So what the hell can Britain afford then?

So what the hell can Britain afford then?.

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Tories miss Andy Coulson

It is easy to hate Alistair Campbell. He was manipulative, aggressive, scheming and deceitful. But Labour needed him. With forceful figures like Mandelson, Prescott, Cook and Brown all carrying mandates, things could have been chaotic. A dip in polls would embolden them to demand quick fixes. Campbell kept Blair focused on long term strategy.  
 
There is no one as good as Campbell at that. But as polls look bad for the Tories, the value of a second class communications director is suddenly apparent.  
 
The response to a bad poll is inevitable. Councillors panic. The opposition enjoy some limelight. Backbenchers demand a harder line on this, and a change of direction on that. Cabinet members push pet projects. Leading figures assert their camp’s agenda.
 
The man the Prime Minister turns to then is his comms director. Andy Coulson’s job is to back the PM’s strategy. He would advise against idiotic quick-fixes and instead stress the long term plan, ideas that fit it.  
 
This is easy for the Tories. The long term plan is on track. They knew as cuts were announced and the economy suffered, government would become unpopular. As the cuts bite unpopularity grows. Then, as the deficit eases and the economy recovers, vindication and credit can be claimed.
 
Without Coulson the PM has been distracted from that and has made mistakes. 
 
A siren probably sounded when some one suggested the anti-multiculturalism speech. Aligning it with a widely reported English Defence League march was clear idiocy. Bloggers, the press, and the English Defence League all claimed Cameron piggybacked on their cause. It appeared incendiary, opportunistic and poorly thought out. Pretending it was a coincidence masked nothing. A Comms Director would have pulled the speech, or better still would never have planned it.  
 
Then came the bank levy debacle. A story loomed about bankers funding the Tories. Coulson would surely have suggested distraction and to let it blow over. Without him they rushed an announcement to make the banks pay more. That stocked the fires ahead of the party funding story – and ahead of a negotiated deal that let the banks off the hook.  
 
Of course anger at the banks is, by nature, targeted at the banks not the government. Multiculturalism likewise is focused on muslims not the Prime Minister. So neither will swing voting intentions much.
 
Instead, the big mistake is the Big Society, which dies this week.  
 
Leading charity figures publicly wrote it off. Eric Pickles quashed plans to make councils maintain their charity budgets. Liverpool “pulled out” of the Big Society altogether, pointing out that it was not funded anyway so quitting wouldn’t hurt residents. Polls suggest the public think it’s a cover for cuts anyway.  
 
So the strategy is simple. Shelve it! No announcement needed. Talk about services run by communities, and a greater say for local people. Just call it localism. Don’t mention the “Big Society” ever again and soon enough it will be no bigger concern than the Dome was for Blair.   

Instead Cameron re-launches it.
 
Telling people, as they grow poorer, to be less selfish and do more for others is utterly stupid. People everywhere dislike like being preached to. They hate being called selfish and lazy. They dislike it most in a country with the longest working hours and fewest public holidays in Europe. Worse than that – the implication is already viewed as being that time spent with friends, neighbours and family is self-indulgent and consumerist.  
 
So lets hope Cameron’s new spin doctor sticks around. It was one thing ten years ago to lament the Tories as weak opposition. It would be worse for them now to be a weak government for much longer.

Scottish polling: Good for Labour. Not bad for SNP.

In 2007 the Scottish Nationalist Party swept to power in Scotland in similar fashion to the Tories in 2010. And by that I mean they just about won an election that left them without a majority despite holding most of the cards.

The SNP won with around 33 percent of the vote to Labour’s 32 percent, based on constituency votes. The list vote was little more resounding with 31 percent beating 29 percent. (Small parties tend to draw support away from big ones in the list vote).

Unlike the Tories however, the SNP treated their win like a win. They didn’t start bitching at each other about a failure to secure a majority against a Labour Party that was, unambiguously, very unpopular by historic standards. They didn’t gripe about the money their donors wasted trying to get them into power. They didn’t start making fatuous comments about their own leadership and the deals they had to do to get through the door.

So, depending on your bias and perception, the SNP acted with a confidence, audacity, ambition or ego that the Tories lacked when they formed a minority government.

It hasn’t been a resounding success.  Indeed their flagship principle of independence fell apart soon after the election. The credit crunch required London to support Scotland’s economy when RBS collapsed. Iceland, one of Salmond’s much vaunted examples of all that Scotland could be alone, went bankrupt. Ireland, the other of his much vaunted examples, has been downgraded and has had to slash services with little impact on their flailing economy.

