Saturday, August 30, 2008

Learning from the enemy

Andrew Grice has the latest in a long series of articles on the theme of 'what can Labour/Gordon Brown learn from Obama'?

But in terms of campaigning strategy, Labour has far more to learn from the Republican Party, as an incumbent party, trailing in the polls, and with most people thinking that the country is on the wrong track. Instead of moping around, feeling sorry for themselves or playing Faction Wars, the Republicans have been doing their very best to maximise their chances of winning the election. Three examples:

1. The Republican Party is badly split on policy issues. So the McCain campaign has worked to unite them by reminding them of the greater enemy with some absolutely ferocious attacks on Obama.

2. They realised that the Conventional Wisdom about one of the top issues that Americans were worried about was wrong. In response to the rising cost of travelling by car, they picked a clear, simple to understand message about what they would do about it (drill for oil and gas offshore). The Democrats got caught on the Complicated Side of the Argument.

3. Instead of making a boring and expected pick for Vice President, they chose someone who was new and exciting for the media, and who shares the values and beliefs of the Republican base.

The choice of Palin, as with the adoption of the policy about drilling and the attack adverts, is risky and might well backfire. But running a high-minded campaign, or taking the blame about high petrol prices, or picking someone like Mitt Romney, would have been 'safer' but would have guaranteed that they got defeated.

Who cares for the carers?

Mrs Blogs Blogs writes about carers, here:

"there is a clash of values here. We laud voluntary action and family care but we live in a society based on money exchange. Everything we need to live must be paid for either directly from our own private money or collectively through the taxes we pay. Each hour you work you get paid for and then you are able to buy the stuff, like food and shelter, to live. But care provided in the family is done for free, or for love whichever term you prefer. So while you are working for free you forego purchasing power to live. The more you work for free the less stuff you can buy to live. Granted, life is not lived by stuff alone.

While we must be wary of where we push the distorting (if we value such notions as 'love', 'care', 'voluntary' etc) influence of the cash nexus how are those who do live a life which requires time to be given up to providing free care out of love, to live and pay their bills? Its a long-standing dilemma and one which is not sufficiently addressed, at least not in these terms."

I agree with all of this. And the same goes for people who do paid work caring for other people. Here's the average rate of pay for pre-school staff - the highest wages are just over £6/hour in London for an assistant, less than £9/hour for a Leader. This discussion on mumsnet gives some other examples:

"i get paid a glorious £6.70 an hour to look after some of the countries most challenging young people. and for that money i endure beatings, being spat on, called everyname under the sun, having various household objects thrown at my head. good job i love my work because its certainly not the money that keeps me going. and the company wonder why their staff turnover is so high? at the end of the day the local authority doesnt actually care about the standard of the people who care for these children, just as long as there are always mugs like me who are willing to do it"

"same goes for care workers for the elderly - I used to get paid the glorious rate of £5.50phr (before the minimum wage went up to £5.52 or whatever it is now) to look about elderly people with dementia working night shifts!!"

"that really is appalling. That we pay poeple to care for our most vulnerable a mere pittance.
We want people to look after our precious children on a wage they cant live on without being shattered by needing 2 jobs or expect them to treat elderly people with dignity when they are not treated with dignity themselves.

Its disgusting.

The whole of society is underpinned by a workforce being paid shite but if they weren't there it would all fall apart"

It's an obvious point, but not even the most rugged individualist can claim that they are solely responsible for their own successes in life - everyone needs to be cared for at some points in their life, and advances in healthcare mean that more people will need more and higher standards of care in the future.

This is a part of the Welfare State which needs to be modernised, because at the moment it is based on the assumptions that caring is something which women will do and won't have to be paid more than a pittance to do. Now and in the future, there is no choice but to spend more money on caring for others, one way or another. At the moment, paid and unpaid carers alike struggle to make ends meet, while families try to cope with huge and rising care bills, whether for their children, or for elderly or disabled relatives.

The most effective and fairest way to help carers and those they care for is to shift the financial costs to those who are best able to meet them. Unpaid carers need far greater financial support, the right to have short breaks when they need to, and more opportunities to combine appropriate work with caring. And we need thousands and thousands more people to work as carers, and for caring jobs to pay enough for people to be able to live with dignity on.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

For negative campaigning only

Paul Begala, one of the few Democratic Party strategists who has run a successful Presidential election campaign, has a seven point plan for uniting supporters of Obama and Clinton:

"Attack, attack, attack, attack, attack, attack.


The way to unite an internally divided organization is to identify an external threat. The Obama delegates will be buying beers for the Clinton delegates once they're focused on how disastrous a third term for Bush-McCain would be. But no one is telling them.

If the Democrats do not spend the remaining days of their convention -- hell, the remaining days of the campaign -- in an all-out assault on the ruinous Bush-McCain policies, they will lose.

