Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Where's Boris?

Boris was last reported to be in Australia and Private Eye had a brilliant spoof about what he was doing down under (I would reproduce it but it is their copyright).

For someone who has a reputation for being out on manoeuvres, he is keeping very quiet. I gave my take on the situation to Bloomberg Politics: Where's Boris?

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Public sector pay and the end of austerity

Two ministers, Michael Fallon and Chris Grayling, indicated yesterday that the Government might consider reviewing the cap on public sector pay. However, once the Treasury got wind of these remarks, the story got knocked on the head. Matching the rate of inflation in public sector pay would cost over £4 billion a year at a time when there is still a big budget deficit.

This came after a report from the British Social Attitudes Survey suggests that popular support for higher taxes and spending is stronger than it has been for a decade. There was particularly strong support for more spending on health and education. The survey was conducted in the second half of last year before the general election.

One needs to ask whether respondents realised they might have to pay higher taxes themselves. As the head of the Institute of Fiscal Studies pointed out yesterday, austerity could not be ended just by imposing higher taxes on businesses and rich individuals.

The Government will undoubtedly continue to consider the issue of public sector pay between now and the Budget. It may be that any increase would be targeted on particular groups such as nurses.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Grant Jordan

I was sorry to hear of the passing of Grant Jordan, a leading analyst of pressure groups. An fitting tribute from Professor Paul Cairney: Grant Jordan

The designated adult?

Philip Hammond is suddenly the flavour of the weekend as a possible successor to Theresa May. First, The Economist Bagehot column ran a favourable portrayal under the title 'The Designated Adult' and today the Sunday Times is running with a story that he could be an 'interim' prime minister for two years with David Davis as deputy prime minister.

Bagheot argues that 'spreadsheet Phil' is a 'serious man for serious times'. No one doubts that he is serious: he reminds me of an old style bank manager who tells you can't have a loan for your business. Bagehot admits that he is 'emotionally buttoned up', but argues that he is a smarter version of Mrs May. Is this what is needed?

One British politics expert makes a good point when he tweeted, 'He has the same dull qualities as John Major. This could be a benefit in interesting times.'

The underlying problem is that the Conservatives don't have a suitable successor. Bozza, or at least his people, gave offence by going out 'on manoeuvres' immediately after the election. Admittedly, if he reached the last two, the activists would probably vote him in.

David Davis is a strong Brexiteer and has been a contrarian over the years. Amber Rudd would have a chance if she didn't have a wafer thin majority. People are then reduced to looking at the likes of Priti Patel!

What may happen is that Theresa May stays longer than anticipated. The plan is to have a long recess with Parliament not meeting again until October which would rule out the election then that so many believe in.

Friday, 9 June 2017

An unexpected result

I hadn't expected Labour to gain Warwick and Leamington. Indeed, it was the only Labour gain in the West Midlands where the Conservatives gained two seats.

There are over 5,000 students in the constituency and no doubt they played a part in the outcome. The constituency voted 'Remain' in the referendum and although outgoing MP Chris White was a remainer, it would seem that many of those who voted remain chose Labour as happened elsewhere.

What is clear is that the constituency is not a typical Midlands one. BBC West Midlands political correspondent Patrick Burns suggested that it is more like a North London constituency with a metropolitan, cosmopolitan outlook.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

British general elections since 1931

Political Quarterly has produced a special virtual archive issue featuring articles on general elections since 1931. The first article is one written by Sidney Webb in 1932. The articles are free to read for a month: General elections

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Labour's moderate pitch

I have now received the Labour and Liberal Democrat election leaflets for Warwick and Leamington. The cover photo of the Labour manifesto is initially a little puzzling as it contains a picture of two men, but it is not clear which of them is the candidate. However, turning over the page it is apparent that one is a 'local folding bike inventor.' Perhaps the subtle message here is that Jeremy Corbyn should get on his bike.

For there is no picture of Jezza or mention of his name. The overall message is that the candidate, county councillor Matt Western, is a moderate. He is pictured with a local business owner (a greengrocer) and reference is made to his 24 years of management experience with Peugeot. The candidate also makes it clear that he doesn't support Brexit in a constituency that voted Remain.

Nick Solman's leaflet emphasises the dangers of 'extreme hard Brexit'. There is a prominent photo of unimpressive leader Tim Farron. The candidate himself is photographed in front of the Pump Rooms and Warwick Castle.

