Saturday, 29 May 2010

David Laws and a tragic failure of confidence in liberalism

Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own - John Stuart Mill, On Liberty.

Liberalism, if it means anything, must be about a society in which we all have the freedom and opportunity to flourish, and to realise as much of our human potential as we can. As John Stuart Mill wrote in On Liberty, it is not only law which can oppress this possibility, but also custom, tradition and social pressure toward conformity.

David Laws' resignation reflects an error of judgement in his expenses claims which the government believe made his position untenable. But its root cause was a lack of confidence in the liberalism of contemporary Britain.

The sad fact is that this liberal politician simply did not experience Britain, even of 2010, as a liberal society in which a gay man who was ambitious in his career in the City and then politics, and who wished to maintain relationships with family and friends, could openly flourish as himself. Sadder still is that there will be a widely shared sense that he was almost certainly wrong about that (though one can never underestimate the pain and difficulty of anybody's own personal and family relationships).

Laws' moving short interview with The Times about his sexuality makes very clear that not being 'out' was not for him rooted in a simple liberal preference for maintaining a private sphere from his public life, but a deeply painful difficulty in reconciling himself to who he really was.

“When I grew up, being gay was not accepted by most people, including many of my friends. I have kept this secret from everyone I know for every day of my life. That has not been easy, and in some ways it is a relief not to have to go on misleading those close to me about who I am ... I hope that others will now learn that it is time for people to be honest about their sexuality. Keeping secrets is much tougher than telling other people who you really are”.

While I do not share Laws' vision of a small state liberalism, it is a personal tragedy to see a political career cut short for that reason, accentuated because Laws' approach seems so unnecessary in a more liberal and open Britain in which civil partnerships have been celebrated and cherished for the last five years.

Yet we are all products of our experience and upbringing. The transformation of attitudes towards homosexuality has been very rapid, and that can easily be forgotten.

David Laws was born in 1965. His personal account shows how much more difficult it was for many to be 20 years old in 1985 than it was in 1995 or 2005 - and how difficult it can be to change our formative attitudes with which we enter adulthood. The unprecedented and welcome speed with which attitudes in elite politics changed happened just a moment too late for him.

Laws was active in politics as a Parliamentary candidate in 1997, and as the LibDem director of policy until 1999, before becoming an MP in 2001. Again, most of us would expect a liberal party to have had little problem with gay aspiring politicians by the time of the milennium. Yet, right up to 2005, every Liberal or LibDem MPs who were gay or bisexual had stayed in the closet, from Jeremy Thorpe to Simon Hughes. Laws' personal background, his Catholic upbringing and family, would seem to have played an important role for him personally. But he would have inevitably have had thrust upon him the identity of a 'pioneer' role in his own party. All parties need such pioneers, and those who come later have enormous reasons to be grateful to Chris Smith and others who are prepared to take those risks first, but that was something with which Laws would clearly have felt very uncomfortable.

So, instead Laws made the arrangements which have led to his resignation, combined with avoidable errors in his expenses claim after rule changes of questionable purpose (and yet which clearly reflect the public pressure to know about MPs' personal lives in the name of transparency). Some argue he deserves as little sympathy as anybody making the same case to the DWP or local benefits office, though despite his breach of these rules, Nick Clegg and David Cameron could have refused his resignation.

Britain became a much more open and more liberal society over the last decade. It might give those who have declared this to be a "liberal moment" pause for thought that David Laws' Cabinet career has been cut unfortunately short because, when it came to his own life, he did not yet have the confidence to believe it.

Despite the expenses breach, that seems a most unfortunate reason to end to a political career.

So many, whether political allies and opponents, will wish David Laws not only the time and space to find personal happiness but will also hope that his speedy and dignified resignation may also give him the opportunity to resume a frontline political role.

Dear David, Ed and Ed

Dear David Miliband, Ed Balls and Ed Miliband,

Many congratulations on your securing the nominations from MPs to secure your place in the ballot for the Labour party leadership. Like many party members and supporters, I am looking forward to a leadership debate and election which can energise and mobilise the party and begin the party's route back to power.

Each of you have talked about how you personally would like to see the widest possible field of candidates in the leadership election.

There is one simple, practical step which you could now each take to help to make that possible.

So I am writing to each of you to ask if you would be willing to tell MPs that you are not now seeking further formal nominations for leader, in the event that your rival candidates for the leadership who have reached the nomination threshold were willing to do the same thing.

Nominations are not votes - and this would not of course provide any bar to continuing to release further public statements of support from MPs and others advocating that you would be the best candidate to lead our party, including from some who may at the same time choose to formally nominate another candidate to extend the field and the leadership debate.

Best wishes and good luck,

Sunder Katwala
General Secretary
Fabian Society

David Laws' dilemma and the transition to gay equality

Having been Shadow Education spokesman for the third party until a fortnight ago, David Laws has had a remarkably high profile since the election.

George Osborne let him announce the Coalition's £6 billion of spending cuts, and it was revealed that Laws had disagreed with his own party's resistance to early cuts even during the campaign.

His Commons' defence of the cuts made him every Tory's favourite LibDem, with several on the right finding him a rather more robust economic 'dry' than your average Cameroon. The Standard's Paul Waugh was among those to jokingly tip him as next Tory leader.

Even Law's non-appearance on Question Time with Alastair Campbell caused a stir on Thursday night.

He would have made further waves on policy in his own party with his interview in tomorrow's Times, in which he appears to endorse some of John Redwood's ideas on tapering the capital gains tax, while most LibDems are supporting Vince Cable's efforts to defend the Coalition agreement against a concerted challenge from the Tory right. ("“Genuinely, I am struggling to think of anything we have disagreed on", Laws says of his apparent mind-meld with Chancellor George Osborne).

That may now get rather less attention since Laws is involved in what could become the first serious personnel crisis of the Coalition, with The Telegraph's report on his second home claim.

The paper reports that Laws claimed up to £950 a month for eight years to rent a room in two properties owned by his partner, James Lundie, until 2009. Since 2006 parliamentary rules have banned MPs from "leasing accommodation from a partner". The revelation has already led to Law's decision to pay £40,000 back while reporting himself to the Parliamentary Commissioner.

That looks like a tacit acknowledgement that the rules were broken, as does his statement that:

I regret this situation deeply, accept that I should not have claimed my expenses in this way and apologise fully"

So early in the honeymoon of the Coalition, given Laws' absolutely central role in the Cabinet, and the great difficulty that the two parties would have in finding any other LibDem who might command such confidence among Conservatives about their willingness to wield the spending axe, we can anticipate enormous efforts by both party leaderships to secure Laws' position if at all possible. (And David Cameron's wish to appear tough on expenses has consistently been combined with a rather pragmatic tendency to treat valued allies considerably more leniently than others. And the Prime Minister may particularly think there would be value when in putting himself out to defend a LibDem colleague: something that might be remembered when the Coalition hits choppy waters over a policy dispute).

However, Number 10's initial statement is non-committal and rather lukewarm, according to the BBC:

A spokesman for Prime Minister David Cameron said: "The prime minister has been made aware of this situation and he agrees with David Laws' decision to self-refer to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner."

The Telegraph says that it intended to report the expenses claim without reference to Laws' sexuality.

Laws' own statement states that this was impossible. That is probably correct, to the extent that he probably feels it would have been unable to offer any coherent account of the expenses claim without giving the full story.

Laws also says that

“In 2006 the Green Book rules were changed to prohibit payments to partners. At no point did I consider myself to be in breach of the rules which in 2009 defined partner as ‘one of a couple … who although not married to each-other or civil partners are living together and treat each-other as spouses’.

“Although we were living together we did not treat each other as spouses. For example we do not share bank accounts and indeed have separate social lives. However, I now accept that this was open to interpretation and will immediately pay back the costs of the rent and other housing costs I claimed from the time the rules changed until August 2009.”

That sounds rather tricksy and lawyer-like. It is probably not the natural reading of the 'partner' bar. However, it has also been pointed out that Laws would have been entitled to claim similar amounts had the property been jointly owned, and so some might feel that it is a breach of the letter of the rules only.

The liberal principle of fair treatment is surely honoured best by assessing the legitimacy of the expenses issue simply on its own merits.

Laws' sexuality should be entirely irrelevant to this. It is very strange to claim that revealing this would be the Telegraph's primary motivation: the paper specialises in expenses' revelations and would surely have reported this story about the Chief Secretary in any event. By the same token, it is difficult to see why the personal background ought to prompt greater support for Laws over whether the expenses claim was legitimate, beyond a broader sympathy at what has clearly been a difficult personal decision to make his personal life public as the report appears. (However, LibDemVoice suggests the context does exonerate Laws in assessing what it bills as his "statement on his expenses and sexuality").

