Thursday, November 27, 2008

First they came for Damien Green...

Iain Dale writes that 'We don't yet live in a Police State, but one be forgiven on nights like this from wondering if we are headed that way', while commentators on politicalbetting say that Damien Green's arrest reminds them of Niemoeller's famous poem, 'First they came'.

All this days after the government announced an increase in the higher rate of tax, which as one blogger so rightly pointed out, 'is no more moral, and done for the same base reasons as the Soviet murder of the Kulaks'.

But really to comprehend the full horror of life in ZaNu Liebor's Britain, we need a modern version of Niemoeller's poem. After all, it is not communists, trade unionists or Jews who the police have been coming for in recent years, but Tory MPs. So here is an updated version, showing how far our government has been going to in order to silence its opponents:

First they came for Jonathan Aitken, and I didn't speak up, for I had no simple sword of truth.

Then they came for Jeffrey Archer, and I didn't speak up, for I thought his books were crap.

Then they came for Mark Thatcher, and I didn't speak up, for I had never funded a military coup.

Then they came for Andrew Pelling, and I didn't speak up, for I had never assaulted my wife.

And then they came for Damien Green, and I wrote that it showed the government was fascist, for I had an internet connection.

Good Old Boy #78

From here:

'I would even argue that the G8 was quite well-placed to see off the upstart G20 - were it not for one thing. Next year it will be presided over by that one-man wrecking crew, Silvio Berlusconi, the prime minister of Italy.

Berlusconi has a “sense of humour” that makes him a uniquely disastrous chair for international organisations. His presidency of the European Union in 2003 was catastrophic. He caused uproar in the European Parliament by comparing a German politician to a Nazi concentration-camp guard. In an official photo, he made the sign of the cuckold’s horns behind the head of a Spanish minister. He opened a summit designed to discuss the future of Europe by suggesting to his fellow leaders that they discuss women and football instead. Then he turned to the chancellor of Germany, Gerhard Schroeder, and suggested that he should open the discussion since he had been married four times. Amazingly enough, Schroeder did not see the funny side.

Now Berlusconi is warming up for his presidency of the G8 with a few more wisecracks. He has complimented Barack Obama on his tan. Twice.'

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Taxpayers Alliance fact check

Let's play 'fact check the Taxpayers' Alliance'.

They have shocking new "research" out which claims that 'the borrowing plans announced in yesterday's Pre-Budget Report will run up double the debt that Britain incurred winning the First World War.'

Happily, if unwisely, they included their sources and methodology for this. They read one book and looked at one website, which is actually far more extensive research than some of their past efforts. Unfortunately, they either didn't understand the website, or deliberately and dishonestly misrepresented the information it provided.

Their methodology was to adjust for inflation the amount that the government borrowed during the First World War, and compare it to the amount that the government will be borrowing over the next few years. They came up with the figure of £255bn for borrowing during world war one, compared to £512bn for the current crisis.

But the problem is that the website that they used to calculate this figure specifically explains that they've used the wrong comparison. The Measuring Worth website lets you enter an amount from any given year, and then calculate different measures of how much that amount would be worth now. The results vary considerably depending on different measures, particularly over 90 year periods, so it is absolutely crucial to use the correct measure for what you are trying to find out. Happily, they have a guide to explain which measure to use:

"If the amount you are asking about is the construction of a church, the cost of a war, or a new highway, again the context is important. If the question is how much it cost compared to the present cost of materials or labor, you would use the GDP deflator and/or the wage or earning index. However, you may be more interested in how important this project was to the community or the country. In the past there were less amounts of materials and labor available for all projects. So to measure the importance of this project (compares to other projects) use the share of GDP indicator."

To get the figure of £255bn, the Taxpayers' Alliance used the retail price index measure. As an economically valid comparison, this is about as useful as if they'd used a Random Number Generator or just made the number up themselves. It's clear from the explanation above that the most useful comparison is about 'how important this project was to the community or the country', and hence the indicator to use is the share of GDP indicator.

And if you use the measure of GDP indicator, you find that the relative cost of the First World War, in today's money, is £1,939bn, or nearly four times the cost of borrowing planned by the government now. (For what it's worth, if you instead use the GDP deflator or wage or earning index, you get numbers ranging from £311bn to £1,480bn).

