Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Dave hit hard in northern parts

Labour's core vote strategy, much contested within the party, appears to be reaping some dividends. After a period when the Conservatives were ahead in the north of England (as recently as October), Labour has taken a 44 per cent to 28 per cent lead according to an ICM poll in mid-December.

It is, of course, no great surprise that any Labour recovery should occur first in its northern heartlands. Dave goes down well in Southern England, but less well the further north you go where he can be portrayed as a 'southern softie'.

I recently watched a re-run of the 1959 general election and early results from places like Salford showed Labour gaining ground. Indeed, Labour did do quite well in the north in that election, but no avail in terms of the overall results.

The Conservatives are well ahead in key southern marginals. A minor concern here might be UKIP chipping away at the vote. Of more concern would be any Liberal Democrat revival which reduced the number of seats the Tories could take off them. Nick Clegg will gain the oxygen of publicity from the party leader debates, although he is quite capable of not making best use of the opportunity.

It seems likely that the Conservatives will make substantial gains in the south and less so in the north, making the Midlands a vital battleground, including seats such as Warwick and Leamington where there is a re-match of the 2005 contest.

Dave Cameron has done a good job at re-positioning the Conservatives and making them more appealing to the central portion of the electoral spectrum. However, some older votes retain a residual suspicion of the Conservatives from the Thatcher years.

Voters are faced with a difficult choice between a Labour Party that may not have the bottle to make necessary public expenditure cuts or at least would make them in a way that protected their client groups and a Conservative Party that might be tempted to undertake a 'slash and burn' approach to public services.

At least in principle that should leave an opening for Nick Clegg and some of the things that the Lib Dems have been saying about public expenditure and taxation are quite sensible. However, one should never underestimate their ability to suddenly turn themselves into the 'very silly' party and shoot themselves in the foot.

Monday, 28 December 2009

It all kicks off in Labour

It hasn't been very festive or fraternal/sisterly in the Labour Party over Christmas with a row breaking out over Gordon Brown's so-called 'class war tactics'. Unreconstructed Blairites Mandy and Tessa Jowell have made their concerns known and Jack Straw has also weighed as a so-called party statesman. In the other corner Ed Balls, Gordon's preferred successor, has weighed in with the argument that Gordon's remark about the playing fields of Eton was a joke which has only upset the Conservatives.

Given that voters (somewhat unrealistically) tend to favour united parties and don't like intra party bickering this won't do Labour any good in so far as anyone has noticed while they enjoy the festive period.

One complaint of the Blairites is that this is a 'core vote' strategy of the type used with little success by the Conservatives until Dave Cameron took charge and re-positioned the party to appeal to voters in the middle of the spectrum. However, a core vote strategy is not irrational if you think you are going to lose and want to minimise your losses so that you have a springboard for recovery. If you lose by 30-40 seats rather than 100, you have a chance at the next election (and, meanwhile, the Conservatives have to try and clean up the post-crisis mess).

One can't use an anecdote in academic evidence as it is the ultimate example of the individualistic fallacy but you can get away with in a blog. I was talking to a friend at our Christmas party and he said he had been a lifelong Labour voter but probably wouldn't vote at all at the next election or might vote Liberal Democrat (which is a rather odd thing to do in Warwick and Leamington given that, as another friend pointed out, the 'progressive' vote here has always been Labour rather than Liberal Democrat). Labour actually needs to hold on to and also mobilise this sort of voter. There is some poll evidence that the 'class war' tactics may have solidified the core Labour vote.

Personally I don't mind that Dave went to Eton, which is a rather good school, although I am more impressed by the fact that he got a first in PPE in Oxford which you can't do if you are spending your time on high jinks with the Bullingdon Club like Bozza (which perhaps explains why Dave is the party leader and not Bozza, leaving aside a helpful intervention from the Palace at the outset of the former's career). What irritates me somewhat is Dave's attempts to be 'blokeish', no doubt on the advice of his image makers. He should just be true to himself, i.e., a decent, intelligent, caring person. What concerns me is that a quite a few people in his party of a rather different ilk and he may have a problem controlling them.

The Conservatives may have some problems filling all the most junior posts (and certainly PPS roles) from serving MPs (or members of the Lords) given the turnover that is occurring in membership of the Commons and that may create interesting opportunities for the brighter and more clued up new MPs.

Saturday, 26 December 2009

Politicians I admire: UK

This has proved quite difficult. I could certainly come up with a list of politicians who are no longer with us: Clem Attlee for Labour; Jo Grimond for the Liberals; Ian Gilmour (whom I knew quite well) for the Conservatives. As I have remarked before, I could come up quite a long list of civil servants, but it would be unfair in particular to embarrass those who hold middle ranking posts.

When I was a teenager I was an avid reader of New Musical Express. They used to have a feature in which aspiring pop artistes/groups were asked, among other questions, 'Who would you like to meet when you come to London?' Of itself that question says a lot about Britain's metropolitan mentality and the attitude that prevailed then to what were referred to as 'the provinces'.

Anyway my answer to the question is Vince Cable. This is probably a rather boring answer as he is everyone's favourite politician. I first became aware of him when he was temporarily an academic at Chatham House and he wrote with great insight and perception about Britain and the euro. I have read his recent book about the financial crisis and I thought that it showed signs of being written in a hurry.

One of the things I like about Vince is that he had what Dennis Healey called 'hinterland'. (On one occasion I recall this involved Dennis reciting a rather bad poem he had written, but never mind). What Dennis meant was a life outside politics. Vince had to deal with the long illness of his first wife. Rather unfairly, he has got some stick from his children for marrying again.

Ballroom dancing is a complete turn off for me, but it is evident that Vince is rather skilled at tripping the light fantastic. Above all, he has an ability to choose the right phrase at the right moment. His 'Stalin to Mr Bean in a few weeks' remark about Gordon Brown was hilarious.

I think Vince has much more to him than the iredeemably lightweight Nick Clegg and should really be leader of the Lib Dems, but his age counted against him. Vince does have an instinct for the jugular, which any successful politician needs, as he manoeuvred quite skilfully against Charles Kennedy when the latter was in his 'are they open yet?' phase.

In the interests of fairness, I would like to add three other politicians from other parties. There are no Scottish Nationalists. I think Alex Salmond is a very clever politician and an effective defender of Scottish interests, but this at the expense (including financial expense) of the rest of what is still notionally the United Kingdom.

For the Conservatives I would nominate Theresa May. I have met her, albeit briefly, and she came across to me as intelligent, sensible and perceptive. I thought that her remark about the Conservatives being perceived to be the 'nasty' party was something that needed to be said. It may have upset Conservative loyalists, but it helped Dave Cameron in his task of rebranding the party.

For Labour, I would nominate Frank Field. I have met him and it confirmed my impression of someone who sincere and thoughtful (like Dave Cameron he is an Anglo Catholic). Frank Field was someone who was prepared (and encouraged) to 'think the unthinkable' and it cost him his place in government: the Blairites didn't want anything too radical which might upset traditional client groups. Since then he has been a very effective Parliamentarian.

My final nomination goes to Dr Richard Taylor, the Independent MP for Wyre Forest. If he is successful in seeking a third term, he will be the longest serving Independent MP under the modern franchise. There were, of course, some interesting examples in the past including 'Billy Brown from Rugby Town'. Brown was a white collar trade unionist who had flirted with Oswald Moseley's New Party but turned away once Moseley became a fascist.

When Taylor was elected in protest against New Labour health policies which adversely affected Kidderminster, Clare Short dismissed him contemptuously as 'only one guy'. In fact he has been quite an effective member of the Commons Health committee. He also has a nice touch in self depreciating humour. When the new Speaker was elected, he got up and said 'As senior Independent in the House ...'

So there you have it. The emergence of a professional political class has probably done more harm than good to democratic politics in Britain which is not to say that I would approve of it becoming a repository for celebrities where success in Strictly or the X Factor would launch you on a political career. There will be a very large turnover of MPs at the next election and it will be interesting to see how this affects politics.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Yo it's Dave

Dave Cameron came to Leamington on Monday for a 'town hall meeting' with voters. I applied for a ticket, but didn't make the cut. However, there does seem to have been a cross-section of voters there and Dave seems to have given straightforward answers to their questions.

I would like to have seen him in person, as I can't quite work him out. I always thought one of the keys to Tony Blair were his rather fervent religious views and the sense of moral superiority that gave him, leading him to believe that he was entitled to overthrow Saddam Hussein in the absence of any UN mandate. As Private Eye put it this week, 'I would have invaded Iraq even if Dubya had not told me to.' I was never swept up in the enthusiasm for Blair in 1997 and voted 'None of the Above'.

Dave is a 'bells and smells' but nevertheless doubting Anglican. What does one make of that? Is he just interested in power for its own sake? Some compare him with Harold Macmillan, but I am reading a new biography of Super Mac and basically he was a devious old rogue, even though some of his decisions were right and he did have to put up with being cuckolded by Bob Boothby.

I think that Dave believes he can genuinely do a better job than Labour (which some would argue is not difficult) and does really think he can make Britain a better place. He comes across as a more likeable person than the Boy George who comes across as both nasty and incompetent. Let's hope Nick Macpherson (Eton and Balliol) stays on as permanent secretary at the Treasury.

