Friday, 31 December 2010

Don't overestimate David Cameron: the big political lesson of 2010?

2010 was David Cameron's year. He became Prime Minister, so returning his Conservative party to power after the first ever Tory-free decade in modern British government - though as the latest British Prime Minister not to be 'directly elected' in our Parliamentary democracy, falling short of his express wish (as late as April 24th) that ""Prime Ministers should be voted into 10 Downing Street by the people of Britain, not because their party has stitched up some deal".

Having skilfully negotiated his way to power anyway, Cameron has been good at performaing the role of Prime Minister. His personal leadership skills - especially being calm under pressure in May 2010 as in October 2007 - have been good. But he has been lucky too, perhaps especially in how little attention has been paid to a record as a party leader as much about failure as success.

For 2010 was also the year in which just about everybody overestimated David Cameron.

If you want to understand the biggest political mistake which each of the major parties made during this turbulent political year, look back and you will find that is the common thread. Each party made a crucial miscalculation about the political context, largely because they over-estimated the electoral power of David Cameron.

Why were the Conservatives the first election frontrunners to take the (laudable) risk of agreeing to televised leaders' debates? Surely because they were very confident that the superior communication skills of the leader would see the gamble pay off handsomely. Every Conservative expected their man to rise best to the occasion and finally "seal the deal" with the voters. He didn't. So Michael Ashcroft leads a vocal camp of those who believe the debates cost the Tories a majority.

Why were Labour so much the worst prepared of the three major parties for Coalition talks which represented the governing parties best conceivable election outcome? It was because Labour expected Cameron to win. The sad fact is that a hung Parliament in which Labour might still be able to negotiate a further spell in office exceeded the expectations of the party's campaign strategists. (John Rentoul argued cogently last weekend that the Labour leadership question remained open up to the failed January 6th plot (I thought at the time that June 2009 had been largely decisive). What can not be disputed is that Gordon Brown was bolstered in both 2009 and 2010 by the belief that any chance to stay in power was unsalvageable. Cabinet ministers who were personally sure Brown would not turn things around were also too fatalistic to believe any move against him worth the risks of change).

Thirdly, there is only way to make sense of why Nick Clegg made so much in the campaign of a tuition fees pledge he could not keep, which has both done the most and most symbolised the deep damage to the LibDems' public credibility and popular standing. Give Clegg his premise that he expected to fact a Tory government, and the pledge would demonstrate fox-like political cunning from which the LibDems could have benefitted electorally.

Over-estimating David Cameron proved the national sport of the political classes in 2010. It united the bookies and the punters: Betfair projected a 62% chance of a Tory overall majority on the day that the campaign proper began. It united the newspaper propreitors, editors and much of the blogosphere too. If Iain Dale's blogging is much missed, that is not because of the accuracy of his political crystal ball. Even after the polls closed, Dale was offering to "run stark naked bollock down Whitehall" if the (uncannily accurate) exit poll was right.


There were exceptions. The New Statesman unfashionably predicted a hung Parliament. The Tory right was sceptical of the Cameron strategy, though mostly kept quiet until after the event when this was reflected in Tim Montgomerie's influential post-election inquest for ConservativeHome, and Spectator editor Fraser Nelson's observation that "“It is odd to think of David Cameron as the most electorally unsuccessful Tory prime minister in history”.

To give credit where it is due, the most significant group which was clear sighted in not falling for this general exaggeration of Cameron's popular appeal was the Tory leadership itself.

They knew on the morning of the election that they had failed to secure a majority. Andrew Cooper has said that Cameron spent election night focused not on 326 seats but whether they would get across the 300 seat line, and so probably get in. They had known for weeks and months that no Tory positive argument had any grip with the voters they needed to persuade - yet continued to return to the comfort zone of negative attacks on Labour, while secretly planning for hung Parliament negotiations.

The desire for a change from Labour was remarkably high - 74% no less. The number who wanted a change to the Tories (34%) or the vote they got in the end (36%) was astonishingly low in the political conditions of 2010. The political (expenses v sleaze) and economic conditions (recession v recovery) were as favourable for the opposition than in 1997 - and arguably better. Then Tony Blair stormed home, putting 9% on Labour's share. Cameron fell far short of the campaign he sought to emulate.

How badly did it go wrong? The most interesting thing about recent British electoral history is that the Tories got 31-32% in 1997 and 2001 - suggesting a very strong 'tribal' Tory vote in any circumstances - and yet only 36% in 2010.

The Tories got 33% in 2005 with Michael Howard, before the recession, and without facing Gordon Brown. Does anybody think David Davis - or even Michael Howard, promoting his bright young things like Cameron, Osborne and Gove - would not have got very close to 36% in 2010?

So was David Cameron's "reaching out" appeal and all of that brand detoxification, in the end, worth any votes at all? Or has his party leadership failed in the core test he set himself, meaning he had to sneak into Downing Street by default?

Making the same mistakes: How everybody is over-estimating the Tories again

If over-estimating David Cameron skewed most pre-election commentary, what have we all learnt?

Nothing, it would seem.

The funny thing is that all of the same people are doing it again. Matthew d'Ancona even declared that the Tories had already won the next election when Labour elected Ed Miliband. Shouldn't he first offer a coherent explanation of why they failed to win the last one against Gordon Brown?

Over-estimating David Cameron has skewed much commentary of the political context after the May election. Take the widespread assumption that Cameron was pretty certain to quickly win a clear majority if there had not been a Coalition in May. Nobody knows what would have happened in a second election - but there is little or no evidence for this belief.

(Those who argue that was very likely have never answered the central mystery. If a second election would have seen the Tories romp home, why on earth didn't they engineer one? Why was there no significant pressure from the Tory shadow Cabinet or Parliamentary party to hold out for this inevitable prize? Surely because it was very far from a sure thing. Political history suggests asking the same question again gets a similar result - with the Tories then having the mandate problem, perhaps snatching opposition from the jaws of government).

But, again, there is one group who doesn't agree. Yes - it's the Tory leadership again. Think about why they are yet again cranking up those electoral pact missives to their LibDem beau Clegg, with a new round sparked by Ben Brogan's authoritative account during the tuition fees debacle.

Yet everybody seems to buy the argument that it is a "save Clegg" campaign (from the people who brought you "Kill Clegg" with their press friends last time).

Of course, this makes absolutely no sense.

Why would Tories care one iota what happens to Nick Clegg if, amidst LibDem collapse, they could simply strike out and when a majority of their own amidst those sunny economic uplands? (ConservativeHome can prove that four out of five don't).

So remember this in 2011: All of the pact talk is surely about saving Tory skins, not LibDem ones.

There's a simple reason too. The Tory leadership can see why the next election could well be rather harder to win than the last one. Confident Tory ideologues like Tim Montgomerie can put these deep insecurities down to the status of the Philip Gould-bible in ProgCon circles, emulating the insecurities of New Labour which meant Tony Blair and Cherie feared defeat by William Hague in 2001.

The difference is that the evidence of Tory electoral weakness is much stronger.

If the Tories want a majority, they have to break that 36% glass ceiling.

So who wasn't convinced the Tories had changed in 2010?

These key groups of voters did not believe Cameron when he said that he had changed the Tories. Specifically, Scots, northerners, public sector workers, ethnic minorities and Londoners - even when fed up with Labour - found it very difficult to vote Tory.

Many thought it was time for a change. But they didn't believe David Cameron's promise that he could eliminate the deficit with no cuts to frontline services! Even with a personal pledge from a PM-to-be, they thought it sounded like a fairytale.

Why? As Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh report on Populus' focus groups for the Tories.

The most worrying finding for the Conservatives was the perception that they would, in a crunch, stick up for rich and privileged people. Cameron privately confessed late in 2008 that the persistence of this last image kept him awake at night.

So how is that now going with those who did not vote Tory in 2010?

We know from the government's falling approval rating that those who voted Tory are pretty happy with the government - and most of those who didn't are not.

Note now how the government wins praise for its bold moves - reckless for some in transforming education, health and welfare entirely while undertaking one of the greatest gambles with the economy and public spending - almost always from people who were cheering it on in May 2010.

Look at the reactions of those who didn't - including those anxious LibDem voters - and it looks harder to see how the Tories will be able to persuade those voters that the Coalition has shown that they have laid to rest all of those "same old Tories" attitudes after all.

Labour has a lot of work to do to try to get elected - on economic credibility, and on putting together a different but electorally effective political and policy programme, rather than running on essentially the same platform for a fifth time when the agenda is 18 years old. But it is simply a misreading of the political context to regard Labour as facing the scale of electability challenge which Labour faced from 1980-87, and with hindsight through to 1992 too, or the Tories from 1997 until 2005

There's a long way to go in this Parliament. Either major party has a lot of work to do to seek an overall majority, as Labour uses the defection of one-third of LibDems to start neck-and-neck, and the Tories work out how to break that 2010 ceiling without which they risk remaining short of a serious shot at a majority.

