Thursday, June 28, 2007

He's not a racist but...

Tony Blair's government (it feels weird to be referring to that in the past tense) expanded the welfare state - massive improvements to the NHS, expansion of childcare and Sure Start, the introduction of the minimum wage and so on. It is hard to imagine any of these being reversed, and for all that much more needs to be done in all those areas, these are all policies which have helped make our society better and more civilised than it would otherwise have been.

By contrast, some of the cruellest and most disastrous policies have been the ones which cut away the support which people needed. From vouchers for asylum-seekers to the failure to build enough social housing, where the welfare state failed or deliberately excluded needy people, misery and suffering resulted.

I thought that the above was relatively uncontentious, until I came across an article by Geoff Dench in the Guardian yesterday. It was unpromisingly sub-titled "Margaret Hodge is right - from housing to benefits, we can't ignore tensions between the working class and new immigrants" and it ran through a set of arguments which are finding increasing numbers of adherents.

It runs like this:

1. Working-class Labour supporters value mutual support, self-reliance and people who contribute to the community. There were the principles on which the welfare state was originally set up and it was good.

2. Middle class liberals in the 1960s changed the welfare state so that instead it provided according to need. This undermined working class values but middle class liberals didn't care.

3. Mass immigration exposed the unfairness of the welfare state, because immigrants benefit from the welfare state because they are "needy" even though they haven't contributed.

4. For many years, the left were able to suppress criticism by calling anyone who thought it was unfair a racist. But with mass immigration and New Labour abandoning the working class, this stopped working so well, and people started voting BNP.

5. To her credit, Margaret Hodge acknowledged that this was happening and listened to the concerns of the long term residents of her consistuency. The left said this was bad, but it helped make sure that the BNP didn't do quite so well in the elections in 2007, suggesting that when Labour does balance its appeal, by showing respect for local communities as well as "needy" individuals, it hangs on to traditional supporters.

This argument pushes a number of buttons for people on the centre-left - the working-class have been abandoned; middle class liberals have imposed their values on working-class communities; we must understand the grievances which make people vote for the BNP; we need to have a proper debate about the effects of immigration and not just call people racist for raising difficult issues. So what's wrong with it?

Firstly, it simply isn't true that Margaret Hodge helped Labour do better against the BNP. There are some MPs who lead local campaigning efforts and devote a lot of time to making sure that the local party is an effective campaigning force. There are some who devote themselves particularly to campaigning against the BNP. There are some who do their bit during election campaigns but not much for the rest of the year. There are some who go on holiday during election campaigns and are totally idle. Any of these different strategies has been proven to be more effective at defeating the BNP than that of Margaret Hodge. After Margaret Hodge made her comments (in 2006, not 2007 as Dench seems to think), traditional Labour supporters stayed at home or voted BNP in unprecedented numbers. Not one of the MPs who represent an area where the BNP have been unable to gain a foothold, or have been in retreat, supported what Hodge said. There is no evidence that abandoning the provision of services to people on the basis of need would lead to electoral success.

For Dench this is not just a pragmatic argument, but a moral one, harking back to a Golden Age. But his historical analysis is even worse than his understanding of electoral strategy. When Nye Bevan set up the National Health Service, it was based on the values of self-reliance and not helping people who did not make reasonable attempts to manage on their own resources. This would, I suspect, have been news to Nye Bevan as he worked to ensure that for the first time healthcare was available free when it was needed, rather than doctors making moral judgements about who deserved to be let off the fees and who didn't, as before the war.

It gets weirder and more wrong. The values of self-reliance have apparently been undermined for the last thirty years and replaced with a centralised system based on the principle of redistribution. Margaret Thatcher has been accused of many things, but Dench is, I believe, the first to accuse her of undermining self-reliance in favour of liberal left ideas about redistribution. Writing about the development of the welfare state without mentioning Thatcherism and castigating only the liberal left is another sign of how his case is more a piece of polemic than based on any analysis of the relevant facts.

But there is a far more fundamental problem with what Dench is arguing. Even in a world where Margaret Hodge was an election strategist of genius, in touch with her local community, and where welfare policy had seen thirty years of liberal left hegemony, his suggested ideas for fixing the problem do not work. He writes, for example, that, "One way to get into social housing is by having many children. So where, sceptics would ask, does "need" end and "lifestyle" choice start?"

It is not a 'lifestyle choice' to be a child in a large family, and it gives a hint of the malevolence behind this argument that Dench would even hint that he thinks it is. Of course, he doesn't have the courage to explain what the effects of doing what he suggests would be. So let's spell it out.

The other day, I was talking to an asylum-seeker who has been living in Britain for the past few years. He has now got the right to remain and is working. While his application was being processed, he fell ill. He couldn't visit a GP, so didn't get the illness treated early. As a result, it developed and is now terminal. The cost of his time in hospital and the care he needs is far greater than the cost would have been if he could have been to a GP when he needed to.

If we prevent families from getting social housing because we don't think that they have been self-reliant enough or they haven't made enough of a contribution, then there will be more children in care or sleeping on the streets. Breaking up families and vastly expanding the number of children in care is more expensive than providing social housing, and I hope even Dench would start to feel some qualms if the number of rough sleepers expanded because of his moral judgements about their 'lifestyle choices'.

Denying people the medical care that they need so that their illnesses become terminal is not an expression of traditional working-class values. Nor is forcing families to live in overcrowded and unhealthy housing, or forcing them to sleep on the streets.

The problem with public services is not that they help people in need, but that they aren't able to meet enough of the need that exists in our society. Posturing about allocations policies doesn't reduce resentment about access to social housing, building more social housing does. New services which help everyone, 'deserving' and 'undeserving' alike, are widely popular. Attempts to find other ways of deciding who can access services don't work or are unpopular.

