Monday, December 13, 2010

22 Days in May - my reaction

David Laws account of the coalition negotiations and his few days of ministerial office is a must read. Learn the difference between a traffic light coalition and a car crash coalition. Find out exactly where the hand of history was squeezing. David's account is most politically relevant for its description of how willing the Conservatives were to negotiate in good faith and compromise on policy, and how unwilling elements within the Labour party were to do the same. Shockingly the Labour negotiators didn't seem to agree among themselves, or have the authority to negotiate for the party. I'm shocked enough that they included Ed Balls at all - that really isn't trying to make a deal work is it?

Of course this account is disputed by Labour figures, who want to portray the outcome of the election as Lib Dem decision. (Along with the existence of the deficit.) Naturally I believe David Laws' account and Labour supporters believe the opposite. Of course it is true, as David says, that a deal with Labour would have been much harder to operate because of the parliamentary arithmetic. But you might have thought that sort of difficulty would inspire Labour to greater not lesser efforts than the Conservatives.

The credibility of Labour's version of history falls apart when we get to Appendix 5 of Laws book: Labour's 10th May policy proposals for a Lib Lab coalition. If this had been a serious attempt to reach agreement, if the Lib Dem negotiators had capriciously rejected it, then this document would be waved in the face of every Lib Dem MP, councillor and grassroots member up and down the country with the refrain "this is the radical, centre-left government you could have had". It would be in all the newspapers. Every government policy would be compared to it. You Lib Dems have chosen that when you could have chosen this. And surely enough Plaid and Irish MPs could be found to say the same.

Why has this not happened? Because the document is pathetic. All major disagreements on policy between the parties seem to be met, at best, with a review. Labour know they are right and their review will confirm it. The Lib Dems should be grateful for this sharing of wisdom.

If Ed Milliband has really been won round by the Lib Dem position on student fees, he might have said so on the 10th May when he could have done something about it. But no. There will be a national debate and a full consultation. We know what that means.

Oh you can have the pupil premium, so long as we can dictate what it gets spent on, because government knows best.

Yes, you can have a personal tax allowance of £10,000, wait for it, only for pensioners. Was that an attempt to be funny? Labour doubled income tax for many low earners when they abolished the 10p rate, and this is how they treat the opportunity to put right that injustice.

No. Labour knew the next government would be unpopular because of the state of the public finances. We've all seen Labour's joy at seeing both their opponents suffer the consequences of the £150bn per year fiscal turd they left behind. We've heard senior Labour figures brief against a Lib Lab deal and talk of 'principled opposition' - as if there were any principle that should cause a centre-left politician to reject a centre-left deal in favour of a centre-right one. Although to be fair, this government is better than the last one even by centre-left standards.

Laws talks of Labour's lost opportunities from 97 to 2010 to attempt to forge any kind of closer links with the Liberal Democrats, that might have paved the way for a different outcome, and of Gordon Brown's deathbed conversion to pluralism, at a minute past midnight.

I look at it differently. Labour have been in a coalition with the Conservatives, almost as along as they have existed. But it is the kind of coalition where you take turns enjoying untrammelled power rather than sharing power. They have been quite happy to maintain this closed political system despite the fact that it led to frequent Conservative governments that did more harm to the interests of people who Labour purport to protect, than Labour could ever undo when it was their turn. The party has every reason to be terrified that a different kind of politics might work better. Voters with Labour values on the other hand have every reason to welcome it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Lefty firebrands demand a better deal for top earners

I was on the radio this morning debating with Max Brophy of the Education Activists Network - the group linked to the Millbank incident. While iPlayer lasts you can find it here, starting 1h05mins in.

As always it is a shame I didn't get to respond to some of Max's points directly. The fairly preposterous line that there is an ideological attack on the public sector - when the share of national income spent by the government is simply returning to the level it was in 2006. And it is a little bizarre that something called the Education Action Network is rioting, when education is relatively unscathed in the adjustment this country is making to the fact that it has a great deal less money to spend.

But my main point, which I almost managed to get across is this. While clearly we are in a coalition, and in no position to deliver on our original policy, it is worth noting that student debts are becoming very undebtlike indeed. There is no commercial loan you could take out that you would be let off altogether if your earnings were below £21000. For people on these incomes, there are essentially no fees and free education, before we even consider the new bursaries and maintenance provision. This is a big improvement on the status quo. The fees pledge is honoured, and in spades, for low earners. They pay no fees, nothing.

For people on middle incomes, repayments will be limited by income, and not by the size of the debt, which therefore becomes a notional debt not a real one. Payments defined and limited by income are usually called taxes, and this differs from a graduate tax in name only. Of course a pure graduate tax would keep the pledge. If this policy breaks the pledge for middle earners, it does so entirely because of what the payments are called. Toby Foster, the host, asked if the protest was really all about semantics, and it almost is.

But not quite. There are still the top earners - the top third or so - those who will end up paying £6000 fees, or in exceptional cases £9000. That's the full cost of their education in the chalk and talk subjects, and a little less in the more expensive subjects. These are the people we have let down in compromising on fees. So effectively what leftwing firebrand Max was demanding was a better deal for top earners. It's a funny old world isn't it.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Young's Gaffe

Lord Young is in trouble and has apologised for a gaffe stating that most people have never had it so good.

