Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Who was the best prime minister we never had?

A few years back I read an interesting book about the 'nearly men' who might have become prime minister but didn't. I am not talking about failed leaders of the opposition here, who have grown in number in recent years, but senior politicians who failed to make the top grade: the likes of Iain Macleod (robbed by early death), 'Rab' Butler and Dennis Healey.

In connection with its annual Awards Ceremony at the end of November the Political Studies Association is running a poll on the 'best prime minister we never had'. Of course, it's all a bit of fun, but it opens up some interesting 'what if' questions about British political history.

Let's narrow the rather long list provided by the PSA and YouGov to four contenders: three Conservatives - 'Rab' Butler, Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke - and one Labour politician, Dennis Healey.

'Rab' had as many as three chances to become prime minister, although perhaps only two were credible: when Macmillan succeeded Eden and when Sir Alec replaced Macmillan. On all these occasions Rab lacked the steel to plunge the knife, and maybe that's a required quality of a prime minister: a certain toughness. Rab was the epitome of diffidence, although the death of his first wife was also a major setback for him. Incidentally, I understand that psephologist David Butler is his cousin.

'Hezza' was one of the big beasts of British politics. He has recently taken back control of his beloved Haymarket Press which I nearly went to work for in 1968. I interviewed Hezza a couple of years ago and he was in fine form. But I think that if he had succeeded Margaret Thatcher he would have torn the Conservative Party apart by trying to repudiate the Thatcher legacy. British politics would have looked very different.

Ken Clarke was the most credible leader the Conservatives had after 1997. He has a certain 'blokeish' appeal and could probably have landed some punches on Tony Blair compared with William Hague, a talented individual for whom it all came too early. But, of course, Ken is an unashamed Europhile and that makes him persona non grata in the Conservative Party these days, particularly among activists who preferred the hapless Iain Duncan Smith.

I actually gave my vote to Dennis Healey. In part this is because I like him as a person and hope to meet him again at the Awards Ceremony. He is a political bruiser, but you have to be. He is also a very cultivated man, who is proud of his intellectual 'hinterland'. The last time I met him he quoted his latest poem at me. I am not saying it was very good, but how many politicians try?

Dennis was Chancellor during a very difficult time for Britain after the first oil shock. When I last met him, Gordon Brown was at No.11 and he drew a contrast between the global circumstances Gordon was dealing with and the ones he had to face.

If Dennis had won the leadership after Callaghan stood down, he would have had a chance of winning the 1983 election. Rather than writing the longest suicide note in history in its election manifesto and getting in a race for second place with the Liberal/Social Democrat Alliance, Labour could have mounted a credible challenge to Margaret Thatcher, Falklands War or no Falklands War (the effects of which are still disputed by psephologists).

Of course, all this is the stuff of those 'what if' books you see on airport bookstalls. After a while, their alternative scenarios run out of steam. But it's an interesting form of speculation that can be instructive.

Monday, 29 October 2007

The age question

I heard Vince Cable, the acting leader of the Liberal Democrats, being interviewed on the radio this morning as I drove to work. Although I thought he was taking a rather utopian 'holier than thou' stance on Britain's relations with Saudi Arabia (which it is always easy for Liberals to do as they never have the responsibility of government), I did think that he put over his case very effectively.

He has ruled himself out of the Lib Dem leadership case because of his age. Of course, that was what did for Ming, although somewhow he looked older than his years, while Cable looks younger than 64. It's odd that with an ageing electorate, and with older people far more likely to vote, it's thought that the optimal age for a party leader is 40.

Of course, I know that technology and associated social mores are changing very rapidly, e.g., Facebook. Someone who is in middle age can perhaps still communicate with the young and with the older generation (although some young people communicate effectively with their grandparents).

Perhaps the relevant variable is experience. Even an older Lib Dem has no experience of government. But then neither does Dave Cameron. Tony Blair didn't when he became prime minister, although I think that was the source of some of his subsequent problems.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

The West Lothian question rears its head

New proposals on the so-called 'West Lothian Question' have been put to the Conservatives by Sir Malcolm Rifkind: West Lothian . Is his East Lothian response to the original West Lothian question posed by Tam Dalyell a piece of political mischief making or a contribution to an issue on which the recent Green Paper on governance is strangely silent?

With Scotland having its own SNP government, there is something anomalous about Scottish MPs being allowed to vote on, for example, health and education issues that affect only England. Of course, in part this is a consequence of having devolution in three parts of the UK, but no general federal settlement (which is not possible given that even the north-east, which has a stronger regional identity than most, did not want an elected regional government - quite rightly in my view).