Warwick and Leamington is a constituency that should have some potential for the Lib Dems, but they have never come close to realising it. For the Lib Dems more generally, only 7 per cent of the electorate voted Remain and select Brexit as their most important issue.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

YouGov's shock poll

A poll from YouGov published today based on constituency by constituency estimates suggests that there could be a hung Parliament.

Yet Stephen Fisher of Oxford University predicts a Conservative majority of 100. A ICM poll released yesterday records a 12 per cent Conservative lead and implies a majority of 76. The spread betting company IG Index suggests a Conservative majority of 106.

It should be noted that YouGov themselves make the caveat that 'it would only take a slight fall in Labour share and a slight increase in the Conservatives' to result in Mrs. May returning to No.10 with a healthy majority.'

It is also stated that 'The model is based on the fact that people with similar characteristics tend to vote similarly - but not identically - regardless of where they live.' This strikes me as a big assumption given that these characteristics are a less good guide to voting behaviour than in the past. It is also admitted that the model 'does not account for specific local factors that may shape the vote in some seats.' This strikes me as important in this election, e.g., popular Labour incumbents.

All the polls face the problem of estimating turnout. For example, 18-24 year olds overwhelmingly back Labour, but will they turn out and vote?

It is well worth looking at the latest report from the Polling Observatory, although they point out that current forecasts could mean anything between a Conservative landslide and the Tories scraping home. One point they make is that Labour may pile up votes in its safe seats, while losing ground in marginal: Polling Observatory

Friday, 26 May 2017

Emphasis on the local

I now have the election address of Chris White, seeking re-election as Conservative MP for Warwick and Leamington. The main emphasis is on what he has achieved locally, which is reasonable enough given that he has been an energetic and conscientious MP. He pledges, 'I remain as determined as I was when I was first elected to address local issues, building on the experience I have gained.'

There is a certain amount about his select committee work and other issues he has pursued in Parliament. Referring to his service on the International Development Select Committee, he states that he is a 'strong advocate for 0.7% of GNI protected for aid funding', not something that every candidate would emphasise.

Theresa May is only mentioned in relation to the fact that he served as her PPS when she was in the Home Office. 'Conservatives' appears in small print, certainly smaller than the various references to 'Chris White'.

What is completely absent is any reference to Brexit. Chris White was a remainer, but then had to follow the party line. However, we are left with no idea how he would react to a hard Brexit and what he thinks about 'no deal is better than a bad deal.'

One hint of dissent is that 'I understand concerns about school funding and will be campaigning for more support.'

Friday, 12 May 2017

Male only choice in Warwick & Leamington

As in the 2015 general election, I will be following the local constituency battle in Warwick & Leamington. This could be the last contest in Sir Anthony Eden's old seat, as proposed boundary changes would put the two towns which are contiguous into different constituencies, much to the annoyance of locals. (Warwickshire is to lose one seat).

The seat was held by Labour from 1997 to 2010. At the last election the Conservatives received 47.9 per cent of the vote, up 5.1 per cent. Labour held almost steady at 34.9 per cent and the Liberal Democrat vote collapsed to 5 per cent with UKIP picking up a little over 8 per cent.

Jeremy Corbyn visited the constituency during the week and a Labour tweet referred to it as 'Royal Leamington Spa'. He attracted a crowd of around 500, but many of them were students.

Retiring Conservative MP Chris White is standing again. In one of the few West Midlands constituencies to vote for 'Remain' in the referendum, he was a remainer. He is regarded as an energetic local MP.

Mick Western, a recently re-elected county councillor in Leamington, is the Labour candidate. Jonathan Chilvers, who holds a county council side on the south side of Leamington, is the Green candidate. Nick Soloman, a relative political novice, is standing for the Liberal Democrats. Former Warwick mayor Bob Dhillon is standing for UKIP to give Brexiteers an alternative to Chris White.

Voters will thus have to choose from an all male list.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

SNP local elections victory looks less secure

Leading elections expert takes a close look at the SNP's performance in the local elections and says that it looks less secure when you examine it closely: Starts to crack when you look closely

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The Major premiership

Yesterday I attended a book launch at Liverpool University's impressive London premises for a book on the Major premiership to which I contributed. Contributors were invited to make presentations.