Specifically, if you have a mortgage and you still have a job, then with interest rates lower than ever, you have more money to spend that you did in normal economic times.

There are two big problems here. One is that "a job and a mortgage" accounts for a minority of households. So the remark, while true of the hypothetical middle-Englander Young probably had in mind, is not true of "most people".

The second is more telling. There seems to be something implicit in ever saying "most people" that pushes people's irrational tribal-brain buttons. Because if most people are X and a minority are Y, are you saying, and am I hearing that X matters and Y doesn't?

If, in a democracy, you say most people want better railways, that kinda suggests that support for better railways matters politically, and democratic governments ought to represent that interest group.

On the other hand if you say that most people want a heterosexual relationship, that doesn't imply any kind of political demand for priority or favour for heterosexuals from the government. Or does it? Why did you bring up the question of what kinds of relationships people want? Is it a dog-whistle? Are you framing some question as straight v gay?

Young's remarks, we are told, are insensitive to those who have lost their jobs, or fear they will. Is this really the problem? The government's institutions for dealing with unemployed people show total crass disregard for their feelings and always have done. Having been entirely forgotten about by some Lord is probably something of a mercy by contrast.

No, the problem here is the politics of framing an analysis in terms of, say the better off 60% versus the worse off 40%. It might not even be intended, but those are the buttons that are pushed. And many - particularly on the left, and the far right - see politics entirely as an exercise in identifying or creating, promoting and exploiting tribal divisions in society. They get very upset if you pick the wrong dividing line to exploit. I get upset even if you pick the right dividing line. Politics should not be about dividing people into groups, but respecting them as individuals.

And it is a fact of recessions that most of the pain falls on relatively few people. Surely it is more insensitive to deny this than to mention it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The dawn of a new kind of politics?

So I had a bit of fun the other day with Ed Milliband's speech, but there is much in there to be welcomed. In particular, rather than attacking the Liberal Democrats - Labour's favourite pasttime for the last few months - he almost sounded like one of us at times.
Let’s be honest, politics isn’t working.

People have lost faith in politicians and politics.

And trust is gone.

Politics is broken.

Its practice, its reputation and its institutions.

I’m in it and even I sometimes find it depressing.

This generation has a chance - and a huge responsibility - to change our politics. We must seize it and meet the challenge.

So we need to reform our House of Commons and I support changing our voting system and will vote Yes in the referendum on AV.

Yes we need to finally elect the House of Lords after talking about it for a hundred years.

Yes we need more decisions to be made locally, with local democracy free of some of the constraints we have placed on it in the past and frankly free of an attitude which has looked down its nose at the work local government does.

This could easily be from one of Nick Clegg's speeches.
Let’s be honest, changing our institutions won’t be enough to restore trust on its own.

Look in the end, it’s politicians who have to change.

We've got to reject the old ways of doing politics.


Some of the political figures in history who I admire most are Keynes, Lloyd George, Beveridge, who were not members of the Labour Party.

Frankly, the political establishment too often conducts debate in a way that insults the intelligence of the public.

We must change this for the good of the country.

I will be a responsible Leader of the Opposition.

What does that mean?

When I disagree with the government, as on the deficit, I will say so loud

and clear and I will take the argument to them.

But when Ken Clarke says we need to look at short sentences in prison

because of high re-offending rates, I’m not going to say he’s soft on crime.

When Theresa May says we should review stop and search powers, I’m not going to say she is soft on terrorism.

I tell you this conference, this new generation must find a new way of conducting politics.

If the rest of the party listens, this represents the most radical change of direction since the New Labour project. New Labour was defined as much by its posturing - and outdoing the Conservatives - on crime, on terror, on throwing away our hard-won civil liberties, as by anything else. New Labour since the election has done nothing but opposition for its own sake - if only because it was easy and they lacked a leader who might have the authority to do anything more difficult.

Of course there are dangers to our party if Labour were suddenly to agree with us too much, but it is still something to welcome. That we have comprehensively won the arguments on civil liberties, crime, Iraq, political reform and the culture of political debate, is a huge cause for celebration.

I hope Ed can take his party with him. It will be very difficult to engage in constructive opposition, particularly on the deficit. As John Maynard Keynes famously said:
"A public sector deficit of 10% of GDP should be halved in 4 years not in 3."
...or something like that. This means the honest opposition to every cut is either: a) we would do this same cut 6 months or a year later, or b) we would cut somthing else or raise a tax instead, with specifics.

But I am optmistic. I think there is a demand for a better kind of politics. Politicians are so much more beholden to the media these days. We're not even allowed to be old - Ming Campbell was destroyed for that crime - lest the pecking order between journalists and politicians might become less clear. We live or die by their praises or damnation, and they are untouchable. But judging by the way we conduct politics, we deserve no better.

Of course the media's desire for a good scrap has often shut down serious debate of the issues, and this is not going away. I am talking about how politics now responds to the situation we have. Playing the infantile games - spin, smear, and opposition for its own sake - has given some quick wins and will continue to do so. But being more grown up will better serve us, will be truer to the passions that brought us into politics - to make the world a better place - freedom and fairness.

It is not easy to leap first into a more grown-up kind of politics, but with the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives already co-operating, Labour need only leap last. Good luck.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

That Ed Milliband speech in full

In a big scoop for the Extra Bold Blog, I have obtained an early draft of Ed Milliband's speech.

