Friday, October 30, 2009

The curse of the New Statesman

The New Statesman seems to have got even worse since its recent relaunch, with recent features like 'Barack W Bush' about how Barack Obama is like George Bush. The latest to fall victim to the Curse of the New Statesman is Dominic Sandbrook, a very well-regarded historian, who has produced a desperately bad article for them on populism and 'trial by fury'.

Sandbrook's article advances the argument that protests outside BBC Television against Nick Griffin or the flood of complaints about a homophobic Daily Mail columnist are the modern equivalents of the Roman mob, and which concludes that "no matter how liberal and progressive we may think ourselves, we are not so different from the shipwrecked schoolboys in William Golding's Lord of the Flies: frightened, disputatious, aggressive, demagogic".

Sandbrook writes that, "now, as then, it is often hard to tell spontaneity from co-ordination. No doubt many of the people who disparaged Jan Moir in what she called "an orchestrated internet campaign" were genuinely offended by what she had written about the dead Boyzone singer Stephen Gately. But how many read her column only after they had heard about it on Twitter, and how many complained only after they had read the Guardian's Charlie Brooker?

...The problem is that one man's justified outrage is another's hysterical bullying. In a society in which the old divisions of class and ideology seem more confused than at any time in living memory, and in which every individual feels he has the right not to be offended, where do you draw the line?

Was the Mail wrong to whip up public anger at the antics of Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross? If so, wasn't Brooker wrong to do the same thing, in effect, over the Moir column? Do we want to live in a society in which journalists have the right to express any opinion, however offensive, even if it means inflaming tensions and exploiting old prejudices? Or would we prefer to live in one in which speech is governed, if not by the will of the majority, then by the will of Twitter's loudest minority?

[For Modern liberals], in a democratic society, the will of the people is what matters - except when the people have the wrong idea...It is a sobering thought that if Britain had genuinely been governed by the will of the majority for the past few decades, we would still live in a country where criminals were hanged and black and brown faces were virtually unknown. What made the liberal reforms of the 1960s possible was a climate of deference that has now disappeared. "

Let's leave aside the very basic difference between 'speech being governed' and 'people complaining about a newspaper article that they didn't like'. There is something far more fundamentally wrong in Sandbrook's case. He argues that it was the 'climate of deference' which led to the abolition of the death penalty, and to anti-racist legislation, and that there is something wrong with organising people to campaign together for change.

But the reason that the laws got changed, that Britain became a more tolerant and civilised country was not because of a small, benign elite of the "best men" holding back the mob, but because ordinary people got organised and worked together to campaign for what they believed in, to change laws, and to challenge prejudices. They organised politically - to elect the Labour Party which passed these laws, and around particular issues such as abolition of the death penalty or for racial equality.

People using twitter to organise against homophobia are updating these traditional values of organised people bringing about change for a modern age, they are not the modern equivalent of the mob. A newspaper getting outraged about a joke told by a comedian is not the same as encouraging people to complain about bigotry and hatred, even in these days when a columnist for the New Statesman is confused by the "old divisions of class and ideology".

This article doesn't say much for Sandbrook as a historian or political analyst. And it doesn't say anything good about the New Statesman's editoral team that one issue is devoted to the idea that Obama is just like Bush, and then the next peddles a warmed over version of great man theory which attacks modern protesters as being like 'the baying, blood-hungry mob'.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The carrot works, the stick doesn't

Shorter DWP evaluation of Provider-led Pathways to Work:

What worked well:

• finding provider staff pleasant and helpful;
• feeling that the environment within provider premises was hospitable, and a
more inviting place than Jobcentre Plus;
• meeting needs, where people felt the support received was beneficial and
• challenging people to think differently about their employment prospects;
• contributing to people’s progress and movements into work, by providing
encouragement, financial support and access to other helpful provision.

