Sunday, 30 January 2011

Cameron no longer more centrist than his party, say voters

Voters no longer believe that David Cameron is more centrist than the Conservative party as a whole, having changed their minds about this since May. David Cameron's performance in his first eight months as Prime Minister has led voters to consider him more right-wing than they thought he was last May.

That is one of the striking and potentially politically significant findings of a YouGov/Prospect poll, briefly reported by Peter Kellner in the new issue of the monthly magazine. Kellner's short article is behind the subscriber paywall, but the useful graphic summary is freely available. Voters are asked to use a 200 point scale, with 0 as the centre, and where -100 is very left-wing and +100 is very right wing.

The average voter continues to think of themselves as very close to the political centre, though there has been a mild lean leftwards among the electorate. The January 2011 survey now puts the average 3 points to the left-of-centre, compared to 1 point right-of-centre in May 2010.

The case that this is a Tory-led coalition is strengthened by how the last eight months have shifted perceptions of David Cameron rightwards, while Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats are seen as having flipped from the centre-left to the centre-right. At the same time, Ed Miliband is perceived as shifting his party leftwards, though both the Labour leader and his party remain slightly closer to the average voter and the political centre than David Cameron or the Conservatives.

Cameron is now as right-wing as his party, according to voter perceptions

At the time of the General Election last May, voters placed the Tory party at 48 points to the right of centre on a 0-100 scale, but perceived Cameron as being somewhat more centrist, placing him at 37 points to the right. This month, Cameron has a +48 score, having moved 11 points to the right in voter perceptions, while perceptions of his party remain pretty steady at +47, shifting one point left on the index.

Conservative voters - at 33 points to the right last May, and 32 points today - considered themselves more moderate than how either Cameron or the party were seen by the electorate as a whole. But Cameron was perceived (by all voters) as being quite close to this position, just six points away from Tory voters to their right; he is now seen as being 16 points to the right of Tory voters.

Voters now see Nick Clegg as having flipped to the right

Voters believe that Nick Clegg has flipped from the centre-left to the centre-right, moving 23 points to the right in voter perceptions since May 2010, beginning 13 per cent along the left scale and moving to 10 points right of centre. This post-election rightwards shift in perceptions of Clegg is more than twice as big as that of Cameron, though Clegg is seen as much more centrist than Cameron having been perceived as somewhat left-of-centre, and considerably closer on left-right positioning to the median voter than either the Tory or Labour leader. (The opinion polls show that being closer to the median voter is not always everything in politics, as Kellner notes).

In May, the LibDems were seen as a centre-left party, 17% from the centre along the left-wing scale. Voters no longer think that this is the case. The Coalition has shifted perceptions of the party 18 points to the right, and they are now almost dead centre, 1 point to the right, as a party.

LibDem voters in May placed themselves 17 points to the left-of-centre - with five times as many voters placing themselves left as right. The smaller number who say they still intend to vote LibDem still place themselves 7 points left of centre, but this shift rellects the loss of many left-leaning LibDems, with the party now routinely polling at half of its May 2010 level.

Initial perceptions are that Ed Miliband is to the left of his party, and Gordon Brown, yet still closer to the median voter than Cameron

Ed Miliband is perceived as shifting his party some way leftwards. He is placed 45 points left of the centre, with his party at 39 points to the left, a shift of 12 points from 27

Labour voters place themselves 33 points to the left, having been 31 points left last May.

Voters placed Gordon Brown and his party 27 points to the left of centre last May.

It is interesting that polling consistently showed that the electorate thought Gordon Brown significantly more centrist than David Cameron, since you may have struggled to find many newspaper colunmists who knew this. (Next Left did note that Cameron was placed twice as far from the centre as Brown back in Autumn 2008, reporting a Populus survey of left-right perceptions).

Voters place Miliband 42 points left of where they, on average, place themselves, and Cameron 51 points to their right. Miliband is placed 12 points to the left of his own party's supporters, and Cameron 16 points to the right of his.

What the Prospect piece doesn't reveal is where different groups of voters place politicians. For example, both Cameron and Milband's ratings could well be driven by political opponents placing them further right/left respectively than their own supporters do. (An interesting recurring feature Pew ideological mapping surveys in the US is that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton polarise opinions between supporters who think they are centrist moderates and opponents who place them way out to the left, whereas friends and foes could broadly agree on where to place the centre-right John McCain or the more ideological George W Bush on the scale, as this 2008 example shows).

The Ed Milband/Labour findings may create some grumblings inside his own party, though the findings reflect a lack of public knowledge of the Labour leader after his first few months. Future perceptions of the Labour leader and his party, after four months, are likely to be considerably more malleable than those of David Cameron, who has had more than five years.


Rethinking the Tory strategy debate

The Cameron/Conservative findings - were they sustained in further surveys - could have important implications for live debates about government strategy and communications. They suggest that the terms in which the central debate about Tory strategy - including the new communications role - have been conducted are somewhat out-of-date and may need to change.

The General Election inquest debate inside the Conservative Party has largely been between those like ConservativeHome edior Tim Montgomerie whose detailed election inquest concluded that think the modernising message was too vague and lacked content, and the counter-argument that the Tories were too Tory and not Cameron/modernising enough. This leads some insiders - notably Ian Birrell, who has been Steve Hilton's first choice candidate for the Downing Street communications role, to argue that "brand detox" remains the Tories' top priority.

Both sides of this long-running argument assume a strong distinction between Cameronism and his party's core agenda. Meanwhile, the public believe that what was once a fairly nuanced difference of emphasis between Cameron and his party may well be disappearing entirely.

The YouGov findings might provide some historical support for the Hilton/Birrell position: they could help them to challenge the idea that Cameron has pitched too far left to appeal to a Tory base. But they must also considerably complicate their future argument.

For those who think the central problem is the "same old Tories" charge, it must be extremely worrying that David Cameron is increasingly seen as the same as the rest of his party. If the Tory 36% at the General Election provided stark evidence of the limits of Cameronism, these new findings suggest it may also be too late to significantly strengthen a Cameroon modernisation strategy now.

Where did Cameronism fail?

1. Cameron never decisively captured a centrist position

Firstly, if Cameron was trying to adopt a "heir to Blair" strategy, he failed to emulate Blair in never establishing a distinctively centrist public profile.

Blair took pride in coming out almost exactly where the median voter was on surveys using this methodology, which was usually a centimetre or two right of the dead centre line.

Cameron's early counter-intuitive gestures and photographs in his first 100 days did get him a hearing from voters, ready to assess the case that he was a different type of Conservative. Cameron did not use that hearing to clinch the argument substantively. He was consistently viewed by the public as less centrist than Gordon Brown. The assumption that Cameron had adopted a centrist position - by both political allies, and vocal opponents on the right - was another dimension of how almost everybody over-estimated Cameron's impact, and meant that the evidence that the public didn't think so was widely overlooked.

2. It wasn't possible to "rebalance" the public politics of Cameron's Conservativism without first defining Cameronism.

As leader of the opposition, David Cameron adopted a deliberately ambiguous strategy. Almost everything he said and did was capable as being read as a change strategy, or a Tory continuity strategy, rehabilitating traditional arguments for modern times, according to taste and inclination. This was, above all, true of the Big Society, which was used as proof the Tories had moved on from Thatcherism, while occasionally making the (true) point that Thatcher stood for much the same thing.

This central ambiguity was reflected in the "politics of and" strategy of "rebalancing" modernising and traditional messages - symbolised by the Steve Hilton/Andy Coulson duopoly. This was designed to bring together a broader coalition, at the price of evading some major decisions about message and strategy.

As Rachel Sylvester wrote last week in The Times (£):

In the view of rightwingers, the News of the World man brought balance to the Conservative operation, putting red-top grit into the “red Tory” oyster. But that grit also muddied the water. By persuading the Conservative leader to focus more on crime, immigration and Europe, Mr Coulson undermined the careful rebranding operation on which Mr Cameron had embarked. He kept traditionalists on side with ideas such as “prison ships”, he wooed the tabloids with policies on knife crime but he also frightened off swing voters — who are the key to electoral success — by playing the old Tory tunes.

The long-term strategy of shedding the “nasty party” image was compromised for the short-term tactical advantage of a few positive headlines ... It was no coincidence that Steve Hilton — Mr Cameron’s director of strategy, who had overseen a repositioning that included hugging everything from huskies to hoodies — became increasingly frustrated with Mr Coulson’s approach. Instead of trying to put meat on the bones of the Big Society concept that Mr Hilton had devised as a way of reconciling the smaller State with the iPod age, Mr Coulson threw red meat to the red tops.