The president of the students' union at Warwick did get in and asked Dave a neutral question about whether students would get a better deal under the Conservatives. Dave was honest enough to say that, in effect, they wouldn't.

What I was less happy about was the point scoring rhetoric which I - and probably other voters who are not very partisan - find a real turn off. Labour was described as a 'dishonest and sick' organisation. Now it is certainly the case that Labour has been economical with the actualité, although spin is nothing new (Lloyd George started the modern form). But sick?

He also argued that Britain had become 'the laughing stock of the world' because of its deficits. I am critical of the way Labour has handled fiscal policy as many economists have been for some time. However, the fact that Britain is slow to get out of the recession may have as much to do with our very large financial sector as with Labour's policy errors. In the meantime, talking Britain down doesn't help, even if Dave thinks he is getting his excuses ready for when he is prime minister.

In the Total Politics guide to the 2010 election, Warwick and Leamington is singled out as a key constituency which the Conservatives must win. The actual majority for Labour's James Plaskitt in 2005 was 266, but redistricting makes the notional majority 4,393 or 10.3 per cent. It's going to be a re-match between the incumbent and the very smart Conservative candidate Chris White. We shall be following the contest as the election approaches.

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Politicians I admire, Part 3

Franz Fischler meets some of his clients as EU farm commissioner

The bronze international award goes to former EU farm commissioner, Franz Fischler. He outmanoeuvred opposition to achieve the most significant reform of the EU's burdensome Common Agricultural Policy to date. I attended a semimar he gave on reform in Brussels when he was comissioner.

Fischler on his Alpine farm in his yodelling kit

Fischler was rather quiet in manner, but firm and persuasive. Part of his skill was to make out that he was a simple Alpine farmer who had somehow got the farm commissioner's job by accident and didn't know what he was doing. He had in fact enjoyed a long career in Austria as an agricultural bureaucrat and politician and was working behind the scenes with a hand picked team to work out a reform scheme. He was a brilliant strategist and a wily tactician. He largely outmanoeuvred the French and the Germans who normally had an iron grip on farm policy.

Johan Swinnen from Leuven University kindly asked me to contribute the concluding chapter to a Centre for European Policy Studies book on the Fischler years entitled
The Perfect Storm. (See details here: CEPS . The book as a whole provides a vivid account of how a politician can make a difference.

Politicians I admire, Part 2

President Bill Clinton gives his last official speech as president at Warwick University

The silver international award goes to former US president Bill Clinton. I attended his last speech at Warwick as president when he called for the end of agricultural subsidies in developed countries which cause so much damage to the Global South.

Bill Clinton has that elusive quality, charisma. It is difficult to define, perhaps in his case personal magnetism and an ability to empathise. He made mistakes in his decision making, as every president does. But under his guidance the US pursued a broadly liberal internationalist policy which was in contrast to that of his successor.

He made mistakes in his personal life, but all human beings are flawed. I was talking to someone the other day who said that he had played basketball with Bill at Oxford and the media were always after him for dirt. This also happened to a colleague of mine who knew Bill at Oxford. However, his real friend was the notoriously grumpy college porter. He was the only person from Oxford to be invited to his inauguration, but was too ill to go.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Which politicians do I admire? Part 1

I didn't think that I would be allowed to take my camera into the Moneda Palace, but things are more relaxed in Chile. So I didn't take any pictures, but this one is very reminiscent of President Bachelet

This was a question I was asked the other day which left me stumped. It was made clear that only contemporary politicians would qualify. To be honest, I could probably name more civil servants that I admire.

In the international class, the gold award goes to Michelle Bachelet, shortly to end her four year term as president of Chile. It's not easy to be a woman in Latin American politics, even in Chile, particularly one who, as she put it herself, manages without a man.

A doctor by training, she and her mother were tortured by the Pinochet regime. In office (it is an executive presidency) she has attempted to ameliorate some of the worst inequalities in Chile. She is a person of considerable warmth evidently held in affectionate regard by many Chileans.

I was introduced to her at a reception in Santiago in the summer. She then gave us a tour of her presidential palace, culminating in the rooms which have been restored to commemorate the overthrow of Allende. As she said, this was not done out of any sense of vengeance, but because memory was important.

Someone asked me if the Queen would offer such a tour of Buckingham Palace and the President remarked that once she left office she (not Her Majesty) could always get a job as a tour guide.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

Big Phil's best five books

Well-known Parliamentary expert Phil Cowley has chosen his five best books:
Big Phil

I particularly commend his choice of No Love for Johnnie. I enjoyed the film made of the book which offered a particularly realistic treatment of politics, albeit some fifty years ago. My recollection is that it was also rather risqué for the period.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

A failure on three fronts

Alastair Darling's pre-budget report has been something of a disaster. It has failed on three counts:

1. From an official Treasury viewpoint, the main short-term objective was to stabilise the markets. But there has been a flight from gilts.
2. It has not provide a platform for a Labour revival, given that it has managed to upset a range of target voters.
3. It has failed to provide a credible plan for dealing with the structural deficit.

Indeed, the fiscal position has got worse because Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper managed to persuade Gordon Brown that there should be a real increase in capital spending on school buildings. The more programmes are ring fenced, the harsher the axe that has to fall elsewhere to the extent that it is likely to do real and lasting damage. The authoritative Institute for Fiscal Studies has estimated that public spending will be have to be cut by as much as a fifth in areas such as defence, higher education, housing and transport.

Gordon Brown is also reported to have vetoed a VAT increase, meaning that there had to be a national insurance increase which in terms of the addditional levy on employers is a tax on jobs. The Conservatives are likely to increase VAT and possibly broaden its range, although targets such as children's clothing, books and newspapers would be controversial.

The IFS has also pointed out that the government's calculations do not really take account of the effects of an ageing population which would mean high public sector debt levels for a generation or more unless taxes were raised substantially or public spending was cut further.

Stand by for ten years of 'fiscal consolidation'.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

A political pre-budget report

Not surprisingly, the pre-budget report was a highly political document. It postponed most public expenditure cuts until 2011 and was not specific about where these would fall. However, given that schools, the police and the health service will be 'ring fenced', this implies cuts of something like 5 per cent a year for three years in other services, unprecedented cuts in the post-war period.

Quite a lot of taxation pain will fall on those on middle incomes with the further rise in national insurance contributions which are in effect an income tax (except that those of pensionable age do not pay them) but are not perceived as such by voters. The 40 per cent threshhold has been frozen for the next tax year which will drag more people into paying a higher rate of tax.

The whole plan is based on a return to growth rates of 3.5 per cent which look excessively optimistic. When the economy grows above the trend rate of 2.5 per cent, this is invariably not sustained for very long and brings problems in its wake.

By 2012 about half of public expenditure will be Annual Managed Expenditure. This surely argues for some cuts in entitlements, but poltically that is very difficult to do. As it is, the 2.5 per cent rise in the state pension next year amounts to a 4 per cent increase in real terms.

The model Labour is advancing amounts to deal with about two-thirds of the structural deficit through spending cuts and one-third through taxation whereas Treasury research suggests that a 80:20 split works best.

Labour clearly lacks an appetite for cuts on the scale required, which is perhaps understandable. Local government is going to take a hit and will increasingly have to provide services on an 'Easycouncil' model with a basic core service being offered and charges for anything which goes beyond that.

The attack on bankers' bonuses may be seen as a cynical ploy and could actually reduce revenue. Politically, this PBR does little for Labour's election chances and it looks as if the poisoned chalice will fall to Dave Cameron.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

The playing fields of Eton

Gordon Brown took a new line in PMQs on Wednesday, suggesting that Conservative inheritance tax policy had been formed 'on the playing fields of Eton', whilst also getting in a dig at a Conservative candidate from the Goldsmith family who is not domiciled for tax purposes.

The Conservative bench looked discomfited, while the Labour benches cheered wildly, giving Gordon a points victory. Dave Cameron has now hit back saying that the remarks were stupid and juvenile, which suggests that they did hit home.

The Conservative Party's website is surprisingly coy about the schools its front bench went to. The fact that shadow foreign secretary William Hague attended a state school is flagged up in the first line of his biography, but shadow chancellor George Osborne is simply listed as having gone to school 'in London'. In fact he went to fee paying St. Paul's.

The 'Tory toffs' line was used by Labour in the Crewe and Nantwich by-election when Labour activists dressed up in top hats in an effort to draw attention to the wealth of the Conservative candidate. It didn't work then, but it may be more effective after a recession.

I don't like it very much because I would prefer a focus on policy choices, but in politics it is what works that matters. It seems like an attempt to shore up and mobilise the core Labour vote. Nothing wrong with that, provided it isn't at the expense of votes in marginal southern seats.

I hear there is talk of a one off windfall tax on bankers' bonuses after Alastair Darling's stand off with RBS. All good populist stuff, but a distraction from a far more important debate about effective financial regulation, especially at the global level.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Punch and judy politics

When Dave Cameron became Conservative leader he pledged at his first PMQs to eschew punch and judy politics. Unfortunately he does have a tendency to play a 'Flashman' role in relation to Gordon Brown, attempting to humiliate him at question time. Yesterday he asked a series of questions about alleged extremist influence at two Islamic schools which had received public funds. Unfortunately, he had not got all his facts right and has subsequently had to beat a partial retreat.