There is a choice ahead. Over the next decade Labour can build on the best of the Blair years, expanding services of housing, healthcare, income, education, childcare and much more, giving people much greater liberty and freedom and increasing tolerance and solidarity. Or we can follow the path which Dench and others call for and which tempted Blair and his ministers all too often, creating a moral panic about who deserves support from the state, and introducing incoherent and ill-thought through policies which cause unnecessary misery and suffering. Until Labour is replaced by the party which truly believes that the welfare state creates a 'dependency culture', and that people don't have 'needs', only 'lifestyle choices'.


I think that people who write speculation about Gordon Brown's intentions should go back to the old system of making sacrifices and reading the entrails. Any purely random system of predictions would have had a higher success rate than predictions about how the handover process would go, who would be deputy leader, who would be in the Cabinet and so on.

So having sacrificed a goat, here's my speculation about what the reshuffle means for child poverty. This is one of the tough challenges facing Gordon Brown. By 2010, the target is for the number of children living in poverty to be less than half the number that were in poverty in 1998. At the moment, the number of children living in poverty is rising, and the target will be missed. So Something Needs To Be Done.

Brown's strategy for reducing child poverty since 2000 has been to increase the number of parents in work, and boost the income of families through direct cash payments. This has helped 600,000 children and their families out of poverty. But it relies on constantly rising levels of employment amongst parents, and benefits for families rising faster than average earnings. Last year, for the first time since Labour came to power, this didn't happen and so levels of poverty rose. It is also easier to help people who are just below the poverty line to escape poverty than the very poorest people who face the most disadvantages.

The appointment of Peter Hain as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is good news. He is likely to be less keen on trying to cut benefit levels or look at ideas like time-limiting benefits than John Hutton was, and his ideas about reducing poverty and inequality which he set out in his deputy leadership campaign are thoughtful and would make a real difference if he can get them enacted. The only cloud on the horizon would be if he has got a taste for regressive measures from introducing water charges in Northern Ireland.

Ed Miliband has taken over from Hilary Armstrong as responsible for Social Exclusion. Again, this is positive - Hilary Armstrong's approach was very much focused on the idea that poverty was caused by people's behaviour, and modest schemes to improve public services were often presented as crackdowns on the undeserving poor. Ed Miliband is clearly a rising star, and it will be interesting to see his ideas about new ways of helping the people who face multiple disadvantages. He will presumably take forward from his previous job some thoughts about how the voluntary sector will be more involved in this.

But the most significant appointment is that of Ed Balls, whose new department will have a much greater role in tackling child poverty, along with the Department of Work and Pensions and the Treasury. (This was confirmed in the morning's press briefing).

Brown has already said that education will be a top priority for the spending review later this year. It looks like any extra resources to reduce child poverty are likely to be part of this focus on education, which is a different approach from the idea of work being the only route out of poverty.

The links between poverty and educational disadvantage are many and deep. Just to take one example, many children go to school hungry because their parents cannot afford to give them any breakfast. They then find it difficult to concentrate in lessons, and therefore don't achieve academically. Providing free breakfasts at school for all children who need it would help boost educational attainment and help every child fulfil their potential, and would particularly help the poorest families.

Ed Balls will know better than any other minister how much money is available, and which arguments are going to persuade the new Prime Minister to spend on his priorities. If Gordon Brown had wanted to abandon the target to cut child poverty, he wouldn't have given his key lieutenant responsibility for it.

But here's the really difficult bit. Education does help people get out of poverty, but it can take many years for this to happen. Investing in education can help make sure that a five year child won't be in poverty when she leaves school in 2020. But it won't help her family escape poverty now or in three years' time. So Gordon, Ed, Peter, Ed and the rest of the team will need to work on making sure that the new money for education helps the poorest children most. But they also need to remember the basic lesson which anyone living in poverty could tell them - the best and quickest way to help reduce child poverty is to make sure that poor families get more money.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Good Old Boy #32

The defection of Top Tory Quentin Davies poses an ethical dilemma. Some people are pleased because it hurts the Tory Party, others angry because it involves a right-wing Tory becoming a Labour MP. Quentin is probably in fact even more right-wing than other comrades such as Red Shaun.

The important thing to remember is that the priority at all times is to support whatever will harm the Conservative Party. Quentin Davies is not, in fact, going to be able to use his new position to advance his support for the death penalty or any of the other loathsome causes that he supports, and the net effect of his defection is up the workers and down with the Tories. Also his resignation letter was obviously his own work and was quality.

I will, though, be upset if he becomes a minister tomorrow.

Monday, June 25, 2007

yay for Harriet

I think Harriet Harman winning the Deputy Leadership is good news. It means that our members are focused on winning the next election and think that we need some changes in policy direction and to acknowledge past mistakes to help us win that election.

One of Harman's key messages right from the beginning was that she was the candidate who would appeal to swing voters, and that message got through to people. Whether or not that turns out to be the case, we shall see, but I know plenty of people in Liverpool who made up their minds to vote for her because although they didn't agree with everything she was saying they thought she was best placed to appeal to middle-class southerners. I don't get the sense that most Tory Party members at the moment are so prepared to put aside their own personal views in the quest for electoral success.

The stance she took on Iraq, Trident, housing and inequality were ones which members shared (seen also in Jon Cruddas' strong showing). A few people got very excited about how she had changed her mind and abandoned her principles, but more didn't care about that and were pleased to see candidates acknowledging past mistakes. Following Jon Cruddas' policy platform may have attracted scowls and jeers from insiders, but it was the right thing to do. Cruddas was another winner out of the election campaign, and I think that he'd be better at the moment as a housing minister than as one of the main public faces of the Labour government.

She might not have been the activists' choice, but it's a good choice and one made for the right reasons. And after months of drift, we're back in the lead in the polls and things are looking up.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Red Ken and the yellow Tories

Many, if not most, Liberal Democrat supporters in London like Ken Livingstone. In 2000 and 2004, some voted for him, others at the very least second preferenced him, and most will be planning to do so again next year. Liberal Democrat voters tend also to be quite interested in issues of electoral process, and not keen on undemocratic stitch-ups.

