Thursday, January 29, 2009

Green shoots of sanity

Irwin Stelzer, who is a right-wing American and is friends with Rupert Murdoch, has written an article in praise of some aspects of the government's social policy. He singles out James Purnell for welfare reform, Alan Johnson for introducing individualised budgeting for social care, and Ed Balls for criticising the so-called 'excuses culture' that poverty causes poor educational performance.

Stelzer calls this the 'green shoots' that 'sounds almost like a call to shrink the role of the state in the daily lives of its citizens', but warns that there are still problems with high taxes, government bureaucrats and trade unions.

I was reading this, and thinking that even as little as a couple of years ago, it would be worth engaging with this - critiquing the idea that Purnell's welfare reforms will 'shrink the role of the state in the lives of its citizens', discussing how individualised social care budgets have to be combined with collective provision to maximise choice, and despairing at the sight of wealthy and privileged people lecturing poor children that they have only themselves to blame if they don't get on and succeed.

But reading this in 2009, Stelzer's arguments aren't just wrong, they are totally out of touch with the real experiences of most people. No one with any experience of the real world thinks that the only reason people are unemployed is because they are lazy; everyone knows that market-based systems can and do produce sub-optimal outcomes; and no one can credibly claim that poverty doesn't make it harder for children to do well at school.

It's no surprise that Stelzer is out of touch, or that his policy prescriptions are ones which would seem ridiculous to most people. He is a rich man speaking up for policies which would benefit other rich men, and it almost goes without saying that neither he nor any of his friends or acquaintances have experience of Britain's welfare system, NHS or schools.

Purnell, Balls and Johnson will probably be pleased to receive praise from Stelzer. But he's an emissary of the old kind of politics, still pushing policies which have been tried and failed. We'll know that the 'green shoots of sanity' are coming through when people like this find their ideas greeted with the obscurity they deserve.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Knock, knock

Hopi Sen has an excellent post on how Labour's strategy needs to change to have a chance at the next election. He argues that:

"Given that third term entropy means that some Labour voters will be attracted to the Conservatives and the Conservative vote will be motivated to turn out, we have to do three things.

First, we have to turn out Labour identifying voters in unheard of numbers.

Second, we have to attract occasional Labour voters. Those who have on occasion voted Lib Dem are a vital target.

Finally we have to focus relentlessly on the current undecided voters, making it abundantly clear to them what the choice that lies before them is.

...I think the priority must be a relentless under the radar focus on the difference a Labour government makes to communities up and down the country, and the spelling out, in human terms of what is at risk from a Conservative government...It is a message that can only be got out voter by voter, door by door, church hall by church hall."

In essence, this is a modified and improved version of the Ken Livingstone strategy, as of 2008. Ken's Mayoral campaign certainly boosted the Labour share of the vote and attracted occasional Labour voters, including many who voted Lib Dem in 2005.

But Ken still lost, and one big reason for this is that the work of getting out the message 'voter by voter, door by door, church hall by church hall' didn't get done on a sufficient scale in London in 2008.

The scale of the kind of grassroots campaign that Hopi is talking about is quite daunting. I've had the privilege of helping Labour candidates in local elections who managed to beat the national swing against Labour, and the secret of their success was that they made sure that they personally, or other Labour activists on their behalf, spoke on the doorstep with as much as half of their whole electorate in the year before an election. That's the kind of work, along with the leaflets, phone calls and all the other parts of campaigning, that every local Labour Party needs to build up the ability to deliver. Scale that up to constituency level, and it means knocking on the doors and speaking to something like 40,000 people in each constituency. To put that into context, in one hour, one canvasser will speak on average to between 6 and 10 people.

With the best will in the world, that is simply not going to happen in areas where people from the Labour Party haven't knocked on anyone's door in generations, or even where campaigning is something that Labour only does in the month before an election.

But every little helps when it comes to campaigning. And regular campaigning builds its own momentum. The more doors we knock on, the more people we speak to, the more people we help, the more people volunteer to help us, the more talented people come forward to stand as local councillors, the more doors we knock on and so on and on.

The leadership to make this possible has to come from our MPs. If they aren't prepared to go out and meet their constituents week in, week out, rain or shine, then it's hard to see why others should do so on their behalf. Many MPs have got quite used over the last few years to the idea that their own success will depend on the fortunes of the government nationally, and that they don't have to worry about doing much in the way of local campaigning, but it doesn't work like that any more.