Of course, even with the reduced number of Scottish MPs following devolution, Labour can depend on Scottish seats for a majority. And the issue is particularly awkward for a Scottish prime minister of the UK who is keen on emphasising 'Britishness'.

The issue acquires new salience with the Scottish 'Government' seeking to take measures such as free prescriptions for all. Such bounty is only possible because of the 'Barnett Formula' which allocates funds between the three parts of the UK. It was devised by Joel Barnett, then Chief Secretary of the Treasury, in 1978 although he subsequently said that he did not think it would last a year or even twenty minutes.

It ensures that Scotland gets more money per capita than England. Its defenders insist that Scotland needs more money because of its remote populations in the Highlands and Islands, plus the additional health care costs that arise from many Scots following unhealthy lifestyles in terms of smoking and alcohol consumption. Scottish Nationalists also claim that Scotland has been robbed of its oil revenues by the English.

As an Englishman of Scottish (and Cornish) descent, I wouldn't want to take sides. But, party politics aside, there has to be some resolution of the implications for England of devolution to Scotland, which is likely to be more extensive over time.

What is the new Business Council for?

I am old enough to remember the heyday of the National Economic Development Council (NEDC). During the heyday of tripartism from 1962 to 1979, the Council provided a meeting point for government, business and unions. Indeed, the 'Neddy Six', the six TUC members of the NEDC, provided a key interface between the unions and the government. Neddy limped on under Margaret Thatcher until it was painlessly put to sleep by John Major.

Nowadys government wants to be seen on good terms with big business. Tony Blair's stated ambition was to make Labour 'the natural party of business'. He particularly liked talking to chief executives of big American organisations and shadowy bodies like the Multinational Chairmen's Group. However, when the European Round Table of business leaders went to No.10 shortly after Tony took up residence and asked him to take Britain into the euro, to their chagrin they were told 'no can do'. And the reason was, of course, that Gordon would not countenance such a step.

Now Gordon is in No.10 and the emphasis is on transparency as well as inclusivity. He has set up a business council made up of fifteen business leaders, more of half of whom are knights or dames. They read like a list of the business great and good and inevitably include such ubitiquous figures as Sir Richard Branson (who might well be our president if we had a republic) and barrow boy made good Sir Alan Sugar. On the government side at the first meeting last week were Gordon himself, His Master's Voice (Alastair Darling) and the business and skills secretaries.

The stated purpose of these worthies is to act as a 'sounding board' for the prime minister, 'giving him a strategic business perspective on government policies and operations'. When the council met last week the agenda included 'human capital, globalisation and climate change.' The first meeting lasted two-and-a-half hours (and the business leaders won't have got much sustenance given that No.10 probably uses the cheeseparing Government Hospitality Service who were in evidence at No.11 and seem to have some connection with Buck House).

What was not discussed was the ongoing row about Capital Gains Tax which has set much of business opinion against government. Sources close to No.10 said that business leaders had been warned in advance not to mention the pre-Budget report.

Alsatair Darling held his own meeting on the subject with Britain's 'four main business groups' (presumably the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the Chambers of Commerce and the Federation of Small Businesses). The Government is apparently willing to consider 'marginal' changes to the CGT decision, but has ruled out any reinstatement of the taper relief or indexation allowance.

I don't think this was a very well thought through decision and it could damage what has generally been an effective relationship between New Labour and business. However, whether the Conservatives will be able to make much political capital out of it is another matter. It's a big issue if you are a small business person (although it doesn't seem to have percolated the thinking of my daughter who is active in her local chamber of commerce). However, as of last week, only 13,578 has signed the relevant petition on the Downing Street website and 600 people have joined a Facebook group called 'entrepreneurs against the abolition of taper relief.' Sounds fun.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Identikit candidates in Lib Dem race

The two declared candidates, and likely front runners, in the race for the Liberal Democrat leadership - Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne have a number of remarkable similarities:

* Both went to fee-paying Westminster School
* Both are former MEPs
* Both have wives from elsewhere in the EU
* Both share a relatively liberal economic philosphy

The latter is a problem for both of them, given that Liberal activists who are the electorate tend to lean to the left. In the last leadership campaign, Chris Huhne tried to edge towards the left.

There is, however, one big difference between the candidates that has been little commented on. Chris Huhne has a knife edge majority of 568 in the Hampshire constituency of Eastleigh. Nick Clegg represents the leafy part of Sheffield (Sheffield, Hallam) where he had a majority of 8,682 and over 51 per cent of the vote at the last election. It wouldn't make a lot of sense to go into a general election with the leader having to give much of his attention to holding his own seat, perhaps then to lose it as a hung Parliament gave the Lib Dems a real chance of a share of power.

