Thursday, 29 November 2007

From Stalin to Mr Bean

For all the puffed up hyperbole of David Cameron, it is often the meditative and quietly spoken Vince Cable who launches the effective punches at Prime Minister's Questions. He did so yesterday by noting the transformation of Gordon Brown from 'Stalin to Mr Bean'. Actually, I am not sure that Private Eye's characterisation of Gordon as Stalin has ever really worked and has certainly never been as funny as the musings of the Revd. Tony Blair.

Incompetence and sleaze are bad enough, but problems in the economy could be more troubling for New Labour. British, or more specifically English, people have a great faith in 'bricks and mortar' as an investment. Indeed, some treats their homes as their main pension pot.

Now it is not just 'buy to let' apartments that are proving hard to sell. House prices in the fevered London market fell by 0.6 per cent in October. Even more worrying, the credit crunch means that smaller lenders are finding it difficult to get any more cash to land or only at very high rates of interest.

The growing multiple of incomes to house prices was never sustainable and although a correction will be seen as bad news, in fact it is good news for those trying to get a foot on the housing ladder.

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

The competence problem

Given the lack of a sharp ideological divide between the major parties, governing competence is increasingly the standard by which governments are judged. Gordon Brown's government has encountered a series of problems which, if they continue, will make them look as accident prone as that of John Major.

It was a breach of procedures to burn vast amounts of confidential data on to disks for the National Audit Office. The NAO should have come to Washington and examined them in a secure room. It was also a clear error to then dispatch them by an insecure means of transit. Any organisation is only as good as its weakest link.

A more underlying systemtic problem is the state of HM Revenue and Customs with its reported bags of unopened post. Did the merger of the Inland Revenue and the reputedly more savvy Customs and Excise three years ago create an unwieldly bureaucracy?

Morale and the ability to operate effectively appears to have been effected by a series of cutbacks in staffing. We saw in the case of the Rural Payments Agency how such cutbacks can create chaos. They are a popular way of saving money when the public finances are under pressure. But they may have undermined the ability of a vital government service to operate effectively.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

'Goats' under scrutiny

Gordon Brown's 'government of all the talents' came under scrutiny last week as Lord West, a self-described 'simple sailor' turned security minister blamed his political inexperience for misstating his own pre-trial detention policy.

By ennobling four Westminster outsiders - an admiral, a businessman, a surgeon and a UN diplomat - and entrusting them with ministerial briefs, Mr Brown sought to show he valued unvarnished, expert advice. The idea was to portray the prime minister as a national leader rather than a tribal politician.

Not all the new ministers have found public politics plain saling. This has aggravated the resentment among some MPs who have seen outsiders rise rapidly in government. On several occasions, the foreign office minister Lord Malloch Brown has put himself on the wrong side of agreed British policy. Labour colleagues also did not like him describing himself as the 'wise eminence' behind the foreign secretary.

Lord Digby Jones, the former CBI director-general, has proved to be an energetic and enthusiastic trade minister. But he has courted controversy by voting just once in his first few months in the Lords. Lord Darri, a surgeon turned minister has won plaudits for the first stage of his NHS review. Lord West is also spoken of in the highest regard by those who work with him.

Bringing outsiders into government is not a new idea. Harold Macmillan relied heavily on his personal friend and industrialist Lord Percy Mills who held a number of ministerial posts.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Attempt to engage public fails

The Brown Government is keen to engage the public in the policy-making process through a number of new mechanisms. However, attempts to have what Gordon Brown called a 'widespread and informed' debate on the Queen's Speech have sunk in a slough of public apathy.

Only 71 people have responded to a cross-Whitehall online consultation on the draft legislative programme and many of the comments have little, if any, relevance to the proposed bills. For example, one posting states: 'I would love to use my bike more, but the state of the roads in Warrington are pretty bad.'

An invitation to e-mail Harriet Harman, the leader of the Commons, with thoughts on proposed legislation generated about 50 messages, but that was better than the three substantive comments received by the Scottish Office website.

The Government did also stage a series of regional events, but officials have been coy about how many turned up. One run in London cost £50,000 despite the Whitehall venue being made available free of charge.

Different forms of engagement may do little to overcome a fundamental distrust of the 'political class'.

The regulatory state is very much with us

Mick Moran developed the concept of the regulatory state as an ideal type to explain how the 'command' or Keynesian welfare state had been displaced by a state in which regulation was a predominant form of government activity. The regulatory state is very much part of the depoliticisation debate. Some writers have suggested that it allows government more effective indirect mechanisms of control while shifting the blame for failures elsewhere.

It is interesting to see how much the term 'regulation' featured in the Queen's Speech. There were proposals for 'stronger health and social care regulation'. The regulation of human embryology is to be reformed, as is party finance and structure.

Away from the speech itself, plans were announced for a new government agency to oversee the use of biofuels in the UK, in an attempt by ministers to dampen criticism of the government's renewable fuels strategy. The Renewable Fuels Agency will seek to ensure that biofuels are not imported from areas where they contribute to rising greenhouse gas emissions by supplanting areas of natural forest.

Against the background of all this activity, it was interesting to see that the Queen's Speech also promised 'a measure to reduce regulatory burdens on business.' In practice the greatest regulatory impact, particularly in small businesses, is in the areas of human resources and health and safety legislation. However, much of the regulatory burden in these areas is driven by the EU so it is difficult to see how it can be readily reduced by domestic legislation.