The implications from recent opinion polls isn't that hard, and should help to focus people's minds. Any MP who has a majority of less than 5,000 and who isn't out campaigning at least a couple of times a week from now to the election should expect to lose their seat at the next election. And any MP, no matter how big their majority, who neglects the local campaigning runs a serious risk of getting a nasty surprise like Keith Bradley in Manchester Withington in 2005 or Michael Portillo in 1997.

It is difficult, it is relentless, but it is possible, and we'd have better policies and have been quicker to spot many of the problems of the last few years if all of our representatives had this level of contact with the people they were elected to represent. And the reward is that there is no better feeling in all the world than turning up to an election count where the Tories expected to win easily, and wiping the smirks off their faces.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Imagine there's no climate change

Tom Harris, member of Parliament and former minister, asks us to 'imagine if the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced tomorrow that “we got it wrong – climate change isn’t caused by man. Sorry about that. As you were.”'

His point, such as it is, is that this would make most people happy, but it would make some environmentalists very unhappy, "because for them, the fight against global warming has another aim: the defeat of capitalism, of economic growth, of prosperity". This is because some environmentalists are rich and hate poor people etc etc.

I expect that these same environmentalists will sneer that "imagine if this thing which is true were not true" is not a very solid foundation for an argument. And nor is "I agree with Fraser Nelson".

But I think we should brush aside these trifling criticisms. For this is a deeply brilliant and subtle form of analysis, with wider applications for other political issues:

For example, if scientists announced tomorrow that they had invented a real life Tardis and everyone who wanted could have one, then most people would be very happy. But Tom Harris would be unhappy, because there would be no need for Heathrow Airport to have a third runway as everyone would just travel round in their Tardises instead of flying to or from Heathrow.

Or if it turned out that money did actually grow on trees, and that everyone could have their own money tree, then most people would be happy, but James Purnell would be unhappy because it would mean poor people would not be forced to work for their benefits.

Or imagine if capitalism actually did guarantee economic growth and prosperity for all...but now we're just getting ridiculous.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Giving in to the moral panic

Here's a nasty little piece of right-wing rubbish:

"The Social Security Advisory Committee (SSAC) has been asked by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to consider proposals for the Housing Benefit Amendment Regulations. The main change that these proposals would introduce is for the regulations to provide for levels of Housing Benefit (HB) to be capped at a maximum level of the five bedroom Local Housing Allowance (LHA) from April 2009."

This is a response to the moral panic from the Evening Standard et al. about, oh noes, large families living on benefit in "million pound homes". There isn't enough social housing for large families in housing need, so councils have arrangements with private landlords to house families who are living in overcrowded or unsuitable accommodation.

The aim of this amendment is to incentivise landlords not to house large families in housing need (and instead convert their properties into flats or rent them out to students etc.) This will mean that families get evicted when they can't pay the rent (which will no longer be covered by housing benefit), then go back to the council for suitable housing, which will be in even shorter supply.

So more children will grow up in overcrowded or otherwise unsuitable housing, with all the consequences for their health, educational attainment and quality of life for them and their families that will mean. It's all very well the government mouthing warm words about reducing child poverty and discrimination, but it doesn't mean much when weak, clueless and incompetent ministers like James Purnell let the Evening Standard help them make housing policy.

If William Hague is the answer, what can possibly be the question?

David Cameron today promoted William Hague to be his "deputy in all but name". Labour responded by calling it a humiliation for George Osborne, who apparently has been "made to walk the plank for his do-nothing economic incoherence".

I get that people who follow Westminster politics very, very closely are fascinated with the question of whether George Osborne is in favour with his leader, and that this is a sign that he probably isn't.

But I am willing to bet that literally no one who is undecided about who to vote for cares about whether George is in Dave's good books. And in focusing on the soap opera about who the real Tory number two is, Labour is missing a brilliant opportunity to revive one of its most popular and effective lines of attack from the whole of the last decade - taking the piss out of William Hague.

For four solid years, Labour spin doctors, the Conservative Party and his own advisers worked hard to make sure that millions of people knew that William Hague was completely ridiculous. The original Tory boy with the weird voice who drank 14 pints of beer, looks like a foetus, wore a baseball cap with his name on it and led an extreme and unelectable bunch of weirdos...

...Unlike the rest of the Shadow Cabinet, people have heard of William Hague, and already come to the considered view that they don't want him to be anywhere where he could be in charge of anything.