Ultimately, this cost Cameronism any distinctive definition. But it is worth remembering that the decision not to choose between these twin track approaches was itself a defining political choice for 'ying and yang Cameronism'.

Cameron's central difficulty in the run-up to the 2010 election was that he could not shift the perception that the Tories, in a crisis, would stick up for the rich and powerful. This problem cost him sleep, but he couldn't answer it. Generic "we're in this together" rhetoric and Cameron's emphasis on his personal commitment to the NHS did not amount to a key substantive policy or argument that previous Tory leaders would not have made, and this became a greater difficulty as the Tories responded to the financial crisis with a strong emphasis on austerity.

3. In power, the more clearly defined Tory brand has toxified the weaker Cameron brand

In terms of the Cameroonian frame where the same old Tories are the problem and Cameron is the answer, and which believes the Tories must be decisively more centrist in response, the findings show that the Tory brand has had rather more success in "toxifying" both the Cameron and Clegg brands, rather than their doing anything much to "detoxify" the Tories.

The problem for a "let Cameron be Cameron" response is that this must depend on a much, much clearer message about what it is that Cameron stands for. It is surely quite a lot harder to do this substantively after five years than it would have been in opposition, especially as the result arises directly from Cameron's strategic choice to modernise in a way which accomodates his party much more often than he challenges it.

4. The Coalition hasn't helped much, because the public can't see that the Tories have sacrificed anything much to get it

It is also striking that the Tory-LibDem Coalition has not made Cameron nor the Conservatives appear more centrist. There was a Cameroonian belief in the May sunshine that the Coalition would confirm and deepen Cameronism as a moderating force, but whether or not it does so will depend on whether the government's agenda is seen as moderate or Tory-led.

For the public, he is much more about the tangible agenda of public spending cuts than the rather less tangible "big society". The public appear to doubt whether - on the central choices about the economy and public spending which have defined the government- the Coalition's choices are substantively different from those which a Tory government would have made. Because the LibDems chose not to negotiate on deficit strategy, but instead switched to the Tory position, it is difficult for them to challenge this perception by pointing to micro policy choices.

5. "Broadening" perceptions of the government's agenda beyond the cuts mightn't help either

That the government is increasingly understood by the public to be about one thing - spending cuts - to the exclusion of almost everything else is recognised as an important "communications challenge" by those at the centre.

The answer is to stress the range of other radical ideas that the government has. But it is worth noting this will make the problem worse for the Cameroons if these policies seem to confirm that the Tories haven't changed, instead of demonstrating that they have. Look at the major public controversies ahead and they have reasons to worry.

The sharp hike in university fees probably didn't help on that front, however necessary or fair government ministers think that it was.

The NHS reorganisation risks reopening fears about Tory motives on the future of the NHS, which David Cameron put so much energy into countering.

Welfare reform might prove broadly popular, but the public messaging has been much more about George Osborne going out of his way to pick a fight with the "undeserving poor" over housing benefit than any more compassionate conservative messages from IDS.

Those are probably the four big policy agendas that most people will hear about. But the issue arises across the range of policy. The schools policy has its advocates and its opponents, but. Selling off forests is uniting conservative and non-partisan opposition with those who argue it is more proof of a "same old Tories" ideology.

Where the Conservatives have done something counter-intuitive - their welcome support for the 0.7% development aid target, and commitments to the legally binding climate change targets - they are perhaps unfortunate that their shift of position means that the issues are no longer politically contested between the major parties, except from their own right flank. Meanwhile, the Tories will try to defeat their Coalition partners in May to nullify the forced concession of an electoral reform referendum (because the Tories haven't changed on that - and we don't yet have any Cameroonian outriders from the Boles/Gove camp for a Yes vote); and the new LibDem strategy is to vocally claim credit for any policy advances they do make, such as the control orders compromise and probably a Lords reform compromise in future.

Several advocates of the "big society" are clearly sincere when they argue that it can't simply be reduced to a cover story for spending cuts. That they make that point so often suggests that they recognise the scale of the challenge if people are to believe it. That will be much harder in 2011 than 2010, as spending cuts become tangible at the local level.

For those who think it matters that David Cameron was never about bringing the "same old Tories" back, the challenge is to think of a way to make the public share that view - and fast. Unless the Prime Minister knows how to do that, he may be asking too much if he expects a new director of communications to challenge and redefine the public impression of what his premiership has been about.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

The Ed Balls briefing - and why he prefers David Cameron to Nick Clegg

Ed Balls gives his first major newspaper interview as Shadow Chancellor to The Times. The interview (£, Times paywall) with Rachel Sylvester, Alice Thomson and Roland Watson is well worth reading in full.

The Times news report (£) focuses on Balls' charge that both Chancellor George Osborne and Bank of England Governor Mervyn King are being "reckless" in refusing calls to consider a plan B if the recovery falters further.

Mr Balls, in his first newspaper interview since taking on the job, said that growth and consumer confidence were being hampered by the Government’s VAT rise and spending cuts. “The sooner they get out of their denial the better,” he said.

He also took issue with Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, for saying that the Government had set the right course and must stick to it. “The common view of the Chancellor and the Governor that this is necessary, correct and the right course, I think is reckless.”

Mr Balls questioned Mr Osborne’s credibility, saying that he had acted as a politician, not an economist: “He was looking back at 1979 thinking, get your pain in early, get your VAT rise in.” He added: “If you are going to be good at running the economy you have to be cautious. If you celebrate too early, the chickens can come back to roost.”

Balls argues that the improved performance of the US economy - with growth of 0.8 per cent in the final quarter of 2010 - where the policy focus has remained on the need for recovery prior to embarking on deficit reduction suggests that the Osborne-Cameron policy "is flying in the face of both economic logic and international evidence".


With The King's Speech leading the Oscar hopefuls, the extended interview (£) opens with Balls speaking about his own experience of overcoming a stammer, and how he found the film extremely stressful to watch.

It also contains Balls' most detailed comments on his relationship with Ed Miliband, where the Shadow Chancellor is keen to emphasise throughout that there will "not be a cigarette paper" between himself as Shadow Chancellor and Labour leader Ed Miliband, and this is reflected throughout the interview on key issues, such as the Darling plan on deficit reduction.

These are some of the key political features of the interview.

1. On not repeating the Granita pact

Balls does seems to challenge previous reports that there was a formal minute of their meeting before he took up the role following Alan Johnson's decision to resign, indeed suggesting that this would be to repeat the 'Granita pact' mistake of Blair and Brown back in 1994.

“I think we would both agree that the Gordon and Tony agreement on terms was a mistake, so we didn’t do that. I’ve not seen a note. The things we agreed were that this was both what we wanted to do, that I was happy with where we were on the fiscal plan and that we were going to work really closely together.”

2. On not getting the Shadow Chancellor job first time around

Balls tells The Times that he was "surprised" rather than "hurt" not to be offered the job of Shadow Chancellor in the Autumn, but that he "understood" the decision, and that there was no argument about it.

He says that he had a lot more free time as Shadow Home Secretary than he will have now: "It was great to have the job of Shadow Home Secretary. I learnt how to take part on eBay, I downloaded my first album on iTunes, I read the Red Riding Quartet [crime novels] in a week and a half. This is more stressful”.

3. On the future of the 50p tax rate

That includes sticking closely to the Alan Johnson version of the Ed Miliband line on the 50p rate, where Balls' leadership candidacy had supported beginning the rate at £100,000. The current Miliband-Balls line is also currently agnostic on the Ed Miliband argument that it should be a "permanent' feature of the taxation system, noting only that the party has made a decision about supporting the rate for this Parliament. (This keeps open how Labour will respond to George Osborne's plans to offer tax cuts just ahead of the next General Election).

What Ed Miliband and Alan Johnson said, and I have inherited, is that we would definitely have a top rate of tax for all this Parliament . . . I don’t think it’s sensible for people to go around saying as a matter of principle that a higher tax rate is better . . . But you have to find a way to have taxes which are fair.”

4. On supporting aspiration and equality

Balls rejects the claim in Tony Blair's memoir that he is among the intellectual types in the Labour Party who don't "get" aspiration, with Balls noting that his father was the first person in his family to go to university, and that he himself was motivated to try to get to the same college.

Balls says that Labour must demonstrate that it can address both aspiration and concerns about inequality and social cohesion.

“There was sometimes a sense in the Labour Party of old that to do well was not the right and virtuous path, a sort of puritanism. Actually most people want to get on, they’re quite keen for house prices to go up, they want to leave some money to their kids and that’s OK. Tony absolutely got that. But I don’t think any society which wants to be cohesive and fair cannot worry about equality.”