What didn't work well:

• the way that provider staff are incentivised to focus on people who are considered
job ready and leave those furthest from work inadequately supported, because
of the way providers are contracted to deliver job outcomes and are paid
according to the number achieved;
• uncertainty about divisions between roles and responsibilities regarding the use
of waivers and deferrals, service provision and case management;
• a perceived lack of guidance for providers in operating day-to-day procedures
and for delivering particular interventions such as the Condition Management
• the loss of support to people who may still need it to re-enter the labour market
because they lose entitlement to incapacity benefits;
• unmet needs, where the support offered was not tailored to suit the
• a lack of choice for clients regarding who provides support and the burden on
Jobcentre Plus staff when people return for assistance.
• compulsion to attend work-focused interviews was often felt to be unnecessary and did not
influence behaviour, because people felt they would have attended without the
threat of benefits being reduced. Furthermore there was evidence
from clients in the study group that sanctions can be applied inappropriately, when
people have been unable to attend interviews due to ill health.

Even shorter DWP evaluation of Provider-led Pathways to Work:

What worked well - giving unemployed people more support
What didn't work well - sanctions and market-based incentives

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Back to basics

Last week, the Tories selected as one of their parliamentary candidates someone who is Deputy Director of an organisation which thinks we should scrap child benefit, means test pensioners' and disabled people's bus passes and privatise the state pension as part of a project to take more than £30 billion per year out of the pockets of people on modest and average incomes.

Since this candidate's selection, there has been a massive outcry and backlash, and the local Conservative association has decided to review the whole selection process...

...because she had a relationship with a married man four years ago.

It's a really rather sad insight into the weird world of internal Tory politics and priorities.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Innovative, entrepreneurial and with strong social support networks: the real Britain revealed

The Legatum Prosperity Index is a free market think tank which ranks 104 countries according to nine different measures of prosperity. There are some predictable results - four of the top five countries are in Scandinavia, and Zimbabwe is last, just behind Sudan. But it is interesting to see what they say about the UK.

The Daily Mail writes on a daily basis about a UK where business is stifled by regulation, the economy is burdened by a bloated public sector, we are run by a corrupt politicial elite, terrorists and violent criminals menace the law abiding public, the traditional family is under assault, ancient freedoms have been taken away, our universities teach 'mickey mouse degrees' and our health service is inefficient.

The research suggests that every single one of these are right-wing myths. Here's their summaries:

Economic Fundamentals - Ranked 13th
Weak terms of trade and domestic savings hinder an otherwise fundamentally robust UK economy.

Entrepreneurship and Innovation - Ranked 2nd
The UK benefits from a highly entrepreneurial and innovative economy

Democratic Institutions - Ranked 11th
Democratic institutions are strong, and the political regime stable in the UK

Education - Ranked 21st
British workers benefit from high levels of tertiary schooling, boosting labour productivity

Health - Ranked 23rd
High life expectancy, low infant mortality, and a strong health infrastructure characterise the health care system in the UK

Safety and Security - Ranked 22nd
The UK faces relatively few threats to its national security but people have concerns regarding theft

Governance - Ranked 13th
A high proportion of British citizens have confidence in governmental institutions

Personal Freedom - Ranked 19th
British society is characterised by a high degree of personal freedom and perceived tolerance of minority groups

Social Capital - Ranked 11th
British citizens enjoy strong support networks in family and friends


The international comparisons suggest that the UK economy is fundamentally robust; democratic institutions are strong; high levels of tertiary education bolster labour productivity; high numbers of doctors and nurses per head of population help make our health infrastructure strong; there are few threats to national security and violent crime is low; that people from different backgrounds get on well; that there is a high degree of personal freedom; and that Britain is second in the world for innovation and enterpreneurship, for charitable giving and for support from friends and family in times of need.

In 2007, the UK was 17th overall in this survey, last year 14th and this year 12th. To break into the top ten, we could introduce some of the following policies:

Improve primary health: Over one in five consider themselves to have health problems, ranking the country 33rd, and just 64% of people feel well rested, ranking the country 73rd.

Cut burglaries: 15% of respondents had property stolen in the same timeframe.

Reduce class sizes: Despite the 14th highest levels of educational expenditure for primary and secondary levels, class sizes are near the global average, with one teacher for every 18 pupils.

Curbs on arbitrary power: There are some constraints in place to prevent political leaders from acting rashly or arbitrarily, but the UK ranks below the international average for this variable.

Improve domestic savings: The domestic savings rate, of 15%, places the country in the bottom third on this variable.