Reminding people about the days when everyone knew that the Tories were weird and extreme seems like an excellent idea for Labour. You don't hear many people saying, 'If only William Hague were in charge, he's the man to sort out all these problems'. But more seriously, it says a lot about the current Tory Party that they are so short of talent that their leader relies heavily on a reject like William Hague, and it shows how little they've really changed since the glory days of banging on about Saving the Pound.

I wouldn't be surprised, the way they are going, if the next thing the Tories do is start bringing back throwbacks from the dying days of the John Major government. Now that really would be a sign of desperation.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Labour List: Peter Mandelson vs The Ranting Penguin

I like Derek Draper's new 'Labour List' blog. It has annoyed just about every gibbering right-wing loon on the whole of the internet, and some of the contributors look like they will have interesting things to say when they get round to writing something.

But my favourite bit so far, by far, has been the exchange this morning between Lord Mandelson and The Ranting Penguin.

Lord Mandelson wrote an article about new media and how it changes the way that parties communicate, to which The Ranting Penguin replied:

"Your claims to have blogged before and enjoyed it are a little inflated, surely? The realm of the blog, unlike simply having an article published in a newspaper, is that it is interactive. To do it right you need to engage with those who comment, and to be willing to support your initial argument or statements when they are questioned. I look forward to this, but suspect there's more chance of photographing pigs flying in formation."

To which Lord Mandelson replied:

"You couldn't be more wrong "Mr. Ranting Penguin"? I am enjoying reading the comments and once I have attended the government's job summit this morning I will be responding to them, even from those people with rather odd names..."

Twelve hours later, The Ranting Penguin came back with a very witty joke after there had been no further reply:

"Sadly, seems the great and the good such as Lord Peter of Mandleson have far too much to do than to honour their word.

Not surprised, they don't even honour manifesto commitments."

Touche. Over to you, Lord Mandleson...

Even Chris Morris or Armando Ianucci at the height of their powers would have struggled to come up with a more wonderfully satirical idea than Peter Mandelson rushing back from a government jobs summit in the midst of an economic crisis so that he could write a reply on the internet to a man who calls himself "The Ranting Penguin".

Sunday, January 11, 2009


Quick quiz. Which newspaper today reported that:

"Offering some good news to homeowners among the gloom, revenues will also be hit by a sharp decline in inheritance tax receipts as tens of thousands of families escape the "death duty" trap as their homes plummet in value, taking their assets below the threshold at which the 40% tax becomes payable."

No, not the Sunday Express, but the Observer.

The sums aren't very difficult here:

This year, inheritance tax is payable at 40% on sums over £312,000. Let's suppose that last year the home being inherited was worth £412,000, and it is now worth £300,000.

Last year, the family would have inherited £372,000 (312,000 tax free + 60% of 100,000). This year they will inherit £300,000. For a net loss to them of £72,000, plus a further £40,000 loss in tax revenues which will hit the public services that they receive. (Good news for people trying to buy a house, possibly, but that's not what the financial whizz-kids at the Observer are claiming).

Even the most crackpot anti-government activist would struggle to make the case that it is 'good news' for a family to lose £72,000 in order to deprive the government of £40,000. Yet this is an assumption judged self-evident in an article written by the Observer's, um, Economics editor and Whitehall editor.

Coming up next week in Observer-nomics - good news for families as thousands more escape the "income tax" trap by losing their jobs. Or is it only inheritance tax which inspires this drivel?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Gallivating around the borough

Cheltenham Borough Council recently announced a new policy which will allow workers to spend up to 16 hours each year doing team-based or individual volunteering activities as paid time away from work.

This is a sensible decision - many organisations in the public and private sectors have similar kinds of policies, and it came from suggestions by employees, based on the experience which council workers gained while volunteering to help after the floods in 2007. The benefits include giving workers chances to learn new skills, improve their teamworking skills, help their local community and boost their confidence and make a difference. As the policy says, "Volunteering will help to get a wider perspective of some of the issues in the local community. It is important employees feel good about working for Cheltenham Borough Council. Employee volunteering helps to create a positive culture."

This is the sort of policy which obviously appeals to lefties - an organisation listening to its workers and building links with the wider community, but surely conservatives, with their calls for the public sector to learn from the work that charities do, would also support it? Let's see what our old friends the Taxpayer's Alliance have to say about this:

"Aargh! What is it with the lunatics in our Town Halls?<...> Now Cheltenham Borough Council are giving their council staff time off to do volunteer work. To rub salt in the taxpayers [sic] wound – they’ll be fully paid while they 'volunteer'.