5. On preferring David Cameron to Nick Clegg

In The Times' traditional jokey "quickfire round" of questions at the end of its interviews, Charlie over Lola, and the like - Balls decides that he prefers the Prime Minister to his deputy.

David Cameron or Nick Clegg? David Cameron. At least he knows who he is

(The Times tries to bowl a googly with "Margaret Thatcher or Karl Marx", where Balls chooses Margaret Thatcher, but without comment).

Friday, 28 January 2011

Should Boris get a £2000 a month tax cut?

The Daily Telegraph secured an interview in Davos with the newspaper's own columnist Boris Johnson, who also works as the Mayor of London.

Johnson (reasonably) defends Chancellor George Osborne's Klosters skiing holiday at Christmas, but perhaps more pointlessly attacks his fellow Bullingon Club alumnus as a wimp for wearing a crash helmet on the slopes.

His political prescriptions are often rather vague. He wants the government to show a bit of Thatcher and Tebbit - taking on the unions - but rather more Heseltine too, in having a proper plan for growth.

But the headline is that Boris is again calling on George Osborne to set out a plan to cut taxes, in which he seems to be mainly thinking about the 50p rate on earnings over £150,000 for the top 1% of earners.

I understand about 50p tax politically but there has got to be a sense of where we are going and where we want to be as a country.”


At least Johnson tacitly acknowledges that the 50p tax rate is widely seen as fair, especially at a time of fiscal pressures. This point is often missed by commentators whose idea of the "centre-ground" somehow can't accomodate a policy which has strong majoriy support across every party, class and region in the country.

However, those who want to defend the principle of a higher rate at the very top should think harder about how to make the case against what is certain to be a sustained campaign to drop it.

Rather more could be done to make the popular fairness case for the policy in terms which most people intuitively understand.

For example, discussion of the "50p rate" seems to leave some people under the misconception that the highest earners are having half of their income taxed. Rather, more public emphasis should be placed on nobody paying the top rate on the first £12,500 that they earn each month. Citing this monthly figure is probably more effective in capturing how far up the income scale this is, since numbers above 150,000 often just turn into telephone numbers for many people.

There is also a very good opportunity for defenders of a higher top rate to take the Boris Johnson challenge head on.

After all, ditching the 50p rate entails defending the idea that a government which says it can't afford to keep its promise to keep child benefit universal, removing it from households where anybody earns not much over £40,000, should prioritise a £2000 a month tax cut for Boris Johnson.

Johnson is on £140,000 as Mayor of London, and another £250,000 ("chicken feed", he says) for the column, so cutting the 50p rate to 40p would be worth about £24,000 on those two jobs alone. (It would be more if the Mayor's further sources of income such as book reviews, TV appearances and so on were calculated too).

I think it is extremely plausible that Boris would be just as keen on changing the policy for political reasons, even if he did not stand to benefit personally from it. But he is still a fairly typical beneficiary for the purposes of illuminating the public argument about whether or not this tax change should be a priority for government, given the current public finances.

Another point which is not often noticed is how unevenly the gains of the tax cut fall even among the top 1% of earners who would benefit.

Boris is among the 50,000 people in the top 0.1% of earners who earn over £350,000. Average earnings in this group are £750,000 so those in this slice of top earners who are paying income tax might benefit by up to £60,000 each on average. Those who just squeeze into the top 1% over £150,000 would benefit much less from the change. As it would be worth 10p in the pound over the threshold, somebody on just £175,000 would gain just over £200 a month, while Boris would get almost ten times as much benefit from the tax change he advocates.

Despite the popularity of a higher top rate at the very top, the politics are going to be closely contested. Though the idea of ditching the 50p rate has only fairly narrow, minority support around the country, it is very salient for and would be wildly popular with the editors and propreitors of national newspapers, who (despite some current troubles) do retain a certain influence over all of our major parties.

So I suspect George Osborne is working out what size of pre-election war-chest he has to amass from deeper and earlier spending cuts if he is going to be able to hide the £600 million cost of a tax cut for Boris and other top-earners in a broader pre-election giveaway. (Nick Clegg seems pretty confident that he will get to keep what he now calls his "central pledge", an unfunded £11.5 billion a year in further income tax cuts, for example).

So, chin up Boris. Help may be on the way.

Sharp dip in consumer confidence shows that public believe economy is back in danger zone

There has been a sharp dip in consumer confidence in the first month of 2011.

The Gfk NOP consumer confidence barometer survey finds that net consumer confidence is now -29, falling from -21 since December.

This is the index's lowest level for over 18 months - since March 2009. The eight point consumer confidence dip is also the largest fall in a single month for 18 years, during the 1992 recession.

(See 2010 and 2009 tracker comparisons).

All five confidence measures tracked by the index have fallen. The sharpest decline was in confidence about making major purchases fell by 21 points in the month, from -7 to -28, probably in part reflecting anticipation of the new year introduction of the VAT rise.

The Labour Shadow Treasury team say that the new figures will increase pressure on the government to come up with a credible growth plan and a "plan B" on the economy.

Shadow Chief Secretary Angela Eagle has immediately reacted to the new consumer confidence figures, saying:

“Cutting too deep, too fast is not the best way to get the deficit down. And it is simply not credible to insist that there is no alternative.

“George Osborne must stop burying his head in the sand, take another look at the facts and get himself a plan B.


The new Gfk NOP figures mirror Ipsos MORI also finding increasing concern that the British economy is back in the danger zone, with the January political monitor poll, released on Thursday also finding

The number of people believing the economy will get worse over the next 12 months is also -29 with Ipsos MORI, with 53% believing the economy will get worse and 24% that it will improve, as Thursday's Evening Standard reported.

Strikingly, the Ipsos MORI poll fieldwork took place from January 21st to 24th. So the public responses were given before the release of very poor GDP figures on Tuesday, which under-shot expectations, showing that the economy shrank by 0.5% during the final quarter of 2010.

Left Foot Forward has more detail from the poll, including a sharp fall in those believing the government's agenda will not improve public services, with a net score of -27 compared to -10 last October.

YouGov's daily tracker poll shows approval of the government is -24, with 30% approval and 54% disapproval. Labour leads the Conservatives by 44% to 38% with the LibDems on 8%.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Reform or rebranding? Linguistic contortions undermine the control orders debate

The control orders review has been long and politically fraught. An informed judgement will depend on looking at the detail of what is proposed.

On a first hearing, liberals in all parties and none who wanted control orders scrapped as an affront to British justice will, on balance, be disappointed, though there may well be some constructive reforms in the package of measures announced.

However, the government unnecessarily undermines serious discussion of the balances it is seeking to strike by its linguistic contortions, which place rather too much emphasis on a pointless rebranding of anti-terrorism measures.

So Home Secretary Theresa May has told the House that curfews will go, to be replaced instead by an "overnight residence requirement".

That was laughed at by MPs - and it deserved to be laughed at, as Julian Glover tweeted as she said it.

If the Home Secretary wants to propose curfews which will be more typically limited to 8-10 hours, rather than 16 hour curfews, why not just say so?

Aren't there enough "Orwellian" references in this debate without trying to turn the twisting of political language into a bureaucratic art form?

Not that the rebranding efforts seem even half-competent anyway. Given that the new label "terrorism prevention and investigation measures" (TPIMs) are deliberately unmemorable and unpronounceable (I presume deliberately?) either in full or in acronym, these now seem pretty likely to become commonly called "control orders" or "the new control orders" as a shorthand on the radio and in political discussion.

Perhaps those more politically invested in the need to claim they have been scrapped may prefer something like "the counter-terrorism measures formerly known as control orders".

The dissatisfaction of Lord MacDonald, the former DPP who was asked to oversee the review, and who has immediately said he regards the effective continuation of control orders as "disproportionate, unnecessary and objectionable" contrasts sharply with the satisfaction of Lord Carlile, security adviser to the government and the one Liberal Democrat who was vocally in favour of the control orders regime.

Speaking on the Today programme this morning, Carlile said:

"I believe that the Government has taken a very mature view of this, they have come a long way from the manifestos, which were written when they hadn't seen the evidence. I believe that ministers from both coalition parties now recognise that there is a special system of law needed for a very small number of people."

Their contrasting reactions offer a very clear signal of how the policy and political tug-of-war was finally resolved. Overall, the government has come out for a fairly similar replacement for control orders, more rebranding than scrapping, though the process of scrutiny has brought some smaller liberalising advances

Liberals will welcome a narrowing of the scope of stop and search powers, and the reduction of detention without trial to 14 days, though while making provision for 28 days in exceptional circumstances, triggered by Parliamentary approval. (28 days has been very seldom used, no doubt in exceptional circumstances, but the additional Parliamentary scrutiny may be an advance).

