Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Unelected community leaders bad, unelected special advisers good

Shorter Paul Richards:

The government should not listen to unelected community leaders such as Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain, because they have never been elected to public office.

Instead, the government should listen to people like me, as I not only wrote a book called 'How to win an election', but also used to be chair of the National Organisation of Labour Students. I know all about how to help progressive forces within the Muslim community thrive, e.g. by calling them useful idiots who wanted to keep Saddam Hussein in power.

Levelling up, not levelling down

If true, this is a really stupid idea:

"Millions of public sector workers will have their pensions slashed under plans to deal with a massive shortfall in the value of local government pension funds, The Times has learnt.

John Denham, the Communities Secretary, is drawing up a series of proposals to overhaul the pensions of two million council workers, covering short, medium and longer terms.

Senior staff could lose out on tens of thousands of pounds a year if the changes are applied across the board.

A senior local government official who has been briefed on some of the proposals said that doctors, nurses and teachers were likely to face similar changes as the public sector burden becomes unaffordable."

This is, shall we say, an issue to leave until after the election. In the next few months, ministers could better spend their time coming up with ideas to increase pensions for workers in the private sector, rather than levelling down pensions in the public sector.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sarah Wollaston

There's an interview in the Independent with the GP who was selected through an open primary as a Tory candidate in Totnes. She joined the Tories 3 years ago because she felt it really had changed under David Cameron's leadership, she's got sensible things to say about the NHS, and is against reducing the time limit for abortion.

I can't help but feel that a few years ago, someone like this would have been a Labour supporter.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

What a difference nine months and a bit of research can make

One of the following articles was based on a couple of anecdotes, copying down some government spin and personal prejudice on the part of the author. The other was written after doing some proper research and reporting the opinions of people who work day-to-day to help unemployed people. Can you guess which is which?

Jenni Russell, Nov 2008 - "We must dare to rethink the welfare that benefits no one:
The left has long been blind to the dependency culture that deters adults from flexible work and damages their chlidren"

Jenni Russell, August 2009 - "Some talk about welfare to work. The poor know it as welfare to destitution: The unemployed are being forced to take huge risks with their security when they move into the world of low-paid labour"

Monday, August 17, 2009

4 million unemployed if the Tories win power

The Sunday Times reported that one consequence of the Tory welfare plans is that if they win power, unemployment will rise to over 4 million.

Peter Hoskin at the Spectator welcomes this, because it will be achieved (at vast expense to the taxpayer) by moving people from sickness benefits to unemployment benefits which pay them less, and therefore requiring claimants to look for work.

He says, quite rightly, that this is "an ambitious plan, and far outstrips what has so far been achieved with ESA (which has seen IB claimant numbers drop by roughly 150,000 in about 10 months). Whether they'll be able to achieve it is a different matter, of course."

Hoskins concludes, "But, when it comes to Tory welfare policy, two words give me some hope: David Freud."

Lord David Freud is a City banker who wrote a report about reforming welfare, which turned out to have some very basic mistakes in it ('even a student using google to conduct some easy searches on the topic would have been hard pressed to make the factual errors that Freud made', as ukbix put it). Its recommendations were tried, and didn't work. And it seems that he is having some difficulty in keeping up with his party's policies, if this vastly entertaining report of a recent event is anything to go by.

But when it comes to Tory welfare policy, it is his name which gives them hope.

A 'senior Tory aide' is quoted in the Sunday Times as saying, “It might look as if we are losing control of the economy, so we will begin a campaign in September so that people understand better what is happening.”

I'll look forward to that campaign. The more people that understand that the Tory plans for welfare are to increase unemployment to 4 million by 2011 and put a city banker who 'knew nothing about welfare' in charge of sorting it out, the better.

Saturday, August 15, 2009


The Guardian's headline today was about Tory Shadow Chancellor George Osborne attacking City bonuses.

This was based on an interview by John Harris. Now, I quite like John Harris - I think he's a good writer and has a good feel politically for a lot of the audience that he's writing for.

But I am certain that he knows less than I do (which is very little) about different models of financial regulation and how the Tory proposals for revamping the regulation of the financial sector would enable them to prevent banks from handing out big bonuses. Harris is also a sucker for any argument about how even the Tories are defying stereotypes and making New Labour look timid and in the pockets of the rich.

The result was a front page headline which was very favourable to the Tories - mission accomplished for the Tory spin machine.

But surely if the Guardian is going to be interviewing the man who would be in charge of economic policy and public spending if the Tories win power, they should have sent someone who knows about these things, rather than a music journalist-turned-generalist political commentator? The Guardian has an excellent economics editor in Larry Elliott, who predicted many of the current problems in the economy years before they happened, and would have actually been able to have a sensible discussion with Osborne about the regulation of bonuses and his regulatory proposals.

