Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Why cricket will never catch on in India (Or, the world's worst political prediction ever)

"Cricket can only thrive in the atmosphere of English culture, English language and English rule. It will never be able to survive the shock of the disappearance of British rule from our country. With the fall of British power, it is bound to lose its place of honour and slowly grow out of date".

Those wise words were proferred from B.V. Keskar, the General Secretary of the All India Congress Committee, in 1946, not far from the eve of Indian independence.

They are quoted in Ramachandra Guha's exceptional and rightly much feted 'A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport'. As the best book on cricket's role in Indian society Guha's book is also therefore an indispensable guide to an integral part of the political and social history of India as a whole.

Had cricket "any place in future India, a place where it can be useful to the public and the younger generation?". Congressman Keskar could "see no future in it" since cricket's existence in India was "but a sign of our utter slavery" and "tendency to copy blindly the habits of English civilisation, and ape the likes and preferences of the 'English gentleman'.

With half a billion people gearing up to watch tomorrow's Cricket World Cup semi-final between India and Pakistan in the subcontinental heartland of the modern sport, the concerted attempt to strip the foreign and colonial influence of cricket from Indian society must have a good claim to be the least successful political project - and political prediction - of all time.

Guhu quotes too a perhaps more self-interested observer, Janaki Dass, Secretary of the Indian Cycling Federation, who complained that "only aristocrats who do not know the value of time and money can indulge in this game ... with the advent of the National Government in India, any blackspot stamped by British Imperialism on the face of India may be wiped off; and Games and Sports which build health and character and which cost little, like Athletics, Wrestling, Swimming, Cycling and the most important of all, Hu-Tu-Tu*, our national sport, should be encouraged to let one and all of India's teeming millions participate and this contribute to the health and culture of the nation".
[*another name for Kabbadi]

Futile attempts to wipe off this Imperial blackspot has been made again and again, especially by the fascistic end of the Hindu Nationalist movement. The intellectual leader of the RSS movement M.S. Golwalkar had a regrettably great influence on generations of Indians through the BJP, but at least he never succeeded in his purist insistence on expunging the alien intrusion of cricket from Indian soil.

Guha quotes Golwalkar's 1950s broadside:

The costly game of cricket, which has not only become a fashion in our country but something over which we are spending crotes of rupees only proves that the English are still dominating our mind and intellect. The cricket match that Pandit Nehru and other MPs played some years back was the very depth of this Anglicism. Why could they not play Kabaddi, our national game, which has been acclaimed by several countries as a great game?

Hindu Nationalist extremists have offered plenty of contemporary idiocy ahead of this world cup too. The Shiv Sena movement suggested Bal Thackeray would prevent Pakistan playing in Mumbai if they were to reach Saturday's final, while being perfectly confident that they could not. ("In the first place Pakistan will not enter the semi-finals. However, should this happen, Balasaheb will decide whether the Pak team can play on the Mumbai soil or not").

Err, that's really not cricket, chaps.

Now, Shiv Sena politicians have had a change of heart about their opposition to India playing cricket with Pakistan, and are organising screenings of the game, hoping to capitalise on the national mood.

Also from Guha, let us give the final word to the Madras critic N.S Ramaswami who noted that "opposition to cricket has never died: there has always been the parrot cry that it is too costly, that it is "foreign", that it consumes too much time ... [but] it will be nothing less than to mutilate the Indian spirit if cricket were to be banished from the land".

And may the best team win.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Flowerpot Boris was for student violence before he was against it

Mayor of London Boris Johnson has badly overstepped the mark today, ludicrously claiming that Labour leader Ed Miliband will have been "quietly satisfied" by the violence in the capital which risked overshadowing the TUC's March for the Alternative on Saturday. (Labour is reasonably asking Johnson to withdraw the slur; while Boris will be jolly pleased to pocketed another £5k in chicken feed for dashing off the column, perhaps he ought to offer to pay this week's fee to charity as a penance too).

To be fair, government ministers do not seem to have indulged in the same kind of silly partisan knockabout as Boris, whose comments so badly fail the test of treating democratic protest with respect, on which Stuart White blogged so well here on Saturday night. (Credit to Tory policing minister Nick Herbert whose sensible statement clearly distinguished support for peaceful protes and condemning violence, saying that "The policing of the main rally shows how peaceful protest can be supported when the organisers work with the police").

Meanwhile, Boris can hardly be surprised to be accused of silliness and hypocrisy for a response in the lower traditions of student politics, though LabourList's post on that theme from Shelly Asquith misses out what is surely the most hypocritical about the claim.

While Mr Edward Miliband was doubtless a rather diligent student, Boris was certainly not above indulging in a bit of pointless violence to brighten up a night out. In his youthful days, Boris was more than quietly satisfied when his Bullingdon pals threw a flowerpot through a restaurant window. Indeed he was so proud of the incident that he even invented the tale of being arrested over it, as Jim Pickard of the FT has reported in exquisite detail, even though Friends of Boris have since revealed that he scrambled away through the flowerbeds to avoid being caught. The story of the arrest was simply a bit of bigging up bravado which grew in the retelling.

What should certainly help Justice Secretary Ken Clarke's rehabilitation revolution is that three of the Bullingdon pals involved in that night of window smashing flowerpot hi-jinks were to take up places on the Conservative benches in the House of Commons, a suitably lofty vantage point from which they can (rightly) condemn those students who emulate their violent antics today.

Of course, the Bullingdon boys indulged in violent antics for no cause greater than the nihilistic thrill of smashing the glass. I am not convinced that much more can be said of those given the rather lofty title of "anarchists" in reports of Saturday's violence.

Osborne reflects LibDem values says Clegg, as Cable offers to trade 50p rate for mansion tax

Chancellor George Osborne will be pleased that LibDem leader Nick Clegg and Business Secretary Vince Cable are paving the way for the Liberal Democrats to support the ditching of the 50p top rate.

Nick Clegg also offers a remarkably full-throated endorsement of George Osborne, telling the FT that Osborne's budget for the Tory-led Coalition was pretty much the budget which a LibDem majority government under Clegg would have chosen to introduce to reflect LibDem values.

Asked whether the Budget would have been any different if he had written it, Mr Clegg said: “Not much. This Budget was pretty close to what would have been delivered if I was prime minister and we had a Liberal Democrat chancellor.”

Mr Clegg has been frustrated by suggestions that Mr Osborne sidelined the Lib Dems and that the deputy prime minister had been the “loser” from last week’s package. “It’s completely bizarre,” he said.

When he was caught on a microphone during a post-Budget roadshow saying he could not find much to “bloody disagree” about with David Cameron, Mr Clegg said it was a sign of how closely the Budget reflected his party’s core beliefs.

But George Osborne will be less keen on Vince Cable suggesting that bringing back the Mansion Tax is the way to pay for a lower top rate. The Guardian reports Cable's comments to Radio Five on Sunday.

"It moved up to 50p in an emergency because we had to have a sense of solidarity that everybody was bearing some of the pain, and the chancellor said in the budget that we're going to have to move away from that. I agree with him. The Liberal Democrats agree with him.

"But it needs to be a change which is fair overall and does take account of the fact that the wealthy have got to pay their share. The emphasis may well have to shift from high marginal rates of tax on income which are undesirable, to taxation of wealth, including property, and the chancellor said that, as much as that, in his budget."

Asked if he was advocating a mansion tax, he said: "Well, there is a very strong argument ... that you need to have a proper base for taxing property and I'm sure that's one of the things we're going to have to look at as we change away from these very high marginal rates."

So how will this one play out?

It is important, as Cable says, to bring property and wealth taxes back onto the agenda. This is particularly important if parties propose large cuts in income tax, as otherwise these would be paid for by even larger spending cuts, with inevitably regressive distributional consequences.

But the FT headline "Property levies to fund cut in 50p tax rate" strikes me as seriously premature.

So here's a winning prediction for one of the next two budgets.

No 50p rate, but no mansion tax either.

I suspect, unfortunately, that the return of the Mansion Tax will turn out to be substantively rather more part of the strategy of LibDem differentiation and distancing for the next election than something which Nick Clegg is likely to genuinely push for the Coalition to adopt in the second half of this Parliament with any chance of success.

Indeed, even as Cable refloats the mansion tax, Clegg is already suggesting the LibDems would settle for much smaller and more incremental reforms, telling the FT this.

Mr Clegg said the coalition would not be reviving the old Lib Dem policy of a 1 per cent “mansion tax” on properties worth more than £2m but added: “It could be a range of things: the way the council tax system is structured; the way stamp duty is structured.”