Yet despite that, and perhaps showing how little people care about cessation, the SNP have remained stable in the polls. With a year to run before the next election they are just one percent down on both constituency and list votes.

That is according to a poll on voting intentions by TNS-BMRB.

The same poll however, says something more interesting about a defeated Labour Party.

Labour, after three years in Scottish opposition, and while hindered by unpopular Westminster leadership, recovered. A lot.

On constituency votes Labour are up on the 2007 result by 14 percent on 46 points. On the list they have risen to 42 percent, 13 points up.

The key to Labour’s success is hard to pin down. The poll might over-state support for a party whose core voter turnout is generally believed to be lower than other parties. But the Lib Dems and Tories are both down in the polls too, suggesting some success in consolidating opposition feeling.

The lessons are not clear, and Westminster has no large collection of opposition groups to take voters from. But as Labour look to recover across the UK from a terrible 2010, it will be interesting to see how the 2011 Scottish elections play out.

Could Clegg stitch up his own party?

 

Lib Dems are biting their nails. Party activists, local councillors, and millions of committed voters are all very nervous. And here is why. Their MPs are talking to the Tories and they don’t like it.

Of course talking is fine. Nick Clegg promised to talk to the biggest party and has stuck to that promise. The horror for Lib Dem supporters is this. The talks should have failed by now. There should have been too little common ground to last this long. Instead the talks might now succeed.

This is an horrific thought for most Lib Dems. They genuinely didn’t believe Mandelson’s jibe that a vote for Clegg was a vote for Cameron. I didn’t believe it either, and I’m no Lib Dem.

While the Tories have moved to the centre ground, they are still a right wing party. They want a small state, less redistribution of wealth, and withdrawal from many aspects of the EU. Some of their MPs remain homophobes, pro-life, and want to bring back hanging and flogging.

The Lib Dems on the other hand are left wing. Their leaders pretend to transcend “old style” left-right politics. But that was always a lie and the voting masses largely know it. Their success in recent elections has been about keeping the Tories out where Labour can’t, or about attracting disaffected young Labour voters who hated the Iraq war and tuition fees.

All of that means any deal to support Cameron as Prime Minister could see Clegg’s party collapse. Many members and voters would simply vote for Labour next time to get the Tories out. Others would leave for the Greens who they trust never to betray their individual principles so utterly to the right. The party might take a generation to rebuild. Worse still the damage could be irreparable and it might just die.

And then there is electoral reform.

Electoral reform is perfect self interest for Lib Dems. They want a more proportional system so they can get more MPs elected. They also, by happy coincidence, genuinely believe that this would be fairer and so better for the country. So in return for that real change members might hold their noses and support the Tories.

But that is a fantasy option. Electoral reform is after all, also perfect self interest for Tories. They need First Past The Post to shut out small left wing parties so they can win elections. They also, by happy coincidence, genuinely believe FPTP makes for stronger government and so is better for the country.

That means that if a deal is to be done, Clegg has to be very clever, very cynical, and very devious. In other words he needs to be an old style politician, and a very good one at that.

First things first, the issue of electoral reform needs addressing. The Tories won’t offer real change. So the demand needs to be watered down. Then the importance of it needs diminishing in the eyes of Lib Dem supporters.

Clegg has already started this process. Lib Dem MPs have stopped talking of proportional representation and instead talk of electoral reform. That is now giving way to talk of wider political change. On top of that, the Lib Dems should talk more about higher priorities like the economy and environment. The press is doing this for them, but the Lib Dems have to do it themselves and do it a lot.

All of that paves the way for telling members they should think of the worthier aim of serving the country, than specific demands like electoral reform.

Then he would need some fig leaf. This is where he should jump at the chance of a special commission or something similar. He should extend it to wider political reform too. And he should talk it up as a great move in the right direction.

Obviously such a commission is a stitch up. It is a pleasantry that will resolve nothing to the Lib Dems’ satisfaction. That is why the Tories suggested it. But that doesn’t matter. It would enable Clegg to pretend in four years time that he was tricked by the Tories. He could argue that he didn’t sell them out, he was just naïve. It would be a lie, but hey, this is old style party politics at its most traditional. And it works.

A rose by any other name?

Because too few Lib Dems would buy into such an obvious con-trick as a commission for electoral reform, a formal coalition may be off the cards. Fortunately a coalition by any other name might smell less pungent.