I was able to watch PMQs yesterday and Dave started in low tempo asking questions about how long it would take to erect temporary replacement bridges in flood afflicted areas of Cumbria. He then switched on to the Muslim extremist issue where he obviously thought he was on to a winner. The flaw with this type of approach is that it makes him look more like a combative leader of the opposition rather than a prime minister in waiting.

One poll at the weekend showed the Conservative lead narrowing to 6 per cent. It was only one poll and one would want to see more for confirmation of a trend. However, private polling for the Conservatives shows that Dave's austerity message has not been going down too well and he has started to talk about growth again.

How much does all this matter in the broader scheme of things? Probably not very much. The Conservatives are still on track to be the largest party in the next Parliament at the very least and in that event Nick Clegg has said that he will support them. This may be a constitutionally proper stance, but it does seem like showing one's hand before play has commenced.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Passing laws to solve problems

'Legislation will be brought forward to halve the deficit,' the Queen was obliged to say in her speech from the throne yesterday. There will also be legislation to abolish child poverty by 2020, as if that could be done by a stroke of the pen.

Any political scientist knows that it is very easy to set up a legislative factory churning out meaningless pieces of legislation. What matters is whether the legislation can be implemented and enforced and that depends in turn on a willingness to comply and, above all, sufficient resources. Nick Clegg had a point when he said that legislation was like a comfort blanket for Labour.

At the moment there seems to be little appetite to tackle the deficit with Ed Balls reportedly calling for spending on schools to be protected. That would mean that if the NHS was also protected, other programmes would have to be cut by 20 per cent. None of the proposals put forward by the Government yesterday seemed to have any hard numbers attached to them.

Having said that, civil society is probably too weak and uncoordinated to take the strain of service provision that David Cameron would like it to bear.

At some point reality will cut in, but not during a protracted election campaign which we now face.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Cat's death sparks panic in Canada

The death of a cat led the Canadian prime minister to think that Mrs Thatcher had died, but in fact it was a cat named after the former prime minister: Thatcher

A resounding victory?

Whether Labour's retention of Glasgow North-East was a resounding victory for Labour as the new MP, William Bain, claimed is matter for debate. They did get nearly 60 per cent of their votes but less than a third of the electorate voted. However, it certainly avoids any embarrassment for Gordon Brown on his native heath.

The Conservatives came in third and just managed to save their deposit while the BNP were just behind them and lost theirs. What this shows is that Dave Cameron does not travel well the further north one gets, but the Conservatives will jave been relieved to have not come fourth. The Liberal Democrats got just 2.3 per cent of the vote.

There has been a lot of talk recently about independent MPs being returned at the next election, but the baggage handler who was the hero of the Glasgow Airport terrorist attack, John Smeaton, backed by the Jury Team, got just 258 votes.

Colin Campbell standing for The Individuals Labour and Tory (Tilt) got just 13 votes which must be close to a record low. This does suggest that the deposit should be raised to deter frivolous candidates.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

It's the Sun what overdone it

The Sun may have overdone its latest attack on Gordon Brown in its 'Don't you know there's a bloody war on?' campaign and elicited some sympathy for the embattled prime minister. The public mood seems to be against its vociferous attacks on him over his alleged spelling errors in a handwritten letter of condolence sent to a mother killed in Afghanistan. What appeared to have been a spelling mistake may have been poor handwriting resulting from the prime minister's deficient eyesight.

Some 65 per cent of respondents to a PoliticsHome poll characterised the tabloid's coverage as 'inappropriate' rather than legitimate journalism and 48 per cent said they were more inclined to defend the prime minister as a result. Government insiders claimed to have detected signs that News International, the newspaper's parent company, were 'slightly rattled' by evidence of a backlash.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

You ain't see nothing yet

A seminar at the British Academy yesterday on Andrew Gamble's book The Spectre at the Feast reiterated the unreal quality of the present political situation in the wake of the global financial crisis. As Andrew Gamble pointed out, the suffering had not been so great yet, but ultimately it would lead to heightened conflict and rougher politics. The crisis would shine a sharp light on who gains and who loses.

This theme was taken up by Peter Riddell who pointed out that there was not quite as acute a feeling as at the time of the rise of unemployment in the early 1980s. Was there a sufficient shock to stimulate change? In terms of Gamble's categories in his book, the preponderant response was that of muddled regulatory liberals: the reaction was 'let's regulate a bit better.' Riddell also noted that David Camerons' anti-state rhetoric had many ambiguities in it.

A widely shared view was that the global financial crisis was being seen as a technical problem to be solved by technical means. In part this was a consequence of the lack of any new thinking of the kind that had been stimulated by earlier crises.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Facing up to hard choices

Talking the talk is one thing but walking the walk is another. For all the talk of facing up to hard choices, politicians are shirking chances to reduce public expenditure. Pensions and other benefits are going up by 2.5 per cent next spring. The Financial Times estimates this will make state pensioners 4 per cent better off given that there is a negative RPI.

The 'inflation rate or 2.5 per cent whichever is higher' rule was introduced in 2000 when there was a political storm when New Labour increased pensions by only 75p. The public finances were in a healthier state then, whilst holding back the increase now would save a substantial £5bn. But no party wants to be seen squeezing pensioners, a sizeable slice of the electorate with a high propensity to vote, in the run up to a general election.

Now the influential NIESR has pitched in with an argument that the retirement age should be raised to 70 by 2015: Retirement . The NIESR said that the structural budget deficit was running at an unsustainable level of 6 per cent of GDP.

The alternative to a pension age rise was freezing public sector pay for five years whilst losing 120,000 jobs a year for the same period; a 7p increase in basic tax rates; and an expansion in the VAT base to include everything but food and children's clothing.

The Office for National Statistics has reported that government borrowing rose to £77.3bn in the first six months of the financial year - more than double the debt racked up in the same period last year - as tax revenues tumbled by 10 per cent.

Such a sharp and sudden increase in the pension age would not be politically feasible. But then some hard choices are going to have to be made. At some point the phoney war on public expenditure will come to an end.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

The 1959 show

BBC Parliament has been running programmes from the 1950s over the weekend. On Friday night they presented a (somewhat edited) version of the 1959 election results coverage with a young looking David Butler and a chain smoking Bob Mackenzie. They were assisted by a clunky looking computer and a team of stattos with slide rules among whom was spotted Richard Rose (who doesn't look very different today).

Despite some rather quirky results from Lancashire, Butler was able to call the result earlier. Mackenzie was somewhat obsessed with the Liberal performance which in part resulted from the fact that they were contesting seats they had not fought before.

The perils of outside broadcasting were demonstrated by one from a pub in Wrexham. First there was a long statement by a Welsh Nationalist, a rare breed in those days, who declared that he wouldn't be interested in the results until the one from Merioneth which might showed that the Welsh were prepared to be a nation again (it didn't). The interviewer then attempted to talk to someone who was clearly half cut and the slot finished with a woman jostling the interviewer and shouting 'Let the woman speak!' (She wasn't allowed to).

It was particularly poignant for me to see the first declaration from Billericay where I was in what was described as 'a rather youthful crowd' outside the Archer Hall that day. I saw the returning officer Alma Hatt, who was a good friend and died relatively young, as well as Joyce Norris from the council.

The suave Conservative MP Edward Gardner (later MP for Fylde, but never to hold ministerial office) was elected with a reduced majority, a good result given the growth of Basildon New Town. He later invited me to the House of Commons for tea and my first chance to see a live debate. The Labour candidate Rita Smythe was described by the commentator Raymond Baxter as 'a socialist', a term used throughout the night. She was defeated again in 1964 and Eric Moonman finally won the seat for Labour in 1966. The Liberal candidate was Sheldon Williams, their spokesman on the arts, and a denizen of Chelsea.

On Saturday night there was a press conference in which the equable Jo Grimond was questioned intensively by three leading political journalists. It was rather like facing three Jeremy Paxmans at once.

'Who Goes Home?' was a kind of early question time featuring Conservative Julian Amery and Barbara Castle. As Anthony Howard noted introducing the programme, the audience was anything but passive and deferential as we had been led to believe.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Stage managed conference does what it is required

What was a very stage managed conference for the Conservatives generally went well. At the beginning of the week it looked as if there might be a damaging row over Europe, but this was averted. It wasn't possible to stop everyone drinking champagne, but the small touches generally went well: for example, Samantha's £60 Marks and Sparks dress compared with the £600 designer outfit worn by Gordon's wife.

The intention of Dave's speech (and that of George Osborne) was to provide the appearance of a 'government in waiting' and it that it largely succeeded. David Cameron was also able to establish a connection with a wider audience by talking with effective feeling about the death of his son. The personal truly is the political.

The speech was in general short on specifics and that was expected. There are a lot of policy gaps to be filled in and more will have to be said before the election if the Conservatives are to retain credibility. There are also fears that by applying the brakes too sharply they could bring the weakly recovering economy to a juddering halt and even send it into reverse.

Their fundamental problem remains that much of their poll lead is built on negative feelings about Labour rather than real enthusiasm for the Conservatives.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Gideon's dilemma

The polls tell us that the public are in the mood for cuts, but it's one thing to be hypothetically in favour of them, it's a different matter altogether if the pain lands on your doorstep.

