Monday, March 31, 2008

Stories from the campaign trail #1

A friend is standing in a ward which used to elect Labour councillors, and since 2004 has instead been electing Green councillors.

He was out doing some canvassing, when he heard a voter say the following to one of his activists:

"Well, I normally vote Green, but I've seen the leaflets from your candidate and I see that he talks about how he is a socialist - it's good to see someone standing for Labour who is a socialist, so, yes, I'll be voting for you this time".

My friend was delighted by this sign that the Green vote was crumbling and coming back to Labour...

...until he checked and discovered that the gentleman in question was a long-standing member of the Labour Party.

Life After Welfare

If you hear a government minister or their Tory shadow talking about the future of the welfare state, there would be plenty that they'd find to agree on. Both would agree that work is the best route out of poverty; benefit levels cannot and should not be high enough to lift people out of poverty on their own; the right to receive public funds (from benefits to social housing) should go alongside greater responsibility to look for work; the private and voluntary sectors should play a greater role in getting the 'stock' of out of work claimants into work; and alongside support for people to remove the barriers that they face in finding work, there should be sanctions if they don't comply with the rules. Both agree on changing the rules so that lone parents have to look for work when their children are at least seven years old. And both would agree that the 'culture of worklessness' is a majority cause of poverty, that if poor people changed their behaviour, then they would no longer be poor.

Ten years ago, many of these ideas were on the political fringes in the UK. But they underpinned the welfare reform policies in the USA. This was true both at a national level, where Bill Clinton signed the Republican Party's Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act; and at state level.

Life After Welfare is a detailed piece of research which looks at welfare reform in Texas and what happened to people who left welfare, using multiple different research methods and data sources.

In Texas, the Texas Works programme emphasises to welfare claimants that their responsibility is to find work. Cash assistance is limited to between 1 and 3 years. Parents have to seek work as soon as their children reach the age of two. Welfare payments, for those who qualified, were low compared to other states in America. To qualify for welfare, recipients have to sign 'personal responsibility agreements' , which included searching for jobs, co-operating with child support enforcement against the fathers of their children (if they lone parents), and documenting their children's school attendence. The aim of all policies is to make sure that 'pride in self sufficiency replaces the mindset of entitlement'. After the study, further changes included requiring parents to seek work when their children reached the age of 1, and extending sanctions so that families lost benefits for their children if they didn't comply with their responsibility agreements.

If you are a right-winger who believes that the welfare state causes poverty, then the above list should delight you.

And the result?

Fewer than 5% of welfare leavers went on to get steady jobs which paid above the poverty line (and these were all people who had previous qualifications acquired before they became unemployed). Fewer than half left welfare because they found a job, while more than a quarter found that they couldn't meet the requirements, couldn't make the appointments or believed they were not entitled because they had reached the time limit (when they hadn't). Many of the people that found a job returned to welfare after a few months.

So Texan-style welfare reform meant that some people got jobs, and stayed poor (one example given in the research is of a mother of four who was working 114 hours per week, and still couldn't afford her rent or school expenses for her kids), while others dropped out, didn't work and lost even the meagre safety net that they had had before welfare reform. And this was during a period of economic growth.

But the research doesn't just demonstrate that a policy championed by the Republican Party didn't, in fact, have the best interests of the American people at heart and didn't deliver what it had promised. It also came up with a whole load of lessons about what works and what doesn't when trying to help people find jobs, which are just as valuable for us to learn here in the UK as over the Atlantic:

1. If the welfare system is complicated, then many claimants (and their advisers) won't understand it. It is really unfair to punish them for this. Most claimants in Texas didn't make use of things like subsidised childcare, and some left their jobs because they thought that they had lost their Medicaid health insurance. Others found that they were being required to turn up for compulsory interviews at times which they couldn't make (e.g. because their car had broken down or their children were sick and there was no one to look after them). Or they had to produce masses of detailed paperwork to comply with their responsibility agreement But if they didn't turn up or keep up with the paperwork, then they got sanctioned. And, of course, because year after year Republican politicians loved to tinker with the rules, claimants and staff alike couldn't keep up with what they were and were not entitled to.

2. For people to be able to stay in work, they need to be in good health, and be able to get affordable childcare, transport, housing. It only takes one thing to go wrong, and people ended up back out of work. If they got sick, or their kids got sick, or if they couldn't get anyone to look after their kids while they were at work, or if their car broke down and they couldn't afford to fix it, or if they couldn't pay the rent, then the safety net didn't work. It only takes one of these things to go wrong - and one problem can easily lead to another - for example bad housing causing ill health.

3. Wages aren't high enough to cope with problems. Working for $6/hour, even 60 or more hours a week, isn't enough to pay for health insurance, or daycare places for 2 year olds. If you need to drive to work, and your car breaks down, the only way to get by is to borrow money.

4. The jobs which are out there aren't all regular, full-time ones. Families in low paid work found that their income would be different from week to week, or that some weeks there would be nothing to do, while other weeks they were being required to work hours which weren't compatible with their caring responsibilities. Most jobs which claimants could take offered little or no opportunities for training, or increases in wages for employees who stayed in work to be able to get out of poverty.

5. Tough requirements on making parents find work make it hard for them to be good parents to their children. The Texan welfare to work system made parents face impossible choices.

Of course, the Texan system is very different from that in Britain at the moment. But the same ideological beliefs are becoming part of our Conventional Wisdom, and ambitious politicians in both the Tory and Labour parties are borrowing from the failed policies of the Republican Party.

