation last month:


Strauss-Kahn told French radio [in February] that he planned to see out his mandate, but added: "If you ask me whether in certain circumstances I could reconsider this question, the answer is yes."


Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate in 2007, was re-elected governor of the Poitou-Charentes region with an estimated 61% of the vote on Sunday, and may also re-emerge as a Presidential contender.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Obama's healthcare victory: what happens next?

With a few hours to go, it has become clear today that the US healthcare Bill does have the votes to pass.

The New York Times is liveblogging the House of Representatives vote, and has a long review article on the turbulent politics of the bill over the last year. Jonathan Cohn's The Treatment blog at The New Republic offers an in-depth interrogation of the politics of reform.

Several leading US bloggers have moved on to the political fallout. Here is a selection of the best post-match analysis, just ahead of the final whistle.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum, who has argued against the US right, says that the Republicans should blame themselves for their most important legislative defeat since the 1960s.


We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible.


Frum fears his party's lack of moderation, but opposes the substance of the final Bill. By contrast, EJ Dionne suggests the Bill is a moderate, centrist measure which delivers on several principles argued by moderate Republicans for years.

***

The bill's passage is likely to see much hyperbole about socialised medicine and the death of liberty in America. Ezra Klein, on the Washington Post blog, has archive footage of Ronald Reagan (back in 1961) declaring that Medicare would be the death of American freedom.


People do not "celebrate" the freedom to not be able to afford lifesaving medical care. They don't want the freedom to weigh whether to pay rent or take their feverish child to the emergency room ... When faced with the passage of programs that would deliver people from these awful circumstances, the Republicans adopt a very narrow and cruel definition of the word "freedom."

But when faced with the existence of programs like Medicare, and the recognition that their constituents depend on those programs to live lives free of unnecessary fear and illness, they abandon their earlier beliefs, forget their dire warnings and, when convenient, defend these government protections aggressively. There's nothing much to be done about that. It is, after all, a free country. But Americans should feel free to ignore these discredited hysterics.


***

Jonathan Bernstein predicts the Republicans' next move:


Now that the bill will pass ... the question becomes: what will the GOP run on this fall? ... Death panels and rationing and socialism and the rest? I don't think so.

Here's what they will do: Republicans will now run against the current health care system. Just as they blamed Barack Obama for every job lost in February and March 2009, they're now going to blame Democrats for every insurance rate increase, every medical error, every complex insurance form, and basically anything that goes wrong with medical care or medical insurance, beginning March 22, 2010 ... Bad things happen in health care all the time; I'll be very, very surprised if we don't hear conservatives blaming one of those bad things on the brand-new law some time before Easter.


Meanwhile, ThinkProgress is pretty sceptical about Bill Kristol's prediction that the bulk of the Bill will be repealed by 2013, noting that the right-wing commentator has a pretty mixed track record with a crystal ball.

Dana Milbank, in the Washington Post, suggests a parallel with the failed Republican attempt to run on the repeal of social security in 1936. ilbank suggests that "it's doubtful that opposition to the measure will ever again be as high as it is now".

Andrew Sullivan, writing in his Sunday Times column, suggests victory will help the Obama presidency abroad.


Imagine the narrative shift if this bill is passed. Obama will not have imposed this monstrosity on the country from on high; he will have ground it through the bloggers, and the pundits will declare a resurrection. The narrative will be about his persistence and his grit, rather than his near-divinity and his authority. And suddenly it will appear — lo! — as if this lone figure has not just rescued the US economy from the abyss, but also passed the biggest piece of social legislation in decades.


More at Sullivan's Daily Dish blog.

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Scoffing at a Scots-only university

You've heard of Little Englanders? Well, Little Scotlandism appears to be taking off at the northern end of this United Kingdom.
So much so that the academically distinguished Edinburgh University has now introduced a policy of discriminating against English applicants by actively favouring Scottish students over anyone else.
A University spokesman is quoted in The Guardian saying this is because the university wants to encourage local people to study at their local university.
Hmm, I think he does protest not very well.
That might wash if the university had introduced a policy for residents of the city, or even at a push Lothian residents. But for the policy to extend to the whole of Scotland which is obviously no more local to Edinburgh than, say, London is to Oxford is a world of weirdness away, and quite obviously a sign of an out of control Little Scotlander complex.
How would it be if Oxford University said it was going to give additional weighting to English applicants? I suggest outcries from Scots, and quite right too.
For a top-ranking university to start discriminating against people because of where they come from, seems frankly ridiculous.
Good to hear Glasgow University saying it treats applicants equally whereever they may hail from.

Cameron's confusions over vested interests

David Cameron has this morning invoked this spirit of Margaret Thatcher, both in taking on the unions and in the need to challenge the banks. It is an extremely closely observed carbon copy of LibDem leader Nick Clegg's interview with the Spectator last week. Even if the LibDem leader may find it politically inconvenient to pursue a plagiarism suit, he must surely be due at least a speech-writing fee towards his marginal seats fund.

But isn't there a rather obvious flaw in the Cameron argument? He finds much to celebrate in Thatcher's legacy in democratising the unions.


She recognised that as long there was a closed shop and no proper ballots, power would lie with the big union barons.

They would continue to hold governments to ransom, to drag this country down, and to bully their members. So she took them on.

She broke the stranglehold of the union barons and gave every worker an equal right and equal say.

...

Unions were given back to their members.


Hurrah! So David Cameron champions the democratic reforms which gave trade unions back to their members, insisting that strike action depended on democratic ballots in which every member would have an equal say.

Doesn't it surely follow that where there is such a democratic ballot in favour of a strike, while Cameron might voice his disagreement (as both government and opposition have done), he would not think it his role to step in and prevent it?

I don't personally think the BA strike is a good idea for Unite or the BA workers, still less for anyone else. If government can press for a resolution of the industrial dispute, that would be a very good thing. It is not difficult to see the political reasons why Gordon Brown will be exerting any pressure he can over the often rather dis-united union, the Bassa strikers and indeed BA itself.

So I am not sure that Cameron is saying he would do anything on the BA strike, other than perhaps use a slightly different soundbite on the TV news to condemn it? Let me know if he is.

I am not sure that many people think that a government, whether Labour or Tory, can do a great deal more than that. Or might this be another case when the political right wants more Big Government rather than less?

***

Still the main message is that David Cameron is, like Margaret Thatcher, the great champion of the have nots, and the powerless against the powerful.


Change isn’t easy.

It's hard because there will always be people who want to preserve the status quo even when it isn’t working in everyone’s interests.

To maintain their privileges.

To maintain their position.

To make sure that the way things work suit them, rather than everyone else.

They're called vested interests, they are the enemies of change and often they will use any means to block progress.


Sounds great.

But here is what the Thatcher years did to the income distribution.

Those were very good times for those 'whose survival depended on keeping things as they were', only more so.

Social mobility collapsed.

As Red Tory Phillip Blond often observes, the share of wealth owned by the bottom 50% of the population plummeted.

David Cameron has frequently said that he shares Margaret Thatcher's views about both the limits of big government and the need for a strong society. He has said he is "basically a Lawsonian" on taxation too.

The only thing is, he says he wants to reduce inequality too.

Yet we are all still waiting for even a single syllable on where he thinks Margaret Thatcher went wrong in creating such large increases in inequality and poverty.

If Cameron can't explain that, his crusade "against vested interests" looks rather less likely to do much to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Though he would surely regret it if it, once again, achieved the opposite outcome.