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.

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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.

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.

An independent Scotland? RBS and Iceland suggest not

An independent Scotland? RBS and Iceland suggest not  

Alex Salmond today published Scotland’s independence White Paper. He offered his countrymen the chance to keep the status quo, take more powers to Edinburgh, take a lot more powers to Edinburgh, or leave the United Kingdom all together. Sadly for him that last option is pie in the sky.

The last year or two have been unkind to the cause of Scottish independence. The SNP won its first Scottish election victory, but only won well enough to form a minority administration. Because of that, independence has gone no further than renaming the ‘Executive’ the ‘Scottish Government’.

But while the other parties would vote down independence anyway, the SNP have made the strongest case for staying within the UK.

It seems an age ago that Scottish Nationalists could barely open their mouths without repeating the examples of Iceland and Ireland. Those were two fast growing, prosperous and independent nations that Mr Salmond and his colleagues promised Scotland would mimic. Once it was free of the imperial city’s rule of course.   

Then the world economy wobbled.

You can barely get SNP members of the Scottish Parliament to even admit Iceland exists nowadays. And that is hardly surprising. It was a small independent nation with a fast growing economy thanks to, among other things, a thriving banking sector.

Then the banks collapsed. By early 2009 Forbes was reporting foreign held national debt levels of up to 200%. Its banking assets in the UK were frozen. Its unemployment rate jumped from effectively zero to over ten percent in mere months. Eventually Iceland had to be bailed out and saved from possible national bankruptcy by a clutch of European nations and the IMF.

Contrast that with Scotland and the case for the union becomes clear. The banks collapsed and by early 2009 they were operating under effective state ownership. The UK, or London as the SNP tends to call it, was able to underwrite vast liabilities that totalled far more than Scottish national income. The banks remain in bad shape, but no one imagines Scottish unemployment will hit ten percent any time soon. Recovery, though likely to be slow, is now widely predicted and probably underway.

Then there was Ireland.

The same politicians have gone quiet about the Republic, though they are less willing to give up that example as they have little else to offer. It helps that most people know little of Ireland ’s problems as it just isn’t big news in Britain.  

But Ireland ’s example is more worrying. Iceland could be written off as one bad example where banking was too big a part of the economy, and where new cash was overspent on expensive foreign assets. That Scotland’s banking sector did the same doesn’t negate that Ireland was everything an independent Scotland was meant to be. It was fast growing, global in outlook, and even developed modern companies of world acclaim.

So, with globaleconomiccrisis.com reporting eleven percent unemployment earlier this year, and an economy still shrinking having already shrunk by nearly double digit percentages, the SNP case for freedom was in tatters.

Ireland’s case was also alarming for another reason. The public spending deficit there rose to around 14 percent of GDP without the large stimulus measures seen in the UK. The rise was primarily a result of falling revenues and higher benefit costs. Indeed the price of servicing Irish debt has also risen recently, along with many other small European countries, as the risk of default is emphasised by Dubai World’s turmoil.

In the UK meanwhile, we have similar deficits, but with a great deal of that allocated to initiatives to keep the economy moving, keep people in jobs, and to keep a rather large Scottish bank afloat.  

And that leaves the long term problem of public spending north of the border.

According to the IFS, annual per capita public spending is £9,162 in Scotland. In the UK it is £8,219. So Scotland spends 11 percent more per head than the UK average.

The trouble for an independent Scotland is that Tax in the UK is raised universally, not at different levels in different regions. So to make up the difference Scotland would have to hike up taxes, or cut spending by eleven percent. That would get the deficit down to the UK’s present 14 percent. And that would only be enough if the Scottish tax take matches the average for the UK as a whole. Given our London centric economy even that assumption seems generous.

Likewise, with ongoing trouble in the world economy, and the high prices of debt for small countries, Scotland may face higher servicing costs on it’s share of the UK ’s £800billion accumulated debt.  Its population is eight percent of the UK ’s so it might be expected to take on around £70billion of that debt for itself.  

At least it seems unlikely the British would be quite so cruel as to give Scotland its share of the banking liabilities as well, or worse still all those losses associated with RBS.

So should Scotland go independent? No, clearly it should not. There might be a time when it is in fine shape and has a fair wind behind it. But that seems further away now than at any point in my lifetime, or Alex Salmond’s.  And the Nationalists probably know it.

Hence the three other options in the White Paper.

Will the real Shadow Chancellor please stand up?

Philip Hammond launched Conservative plans for public service reform on Friday. The announcements received some press coverage, yet one of the most interesting aspects of the morning appears to have been ignored.

Luckily Westminster Village was part of the packed audience at the Policy Exchange event, because the Shadow Chancellor did something very interesting. To our reporter it almost sounded like an admission of his limitations. It might even have been an acknowledgement that the heir apparent to the Osborne baronetcy may not be entirely suited to the role of Chancellor-in-waiting.

The previous day an invitation had been sent to the great, the good, and us, announcing that the Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury would be launching Tory plans to ‘do more with less’ at the right-wing think tank. The invite added that George Osborne would be introducing Mr Hammond.

Intrigued at the prospect of the Shadow Chancellor playing a bit-part role in a launch designed in part to overshadow leaked reports of the government’s work on the issue, we went along – curious to hear what the Boy George had to say.