For copyright reasons, I won't release this until after the actual speech has been delivered.

[check against delivery]

Friends, comrades, it is 72 hours since I became leader of this party. I want to say how incredibly honoured I am that you have chosen me over my brother to lead our party. David that'll teach you to nationalise my train set.

And let me pay tribute to two colleagues who are standing down. Alasdair Darling: you kept cool while Mandelson and Brown were overriding you. And Jack Straw you were always good as the butt of my unfunny jokes. Like this one.

The gift my parents gave to me and David is what I want for every child in this country: an indoctrination into the revolutionary road to socialism.

We have a responsibility to leave this world in a better state than we found it, except when it comes to public debt.

Freedom and opportunity are precious gifts. This is something I learned not to be true from my dad's books.

But lets face facts we had a bad result. Every day out of power is one where we can blame the coalition for the consequences of our deficit. So lets resolve to be back in power when the deficit has been removed, er, hopefully just 5 years.

Remember the spirit of 1997. But by the end of our time in office we had lost our way. Tony and Gordon took on conventional wisdom and lost. Let's do that again.

The old way of thinking said that public services would always be second class. And they still are. I'm proud of, er, something. But we saved the National Health Service, apparently.

The old thinking was that the world was too big and this country too small to make a difference. But look at our wars!

So Tony and Gordon took on established institutions until they became them.

But we also have to understand where we went wrong. How did we lose 5 million votes? A party taking on old thinking became trapped by its own dogmas. We became friends of the city, insufficiently racist on immigration, corrupted in the expenses scandal, and piling the debt on students.

But this week we embark on the journey back to thinking. We don't know all the answers yet. Dis generation wants to rule the nation with version. This generation wants to change our foreign policy so that we don't always start wars when we have the chance.

As we emerge from the global economic crisis we need to reduce the deficit. We are in no position to oppose what the coalition does because we would have had to do much the same. The fiscal credibility we earned in 1997 was hard won, and Ed Balls has being doing his best to throw away the last shreds of it.

But I'm now going to pretend I didn't say any of that, and have a go at all the cuts we would have had to have done anyway.

This government has no 5 year plan for growth, and no 5 year economic plan is no way to a planned economy of any kind.

I have a much bigger vision - to emerge from the financial crisis learning to listen to Vince Cable next time.

I want our businesses to benefit from the globalised economy. But not if it means hiring foreigners. Except people like my dad. We didn't listen on the doorstep to complaints about immigration. [camera cuts to some black people in the audience]

We want to win an argument about the danger the coalition government poses to our party. So let's have no truck with overblown rhetoric about waves of strike action. Labour would have had to do the same. In case that sounds evil, I'll talk a bit about caring for children.

This is one of the hardest issues for our party - but those who can work should do so. Reforming our benefits system must not be about stereotyping everyone out of work, like it was under Labour, but a genuine plan to make sure those in need are protected, and those who can work do so, like under the coalition.

We are a generation that yearns for things business cannot provide - green spaces and family. We were right to introduce markets, but naive about them. We shouldn't have closed all the post offices. We shouldn't have put all those pubs out of business with the smoking ban.

We stand for these things not because we are social conservatives, but because we are just conservatives.

Family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family.

So as we rebuild our economy, family, family, family, family, family, family, family, family.

But government can itself become a vested interest. I know the value of a good school, and I know that many parents are frustrated that they don't have them. But we wouldn't let them set up their own schools.

I believe individual freedom and liberty matter and should never be given away lightly. [Do I need to duck for cover at this point? Ed] Locking up innocent people undermined the good things we did like the database state.

We, me and my brother are the new generation. And we need new thinking in foreign policy.

Troops, troops, troops, troops, troops, troops, troops, troops, troops, troops, troops.

I've got to be honest with you about Iraq. Iraq divided our country. I'll say it divided our party, although we didn't show it at the time. But we were wrong.

Politics is basically broken. We have a huge responsibility to reform it. I support changing the voting system and will vote yes on AV. And we need to elect the house of lords. And we need more decisions to be made locally. I am so happy we have a government that understands all this unlike the last lot.

Hooray for Red Ken being our candidate for London Mayor. We can be the Red brothers. Sorry David.

Wisdom is not the preserve of any one party. Keynes, Lloyd-George and Beveridge are among my heroes. When Ken Clarke wants to review short sentences, I won't call him soft on crime, sorry Jack. Let's have a more grown up kind of politics. [Do make sure this early draft of the speech isn't leaked.]

We are the optimists, the new generation, the optimists and the new generation. Hooray for us.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

What's wrong with the electoral college?

So Ed Milliband has been elected Labour leader, winning the unions big, and losing the members and MPs. Are the system and result wrong in some way? Does it matter that not all votes are equal? I don't think so.

There's nothing inherently unreasonable about having a ballot just of MPs or just of members, or just of some wider constituency, like an open primary. So what can be wrong with a heterogenous compromise between these homogenous ballots?

And yes, there is something wrong with representing the interests of unionised workers over and above everybody else - lower paid non-unionised workers, the unemployed, the self-employed, etc - but it is a wrong that is at the core of the Labour party identity. If the Conservatives had an electoral college with such a wider constituency, it would include all the already privileged and powerful people. Well perhaps not all of them - they might make a point of leaving out Trades Union bosses.