The telegenic Clegg is the same age as David Cameron and shares a not dissimilar background. But he rejects suggestions that he is 'Cameron lite' and looks like the best bet for the Lib Dems. But a lot could happen between now and December.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Brown under the cosh on referendum

As Gordon Brown attends the EU summit in Lisbon, he is under the cosh from the British media on the subject of a referendum on the new treaty. One poll suggests that 75 per cent of British voters would like such a referendum.

Brown's strategy seems to be to hope that everyone will have forgotten about it by the time of a general election two years away, particularly given that most voters are more interested in subjects like health and education. However, it could set back attempts to re-buid his image, particularly given that he has placed emphasis on 'trusting the people'.

Under some media pressure, Tony Blair did agree to a referendum on the original constitutional treaty, although there was no referendum on the substantial extensions of EU power brought about by the Single European Act (approved when Mrs Thatcher was prime minister) or the Maastricht treaty.

The claim made by the Government is that the treaty has been significantly altered and that key British concerns are now protected by 'opt outs'. This was the line David Miliband was attempting to take in a Radio 5 interview this morning, but he seemed to be wriggling under pressure.

Ultimately it would need a lawyer specialising in the EU to rule on these matters, but although the revised version of the Treaty is somewhat different, and certainly upset the French, it is more difficult to claim that it is substantially different. However, calling a referendum would land the Government would even greater political problems, particularly if it was turned into a de facto vote on Brown's premiership.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Church and State

For the past few days I have been reading up on the subject of the Establishment of the Church and England. Why? Because the Political Studies Association is preparing a response to the summer Green Paper on Governance and I have drawn the short straw.

Should one bother about the issue at all? Well it occupies over two pages in the Green Paper, admittedly some of it on arcane topics like Royal Peculiars. It has been a challenge for me to get my head round some of the issues. But advocates of modernisation would argue that we should not stop short at the Church-State boundary, particularly in a multi-faith society.

It should also be noted that there could be a crisis if the current Prince of Wales succeeds to the throne and proceeds with his intention to be 'Defender of Faith' rather than Defender of the Faith which is what as Supreme Governor of the Church he is supposed to do. But then some would argue that the whole notion of a Supreme Governor is a contradiction.

It's actually quite difficult to work out what the distribution of allegiance to different faiths is in the UK. The 2001 census contained a question on the issue for the first time since 1851. The results were complicated by the fact that, in a protest at the question, 390,000 people classified themeselves as 'Jedi knights', making them a larger grouping that Buddhists, Jews or Sikhs.

If the Jedi Knights are treated as no religion, then 71.6 per cent of the population professes to be Christian. The next largest group is Mulsims with 2.7 per cent. Only 15.5 per cent state that they have no religion.

However, opinion poll data in response to the question 'Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?' produces a different response. 41 per cent said 'none'. Of course, the question implies membership. 29 per cent said that they were Church of England/Anglican as against 11 per cent Catholics, although the evidence suggests that there the Catholic church now has more regular communicants than the Church of England.

The explanation for this paradox is that there are many people who are baptised members of the Church of England but have little or no regular contact with the Church, something that goes to the essence of an Established Church. When I had an entry in International Who's Who I listed myself as an 'Anglican'.

What does that mean in my case (and I suspect many other nominal members of the C of E? It means that I went to a C of E primary school, as all my grandchildren of school age do (although at least one of their parents is a more regular attender at church than I have ever been). I hence received a substantial early grounding in the theology of the Anglican Church which remains with me to this day.

The Church of England is divided into three main factions: Anglo-Catholic; Broad Church Liberal; and Evangelical (this is a bit of an over simplification but will do). Many Anglo-Catholics eventually 'go over' to Rome and the numbers have increased since the introduction of women priests. However, others hope that one day the Church of England will overcome the 'Henrician anomaly' and re-unite with the Roman Catholic church, but possibly with a separate Anglican rite. Arguments over theological questions with Catholic friends always come down to the doctrine of transubstantiation which I certainly cannot accept.

The Evangelicals are a growing force in the Church of England. In their more extreme versions, they resort to practices like speaking in tongues. They emphasise the literal truth of the Bible (including the Old Testament). They believe in the Protestant doctrine of the individual having a direct relationship with God with a limited role for intermediaries. My local church is in this camp and I would not enter it under any circumstances.