And Boris Johnson will be even more pleased, having campaigned hardest of all for a policy which - totally coincidentally I am sure - is worth a £24,000 tax cut to him personally. A national campaign to give Boris his tax cut - and put an extra £2000 a month back in the pocket of hard pressed Boris - must surely appeal to the rest of the squeezed middle too.

We have been here before. The LibDems were pushing large income tax cuts by raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 but, before the election, defended this policy choice against analysis showing that it was regressive by stressing that progressive policies (like the Mansion Tax) would pay for it.

As the Social Liberal Forum's James Graham blogged:

The fact that raising the tax threshold helps people on higher incomes more than people on low incomes is not, believe it or not, a startling revelation. We know. The party has never tried selling this policy in isolation; we’d be mad to attempt to because people would rightly ask where we propose trying to find £17bn.

Yet the LibDems did then agree to detach the regressive tax break from LibDem policies to pay for it. Most of the progressive tax raising measures have been ditched (apart from a compromise over capital gains tax) yet the LibDems now herald the introduction of the £10,000 threshold as a triumph anyway, winning the praise of Norman Tebbit and the Tory right, still claiming it helps the poor most, while well informed Tory Centrists like David Willetts keep their heads down having long ago pointed out why the argument and policy are flawed.


However, the LibDems do deserve credit for having led in putting this issue on the agenda, just as they previously helped break the taboo on higher income taxes on the top 1%, having long favoured a 50p rate at the very top before the financial crisis (though that is a position Cable and Clegg are now less keen to maintain).

The Labour leadership is hesitant about property taxes. This was an issue which showed why the idea of 'Red Ed' Miliband has always been a silly myth, since a mansion tax was adopted by David Miliband but not by his brother.

One positive response to Cable's move would be to identify ways to promote some engagement over future policy development between those in the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats who think that property taxes - looking at the fairest and most effective ways to tax wealth at the top, and at how to win public arguments for this proposition. I doubt much will happen on that front under this government.

If two parties could find common ground, that might help to frame and define where the centre-ground ends up on this issue, and to challenge the Conservatives to go beyond funding the tax cut for Boris from yet deeper spending cuts.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Is the state imposing the big society on academia?

Is this the latest "big society" paradox?

The Observer reports that senior academics are deeply concerned about the way in which a department of state is alleged to have insisted on the 'big society' as a major academic research theme as a condition of renewing academic funding of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

This report of a rather top down insistence on studying the bottom up doctrine speaks to a recurring tension as to how government can get traction for its 'big idea' without undermining the point.

The report also captures growing tensions over how to protect academic freedom while enabling scrutiny of how public funding is spent at a time of fiscal restraint.

There is growing anger at what the Royal Historical Society (RHS) described as a "gross and ignoble" move to assert government control over research in favour of what one academic labelled a party political slogan.

Professor Colin Jones, president of the RHS, said the move was potentially dangerous for the future of academic study in the country. "It seems to me to be absolutely gross," said Jones.

"In a way, the AHRC should be congratulated for securing a good settlement in a difficult spending round, but there is something slightly ignoble about making the 'big society' a research priority."

He added: "It is government money. They have the right to spend it on what they want, but there is a degree of anxiety about the strings being put on. They are being strengthened, which could be dangerous for independent research."

A principal at an Oxford college, who did not want to be named, said: "With breathtaking speed, a slogan for one political party has become translated into a central intellectual agenda for the academy."


It is understood that Oxford University intends to discuss the imposition of "big society" research at the next meeting of its sovereign body, the Oxford congregation, in May.

Saturday, 26 March 2011

Show us some respect: thoughts on the media and March 26

This post is by Stuart White, who blogs from time to time at Next Left.

I'm back from the March 26 demo. Kathy, my partner, came home a bit earlier to do an interview with Five Live. The interviewer's agenda was pretty typical of how many mainstream media outlets seem to have been presenting the demo today: he wanted Kathy to get into an argument with someone from UK Uncut about direct action and 'violence'. Turned out to be a total non-argument, since both Kathy and UK Uncut strongly support non-violent direct action.

Approaching 3.30pm, we saw the 'black bloc' march towards Oxford Circus. It was crystal clear what its intent was. Kathy and I, with our seven year-old, Isaac, in a wheelchair, hot footed it out of the area.

I can't construct a single semi-plausible argument for the kind of violent direct action they wish to engage in. It is exclusionary (we had to leave the area). It feeds a media narrative in an entirely predictable way that distracts from what is really at stake.

But let's stop and consider 'the media'. Nothing forces the media to focus, as much as it does, on the violent behaviour of a tiny minority. This is a choice. And in dealing with the media - for example, in launching a complaint to Sky or the BBC - we need to insist on what a profoundly disrespectful choice it is.

On Saturday, March 26, hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life got up at some unholy hour of the morning and made their way into London. Many came with home-made banners, with costumes, with music, and, in some cases, with entirely legitimate ideas for the kind of non-violent civil disobedience which, in my judgment, is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy.

So much creativity, constructive energy and - yes, let's acknowledge it - love. For people's concerns about the cuts are often grounded in a basic concern they have for their relatives or friends that is an expression of love.

So whenever any interviewer or journalist starts down the 'What about the violence?' line, let's respond as Kathy did on Five Live: Isn't it just downright disrespectful to the thousands upon thousands of protestors on today's march to focus on the silly actions of a minority and to fail to honour the creativity, energy and love of the overwhelming majority?

Why not ask us about where we have come from? About our fears and our loves and our hopes. About the banners and placards we've made or seen. About the people we've met for the first time on the demo and the conversations we've had with non-protestors on the tube or in the street. About the street theatre we saw or even, possibly, the speeches we've heard. About the many people we all know who couldn't be on the demo today, but whom we know support us and are with us in spirit.

Show us some respect. Why not honour who we really are and what we have done?

Revealed: how families 'lifted out of tax' will now contribute more to the Exchequer

George Osborne's budget again made much of the Coalition government's ambition to lift the poorest out of tax.

How well does this stand up? New post-budget research by the Fabian Society and Landman Economics offers the most detailed post-budget assessment of the impact on families of all of the tax and benefit changes undertaken by the Coalition government.

In order to test Osborne's claim, the research models the gains for families with children of George Osborne's cuts in income tax and national insurance, alongside the impact of increasing VAT, cutting tax credits and freezing child benefit.

You can read the report from Tim Horton and Howard Read on the Fabian website.

The research findings are also reported in the Guardian front-page report previewing today's anti-cuts march.

The demonstration is timed to mark the new financial year next week, when many of the cuts kick in. Research by the Fabian Society suggests that taken with the wider tax and benefit reforms announced since the election, this week's budget would in fact force large number of working families into tax, instead of lifting them out as the coalition has claimed.

Tens of thousands of the lowest-income families will lose around 6% of their net income in the next year because of the government's tax and benefit changes with the bulk of the cuts kicking in next week, the analysis by the Fabian Society shows. From next week the childcare element of the tax credit system will be reduced from 80% to 70% of qualifying families' nursery bills. A family with one child and one earner earning up to £23,000 will lose between 5.7% and 6.4% of their net income, compared with last year. This would cost such a family with an income of £6,000 £1,362 a year and a family on £23,000 £1,710 a year.

Taking the government's tax and benefit changes together, the detailed distributional tables show that many low income families are net losers, now contributing more to the Exchequer. Some of those who the government claims to have "lifted out of taxation" used to be net recipients from the tax and benefits system but are now net contributors to it following Osborne's changes.

Single-parent families are often hit particularly hard; nearly all such families where the parent works are net losers from Osborne's changes. A single parent of one child working full-time on the minimum wage and earning £12,000 a year will now be £79 a year worse off, while a single parent on £23,000 lose £411 a year from Osborne's tax and benefit reforms.

The losses will be greater for those families claiming help with childcare costs from tax credits. The research shows how a a single parent of one child working full-time on the minimum wage and earning £12,000 a year will now lose £1378 a year, or 6% of their annual income, while a one-child family with a single part-time earner on £7000 will lose £1339 overall (though they will have been taken out of income tax by the new threshold). A similar single-earner family with two children will lose over £2000 a year.

Given how the Chancellor's changes have reduced their household income, these families are less likely to experience themselves as having been lifted out of tax, and may rather feel they have been pushed further into taxation.

By contrast, double-income households with no children will often tend to gain most from Osborne's tax and benefit reforms. Overall, his changes to income tax and tax credits tend to have the net effect of redistributing away from families with children while benefitting households in work (especially with two-earners) who do not have children.