All of which makes it rather odd that the Lib Dems joined with the Tories in the House of Lords to try to prevent Ken from running again, and even boast about doing so on their website. I wonder if they did a survey of their members or supporters before trying that little stunt?

I think there is a big gap opening up between the people who vote for the Liberal Democrats in London, and their political leadership. Particularly since the 2006 local elections, a lot of active Liberal Democrats have found themselves working together with the Conservatives running centre-right administrations in town halls across London. Holding power also means that they have less time to spend keeping in touch with the people who voted for them. And, of course, the 'young turks', many of whom are based in London, are also fighting an internal party struggle against many of the older members, who tend to be less keen on working with Tories and feel a greater affinity with Labour and the idea of the 'progressive coalition'.

The London Lib Dem leadership and top activists, therefore, loathe Ken and feel greater affinity with the Tories, particularly the modernising Tories. This gets reinforced every time Ken slags them off when they cut services or mess things up or demonstrate their own ideas about promoting diversity. But the people who voted Liberal Democrat like Ken, because like them he is on the centre-left, he is radical on climate change and social justice, he annoys the Americans, he is independent-minded and so on.

This split in the Lib Dems has already caused them a lot of embarrassment this week and highlighted the terror that they feel about the idea of having the chance to become part of a governing coalition. Over the next year or two, Ken and Gordon have an excellent opportunity to win back the voters who only ever voted Lib Dem to tell those of us in the Labour Party that we needed to do better, not because they actually wanted what they got - a group of centre-right politicians who ally with the Tories to vote undemocratic stitch-ups through the House of Lords.

Good Old Boy #32

"It seems that while I was away the Leader of the Opposition had something to say about me. He described me as a cross between Ernie Bevin and Demosthenes.

Well, when I read classics and Greek mythology at the Ellesmere Port Secondary Modern School we learnt about Narcissus.

He died because he could only love his own image. He was all image and no substance!"

Mr Prescott told MPs that in a speech this week Mr Cameron said he was "not abandoning Conservative principles but applying them in new ways to new challenges.

That sounds like my 'traditional values in a modern setting' slogan.

So now we know, the Leader of the Opposition isn't the heir to Blair, he's a prophet of Prezza."

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The wisdom of the crowds #9: lose the election John Howad will


'JOHN Howard is the Yoda of Australian politics and voters see Kevin Rudd as his dashing but inexperienced apprentice Luke Skywalker, according to a poll of almost 5000 readers.

Results showed voters saw Mr Howard as a Yoda-like figure and Mr Rudd as Luke Skywalker, and Bond University lecturer and Star Wars nut Scott Knight said this election could closely resemble the plotline of the films.

“I suppose John Howard’s been in the job for so long he has so much authority like Yoda,” Professor Knight said. “I think (respondents see) Kevin Rudd as the chosen one with a chance of a new regime.

“If it follows the Star Wars pattern, the Empire is vanquished by a rebel alliance.”

But he said that did not mean respondents thought the Howard Government was evil. “In a sense, both Yoda and Luke were on the lighter side of the force.”

Of the 4994 respondents of the poll, carried out by Coredata for, more than half would have voted for Labor if the federal election were held last month.

Almost a quarter of respondents who voted Liberal in 2004 said they would be switching their vote, with Work Choices and climate change being the biggest drivers. Middle-income couples with children were the most likely group to change their vote.'

When I grow up, I want the job like Professor Knight has.

I wonder what the responses to a similar survey here would be. I can't think of anyone in the Star Wars universe old enough to be Ming Cambell but I reckon David Cameron as Jar Jar Binks. I certainly don't think that he'd find many people comparing him to Luke Skywalker...

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

New Lib Dem friends

I wasn't sure about the idea of having a couple of Lib Dems appointed as ministers in Brown's government until I saw how upset and angry it made the Lib Dem activists, which made me decide that I am all for it.

I still don't get how it is a 'smear' for a newspaper to report that a party which hasn't finished in the top two in a general election since women got the vote might be offered some senior jobs in government. I'd have thought that was more a compliment than a smear.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

How not to beat Ken

The Tory campaign against Ken Livingstone ahead of next year's mayoral election has been stunningly inept. They haven't got a candidate, and have been making sure that the process of finding one is as drawn out and humiliating as possible. They seem to want to fight the election on the issues of scrapping free bus travel for pensioners and young people. And now they've voted in the House of Lords to try to limit the number of terms the Mayor of London can serve - preventing Ken from standing.

This plan wouldn't be so bad if it had the slightest chance of working (abolishing the GLA may have made Ken very popular, but at least they managed to pass it under Maggie Thatcher), but it will obviously be thrown out by the House of Commons. The plan of trying to stop Ken via what is seen as an undemocratic stitchup hasn't been awfully successful in the past when tried by a variety of his opponents.

Bit of bad planning to try this stunt the day after David Cameron announced that he believed in devolving power, localism and more elected mayors. For some reason he didn't mention the bit about the Tory plan for the Lords to have a veto on any candidates who the Tories hate but can't beat.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Save Dave and the return of the rope

To help try to Save Dave, the Tories are having a discussion about the news that they are seen as much more right-wing than their leader. One Tory chose to challenge this stereotype by sharing one of his canvassing anecdotes:

"When I used to canvass for the party the standard routine was 'I'm calling on behalf of X your Conservative candidate. May we count on your support?' 'Yes', 'No' and 'I'll have to ask my husband' were the commonest responses. Has it really changed that much?

Exceptionally, I do recall once calling on a man who said 'I usually vote Conservative but I couldn't support your last candidate because he backed the return of capital punishment'
I had just handed him a copy of the flyer with the new candidate's picture on the front and I remembered with horror that on the back was a spiel in which he demanded the return of the rope.

I said 'I'm so sorry sir but I've got to hang onto that leaflet as it's my very last one' Fortunately, he handed it back without question, so hopefully we held onto that vote."