George Osborne's PR people would have known before the interview that he could make the announcement about bonuses, that it would be reported, and that Osborne wouldn't have to face any expert questioning or challenge about whether there was any substance to what the Tories would do differently. It's an example of what Nick Davies calls 'churnalism', where politics gets reported at only the most superficial level.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Whining about the NHS

I wrote recently about the right wing debating tactic of whining that lefties were stifling freedom of speech on subjects such as immigration or the family.

This week, a very right wing Tory MEP called Daniel Hannan went on American telly to slag off and lie about the NHS, in order to try to help the Republican Party stop President Obama from improving America's dysfunctional health care system. In response, the creator of Father Ted and quite a lot of other people, including the leaders of both the Labour and Tory parties, twittered about how they love the NHS, on the topic '#welovethenhs'.

Showing the independence of mind and diversity of opinion which conservatives pride themselves on, the response to '#welovethenhs' from people who don't support the way that the NHS is currently structured has been to, you've guessed it, start whining about how their opinions are being silenced:

James Forsyth from the Spectator writes that, "One wonders whether we will ever be able to have a rational debate about the merits of the NHS in this country"

Iain Dale, "This whole row illustrates the problem we have in this country. It is impossible to have a rational debate about the NHS because the moment anyone utters the most mild of criticism (and I accept Hannan's doesn't fall into that category!) or dares to suggest that the NHS actually isn't all that perfect, they are dumped on from a great height."

Dizzy Thinks, "Sadly, unlike what’s going on in USA right now, the structure and delivery of healthcare services is not even a matter for discussion in the UK anymore. Instead, the snobbish and arrogant British superiority complex rears its head, and stupidly deems that the structure we have is the best possible."

Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home takes it one step further and argues that a journalist (employed by Rupert Murdoch) who criticised Daniel Hannan ought to resign.

If their arguments are so good and rational, makes you wonder why they don't just make them publicly, rather than whining that they are being silenced by the diabolical forces of Graham Linehan and his twittering chums.

And the journalists who have been parroting the line that the Great British Public have made up their minds that they want spending cuts should take note that David Cameron and the Conservative Party are now promising to increase spending on the health service.

Darfur, Malawi and Brazil

Two fascinating articles by Conor Foley about international development and global poverty:

The Save Darfur Coalition raised $7.5 million in 2008, and spent $0 providing aid to the suffering people there.

Oxfam and Amnesty International have been campaigning (successfully) for new laws against domestic violence in Malawi and Brazil, examples of a rights-based approach to helping people living in poverty. But is there much evidence that either approach is an effective way of reducing poverty in developing countries?

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Peak Wingnut theory

Last October, American blogger John Cole suggested a new theory called 'Peak Wingnut'.

Peak Wingnut theory states the extremism and sheer volume of anti-progressive rhetoric, and attempts to mainstream slander into the mainstream media, by the American conservative attack machine is peaking or had peaked. The idea behind this theory was that American conservatives had seen their ideas turn out to be a total disaster, and that this would discourage them.

Ten months later, roughly a quarter of Americans answer 'no' or 'not sure' to the question 'do you believe Barack Obama was born in the USA?'; there are angry and violent demonstrations against attempts by the government to provide better healthcare; and Investors' Business Daily claims that "People such as scientist Stephen Hawking wouldn’t have a chance in the U.K., where the National Health Service would say the life of this brilliant man, because of his physical handicaps, is essentially worthless".

But then it is not surprising that Peak Wingnut theory didn't work out, since just one day after Cole first wrote about it, Republican activists were writing about how Obama had "an underage, gay affair with a pedophile".

What Harriet did wrong

Hopi Sen explains what Harriet Harman did wrong this summer:

"It was that interview [about how either the leader or deputy leader should be a woman] which launched a mini media frenzy that meant that any subsequent decisions on gender issues, like domestc violence, rape etc, however strong on their own merits would be covered as part of a harriet harman po faced agenda of male emasculation etc etc etc rather than as a positive agenda for the rights of women.

It’s that i meant by walking straight into the daily mail trap – by putting the process/internal stuff front and centre, you make it easy for your enemies to paint you as self interested and to discredit your wider and more important agenda by attacking your personally.

Now, the people doing these personal attacks on harriet – the Liddles and the Clarksons and the like, are repellant. But to think the best way to defuse the soft bigotry of the right wing press is to set off a culture war firework in their face is the approach of the doughty campaigner for unpopular causes not a persuader for electoral victory."

Be afraid, be very afraid

Comedy right-wing Tory councillor Harry Phibbs asks:

"How would it be possible [for a Conservative governemnt] to find the really big savings needed without hurting the poor and the sick, without sacking the teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers?"