I was for Hillary in the primaries, but when she endorsed Sen. Obama, I proudly sent him a check for the legal maximum. On the memo line of the check I wrote, "FOR NEGATIVE CAMPAIGNING ONLY." No matter what minor difference Hillary and Barack had, they pale in comparison to the corruption, incompetence, dishonesty and criminality of the Bush-McCain Republicans.

Democrats need to attack as if the future, the country and the planet depend on it. Because they do."

Labour should learn from Robin Hood

Two recent surveys of public opinion reveal something rather interesting. The Financial Times reports that more than three quarters of voters think that both Labour and the Tories are influenced by 'big business', while fewer than a third think they ought to be. The same survey found that more people thought that Labour listened to big business than thought that they listened to the trade unions.

Meanwhile, a survey for Compass by YouGov found that 67% supported a 'one off tax on energy and oil companies' profits', with 13% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. Even amongst Tory voters, 57% support a tax, and 23% disagree.

It is always wise to treat with caution these kinds of surveys, which tell lefties what we would like to hear. The Compass survey was designed by a pressure group in order to get a certain kind of answer. Just because people say that they don't like the influence of 'big business' doesn't mean that they would support any given set of policies which big business didn't like.

But nonetheless these surveys do suggest a political opportunity for Labour. According to the Conventional Wisdom, the surveys should have shown that a majority of people oppose any proposal with the word 'tax' in it, that it is politically suicidal to antagonise business, and that Labour's links to the trade unions are well known and unpopular. But there is no evidence from these surveys that any of these pieces of received wisdom are true any more.

The same survey showed that Labour is currently 22% behind the Conservatives. It seems pretty clear that just going along with the Conventional Wisdom and more of the same until 2010 is likely to result in a very heavy defeat, whether under Gordon Brown or any other leader. Equally, a year and a half of Faction Wars where leftie activists try to force a weakened leadership to adopt a shopping list of pressure group policies won't result in glorious victory either. But neither of these options is inevitable.

There are few examples from Western democracies of governing parties of the centre-left managing to overturn large opinion poll deficits in just a few months. Two examples from the past few years, however, are Gerhard Schroeder in 2005, who started the federal election campaign 21% behind the CDU/CSU and finished up about 1% behind; and Al Gore, who trailed George Bush by 13% in late June 2000, and ended up ahead in the popular vote less than five months later. Both Gore and Schroeder saw their share of the vote rise after they adopted more populist economic policies. Gore campaigned on the theme of 'the people versus the powerful', while Schroeder's SPD called for higher taxes for people earning over 250,000 euros. In both cases, these drew clear dividing lines with their right-wing opponents.

More populist 'Robin Hood' style economic policies and messages which help people on low and average incomes at the expense of the wealthiest aren't going to be sufficient for Labour to win the next election. But both recent opinion polls and lessons from history suggest that they are a necessary first step.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Good Old Boy #69

From 'Hammer and Tickle':

In 1956, Nikita Khruschev gave the famous 'secret speech' denouncing Stalin.

What is less well known is that at the end of the speech, one of the delegates called out, 'Why did you say nothing while Stalin was alive?'

Khruschev jumped on the table and started to rage. 'Which traitor dared to say that?', he demanded.

There was a long silence.

'Exactly,' he said. 'That's why I didn't say anything while Stalin was still alive'.

Two wrongs don't make a magazine

'Total Politics' magazine is a groundbreaking publication. With feature articles such as 'Why are female MPs so dowdy?', it achieves the astonishing feat of making the New Statesman look like an interesting and well written current affairs magazine.

It does have one idea for a column which was quite entertaining, though. Each month, they pick an issue and then find two people from diametrically opposite perspectives who are both wrong to write about it. This month, for example, Oliver Marc Hartwich from Policy Exchange and Tristram Hunt went head to head discussing the Green Belt. The resulting nonsense can be read here. It would arguably be a better feature if followed up with some analysis from anyone who actually knew what they were talking about on the same subject, but we can't have everything.

In any case, I think this is a much better use for Lord Ashcroft's money than buying up marginal seats for the Tory Party, and I would encourage the editorial team to spend lavishly on securing other commentators to debate in mutual wrongness. I note approvingly that Denis MacShane is already on the editorial board, and feel that he could play a much greater role in the future.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

The world's most difficult question

Politicians often have to face tough questioning on a whole range of subjects. But the question 'how many houses do you own?' is not generally regarded as one of the toughest.

Unless you are John McCain:

"I think — I'll have my staff get to you - It's condominiums where — I'll have them get to you."

The Martin Kettle theory of campaigning

Profile here of Steve Schmidt, John McCain's campaign manager. Considering how close the American election is at the moment, Schmidt is obviously someone who knows what he is on about when it comes to running election campaigns. He has a rule for what to do when people running a campaign can't decide what the correct course of action is:

"Schmidt says he won't allow the campaign to get thrown off by momentary distractions and pundits shooting from the hip. To that end, he and his colleagues have developed what they jokingly call the "Dave Gergen theory of the campaign" -- a metaphor for all talking heads.