It tells you everything that you need to know about the Taxpayers' Alliance that given the choice between cherry picking data and making a dishonest comparison which suited their argument or making an honest comparison based on the facts, they chose the former. Alternatively, if it were a genuine error, it shows that they don't understand the difference between different measures of inflation and other basic economic concepts. Thank goodness for the other Taxpayers' Alliance.

Taking on the system

Mark Perryman has an article on Comment is Free which will have a lot of Guardian readers nodding along. It's about how he had such high hopes for Labour in 1997, but he's been let down by how Labour in government has been hardly any better than the Tories.

Perryman writes that "Blair and Brown have executed a historic defeat of the left. When 2 million people marched against the impending Iraq war in 2003 we thought we were on the verge of stopping it. But we failed, and with that failure came demobilisation. If 2 million couldn't stop this rotten government what could?"

To help answer that question, I highly recommend 'Taking on the System' by Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of the Daily Kos website. It's written for an American audience, but the lessons are generally applicable. Much of the book is about how to use t'internet for campaigning and organising for change, and it is extremely entertaining and well written.

But one of the themes of the book which is very refreshing is that Markos has no problem at all with telling us lefties some harsh but fair home truths. And the traditional leftie demo is one which he points out is not very effective, with its plethora of messages rather than single, disciplined message which everyone sticks to, and the fact that it is often the culmination of a campaign rather than being integrated into a wider strategy of actions. He is even more rude about the leftie pastime of meetings-for-the-sake-of-meetings.

Not all campaigning or organising techniques were which developed in the 1960s are now obsolete, but some are, and the sense of entitlement implicit in the idea that if only you get enough people along to your demo, that is in some way sufficient to achieve change is part of the problem. It's easy to blame every defeat, set back and missed opportunity on our leaders (while taking every achievement for granted), but to help build the progressive future we need to evolve new ways of organising for change and learning from what didn't work, rather than repeating the same old tactics over and over. And that's something all of us lefties can learn to do.

Pre Budget Report

There were some good bits in the Pre Budget report (as well as the pre-announced things, bringing forward increases in child benefits and other benefits from April to January was definitely the right thing to do), and it was a million times better than the increasingly desperate and pathetic "alternative" which the Tories are offering up.

But I think it is no coincidence that one of the features and weaknesses of the Pre Budget Report is that the only people who got a say about what went in it were a small number of clever technocrats. That's one of the reasons why I think it ended up being less good overall than could have been hoped and expected.

It might be that there wasn't actually much else that could have been done economically, but politically the government could have been bolder. One stat from the YouGov survey which highlights this. 60% of people supported the cut in VAT, no surprise that a tax cut benefiting everyone who buys stuff gets majority support. But 72% backed the increase in tax for those earning over £150,000. When there are significantly more people supporting a tax rise than a £12bn tax cut, politicians ought to sit up and take note.

The debate amongst most politicians and journalists seems still to be based on the assumption that eventually things will get back to how they used to be, and the question is how to make this happen in the minimal amount of time and with the minimum amount of bother to people (or in as Andrew Lansley from the Tories might put it, after a period where people get to enjoy the benefits of mass unemployment). Returning to how things used to be shouldn't be what we're aiming for, and would be impossible even if it were. It's like a search for a mixture of the undesirable and the unobtainable.

With the way the economic situation is developing, it is entirely possible that the Budget itself will bear very little relation to what was announced on Monday. But just to give an idea about the scale of the missed opportunity, consider this:

We now know that it would have been possible by 2010 for our government to have halved the number of children living in poverty, just as it promised to do more than a decade earlier, and even despite the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. This would have directly improved the lives of millions, helped the economy, and been as eloquent a statement of Labour's values and priorities as it is possible to imagine.

And instead? This week our leaders chose to cut different taxes, making sure that they'll fail to meet their promise on reducing child poverty, and to give bureaucrats new powers to cut the benefits of lone parents if they don't do what the regulations tell them to.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Simple pleasures

I am enjoying the comments left by Tories in response to the moderate and sensible idea of slightly raising the amount of income tax that will be paid by the top 0.6% highest earners in the UK from 2011 onwards. It's a mixture of fury, hyperbole, greed and fear:

"Now is the time for people earning more than £150k to give to the Tory Party. They should act now or forever hold their peace."