I don't think anybody would reasonably disagree with maximum efforts to bring suspects to criminal trial, wherever possible. But I suspect the real issues are all in those caveats.

Civil libertarians will certainly have hoped for rather more. Many people may legitimately continue to disagree about the right way to deal with the handful of the hardest cases, with David Davis arguing that the government should have gone much further in replacing the existing regime, while Liberty (perhaps somewhat uncharacteristically) favouring more intensive surveillance in order to propose an alternative to control orders, while Douglas Murray in The Spectator articulates the fear that the government's modest reforms risks letting its guard down. ("Judicial jihad" ism though, an unpleasant and rather authoritarian phrase).

Those arguments will doubtless continue. Yet this review process, for all of the time that it has taken and whatever the pros and cons of its outcomes, may prove to have taken at least some of the rhetoric out of discussions of liberty and security.

Osborne failing on plan for growth, say newspapers of left and right

GDP fell by 0.5% in the final quarter of 2010. Wednesday's newspapers are united in scepticism about the strength of emphasis which George Osborne has placed on bad weather, pointing out that growth would likely have been zero without this. Perhaps more significantly, the broadsheet editorial writers - while differing politically and in their general view of the government's spending cuts - all make sharp criticisms of George Osborne's lack of any coherent strategy or policy to promote growth (while differing in their prescriptions of what form this will take).

The government is responding to the strength with which this argument is being made from all quarters by emphasising that a growth "narrative" will be central to March's budget. One difficulty is that they have been intermittently briefing of their desire to shift the emphasis to growth for several months. The publication of a growth strategy was promised for last October's CBI conference, but was dropped "because, at least according to one government official, there was nothing to put in it", as shadow Business Secretary John Denham noted in a speech last week.

We all know that the government will start talking more about growth. The question of a substantive policy agenda is the real test.

Here's what this morning's editorials say about what the government needs to do.

Every so often along comes a release that is so extraordinary it should be treated instead as a direct challenge to government policies. That is the case with yesterday's health check, which shows national income heading south at a rate of knots – and throws back a question at George Osborne and David Cameron: with the economic outlook so bleak, isn't it time to rethink the coalition's austerity plans? ...

In these circumstances, any chancellor with a budget due in two months would be hastily revising their plans. That should go double for Mr Osborne and his historic cuts; yet yesterday he insisted he would not be thrown off course. As Richard Lambert of the CBI pointed out yesterday, the chancellor conducts too much of his economic policy according to narrow political considerations. The right thing for an economic policymaker to do now would be to suspend many planned cuts and come up with schemes to tackle youth joblessness. If Mr Osborne feels so boxed in by political calculations that he cannot do the sensible thing, that is a shame for him – and a possible tragedy for the country.
- Guardian editorial, 'Economy: Heading south – and fast'

The downturn challenges the strategy of the Lib-Con coalition. For while it has a plan for reducing the budget deficit, it has yet to expound one for growth. That deficiency needs to be remedied. Economic weakness is not a statistical nicety. It creates hardship. Yet the response of George Osborne, the Chancellor, like that of some failing small business, is to blame the weather.

A harsh winter did disrupt travel and depress retail sales, and the GDP number is as yet a preliminary estimate. But even if you strip out the effect of the snows, the economy showed no growth in the last quarter, and there is scant cause for encouragement anywhere in the data ...

The economy also poses political risks for the Government. It will not get credit for its deficit reduction strategy without new jobs and greater prosperity. And so far its message on growth has been timid, muddled and lacking in narrative ... With financial and not merely rhetorical encouragement of enterprise, the economy can expand even amid its structural problems. Growth would make it easier to eliminate the budget deficit. The economy has caught a cold. The Government is struggling to prescribe a remedy.
- The Times, leading article (£), 'Growing pains'

The disconcertingly bad growth figures for the final quarter of last year are being attributed by the Government, not very convincingly, to the weather ...

George Osborne was therefore right to say that the Coalition would not be “blown off course” as it pursues its austerity programme. However, the GDP figures underscore a fundamental weakness in the Chancellor’s strategy: the absence of a credible plan for growth. We have argued consistently that, while the cuts programme is essential to the restoration of the public finances, recovery will only come through a sustained stimulus programme – a point made powerfully by Sir Richard Lambert, outgoing head of the CBI, in his valedictory address this week ... It should start, we believe, with the scrapping of the anti-enterprise 50p rate for high earners. In short, Mr Osborne must keep his nerve on spending cuts and show some nerve on tax cuts.
- Telegraph editorial, Tax cuts needed to stimulate growth.

The credibility of the Chancellor is on the line. The Liberal Democrat leadership, who took a gamble that the economy would survive the Conservatives' fiscal medicine, is going to find itself under increasing pressure. As for Labour, the new shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, is on the verge of being able to claim vindication for his warnings that the Coalition's programme would derail the recovery.

The Conservatives tried to go on the offensive against Mr Balls yesterday, pointing out that he disagreed with the plan drawn up by the former Labour Chancellor, Alistair Darling, to halve the deficit in four years. But with the return of the spectre of a double-dip recession, Labour's historic disagreements on the deficit shrink into irrelevance. A Conservative Chancellor has embarked on the most severe fiscal consolidations in 30 years, explicitly rejecting any thought of a "Plan B". That suddenly looks less like bravery and more like supreme recklessness.
- The Independent, editorial, 'Economic contraction will have political circumstances

If the disappointing reading hardly heralds a double-dip recession, there is no denying that Britain’s economic pulse is weak ... The government must listen. Mr Lambert’s intelligent critique, mostly free of special pleading, asks the government for a vision of how it sees the country develop in the longer term – where and in which sectors it foresees growth – a roadmap, analogous to the deficit reduction plan, of where policy is headed on such things as taxes.

Such a plan could do much good: it could co-ordinate private sector expectations and unleash pent-up investment. Similarly, the exchequer should have a plan B for public finances: self-fulfilling pessimism is avoidable if people know austerity will be delayed should things go worse than hoped. This would ensure that the fourth quarter was just a bad case of snow.
- Financial Times editorial (£), UK's frozen GDP.


Going beyond the GDP figures to broader issues of the government's economic and political strategy, as it seeks a new director of communications, Daniel Finkelstein in The Times (£) writes an interesting column from a perspective sympathetic to the government. Finkelstein sets out why 'Cutting the deficit alone won't bring victory'. Finkelstein argues that the government is too sanguine about growing opposition to the argument that its deficit strategy is fair and necessary, cautioning that an approach which just accepts and expects unpopularity now in the hope of bouncing back if and when the economy recovers is likely to fail politically.

Finkelstein writes:

Deficit determinism won’t work. The Government will not be in a position to fight its desired campaign if it just waits for the economy to come right and doesn’t care what people think in the meantime. So right now the first rule of strategy requires the Conservatives to persuade voters that they are serious when they say “we are all in it together”; that they are listening to people’s views about the cuts (and their particular emphasis on welfare reform and efficiency); and that that they share their values. Mr Cameron (the one Tory that voters are willing to believe “gets it”) is critical to this. And so, therefore, is the NHS.

It is interesting that supporters as well as opponents of the government are increasingly noting why the content and tone of the government's 'there is no alternative' advocacy is turning people off and preaching only to an already persuaded minority. There is less sign that government ministers buy this. Switch on the radio and the overwhelmingly dominant argument remains very much 'there is no alternative'.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Let Cameron be Cameron (but does he want to be?)

You may remember a The Thick of It episode where the hapless minister's aides cut to the chase and conduct "very focused" one woman focus groups to capture the authentic voice of middle England. The enconiums this past week to fallen spin doctor and ex-redtop editor Andy Coulson often risked blending satire and political reality.

BBC political editor Nick Robinson has been among those to suggest his primary importance was as David Cameron's main link to the real world. ("If the Tories really needed a wealthy newspaper editor with a modest background to tell them how the majority of people in Brtain live, they’ve got bigger problems than needing a new Director of Comms", as Hopi Sen blogged in response).

This is just one way in which a decision about replacing an key member of the Downing Street staff is now viewed as also representing a potentially significant political choice about the direction of the government and David Cameron's leadership of it. PoliticsHome editor Paul Waugh tweeted that "With Coulson gone, the Ying/Yang (Essex man/Cameroon) balance in No.10 has gone too". Waugh's phrase could well catch on because it captures a central feature of Cameronism.

On occasions like this, the West Wing-style call naturally goes up "Let Cameron be Cameron".

Yet this depends on a prior decision about who David Cameron wants to be.

Steve Hilton's David Cameron - the Cameron of the Cameroons - would select the initial favourite for the role, former Independent executive Ian Birrell

But this seems to me unlikely.

