Friday, 31 December 2010

Are single author blogs finished?

That is the contention of Chris Gibson and Patrick Dunleavy writing in the latest edition of PSA News. They argue, 'The truth is that the single-author blog model has already gone out of fashion. Without consistently strong posts, and an easy way of finding them, there is no readership. All the effort made in writing and posting will typically be wasted.'

They argue that 'the vast majority of popular political blogs are now multi-author blogs; that is, themed and coherent blogs run by a proper editorial team and calling on the services of multiple authors to ensure that the blog remains topical, can cumulate a great deal of content and can ensure a good 'churn' of high quality posts.'

This approach is represented by LSE's own blog which is found here: LSE

I note that they have a managing editor which means that resources have been found from somewhere whereas most bloggers are working on their own, some very successfully (Guido Fawkes). An editorial team also means some form of control which may not encourage thinking outside the box.

Not that I pretend to be thinking outside the box. One review of this blog states, that it 'fails to really excite or even raise the temperature of its reader.' Well, of course, I am not trying to raise anyone's temperature. Anger rarely produces good policy, and this is a blog which is interested in analysis not polemic as the title implies.

It is the least successful blog I write as the numbers for this year in terms of hits show:

Political Economy of Football 325,022
Addick's Diary (Charlton) 173,229
Common Agricultural Policy 18,433
Analysing British Politics 12,291

Numbers for this blog are up year on year and as to some extent it is simply a way of sorting out my own thoughts, I will be carrying on in 2011.

Thursday, 30 December 2010

A re-run of the poll tax protests?

The general secretary of the TUC, Brendan Barber, has said that 2011 may be the year in which country says no to government just as in the case of poll tax. The plan seems to be to stage a wave of strikes in the run up to the royal wedding to cause maximum embarrassment to the Government.

Something of a particular reading of history seems to have occurred in the case of the poll tax. There were riots in Trafalgar Square and other acts of defiance, particularly in Scotland. However, what really scared the Government was that they were losing electoral support on the issue and that contributed to the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

They also lost the intellectual case on the poll tax which violated a fundamental principle of taxation originally set out by Adam Smith: there should be some relationship between a tax and ability to pay. I am not sure that the Government has lost the intellectual case on the deficit. Many voters think the country has been living beyond its means.

However, voters think that protests can be effective. In a recent Populus poll, seven out of ten of those polled said public protests 'can be effective ... and played a big part in getting the last Conservative Government to scrap the poll tax.'

One in five could see themselves being involved in protests against spending cuts, while two in five think 'a degree of disobedience and public disorder' is sometimes necessary to make governments take notice of issues.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The rising misery index

The misery index in the economy is likely to rise next year. Unemployment is almost certain to go up, although there is some dispute about how much it will increase by. However, it is unlikely that all the lost public sector jobs can be replaced in the private sector. Indeed, private sector bosses may be unwilling to hire displaced public sector workers whom they suspect of having led a cushy life. Women will be particularly affected as they are disproportionately employed in the public sector.

Inflation shows no signs of easing. There is pressure on commodity prices, particularly food, gas, oil and cotton. At some point the Bank of England will start to increase interest rates, although by how much and when remains a matter of argument. The CBI says 2.5% by year end: I think 1.75% is more likely.

Even so, one of the things that has helped many people through the recession is that mortgage interest repayments have, depending on the deal a person has, have been kept low. If they rose, real disposable income would be reduced even further. As it is, it will be hit by fact that wages are not generally keeping pace with inflation, by the rise in VAT and by the 1p per £ increase in national insurance contributions from April which is in effect a 1 per cent rise in income tax.

Not surprisingly, retailers are worried about consumer demand. Of course, an objective of current policy is to shift the economy from one driven by private consumption to one in which exports play a greater role.

Meanwhile, the Government is suffering a series of defeats at the hands of fiscal nimbyism. The unfortunate Michael Gove has had to retreat on school sports and free books for young children. In the latter case the sum involved is small, but one way in which retrenchment tends to happen is by cutting smaller programmes completely. Now the Government is under pressure on the forensic science service, the privatisation of which strikes me as not a good idea.

Campaigns may achieve victories on particular issues. An alliance of nimbys may well defeat the proposed HST from London to Birmingham, the start of a larger network. My local MP Chris White has come out against it, reflecting the views of his constituents. The opponents of the scheme say that the business and environmental case is flawed, but if that is so, how have countries such as China, France, Japan, Korea and Spain been able to make high speed trains viable whereas we just have a stretch of line in Kent?

