Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Power without responsibility

Much excitement over the fact that a right wing newspaper owned by a wealthy foreigner will be urging its readers to vote Tory at the next election.

But I thought this was the most interesting report to come out of this:

"It is rumoured that The Sun had made it clear that it would not back the party as long as Dominic Grieve remained Shadow Home Secretary. The previous Sun Editor, Rebekah Wade had made that clear after an unhappy dinner she had had with the man now moved to the Justice portfolio."

That's not a rumour started by bitter Labour activists, but comes from Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home. And it isn't a complaint - Tim seems to think it is perfectly normal that David Cameron would move his ministers if they upset Murdoch's minions over dinner.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

+++exclusive+++ corrected version of teenage parent policy announcement

It has come to my attention that due to an administrative error, an early draft of part of the Prime Minister's speech today was circulated and has been reported. Luckily, I have a copy of the corrected version, which I reproduce below with the errors crossed out and the amendments shown in red.

"And I do think it’s time to address a problem that for too long has been hyped and misrepresented by right-wing newspapers gone unspoken, the number of children having children. It is extremely rare cannot be right, for a girl of sixteen, to get pregnant, be given the keys to a council flat and be left on her own, and the number of teenage parents has fallen considerably since 1997.

Every family is different, and we believe in personalised public services which help support every parent and give every child the best start in life, rather than trying to grab the headlines with crude and ineffective 'one size fits all' policies which are expensive and unworkable. For example, many teenage parents stay at home with their parents, and others have benefited from 'Foyer' schemes which offer them extra help and support.

From now on all 16 and 17 year old parents who get support from the taxpayer will be give the option to live in placed in a network of supervised homes. These shared homes will offer not just a roof over their heads, but a new start in life where they learn responsibility and how to raise their children properly. That’s better for them, better for their babies and better for us all in the long run."


The Labour Party would like to apologise for this administrative error. It does not affect the announcements about a National Care Service to give better and more affordable care for elderly people, new jobs and internships, free childcare for a quarter of a million more parents, a more responsive police force, and improved service for cancer patients and people seeing their doctor, all of which are as explained by the Prime Minister today, and are excellent and exciting news.

The people against the powerful

In his book 'the Unfinished Revolution', Phillip Gould wrote about how he felt sick listening to people in his focus groups talk about how they would be happy to pay more tax to improve public services. It was an early example of how New Labour wasn't always prepared to pay close attention to what was popular or what 'Middle England' was saying, if it contradicted their view of where the 'centre ground of British politics' was. Here's three more examples of the political centre and elite pundits holding unpopular views:

1. The 'mansion tax' was an example of the politics of envy and appallingly badly thought through and presented. Nonetheless, 69% of people support it, 24% oppose it.

2. Peter Mandelson is being hailed by activists on all sides of the political spectrum and pundits as the most effective senior Labour figure. Yet an opinion poll found that if he were leader, Labour would do worse than under the leadership of Harriet Harman, Ed Balls, Jack Straw, Alan Johnson or either of the Miliband brothers. The Labour Party may have learned to love Peter Mandelson (certainly I've warmed to him a lot) but he's not a vote winner.

3. The Royal Society of Arts and IPSOS-Mori found that 50% of people do not believe there is a need to cut spending on public services in order to pay off the national debt, and that only a quarter of people - 24% - believing that public spending cuts are necessary.

Commenting on the last point, the chief executive of the RSA, said that, "This is not a good starting point for politicians of any party to win approval for being either realistic or bold. The fiscal challenge is...a challenge of political leadership." and the chief executive of IPSOS-Mori commented, "The public are still in denial about the size of spending cuts now needed. The challenge will be to deliver them without the sort of shocks and disruption that saw Mrs Thatcher as unpopular as Gordon Brown two years after taking office."

Note how this works. The assumption is that the public must be in denial if they don't understand that they need to pay more for worse services, and that the job of politicians is to be 'realistic' and 'bold' in persuading people to go along with cuts without shocks and disruption. Peter Mandelson is thought to be good at this, so gets much praise from insiders, while policies which more than two-thirds support get described as political suicide.