Gergen, a veteran of four presidential administrations, is a frequent pundit on cable news. If senior members of the campaign disagree on a strategic move, they watch what Gergen has to say. They then do the opposite."

The British equivalent of this is called the 'Martin Kettle theory of the campaign'.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Tory adviser: "I was not allowed to talk to the servants"

Recess Monkey carries news that the latest recruit to the Tory 'fairness' team is Jonty Olliff-Cooper, who joins from being a school master at Eton College. A lot is said about the number of Old Etonians in the upper echelons of the Tory Party, but I will have nothing to do with that kind of puerile class warfare.

Instead, what interests me is how many of the future rulers of the country are alumni of Magdalen College, Oxford, where I had the great good fortune to study a few years ago. Famous Magdalenenses include George Osborne himself, William Hague and Boris Johnson. Amongst the younger generation of advisers who are preparing the way to implement radical schools reform under a future Tory government include Jonty and Sam Freedman, the Research Director for educational research of Policy Exchange, and probably many others.

There appear to be two strands to the Conservative approach to fairness which Osborne has outlined. One, which I've written about before, is the 'more vicious than Thatcherism' strand - for example their welfare reform policies. But it would be a mistake to pretend that all Tory policies can be characterised in that way.

If the Tories think that the problem with our country's education system is that over the years we have failed to give bright young men from the political elite enough of a chance to try out their new theories, then they could do a lot worse than listen to well intentioned people like Jonty and Sam. I've met them both, and they are worlds away from some of the revolting Tory nobbers that were around in Oxford.

But I think that this is an example of the way in which in many ways the Tories are preparing to continue and build on some of the worst mistakes of New Labour. A history degree from Magdalen College is not, in fact, good experience for designing and ensuring the implementation of a multi billion pound complex IT project of the kind which will be needed to introduce school vouchers. And a common cause of policy failure is that the people designing the policies don't have the real life experience to understand how their ideas will actually end up affecting real people. There is nothing in what Osborne, Gove and chums have been saying or doing, or the advisers that they will be listening to, to suggest that they've learned this lesson.

But the real reason for writing this post is that it is an excuse to share with you what I think is a perfect example of the new 'compassionate Conservatism'. A few years ago, Jonty was on a telly programme called 'Upstairs, Downstairs', where a family went back to living as the Edwardians did. Afterwards, he explained what he found negative about the experience:

"I think what was most disturbing about the project, was the way in which we were obliged to treat humans badly...

For example, I was not allowed to talk to the servants, or to see the conditions that they lived and worked in until the very last day. It was not my place to inquire whether they were having a good day, whether they had too much work, or what was going on below stairs. I found this quite a strain. I hate the idea that they could have been hating us behind our backs. I tried my hardest not to give the many more work them was necessary. I almost always dressed myself, ran my own bath, shaved myself, and so on. These are all things that I could have asked my footman to do for me. But I know that he had enough to. The only thing I really needed help with was putting on my leather riding-boots. These were exceptionally small, so I had to have Charles to help me to fit my breaches into them...

I would imagine that working at the coal face as it were, in the kitchens, scrubbing and scraping was the most unpleasant part. Coming up to have a brief chat in our sumptuous surroundings upstairs was probably not too bad. Of course, I have no real idea, as convention prevented us from speaking freely or often."

Monday, August 18, 2008

Advance warning

We can't say we haven't been warned.

David Cameron today threatened that if he is elected Prime Minister, he will be 'as radical a social reformer as Mrs Thatcher was an economic reformer'.

Thatcher, of course, was a radical social reformer herself. She blamed things like 'welfare dependency' and 'illegitimacy' for causing poverty. Eighteen years of this approach under Thatcher and Major had the effect of tripling the number of children growing up in poverty.

But Cameron's approach will be very different from Thatcher's. Like Thatcher, he believes that 'welfare dependency' causes poverty, but instead of talking about 'illegitimacy' and 'bastardy', he talks about 'family breakdown'. And one of the few concrete Tory policies at the moment is to adopt right-wing American 'workfare' policies which have been proved to increase absolute poverty, which Thatcher wanted to try but wasn't able to.

So the 'radical reform' involves warmed over Thatcherism with more politically correct language and nastier policies. In what way exactly is this a sign that the Tories have stopped being the 'nasty party'?

Good Old Boy #68

5 Live were covering the 200m heats of the Olympics in the early hours this morning, and had a brilliant interview with defending champion and G.O.B. Shawn Crawford. Sonja the interviewer asked him if when he saw Usain Bolt win the 100 metres, it made him go 'uh oh'.

Crawford got extremely excited and said that he had watched the 100 metres and that it was brilliant. He then explained that it hadn't made him go 'uh oh', but that Bolt was a 'bad dude'. He repeatedly both of these points several times for emphasis.