Under the Blair Government (although initiated by Gordon Brown's Treasury) the Hampton Review sought to tackle complaints about regulation by merging smaller agencies. In some cases, however, this rather mechanistic policy may have rather perverse effects, as is evident in relation to the debate about the future of one regulatory agency I am involved in.

In the Blair-Brown transition, there was some evidence of more sophisticated thinking in the Brown camp about looking at some of the economic and social costs of regulation which is often driven by media demands that government 'do something' about a particular problem. But so far it has borne little fruit.

Friday, 9 November 2007

It's all at the Co-op now - including Dave

At one time the Co-operative Party, the political arm of the Labour movement, was a separate entity from the Labour Party, but not for long. It became an affiliate of the Labour Party and something of a rotten borough (John Stonehouse, who tried to stage his own disappearance to avoid criminal proceedings, was one of its MPs). There are still technically 29 Co-op MPs who receive financial assistance from the Co-op.

The Co-op used to be a very big part of everyday life (see It Was All At The Co-op. (Scroll down) It's still a significant retail player, particularly in insurance and funerals.

Now David Cameron has launched the Conservative Co-operative Movement to help people run their own public services. Defending this foray into traditional Labour territory, the Conservative leader said: 'The co-operative principle captures precisely the vision of progress that we on the centre-right believe in: the idea of social responsibility, that we're all in this together, that there is such a thing as society - it's not just the same thing as the state.'

The reference to society is a direct repudiation of Mrs Thatcher's statement that 'there is no such thing as society' in her Women's Own interview. Actually, like many statements of this kind, it has been taken out of context, Mrs Thatcher's point being that things like family and community were more comprehensible to most people than abstractions like society.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Millionnaire minister quits to drive racing car

If one had written this headline twenty or thirty years ago, the assumption would have been that the minister was a Conservative one. But Lord Drayson, who will be driving a bio-ethanol car in the Le Mans racing series, held unpaid posts in the business and defence departments. In fact, he has not left the posts altogether, but taken leave of absence, which is a new concept for me in relation to ministerial posts.

'Lord Who?' you might ask. As a millioniare Labour donor and the winner, via his former company, Powerjet, of a lucrative government contract, the 47-year old peer was the subject of controversy when Tony Blair awarded him a life peerage in 2004 and brought him into government a year afterwards. But he is regarded as having been a highly effective minister, pushing through reforms to a reluctant defence bureaucracy and insular industry.

What many in business circles sees as disturbing is that there is no replacement for him as a dedicated minister for better regulation. His role is being divided among existing ministers. This chimes with some rather contradictory messages about the 'regulatory state' arising from the Queen's Speech about which I will write subsequently.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Immigration comes to the fore

A MORI poll shows that race relations and immigration are currently rated by voters (some 40 per cent) as the most important issue facing Britain, even ahead of the National Health Service.

Making the issue respectable could help the Conservatives, but there are also downside risks as is shown by the resignation of the prospective Conservative candidate for a Midlands constituency after he praised the controversial stance taken by Enoch Powell.

Governments always get themselves in trouble when they are shown to have got the figures wrong and this is what happened over migration. Not only did it appear that the Government has lost track of the number of migrant workers (which is not easy to measure), it also emerged that foreigners were taking most of the country's new jobs.

Gordon Brown opened himself up to criticism on this issue by pledging that his government would work with business to give 'a British job to every British worker.' Official figures have shown that fewer British workers are now in work than at any time in the past five years. Of 2.17m jobs created since 1997, 1.13m have been filled by foreigners. The most recent figures show that the number of Britons in work is falling while employment of both EU and non-EU foreign nationals continues to rise.

Some industries such as horticulture are highly dependent on foreign labour, in part organised through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers' Scheme (SAWS) which from next year is confined to Bulgarians and Romanians. The fact that, say, lettuces are readily and cheaply available in British shops reflects the presence of these workers.

Why not use workers from the local unemployed pool? It's not just that they will not work at minimum wages. Growers will tell you that such workers often turn up late or do not turn up at all and have less good work habits than their East European counterparts.

David Cameron has called for a 'grown up conversation' about population growth and the strains it imposes on public services. He has linked this to a broader debate about the 'atomisation' of society related to the growth in single person households linked to higher divorce rates and later marriages.

Tory strategists believe that Gordon Brown's patriotic rhetoric has opened a window for the opposition party to debate the issue without appearing racist. The 'are you thinking what we're thinking?' message in the last general election was coded, but probably not subtly enough.

Conservative Party chairman [sic] Caroline Spellman has been careful to emphasise that the issue should be discussed, but in a restrained and sensitive way.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Command Chancellorship no more

The relationship between the Prime Minister and Chancellor is one of the most important and sometimes the most fraught in British politics. For ten years we have been used the first Command Chancellorship since Neville Chamberlain was in the role when Baldwin was prime minister.

Not any more. It looks as if Gordon Brown's fingerprints were all over the leaked govenrment decision to make concessions to business on capital gains tax, showing that the PM has not abandoned his old Treasury fiefdom. This contrasts with Tony Blair's relative neglect of economic and financial policy and the defiance that Gordon Brown showed when he did try to intervene.

Alastair Darling had vigorously defended his CGT regime in defiance of criticisms from business. Now he has learnt about his admittedly limited climbdown from the press and will have to make a formal announcement to clarify the position.

Chancellors who have been subservient to the prime minister have never done very well in the job, Antony Barber being the prime example. For some time Alastair Darling has positioned himself as someone who was close to Mr Brown but not under his control. However, as a somewhat confused Downing Street intervention on bin tax showed, we can expect more of the same.

The King is dead, long live the King!