The March for the Alternative website has details of today's protests. Follow #26March on twitter to follow the build-up, and to share your experiences of and views on today's march.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Should the Foreign Office send for Paddy?

William Hague, Foreign Secretary, celebrates his 50th birthday tomorrow.

The crisis of Hague's missing mojo appears to have receded somewhat, with Hague helping to lead the government's efforts to coordinate the military action in Libya in a way which seeks to sustainthea broad but potentially fragile coalition of international support.

But there is an unwelcome birthday message for Hague in the new issue of Prospect where commentator Ian Birrell makes the case that Hague must go, promoting Paddy Ashdown as his successor.

Birrell is a close Cameron ally, responsible for writing the Prime Minister's speeches during the General Election campaign, as well as an independent commentator. (There is no reason at all to think that the PM sympathises with the article, or would have known anything about it). But this is an example of the extremely small Coalitionist tribe among the Cameroons thinking about ways to maintain Coalition cohesion, and to ensure that Nick Clegg's public and private loyalty should not go entirely unrewarded.

Here's his case for Paddy Ashdown as Foreign Secretary:

There is a solution: press Paddy Ashdown into service as foreign secretary. The unfortunate truth is William Hague has looked unconvincing in the spotlight of diplomacy—indeed, many in the party wonder if the fire has gone from his belly when it comes to politics. So why not move Hague into the party chairmanship or some other key role in which his undoubted talents would be better used, and bring Lord Ashdown back into the political frontline?

He has an impressive record on foreign affairs, especially during the break-up of Yugoslavia, when he showed political courage in lobbying for action to halt the atrocities. Given his unstoppable energy, his military record and his diplomatic service in Bosnia, he could, if necessary, reassure both his party and the nation that supporting oppressed people demanding civil society is very different from supporting a US president seeking to impose democracy in Iraq.

Hague has sufficiently recovered his appetite for the job to see it through the current crisis at least - and even his later departure would make Tories nervous about the Coalition's internal balances.

So the identity of the next Foreign Secretary has become a more distant and hypothetical discussion than it was a few weeks ago.

Ashdown would make an excellent Foreign Secretary - and might even be sellable to robust Tories as well, though the issue of Europe would inevitably raise suspicions.

Still, as Birrell notes, there is no Cabinet member on the Tory side nearly so well qualified for the role were Hague to move on.

Downing Street would certainly trust Ashdown in the role more than Defence Secretary Liam Fox after their very public spats with Fox over MoD cuts and the highly inadequate and cost-driven 'Strategic' Defence Review (which all expert opinion believes should be reopened).

Ashdown was never quite offered any substantive government role by Tony Blair. He had to turn down the tempting role of Northern Ireland Secretary under Gordon Brown's non-coalition goatish gambit, for reasons of party cohesion. And he had reportedly been lined up to join this government as Business Secretary until Vince Cable decided he could stay on with fewer responsibilities.

Ashdown's historic role may have to be as the man who saved his party from its near death experience after merger in 1988. But, whether as Foreign Secretary or elsewhere, it may be premature to rule out the chance that he may yet find himself in the Cabinet.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

'Sorry' says Ed Balls, in Labour's budget response

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls' budget response tonight, which challenges George Osborne's approach to deficit reduction and defends Labour's approach to the recession as having put the economy on the road to recovery, also contains this personal acknowledgement that the Labour government got bank regulation wrong:

It was also the fault of governments and central banks –including Britain’s – who did not see the financial crisis coming and should have been tougher in regulating the banks. When the City and the Conservatives called for lighter regulation, we should have ignored them and been tougher still. Every Government in the world got that wrong - and I'd like to say sorry for the part that I and the last Labour government played in that. But if we got that wrong, I think we got our response to the recession right.

Here's the full text of Balls' Budget response broadcast, which was recorded at Coin Street Children’s Centre in Lambeth, South London:

"All around the country families, pensioners and businesses are facing tough times.

Over the last three years we’ve been through the biggest global financial crisis and world recession since the 1930s and it’s left us with a huge challenge to reduce the deficit.

The Conservatives want you to believe it was too much spending on schools, hospitals and police which caused the recession and the deficit, because they want an excuse to cut spending on those services now.

The reality is that, while Britain had low national debt, it was the irresponsible actions of banks all around the world that got us into that mess.

Every major country in the world faced that recession and as tax revenues plummeted they all ended up with big deficits.

But it was also the fault of governments and central banks –including Britain’s – who did not see the financial crisis coming and should have been tougher in regulating the banks.

When the City and the Conservatives called for lighter regulation, we should have ignored them and been tougher still.

Every Government in the world got that wrong - and I'd like to say sorry for the part that I and the last Labour government played in that.

But if we got that wrong, I think we got our response to the recession right.

Our priority was to keep people in jobs.

During the recessions of the 80s and 90s, unemployment rose above 3 million.

We were determined that wouldn’t happen again.

So even though tax revenues from the City collapsed, and the deficit was rising fast, we cut VAT and invested billions to keep people in jobs.

The alternative was just to do nothing and let unemployment rise.

And by last spring – after some really tough times – we were turning the corner.

The economy was growing, inflation was low and unemployment was steadily coming down.

There was still a long way to go, but we were getting back on the right track.

And because more people were in work, paying taxes and not receiving benefits, borrowing ended up £20 billion lower last year than forecast.

Under Labour’s plan, the economy was set to grow strongly this year too, and we were on track to halve the deficit in four years.

But everything’s now changed.

George Osborne ripped up our plan to halve the deficit and decided he would cut the deficit faster than any other major economy in the world – putting up VAT, cutting deep into frontline services, scrapping public and private sector jobs.

We all know how much his plan is hurting; the question is will it work?

Look at what’s happening now:

Our economy – which was growing – has now ground to a halt.

Prices ar e rising for everyone – threatening a rise in mortgage rates.

And unemployment - which was falling - is now rising – it’s now the highest level for 17 years.

But is it working to get the deficit down?

Actually, the Treasury’s borrowing was higher last month than a year ago when Labour was in charge.

That’s because there’s a vicious circle.

If the economy isn’t growing and hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs, then fewer people pay tax and more people claim benefits making it harder to get the deficit down.

By cutting too far and too fast, George Osborne isn’t solving the problem - he’s in danger of making it worse.

So what we needed in yesterday’s Budget was a plan: to help hard-pressed families facing the squeeze, to get people back in to work and get our economy growing again.

On these tests, the Budget failed.

George Osborne promised a £48 tax cut next year - but he didn’ t tell you that pensioners won’t get it.

And he didn’t tell you that the increase in VAT will cost a family with children an extra £450 this year.

He cut a penny off petrol duty. But he didn’t mention that his VAT rise is adding 3 pence a litre.

He didn't tell you that while he’s cutting taxes for the banks this year, his cuts mean fewer police on the beat, longer NHS waiting times, and - in some places - the closure of Sure Start children’s centres like this one where I am today.

He claimed he had a plan for growth, but the government’s independent watchdog said actually the economy will grow more slowly this year and next and unemployment will be higher every year. That’s why he’s having to borrow £45 billion more.

So I fear that George Osborne’s plan won’t just hurt, it won’t work.

I think there is a better way.

In America, they’re also got a huge deficit, but they’re cutting it at a much steadier p ace.

Their economy is now growing strongly and unemployment is falling.

In Britain, we do have to make tough choices to get the deficit down – that does means some fair tax rises and spending cuts.

But George Osborne is going too far and too fast, and we’re paying the price in lost jobs and slower growth.

That’s why we said he should repeat the bank bonus tax this year, and use the money raised to build more affordable homes, get more jobs for young people and help strengthen our economy for the future.

That’s the right and fair thing to do, but George Osborne isn’t listening.

He just doesn’t seem to get it.

He doesn't get how hard people are being hit by higher VAT and cuts in local services.

And he doesn't get what it means to face the fear or reality of unemployment.

For the sake of our country’s future, he needs to think again and start putting jobs and growth first – and he needs to do it now.

A £10,000 tax threshold: how a little inflation goes a long way

The Bank of England has warned that inflation risks pushing past 5%, well above the 2% target. While the government is committed to lower inflation, Howard Reed of Landman Economics shows how higher inflation will take George Osborne closer to his aim of a £10,000 income tax threshold, in nominal terms at least.