Phew! So if being right-wing isn't the reason why people stopped voting Tory (apart from the odd exceptional case who didn't want the return of the rope), what is?

"Putting aside the tree-hugging minority, younger professional people are like everybody else. They vote for the party which will put more money in their pockets. We lost their vote through economic incompetence. Sad but true."

Our Ancient Liberties

Chris Atkins, author of a book (and also film) called 'Taking Liberties', wrote in the Daily Mail that "our civil liberties, enshrined in British law since the Magna Carta, are being whittled away".

I lose sympathy for arguments about civil liberties whenever I hear the phrase 'ancient liberties' or 'the Magna Carta'.

This assault on our ancient liberties has been going on for a long time. Clause 26 of the Magna Carta was repealed in 1829. There are just three clauses still in force in English law. All the others were repealed by, erm, 1969. Here are some of our ancient liberties which have been lost, from here:

(6) Heirs may be given in marriage, but not to someone of lower social standing. Before a marriage takes place, it shall be' made known to the heir's next-of-kin.

(10) If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age, irrespective of whom he holds his lands. If such a debt falls into the hands of the Crown, it will take nothing except the principal sum specified in the bond.

(21) Earls and barons shall be fined only by their equals, and in proportion to the gravity of their offence.

(23) No town or person shall be forced to build bridges over rivers except those with an ancient obligation to do so.

(44) People who live outside the forest need not in future appear before the royal justices of the forest in answer to general summonses, unless they are actually involved in proceedings or are sureties for someone who has been seized for a forest offence.

(47) All forests that have been created in our reign shall at once be disafforested. River-banks that have been enclosed in our reign shall be treated similarly.

(48) All evil customs relating to forests and warrens, foresters, warreners, sheriffs and their servants, or river-banks and their wardens, are at once to be investigated in every county by twelve sworn knights of the county, and within forty days of their enquiry the evil customs are to be abolished completely and irrevocably. But we, or our chief justice if we are not in England, are first to be informed.

(54) No one shall be arrested or imprisoned on the appeal of a woman for the death of any person except her husband.

(57) In cases where a Welshman was deprived or dispossessed of anything, without the lawful judgement of his equals, by our father King Henry or our brother King Richard, and it remains in our hands or is held by others under our warranty, we shall have respite for the period commonly allowed to Crusaders, unless a lawsuit had been begun, or an enquiry had been made at our order, before we took the Cross as a Crusader. But on our return from the Crusade, or if we abandon it, we will at once do full justice according to the laws of Wales and the said regions.

Now Mr Atkins or his friends might well argue that none of the above are relevant to the modern world, whatever their importance in the 13th century. Fine, so why try to drag rhetorical phrases such as 'our ancient liberties' into the debate, particularly when everyone knows that until recently most liberties were the preserve of a small elite, and many of the rights and liberties that we believe are essential today were denied?

The Magna Carta granted all sorts of rights which are not relevant today, and others which are actively pernicious. Particular rights and liberties need to be argued for on their merits and relevance to our modern society, not because they are 'ancient'.

Think Family and the feral media

The Daily Telegraph has a story headlined 'The four factors in a life of crime'. It is a nasty and distorted piece. Here's why.

Hilary Armstrong's department launched a new strategy today called 'Think Family', which is about redesigning public services to help the 140,000 most deprived families in Britain. The main development in this report is that it recognises that to reduce severe poverty amongst children involves helping adult members of the family. While the government's focus on reducing child poverty is largely welcome, it sometimes doesn't acknowledge that child poverty can't be tackled without tackling family poverty - there are no rich children in poor families. A strategy which looks at things like how to extend what works in Every Child Matters to adult services may not make for exciting headlines, but is useful nonetheless.

The feral media have got a different slant on this story. According to the Daily Telegraph, the government is claiming that 'Children with black mothers are more likely to be involved in crime than their friends who have white or Asian mothers', and that the top four factors which predict whether a child would be expelled from school, develop a drink problem and get into trouble with the police are 'living in council accommodation, a lack of English in the home, being born to a single mother and being born in a home where "the mother's ethnicity is black".' Let's look at this a bit more.

Looking at pages 10 and 11 of the report, they have got their headlines by equating 'five or more family disadvantages' with 'involved in crime', and the table about which groups of people are most likely to have five or more family disadvantages. 2% of the general population have five or more family disadvantages. 6.8% of social tenants do, 6.7% of families where mother's main language is not English, 5.4% lone parent families and 4.5% mother's ethnicity black.

As for children who suffer five or more family disadvantages, 10.2% had been in trouble with the police in the past year. 21.4% had been bullied in a frightening or upsetting way in the past year, and 33% had strong worries about being mugged or were afraid to walk alone after dark. (All much higher than amongst children with fewer family disadvantages).

When the Daily Telegraph refers to the 'four factors in a life of crime', what it doesn't say is that over 93% of social tenants and families where English isn't the first language don't fall into this category, and over 95% of families where the mother's ethnicity is black. And nor does it explain that by 'life of crime' it means people who are between two or three times as likely to be victims of crime and anti-social behaviour as to have been in trouble with the police, nor that nearly 90% of children in these disadvantaged families had not been in trouble with the police in the past year.

There are significant weaknesses in the Cabinet Office's approach. Its assumption that life is getting better for all but a tiny minority of disadvantaged families isn't right, and it tends to prioritise narrowly targeted reforms to public services aimed at changing the behaviour of people who suffer from social exclusion, rather than identifying the changes which would help both the people suffering most disadvantage and the 1 in 5 people who are living in poverty in the UK today. There, for example, is very little said in this report about poverty as a cause of disadvantage, and nothing about inequality. But to do what the Daily Telegraph has done and spin it as suggesting that the children who face the most disadvantage are criminals and twist the facts to attack lone parents and black mothers is vile.

Friday, June 15, 2007

housing priorities

When the crisis in housing gets discussed, one thing that is often said is that everyone agrees that we need to build lots more affordable housing.

This may be true in the abstract, but it rarely survives any actual proposals.