Yet media commentators prefer to magnify backbench grumblings than to think seriously about the politics of the next election.

For example, what if David Cameron asks the country for a Tory majority mandate - and comes back without one?

Surely now, the legitimacy problem would be his. He's Ted Heath in 1974. He's Gordon Brown in 2010.

If he has less votes or seats than last time, he should surely announce he is taking responsibility and get off the stage pronto, to see if his party can hold on under somebody else. If the Commons arithmetic means another combination is viable, the legitimacy issues would be completely different from May 2010.

Should Labour have one more seat or one more vote, they have every right to the first talks with any minor parties who survive!

The Labour leader has a perfectly good shot at becoming PM, even before he has done a great deal to set out his stall as party leader. He has the problem of every political leader in receiving contradictory advice - to set out his stall in 100 days while understanding that nobody wants to hear from a defeated party yet. So it is fair to say that Ed Miliband has yet to give his party clear definition; it is arguable that David Cameron's own public definition is not much clearer - after five years, not three months - and indeed that the increasingly entrenched public definition of his government (that its basically about cuts) is quite at odds with what he wants it to be.

If I were Ed Miliband, there are two lessons I would take from David Cameron's party leadership so far.

Firstly, that credibility can't be won by counter-intuitive photo opportunities. Cameron had a bold and positive first 100 days. He got his party a hearing. It was just the next four and a half years that were wasted, leaving voters ultimately pretty unsure as to what, if anything, Cameron really had to say.

Secondly that, well before the end of the Parliament, Ed Miliband had better have come up with a "doorstep narrative" for the next election campaign which is a damned sight more useful than "the big Society" was for the Tories at the last one.

We shall see whether Iain Martin gains more recruits for his Don't Underestimate Ed Miliband campaign. Observe that there are two secret founder members - David Cameron and George Osborne.

One sometimes hears the accusation that the Tories approach to power suggests that they think they are born to rule misses the mark. They are much less certain than they appear. The bigger problem is with the rest of us - and how our deference in expecting to see the Tories govern distorts political perceptions.

That helped to make 2010 David Cameron's year. Will he stay as lucky in 2011?

Would an 80 per cent elected Lords demonstrate LibDem influence?

An 80 per cent elected Lords would not be a LibDem triumph, blogs The Spectator's James Forsyth at the Coffee House.

The Lib Dem manifesto committed the party to a fully elected House of Lords. The Tory manifesto talked about a ‘mainly-elected’ second chamber and in 2007 David Cameron voted for ‘the other place’ to be 80 percent elected (interestingly, George Osborne voted for a fully elected Lords). The coalition agreement committed the government to a ‘wholly or mainly elected upper chamber’. So it is hard to see how a Lords that retained a twenty percent appointed element could be portrayed as a major Lib Dem triumph as, according to [Thursday's] Guardian, the coalition wants.

That's right - and the point is surely proved if one looks at the voting records of the current Cabinet in the 2007 vote on Lords reform in which MPs had a free vote on various options.

Brokering Cabinet support for an 80% elected Lords would come close to a lowest common denominator solution. Among MPs who are full members of the Cabinet, there were 12 supporters of a 100% elected Lords, only 6 who maxed out at 80%, and 2 opponents of any elected element.

So to compromise on an 80% elected Lords would be trade off a LibDem policy supported by all six current LibDem Cabinet ministers and which already in the last Parliament - before there was any whiff of a Coalition - also had the support of George Osborne, Ken Clarke, Liam Fox, Eric Pickles, Owen Paterson and Jeremy Hunt, in order to secure a policy which almost every Conservative in the Cabinet (including Lord Strathclyde) already supported on its merits, without the need for a jot of LibDem persuasion.

Though not quite. The specific claim which could be made for LibDem influence is that an 80% solution would involve Clegg demonstrating the ability to persuade both Cheryl Gillan and Andrew Mitchell - the two Cabinet refuseninks on 80% - to drop their support for a fully appointed chamber, as long as he can also persuade Eric Pickles and Jeremy Hunt to drop their opposition to 80% on the grounds that both wanted a fully elected chamber!

How the current Cabinet voted on Lords elections in March 2007

David Cameron (C) - for 80%; against 100%

Nick Clegg (LD) - for 100%, for 80%

William Hague (C) - for 80%, against 100%

George Osborne (C) - for 100%, for 80%

Ken Clarke (C) - for 100%, for 80%

Theresa May (C) - against 100%, for 80%

Liam Fox (C) - for 100%, for 80%

Vince Cable (LD) - for 100%, for 80%

Iain Duncan Smith (C) - against 100%, for 80%

Chris Huhne (LD) - for 100%, for 80%

Andrew Lansley (C) - against 100%, for 80%

Michael Gove (C) [no vote on 100%; no vote on 80%]

Eric Pickles (C) - for 100%; against 80%

Phillip Hammond (C) - against 100%; for 80%

Caroline Spelman (C) - for 100%; for 80%

Andrew Mitchell (C) - against 100; against 80% [for fully appointed]

Owen Paterson (C) - for 100%; for 80%

Michael Moore (LD) - for 100%; for 80%

Cheryl Gillan (C) - against 100%, against 80% [for fully appointed]

Jeremy Hunt (C) - for 100%; against 80%

Danny Alexander (LD) - for 100%; for 80%

Lord Strathclyde (C) - against 100%, for 80% [against fully appointed]

Baroness Warsi (C) - [not a member of the Lords until 2010]


Also attending Cabinet, but not full Cabinet ministers:

Francis Maude (C) - against 100%; for 80%

Oliver Letwin (C) - against 100%; for 80%

David Willetts (C) - against 100%; for 80%

George Young (C) - against 100%, for 80%

Patrick McLoughlin (C) - against 100%; for 80%

Dominic Grieve (C) - against 100%; for 80%

To bring them all behind 80% may demonstrate David Cameron's Tory leadership and influence in managing the expectations of his LibDem collegues.

It is much harder to say it would show LibDem influence inside the Coalition - though united Tory support for 100% elections would do so.

Those voting records make it seem probable that, were the LibDems were outside the Coalition, they would have had a very good chance of securing Commons support for a 100% elected Lords under a Tory government which needed their support for 'supply and confidence'. (For example, by requesting a Commons free vote on 80% or 100%, so as to again secure significant Tory as well as majority Labour support for 100%).

Presumably, a large part of the point of Nick Clegg in the policy area for which he has leadership is to demonstrate that the LibDems inside a Tory-led Coalition are more influential than they would be outside it. But conceding the case for a fully elected Lords in favour of hedging on 80% would be rather more likely to demonstrate the opposite.

The deputy Prime Minister should think again. If he wants to find a workable compromise, making provision for a free vote on 100% and 80% within the government's bill ought to win widespread support.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

An elected Lords: 80% or 100%?

The Guardian reports today that Nick Clegg is likely to ask the Tory-LibDem Cabinet to back a mainly elected House of Lords, keeping one-fifth of the upper house by appointment.

Next Left predicted, right back on May 23rd, that Nick Clegg would be happy to hedge on an 80% elected Lords, reading into the LibDem leader's public comments a suggestion that there had already a covert deal between the LibDem and Conservative leaderships to settle the issue left open by the Coalition Agreement, pledged to make progress on "a wholly or mainly elected" upper chamber.

The Agreement says:

"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".

2011 is a good year to finally settle the question of an elected second chamber - as it is the centenary of the 1911 Parliament Act. Some Conservatives have good memories as to how they were on the wrong side of history, and the Guardian reports some keenness to retain their traditional obstructionist role too.

"I'm sure we will have a great fanfare of reform on the centenary of the 1911 Parliament Act," one senior figure said. "Thereafter it won't be so much a case of kicking it into the long grass – we'll be looking to park it in grass that is around the height of a giraffe."

So a reasonable gradualist case can be mounted that 80% is a compromise worth taking for those who believe in a fully-elected House. (This might - or might not - help to get a mainly elected Lords through the current unelected House, with the loss of the Bishops of the Established Church being one area of contention).

The House of Commons voted 337 to 224 for 100% elections in 2007 - a majority of 113 - with a narrower majority of 38 in favour of 80% too.

With all three parties at least nominally committed to an elected second chamber, there might still be a majority in the new House of Commons for a 100% elected chamber. More Conservatives would be expected to reduce support for 100% election - but we don't know by how much, and particularly if the large class of 2010 could well in many cases often be more pro-election than those of their predecessors. (Douglas Carswell, on the Tory right and elected in 2005, takes the view that "law-makers should be elected. Full stop - and it is at least possible there is some generational shift in that direction on the right).

If the last government (whose preference was a 50-50 split) was prepared to let MPs vote on the options, it might be strange if a "New Politics" committed to strengthening Parliament decided to impose a decision from Cabinet instead.