And if the Liberal Democrats had an electoral college including non-members, it would include everybody, or at least all self-identified supporters, reflecting our belief in not dividing people up arbitrarily by class or some other aspect of identity.

And we're not so far off an electoral college. Nick Clegg had the support of many more MPs than Chris Huhne, and this fact alone doubtless influenced some members to support him. And a leader should enjoy the support of MPs, so perhaps this could be recognised in the ballot rather than relying on the power of endorsement. On the other hand MPs are perhaps more likely to back the winner, so a ban on endorsements would be a good complement to an MPs section in an electoral college. And for deputy leader MPs vote and we don't. And it's not an outrage.

The Conservatives also have something like an electoral college, but cleverly have the MPs reducing the contenders to 2, and then the members making the final choice. I say cleverly, because this process is designed to enjoy all the benefits of AV while looking as little as possible like it.

Ah yes, AV. Did I mention that Ed Milliband only won on transfers, and that David was leading not only on first preferences but in every round but the last one. But of course supporters of Diane Abbot and Andy Burnham deserve to have some say in the final outcome. It's not a gerrymander to let them transfer their votes to one of the Millibands. Ed had more support than David in the electoral college as specified, and the FPTP result would have been a travesty.

So it is good to see the importance of transfers in proving the winner is better supported than the runner-up, is not just supported, but taken for granted by the Labour Party. Amen to that.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Mediocrity in the shadow of a tyrant

Mike Smithson has called it for Mr Ed (Milliblair). Charlotte Gore is relieved because he is a clear loser.Much like the other 4.

But why haven't Labour got somebody with a bit more about them? It reminded me of the post-Thatcher years in the Conservative party. John Major rose without trace. William Hague was known only for being a pompous schoolboy. IDS - well I can't think of anything to say about him. And each time they rejected better-known party heavyweights.

Strong leaders like Thatcher and Blair it seems instinctively create the wrong environment for the nurturing of their successors. The same goes for their contemperaneous rivals, the Browns and Heseltines.

So, again, hooray for coalition. With genuine debate happening for once behind the mask of collective responsibility, more than one politician is at last thinking more about how best to govern, rather than just about how best to get to the top. Cameron's position is much weaker, and the Conservatives will be better off for it. Ditto Clegg and the Lib Dems.

As for Labour, I will reserve judgement a little longer. Will their new leader have a vision beyond "more borrowing"- which is all the party seems to stand for at the moment. I doubt it.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Labour Campaign for Deeper Cuts

Yes you read that right. With the Labour leadership contenders still in deficit denial. With Ed Balls blaming Darling for losing the election over his (limited) honesty in admitting the extent of cuts that would be necessary, it is worth reminding ourselves what borrowing means.

The longer we take to balance the budget, the more money is borrowed on the way, and the bigger the national debt we end up with. A bigger national debt means more spending on interest instead of public services. So if your policy leads to a bigger debt than the other lot, the in the long run you are the attacker not the defender of public services.

Now this is an "all other things being equal" kind of argument. A bigger debt might be worth suffering if it came with a sustained boost in economic growth. But growth was already 1.1% in the last quarter. To practise deficit denial today is not to argue for a fiscal stimulus during a recession, but for heavy borrowing through much of the economic cycle.

The tragedy is the New Labour came to power in 1997 on a manifesto of fiscal prudence in the face of a Conservative government that was borrowing during boom times. (Borrowing heavily we might have said, but peanuts compared to today's borrowing.) It was a good policy, and a tragedy that they forgot it after a term and a half.

Now Labour expect another government to take the hit of raising taxes to pay for their splurge of public spending. Any other government would be within its rights to cancel the lot rather than raise taxes - and an ideologically small state government would cancel it all, and some, and cut taxes. That isn't happening. Taxes are going up so that some of the unpaid for spending can be maintained, and by 2015 there will still be higher spending than there was in the Blair years. 

What's more after decades of flip flopping between Labour stealth taxes on everyone (particularly the poor), and Tory tax cuts for the better off, we are finally seeing movement on the personal allowance, shifting a little of the burden away from low earners. Labour never did anything like that. Remeber the 10p tax rate? However much the Labour leadership candidates froth about public services and progressive values, we know them by their deeds.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

And Labour's cuts begin

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice
Yes Labour cuts. These cuts were inevitable when Labour spent all of this government's money during the last government. Tax rises are also Labour's fault - they have already spent all the money any new taxes will raise.

Yet to hear them, you'd think this was all unnecessary. We could keep spending. Deficits don't matter. Cuts are ideological. Well maybe they are for some, but it is hardly a criticism you can make when you have £44bn of cuts in your own fiscal plans.

To be clear, Labour do not have a leg to stand on when they criticise the first £44bn of cuts. Their objections are cynical duplicitous cant.

And if £44bn were the limit of their ambition for deficit reduction, they would be avoiding some cuts now for much greater cuts in the future as debt continues to balloon.

Some "opponents of cuts" will refer to Krugman, as if to say "look, borrowing is OK". If you are one of these, I ask you this: how much borrowing is OK? Why bother collecting taxes at all? Where does Krugman say that borrowing 10% of GDP year on year is a good idea? If we previously thought that a deficit of 2% of GDP were sustainable, then Krugman might convince us that 3% or 4% would be OK. Fine. All parties went into the election planning merely to halve the deficit, more or less, anyway.