For example, there are thousands of people in temporary accommodation in Oxford, and many more who find that prices are way beyond what they could possibly afford.

Proposals to expand the city by building on the Green Belt (on a piece of wasteland) have met ferocious resistance from well resourced lobby groups. It is wrong to try to expand the city, people say, when it is possible to build on sites within the city.

So there has been a proposal to investigate whether to build on some allotment sites, maybe, in 2016 or afterwards. Building on allotment sites is not ideal, but the council owns the land, so it is more feasible than some options. And it is only a proposal to investigate, and not for ten years, so people have plenty of time to find alternative sites for allotments.

And the response? Mark Lynas, secretary of the Upper Wolvercote Allotment Association and long term campaigner for leftie causes such as human rights and environmental sustainability:

"These new housing plans spell disaster for what little green space is still left in Oxford.

"We will fight tooth and nail to stop our allotments in Wolvercote being concreted over, but we will also work with other communities to make sure no-one else has to lose out as a result."

When even active lefties speak about new housing plans exclusively in terms of areas being 'concreted over' and fighting tooth and nail to make sure no-one has to lose out (as if no one gains from new housing, or that their needs might be worth considering), it's fair to say that the consensus about the need for new housing is more myth than reality.

It's always possible to find reasons to oppose any particular housing development - we mustn't build on the Green Belt, it is better inside the city; and then, if you try and build in the city we shall fight it tooth and nail. At the very least, fair reporting should involve equal prominence being given to the people who would benefit from new housing, as well as the people who would lose out. It's about priorities and choices. For me, local allotments are important, more important than scrubland which happens to be located in the Green Belt, but less important than building affordable homes for people in housing need. I can understand other people valueing allotments more highly. But we'll never get anywhere near tackling the housing shortage if we only hear from the people for whom new housing is a threat, rather than the fulfilment of what should be a basic right.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

As sure as maggots will become flies

The Daily Mirror is a wonderful newspaper. Every day, there is at least a page dedicated to slagging off the Tories, and David Cameron in particular. Essential reading on the number 82 bus going to work every day.

But much as I like any attacks on the Tories, no matter how over the top or unfair, I did think that the recent sneering at Cameron for referring to Demosthenes was a bit feeble.

'How out of touch David Cameron is', jeered people who are so down with the kidz that they were, um, watching Prime Minister's Question Time live. 'After all, who has ever heard of Demosthenes', they asked, before going back to debate for hours the merits of Jon Cruddas or Alan Johnson - neither of whom are significantly better known to the wider public than Demosthenes (who at least has a distinctive dress sense).

It's a crude piece of anti-intellectualism, when in fact finding out about Demosthenes is a) not difficult and b) interesting for anyone who is already interested in politics or history.

When insulting Tories, we should keep to a higher standard. For example, the incomparable Brian Reade:

"You change as you get older. Your eyes linger on Sunday supplements advertising elasticated-waist slacks, cruises and 'comfy' shoes. You start to fancy the grandmas as well as the mums when you pick your kids up from nursery.

And most worryingly of all, you question long held views. Maybe we should hang killers, maybe our MPs should swear allegiance to Prince Edward's offspring, maybe that Radio 2 banter between Ken Bruce and Terry Wogan IS funny.

Which is why I am grateful to hear that Katie Hopkins, the fridge-hearted, equine-headed troll from the Apprentice, who takes such delight in wrecking families and calling Northerners oiks, has one driving ambition in life. To become a Conservative MP.

Some things in life are certain. As sure as maggots will become flies, Tories will always turn out to be bastards."

growth is good

Via Dr David Wall, principle male speaker of the Green Party, I found a website called 'Green the health service'.

It mentions, amongst other things, the disgusting lack of investing in caring for elderly people. This prompts aquestion - not a rhetorical one or one intended just to score partisan points.

The Green Party calls for lots and lots more funding for the health service from the public sector, and certainly not any private sector involvement. They also have a policy of opposing economic growth, because economic growth is unsustainable and pro-growth policies contribute unacceptably to climate change. (These are both summaries, but fair ones, right?)

The problem is that these two policies clash in fairly drastic ways. In the short term, it is possible to find lots more money for the health service, whether it be by scrapping Trident, not building roads, halting airport expansions, taxing polluters more heavily or whatever. It would also be possible to reallocate funds within the current health service budget to spend less on management consultants and more on care for the elderly, say. Of course, there are also other things that they would like to spend money on, but leave that to one side for the moment.

Of all the public services, the health service is probably the one where the year-on-year costs inevitably increase, even without providing any new services. The cost of new drugs, the need to care for an ageing population, the need to build new hospitals with the latest facilities (while obviously never ever closing any existing hospitals, no matter how outmoded they may be).

But no growth in the economy means no more money to pay for any of these things. The one-off savings help a bit, but in the medium term the consequences are a healthcare system which is increasingly underfunded. Even the Tories never tried year on year with no growth of health spending at all, and eighteen years of Thatcher and Major left nurses on the breadline, decrepit hospitals, vast health inequalities and lengthy waiting times for operations.

So what I'm wondering is which way the Greens would go when it came to the clash. Is the priority to stick to no growth policies and prioritise sustainability, even if it means big real terms cuts in public spending and the welfare state? Or, to put it another way, even if it means continuing and increasing the disgusting lack of care for elderly people?

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Harriet Harman vs the politics of envy

Danny Finkelstein highlights an article criticising Harriet Harman's 'attack on the rich'. If you remember, Harman made the perfectly reasonable point that equality of opportunity is a bit tricky while some people have no money and others can spend £10,000 on a handbag.

The author writes, "Now I have to profess to being something of a soft-left, surrender-monkey, bleeding-heart, namby-pamby liberal – but even I think this kind of rhetoric against the rich is ridiculous."

[It is always a very bad sign when an article includes a sentence with most or all of the words 'I' 'left' 'liberal' 'but even I' c.f. also Nick Cohen, passim]

"Oh, I forgot, it’s not OK to tell poor people how they spend their cash. But we can get all moral about the wasteful rich."