What remains most puzzling, given the strength of Laws' motivation to retain his privacy, is why the Yeovil MP, famously a millionaire by the age of 28, felt the need to make any second home claim at all.


Separately to the finding on the expenses issue, this episode might well come to be seen as the close of an era of transition to equality for politicians who are gay.

Some have tonight expressed disappointment that, in the Britain of 2010, the most powerful gay man in the Cabinet did not feel he could be open about his sexuality. That is an understandable instinct, but it is surely legitimate to think that these are highly personal decisions. Most of us would be reluctant to think we could pronounce, without having lived in their shoes, on somebody else's choices about their own life.

Not that, until really very recently, there was any choice at all, wikipedia's resources on British LGBT politicians capture. Matthew Parris' biography offers a very interesting account of how there was no alternative to the closet for a would-be Conservative MP - he was an MP from 1979 to 1986 and came out after leaving the Commons though Labour's Chris Smith was the first MP to come out publicly in 1984. Parris' own his brave speech on gay rights in the House did not take too much decoding.

Few would have imagined that, only twenty-five years later, gay politicians in the Conservative party - like their black and Asian colleagues - would find party HQ so very keen to project them to the national media as proof that the party has changed.

Indeed it can now be that would-be liberalising instinct for positive PR which risks pigeon-holing them as "gay MPs", though it is to be hoped that this too will pass as the novelty wears off, as we move towards the broad diversity of the nation being represented in politics becoming the unremarkable norm.

Those MPs who did not feel they could be open about their sexuality when entering public life may not have found it easy to do so later. So a couple of generations of politicians found themselves experiencing a much more rapid recent liberalisation of social attitudes than was expected when, for example, Peter Mandelson first worked in a high profile role for Labour in the 1980s or sought selection as an MP in Hartlepool in 1992.

Indeed, it was only in 1997 that Stephen Twigg and Ben Bradshaw (whose opponent campaigned on a homophobic platform) became the first MPs to be elected for the first time when already publicly known to be gay. That 18 openly gay MPs were elected to Parliament in 2010 captures the scale of the shift in just a few years.

David Laws, selected in Yeovil in 2001, may be one of the youngest and it might be hoped perhaps also among the last of a generation of MPs to feel that this dilemma existed in a sharp way.

Strikingly, no gay Liberal Democrat MP was publicly "out" until 2005 and so Laws would have had to have wanted to be the first gay MP in the party to declare his sexuality. Stephen Williams in 2005 and Steve Gilbert in 2010 were elected while acknowledging they were gay, while Simon Hughes in 2006 acknowledged that he was bisexual and publicly apologised for the highly contentious 1983 Bermondsey campaign against Peter Tatchell, saying " "I hope that there will never be that sort of campaign again. I have never been comfortable about the whole of that campaign".

Until the late 1990s, a central fear was of a bar to a political career, either through discrimination by poltiical party selectorates or, as often, a feeling among would-be liberal party activists that the public wouldn't buy it. If that fear of discrimination has receded considerably in the last few years, perhaps a concern about being seen primarily through an identity lens has been a motivation for others to keep their sexuality private.

We can hope that this era of transition towards equality may now be coming to an end. It may not be too optimistic to think that almost every new candidate for a major party in the next General Election would feel able to be open about their sexuality if they wished to do so - and perhaps to find too that very few people cared about it one way or the other.


There was a rather strange profile of Laws in Friday's Guardian, which portrayed paperlessness and his proud refusal to own a filing Cabinet as the key to the personality of the government's deficit cutter in chief.

The piece skated somewhat around his private life, though perhaps not always with maximum care and attention. It reported that he had told new Conservative colleagues that he would probably have joined the Tory party had it not been for its stance on section 28 and social liberalism. But, given his wish to keep his private life private, there was a completely bizarre comment from a "friend", who claimed Laws as one of the few LibDems

Another long-standing friend puts it as follows: "There are four ways in which Liberals are liberals: economic liberals, political liberals, liberal in personal life and social liberals. To me, he is a complete Liberal. He is one of the few people who ticks all the boxes."

The inference that being gay rather than straight somehow demonstrates a greater committment to liberalism seems very puzzling. Doubtless, a well-meaning liberalism is intended by the friend, yet the unfortunate (and surely unintended) suggestion would instead appear to be of promiscuity. Making that mandatory for anybody who wants to be considered fully liberal suggests that the this anonymous LibDem may not be quite such an expert on the litmus tests of liberalism as they appear to think that they are.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Will Labour campaign for electoral reform?

The Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform is holding a Strategy Meeting with John Denham MP. The event is open to Labour party members and supporters, and takes place on Monday, June 7, 2010 6pm - 8pm in Committee Room 7, House of Commons.

* What approach should Labour take to the Coalition governments's plans for an AV referendum (something Labour promised in its own manifesto): Go out and campaign for a Yes vote? Or hold out for something more?

* How do we make reform of our voting system an issue in the leadership contest/ in the NEC elections/ at conference?

* What is our response to the plans for reducing the number of MPs and redrawing boundaries to "equalize" constituencies? Or to introduce the 55% threshold for dissolution of parliament?

Join John Denham and LCER to discuss all this and more....

More from the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform


Martin Kettle in the Guardian reflects on one of the major decisions about political strategy which the Labour opposition will face:

The AV referendum will be a moment of historic choice for Labour. Its future will hang on the decision it makes. On the one hand, Labour can support a move towards greater electoral fairness, as it did in its 2010 manifesto on which all its MPs have been elected. If it does this, it will campaign for a yes vote, even though the effect of a yes victory may be that Labour must change into an alliance-making party if it is to govern again .... On past form, lacking the steel to face up to hard issues and to think strategically, Labour will jump on board the no campaign in the hope of humiliating the Liberal Democrats and disabling the coalition. But a Labour party with strategic sense and principle would do the opposite. It would embrace liberal reform and the yes campaign, and would recognise that a historic choice requires a historic compromise.


So far the leadership contenders have all been talking about the importance of making Labour a campaigning party and part of a broader political movement.

That is very important yet, as a broad aspiration, it is something which almost nobody in the party would disagree about.

Few of the contenders have been eager to say much yet about a major (and imminent) political choice on which there are different vicws within the party, and one which could prove very important in connecting with at least one broader progressive campaigning constituency.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

New politics? Now Number 10 wants to pick the Question Time panel for the BBC

How long might it take for power to go to Andy Coulson's head?

Are the Cabinet really such a bunch of bottlers? And, if not, might they try to take control of their comms operation, rather than being run by it?

And might the Liberal Democrats in government please take the opportunity to remind any of their excessively Murdoch-influenced Conservative allies about the value of an independent BBC?

Here's Gavin Allen on the BBC editors' blog, on the demands made by (unnamed) No 10 media and communications staffers to be able to veto the BBC Question Time panellists as a condition of a Cabinet minister being willing to appear.

According to No 10, a senior member of the cabinet was available to do Question Time but only if Alastair Campbell was replaced by a member of the shadow cabinet.

Very obviously, we refused and as a result no minister appeared, meaning that the government was not represented on the country's most-watched political programme in Queen's Speech week - one of the most important moments in the Parliamentary calendar.

... No 10 stated that the objection to Alastair Campbell was that he was not an elected Labour representative or a front-bencher ... It is not an argument or an objection that bears scrutiny.

It is a fundamental principle of our independence that politicians cannot dictate who sits on the panel.

The Liberal Democrats will be represented by defeated ex-MP Susan Kramer, and the Conservatives by backbencher John Redwood. (That suggests either that Redwood was a late addition or, perhaps, that the missing Cabinet member might have been a LibDem. If you know any more, do please tell).

Hat tip: Paul Waugh on twitter.


UPDATE: Alastair Campbell had tweeted, around 4pm, that

Mugged up on David Laws cos led to believe he was govt minister on Question Time. Turns out there won't be one! In Queen's Speech week!!!

Hat tip: @politic_animal

Capital gains and badger culls: the competitive politics of Coalition rebellion

Presumably the central organising principle of the Coalition government must be that the two frontbenches will make every effort to protect significant and politically sensitive commitments hammered out in the Coalition Agreement itself against pressure from their backbench MPs.

David Cameron, having backed away from his first bruising encounter with his backbenchers, is paying lip service to being in listening mode as Tory Big Beasts David Davis and John Redwood choose the touchstone issue of lower taxes as the first chance to seriously test the Coalition's cohesion. Nick Clegg and Vince Cable will no doubt already have David Cameron's private assurance that he will stick to the essentials of the agreement, but the Tory Right will believe it has put down an important marker for the future.