We could go down the Texan Road, boasting about how few people receive help from the government. Where people have to borrow money from friends and family to get by, where the slightest problem means losing your job, where parents regularly skip meals because they only have enough money to feed their kids and where to get any help requires jumping through incredibly bureaucratic hoops and where failure to comply with ever changing rules results in sanctions both for yourself and your children. And, the inevitable consequence, where more than 1 in every 100 people is in prison.

But it doesn't have to be this way. When the Americans changed their welfare system, they did so based on theoretical assumptions about how poor people behave. But ten years on, we don't have to rely on theory. We can learn from what works in getting people into work and out of poverty, and avoid what has not worked.

Wages which pay all workers enough to live on and support their families, straightforward rules which are easy to follow, personalised advice which helps claimants get good jobs and find out what support they can get without threatening them, affordable childcare, transport and housing for all workers, and health care that is free when people need it. These could be the building blocks of a society in which all who can work are able to do so, people who can't work can live with a decent, adequate income, and where parents can combine work with being good parents to their children, and giving them the best possible start in life.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Elephant paints an elephant

This is the best thing ever ever ever.

If you have ever wanted to see a video of an ele-fant painting a picture of an ele-fant holding a flower, here you go.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Bad rhetorical habits

A good comment I saw today pointed out that one thing which Nick Cohen and friends and many Trotskyist groups have in common are bad rhetorical habits, 'including an extremely aggressive polemical style, a fondness for identifying betrayers and apologists, a keenness for denunciation and for requiring their adversaries to disassociate themselves from one another, and a liking for inference in analysing other people's statements, so that they are made to say what they probably do not. They are unaware of the aggressive, bullying character this gives them.'

This is not, by any means, true of every single supporter of either the 'Decent Left' or Trotsky, but it's a common enough house style to be note-worthy, and it is unnecessary and counter-productive (as both causes at different times have good arguments to make as well as bad).

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Top Liverpool Lib Dem Paul Clein resigned as the council's Education portfolio holder today. In an open e-mail, he explained that "Labour will say we are in meltdown – that is not true."

He also accused the Lib Dem leader and former leader of 'appearing to believe the financial situation of the city is far less important than trying to exact petty revenge,' saying that there was 'no free and open debate in the 'smoke-filled rooms', accused the leadership of deselecting Cllr Kevin Firth because he had dared to criticise them, but made the point that 'this was just the straw which broke the camel's back' after several months of disasters.

This was meant to be Liverpool Lib Dems' finest year - holding their party's national conference in the city during the year of the Capital of Culture. Having a senior councillor resign five weeks before the elections, deselecting three councillors who criticised the leadership, being judged the worst council in the country for financial management - if that's not a meltdown, does that mean Cllr Clein knows that there are other and still worse calamities still to come?

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Rape Crisis Centres

Harriet Harman recently announced new funding of up to £1million, aimed at keeping a number of Rape Crisis Centres open. It's really good news, but as she says, it's emergency funding while they sort out the longer term. So what's needed in the longer term?

There are 38 Rape Crisis centres in England and Wales, and the average time on waiting lists to access the services provided by Rape Crisis is 5.3 years (just under 2,000 days). It also means that whether or not women are able to access these services depends on whereabouts they live.

In Scotland
, by contrast, Rape Crisis is funded by the national government, and there is a minimum standard set for all areas, which local authorities can improve on (as they do in, for example, Glasgow) but which all have to provide.

One advantage of devolution is that different parts of the UK can learn from each other about what works, and adopt good ideas. The Scottish model of funding is one that our government could use for the rest of the UK. Rather than having to spend vast amounts of time on chasing 1 year grants of funding as at present, it is obviously better if people running Rape Crisis centres can spend their time on providing services.

It's popular for politicians of all parties to talk about the need to devolve services down to the local level, and give more decision-making power to local councils and local communities. The experience of Rape Crisis Centres shows one potential problem with this - one reason why the number in England and Wales has halved in the last quarter century is that it hasn't been any statutory body's responsibility at a local level to fund them or help them get funding from other sources. When funding has been tight, it's gone on the services which have been required by law, and on trying to keep the council tax down to get votes.

It's only one part of tackling the horrifying levels of violence against women, but every area in every part of the UK should have a Rape Crisis Centre.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Behind the spin on welfare reform

In January, one of the key new policies announced by the Conservative Party to reduce worklessness was extra penalties for those who refuse reasonable job offers, including removing Job Seekers' Allowance for up to three years for a third refusal.

Removing all Job Seekers Allowance sounds pretty tough. So how many feckless layabouts sitting about watching daytime TV would this affect? 10,000? 50,000? 100,000?


310 people were sanctioned for refusing three reasonable job offers in 2006/7, 110 the year before, and 250 in 2004/5.

Indeed, the number who were sanctioned for refusing just one job offer fell by more than half during these three years, from 15,080 to 6,460.

If the Tories had revealed when their report was published that this flagship policy would affect just over 300 people, then they would have sounded ridiculous. It's never a good sign when a policy gets spun as if it would sort out a problem which turns out not to exist.

But then, I guess that the policy is really aimed at people like ex-Cllr John Ward.