I think that Labour leader Ed Miliband should promote at least a free vote on 80% and 100% options as part of the government's Bill. There would be little sense in the government opposing that - especially when the Coalition Agreement acknowledges the merits of a wholly or mainly elected House.

Challenges for the Eurosceptics

Daniel Hannan MEP has established a voice as probably the most articulate advocate of British withdrawal from the European Union, so it is not a great shock that Hannan - blogging at the Telegraph - takes a different view from my boxing day commentary on the YouGov poll findings on attitudes to the European Union, commissioned for a forthcoming FEPS/Fabian Society pamphlet.

The opportunity for Hannan is general disillusion from the EU. He challenges my argument that pro-Europeans might take confiidence from support for closer cooperation than at present among EU members in several major areas of policy. Sceptics don`t oppose friendly cooperation with the neighbours, on an intergovernmental basis, he says.

In what sense, then, do we want “more of it in practice”?

Sunder infers his optimistic interpretation from replies suggesting that most of us want European states to collaborate with each other on climate change, fighting terrorism, stimulating economic growth and so on.

But here’s the thing, Sunder, old chum: no one is arguing against international co-operation. The alternative to Brussels supranationalism is not autarky, but intergovernmentalism.

But I don't see that Hannan's challenge stands up. The contrast between the abstract and the concrete is more significant than he admits - and presents challenges to all sides of this debate.

There are two reasons why it is very difficult to see the poll as offering a resounding endorsement of Hannanism on the EU.

Firstly, poll respondents were offered three options - including 'the current balance is about right' as well as "cooperate more closely" and "loosen their links" in this area (as they were in the general question of more or less cooperation in present - where the "looser links" were chosen by 49%, as an abstract question). So, clearly, respondents did not have to choose closer cooperation than at present if they just wanted to express a view that the issue is an important one, on which governments should cooperate.

Hannan and other Eurosceptics must believe the current arrangements are too sovereignty-suffocatingly close in most or all of these areas. So they have a big persuasion challenge here, across the range of policy, while pro-EU voices would have to show EU action is effective and necessary to win arguments for more integration.

Secondly, what surely clinches this point is that, in two cases, the public were explicitly asked about more specific proposals which would be strongly integrationist: minimum labour standards and minimum business rates across the EU.

On Hannan's interpretation, voters who would want to block closer EU integration - but who are happy with international cooperation - should have been much less favourable to those proposals than to the general idea of closer cooperation on a range of multilateral challenges.

But they weren't. Both were pretty popular.

Minimum business rates were supported by 47% to 34%.

Minimum EU-wide labour standards were even more popular - 55% support to 27%.

That shows that this idea would seem to tap into a broadly held 'fair rules' intuition across parties and different attitudes to the EU. (That 49% of those who think EU membership "a bad thing" overall would support this specific integrationist move with 41% opposed, demonstrating precisely the paradox which my post highlighted).

Respondents were specifically prompted with fair and balanced language, specifically articulating the principal objection to integration: "or should each country be able to make their own decisions about what level of tax is best for their companies?". We received and accepted advice from the pollster as to how to ensure the question was put in a fair way.

Of course, poll findings can never prove what would be a good - or bad - thing as policy. But it would clearly be quite false to claim there is strong public opposition to EU-wide minimum business rates or minimum labour standards. Attitudes could change - in either direction - in response to political advocacy and public campaigining. What we can say that the public would seem clearly open to giving such an argument a hearing, and begin somewhat favourable to it.

I think it is safe to say that Hannanites would be on the minority side of those questions, since the British public do indeed appear to favour greater integration -"more of it in practice" - on these proposals.

What do the Eurosceptics want?

I personally would welcome a more engaged debate about the EU, right across the political spectrum. Both advocating British withdrawal from the EU and other forms of Euroscepticism are legitimate democratic perspectives. It is a mistake to suggest that they are not.

That is true in principle - where I think Hannan is right to challenge the debasement of political debate by turning "Nazi" into a thoughtlessly casual slur, whether by UKIP MEPs or social democrats.

This ought to also be an important strategic and tactical consideration for pro-Europeans too, since they have an interest in ensuring the arguments of their opponents are also properly tested and scrutinised. Eurosceptics can prove effective in railing against the status quo (though intelligent pro-Europeanism, such as that of the Centre for European Reform should not be uncritical of EU policies), and often present themselves as something of a persecuted minority to do this. There is much less scrutiny of their alternative policy, or indeed policies.

I would acknowledge that those who would get Britain out - like UKIP or the Hannanite minority in the Tory party - have a clearer answer to these questions than other sceptics. But those who would swap EU membership for EFTA or EEA membership show that there would be a great sovereignty gain? The UK would still have to negotiate a significant contribution to the EU budget, and be bound by EU regulations to have market access. (We would have to persuade EFTA members too that the admission of one of Europe's largest countries would not upset their apple cart).

Much more mysterious is the agenda of what remains the dominant - yet entirely underdefined - strand of Euroscepticism, which would keep the UK in the European Union.

This is the (perhaps nominal) Euroscepticism of David Cameron - which he believes is compatible with wearing cufflinks with the EU flag on them, as Daniel Finkelstein revealed.

It is also the argument made by those who believe that a "fundamental renegotiation" of British membership of the European Union is necessary so we can stay in. But I have very rarely seen any contentful description of what this would entail.

Influential ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie says the test is that Britain's relationship with the EU would not be "fundamentally the same".

If Britain's relationship with the EU is fundamentally the same after five years of Conservative government the internal divisions that ended the last Tory period in government will look like a tea party in comparison.

That leaves only the question of what would be different.

Montgomerie is, like Hannan, ultimately in favour of British withdrawal from the EU. So this "fundamental rengotiation" position might be, for many, the equivalent of what Trotskyists call a "transitional and provisional demand. (Or indeed, a Eurosceptic exercise in Fabian gradualism). There is surely no renegotiation of British membership which would satisfy most 'Better Off Out' Eurosceptics.

But there are many other Eurosceptics who favour Britain staying in - that is the position of many Tory MPs and government ministers, including William Hague, Liam Fox and other key members of the Cabinet, and quite probably a majority of Tory backbenchers. Yet I have never seen a coherent description of the deal which would make them content to also don Mr Cameron's cufflinks, and regard the question of British membership as settled for a generation or more.

So it is not just the Coalition with the Liberal Democrats which means that this government is unable to articulate anything other than a short-term and tactical approach to EU relations.

There are coherent arguments about why Britain should be in the EU - and indeed to get out of it. But we have never heard, in this debate, any substantive argument from the Eurosceptics of the "Tory mainstream" whose argument seems to imply that the UK can be somewhere in between.

If we are to have a serious debate about Britain's EU options, isn't it time for them to speak up too?

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Were you still up for Mike Hussey, Lord Tebbit?

So England must return once more to the MCG to polish off Australia like a plate of Christmas leftovers, to take the final three wickets they need to retain the Ashes in Australia for the first time in a generation.

I found a pretty good strategy for watching this overnight holiday Test staying with my wife`s family out here in deepest Essex. Try to stay up until lunchtime in Australia at 1.30am - which means Test Match Special on the radio, the Guardian's brilliant online over-by-over riffs on the contest and tweeting can all be deployed as tactics to help ward off sleep. And then to rendevous with my father-in-law sometime before 7am to catch up with the trigger finger on the magic digibox, as long as all radio and internet communications could be suspended until close of play in mid-mornimg. The middle order came under pressure as our 18 month old opted to start the daytime session not long after 5am on the first two days but we held on for a famous victory.

So it was that, in an idle moment just before dawn, I wondered how well Norman Tebbit was passing the cricket test he once famously, or infamously, set.

Were you still up for Mike Hussey, Lord Tebbit?

Old Norman has now - at the Telegraph - established himself as among the sparkiest and most engaging new voices of the (otherwise slightly flagging) Tory blogosphere. He has written engagingly on why he was once a Europhile before recanting, and rarely misses a chance to take on environmentalists, pro-Europeans, Labourites and Coalitionists of either a LibDem or Tory Lite tendency. He is a little coy as to why he fell out with that great cricket fan John Major.

Yet puzzlingly for a man who did even more than Geoffrey Howe to put cricket into the political lexicon, as far as I could spot anyway, Lord Tebbit does not seem to have yet blogged a paragraph on probably the greatest Ashes series for a generation, down under at least (and, arguably, equal first with 2005 overall).

Now this blogger owes rather a lot to Norman Tebbit, and indeed to Luton Town`s Tory MP and plastic pitch philistine David Evans for politicising the things my teenage self cared about in a way which proved usefully clarifying. But it would be nice to think we might be able to put political differences asiide to be able to discuss the wonders of Swann`s reverse swing and what on earth England do with the unusual dilemma of such rich form from too many top-notch English bowlers. Would Tebbit also move Ian Bell up to five and give the Irishman Eoin Morgan some Test experience in Sydney? At the risk of reopening a political question, does the old Chingford battler think we can now put to rest the question of whether Trott and Pietersen can be successfully integrated into an English Test side - or does the heart beat a little slower when a double century was made in South Africa?