One of the key policy aims of the Coalition government is the increase in the income tax personal allowance to £10,000 – an aim enshrined in the May 2010 Coalition agreement (PDF):

“We will increase the personal allowance for income tax to help lower and middle income earners. We will announce in the first Budget a substantial increase in the personal allowance from April 2011… We will further increase the personal allowance to £10,000, making real terms steps each year towards meeting this as a longer term policy objective.”

When the Coalition took office in April 2010, the personal allowance stood at £6,475. Implemented in one go, an increase to £10,000 would be a huge tax cut – research by Tim Horton and myself published by the Fabian Society before the 2010 election suggested that it would have cost £17 billion to raise the allowance to £10,000 immediately.

However, it is important to realise, that the £10,000 target has been defined in nominal rather than real terms.

Even in the absence of any active policy decisions by the Chancellor on Budget Day, the value of the personal allowance increases by inflation each year.

The previous Labour Government used the Retail Prices Index (RPI) to uprate tax allowances, although the Coalition has now changed to using the Consumer Price Index (CPI), which increases more slowly.

But, whichever index is used, it is instructive to look at the impact of inflation on the value of the personal allowance over time.

The table below shows the impact of sustained price inflation at levels between 2% (the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee’s CPI target) and 7% on what the value of the personal allowance would be by 2015, starting with an allowance of £6,475 in 2010 and indexing for inflation every year.

The table also shows the number of years required to reach an allowance level of £10,000 using inflation indexation only.

Inflation rate After 5 years How many years to £10,000? (by indexation only)
2% ................£7,148 ............22
3% ................£7,506 ............15
4% ................£7,877 ............12
5% ................£8,263 ............9
6% ................£8,665 ............8
7% ................£9,081 ............7

At the Bank of England’s 2% target inflation rate, indexation would increase the value of the personal allowance by less than £700 over the course of a parliament – less than George Osborne managed in his very first budget, which increased the allowance by £1,000.

However, at higher rates of inflation, indexation increases the allowance much faster than this.

At 4% - an inflation rate which the RPI measure has exceeded more than half the time over the last five years – it would take only just over two parliaments to reach £10,000 through indexation alone.

At 6%, £10,000 would be comfortably achieved midway through a Coalition government’s second term in office - without George Osborne having to make any real terms increase in the value of the allowance.

Bear in mind that the current rate of RPI inflation is 5.5%, and in the short term the Bank of England expects inflation to go even higher than this.

What the simple example above demonstrates is that, while high inflation creates a headache for the Government on many fronts, in terms of meeting its tax pledge it makes matters much easier.

By the same token, high inflation means that increasing the personal allowance to £10,000 lifts far fewer people out of income tax altogether than if inflation is low – provided, of course, that incomes are rising in real terms (which at the moment is not the case).

In retrospect, should the Coalition agreement have specified a target for raising the personal allowance in real terms?

Unless, that is, it is also in large part a symbolic goal, as setting it in nominal terms might suggest.

In that case, higher inflation will make the symbolic £10,000 figure much easier to reach.

Has Cameron now broken his "read my lips" pledge?

George Osborne did not mention in his budget speech that he is introducing cuts to the winter fuel payments to pensioners, as The Telegraph reports

Last night, it also emerged that pensioners are to lose out on winter fuel “top-up” payments that help them when bills are rising. This means the over-80s will see their payment reduced from £400 to £300. The allowance paid to the over-60s will drop by £50 to £200.

The Chancellor is likely to come under fire for cowardice for burying the policy change, and then dribbling it out in the press.

More worrying for Downing Street, can David Cameron now claim to have kept his "read my lips" promise to pensioners, as noted by the BBC's Nick Robinson on the eve of the election?

Here's the full quote on the eve of the election.

I want to say to British people clearly and frankly this; if you are elderly, if you are frail, if you are poor, if you are needy a Conservative Government will always look after you.

On the journey we need to take this country on no one will be left behind.

And let me say very clearly to pensioners if you have a Conservative Government your Winter Fuel Allowance, your bus pass, your Pension Credit, your free TV licence all these things are safe.

You can read my lips, that is a promise from my heart.

Don’t believe the lies you’re being told by the Labour Party

Is there any wiggle room there to cut winter fuel allowance payments, or to say that some of the top-up payments don't count as part of the benefit.


Because Cameron also, during the campaign, used the phrase "we will keep what we inherit in all these important areas", in a March press conference in which he accused Labour of lying about his intentions, David Cameron explicitly ruled out any change such as the cut he has now introduced.

Tom Harris blogged the exchange with the BBC's James Lansdale, in which it is quite clear that Cameron is ruling out any significant changes to pensioner benefits, by saying he would not cut the allowance, and then agreeing that he would not change them in any way.

"Let me take this opportunity to say very clearly to any pensioner who is watching this or or reading any of these reports: I know you are getting letters from the Labour Party that says (sic) the Conservative Party would cut the Winter Fuel Allowance, would cut the free bus travel, would cut free television licenses.

Those statements by Labour are quite simply lies. I don’t use the word “lie” very often but I use it today because they are lies. A Conservative government would keep the winter fuel allowance, would keep the free television licence, would keep the extra money for pensioners".

If things had been left at that, Cameron would still have had some wiggle room as far as the Winter Fuel Allowance was concerned; after all, keeping a benefit doesn’t necessarily exclude restricting or rationing it at some point. But Lansdale persevered:

Just to be clear, you would keep the benefits but you would not change them in any way? You will not means test, you will not change the criteria?

And the soon-to-be PM was refreshingly unequivocal:

We will keep what we will inherit in all these important areas.

This was at the Cameron press conference on 23rd March - and the Daily Mail reported the "keep what what inherit" commitment in its report the following day.

But Mr Cameron accused Labour of 'trying to scare' the elderly by claiming that if elected his party would scrap the winter fuel allowance, free bus travel and free TV licences.

At his monthly press conference, he said: 'We will keep what we inherit in all these areas.

'All these things that Labour are saying are complete and utter lies, and they know it too.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Budget? What budget?

The best decision that George Osborne has made as Chancellor was to establish the Office of Budget Responsibility. Its value to public debate was shown today, in enabling a distinction between the Performance Politics of Budget Day at Westminster and the substance of the budget.

In fact, there was little or no budget to speak of today. Gordon Brown as Chancellor sought to ramp the pre-budget report up so that he effectively had two budgets a year, as weather making political opportunities. George Osborne would prefer to be called only once more in this Parliament. He set out his austerity stall last June and October: he knows what he wants to say in the Spring of 2014, but is a highly constrained Chancellor until then.

There was plenty in the OBR figures to support Labour leader Ed Miliband's assertion that "its hurting, but it isn't working". The government's most honest response is to acknowledge that it is hurting, but to argue with fingers' crossed that it will turn out to work by 2015, despite the initial results for growth and jobs being worse than they had anticipated last summer and Autumn.

That is not a partisan point - the half-time report, whatever your partisan or policy preferences, are as Andrew Neil tweeted

"Macro #budget2011 picture: higher inflation, lower growth, slower deficit reduction, higher unemployment "

The budget for growth lacked pyrotechnics, and often content. But there is a reason for that. The government's overall instinct is that government promotes growth by providing a stable, low tax environment and getting out of the way. There was an acceleration in promised corporation tax cuts. Osborne boasted that Britain would now have much lower corporation tax than the US, France or Germany - because corporation tax is already lower here than in Germany.

And it will continue to fall by 1% in each of the following three years – taking our corporate tax rate right down to 23%.

16 per cent lower than America, 11 per cent lower than France and 7 per cent lower than Germany – the lowest corporation tax rate in the G7.

But, if this is the answer on growth, isn't it then odd that German growth is higher?

So old arguments will return: the IFS will doubtless report that the tax threshold change is especially good for double-income households (often childless) in the upper half of the income distribution, as the government continues to argue against the evidence that its motivation is to take the poor out of tax, even as it shifts the burden to indirect taxes which hit both the working and non-working poor harder. (The £600 tax threshold increase is worth £5 a year to somebody earning £7500 a year, and nothing at all to someone earning £6500).

My favourite piece of Osborne chutzpah -

Last year, we restricted the allowance increase to basic rate taxpayers. This year we have not.

The result is that there will be no more people pulled into the higher rate tax band as a result of this Budget.

True - but 750,000 people will find themselves pulled into the higher rate in a fortnight as a result of last year's, which might be a minor change of only a few pounds, except that they are then hit by the double whammy of losing all of their child benefit.

And shifting the inflation measure to CPI for benefits last year, and now doing so for taxation "to bring it into line", is a stealthy way of making fiscal drag doing more work, making it even more likely that Osborne's headline claim turns out to be untrue.