What is clear is that there is choppy political water ahead in 2011 and it may not be possible to deflect the opprobium on to the Liberal Democrats.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Condensing gas central heating boiler failures

A big enough news story to get on BBC TV last night and on Radio 5 this morning. They are a modern, sophisticated, supposedly energy efficient form of boiler that have been in use for about three years now. When in use they send out a cloud of steam so goodness knows what they do for global warming.

Ours has failed twice so here are a few tips on what to do:

1. Contact a registered gas fitter: Gas safety
2. My gas fitter said to me on the phone 'The whole country's going down.'
3. If you can't get a gas fitter, read the manual for your boiler.
4. Very often the problem is that the external condensing outlet pipe has frozen. You should get this lagged, but the lagging used in the UK cannot cope with the very low temperatures we have been having.
5. At your own risk, apply hot water to the outlet pipe (it should not be boiling or it will crack the pipe). Make sure you are standing on a non-slip surface and that there is no risk of scalding yourself.
6. Make sure that no other connected pipes are frozen: our system was shut down yesteday by our washing machine outlet pipe.
7. Check that the boiler is dry before re-starting it (then take cover).
8. In very cold weather keep the central heating overnight although at a lower thermostat setting (depending on your control system).
9. If you do not have an annual overhaul by a registered gas fitter, make sure you arrange one.

My experience is limited to my own boiler and what you do is at your own risk. Ideally, this work should be done by a registered professional.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

From hero to zero

When I appeared on Rory Bremner's panel in his pre-election show at the Warwick Arts Centre, a questioner from the audience asked us to name a politician who seemed to better than the rest or words to that effect. I named Vince Cable and got a ripple of applause from the audience.

As Enoch Powell remarked, all political careers end in failure and, for all his skills on the dance floor, Vince Cable's reputation has taken a nose dive. He shouldn't have made such remarks to strangers, particularly when he was taking decisions in a quasi-judicial capacity.

If he wanted a war on Murdoch, he has lost. It will now be very difficult to stop the BSkyB takeover. News Corp are even thinking of challenging the reference to Ofcom through judicial review.

Nevertheless, Vince has got off relatively lightly. The Conservative right would have liked Ken Clarke moved into the business portfolio to stop him being 'soft' on criminals. As it is, David Hunt who is a through-and-through Cameroony has got additional powers.

One of the paradoxical consequences of these events (including similar stings carried out on lesser Liberal lights) may be to give a boost to the morale of Lib Dem activists who thought the party was abandoning its principles. They can now be reassured that there is some evidence that ministers are fighting their corner in government.

It should also be remembered that when there is a one party government personality clashes and differences over policy arise between ministers. There is, nevertheless, something in the argument that a party that has been out of office for a generation was ill prepared for the responsibilities of government.

Cable at bay

One of the many unedifying aspects of current British politics is the way in which the media regularly demonstrate their power by entrapping and then driving from office a particular minister. The latest target is Vince Cable after he fell foul of a 'sting' operation conducted by the Daily Telegraph.

Cable now appears to have gone to ground among demands for his resignation, but he may just be having another ballroom dancing lesson. His statement that he declared war on Rupert Murdoch and his organisation has attracted particular attention with a statement of shock being put out by the Murdoch interests.

There are those of us who think that the significant position of the Murdoch organisation in broadcast and print media deserves closer scrutiny, particularly in terms of the political leverage it gives them. That is not to deny that Sky News and Sky Sports News have been innovative in their approach to television.

The Coalition Government finds itself attacked from the left by a nascent alliance of workers and students (shades of 1968) that thinks it can defeat the government on the streets and a grateful electorate would then give Ed Miliband a working majority to fill in his blank sheet of paper.

It is possible that the Conservatives could win an early election. That is why some of those on the right would like to undermine the Government so that they can have red in tooth and claw Conservatism.

I think the country needs some stability: a general election in 2011 would not really be in anyone's interests. Cable may weather the storm or David Laws could be brought into replace him and we could all enjoy Vince's Christmas performance on Strictly Come Dancing (it reminds me of when Dennis Healey as chancellor appeared on the leading comedy show of the day, Morecambe and Wise).