[Indeed not. No one, after all, would use a term like, say, 'chav' to imply disapproval of how poor people choose to spend their money. Telling poor people how they should spend their cash is practically a national obsession.]

"Suggesting that rich people, heaven forbid, actually spending their money is wrong is pathetic."

Which is, of course, not what Harman said.

I'll skip the rest of the piece (an ad hominem attack along the lines of 'you say that you are left-wing but you wear shoes - what a hypocrite, eh?), and the comments explaining how giving vast wealth to the rich trickles down and helps all of us. What is interesting is that critics of what Harman said, obviously don't feel confident about debating the actual point about the effects of inequality.

They could argue that it is jolly good that some people spend £10,000 or more on consumer items, because it gives the rest of us something to work hard and aspire to (I think this is Hazel Blears' argument). Or that rich people already pay quite enough (the author does argue this, but only to point out that it is 'distasteful' to criticise how they spend their money) though the corollary to this is that we should cut taxes for wealthy people, which is John Redwood's idea but one which for some reason moderate people feel uncomfortable about advocating. So why pretend that Harriet Harman hates the rich when she makes a mild point about the effect of inequality?

It always struck me as really weird that there is a consensus that Middle England won't tolerate the 'politics of envy' (that doesn't chime at all with my experience of 'Middle England' voters). It is getting increasingly noticeable that the massive growth in wealth and power amongst the highest earners is having a knock on effect on others - City bonuses help fuel house price inflation, tax avoidance amongst the very wealthy mean that most people have to pay more tax for public services. At the same time, it is getting harder to argue that we should be envious of the trade unions, the loony left, scroungers or the other traditional targets. You would have to be a pretty determined ideologue to think that the cause of people not being able to buy their own homes were evil trade union militants or loony left councils, for example. Just about the only alternative reasonable target for the politics of envy are immigrants (and much of Middle England has benefited directly from recent immigration).

It is a moderate and reasonable position, backed up by masses of evidence, that we need to reduce the gap between the wealthiest and poorest, and that this gap is a major cause of ongoing disadvantage. Even some of the people who have done best out of the growing inequality are struck by the consequences, hence KPMG lauding the consequences of higher wages for low paid staff. But others are determined to fight on, and their rallying cry is to smear others for promoting the 'politics of envy', even as they try to arouse envious criticism of people less well off than themselves, and in particular to blame people's behaviour for the poverty that they face.

It's not a sign of hating the rich to say that instead of some people spending £10,000 on a handbag while many children go to school without having had any breakfast; those people should have the disposable cash to spend £9,000 on a handbag, and every child start the school day having had a proper breakfast so they can concentrate on lesson. As more and more people feel the impact of inequality, the old jibes from the 1980's lose their potency.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007


This is a great analysis of Tony Blair's speech about the mee-ja (though not as amusing as Simon Kellner's claim that Independent readers are able to understand the difference between news and views). The conclusion is particularly good :

"So meet the next generation of politician.

The one who’s relaxed about their sex life being gossiped about because they know no-one cares really. The one who builds their career through building in depth relationships with narrowband audiences and who never stops communicating directly with them, who realises that authenticity is the key to trust. (Oh, and who has the resources to spend time building relationships- let's not forget that this means legions of communications staff)

The one who is canny enough to use their knowledge of real issues to connect with what remains of the mass audience. The one who is able to keep utterly focussed on the concerns of the coalition of voters behind them and knows that by communicating directly to them they can regards the daily ebb and flow of the no longer mass media with rather greater detachment- and therefore is less obsessed by the teeming multitudes in the lobby.

The one who doesn’t try to set up a plastic outer shell to protect their real selves from the media.

Funnily enough, against this standard it’s the media obsessed, soundbite focussed, image manipulating, mass media, political editor courting David Cameron who’s the analogue politician in a digital age."

The power of the anecdote

David Aaronovitch understands well the power of the anecdote. He wonders why it was that even by the age of three, children from middle-class families had a much higher level of educational attainment than children from disadvantaged families. Then he heard about a mother whose son was in his daughter's class say that her son couldn't concentrate on reading in the evenings, when really it was because she let him drink Coke in the morning. All became clear, lack of educational attainment is the fault of the parents.

"Babies need to be talked to, toddlers need to be read to, children need to be considered. Kids need to be fed decent food. Except in instances of dire poverty, money itself is rarely the explanation as to why these things don’t happen...There are too many families who don’t have books in the house, who don’t limit TV watching, who don’t set boundaries, who don't set their children an example. There are too many families who don’t or can’t care that much about their very young children. Maybe they don’t care because they weren’t cared about. Perhaps such cultural poverty is as much a cause of actual poverty as a consequence," he writes.

Being grateful for small mercies, at least he didn't go on to castigate unmarried mothers who only have children so they could get a council house. For all that it sounds so understanding ("maybe they don't care because they weren't cared about"), it is an argument of pure prejudice, as so many arguments built on anecdotes are. To say that lack of money isn't the problem just shows that he has never tried shopping for 'decent food' for children while on benefit, or tried to find enough time to spend with the children while working long hours in low paid employment.

The last paragraph mentions how this 'illustrates the case for early intervention'. He threatens that this requires another column of its own. But early intervention can mean very different things. At its most effective, it is about offering more opportunities and support to parents - the chance to talk about how it's going looking after a small baby with someone who understands and can offer practical tips and advice or the chance to have a break sometimes and know that their kids are somewhere safe and having fun. This support is ones which new parents who have disposable income and a supportive network of friends and family often rely on, but which parents with no money and few if any friends or relatives have to manage without. Every parent can benefit from support from the state at some points, and some will need more support than others, just like the NHS or any other high quality, universal public service.