A view that emerged was that John Major was more successful than he appeared at the time, also a theme in the book. For example, he did much of the heavy lifting on Northern Ireland, although Tony Blair took much of the credit.

Professor Lord Norton pointed out that he was actually the third longest serving continuous prime minister of the last hundred years (the 2017 date excludes Asquith).

One view was that it takes a good jockey to ride a difficult horse, but perhaps there had been too much emphasis on the horse in terms of the political context at the time.

Major was first elected in 1979 and hence never served in opposition. He had no opportunity to prepare to be prime minister and to think through what he wanted to do. He fell into the pragmatic category of Conservative prime ministers. His lack of principle and philosophy was to some extent his undoing. However, he did have deep Conservative instincts as well as being pragmatic.

One speaker drew a comparison with Theresa May, asking what does she believe in? The electorate seem to compare her with Mrs Thatcher.

He has been one of the most successful post Prime Ministers, making rare and judicious interventions with good timing. Of course, in a way that is faint praise. It is rather like saying Jimmy Carter was a better post president than he was president.

His long autobiography was one of the best written by a prime minister since Churchill and was characterised by his dry wit.

The book concludes, 'In history, Major is not a towering figure like Attlee or Thatcher, but nor is he a failure like Balfour or Eden, nor a footnote in the party's evolution like Bonar Law or Douglas Hume.'

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Millwall fans to contest general election

Millwall fans are planning to nominate a candidate in one of the Lewisham constituencies in the general election: Protest candidate

They fell out with the local Labour controlled council and mayor after an attempt to use a compulsory purchase order to acquire some of the club's land.

72-year old local resident Willow Winston is to stand in Lewisham East, the leafier part of the borough: Everyone hates us, we don't care

Thursday, 16 March 2017

'Spreadsheet' Phil is weakened but safe

The relationship between the prime minister and the chancellor of the exchequer is the most crucial one in British government, but it hasn't been studied very systematically, although I attempted a typology in my Economic Policy in Britain.

'Spreadsheet' Phil Hammond has suffered a blow to his reputation after he was forced to withdraw his increase in national insurance charges for the self-employed. The expressions of studied neutrality on those around him as he made his statement yesterday told their own story.

The line from Downing Street is that the Chancellor was warned beforehand about the political risks of the increase, but felt he had to go ahead to meet new spending demanded by the prime minister. Indeed, the Treasury line is that the prime minister and her aides are too keen to spend additional money, although something had to be done to provide additional funding for social care. Quite how the £2 billion hole in what was a fiscally balanced budget is going to be repaired remains to be seen. The Government has boxed itself in by its manifesto pledge not to increase income tax, VAT or national insurance, the main means of raising revenue.

In the longer run, something is going to have to be done about the erosion of the tax base by the growing numbers of self-employed, some a by-product of the digital economy, but many of them attracted by the tax benefits which include allowances not available to the employed. Employers also benefit from not having to pay NICs. However, it would have been surely better to wait for the results of the review being conducted by Matthew Taylor which will also look at the narrower range of benefits received by the self-employed. Certainly, Phil Hammond did not display much political awareness.

In the longer run, there is a need to look at the rationale of separating national insurance and income tax. National insurance is another form of income tax, but one not applied to particular groups such as the elderly. Whether any party would be prepared to tackle this particular hot potato is open to question.

What is the immediate political fallout from this U-turn? It shows that the Government is vulnerable to determined resistance by small groups of backbenchers, given its slim majority. School funding formulas will be the next target. It also showed once again that Jeremy Corbyn is unable to take advantage of government errors.

The SNP economy spokesman suggested that relations between No. 10 and No. 11 could revert to the days of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. That will not happen because Phil Hammond has no ambitions to be prime minister. He is a Derek Heathcoat-Amory rather than a Gordon Brown. From Theresa May's point of view, it suits her to have a weakened chancellor beholden to her so his job is safe for now.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Too much policy reinvention?

A new report from the Institute for Government argues that there has been too much policy reinvention in British government, leading to waste and lost policy effectiveness. Three areas which have certainly suffered from constantly changing policies are examined in detail: further education, regional governance and industrial strategy: All change?