In truth, it never made any sense for a Tory Unionist to propose sporting allegiance as the sine qua non of citizenship - an argument for the break-up of Britain. I never heard Tebbit advocate the abolition of the five nations rugby when he was in power, but the logic of his argument implies either the end of Welsh and Scottish national teams, or the dissolution of the Union. Fortunately, our entire British and national sporting histories show that there is no need to force such a choice, as this blog has examined before, looking at the strange case of England as a 90 minute nation as the football World Cup began.

So we British have long proved particularly able to cope with a plurality of sporting identities. It is the England and Wales Cricket Board, after all. So I imagine Norman Tebbit was just as thrilled as I was at Monty Panesar's last stand in the Cardiff Ashes Test in 2009. Somebody should remind the Welsh Football Association - which is threatening to ban the brilliant Gareth Bale, who simply wants to be considered both Welsh and British, as he undoubtedly is, and so eligible for the London Olympics, rather as the great JPR Williams could play for Wales and the British Lions.

And I hope Lord Tebbit doesn't cheer for the Americans in the Ryder Cup, against our boys, just because they are flying a European flag.

Tebbit's test can make no sense of cricketing history either. Why was India granted Test status while part of the Empire? Tebbit can surely not think that the King of England, claiming allegiance as Emperor of India too, was conceding the case for Indian independence by attending India's first official Test match at Lord's in 1932, doubtless anticipating that his English and Indian subjects would now cheer their rival teams.

The question of whether India's national status would bolster the Empire or boost the independence movement was contested - with rival hopes and fears on both sides. But the meanings we choose to find in sports have often eluded the desires of political propagandists of all types. Whatever difference it made, cricket wasn't decisive.

The central premise of Tebbit's cricket test - that fervent support for Indian, Scottish or Welsh sporting teams determines political outcomes and allegiances - is self-evidently false.

Still, there are many more ways one might pass the real cricket test.

Like hoping England would not win the Perth Test for a 2-0 lead, so the Ashes as well as the series were still on the line for the Boxing Day Test. (Be careful what you wish for: a draw would have done).

I certainly don`t want England to 'win' the Ashes by drawing the series 2-2 but I hope Australia put up a good fight in Sydney`s final Test. We can expect to hear more calls to sack Ricky Ponting tomorrow. I would love to see one of the modern greats bounce back with a valedictory Test century in a valiant narrow defeat.

But the irate under pressure Ponting was far from the only Australian to fail the cricket test in Melbourne. What about all of those fans who swarmed to the exits on the opening day as their team struggled, instead of saluting the better side on the day. Such blind patriotism just isn`t cricket, is it Norman? (And how those fairweather fans at the beach would have regretted the bittersweet victory had the Sporting Gods taken their revenge with an Aussie double hat-trick or some other astonishing comeback in the style of Botham at Headingley `81).

The Melbourne crowd might better have emulated their embrace of the West Indies team in 1961, about which Mike Selvey wrote this week, or indeed how the Lord's crowd passed the real cricket test too when India shook England to 19 for 3 in their very first Test, as The Cricketer's contemporary account captures:

Glorious weather - a crowd of some 25,000, and a fast pitch, greeted the Indians in their first Test match, an event, we believe, of more than mere cricketing importance. The most famous ground in the world, enriched as it is by long years of high tradition, was looking its best with its own particular atmosphere when the Indians having lost the toss went out to field. And what a series of shocks they gave us Sutcliffe, Holmes, and Woolley out for 19 runs in 20 minutes! The crowd were staggered, though they did not fail to applaud vociferously the men who had so quickly forced England to play with her back to the wall.

With only an hour or so left for England to wrap up the fourth Ashes Test, some of us with a cricket-shaped hole in tomorrow morning might turn our attention to the amazing topsy-turvy events in the Durban Test, which will last a little longer into a 4th day at least.

South Africa and India may be the best two Test sides in the world right now (but we`ll see about THAT when India tour England next summer) though it naturally lacks the existential intensity of the Ashes. But its very nicely scheduled for breakfast in England.

This time I can join my Dad and - I would guess - most England fans in cheering for India to level the series.

So Norman, if you find yourself missing the cricket, consider yourself invited too.

Sunday, 26 December 2010

New poll reveals what the British really think about the European Union

Is the great British political war over our place in the European Union now ending not with a bang but a whimper?

The European question did much to split political parties and bring down prime ministers and chancellors across a couple of political generations. That this great clash may now be fizzling out would be one possible reading of a fascinating new YouGov poll on British attitudes to the European Union, which is published next month in a new pamphlet 'Europe's Left in the Crisis' from FEPS and the Fabian Society, and which The Observer previews in a news report today: Britons want EU to assert itself on the global stage.

This post sets out below more of the YouGov poll details, showing that the British public are sceptical of the EU as an idea, yet rather in favour of having more of it in practice, along with some initial thoughts on what this could mean for public and political arguments over the future of the EU and Britain's place in it.

YouGov polling for the Fabian Society/FEPS book 'Europe's Left In the Crisis'.

Is Britain's membership of the European Union a good thing or a bad thing for Britain?

Good thing: 22%
Bad thing: 45%
Neither good nor bad: 21%
Don't know: 12%

* This good thing/bad thing question demonstrates a stark class gap in attitudes to the EU. 53% of C2DE voters say British membership of the EU is a bad thing overall, and only 13% a good thing overall (-40), than among ABC1 voters, where the gap closes to -12, with 28% positive and 40% negative.

Narrow pluralities of Labour (35-34) and LibDem (36-27) supporters are positive about the EU, while Conservatives are strongly negative (15-61).

Only 16% of women say the EU is a good thing, compared to 28% of men. But men (48%) are also more likely to say it is a bad thing than women (43%). 23% of women say it is neither a good nor bad thing, while three times as many women (18%) as men say they don't know.

The 27 countries in the European Union work together in different ways. Thinking about Europe as a whole, rather just Britain, what is your view of the level of cooperation between EU countries?

Overall, the EU member states should cooperate more closely so that they can better deal with major international issues: 21%

Overall, the EU member states should loosen their links so they have more flexibility to deal with national issues: 49%

Overall, the current balance between EU cooperation and national action is about right: 9%

Don't know: 20%

* Supporters of all the major political parties prefer looser EU cooperation overall. While 66% of Conservatives favour looser ties, with 15% favouring closer cooperation, the margins in favour of looser ties are narrower among Labour (40-30%) and LibDem (38-33%) voters.

Below are a list of specific areas. For each one please say whether you think countries in Europe should co-operate more closely together, or should loosen their links or if the present balance is about right.

Tackling climate change

EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 55%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 14%
The current balance is about right: 14%
Don't know: 16%

Tackling climate change: Closer climate cooperation has support across all parties, with Conservatives in favour by 50% to 22%, alongside 66-67% of Labour and LibDem voters. Those who say the EU is a bad thing overall want closer cooperation on climate change by 48 to 24%.

Diplomatic relations with non-European countries (such as sharing embassies)

EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 35%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 26%
The current balance is about right: 17%
Don't know: 22%

Fighting terrorism and international crime

EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 71%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 7%
The current balance is about right: 9%
Don't know: 13%

Regulating banks and financial institutions

EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 53%

EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 25%

The current balance is about right: 6%

Don't know: 15%

Closer cooperation in this area has the backing of Conservatives (45-38) and those who think British membership of the EU is a bad thing (48-37), along with very strong support (74-11) among those who are positive about the EU. There is 54% support from C2DE supporters, along with 53% of ABC1 voters.

Recovering from the recession and financial crisis

EU countries should co-operate more closely on this issue: 45%
EU countries should loosen their links on this issue: 30%
The current balance is about right: 9%
Don't know: 16%

Conservative voters, who oppose closer cooperation by 37-44% disagree with both Labour (59-21) and Liberal Democrat (48-26) supporters on this.

Some people think that the European Union should pass common regulations across the whole of the EU to discourage companies from relocating to other EU countries with lower taxes or fewer regulations. Other people think that countries in the EU should be free to set their own taxes and regulations.

Do you think the European Union should agree minimum levels of levels of workers rights so EU countries cannot undercut each other with cheaper labour or lower regulation, or should each country be able to make their own decisions about what regulations are best for their workers?

The European Union should agree minimum levels of workers rights: 55%
The European Union should not agree minimum levels of workers rights: 27%
Don't know: 17%

* Minimum labour standards across the EU gains equally strong support from ABC1 (56%) and C2DE (54%) voters. It is favoured by Conservatives (48-42) as well as Labour (71-16) and LibDem (66-20) voters. It is also supported by those who think EU membership a bad thing (49-41) or who are neutral about it (54-25) as well as among pro-EU voters (76-15), suggesting this could be an issue which could help to address concerns about the EU.