This was George Osborne's dilemma at the Conservative Party conference yesterday. The Conservatives have come under pressure to provide details about how they would deal with reducing the mountain of public debt, but the more detail one offers, the more hostages to fortune are provided.

It seems to me that the main problem with the speech is that it didn't go anywhere near far enough if one assumes one has to find £100bn (as a ball park figure). For example, families earning £50,000 a year (not large an amount in Southern England where one can easily have a £1,000+ a month mortgage) will lose their tax credits. However, this will only save £400m, but it still risks upsetting a group of potential Conservative voters. There has been talk of cutting tax credits and child benefit for those on over £30,000 a year which would save £13bn.

Accelerating the advancement of the retirement age to 66 is necessary in the context of an ageing population, indeed it probably needs to go to 67 sooner rather than later. However, this will not produce any savings in the medium term and may offend those affected.

A public sector pay freeze is more or less common ground between the parties, but it would affect 4 million public sector workers and their families. Talk of saving £3bn on 'bureaucracy' has little detail attached to it.

What this does lead one to believe is that the Conservatives must be contemplating tax rises and the most likely candidate is a rise in the rate of VAT, or even the removal of zero rating on some items.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Champagne ban at Conservative conference

Apparently the bars have been told not to serve champagne at the Conservative conference as it might suggest a mood of triumphalism - although it was possible to get it at the New Statesman reception last night.

I wonder what would be an appropriate drink to suggest a subdued mood of controlled anticipation? At the moment I cannot think of anything, although perhaps a rather dull red wine might fit the bill.

Any suggestions welcome.

Tutu wearing alien seen in Hampshire

Lembit Opik warned us against the threat from asteroids, but now a new threat has been identified by a Liberal Democrat councillor in Winchester: a tutu wearing alien who has a penguin like walk: Ballerina

It is clear that neither of the main parties is addressing this type of threat.

Sunday, 4 October 2009

Dave reveals some of his plans

Dave Cameron has revealed some of his plans for government, well a few anyway, via the Conservative's new backers The Sun. This report comes from the Daily Mail and some of the comments underneath are interesting: Cameron

I wish someone would explain to me what is meant by 'political correctness' and how one clamps down on it. Some of the objections to whatever is seem to be directed at measures intended to stop the treatment of women or ethnic minorities as second class citizens.

Freezing council tax would be popular, particularly given that it has consistently gone up above the rate of inflation and is in many respects a flawed tax, but how one would cut public services in response would pose an interesting dilemma for councils, given that many of them are imposed by legal obligations.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Operation No Hope

The rows of empty seats at the Labour Party conference as Gordon Brown addressed his troops to launch 'Operation Fight Back' spoke volumes about party morale. An air of defeatism has now seized Labour, combined with an acceptance that the time has passed to replace Gordon Brown.

Brown's message sounded very Old Labour to me with some remarks about the market which do not fit with an article he wrote some years ago in Political Quarterly when New Labour was at its zenith. No doubt the intention was to rally the troops and consolidate the core vote but that was William Hague's strategy and look where it got him.

Bashing bankers' bonuses is good populist stuff, but Dave Cameron is not foolish enough to present himself as the bankers' friend and the general tone of Brown's message will have done little to win over Middle England or deserting professional and managerial voters.

Andrew Marr has annoyed Downing Street by raising the issue of how reliant Brown is on prescription drugs yesterday, something that has been bubbling around in the blogs and a few press reports for some time. Brown does look exhausted, but it's a demanding job and aged Tony Blair.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The cuts menu

Gordon Brown has at last uttered the 'cuts' word more than once, but apart from cutting back on civil service early retirement deals was remarkably vague about how he would achieve them given that he wants to spare 'front line services'.

It was evident from one sentence in the speech that he is looking to growth as a way out of his difficulties, but to have any significant impact on revenues one would need to return to a 2 per cent growth rate which isn't going to happen any time soon. Unemployment is also going to rise for some time and will then fall only slowly, increasing the benefits bill.

What is evident is that all three parties will hold back public sector pay as a means of achieving relatively quick savings. There is also something of a consensus emerging that Britain will have to replace Trident with a minimal deterrent.

The Lib Dems have come forward with quite a detailed cuts menu, but then they are not going to have the responsibility of government. They said that public sector pensions would have to be reviewed and that is inescapable. They also called into question the third tranche of the Eurofighter.

However, two of Vince Cable's ideas were less sensible. He took a pop at quangos which always goes down well. But one has to think about this. Quangos were established to carry out a function, usually a regulatory one and generally in response to public demand (or at least a media storm). If the quango is abolished, can the function be dispensed with, or can it be carried out elsewhere more efficiently? For example, if you abolished the Environment Agency, one of the largest quangos, one could not abandon all the functions as many of them are embedded in law and are essential to protecting the environment.

Vince also wanted to cut higher level civil service pay. Britain has a very good civil service, but one needs to pay well to retain the best staff. I wonder how much Vince got paid as a business economist at Shell? With inflation uprating, I would think that it would be a six figure sum.

The polls show a public preference for cuts over tax rises, but that support tends to break down when specific cuts are mooted. The Conservatives seem to have come rather well out of all this. They have been talking about cuts while Gordon was in denial and many voters might well think that if you are going to cut it is best done by a party that believes in it.

Friday, 11 September 2009

When government makes a difference

Political scientist Philip Cowley has been presenting an interesting series of radio programmes which show that government intervention can make a positive difference to people's lives: Cowley

Monday, 7 September 2009

Who speaks for the politicians?

This question was raised in discussions at the British Politics Group meetings at this year's American Political Science Association conference (held for the first time ever outside the US in Toronto).

It was argued that the contrast between a virtuous people and politicians who were screwing things up was overstated. Account should be taken of rising expectations in a post-materialist society and the growing complexity of agendas.

Why was it not all right for politicians to engage in tax avoidance but not businessmen?

It was pointed out that the solution advanced in the expenses scandal of a block of flats to provide homes in London for politicians would not work for politicians with families.

Perhaps the underlying question here was, who would want to be a politician? A salary of £64,000 a year was well above the median salary, but low compared with may professional and managerial salaries. And those jobs do not come with the denigration associated with being a politician. Sarah Childs pointed out that it was possible that the intrusion into private life which was commonplace could be a particular disincentive for women to enter politics.

Of course, more people are coming forward for election than the posts available. What is always difficult to measure is calibre. But it is noticeable that the Labour front bench has no obvious candidate to replace Gordon Brown after an election defeat. In contrast the Conservative front bench have four or five individuals who could replace David Cameron.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

Are tax credits cost effective?

Theresa May, whom I have met, may be best known for her choice of shoes, but is actually one of the smarter members of Dave Cameron's team who tries to do some original thinking about important issues.

In a speech last week she made it clear that any government elected next year would struggle to prevent unemployment rising and that it was unlikely to return to pre-recession levels before 2016. She pointed out that unemployment had cost the British taxpayer £340bn in benefits since 1997.

The difficulties of dealing with the long-term unemployed have been emphasised in a series currently being screened on Channel 4 which looks at private contractors trying to get them back into work. But the jobs aren't there and most of them are ill equipped to deal with them because of the way in which long-term unemployment has affected their morale and ability to work, quite apart from any skill deficiencies.

The most interesting part of Ms May's speech was when she hinted that the Conservatives would re-examine tax credits for the less well off. Gordon Brown regarded this as one of his greatest achievements as chancellor, a redistribution by stealth in favour of working people with families.

Dave Cameron has already signalled that tax credits could be scrapped for middle income earners and Ms May said, 'Tax credits do not help people get better jobs; in fact they can create poverty traps that actually disincentivise people from working more hours or finding a better job.'

Certainly getting rid of them or reducing them substantially would save a lot of public money. However, one member of my family is a beneficiary. With two young children, tax credits have effectively covered the nursery fees for the younger child which means she is able to continue working (she earns more than her husband). It would be difficult for her to work more hours because of child care issues.

These issues are never straightforward, but they need to be debated.

Monday, 24 August 2009

The stakes are quite large

Henry Kissinger aptly said that academic debates are so vicious because the stakes are so small, but there are some substantive issues being raised by this spat behind all the name calling: The economy

On the subject of ultra Keynesianism, my former colleague Robert Skidelsky has brought out a new book on Keynes which according to Sam Brittan's review in the Financial Times is very good (as I would expect).

Keynes wrote and said so much that one can put whatever content one wants into his views. As he said (I haven't checked the exact wording), 'If the facts change, I change my opinion.'

When I read Robert's three volume biography of Keynes, I must say that it seemed to me at times as if Keynes was being presented as a closet monetarist. But it was a formidable achievement and when Bill Clinton came to Warwick to make his last official speech as president, he picked Robert out of the crowd to congratulate him.

Friday, 21 August 2009

A military funeral

Yesterday afternoon I went to sit in the park in which the Lutheran church in Vaasa, Finland is situated. I wanted to do some reading. I then became aware that a funeral was taking place in the church some distance away.

Then out of the church came a large honour party carrying wreaths. The coffin was then preceded by the Finnish flag, including the special version for Vaasa which includes a central device to record its valour against the Russians in the 19th century.

Even from some distance away, it was evident that the widow, embraced by the senior military officer present, was relatively young and accompanied by a boy about ten or twelve years old.