A few minutes later, 5 Live did a speak your brane bit where listeners texted in whatever was passing through their minds. This triggered a long discussion about how bad it was that primary schools don't allow competitive sports, with both presenters pitching in eagerly to agree with this idea. It seemed to me a little bit curious to blame politically correct 'all must have prizes' school sports days for Britain's lack of success in the Olympics given that this is just about our most successful Olympics since the days when the tug of war used to be an Olympic sport.

But the thing which puzzled me more is this conundrum. I read on the internet amusingly and insightful articles about how the BBC exists to indoctrinate us with left-wing propaganda. So how is it that the wicked Marxist presenters at the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation all support having more competitive sport in our schools?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Johann Hari and the Seven Seals of Dacre

Reading articles by Johann Hari reminds me of old articles by Nick Cohen. Both can be witty and eloquent writers, and obviously have (in Hari's case) and used to have (in Cohen's case) lots of contacts with leftie people who told them interesting things which they then wrote about.

Nick Cohen's decline from interesting leftie columnist to right-wing hack has been well chronicled over here. One amusing marker of this was Watching how he broken one by one the 'Seven Seals of Dacre'. The idea behind the Seals of Dacre are that every time you adopt a bizarre and counterfactual view which is also believed by Melanie Phillips, a seal breaks open, and when all seven are broken, the Vaults open and an army of ghouls rush out and drag you off to write a column in the Daily Mail (or in Nick's case the Evening Standard).

I haven't been tracking Johann Hari's progress in this way until recently, but I reckon he has broken at least two Seals in recent weeks.

Number one was 'cutting poor people's benefits actually helps them because they become less dependent', in this charming piece about how the government's welfare reforms were good based on a sample of his friend Andy. It came complete with a side order of 'lefties ought to support this right-wing policy because the Tories would be worse' served up in such a sanctimonious way that even I found it hard to stomach.

And the second seal of Dacre went last week with an abomination of a piece called 'We need to stop being such cowards about Islam'. It has an internal logic to it as long as the reader accepts the premise that in Britain people are intimidated and not allowed to criticise Islam. This is pretty much the textbook definition of a 'bizarre and counterfactual view also held by Melanie Phillips'. I guess it might be true if you exclude, say, trivial niche publications such as the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Express, the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC's 'Have Your Say' site.

Again with the sanctimoniousness, Hari confesses that one reason he was worried about writing the column was that he feared for his physical safety. Now say what you like about Richard Littlejohn, but at least he doesn't tell us all how physically brave he is being when sticking it to the Muslims. There is a bit of 'I live in the East End, so I know that fears of discrimination are overstated, whatever the statistics might say', which is pretty weak stuff from the former Young Journalist of the Year. And it is odd that the particular subject of Hari's column, which is apparently such a taboo that 'you cannot read about it except in the Koran and the Hadith' turns up 700,000 hits on google.

Critical, rational discussion of Islam is happening all the time, in Britain and around the world, whatever commercial decision a particular American publisher chooses to make about one particular book. But there is a difference between doing an impression of Melanie Phillips and taking part in this discussion. Still, I guess no opinion columnist ever went hungry by being the left-winger prepared to 'speak truth to the powerless'.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Michael Gove versus the consultants

Excellent article here about government IT projects and the ways in which a future Conservative government would end up wasting lots of money. Well worth reading and educational for anyone who, like me, had a general but uninformed prejudice against big IT projects which give lots of money to consultants but in favour of big government social programmes.

The article takes as a case study Michael Gove's school vouchers policy and shows what new IT systems and policies would be needed to make it happen. It concludes:

'No doubt if you suggested to him that he was planning a consultants' bonanza he'd be appalled – getting Big Government cut down to size in education is what he wants to achieve. With the best will in the world, Michael Gove is not the kind of steely-eyed, detail-oriented, battle-hardened administrative genius who could shepherd a project like this through to completion. He's a moderately engaging opinion journalist who writes a regular column about not being able to find two socks that match. Gove versus Consultants is a fight of the century to put alongside Cats v Cream or Audley Harrison v Licence-Payers.'

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Bad ideas unlimited

There has been lots of coverage of Policy Exchange's 'Cities Unlimited' report, which in my opinion has given a rather misleading impression of it. Those who haven't read it unfairly caricature it as being about the ridiculous idea that everyone who lives in Northern England should move to London, Oxford or Cambridge.

I have read the report, and it is far, far worse than that summary would suggest. Almost every page contains a different example of staggering and at times awe-inspiring wrongness. Here are just five examples:

Reducing inequality through cough, cough, mumble, mumble

The report analyses the current situation with regard to regeneration as follows:

1. Regeneration spending over the past ten years has 'raised the standards of living compared with what they would have been without them'. Furthermore, the consequence of cutting this spending will be that 'towns that are already slipping gradually further behind the UK average will not simply continue to slip behind at their current rate, but will start to slip behind more rapidly,' as happened in the mid 1990s.