His answer - bring back Peter 'little list' Lilley and John Redwood.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Cause and effect

July 2009: Tory MP Chloe Smith elected in Norwich North.

August 2009: First game of the football season, Norwich City lose 7-1 to Colchester.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Turning power upside down in South Gloucestershire

The Sustainable Communities Act, according to its supporters, 'set up a new process where councils and communities can drive the actions and assistance that central government does and gives to promote sustainability locally'. Local councils convene 'panels of representative persons', and make recommendations to the Secretary of State about new powers which local authorities would like to be given. Hazel Blears says that it 'turns power upside down in this country'.

The reality is somewhat less impressive. The first set of proposals have been submitted, and they look very much like the local government equivalent of Early Day Motions - a way for local politicians to show that they are concerned about local issues, but with little chance of impacting on any actual policies.

The next steps in this process are that the chairman of the selection panel, 'Kaiser' Keith Mitchell, Tory leader of Oxfordshire County Council, gets to sift through these proposals and recommend some of them to the government, who will then ignore them. This will give the local authority a chance to issue an outraged press release about how their recommendations such as "appointing planning inspectors who know and understand the local area" have been turned down.

So far, mostly harmless (and it is even possible that one or two recommendations might even be accepted, as long as they don't involve additional spending or bother for central government). But one which caught my eye was South Gloucestershire council's suggestion that they shouldn't have to provide designated sites for travellers.

About a year and a half ago, I raised the concern with the co-ordinator of the 'Local Works' campaign that the process in the Act seemed to create opportunities for proposals aimed at persecuting unpopular, minority groups. He assured me that there were adequate safeguards, and that local authorities had to ensure that the panels of people included those from 'under represented groups'. I wonder how many gypsies or travellers were included on the panel which suggested removing the requirement to provide designated sites?

Friday, August 07, 2009

What if Gordon Brown had called an election in 2007?

Here's another one from the alternative history files:

October 2007, Gordon Brown decides to call a General Election. The campaign is a total and utter disaster for Labour, and exposes Brown's many deficiencies as a campaigner. The Tories win in marginal constituency after marginal constituency and the election result ends up with the Tories as the largest party, though still short of an overall majority. Newspaper commentators mock Gordon Brown as a failure and write about how wonderful David Cameron is.

2007-9: The Tories implement their two policies by cutting inheritance tax and introducing workfare. While struggling to come up with some other policies, they preside over the collapse of the economy (including the failure of at least one major bank) and sky-rocketing unemployment. Gordon Brown stays on as leader of the Labour Party.

May 2008: With Labour still in disarray, the local elections see gains for the Tories, but Ken Livingstone is narrowly re-elected as Mayor of London. The Lisbon treaty is rejected in a referendum landslide.

March 2009: Tory government falls after they are defeated over their budget which attempts to slash public spending in order to reduce the deficit.

June 2009: General Election called for the same day as the European elections. Labour campaigns on Gordon Brown vs George Osborne's record on the economy plus attacking the Tories for favouring the rich, increasing unemployment and cutting public services. With many Tory voters staying at home, and others switching to UKIP, Labour wins a solid majority. Newspaper commentators mock David Cameron as a failure and write about how wonderful Gordon Brown is.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Against meritocracy

Laurie Penny criticised Harriet Harman's suggestion that at least one of the top two positions in the Labour Party should always be filled by a woman:

"Since Harriet seems pathologically unable to properly explain herself right now, let me: if we were a truly meritocratic society, this wouldn’t be a problem at all. If we had a truly meritocratic system that picked its leaders on the basis of ability and competence, one of the two top jobs would usually go to a woman – if not both."

Laurie seems to think that a 'truly meritocratic system' would be a good idea. I think it would be a very bad idea.

In a truly meritocratic system, power would be wielded by an elite of those who were judged to be most able and competent. So what makes a politician "able" and "competent"? Experience of campaigning against injustice? Ability to overcome prejudice and disadvantage in their personal lives? Understanding of political history? Experience of the private sector and creating wealth? Experience of making public services run more efficiently? Experience of a "real world" job not connected with politics?

These are all reasonable definitions of "merit", and yet they would give us a ruling elite of, to take a few examples, Peter Hain, David Blunkett, Gordon Brown, Lord Sugar, Steve Bundred and Jacqui Smith.

Unlike, say, football or medicine, there is no objective way of deciding who has "merit" and who doesn't. There is already too much meritocracy in politics, not too little. The problem at the moment is not that the political class is devoid of merit - it includes many talented people. A far greater problem is that politics is increasingly the preserve of a professional elite separate from, and with different interests to, the majority of people.

Both Harman and her critics share the idea that the key task is to select the right people to be our leaders - whether through gender quotas or selection based on merit. But I'm with Eugene Debs on this,

"I don't want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out."