I had to check that Finland is fighting in Afghanistan, but it is. Of course, Finnish troops distinguished themselves fighting against the Russians in the Second World War. The funeral could, of course, be for someone killed in an accident.

When I came back to Britain, I saw another set of funerals being held in Wootton Bassett with the accompanying outpouring of grief. Each of these events represents a personal tragedy for a family.

It's not a conscript army and those who join it should be aware of the risks they are taking, but probably hope it won't be them. I was of a generation that escaped military service, but I am conscious of the sacrifices of those that do join up.

Majority public opinion would probably be in favour of the army leaving Afghanistan. It is difficult to see how a 'troops out' movement would effectively mobilise politically, as the Conservatives have criticised what they see as deficiencies in the equipment provided for the troops and the strategy followed without actually saying that they would pull out British troops.

Monday, 17 August 2009

Labour appoint Twitter Tsar

Vaasa, Finland: Labour have appointed a 'Twitter Tsar' to help them use the social networking medium in their election campaign: Tsar

Friday, 14 August 2009


An off message MEP has caused a few problems for Dave Cameron, although I thought Andrew Lansley retrieved the situation well on Radio 5 this morning by emphasising that the Conservatives wanted an equitable health service (always difficult to achieve in practice whoever forms the government) but also one that was more responsive to its clients.

The MEP who started the storm has set out his views here: NHS

Whatever the merits of Singapore style health accounts, they would represent a fundamental change in the current NHS. How 'centralised' or 'statist' it is is a matter for debate, but I don't think it is helpful to Conservatives to have questions raised about their commitment to the NHS which, for all its shortcomings, has broad popular support.

Obama's efforts to provide health care for 47 million Americans has provoked a visceral debate in the US. This is really not about socialism or a Soviet model but trying to fix a situation where the US spends twice as much as a share of GDP on health than then UK does, but without achieving significantly better outcomes.

But Fox news is keen to get any Brit to contribute to their narrative of the situation. Don't let evidence stand in the way of an ideological claim.

Thursday, 13 August 2009

MPs pay and expenses

Alan Duncan's remarks about MPs pay and expenses have apparently not pleased Dave Cameron and the Daily Mail has already commented that MPs still do not 'get it'.

Duncan has apologised, but does he have a point? 64k a year is a lot for a person on the average wage, or even more so someone out of work. But it is way behind most professional and managerial salaries.

Consider dentists, for example. I have to have a crown done and it is costing me £640. It is difficult to believe that the dentist is impoverished. Indeed, apparently even 400 NHS dentists are earning more than £300,000 a year and have an average salary of £89,000 and private dentists surely earn a lot more (indeed I know this as I once had responsibility for approving a postgraduate programme in cosmetic dentistry). As someone said to me 'Dentists: pain in the mouth, pain in the wallet.'

Now it is true that there are still plenty of people who want to become MPs and many of them are making considerable personal sacrifices in the process (I have one particular example in mind). Whether they are power crazed or have a real sense of public duty is a matter for debate. My view is that most of them do at least start out wanting to make things better.

It is an awful job, particularly given the demands that constituents make these days where the MP is supposed to function as a portmanteau social worker, albeit that does keep him/her in touch with the problems constituents face in their everyday lives. It is difficult to see how it is compatible with raising a family - unless you base yourself in London.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Dave had drink while student - revelation

Apparently shortly before the general election a documentary will be screened about the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. It will show that Dave Cameron and George (Gideon) Osborne were members of this club and that its members had a few too many drinks and caused some mayhem.

This is a revelation on a par with the story that formed the lead item on the local Fox when I was teaching at Washington University. Shock horror, students at frat houses were having parties over the weekend at which kegs of beer were brought in and consumed. It was almost on a par with their story about two escaped Rottweilers on some island which showed two obese cops spraying the bush with bullets.

I think one might go to one of the lowest ranked universities in the country and find students having too many drinks. Indeed, there were occasions when I did when I was a student.

Of course the sub-text here is that this is some kind of elitist conspiracy comparable to the Skull and Crossbones club Dubya was in at Yale. Now that probably was more like an elitist conspiracy whereas the Bullingdon Club is a bunch of amatures by comparison. Admittedly, they probably drunk champagne rather than Stella Artois. Or perhaps both? No doubt the programme will tell us.

I'm not sure that the background of many Labour MPs as professional members of the political class, lawyers or teachers qualifies them any more to be in touch with so-called 'ordinary people' than Dave.

My serious point is that what should be happening is a through scrutiny of Conservative policies. This is important even for committed Conservative supporters. There is a view going around that once the Conservatives are in they will be there for at least ten years and admittedly that is the pattern of recent British governments.

However, if they get it wrong, they could pay a heavy price. And it's actually bad news for all of us.

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Mandy's in charge (almost)

Seems there was a bit of hiatus between Harriet Harman letting go the reins of power and Peter Mandelson taking over. Harriet jetted off on holiday on Thursday to some surprise (The Times cruelly suggested that this was the only date when there were enough seats available business class to Pisa).

Meanwhile, Peter Mandelson was still sunning himself at the Rothschild villa in Corfu, although not this year in the company of George (formerly Gideon) Osborne. So the country was left without anyone running it, but no visible harm has yet occurred. Indeed it is a relief to get away from Harriet Harman's relentless, almost aggressive, pursuit of her agenda. Whether it has done Labour is any good is a moot point.

The Conservatives are intending to block the legislation that would allow Mandy to resign his peerage and stand again for the House of Commons. I find this a bit odd as I would say that Alan Johnson is more of a threat to them. However, one can never be sure. I was on a train in London yesterday and there was a group of young lads talking and one of them said, 'That Peter Mandelson seems a nice bloke' (although one of them was surprised to learn that he was gay).

As for Gordon his holiday is apparently going to include some volunteering on a worthy community project so no lightening up there. The shadow of the manse is a long one.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Conservative Intelligence

This is a new web site: Intelligence . It is run by the backers of Conservative Home, but doesn't make it any less important as we begin the countdown to a Conservative Government.

Scroll down to the right of the page: there is an interesting poll on the attitudes of Conservative PPCs. This was featured by The Economist this week who suggested that it showed they were to the right of David Cameron on a range of issues.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Harman: men do find me difficult

In an interview with the Evening Standard Harriet Harman admitted that her strident attitude made some men uncomfortable. She commented, 'I do think that I want to see change for the better - and change is sometimes difficult for people if they don't want to see change.' Asked which of her traits were disliked by men, she said 'Perhaps not taking no for an answer.'

According to the report, Ms Harman seemed hurt by her nickname 'Hattie Harperson' invented by enemies to lampoon her feminism.

Ms Harman insisted that she was only 'coordinating the team' and that Gordon Brown was in charge. However, her remarks since she became 'coordinator' have been something of an own goal. Edwina Currie described her as representative of a particular type of affluent, over educated woman.

Some electoral research does show that there is an anti-feminist dimension in the electorate. If equality of opportunity arguments are presented in the wrong way, the result can be counter productive.

There is also a much broader problem about the under achievement of younger males in comparison to women. This is a big topic, but they do need positive role models and a recognition that they are worthwhile members of society.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Who is in charge?

When Lord Mandelson became First Secretary of State (a title once held by the late George Brown) we were told that in effect he was deputy prime minister. But as Gordon Brown goes on holiday in the Lake District we are told that Harriet Harman is running the country.

She has taken the opportunity to demand that one of the Labour leaders in future must always be a woman. This did not get a sympathetic hearing in the media with ITV (a woman reporter) using the politically incorrect 'Harriet Harperson' joke. No doubt the aristocrat from Dulwich would see this as further evidence of sexism in British politics.

Meanwhile, rumours persist that Mandy will take advantage of new legislation to resign as a peer so that he can become Labour leader. The Labour Finance and Industry Group, made up of wealthy donors, has threatened to cut off funding to Labour unless Gordon Brown goes.

This is objectionable on a number of fronts. Wealthy individuals should not deciding who leads a political party. For me it reaffirms my view that the business class and the political class should be kept apart. The rapid disappearance of the business 'goats' from Gordon Brown's government confirms this view.

We first heard in the 1960s that the country should be run as a company, Great Britain Ltd., with business persons bringing their gift for efficiency to the table. Most of them quickly learn that the problems in politics are far more complex and intractable. Moreover, your instructions are not carried out to the extent that they would be in a business.

The Labour Finance and Industry Group also called for Mandy to replace Gordon. This again shows their lack of judgment. Mandy is a very smart political operator, probably the smartest we have around at the moment. But that does not qualify him to lead the country. His grandfather, Herbert Morrison, had many of the same qualities, but he was out smarted by Attlee in his attempts to become prime minister.

Gordon Brown is now as unpopular as John Major was when he left office, but in many ways he is a more tragic figure. People thought that Major was a weak prime minister, but they generally regarded him as a likeable person. Today he makes occasional pronouncements as an elder statesmen whilst enjoying his cricket.

So who will succeed Gordon Brown when he leaves the back door of Downing Street and Dave Cameron comes through the front? I doubt whether it will be Mandy. Harriet Harman has a coalition of support and could come through a crowded field. Perhaps it will be man on the make Andy Burnham? Or Labour could go for the equivalent of Pope Benedict and choose the Home Secretary Alan Johnson.