Here's an alternative idea. Maybe people aren't 'in denial', and they are right that they shouldn't have to pay more and get less because a few rich people screwed up. And maybe the real challenge of political leadership is in resisting the groupthink of the wealthy political elite, and instead working out how to minimise any cuts and listen to the people, not the powerful.

Monday, September 28, 2009

German elections roundup

Shorter German electorate: we are angry and disillusioned about the economic crisis caused by free market neo-liberalism. Therefore, we will vote for our very own free market neo-liberal party to be part of the government.

Shorter Martin Kettle and other British newspaper columnists: Angela Merkel is an extremely successful leader. It is a sign of how well she has done as Chancellor that her party got its lowest share of the vote since the Second World War.


Overall, a terrible set of results. But two consolations:

1. The combined Left vote (SPD, Left Party and Greens) came to 48.2% on the constituency list and 45.6% on the party list vote. The results will hopefully encourage these parties to work together at a state level and consider a Red/Red/Green coalition in future.

2. Far from the economic crisis leading to a resurgence of the far right in Germany, the two main far right parties ended up in 8th and 10th places overall, and their combined vote was less than that of the Pirate Party.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ripping off the taxpayer

Shorter Harry Phibbs:

Private construction companies have been fined by the government for colluding illegally to rip off the taxpayer. This is another example of how the private sector is more efficient than the public sector and why we should remove the onerous regulations on companies to comply with equalities legislation.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Mansion Tax

The Lib Dem 'Mansion Tax' policy could hardly have been presented more ineptly. The person who announced it hadn't told his colleagues about it, and wasn't able to answer simple questions about how it would actually work.

Furthermore, as with any policy which attempts to get rich people to pay more tax, there was a lot of very hostile coverage by the rich people who own and write in newspapers.

And yet for all that, I am willing to bet that if an opinion pollster asked people "Do you support or oppose a 'Mansion Tax' on homes worth over £1 million?" then a majority would support it, and if you asked "Do you think the government should introduce a new tax on homes worth over £1 million to pay for income tax cuts for lower and middle earners?" then an even bigger majority would support it.

Maybe one of those newspapers which has been telling us what an electoral disaster the policy would be will commission a poll and we could find out.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How to cut spending

Margot James at Conservative Home has written an article about how to reduce public spending on health and social care, based on discussions with the head of service in her area. It shows how difficult it actually is to cut spending, and its conclusions offer little comfort for conservatives.

She claims that some money can be saved by merging the primary care trust, local council and mental health trust into one - an idea with some advantages, though I would be amazed if in practice there were any savings in the short or medium term. Something which she doesn't mention but which is well established in all sectors is that achieving savings by merging and reorganising services requires high quality organisational management and leadership - suggesting that cutting the pay of public sector managers is likely to be a false economy.

The next bit was interesting: "Secondly, out of a total budget of some £24m for learning disabilities within the Local Authority, some £10m is spent on residential care. The cost of caring for some of the clients with more complex needs can reach £3,000 per week. These are private homes charging the taxpayer a great deal of money and their books should be scrutinized. Local Authorities account for almost 100% of their income. The Councils should work together to drive down costs whilst maintaining standards."

It is unusual to hear this argument from a Tory - public sector agencies working together to squeeze profits in the private sector. This is a classic centre-left argument, and it reinforces the point that any discussion of public spending has to acknowledge that large chunks of money spent by the government goes to the private sector.

Another way of saving money would be to transfer services to be run by the voluntary sector. Margot reports that "services contracted out to independent groups or companies are almost invariably delivered at a lower cost", but at lower quality.

She concludes by warning that, "Transferring services should not be seen purely as a cost cutting measure. You only have to look at the residential care sector for older people to see that Local Authorities pay significantly below the cost of providing good quality care in so many cases. That is wrong. As important as the legitimate savings that do exist is the harnessing of the passion and dedication of many of the people who run and work in these organisations."

In other words, overall spending is probably too low, not too high, to provide a good quality service.