Capital Gains Tax is a very significant symbolic issue, as it speaks to the freedom v fairness tension between right-of-centre and left-of-centre instincts which remain at the centre-of-gravity of the two parties, which the Coalition agreement claims to have happily reconciled (with responsibility providing the icing on the motherhood and apple pie).

The Conservatives are keen to stress how much they like the 'tax freedom' messages of an increased income tax threshold, yet the (contested) LibDem claim that this represents 'tax fairness' too becomes ever more threadbare the more that the right seeks to oppose those progressive tax raising measures to pay for it which were not already sacrificed in the Coalition agreeement.

The principle that capital gains should be taxed at a similar rate to income is a clear and strong one, though it is opposed who believe we pretty much always live at a point on the Laffer Curve where cutting tax rates will pretty much always happily increase revenues.

So perhaps this is the apposite moment for a counter-rebellion from the yellow side.

Arise Adrian Sanders, MP for Torbay. The Liberal Democrat deputy Chief Whip no less has condemned another part of the Coalition Agreement as something the public will find "appalling" and a terrible "waste of public money", as reported by the lively and informative blog of Matt Chorley of the Western Morning News.

This raises the interesting question of exactly how Oliver Letwin and Danny Alexander (perhaps just after happily endorsing "") found the time to agree that culling badgers should definitely be part of the new politics too, as they discovered that this was a manifesto pledge they had in common,

Hence the Coalition declaration:

"As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis.”

The New Politics: bad news for badgers!


I suspect the Liberal Democrat backbenchers and party members will mostly be considerably better behaved within the Coalition than the Conservatives. They believe in the value of power-sharing in politics and, in the final reckoning, they are as a party rather more existentially invested in the success of the Coalition.

After eighty years out of power at Westminster, the LibDems are very aware of the need to show that they can cope with the realities and compromises of office. By contrast, a large number of Conservatives appear to feel that the party civil war of 1992-97 was so long ago that there is little or nothing to be learnt from it.

And there is method in the vocal advocacy of the Tory right. The right's analysis is that the LibDems got too much in the Coalition deal, as they skilfully exploited the uncertainty about their intentions between rival suitors, and that Nick Clegg may well have the veto power within Cabinet Committees.

Unless, that is, the Tory right can credibly claim to have a bloc of at least sixty potential troublemakers on the Tory backbenches, who will define themselves not as irreconciliables, but as only contingent supporters and constructive critics to the Coalition's right. The claim is that as much work needs to be done to keep the Tory right on board as a Liberal Democrat party of broadly equivalent Commons strength. 118 votes against David Cameron over the 1922 Committee may become an important symbol that the threat may not be an idle one even if this assertive right-wing bloc may lack any credible nuclear option. (After all, their Parliamentary power depends on challenging the Coalition on an issue where the Tory right can make common cause with Labour and minor parties, in a House which may often have an issue-based centre-left majority while sustaining a centre-right government).

And the more constructive of these Tory critics will claim that they are simply using their voice and power to strengthen the negotiating position of the leader of the larger party against his junior partner).

If this is how it is going to be, David Cameron must be grateful that he can draw on his very useful experience as a special adviser to the John Major government.

So we can largely expect there to be more competitive leaking by Ministers, pressure from backbenchers and agitiation from the party in the country from the Coalition's right than its liberal-left. If the LibDems do not reciprocate at all, the balance of Coalition power will consistently shift away from them every week since the ink dried on the deal. But their political judgement in how far they too can rock the Coalition boat without endangering "the project" may be a rather delicate one.

Who will make the most surprising nomination?

A short post on the Staggers blog.

So far, its Frank Field for John McDonnell, from Eric Joyce for Ed Balls, Douglas Alexander for David Miliband, and David Lammy for Diane Abbott.

But extra points for anybody who wants to predict unlikely nominations which then come about.

I know of at least one strongly New Labour backbench MP who plans to nominate Diane Abbott, on grounds of wanting some gender balance in the voices we hear during the leadership debates.

But my long-shot outsider tip - based on no information at all - is for Tessa Jowell (a declared David Miliband supporter, who does not yet an official nominee) to be among who could help to ensure get Diane Abbott onto the ballot if she was near the 33 nominations but still needing support to cross the line. But perhaps we could hear from one or two New Labour men acting in the cause of a not all male race too, rather than seeing that as something which Labour's 81 women MPs should take responsibility for.

Why the death of a candidate rules are dangerous and should go

The General Election finally finishes today in Thirsk and Malton, with the initial poll cancelled after the death of the UKIP candidate.

This has no doubt been frustrating for Anne McIntosh and her rival candidates, as a similar circumstance was for Sir Patrick Cormack in Staffordshire South in 2005. That was the first occurence since 1951, though this will be the eighth General Election since 1918 to have included a delayed poll due to the death of a candidate.

The House of Commons library paper explains the law.

But the current provisions are unnecessary. What is perhaps less appreciated is that they are also dangerous.

For example, imagine somebody with a very strong sense of grievance over a major political controversy was suicidal and had decided they wanted to take their own life. Were they validly nominated in the constituency of the Prime Minister or Leader of the Opposition before committing suicide as the campaign began, they could then remove a current or potential future PM from the House of Commons for the time that the new Parliament is prorogued.

For similar reasons, and perhaps a less fantastical scenario, the current system creates a completely unnecessary security risk against even the most obscure minor fringe candidates in the most high-profile seats. There were ten candidates in Witney at this election and fifteen in Sedgefield in 2005. There is an unnecessary risk in offering either organised terrorist groups or malicious individuals the chance to embarrass the British government and seize a significant publicity coup.

The law should be replaced before the next General Election, while there is plenty of time to remove these possibilities.

Of course, a similar outcome could result without any malicious motivation. It was very fortunate that Nigel Farage escaped injured from his plane crash on the morning of the election. Had that, as at at first feared, been a more tragic incident then the "Speaker seeking re-election" would then have still be seeking re-election to the House, probably in a few weeks time.

There are any number of alternatives which could replace the current legislation, avoiding these dangers.

The election could simply proceed, with provision made for it to be followed by a re-run if a deceased candidate were elected posthumously.

An alternative would be to make include provision for the Returning Officer to allow the party concerned to replace a candidate - solely in the event of a candidate's death, rather than allowing candidate substitutions to become a general rule - subject to their getting the relevant signatures to nominate the replacement. (Notices could be placed at all ballot stations if it was too late to print ballot papers; the loose ends in this scenario, such as for postal ballots, are rather better than the current system).

An alternative would be for the Returning Officer could be given discretion to determine whether the election could proceed, for example, based on whether the deceased candidate had any significant chance of victory. That could, for example, be a rule of thumb that the election would be postponed only if the deceased candidate's party were within 10-15% last time. If an outsider won a posthumous victory, again a by-election or re-run could be held.

Of course, if there was a very inconvenient outcome, the British tradition would be to find a way to fudge it. It is not much known that Sir Alec Douglas-Home was Prime Minister while neither a member of the Lords or the Commons, in a strange constitutional limbo, for a fortnight on renouncing his peerage on becoming PM in the Autumn of 1963.

So perhaps the Monarch could still invite a party leader who was not a member of the Commons to form a government, while they awaited their delayed General Election contest. But I can't see how they could speak in the Commons on the Queen's Speech.

More surprisingly (in something that would surely not be repeated today), Harold Wilson proceeded to make Patrick Gordon Walker his Foreign Secretary even after he lost his seat in Smethwick in October 1964 to the infamously racist Conservative campaign. Gordon Walker resigned after three months in the role only after also losing a hastily arranged Leyton by-election the following January.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The coming battle for liberalism?

The Osborne-Laws pact to axe the Child Trust Fund prompts me to write on a topic I have been musing on for a while: the future of liberalism.

As Sunder has noted, the formation of the Coalition raises the prospect of the Lib Dems shifting from a centre-left party to one of the centre-right. This has a clear attraction for the Orange Book tendency in the Liberal Democrats. Their aim has always been to reassert the credentials of 'economic liberalism' against 'social liberalism' - without, they would say, wishing to deny the truths of social liberalism. In essence, this means: a greater willingness to use markets and to tolerate their outcomes.

One striking feature of Orange Book liberalism is its disciplinary basis. It is to a considerable extent a movement grounded in conventional economics. Key protagonists such as David Laws and Paul Marshall have backgrounds as economic analysts. This is obviously Vince Cable's area of expertise. And Nick Clegg is on familiar ground here too. CentreForum, a think-tank linked to Orange Book liberalism, frequently produces work that is impressively informed by this intellectual discipline.