Prejudice-confirming research

I like research which confirms my prejudices:

"We use both matching and a regression discontinuity design to analyze an original dataset on the estates of recently deceased British politicians. We find that serving in Parliament roughly doubled the wealth at death of Conservative MPs but had no discernible effect on the wealth of Labour MPs. We argue that Conservative MPs profited from office in a lax regulatory environment by using their political positions to obtain outside work as directors, consultants, and lobbyists, both while in office and after retirement. Our results are consistent with anecdotal evidence on MPs' outside financial dealings but suggest that the magnitude of Conservatives' financial gains from office was larger than has been appreciated."

Same's probably true for the Tories now, when you consider how many of them have other jobs as well as being MPs or fiddle their expenses. But what of the People's Party? It's just about possible to imagine that Tony Blair or David Blunkett would have made at least as much money if they hadn't become politicians. But creatures like Alan Milburn or Patricia Hewitt exploiting their contacts from being ministers to secure well-paid directorships? Revolting, and, as this research shows, in the worst traditions of the Tory Party.

Wisdom of the Crowds: Iraqi special

Two surveys of what Iraqis think, here and here.

Some responded with cherry-picking of answers which fit with their personal views, others denounced the surveys as imperialist forgeries because they didn't fit with the Stop the War Campaign's line. What I found interesting was the results which contradicted the Conventional Wisdom here in the West, both pro- and anti-war.

So, for example, Iraqis have a relatively high opinion of their government (48% approval, higher than Britain or the USA), by 38%-28% think that British withdrawal from Basra made the situation worse, and report the top two problems in their lives are unemployment and lack of electricity. More think that life for their children will be better than their own lives (let's hope so), and opinions of the local militias is only slightly better than that of the Americans (22% to 20%). Only 38% want Coalition troops to leave now, and only 33% think that President Bush leaving office will make the situation in Iraq better (27% think it will make it worse). 64% would rather stay in Iraq than move to another country.

And at the same time, 53% Iraqis think that the much lauded 'surge' has made the security situation worse, 61% think the presence of US troops is making the security situation worse, 42% think that attacks on coalition forces is acceptable, 69% think that former Ba'athists should be allowed to take government jobs and opinion is evenly divided about whether the invasion was a good idea. 72% oppose the presence of coalition forces in Iraq, more think that relations between Arabs and Kurds are getting worse than think it is getting better, and 41% report unnecessary violence by coalition or US forces having taken place in their area. And, of course, these figures vary significantly from region to region and between Kurds, Sunni and Shia.

Instead of polemics about 'Troops Out Now' vs 'The Surge is Working', could anyone point me to the fierce debates about 'How to improve the electricity supply' and 'How to reduce unemployment [1]'?

It being five years since the invasion of Iraq, there have been a number of retrospectives. I am spared any reason to write one of my own, as everything that I might have said is covered in the article titled 'What I Thought When That Iraq War Invasion Thing Was Being Planned, And How I Decided Not To Support It, Because It Was A Stupid Idea, And That'.

[1] Being thankful for small mercies, at least Caroline Flint isn't involved in advising the Iraqi government.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Recommended Reading: Top Political Books

Iain Dale has a list of his top 75 political books. They include a lot of novels by Conservative politicians, and works by the likes of Simon Heffer and Maggie Thatcher.

I haven't got 75, but here's eight for 2008 which I've read, re-read, and recommended to friends (in no particular order, links to either amazon or abebooks) :

The Political Brain - Drew Westen. This is the book which explains how the Barack Obama campaign has been so successful. Thing is, it was published in June 2007. There are lots of books which explain why past campaigns have or haven't been successful, not so many which predict future successful election strategies.

Things Can Only Get Better - John O'Farrell. It's slightly scary to think that young people these days probably won't understand the idea behind Things Can Only Get Better - Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Activist, because all they've known is Labour being in power. Anyway, I read it before I was a Labour activist and thought it was hilarious, now I get all the jokes about branch meetings and think it is even funnier.

Means of Ascent - Robert Caro. This is vol 2 of Caro's biography of Lyndon Johnson. You should read all three but this is the best. He tells the gripping tale of the campaign for the Texas Senate in 1948, raw Good Old Boy politics at its grubbiest.

Hammer of the Left - John Golding. In 1980, John Golding was the standard bearer of the Right Wing of the Labour Party. In 2007, his editor and acolyte Paul Farrelly was trying unsuccessfully to get the government to do more for agency workers. The tale of a bygone age, Golding's book tells the story of his confrontations with 'Wedgie' Benn and is entertainingly honest in boasting about how he stitched up the Left in meetings, committees and so on.

Rules for Radicals - Saul Alinksy. Saul Alinsky invented modern community organising in America. Published in the early 1970's, Rules for Radicals explains how to be a 'real radical', rather than a 'rhetorical radical', and much besides (Alinsky's top tip - if you find that you're having to spend all your time on day to day concerns, get arrested and spend a few months in prison, this will give you time to think ahead about what needs doing).

Aneurin Bevan - Michael Foot. Michael Foot was and is a great writer, and combines that with the knowledge which came from being a front-line left-wing politician for more than a quarter of a century. His biography of Nye Bevan, founder of the NHS, was informed by having worked with him, and Bevan's is an inspirational story.

Locked in the Cabinet - Robert Reich. Reich was Clinton's Secretary of Labor. Witty and self-depricating, he tells the stories of his successes and failures, and gives a real feel for the difficulties facing lefties in positions of power.

The Shock Doctrine - Naomi Klein. I enjoyed 'No Logo', but this is a much better book. Some of the facts are a bit sketchy, but the argument is a powerful one and I wish more leftie activists could write as well as Klein.