So one of the Tory A-Listers went to try and find out how to cut public spending, and ended up sounding like a social democrat - clamp down on private care homes, make local authorities bigger and more powerful, recognise that lower cost services are often lower quality, harness the passion and dedication of public servants and spend more to provide good quality care.

Less is the new more

Shorter Frank Field:

We should learn from schools such as Broughton Hall school, which has improved its exam results and has had £38 million spent on physical improvements plus millions more in higher salaries for over 160 staff. This is an example of how increased spending on education has made a real difference to young people's lives the government should reduce the budgets for all schools in order to make them better.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lessons from Norway

It is common wisdom that back in the 1970s and 1980s the Hard Left in the Labour Party, led by Tony Benn, made Labour unelectable with their extremist ideas.

One of Tony Benn's extremist left-wing ideas was that the British government should keep the North Sea oil money ring-fenced for specific projects and ensure that the government planned to ensure maximum benefit from the revenues from the oilfields. Maggie Thatcher, of course, opposed this and spent the oil money on tax cuts for the rich, profits for private companies, closing down coal mines and out of work benefits for millions of people.

In contrast, Norway decided on the same approach as Tony Benn recommended, and have built up a multi hundred billion dollar State Petroleum Fund.

As a result, in 2009, the Norwegian political debate is 'how shall we spend the vast sums of money that we have', and the British political debate is 'how savagely can we cut spending and raise taxes'. And last week, our comrades in the Norwegian Labour Party were re-elected, increasing their share of the vote compared to 2005.

But, y'know, thank goodness Maggie Thatcher 'saved' Britain from the loony left who wanted Britain to have its own sovereign wealth fund.

Losing their compass

I don't always agree with him, but Luke is quite right to be annoyed that Compass are getting the leader of the Green Party to speak at a major event they are organising in Brighton, where the Greens are trying to beat the (very good) Labour candidate, Nancy Platts.

I've got no problem with holding events where other political parties speak and discuss ideas, but it is a bit much when a supposedly Labour group starts helping other politicians against Labour, particularly when the most likely result is to let the Tories win.

Jackie Ashley: political strategist

Jackie Ashley, June 2009: "what is silly is to imply that Labour would not make cuts or that they would not have to raise taxes for ordinary families...Better to admit the obvious and draw clear lines between Labour policies and Tory ones. There is a sensible, grown-up argument to be had, and it's one that Labour could end up winning."

Labour followed Jackie's advice. So how did that strategy end up working out?

Conservative Home, September 2009, "It's certainly now much easier for the Conservative government to make cuts. Labour has provided cover and, deliciously, Ed Balls has started the process."

Matthew d'Ancona, September 2009, "What the PM has achieved is remarkable, nonetheless. He has decontaminated the very word he so successfully drenched in ugliness and horror. For more than a decade it was brave at best, and sometimes politically suicidal, to declare oneself a "cutter". That was thanks to Gordon Brown. With bleak symmetry, it is he who has declared an end to this once-robust consensus. It is he who has given "permission" for others to argue for much deeper cuts."


Conservative Home, September 2009, "George Osborne is now determined to blame tax rises on Labour, too. This is Phase II of the Tory campaign. Phase I has seen all the parties become cutters. CCHQ now want the need for tax rises to be conceded too."

And the subject of Jackie Ashley's column today? The need for Labour to set out its plans for tax rises.

Here's a tip for Ashley's future columns on political strategy - next time don't write a newspaper article about how Labour would be more popular if they did what George Osborne wants them to do.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Centre for Social Justice

Iain Duncan Smith's Centre for Social Justice have published a report which they modestly claim is "the most far-reaching review of the welfare system in 60 years". It can be downloaded here. At the core of the CSJ’s recommendations are measures to make work pay, and reduce the working couple penalty. To encourage claimants into work, the report recommends more gradual rates of withdrawal of benefits.

It says there should be only two benefits for working age people: Universal Work Credit “earned” through participation in welfare to work schemes, which would integrate benefits such as Jobseeker’s Allowance and Income Support; and Universal Life Credit providing additional income to people with low or no earnings. The report also advocates changes intended to reduce penalties for socially constructive behaviour such as marriage and cohabitation, saving and taking out a mortgage.