Orange Book liberalism has much less of a grounding in political philosophy. When Vince Cable wrote a chapter on 'Liberal economics and social justice' in the original Orange Book, he felt no need - so far as I can see - even to define 'social justice', let alone discuss what it might be in terms of rival theories put forward by various liberal philosophers.

And that, I think, is fairly typical. I have looked at every chapter in the two key works of Orange Book liberalism (The Orange Book and Britain After Blair), some 25 chapters in all. Not one of them contains in their bibliographies a single reference to any of the great three works of contemporary liberal political thought: John Rawls' A Theory of Justice; Ronald Dworkin's essays on equality, canonically gathered in his Sovereign Virtue; and Bruce Ackerman's Social Justice in the Liberal State. (Nor, by the way, can I find any reference to the work of Friedrich Hayek or Robert Nozick.)

This does not mean that the Orange Book liberals lack a political philosophy. Their thinking rests on some definite, strong - albeit rather unexamined - philosophical assumptions. Reading someone like David Laws, for example, there is at times a clear sense that the free market produces a distribution of income and wealth which is a kind of natural or moral baseline. It is departures from the baseline that have to be justified. Laws and other Orange Bookers are of course not libertarians, so they are prepared to allow that some departures - some tax-transfers/tax-service arrangements - can be justified. (This is the sense in which they remain social liberals, albeit not egalitarian ones.) But the presumption, for Laws, is clearly for leaving money in people's pockets. [Note of clarification added May 28: I have removed the quote marks from the phrase 'leaving money in people's pockets' at the end of this sentence as misleading. The quote marks were intended to indicate my own distance from/scepticism towards the classical liberal ideological position which I think is conveyed in the phrase, and with which I think Laws is in sympathy - but the phrase is not - repeat not - a quote from Laws's writings.]

This presumption runs completely counter to one of the basic claims of contemporary liberalism as developed in the work of such as Rawls, Dworkin and Ackerman.

For these thinkers, the 'free market' is simply one possible 'basic structure' for society along with an indefinite range of other possibilities. It has no morally privileged position. So how do we choose which 'basic structure' to have? Their answer is that we try to identify principles of social justice and then design a basic structure - including, if necessary, appropriate tax-transfer arrangements - to achieve justice so understood. On this view, taxation and 'redistribution' are not invasions into people's pockets, a taking of what is presumptively already, primevally 'theirs'. Tax-transfers are a way of ensuring that people do not pocket, through the market, more (or less) than they are genuinely entitled to. Tax-transfer schemes define entitlement; they do not invade it.

Simplifying a little, one might say that for these liberal thinkers, it is not the free market that is the appropriate, morally relevant baseline, but equality: it is movement away from equality that has to be justified, not movement away from a free market distribution.

The debate over the Child Trust Fund offers a prime example of the way in which the two liberalisms can come apart.

In the view of the egalitarian liberals, justice requires that all citizens start their adult life with reasonably equal endowments of wealth (again, I simplify, but the nuances one needs to add to this statement are not important here). Policies like the CTF look like a way of trying to secure this. A policy like the CTF comes thus to be seen, by liberals of this type, as an integral part of the 'basic structure' of a just society, an important institution that, by helping to equalise initial asset endowments, frames and constrains the way 'the market' operates. Abolition of the CTF is, therefore, an assault on a genuine moral entitlement - an act of unjust disinheritance towards future citizens.

But for a classical liberal, or an Orange Booker with leanings that way, the CTF is more likely to look like just another government spending program that has been arbitrarily tacked on to the market economy. The working presumption is that income and wealth should stay where the market places them. This presumption can be overriden: but only if the policy in question is really essential: for example, say, if it is needed to relieve poverty. Since the CTF apparently isn't essential in this way, the money it costs should really be returned to the pockets whence it came. I suspect that something like this view underpins the profoundly dismissive attitude that George Osborne and David Laws showed to the CTF.

So when the new Coalition and its supporters, like Julian Glover, argue that something called 'liberalism' is the guiding thread of the new government, we need to pause and recall that they mean by this a very specific kind of liberalism.

Meanwhile those of us who are liberals in the Rawlsian or related sense suffer at present a lack of representation by the mainstream parties.

The Lib Dems have many virtues, but Orange Bookery is a philosophical step backwards from our point of view, and it is this tendency which is now calling the shots in social and economic policy.

Labour, on social and economic policy, has many virtues. But it also has a very poor record on civil liberties and related issues about the quality of state power (e.g., the database state), things which also matter to egalitarian liberals as liberals.

So, far from representing a great Richard Reevsian 'liberal moment', the present political conjecture seems to me to represent a moment in which liberalism - of the egalitarian, Rawlsian kind - has been driven to the margins of British politics. No mainstream party now speaks for liberalism in this sense.

How are those of us who support this kind of liberalism going to rectify this? Will left liberals in the Lib Dems take on their ideological opponents within the party? Will Labour's egalitarian liberals take on their party's authoritarians and anti-pluralists?

How can the two groups work together, across the party divide, to advance the great cause that is (egalitarian) liberalism?

It is economic insecurity, more than immigration, which Labour struggles to talk about

A guest post from David Coats on how Labour's post-election inquest risks missing the point.

There is a depressing consensus emerging that a failure adequately to deal with the issue of immigration was a major contributory factor in Labour’s defeat. It would be absurd to deny that the issue was of real concern to the electorate – what was the substance of the “bigot” incident all about anyway? But it would be equally wrong to believe that a tougher stance would have delivered more votes or that victory could be achieved quite so simply.

To begin with we need to be clear about the economic consequences of migration since 2004 from the new EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe. The best evidence suggests that there was no negative impact on the employment prospects of “native” British workers and no downward pressure on wages either. Some may find this conclusion counter-intuitive and will draw attention to anecdotes involving job loss and wage cuts. But public policy has to be driven by social science, not by what somebody in the pub or at the school gates has told you. A strong case can be made that the arrival of large number of Poles and Lithuanians helped the economy to grow more rapidly than would otherwise have been the case. Labour shortages were avoided, interest rates remained low and inflation was subdued. At the same time of course the National Minimum Wage was rising faster than average earnings, which guaranteed a firm floor in the labour market. These are hallmarks of policy success, not failure.

So does this mean that we can simply discount the immigration issue and move on to more comfortable territory for the centre-left? The answer here, I’m afraid, is a resounding “no” and the reasons are deeply embedded in the ideological construct we know as New Labour. There is a gap between public perception and reality on the one hand – immigration has not had adverse labour market effects even though many people believe this to be so – and an inability to talk about economic insecurity on the other.

New Labour often gave the impression that markets were difficult to resist, that intensifying global competition was an inevitability, that workers had to adapt themselves to the demands of the knowledge economy and that the state’s only role was to equip people with the skills needed to find a secure place in a rapidly changing world of work. At the same time of course employers were retreating from their own welfare responsibilities, eroding or abandoning final salary pension provision and engaging in a permanent revolution of continual corporate restructurings and reorganisations. People may not have lived in fear of imminent job loss (although the recession changed all that) but they were uncertain about their futures in an era of bewildering change.

Two groups of Labour voters were squeezed by these developments. First, those with either no or low qualifications working in industries exposed to low wage competition from the developing world and second, those described in market-research speak as C2s, employed in semi-skilled jobs and on the receiving end of technological change, rising customer expectations and intensifying competition. By 2010 New Labour had little to say to either group. Our rhetoric was focused on the alleviation of poverty, self-evidently a noble aim, but of little direct relevance to manual workers losing their jobs or the struggling bottom of the aspirational middle classes.

Moreover, until very late in the day the government made only half-hearted attempts to capture public anger about excess at the top, bankers' bonuses and wholly unjustified rewards for failure. Ministers found it hard to explain why economic insecurity in an age of affluence was such a problem for so many voters. In other words, we had forgotten Bill Clinton’s elementary lesson. It was and remains “the economy, stupid” that gets social democrats elected. Labour will only deserve the public’s trust again when we can answer the hard questions about economic insecurity.

That means looking beyond the migration issue to questions of corporate power and responsibility, the regulation of the labour market, the role of trade unions and the prospects for industrial democracy. That is the real challenge for the leadership contenders and it has absolutely nothing to do with the toughness or otherwise of Labour’s immigration policies.