But the other side of early intervention is about identifying parents who are 'bad', and children who are supposedly likely to turn to crime or fail at school, and targeting and punishing them. The government, aided and abetted by the media, can rarely resist spinning new initiatives in this way - from parenting classes to 'baby ASBOs'. The reality never lives up to the hype, and the language alienates the people who might benefit from using the services.

Aaronovitch calls opinion from experts about the causes of educational inequality 'speculation' because it mentions the link to poverty and inequality (there even a joke about how in the old days it would presumably have been explained as a result of genetics). He asks, rhetorically, "If we were to take £10,000 a year from the wealthy and simply give it to the families of the most “backward” of these children, would we expect a dramatic change in their vocabularies at 3?" (If he's interested, the answer is probably yes, and it sounds like an excellent research project).

If you believe that educational attainment is just the result of good and bad parenting, then there are all sorts of policy implications. Redistribution of wealth from rich to poor families is a lower priority than spending on narrowly targeted services, there should be more sanctions against symptoms of bad parenting such as letting children eat junk food, and the responsibility lies primarily with the parents for the choices that they make.

In contrast, if this inequality can't reasonably be explained by the idea that rich parents care more about their children, and is instead caused by the inequalities of wealth and power in our society, then giving children an equal chance to develop their knowledge and abilities requires a very different set of policies. It requires a much more equal distribution of wealth and income. It means understanding the pressures on parents, making it cheaper and easier to eat healthily, possible to spend more time with the children (without having to worry about sanctions from government and employers as at present). It requires redesigning public services to fit the needs of all children and their families, and introducing new services to help with the problems that parents identify.

There are parents who are well off and do all they can to ensure that their child flourishes academically, just as there are parents who are not well off and do the same. There are parents, rich and poor, who don't value educational attainment and pass that on to their children. But few parents do as much to increase the gap between those who succeed and those who don't as the ones who say that it's all the fault of the parents.

Good Old Boys #31

Something to brighten your day - a list of the top ten wealthiest businessmen who are in prison.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Good Cause, Bad Idea

One of the most important rules of policy-making, in my opinion, is that ideas which seem to be promoting a good cause deserve as much scrutiny as any other ideas.

From the recommendations of the Power Inquiry (PDF):

5. 70% of the members of the House of Lords should be elected by a 'responsive electoral system' [sic] - and not on a closed party list system - for three electoral terms. To ensure that this part of the legislature is not comprised of career politicians with no experience outside politics, candidates should be at least 40 years old.

That's the problem with politics at the moment, y'know. Too many young people.

Credit to the trade unionist on the Commission who flagged up the challenge to this idea posed by age discrimination legislation, but the overall view of the Commission was that the advantages of an age limit would justify an exemption, because it would tempt people who had been running a business or working in the public sector to try a new career. Quite why they would be excluded from doing this if younger people could also stand for election is not made clear.

Or take the Sustainable Communities Bill.

"The Sustainable Communities Bill will create a more ‘bottom-up’ society in which communities together with their councils are empowered to solve the above problems themselves. Central government will be required by law to provide for the implementation of local sustainability strategies that communities will be invited to draw up themselves together with their councils. Importantly, this new process will be participatory not consultative.

These sustainability strategies will state ways in which community decline is to be reversed and real local sustainability is to be created. This could include measures to promote local shops and services, local jobs and local businesses; measures to reduce social exclusion and increase active citizenship; and environmental measures too. Local people will be able to set targets for these measures, or even introduce new measures and indicators, and these may differ from area to area. There may even be local referenda on issues such as: should the new superstore be built? Politics will be turned upside down as communities are given the power to reverse Ghost Town Britain and decide how the places they govern are developed or conserved, rather than being dictated to by government."

All the buzzwords are present and correct, and over 400 MPs are signed up to support this. It is perhaps not a good sign that there is no concise explanation of what the Bill would do, but that is the least of the problems.

Despite the grandiose claims for what the bill will make possible, the government can reject any aspect of these 'local sustainability strategies' which would cost any money, conflict with national strategies or with other local objectives set by other councils, with no right of appeal or challenge. The bill would establish a structure in which people's expectations would be raised and then dashed. The people behind the campaign seem to intend for it to be used primarily as a campaigning device to prevent Tesco's from opening more supermarkets, but it could equally well be used by local campaigns against new homeless shelters, or legal sites for travellers, or social housing developments. Each of these lobby groups tends to be well resourced and quick to seize on all legal avenues to advance their cause. It also lets local councils off the hook - rather than being accountable for what happens in their area, this process offers them a way of shifting the blame for unpopular decisions about allocating resources to central government.

The bill would also be a charter for mavericks. An amendment to it sought to ensure that 'representatives' of people on low incomes, young people, black and minority ethnic people and so on would be involved before a sustainability strategy could be drawn up. This is intended to prevent the strategies from being dominated by people with time on their hands and people who are already engaged in the political process.

But the point about representatives is that there is a structure for electing them and for holding them accountable. The proposed method of finding 'representatives' set out in the bill's amendment was to advertise on the council's website and in the local newspaper. Essentially, the local sustainability structures would be forums of people who write regularly to the local newspaper, claiming to speak on behalf of other people. The Secretary of State would then have to look at these plans, try to sift the good ideas from the off the wall and malign ones and decide which ones to fund.

If the government had put forward such a badly written and not thought through bill, at least there would have been some proper scrutiny of it. Because it is a private members' bill (something, naturally, that the Power Inquiry wants to see a lot more of), it seems to have mostly escaped even the most basic of scrutiny and has now made it to a Third Reading.

Doing nothing to re-engage people in democratic decision-making is bad enough. But putting forward stupid ideas which claim to do so, while actually increasing cynicism about and undermining the power of representative democracy to do good is much worse.