Do you think the European Union should agree minimum levels of taxation on large businesses so companies cannot relocate to whichever countries offer the lowest tax rates, or should each country be able to make their own decisions about what level of tax is best for their companies?

The European Union should agree minimum levels of tax on large businesses: 47%

The European Union should not agree minimum levels of tax on large businesses: 34%

Don't know: 19%

* Both Labour (59-26) and Liberal Democrat (56-30) voters agree with the proposal for minimum business tax rates, but most Conservatives oppose it (36-52). There is stronger support among C2DE voters (48-30) than among ABC1 voters (46-38).

Thinking about the next 25 years or so, many people have suggested that China will join the United States as a second political and economic Superpower. If that turns out to be true, which of the following is closest to your view.

Britain and other European countries should work more closely together to maximise their voice and influence in the world. 40%
Britain and other European countries should use their own historic international links to try to maximise their own voice and influence: 33%
Neither: 9
Don't know: 18

* Both Labour (54-25) and LibDem voters (55-23) believe the rise of China should see closer EU cooperation, but Conservatives are more likely to disagree (30-47).

YouGov carried out the fieldwork for the poll of 2144 GB adults on 28th-29th November 2010.


So what might we make of those findings? They ought to generate debate on all sides of the question. If the British have a reputation for being among the most Eurosceptic of European publics, the poll suggests that the reality is that British Euroscepticism is a very moderate affair and does not present any great barrier to closer EU cooperation in almost every area where a pragmatic argument that cooperating across national boundaries is necessary to make a positive difference can plausibly be made.

Even as 45% of the public think EU membership is a 'bad thing' and 49% supporting the general principle of EU members loosening their ties, this is combined with strong support for closer EU cooperation across most major areas of policy - including climate change, anti-terrorism measures, economic cooperation and foreign policy. The appeal of the idea of fair rules to make a single market works means that, on balance, the public are more likely to support than oppose shared minimum labour standards and common minimum business tax rates - which would of course be highly politically contested areas. Those views are more likely to be held by both LibDem and Labour voters than Conservatives - though large numbers of Tory voters and those who are generally Eurosceptic in all parties in fact support closer cooperation in many specific cases.

The poll shows that Eurosceptics have been politically effective in demonising European institutions, but that they have failed to make their arguments resonate over concrete questions of what we might want the EU to do. Pro-Europeans ought to be better placed than they often think to win these real world debates - as long as they take seriously the need to earn permission for cooperation where it is genuinely necessary, and as long as the EU can demonstrate that it can respond effectively to problems which nations can't tackle on their own.

So the YouGov/Fabian/FEPS poll perhaps helps to explain British Foreign Secretary William Hague's welcome conversion from being a Eurosceptic cheerleader when a party leader from 1997-2001 to pragmatic engagement in government as foreign secretary.

If Hague has disappointed old allies on the European question, he seems to have realised you can't govern on simple slogans, and now seems to lack the stomach for refighting those battles again.

Cameron and Hague's approach to the EU in power has dismayed many Tory Eurosceptics, whose core demand is for a "fundamental renegotiation" of British membership (though it has never been particularly clear what this entails, nor whether it would be compatible with staying in the EU).

Influential activist and blogger Tim Montgomerie, the editor of ConservativeHome put it very starkly before the election, as David Cameron prepared to u-turn on a Lisbon referendum.

If Britain's relationship with the EU is fundamentally the same after five years of Conservative government the internal divisions that ended the last Tory period in government will look like a tea party in comparison.

That now looks more like an empty threat. Wherever there are real reasons to cooperate - from helping Ireland, defence cooperation with France or global climate talks - the Tory right have been unable to get any traction with most of the public, enabling LibDem Business Secretary Vince Cable to claim last week while being 'stung' by the Telegraph that he and other pro-Europeans have won the policy arguments within government on pragmatic grounds.

The poll perhaps helps to show why Vince Cable was right - for now at least. But the detail of the poll also shows why the EU could still prove the great "frozen conflict" within the Coalition government. On the biggest questions about our national future - such as whether we cooperate more closely with European partners in a world where China emerges as a second superpower - Labour and LibDem voters see the world in one way, and Tory voters in another.

That is even more true of MPs and party activists. So any shared Tory-LibDem long-term view of Britain's future still looks very difficult. The conflict has been frozen. With only weak encouragement from leading Tories, the Eurosceptics have retreated to the hills. But both their allies and opponents surely expect them to be back for a final battle.

But this new poll suggests that their opponents might find more confidence than was the case in the last decade to contest the question of which side of the EU argument really resonates with British public opinion.

* The poll is published in 'Europe's Left In The Crisis: How the next left can respond', edited by Sunder Katwala and Ernst Stetter, and to be published by the Foundation of European Progressive Studies FEPS and the Fabian Society. The collection also contains pieces from Jessica Asato; David Coats; Caroline Gennez, leader of the Flemish social democrats; former Austrian chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer; and Roger Liddle of Policy Network on the social democratic response to the political and economic challenges we face at a time when the austerity agenda of the right is in the ascendant across Europe. We'll have more about the pamphlet in the next few weeks.

Friday, 24 December 2010

The triumph of cricket

One of this year's great Christmas presents is the anticipation of the Australia v England Boxing Day Test in Melbourne, with every ingredient for a sporting contest you might remember for a lifetime. The absurdly melodramatic saga of three epic Test matches so far have converted this lifelong football obsessive to the view that nothing else in the sporting universe can quite match the depth and range of a great series of Test cricket.

I was never anything like as fanatical about cricket as my Dad.

He must have been one of the first few adopters of a Sky dish, when they had only cricket and not football rights to try to hook viewers in. However early I got up during the 1992 cricket world cup (broadcast live from down under), I could find him bleary eyed and glued to the game - just as likely to be Sri Lanka v Zimbabwe as India v Pakistan - albeit saying he'd just recently tuned in to catch up with the score.

My dad always failed the Tebbit "cricket test" with flying colours - and not only in India's interests. He isn't particularly hostile to the England team, but he is quietly rooting for Australia in the Ashes! (Working for the NHS for 35 years might or might not count in mitigation). No doubt partly in response, I always cheered for England v India - albeit with a bit of agonising over whether to carry on once Norman Tebbit piped up when I was 16. But not always: did anyone really "support" England when the great West Indies team "blackwashed" them 5-0 in 1984? (And what does "supporting" a cricket team mean anyway when a series is as one-sided as that?)

Cricket burbled along in the background while, between the ages of eight and eighteen at least, there was nothing I didn't know about football. I was very taken with the great cricketing metropolis of Somerset when they had Viv Richards, Joel Garner and Ian Botham in the same team when I was ten, though I preferred David Gower to Botham as I grew up. But part of the attraction of a day out at the cricket - whether Essex playing the odd game in the park at Southend, or going to the great grounds of Lords or the Oval for a one-day game or the occasional Test day - was that it never had the gut-wrenching feeling of mattering like football could at its worst.

I wanted England to do well - but it was never too surprising to hear that the middle order had collapsed.

So it has been difficult to adjust to the emergence of a different England.

It was the 2005 Ashes which did it. Perhaps even this series can never match England felling a team of genuine legends. For a moment, Australia were England and England were Australia, pursuing their task with such ruthless efficiency that retaining the Ashes down under almost risked becoming boring. You can not beat Australia like that. They make great sporting villians, but in the resilience of Michael Hussey and the recovery of Mitchell Johnson, they are worthy adversaries. We may well hear from the great Ricky Ponting in Melbourne.

Could it be only last year that Mike Brearley, one of the great thinking cricketers, wondered aloud that "maybe it will turn out that test cricket has no long-term future"?

Yes, there are probably two better Test sides taking the field in South Africa. But what could beat this contest between two evenly matched sides playing at the perfect time in the perfect setting (brilliantly described by Mike Selvey in the Guardian yesterday)?

The winners will receive a replica of a tiny trophy rumoured to contain the remains of a cricket ball. In a world saturated by sport of questionable meaning, Australia and England are playing the game for something that really matters.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Fact-check for Sarah Teather - now the leading LibDem Coalition loyalist

Education minister Sarah Teather is perhaps an unlikely winner of the Coalition loyalist award among the ten LibDem Ministers targetted by the Daily Telegraph.

In the latest installment, the rather Cleggite Europe Minister Jeremy Browne makes some pretty accurate comments about the Tory eurosceptics being neutered by the Coalition - as I am sure his adversaries might confirm.

Though Teather was widely reported to be not entirely gruntled over tuition fees, she stuck to her public script when talking to reporters posing as constituents:

Miss Teather was the only one of the 10 ministers visited by this newspaper whose private views largely reflected her public comments.