3. Therefore, it is necessary to try a completely different approach.

Worth noting that this is the same technique found in reports by the Taxpayers' Alliance, and that it bears a striking resemblance to the Conservative Party's anti-poverty policies. In all cases, there is a giant leap of logic from 'Labour has spent money which has reduced, but not solved, a problem...cough, cough, mumble, mumble...therefore we shouldn't spend any more money on trying to solve it but should do something different instead'.

Axe the council tax (but only for nimbies)

Moving on, they confront the problem that local people in southern England might be opposed to new houses being built near them. Their solution is to 'stuff their mouths with gold'. Prosperous towns in Southern England would find that the land they owned becoming more valuable if houses were built on it. So the reports' authors propose that councils in these areas should be able to pass this profit on to the community, and use the profits from increasing land value to cut or abolish council tax. And council tax payers living in areas where land value is not so high? Unlucky for them.

Post Offices

But where to build all these houses in London? One example that the report's authors give is that the Post Office could sell all of its sorting offices in London and develop them for housing. The report goes on, 'Mail would then be collected in London, taken to (say) Leicester by train, sorted in Leicester, and returned to London on the first train the following morning for onward delivery.'

Social housing

To ensure some balance in migration to London, '1 in 5 net new houses in growing areas needs to be reserved for social housing tenants from areas whose populations are not increasing.' So, one example they give is that social housing built in Bromley could be reserved to help people from Blackpool move there.

To be fair, this is an idea which would have incredibly entertaining consequences and might be worth giving a go for that reason, even if it would be a total and utter disaster. There is significant resentment about social housing allocations at the moment, even without ring fencing council houses for people who live at least 200 miles away.

Knocking houses together

But I think the most off the wall idea is their alternative to demolish and redeveloping housing in areas where the population is declining. Their idea is that instead the government would buy up houses and sell them at below market rate to the neighbours (with the government keeping a share of the value of the new, larger property). Over time, the neighbours would then make the alterations to merge the two houses into one. A condition of the sale would be that the new owners would not be allowed to sell or let out their new property.


I'd stress that this is not a comprehensive guide to the bad ideas in the report, but merely a representative sample. Any particularly bad ones that I've missed, do highlight in the comments.

UPDATE: More and better analysis from Mrs Blogs in the comments and over here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Good Old Boy #67

John McCain has had a certain amount of criticism for not being familiar with modern technology such as the internet, on account of the fact that he is quite old.

But in a devastating rebuttal which should demolish this unfair line of attack, he gave a speech yesterday on the crisis in Georgia which included several passages which had been copied straight from Wikipedia.

Now that he has mastered copying from the internet like all the young people do these days, could the next step be for someone to tell him that not everything which is written on the internet is actually true?

The Front Runner's Fall

Joshua Green from The Atlantic has an article about Hilary Clinton's campaign for the Presidency, including copies of internal memos from her campaign team from October 2006 til June 2008.

It's absolutely fascinating as a piece of 'instant history', a guide to how American presidential campaigns are managed, and will no doubt be poured over by future historians and future candidates and campaign managers.

It was published yesterday, and has already attracted a detailed and thoughtful follow up from another analyst over here, which explains how just one incorrect assumption early on in a campaign strategy can make the difference between a candidate being able to build an election-winning coalition of support and coming up just short.

The article and memos are a guide to what happens when a campaign can't decide on a clear message, where the senior people involved don't have the discipline to work together effectively and no one is prepared to take the tough decisions or be honest about the candidate's weaknesses. They also show quite how impressive Obama's campaign has been.

Good Old Boy #66

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, has been trying to reform the constitution to help the poorer indigenous people, who make up the majority of people in Bolivia but who have been marginalised by the elite in the past.

He encountered fierce resistance to his attempts, and so decided to have a recall referendum, giving the people the chance to vote him out midway through his term of office if they didn't support what he was doing.

The vote was on Sunday, and unofficial results show that he won convincingly, receiving more than 60% of the vote.

South Ossetia and the shock therapists

Best analysis of the background to the crisis in South Ossetia that I've found is from Anatol Lieven, here. He concludes that, "Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin made it clear again and again that if Georgia attacked South Ossetia, Russia would fight. Georgian advocates in the West claimed that Moscow was only bluffing. It wasn’t."

Over at and elsewhere in the Conservative movement, events have caused some of the 1st Battalion of Fighting Conservative Keyboardists to abandon cherished beliefs. David Cameron thinks that the situation would be better if Georgia were in NATO, and says that Britain should be working closely with our European partners(!) Matthew Sinclair of the Taxpayers' Alliance quotes approvingly American neo-conservatives who think that the Georgia is the new Sudetenland (spending taxpayers' money is ok as long as it is used to prepare to fight World War Three).