David Coats is a research fellow at the Smith Institute.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Child Trust Fund: a great liberal policy killed by the Liberal Democrats

Its official. After a short interim in which newborns will receive a mere £50 or £100, the Child Trust Fund (CTF) is in effect to be axed. As of January 2011, there will be no further government contributions into any CTFs.

As Sunder pointed out in his post here earlier today, the Conservatives did not fight the election on a platform of completely abolishing the CTF. Their policy was to trim it back to the poorest families. The Lib Dems, however, have fought two elections on a platform of abolishing the CTF. The effective abolition of the CTF is, quite clearly, a Lib Dem responsibility.

Let us not be detained by the argument that this was a financial necessity. Despite being one of the most effective pro-savings policies ever introduced by a UK government, the policy is inexpensive. It could easily have been preserved with government contributions reduced but with a clear commitment to raise them back to present levels as financial circumstances allowed.

When the policy was first introduced, my wife, Kathy, discussed it with children in her classes at school - teenagers in a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire. The children were surprised and enthralled at the idea that the government might invest some money on their behalf. (They understood they were too old to benefit, but they had the ability to empathise with those future children who would benefit from the policy.)

My son's CTF will continue.

But I think it is a great shame that so many other parents and children in the future will not receive this simple act of affirmation. And that so many of these children will consequently lack the capital to launch ambitiously into their adult life.

The Lib Dems have had fair warning that abolition of the CTF is a deeply illiberal policy. I have argued this case in a range of contexts from multiple Next Left posts to academic articles in Public Policy Research and British Politics. The CTF was anticipated by policy thinking in the Liberals and SDP in the 1980s. It emerged out of academic efforts to think through the institutional implications of liberal egalitarianism of the kind articulated by John Rawls, Ronald Dworkin and Bruce Ackerman. It finally went some way to satisfy the call for the universalisation of asset ownership which we can trace back through generations of Liberals to the radical republicans of the Chartist movement and back further to Tom Paine.

I think it fair to say that at no point in these years have I received a single adequate reply to the arguments I have made against the Lib Dem policy.

Overwhelmingly, the response has been either silence - as when Nick Clegg ignored an open letter I sent to him on the subject - or embarassed acknowledgement that something was wrong. In private, Lib Dem policy wonks would look a bit bemused and sort of accept that, yes, perhaps, maybe the party's policy of abolishing the CTF wasn't right, but the party had to stick with it to 'make the figures add up' and that, 'after the election', there would be a rethink.

Some rethink.

When I have spoken at fringe events at Lib Dem conferences on this subject, I have found the audiences thoughtful and responsive. I have never had a sense that opposition to the CTF was a popular policy with the rank and file. The audiences I spoke to took my criticisms seriously.

And when I have challenged Lib Dem canvassers on the doorstep about the policy, I have met with a wall of ignorance: 'Oh, I didn't know we were doing that, I'll have to go away and look it up...' (canvasser hastily retreats...)

The CTF was one of the great liberal achievements of New Labour.

How sad that one of the first acts of the Liberal Democrats in government is to abolish it. What a self-inflicted wound to that old venerable Liberal ambition of creating a society based on 'Ownership for All'.

Nick Griffin has fought his last General Election as BNP leader

Tory Troll reports on last night's meeting of the BNP advisory council:

Announcing his intentions to resign in 2013, Griffin told the BNP Advisory Council:

"By then I would have been leader of the BNP for 15 years and that is long enough...“It will be time to make way for a younger person who does not have any baggage which can be used against the party.”

With the far right party very disappointed by its failure to secure a Parliamentary breakthrough, or even come second in Barking, where it suffered a massive setback in losing all 12 council seats, Griffin's pre-announcement of his departure looks like a manouvere to try to secure his leadership for three years as the party implodes amid recriminations and in-fighting.

He could well be gone sooner.

So, in anticipation, good riddance!

LibDems push Tories to the right on abolishing child trust fund

The Sun reports that the Coalition will today announce plans to abolish Child Trust Funds completely as part of their initial package of public spending cuts, adopting Liberal Democrat policy and so sacrificing the Tory manifesto pledge to protect them for families with incomes of less than £19,000.

Before the election the Tories had promised to restrict CTFs to the poorest families. The Lib Dems, who had called for the scheme to be axed completely, have now got their way.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

Clegg happy to hedge on partially elected Lords

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg will not oppose plans to keep a proportion of appointed peers in a mostly elected upper chamber.

The LibDem leader gave a very strong public steer about that in his interview with Andrew Marr this morning, when asked about the possibility that the new Upper House will not be 100% elected:

"I don't want to make the best the enemy of the good. I think it should be a wholly elected House. I think any chamber that decides on the laws of the land should be wholly elected. But I am not going to die in the trenches over that if that is a way of actually getting this going. Because the one thing that I want to avoid is that this government ends up like every government over the last century which has talked about House of Lords reform and not delivered it", said Clegg.

The Coalition Agreement states that "We will establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation. The committee will come forward with a draft motion by December 2010".

Clegg's comments gave a strong steer that there is already an agreement between the Conservative and LibDem frontbenches that they will go for the "mainly elected" option. It is probable that this partly reflects a Conservative concern to keep the Church of England Bishops as appointees in a second chamber.

And Clegg's language about not dying in the trenches perhaps contain an interesting, if unintentional, echo of the 1911 debate in which the ferocious battle between Liberals and Conservatives brought about the most serious constitutional crisis in British history.

So Clegg today placed himself at the head of the LibDem "hedgers" - having now pretty much publicly conceded that he is willing to pragmatically compromise on the principle of a wholly elected House.

It remains to be seen if many in his party will want to push to reopen that and keep the possibility of a 100% elected upper house on the table: a "last ditch" camp, on the democratic side of the argument this time. Clegg's public statement on the case for compromise has probably significantly reduced the chances for those who would push for a fully elected chamber.

Sunday papers: Kinnock for Ed M, Blunkett backs Burnham

Neil Kinnock backs Ed Miliband in an Observer interview, which opens with the former Labour leader's excitement at Cardiff City's Wembley play-off. Unfortunately, they failed to reach the Premiership.

The younger Miliband also wins the endorsement of The People as a "a promising Prime Minister in the ­making".

David Blunkett will nominate and endorse Andy Burnham "to widen the field", as the News of the World reports.

another friend of Mr Burnham added: “Andy would be happy to be seen as the candidate from outside the political chattering classes.”

The Sunday Times has a poll putting David Miliband first (23%) and Diane Abbott second (9%), again demonstrating that public opinion polling at this early stage is heavily influenced by name recognition as much as potential support. The paper suggests MPs supporting Ed Miliband are engaging in negative campaigning against his brother.

The Sunday Telegraph reports David Miliband's call for the party to "move on" from Iraq, though Miliband the Elder seeks to close the issue by pretty much agreeing with Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

"While Iraq was a source of division in the past, it doesn't need to be a source of division in the future. I said during the election campaign that I thought it was time to move on. "If we had known then that there were no weapons of mass destruction, obviously there wouldn't have been a war."

The Independent also reports from the Progress conference on Iraq.

The Observer rounds-up leadership developments, including Andy Burnham's comments to the Progress conference on New Labour's wariness about addressing excess at the top:

"We let a perception grow that we were in favour of wealth of any kind and with no limits on it whatsoever, that we were somehow in awe of wealth and of business and didn't have the ability to stand up and say what was right and what was wrong," he said. We appeared rootless in my view. It didn't seem as if we knew what excess was when we saw it. And, let's be honest, during our period in government some people in certain professions did indulge in excess."

The Herald and Scotland on Sunday also focus on reporting the candidates' comments on Iraq.

Scotland on Sunday also reports that Gordon Brown intends to return to the campaign trail for next Spring's Scottish Parliamentary elections.

Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, writing in The Observer, wants Labour to push for an electoral reform referendum to include a vote on the more proportional AV+, as well as the Alternative Vote.

In Coalition commentary, John Rentoul warns against exaggerating the unhappiness of Business Secretary Vince Cable:

the bookmakers, who have Vince Cable the favourite to be first out of the coalition, have made too much of his hang-dog expression when seen with his Tory colleagues: that is simply what he looks like.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Tory MPs demonstrate less confidence in Cameron than they had in John Major

"This is the most poisonous atmosphere I have known since Maastricht", one Tory MP texted to colleagues last week, according to a Sunday Telegraph report that the Tory 1922 Committee is thinking about rejecting the rule changes proposed by David Cameron last week.

Charles Moore has an important column warning about the scale of dissent about what he calls Cameron's "coup". (As James Forsyth points out, Moore is a party Establishment figure who is very supportive of Cameron).