(LibDems will be relieved to hear that the sting report has therefore concluded, since we have now had 10 ministers - Cable; Davey, Moore, Webb; Burstow, Heath, Stunnell, Baker; Browne and Teather).

That Sarah Teather is chirpy about the Coalition in private as well as in public reflects well on Teather - in terms of her personal relationships with colleagues. That the only female minister targetted in the sting proved less susceptible to this investigative technique of the somewhat giggly interrogators than her male colleagues may be another reason for the LibDems to regret the lack of LibDem women in government and Parliament.

But it might possibly be less useful to the Brent MP's electoral prospects. Teather could lose if just 3.5% of her Brent May 2010 LibDem voters switched to Labour. One in three May 2010 LibDems (nationally) currently tell pollsters they will vote Labour - and tactical support from Tories would not nearly be enough if that happened.

What is surprising that the LibDems minister in the department of education doesn't seem to know - or, at least, doesn't want to acknowledge - that schools funding is falling.

She tells The Telegraph:

"I think Michael Gove is deeply relieved to be in Coalition, because it meant that we got an extra slug of money for schools and that was work that I did with Nick Clegg behind the scenes," she said.

"We had an absolute fight to get that extra money into schools, and he would never have had that if he had just been a Secretary of State in a Conservative government."

Yes, Clegg and Teather had a fight alright - but they lost it.

Clegg even publicly declared victory in his battle to get the Coalition Agreement pledge honoured, namely that ""we will fund a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schools budget by reductions in spending elsewhere".

A senior No 10 aide said: "The money for this will come from outside the education budget. We're not just rearranging furniture – this is real new money from elsewhere in Whitehall."

Unfortunately, this proved inaccurate - and so the Coalition Agreement promise has been broken.

George Osborne did give Clegg permission to make the speech - but didn't provide the additional funding Clegg claimed to have.

So they are rearranging furniture - funding the pupil 'premium' by redistributing existing funding within a shrinking schools budget, where funding per pupil on current spending is falling in real terms by 2.25% on average, according to IFS research.

Teather might want to argue it would have been worse still without the LibDems.

But the specific proof of influence she does cite is factually inaccurate.

Even when the deputy Prime Minister put his reputation on the line for his flagship policy, he wasn't able to achieve the outcome Teather cites.

The pupil premium remains a good idea. The task now is to find the additional funding that it requires.

Can the LibDems avoid a Welsh wipeout?

It doesn't make much sense to pay too much attention to the opinion polls, six months after a General Election, and with the next General Election now fixed for May 2015 (provisionally, at least!).

Except in Scotland and Wales, where there will be national elections in just over four months.

Anthony Wells reports the last YouGov/ITV Wales poll of 2010.

Constituency: CON 23%(+2), LAB 44%(nc), LDEM 6%(-3), Plaid 21%(nc)
Regional: CON 22%(+2), LAB 42%(+1), LDEM 5%(-4), Plaid 21%(+1)

Those are the poll changes in a month. One big question is whether the damage done to LibDem standing in Wales is a blip, or something that it will be difficult to reverse in the next four months. If the damage is sustained then the results would make grim reading for the Welsh Liberal Democrats

The LibDems would aim to hold onto at least half and up to five of its six seats - but Wells projects that, if this polling were projected to a May 2011 result, they could be reduced to two seats in the Assembly.

On a uniform swing (and making the fairly safe assumption that Labour will reclaim Blaenau Gwent) this would give Labour 30 seats in the Welsh Assembly, the Conservatives 15, Plaid 13 and the Liberal Democrats 2. The Lib Dems, incidentally, would no longer pick up any top-up seats, once you get down to 5% or so support the maths just doesn’t stack up.

Labour won 26 seats last time, the Conservatives 12, Plaid 15 and the LibDems 6.

The big changes since the 2007 elections are to Labour standing - up 12-13 points in the constituency and regional section - and to the LibDems, firmly in a distant 4th place, polling just 40% of the constituency vote of 2007, and 43% of their regional vote, and just over a quarter of their general election vote six months ago.

The May 2010 General Election share in Wales for the four largest Welsh parties was:

Labour 36.2%
Con 26.1%
LibDem 20.1%
Plaid 11.3%

But Welsh elections follow the general rule of British politics that the LibDems always tend to poll considerably fewer votes when fighting in PR elections.

The 2007 result was

Labour 32.2%/29.6%
Cons 22.4%/21.4%
Plaid 22.4%/21.0%
LibDem 14.8%/11.7%

List shares:
BNP 4.3%
Green 3.5%
Others 4.5%

Heathrow chaos: are foreigners the problem or the solution?

There have been contrasting views on that question in the letters pages of the Daily Telegraph.

This was David Hardie of Buckinghamshire in Tuesday's Telegraph.

SIR – The Government should have sent in the Army to clear the snow around the aircraft parking stands at Heathrow, and sent the bill to BAA, the Spanish operators, who clearly put profits before sufficient investment in infrastructure.

We demand to know why key industrial assets have been allowed to be sold to foreign investors when they have demonstrated on more than one occasion that they are not running them in the best interests of our country.

That type of anti-market poujadism has become pretty rare on the post-Thatcherite right. It would seem to depend on a faith in British capitalists demonstrating a greater commitment to public duty over profit than their international rivals.

But Matthew Ridgwell, writing from Sweden, instead trusts in Scandinavian rationalism, in a letter I read in today's Guardian, though which also offered a riposte in the Telegraph itself yesterday.

The under-investment and under-preparation by the likes of BAA to counter easily foreseeable winter conditions is clear evidence that it has not been made liable for the full costs of air travel disruption. Instead society is unfairly being made to take the full brunt.

I propose that snow management teams of Stockholm airport (no closures due to snow for the past five decades) and Helsinki airport (a single 30-minute closure in 2003 in the past decade) are invited to review the winter operations of major British airports. If their recommendations require investment equivalent to more than the real cost of one day's worth of airport closures then I shall eat my woolly hat.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Is Norman Baker the new Helen Suzman?

This blog has been sympathetic to Vince Cable and other LibDem ministers caught in the Daily Telegraph's sting spectacular.

But we shall have to draw the line at Norman Baker MP, minister of the Crown despite being one of life's natural backbenchers, among those LibDem ministers to make private comments which get pretty personal, about David Cameron and George Osborne in particular.

Thursday's Telegraph reports that Norman Baker felt the big political decision in May was whether to model himself on Nelson Mandela or Helen Suzman:

He said: “I always think in South African terms, should you be Nelson Mandela, outside the system, campaigning for it to be changed, or should you be Helen Suzman, who’s my … one of my political heroes actually.”

“Helen Suzman was in the apartheid regime when everybody was male and white and horrible actually … she got stuck in there in the South African parliament in the apartheid days as the only person there to oppose it … she stood up and championed that from inside.”

He added: “You do get your hands dirty by dealing with things you don’t want to do, and sometimes you get results which aren’t quite what you want. But the issue we have to make, the calculation in coalition, is we have to make as a coalition is do we get stuff that we do want which outweighs some of the stuff we don’t want, and that’s the reality of it.”

This is surely gratuitously offensive to the Prime Minister and his Conservative colleagues from any Parliamentarian, still less a serving minister.

Politial opponents can find many faults with this government's agenda - but it does not parallel the South African apartheid regime.

If Baker does think that this tasteless analogy is in any way valid, it is completely baffling that he would endorse LibDem participation in the Coalition, still less choose to serve as a Minister himself.

David Cameron has moved the Conservative party a long way on race - and that is something political opponents should be happy to recognise and welcome.

When he was a young Tory researcher, David Cameron may have been unfortunately somewhat unreflective on the issue of South Africa, going on a freebie trip there in 1989. But Margaret Thatcher's opposition to sanctions against South Africa is one of the few aspects of the Thatcher record he has publicly repudiated and apologised for.

Cameron's overall record on race - particularly in opening up the Tory party = has been creditable. (It also gives the currently all-white LibDem benches in the Commons something to catch up with).

Of course, Helen Suzman was a Parliamentary opponent of the apartheid regime: she didn't work and vote for it. As the sole principled parliamentary opponent of apartheid for well over a decade, to say that she was "in the apartheid regime" is inaccurate and offensive to her and the anti-apartheid movement too. (It is the equivalent of saying that "Michael Foot was in the Thatcher regime").

So Baker has provided by far the least coherent of all of the arguments for and against LibDem participation in the Coalition.


There are some interesting problems of collective responsibility arising from these candid comments.

The doctrine surely means that Ed Davey - if he can not get housing policy changed - must either stand on his head and say he no longer thinks the policy "completely without logic" - or resign.

A rather clearer case of hypocrisy can be laid at the door of LibDem minister and deputy leader of the House David Heath.

Mr Heath and Mr Baker also publicly admit that they oppose the rise in tuition fees, despite voting in favour of the policy in the recent crucial Commons vote. “I’m still wholly against,” Mr Heath said. “I’ll say it perfectly openly, I’m wholly against tuition fees.”