"Will the last person leaving Britain please turn out the lights?"

"We should make the point that increasing the rate of income tax doesn't end up raising extra money"

"This is frankly a disaster for Britain, we are in a timewarp going back to the 70s!
Next Brown will start imposing wage and price controls and stop you leaving the country with anything over about £20 in your pocket!"

"We'll get lumbered with the 'friends of the rich' thing anyway, because it always happens."

"Proposed lines of attack...

e) How then can we ever trust the pinkos again?"

But fair play to the commentator who found the sliver lining in this announcement and reminded fellow Tories of the real enemy:

"It's amazing how gloomy the BBC News presenters are about this - presumably they'll be hit by this higher rate!"

Friday, November 21, 2008

Different kinds of welfare reform

Good on Sir Richard Tilt, head of the social security advisory committee, for making the point that now might not be the best time to introduce a set of welfare reforms which rely on the assumption that there will be a steady increase in the number of jobs available.

The government's response is that "it would be wrong at a time when it may be harder for people to find work to provide them with less help." But Tilt is not suggesting providing people with less help, merely that parents shouldn't be coerced into looking for work by the threat of having their benefits cut. There's no evidence anyway that threatening to cut people's benefits increases the likelihood that they'll find work.

The debate isn't about welfare reform vs status quo, it's about supporting policies which will help people get jobs and reduce poverty vs policies which are motivated by an ideological belief that people who are out of work are lazy and won't take up support unless they are forced to.

The welfare reform green paper was written back in an age where it was widely believed that there were jobs for anyone who wanted them, and that a multi-billion pound market needed to be created in services which helped people get jobs, because competitive markets enabled greater innovation and delivered better outcomes than state intervention. (It may sound strange, but back then people really did believe that).

Now, obviously, our government has concluded that this approach doesn't work when it comes to the economy. To help the economy, we need state intervention, up front spending which helps our economy grow and workers to become more productive, and to put more money in the pockets of low income earners who will spend it.

So here's a proposal for some genuinely radical welfare reform, which is guaranteed to increase the number of parents who work. The government could make sure that every parent who is working or training is able to get heavily subsidised, good quality childcare, at a price they can afford and at whatever times they need it. And to help recruit the thousands of extra childcare workers that would be needed, it could make sure that every childcare worker earns a living wage.

The upfront cost would be several billion pounds, but it would create lots of new, good quality jobs which are desperately needed, increase productivity for existing workers and dismantle a major barrier which stops people from working. And as well as creating new jobs and stimulating the economy, it would help to reduce child and family poverty dramatically.

Lessons from America

James Forsyth has an article in the Spectator about a problem which the Tories face:

"The British Right has not developed a proper ideas infrastructure in recent years. It has made up for this by borrowing heavily from America. For instance, the Tory social justice agenda was largely inspired by George W. Bush’s Texas governorship. In the 2005 leadership race, David Davis and David Cameron were, in policy terms, running to be the heir to Bush — albeit the inclusive governor not the divisive president — rather than the heir to Blair. Indeed, there are few areas of Tory policy where you cannot see an American influence. Their welfare reform agenda owes much to Wisconsin, their policing reform agenda to Giuliani’s experience in New York, and the success of Mike Bloomberg’s schools policy is an underappreciated element of Tory thinking on education."

In other words, the Conservative Party believes that the way to solve Britain's problems is to introduce into Britain the policies of George W. Bush's Republican Party. I think more people ought to know about this.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Child protection is everyone's business

There was an article in the Daily Herald a couple of years ago after a couple of shocking and tragic cases where young children died - one, five years old, was beaten, thrown down a flight of stairs, then left to die alone in her bedroom. The other, two years old, was found dead in his bed after drinking methadone that belonged to his registered drug-addict parents. The article asked various people what needed to change to stop these tragedies from happening in the future. What Maggie Mellon, from the charity Children 1st, said was this:

"It is quite clear from all of these recent cases that social work or agencies alone in that way are not going to be able to fully protect children in the community, " she said. "People will think the authorities will deal with it - we are saying that child protection is everybody's business."