Any other recommendations and favourites, please share in the comments. To all my new libertarian friends, I am familiar with 'Atlas Shrugged' and it is not as good as you think it is.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Lib Dems to lose control in Liverpool?

I got a leaflet from the Liberal Democrats today. Apparently they work hard all year round, which makes it odd that this is the first time that they've been in touch since last year's elections.

But what was really interesting about it was that it read very clearly like they'd run out of steam. It was all looking back to what they've done in the past, and how this compares to what Labour did in the 1980's, with a half-hearted piece buried on the backpage about how Labour want to put up the council tax, as part of a long feature about how good the council is at the moment.

Even last year, they ran a relentlessly negative campaign against Labour's plans to introduce fortnightly collections of rubbish (featuring a rat wearing a red rosette amongst others), and if the desire for power is still there, I imagine that they'll return to this approach. Running negative campaigns has, after all, served the Lib Dems well over the past ten years.

In contrast, running a campaign about their past achievements and how good the council is would be quite a dubious strategy even if their own high opinions of their achievements were widely believed, let alone at a time when the local papers have been giving daily updates of the string of disasters, from financial crisis to cancelling events to closing care homes to being judged the worst council in the country for financial management.

At the moment, the Lib Dems have 50 councillors, Labour 35 and there are five others (3 Liberals, 1 Green and 1 Independent). It'll be interesting to see what happens come May 1st.

Discouraging news

Guardian - "As Labour prepares to launch its May election campaign, the bulk of its resources will go into the London mayoralty elections, headed by Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, while Hazel Blears, the communities and local government secretary, runs the wider local campaign."

Nooooooo! This is either a piece of extreme delusion or a deeply brilliant satirical idea - 'we're trailing in the opinion polls, with a difficult set of elections coming up. Who can save us? I know, send for Tessa Jowell and Hazel Blears'.

"At the cabinet session Blears argued the party could not afford to let its Respect agenda, pioneered by Downing Street three years ago, fall by the wayside as it remains a vote winner with Labour's core voters."

Well, kind of. I remember in 2006 being told about how good the Respect agenda was as a vote-winner, right up to the point where the government announced that it had let out a load of foreign criminals just before the election (I guess at least this year the plan isn't to bring back Charles Clarke as well). Local parties which had run campaigns all about how the opposition were 'soft on crime' were quite rightly a bit fed up.

But I do like this idea that we can't afford to abandon policies which are vote winners with Labour's core voters. Worth remembering next time a government minister does a speech about how we'll lose the election if we retreat into a left-wing 'comfort zone' and so on.

A wealth creator writes about gold

Lots of Tories criticise Gordon Brown's decision to sell the UK's gold reserves back in 1999. Iain Dale, for example, writes today that 'this cost the country more than Black Wednesday' (which Iain calls 'White Wednesday', presumably just like he would refer to the 'Winter of Harmony' in 1978/9).

A friend who works as a wealth creator e-mailed me about this:

'Leaving aside that we were selling as part of a G7 arrangement and every other major central bank was doing the same, compare it to the amount that the government lost as a result of selling nationalized industries at ludicrously low prices.

Lets just take BT. Sold for a little under £3bn, current market worth £16.3bn, market worth in 2000 at top of telecom bubble £80bn. You might as well say the thatcher government cost us £77bn on that one. That's just on one of the privatised industries!

Or, you might say if you were a Tory, it is fundamentally right for the state not to own companies. In the same way we can legitimately say we don't think it right or appropriate for a modern government to have billions of pounds of reserves held in a fundamentally useless metal which yields no interest rate and isn't even used to back the currency any more, when the money could be put to better and more productive use.

As for the issue of gold, clearly the Thatcher government should have sold all of our gold around late 1979 above $800. They then could have cunningly bought it back around $300 in 1984. Before selling at $500 in 1985. Brown could then have bought as low as $250 in 1999 and now be sitting on massive profits.

Or this could have be nonsense and the very volatility of the metal over the past 40 years might show HOLDING GOLD AS A FORM OF RESERVES IS STUPID. And government's trying to act as financial traders IS STUPID.

My favourite gold argument is as follows - 'We are going to get lots of inflation therefore you should buy gold as a hedge against inflation'.

People respond 'But gold hit a high over $800 in 1980 and is now around $1,000 - a record price - is it really going to go up much more'

To which the gold bug invariably responds ' yes, but if we inflation adjust the 1980, the price of gold in real terms (i.e 2008 dollars) was more like $2,100 - so it could easily double from here'.

Which surely proves gold is a rubbish hedge against inflation, if in real terms it is half the level it was 30 years ago because of inflation...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

When spending money, don't listen to Milton Friedman

There is a famous quote by Milton Friedman, about the four ways in which you can spend money:

"There are four ways in which you can spend money. You can spend your own money on yourself. When you do that, why then you really watch out what you’re doing, and you try to get the most for your money. Then you can spend your own money on somebody else. For example, I buy a birthday present for someone. Well, then I’m not so careful about the content of the present, but I’m very careful about the cost. Then, I can spend somebody else’s money on myself. And if I spend somebody else’s money on myself, then I’m sure going to have a good lunch! Finally, I can spend somebody else’s money on somebody else. And if I spend somebody else’s money on somebody else, I’m not concerned about how much it is, and I’m not concerned about what I get. And that’s government. And that’s close to 40% of our national income."