Some quick thoughts (and they are just quick thoughts - it is nearly 400 pages long and I've just skimmed it in my lunch break) :

* It's a good idea to reduce marginal tax rates, though the implementation challenges of moving from 57 benefits to 2, and requiring employers to withdraw benefits as employees' earnings rise is, um, challenging.

* The total cost is £3.6 billion, and it would reduce child poverty by 210,000. In contrast, increasing benefits and tax credits by roughly this amount would reduce child poverty by around 1 million. It's not that hard to come up with ideas for spending more money on benefits and reducing poverty, but this isn't the most "cost effective" way of doing so (this is not necessarily a criticism, as there are other advantages to this approach and specifically to reducing marginal tax rates for low income workers, and many people without children would benefit).

* They have developed a 'dynamic benefits model', which they use to predict that their reforms would result in 600,000 households entering work. At a first glance, this model looks incredibly sketchy to me. They calculate the number of people that would enter work as follows:

new number in-work / old number in-work = [ (1- new PTR)/(1- old PTR) ] ^ elasticity

where PTR is the participation tax rate (you can check all this on pp 326-7).

I am very willing to be corrected on this, but it does not seem remotely plausible to me that at the moment the only variable about whether people are out of work or not is whether they could maximise their earnings by working rather than being on benefit. Any model needs to consider supply of jobs, not just demand for jobs, as well as other factors such as access to childcare, transport and so on.

This gets to the heart of the problem with the Centre of Social Justice's approach. They assume that poverty and unemployment is about individuals not taking responsibility or not getting the right incentives to get a job.

But their changes won't reduce overall unemployment at a time when there are many more people looking for jobs than there are jobs available. And economic theory suggests that the effect of increasing the demand for jobs without increasing the supply of jobs will be to put a downward pressure on wages.

* Finally, their argument that the proposals will pay for themselves are entirely fanciful - they claim £622 million savings on reduced crime and £670 reduced spending on health. It is an old bureaucrat game to try to project theoretical savings in other people's departments in order to justify spending increases in yours, but it would be more honest just to be open and upfront that high quality welfare reform costs money (and that this is a major problem for the 'cut spending now' crowd).

There is a lot to like about this report, and genuine attempts by the Centre Right to understand and tackle the problems of poverty in accordance with their own values. But far from being 'far-reaching', the report's weaknesses are that they aren't far reaching enough. They are forced into fantastical claims about the extra spending paying for itself in the short term because the Tory Party which they support won't accept the need for more spending on welfare, and their 'new dynamic models' are based on the old and failed assumptions about Rational Economic Man and poverty being the fault and responsibility of the individual.

How to cut public spending: lessons from Wandsworth

Wandsworth Council is the pride and joy of the Tories. They have controlled it for more than three decades, it delivers highly rated services with relatively low council tax. And, interestingly, there is a lot that lefties can learn from Wandsworth about good ways to reduce public spending without harming services.

There was a good interview with Cllr Edward Lister, Wandsworth's leader, on Conservative Home. Here's some of the key points that he mentions (and one that slipped his mind) :

*Consistency of political leadership, with a team approach which involves all councillors, not just those at the top.

*Understanding what local people want, and focusing on delivering it.

*Outsourcing packages should be almost invariably kept to single services to allow effective control. Even some single services (e.g. IT Services) need to be spilt up to retain sufficient control. Big blocks (e.g. Departments) just don’t work, and they have rarely found that combining two large contracts for different services gave them saving.

*Effective management of staff, and pay in the upper quartile wherever possible, to make staff feel valued and motivated to “go the extra mile”.

*Many of the services are delivered in house, where the council has won the contract by being able to compete on a level playing field against other providers.

*They rarely use consultants and reserve them only for technical areas where they do not have the relevant expertise.

*They keep a very tight rein on resources put into partnership and inter-authority networking which often adds nothing for local residents: even though the discussions held are interesting, real decisions can be quite rare. (They also avoid providing many discretionary services which most other local authorities provide to their residents if they can possibly avoid it).