I would align with the broad church liberal camp. I welcome women priests and I have no objection to priests who are gay. I would set to one side most of the Old Testament and refer to the New Testament and in particular the Sermon on the Mount. And because I don't accept there was a bodily resurrection (as distinct from a renewed sense of Christ's presence among the disciples) I have never become a communicant member of the Church of England.

What I do see the Church of England is a national church which, in the words of a recent piece by the Bishop of Derby, aims at inclusivness and above all at being 'constantly available' to any citizen (as well as having a responsibility for the maintenance of much of the fabric of the national heritage, although perhaps someone else should pay for that). Others, such as the former Bishop of Woolwich want the Church 'to be responsible for God for their own corporate life, their own choice of leaders, their own ground rules of behaviour' so that they can 'seek release from their captivity.'

Clearly the present situation is full of anomalies. The Second Church Commissioner operates in effect as a kind of minister of ecclesiastical affairs, but was not able to give satisfaction to a MP whose constituent had been unable to get a bill settled by Bradford Cathedral despite taking them to court. The Bishops in the Upper House are something of an anomaly in a multi-faith society, but the creation of a wholly elected upper house could solve this problem.

There does appear to be a vade mecum available. Iain McLean of Oxford University has suggested a reform of Establishment on the 'Scottish model'. Reform It should be remembered that when the Queen is in Scotland she does not worship in the local branch of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopalian Church, but at the Kirk (the Church of Scotland). Given that, it is something of a mystery why the then Archbishop of Canterbury refused to give communion to the Moderator of the Church of Scotland at her Coronation in 1953.

The 'Scottish model' is disputed even in Scotland. But in essence it would mean that the Church of England would remain as a national church, but would be removed from political control. Many experts see the Green Paper as giving some encouragement in that direction.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Lembit Opik Lights up the Liberals

Although the Liberal Democrats have more than their fair share of men in suits (and relatively few women MPs), they also have their characters, in particular Mid-Wales MP Lembit Opik.

Opik first gained attention because of his demands for the Government to set up some sort of body to deal with the threat of asteroids colliding with the Earth (although presumably if one landed in Mid-Wales it would threaten more sheep than people).

He then took up with a very popular celebrity, weather woman Sian Lloyd. Known for her gesticulating weather forecasts which are sometimes parodied on satirical shows, Lloyd recently became the oldest woman (she is 49) ever to be voted 'rear of the year': Rear

Many might have thought that Opik was fortunate to be involved with such a personable and attractive woman, but he ditched Lloyd for one of two twenty-something sisters who form part of a 'Romanian cheeky singing duo.' Posteriors seem to feature in their songs, so perhaps there is a connection there with Lloyd.

Now Opik is the news after a meeting of indignant secretaries in the House of Commons who were protesting at a rule which stipulates that 'busy' MPs can jump the queue in the Commons canteen, post office etc. Not unreasonably, the hard pressed secretaries felt 'disrepected'.

Opik declared that he was their champion. The meeting was packed out with many left in the corridor, but Opik used his privileges to force his way in, only to be thrown out again.

Lembit Opik is not a candidate for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. But he is probably better known than many of the credible candidates who do not include the astute deputy leader, Vince Cable, who has declared himself 'too old' at 64.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Are you serious?

The picture from the Greenwich Mercury shows London mayoral candidate Boris Johnson contemplating traffic queueing for the Blackwall Tunnel which is one of the few routes to connect North and South London below Tower Bridge (there are three others: can anyone name them?) I sometimes stay near this road and the traffic goes on all night. Since the tidal flow system was stopped for health and safety reasons, the queues have got worse.

However, my real theme is not traffic problems in my birthplace Greenwich (which has been targeted for its own congestion zone). Now that a general election is out of the way until 2009/10 next year's London mayoral election becomes more significant. The Mercury describes Bozza as a 'maverick' and an 'eccentric', but harsher words have been used.

In a recent incident in the Commons, Bozza thought he was speaking about a proposed law but referred to the wrong section. Eltham MP and Millwall supporter Clive Efford had earlier given it large to Bozza. It all became too much for the former cab driver who had confronted nothing so ridiculous when asking 'Where to, guv?' and left the chamber in a fit of giggles.

Can one conceive a world city like London having Boris as its mayor? The Conservative selected him because at least he does have a profile unlike some Conservative (and New Labour) candidates who seem to have been turned out by a factory somewhere in Cheshire complete with a smart suit. Colleagues who go to schools a lot tell me that Bozza is popular with the young because he is not another identikit politician. The Liberals, by the way, will be fielding one of the highest ranking (now retired) gay policemen in the Met.