Moore mentions that Cameron was in Paris while his MPs voted, just as Margaret Thatcher was in 1990. But, as the reference to the Maastricht atmosphere suggests, it is another secret ballot of Tory MPs which offers a very interesting comparison: the vote held when John Major's party leadership was in such crisis that he resigned and effectively challenged himself, in a "put up or shut up".

1995: Secret ballot on Tory leadership
John Major 218 (66.3%)
John Redwood 89 (27.1%)
Abstain/spoil/no vote 14
Majority 129 (39.2%)
Eligible Tory MPs: 329

2010: Secret ballot on Cameron 1922 proposals
For Cameron reform 168 (55%)
Against 118 (38.6%)
No vote 19
Majority 50 (16.3%)
Eligible Tory MPs: 305

Had Major received less than 215 votes (65% of the Parliamentary Party) he had made up his mind to resign outright. He just made his own threshold, but perhaps Major may now take some further comfort in how much more opposition was stirred by David Cameron's proposed reforms, even during his political honeymoon.

This is not to claim that the two votes are not directly comparable in every respect.

This was not a leadership contest. I expect Cameron would do better if he were able to (under the old rules), challenge himself in a leadership contest as Major did.

Yet we can learn something from the comparison. This secret ballot was Cameron's first act of leadership with his new MPs. since getting into government. Cameron asked his MPs to back his proposal as a matter of trust and confidence in their leader and newly appointed Prime Minister.

Defeat would have been a humiliation, while losing a majority of the backbenchers in these circumstances shows very significant dissent at his approach to party management.

What we can say is that Tory MPs have less confidence in David Cameron's treatment of his own Parliamentary Party than they had in John Major's crisis ridden party leadership in 1995.

Immigrants hailed for European Cup triumph

At least half of the city of Milan is tonight celebrating Internazionale's victory in the UEFA Champions League, Europe's premier football club competition, more properly known as the European Cup, defeating German club Bayern Munich 2-0.

Inter's jubiliant fans will be aware that the famous Italian football club's first European Cup victory for 35 years was entirely the work of immigrants.

Portugese coach Jose Mourinho selected a starting eleven with no Italian players - with five Argentinians, two Brazilians, and players from Cameroon, Holland, Macedonia and Romania. After using substitutes from Ghana and Serbia, Inter did field one Italian substitute Marco Materazzi, who took the field for the final minute of injury time in a ceremonial substitution of double goalscorer Diego Milito.

Inter last won the trophy back to back in 1964 and 1965 under their legendary manager Helenio Herrera, who was credited with perfecting the "Catenaccio" ('doorbolt') tactic of ultra-defensive football. Herrera was Argentinian by bith, though he was born to Spanish parents and took up French citizenship before defining a distinctively Italian approach to the beautiful game

Why social democrats should cheer for Bayern

One of the dilemmas of social democracy in the 1990s was how to address the challenge of whether greater domestic equality was compatible with global competitiveness.

This can be rather a self-serving point in the British and US debates. There are very good examples of economically competitive, relatively egalitarian societies.

As ever, football can offer an important illustration of the issues at stake.

As the Fabian Society has demonstrated, social concerns about falling social mobility have been mirrored by a stark collapse of "football mobility", from the level playing field days when Brian Clough lifted the European Cup in 1979, very much mirroring the broader social mobility debate. English football was the most open of the major European leagues, but is no longer.

The most competitive league in Europe is now the German Bundelsliga. They have not seen anything like the same level of stratification as in England, Spain and Italy.

Gabriele Marcoti made the point at the end of last season in The Times - that you can have a more existing football season, bigger crowds and more sustainable finances, but may risk paying a price on the European stage.

To all this you might ask: “Yes, but are they any good?” Well, the answer is that it depends on what benchmark you use. If you take Champions League success, the answer is a resounding “no”. In the past seven years, Bundesliga sides have provided only four representatives to the last eight of the world’s premier club competition; by contrast, the Premier League has had 17 quarter-finalists.

But that’s only one guide. And it measures the achievements of the very best, not top-to-bottom quality. And if there is one thing that seems certain, it’s that this is one of the most balanced leagues in the world. Wolfsburg won the title at a rate of 2.03 points a game, a rate that was bettered by each of the top three sides in England.

Seven teams have finished in the top four over the past two seasons; while the Premier League has featured the same top four sides for the past four years (and six of the past seven).

At a European level, the Champions League is very competitive at the level of individual clubs. But the chances of victory are now much more limited, particularly to the biggest clubs from Spain and England, and sometimes Italy.

The European dominance of Ajax and Bayern Munich in the 1970s, even the victory of Jose Mourinho's Porto, now seem to belong to a different age, to say nothing of the ability of clubs such as Celtic, Aston Villa and Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest to conquer Europe.

As with bank bonuses or a Robin Hood tax, rebalancing the football playing field will require international coordination, at Michel Platini's left foot at UEFA.

In the meantime, showing that greater fairness and global success are not incompatible makes the social democratic case for supporting Bayern Munich against Inter Milan tonight.

So, just how independent is the Coalition's first Quango?

A guest post by Craig Berry, arguing that, if George Osborne wants to remove the politics from economic forecasting, he has chosen a rather strange way to do it


Despite the bureaucracy-bashing election rhetoric, it only took Britain’s new Coalition government a matter of days to create its first quango.

The new Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR), announced by Chancellor George Osborne on Tuesday, will assume responsibility for growth and borrowing forecasts – key data on which the budget is based – from the Treasury.

Osborne seems to have borrowed liberally here from the Gordon Brown playbook. In 1997 Brown startled the financial world by handing the Bank of England the power to set interest rates. Similarly, Osborne has promoted his reform as another example of a minister removing his own right to interfere in decisions that should be based on independent expertise, as a signal to the markets that he is serious about tackling the deficit.

The reality is less flattering. To be precise, the OBR wasn’t created this week. It was set up in 2009 as a Conservative Party body, chaired by Sir Alan Budd. The motives behind its creation were sound. Alistair Darling’s borrowing forecast in 2008 was woefully ambitious, and there was clear justification in examining the extent to which the forecast was designed for the government’s political convenience.

But if Osborne meant to remove the politics from economic forecasting, this seems a strange way to do it.

In what may be a constitutional first, he has simply transposed a Conservative Party body into Whitehall officialdom.

Its chair – Budd has been retained, it is not surprising to hear – is a political appointee, the only difference being that he is now paid by the taxpayer rather than the party.

How much we can we expect the forecasting to improve under the OBR? Probably not very much. Treasury forecasts are usually wrong, but then so are most forecasts. With 2008 a notable exception, when Darling significantly underestimated the amount he would need to borrow, the Treasury’s forecasts are rarely less accurate than those produced by the City, think-tanks or international institutions.

The only accurate forecasts – apart from the lucky guesses – are those that present various future scenarios having factored in uncertainties, which is how the Bank of England does its own forecasting. There is no suggestion that the OBR will present forecasts in this way, or even that it has the legal power to do so.

It might even be the case that the creation of the OBR jeopardises the independence of the forecasts. Budd has been hand-picked by Osborne to run the OBR in a way that the officials who run the current in-house Treasury operation never could be.

Whatever we might say about the power of the civil service mandarins, at least those working on the forecasts previously didn’t have to worry about their jobs when they were delivering bad news to ministers. Will Sir Alan be able to say the same?

Perhaps what we are witnessing here is little more than a good, old-fashioned attempt at blame-shifting by the new Chancellor. Osborne knows the forecasts are bound to be wrong, so he might as well make it someone else’s responsibility.

He also knows that the forecasts will continue to make grim reading for some time yet, and will create demands for huge spending cuts – perhaps he’d rather have someone else to blame for that too.

Craig Berry is a senior researcher at ILC-UK and former policy advisor on older people and state pensions at HM Treasury. He has published in several leading journals, including The Political Quarterly and New Political Economy, and his book 'Globalisation and Ideology in Britain' will be published by Manchester University Press in 2010.

Labour leadership Saturday round-up

Today's big event is the Progress Conference: there will be tweeting on #progress2010 while LabourList is media partner

David Miliband is billed as the afternoon keynote speaker at 2.30pm.

Ed Miliband tweets that he is speaking to Progress this morning, and then is off to Derby and Sheffield this afternoon. Andy Burnham is also at the conference.

Ed Balls will be on the campaign trail in Thirsk & Malton:

Hope Progress conference goes well - I'm off to Thirsk & Malton by-election with group of Morley & Outwood members #labourdoorstep

You can hear John McDonnell on Any Questions last night on Radio 4 at 1.10pm today.