At least it makes a change from reading about 'My Snow Hell'.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Anthony Howard

The death of Anthony Howard robs us of a distinguished political journalist and commentator. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of politicians which he was able to deploy in the last stage of his full-time career as obituaries editor of The Times. He was a polite but incisive television and radio interviewer. He wrote three biographies: I particularly liked that about Richard Crossman which was a model of its kind.

I never knew him, but one day I passed him on the path outside my office. He was on his way to Warwick University's Modern Record Centre which houses the Crossman collection. He researched his subjects seriously.

I learnt a few things from his obituary which I did not know before. I did not know that his father was a vicar in places like Highgate and Epsom, but I should have done. I did not know that his career started on Reynolds News a long disappeared worthy Sunday organ of the Cooperative Movement. I remember that my uncle's newsagents carried a few copies which no one every seemed to buy, even when it was re-launched as the Sunday Citizen. Howard moved on to better things, but never to the editorship of a major newspaper which many felt he deserved.

Howard remained an Anglican, but one sceptical of the Church: perhaps he was an Erastian. They, too, are a dying breed. Howard was one of a generation of knowledgeable, well-read, sophisticated political journalists who weren't able to construct their stories off the internet. We really shan't see his like again.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Is Labour making an impact?

The latest YouGov poll puts the Conservatives on 42 per cent, Labour on 40 per cent and the Lib Dems on 8 per cent. I would agree that polls at this stage of a Parliament are largely irrelevant, but one might think that Labour would be making a greater impact.

I have not been impressed by Ed Miliband at Prime Minister's Question Time. He does land the occasional punch, but it is often stilted or over prepared. David Cameron is usually able to out point him, often with a spontaneous put down like the Basil Brush comment on Wednesday (after Ed had tried to claim that the PM was 'air brushed').

It looks like in its haste to get away from New Labour (which did win three elections in a row) the Labour Party has reverted to its old principle: never compromise with the electorate.

Of course, it's possible that the Government will be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of revulsion against the effect of the cuts. No doubt that is what the Labour Party hopes. But they have to have a credible alternative economic plan and as yet they don't. Admittedly, they do have time to fill in the famous blank sheet of paper, but they can't take too long.

Meanwhile, David Cameron has followed Nick Clegg in getting in some populist shots at bankers' bonuses. They are an easy target and they haven't showed much political skill. Whether it's good policy is another matter.

Who is to blame for the weather?

It is sometimes said that British voters expect American levels of taxation and Scandinavian levels of public service. Now transport secretary Phillip Hammond, who wasn't able to take the job he prepared for as chief secretary of the treasurer, is getting blamed for the bad weather. As Rachel on Radio 5 commented this morning, he can hardly ring up God and ask him to change it.

More seriously, he is getting blamed for the failure to prepare for the bad weather. People ask why, say, Zurich or Stockholm airports are able to keep open in similar weather. It's because they can expect such weather two or three months of the year and can invest in expensive capital equipment to deal with it.

Sensibly enough, Mr Hammond has asked the chief scientist to give a view on whether the bad weather of the last three winters represents a change in the pattern. This is not an easy thing to give a view on as climate and weather are affected by so many variables. We could easily have a mild winter next year and then any new equipment could stand idle.

If we do invest more in winter transport infrastructure, it will have to come from cuts elsewhere in the depleted transport budget.

What I would argue is that some public transport services give up too easily. I live on an A road and there is a bus service in the day time every eight minutes or so. Within an hour or so of the snow starting to fall yesterday, the bus service was withdrawn.

The road was still open, albeit that traffic was having to move more slowly than usual. It would not have been possible to operate the normal timetable. But would it have been possble to improvise a reduced skeleton service? One would think so. But at the first sign of bad weather the service is withdrawn, no doubt on health and safety grounds.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

DC comes close to backing Lib Dem candidate

David Cameron has come close to backing the Liberal Democrat candidate in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, wishing him well. 'Obviously in a coalition you always wish your coalition partners well,' the prime minister commented. Actually, I am not sure you do. Meanwhile the Conservative candidate has been damned with faint praise by senior Conservatives, being described as 'a very good candidate'.

It is likely that Labour will hold the seat, but what is of more interest is relations between Conservatives and Lib Dems in the Coalition Government. Right-wing Conservatives are increasingly suspicious that David Cameron likes being in coalition with the Liberal Democrats because it reinforces his liberal Conservatism.