I understand why so many people are saying that 'heads must roll' in Haringey Council's social services department after the unimaginably horrific death of Baby P, but I don't agree. There is always an urge to try and make sense in this sort of situation by identifying someone whose fault was responsible, and against whom action can be taken in order to make sure nothing like this happens ever again.

Lots of people, for example, have said that Sharon Shoesmith, Director of Children's and Young People's Services in Haringey, ought to resign - she's in charge, so she is to blame. But here's what 68 headteachers have to say about her work:

“Should the Child P case result in her loss from the borough, then our children and young people will lose one of their most effective, determined and committed champions.”

“Initially, in her role of director of education, Shoesmith transformed a demoralised education service, derided by many headteachers, into one with which we are now proud to be associated.

“The exceptional rate of improvement of many of the borough’s schools would not have been possible without the support of the service that Ms Shoesmith rebuilt, revitalised and led.

“Since more recently becoming the director of Haringey’s Children and Young People’s Service, Shoesmith has continued to work relentlessly and with a determination that the service she leads and develops ensures best practice in providing education, care, support and protection for all of our young people.”

There's no reason why these headteachers, the people who work with her and know her work, would choose this time to defend her publicly if they didn't sincerely believe it (and the exceptional rate of improvement is confirmed by independent stats). The logic that Haringey Council is uniquely bad and therefore the solution is to sack a very able senior officer with an 'exceptional' track record of transforming poorly performing services...that doesn't sound to me like it is likely to help safeguard vulnerable children.

Neither senior directors nor structures or procedures aren't enough to protect children if the professionals, whether social workers or paediatricians, aren't doing their job properly. (Though, as an aside about the current structures, it is pretty pathetic when a Labour MP who voted for the 2004 Children Act writes this kind of ill-informed drivel which makes it abundantly clear that he doesn't have even the most basic knowledge of the system which he helped put in place or how little flexibility there is for individuals in the current system).

The effect of a lot of the coverage over the past week will be to make matters worse, rather than better, in the future. 12% of social work posts across the country are currently unfilled, and many more jobs are being done by people who have unmanageable caseloads or are having to deal with problems that their training and competencies haven't adequately prepared them for. This is even before days of sustained vilification in some of the best-selling newspapers, which is unlikely to bring in many more recruits. There are plenty of Sun readers, for example, who would make brilliant social workers, but who are even less likely now to contemplate it as a career.

One thing which I hope the review and/or the government will look at is about what is needed in order to persuade more and better suited people to consider social work and other kinds of child protection work as a career in the future - and that the newspapers who have written articles about how what happened to baby P must never happen again think about how they can play a part in encouraging more good people to become social workers, and educate their readers about ways that they can play their part in safeguarding children.

I'll finish this by quoting from an e-mail I got sent from a friend:

'Do we sack the directors of hospitals when doctors are unable to save someone who refused to take their medicines? Of course not.

Last night there was a murder, the first for years, on Broadwater Farm. Do we demand the sacking of the Borough Commander or the local bobby? Of course not.

We recognize there are limits to the power of State agency to prevent outcomes: we recognize, in the power government has, the asymmetry between the good it can do and the evil it can prevent.
Above all, ironically, I would expect Tories to recognize this.

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing": but we need to remember that this means that actually fighting evil is much, much harder than simply being good, and the standards we should apply to the success or otherwise of those who fight evil should reflect the complexity and challenge of the task they are seeking to perform. One baby has died, horribly and revoltingly at the hands of some extremely unpleasant and disturbed human beings. But numbers we cannot estimate have been saved.'

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Compulsory canvassing for special advisers

Hazel Blears has been making speeches about the need for 'democratic renewal', and expanding the number of people who get involved in politics who are not 'career politicians'. I thought I'd offer one modest observation which might assist.

As an ambitious young man with political ambitions who'd just left university, Barack Obama decided to take up a job working with people who were marginalised and disengaged from party politics. My idea is that we should make it more enticing for people who have political ambitions in Britain to do similar kinds of jobs.