Other Fighting Keyboardists are staying true to their (barking mad) beliefs. David Cameron's former chief of staff wants Britain to expel the Russian ambassador and freeze all Russian assets in the UK. Someone called Dan Lewis thinks that the problem is that in 1991 the Russians were defeated strategically but not morally (they did not understand the true evil of what they had done), and that Britain should stop importing any gas from Russia. And writing a barely coherent article in the Independent, Bruce Anderson explains that the problem is all because Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher were not in power during the 1990s (if you can work out what he is on about, please leave a comment).

A couple of interesting articles from lefties - this one sees the conflict as part of the 'new cold war', and this one draws an analogy between the current conflict and unilateral military interventions in Kosovo and Iraq. I don't find the latter particularly persuasive - it's a good rhetorical trick for the Russians to compare what they are doing to Kosovo or Iraq, but that doesn't mean that, for example, but for Iraq they would have sought the support of the international community before invading Georgia.

Lastly, historian Anne Appelbaum writes that 'the time to deal with this conflict is not now but was two, or even four, years ago...Cowardice, weakness, lack of ideas and, above all, the distraction of other events prevented any deeper engagement. And now it may be too late.'

I'm not sure about this. Because one thing which none of these different analyses have mentioned, but which must surely be relevant to understanding what is now happening, is what happened to Russia in the early 1990s.

It wasn't 'cowardice, weakness, a lack of ideas' or any kind of 'distraction' which explains what happened after the fall of Communism in Russia. It was a deliberate, ideological decision to 'recommend' to the Russian government that they unleash economic policies which handed the wealth of the Russian state to the oligarchs, made millions of people die prematurely (life expectancy in Russia is still lower today than in 1990), and led to massive increases in poverty and inequality. The shock therapists and their allies destroyed any chance of Russia becoming a free society, or living in peace with its neighbours and with the Western powers, much more so than Kosovo, or the more recent 'colour revolutions' in neighbouring states.

It looks likely that the Russians will be in a position to enforce whatever terms of peace they wish on Georgia, with the rest of the world powerless to stop them. Hopefully, the terms that the Russians exact are more merciful and less disastrous than the ones that we forced the Russians to accept seventeen years ago.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Lessons from 2005

I am enjoying the new satirical idea being put around by David Miliband's political enemies that he is planning to make Alan Milburn his Chancellor. I'd thought that the 'don't hire Alan Milburn if you want to win an election rule' was one that everyone knew. It's one of the things we found out in 2005, when he was briefly in charge of Labour's election campaign.

It occurs to me that if people have forgotten the Alan Milburn rule, then there might be other lessons from the last general election which have also been forgotten. So here are some of the other things that we all learned three years ago:

1. Despite starting with a majority of over 160, the only way Labour managed to avoid losing an overall majority in 2005 was by taking out loans which it could not afford to pay back. And even though we effectively bankrupted ourselves in trying to keep up with the Tories' spending, they still outspent us.

2. Some people who voted Labour really liked Tony Blair but not Gordon Brown. Others couldn't stand Tony Blair but liked Gordon Brown. We would have lost the election without the support of both of these groups of people.

3. Most of the local campaigning was done by activists who hold more left-wing views than New Labour. There was a drop in the number of these activists, primarily because of Iraq.

4. The Tories piled up votes in their safe seats, whereas Labour was better at targeting resources to the key marginal seats, because we spent more on local organisation, and the Tories spent enormous amounts on those big 'are you thinking what we're thinking?' posters.

There seems to be a kind of fantasy that if only we appoint a cabinet full of Blairites and fight the next election on a purer Blairite ticket (free from the interference of the Brownites who blocked public service reforms) that somehow we would do better. If we do try that then we will be absolutely slaughtered.

Applying the lessons of the last election instead suggests a rather different strategy of things which are necessary, if not sufficient, to do:

- Recognise that the Tories are going to be able to outspend us massively, maybe by as much as 3:1, and we need to make the best of a bad job about this. Make sure that people know that the Tories are trying to 'buy the election' and try to turn that to our advantage as far as possible. Leaflets, policies and messages should reinforce the idea that we're the scrappy underdog up against the vested interests, that our candidates are on the side of the people and theirs are funded by millionaire tax exiles.

- Have a diverse and talented leadership team which includes people who appeal to different groups of electors in the way that the team of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Robin Cook did in 2005.

- Spend every penny available on local organisers, not large billboards or other nonsense. Train them in how to get local people involved in the campaign, and make sure that candidates and MPs spend as close as possible to every waking minute of every day talking to voters.

- Introduce policies which activists and possible activists care passionately about, and which will motivate them to campaign to stop a Tory government getting rid of.

- Don't bring back Alan Milburn.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Cutting benefits doesn't make people get jobs

Harpymarx has details of some new research which has found that threatening to cut lone parent's benefits has a 'negligible' impact on whether or not they try and get a job. The research was based on interviews with both lone parents and with employment advisers, and was commissioned by the government.

The main reasons why lone parents didn't attend 'work focused interviews' were ill-health, caring responsibilities and forgetting the appointment, not deliberate avoidance or because they were 'workshy' or lazy.

