Sunday, 30 March 2008

Dave seeks economic battleground

With middle England increasingly battered by the credit crunch and rising inflation, Conservative leader Dave Cameron has chosen to make the state of the economy a key battleground with Labour. For many years the strong state of the economy meant that it got a low rating on voters' rankings of important issues. But voters tend to punish governments for economic failure rather than reward them for success and the economy is becoming a key issue again.

Of course in the global recession of the early 1990s (but before 'Black' Wednesday damaged the Conservatives' ratings for economic competence for fifteen years) voters stayed (just) with the Conservatives in the 1992 election on the principle of 'stick to nurse for fear of something worse'. However, that may not work for New Labour despite their attempts to depoliticise economic management. Voters are likely to blame Gordon Brown and Alastair Darling for tight family budgets rather than Mervyn King or the downturn in the global economy. Or so the Conservatives hope.

Dave Cameron has stressed that a Conservative government should be judged on whether it delivered economic stability rather than tax cuts. This message does not please many Conservative activists, but it is a responsible one which enhances the image of the opposition as a government in waiting. Mr Cameron emphasised that he wants to cut the size of the state but that reducing borrowing came before tax cuts.

He also said that he would seek a restoration of Britain's opt out from the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty. How feasible that is is open to question, but some employers would argue that Britain's reputation for labour market flexibility has been undermined by measures on working hours (the working time directive) and proposals on temporary and agency workers (albeit resisted by the Government). The contrary view would be that these measures provide necessary protection to workers at a time when unions have weakened.

The difficulty is that opting out would require the unanimous agreement of all the other 26 EU members which is a near impossibility. It could be that Conservative strategists regard this as good ground on which to provoke a crisis with the EU but that is a risky path which may not win the support of the businesses the Conservatives are trying to help.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Cold caller threat to voters

This alarming photograph appeared in the Financial Times yesterday. It is obviously posed with the photographer standing behind the voter. Some hapless Labour supporter in Stevenage has been asked 'would you like the prime minister to call round today?'

Gordon Brown is looking dapper and smiling, conveying some of the personal warmth that is at odds with his dour image. However, what would be really alarming would be to find the Miss Goody Two Shoes of New Labour, Harriet Harman, peering round your door.

Why Stevenage? Local MP and novelist Barbara Follett, whose seat is on the line at the next election after her majority plunged from 12,000 in 1997 to 3,000 in 2005 put it this way, 'What has happened with governments of both colours is that they tend to look after the people at the ends of the system, the very poor or the better-off. And then you have a big block in the middle, C2s, Ds, and that is what we have got in the new towns.'

The visit of Labour's dynamic duo was a prelude to the council elections on May 1st. If the Conservatives do well, it will give further momentum to the narrative of an inevitable Conservative victory which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Gordon and Harriet were hoping to meet the legendary 'Mondeo Man' in Stevenage, although perhaps they should have gone to Worcester in search of the ultimate median voter, 'Worcester woman'.

Of the 4,500 seats to be contested on May 1st, about 3,000 were last fought in 2001 when Labour was hit by discontent over the intervention in Iraq. Anotherr 1,500 are new seats, largely the result of the creation of unitary authorities. If Labour lose further ground, particularly in the south, it will not be a good sign for their prospects of getting back into an election winning position.

At Prime Minister's Questions yesterday Dave Cameron berated the government for a 37 per cent increase in the rise of milk etc. It is difficult to see what a Conservaive government could do to control world food prices driven by supply and demand. Do they plan to bring back food subsidies? But then Gordon Brown was equally disingenuous when he claimed that inflation was only 2 per cent, using the CPI index that does not reflect everyday experience.

Bozza's Zone 5 and 6 strategy

Boris Johnson, the 4/9 favourite to be the next Mayor of London, is following a canny strategy designed to mobilise the Conservative vote. His 'Zone 5 and 6' strategy (based on Travelcard zones) involves him travelling, often by train or tube, to outer areas like Hillingdon and Sidcup and meeting commuters at stations. He has also been paying some attention to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea which is solidly Conservative but had a poor turnout at the last mayoral election.

He is following the 'below the radar' tactics used by Michael Howard which although they only produced a 0.6 increase in the Tory vote at the last general election led to the Conservatives gaining 23 extra seats. However, Bozza will probably be not using the 'dog whistle' tactic. The problem with the dog whistle (a focus on issues such as migration) was that it could be heard by everyone and reinforced the suspicions of some AB voters that the Conservatives were the 'nasty' party.