The next defence is that huge reckless spending was necessary to maintain the economy at a time of crisis. Well yes and no. The need to spend money wisely was as great as ever, but I agree that the cuts shouldn't have started in earnest in 2008 or 2009. The problem is that Labour had already abandoned prudence and the golden rule, and was already borrowing over £80bn in 2008/9. Prudence in the good years would have left a lot more room for fiscal expansion during the banking crisis without leaving such a massive debt.

The last gasp defence is about the timing. Make us prudent, Lord, but not today. But the fact is that economic data is never clear or timely enough for the best timing of a fiscal change to be known with any certainty. All we can do is eschew dogma and respond as best we can to the economic data we have. But why do that when there is a rallying cry of "stop the cuts" to be sounded?

Is this sort of cynical opportunist politics inevitable? Won't governments always spend before an election because they might not have the chance afterwards? And won't this always condemn us to higher debt than we might rationally incur?

Well no, there is good news. The evidence suggests that sounder public finances do seem to be a consequence of (not just our) coalition government. Of course this makes sense. If there are two or more parties in a government, it is more likely that one of them will be in the next government, and will therefore be opposed to a scorched earth policy today. Three cheers for the new politics.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Government can do more harm than good

There's something fanciful about protests coming from Labour sympathisers about a possible deal with the Tories, and vice versa. Labour and the Conservatives have for decades conspired to keep each other in power - untrammelled power - about half the time. They do this by maintaining an electoral system that frequently hands absolute power to their supposed opponents on a minority of the vote.

But what goes around comes around, doesn't it? There is a quid pro quo for Labour and the Tories isn't there? No. Your co-conspirator-opponent can always do more harm in government than you can make up for when you are in government. The Tories can make a complete hash of privatising the railways, and it is beyond Labour's power to fix it. Labour can spend so wildly there is a deficit of £170bn. Could the Tories as easily generate a £170bn surplus? This is not just a pendulum swinging, it is actually, slowly, dragging the country backwards.

It is as if I were happy to lend my Ferrari to my wildly reckless neighbour, half the time, if in return he would lend his Aston Martin to my similarly reckless self.

It would not be so bad if our constitution had rudimentary checks and balances, if we had reasonable separation of powers between the executive, legislature and judiciary, but here too we are still in the Dark Ages. Successive governments feel the need so badly to be "strong" to overturn the harm done by their predecessors, that they give their successors the power to do it all over again. Spare us more strong government.

One might almost expect the Tories to understand this when they start talking about small government and the big society. Small government should imply weak government and strong government is necessarily big government. But they don't.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Three cheers and three boos for Nick Clegg

The press and the impartial BBC were wetting themselves with excitement yesterday at the boos mixed in with the welcome applause for Nick Clegg from the Crucible snooker crowd.

See this just proves, they might have said, that the Liberal Democrats don't enjoy support from 100% of voters.

What we really want to see, they might have said, is party leaders speaking only to tame hand-picked audiences, like the other two do all the time.

The fact that there is any surprise at a party leader receiving a mixture of boos and applause just shows how rarely they face real audiences. Kudos to Nick for having the gumption. I wonder if either of the other party leaders would dare.

And it was all applause at the end.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Bigotgate: In pictures

Not everybody who is concerned about immigration is a bigot. This may seem an easy point to grasp, but to help I offer this illustration

In reality there is a continuum of concern and relaxedness, but we can take some moderate point on that scale to define the boundary of the green set.

Now it can be (and is) argued, particularly by people who are relaxed about immigration that by being concerned about it - going in the green circle - you are allying yourself with the bigots - blue circle. This is an effective argument for many people because it pushes buttons in the brain relating to tribal instincts not to ally with the enemy. The consequences of using this sort of argument is that it squeezes the green space in the above diagram, driving people who are swayed either out of the green circle or into the blue one. That is to say, it polarizes opinion. This, then is a very double-edged tactic.

I think it is high time we all did more to depolarize this issue, which in turn would make more room to listen to people's genuine concerns and preferences - whether justified by the facts or based on tabloid hysteria - and less room for the nazis.

Update: I should have mentioned that Mrs Duffy complained that "you can't talk about immigration". This is absurd - everybody is talking about it, including Mrs Duffy. However the sense that you shouldn't talk about it is real, and is a direct consequence of the squeeze on the green circle that I discussed above. The squeeze is intended to shrink the green circle by creating this sort of discomfort. Rather than being snotty about Mrs Duffy's complaint, we should recognise that she is feeling, but quite reasonably resisting, this divisive argument.


We can also show the set of lifelong Labour voters on the diagram.

Mr Brown and Mrs Duffy as far as we know both lie in the brown area - the overlap of the red and green circles. Given therefore their proximity, it is a disgrace for either to damn the other. This will cost Gordon Brown, and rightly so.

There you have it. But let's have one more picture.
Gordon Brown listening back to the "bigoted woman" recording.... on Twitpic

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hung parliament: Markets don't care after all

I almost feel sorry for the forces of Labservatism. The more they U-turn from #iagreewithnick, into attacking with all guns blazing, the more they reveal themselves to be utterly shallow and opportunistic. The best they could probably do is take the Lib Dem phenomenon on the chin and carry on as normal. But psychology demands otherwise.