Tabloid fury has been directed at Ken Clarke for daring to suggest that it may not be a good idea to incarcerate more people for a longer period of time, particularly in a fiscal crisis. That's undoubtedly what the public want, but whether it is good penal policy is another matter. California went down the road of an incarceration state, creating a powerful lobby in the form of the prisons industrial complex until federal judges recently told them to free large numbers of prisoners.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s the Liberals and the Conservatives did electoral deals in towns with two seats like Bolton and Huddersfield. They gave the other party a free run in one of the seats, shutting out Labour. They could do such deals again in the future, but they would offend the social democratic wing of the Lib Dems and the right wing of the Conservatives.

In which case it would be open to the free market wing of the Liberal Party to break away and run without Conservative opposition. It happened after 1931 and for a long time the National Liberals (at first labelled as Liberal Nationals) had their own whips in Parliament although they supported the Conservatives. In 1947 the two parties merged at constituency level and after the 1966 general election they were so few in number that they had give up their room in the Commons to the Liberals.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Do we need a Plan B ?

There has been a certain amount of excitement in the media about a 'Plan B' drawn up by Cabinet Secretary Gus O'Donnell to stimulate the economy should it run into renewed difficulties. There has even been talk once again of a 'double dip recession'.

Barring a cataclysmic crisis in the eurozone I do not think that negative growth is likely. Indeed, the risks of a massive crisis may have been reduced by hints from the United States that it might intervene if things got really bad.

Nevertheless, there is a dismal prospect of relatively low growth (below current forecasts of a little over 2 per cent), rising unemployment as public sector job cuts take effect and continuing inflation well above target. In different circumstances the Bank of England would have already taken action to curb inflation.

Disposal income is being squeezed. Many people are not getting any salary or wage increases or ones below the rate of inflation. The cost of everyday items such as petrol and utilities is going up and petrol in particular will rise further once VAT increases. Because of trends in world commodity markets, the cost of food and clothing has been rising (the depreciation of sterling has also not helped, although that has now come to an end and the pound has been rising against the dollar and the euro recently).

The civil service has always prepared contingency plans for economic difficulty. 'Brutus' and 'Cranmer' were two famous ones in the past and no doubt there are more in the National Archives at Kew. It's sensible to have contingency plans, but it doesn't mean you have to implement them.

David Cameron is understandably very sensitive about the subject because it implies that the Government's deficit reduction plan could be more economically damaging than he admits. My view has always been that the Coalition Government will not manage to eliminate the structural budget deficit over the lifetime of a Parliament, but if you don't start with a tough target, you will fall way short.

No doubt all this will come up at PMQs today.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Bad weather leads to minister's resignation

Stewart Stevenson as depicted by The Sun

Is Scotland's transport minister, Stewart Stevenson, the first cabinet member to be forced out of office by bad weather? Wily Scottish first minister Alex Salmond seemed to think so and quoted from Burns to make his point.

But he knew that the minister could not survive a no confidence vote in the Scottish Parliament this week. He had been targeted in a tabloid campaign which included unflattering photographs and cartoon versions of his less than prepossessing appearance.

The minister wasn't critcised because the weather was bad, but because information was not released quickly enough about how bad conditions were leading lorry drivers and motorists to be trapped overnight in their cars. It is fortunate that no one died as a result. The minister then compounded his errors by going on television and declaring that there had been a 'first class response'.

There is a Scottish Parliament election next May and the gloves are starting to come off. The transport minister had to be sacrificed for his party. It all reminds us of Harold Macmillan's warning of the importance in politics of 'Events, dear boy, events.'

Thursday, 9 December 2010

University funding

An interesting and measured analysis by the President of the British Academy: British Academy . As he points out, research funding has emerged relatively unscathed. It is also interesting that he thinks that taking a 'pragmatic' stance on the widely derided notion of impact helped with the Treasury.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

University fees

Taking my oldest granddaughter to a show with her mum last night brought home to me that in seven years' time she will be applying to University and will face very high fees (unless current policy proposals are reversed or modified substantially).

On Tuesday when I accepted a lifetime achievement award, I noted in my acceptance remarks that my father had been a manual worker and that the 1944 Education Act and state grants had made it possible to be the first person on either side of my family to go to university (Lord Kinnock was in the audience and made similar comments many years ago).