I haven't seen any news on Diane Abbott, after a blitz of coverage in the last couple of days following her announcement.


Ed Balls speaks to the Telegraph; Ed Miliband is interviewed by The Guardian. Their comments about Iraq make the headlines, as Next Left blogged last night.

Balls says that Labour lost its way on some issues in the second term, but says the "irony" is that he may become the New Labour continuity candidate.

“This leadership election is about being a credible party of government,” he says. “You could get a cheer by saying: 'Let’s withdraw from Afghanistan’, but I don’t think that’s where the public’s at. It wouldn’t be responsible. If we stop being pro-dynamism and pro-small business, we’ll be out of power for a generation. The irony is that the person not saying New Labour is dead is me. We just lost our way on some issues in the second term.”

That suggests Balls may agree with those, such as Alastair Campbell, who felt Ed Miliband may have sounded too critical of the government's record last weekend. However, there is so far relatively little substantive difference between what Ed Miliband, Ed Balls or David Miliband have said about the strengths and weaknesses of Labour's record in office.

Ed Miliband tells The Guardian he wants one in three Shadow Cabinet places to be held by women. (That, incidentally, is an ambition David Cameron has for his own government, though one currently honoured very much in the breach).

The influence of the Fabian Society's The Solidarity Society research is very evident in what Ed Miliband says about the importance of universalism, and a welfare state based not on need but on contribution:

New Labour fell victim to what it accused old Labour of doing, which is being stuck in its old orthodoxies. On the banks and the banking system we got stuck in our old orthodoxies. On the interaction of the labour market and immigration we got stuck in old orthodoxies. Now how do we move on from that? What I'm going to do in the next few weeks is lay out some fundamental principles that I think should guide us.

"I want to talk about the gap between rich and poor … I want to talk about a welfare state based not just on need but on contribution. I actually think one of the big projects we have to pursue is that we're fighting an election in the next few years – and essentially we're talking about the next 10 years – if we want to be in government in the second half of this decade, then we have to be thinking about how we shape the welfare state to be much more around the Beveridge principle and around contribution.


"What we know about the welfare state is that in order to sustain public support for it, if it's only a means-tested welfare state, then you won't maintain middle-class support for it. It was [Richard] Titmuss who said services for the poor are poor services. For the middle classes the social security system doesn't do very much if you fall out of work and you're someone on a reasonable income. All you'll be offered is a means-tested 50 or 60 quid a week.

John Harris in The Guardian is not impressed by the "immigration, immigraton, immigration" approach of several ex-ministerial candidates:

Immigration and welfare have become hot-button issues largely because of the insecurities made worse by New Labour's recurrent refusal to depart from the usual neoliberal script ...

Yesterday, one more leadership candidate came up with a no-brainer quote, though this one cut to the heart of this week's unpleasantness. "One of the things that made me run was hearing candidate after candidate saying that immigration lost us the election," said Diane Abbott, who is starting to take on a very unlikely air of saintliness. "Rather than wringing our hands about the white working class and immigration, we need to deal with the underlying issues that make white and black people hostile to immigration: things like housing and job security. We need to be careful about scapegoating immigrants in a recession. We know where that leads."

We certainly do. And on these most fundamental of issues, Labour's danger is not that long-imagined lurch to the left, but an ugly and reactionary step in the opposite direction.

Andrew Grice in his Independent column thinks that Ed Miliband is the candidate most likely to benefit from the Alternative Vote transferable voting system:

I detect a strong Labour desire to move on from the Blair-Brown era that could work against David Miliband and Mr Balls – at first glance the two candidates most likely to win. It could help Ed Miliband, who somehow managed to remain neutral in the Blair-Brown wars while working for Mr Brown. He is right to challenge his older brother; they would work well together if either man won. In 1994, Mr Brown gave Mr Blair a free run and wrongly felt deprived of the prize. With hindsight, the two modernisers should have fought it out, as the Milibands do now.

The Telegraph's Vicki Woods says the sisterhood should back Diane Abbott.

The Daily Mail suggests there is late pressure for Yvette Cooper to change her mind about running, but may be reading a little too much into the fact that she has yet to announce that she will nominate Ed Balls.

The Times today finds a new demographic - we've all gone a bit Lib-Con and so shows pretty much no interest whatsoever in the opposition party's leadership race.

Friday, 21 May 2010

It would be a "bonus" if deportees were tortured, says Tory MP

The Coalition agreement makes a clear, unequivocal and welcome statement

We will never condone the use of torture.

Not all of its Parliamentary supporters agree.

As the Daily Mail reports, Monmouth MP appears to be not so much tacitly condoning torture as actively welcoming it, in the case of suspected Al Qaeda or Taliban members

The Conservative MP for Monmouth, David Davies, insisted that the Government should repeal the Act after the new commission has properly considered the legal implications.

'Active members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are living in this country and not being deported because of concerns about their human rights if something horrible happens to them if they are sent home,' Mr Davies said.

'Personally I would have thought that would be a bonus rather than a reason for not sending them back.

'I don't mind if the Act is torn up, changed or amended. But I hope that whatever this commission comes up with, the views of the vast majority of people in this country who believe it is fundamentally wrong are respected'

Ed Balls and Ed Miliband both argue that Labour got the Iraq war wrong

Ed Balls is interviewed in Saturday's Telegraph.

He says:

His greatest criticism is reserved for the Iraq war, which still saps Labour support. Mr Balls today becomes the first former Cabinet minister unequivocally to condemn the invasion, claiming the public were misled by “devices and tactics”.


Although Mr Balls concedes that, had he been an MP at the time, he would have voted for the war on the basis of the facts provided, he now concedes that not only was the information wrong but the war unjustified.

“It was a mistake. On the information we had, we shouldn’t have prosecuted the war. We shouldn’t have changed our argument from international law to regime change in a non-transparent way. It was an error for which we as a country paid a heavy price, and for which many people paid with their lives. Saddam Hussein was a horrible man, and I am pleased he is no longer running Iraq. But the war was wrong.”

This is not in fact the first time Balls has said something similar about Iraq.

At the Fabian New Year Conference, right back in January 2005, having left the Treasury after being selected as a Parliamentary candidate, Balls said that there was a strong case that Hans Blix and the weapons inspectors should have had more time.

When I asked him about this afterwards: he said he had also said this during the Normanton constituency selection the previous summer.

That wasn't picked up in the press at the time, though other comments from Balls on the same panel were reported the following day. (And this was the pre-blog era, though I did mention this on the blog last year during the debate about the Iraq inquiry!). And he said something similar to Independent readers in 2006.

At the time, I thought Balls' comments were potentially newsworthy particularly if they could be read as a signal that Gordon Brown might say something similar about Iraq in a forthcoming leadership transition.

Of course, Brown didn't do so, offering a robust defence the decisions to go to war while accepting the case for an inquiry. Which suggested that Balls had indeed expressing his personal view, rather than flying a kite for his former boss.


PS: The Telegraph says that Balls "becomes the first former Cabinet minister unequivocally to condemn the invasion". The key word there would have to be "unequivocally", in his statement that "the war was wrong".

Several serving Cabinet Ministers had spoken about the need to admit the mistakes and lessons of the Iraq war, again, it was the Fabian new year conference in January 2007 which provided the occasion on which Peter Hain, James Purnell, Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper all chose to talk about the lack of legitimacy of the Iraq war.

Last weekend, Ed Miliband told the Fabians, in launching his leadership campaign, that:

We had a catastrophic loss of trust over Iraq.

For many people, the way that happened, broke the bond of trust with us.

Ed Miliband expands further on that thought in an interview in tomorrow's Guardian, with the paper suggesting that this makes him "the first contender for the leadership to make it an issue during the campaign".

The Guardian reports:

"I was pretty clear at the time that I thought there needs to be more due process here," Miliband said.

"As we all know, the basis for going to war was on the basis of Saddam's threat in terms of weapons of mass destruction and therefore that is why I felt the weapons inspectors should have been given more time to find out whether he had those weapons, and Hans Blix – the head of the UN weapons inspectorate – was saying that he wanted to be given more time. The basis for going to war was the threat that he posed.

"The combination of not giving the weapons inspectors more time, and then the weapons not being found, I think for a lot of people it led to a catastrophic loss of trust for us, and we do need to draw a line under it. "

He also urged other candidates to set out where they stood and stand on the issue. He insisted he did not think Britain went to war for the wrong reasons, and said he was not an opponent of liberal interventionism. "It has its place," he said.

What are the difficult questions the leadership candidates need to answer?

The longer contest, with the result announced at the party conference, means there should be the chance to have a full and open debate about the Labour party’s vision and values, the record of the government since 1997, why Labour lost the General Election and how to shape an effective future agenda.