Anyway I took a look at the FTSE 100 this morning to see what effect the increased odds of a hung parliament might have on share prices when markets open, after all the excellent polls of the weekend. This is what I saw.

OMG shares have fallen back to last Monday's prices. If this is "markets fear a hung parliament" it is a magnitude of fear that is indistinguishable from background noise. The Tories and their pet press are just scaremongering of course.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Greenpartywatch: the manifesto

Recently I blogged on the difficulty Greens have reconciling their disdain for economic activity with their policies on public services that seem to involve unlimited public spending. I concluded that by failing to support economic growth, the Greens would have to be, before too long, the biggest cutters of public services of all.

Their manifesto has now been published, so let's see if it challenges what I said.
In contrast, the Green Party is open about what we would cut, what we would defend, and about the fact that we need to raise taxation from 36 per cent of GDP in 2009–10 to around 45 per cent in 2013. This would halve the gap between Government expenditure and revenues by 2013–14 (as the Labour Government proposes) and progressively close the gap thereafter.
Wow. It's different, I'll give them credit for that. Increasing taxes overall by 20% is courageous, minister. Is it true that this would halve the gap between expenditure and revenues? Yes, if economic growth happens as forecast. Government forecasts, remember, rely on future increases in tax revenues due to economic growth.

But would that growth still happen under the Greens plan? Or would the 20% tax hike dampen it? Would the Greens' disdain for growth kill it off altogether before they even implement any policies? Is in fact a 20% tax hike designed to reduce growth? That would make some sense in a parallel universe of strange priorities.

And even if growth was unaffected, is this the right idea?
Unlike Labour, we would not focus on encouraging consumption but protect public services, spend on investment in the new green economy and create greater quality. Labour’s approach will sow the seeds of future crises by encouraging crippling debt and unsustainable consumption.
What seems to be said here is that money in your pocket is consumption and therefore bad, whereas public spending brings equality and is therefore good. And yet this consumption, we commit with the lucre in our pockets, is how we feed, clothe, and house ourselves. A tough challenge for millions of hard working people, who would pay more taxes under the Greens, however much they aim the bulk of their tax rises at the better off.

It's an understandable position. The Greens, like all parties, are pretty much middle class, and don't really get this, just as Paxo wasn't impressed at a tax cut of £300 for somebody on £8000 under Lib Dem policies.

And a lot of people on £8-20,000 don't use a lot of public services, face high food and fuel bills, can't afford housing, and aren't getting an awful lot for the taxes they pay. Equality through public spending can ring very hollow. The problem is a lack of consumption.

Now let's look at a few of these new taxes:
End the zero-rating of VAT on new dwellings, putting them on a level with conversions and renovations of existing dwellings, raising £5bn in 2010 and £7.5bn by 2013.
Oh, but won't this reduce the supply of housing when we could do with more housing really? (Although there is a policy to increase social housing.)
No longer offer zero VAT rating to financial services and betting duties, which are of limited value to the real economy, raising £5.6bn by 2013.

Gradually increase alcohol and tobacco taxes by about 50% to match anticipated increases in expenditures on the NHS, raising £1.4bn in 2010 rising to £5.6bn by 2013.
Ouch. Gambling, smoking and drinking all to be hammered. Won't the effect of this be just a tiny bit regressive? Not that the Greens are joyless puritans or anything.
Levy eco-taxes on non-renewables or pollutants, in particular pesticides, organo-chlorines, nitrogen and artificial fertilisers and phosphates. [amount not specified]
Tax on food. Who'll that hit most? Not all of these things are even big environmental problems.

I've not added up all the other tax increases but you can probably guess the sort of thing. I dare say the numbers add up to the promised(!) increased tax take, but ignore the economic impacts of all these extra taxes.

So was I justified in saying the greens would be the biggest public service cutters of all? Certainly if my reading of the economic chicken entrails is correct - and if it isn't the Greens should come back and fully explain their attitude to economic growth and its role in deficit reduction. And even if not they may be something even worse - the biggest ever cutters of consumption at all earnings levels.

That's not to say the manifesto is all bad. Some of the eco-taxes hit important environmental problems, and some of the extra public spending would be useful to many people. On the other hand a lot of it is more based on the Greens' peculiar sense of what is virtuous than any concrete environmental or social impact.

They are making a strong pitch for the hard left tax-and-spend vote. I expect this to fall flat because they do not understand the aspirations of the left, for working people to earn more, not less. Greens celebrate that wind creates many times more jobs per TWh/yr than other similarly priced forms of energy. That's almost equivalent to celebrating that those jobs are much lower paid. And the idea of economic progress through abandoning labour-saving technology would end with us all as dirt poor peasants. Would we peasants then still enjoy great public services? Nope.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Greenpartywatch: Supporting the stabbing industry

Caroline Lucas was on Question Time yesterday, taking a fairly straightforward pro-Union line on the BA strike. It can be seen here on iplayer, starting about 13 minutes in (until the next episode replaces it).
"...I deeply regret that the dispute has been allowed to escalate to such a point that we are now looking at a strike..."
Is this the same Caroline Lucas, who considers flying to be as bad as stabbing? (Yes it is.)