What one can do about it is another question, given the susceptibility of governing parties to fads and fashions and the incentives for ministers to build a reputation as policy innovators, even if the policies are reheated.

One suggestion made by the report is that the institutional memory of departments needs to be improved, but current personnel policies militate against this. One might also heretically that the days of paper files provided more prompts about what had been tried in the past.

Monday, 13 March 2017

How to be an effective minister

Based on interviews with former ministers including Ken Clarke and Alistair Darling, this report for the Institute for Government looks at what it takes to be an effective minister and whether they have sufficient preparation for their roles: Ministers Reflect

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Public services could be pushed to breaking point

The Institute for Government has published a report on the performance of public services in the period of austerity since 2010: Performance tracker

The report finds that the 2010 spending review was largely successful in terms of its objectives. My interpretation would be that there were efficiency gains to be made in public services which did not substantially affect their quality.

However, it is a different story since 2015. Performance is being adversely affected and some services could be pushed to breaking point. In the case of prisons, they are already beyond that point.

The report warns, 'In the upcoming Budget, the Chancellor cannot simply choose to ‘tough it out’, eschewing any reference to how the Government will deal with the mounting pressures in public services, as he did in the 2016 Autumn Statement, when his only announcement was emergency funding for prisons. The Government risks being bounced from crisis to crisis, unable to get a grip on the situation. Without action, within the next two years it could face a disastrous combination of failing public services and breached spending controls against a background of deeply contentious Brexit negotiations.'

Friday, 10 February 2017

Shift in electorate not good news for Labour

We are all familiar with arguments that the old left-right divide is being replaced by one between those in favour of/benefitting from globalisation and those who have lost out from it. It is reflected in tensions within the Labour Party between the metropolitan faction from Remain voting constituencies and those MPs from the north representing Brexit voting areas.

A paper in the British Journal of Political Science by Will Jennings and others using data from the British Social Attitudes Survey from 1985 to 2012 found that British young people are more right-wing and authoritarian in their views than previous generations. Although they are more socially liberal on matters of equality and women's rights, they are also more consumerist and individualistic on issues such as the welfare state.

The generation that grew up in the period of Conservative rule starting with Margaret Thatcher hold more right-wing views than their predecessors. But 'Blair's babes', who came of age while Tony Blair and New Labour were in power, are even further to the right of the political spectrum. New Labour essentially reinforced Thatcherite policy values, reproducing them and making them more embedded.

There has been a clear rise in negative attitudes towards the benefits system, the unemployed, benefit recipients and the welfare system. Younger people also take a harder line on previous generations, despite crime levels having fallen.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Brexit challenge for civil service

Britain's civil service will struggle with the workload of Brexit after a 19 per cent reduction in its staff since 2010, with some of the most severe cuts hitting the departments with the biggest Brexit challenges, e.g., Defra with a one third cut in its staff since 2010 despite its heavy EU related responsibilities. This is the central argument of the latest Whitehall Monitor from the Institute for Government: Brexit challenge

The report says that the decision to create a separate Department for Exiting the European Union was unnecessary and it would have been less disruptive to plan Brexit policy out of the well-established Cabinet Office. However, it should be remembered that this was a politically driven decision to create a high profile role for David Davis.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Remembering Tony King

Taking an interest in someone's work because they have passed away is a shamefaced admission to have to make. However, I had been meaning to read Anthony King's Who Governs Britain? for some time, but the past year has been one of the most eventful in my life. My copy arrived today.

Tony did speak to me about the chapter on interests and was kind enough to cite my 2000 book on pressure groups as the recommended further reading on the subject. Indeed, my central memory of Tony was of an urbane Canadian who was always polite and pleasant to me. His reassuring, unflustered voice was a hallmark of election night broadcasts and contrasted with the more manic style of Bob Mackenzie with the swingometer. even (Sir) David Butler could get into a lather when the Silly Party started to outpace the Sensible Party.

His recent book on Blunders of British Government with Ivor Crewe was widely read and well received. A friend of mine who is a historian by training said it was on of the few books written by a political scientist he ever thought worth reading. Perhaps, however, it did not fully answer the criticism made in The Times obituary that he had never written a major, single authored work. It is unfortunate that he never turned his doctoral thesis on the 1906 general election into a book, which was promised from time to time, as it might have countered that criticism.