Clegg should rule out a formal coalition. Instead he can agree to back a Tory minority government. The policy direction of that government would probably be just as abhorrent to his members, and he’d probably get less of what he wants too. But this isn’t about good governance. This is about party politics.

Supporting a minority Tory Government would be easier to spin. Certainly the lack of real political change would be easy to explain away. After all, the Lib Dems wouldn’t be to blame. The Government (Tories) would be.

Likewise Clegg might be able to convince his supporters that he only supports Tory policies that Lib Dems like. He would claim that the Tories hold off from their worst impulses if the know they need Lib Dem support in the Commons. Again, at best that would be an exaggeration and worse a bare-faced lie. But genuine accusations of the inevitable horse-trading might even rally his supporters rather than hurt him. Attacks from outside often do that.

And that is key. Any deal with the Tories would betray his support and everyone knows it. Most of all his supporters know it. Many will leave despite any tactical effort on his part. So he needs to help them pretend this is the least bad option. And they need to remain convinced, despite all the evidence, that their vote was not the vote for Cameron that Mandelson warned it would be.

If that is too hard, perhaps he can still walk away and deal with the rest of the Left. But don’t underestimate the role time plays. The longer the talks go on, the more Lib Dems will cease to be shocked. The more they will resign themselves to what may start to feel inevitable. And as that happens their desire to think well of their party and view their own vote positively will lead them to find their own mitigations and justifications for the betrayal.

Political climate change

America has been abuzz with talk of tea-party moments this week. Obama’s gloss has dulled and his party took a pasting on home turf. In England, maybe because we can’t stand to think of all that wasted tea, there are slower changes underway.  

In the last few years I can think of just one tea-party moment; one moment at which politics changed instantly. That moment was the cancelled election. Brown was popular and about to consolidate power with a snap election in which a divided opposition had little hope of success. Then he was weak and feeble and clinging to power until the newly united Tory party inevitably swept to power.

That has been the established climate for a couple of years now. The weather changes from day to day, but the backdrop has stayed constant.

Until recently.

Gordon Brown has been “winning” Prime Minister’s question time for a few months now. He has been more confident in public appearances. Highlighting how in touch the Tories aren’t has also helped a little. But all of that is superficial.

What has really changed is an atmosphere. Labour have changed, subtly and without announcement, from no-hopers to underdogs over the course of a few months.  

Part of that change is inevitable election upswing.  

Firstly pundits get nervous. Most political hacks can be summed up thus. They are politicians who lack the courage to face the scrutiny of a ballot box. Two years before an election they can declare the result with a certainty and pretend to be experts. No one will call them to task if they are wrong years later. With an election looming they get nervous. They edge their bets and muddy the waters so they sound expert but can’t be out and out wrong. So Labour are no longer dead in the water. Instead nothing is certain and “elections are unpredictable.”   

Secondly, the public start to care. People generally drift along with an all-knowing air of negativity. Those who argue that, for example, NHS waiting times have come down, sound endearingly naïve or awfully corrupt. But with an election coming the default setting shuts off. That waiting times have fallen becomes important. People weigh the good against the bad instead of just weighing the bad and ignoring the good. So inevitably that benefits the government.

This seasonal upturn for the Government would mean little normally. But Labour are capitalising. 

The attempted coup a couple of weeks ago fell about as flat as a coup could. It was led by two transparently bitter former ministers. It was backed by the usual gaggle of marginal misfits. Ministers who might be future leaders all backed Brown. Even those of us who love insider intrigue couldn’t sound convincing as we said this weakened the Prime Minister.

Likewise, pick up a paper and you’ll find talk of energy, Iraq and economic upturn. What you’ll see little of, surprisingly, is David Cameron’s latest policy announcement.

Campbell had a simple doctrine at the height of his powers. Stay in the news. Whether it was a new initiative, a response to some disaster, or being confronted by an angry voter at a hospital, he wanted the press to always look Labour’s way. 

That was a good strategy. It took the old adage that you don’t talk about your opponents – and extended it. It is no accident that since he re-entered the fray for Brown, Cameron has been relegated in column inch terms. Politics at the moment is focused on Iraq, energy, and the economy. And Labour are happy to keep things that way. The economy seems set for recovery, all be it a slow one. Iraq is long in the past and electorally of little importance. And energy is an area that Government can act on while the Tories are split about climate change. 