Mr Baker added: “Well, it is a big shock and it’s a big shock to me and I almost resigned over the matter, on that particular one because it was just pretty horrific.”

Again, collective ministerial responsibility surely demands an (insincere) recantation - or a resignation. In any event. the willingness to speak against a policy one is voting for is deeply corrosive of political trust.

Why VAT on private school fees would be a fair way to fund the pupil premium

"I want every child to have the chances I had"

"I went to a fantastic school. I’m not embarrassed about that because I had a great education and I know what a great education means. And knowing what a great education means, means there’s a better chance of getting it for all of our children, which is absolutely what I want in this country"
- David Cameron at Tory party conferences 2009 and 2007.

"There is lots of anger about higher education at the moment and I understand it. I am angry too. Here's what makes me angry. Oxford and Cambridge take more students each year from just two schools — Eton and Westminster — than from among the 80,000 pupils who are eligible for free school meals... These are the things that make me angry: these are the facts that would make me take to the streets; these are the injustices that our policy will remedy"
- Nick Clegg, Hugo Young lecture, November 2010

"The risk now, given the new constraints on public spending, is that the [funding] gap between public and private sectors will be come a chasm"
- David Laws, as LibDem education spokesman, June 2009.


The Coalition agreement promises that "we will fund a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schools budget". But the spending review did not keep that pledge. Instead the government will cut funding for most state school pupils so it can fund the pupil premium from within a shrinking schools budget.

This is politically dangerous - it risks turning what should be a popular fairness policy into a source of resentment.

It is also unfair - the government risks, in the name of social mobility, asking the middle to sacrifice their chances to close the education gap with an increasingly entrenched elite.

Both David Cameron and Nick Clegg have talked about closing the opportunity gap between the most expensive private schools and the rest. But their policy will increase the funding gap between state and private schools. With the government cutting state school spending in real terms, the gap is likely to widen sharply.

Having warned a year ago about the danger of a "chasm" in private and state spending, influential LibDem backbencher David Laws will want to ensure his flagship policy idea does not further contribute to this.

In an essay 'How to fund a pupil premium', in the new Fabian Review, published in January, I want to open a debate about how this could be avoided - and propose some ways we might attempt this. My proposal to fund the pupil premium by hypothecating the proceeds of VAT on private school fees has the enthusiastic support of Kevin Maguire in the Mirror this morning, though his label of "toff tax" is best killed straight away.

That policy will spark support and disagreement. Yet there are three questions behind the proposal which will demand some coherent response from all parts of the political spectrum, even if they oppose that specific policy proposal.

(1) Given that the pupil premium is a good idea, can the "additional" funding promised be found, to avoid resourcing it from spending cuts in many (probably most) schools?

(2) Should a growing chasm between funding levels in private and state schools be of concern to any party committed to equal opportunity and social mobility? It would be useful to know whether we can find consensus at least on the merits of an aspiration to prevent this gap widening, and to narrow it over time.

(3) Given that there are tight spending constraints, what can be done practically to prevent the gap widening sharply, and to narrow it over time?

The gap between state and private school spending narrowed slightly thanks to the sustained spending increases of the Labour governments. The detail is set out in a very good 2007 research paper A level playing field? by the IFS for the CfBT education trust.

State school spending per pupil by 2009/10 had - in real terms - reached what independent schools had been spending in 1997. State school spending per pupil was 50% of that in private schools in 1997; but was closing a little to around 58% by the time Labour left office, despite the scale of sharp increases in private school fees, with some schools this year breaching a £30,000 a year level which, the Daily Telegraph reports, was thought "unthinkable" just a few years ago.

So large increases in state school spending averaging 4% a year were required to even keep pace with private school spending. The concern dramatically expressed by David Laws about the risk of a widening private/state funding "chasm" must surely be shared by Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Michael Gove, as well as by Andy Burnham, Alan Johnson and Ed Miliband, if what they have all said about opportunity and social mobility is sincere.

But few have yet noticed how the government's plans for funding the premium by redistributing a shriking state school budget risks exacerbating this problem. And, in tight fiscal circumstances, no party has yet set out any practical thinking about how to avoid this funding gap widening.

I make three proposals in the Fabian Review essay. One proposal identifies genuinely "additional" resources for the pupil premium: levying VAT on private school fees, to create a hypothecated Pupil Premium Mobility Fund. This would also help to limit an accelerating private-public spending gap at a time of public spending constraint.

With 628,000 children in the independent sector, this could raise around £1.5 billion per year, with the money dedicated to a Pupil Premium Mobility Fund.

The fairness case is this: whenever £10,000 is spent on private school fees, £2000 would go towards narrowing the gaps in opportunity and mobility. Every parent paying £30,000 per year at Eton would be contributing £6000 to the pupil premium, still leaving a hefty £24,000 to be spent on the best schooling that money can buy.

I expect this may be too radical for any of the major parties. Private education features heavily in the rhetorical advocacy of both Clegg and Cameron, yet is absent from their policy thinking. (Their aides talk cleverly of the "Nixon to China" tactical value of Clegg citing his anger at Westminster and Eton's contribution to stalled social mobility. What would make this more than clever reverse spin? Do they know that Nixon eventually got on the plane to Beijing?) Labour leader Ed Miliband opposed David Miliband's more modest £100 million proposal to withdraw charitable status from public schools, so is also likely to be wary of the VAT proposal.

The public would be more sympathetic. Significant minorities are either strong opponents or strong supporters of private education in principle: a Fabian/YouGov poll back in 2007 found 39 per cent are against, because they think it leads to unfair opportunities, with 29 per cent in favour of what is seen as an important freedom that should be open to anyone who can afford it. But attitudes to fairness and private education split three ways - and the middle ground (25 per cent) is held by those who believe both that parents should have the right to choose private education and also that it is the responsibility of government to ensure their children do not gain an unfair advantage from their doing so. It is that moderate goal which should be reflected in the policy of all three major parties.

The challenge to those minded to reject the VAT proposal is simple:

What would you do instead?

Does anybody seek to credibly argue that the size of the state-private funding gap is irrelevant or unimportant to equal opportunity?

The coalition often argues that more spending is not the only answer. That is correct. But money matters too – presumably that is why a ‘pupil premium’ is their own flagship policy, and perhaps why the private schools spend so much to ensure high quality education. Can anybody credibly argue both that more money on disadvantaged pupils is the key to social mobility - and that the funding gap between private and state schools is irrelevant to social mobility? That is the illogical implication of current government policy. In any event, anybody who thinks money is irrelevant would contradict themselves if they vocally opposed the proposal to redistribute some cash: they should simply be indifferent to it

Should a widening state-private funding gap be considered regrettable but inevitable?

This is the implication if the parties can not develop some policy response.

Or should the government and opposition parties try to have policies to match their language and meet their policy aspirations for opportunity and mobility?

Other ideas than my hypothecated VAT proposal might do this. And I suggest two other more modest approaches to investigating the issue further.

That the Educational Select Committee should hold an inquiry on whether a widening state-private funding gap is likely, and take expert evidence on whether this would impact on attainment and social mobility, identifying ways to prevent this. (I can't see how anybody interested in educational opportunity could possibly oppose this, so hope we will at least get cross-party pressure for the Select Committee to investigate the issue).

Another is that centre-right politicians wary of the tax proposal might want to investigate the possibility of voluntary agreement with the independent sector to prevent the gap widening further.

There may be other ways to address this gap. My central claim is that all of the parties should be challenged to respond to the issue.

So narrowing educational inequality - including how to avoid a growing gap between private and state spending - should be debated in the Labour party's policy review, and I hope to contribute constructively to that.

I also hope that the Liberal Democrats will address this theme too in their future policy development. The importance of the pupil premium unites its Orange Book and social liberal wings, and Nick Clegg fought hard inside government for additional funds for the premium, though he lost the policy battle. The egalitarian social liberal wing of the party should now try to put this or other approaches to funding the premium in a tight spending context up for debate.

It is always good to hear too from progressive Conservatives who think inequality matters - so I hope our friends at ResPublica, the Demos progressive Conservatism project will offer a response too, as to whether a growing funding gap should be an issue of concern.

So the challenge is for social liberals and Orange Book LibDems, New and Old Labour, progressive Conservatives and the traditional Tory right. All talk about equal opportunity and social mobility in a way which would be damaged by a growing gulf between state and private spending. What - if anything - should actually be done about it?

In the spirit of the political pluralism, Next Left intends to invite and publish responses from across the political spectrum to the challenges of educational inequality in the new year. I welcome offers to contribute, from whatever perspective.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

LibDems in truth telling scandal

The Telegraph has a few more what LibDem ministers really think of the Coalition revelations.

As with Vince Cable, who has only the consolation of this blog's support, the LibDems are being pilloried for the mortal political sin of telling the truth. The Telegraph has more revelations to come in the days ahead (though one would have hoped it would play straight by also eavesdropping on Liam Fox and other Tory ministers).