The funny thing is that this although he makes out that this is some kind of general rule, it is almost exactly the opposite of the way that I and people I know behave:

When I spend my money on myself, I waste quite a lot of it. I go shopping when hungry and buy food that I don't need. I buy train tickets at the last minute when I could get a cheaper deal by booking ahead. I lose my wallet on a reasonably regular basis. When I get a bill, I put it to one side and try to ignore it until the letters get sufficiently threatening. And so on and on. I know lots of people who do at least some of these things, and only one person who 'really watches out what they are doing' when they spend their money. And as for spending my money on other people, I tend to be more bothered about content than cost.

As for spending other people's money on yourself, I remember the headteacher in the school where I was a governor, who kept on refusing salary increases, because the school budget overall was tight (she recently retired, so this also affected her pension). Or my friends who refuse to claim expenses for all the overtime they work, like millions of workers who work more than the hours that they are paid for. Or I remember working on playschemes and keeping the budget down by cleaning up the community centre after the kids went home.

And spending other people's money on other people - my colleagues at work agonise over literally every penny to try and make best use of the money that we get from some people to spend on other people. The decisions involved in big spending projects are much more complicated than any spending decisions that I face when I'm spending money on myself, and the knowledge and skill that I saw from, for example, the leader of the council on developing the council's budget while I was a councillor still fills me with awe.

What these experiences have in common is that very many people aren't always motivated just by self-interest, but by a sense of some common good, or public service ethos. And they don't think the same way as those who watch out when spending their money, but regard spending other people's money as an opportunity for a good lunch.

And if you've got a choice about who you put in charge of spending all of our tax money, choose the ones who don't use it to enrich themselves and instead think carefully about how best to spend it wisely, rather than the ones who think it is human nature to waste it or steal it.

The Complicated Side of the Argument

One of the Rules of Politics is never get stuck on the Complicated Side of the Argument. If your opponent can explain their position in a few sentences, or in 30 seconds on the telly, and you can't, then they'll win and you'll lose.

Barack Obama has spent his campaign breaking and re-writing the Rules of Politics, with great success. And so it was that today, faced with attacks on the pastor of his church, he chose to give a speech, in which he made a subtle and nuanced analysis of race in America.

Whether or not it achieves its objectives will remain to be seen. But it is an extraordinary speech and the story that it finishes with is amazingly powerful:

"There is a young, twenty-three year old white woman named Ashley Baia who organized for our campaign in Florence, South Carolina. She had been working to organize a mostly African-American community since the beginning of this campaign, and one day she was at a roundtable discussion where everyone went around telling their story and why they were there.

And Ashley said that when she was nine years old, her mother got cancer. And because she had to miss days of work, she was let go and lost her health care. They had to file for bankruptcy, and that's when Ashley decided that she had to do something to help her mom.

She knew that food was one of their most expensive costs, and so Ashley convinced her mother that what she really liked and really wanted to eat more than anything else was mustard and relish sandwiches. Because that was the cheapest way to eat.

She did this for a year until her mom got better, and she told everyone at the roundtable that the reason she joined our campaign was so that she could help the millions of other children in the country who want and need to help their parents too.

Now Ashley might have made a different choice. Perhaps somebody told her along the way that the source of her mother's problems were blacks who were on welfare and too lazy to work, or Hispanics who were coming into the country illegally. But she didn't. She sought out allies in her fight against injustice.

Anyway, Ashley finishes her story and then goes around the room and asks everyone else why they're supporting the campaign. They all have different stories and reasons. Many bring up a specific issue. And finally they come to this elderly black man who's been sitting there quietly the entire time. And Ashley asks him why he's there. And he does not bring up a specific issue. He does not say health care or the economy. He does not say education or the war. He does not say that he was there because of Barack Obama. He simply says to everyone in the room, "I am here because of Ashley."

"I'm here because of Ashley." By itself, that single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough. It is not enough to give health care to the sick, or jobs to the jobless, or education to our children.

But it is where we start. It is where our union grows stronger."

Red 1 Green 2

Link now added to the 'Stop Boris' website. Go read.

The London mayoral election isn't about 'well I think Ken Livingstone's done some good things but I wish to complain about his foreign policy/one of his advisers/the way he talks about journalists from the Evening Standard' or anything like that, it's a choice about who will be the next Mayor of London, and it is currently most likely that this will be Boris Johnson.

On which note, it's good to hear that the Green Party are suggesting that their supporters vote for Ken Livingstone with their second preferences. It seems only fair to return the favour and suggest that Labour voters give their second preferences to Sian Berry, the Green candidate.

Good Old Boy #51

There is an article on Newark on Trent CLP's blog by Laurence Goff, who is Chairperson of Newark and District Branch, on the vexed issue of All Women Shortlists. It begins:


Good stuff. The rest is here.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

When a tax cut isn't a tax cut

One way of looking at the measures to tackle child poverty is that they are like a £1 billion tax cut. After all, the result is that the government is giving money back to taxpayers so that the people can decide how to spend their money, rather than the government deciding it for them. A victory for those who complain about the 'tax burden', I thought.

So I went to visit the Taxpayers' Alliance website, because as a non-partisan campaigning group, not in any way aligned with the Conservative Party, campaigning for lower taxes, I was sure that they would share my pleasure at this tax cut.

But what is this? They've done a spreadsheet with levels of tax for every different model of car, but no celebration of the billion pound tax cut! Instead they call it 'welfare spending', which is bad, apparently, because if poor families have more money to spend as they choose, it creates 'dependency'.