The people who were more likely to have their benefits stopped because they didn't attend these interviews were more likely to suffer from ill health, and to have children who suffered from problems including behavioural difficulties, epilepsy, cerebral palsy and severe asthma. They were more likely to be in debt, and they were more likely to be unaware of their financial situation, including the actual amount of benefits that they were receiving. Some of those who had their benefits cut were unable to read the letters that the Jobcentre sent out, and others didn't open the letters because they thought that they would be yet more bills.

The financial coping strategies of the lone parents who found their benefit payments reduced usually involved reducing spending. The spending that was reported to be affected often related to the purchase of basic provisions, such as food, phone, electricity, gas, nappies, taking their child to playgroup, paying other bills, Christmas club payment.

The report goes on to suggest a number of ways that the current system could be improved. These include technical but important changes such as better outreach support involving compliance officers, re-naming the 'Work Focused Interview', and improving the process by which it is decided whether or not individuals are classed as vulnerable. It's worth noting that most lone parents who were interviewed did think that there were positive things about taking part in interviews which helped them find work, particularly the calculations which showed how they could be better off in work.

Three major barriers which keep lone parents on benefits and stop them getting jobs are ill health, lack of childcare and debt. The government's own research shows that there is a vicious cycle at work here. Lone parents who are sick, or who can't get childcare, or who are in debt, are the ones least likely to attend interviews or take up help to find work or training. Then they get their benefits cut, which increases their debt, makes it even harder to find childcare, and makes them more unwell.

Both New Labour and the Tories want to extend the idea of cutting people's benefits if they don't comply with all the rules, even though this has a 'negligible' impact on whether people work but a significant impact on preventing sick children getting enough to eat. If they actually wanted to cut the number of people on out of work benefits and help people get jobs then they should concentrate on knocking down the barriers that actually stop people working, with things like free, accessible childcare and social fund grants to keep people away from the loan sharks and stop people getting into debt.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Applied behavioural economics

I thought carefully about buying a copy of 'Nudge' by Thaler and Sunstein. Apparently, politicians from Barack Obama to George Osborne have been influenced by it, and its ideas are being applied to a wide range of public policy areas. I read the reviews and decided that on balance it wasn't worth buying at the moment, because most of the interesting content was available online and it would be cheaper to wait for it to come out in paperback.

And then I was in Waterstone's, and I saw that it had a picture of big ele-fant and little ele-fant on the front cover.

So I bought it.

Three things every Guardian writer and reader needs to know about the Tories

Jenni Russell has an article in the Guardian praising David Cameron. It is an interesting piece precisely because of the errors of fact and analysis in it.

Russell has completely bought the Cameron spin that the Tory Party has changed and is now a party of the centre ground, having marginalised the right-wingers in the same way that Tony Blair marginalised the left. Instead, she claims, the dividing line is that both parties want to achieve similar things, but Labour takes an authoritarian, top down, pessimistic and centralised approach to doing so, and the Tories take a more liberal, bottom up, optimistic approach.

This is an analysis which many people who read the Guardian will find quite plausible, and if it were true, it would be lethal for Labour. Labour can't win an election with just the support of people who read the Guardian, but it certainly can't win without them.

However, Russell's analysis is based on the following three myths:

1. 'Cameron has shifted the Conservatives on to the centre ground'

Cameron hasn't taken on and defeated the right-wing of his party, and there hasn't been a Clause 4 moment - the right-wing of the Tory Party is much more powerful than the left-wing of the Labour Party was in 1994 or thereafter.

The pledge about 'keeping to Labour spending plans for 2 years', which is cited in the article, means not cutting taxes before 2010, and therefore constrains a Tory government not at all. On every issue imaginable, from the environment to poverty to privatising the Royal Mail, the Tories have been lurching rightwards in recent months.

2. 'The Tories have promised plenty of action on poverty and inequality'

Russell mentions the minimum wage, tax credits and child poverty as examples of how the Tories have adopted social justice. But they have refused to sign up to meeting Labour's targets for reducing and ending child poverty, saying that they will "aspire" to meet them, but won't "pledge" to meet them. (Want to know how much an 'aspiration' to end child poverty is worth? If you've got one of those 'aspirations' and 70p, you can buy a copy of the Guardian.)

They might not support abolishing the minimum wage or tax credits - but even in David Cameron's 2005 election manifesto with Michael Howard as leader (back when Guardian columnists knew that the Tories were right-wing and nasty) they promised to retain the minimum wage. What they have done since is to vote against all the increases in tax credits and the minimum wage. If they continue to do this in government, it will mean that over time people on low incomes end up worse-off.

That's even before we get on to their plans to cut taxes for millionaires, the moralistic and failed approach of blaming people for being poor, or their welfare reform policies which are far nastier and less effective than Labour's. But, hey, at least 'they sound nicer' and are 'morally indignant' when talking about poverty. (For those keeping score, 'sounding nice' and 'being morally indignant' are worth about as much as one of those 'aspirations').