In short, Labour are the main story again. Campbell is clearly back in charge. 

And it is working. Snipes at the Tories are sticking, especially about their social status. That they are all rich and mostly born to money is now an accepted fact even if it isn’t quite true. That would mean little if their tax plans weren’t a list of hand outs to the super-rich. But they are.   

Likewise the Lib Dems are being used well. It is not uncommon now to see newspapers carry a Nick Clegg and a Labour story on the same double page spread with no mention of Cameron. Not so long ago Clegg was a story alongside Cameron while the Government was reported elsewhere. 

The change was signalled somewhat when Brown stated, with no mincing of words last weekend, that he wants a referendum on electoral reform. 

That is music to Lib Dem ears. And it is something the Tories could never offer them. In short, a hung Parliament would now almost certainly involve a Lib Dem and Labour pact, if only a short one to push a referendum. 

And that talk of hung parliaments is good for the underdog. It plays down expectations while playing up hope that no monumental defeat is coming. That is an improvement on six months ago. And it runs well alongside the edging of bets by newly cautious pundits. It raises spirits among Labour supporters. And it ensures wavering Lib Dems have a reason to vote against, not for the Tories. 

None of this will win Labour the next election . For what it’s worth, I still expect Cameron to enter number 10 in May. (no muddying of waters here). But it is good to see a fight being made of it. Labour led for years without opposition, and that can make for poor scrutiny. The Tories should not be so free for their five years in charge now.

An easy guide to reducing poverty

 

I have a sure fire way to reduce poverty in the UK. It would be quick. It would be cheap. And it would involve not one single human right being violated.

My simple idea would probably end poverty in time for next Christmas. And best of all it would mean handing more than £100billion back to the taxpayer. We don’t need to kill anyone. We don’t need to massage the figures. We don’t need to rob from the rich and the wealthy and give to the poor.

I’m not even talking about some insane judgement of what poverty. I’m talking about standard poverty. I’m talking about all those people on less than 60 percent of the mean income in the UK.

Indeed I much prefer the quite sensibly weighted, and widely used measure of poverty that only counts disposable income after income tax, with housing costs are stripped out as well.

www.poverty.org.uk has an excellent explanation of this measure, and how the weighting works. But put simply it means a man living alone needs £115 a week after housing and income tax costs to avoid being in poverty, while a couple with two children need £279 a week.

By that measure a little over 20 percent of households are in poverty in the UK. And that brings me to my solution. Let’s sell off the NHS and give an equal share of its annual cost to every man woman and child in the country. Doing so would mean a hand out of £33 per week to everyone, effectively eliminating poverty all together.

Sound crazy? Well here are the figures.

The NHS presently costs us £110.5billion per year. And there are 61.4million men, women and children in the UK. That equates to a £1717 per person this year that we could save by not paying for healthcare anymore.

Meanwhile the mean annual income from which the above poverty level is calculated is £14,317.

Those of you good at maths will have worked out already that £1717 is just 12 percent of the mean income. So if we distribute it equally to absolutely everyone, the mean would rise by 12 percent too.

That means every weighted level of poverty would rise by twelve percent. So the man on his own would now be in poverty if he had less than £129 per week. The two adults with two children would now be in poverty with less than £312 per week to spend.

But think about what £33 per person does to the incomes of our two hypothetical examples.

The man on £115 percent, literally on the poverty line, would now have £148. That is a 29 percent rise that takes him well away from a poverty line weekly income of £129. To stay in poverty under my proposal he would have to be living on less than £96 today.

The couple with two children would see their income rise 47 percent from £279 to £411. Yet the poverty line for them would have risen only to £312. They would have to be on just £147 per week right now to still be in poverty under my plan.

However, I have to ask, do you see the flaw in this plan?

We would solve poverty at a stroke. We could even do to education what I’m suggesting for the NHS and add another £80billion d to the poverty beating pot. We could then means test the payouts to give more to the poor and less to the rich.

And yet those we help out of poverty would almost certainly end up far worse off because of it.

This has of course been a long winded way of saying we need to rethink poverty entirely.

We need to rethink the situation in which poverty is merely a matter of cash. After all, our reasons for thinking poverty is bad are not about cash anyway. We want an end to child poverty because poverty in our youth correlates strongly with an adulthood of drug addiction, criminality, physical and mental ill-health, worklessness, and family breakdown.  

So in poverty we take a social problem and monetarise it in a simplistic way. And that can’t be good for policy making.