The case for appointing Birrell is that it could prove a step towards resolving the strategic ambiguities of Cameronism.

For David Cameron, I rather suspect that would the case against the appointment too.

The case for Birrell is that he has both good senior media experience, a strong personal relationship with the PM, and has played a political role seeking to define his political agenda as the Tory leader's pre-election speechwriter, including trying to define that elusive Big Society agenda. The cerebral Birrell is broadly respected, including among many of those who disagree with him on the right, as well as in the liberal media.

By background and inclination, Birrell appears much more of a Cameron ally and personal friend rather than a member of the Tory tribe. It seems unlikely that he would work for any other Tory leader. Birrell's well argued Evening Standard polemic in November challenging the government's immigration cap as "nonsense" perhaps captures an instinctive cultural liberalism, which goes beyond the issue of immigration itself. Birrell is a member of the liberal tribe who think New Labour was too restrictive on immigration, not the Tory tribe which thinks the opposite.

The broader issues of political strategy at play in this choice are well captured by Birrell's FT column on January 5th, arguing that "the decontamination of the Tory brand remains the central issue for the party", challenging the right's dissatisfaction with the Coalition, and Tim Montgomerie's polite 'fisking' of this column for ConservativeHome. Birrell's argument is essentially that a substantive "big society" Cameronism would have to be emphasise "change" more, including being visibly less Tory. This is rejected by those whose critique of Cameronism is that its aversion to traditional Toryism left voters unclear as to what, if anything, he really stands for.

So would Cameron choose to have two outriders for liberal Cameronism at the heart of his political and media operation? Perhaps. But the odds feel to me stronger that Cameron's instinct will be to maintain the ambiguity about the central direction of his party leadership and government, and so to continue with the project of Ying and Yang Cameronism.

In other words, it is not clear that David Cameron agrees with the Cameroons, not much more than half the time anyway.

Rather, Cameron has maintained a plural court, where he always takes care never to play favourites or choose decisively between exotic new hybrids of red and green Tory, and the dominant strain of true blue Thatcherites. After five years as leader, it is striking how examples there are of Cameron challenging his own party on any issues of substance, beyond stressing the need for "change" in the public presentation and face of the party.

This was reflected in the leader's somewhat hands-off approach to the central questions over his election campaign, which Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley relate in their British General Election of 2010, captured in that now infamous tieless Cameron poster launch with which the oppositio opened the election year, under the compendium slogan "We can't go on like this. I'll cut the deficit, not the NHS".

The curious juxtaposition of the two phrases reflected the poster's genesis. Originating from a committee in which there was no agreement about the key message, it was an uneasy compromise between two viewpoints. The slogan was what car mechanics call a cut-and-shut job, bolting together two different phrases, each favoured by a different member of the committtee ...

A feature of the Conservative campaign team was that Osborne, Hilton and Coulson, all strong-minded individuals, had their own, not necessarily rival, views of the way ahead. Osborne regarded himself as a chair, rather than the director of the group. Until January 2010, they had looked to Cameron to adjudicate when there were differences of view between the main figures. But the decision was then taken that Cameron should stand back from day-to-day involvement. A result was a lack of direction - and the confusion over the poster was an outcome of this failure. ... The fundamental strategic issue of how to approach the election campaign was not resolved.

Continuing with Cameron's Ying and Yang strategy of constructive ambiguity points more to another red-top voice (or a broadcast specialist) than somebody from a liberal broadsheet becoming the new director of government communications. If Birrell were to come in, or a broadcaster appointed, I would expect there to be some "balancing" move such as beefing up the political side of Downing Street with a notably Tory figure.

The intuitive political case for this ambiguity is the "broad tent" - or "the politics of and" in which Cameron can be both moderniser and traditionalist, and clean up.

That sounds good. The case against that theory is that it doesn't seem to have worked, though the much over-estimated Cameron was lucky that so many people were so slow to notice.

Cameron won only 36% of the vote, because key groups of voters didn't believe the Tories had changed.

In power, the government is understood by the public to be almost exclusively about the "cuts" agenda - and the Big Society language is rather too intangible to counter this.

Even forming a Coalition with the LibDems risks not making an impact. Because the majority perception is that the LibDems are supporting a Tory-led agenda, Nick Clegg doesn't seem to be enough to stop them being the "same old Tories". Indeed, the polls suggest that the Coalition has had, to date, a much greater (negative) impact on contaminating the LibDem brand with the somewhat toxic Tory one and a much milder (positive) contribution to detoxifying the Tories.

There seems to be an awareness of this inside government, as articulated by a senior Tory quoted by Rachel Sylvester in her Times column (£) this morning, which questions the coherence of the tactic of Coulson bringing balance by, as Sylvester puts it, "putting red-top grit into the “red Tory” oyster"

“Intellectually there’s a vacuum,” says one senior Tory. “What is our communication strategy? Is it making us tough or tender, is it promoting long-term goals or short-term tabloid management? Steve Hilton does the gesture stuff, Andy Coulson does the day-to-day, but what is the philosophical direction of the Government? No one has asked, let alone answered, that question. On health, education, localism and immigration the message is a muddle.”

If Cameronism is a substantive project of changing the British centre-right, rather than simply a respray job seeking to rehabilitate the traditional Tory case, then it might be time to define it more clearly.

Five years in, another decision not to do so may prove just as important.

Let Cameron be Cameron.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

On Ed Balls as Hillary Clinton

As Ed Balls takes up the key role of Shadow Chancellor for the Labour Opposition, in many ways the politician he most resembles is US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Here are five parallels between the two.

1. Scenes from a political marriage: Both Balls and Clinton have faced the challenge of establishing their own political identities having first exercised influence as unelected players in a powerful political partnership. Hillary spent eight years in the White House as First Lady, while the Brown-Balls era from 1997 to 2004 was the closest thing to a political marriage the Treasury is likely to see.

2. Champions of the tribe: Both Clinton and Balls both have public reputations as polarising politicians, not afraid of political combat. Clinton controversially hit back at a "vast right-wing conspiracy". Balls has been the Labour figure keenest to take on the Conservatives. On the major political clashes of the day - the 'culture wars' in the US; the deficit argument in Britain - they have been the figures most associated with their partisan position by both supporters and opponents. (Given Balls' key role in shaping New Labour's macroeconomic strategy, it is a relatively novel experience for him to be so vociferously championed by the party's Keynesian left).

3. The incumbency disadvantage: Both Clinton and Balls were unsuccessful in their bids to lead their parties - in the 2008 Democratic primaries and the 2010 Labour leadership race - because of a perception of incumbency. That they were perceived to offer continuity rather than change, enabling internal opponents to mobilise new cohorts of activists and members in particular. (Though Balls was never the frontrunner, unlike Clinton, and so Ed Miliband campaign's riff on a 'movement versus the machine' theme with younger party members was aimed primarily at framing David Miliband as the candidate of the party establishment).

4. The value of expertise: Balls and Clinton also share a reputation for experience and expertise. Clinton's global profile and network has assisted her diplomacy as Secretary of State. Balls is acknowledged by friend and foe to be Labour's most formidable economist (with even his sometime adversary Tony Blair paying tribute to Balls as "really able" in his memoir).

5. The team of rivals: Ed Miliband has, by both personal inclination and political circumstance, followed a similar "team of rivals" approach to that of Obama, (channelling Lincoln). The close leadership result saw Miliband place emphasis initially on the supporters of his brother.

However, the successful Obama-Clinton partnership in the current US administration would perhaps provide a closer analogy to a David Miliband-Ed Balls alliance than this one between the two Eds. There is something of a contradiction between those fretting about a repeat of Blair-Brown tensions between the two Eds and another group worrying about a so-called Brownite takeover. The first group worries that the two Eds won't see eye-to-eye and the second group that they are too similar.

Indeed, a "team of rivals" approach to pluralism at Labour's top table would be strengthened if Ed Miliband were to succeed in bringing both David Miliband and Jon Cruddas back to the political frontline as the next election looms.


To polarise or unite?

The question mark against Hillary Clinton during the US primaries was whether she was too polarising a figure to be her party's standard-bearer for the Presidency. As Secretary of State, her approval ratings have been high - at 68% this month, outstripping those of every other national US politician, though First Lady Michelle Obama is more popular. (For comparison, Clinton's Gallup approval ratings over the last 17 years can be seen here).

Balls is an able political strategist, and could well find some useful lessons in this. He is certainly unlikely to act to the caricature his opponents paint. (The only politician who seems to revel in doing that is Sarah Palin, who has continued to polarise opinion as a result). Like Clinton, he is capable of forging some cross-cutting alliances. He was, for example, a key influence in the decision not to join the euro.