And then I turned to the Guardian, and an article which claims that 'middle income Britain' will lose out from rises in National Insurance. This will affect people earning more than £35,000 per year. But people earning more than £35,000 per year aren't 'middle income earners', they are earning significantly above the national average.

It's been a very clever trick to redefine tax cuts for lower income people as 'welfare spending', and tax rises for above average earners as 'more tax for middle earners'. But people interested in fairness, economic growth and social justice shouldn't be taken in.

Child poverty

The bad news is that the spending announced in year's budget isn't enough to meet Labour's target of halving child poverty by 2010.

The good news is that it shows just how easily the government can achieve this target if it really wants to.

To meet the target, we need to be spending £4 billion more than at present on tax credits and benefits by 2010. In this year's budget, the government announced that it will be increasing spending by £1 billion. So next year, they need to find another £3 billion.

To put this in some sorts of context, increasing the cost of a pint by 4p, a bottle of wine by 14p and whisky by 55p raises £400 million, taxing big cars raises £1.2 billion, and we are spending £2 billion extra on supporting our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan between now and Christmas.

Rather than getting into a big fight about whether this year's budget means 'success' or 'failure' in tackling child poverty, we've got 12 months to build a consensus and making sure that next year's budget does what's needed. And if you want to help, the End Child Poverty Campaign would love to hear from you.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Four More Years :)

Four years ago, the Spanish turned out in record numbers and voted Jose Zapatero of the Socialist Party into power, following the terrible atrocity of the bombings in Madrid. Since coming to power, the Socialists withdrew troops from Afghanistan, and introduced reforms including a gender equality duty, granting divorces on demand and same-sex marriages.

The Conservative Popular Party had been hoping that a much lower turnout than four years ago would help them retake power. But their hopes were dashed as more than 3 out of 4 of those eligible to vote did so.

And so today, Zapatero and his comrades were re-elected, with an increased number of votes and seats in the parliament.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

The People's Ball

Not many lefties in Britain know about the ideas and work of Saul Alinsky, the man who founded the modern community organising movement in America. But his ideas influenced both Hillary Clinton (who wrote a college thesis about his ideas) and Barack Obama (who worked as a community organiser in Chicago). Here's an article by someone who worked with Alinsky for a decade about how the next President could change the way politics is done in America:

"The crowning hour of a presidential inauguration comes in the evening after the parade up Pennsylvania Avenue, when the city is hit by limousine gridlock. As the sun goes down, the millionaires and billionaires with their lackeys and the lobbyists fill the streets on their way to the dozen or more inauguration night balls that the President comes, and by so doing affirms his bond to the enduring power of moneyed special interests.

Alinsky would advise Obama to skip the balls. That in and of itself would be a new-page statement, but Alinsky would add that such a symbolic act will not mean much unless it is not backed up. He would suggest inviting all the people who worked on the campaign to Washington. Students and others who can't afford such a trip would merit some kind of stipend or scholarship, something the campaign organization with its astonishing fundraising abilities ought to be able to handle.

The arrival of these thousands of non-professional politicians would hit Washington much as the arrival of the western farm people's arrival at Andrew Jackson's inaugural did in 1828. Their raucous presence ended the Federalist-aristocratic era and announced a new time of popular democracy.

Beside taking up every spare bed in Washington, Jackson's horny-handed sons of toil went overboard on the corn liquor and carried on with an egregious lack of couth. Alinsky would anticipate the problems posed by bringing 100,000 into town with nothing planned for them to do.

There should be people's parties as opposed to the lobbyist balls, but there should be more--organizational meetings, seminars on important issues, opportunities to visit the city's marvelous museums and so forth. The inauguration could be turned into an opportunity to convert Obama's campaign organization into a permanent, democratically self-governing, political-social organizational entity of a new and unique character. It would be outside the Democratic Party so that the breadth and enthusiasm brought to the Obama effort by independents and Republicans would not be lost.

Alinsky would point out that for such an organization to endure and perfect itself, it would have to have a rich ongoing life at the local level involving local projects in education, health, environment or whatever the membership determined. Thus it would be profoundly different from the usual political party organizations which essentially go to sleep between elections.

This organization would afford a new kind of communication system for politics and government. It would free the White House from dependence on polls and focus groups and keep it informed on the mind of the nation, as ideas and news could make its way back and forth from top to bottom and bottom to top. Such an organization would provide millions of people around the country as well as Washington office holders with an information system outside of commercial media.

Such an organization, Alinsky would say, would be indispensable to the success of an Obama Administration intent on instituting changes that the K Street money interests will delay, obfuscate and block. This organization, with a stable grassroots presence in most of the nation's Congressional districts, will be able to show members of both houses of Congress how much it will be to their advantage to vote with the Administration rather than with the lobbyists.

Finally, Alinsky would explain that such an organization holds out the prospect of solving the problem of expensive, centralized federal programs that sound good but disappoint, exasperate and scandalize. The existence of local democratic organizations holds the promise of getting around bureaucratic, one size-fits-all government entities trying to operate 1,000 miles away from the people they are supposed to help. Such an organization could tailor large national programs to fit needs and desires at the state and local level.

To succeed, this organization cannot have its agenda handed down from Washington, even an Obama Washington. What it does and how it does it must depend on people at the precinct, county, state and national levels making those decisions democratically themselves.