At the moment, as Blears notes, it is possible to have a career in politics where every job involves talking and working almost exclusively with other people who are politically active. Think tanks, working for MPs, non-government pressure groups all offer well paid, flexible and agreeable jobs which are worthwhile and rewarding, and help people develop their political careers through networking etc. Being a lawyer (like Hazel Blears and many other MPs) offers many of the same benefits, as do a few other professions. There is also a clear career progression which runs something like doing student politics > working for an MP > councillor > working for a lobby group/think tank > special adviser > MP.

I don't disapprove of any of this, but one important omission is that there is a real shortage of jobs (and career development opportunities) which are about democratic renewal, organising in communities, running local campaigns, getting people involved in the democratic process, recruiting volunteers to campaign politically, training community leaders and other activities which involve working, living and socialising with people who aren't already politically engaged. Here, for example, is what the Industrial Areas Foundation in the USA does.

One particular advantage of this is that the job opportunities that are currently available for politically interested people are overwhelmingly aimed at university graduates, whereas grassroots organising jobs wouldn't necessarily be (being able to speak one or more community languages, for example, might well be a greater advantage than having a politics degree).

In addition, over time the creation of a sizeable community organising sector would have other positive benefits. After the first few times when special advisers, think tankers or lawyers backed by the Great and the Good get absolutely destroyed in selection meetings by people who are active in their local communities with skillz in campaigning, recruiting people and mobilising volunteers, word would get round that this kind of experience is vital for wannabe politicians - exactly as it should be.

Because there is nothing wrong with being a politician, and the idea that things would be better if we had more representatives who had so-called 'real world experience' but no political skills is daft - all that would happen is that their officials and the other politicians would run rings round them and they would be figureheads. But political skills, particularly for lefties, aren't just about knowing the right people in Westminster, understanding the current political system or putting together an interesting pamphlet, but about having experience and the skills to inspire, mobilise and organise people who are marginalised or excluded and empower them to campaign for change. And I rather suspect (though would be happy to be proved wrong) that there is hardly anyone working at the Department of Communities and Local Government or who is a special adviser to any department who has those skills.

So my idea is this. We freeze at current levels the number of people who are employed across the progressive movement whose job it is to talk to other members of the current or future political elite, and our MPs, unions, think tanks, NGOs and the Labour Party itself dedicates itself to raising money, hiring and training a whole new generation of people whose job it will be to talk to and work with people who aren't currently engaged or interested in politics. And, who knows, that way we might even get our very own Barack Obama.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The highest income electorate in history?

Mark Penn, writing in Politico, argues that it was the support of higher income voters that was key to Obama's success:

"The exit poll demographics show that the fastest growing group of voters in America has been those making over $100,000 a year in income. In 1996, only 9 percent of the electorate said their family income was that high. Last week it had grown to 26 percent — more than one in four voters. And those making over $75,000 are up to 15 percent from 9 percent. Put another way, more than 40 percent of those voting earned over $75,000, making this the highest-income electorate in history. The poorest segment of the electorate, those making under $15,000, has shrunk from 11 percent to 6 percent over the past dozen years. And those making $15,000 to $30,000 annually — the working poor — also shrunk from 23 percent to 12 percent of the electorate."

Now if that was true, it would have a number of important policy implications, and President Obama would need to make a priority of retaining the support of the 'fastest growing group of voters', even if in doing so he upset the 'shrinking' number of lower income voters, if he wanted to be re-elected.

But the problem is that Penn's argument relies on the curious idea that $100,000 has the same purchasing power in 2008 as it did in 1996. The table below gives an idea of how wrong that is:

CPI (Dec) Value of $100,000
1996 100,000
1997 1.7% 98,300
1998 1.6% 96,727
1999 2.7% 94,116
2000 3.4% 90,916
2001 1.6% 89,461
2002 2.4% 87,314
2003 1.9% 85,655
2004 3.3% 82,828
2005 3.4% 80,012
2006 2.5% 78,012
2007 4.1% 74,813
2008 4.9% 71,148
2008 is Sept Figure

Here are the exit polls for 2008 and 1996.