Raise the school leaving age: British workers have had, on average, 5.3 years of secondary and 4.5 years of tertiary schooling, ranking the country 49th and 19th, respectively on these variables.

Of course, rather than highlighting any of this, the Daily Mail reports these findings as 'unhappy UK fails to make top 10 prosperous countries'. You couldn't make it up.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Question Time evaluation

For many years, people have argued that if only the BNP were taken on and debated against in public, they would be exposed and their support would collapse. We can now start to do a bit of an evaluation of how this approach is working.

In 2007, a team of debating champions, by their own fantastically modest account, defeated Nick Griffin in debate in the Oxford Union by forcing him to speak "the angry, racist language of demogoguery". And last night, 8 million people watched him debate on Question Time, in a performance which every single newspaper reported on their front page today was a complete disaster for him.

According to the theory, this should lead to a fall in support for the BNP. Admittedly, there is weak evidence so far for this, in that the BNP got nearly 1 million votes a year and a bit after their arguments were "demolished" in the Oxford Union. But that only reached a tiny audience, and presumably the effect of Question Time will be much greater.

So would anyone like to venture a prediction about how we could measure the damage that this has done to the BNP? For example:

-How many members will they lose as a result of this 'disaster'?
-How much will their share of the vote fall in opinion polls?
-How much less will they receive in donations in the next financial quarter, compared to the previous financial quarter?
-How many fewer people will feel positive towards them, and how many more people will feel negative towards them? (In June 2009, YouGov found that 11% of people felt positively about them and 72% negatively - it's worth remembering that the BNP are the most hated political party in the UK, including amongst white working class people).

And if, in fact, the evidence suggests that they have gained money, members or support after Question Time, what does that say about the strategy of giving them a platform and debating with them? What needs to be changed in the future to make this tactic more successful? Should it be abandoned, or is the principle of giving the BNP a platform so vital that anti-fascists should support it, even if it leads to a growth in support for fascism?


For me, the most depressing bit of Question Time came in the discussion on immigration. After half an hour of everyone attacking Nick Griffin with various degrees of effectiveness, the panel and audience turned to discussing an actual area of policy.

Jack Straw was arguing in defence of government policies which set out to starve people into leaving Britain, which has just introduced a policy borrowed from a right-wing Australian government and which have imposed far more controls on immigration than in the days of Thatcher. And the Tories, Liberal Democrats, BNP and the audience queued up to denounce the government for being too soft on immigrants. Nick Griffin may not be a very accomplished media performer, but it's not very long ago that the kinds of arguments that were being parroted last night by mainstream politicians would have been regarded as the views of fringe right-wing extremists like the BNP.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tory think tank vs the middle class

Shorter Reform 'The End of Entitlement' pamphlet:

"The welfare state is a bad deal for the middle class (anyone earning over £15,000/year) because they get £31 billion of benefits which they don't need, such as state pensions, child benefits, free bus passes etc. Instead of receiving these benefits, the middle class should have the opportunity to insure against the risk of unemployment, retirement, disability etc. with the private sector.

People may object that policies which take billions of pounds out of the pockets of the middle class to give to the insurance industry would be very unpopular and are the exact opposite of what Britain needs, but we know better because we are dogmatic sub-Thatcherites with no experience of the real world but close links to the Conservative Party."

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Terrible advice for posties

Shorter Danny Finkelstein:

"If the Royal Mail dispute were about individual postal workers and their economic interest, it would be easy enough to solve. It could be ended in a conciliatory way with most people better off. Unfortunately things aren’t that simple. This is about the power and coherence of a group, and a group’s resolve. The sad truth is that the dispute cannot be ended until the group is broken.

It is in the economic interest of workers to negotiate with their employers as individuals, rather than collectively. This is particularly true when their employers are the outstandingly competent and well-intentioned management of Royal Mail. This explains why workers in the private sector, most of whom are not members of a trade union, have much less job security, lower wages and worse pensions than those in the public sector, where most people are members of a trade union."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Teenage parent research challenge

Tom Harris MP wrote on his blog a little while back that:

"Most organisations involved in this area [working with teenage parents] will concede that it’s about lack of self-esteem and a perception that the independence that follows childbirth – havings one’s own flat and independent income through benefits, etc – is an individual’s only route out of their current situation."