There is a dash of Heseltinian intervention, but much of the evidence suggests that these affect the location of activity rather than the amount of it.

The incremental gift aid measures will be widely welcomed, and by charities in particular. Osborne may have found a tangible big society policy - that you can divert income going to general taxation to [other] civic causes. You don't gain personally by the tax break, and enabling philanthropy which costs the donor nothing to give may prove popular!

The green investment bank is an incremental step forward, or an important missed opportunity for green growth. It will be the bank that can't borrow and invest until 2015, when it will be able to borrow and invest. So why not in 2013 and 2014?

Osborne will always project super-confidence, whatever the figures and even if losing his voice. He has studied and emulates Gordon Brown much more than he acknowledges. His speech was more partisan than any of Brown's. (The Treasury website version looks to have been fairly heavily censored for excessive partisanship, and is missing many of the Osborne jibes we all heard with our own ears; whether this is a sensible way to deal with 'the record' might be doubted). He told us he will not rattle off figures, before saying that growth had been "revised" without telling us what it had been revised from, or even of the downward direction. Even New Labour's budgets contained less incremental policy tinkering and special pothole funds.

In the absence of the budget, it is a good job that there were plenty of distractions in the Westminster game.

Ed Miliband roused his troops with a feisty performance and decent jokes too. The right kind of snow for a skiing holiday was a funny shot, albeit a slightly low blow. Returning to the 'no platform' jibe against Nick Clegg may reverberate with other LibDems more than is in Labour's longer-term interests.

Nick Clegg demonstrated his new LibDem distancing strategy, pointedly refraining from any repeat of his hearty back-slap for Osborne during the glad, confident Coalition honeymoon of 2010.

Ken Clarke added to the gaeity of the political nation by coming close enough to falling asleep to have the bookmakers pay out, compounding the entertainment with an official shut-eye denial.

Ken, as Chancellor, had a balance between spending and taxes (50:50) which would much better suit the "we're in this together" story which the ProgCons once intended to tell. That's in the past now.

But Ken's tired eyelids may also have offered the most incisive snap judgement on today's budget non-event.

Why is the Great Osborno revealing his Magic Circle tricks of the trade?

So has the Chancellor learnt from last year, when so many of the Great Osborno's conjuring tricks unravelled within 24 hours of his Comprehensive Spending Review that supporters as well as opponents, and every neutral analyst, felt that the hyper-tricksy presentation had been so manifestly misleading that it had risked undermining the Chancellor's core arguments.

It seems unlikely. With the budget having been so much more comprehensively leaked to the media than on any previous occasion, commentators are mostly wondering what the final rabbit from the hat might be.

There would be some merit in an untricksy "staying the course" budget in which Osborne's task, having made the major spending and tax decisions for the Parliament, is to persuade the public that growing scepticism about the cuts being too deep and too fast is off the mark. He seems more likely to employ a range of distraction techniques.

That won't be his choice.

Yet the great conjuring Chancellor is bizarrely breaking all of the rules of the Magic Circle.

The best conjurors depend on not letting daylight in upon magic, so the audience can not see how the trick was done.

If you just repeat hoary old tricks that have already been worked out - and even brief the newspapers in advance as to what the sleight of hand is all about- then it makes it difficult to see how the sleight of hand will ever generate the desired suspension of disbelief.

Yet The Telegraph has been briefed on how Osborne will today exaggerate the value of his tax threshold change

Increasing the threshold by £600 is worth a maximum of 20p in the pound, so clearly could not be worth more than £120 to any taxpayer. (The change is worth least to lower earners who do not use the full threshold. A part-time worker on £6000 a year will gain nothing at all, while today's change is worth £1.25 a year to somebody earning £7500 a year, but it will be worth 100 times more to higher earners). But that's "up to £320" in Osborne money, if you reannounce last year's announcement too, roll it in, and then strip out inflation on the assume voters would prefer to think about its nominal value than whether or not it makes any real difference to their living standards.

Mr Osborne’s move to raise the tax threshold will see an average saving of £45 a year, when taking into account inflation. Mr Osborne will say that the measure will mean that basic rate tax payers will be £200 a year better off in real terms from next spring – but in cash terms the savings is £320 ... Measures already announced will see basic tax rate payers better off by £160 from this April, and that will rise to more than £200 next year. But the total cash benefit, not accounting for inflation, is £320.

Still, that's a £320 tax cut for millions in the Mail, and a £205 tax cut today in The Sun).

For all of the smoke and mirrors, two things can not be in dispute.

First, Osborne's tax increases - particularly on VAT - cost taxpayers more than his tax cuts save them.

Second, Osborne's policy has been to shift the burden of taxation from direct to indirect taxes - which means the poor paying a higher share of taxes.

That doing this would hurt the poor was set out very clearly by David Willetts in 2005, on the impeccable grounds that VAT is a much more important tax on less well-off households than income tax.

The tax that poor people pay isn’t income tax. The poorest 20 per cent of households sacrifice 28.5 per cent of their income in indirect tax, of which the biggest single item is VAT ... If we really wanted to cut the taxes poor people pay we would be looking at indirect taxation.

That the Osborne policy has, with enthusiastic LibDem support, shifted the burden of taxation further onto the poor can be seen very clearly in practice too. Howard Reed and Tim Horton have modelled the impact of Osborne's tax shifts - since not making the income tax changes (worth £3.7 billion before today and more after) would have enabled him to reduce the VAT hit by a similar amount, without affecting his deficit reduction plan.

So perhaps all of the Great Osborno's magic tricks are now delivering diminishing returns - unless he really does have a special potion which can make the Institute for Fiscal Studies disappear.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Can Chancellors now leak their budget with impunity?

George Osborne's budget "purdah" has surely been the most leaky in the history of the Treasury.

There are several devices by which hints can be briefed. George Osborne's mini-me and ex-staffer Matthew Hancock MP has been popping up on TV for weeks saying what he'd like to see in a budget which he is very probably still helping to shape. And Osborne's spinners have given an unusual amount of detail away to enable well informed previews in the newspapers, leading ConservativeHome to ask "Has Osborne leaked his whole budget to the Sunday newspapers?"

But I wonder if Speaker Bercow might think that BBC political editor Nick Robinson reporting as a fact, from Downing Street, on the night before the budget the precise amount that the tax threshold will rise, and that this will this time include top rate taxpayers takes Osborne's pre-budget leaking into entirely new territory.


Standards have certainly slipped. If they have been slipping for several decades, I can not recall any previous Budget being so openly and definitively leaked without even the slightest veneer of deniability.

But George Osborne is most unlikely to recognise that the historical precedent suggests that he ought to resign.

Hugh Dalton's final budget as Labour Chancellor in 1947 introduced a series of austerity measures which generated rather more positive economic news than the Office of Budget Responsibility will report tomorrow. Yet he felt honour bound to resign when an indiscreet conversation with a journalist saw details of his budget made public 20 minutes before he spoke in the Commons.

As Roy Jenkins reported in his The Chancellors:

Dalton and the Treasury substantially underestimated the revenue-raising and inflation-reducing efforts of his measures. As a result, when Cripps came to introduce his April 1948 budget, he inherited a surplus of £319 million, entirely due to Dalton's taxation measures, and himself added only £11 million to it.

By what measures did Dalton achieve this result? They were most succinctly summarised in the single, fatal sentence that he addressed to a friendly journalist on his way into the chamber: 'No more on tobacco; a penny on beer; something on dogs and [football] pools, but not on horses; increase in purchase tax, but only on articles now taxable; profits tax doubled'. This indiscretion, at once wild yet venial, led to that now defunct London newspaper the Star, for whom the lobby correspondent worked, publishing an informed and accurate budget forecast which was on a few streets and sold to a few customers approximately twenty minutes before the changes were publicly announced by Dalton to the House of Commons; there was no evidence that any of these few casual purchasers used the report for speculative trading.

But the indiscretion led to Dalton's resignation of his office (and his replacement with Cripps) within twenty-seven hours of his ill-fated conversation.


Osborne will use the increase tax threshold to claim that he has lowered personal tax bills, and is trying to take the poor out of tax.

That the claim is misleading was obvious as soon as this key budget pledge was pre-spun on 1st March - as the claim relies on ignoring the VAT rise.

A powerful and informed argument against the tax threshold change was made by George Osborne's Cabinet colleague David Willetts, who offered a punchy critique of why the policy wouldn't help the poor, but would increase inequality for The Times back in 2005.

Here's what Willetts wrote then.

