Thursday, 20 December 2007

Will they be dancing in the streets of Raith?

The prime minister will soon be heading back to Kirkcaldy for the festive break. A well-known story claims that following a good result by the prime minister's team, Raith Rovers, a football commentator ignorant of geography claimed 'They'll be dancing in the streets of Raith.'

Gordon Brown is probably not a man for dancing but, even if he was, he might not be in a mood for a jig. He tried to send Labour MPs away from Westminster with a positive message, but as Peter Riddell has pointed out, many of Labour's wounds are self-inflicted. The problems started with the encouragement of the view that there would be an early election, only to walk away when the figures didn't look so good.

If you were invited to the Brown household for lunch (a rather good home cooked lamb stew, shop bought rhubarb tart and a glass of supermarket wine if you wanted one), what words of comfort would you offer?

Some Labour MPs think that the election of Dave Cameron's 'stunt double', Nick Clegg, as Liberal Democrat leader will take votes away from the Conservatives. Clegg has not shown a very sure hand by first declaring himself an atheist and then saying his children are being brought up as Catholics.

Although the polls are not good for Labour, they are not disastrous. A ten point lead is not as bad as the 30 per cent lead Tony Blair had two years before the 1997 election. The Conservatives are not find it easy to get consistently about 40 per cent and there are some doubts about Dave, the quality of his team below the top level and the fuzziness of his policies.

But Gordon really has to get a grip and to show that he is in command of the government and has a distinctive and clear strategy. And the economic news next year may not turn out to be so bad as expected with the central banks coordinating effectively to inject liquidity into the markets and the MPC disposed to make further cuts in interest rates.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

The N Word

Yes, it has reared its head in relation to Northern Rock and not just from the lips of Vince Cable. Nationalisation of the troubled mortgage lender has been given a de facto blessing 'urbis et orbe' by no less a figure than the Governor of the Bank of England.

Those of us old enough to remember the 1970's shudder at the thought of reverting to the policy of rescuing failed companies. But potentially each taxpayer has already pledged £2,000 to the cause of Northern Rock given that the Bank has now guaranteed institutional loans to the Newcastle based bank.

Apparently nationalisation could be a good idea as it would stop the shareholders (of whom there are a lot of individual ones) blocking sensible plans to restructure the company. It might then be possible to sell off chunks of the bank to other lenders and private equity companies, recouping most of the money.

It will, however, create another opportunity for the Conservatives to attack the Government for mismanagement.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Is Brown disengaging from Brussels?

Gordon Brown claimed that he was unable to attend the signing of the EU reform treaty in Lisbon last week because of a 'diary clash'. But surely his meeting with the House of Commons Liaison Committee could have been re-scheduled? As it was, Britain was the only country not represented in Lisbon at head of government level and David Miliband, standing in for his boss, was reduced to shaking hands with an usher.

Brown also went to the EU summit in Brussels via London and it was his first visit there since he succeeded Tony Blair in June. When he was Chancellor Brown was far from keen on attending meetings of the Ecofin Council. Is Brown disengaging from Brussels?

The problem is that Britain has to be there to exert influence and the efforts of the Permanent Representation will not succeed if they are not backed up at the highest political level. Britain's influence is needed to counter French protectionism with Mr Barroso softening his pro-market views to take account of French and German concerns as he seeks reappointment in 2009.

Social mobility still at 1970s levels

Social mobility in the UK remains far lower than in most other advanced nations in spite of the government's professed determination to tackle inequality, according to research undertaken by LSE for the Sutton Trust. The potential for children born in 2000 to move to a higher income bracket than their parents is still as low as it was for children in the 1970s.

The researchres found that childern's life chances were still firmly linked to parental background. For example, children from affluent backgrounds who did badly in test scores when aged three tended to overtake poorer but more gifted children by the age of seven.

The report highlighted inequalities among those gaining university degrees. While 44 per cent of young people from the wealthiest households acquired a degree in 2002, just 10 per cent from the poorest fifth did so.