Laurie is an excellent writer, and I normally agree with just about everything she argues for. But in this case, I think she's advocating a kind of 'Great Man' view of politics which isn't really true to her values.

Even the greatest leaders can achieve nothing without the people they represent. Winston Churchill didn't win the Second World War single handed, and Nye Bevan didn't create the National Health Service on his own, in both cases the real work was done by millions of ordinary people, few of whom would have prospered in a meritocracy. Instead of a 'truly meritocratic system', we should be striving for a truly democratic system, in which power is held by all the people, with all their different abilities and merits.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Citizenship test game

I have invented a new game. It is called 'ask politicians questions from the citizenship test'.

Anyone can play, you take part by turning up at events where a politician is answering questions, and ask them questions from the citizenship test.

Does Phil Woolas, the immigration minister, know when women got the right to divorce their husbands?

Does Frank Field of the Balanced Migration group know how many days schools are required by law to remain open for?

Does Nadine Dorries, author of 'Is Britain already full?', know how many under 18s there are in the UK?

I suspect the results would be vastly entertaining. And just maybe, if enough of the people responsible for introducing this test get publicly humiliated by failing the citizenship test game, they will get rid of this pernicious and vindictive waste of money.

Open primaries

Very impressive that over 16,000 people in Totnes voted to choose the Tory candidate for the next election in an "open primary". Normally, about 100-300 people are involved in these kinds of selections. Couple of thoughts:

- open primaries give a huge advantage to people who have "proper jobs". For example, in this case the candidate who was a doctor beat two people who were involved in local government. I think this is broadly a good thing, but it is worth having another look at how much campaigning candidates are allowed to do.

If local people are basically making their minds up on the basis of one leaflet per candidate, then parties might end up getting stuck with people who would, in fact, be pretty hopeless candidates and/or MPs.

- apparently the cost of the whole thing was £40,000. That's ok for a one-off, but not a good use of resources for parties to adopt as the main way of selecting their candidates (for that amount of money, you could get a full time campaign organiser, office, phone line, risograph etc.) It becomes more feasible if the cost per constituency can be got down to about £3-5,000.

One way to do this could be for local parties to agree to hold their primaries on the same day and send out the information together and let people choose which primaries to vote in. It would require a culture shift for local parties to work together in this way - but isn't changing the culture and doing things differently what this is all meant to be about?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Spectator, Lord Freud, and Kentucky Fried Chicken

Two years ago, investment banker David Freud produced a report about reforming the welfare state to reduce unemployment. It was widely praised by the political class, and David Freud is now both a Lord and a shadow minister for the Conservative Party.

The only tiny problem is that his ideas and proposals don't work. As the Spectator magazine, one of Freud's biggest supporters, put it, "recent findings suggest that the Freud-prescribed workfare measures aren't working quite as well as many hoped they would as the downturn takes hold". One of their comments summed up the problem:

"The market, at least in the face of an economic downturn, has rejected Freud's model of welfare provision. I've always advocated letting these companies[private companies which deliver welfare services] go to the wall if and when they failed but that has consequences of its own.

The Conservative welfare plans aren't worth the paper they're written on at the moment because they and Freud assumed the boom times for ever model and all the costings were based on that."

Happily, the intellectual titans at the Spectator magazine are not discouraged at being mugged by reality and by the discovery that the policies they have championed have turned out to be an expensive flop. They have two new ideas to help reduce unemployment:

1. There should be a second Freud Review to 'refine' Freud's original vision in light of the changed economic circumstances and "reassure welfare-to-work providers about the Tories' direction of travel".

2. The Tories should learn from the private companies which are creating new jobs, to find the secret of their success. Such as, um, KFC.

So the Tory policies on unemployment aren't worth the paper that they are written on, and the best advice their supporters can come up with are to get an investment banker-turned-Lord to have do another report after the first one proved a disaster, and to get policy advice from Kentucky Fried Chicken. I'm not completely convinced that is the best way to help people get jobs.

Shorter Taxpayer's Alliance

Shorter Taxpayer's Alliance report on political lobbying:

1. Taxpayer funding of lobbying and political campaigning should be entirely abolished, building on the example set by the Byrd Amendment in the United States.

2. Full transparency of all public spending should be implemented, to reassure taxpayers that none of their money is being diverted by stealth.

3. Lobbying and campaigning groups which claim to represent taxpayers should have to reveal who their funders are.

4. Campaigning by Friends of the Earth and the Local Government Association distorts the public policy process in favour of the interests and perspectives of a narrow political elite. Corporate lobbying and PR represents an actual economic interest, employers and employees who will lose out if a decision doesn’t go their way. It may improve decision making by ensuring that political decisions better reflect a balance of economic costs.