Penn argues that 'over 40%' of voters in 2008 earned over $75,000, compared to just 9% in 1996. But if you adjust for inflation, the 15% earning $50,000-$75,000 2008 dollars earn between $35,574 and $53,361 1996 dollars. And the 14% earning $100,000- $150,000 2008 dollars earn between $71,148-$106,721 1996 dollars.

So rather than the proportion of voters earning $75,000 plus going from 9% to 'over 40%' it has gone from 9% to 12%.

And the working poor? In 1996, 23% of voters earned between $15,000 and $30,000. Adjust for inflation, and that is about $21,000-$42,000 in 2008. About 21% of voters earned between those amounts. About 11% earned less than $15,000 in 1996, and about 10% earned less than $21,000 in 2008.

It's worth remembering that the analysis of election trends is not only Penn's job, but also what he claims to be an expert in. Normally, if you find an expert twisting the facts to serve the cause of the wealthy, you'd assume they were doing it cynically and deliberately. However, with Penn's track record, it might just be that he's got no more of a clue about inflation then he did about how to win elections when he was Hilary Clinton's chief strategist.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Good Old Boy #77

By reader's request, the man who tried to pay a bill with a picture of a spider, and when refused, tried again with a picture of a different spider can be found here.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Good Old Boy #76

Hahahahaha. How on earth did we win that?

Congratulations to Lindsay Roy, Labour MP for Glenrothes, and to all the miracle workers in our campaign team.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Early voting

We should definitely have early voting in British elections - it is much more convenient and less hassle and problematic than requiring people to vote by post or turn up on the day.

For example, the Glenrothes by-election may end up being decided by the fact that it has been raining ever since people have been getting home from work.

A schmaltzy election story

Got back to London this morning and am still a bit jet lagged (is it the morning? the afternoon? why is it so drak and cold?)

I was going to try to mention all the people I went campaigning with over the last week, people of all ages and from all walks of life, veteran campaigners and those who had never done it before alike, a true cross-section of America. But they know who they are and what they and millions like them achieved on Tuesday. So here's just one schmaltzy story from an unforgettable election campaign:

The weekend before election day, there were quite literally queues of people who had come to volunteer for the campaign. On that day and for most of the week running up to the election, I was taking groups of people who were campaigning for the first time, and explaining about how to do it. Then we were going canvassing door to door, checking whether people had voted early and giving information about voting to those who hadn't, or who were out.

Each campaigning session lasted about two and a half to three hours, which is quite gruelling even for experienced campaigners, let alone first timers. But the response from the people we spoke to was really good, and the people I campaigned with were fired up and excited about making a difference.

About 3pm, we set off for our third session of the day. There were four of us, including one other Brit, one student called Kevin who had been out canvassing with us for the first time that morning, and an older gentleman called Melvin, who had just turned up at the office and announced that he wanted to 'volunteer for Obama'. We were canvassing apartment blocks in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina.

I explained what we'd be doing, and Melvin looked troubled. "Uh, uh," he said, shaking his head. "I ain't gonna talk to no strangers".

Not ideal for canvassing, but plenty of people are nervous when they hadn't done it before, so Melvin and Kevin went round and did a couple of blocks together, so he could get to see what it was like.

And sure enough, about an hour later, Melvin was knocking on doors and talking to people on his own...and he was great at it, strangers or no strangers. Over the course of three hours, we handed out information to more than 500 households, talked to over 100 people, and Melvin was a superstar - at one stage he did a whole apartment block in the time it took me to have a conversation with just one voter.

We got back to the campaign office, which was being run by organisers from the health workers' union. And as we handed over our tally sheets, I heard them say the words that you never want to hear just after finishing a three hour canvassing session:

"Hi guys, great to see you. We've just got one more little area to do - and just need one person to go and help finish it off. Any volunteers?"

By this time, it was completely dark, it had started to rain heavily, and we'd been going up and down stairs and driveways for hours and hours. Everyone's got their limit, and I'd just reached mine, and I was sure the others felt the same. I was just trying to come up with a suitable excuse when...

"Sure," said Melvin, "I'll go."

Off he went into the pouring rain with another activist, to go talk to a few more people and make sure they went and voted on Tuesday.

And that was the last we saw of him until the next day, when he arrived again at the campaign office to volunteer.