Red Ken is none too popular these days. Watch this space.

BTW, apologies to any one who has tried to post comments recently. I got that aspect in a bit of a tangle, but it should be ok now.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Age and politics

The population is ageing. People live longer and are fitter. Yet one of Ming Campbell's problems as leader of the Liberal Democrats was that he was perceived to be too old at 66.

Admittedly, he did look older than his age. But Winston Churchill first became prime minister when he was 65, admittedly at a time of great national emergency and was 80 when he left office. 'Supermac' was 62 when he took office and his successor, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, had turned 60. That was the age at which Harold Wilson felt he ought to retire.

Of course, only a few people knew at the time that Churchill had had a stroke in his last term as prime minister. Today, there is much greater transparency about the health of politicians. Given the rapid pace of technological change, a politician can seem older than his chronological age.

I think the Liberals' problems are more fundamental than the question of who is leader, although their current ratings are among their worst for 20 years. Where do they position themselves on the political spectrum? They got some electoral dividends in 2005 for being perceived as to the left of Labour. But is that a sustainable position, given that many of their seats are vulnerable to a swing to the Conservatives?

Their great hope is a hung Parliament and a changed electoral system which they think would benefit them. But, depending on the system adopted, other parties such as the Greens and parties of the far right could benefit as well.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Does social class still matter?

Successive generations of A level and University students of politics often had to deal with a question based on Peter Pulzer's famous quote: 'Class is the basis of British politics: all else is embellishment and detail.'

Conventional wisdom for some time has been that class is no longer a good predictor of voting or other forms of behaviour. Market researchers, particularly those working on consumer goods, have abandoned social class categorisations for lifestyle groups, reflecting a more fragmented society. To find out which 'Acorn' group you are in, go to: Up My Street

Nevertheless, the issue of social class has reared its head again with Dave Cameron, an old Etonian, as the Conservative leader. Of course, Tony Blair also went to a fee paying school and to Oxford, but he wasn't a member of the elitist Bullingdon Club which, it has been claimed, is 'characterised by debauched behaviour by rich young men in morning dress.' Whether it would be any better if they were wearing sports jackets and cords is a matter for you to decide.

Of course, wealth and income is no longer related to social origins in the way that it was. Britain has become a more metriocratic society, particularly if you have been to one of the better universities (no longer just the 'golden triangle' of Oxford, Cambridge and London).

Social class divisions still persist, although often expressed in postal code terms, e.g., CV31 versus CV32: the former area being less prosperous South Leamington, the latter being the more up market north of the Royal Spa.

They clearly still have some resonance, even if the social class divides are less clearly defined than they once were. Possibly David Cameron's origins can be exploited by Labour, although probably more effectively outside London and Southern England.

Of course, at the moment Labour seems to be falling out with Blairites getting their revenge on Brownites in the Sunday press. However, just as I thought the Labour lead the polls were showing was shallow and fragile, the same is true of Conservative leads now being shown.

The electorate remains volatile and probably the two main parties are level pegging which is certainly an improvement for the Conservatives. However, much of their gains have come from the Lib Dems who have been in free fall. Knives are already sharpening for the decent but electorally ineffective Ming Campbell. As Liberal spokesperson on foreign affairs, his age was an asset, but now it is handicap, particularly as he seems to be older than he actually is.

Where to guv?

Cab drivers in London feature prominently in the mythology of British culture and politics. Private Eye even has a column in which a mythical cab driver (sometimes based on a public figure) gives his absurd views on contemporary issues. Prince Philip rides round London in a cab converted to run on electricity and sometimes gets hailed by would be passengers.

'Doing the Knowledge' is one of the most arduous training and socialisation processes anywhere. I have a reasonably good memory but I couldn't begin to master all the 'routes' that my friend Kevin Portch has had to learn. Sat Nav? Don't mention it.

Kev said 'Where to guv?' for the first time on Friday. By tradition the first fare is free and it was a £23 one from Hoxton. The passenger (a well-known musician) gave £25 to charity.

Read about Kev's experiences here:

Saturday, 13 October 2007

A memorial meeting for Nelson Polsby

Today I attended a memorial meeting at Worcester College, Oxford, to celebrate the life of the American political scientist Nelson Polsby. Nelson was remembered with warmth by the many speakers which included the Chancellor of the University, Chris Patten who recalled when Nelson had come to observe him at work at the Conservative Research Department. Shirley Williams was in the audience, looking very sprightly.