*They do not use PFI out of preference, as it carries high cost overheads for the legal and accountancy input. There is also a high level of abortive bidding work that all contractors are inevitably faced with, which therefore ends up as a further cost overhead as it is loaded onto prices for successful bids. A PFI approach also greatly delays procurement and of course generally incurs higher borrowing costs.

There is a lot here which lefties could support and which is rather surprising to see in a Tory flagship authority - deliberately high pay for public sector workers, small contracts with close monitoring by the local authority rather than hiving off large areas en bloc to the private sector, low spending on consultants and none on PFI.

One thing which this highlights is that one massive area of savings comes from looking at the amount of money that the public sector gives to the private sector in return for services. To take just one example, the Department for Work and Pensions has given the company A4e so much money, in the kinds of massive contracts that Wandsworth found didn't work, that A4e's founder is a multi-millionaire who owns a massive mansion. Should so much public money to help people get jobs really be finding its way into the pockets of millionaires?

The other thing to remember about Wandsworth, which Cllr Lister didn't have time to mention for some reason, is that, shall we say, they are not solely responsible for their success. Just as many 'self made men' in fact owe their success to one government service or another, Wandsworth has benefited from absolutely colossal amounts of support from the central government. Maggie Thatcher gave them millions to keep the Poll Tax down and be a flagship authority, and under Labour they've benefited from high levels of funding for London authorities.

The Wandsworth Council which Tory activists praise as an example of how all local councils should work is the same Wandsworth Council which wouldn't have been able to do half of what it has managed without thirty years of strong and constant support from central government. You don't get high quality services at a low cost without lots of help from the government.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Pre-existing conditions

In the USA, health insurance companies can currently refuse or limit the healthcare that they pay for if people have "pre-existing conditions". For example, if someone has cancer, insurance companies don't want to sign them up, because it is likely to be very expensive. But in eight states in the USA, "pre-existing conditions" don't just include illnesses like cancer or arthritis.

In Idaho, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming, one of the pre-existing conditions which can limit the healthcare people receive is being a "domestic violence victim".

As the Service Employees union, which is campaigning on this issue, says, "Words cannot describe the sheer inhumanity of this claim. It serves as yet further proof that our insurance system is broken, destroyed by the profit-mongering of the very companies whose sole purpose should be to provide Americans with access to care when they need it most."

Cut universal benefits, surrender to the conservative movement

The Observer reports that 'a senior government aide' told them that, "I personally think we have got to look at universal benefits. It is unsustainable." Jackie Ashley writes that, "if there have to be cuts, then taking away child benefit from the better off, and the winter fuel payment from richer pensioners, would seem sensible ideas and are on Labour's agenda."

Comically, these are described as measures for Labour to shore up 'the core vote'. They are nothing of the sort. The proposals to get rid of universal benefits are quite simply an unconditional surrender to people who loathe and despise Labour values (and Labour supporters).

It has been a long term project of the conservative movement in this country to undermine the welfare state, and reduce it to a low cost, low quality residuum for poor people. The problem that they have faced is that universal services, from the NHS to child benefit, free bus passes to winter fuel payments, are effective and very popular. There's no intrusive means testing, or having to jump through humps set by bureaucrats, just a simple arrangement where people contribute according to their ability to do so, and receive payments and services which help them out. It promotes solidarity between people, and works as an anti-poverty programme and support for the middle classes all at the same time.

But conservative movement activists, in Britain as in America, oppose the principle of an active and effective government. Their argument is a kind of bait and switch. Firstly, they argue that the government should cut back its spending and only give services to poorer people. Then they turn to the middle classes, and stir up anger that they are paying for other people to receive services, but not getting anything for themselves - and use that anger to help cut back services for poor people.

If the conservative activists get their way, and manage to use the current economic crisis to advance their political project and dismantle universal welfare programmes, it will reinforce their hegemony. People won't look to the government for help when they need it, they will become more resentful of all kinds of spending designed to reduce poverty and inequality, or which ask people to act together or contribute according to their abilities, and they'll associate 'public' with 'second rate'.