Of course, the parallels between Hillary Clinton and Ed Balls are not exact. It is impossible to discuss public perceptions of Hillary Clinton without talking about US attitudes towards gender. And the role of Secretary of State in government naturally lends itself to a bipartisan pitch. Ed Balls' role as Shadow Chancellor is to contest the economic strategy of the government. His challenge is to do so in a way that continues to shift public opinion against government claims that the current approach is both necessary and fair.

However, perhaps the biggest difference is that Ed Balls, though one of the big beasts of the Westminster jungle, remains much less well known to the general British public than Clinton was in the US after her husband's presidency.

YouGov found an 86 point spread between Balls net + 43 rating among Labour supporters and net -40 among Conservatives, when asking if he is an asset or liability to his party just before Christmas.

However, it would be an exaggeration to claim that this makes Ed Balls a uniquely polarising politician. The YouGov data on other current frontbench politicians demonstrates that this isn't true. (PDF). Indeed, that 86 point gap places Balls back in the pack as only the fifth most polarising politican out of twelve leading frontbenchers. Labour and Tory opinion is further apart on the merits of David Cameron (115 points), Ed Miliband (109) George Osborne (101) and William Hague (98). Balls is not as unpopular with Conservatives (-46) as Harriet Harman (-54) but has a higher two-party polarisation score because Labour supporters are more divided about Harman (+20) than Balls (+43). Only Ken Clarke (19) and Alan Johnson (36) have a lower than 50 point gap between Labour and Tory voters. Balls also has a -9 rating with current LibDem supporters (though 49% don't know) and he has a mildly positive (+4) net rating among the larger group who voted LibDem last May.

Overall, Balls is seen as a net asset by 28 per cent and a net liability by 32 per cent (-4 net) and 40% don't know. As Anthony Wells noted on Friday, Balls begins the Shadow role with a slight advantage over George Osborne, who has higher net disapproval (-11), seen as an asset by 27% and a liability by 38%, again with a high number (35%) of don't knows.

The commentariat perhaps tends to underestimate how much of the public have yet to take a firm view on the key questions which Osborne and Balls will contest. (This is also reflected in a new YouGov poll for today's Sunday Times, which shows Balls and Osborne begin neck-and-neck as best Chancellor).

Those who do not follow politics closely have only a sketchy view of most of this emerging Labour generation, in contrast to Blair, Brown and Mandelson, whose profiles at times seemed to overshadow this summer's leadership race. That is an important challenge - which Balls shares with Ed Miliband, Yvette Cooper and Douglas Alexander - but it also potentially offers opportunities to this emerging generation of Labour leaders if they can set out a new pitch for themselves.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Could selling off the forests be the government's least popular policy of all?

Back in 2005, David Cameron rather seemed to be setting out to be an "all things to all people" kind of politician. Yet there has always been an unresolved question as to whether he is primarily a political pragmatist recognisably in the High Tory school of the pre-Thatcher party elite - as he appears by background, personal style and disposition - and how this fits with the weight of policy evidence that he leads a much more ideological government.

If Cameron has made any strategic decision, it has probably been to deliberately keep these ambiguities open. He deliberately floated above resolving the strategic arguments between the very different worldviews of Steve Hilton and Andy Coulson. So he's an austerity Conservative who wants to challenge Labour for not spending enough on the NHS. He's a Eurosceptic who wears EU flag cufflinks. He's pro-Scandinavian equality and proud to be a Thatcherite. The right is constantly grumbling that Cameron lacks an instinct for what makes true blue hearts beat and yet, in the country, Tory voters are very satisfied with the government, while floating voters become more sceptical.

Cameron's government is more ideological than the Prime Minister himself may realise. Indeed, his perceived moderation may well be what makes this possible.

No doubt there are separate arguments to be made both for and against all of the government's big policy and political calls: the scale and speed of cuts to eliminate a structural deficit in one Parliament; the decision to front-load cuts to local government so that the pain hits earlier; the scale and speed of a massive NHS restructuring, so that £80 billion a year of public money will be spent within two years by bodies that don't yet exist; what is billed as the biggest welfare overhaul since Beveridge; the unprecedented withdrawal of state funding for university teaching necessitating the hike in graduate contributions; the bonfire of quangos through a single Bill scrapping or reshaping 481 public bodies, ofren by giving Ministers wide-ranging Henry VIII powers to determine what happens to 150 other public bodies without needing Parliamentary approval.

But what is surely most striking of all is what Vince Cable called the government's Maoist insistence on proceeding with its foot on the accelerator on every front at once, despite the governing parties not seeking a mandate for several of these policies, and indeed explicitly disavowed a number of them. Indeed, it is the uber-moderniser Steve Hilton who leads this Maoist revolution - having said "everything must have changed by 2015. Everything".

The evidence for an ideologically-driven administration is the willingness to spend political capital and court unpopularity in order to change the social and political reality. The government may be fairly comfortable picking fights over spending cuts in general or, for example housing benefit in particular. But each separate issue may have its own coalitions of support and opposition. The government might well worry most about issues which generate opposition as much from its friends.

Despite the range of possible competition from this policy hyperactivity, the sell-off of England's forestry may well now be emerging as the least popular of all of the government's policies, both with the general public and with many of its own supporters.

The campaign group 38 Degrees have commissioned a YouGov poll which finds 75% opposition and just 6% support for the proposals.

‘Currently, publicly owned forests and woodlands are managed by the Forestry Commission. The government is considering plans to sell off some, or all, of the publicly owned woodlands and forests in England, claiming that forests will be better run if the they are owned by private companies, charities or individuals rather than a public sector organisation. Others however argue that the selloff is short-sighted and fear that woodland areas will be bought by developers and timber companies who could exploit the forests they own by limiting access to the public and endangering woodland wildlife.’

When asked ‘To what extent do you support or oppose the government's plans to sell publicly owned woodlands and forests in England?’, 6% supported the sale, 75% opposed it, 10% neither opposed nor supported, and 7% didn’t know.

Clearly, the poll has been commissioned by a campaigning group on one side of the question but the difficulty the government has in making a case for the change seems clear.

"There's really not much room for ambiguity here. There really is, among the general public, no desire for change", a YouGov analyst told the Today programme this morning.

38 Degrees note the strength of opposition across the political spectrum, with 82% of Conservatives and 87% of those who voted LibDem last May supporting publicly owned forests and woodlands being kept in public ownership, an argument most popular among the over 60s, where it has 89% support.

The 38 degrees campaign has gathered over 150,000 signatures against the policy even before there has been much political or media attention.

The government would like to present its proposals as a 'big society' approach, enabling voluntary and community groups to be involved. But this depends on overcoming a deep-rooted public distrust of the potential impact of commercial interests.

There are also questions about the loss of tax revenues, because of generous tax-breaks for forestry owners.

As the issue gains prominence, it will create particular difficulties for the Liberal Democrats who have very vigorously campaigned to "save our forests" in Scotland, where they "condemned the SNP’s move to privatise 25% of Scottish forests as their latest money making scam" in collusion with the Scottish Tories.

Unsurprisingly when this privatisation by the back door approach was debated the SNP were backed by the Tories, the SNP’s unlikely but ever loyal bedfellows.

Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander had been a vigorous campaigner for the Scottish government to scrap its plans. It will surely be difficult to him to credibly resist similar calls in England.

For Labour, the issue of the forestry sell-off may well be a good example of new peer Maurice Glasman's call for the party to advance the common good "in the name of ancient as well as modern values".

Friday, 21 January 2011

Why the 'indispensable' Andy Coulson had to go

As a bleeding-heart liberal, I would certainly want to consider supporting David Cameron's "people deserve a second chance" defence of his outgoing director of communications Andy Coulson. After all, even if Coulson was somewhat less keen on Ken Clarke's "rehabilitation revolution" than I am, that is no reason not to seek to take the principle to the very heart of the Downing Street machine.

Yet it was perfectly obvious that Andy Coulson had to go. Sometimes giving 110% just isn't enough. This blog's argument in October as to why he couldn't survive stands up pretty well (though I was a month out on the timing, in suggesting he was likely to go by Christmas).

The core problem with the "second chance" defence was always that it depended on Coulson having made a clean breast of it when he resigned at the News of the World. It absolutely couldn't survive any revelation which would demonstrate that his evidence to Parliament, as Downing Street director of communications, was less than the whole truth.

So it now seems increasingly likely that Coulson's fate was sealed back in July 2009 when he gave evidence to the House of Commons Select Committee. PR Week suggested Coulson may have given a "career saving performance". Albeit on a longer fuse, with so many seemed reluctant to light for so long, it was very probably a career-ending one.