Many people assume that there is an easy way of cutting taxes and helping the poorest people — we should raise the income tax allowance. At the moment people start paying income tax at about £5,000 a year. What if we increased that to £10,000 a year — wouldn’t that transform the situation of the poorest people?

It is true that poor people pay a shockingly high amount of tax. The richest 20 per cent of households lose 35 per cent of their incomes in tax. The poorest 20 per cent of households lose 37.9 per cent of their incomes in tax. In fact the poorest 20 per cent pay a higher proportion of their incomes in tax than any other slice of the population. No one seriously planned for this bizarre outcome.

But the tax that poor people pay isn’t income tax. The poorest 20 per cent of households sacrifice 28.5 per cent of their income in indirect tax, of which the biggest single item is VAT. All direct taxes take 9.5 per cent and of this the biggest item is council tax, which takes 4.6 per cent. Income tax, taking 3.5 per cent of their income, is responsible for less than one tenth of the taxes paid by the poorest fifth of households.

The inclusion of 40p taxpayers as gaining from the threshold change is an interesting reversal of this government's policy to date.

Doing this makes the tax threshold change even more regressive. (And the policy already became more regressive when the Coalition ditched LibDem plans to pay for it from progressive tax measures).

However, removing 40p taxpayers from gaining from this policy (by bringing the 40p starting point down by a similar amount) would create a car crash with the goverment's decision to take higher rate taxpayers from child benefit.

That would add further to the 750,000 people brought into the 40p rate of tax, with important knock-on effects as the government cutting child benefit from any household with a higher rate taxpayer from 2013. Osborne claimed in announcing the policy that the change would not hit those households until somebody was earning over £44,000, but he has not said if he will keep this promise. His current policy will hit people earning several thousand pounds less than that.

How tomorrow's budget can be better for women

This guest post from Demos Director Kitty Ussher is an extract from the forthcoming Fabian Review gender equality special.

We know that the Government did not consider the effect of the June 2010 Emergency Budget on women because the Fawcett Society took them to court for not publishing a gender impact assessment. That this legal action was possible was a tribute to the work of the outgoing Labour government in getting the Equality Act onto the statute books in time. As a result they DID have to consider the effect on women of the Comprehensive Spending Review that happened a few months later. Given that this discipline does not appear to have altered the general direction of policy, however, means it is unlikely to have been a constraining factor.

In fact, the Government’s strategy for achieving the cuts was set early on. The main tax rise was VAT, the fairness of which has been hotly debated but it is certainly more regressive than, say, income or wealth taxes, almost by definition. The single largest spending cut comes from the decision to lower the rate at which benefits are automatically uprated by each year to take account of inflation. They have simply decided to use a less generous measure of inflation when doing this, because it is cheaper. By definition this will hit the poorest harder, extracting £6bn from the least well-off by 2014-15. It is also politically clever, by penalising those with the quietest voices in a way that they won’t even notice: the absolute cash amount of these benefit payments will still rise, but people will just find that their money goes less far. Is this a gender effect? No, because men and women are equal in their receipt of benefits. ONS data shows that 16 per cent of men and 15.8 per cent of women are benefit recipients. Although frankly a deliberate attempt to cut insidiously from the poorest doesn’t need a gender effect to feel wrong.

Where the cuts will really bite are on jobs and local services and this is where the real gender impact needs to be better understood. The coalition decided to push much of the difficult choices down to local government. Again, good politics as it removes them from the front line of responsibility for unpopular decisions and diffuses potential opposition throughout the country; different choices will be opposed in different ways in different places.

In total, however, these cuts to local services are potentially the most disruptive to women as they have the greatest potential to disturb the delicate local ecosystem of family support. In total around £7bn will be lost from local councils by the end of the spending round, and they are being severely incentivised not to raise council tax to compensate. Every time a youth club closes (the police told me of three closing in my area), a sports facility is withdrawn (remember free swimming for children?) or an after school club or nursery raises its fees because the council grant is slashed (just ask, it’s happening) then it becomes that little bit less viable for some parent somewhere to work. This is the real gender impact of the cuts. In many cases, those affected will be those whose position in the labour market is already the most precarious: people juggling multiple responsibilities with no time to invest in their skills and raise their salaries. Many are precisely those front line public sector workers who will find their jobs in any case under threat. They could find their job and childcare threatened at the same time, making it just simply more sensible for them and their family for them to withdraw from the labour market if that choice is available to them. Maybe that’s exactly what this government wants them to do? In the long run the wasted potential and opportunities that flow from these pressures could have a profoundly negative effect on women’s equality in the workplace.

So what could be done in the budget to avert this problem? Obviously there should be a cap on the fees of after school clubs and nurseries and any form of government-supported services for young people. Also, more time for councils to negotiate shorter and flexible hours for all their employees – men included – rather than job cuts for all the lowest skilled. And to pay for this? Perhaps counter-intuitively, I would completely scrap child benefit, rather than just tinkering around in an illogical way at the edges. It’s an out of date and clumsy mechanism. Payments for the additional costs of having children should of course still exist but they should be properly means-tested rather than being a flat payment per child, and the savings used to increase dramatically both demand (through vouchers) and supply (through councils) of affordable childcare and youth provision. This should be a top priority. It wouldn’t stop the cuts but it would do a lot to ensure that the gender impact really was mitigated.

Kitty Ussher is the Director of Demos

The magazine also includes research by Howard Reed of Landman Economics, which Polly Toynbee responds to in the Guardian today. Details of Howard's research can be found on the Fabian Society website.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

What the 'whaddabouters' ignore

"But whaddabout Burma? North Korea? Zimbabwe? Cote d'Ivoire? Bahrain? Saudi Arabia?"

But have you noticed how easy it appears to be to write that with so little interest in the examples cited? Almost every piece citing, instrumentally, the tragic circumstances of the peoples of these countries as a reason to do nothing about Libya seems to run out of space just before making any suggestion about what, if anything, might be done if any of these cases.

Indeed, were anything proposed in one of these countries instead of Libya, there would surely be a knockdown objection: whaddabout Libya?

Of course, these are mostly weak, tangential answers to the question: "what could be done to prevent crimes against humanity in Libya?"

To call a double standard, you still need to decide which side of the fence you are on.

And there are good as well as bad reasons for making distinctions between different cases. The bad reasons often relate to the old 'stability over democracy' argument which the Prime Minister has criticised, and an apparent free pass for allies doing what adversaries can not.

But there are relevant differences too.

First, the immediate humanitarian danger. Many terrible and intractable examples are cited. The scale of immediate risk to human life through gross violations of rights, and the risks to regional and international peace and security generated, are on a different scale right now in Libya than most other cases.

Second, practicality: the moral case for outside involvement, in whatever form, depends on there being something important that can realistically be achieved. Foreign engagement can take many forms - forms of support for a legitimate and threatened government; diplomatic and coercive pressure short of force; in extremis, the use of arms. But part of the ethical assessment over whether any such course is right depends on the consequential calculus of the chance of achieving a significant outcome, against the risks both of failure and of doing nothing. it would be perfectly daft to claim that moral consistency demands that approaches with a decent chance of success somewhere must also be replicated in contexts where they would almost certainly be futile. While this may be sad news for, say, Chechnya, being unable to act in one situation is not in itself a case against acting somewhere else where it is possible.

Third, legitimacy and what domestic actors want.

The strongest principled argument for having different approaches would be this: those who we might want to assist or demonstrate solidarity might recommend different causes of external action, again because the situations are different.

This is the case for contextual universalism: the first question is "what do those who we might want to support think we should do (and not do), taking very seriously their advice about what might help and hinder. The form that external solidarity takes should be shaped by advice from within.

Those worrying about "western imperialism" in this case might at least have been given pause for thought by the views of the Arab League and the scenes from the street of Benghazi. There are other cases - Iran or Zimbabwe - where western states should take a lower profile, for fear of assisting the oppressor. That the ANC lobbied for sanctions on apartheid South Africa was a strong point in their favour; the argument might have been different if they had taken a different view.

The influence of outsiders is limited, but it is rarely nil or negligible. For example, there will certainly be cases where international action could act to prevent a massacre, but the task of creating a political settlement afterwards will depend primarily on local actors, with international support and sponsorship.


So why not take the whaddabouters at their word, as wanting to raise international consciousness of other crises and potential humanitarian emergencies? There are serious voices trying to do that, mostly while being constructively and critically supportive of the UN approach to Libya.

