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.