I asked him whether he could cite any evidence to support this claim, and he had a lot of links about low self-esteem and correlation between socio-economic deprivation and teenage pregnancy, but nothing to support the idea that getting a flat and benefits specifically was a major reason why teenagers got pregnant. He said that he thought he had seen some research by the Scottish Executive which supported this case, but couldn't find it.

This is an issue which I know that Tom is very interested in, so I would like to propose a charity bet. If, by the end of this month, Tom can provide examples of five charities who concede that many teenagers get pregnant to get a flat and benefits, or three pieces of peer-reviewed academic research which find that this is a major motivation for teenage parents, then I will give ten pounds to a charity of his choice.

If he can't, then he has to agree to contact the Scottish Poverty Alliance, and ask them to put him in touch with some teenage parents, listen to their ideas about how government policies should be improved, and then report back on what they said on his blog.

(I haven't contacted the Poverty Alliance before writing this, but I'm sure they'd be happy to help).

I fully expect to lose this bet, because Tom has been studying this subject for several months, has a team of staff who can do research on his behalf, and a large readership of his blog, many of whom claim to be extremely knowledgeable about what motivates teenage parents. He is also writing in support of official government policy, so could potentially call on the resources of the civil service to find the evidence.

But it's worth noting that the research that the YWCA, a charity which does lots of work with teenage parents, cites found that:

“There was no evidence to suggest that women became pregnant to get council housing or social security benefits. Most of them had known little or nothing about housing policy or benefits before becoming pregnant and the little they had known was usually wrong”,

and that:

“Most of them had not planned their pregnancies. They often reported being shocked or surprised to find they were pregnant even if they had not been using contraception.

Few of them had considered termination of pregnancy. However, continuing with the pregnancy was often not so much a decision as an acceptance of what had happened, reflecting the sense of fatalism which characterised much of their subsequent behaviour.”

and that:

“this research found many young women who were happy with their babies, in stable relationships with young men who shared their responsibilities, were not on benefits and were living in their own accommodation. Teenage mothers should not be treated as a homogeneous group and policy and services need to be flexible to meet their differing needs.”

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Affirmative action

This is a lovely example of conservative principles, taken from a conversation with leading American conservative thinker Irving Kristol:

“The talk turned to Irving's son, William Kristol, then Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, and how he got his start in politics. Irving recalled how he talked to his friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, who secured William a place there as both an undergrad and graduate student; how he talked to Pat Moynihan, then Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, and got William an internship at the White House; how he talked to friends at the RNC [Republican National Committee] and secured a job for William after he got his Harvard Ph.D.; and how he arranged with still more friends for William to teach at Penn and the Kennedy School of Government.

“With that, Prof. Katznelson recalled, he then asked Irving what he thought of affirmative action. ‘I oppose it,’ Irving replied. ‘It subverts meritocracy.’ “

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Justice for Tony Blair!

Thanks to Theo for drawing my attention to the 'Justice for Tony Blair' blog, which aims to end the practice of 'Blair-bating', which sort of like bear-bating and is defined as 'attacks on our former Prime Minister by the dogs of anti-war. Less metaphorically it can be defined as the constant incitement of hatred against Tony Blair for taking us to war in Iraq.'

The petition argues that "Parts of the media, the anti-Iraq war lobby and some families of soldiers killed in the war are already calling for this to be a TRIAL of Tony Blair with a view to gathering as much evidence as possible to send him to The Hague for "war crimes"...The organisers of this petition do not belong to any one party but are united in our belief in "innocent until proved guilty" and that Mr Blair should be given a fair hearing at the inquiry. To this end we demand that if the Blair-baiters want to turn the inquiry into a trial they should follow the same rules as a trial and not be allowed to make any public comment on the proceedings until they are over."

The argument 'if you think someone has committed war crimes, you have a duty not to make any public comment to that effect' is at least a novel rationalisation for demanding that opinions that you don't like should be silenced.