Policy papers issued by the Johnson campaign make no reference to the Conservative campaign and come in a variety of colours (a colleague of mine in Australia has done some fascintaing work on colours and politics). Ken Livingstone has similarly avoided branding himself as the Labour candidate, recalling his earlier spell in office as an independent repudiated by the Labour machine.

In a sense this is all fair enough as Londoners are electing an individual to a powerful post as much as they are voting for a party.

Red Ken comes over all Green

Sian Berry

Kev Livingstone is making a pitch for green votes in the London mayoral election. He may have little success in attracting first preference votes from the Green's impressive Sian Berry. The Oxford educated sciene graduate is surprisingly the only woman candidate apart from a rather grim lifelong revolutionary put forward by the Left List. Rather unfairly described as a 'ditzy blonde' by one commentator in conversation with me, Berry is both smart and personable.

Ken is, of course, going after supplementary votes from those who choose Berry as their favoured candidate. These could be crucial if he can close the gap with leading contender Conservative Boris Johnson. Some of the ideas put forward by Ken look like crowd pleasers, e.g., turning Victoria Embankment into 'London beach' for the whole of August. If it's such a good idea (and it has apparently worked in Paris), why hasn't he implemented it before?

However, a key battleground will be the congestion charge. In what looks like old style 'envy politics' rather than a real contribution to a greener London, Ken is proposing to slap a £25 C-charge in sport cars, 4 x 4s and people carriers.

I was down in London yesterday and it seems to me that the congestion has been getting worse for some time. The West End seemed to be gridlocked (I was on foot, I hasten to add). Apparently there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cars in London with 'private hire by pre-booking' stickers. It's not difficult or expensive to get a private hire license and once you have it you are exempt from the C-charge. People will always find loopholes in regulations.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Tories worried about Bozza time bomb

At first it looked analogous with winning the war in Iraq: secure the victory and then worry about what you do afterwards. But now the Conservatives are getting increasingly worried about possible collateral damage if Boris Johnson becomes the new mayor of London, as looks likely.

Asked if there were concerns that a poorly run London under a Tory mayor could rebound on Dave Cameron, a shadow cabinet minister is reported to have told the Financial Times: 'Absolutely ... we need very good people in place to help Boris.'

Some analysts think that the mayoral contest is a dress rehearsal for the general election campaign with calls for change from the Conservatives being contrasted with Labour charges of inexperience. Boris Johnson is being advised on his strategy by Australian election guru Lynton Crosby.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Labour loses ground in the killing fields

To Labour's high command they are known as the killing fields. They are in London, along the M4 corridor, the north Kent coast, the south coast and the M11 corridor. They include lots of C1 (junior non-manual) and C2 voters (skilled manual). They are the voters who turned to Mrs Thatcher in 1979 and to Tony Blair in 1997.

Now Lord (Giles) Radice who wrote a famous pamphlet on southern discomfort in 1992 is warning that it is emerging in a new and more complex form. New Labour needs to win back families who have been hit by high interest rates, are concerned that taxes are not being wisely spent, and are worried by immigration and crime.

This crisis has sparked an ideological debate within New Labour. The left believes that Gordon Brown is siding with the Blairite modernisers. A fresh set of advisers have been brought into No.10 from the media, advertising and banking. His chief adviser, Stephen Carter, is portrayed by left opponents as the head of a 'Lib Dem cell' in Downing Street. Jennifer Moses, an American former Goldman Sachs banker who didn't notice when £1m went missing from her bank account worked for a Lib Dem-oriented think tank.

The modernisers want Gordon Brown to speed up public service reform and to address the perception that his government is uneasy with wealth and aspiration. Aspiration was used as an organising theme in the Queen's Speech, but events since then have served to undermine its resonance. Reforms to capital gains tax and action on non-doms affected few voters, but could be portrayed as anti-wealth and anti-enterprise.

Critics on the left say that the core vote is being neglected, while Hazel Blears has insisted that Labour has to be a party of the affluent as well as of the poor. In reality, Gordon Brown may welcome a row with the Labour left. He was as much a part of the New Labour project as Tony Blair and the ideological differences between them were very slim. But it suited him to play up the differences in the succession battle. There were big personality differences, of course, but the prime minister is less dour and more engaging on a one to one basis than he appears in public. He is very good at getting the information and ideas he needs out of someone very quickly.