This raises the obvious question - why would you not want the stabbing industry to be hit by strike action?

As I said on Twitter at the time. "Lucas pretends to back the workers though she would really have them all out of a job. #bbcqt" (Thanks for the retweet @bbcquestiontime). I got a response to this suggesting that under the Greens, there would be jobs for these cabin crews on the railways. But it is hardly supporting the workers to suggest that you can just get another job! That is basically supporting the management: take what you're offered or clear off.

This reveals what is probably the most fundamental contradiction at the heart of the Green Party's thinking these days. One day they try to put the environment first: flying is evil, economic growth is wrong, etc. On another day they are pro-Labour (!), pro-Union, pro-worker, socialist, "defending jobs", "avoid the double-dip recession".

So one day it is make do and be happy with less. The next day it is supporting one group or another demanding more for their members, even if those members are engaged in trashing the planet.

One day it is "prosperity without growth". The next it is opposing cuts to public services. Yet without growth to reduce the deficit, cuts to public services will have to be so huge, it would position the Greens way to the right of the Tories. Yes, the Greens would be the biggest public service cutters of all.

I wrote earlier about the Green New Deal policy of the Green Party which becomes a little preposterous when you notice that they haven't agreed or can't say whether they want the economy to grow or not.

There may yet be some merit in either of the Green Party's two faces, but they had really ought to pick one and run with it if they want to make any sense. Socialism or the environment -they're not compatible.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Change that works for you: Building a fairer Britain

What does it mean? Change that works for you. There have been grumblings over this choice of slogan - the Liberator has even printed on its front page 'change that offends no one - building a blander Britain'. But I ask you, when did you last meet a slogan you did like? The liberator demands clear gold water, but doesn't offer an alternative slogan. What could a party say to clearly and immediately distinguish itself from its rivals? Property is theft? Greed is good? There is no such thing as society? No taxation without representation? Deutschland uber Alles? Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité? But liberté is so much apple pie these days, so bland; everybody says they support it.

The problem with the slogan "change that works for you - building a fairer Britain" is that it needs to be explained in terms of the substance behind it, that is the 4 steps to a fairer Britain that the Liberal Democrats are campaigning on. Those 4 steps do represent change that works for you, not just for the few, and are a path to a fairer Britain.

They are fair taxes - a personal allowance of £10,000 paid for by closing loopholes at the top and a mansion tax. Not the Tory policy of tax cuts for millionaires, but tax cuts for millions. For generations, tax cuts under Labour and Conservative have benefited the better off, and tax rises have hit everyone. This is a radical policy, Messrs Liberator, which at any other time would have had the rich screaming about incentives - as if incentives didn't work for everyone else.

A fair start for children - extra money for schools that take on disadvantaged children, to begin to give some of the same chances in life to children from all backgrounds that are currently the preserve of the better schools in the nicer areas.

Vince Cable - reforming the banks - the other parties are shying away from this - a credible plan to tackle the deficit as the economy improves - and investment in the green jobs of the future.

Political reform - it is not our society that is broken, but our political system. The political system has lost the confidence of the people, and they're not wrong. Get rid of big money and safe seats. A freedom bill and real decentralisation. The other parties have no stomach for a fraction what is necessary.

This is change that works for you, and they are steps to a fairer Britain.

Sure the Tory slogan has the word change. They want us to think that they are Barack Obama. But of course Obama is a Liberal and a Democrat. And where is their change? And who is it for?

Sure the Labour slogan has the word fairness. But they've been in government for what seems like 30 years, and where is this fairness?

So maybe it sucks to have a slogan that must be explained. At least - unlike the other parties - we have one that can be explained.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Libertarian tropes #2: The Homestead Principle

It's been a while since I promised a demolition of libertarianism in a handful of blog posts. Sorry about that.

I hesitate a little now because, as it stands, the homestead principle (wiki) - that ownership of unowned land is properly initiated by working that land - is probably the best and most honest way ever of initiating ownership of something previously unowned. Yet this is only because all the other ways are crimes against humanity. Proudhon had a point when he said that "property is theft". Whoever first owned or enclosed a piece of land arbitrarily restricted the right - the liberty - of others to walk across it and use it.

Yet property rights are vital to our prosperity. Societies that don't respect property are dirt-poor. Counter-intuitively, failing to recognise property rights doesn't enrich the poor at the expense of the rich. It enriches only gangsters and warlords at the expense of everybody else.

So doesn't this mean that we need a kind of founding principle of property, and that the homestead principle is good because it is the best of these? No. Property is justified by its consequences, not by some fiction. Unfortunately there is a breed of libertarian that cannot admit that western governments ever legislate in the common good, even by accident, and therefore cannot give credit where it is due.

And it is worth adding that the homestead principle is a lot more useless than it appears. If there were a lot of unoccupied land lying around, it would have some value, but there isn't. And more to the point there wasn't during the spiritual home of the libertarian: the settlement of the American West. The previous occupants were being killed. We are told the "indians" didn't deserve the land because they had no concept of property, or something. No it doesn't make sense.