Nevertheless, what he had to say in the 1970s about government overload was a message that should stay with us today. There is a tendency for the reach of governments to extend their grasp and they should focus on those things which they can do better than anyone else (not much, some would say).

Tony was very interested in the British decline debate and invited me to talk about this at Essex way back. How long ago it was is shown by the fact that I had to ask people in the audience to refrain from smoking as I had a sore throat!

One of my children subsequently took the first year course he assiduously taught on the UK. For an essay with a decline focus, I gave her a couple of pieces of work in progress which she duly quoted. As I recall, the mark awarded was 62.


Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Henry VIII powers: their uses and criticisms

Popular commentary focuses on his marital adventures, but Henry VIII casts a long constitutional shadow today

Given the likelihood of the Government using 'Henry VIII powers' under the Statute of Proclamations in relation to the so-called 'Great Repeal Bill', it is useful to look at the full briefing provided by the House of Commons Library in Chapter 5 of this report on how these powers might be used and criticisms of their use: Henry VIII powers

Once again it is the unelected House of Lords that intends to give the Government a hard time over the use of these powers, although the Government has indicated that if they cause too much trouble it will revive proposals to curb their ability to block statutory instruments.

For some the use of powers devised by Henry VIII in one of his more absolutist moments is profoundly undemocratic. Others see the survival of such powers as a means of facilitating effective executive government in times of difficulty.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Gove on the warpath against experts again

Yesterday I went to see my surgeon for a sign off meeting after my recent successful knee replacement operation. We discussed the operation for the other knee, but it occurred to me afterwards that I could have saved myself a lot of money. I was conscious during the operation and it involved a lot of sawing and hammering. Why not get a carpenter in to do the second op?

In his latest column for The Times Michael Gove takes it upon himself to write the speech the prime minister should give on Brexit next week. His basic premise is that 'All our policies from now on must reflect the common sense of the majority, not the preoccupations of the privileged.' Moreover, 'The public [52%] have told us what they want. We must get on with leaving the EU. Completely. In months not years.'

Apparently this will be possible if we ignore the attempts of experts to make things more complex than they really are. Above all, we don't need to hire more people with PPE degrees. (I admit that I am particularly guilty here having taught on such a degree until recently and serving as the external examiner for another one).

Gove doubts that 'negotiating a new trade deal is fiendishly difficult, will take ten years and require men of great experience to see things through.' Has Gove ever read the text of a trade deal or a US trade act? Has he followed the negotiations on the Uruguay Round or those on the Doha Round that didn't even come to a conclusion? Why did it take so long to agree a trade pact between the EU and Canada that is still not operational?

He also argues that doing a deal with the EU on trade would be easy because we have tariff free trade at the moment. He overlooks the fact that the most complex issues surround non-tariff trade barriers. See this helpful guide from the Institute for Government: Non-tariff trade barriers

Fraser Nelson in the Spectator has the lead story in this week's issue, 'The End of Experts': The End of Experts His a more measured piece with a narrower target, economists and political scientists, whom he accuses of a failure to predict. He does, of course, have a point because of the so-called 'Oedipus effect': making a social science prediction can affect the outcome.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Tristram Hunt quits

Labour MP Tristram Hunt has quit as a Labour MP to become director of the V & A: Resignation

So yet another able moderate Labour MP quits. A democracy needs a properly functioning opposition which looks like a credible alternative government. We don't have it.

Monday, 9 January 2017

Could Henry VIII help us with a train crash Brexit?

It now looks as if the choice for the UK is between a hard Brexit that takes us outside the single market and probably the customs union and a train crash Brexit in which the negotiations break down and we exit the EU without an agreement. The Government thinks it will be possible to negotiate a series of trade agreements with the EU, but the mood in Brussels has hardened in recent months.

How could the Government deal with the problems produced by a train crash Brexit? Step forward, Henry VIII. In 1539, in one of his more absolutist moods, he issued the Statute of Proclamations which allowed him to govern by royal decree. The so-called Henry VIII clauses are still in place and occasionally used, conferring extensive powers on the executive: Henry VIII clauses

The kite that is being flown is this: the Government would be given powers to replicate functions carried out by EU bodies without further parliamentary scrutiny. This would mean a big increase in quangos. And would a 'sovereign' Parliament allow the executive to assume so much authority? It could be a very disorderly Brexit.