For example, if the Government has to cut £10billion of spending, would you choose to cut it from the NHS or financial support for the poor? Far more importantly, would the poor be better off if it was cut from the NHS or from support for the poor.

That’s a tough question to answer. But it is one worth asking. You see, no party and no campaign group has tried to answer it.

I don’t have the resources to do so for this blog. I don’t know the cost of drug addiction to a person’s life, or of dependence on benefits. I also don’t know the extent to which those things can be attributed to degrees of poverty. But if free vocational training for children in poverty was found to better improve their future employment prospects than handing out cash, should poverty campaigners, the left, the right, and the centre not all want to know that?

Please aim low at Copenhagen

 

 You may have read a lot of articles recently debunking climate change as a myth, scandalising it as a conspiracy, or simply casting doubt on its extent. This is no such article.

It is easy to cast doubt on climate change. Just lie. The public don’t understand the science and are far too busy to learn it. So tell them that it is not real, exaggerated, or unproven. Some will believe you. Many others will consider your codswallop somewhat valid in the grand scheme of a scientific debate they play no part in. 

However, climate change campaigners, and by that I mean the very-progressive left, are a bigger problem than climate change deniers. These people will destroy the world. 

Now I’m not going to criticise campaigners who pitch tents in high profile places for a protest of scruffy clothes, agitating the police, and oodles of dope-fuelled al fresco sex with other scruffy, young, wannabe bohemian types.   

That image might have been damaging because the working and middle class majorities tend only to buy into aspiration. Just look at the many well respected and well dressed famous people in advertisements that scream luxury from our tellies and magazines. But fortunately a gaggle of clever scientists and well dressed politicians, journalists and businessmen and women lined up to express alarm and make climate change an aspirational issue anyway. 

Instead the problem is the morality arms race that leads some left wingers to more and more radical and ill-informed views.

The Copenhagen deal is the first global climate change agreement in which the world’s major polluting countries will agree to cut emissions and so reduce global warming. And yet some people, as part of their moral arms race, are now claiming the climate would be better off without a deal. 

The logic here is obviously weak. A deal involves nations saying they will cut emissions. No deal means no one says anything. As such if only one country takes its promise seriously Copenhagen at least achieves something.

But while the logic is weak, the process of arriving at the argument is overwhelming and inevitable. 

Take two people who feel the need to prove they care more and have greater insight about climate change. They will both start by saying the deal is too weak. That much is obvious since the deal will never be perfect. So to outdo the other, one of them can then argue that it will achieve even less than it claims. The other can do likewise until one of them has argued that it will actually achieve nothing at all. After that the other of the two has only one option left. He or she must argue that Copenhagen will damage the environment. 

This is not a new phenomenon. Karl Marx, after years of arguing that revolution was an impossible path to socialism, famously changed his mind in the Communist Manifesto. He did that to win favour with other radicals so his description of communism would be widely adopted as the core basis of the moment. Of course Marx was exceptional. He knew he was playing this game. Most columnists and bloggers don’t share that awareness.

And here is what Marx knew. He knew that once people had bought into his interpretation, they would stay with it and could be carried further. Likewise the anti-smoking lobby knew that once they convinced the public that smoking needed restricting on public health grounds, they would buy into that logic and take it further. Hence the long transition from filters, warnings on packets and an advertising ban, to a ban on smoking in pubs and perhaps requiring shops to keep cigarettes under the counter – as they once did with porn. 

Kyoto should have been that first step. It should have been the Communist Manifesto for Marxism, or something akin to warnings on packets for cigarettes. But it failed. It was too ambitious and so people, or in this case countries, didn’t sign up and buy into the logic. As such we are trying again with Copenhagen. 

If Kyoto had been weak enough to get the Yanks on side then maybe the logic would be well enough established in North America for a stronger Copenhagen deal. The politicians there would have had to justify the (all be it limited) Kyoto agreement and laud it as a positive. They would have had to justify measures that at least appeared to help achieve emission cuts. They would, in short, have got the establishment in America making the climate change case to its people. 

If Copenhagen fails to get China, America and the other countries not yet signed up on board, then in 20 years time we’ll be trying to take this first step again. 

The world can’t afford that. So let’s be realistic and treat this as a campaign and focus on the strategy. Let’s just get a deal, and by that I mean any deal that gets most of the world’s polluters involved. Then, perhaps, we can go further in future instead of having to start from square one again and again and again.