The sad thing is that we know what the consequences are when we run an economy on these kind of conservative principles, or when public services get run down because they are only for the poor and those who society judges have failed.

Labour's great achievements in helping people and in making Britain a kinder, more civilised place, has come from using the power of government to help the majority of the people and building solidarity between people from all walks of life. It is sad and pathetic to see government advisers and leftie journalists buying into the values and assumptions of the conservative movement and trying to undermine these achievements.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Confusing dividing lines

Shorter Peter Mandelson:

People should vote Labour because we are the change makers and state reformers. People should not vote for the Tories because they will cut public services for the fun of it while simultaneously caving in to public sector vested interests.

Public sector workers

Thanks to 'sevillista' at Liberal Conspiracy for digging up the list of what all those people in the public sector who have been employed since 1997 do:

There are 566,000 more public sector staff now than in 1997 (the following is taken from ONS Public Sector Employment Stats, NHS HCHS stats from the Information Centre for Health and Social Care, School Workforce in England Stats from DCSF, and Police Service Strength statistics from the Home Office)

* 42,000 more doctors
* 85,000 more nurses
* 46,000 more qualified medical staff (e.g. therapists, scientists, paramedics)
* 41,000 more teachers
* 116,000 more teaching assistants
* 29,000 more police officers and community support officers

* 49,000 more public administrators (including a whopping 6,000 more civil servants)
* 22,000 more civilian police workers
* 65,000 more workers supporting clinical NHS functions
* 17,000 more NHS managers
* 34,000 more “central support” in the NHS (e.g. cleaning and other functions to manage NHS infrastructure)

Worth remembering next time you hear someone going on about 'public sector non-jobs'.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An excellent appointment

According to a 'number 10 insider' in the Times, Kirsty McNeill has been appointed as a senior adviser to the Prime Minister.

The Times report went on about how Kirsty used to be a student activist, and ten years ago didn't agree with some of Tony Blair's policies. Not mentioned, but perhaps of more relevance, is what Kirsty's done in, say, the past five years.

As an activist, she helped run the 'Make Poverty History' campaign, posssibly the most successful leftie grassroots campaigns of the past decade. As a campaigner, she achieved one of the biggest swings to Labour when she stood as a parliamentary candidate at the last General Election, and managed to win election as a local councillor in 2006 when Labour was getting wiped out in London. And professionally, she's possibly the only person currently working in number 10 who got praised by the Daily Mail for the quality of her work. There's not many people currently involved in politics who can claim any one of those achievements, let alone all four.

Apparently her appointment has 'ruffled a few feathers', according to people who think they are helping Labour by gossiping and whining in right-wing newspapers. If Gordon Brown listens a bit less to them, and a bit more to Kirsty, I think that it sounds like a great appointment.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The curious incident of the Blairite in the Spectator

One of the strangest political trends of the year has been the Blairites, who dominated British politics for many years, carrying out massive unprovoked attacks on their own reputations and doing their best to annoy and alienate people in the Labour Party. This is in preparation for their total marginalisation and defeat by Neal Lawson and chums in an internal faction fight after the election. I find this for the most part entertaining, but also somewhat baffling.

Over the summer, most of their leaders resigned from government, so it is left to the second string to keep up the fight for the true cause.

This week, Phil 'not the singer' Collins, Tony Blair's former speechwriter and chair of Demos, has a smug article in the Spectator slagging off the trade unions. I understand that there is probably some personal benefit in slagging off Labour's main funders for the benefit of a right-wing audience, but surely this sort of behaviour only hurts the faction which Collins supports?

Or take Hazel Blears' former special adviser, Paul 'the Thinker' Richards, saying that opponents of the Iraq war were pro-Saddam Hussein. It's not 2003 any more, so what's with the 'no compromise with reality' attitude?

This kind of behaviour almost seems that they've given up on the Labour Party, rather than trying to win support for their candidates and policies within the Party by building alliances across the party and in the unions, they are running wild, self-indulgent and free, preparing for life as an occasional columnist in the Times tutting about how the Labour Party has lurched to the left and how it's not like the Good Old Days when Tony was in charge.

