Thursday, December 24, 2009

Meet the Conservative Future

When I was a student, the young Tories used to get drunk and sing songs like "Dashing through the Reich" and invited new students to join "the biggest political group for young people since the Hitler Youth".

According to Prospect Magazine, some things don't change:

"Meanwhile, to my left, one young Conservative is explaining his scepticism about joining the party to two CF members. “I vote Tory—you know I vote Tory. I’m just not a Tory member. I don’t like parties.” He pauses. “Well, I like these kinds of parties obviously! God… can you imagine what a Labour version of this would be like?”

“Well,” his friend replies, “there’d be a lot more ethnic minorities for one thing.” “Oh really?” the other replies. “I thought the Labour party was trying to make itself seem more respectable!” They laugh awkwardly, seemingly aware that even as casual racism, it doesn’t really work."


"For a political party that professes itself horrified that the pre-election debate is being framed in class terms, the young Tories seem remarkably fixated on the issue. “Sorry, did you just say I was a commoner? Fuck off and die!”—is the punch-line to one bit of drunken joshing between friends.

As I shape to leave, I hover for one last cigarette. Three new acquaintances are making idle smalltalk. “Tim is such a common name…” one of the smokers is saying. He checks himself, not wanting to offend the Tim in question: “sorry, not, you know, common… I mean ‘popular’.”

“Yah but your surname is Jenkins,” his friend says through a mouthful of teeth. “That’s such a butler’s name!”"

Monday, December 21, 2009

If politicians sold records

Sunder from the Fabians has an entertaining post about how Simon Cowell should ask politicians for advice about how to sell records, after Joe the X Factor winner was beaten in the Christmas singles chart by Rage Against the Machine.

But imagine if political strategists had been in charge of setting up a campaign to beat the X Factor winner to Christmas number one. They'd have done their research and found that the only people who buy records at Christmas are older people and teenagers. Then they'd have done focus groups on these key "swing" demographics to find out their priorities, and tried to develop "dividing lines" and soundbites carefully targeted to win over people who had bought Alexandra's or Leon's song but who were ready for Change this time. They would have grovelled to Rupert Murdoch and the newspaper editors, and gone cap in hand to wealthy donors to pay for annoying advertising on billboards in key areas where the potential purchasers live and shop. And they'd have produced some waffle about how vital it was to use new technology as part of the campaign.

That, after all, is how political strategists try to get people to vote for their party.

But what the grassroots campaign which got Rage Against the Machine to number one did was very different. They concentrated on the people who didn't normally buy records at Christmas, with a simple and clear negative message about Simon Cowell. 450,000 copies of Joe's song were bought or downloaded, 175,000 more than the winning single in 2007. But so many people who don't usually download songs at Christmas got involved that Rage Against the Machine sold 500,000. And, rather than waffling about it, the campaign organisers actually made effective use of new (and traditional) media. Though the net result is that Simon Cowell ended up making even more money, so it is unlikely to have wiped the smile off his face.


Reflecting on recent political opinion polls, the founder of the Ipsos-Mori polling firm explained that a turnout of just 50% would return a Tory majority over all other parties of over 100, a 78% turnout would see a Labour majority of about 25. The difference is that people who are certain to vote - mainly older and more wealthy people - are strongly supporting the Tories, whereas people who aren't sure whether they are going to vote prefer Labour. If only the people who say that they are "10 out of 10 likely to vote" do so, the Tories will win easily, if everyone who has a preference does so, even if at the moment they are only "5 out 10 likely", then the polls suggest Labour will win.

Political strategists tend to focus on trying to win the support of the people who are certain to vote, and often consider it a waste of time to try to appeal to the people who are less likely to participate in the democratic process. The analyst Bob Worcester talks of older people having twice the 'voting power' of younger people, because in past elections they have been twice as likely to go to vote. But as Joe could tell you, just because groups of people haven't done something in the past, just might mean they are waiting for the right kind of campaign.

Getting people to go and vote is obviously a very different kind of business to getting them to download a song, but whether you are trying to get to the top of the charts or win an election, it's worth paying close attention to the people who haven't got involved in the past, not just those who have.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Immigration and higher taxes for the rich

Taxing the rich and cracking down on immigration are two policies which share common features. Both are overwhelmingly popular with the public in opinion polls. Yet Labour were unelectable when they called for higher taxes for the rich in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Tories were unelectable when they warned about Britain becoming a foreign country in 2001, and asked if we were thinking what they were thinking in 2005.

In both cases, the popularity of the individual policies were less important than the fact that they signalled something bad about the party - that Labour was hostile to success and aspiration, and that the Tories were full of xenophobic bigots.