Sweeping into the room Osborne took his place at the podium and provided us with a short summary of his conference speech. Again. Thankfully there was no repetition of the Disney-lite catchphrase reminding us how “we’re all in this together”.

Usual spiel over with, the Shadow Chancellor had a complaint to make. Labour, he said, had completely downgraded the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury during their time in office. All of this would change under his reign, he pledged.

To what extent, we wondered.

Well, George told us, Philip Hammond would be at the heart of the Treasury. His role would be “one of the most important” in government. A quick grin and George took his place in the front row to allow Philip cover what mattered most after the buzzword-filled opening. The detail.

So had George admitted what we presumed all along? That he would be the one holding the red box and grinning inanely for the cameras whilst Hammond poured over the figures and hatched plans to restore Britain to more halcyon times.  

The speech was somewhat light on specifics beyond the ‘transparency, efficiency and culture change’ the party pledged to implement. The biggest announcement was the establishment of a Shadow Public Services Productivity Advisory Board which sounds more than a little similar to the PSA that Thatcher abolished.

Hammond also made some rather lofty claims that Labour had wasted £60bn a year on the public sector which conveniently ignored the state it had been reduced to by 1997.

Regardless of the issues we have with the content, what was more interesting was Hammond himself. He spoke with a confidence and competence that Osborne has yet to demonstrate.

Despite protests that he would never write Osborne’s budget for him, a telling moment followed. Using a rather stretched metaphor, he announced that he saw his role in the next Tory government as that of “ensuring that the machinery in the engine room of government is calibrated to deliver a continuous stream of productivity improvements”.

A convoluted way of telling us he was the power behind the throne? Judging by Friday morning’s performance it appears so.

Of course George Osborne’s credentials have been called into question on numerous occasions. He has also been accused of retaining the job either because of his close friendship with David Cameron or because of the sway he holds within the party due to his vast wealth and useful contacts.

There are even some who argue that Hammond is preparing to do the real work at Number 11 whilst Osborne merely ratchets up his rhetoric. And for the first time both men appear to have tacitly acknowledged there is more than a degree of substance to that.

Floody Tories

Cumbria, in case anyone remains oblivious to the news, is very wet right now. A foot of rain fell in one day about a week ago and many more inches have fallen since. Yet the political storm has yet to hit.

The press has bombarded us with images of swollen rivers and broken bridges, of waterlogged homes and communities cut off. We have even been treated to inspirational story of a dutiful policeman washed away while helping to keep others safe.

So far so apolitical.

Of course weather is sometimes very political. But this is no Hurricane Katrina. This is not a weather pattern tracked over hundreds of miles. White folk were not evacuated from its path while black folk were left to die. The recovery effort has not been fudged with fatal consequence by incompetent federal agencies run by unsuitable pals of an unpopular president.

Instead this is an unpredictable and entirely unprecedented event. And it is literally unprecedented. At no time in history has anywhere in Britain recorded the level of rainfall that Cumbria suffered in one wet day last week. Meanwhile those sent to put up temporary flood barriers and provide supplies to affected communities have done a stellar job.

But none of this can stop the matter turning political.

Letters to editors have started to hint ever so slightly that the public is ready to see the floods exploited. Some have attacked the Government for building homes on flood plains. Others have criticised the blocking of flood prevention plans that would harm biodiversity. More routinely people have argued we could spend more on flood defences if we left Afghanistan alone.

What these letters are not, is a signal to the Tories to go on the attack. Whether the individual points are fair or not, some egotistical nut will always write to the papers with their often ill-conceived wisdom. And in the internet age editors are keen to publish them if they court controversy.

Instead the Tories have a tricky balance to strike here. They don’t want ‘events’ disrupting the normal flow of politics while they have a large lead in the polls. Events are unpredictable. Appearing to exploit them can damage public support and turn people in favour of Governments. However, Gordon Brown’s popularity peaked when the country was hit by terrorism, Foot and Mouth, and flooding all at once in 2007. So events can’t be ignored either, for fear of leaving Labour to pick up easy points.

Various Tory MEPs, councillors and other bods have thus started calling for flood related inquiries. Their list of issues includes flood defences, the speed of response, planning, house building, and more besides. It is possible that this is testing the water ahead of a more focused line of attack. But it feels premature and disorganised, as though the individuals involved might just have got a little carried away with themselves.

If so that should worry David Cameron. His party is not on solid ground if a policy debate arises. After all, it was only a month ago that they ruled out the promise of a flood bill in their first term.

And consider that for a moment. Would anyone really blame any party for prioritising Afghanistan, crime, education, the NHS, banking, climate change and unemployment over costly preparations for weather conditions never before seen in Britain?

When the flooding subsides I suspect the answer will be no. And so does the Tory leadership. Hence their headline announcement today is on recycling, not rainwater. But they are now asking questions. They may do so quietly. And they don’t want answers. But they are asking so as to hint at Government failure and to foster a small degree of public discontent. And that is a shame.

It is a shame because the Tories want the public to stop looking to Government for answers to every problem.  And surely the weather is a perfect illustration of the state’s limitations.