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.