If that's the case, then I think it is a shame. I disagree with the ideas which the Blairites have about the future of the Labour Party, but the Labour Party will be more effective if Phil-not-the-singer and Paul-the-thinker follow the fine example of Alastair, Hopi and Luke and argue their case forcefully while accepting that their faction won't always get its way.

An expensive heckle

While President Obama was giving his healthcare speech last night, one Republican Congressman, Joe Wilson of South Carolina, took it upon himself to heckle, shouting out, "You Lie".

Wilson's opponent is a Democrat called Rob Miller. And since Wilson's heckle was broadcast across the nation, people have been donating to Miller's campaign.

At the time of writing, less than 24 hours after the speech, 11,085 people have donated a total of $399,502 to Miller's campaign. Miller has been receiving nearly $1,000 per minute.

Now that is one expensive heckle.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Jon Cruddas - fewer speeches, more grassroots campaigning needed

Jon Cruddas' speech was interesting and thoughtful as ever, but politically it was a bit of the worst of both worlds. It generated a load of headlines about how he had said Labour must move to the Left / return to Old Labour, while equating this with a load of worthy but dull policy proposals about windfall and transaction taxes, High Pay Commissions and Fair Employment Clauses. So it antagonises the people who don't like the idea of Labour moving to the left, without giving any popular or eye-catching policies which might appeal to people who don't follow politics closely.

That said, his criticism that New Labour had an absurdly restricted and ideological view of 'Middle England', which caricatured them as only interested in acquiring wealth and equating aspiration with individual success is spot on. Some lefties bought into this caricature, attacking New Labour for being obsessed with 'swing voters' and neglecting Labour's traditional supporters.

The real 'Middle England' is much more interesting than the caricature of Rational Aspirational Economic Man. Just to take one example, it is my experience that many people who own their own homes or who bought their council houses back in the 1980s absolutely loathe and detest those paragons of aspirational virtue - buy-to-let landlords.

Buy-to-let landlords represent the sort of Thatcherite 'greed is good' attitude that people got sick of by 1997. Benefiting from rising property prices, they would buy up family homes and rent them out to students or immigrants, or convert them into flats. Bad landlords just cared about the money they earned, not caring if the front garden was a mess, and getting away with the bare minimum that they had to spend on maintenance.

People who had worked hard, saved their money and chosen to live somewhere nice valued the sense of community in their area, and were hard hit by these 'aspirational' landlords. While the landlords raked in the cash, local residents struggled to find anywhere to park (as all of a sudden four or more cars appeared outside every property), had to walk past gardens strewn with rubbish and hardly got to know their new neighbours. While they had to pay increasing council tax bills for local services, many of the landlords who owned the next house along just passed the cost on to their tenants.

And, of course, while some private landlords look after their tenants and took the trouble to look after their properties, there is hardly a student or migrant worker who hasn't got at least one horror story of a bad landlord who ripped them off.

People who say that the political parties are too keen to pander to Middle England should take a look at the response. A government which has hardly been slow to pass new laws and other regulations has barely taken an interest in this area. When Labour MP Andrew Smith called a debate on this subject, the Tory and Lib Dem MPs said that there was too much regulation and that landlords should be given tax breaks.

At one time, I did a survey in the area I represented. Buy-to-let housing came out as the joint top issue of concern (together with crime and anti-social behaviour) and 96% of people wanted more action to be taken to make landlords pay more towards the local area, greater regulations to prevent landlords buying up homes and other similar policies.

Local campaiging on housing not only attracted people who wanted to defend their community, but also helped to build community and a sense of solidarity. The residents' group that spoke up against planning applications to convert family homes into flats also raised money to help people in council flats whose homes were flooded, and people who met each other to complain about how the area was changing now organise regular social events for pensioners and young people in the area. (And at the last local elections, Labour got 60% of the vote).