'I never condoned the use of phone hacking, nor do I have any recollection of incidences where phone hacking took place.'

Coulson sticks to that line to this day. His resignation primarily reflects the strong likelihood that it will come under further pressure in the weeks and months ahead.

So Coulson's evidence tied his personal fate very firmly to the official News International line - captured in its defiant official statement in July 2009 in response to The Guardian's reporting on the unresolved questions in the affair. That statement is under quite a lot of pressure. Even from the police. (Even then, News International's 2007 evidence to the Select Committee had clearly been mistaken in its claim that a full and rigorous inquiry had left no stone unturned).

One former colleague has (albeit anonymously) told Dispatches that Coulson knew a little bit more about it all than that.

"Andy was a very good editor. He was very conscientious and he wouldn't let stories pass unless he was sure they were correct ... so, if the evidence that a reporter had was a recorded phone message, that would be what Andy would know about.


"Sometimes, they would say: 'We've got a recording' and Andy would say: 'OK, bring it into my office and play it to me' or 'Bring me, email me a transcript of it' order to satisfy him that you weren't going to get sued, that it wasn't made up"


Does Coulson's departure matter politically? Anybody who doubts that it does might want to revisit Benedict Brogan's no doubt impeccably sourced report setting out just how keen Downing Street insiders were to promote Coulson's staying power only three days before he resigned.

If it seemed impossible for Coulson to ride out the growing scandal, there was certainly a very active "Save Coulson" operation still firing on all cylinders this week, as Brogan sets out.

In conversations in the past few days it’s been made clear to me that Andy Coulson commands an extraordinary hold on David Cameron and the government machine. It is this bond which explains why the PM shows no sign of being troubled by the difficulties News Corp is having with the Story That Won’t Go Away ...

First, the point about Mr Coulson’s indispensability ... He is considered, frankly, irreplaceable, even if those around him must know that no one is. His departure, they fear, would be a crushing blow to the work of the government at a critical time. This of course, is a way of saying that his departure would be a crushing blow to the credibility of Mr Cameron and George Osborne, who have championed him.

(No doubt, today, Coulson will be just another spinner who the public have barely heard of and whose departure will barely ruffle the government as it gets on with the job). Though the indispensability of Andy Coulson was the view of only one of the two Downing Street tribes. Today's resignation statement will not be mourned excessively by Steve Hilton, whose relationship with Coulson was reported to have reached new lows, by the Independent's Andrew Grice this weekend.

Those of us who have seen this movie before may watch carefully for any revenge strikes. Perhaps this government will have learnt to be more mature than that. But the Tory right will certainly be talking about the need to 'rebalance' the Downing Street operation. (Tim Montgomerie, in his post-resignation tribute to Coulson for ConservativeHome, suggests that his appointment in 2007 came at a low ebb, attributing this to the "lack of balance" in the "uber-modernisers" neglect of Tory themes and constituencies).

The status of Andy Coulson within Downing Street made this a story with a High Politics dimension. But Coulson's role is in some ways a sideshow - and the real issues go much wider than that. As more evidence emerges, the police look at best pretty complacent, and perhaps rather worse. The scandal, and the reluctance to properly investigate it, ultimately raises the question about whether one media organisation with enough clout and contacts can break the law with impunity, and what it might say about the culture of power and law in Britain if turns out that they thought that they could.

It will be interesting to see if Coulson's departure becomes a cue to close down the story, or to open it up.

In politics, it is an important moment for Labour voices to demonstrate that the core motivation was not simply about seeking a political scalp at the apex of Downing Street, a point stressed by Labour Uncut, for whom Tom Watson has led the charge very effectively. And Coulson's departure ought to free up Conservative and (perhaps particularly) Liberal Democrat voices to apply pressure to seeing the underlying issues investigated fairly and on their merits.

It may be a moment too when at least some in our fearless free media - The Guardian very much excepted - might want to ponder as to why it took the New York Times to investigate and reopen a story that many British media outlets shied away from for so long.

After AJ: how both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls must change

I found out about Alan Johnson's resignation as Shadow Chancellor in unusual circumstances - standing a few yards away from Gordon Brown, as he began to sign books in the basement bar of the Old Vic Theatre, ahead of his lecture on 'a better globalisation', co-hosted by the Fabian Society with Southwark Council, in their series of John Harvard lectures, as implausible twitter rumour turned rapidly into hard political fact.

A little later on stage, Brown paid tribute to Alan Johnson's contribution to Labour politics, while expressing confidence in both Labour leader Ed Miliband and new Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.

Yet it is their relationship with Gordon Brown which has excited much initial comment.

The applause for Brown's comments about Johnson reflect that many people's first instinctive reaction was sympathy for this widely liked politician. Nobody should seek to comment definitively on painful personal difficulties from the outside, even once rumours have been replaced by clearer facts. But the mystery may inevitably include a question mark over whether the personal pain could have been politically survivable had the appetite for politics remained. (Generally speaking, in 2010, issues such as extra-marital affairs are not politically fatal, as many examples from Robin Cook to Chris Huhne show; an alleged spouse's affair even more so, as Harold Macmillan might verify). The gruelling personal pressures of the frontline political treadmill are often underestimated, but the question may also remain as to whether this also looks somewhat like a resignation of choice.

Ed Miliband and the paradox of post-factionalism

This enforced change may well require a shift in the Ed Miliband leadership style.

As Labour leader, Ed Miliband has had to juggle with a paradox of post-factionalism.

His more pluralist 'new generation' pitch depends on an explicit repudiation of the factional battles which disfigured Labour's internal debates. Yet any post-factional strategy is surely complicated by everybody testing the promise by counting heads to gauge the level of fairness to the old tribes. AJ's departure may mark the end of this road.

Ed Miliband has a clearer sense of how his party needs to change than his critics acknowledge. But his style is instinctively collegiate - as a matter of inclination as well as the circumstances of his narrow victory in a divided electoral college. Once his brother David chose the backbenches, the choice of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor was primarily a symbol of post-tribal ecumenicalism, which trumped economics. So party management seemed to trump economics - with Ed Balls kept away from the role he covered, while AJ was offered a cohabitation which bordered on co-leadership of the party's policy review in particular.

If this decision to choose AJ was widely praised, there were plenty of teething troubles in practice. Despite Johnson's feted communication skills, the AJ-Ed relationship got off to a rocky start, as captured in Mary Riddell's Fabian Review interview, as the Shadow Cancellor making several head-on challenges to the leader while rather over-doing the self-deprecation while struggling to master a novel economic brief. By the time Ed Miliband was confidently defending his Shadow Chancellor's gaffe over National Insurance rates, there had been a palpable shift in confidence and power between the two men.

Yet Johnson's surprise resignation means that Miliband now has the Shadow Chancellor he decided against, though one he may sometimes more instinctively agree with.

If Miliband's strategy was to defer to Alan Johnson, this time the emphasis may need to be somewhat more on demonstrating that his leadership sets the framework for his senior colleagues.

More broadly, perhaps this is the right moment to call time on "post-factionalism through factional balance" and for Ed Miliband to try operating a new and plural meritocracy of talent within the Parliamentary Party. After all, the boundaries have lost much of their meaning. The faction once known as the Brownites scattered in every direction during the leadership campaign - that micro-tribe supplying two different leadership candidates and the campaign manager of a third. If the Blairite crown can switch from David Blunkett and John Reid to David Miliband to Alan Johnson and now to persons unidentified, it is difficult to see what contentful meaning it retains.

Ed Balls' challenge of reinvention

For the new partnership to last four years rather than four months, Miliband may need his new Shadow Chancellor to complete a personal reinvention as a frontline politician.

Ed Balls was - from 1997 to 2004 - among the most powerful advisers in post-war British government. As chief economic advisor, Balls had a decisive influence on several of the most enduring economic decisions of the Labour governments - including the independence of the Bank of England, and the decision to stay out of the euro, as well as the broad macreconomic framework which brought Labour a long run of economic success, and the great crash of 2008. Before the age of 40, Balls had made more impact on British economic policy and the Treasury than many post-war Chancellors.

That experience contains a mixture of blessings and burdens for the new Shadow Chancellor. What has been less often recognised is that Balls has already had to undergo a series of significant transitions since then.

On becoming an MP in 2005, Balls had to adapt to the different skills required by a frontbench politician, particularly in the media and public speaking, to those of forging policy and using political power behind the scenes.

As power passed from Blair to Brown, and Balls took up a Cabinet post, he argued that the party could leave the "prism of Brown versus Blair" behind. It was a nice thought, but proved rather premature. And this factional history was surely one of the reasons why Ed Balls struggled to get a serious run in the 2010 leadership contest, even though he had (like many in Westminster) anticipated a David Miliband-Ed Balls leadership contest for several years.