3. 'It's impossible to know how far the Tory agenda would be delivered in office, or how successful it would be'

It is certainly possible to make an educated guess, providing your research goes beyond repeating Conservative Party talking points. You could look at what has happened when Tories have gained power in local authorities, for instance. Or you could look at other countries where their policies have been tried out. Or what happened when people on the centre-left across the Atlantic decided that there was no real difference between a boring and uncharismatic technocrat whose party which had been in power for a while and a 'compassionate Conservative'.

In some areas, this kind of analysis shows that the Tories are likely to be different in power from what they are promising at the moment. For example, they say that they want to give voluntary and community groups more opportunities and more funding. But when they get the chance to do so, instead they cut the amount of funding available for voluntary and community groups. This suggests bad times ahead for these groups if the Tories get into power.

In other areas, though, they say what they mean and mean what they say. So when they praise the kind of welfare reform which happened in the USA, which led to more people living in poverty while massively increasing handouts to private corporations, that suggests that they will try to do the same once in power.


Nailing these three myths - that the Tories have marginalised their right-wingers; that they share Labour's aims on social justice; and that they offer a new and untested approach - is important because people deserve to know the truth about what an alternative government stands for and would actually do before they go and choose who to vote for.

Making this happen is partly about explaining the difference between the Tory spin and the Tory policies, with campaigns like the excellent minimum wage one. But just attacking the Tories won't work while levels of poverty are static or even rising, and when the government's message is that our policies on inheritance tax or welfare are similar to those of the Tories. Our next relaunch needs to include some new policies which make it clear even to 'low information voters' such as Guardian columnists about how Labour is making a difference and making our society more socially just and fair.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Drivel Defence vs Compass Youth

The Plain English campaign have a software package called 'Drivel Defence'. This lets people check text that they have written to see if it could be made easier to read. Knowing how to write in plain English is important for any campaigning group.

I read an article by Compass Youth called 'Ideas and Actions to change the world'. This introduces Compass Youth and is aimed at encouraging new people to join and get involved. It is almost totally incomprehensible.

There are passages like, "A hegemonic social democratic project will only be built by contesting and winning the battle for freedom by defining real freedom not as freedom from or freedom within the constraints of the market but freedom to build our lives, our communities and our societies as we see fit by doing it together." That is not the longest sentence.

There are other bits which are easier to understand, but which are just wrong. For example, "To the democratic left process must be everything". And there is a lot of jargon in the article. To be able to make sense of it, you have to know what the authors mean by terms such as 'collectivist', 'environmentalist', 'closed hierarchy', 'social democratic', 'advanced capitalism', 'pluralism', 'progressive multilateralism' and many more.

Even 'Drivel Defence' couldn't do much to help this article. But it did offer one useful tip. Instead of the word 'progressive' it suggested:

Potential alternative : progress → (to) progress something - (replace with a more precise phrase saying what you are doing).

There is nothing wrong with using technical language or jargon in some situations. But any leftie group should be able to explain what it stands for in clear, accessible language. It should not need a degree in Political Science to understand your aims and values. Replacing the jargon and waffle with more precise phrases saying what they are doing would help Compass Youth a great deal.

Friday, August 01, 2008

anti-British left wing books

Inspired by Greg Hands MP's campaign against left-wing guide books, 'Centre Right' now has an mind-bogglingly awful article called 'Will a Conservative government bring about a change in British literature for the better?'

The author argues (I swear I am not making this up) that Labour voting authors have been writing anti-British left-wing books which have fallen to a severe multiculturalism-urbanisation trend, and that this has made writing about Britain out of fashion with publishers. As a result, the author's collection of poetry, 'Starry Dandelion Night', had to be published in Austria.

"If I have to pick up one more copy of Brick Lane, or worse still, any piece of fiction about a lost immigrant boy/girl who comes to London alone I am afraid I will have to give up going into Waterstones ever again (and most probably sit at home reading Ian McEwan)."

Take that, Waterstones!

'many British writers have written of the ideology and fitted the character and individuals into the coherent ideology as if they were secondary. And yes, before you think it, people do buy it – but people also buy cannabis, cocaine or twisted porn, but that doesn’t make it okay.'

Because reading about immigrants is kind of like buying cocaine or 'twisted porn', when you think about it.

'To be clear: the current generations of leftist writers producing mindless drivel of cultural pap have put many more people off reading than they have attracted. I don’t agree with the overall statistics of growing and increasingly engaged readerships'

I like that when there are statistics which prove that your argument is total rubbish, then you can just refuse to agree with them.

"It is sad because I do care about what I read and I think we should care about how this translates to what is being taught to children in schools (in selections for a syllabus)."

Exactly. Won't someone think of the children! Under a Conservative government, all children will read wholesome British books like Starry Dandelion Night, not ;eft wing anti-British books about foreigners.