Before the narrative of a foregone conclusion to the next election is pushed too far (notwithstanding Labour's very real southern vulnerability) it should be remembered that Dave Cameron is unlikely to be able to deliver much in the way of tax cuts. Indeed, shadow chief secretary Phil Hammond has warned that tax cuts could be the 'the great bonus of the second election'.

In 1979 James Callaghan, as a former naval NCO, noted that there was one of those great sea changes in British politics that produced Thatcherism. Another sea change in the mid 1990s led to the 'third way' of Tony Blair with its mix of social democracy and neo-liberalism tilted towards the latter. Another sea change could now be on the way, but the currents are more conflicting and turbulent than they appear on the surface.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

It all goes off in Cabinet

Two arguments have caused trouble in Gordon Brown's Cabinet during the last week. The issue of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is not yet fully resolved, but it is understood that an 'accommodation' will be made to allow Labour MPs to abstain on parts of the Bill so that their conscience as Catholics is not infringed. One Catholic minister, Welsh Secretary Paul Murphy, is belived to have consider resignation, while some aspects of the Bill caused difficulty for transport secretary Ruth Kelly, who is a member of Opus Dei, among others. The Government also faced an Easter Day attack from the Catholic hierarchy which is not a trivial matter electorally given historic links between the Roman Catholic church and the Labour and the fact that communicant Catholics in Britain outnumber Anglicans.

A somewhat less serious but still divisive row involved the environmental friendliness or otherwise of the cars used by ministers. Transport secretary Ruth Kelly was also to the fore here and she also got some publicity this week when she fulfilled a lifelong ambition of riding in the cab of a commuter train.

The argument was about whether to replace British built ministerial cars with Japanese Toyota Prius hybrids. I do intend to test drive the Prius at some time, although whether it is as environmentally friendly as claimed is questionable. There are also issues about its performance. One might also ask, given that it looks like being an increasing commercial success (particularly given road tax incentives) why other manufacturers don't come out with their own version.

Self-confessed petrolhead John Hutton questioned whether importing the Prius sent out the wrong signal to British manufacturers. One might think that this was compatible with the globalisation rhetoric the government favours, but Jack Straw and Ed Balls argued that the move smacked of gesture politics.

Incidentally, a friend of mine was commissioned to write a history of the Government Car Service, one of the more obscure branches of government. It hasn't appeared yet, but I have seen some chapters and it has some fascinating stories.

The Sunday Times went to town with a number of stories on the 'government falling apart' theme, one suggesting that a backbench malcontent had 'broken cover' to suggest an 'Anthony Eden solution', i.e., that Gordon Brown should resign on grounds of ill health. If you probe hard enough, you will always find some peripheral figure ready to make some off the wall statement. Another story suggested that a shift of just 7,500 votes would give the Tories victory. That's like suggesting that it's still artithmetically possible for Liverpool to win the Premiership.

What is interesting about this is that the Murdoch empire does prefer to back successful politicians as they liked to be linked to those in power (perfectly sensible from their perspective). Hence, their approval of Tony Blair. Clearly they think that, like John Major's government, that of Gordon Brown is now rotting like a fish from the head up.

I think that they need to distinguish between disllusionment with the government and enthusiasm for the Conservatives. There is still some evidence of reservations about them. What we could see at the next election is a combination of low turnout and more voting for minor parties. Their share has gone up from three per cent in the early 1950s to nearly a third at the last election. The recent row about MPs' expenses has been damaging to the reputation of the political process and reinforces a popular sense of distance from the 'political class'.

While I think the Conservatives will be the largest party in the Commons after the last election, it is by no means done and dusted, as the Tories themselves realise.

It looks like Boris

The polls are suggesting that Boris Johnson is favourite to become the next Mayor of London. Part of the story is, of course, that a lot of people are fed up with Ken. London's problems are manifold and no one person can solve them, however big a mouth they have. Former man from the Met Brian Paddick is standing for the Lib Dems. The problem with him is not that he is gay (which will probably get him more votes than he will lose) but questions about his policing strategy in Brixton.

Winning the London mayoralty will be a great coup for Dave Cameron. (Incidentally, one thing Dave and Bozza share is a propensity to jump red lights on their bicycle, although there is no photographic evidence of Bozza going the wrong way down a one way street). But could it turn out to be a poisoned chalice? Bozza is being kept under wraps by his minders and we are told that there is a new, serious Boris Johnson, but will the old clown type figure emerge once he is in charge? And will that help the Conservatives?