I am pleased to see that influential journalists John Rentoul and Stephen Pollard as well as Tom Harris have signed the petition. But it's sad to see that Iraq war supporters and Blairites like David Aaronovitch, Nick Cohen, Paul 'the thinker' Richards, Martin Kettle, Michael Gove and Hazel Blears have yet to commit their support. I would encourage readers to contact these fair weather friends and ask them to commit publicly their support for justice for Tony Blair.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The left and the global financial crisis

The Financial Times has an article called 'Global Insight: Europe’s left is failing', which asks:

"But why should the left be doing so badly at precisely the time when raw and unregulated free-market capitalism has precipitated a global financial crisis? State intervention and regulation are returning with a vengeance. Yet the parties of the left are getting none of the credit for saying: “We told you so.”"

But is 'the left' really doing that badly in response to the global financial crisis?

In the past month, left and centre-left parties were re-elected in Norway and Portugal, and gained power in Greece. In their worst result since the 1950s in Germany, the left mustered 46%, compared to 48% for the right wing parties.

Outside of Europe, the centre left is in power in some of the world's biggest countries, from the USA to India, Brazil to Australia, South Africa to Japan. Left-wing parties recently won power for the first time in Iceland, and are cruising to re-election in Uruguay and Bolivia.

There are other countries where the Left is doing badly - France, Italy and the UK, Poland and Hungary, Canada, New Zealand and Israel (not to mention countries where left-wing campaigners run the risk of prison or worse, such as China, Russia and parts of Asia and Africa).

But there are probably now more people living in countries with left-wing governments than at any previous time in history, and the trend since the start of the economic crisis has been that more people are supporting left-wing political parties, not fewer. So those countries where the left is doing badly should look to their many successful and diverse sister parties all over the world for good ideas.

Tory thinktank claims Osborne plans to increase unemployment, poverty and welfare dependency

A couple of weeks ago, former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and the think tank Centre for Social Justice published a 370 page report which was mostly about how high marginal tax rates for low paid workers cause poverty, unemployment and welfare dependency.

Today George Osborne announced that a Tory government would increase marginal tax rates for low paid workers.


(Osborne said that households earning over £50,000 will not receive child tax credits. This will mean that for each £ that a low paid worker earns, the goverment will reduce their tax credits at a greater rate than at present. This will increase the 'Participation Tax Rate' and according to the Centre for Social Justice's 'dynamic benefits model' will increase unemployment).

Monday, October 05, 2009

Republican Jesus and the Conservative Bible Project

One of the following was written by Christian conservatives, the other by godless libruls. See if you can guess which is which:

1. Republican Jesus:

Republican Jesus
is the central figure in the Republican religion. Republican Jesus shares many superficial qualities with the biblical Jesus, and in fact a minority of historians believe the two are actually the same figure. However, a growing body of evidence suggests that Republican Jesus was actually created in 1964 aboard a Goldwater campaign bus, and was recognized as the one true Republican messiah in 1980, in which role he continues to this day.

Some of the more significant differences between the two Jesuses' philosophies:
  • The biblical Jesus preached at length about renouncing worldly possessions and giving to the poor. Republican Jesus believes that such handouts merely encourage the poor to be lazy, and that Christian charity is better practiced through massive tax breaks for the wealthiest citizens, who could then be expected to let the money "tinkle down" to the poor in the form of honest, if low-paying, jobs at upright Republican institutions like Wal-Mart.
  • Whereas the biblical Jesus is not known to have ever addressed the subject of homosexuality at all, let alone gay marriage, homosexuality is just about all Republican Jesus ever talks about.
  • The biblical Jesus threw the money changers out of the Temple. Republican Jesus welcomed them in, even going so far as to open the first known church inside a Wal-Mart.
  • One story of the bible tells of an incident where a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery was about to be stoned to death by a crowd. According to the book of John, the biblical Jesus forgives the women and says to the crowd: "Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone!" In the Gospel of Tom, Republican Jesus says this too, but then picks up the largest stone he can find with the most jagged edges, and throws it in the face of the skanky slut that cheated on her master at point blank range. It is written that Republican Jesus then turned to the crowd and said: "Thou may now proceed to stone this vile promiscuous whore!"
2. The Conservative Bible Project:

As of 2009, there is no fully conservative translation of the Bible which satisfies the following ten guidelines:

  1. Framework against Liberal Bias: providing a strong framework that enables a thought-for-thought translation without corruption by liberal bias
  2. Not Emasculated: avoiding unisex, "gender inclusive" language, and other modern emasculation of Christianity
  3. Not Dumbed Down: not dumbing down the reading level, or diluting the intellectual force and logic of Christianity; the NIV is written at only the 7th grade level
  4. Utilize Powerful Conservative Terms: using powerful new conservative terms as they develop; defective translations use the word "comrade" three times as often as "volunteer"; similarly, updating words which have a change in meaning, such as "word", "peace", and "miracle".
  5. Combat Harmful Addiction: combating addiction by using modern terms for it, such as "gamble" rather than "cast lots"; using modern political terms, such as "register" rather than "enroll" for the census
  6. Accept the Logic of Hell: applying logic with its full force and effect, as in not denying or downplaying the very real existence of Hell or the Devil.
  7. Express Free Market Parables; explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning
  8. Exclude Later-Inserted Liberal Passages: excluding the later-inserted liberal passages that are not authentic, such as the adulteress story
  9. Credit Open-Mindedness of Disciples: crediting open-mindedness, often found in youngsters like the eyewitnesses Mark and John, the authors of two of the Gospels
  10. Prefer Conciseness over Liberal Wordiness: preferring conciseness to the liberal style of high word-to-substance ratio; avoid compound negatives and unnecessary ambiguities; prefer concise, consistent use of the word "Lord" rather than "Jehovah" or "Yahweh" or "Lord God."

Take from the sick and give to the shareholders

Shorter Conservative Party welfare policy:

"The reason that there is so much unemployment is because the government is paying sick people too much and private companies too little. Our policies will sort this out by taking £25 per week from 500,000 sick people and giving the money to shareholders in welfare to work companies.

In addition, if an unemployed person gets a job, then we will keep paying their benefits to the private welfare to work provider that they were registered with, for up to a year.

These radical reforms will ensure that welfare spending is not wasted on sick and unemployed people and instead provide big, bold and much needed opportunities for corporate welfare."

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Green economics

Shorter Peter Tatchell: If we cancel projects which cost £160bn over the next 25 years, then we can pay off nearly the whole of the financial deficit of £175bn. Or we could spend £80bn of the money that we've saved on creating lots of new green jobs. Then the next year, when we have a budget deficit of £255bn and have taken all of the one off savings, we can, um, err...

Peter Tatchell wins the 'Neal Lawson prize', awarded to truly terrible arguments in support of good ideas.

A social democrat is a conservative who's done some research

A while back, I wrote that:

"One criticism of the welfare state is that once you include tax credits, child benefit, housing and council tax benefit and so on, a lone parent who is not in paid employment and has two children has roughly the same income as a single person who works and gets the average wage.

One possible reaction to this is “that’s a disgrace, and it shows that benefits are too high.” This is the one which you will read a lot in the newspapers."

Fraser Nelson, Thatcherite editor of the Spectator, wrote something similar a couple of weeks ago:

"Take, for example, a British girl leaving school and imagining a life of lower-paid work. The UK government presents her with two options: employment or pregnancy. If she has one child and no job, the benefit income of £207 a week is more than the average wage for a hairdresser or teaching assistant. With two children, it is £260 a week — more than a receptionist or library assistant earns. With three children, it is £324 a week, more than a lab technician, typist or bookkeeper."


Fraser is not, however, arguing that benefits need to be slashed. Instead, he is writing in praise of former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith's idea, based apparently on two years of research, that the government needs to spend billions of pounds more in topping up the wages of low paid workers with cash benefits.

It's a funny old world when one of the leading conservative journalists - a proud Thatcherite - and a former leader of the Conservative Party, who was removed for being unelectably right-wing, both argue that the way to get people off benefits and into work is for the government to take a more active role spend more money during a recession to give handouts to working class people. It's good to see Fraser and Iain agreeing with me that a better response to the dilemma above is "that's a disgrace, and it shows that wages for the average worker are too low."

There's an old joke that the definition of a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. In a similar vein, I guess the definition of a social democrat is a conservative who has done some research. It is good to have Fraser and Iain on board.