It's a huge amount of work but the Obama campaign has cracked open and released the energy of idealism. It has coupled it with the use of the Internet in diabolically clever ways, which have shown that building organizational networks is possible and practical. Alinsky, never a man to lapse into dogmatic formulae, would seize on these new opportunities to build a twenty-first-century popular democracy as startlingly fresh as the one that emerged in Andrew Jackson's time."

Thursday, March 06, 2008

How political analysis works

Dick Morris is a political strategist who advised President Bill Clinton and a variety of Republican candidates. He currently gets paid lots of money to explain to people about who will win elections, and why. Luckily for him, his pay isn't linked to how accurate his predictions are...

"Hillary Clinton has blown an almost sure shot at the Democratic presidential nomination. Having surrendered the lead to Obama, she is not likely ever to regain it. It is a fantasy that the Ohio and Texas primaries will be a “firewall” to contain the flames of enthusiasm for Obama and reverse her defeats of February. Just as with Giuliani’s supposed Florida firewall, Hillary’s will crumble as Obama’s momentum carries him forward to the nomination." - Dick Morris, 'Why Hillary will lose', February 13th

"Voters are likely to hand state after state over to Obama. It's increasingly unlikely that Clinton will win even one of them." - Dick Morris, 'Hillary on the Rocks', February 22nd

"She can’t accept the sorry fact that her campaign has been a disaster because it was based on the past and not the future, because it was premised on her phony experience and maintaining the status quo, and because her negative outlook is completely out of step with the mood of America." - Dick Morris, 'Hillary Unmasked', March 1st

"For everyone here in Ohio and across America who's been ever been counted out but refused to be knocked out, for everyone who has stumbled but stood right back up, and for everyone who works hard and never gives up -- this one is for you" - Hillary Clinton, March 4th

"With big wins in Ohio and Texas last night, Hillary Clinton has finally broken her losing streak and sent a clear message to Barack Obama: I'm not getting out...The battle of Hillary is over. The battle of Obama has begun. The question of his readiness and experience looms ever larger in the minds of the media and of voters." - Dick Morris, 'Obama Better Battle Back Before It's Too Late', March 6th

Nice. Analysis.

Minimum wage to rise in October

Good news to hear that the minimum wage is rising in October from £5.52 to £5.73/hour (£4.60 to £4.77 for 18-21 year olds, from £3.40 to £3.53 for 16-17 year olds).

It's not just that this will put more money in the pockets of nearly a million people on low incomes, and their families, good as that is. It's also a sign that the government is starting to recognise that employers need to do their bit to help reduce poverty. Over the past decade, the government has spent billions and billions on topping up people's wages through the tax credits system, and people living in poverty have found jobs, worked hard, learned new skills, and juggled work with caring responsibilities - and yet the number of people in work but also in poverty has rocketed.

Those who think that it is 'anti-business' to say that employers need to take their fair share of responsibility for tackling poverty amongst people who are working ought to listen to employers like KPMG and Barclays. They put their wages in London up to at least £7.20/hour (plus guaranteed sick pay) and found that productivity increased and staff turnover decreased - so everyone ended up better off.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

The Brain Drain

If there's one thing I hate about the Daily Telegraph, it is its anti-business agenda.

Take this story, 'nine in 10 UK jobs go to foreigners'. Nowhere do they mention the benefits to business that this has created. Instead they go on about how jobs in manufacturing have been lost and how we have more skilled workers than ever before but they can't find jobs. From reading this, you might even think that they hadn't spent the last decade and longer demanding that UK economic policy be run in the interests of the City of London.

Looking at their table of how the number of foreign workers is increasing, there is an important column missing. There are 1.7 million more people in employment than in 1997, including 250,000 UK born, about 550,000 from elsewhere in the EU, and 900,000 who were born in the rest of the world. But there isn't a column about how many UK born people are working elsewhere in the world.

This is important, because if what is happening is that all around the world, more people are working abroad than ten years ago, so more foreign born people are working here and more Brits are working somewhere else, then that is very different from if Brits aren't able to get jobs for whatever reasons. But some evidence on this can be found in, you've guessed it, the Daily Telegraph. Apparently, Britain is experiencing the biggest 'brain drain' for fifty years, with 3.25 million people living abroad including 1.1 million graduates. That suggests that it isn't so much that skilled British workers are losing out, more that in increasing numbers they, like people from other countries, have a wider choice of where to work than just within their own country.

I think that there are many more winners than losers from this - I know a lot of people born in the UK who have spent time living and working abroad, and friends who were born elsewhere in the world and are now living and working in the UK. This is not to pretend that these changes have benefited everyone, and one massive problem in this country as in many others is that as a society we don't do enough to help and support people who have lost well paid jobs and can't find anything which pays as well; or who are trapped in low paid jobs and find that no matter how hard they work, their wages aren't rising; or who are expected on pain of losing benefits to find low paid jobs with long hours, on wages which would just about suit a single person living four to a room. The people who do well out of the ability to hire workers from other countries could contribute a lot more in paying better wages and more tax and still end up better off than if we followed the Daily Telegraph/Frank Field plan and restricted immigration.

Serious about London

Liberal-minded people living in London should take a close look at Brian Paddick, the Lib Dem candidate. The way that elections get reported as just being 'a two horse race' is not right. Brian should not be ignored because he is not as well known as Red Ken or Boris.