Of course, voters like Bozza because he is a maverick, 'one of us' (despite an Eton and Oxford education not enjoyed by most Londoners) rather than 'one of them', 'them' referring to the political class, the existence of which is a challenge for British democracy. There is no doubt that Bozza's opposition to the 'nanny state' (what academics would call the 'regulatory state') resonates with voters. Once again he has a point.

Apparently Bozza has given up alcohol until polling day. Rival candidate Brian Paddick comments, 'What Londoners have got to realise is, four years is a long time for the mayor to be kept out of the media so he doesn't make any gaffes and for him to give up drink'.

So it does look like a case of 'Ken Leavingsoon' to use Bozza's phrase? I have met Ken and I do think he is a bit of a machine politician, but perhaps you have to be in that role. As a Londoner born and bred, I really don't like the idea of Boris Johnson being the powerful mayor of a great world city.

What I find particularly sobering is the thought, suggested to me by an analyst of London politics, that the BNP may win an Assembly seat. They only just missed out last time and since then have consolidated their power base in Barking, as well as trying to cultivate a more respectable image.

As has been highlighted in a recent BBC television series, the political exclusion of the poorest parts of the white working class, along with their social and economic exclusion, is a real challenge which does not always receive the attention that it should. Once again there are no simple answers, certainly not those advanced by the BNP.

There is information on all the mayoral candidates here: Spoilt for Choice

It is interesting that both UKIP and the Respect Coalition have split. It's reminiscent of Monty Pynthon's 'Life of Brian'.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Their Lordships' House

According to the Financial Times it looks as if cross-party agreement on the replacement of the House of Lords by an all (or predominantly) elected chamber is near. There would be 400 elected 'senators', who would be 'phased in' as life peers left, although exactly how that would be done is not specified. Those with a party affiliation could stand for election. Presumably the remaining hereditaries would go first.

It is not clear what would happen to the Lords Spiritual, the 28 Church of England divines who sit the Lords, although many people would regard them as an anachronism in a multi-faith society. There is also an outstanding issue about whether 20 per cent of the upper chamber should continue to be appointed.

I discussed this particular issue with a senior MP and his view was that such seats should be reserved for people who could not participate in partisan politics during their careers, e.g., judges, civil servants, members of the military.

One might add that there are a lot of people who are turned off by the point scoring of partisan politics, but have nevertheless been able to make a contribution as cross-benchers in the Lords. For those of us who are interested in policy rather than politics discussions in the Lords are often more enlightening. This is particularly true of their committee reports. Let's hope that the new chamber does not simply become a pale partisan shadow of the Commons.

One crucial question is the system of election. There will be 80 or so constituencies based on counties and cities. Use of the party list system as in European Parliament elections would make it an entirely party centred system. STV would give voters more scope to vote for individuals without a party affiliation if they wished.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Am I bothered?

When I was travelling down to Essex earlier this week, two chavettes got on the train at Basildon. This was about mid-morning, but it soon became evident from their loud conversation that they had been at an all night party. Most of it is not repeatable on a family blog, but I was interested to learn that some Essex boys insist on wearing their trainers in bed.

After a while, one of them said (in an appropriate Estuary accent), 'Some people say I talk posh. Do I talk posh? Do you think I'm posh?' I suppose she was posh in the sense that when Kate Nash affects an Estuary accent for her songs (as distinct from the classless accent she has in interviews), the result might still be considered 'posh'. Thus, Nash renders 'bitter' as 'bittah' just as these young women rendered 'daughter' (when discussing what to tell their mothers) as 'daughtah'.

Social class is now regarded as being of secondary importance in any discussion of contemporary Britain, but there is a sense in which it remains a very real phenomenon. Inverted snoberry in the sense of a fear of being seen as 'posh' is perhaps the stronger form. But then I suppose that 'Posh' Spice was so described because she gained some qualifications at age 16.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Frinton on Sea

I don't want to pretend that Frinton on Sea is a very typical British seaside town. Far from it. This is no Blackpool with £15 a night hotels. It is a very exclusive seaside town with a very elderly demographic (my ex-headmaster now in his 90s lives there). It was developed in the late 19th century on largely open land according to a plan. This produced some good turn of the century domestic architecture and some really outstanding 1930s Art Deco. However, the overall look was spoiled later by modernist blocks of flats and the all too typical Essex bungalows.