Now policies like preventing people from buying up lots of homes, forcing them to pay more towards local services and giving tenants greater rights could be described as 'left-wing'. But for most people, they'd be greeted with 'at last, about time too'. Policies which get Tory voters to campaign for the Labour Party, and which build alliances between owner occupiers and tenants are hardly extremist - what was extremist and disastrous was the decision by "centrist" politicians to allow buy-to-let landlords to amass their fortunes inflating a massive property bubble.

And in some areas where Labour ignored this issue (or teamed up with the National Union of Students and British Property Federation on the other side), right-wing populists moved in and stoked up resentment on the grounds of race, blaming landlords from particular minority communities or migrant workers for the problems.

This is the sort of thing which is currently missing from the debate about Labour's future (and the left more generally). There are a lot of 'top down' ideas generated by clever, politically-engaged people, each with the backing of one campaigning group or another. But there is too little which comes from the experiences, priorities and ideas of ordinary people, which starts with what they know and builds with what they have.

On current predictions, Jon Cruddas is going to get beaten in next year's elections. He's made many useful contributions to the Labour Party - not least in building alliances across the parliamentary party and hopefully making key people realise that they don't have to have a big factional fight after the next election - and will hopefully make many more. But for the next few months there should be no more speeches, newspaper articles or thinkpieces, and no more palling around with James Purnell and other chums.

Instead he should have a single-minded devotion to his re-election campaign and working hard to win the support and listen to people in Dagenham and Rainham. And after his successful re-election, he can use that experience to come up with ideas and policies which are significantly better than those on offer yesterday.

"Morally and technically innocent"

Great to hear that, at last, Michael Shields has been freed from prison.

On saving election night

Conservative Home have a campaign to 'Save Election Night', rather than having voting on Thursday and waiting unti the next day to count the results.

Counting election results on a Friday, rather than Thursday night, is fine by me - they counted on Friday this year in the county council elections and it was still just as enjoyable watching Labour make gains. Election counts are great if you win and rubbish if you lose, the timing doesn't make much of a difference.

I can understand, though, why Tory activists are so keen to have the results counted as soon as possible while some Labour people are like, 'meh, no harm in waiting til the next day'. But some of the arguments deployed make no sense.

For example, some people seem to think that if the election count is delayed until Friday, then ZaNu Labour will stuff all the ballot boxes to steal the election. But why would we bother to do that, when we could just get Peter Mandelson to use his mind control rays to get the exhausted officials who are doing the counting after having been working all day to 'accidentally' count Tory votes for Labour instead?

Our future lords and masters

Shorter Howard Flight:

In the short term, Labour's Keynesian monetary and deficit policies, which I and my party opposed, have provided a necessary insurance policy and sustained the economy. However, the challenge for the next government is to get spending and tax revenues broadly back in line.

Therefore, the government should give more money to private companies to run schools and prisons and give tax breaks for people who have private healthcare. This would make it harder to get spending and tax revenues broadly back in line, but it is a fundamental issue of principle. The government should also cut public spending by £70 billion per year on government waste and cough, cough, mumble, mumble.

Monday, September 07, 2009

When they say spend more, we say cut back

Today's opinion poll shows that most people want the government to spend more in real terms on health and education, every year.

Tomorrow, Labour ministers will announce plans to cut public spending in all areas, including health and education, and do more New Labour reform instead. These plans are seen as vital to Labour's re-election campaign.

This leaves the Tories with the tough political choice between getting the credit for being prepared to spend more on health and international aid than Labour would, or having the political cover to drop those policies if they seem inconvenient. I bet they are quaking in their boots.

Question time

I don't watch 'Question Time' on the BBC, so find it hard to get that bothered about the fact that they are going to have Nick Griffin as one of the panellists. Whether or not you think the BNP should be taken on and defeated in debate is not really relevant to this discussion, as the format of Question Time seems to be about politicians and morons being clapped or jeered by other morons, so Griffin would fit in quite well.

That said, the only people who were upset and inconvenienced by the fact that the BNP weren't invited to appear on Question Time were active fascists, and there is a reason why political parties and campaigning groups spend time, money and effort to get their spokespeople onto the telly - because it helps them get support.

The more that fascists are allowed to go on the telly, the more people will vote for them.