You can read the story here.

On that note, please ask the Council leader, Cllr Stephen Jordan, why he thinks it’s acceptable for council workers to take fully-paid time off to gallivant around the borough on the taxpayer’s dime."

That last sentence is a revealing one, isn't it? In the world of the Taxpayer's Alliance, volunteering in the community is 'gallivating around the borough'.

And as for paying employees to volunteer, here's a few other organisations which are engaged in that 'lunacy' - Morgan Stanley, Accenture, Freemantle Media, Standard Bank, Goldman Sachs, UBS, BDO Stoy Hayward, Henderson Global Investors, Bank of New York Mellon, XL Capital, Investec, Barclays Capital, Ricoh Europe, BLP, Clifford Chance, Tate and Lyle, Reed Smith Richards Butler, Royal and Sun Alliance, BT and GlaxoSmithKline. Never mind financial advice, I certainly wouldn't take any advice on personnel issues from the Taxpayer's Alliance.

It's a sign of their real, warped and extremist agenda. They attack the public sector for adopting policies which are commonplace in the private sector, and barely bother to veil their contempt for people who give up their time to help others.

I suspect that the Taxpayer's Alliance does not have an employee volunteering policy, and I think it would be to their advantage if they did. They, and anyone else who is interested, can visit to search through more than 1,000,000 opportunities to volunteer. They'll be able to give something back to the local community, and they'll even get the chance to meet some real taxpayers.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Work ethics

Alexander Chancellor's almost-beyond-parody article in the Guardian today is an early contender for the much coveted 'most smug and wrong column of 2009'.

For those who haven't seen it, he starts by revealing that he lives in an enormous house which is a mile away from the nearest road, and then goes on to slag off British workers who call in sick when they should go to work, based on an anecdote about a journalist and "research" by, um, Benylin. Instead they should have the work ethic of Americans (and his servants postman). He then goes on to write several paragraphs about how the Guardian no longer prints his name on their birthday list.

There are times when people don't turn up to work because they don't feel like it, but in fact a bigger problem is when British workers do the opposite and turn up to work when they are in fact unwell, out of fear that they will be disciplined or even get the sack. And far from being workshy, British workers work long hours and on average put in several hours per week of unpaid overtime. It's like the moral panic about people claiming benefits which they are not entitled to, when in fact there is vastly more money which people are entitled to but don't claim than the amount of benefit fraud.

As for "the work ethic of the Americans", bosses in America have far greater powers to bully or victimise workers who take time off when they are ill.

It is still early days, and there are a number of strong contenders who will be seeking to trump Chancellor for both smugness and wrongness, but there is something really nauseating about the Guardian offering this idiot a weekly column to write this sort of uninformed drivel.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Gaza and the logic of peace

If you haven't already done so, I recommend reading the statement by Jewish Voices for Peace about the attacks on Gaza and this thoughtful comment about advice for campaigners and how a people facing genocide managed to resist occupation and win their freedom while renouncing terrorism.

And to do something practical, read about the work that The Parents Circle - Families Forum are doing, here, and then make a donation to support their work, here (with thanks to Rachel, who wrote about their work here).

Consisting of several hundreds of bereaved families, half Palestinian and half Israeli, The Families Forum has played a crucial role since its inception in 1995, in spearheading a reconciliation process between Israelis and Palestinians. The Forum members have all lost immediate family members due to the violence in the region. Their mission statement is:

• To prevent further bereavement, in the absence of peace
• To influence the public and the policy makers – to prefer the way of peace on the way of war
• To educate for peace and reconciliation
• To promote the cessation of acts of hostility and the achievement of a political agreement
• To prevent the usage of bereavement as a means of expanding enmity between our peoples
• To uphold mutual support between our members

There's a quote on their website about the logic of peace and rejecting the logic of war:

"The image of the enemy is a moral and political burden because you are negotiating with someone whom only yesterday you called an oppressor, a murderer or a terrorist. You promised your followers that this person would be severely punished as a reward for the oppression they had lived through. Your followers, meanwhile, are telling you justice requires punishment. They ask: "How can you negotiate and talk to a person who is responsible for all the disasters of our people? ....I am negotiating because I have chosen the logic of peace and abandoned the logic of war. This means my enemy of yesterday must become my partner. He may still be my opponent but he is an opponent within peace, not within war."