Wouldn't it be great to think that the Whaddabouters will now be swelling the advocacy ranks of those organisations like the excellent International Crisis Group, who plug away at what can be achieved on the most apparently intractable crises whether they are in the headlines or not.

Next Left's modest contribution is to begin a quick occasional "whaddabouter's guide" to some of the key crises that suddenly seem to be of renewed interest:

(1) Whaddabout Cote d'Ivoire?

The escalating political crisis in Ivory Coast ought to be of immediate concern to the UN Security Council as well as the African Union and Ecowas. As Foreign Policy reports, the Libyan crisis may be taken as an opportunity to restart the country's civil war.

The context is straightforward: President Laurent Gbago lost the Presidential election last year, and is using the force of arms to try to stay on. The UN, the African Union and Ecowas have all certified that his opponent Alassane Ouattara was the legitimate election winner, following agreed processes of international oversight, but Gbago doctored the results and is fighting to stay on.

The African Union has been mediating in the crisis - trying to manage the transition to the legitimate President Ouattara, while suggesting negotiation could find some junior power-sharing role for the defeated Gbago as part of the transition.

Gbago seems willing to fight on at all costs, and is inciting a return to civil war. The UN Secretary-General suggests Thursday's attack on civilians, allegedly by forces loyal to Gbago, may have been a crime against humanity, and

The opposition's approach has been that that it is useful to have won the elections, and to be internationally recognised as having the legitimacy to govern, but that it may yet be even more useful to have sufficient forces on the ground to take power as well. Well informed observers suggest they may well have the military means to prevail, though it is of course an important international concern to minimise the human costs.

Even realist whaddabouters might see why Ivory Coast offers a clear example of why the generic (and morally relativist) "don't get involved in civil wars" principle is often a weak one in specific cases. The international community should seek to prevent the threatened civil war, by doing everything possible to support current African efforts to bring the elected government to power without one. Security Council resolutions, sanctions against the illegitimate regime and investigating the case for ICC indictment may prove useful tools here. The outgoing government accuses Nigeria of assisting and arming the legitimately elected "rebels", and one perhaps contentious approach will be to consider ways to confer international legitimacy and support for them if Gbago does insist on fighting rather than talking.

(2) Whaddabout Bahrain?

While citing Chechnya or North Korea are primarily rhetorical, Bahrain is the case where the double standards charge is most acute, and ought to trouble the multilateral system and western powers.

Saudi Arabia is playing a decisive role in helping to suppress Bahrain's citizens, who began making moderate calls for more accountable and representative reforms, and who have been greeted with extreme repression, and even now the symbolic destruction of Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of the protests.

On Bahrain, I would find it difficult to disagree with much in this description from The Guardian's left-wing columnist Seumas Milne (though without sharing his conclusion about the Libyan case).

Saudi Arabia's dangerous quasi-invasion of Bahrain is a reminder that Libya is very far from being the only place where hopes are being stifled. The west's closest Arab ally, which has declared protest un-Islamic, bans political parties and holds an estimated 8,000 political prisoners, has sent troops to bolster the Bahraini autocracy's bloody resistance to democratic reform.

Underlying the Saudi provocation is a combustible cocktail of sectarian and strategic calculations. Bahrain's secular opposition to the Sunni ruling family is mainly supported by the island's Shia majority. The Saudi regime fears both the influence of Iran in a Shia-dominated Bahrain and the infection of its own repressed Shia minority – concentrated in the eastern region, centre of the largest oil reserves in the world.

Considering that both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, home to the United States fifth fleet, depend on American support, the crushing of the Bahraini democracy movement or the underground Saudi opposition should be a good deal easier for the west to fix than the Libyan maelstrom.

Saudi Arabia's regime has been briefing international journalists about how different their domestic context from the democratic upheavals elsewhere. Part of the story of their intervention in Bahrain is that they are considerably more nervous than that.

With Saudi fears of Iranian influence in Bahrain, this is shaping up as the classic case of a "stability versus democracy" strategy. British Prime Minister David Cameron has said that we won't be repeating those mistakes in future. The US administration is pursuing the argument that the self-interest of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's rulers is in pursuing democratic reforms, but with little sign

“Our message to Saudi Arabia is that if you want to avoid the fate of Mubarak, you need to move toward genuine and gradual reform,” said Mr. Malley of the International Crisis Group. “But what the Saudis are hearing instead is that reform is actually the path to Mubarak’s fate.”

(3) Whaddabout Burma?

The highly repressive Burmese regime is not currently engaged in live military activities on a similar scale to those in Libya. However, there is every case for a resolution similar to that which was adopted in February over Libya, namely an international commission of inquiry into human rights abuses, and a reference to the International Criminal Court.

The independent Burmese exile magazine Irrawaddy makes the point, in comparing the two cases, that the UN is stalling on the recommendation of its own human rights rapporteur:

In early 2010, Tomás Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights to Burma, took an unprecedented move in a report to the HRC, calling for a Commission of Inquiry into possible crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burma. Neither the HRC nor the UNSC have acted on this recommendation to date.

Again, there is a realpolitik problem here. A significant block to consistent UN action on Burma is the close relationship of the Chinese government with the Burmese Junta.

It is interesting that the Chinese government saw that it would face reputational damage if it vetoed the Libya resolution. At some point, perhaps when the international focus of the current crisis has passed, there should be concerted Parliamentary and citizens' pressure on EU and other democratic governments in the Human Rights Commission and UN Security Council to act on the Special Rapporteur's report.

If China does wish to block this, they could at least own and defend the position. It might even prove trickier than they anticipate.


Whaddayathink about that, whaddabouters?

Seriously, the whaddabouters need to be put under more pressure to say something sensible about the cases that they raise - including, foundationally, to decide if they believe in any framework of international law and institutions at all.

The point is most often a call to argue that "we can't be the world's policeman" (ie, those who can not do everything should do nothing), with "we" usually meaning Britain and/or the US. The same people are often, on realist grounds, deeply sceptical about any multilateral response.

The idealistic notion that "we" could ideally mean the UN Security Council and the International Criminal Court, with the US, EU, African Union, Arab League, other regional alliances and states playing a hands-on role where most relevant is also being rejected. The history and contemporary practice is not quite as this parochial viewpoint seems to think. Britain got involved in Sierra Leone and Australia led in East Timor; Nato and the EU led in Kosovo or Macedonia; the UN carries out many missions you hear little about, with Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Nigeria providing more troops for UN missions than any other nations.

'We can't all make a reasonable contribution to protecting the human rights we've signed up to from the most gross and systematic violations' seems to me a weak argument.

And the whaddabouters might also be asked to demonstrate how the UN resolution over Libya has in any way assisted the dictatorships they are (at least rhetorically) concerned to discomfort. Much may depend on the outcome, but the Libyan case has the potential to provide something of a watershed moment in internal repression being cited as a chapter seven threat to international peace and security at the UN. (Interesting that the Zimbabwean reports that Robert Mugabe has committed 500 troops to assist his close ally Gaddaffi, which is one way to use the resources of a collapsed economy).

So, yes, the Libya decision ought to now create pressure on the international system to be bolder on other similar cases of extreme internal repression than it has in the past. The threshold at which sovereignty is forfeited by using it as a licence to kill will remain a very high one.

But, if you can carry a whaddabout analogy, you might just have a point for diplomatic action, rather than universal inaction and inert despair.


That's enough whaddaboutery for now. But we would very much welcome constructive advice, information and links about these and other key international issues which ought not to be ignored during the Libya crisis.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Why Labour backs the government over Libya

Following the Prime Minister's statement to the House of Commons today, Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander has sent this message to Labour party members.


As you will have no doubt have seen, last night the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on Libya.

I wanted to write to you at the earliest opportunity to let you know Labour’s position as Ed Miliband set out in the House of Commons this morning.

Any decision to commit British armed forces is a grave and serious one and must be based on a clear and compelling case.

In this instance it is based on the clear evidence of Colonel Gaddafi brutalising his own people in response to their demand for democratic change.

It is action backed in the region, most importantly in the clear resolution of the Arab League. And it is backed now by a legal mandate from the United Nations.

The resolution aims to prevent the slaughter of the people of Benghazi.

It authorises force to protect the civilian population in Libya and establish a no-fly zone, while at the same time making clear there is no mandate and no appetite for a “foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory”.

Of course the responsibility for this crisis rests squarely with the Gaddafi Regime, but by this Resolution the United Nations has now placed a responsibility on its members to act to protect the Libyan people.

Next week, the House of Commons will vote on the deployment of British military force as our contribution to this international effort.