For some observations on Harriet Harman's remarks by John Prescott go here: Prezza

New think tank

Located in Carlton House Gardens, the new Institute of Government is clearly not short of money. Is this the British Brookings that many people have called for:
Think Tank

It's a cross-party body concerned with evidence-based work on the effectiveness of government. Transitions of government is one interest. The executive durector is former top mandarin, Sir Michael Bichard.

An early report has some interesting and relevant things to say on the core executive. Despite the popular belief that British government is highly centralised, the three departments at the centre - Number 10, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office 'actually have less power over people and budgets, and fewer sanctions to apply than many of their international counterparts.'

This is an issue that is known to concern Dave Cameron and the Conservatives have signalled that they intend to create a 'power house' at the centre of government. Unfortunately, we have heard this before, not least from Harold Wilson. Margaret Thatcher did exert a grip on government through force of personality rather than new structures, but she lost that grip as she surrounded herself with courtiers who would not challenge her.

Sir Michael commented that a small centre had some advantages: 'It avoids bureaucracy and second-guessing. But there are questions to be asked about whether the UK's centre of government has the power and authority to set a clear strategic direction for government as a whole.' These are, indeed, important questions that need to be asked and pursued.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Is Gordon to blame for the weather?

Someone pointed out in one of the London free papers that we have had bad summers ever since he became prime minister. I don't think that the jet stream has been drawn south by his doleful visage. However, the wet weather does not nothing to create a 'feel good' factor.

It may seem to be a trivial matter that the Met Office got its 'barbecue summer' forecast badly wrong even if they are now claiming that they only forecast it as 65 per cent likely (but then why put the 'barbecue summer' heading on the press release?) Some families, also influenced by the state of the pound against the euro, may have planned a 'staycation' as two of my children did. Now there is a last minute surge of bookings for Southern Europe.

I had better weather in Chile where it was winter than I have had in Britain. Although it was chilly (excuse the pun) at night it was warm enough to eat outside at lunchtime. And there was no rain.

I do recall some political science literature on the effect of the weather on elections, mainly in terms of whether there was any effect on turnout. I do remember trying to get voters out in a Glasgow ward in 1969 where there was a tight three-way contest. It started to pour with rain in the evening, but fortunately a ride in a car was enough of a novelty to entice some voters to the polling station.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

Dave in blokeish mode

Dave Cameron is a smart political tactician and he has got himself some extensive and generally favourable publicity by 'accidentally' using two mild swear words on a radio show. Some wag suggested that he should wear a hoodie next time.

I suppose this is all meant to show that he is the bloke next door. I don't have a problem with him being an Old Etonian. It's a good school and inverted snobbery is no better than snobbery.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Voters back spending cuts

It seems from this poll in The Times that voters are not impressed by Gordon Brown's attempts to make a distinction between Tory spending cuts and Labour investments: Cuts

Most voters are canny enough to realise that whichever party is in office, there are going to have to be big spending cuts, particularly after today's news about big falls in tax revenues. That isn't to say, of course, that there would be no difference in the size or scope of the cuts depending which party formed the government.

There is also a difference between expressing a view in favour of hypothetical cuts in a poll and experiencing those cuts in services that a voter use. But the Conservatives are already taking a perverse pride in being the most unpopular party in history within six months of being elected.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

A bonfire of quangos?

It's a popular slogan, although Dave Cameron didn't actually use in its speech yesterday. Let's get rid of these unaccountable bodies that are paying high salaries, wasting our money, are unaccountable and are interfering in our lives.

Problem is that politicians actually like quangos because it means they can shift the responsibility and the blame elsewhere. Indeed, it seems that the Conservatives are actually proposing to create some more.

It's interesting how the term is used when in its original formulation by Tony Barker it meant something else: a quasi non-governmental organisation. In other words, a private body that is used for public purposes, sometimes called a 'chosen instrument'. The in vogue collective term today for these bodies is 'third sector'. The correct term for the bodies is Non Departmental Public Body but that is not as exciting as quango which sounds like some kind of Latin American dance routine, perhaps pioneered by Vince Cable.

The question one has to ask about quangos is this: is the function they performe required? If so, is it better done by them or some other body?

If one wants to save money, this can only be done as part of a comprehensive review of what the state does. This was the Canadian approach which is attracting considerable attention today from Dave and others. It makes more sense than just slicing x per cent off everything. But it has to be done properly: for example, one has to ask, are all the procedures carried out by the NHS necessary?

However, one area that the Canadians did slash was agricultural subsidies and we can't do that because of the CAP.

There is much more talk going around of a 20 per cent cut in public expenditure. I doubt whether this is really going to be needed but it is a good way of softening people up for 10 or 12 per cent cuts as then they think they have escaped with a good deal.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

The public expenditure debate

Public expenditure looks like being one of the major dividing lines between the political parties at the next election. It is, of course, to some extent an artificial debate. Whoever is in office is going to make substantial cuts, probably the most severe since 1945. However, the preference of the Conservatives would be to cut more and increase taxes less and the cuts would probably be directed differently under Labour.

How much has to be cut depends in part on how quickly the economy recovers, boosting tax revenues and reducing benefit payments. There has been some over optimism about recovery when what has happened is that the economy has stopped declining rapidly and is bumping along the bottom. To some extent there has been an inventory cycle effect as stocks that have been run down have had to be replenished.

It is therefore worth noting the OECD forecast of a 4.3 per cent in GDP this year, followed by a flat 2010. Three per cent of output may have been wiped out for ever in OECD countries and perhaps as much as five per cent in the UK.

The required spending cuts will include savage cuts in capital spending and a reduction in public sector manpower. But where will the cuts fall? If reductions are equally shared. departmental spending would fall by nearly 7 per cent in real term in the three years after 2011. If health and overseas aid are spared, most departments would fall by 10 per cent and if schools escape the axe, the reduction would be a massive 13.5 per cent.

Health, education and social security account for about £2 out of £3 spent in the form of public expenditure in the UK? Can these budgets remain sacrosant? Health is beset by the problems of an ageing population and an ever advancing technological frontier. Touching the NHS budget is regarded as political dynamite. However, perhaps there needs to be a debate about what can be afford or whether there is any scope for charging (although that may not raise much in relation to the controversy it would cause).

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

It's all over for now

The media is going to have to find a new topic to focus on now that Gordon Brown has seen off the leadership challenge - such as it was, because as one commentator remarked, the Labour Party could not conspire its way out of a paper bag. The prime minister simply had to face down the usual suspects like Charles Clarke and promise to mend his ways. However, the media has promised to revive the story in the autumn.

The results in the European elections for Labour were atrocious, even worse than expected. They now face by-elections in the speaker's old seat where the Scottish Nationalists could mount a strong challenge after their good result in the European elections and in Norwich North. There is considerable local resentment at the way the rebel MP Ian Gibson was forced out of other expenses. The Greens are strong in Norfolk and could mount a creditable challenge.

Despite Dave Cameron boasting 'We are now No.1 in Wales' (albeit on 21 per cent of the vote), these results are not quite as good as the Conservatives might have hoped given the unpopularity of the Government. There is still a lack of real enthusiasm for them and some residual doubts about what they might do in office. A year from now we shall be finding out.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

A crucial 48 hours

If Gordon Brown is removed as prime minister, he will arguably be the first holder of the office to be brought down by a media led campaign. The heads of individual ministers have been secured in the past, but this will be a far more significant scalp.

Of course, the media is reflecting a wider public disquiet. It is a long time since I can recall a prime minister being booed in public other than at an organised demonstration which is what happened at the D-Day celebrations yesterday.

So why do so many people dislike Gordon Brown so much? Is it because they see him as responsible for the recession or his policies for dealing with it as fundamentally flawed? Probably not. Brown is certainly a much less effective communicator than Tony Blair, but does this explain the extent and depth of the dislike?

Probably he would not be in the position he is if it had not been for the expenses scandal. Expenses are the collective responsibility of the House of Commons and the political class more generally, but it happened on Gordon Brown's watch.

We now wait the results of the European Parliament elections. They are going to be bad for Labour, but how bad? A share of the popular vote below 20 per cent or coming fourth would renew calls for Brown to go. Labour is likely to come third, but I doubt whether they will come fourth, as the Liberal Democrats have been taking a battering, particularly in areas where they have seats to defend against the Conservatives. This has largely escaped comment, but could be important in the context of a general election result. Whether Labour will get less than 20 per cent of the vote is harder to forecast, but it is certainly possible.

If Brown is forced out it will not be because of the Parliamentary Labour Party. The idea that seventy of them could organise themselves to nominate a credible alternative candidate stretches credulity. Also, the left of the party is rallying behind Brown, as they see the attempt to oust him as Blairite in origin, although they realise that there is little real ideological difference between Brown and Blair.

The blow, if it comes, would be some like Jack Straw, who has no credible ambitions of his own saying to Gordon Brown, 'I have loyally supported you, but we have now reached a point where your continued leadership is damaging beyond repair.' That point has not yet been reached, but we may yet do so. The next 48 hours will be crucial.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Brown soup

This is a fast moving situation and any comments can quickly be overtaken by events. Much depends on how bad the results of the elections, and the first indications is that they are bad - as expected - for Labour. It also looks as if minor parties, but especially UKIP, have done well in the European elections.