Vote early, vote often

A round up of some of what I thought were the best arguments on the deputy leadership:

Reasons for voting for Jon Cruddas

"In a section that appealed particularly, he talked about refitting old Labour prescriptions for current circumstances (and anyone who’s read the statistic in the previous paragraph about the rate of change in one London borough in 15 years will understand why the language of “repeal the Thatcherite xyz” doesn’t quite cut it). I’ve never been happy to describe myself as either old or new Labour: I can’t be old because I like equality for women and gays, having a set of policies around childcare and families, and not passing on parliamentary seats from favoured son to favoured son, despite appreciating many of the policies; I can’t be new - well, do I need to explain that one? - despite liking modern communications methods and winning elections.

So Jon Cruddas’ words were welcome. He was careful to make the distinction between old Labour solutions, and the ones that are needed now: “Our policies can’t just be a hangover from old Labour, but a new and vibrant response to a modern problem.” He talked about the trade union freedom bill, which he supports despite its silly name as a good response to the challenges of contracting out and cheap immigrant labour, calling it “an illustration of whether you can render intelligible for a modern world some of the old solutions without just hitting the rewind button”."

Reasons not to vote for Harriet Harman

"We recall her leading the effort, as Secretary of State for Social Security in 1997, to reduce the benefits payable by the State to single mothers – people dependent upon those benefits for a decent quality of life for themselves and their families – at a time when she was herself on a total salary package of over £100,000.

This was a proposal that while in Opposition in 1996 she described as “a disincentive to work, as well as being wrong” (you can hear her saying it on the BBC website at the bottom of this page here). It may be said that she argued against it privately and in Cabinet: this may even be true. If she did argue privately against it, she was not successful and is a well-meaning but crap politician; if she did not, she had clearly forgotten all her Labour values in the struggle for the advancement of her own career."

Reasons not to vote for Hazel Blears or Jon Cruddas (in the comments, not the drivel in the post itself) :

"Cruddas may well be actually left and a bit too hard lefty for my taste - and more importantly when he loses his underdog tag people will start to see his demeanour as a bit thuggish - as that's how he's come accross at the hustings I've been at. I also fear that he may not actually be as totally genuine as people make out - worked at No. 10, voted for the war as a backbencher (worse, from an anti-war perspective which I don't share, than as a member of the government for a whole range of reasons).

I wouldn't support Hazel as whilst I like her organisational message, and her style, and share many of her politics I think this is also a political and symbolic election - and electing somebody who is so apologetic about our leadership to the public is electoral madness. In much the same way as Hain, Harman, and Cruddas would be viewed as an apology for ten years of Blairism, I think Blears has made the mistake of making her election about apologising for Brownism, even without actually saying anything about it - just by her approach. I think that would be electorally embarrassing to have a deputy leader who either sent the message to the public "sorry we've been crap for 10 years" (on which Hazel is absolutely right) but also "Sorry Gordon's not tony, but i'm here so it's ok" which would be just as bad."

I voted Cruddas 1 Benn 2 Johnson 3 Harman 4 Hain 5 Blears 6 on my Labour party ballot.

I might vote the same or put Benn 1 on my Unite ballot - while I want Cruddas to get a good vote to show grassroots support in the Labour Party for the policies he's been advocating, I'm not sure I actually want him to be Deputy Leader (I think he's got the Party chair / internal organisation job sown up even if he doesn't win). Deputy Leader is also about being a public face of the Labour Party, and I think Hilary Benn will be best for that. Anyone want to persuade me either way?

Monday, June 04, 2007

tactical voting in deputy leadership election

There is a chance I have got this horribly wrong, but I think this is a guide to how to vote tactically in the deputy leadership election to give your preferred candidate the best chance:

pregthwr has done some amazing number crunching, and provided a guesstimate of the deputy leadership, based on the recent polls:

Alan Johnson 26.0%
Hilary Benn 20.6%
Harriet Harman 18.0%
Jon Cruddas 15.0%
Peter Hain 13.7%
Hazel Blears 11.4%

Using the 'certain to vote' measure from the polls gives a slightly different result:

Johnson 25.8%
Benn 21.1%
Cruddas 19.5%
Harman 14.1%
Blears 13.6%
Hain 11.7%

So Blears and Hain are out of it, barring a huge swing. Alan Johnson will be benefiting from more transfers from Hazel Blears' supporters than any other candidate in all three colleges, so he'll be in the final two.

After Blears and Hain get eliminated, one out of Cruddas and Harman will get eliminated, depending on who ends up third and fourth on the first ballot and then is more successful with transfers from Blears and Hain (they are about neck and neck on this). It is to their mutual advantage to have a reciprocal deal where their supporters put the other second (so Harman supporters vote Cruddas 2 and Cruddas supporters vote Harman 2), as this is probably the only way of passing Hilary Benn on transfers and getting into the final two, and it does them no harm whatsoever.

By the same token, it is mutually advantageous for Benn, Harman and Cruddas' supporters to put each of them higher then they put Johnson, because they will need huge transfers from the eliminated candidates to overtake Johnson in the final round.


If you want Jon Cruddas to win, vote Cruddas 1, then arrange with a Harman supporter that you will put Harman 2nd if they put Cruddas 2nd. Then arrange with a Benn supporter that you will preference Benn ahead of Johnson if they put Cruddas ahead of Johnson.

If you want Harman to win, same drill except swap round the names above.

If you want Benn to win, vote Benn 1 and then arrange with a Cruddas and Harman supporter to preference them above Johnson in exchange for them doing likewise.

If you want Johnson to win, vote for him and then preference the other candidates in any order you like (though do fill in all the boxes from 1-6).

If you want Blears or Hain to win, bad luck.

I don't think there will be much tactical voting of this kind, so I think AJ is going to win, beating Hilary Benn in the final round. What a stupid voting system.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Good Old Boy/Nasty Old Men #31

One of the joys of 1997 was the crushing defeat of Tories who campaigned on issues such as 'my opponent is homosexual and that is sinful' or 'my opponent is an unmarried mother with bastard children'.

One of the joys of 2007 is that those Tories are happy to pop up and remind everyone that they are still out there. Step forward Tory MP Anthony 'of course the handicapped have got to be given provisions, but not against the interests of the majority' Steen.