The Fabian Society is one of the Socialist Societies who make up the affiliates section of the electoral college: Fabian members will be balloted as part of the leadership contest. (Those who are Labour party members will also vote in that section too). New members can join up here.

So far, Diane Abbott, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, John McDonnell, David Miliband and Ed Miliband have all announced their candidacies and are seeking to secure enough nominations from MPs to get onto the ballot paper. The Fabian Society does not, as an organisation, endorse individual candidates in leadership contests - and we look forward to heading from them all during the contest.

Many of our members will want to hear what the candidates have to say before making up their minds about who to support.

But we also want your help to identify the difficult questions which you want the candidates to answer.

We will publish these for discussion on the Next Left blog, and also put a selection of the best questions to the candidates themselves.

Please let us have your questions (in just a sentence or two). If you would like to do so, please include a short comment (of up to 100 words) on why you think it is an important issue for Labour’s future and the leadership contest

Leave questions and comments on the blog here - or email them to

Cameron lost backbench vote on his 1922 reform

The Conservative Party leader believed that the 1922 Committee weekly meeting of backbenchers should become a meeting of the entire Conservative Parliamentary Party. There is an arguable case - it is what the Labour Party does, though Conservatives have seen a backbench-only forum as a useful sounding board, alongside the official channels of communication through the whips' office.

So how should he have gone about this? Note that he wanted to do so democratically and by consent.

The natural way to do so would be to ask the 1922 Committee to propose a ballot of their backbench members, to invite the frontbench too. Cameron could have sought to powerfully persuade his MPs of the merits of the case, putting his authority as party leader and new prime minister on the line.

The reason Tory MPs have particular reason to be angry about what some are calling a "coup" against backbench rights and party traditions is that David Cameron did not do that.

Instead, Cameron organised and began a ballot not of the existing membership of the body he wished to persuade to change, but of the would-be membership of the new body he wished to create were his change to be accepted. In effect, the holding of his ballot abolished the existing 1922 Committee association, subject to ratification by the vote of his new all-MP group.

David Cameron won the vote by 168 votes to 118.

This means that 286 of the party's 305 MPs took part (with 19 MPs not casting a vote for or against).

Paul Goodman of ConservativeHome shows that this means David Cameron lost the backbench vote.

If all 76 Conservative Ministers had voted as instructed for the change, then that would make the backbench vote 92 for Cameron's proposal and 118 against the leader.

Even if we make a very pro-Cameron assumption, that there were no deliberate abstentions so that every single MP who did not take part was a frontbencher detained by ministerial duties, that would mean the 168 votes for the leader's proposal may have included only 59 Ministerial payroll votes rather than 76.

But the leader would still have lost the vote of his backbenchers: possibly by a narrower margin such as 109 to 118, though this would be wider if, for example, there were some deliberate abstentions on the proposal.

Unless Cameron has up to a dozen rebels in his Ministerial ranks, it is clear that he failed to win the confidence or support of his backbenchers in this ballot.

So Cameron won under his new rules, but he would have lost under the old ones. The Turkeys did not vote for Christmas - but fortunately for the leader his surprise new electoral college of Turkeys and Turkey Farmers did!

As Goodman writes:

Much of that goodwill has vanished since yesterday, driven out by resentment, grievance and anger. Tory MPs not usually prone to excitement are citing their leader in the same sentence as Kim Il Sung and Robert Mugabe".

That is excessive hyperbole, as the New Statesman says.

This was an altogether more British coup.

But you can't have a Clause Four moment by gerrymandering the rulebook because you can't win the argument.

Though clearly you can, when you have just lost the non-payroll backbench vote in your party, declare victory anyway.

If you are lucky, most people will believe you.

Coalition proposes state funding for party primaries

The Coalition Agreement says this:

We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up, in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last general election.

(Hat tip: Will Straw).

1. What will this cost?: I would estimate the cost of 200 primaries could be around £7.6 million, if each cost a similar amount to the £38,000 which the Conservative Party spent on an all-postal ballot of the Totnes electorate in the only all-postal ballot to date. (For context, the Ministry of Justice reports that the 2005 General Election cost around £80 million to run). The policy specifically excludes Sinn Fein, as well as those parties not in the Commons.

The Coalition has a rather contradictory approach to "cutting the cost of politics". It is going to reduce the number of MPs - making constituencies larger and MPs more remote - while increasing the number of Peers. David Cameron plans to increase the price of salads in the House of Commons to help close the deficit. Meanwhile, ConservativeHome says that the populist pledge to reduce the number of SPADs is one of the biggest teething problems for the government: "Reversing the SPADs promise should be Cameron’s first U-turn. Restricting the number doesn't save much money and, more importantly, they're vital to drive through policy".

Perhaps there is a "Nixon to China" principle that only the right-of-centre can successfully propose greater public funding of politics, without a right-wing backlash, where it believes this would assist democratic engagement.

2. Would parties get funding for primaries in seats they don't currently hold?

This is not immediately clear. It depends on what "targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years" means. The scale of the commitment suggests this 'safe seats' focus may be primarily rhetorical: 200 primaries could easily cover every case where a long-standing MP was standing down (in a safe or marginal seat) if the relevant party chose to do so in those cases.

The record number of retirements before 2010 amounted to 149 MPs standing down. With 227 new MPs in all in 2010, it is likely that the number of retirements during this Parliament will be lower than the average in recent Parliaments.

So there would still be not be anything close to 200 primaries unless parties could also hold them where challenging for a seat. (Of course, it would make no sense to do this in safe seats held by other parties, but rather in marginal target seats where the winner might become an MP).

3. Which parties would take part?

It would offend against freedom of association for the state to determine that each political party had to be structured or select its Parliamentary candidates in a particular way, as Stuart White has argued strongly.

The Coalition intends to give permission and encouragement (and quite a lot of public money) to those parties which want to use primaries.

The agreement implies that the Conservative share of the vote might give them public funding to hold more than 72 party primaries, with Labour being funded to hold at least 58 and the LibDems 46 or more. (This is a slight underestimate reflecting the three parties' share of the total General Election vote, including for parties not elected to the Commons: a further 24 primaries shared between major and minor parties, depending on how calculations were made for the parties specific to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where Sinn Fein is explicitly excluded).

It is not clear that all parties would participate - this would depend on their own internal democratic debates - nor whether the number of primaries which any major party could hold would be affected (up or down) if only one or two parties did go ahead.

72 Conservative primaries would cost around £2.7 million, which is the largest new piece of public funding of a governing party we would have seen in recent British politics; for comparison, the party received £4.7 million of Short Money in opposition in 2009/10 while the LibDems received £1.75 million.

4. Will parties be allowed to use different models of primaries?

The Conservatives seem to favour, in principle, all-postal primaries of the entire electorate, though mostly held open caucus meetings because of the cost of primaries.

The Labour Party has had quite a lot of debate about primaries - you can find Next Left airing the debate extensively here. Progress have campaigned on the issue in the Labour Party, while Chuka Umunna says this is not a left v right issue in the party. Opinion is divided. The issue of cost has been one of the barriers; but the central focus has been about the nature of parties and what primaries mean for the role of members.

The Labour party model most likely to carry support would be a primary vote which was open to all of those willing to register as party supporters, rather than the entire electoral roll. (We need a much better name for these than "closed" primaries! Perhaps supporter primaries, or party primaries).

It is not clear whether the Coalition intends to mandate one specific Totness model as the only one which would be funded publicly, but that could well present a barrier to their use outside the Tory party. (All parties would probably maintain members' roles over the shortlisting of candidates: potentially, this could be developed into a pre-primary caucus model for members to shortlist candidates).

LibDems have mostly been sceptical about primaries. They have tended to see them as a distraction from proper electoral reform - ie, proportional representation. The Coalition Agreement attempts to neutralise the "safe seats" charge against the electoral system: why not give more people a greater stake in the choice of their Conservative or Labour MP, to mitigiate the impact of seats never changing party hands. (However, most of the Labour advocates of primaries back electoral reform too; that is also true of their most vocal Conservative champion, Douglas Carswell MP, though he has many more party allies on primaries than PR).

Does the Coalition commitment suggest a softening in the LibDem position, or was this a concession to the Conservatives to gain something elsewhere?

Another issue is how candidates can reach the general electorate. There are important concerns about excessive spending, yet the Totness limit of £200 meant there was effectively a vote with barely any opportunity to campaign at all). In any event, there would surely need to be thought given to how to regulate spending if these new contests were to become the norm.