Then, having had a look at Brian, people will realise that there are much better reasons not to vote for him. I'll just give one example, his housing policy. Brian says:

"What we need is councils to pay Housing Associations to house families permanently. For the same cost over a ten year period, the Housing Association can borrow and buy a property. After ten years the loan is paid off and the property can be rented cheaply creating a parallel market in affordable rented accommodation."

Here's how this would (not) work:

A housing association would buy somewhere on the open market, with a short mortgage, which is paid off by the (high) rent for 10 years, then it's rented out at a social rent once the loan's paid off.
So - let's pretend an RSL can get a loan at 0% interest. And let's say a house costs £250,000. That'll be £25,000 a year for 10 years, which is not in fact the same amount of money as rent, but rather more. And they can't get a loan for 0%. And houses cost a lot of money in London. Some housing associations in the South East actually did do this sort of thing for a while, but the properties were just too expensive so they sold them again.

Even if you don't agree with everything that Ken Livingstone has done in London, his substantive policies have always been based on a detailed understanding of the issues, from the congestion charge and the investment in public transport to his campaigning work to increase the pay of low-paid London workers, supported not just by the trade unions but by businesses such as Barclays and KPMG. There's just no way that he'd come up with this kind of poorly thought through rubbish on such an important issue as social housing.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Top down and bottom up

Fraser Nelson is trying to float the idea that David Cameron is 'the British Obama'. Nice try, but, um, no. But running on 'change in Westminster' seems to be the new Cameron theme. Here's one reason why it might not work and one reason why it might:

Not work: I think that the biggest difference between Cameron and Obama (and there are many to choose from) is what they did before entering politics. Obama worked as a community organiser and then lawyer, Cameron in public relations. Obama has years of experience of mobilising people who live in low income areas, David Cameron has spent his entire life living in more affluent areas, and has pretty much only ever visited places where poor people live for the purpose of photo opportunities of one kind or another.

Obama's campaign has been built on his understanding of community organising. It's not his speeches which have given him the lead in the race for the Democrat nomination, but the fact that he has managed to get one million individual donors, and won state after state by putting his campaign's efforts into building from the bottom up and investing in having campaign offices early in every state. Even in states where he and Clinton have had roughly the same amount of support overall, his massive advantage in volunteers has meant that more of his supporters go and vote or caucus. If Clinton had paid the same attention to the importance of grassroots organising, and devoted some portion of the $33 million that she paid to her top consultants, then she would be the nominee by now.

Cameron's campaign has been built on his understanding of public relations. The Tory media operation is infinitely sharper than at any point in the last twenty years, he has prioritised 'decontaminating the Conservative brand'. It is very much a top down operation, that is what Cameron and his advisers understand and are good at. What there demonstrably is not is anything like the kind of organisation on the ground that Obama has built - local Conservative parties are overwhelmingly made up of elderly people who have been members for a while.

Work: But as all good lefties know, one way to solve a problem is to throw money at it. And this is exactly what the Tories are doing. Lord Ashcroft's money will help make sure that local Tory parties are well resourced and have full time staff to run their campaigns. Paying people to deliver leaflets is much less efficient than having volunteers who are happy to do so, and having local volunteers organising campaigning in their area has many advantages over paying full time staff to go and do so. But a lot of the same benefits of local organisation can be achieved if you are prepared to spend enough money on paying people to do the things which Obama's supporters are doing for nothing. And they aren't facing anything like Barack Obama's local organisation.

In 2005, the Tories spent more money than has ever been spent before on an election in Britain, and a lot of the money went into local parties, paying for full-time staff, paying people to leaflet and so on. If Labour had not responded by spending heavily on local organisation, then we would have lost our majority, for all that a large majority of people wanted a Labour government rather than a Tory government. And the cost of doing so has essentially bankrupted us.

It's Labour and Gordon Brown, not David Cameron, who need to emulate Obama's grassroots organisation in time for the next election.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

I like the state, the state is great

Iain Dale, in a post called 'The Creepingly Insidious Powers of the State', writes that, "All my instincts tell me that the electorate are beginning to cry out for a kind of politics which seeks to give meaningful power back to the individual and shrink the size of the State."

I don't think Iain's instincts on this are correct. We'd probably agree that some of the issues which most concern people are immigration, crime, tax, health and housing. Of those:

On immigration, a majority want the government to do more to keep people out, deport foreign criminals more quickly and generally 'get a grip'. This would require expanding the powers of the State.

On crime, a majority of people want more police, more people put in prison, criminals kept in prison for longer, and tougher action against (young) people behaving anti-socially. Again, this would require an expansion in the size of the State.

On tax, a majority think that they are over-taxed, with council tax and inheritance tax particularly disliked. Score one for reducing the size of the State.

On health, people don't want to see the NHS privatised, or insurance systems replace the current way it is paid for, and want a better service, whether from GPs, in hospitals, or in long term care for the elderly. This is an explicit preference for the State-run option over the private alternative, and belief that the State should be doing more.

On housing, the government gets at least some of the blame for the fact that young people are priced out of the housing market, and many people think that it is unfair that they or their relatives can't get a council house because there aren't enough and they don't agree with who gets priority in being housed. The reason why housing is now one of the top issues is precisely because the government (rightly or wrongly) has kept out of the way and has left the market to get on with things.

So of these five issues, I score it 4 for more state, and 1 for less state.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Good Old Boy #50

Gary Lineker, on Match of the Day, analysing West Ham-Chelsea:

"It's nice to see Ashley Cole scoring again."