The report casts doubt on the effectiveness of government reforms to tackle class inequality. The issue of social mobility is a central pillar of Gordon Brown's plans for a Britain in which people can achieve their aspirations. In September he called for a 'genuinely meritocratic Britain.'

The underlying issue is how effective - and how proper - government intervention is in what happens in families. A good education system is unlikely to succeed if there is not parental support and encouragement to their children.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

Tackiest Christmas stunt?

This must count as the tackiest Christmas photo involving a politician so far this Yuletide, but apparently Lembit Opik is about to propose to his Romanian cheeky girl singer companion, Gabriella. Bring on the asteroids!

Meanwhile, the best leader the Lib Dems never had, Vince Cable, has done his last Prime Minister's Question Time. The nation waits will with bated breath: will it be Nick or Chris? One of them could decide who is PM after the next general election, except that it couldn't be Chris as he might have lost his highly marginal seat. Perhaps Vince could be brought back in those circumstances?

Who would be Home Secretary?

Being Home Secretary must be one of the toughest jobs in British politics, even though some of the responsibilities have been transferred to the new Justice department. Roy Jenkins wrote an interesting piece about the role many years ago in which he recalled that one was at the mercy of unexpected events. For example, the 'Mad Axeman' escaped from Dartmoor. People came to the conclusion that he was equipped with his axe and might lay about them at any time when in fact he was being disposed of by his criminal compatriots.

To some extent Jacqui Smith's troubles are of her own making, although Gordon Brown is also fully involved. Deferring the introduction of the police pay increase will only save £40m for the exchequer, and cost the average copper £200 over the course of a year, but it has incensed the boys in blue. Their concern is that it undermines the arbitrarion mechanism set up by Mrs Thatcher which followed years of low pay awards under incomes policies which led to a substantial number of departures from the force.

Public reaction has not been entirely sympathetic to the police, pointing out that they are far from badly paid. On the other hand, given the complexity of their duties and the challenges they face, one would expect quite a high level of pay.

If £40m is crucial, the public finances must be in a worst state that we had thought. Gordon Brown says that holding firm on public sector pay is essential for the fight against inflation, but this settlement hardly seems inflationary. One suspects that the government has caused an avoidable political storm, and upset another group of voters, for little real gain.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

How to start a panic

Internet sources are bigging up the possibility of a fuel protest at the weekend:

This sort of thing can become a self-fulfilling prophecy as motorists start to panic and fuel pumps run dry.

The Financial Times had a much more sensible piece pointing out the obstacles in the way of an effective protest:
1. The police have a new set of instructions and would not allow blockades of refineries to develop as they did in 2000 (mind you, the police are not exactly in a good mood with the government after they didn't get the full pay rise they were promised)
2. A similar attempt in 2005 failed.
3. Staging such a protest just before Christmas would hardly be an effective way to win popular support.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

History and Policy website

This website is run by historians and seeks to provide a better understanding of public policy through an historical perspective. There is, for example, an authoritative short account of New Public Management.

Visit the site here: History

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Breaking the Alastair Campbell rule

Alastair Campbell used to say that if you allowed a bad news story to dominate the headlines for more than four days, you were in trouble. Labour are certainly in trouble with the 'dodgy donations' scandal. Every time they try and get on top of the story, a new revelation emerges, this time about Peter Hain and the deputy leadership contest.

Wendy Alexander, Labour's leader in Scotland, is under heavy pressure to resign. She is a loyal Brownite and if she went the position of the hapless Harriet Harman might then be in question which would be even more damaging to the Government.

Gordon Brown has talked of looking at the whole system of funding. Ultimately, this could mean 'state' funding of political parties which means taxpayer funding. Parties have made themselves so unappealing to the average citizen that memberships have plummeted. Nevertheless, the structuring of choice they provide is essential to a modern democracy.