My uncle, an intelligent and cultivated man, had started a course at Woolwich Polytechnic (now Greenwich University) but was called back to the family business which was his parents' livelihood. As he told me towards the end of his life, he had spent it 'chained to the shop counter'.

It should be noted, however, that when I went to university the percentage of the age cohort attending was much smaller and hence the costs to the public purse were proportionately lower. I am sometimes asked what percentage of the population should go to university. I don't think that there is any methodology which could give a definitive answer in terms of labour market needs. Saying 'anyone who is capable' just deflects the question on to a definition of capability.

We are making a very sudden switch to an essentially American system of higher education in terms of funding arrangements. Having a taught in an American university, my impression is that arrangements for the less well off are quite robust. Otherwise you have to start saving, as American friends have done, when a child is born.

Clearly higher education brings benefit to an individual and they should make a contribution. But there is also benefit to society as a whole, even from the humanities and social studies which have been hit particularly hard by the removal of their publicly funded teaching grants.

Quite what the split of benefits is cannot be easily quantified. I have seen attempts to do this, but I am not that impressed and I don't think a minister would be. At the end of the day it is a political judgement.

The Coalition Government's proposals will hit 'middle England', those who are not rich but earn somewhat more than the median income. They are also taking hits through the tax and benefit system. They are quite an important group of voters who are capable of switching their vote.

The Lib Dems have clearly suffered considerable damage to their credibility. They must surely have realised that a pledge not to increase fees at all and to try and abolish them was not credible in the current fiscal context. Really it was an opportunistic ploy to win votes by a party that had not had the responsibility of governing for a long time. Now they are paying a political price.

I would not expect the Government to be defeated in the Commons, although they might encounter more trouble in the Lords. Street protests won't deflect them: the analogy with the poll tax is wrong in all sorts of ways, not least that opinion on this issue is more divided and not everyone is affected adversely.

It is often argued that higher education should be free but that means that taxpayers who do not directly benefit have to contribute towards those who do. I heard a NUS spokesman arguing that corporation tax should be put up and the rich taxed more heavily. That would do wonders for the economy, particularly the former, as both firms and rich individuals are mobile. Some firms have already move office operations to Ireland where corporation tax is 12.5 per cent.

These proposals will place a heavy burden on the already over stretched bank of mum and dad. Those who go on to earn incomes above the pay back minimum of £21,000 a year, but not that much more (e.g., teachers, health service auxillary professions), will be hit hard and will find it even more difficult to eventually buy their own home. Those in financial services should be able to pay back loans without too much pain. There is also a great risk that much of the money will not be recovered.

What one could credibly argue for is (i) that the new arrangements should be phased in rather than being introduced in one fell swoop which is already affecting next year's admissions and (ii) one could question whether such a large increase is necessary if there is some social benefit (which would be met by retaining more of the teaching grant). But then the issue would be where the teaching grant that was not cut would come from.

However, given the fiscal context, I doubt whether the Coalition Government will give too much ground. They know the measures are not popular, but they want to get the bad news out of the way quickly, although the effects will continue to be felt.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The big freeze

Sky News announced last night that the country was 'at a halt'. Given that there has been relatively little snow in the West Midlands and traffic was flowing freely, I was a bit puzzled about this until I realised that Kent and Sussex were at a halt (plus the north-east and most of Scotland but they don't count).

Labour has tried to make political capital out of the weather which is a bit rich given the problems they encountered when they were in office. Of course, all oppositions have the irritating habit of jumping on any bandwagon that comes along. The Conservatives were doing it all the time and the Lib Dems were even more opportunist as events have shown.

Even so, Mr Milibean (as Private Eye have named him) ought to think before he or his shadow ministers speak out, notwithstanding their success on sport partnerships.

There have been the usual chorus of complaints about our inability to cope although it has been a very heavy snow dump in many parts of the country. Even the Isles of Scilly have been hit.

The big problem has not been lack of grit or gritters, but snow ploughs. One could spend more money on snow ploughs but they are an expensive capital asset will stand idle for much of the time (admittedly one can improvise a snow plough as many farmers do). One could have more snow ploughs but the price would be a cut elsewhere in already depleted local authority budgets.

Where there are legitimate grounds for criticism is the lack of inadequate contingency plans and the failure to provide information to stranded travellers, in particular by updating internet sites. Information can be disseminated very quickly by sites and text messages.