Labour will support that decision by the Government. No one – not Ed Miliband, Jim Murphy, Labour’s Shadow Defence Secretary, myself as Shadow Foreign Secretary, or the Shadow Cabinet – takes this decision lightly.

We have been ready to criticise the Government when they have been slow off the mark evacuating British nationals from Libya and I have asked tough questions of the Foreign Secretary about the unsuccessful mission to contact opposition forces in Benghazi.

But on the question of military action, Labour has been clear from the outset that all options should be on the table, given the record of the Gaddafi regime.

And today, Ed Miliband said in a debate in the House of Commons “it would be quite wrong given what is happening in Libya for us to stand by and do nothing”.

Already, today the Gaddafi regime have suggested they will implement an immediate ceasefire, but this regime must be judged on its deeds and not simply its words.

Tomorrow in Paris leaders from Europe and across the Arab world will discuss the way ahead in light of the Security Council Resolution.

The situation remains fluid. I will endeavour to provide more information to Labour members who I know will have deep concerns not only for the people of Libya, but for our own armed forces personnel and the future of the wider region. If you would like to read the UN Security Council Resolution, it is available here.

As Ed said in the Commons, in the days ahead, as befits the Official Opposition, we will support this mission to protect civilian lives, while asking the questions of the Government that the British public would expect us to, and making clear our support for the Armed Forces in the difficult days ahead.

Yours sincerely,

Douglas Alexander MP
Shadow Foreign Secretary

Cameron deserves credit, and tripartisan support, over Libya

David Cameron and his government deserve credit today for having worked hard to play a constructive role - alongside France, Arab League nations and others - to eventually push the United Nations process to agree a no fly zone in Libya.

The British government was previously criticised for its shaky response to the Libyan crisis, and with a good deal of cause given blunders over the evacuation of British citizens, and some rather mixed messages in the region more generally. But the British and French have shown that they can have an influential and, in this case, decisive role at the United Nations given how ambivalent the US administration has been over what, if any, further international response was demanded by the unfolding crisis in Libya.

So Cameron deserves tripartisan support for the British government's broad approach and I expect that he can broadly expect to receive it. There are certainly some pessimistic realist voices, particularly on the Conservative right (continuing an ages old debate, as Brendan Simms anatomises), and there will be a section of opinion around Tony Benn on the left and of broadly pacifist instincts who are worred about perceptions of 'western imperialism'. But the broad centre around the Responsbility to Protect ought to have a wide range across the spectrum on this occasion.

That will include a strong proportion of those on the liberal left who opposed the Iraq war, but who will rightly see this case - with an imminent crisis rather than a pre-emptive claim, two clear Security Council resolutions to authorise action, and backing from regional powers such as the Arab League - as having quite distinct features, which need to be judged on their own merits. Those are the reasons why much Liberal Democrat opinion will also be instinctively supportive of the government's position, whether they were in the Coalition government or not.

Despite the possibility of a broad consensus, the UN decision means accepting many risks. The diplomatic response may well have come too late. The moving response in the streets of Benghazi to the UN decision could simply prove a prelude to tragedy: the celebrations of those who hoped to be assisted by an international community which is rather anxious about whether it can in fact practically assist.

There are important questions about whether a no fly zone will prove effective against Libyan resistance, and whether it will prove insufficient as the dictatorship moves to suppress an uprising by other means. If it does not work, there will be no shortage of Monday night quarterbacks to point out why it was folly to think that it ever could.

Nor should anybody have any relish about the prospect of military action. Yet the alternative to the UN resolution would be an acceptance that governments can kill their own citizens with impunity - with barely even a word of protest, still less any effort to prevent this - whatever the cost to human rights, and to broader regional peace and security.


That this effort to protect in Libya now has the multilateral legitimacy of UN authorisation ought also to weigh with critics or sceptics of the decision. There is certainly an arbitrary element to viewing the ethical standing of a course of action as depending on whether China and Russia can be persuaded not to veto it, but these may well, for now, be necessary tensions for those who want the international community to commit to effective action to prevent atrocities while also developing and deepening the transition to a rule-based system of international law. (Next Left has previously discussed the importance of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, as a principle that can and should connect human rights, sovereignty and its limits, and multilateral legitimacy, as well as the frustrations of the current institutions of international diplomacy)

If Gaddafi were to succeed in restoring his de facto power, it will be important to be clear that control of a territory by brute force no longer confers international legitimacy and status: an important emerging distinction in international politics.

Former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has been among the architects and champions of the Responsbility to Protect principle. He has been arguing that a UN response to the Libyan crisis would mark an important threshold for establishing this core principle. As Evans puts it, "sovereignty is not a licence to kill". The question now is whether this can be upheld in Libya in practice, and not only in theory.

The breakdown of the Security Council vote is interesting.

Given the reasons behind their positions on sovereignty over human rights, it is interesting that both China and Russia recognise the potential diplomatic costs and reputational risks to vetoing such a resolution - choosing instead to lay down their vetoes and abstain. Reuters reports that the Chinese foreign ministry has cited Arab League and African support for the resolution as decisive.

In view of the concerns and stance of the Arab countries and African Union and the special circumstances that currently apply in Libya, China and other countries abstained, and did not block the passing of the resolution," said Jiang.

U.N. diplomats said they understood the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan were among Arab League members prepared to take part in enforcing the no-fly zone.

But it is also disappointing that Germany joins India and Brazil among temporary Security Council members in abstaining.

It is novel for the division in the EU to be about agreement between Britain and France, but dissent from Germany.

Guio Westerwelle, the beleaguered leader of the liberal junior coalition party, is facing increasing pressure over his lacklustre performance in the role, as The Guardian reports today.

Opposition Social Democrats have noted that Westerwelle's objections to the resolution are not coherent, as The New York Times reports:

The German foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, said that a military intervention was no solution. “Germany is not prepared to be dragged into a civil war,” he said in interviews.

It was unclear which countries would enforce the no-flight zone, how it would work and which countries were prepared to send forces to Libya, he said. “I can see no German troops in Libya.”

Gernot Erler, a foreign policy expert and the deputy parliamentary leader of the opposition Social Democrats, said the government’s decision to side with Russia and China in opposing the no-flight zone would isolate Germany. He said support for a no-flight zone did not automatically mean sending ground troops.

While the ambivalence of Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle does reflect the German Federal Republic's history and focus on a peaceful role, the decision to support and participate in NATO action over Kosovo showed that this did not necessitate abstention.

And it was certainly possible to back the resolution without deploying "German troops in Libya".

Australia has championed a no fly zone, while being clear that it would not participate militarily, while Canada and Norway are among those preparing to participate, alongside Britain, France, the United States and Arab states.

Whatever the pros and cons of the German government's stance, all German democrats on different sides of the argument will surely find Gaddafi's response offensive.

Again, from the New York Times:

The Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi, praised Germany. He told RTL, the German commercial television channel, Tuesday that “Germany was the only one with a chance of doing business in Libyan oil in the future.”

The Germans, he said, “have taken a very good position toward us, very different than many other important countries in the West.” Along with Germany, “our oil contracts are going to Russian, Chinese and Indian firms, the West is to be forgotten,” Colonel Qaddafi said.

The Libyan leader said President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was “his friend,” but was “suffering from mental illness.”

While respecting reasons for doubts over the no fly zone proposal, it would be good to hear the German government immediately vocally reject this overture.

Meanwhile, the French Presidency denies Libyan claims that the Gaddafi regime funded the Sarkozy election campaign. In any event, it is good to be able to decisively mark the end of that beautiful friendship.

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Class confusions?

Newsnight's has been discussing "the middle class under pressure" in a special edition.

Deborah Mattinson of Britain Thinks and Daniel Finkelstein talked about a poll finding that 71% of us now self-identify as middle-class, noting that this has shifted a great deal since the 1990s.

Yet a Guardian/ICM poll in 2007 showed that 53% regarded themselves as working-class, down only very marginally from 55% in 1998.

Meanwhile a YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph in 2010 found that 66% identified as middle-class, against 30% as working-class, which the newspaper reported was much higher than in previous surveys.

So it seems that most of us think we are middle-class, except when most of us think we are working-class. Can anybody cast light on why these polls have given such contrasting responses?

One of the most interesting results from Fabian Society attitudes research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation was that almost everybody - right across the income spectrum - thinks of themselves as being somewhere around the middle of the income spectrum.

This helps to explain why ComRes found that 48% of people say that, when Ed Miliband talks about the "squeezed middle", "he is talking about people like me and my family.