* Ed Davey warns that the government's changes to housing benefit would "put people below the breadline", something which he calls "deeply unacceptable".

Nobody could seriously claim that it isn't true that the HB changes will increase adult and child poverty - the Institute for Fiscal Studies calculates the housing benefit changes will increase child poverty by 100,000.

Moreover, while the government claims its policies will lead to no net increase in child poverty, the IFS finds that "the discrepancy is entirely accounted for by the fact that IFS researchers have considered the impact of the government's planned reforms to Local Housing Allowance on poverty rates, whereas the Treasury did not".

It is good that Davey thinks that some of the changes are "unsupportable".

He particularly singles out the arbitrary, top down, one-size-fits-all 10 per cent reduction in housing benefit after 12 months. (Davey says he finds two of the five changes to housing benefit "unsupportable", but the Telegraph audio does not identify the other).

There are five changes to housing benefit and there are two I find unsupportable.

One which would come in in 2012-13 is where if you were unemployed for 12 months and you were still passing the government test which is actively seeking work to get jobseekers' allowance, which is £80 a week, something like that, so you can eat, you have to show you are looking for work. So imagine somebody who has been unemployed for 12 months, you are passing the actively seeking work test, the government is saying your housing benefit will be cut by 10 per cent just because you have been unemployed for 12 months.

I don't understand why. You are on the breadline, you've been trying to look for work, you've been passing all the government tests [about actively seeking work], and suddenly you're going to have your rent, which is your highest cost, your help with that, taken down by 10 per cent. No logic behind that whatsoever ... So the system doesn't work but I don't think you kick people when they are down.

That is a very effective, clear and pretty unanswerable critique of government policy, albeit from a government minister, and Davey should be congratulated for its clarity.

This blog, back in June, immediately identified this arbitrary and illogical measure - which saves only £100 million - as a natural issue on which Simon Hughes and LibDem backbenchers should press for change, with Labour and civic non-partisan support.

It is good that Ed Davey agrees about that from within government. It is very unlikely he has many colleagues who disagree. But, with his comments about the policy being wrong and illogical having been made public, he may well now come under pressure to resign over the issue if the measure can not be changed.


Scottish Secretary Michael Moore says the child benefit cut was "blatantly not a fair or consistent thing to do".

Again, it is difficult to disagree with that.

Welfare minister Steve Webb wrote to the Chancellor to complain because "the details aren't right".

Indeed. The policy is a complete mess - for at least 10 reasons. The much under-discussed 100-300% marginal tax rate problem is one reason why it is difficult to see it being implemented.

(Webb had, with my encouragement, quashed a Clegg-Cable plan to ditch LibDem support for universal child benefit at the pre-election party conference in Autumn 2009, which is why both governing parties were breaking clear election promises with the Osborne shock announcement).

The Telegraph report confirms that a number of LibDem government ministers knew nothing about the child benefit change before it was announced - demonstrating the back of the envelope nature of the botched announcement - but it was already pretty clear that the Tory Home Secretary didn't know much in advance either.

Ed Davey says he was "gobsmacked" - not least because he will lose £1000, which might not be the best of objections. But, with child benefit being paid primarily to mothers, I rather suspect Mrs Ed Davey might be among the disillusioned LibDems who wonder whether or not they can influence this Tory-led Coalition.

In defence of Vince Cable

I feel rather sympathetic towards Business Secretary Vince Cable, about to have the word beleaguered attached to his name in every newspaper tomorrow, after the embarrassment of having his private views revealed today.

For me, the Telegraph 'sting' was a legitimate journalistic exercise to attempt to address an important political issue: what are senior LibDems really saying about the Coalition government in the party or in their constituencies? The view is widely expressed that Cable was daft to get caught out. But it would also be absolutely fatal to the LibDems if they were not having these type of conversations inside local party meetings - though many are taking the view that politicians should not, ideally, be honest or candid with constituents on a first meeting.

For all of the post-event wisdom of the commentariat, on the basis of the Telegraph's initial transcript this morning, Cable was being charged mainly with candour. He was not impolite even to Tory colleagues, and offered a broadly accurate reading of the political situation.

Cable is a decent liberal politician (and indeed still something of a social democrat to boot) in a rather difficult position by the central thrust of this Cameron-Clegg-Osborne Coalition. Cable's description of the internal politics of Coalition will chime rather better with many LibDem members and activists - and still more with their anxious voters - than the rather bizarre idea sometimes given voice by the Clegg-Laws wing of the party leadership that the LibDems suddenly discovered during the May Coalition talks that the Tories were soulmates and intellectual allies after all.

Indeed, what should worry LibDems most is not Cable's (quite probably accurate) description of his nuclear option, but the observation that he does not have any conventional weapons: ie, that he lacks influence on decisions within government without the (difficult to use often) threat of exit.

Many members of the government are habitually much ruder about colleagues in private - albeit usually protected by "lobby terms" in offering these indiscretions to grateful journalists: take Nick Clegg's comments on a plane deriding frontbench colleagues who has now given ministerial posts, Chris Huhne's "Calamity Clegg" briefing paper, or 10 Downing Street's barely disguised animosity towards Liam Fox, to say nothing of the personal animosities of a previous government.


Cable's comments about Rupert Murdoch are in a different category. This was a bad error - and the government's decision to remove Cable's role in media regulation is an appropriate and correct response.

After his comments were made public, Cable could not claim to be in a position to judge the News International/BSkyB issue impartially. One might, however, be forgiven a sceptical thought as to how far Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt may find Solomon-like wisdom and detachment on offer to him in inheriting these responsibilities.

How they must be laughing at Cable's error in News International - an organisation which declared war on Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and the LibDems (using CCHQ ammunition) during the election campaign well before Mr Cable was in a position to take any view about them, no doubt without any hope or expectation of such favours being remembered should the government ever have the statutory responsibility to look impartially at the company's business.

So they did not welcome Cable's appointment - at a time when News International has been on the backfoot, because nobody in journalism or politics sincerely believes its account of the law-breaking culture is credible (as Andrew Neil has impolitely pointed out) - and now they are rid of him.

Cable's failing was in hyperbolic language, not least in overstating the impact of the Sky decision on "the Murdoch Empire".

It is largely forgotten, with New Labour invariably painted as Murdoch's lackeys, the government did refer BSkyB's proposed takeover of Manchester United to the Competition Commission in 1998, which blocked it. (As Stephen Byers undoubtedly gave his enemies some ammunition in the following years, I have no substantive evidence from which to suppose that NI papers were not entirely fair and impartial in their later tough treatment of him, even if Rupert Murdoch is widely thought to have the ability to remember a slight). James Purnell later cited that decision at a Fabian conference as evidence that Labour's approach to News International had been that of "fairness, not favours", language which might also well have suited Cable's purposes admirably).

Would the government have acted quite as quickly were a Business Secretary making hostile private comments about Cable's former employers Shell, or BP's troubles in Mexico, or how tax avoidance issues affect the reputation of Sir Phillp Green, or other large firms? Perhaps they would have been just as firm as when Mr Murdoch was slighted.

A coalition of the willing?

Or might the lesson be that any politicians who even thinks of crossing Rupert Murdoch can expect to come to a sticky end?

If Vince Cable wanted to play a longer game on that front, he could find some unusual allies for a different type of political coalition, as long as he could resist making the tactical mistake of shooting too early.

Chris Mullin recounts this interesting encounter with John Major, which this blog has noted before, in the first edition of his justly acclaimed diaries

Tuesday 5 December
A quiet chat with John Major who confirmed that he had contemplated banning foreign ownership of British media. He said he had been provoked by the continual attacks on him in the Murdoch press and in the Telegraph, which is owned by Conrad Black, a Canadian. I asked if he had commissioned any work on the subject and he said he had, but it was buried with the papers of the last government. He added 'I'm not interested in any blow that isn't fatal'. Me neither.
(page 143), A View From the Foothills, by Chris Mullin (Profile)

Mullin later finds that Tony Blair sympathises, in an idle reverie at least, though you can sense that his heart is not in it.

The Man laments the wickedness of the media and interference by Murdoch. I mention that John Major once thought seriously about breaking up the empires - one daily, one Sunday, everything else on the market - but dropped the idea because those queuing to buy are at least as unsavoury as existing owners.

'Oh I don't know', he says, 'There are Germans and other Europeans who would be much better'. I press the point: 'You would have to strike with deadly force, a week after we win a third term'. He is about to reply, but stops himself. He did remark firmly that the owners of the Mail would never be allowed to get their hands on the Telegraph.

Perhaps Blair's apparent reference to "interference by Murdoch" is a typo or some kind of misunderstanding.

But I am sure Mr David Cameron will want Mr Hunt and other ministers to think of nothing other than fairness and impartiality, those core features of our media environment.