Will Gordon Brown be the first ever Labour prime minister to be forced out while in office (Blair weakened his position by announcing that he was going sooner or later anyway)? Here are a few observations:

1. Although there is no conspiracy, the actions of James Purnell and others do look a bit like Blairites getting revenge for what happened to the Great Leader.
2. The backbench revolt route was never going to work because it is too convoluted a procedure.
3. Hence, as with Margaret Thatcher, the real blow would have to come from a number of Cabinet ministers. David Miliband is remaining omniously silent. Much will depend on whether Brown has the authority to carry out an effective reshuffle, now said to be occurring today.
4. Having waited so long to get the job, Brown will not go willingly or quietly.
5. Labour should be careful what they wish for. A new prime minister would be under a strong obligation to hold an early general election which Labour would lose. It is difficult to see any scenario under which Labour could win an election because after twelve years in office this is an exhausted party that has run out of ideas. Alternation of parties in government is a key element of democracy.

Incidentally, I don't favour an early election because in the current ferbile atmosphere we wouldn't get a serious discussion of policy options, not least in relation to the economy which remains far more important than MPs' expenses.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Recommened blog

This is one of the more interesting and reflective blogs I have come across on British politics recently: Green

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Lib Dems take a hit from expenses scandal

Yesterday's Populus poll in The Times shows a seven per cent hit on support for the Liberal Democrats, i.e., around a third of their declared support. This is quite surprising given that (a) they have not had any real serious cases, the odd bit of interior decoration aside and (b) they are the party which has taken constitutional reform seriously (perhaps too seriously, given that the merits of different systems of PR is a real topic for anoraks).

Presumably voters see them as much a part of a failed political class as the two main parties. What one is seeing is a general anti-incumbency effect, often regardless of the merits of the incumbent. Voters are flocking to UKIP which has been beset with its own expenses scandals.

We are also seeing celebrities trying to fill the vacuum. I am not sure how being a successful television personality qualifies one for dealing with the complex issues that beset modern government, although Esther Rantzen could claim to have tackled some serious policy issues as well as celebrating odd shaped vegetables.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Is working longer the answer?

Conventional answers to the crisis brought on in the public finances by the recession are some mixture of increasing taxes and cutting public spending, generally more of the latter.

Now in a paper written for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research by Ray Barrell, Ian Husrt and Simon Kirby, it is suggested that each year of additional working life would cut the budget deficit by 1 per cent of GDP after 10 years and in time reduce government debt by 20 per cent of GDP.

Boosting average working lives by three years would pare back the budget deficit by 3 per cent of GDP and cut government debt by 60 per cent of GDP, which the institute estimates is the cost of the current crisis.

Interestingly, compared with earlier recessions, employment among older workers is holding up better than for other age groups. Of course, it may be that the depth of the recession and the impact on their pension pots incentivises them to work longer.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Budget commentary

Britain now faces the challenge of a massive overhang of public debt with public borrowing estimated to soar to £175bn in this financial year with a similar amount to be borrowed next year. Managing that debt involves a combination of tax increases and cuts in public expenditure. This task is not made easier by the fact that corporate and personal tax revenues fall in a recession while payments on unemployment benefits increases.

The Government is going to have to sell far more gilt-edged stock than anticipated and there are doubts about the ability of the market to absorb more than £200bn of gilts, particularly if international investors start to doubt the credibility of the UK economy. One of the ways of retaining that credibility is to show that the UK is fiscally responsible but what that means in practice is pain for UK taxpayers and users of public services.

The damage in terms of the toxic debts of the banks may be greater than the Treasury is allowing for. They have made provisions of up to £60bn for potential losses, but the International Monetary Fund thinks that it may be necessary to make provision for over twice the amount the Government is talking about, in the region of £130bn.

Much of the effort to cut public expenditure rests on ‘efficiency savings’ estimated at £15bn. These have been going on for some years anyway and it is questionable savings of this size can be made. Cutting bureaucracy may seem an attractive way of reducing public spending. But there is a point where it starts to affect citizens. For example, if HM Customs and Revenue are under staffed more mistakes may be made and it may take longer to sort them out.

Making the better off pay more taxes with the new 50 per cent rate and the 45 per cent rate starting this year is also politically attractive, but in reality it often raises very little revenue, particularly given that it is difficult to close off all routes for tax avoidance.

Motorists will be hit with the idea of above inflation rises in petrol duty coming back and the scheme to pay a bounty of £2,000 for scrapping cars over ten years old will only have a marginal effect on the beleaguered motor industry.

It should also be noted that all the Government’s plans rely on a rapid recovery in the economy which many analysts think is unlikely. It’s a hard path ahead.

Tradition and modernity

That mixture is always present in British politics. I was in the House of Lords yesterday and an official resplendent in his scarlet uniform swept past on a motability scooter, doffing his top hat to my companion and saying, 'Good day, my lord'. But in the restaurant they were serving iced coffee. I had tea and crumpets which were excellent.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Friday, 17 April 2009

Tribute to Sir Clement Freud

I am going to interrupt the suspension of this blog to pay tribute to Sir Clement Freud who for 14 years was the Liberal MP for the Isle of Ely and then the more bureaucratic sounding North-East Cambridgeshire, having initially won the seat in a by-election.

The lugubrious Sir Clement did not make a great impact on the House of Commons where, despite his work on freedom of information, he was not taken sufficiently seriously. The Liberals were more of a minority party than they are now and he was perhaps best known for his dog food adverts. As happens in such cases, the adverts are remembered and the product ('Minced Morsels') has been forgotten.

In order to secure his hold on the constituency, Sir Clement used to trawl the births, deaths and marriages announcements in the local press and send an appropriate letter of congratulation or commiseration. People would then approach him in the street afterwards to thank him. As he did not know which letter they received, he would reply enigmatically, 'It was the least I could do.'

The bon viveur Sir Clement was one of the last of a generation of maverick MPs, although I suppose the few independents in the House might fit that bill. These days there are two factories in Cheshire which turn out identikit MPs wearing well tailored suits and discreet ties. One factory produces Conservative MPs and the other Labour, but it is often difficult to tell the difference.

Friday, 3 April 2009

It's goodbye from him

I've enjoyed writing this blog, but given the other demands on my time, it hasn't been getting the level of hits that would justify its continuation. My blog on the Common Agricultural Policy attracts four to five times as many visits!

I have only suspended the blog and might return during the general election next year to follow the campaign in the marginal seat of Warwick and Leamington. It is currently held by one time junior minister James Plaskitt with a wafer thin majority, although he will benefit from redistricting.

He is being challenged by the second time by Chris White for the Conservatives. Clearly a smart cookie, the cerebal and dynamic White could match the political career of a former incumbent. It was once known as the Garden of Eden after Sir Anthony Eden.

Some final thoughts:
1. We have a real crisis of confidence in the political class and the political process - see the latest issue of British Politics.
2. The populist right is on the rise and we can expect to see BNP gains in the European elections. The latest issue of British Politics has an interesting article on the BNP in Burnley which shows how they benefitted from the failures of a complacent Labour council.
3. We are seeing a resurgence of the belief that politicians and bureaucrats are better at allocating resources than consumers in markets.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Bashing Bozza

Channel 4's Dispatches did a hatchet job programme on Boris Johnson as London mayor last night. It's evident that Bozza has his faults: no overall strategy; too keen on getting in the media (but which politician isn't); and obsessed with bendy buses which are not as problematic as he claims.

However, this problem lacked any balance whatsoever and I thought that Channel 4 had a public service obligation. It even dragged up a conversation that Boris had had years ago with a friend subsequently convicted of fraud. This was trailed as a great revelation given that the friend was proposing to have a journalist worked over, but Bozza seemed to be trying to restrain him, at least in terms of the level of violence applied.

At the start of the programme Bozza was blamed for not doing anything about the global financial crisis, although quite what the Mayor of London is supposed to do about that, or what powers he has to do anything, escaped me. In many ways, although there are considerable planning powers attached to the post, it is a symbolic role.

Bozza was also quite right in one of his major decisions, to get rid of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. Whatever the Minister for London (who has hardly covered himself in glory over his expenses) may say, the post was politicised under New Labour.

Quite understandably Bozza got a bit irritated at the television team that trailed him and I ended up feeling sorry for him which I am sure was not the programme maker's intention. Ken only made a brief appearance, but I am sure he enjoyed the programme.

Sunday, 29 March 2009

Hamish and Kirsty go bust

I advised a family member that a Scottish mutual would be a safe place for their money and now the Dunfermline Building Society, the largest in Scotland, has gone bust. Investors will, of course, be protected and the profitable parts of the business sold off. However, the fact that such a body could go under does bring home the extent and depth of the financial crisis.

A senior executive of the Society was on television this evening complaining that 'faceless mandarins' in London had failed to bail out his society. Admittedly at £60m the cost is small compared to some financial bail outs. But why should taxpayers shell out to save an institution which has been caught out by risky commercial lending, as well as other failings?

There is a Scottish politics dimension to all this. Dunfermline is next door to the prime minister's constituency and there will be job losses. The Scottish Government has been involved in discussions about the Society's future. However, it may be that the Government feels that it owes them no favours, particularly when it comes to the independence of Scottish financial institutions.