Nelson Polsby was significant for the study of politics in the UK in at least three ways. First, he was of a generation of political scientists who had a real interest in politics, whereas at least some in succeding generations often seem to give priority to theory or technique over actual engagement with politics.

Second, he was not an Anglophile in the full sense of that word, but he had a great appreciation for and understanding of Britain (for example, reflected in a co-authored 1981 book Britain and its Discontents.) One speaker remarked that Nelson did attempt to imitate the upper class British accent, but seemed to think that everyone in that station in life seemed to speak like Roy Jenkins.

Third, he was one of the outstanding figures in a generation of American political scientists who saw Britain as a great comparator. Leon Epstein who died recently was in the same category. Another great figure is Harvard's Samuel Beer in his 97th year who took part at a panel at the APSA in Chicago in September. Younger political scientists in the US who look to Europe tend to be interested in the EU than a particular member state (invoking an implicit federal model in some cases).

I arrived in the morning for a planning meeting on a commemorative book and was almost bowled over by an academic procession going in the opposite direction. Headed by an academic in full regalia, it was made up of first year students of the College dressed in subfusc and heading to the Radcliffe Camera to matriculate.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

The politics of inheritance tax

The Chancellor, Alastair Darling, has told the House of Commons that the cut-off point for inheritance tax for couples will rise from £300,000 to £600,000 straight away, rising to £700,000 by 2010.

The Conservatives sees this as an attempt to steal their clothes. Labour claims that they have been working on this and other changes advocated by the Conservatives for some time. They also argue that their proposal has the merit of not benefiting the very well off.

What I am interested in here is not so much the partisan point scoring, or even how one replaces the considerable revenue that will be lost from inheritance tax (which was always one of the main constraints on Labour). Without having looked at the proposals in detail, it appears that some of it will be clawed back by changes in capital gains tax. This will remove some benefits that were given to small businesses by Labour. My entreprenuer daughter, just about to buy a factory for her expanding business, will not be pleased.

I suppose my original take on inheritance tax was that this was an issue that mainly concerned people who were Conservative voters anyway: those who were affected and did not vote Conservative were influenced by other considerations anyway.

As someone who would have been affected by the old threshholds, my attitude was that it was a tax on my estate rather than me and each of our children would get 100k before the tax started to bite. Not that I am a 'Skier' which is the term applied to the older members of the population who are 'Spending the Kids' Inheritance.'

Having read some of the vox pops (which I always find interesting, even if they are not very scientific), I started to get a different take on the issue. It was clear that many people saw this tax as an injustice. In their view they were not wealthy people, but had accumulated wealth because of rising house prices and their own hard work and savings. They felt that in many respects they were being penalised for saving. I can see where they are coming from. Often the problem with taxes of this kind is that the very wealthy are able to find means of evading their full impact.

Sheffield University have a social and spatial inequalities research group: Sheffield . Work done by them and reported in the Financial Times found that at least a quarter of households in the 30 most marginal seats are liable to inheritance tax (at present levied on 7 per cent of UK estates). Moreover, their data is drawn from the 2000 census and since then property prices have more than doubled while the inheritance tax threshhold has increased up to today by less than a third.

Inequality of wealth is growing in Britain and there is some evidence that this does concern voters, hence the issue of non-domiciled residents. Should we bother about this trend at all, which is driven to a large extent by structural changes in the world economy, and which Labour policy measures have done little more than hold in check?

If one looks at a society like Brazil which, like many Latin American countries, has a high Gini coefficient (i.e., is very unequal) it is evident that very serious social tensions and frequent breakdowns of social order result. By accident or design, I found myself in a barrio in Santiago, Chile in a van with some Brazilian colleagues. They were very sniffy about the slums which they said were nowhere as near as bad as those in Brazil. And nearby the Chileans were building modern social housing.

In the 1970s there was something of an obesssion with the distribution of wealth and income in Britain. Very high marginal rates of taxation were counter productive in terms of economic efficiency and raising revenue. But have we gone too far in the other direction? Do we need to look again at these issues?

A colleague remarked to me yesterday that the British public were probably not able to absorb any more taxes: indeed, there is poll evidence that they think that they are paying too much tax, reviving the concerns among those in the median income bands that Mrs Thatcher tapped into so effectively in 1979.

However, how the tax burden is shared out is a different matter and may play out differently. How one would translate that into policy is another matter, as the Liberal Democrats abandoned their proposal for a top rate of 50 per cent. In any case, the issue is more one of wealth than income. Redistribution would not, of course, provide of itself an answer to complex issues of social exclusion. But are there costs associated with the UK becoming significantly more unequal?