But where it gets ugly is when this "principle", this triumph of dogma over real life consequences for people, is used to justify an absolutist and all-encompassing view of property that would crush individual liberty. How so? Whenever there is a conflict between your freedom and mine, the libertarian will say "whose property is it?" So every public space must be privatised, so that the owner may make the rules. If we are in conflict over some abstract thing that is not property then that thing must become property, so that disputes over it may be resolved. Every homesteader is a tyrant in their own domain and an abject slave in any other. It could work, I suppose, if we were never to deal with other human beings.

And let's not forget that while homesteading may be a pragmatic initiation of property claims, it certainly isn't a fair one. Those at the front of the queue get land and those at the back don't. The landless classes would be subject to the arbitrary rules of others wherever they go, because everywhere belongs to somebody else. Libertarians argue that prudent entrepreneurs would be benevolent on their land to attract labour; landlords, to attract tenants, etc, but this is wishful thinking.

It is quite breathtaking that anybody dares call this doctrine libertarian. It is an assault on the rights and freedoms of workers, tenants and anybody who spends time on land they don't own. This is in the name of property, justified by the homestead principle, justified by self-ownership. Yes you read that right. Self-ownership is used to justify virtual slavery.

Back in the real world, where landlords and employers don't always feel the need to be benevolent, property rights are more limited - they are balanced against human rights. But this is not a scandal: property, remember, is a useful invented concept. But it is something we rightly legislate to protect because to do so serves the common good. Ditto human rights, the natural environment, voting, and most other things that libertarians scoff at. Counting a grotesque of one as a trump card over the others is just irrational.

Friday, February 26, 2010

An Enemy of the People

Spolier alert

The Crucible Theatre has re-opened with a production of Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, a battle between truth, freedom and justice on the one hand, and politics, the media and the solid majority of public opinion on the other.

Dr Stockman knows he is right - he has the evidence, and initially he has supporters, but when the cost to the town in money and reputation is understood his supporters desert him. Driven close to madness by his unwillingness to deny the truth in the face of public opinion and financial ruin, he makes what he calls a remarkable - and to our ears disturbing - discovery. A society that would lie to protect its interests is utterly rotten. The common man, the radical press and the political establishment are not the backbone of society but its chief ill. They would suffocate superior free-thinking people like himself. Were they to succeed in this suppression of their moral superiors, they would deserve to be exterminated: the whole town, the whole country if necessary. And yes there was a bit of dalek voice for this line.

Yes, the fighter for truth and justice (in this adaptation, if not in Arthur Miller's) is not just called an enemy of the people by the authorities, he really is one. And perhaps the people deserve to have enemies such as him.

The majority is not always right. (Stockman says 'never right'). And while Stockman's descent into quasi-fascist elitism is disturbing, it is perhaps a salutory reminder that if we regard democracy merely as a device for fulfilling our desires, without regard to truth or justice as higher authorities, then we will deserve to have enemies like Stockman. Instead, bringers of uncomfortable news, back up by evidence, should be respected not vilified.

I've not touched on the bumbling and self-importance of the mayor, or the faux radicalism of the press, but both are frighteningly relevant comments on our society, for a play written in 1882.

Do we still shoot the messenger today? I fully expect many crusaders for truth to identify with Stockman, even if most of them actually have their facts wrong - the pattern is much the same. I'm sure the chiropractics and homoeopaths are smarting a little at the moment. Global warming deniers and global warming hysterics are widely ridiculed.

But mostly we ignore uncomfortable truths. Proportionate science-based action on climate change just isn't getting off the ground. Drug policy seems determined (to fail) to build compelling myths to fight the drug culture.

So while we still prefer to live in denial, since Ibsen's time we have introduced the new crime of not really caring what is true and what is not. Stockman would I think have been even more horrified at that.

An Enemy of the People runs until 20th March 2010.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Is the bag for life an improvement?

I've been wondering for some time whether the 'bag for life' that you can buy from many retailers is, environmentally speaking, actually an improvement on the disposable bag. This would seem to depend on how they are actually used - as opposed to the intention that they will actually be used 'for life'.

Rather than guesstimate away as usual, I thought I would be a little more scientific and try to gather some evidence. So please fill in my survey: 5 quick questions on your baggage habits.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tories beg for more recession

What makes my day is the sweet sound of Tory fury on the economy. It may only be 0.001% growth, but it is too early dammit. "We are badly prepared for recovery" grimaces Osborne. Too right you are, the last thing you want is any recovery before the election.

Now Osborne may have a point that this government deserves no credit. Governments don't fix recessions, they sit them out. It wasn't exactly a grand achievement of Brown to inject a fiscal stimulus - it is no hardship for a government to spend all of the next government's money as well as your own. It is some hardship for the rest of us of course, carrying that extra debt, but that has to be balanced against the benefits of the stimulus.

There is a fine economic judgement to the question of how much a government should borrow during a recession to keep the economy going. But this is swamped by the crude political judgement - spend the money now on Labour priorities: ID cards, dodgy IT, tax credit fiascos, harassing photographers, etc, so there is less for the Tories to spend later on their political priorities: rich, married, dead people.

Let's face it, the public sector deficit is breathtaking, and Labour is to blame. Gordon Brown way before the credit crunch had become less like, er, Gordon "prudence" Brown and more like Ken Clarke. The Tories are quite justifiably furious about it, as we all should be. But they'd rather we didn't think too hard about the difference between the state of the public finances and the state of the economy.