Saturday, 28 March 2009

Michelle trips up Gordon

The writer (centre) enjoys one of the best glasses of red wine he has ever had in the courtyard of Chile's presidential palace

Gordon Brown's quest for support ahead of the G20 summit has taken him as far south as Chile. Nothing wrong with that: Chile is a country I like a lot and I am looking forward to returning there in July.

Gordon denied that he was going round the world looking for comminqués, but probably did not expect a rebuke from Chilean president Michelle Bachelet. Ms Bachelet pointed out that Chile had saved revenues from its copper exports 'during the good times', enabling it to put in place a fiscal stimulus package worth 2.8 per cent of GDP.

Britain is now running out of money for any substantial further fiscal package and George Soros has raised the spectre of a bailout by the International Monetary Fund. 'You couldn't make it up,' chortled shadow chancellor George Osborne. 'Gordon Brown is getting lessons from the Latin Americans about sound public finances.'

Friday, 27 March 2009

Bash a banker

It's always interesting when you are out of the country for a week and stories develop a momentum without you being fully aware of them. Clearly there's something of a 'bash a banker' mood in the UK (and in the US). This has been to some extent whipped up by politicians who see them as convenient and popular targets that can distract attention from their own mistakes. However, now they are starting to think that this might have developed to such a stage that it could impede financial recovery.

What used to be called a day of action is in preparation in connection with the G20 summit and there is quite an interesting story here:

It would be very difficult to defend the claiming of rewards for failure in the banking sector, although some of the mechanisms that have been proposed to deal with this in both the US and the UK are unconstitutional/illegal and represent an unwelcome return of punitive taxation. An uncomfortable fact about capitalism is that 'greed' is what actually drives it to a large extent.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

A spectre is haunting Europe

There is a spectre haunting Europe and it is the spectre of industrial policy. Some of the more ambitious dirigiste aims of President Sarkozy have been tamed by the European Commission, but there is no doubt that interventionism is back in town. I even heard someone argue the other day that the market is finished as a form of social organisation.

Whether politicians and bureaucrats can make better decisions is far from proven: rather the contrary. Those of us who studied industrial policy in the 1970s came to the conclusion that it was a highly dysfunctional form of policy for the following principal reasons:

1. It enables multinational companies to play one country off against another to extract funds (which is why we need an EU state aids policy).
2. It is very difficult to demonstrate 'additionality', i.e. that the additional funds made available lead to investment that would not otherwise occur.
3. It is very difficult for politicians and bureaucrats to pick winners (or 'losers')
4. Often decisions are made on electoral grounds, e.g., the sensitivity of a particular constituency or region.
5. Often investments were replicated in different parts of the country for political reasons when there was no good economic case: steel and aluminium provide good examples.
6. Large companies were generally favoured over smaller countries.
7. Industrial structures were ossified, particularly in terms of over capacity.

The political pressures to 'save jobs' are nevertheless enormous which is why it was encouraging last week to hear Lord Mandelson say that government (or the taxpayer) is not a huge bail out fund.

Capitalism has recurrent crises, but they also have a purgative effect, producing a leaner and fitter economy. In this respect I await one of the first books by a leading political economy academic on the global financial crisis. The Spectre at the Feast by Professor Andrew Gamble FBA of Cambridge University will appear from Palgrave-Macmillan in the next couple of months. Gamble

Monday, 23 March 2009

Labor wins in Queensland

Brussels: Labor has retained office in Queensland with a reduced majority. The merged Liberal National Party, with a singularly uncharismatic farmer as leader, was unable to make enough headway in urban electorates in and around Brisbane.

In Beaudesert, right-wing populist Pauline Hanson was defeated with 22 per cent of the vote. She blamed her defeat on hounding by the media and in particular the publication of fake photos purporting to show her in the company of a black adult actor with the stage name of Long Dong Silver.

The market for populism more generally remains buoyant in the recession and we can expect to see it as a strong force in the European Parliament elections, not least in Britain. What's wrong with populism in a democracy? It appeals to baser human instincts and pretends that there are simple solutions to complex problems.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Dave sets out his stall

The extent of the problems facing the British economy in particular in the global recession are increasingly becoming apparent. Claims that it was particularly well placed to withstand the recession do not stand up to scrutiny. When I get time I will try and work through the evidence, but one only has to look at reports from the IMF or the ITEM club of economists.

Whichever government is in office after the next general election, it is going to have to raise taxes and cut public expenditure (in real terms when one takes account of the demands on services like the NHS). The key question is how one does it. Given that Dave Cameron is the most likely next British prime minister, a major economic policy speech by him last week is of considerable importance.

The only protected areas of public spending under the Conservatives would be health and the small overseas aid budget. The commitment to ring fence defence and schools spending will be withdrawn in April 2010, just before the likely election date. The commitment to sharing the proceeds of growth between spending and tax cuts has been abandoned. The priority will be to reduce the level of government debt.

It is hoped that savings can be made by scrapping the expensive identity cards project. However, Dave also pointed out that tax credits to help the poor had been extended to the point where they can reach people earning over £50,000 a year, so we can expect some cuts there.

Dave was careful not to rule out tax rises and made it clear that 'the richest in our society must bear a fair share of the burden'. Whilst the commitment to raise inheritance tax threshholds, which plays well in southern England, remains in place, the Conservatives will not reverse the 45p rate of income tax for those earning over £150,000 that is due to come into place in 2011. It's hardly punitive taxation, but it is a reversal of the policy started by Mrs Thatcher to reduce the higher rate of tax (which, in any case, has brought increasingly large numbers of people within its grasp).

The Conservatives believe that the electoral appetite of the last decade for more spending on public services has been sated. I think they are right in this assessment for a number of reasons. First, much of the increased spending does not seem to have had the desired effect if one looks at the problems at Birmingham Children's Hospital and in Staffordshire. Second, there is increasing resentment of what is portrayed by the media as a protected public sector, particularly in terms of fewer job losses in the recession and index linked final salary pensions. Dave has been able to make good use of the high salaries paid at Ofcom.

In 1997 one of the drivers that brought Labour into office was concern about the state of public services. The reverse effect is now happening. However, once a Conservative Government starts to make unavoidable savings, they may find themselves challenged by the unions and others and their popularity could quickly suffer. That is not to say that they should avoid difficult decisions and we are now getting more detail about what they would do as part of a deliberate process of lowering expectations.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Dave fazed by Beast of Bolsover

Dave Cameron was batting on a good wicket at PMQ's today with the largest ever rise in the claimant count, but it wasn't his best performance, although he managed to get his sound bites in about the Government's bunker mentality. Sometimes he tends to crowd too many points and questions into one intervention and the central take home message is lost.

He was also thrown off track by Dennis Skinner, the 'Beast of Bolsover'. Dave interrupted his peroration to advise him to be quiet. The veteran MP was a thorn in the side of Mrs Thatcher who regarded him with respect as a very effective Parliamentarian.

Then Dave got ticked off by the Speaker for suggesting that the prime minister was a 'phoney' and had to withdraw this unparliamentary language.

For his part, Gordon Brown's message was that the Conservatives wanted more to be done but to spend less. Brown was in between a junior Scottish Office minister and leader-in-waiting Harriet Harman. It was interesting to watch her body language. First, she sat there grim faced and impassive. But then she got annoyed by the bench opposite and started to point and mutter at them and nod in agreement with the prime minister. Later on, she reverted to grim faced passivity.

When I was in Australia, it was suggested to me that she had some kind of aristocratic family relationship with the Pakenhams, who included Lord Longford, but I have not been able to verify this. She certainly has a rather icy demeanour. However, she plays well with the trade unions and with women Labour supporters and is now trying to present herself as a person of the left as prospective Labour leaders often do - it was a tactic used by Harold Wilson.

Nick Clegg actually made an impressive intervention about the link between the shocking events at Stafford Hospital and the Government's targets culture. Of course, if you don't have some means of measuring public sector performance, one can spend a great deal of money without any effect on outcomes.

In this case the outcomes were negative in the most serious sense for patients who received completely unacceptable treatment. For once the overused phrase 'Third World' was justified. The devoted advocates of targets like Michael Barber who wrote the book Instruction to Deliver have something to answer for. However, it was evident from the book that he had tremendous belief in what he was doing, but it really became a kind of ideology that was pursued in a very zealous way.

Photos of controversial candidate are a fake

I tried to make friends with this resident of the Beaudesert electorate where Pauline Hanson is standing but with little success. I saw a lot of yard signs for the Greens.

It seems quite a while now since I was in Queensland, but I thought I would catch up with events as the campaign enters its final phase. An oil slick off the Sunshine Coast has given the opposition a stick to beat the government with, but even more fuss has been caused by alleged photographs of controversial candidate Pauline Hanson in skimpy attire.

The Brisbane Times has conducted an investigation and it appears that the photos taken by a former boy friend are in fact of someone else: Fake

We have had similar incidents in the past involving women British politicians.

Local bloggers seem to think that the result is too close to call, with Labor losing a substantial number of seats, but perhaps just clinging on in the Executive Building (a singularly nondescript modern building): Election

Just in case anyone in Brisbane complains, the original Executive Building was a more distinguished piece of architecture which subsequently became the Lands Administration Building