Yet, perhaps in part because he was freed from the hope of victory, Balls managed to end the leadership contest stronger than he began it. That was partly because his challenge to the Coalition resonated with Labour members. (Though, strikingly, a politician often attacked, and occasionally praised, for tribalism began to win praise from political opponents too, being made Parliamentarian of the Year by the Spectator for his destruction of Michael Gove over the cancellation of Building Schools for the Future).

It was also because Balls visibly relaxed and emerged as his own man with his own platform, rather than being defined purely as a second brain for Gordon Brown. This was widely remarked by many of those who followed the Labour leadership contest closely, and widely missed by the majority who did not.

But this will be put to the test over the next few days, with the Conservatives and their press allies making a determined effort to define both Balls and Miliband purely in terms of being a Gordon Brown continuity project.

The Tory trap

Yet those Conservatives who are over-excited about Balls' appointment for this reason risk luring themselves further into the trap of preaching only to the converted.

If their core problem in May 2010 was that running against Gordon Brown was not enough, it seems rather curious to hope that it might be their salvation in 2015. Last May, three-quarters of the public wanted a change from Labour. Where the Conservarives failed was in making their own case. As Tory pollster Andrew Cooper has pointed out, the failure to resolve the strategy or message always sent the party scurrying back to a "relentlessly negative" anti-Brown argument.

In 2011, never mind 2015, banging on about Gordon Brown and the last government is going to seem to many people like a very poor substitute for a missing strategy for economic growth. It will resonate with some people. It will be popular on the Tory blogs, among signed-up commentators and on the Tory constituency rubber chicken circuit. It might appeal to the 30% of the electorate who are very happy with the government and its economic strategy. But, to everybody else, it risks looking ever more evasive with every month and year that passes, with Ministers repeating the mantra on Question Time and Any Questions ever more likely to be heckled.

Ed Balls' challenge as Shadow Chancellor will be to ensure that it is this government's economic record which comes primarily under scrutiny, and not only that of its predecessor.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

What's the plan for growth?

One issue that worries ministers and advisers is that the government is to a large extent associated in the public mind with just one thing: cuts in public spending. One of the political aims in 2011 is to put much more emphasis on a strategy for growth.

But they would need to come up with one first.

Labour's Shadow Business Secretary John Denham, in his first major speech in the role to the Smith Institute, suggests that the postponement of the publication of a growth strategy, promised last Autumn, reflects the lack of any coherent government thinking in this area, beyond the idea that the state stepping back creates the opportunity for the private sector to step in, and highlighting the removal of digital economy issues from the Business Department as prioritising headline-management over economic strategy.

In a response to the speech, Will Straw, writing for Comment is Free, sets out some challenges for Labour in creating an alternative pro-growth agenda of its own in its forthcoming policy review.

Here's a section of Denham's speech on what Labour got right and wrong - and how the Coalition government's approach differs in its understanding of where government policy can promote growth and business.

We need to have an honest and balanced assessment of our own record.

Many of Labour’s policies did enable business to flourish. For the last two years the UK has been ranked fourth in the world and first in Europe by the World Bank for “ease of doing business”. And the OECD has also found that the UK has the lowest barriers to entrepreneurship of all OECD countries.

But we have also acknowledged that we did too little to develop a better balanced economy. Many of the British or British based companies in advanced manufacturing or the creative economy or business services are genuinely world class - but that as a whole these sectors form too small a part of the economy that we need.

In the last few years we developed and began to implement a more active approach to supporting the sectors of the economy with the greatest capacity to compete and to grow. In my time at DIUS, for example, we focussed new attention on the role public sector procurement and regulation played in creating the market for new and innovative products, services and businesses. The gap between the UK and USA in translating university IP into start ups and licences was closing fast. We encouraged industrial leadership in key sectors and made it easier I hope for the private sector to work with government in areas like the nuclear industry and life sciences.

A fair assessment would have to be that this work was far from complete. Labour’s policy review must look at how, going forward, we build on that work, but reflecting fully the views of business and the demands of a rapidly changing world.

Instead of building on Labour’s approach, this Government has gone into low gear, if not into reverse.

The growth strategy which was originally scheduled for the CBI conference in October was dropped because, at least according to one government official, there was nothing to put in it.

The consultation on a growth policy set out before Christmas looks, at best, a wasteful exercise in repeating discussions business has had many times before and, at worse, a smokescreen to retreat on many of the measures that are needed.

The Business Department is greatly diminished. In the last few years BIS became a major player in Government. It took the lead in developing a new industrial strategy. Under the current incumbent, it is a department apparently without influence or clout. Indeed, whilst the record of failure in regional policy, higher education, bank lending and bankers bonuses is lengthy, it is hard to identify a single pro-business, pro-growth policy which BIS has successfully championed against the opposition of the Treasury or other departments like CLG.

And now, for no other reason than Vince Cable’s personal unsuitability to make a competition judgement, responsibility for an entire critical industry – the digital economy – is to be transferred to a non-economic department.

There is no public policy reason for placing the responsibility for digital economy in DCMS. Yes, the media and creative industries have a great interest in the digital economy, but so does the service sector, retail, advanced manufacturing and IT itself. Years of work, bringing industrial sponsorship together within Whitehall so that business can find it easier to work with government was swept aside in a crude act of media management.

We should all be deeply worried about the way this decision was taken.

The pattern I think is already established. What we can expect from the Government is a pattern of disconnected and inadequate announcements which are chosen more for their impact on the headlines than on the economy.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Language matters: how should unions make their case?

Our first blogs round-up from the Fabian conference included video clips of the Ed Miliband speech and the panel debate including Simon Hughes.

You can also see some video clips from the 'fairness after the cuts' session of the Fabian new year conference at the Unions 21YouTube channel, as the speakers addressed how trade unions use language to get their message across in the media, and the challenges posed by negative stereotypes of trade unions.

There's also some audio of Brendan Barber speaking at that panel, as well as Sue Ferns of Unions 21 speaking on mobilising power from below panel on audioboo.

Our thanks to Unions 21 for partnering with us on the fairness panel debate at Saturday's Fabian conference.

The Unions 21 annual conference on March 21st is on the theme of 'Unions, young people and the cuts'. This will report research with young people to better understand their views on union campaigns and activities in response to the current cuts in public services. You can find Unions 21 online at or follow their tweets at @Unions21

A windfall bank tax for social housing

The final session of Saturday's Fabian new year conference was a 'democracy dragons' panel, in which pitchers had 90 seconds to persuade a panel of 'dragons' and the audience with an idea which would be both radical and popular.

In this guest post, Emma Burnell sets out her 90-second pitch for what was the most popular idea with the conference audience: an additional one-off tax on the banks to raise funds which would be ring-fenced for social housing.


In 1997 Labour imposed a windfall tax on energy companies which raised £5bn. I propose that in 2015 we propose a windfall tax on the banks designed to raise £7bn.

This money should be ring fenced, and used to build 100,000 social homes, bringing further investment from social housing providers and kick starting a moribund construction industry which is likely to suffer from the Tory cuts disproportionately as infrastructure investment is slashed.

This could be the start of a rebalancing of the economy from an over reliance on a London based financial services industry to a broad based construction industry bringing much needed jobs and investment as well as desperately needed homes.

This should come on top of increasing a commitment to building more social homes every year, reversing the disgraceful 63% cut to the Governments housing budget brought in by the Tory led coalition.

There are currently 4.5 million people in housing need and we are building fewer homes than at any time since the Second World War.

Housing was barely mentioned during the election campaign, but we know that it is a massive issue for voters. This policy would give us a positive way to counter anti immigration sentiment, which has at least in part been cause by a lack of affordable, decent housing.

This is not just the right thing to do; it will also be electorally popular in areas Labour need to win back. Seats like Harlow, for example, where there were 6,165 people on the housing list in 2009, and the average house costs 9.7 times the average local salary.

It will also be populist, with banks seen as not giving back to the people whose taxes bailed them out. This would be a quick, simple measure to ensure that the banks are putting something back into society and helping those in need.

So popular, affordable and the right thing to do – how can you refuse?

Supporting Facts

Wandsworth Council (which covers constituency of Tooting) has 9,421 people on the housing list. Average houses cost 18.2 times the average salary.

Costs rely on a 60:40 split of housing provider investment to government grant.

Cost of building the homes range from approx £125k in the North East to £225k in London. Average is approx £175K which is what I have used for the costings.

Banking Times estimates the 2010 bonus pot of the banks to be £7bn.

Homelessness figures rose 12% between June and September 2010 – the first rise in 8 Years.