I knew Frinton quite well as a child because we would go there for a day out. After a day on the beach (patrolled by beach inspectors to check any impropriety) we would walk along the crumbling coastline to the tatty but nevertheless more exciting Walton on the Naze with its long pier (once the second longest in the country).

If you have read this far, you might be thinking that this is not a domestic architecture or personal reminiscence page. Earlier this week I saw on BBC2 a documentary about Frinton which, good though it was, was fundamentally depressing if one pauses to reflect about an ageing society.

Lots of elderly people, some of them with age related mental problems, and most of them seeming very lonely. One elderly gent in front of his bungalow asserted 'they're all friendly round here' and then greeted a couple walking past with a cheery 'good morning'. Reply came there none.

What is my core take home point? That the English obsession with privacy does little for the informal social networks that could provide valuable support in an ageing society.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Moaners come out on budget day

I was listening to some of the vox pop on Radio 5 yesterday while I was driving to our other campus to teach crop biology (where I nearly collided in the corridor with Lord Rooker, but that is another story).

The English love a good whinge and moan and they were out in force yesterday. I know that those who ring up Radio 5 are not typical of the nation, having done the late night shift myself on occasions. One sometimes got the impression that the callers (and there are fewer of them than one might think) have either had a few drinks or are crazy or both.

One line was that people were having to work harder for less. I wonder how they would have coped with the standard of living fifty years ago? It was definitely worse, even if the quality of life was better (although apart from crime, I doubt it). Or how would they deal with living on less than two dollars a day, or even less than one dollar a day, as many in the Global South do.

Alastair Darling clearly doesn't do charisma. It was like having the budget read out by an insolvency practitioner who had been handed a particularly difficult case by his boss. It's all very well being a safe pair of hands, but presentational skills do matter in politics.

As for the measures, they were predictable. Additional green taxes, but don't make me pure yet. Above inflation rises on alcohol. But, significantly, no sign of the forecast hike in national insurance payments for those on higher incomes as forecast by one of the Murdoch papers over the weekend.

The real issue is the state of the public finances. Many economists have said that the growth forecasts are too optimistic, which will mean an ever bigger reduction in tax revenues than forecast. Economists have been wrong about the Treasury growth forecasts before, but they could be right this time.

The Conservatives are on quite a good wicket in terms of stressing fiscal laxity when the economy was propsering. But the underlying problem is that all governments are under constant pressure to 'do something' about this or that issue which invariably means spending public money. It would be brave politician who got up and said that people would have to reduce their expectations of public services.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Power games

An interesting article in the weekend FT Magazine traced the story of Demon Eyes, an amateur football team that provided an unintentional networking device for many young men who rose within New Labour. It led one female Blairite to complain of a 'new lad culture' within New Labour with the bonding confined to males.

The article notes that 'A demonstrable and genuine interest in football - a phoney can be spotted a mile off - remains an essential tool for those working in and around Labour politics.' So I would be all right.

The Major Conservative government included football fans in the two top positions: John Major (Chelsea) and Kenneth Clarke (Forest). David Mellor was also Chelsea (having at one time been Fulham), but chants at grounds alleged that he did unmentionable things in the team's kit.

The Notting Hill Conservatives have little interest in fooball with Dave Cameron preferring tennis. George Osborne feels that he and Dave run offices that feel a lot less like a locker room than Brown's No.10 operation.

But what would be the sport of choice of the Lib Dems (for the Plaid it's clearly rugby)? It would have to be a relatively obscure minority sport. One in which being a team player didn't matter very much, perhaps combining a love of remote rural areas.

All that points to the only sport in which I was anything approaching a competitor: orienteering. But perhaps others can think of something more suitable?

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Darling's first budget

Alastair Darling is going to revive the use of the traditional red box for his budget rather than the one used by Gordon Brown that was made for him by apprentices in his constituency. The box and Darling's lack of charisma should be appropriate for a 'steady as she goes' budget.

Alcohol taxes can be expected to rise in an effort to tackle 'binge drinking'. There will be some further tweaking of green taxes, but nothing too drastic to avoid disturbing the economy.

The interesting uncertainty surrounds rumours that National Insurance payments will be increased for higher rate taxpayers by 1p with perhaps a 2p increase for those earning over £100,000. This would be an increase in income tax in all but name. Moreover, a 2p increase for those over £100,000 would be a redistributive measure that would be taken under a Blair Government but would cement Darling's reputation with Labour backbenchers.