Sunday, 7 October 2007

A week is a long time in politics

Harold Wilson once famously remarked that a week is a long time in politics. That has certainly been shown to be true over the last week. Before the Conservative party conference a snap general election was seen as inevitable, leading to a victory for Gordon Brown and humiliation for David Cameron.

My view has been all along:
1. That there was no constitutional necessity for an election
2. As a political gamble it was high risk
3. Gordon Brown wouldn't call one in November (I expressed this view on Radio WM last Monday)

If Gordon Brown wanted to get on with the business of government, he could have said this at the Labour Party conference. Now David Cameron is able to portray him as frightened of an election and has won a substantial tactical victory. Again, I have always thought that David Cameron was a smart politician, his main problem being with some people in his own party.

However, having an election delayed until 2009 may not entirely a good thing for the Conservatives. In that sense, their victory may be a little pyrrhic. However, it has done wonders for Conservative morale and damaged that of the Labour Party. In that sense it is a serious political miscalculation and no doubt there will be some fall out (and fall guys) within Labour ranks.

Sometimes, however, one does despair of the electorate. It's a perfectly respectable and defensible political position to want lower taxes and less government. But in a vox pop in the Sunday Times today one voter said that she would vote Conservative 'if they reduce tax and put more money into healthcare. I'd like to see more police on the streets too.'

How can one square that circle? Reducing waste and inefficiency in government is no doubt one answer, but it is easier said than done and cuts in civil service staff may already have been taken too far in some cases (note the problems with the Rural Payments Agency).

It's very difficult to satisfy an electorate that wants lower taxes and better services. It may this that eventually undoes New Labour, although any party that remains in office for too long ultimately gets removed.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Roy Jenkins the villager

I have now solved the question of where Roy Jenkins was buried. Although his funeral service was at St.Augustine's Church, he is buried elsewhere in the village cemetery. The entry in the DNB, written by no less an authority than Anthony Howard, is therefore wrong and an E mail has gone to Oxford.

Someone once wrote a book about 'Shaw the Villager'. Most people thought of GBS as a playwright (his plays have not worn well) and an iconoclast, rather than a resident of Ayot St.Lawrence.

But apparently Roy Jenkins had his role as a villager according to the Oxford Mail:

The chairman of East Hendred Parish Council, Dr John Sharp, said he had played an important part in village life.

He said: "He was active in village affairs and opened the Millennium extension at Snell's Hall. We are proud to have a plaque up there.

"He also presented prizes at the horticultural show. He was very much part of East Hendred."

The Rector of East Hendred parish church and next-door neighbour, the Rev Ernest Adley [now replaced by the Rev. Rita Ball], said: "He was a good neighbour. The touching thing for me was that I was ill over Christmas and when he discovered that, he sent me a signed copy of his latest book."

As it so happens, one of my granddaughters is going to Snell's Hall tonight for a sleepover with the Rainbows.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Polls sow Labour doubts

The latest set of polls suggest that the Conservatives have been given a boost by a good week at Blackpool. The Labour lead has been cut to three points or the two parties are even level again in one poll. This is no surprise to me as I thought that the lead was fragile with the electorate quite volatile and in many cases undecided.

Having marched his troops up the hill, Gordon has to decide whether to march them down again. Of course, he has said nothing, but his people haven't discouraged election speculation. Perhaps they hoped that it might be a spoiler for the Conservatives, but all it did was unite and reinvigorate them.

Gordon Brown may still go to the country because there may be bad economic news ahead. But the electorate may well sense that there is a motive for going now.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Dave's speech

I thought that this was a good speech of its kind. Not using an auto cue, only a few notes, made Dave looked relaxed and in command. But I was still left with the 'where's the beef?' question. I know that in a sense the speech was a kind of housekeeping list of 'what I would do if I I found myself in No.10', but there still is a lack of a unifying, energising theme. I am afraid we have heard all this stuff about 'a new politics' from politicians before. OK, there is an emphasis on the family, but this fails to take account of how much families have changed in my lifetime.

BBC News did an informal focus group with voters from the Dartford area. Two women in mid-life I know who work as secretaries come from this area and it is people like Tracy and Sue who will really determine the outcome of the election which is effectively fought in a small number of marginal seats. The voters in Dartford thought Dave was 'fresh' but that Gordon was 'authoritative'.

We aren't buying a house fragrance but someone to run the country. Dave reminds me of the nice young man my middle daughter buys her Mercedes off, not so far from Dave's constituency in rural Oxfordshire. Nicely turned out, good background, thoroughly decent young family man, super chap all round. You would buy a used Mercedes off him. But you wouldn't want him in No 10 Downing Street as prime minister.

An unnecessary election?

Speculation about an early election is now reaching fever pitch and it looks as if Gordon may be tempted, if only to show that he is not that cautious. We elect a party to govern for five years, not a person, and it seems to me that an election after half that period is unnecessary. As Peter Riddell was pointing out in The Times yesterday, voters may be suspicious of why a 'cut and run' election is needed. Is there bad news ahead?

Turnout could be low and if it all ends with a similar Labour majority to the present one, or even a smaller one, what is the point in terms of partisan advantage?In any event if there is an election we shall follow the contest in Warwick and Leamington which has a wafer thin Labour majority, although some redistricting since the last election should help Labour. James Plaskitt, under-secretary of state for Work and Pensions, will presumably stand again, as will Chris White for the Conservatives.

Warwick and Leamington was for a long time the constituency of Sir Anthony Eden and was known as Garden of Eden. When he visited the constituency, Sir Anthony and Lady Clarissa would progress through the streets in an open car. Patriotic bunting would be displayed and the crowds would cheer as if they were royalty, which in a sense they were. Sir Anthony did actually have a house in the constituency. A friend of mine subsequently lived in it and found someone dead in the front garden one morning. I doubt whether Sir Anthony was inconvenienced in this way.

Sir Anthony's first opponent back in the 1920s was the Countess of Warwick. The Countess had been a mistress of Edward VIII and took him to meet the founder of the agricultural workers' union, Joseph Arch, in nearby Barford. Arch gave it large to His Majesty and the meeting did not go well.

The Countess was the inspiration for the song 'Daisy, Daisy, give me an answer do'. When she campaigned in the Socialist interest, she set forth in her chauffeur driven limousine to meet the proletariat.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Dave deals with the Lord Snooty question

Dogs may not have votes but their owners do

I was listening to Dave Cameron on Radio 5 as I drove into work and I thought that he did pretty well. It is easy to be mesmerised by recent poll figures and to forget that we are not dealing with some old fogey but a very smart, modern politician.

He was particularly effective on the 'Lord Snooty' question. Asked if he now regretted going to Eton, he said that he was very grateful to his parents for the upbringing that they had given him, including going to a fantastic school. In relation to the argument that he and his advisers were 'out of touch' he pointed out that both William Hague and Warwick graduate David Davies went to state schools, one in South Yorkshire and one in Tooting. Indeed, many of us remember Hague being pictured at his 'A' level Politics textbooks after his appearance at the Conservative Party conference. Davies came from a particularly disadvantaged background, possibly even more impoverished than that of John Major.

I think the Labour Party should drop this line of attack. It's not very effective, particularly in the south of England where any election is likely to be won or lost, hence Dave's 'southern strategy' on issues like inheritance tax and stamp duty. Mind you, he wilted a bit under questioning on the details of these plans, in particular how the revenue would be recouped.

Above all, it's a return to old style inverted snobbery which is no better than the real thing.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Conservative policy offers

Apparently we are going to see a lot of policy offers from the Conservatives this week as they try to tempt voters to back them. Whilst publicly calling for an immediate election, behind the scenes they hope that they can avoid one.

I was invited on to Radio West Midlands Drive Time programme to comment on two of the goodies on offer. I wasn't very impressed by the pledge to increase the inheritance tax threshhold to £1 million. This issue excites Daily Mail readers a lot but most of them are going to vote Conservative anyway.

Given the level of house prices, I (or my estate) would probably be beneficiaries of such a move. But given that Britain is becoming a more unequal society, do we will want to weaken the one form of wealth tax we have?

Of course, the counter argument is that the very rich are able to arrange their affairs to escape such taxes and the burden falls mainly on the moderately well off. However, the Conservative idea of paying for this tax cut by taxing citizens domiciled abroad may be difficult to implement in practice and revenues could disappoint.

Raising the threshhold at which stamp duty is paid on property purchases is probably more electorally attractive given that it would benefit many first time buyers who are struggling to purchase. Of course, the longer term solution here is to do something about the supply and demand balance of housing in England, but no party is willing to take that on because of the strength of the conservationist lobby.

What is sometimes overlooked in discussions of election prospects is that the Conservatives would not need a very big shift in votes to take quite a lot of southern marginal seats off the Lib Dems and Labour. Anecdotal vox pops suggest a lot of uncertainty among voters there with younger women, for example, seeing Dave as 'fresh' and 'new'.

Peter Riddell have a good piece in The Times yesterday on 'Seven Deadly Signs for Brown': Riddell