Some commentators, like Danny Finkelstein for the Tories or David Aaronovitch for Labour, would argue that it is still the case that occupying the "centre ground" of British politics means steering clear of taxing the rich like Foot and Kinnock or banging on about immigration like Hague or Howard. They point to David Cameron's emphasis on 'detoxifying' the Tory 'brand', following in the footsteps of Tony Blair and New Labour.

I think that in fact the centre ground has shifted, particularly since 2007, and that Labour and the Tories have in practice agreed a new and more populist consensus which is much tougher on immigration and in favour of higher taxes on the rich.

And then there is our old friend Tom Harris MP. On immigration, he argues that "Immigration concerns must be heard, whatever the elite may say"; whereas on higher taxes for the rich he argues that, "No party that is seen to sneer at wealth, or which is suspected, because of its language, of treating the wealthy and the wealth creators as the enemy, can hope to win the confidence of the electorate."

In other words, Labour should adopt populist policies which have lost elections for right-wing parties in the recent past, but should shun populist policies which have lost elections for left-wing parties in the less recent past.

This is an analysis which is less "we need to remain in the electable centre ground of British politics" and more based on the principle of "if those no good libruls are for it, I'm agin' it".

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Housing benefit reforms shelved

Some good news, the Department of Work and Pensions has ditched one of James Purnell's stupid ideas:

"The government is to put on hold plans to reclaim up to £15 a week in housing benefit from about 300,000 families.

The current system allows people to keep up to £15 if they find housing at a lower rent than the level of housing allowance set by their local authority.

Since 2008, new housing benefit claimants have been entitled to get up to £15 a week back - £780 over a year.

It was a key part of the government's reform of housing benefit and was meant to encourage people on low incomes to shop around for the best deal when looking for rented accommodation."

Rentoul replies

Most disconcertingly, instead of ignoring my rambling denunciations like any sensible journalist, John Rentoul took the time to leave a comment and then write a follow up piece. In turn, Sunder Katwala from the Fabians has responded to Rentoul, arguing that it is possible to separate the 'deserving' and 'undeserving' rich, and Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report has also joined in the fun.

All credit to John, Anthony and Sunder for a thoughtful and considered discussion - this is exactly the sort of good humoured analysis which we'll need in discussing Labour's future strategy.

Two things to add - John cites Harriet Harman as part of "Labour's core vote strategy". I don't think the equalities agenda which Harman is the most high profile advocate is part of a core vote strategy. If anything, it probably annoys many of Labour's core voters. It is more something that the government thinks is the right thing to do regardless of whether or not it is popular. It is therefore completely separate from the economically populist policies such as taxing the bankers (which they would not be doing if they did not think it would be popular).

It's also interesting to note that there are precedents for unpopular governing centre-left parties, trailing in the polls, to reap the benefits of adopting a more economically populist approach:

In 2000, Al Gore trailed George Bush by 7.5% in opinion polls taken over the summer. Gore made the theme of his Convention speech 'the people versus the powerful', and by September, had gained 25 points over Bush in terms of being chosen as best able to handle the economy, the largest gain on any of the policy areas surveyed, and had taken the lead in the polls.

In 2005, Gerhard Schroeder's SPD trailed Angela Merkels CDU by 11% just before their debate on 4th September, at which Merkel announced her support for the flat tax. After two weeks of SPD attacks on the CDU's economic policies favouring the rich, the CDU ended up less than 1% ahead of the SPD.

Of course, both Gore and Schroeder lost (Gore by 4 electoral college votes, Schroeder by 4 seats in the Parliament), but I suspect Labour strategists would consider finishing up 4 seats behind the Tories to be quite a success.

Monday, December 14, 2009

John Rentoul vs the people

John Rentoul, chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, writes that "the tax on bankers' bonuses was the final act of self-destruction" for the Labour Party, and that "Brown's reversion to class-war politics has compounded his error. The City's fury matters...And for what? It won't make Labour any more popular among the voters it needs to save its marginal seats at the election."

So according to Rentoul's argument, we would expect opinion polls to reveal that most people oppose the government's policies, right?


From what I have heard, the Government’s plans for heavier taxes on people with high incomes are fair
Agree 66%
Disagree 28%
Don’t know 5%

Ø The Government is right, in the eyes of most voters, to tax high earners more heavily
Ø Unsurprisingly the highest proportion who agree are DEs (71%) although even 64% of ABs agree
Ø There is also a correlation between age and agreement, with older voters the most likely to agree
Ø Although Labour voters are the voter group most likely to agree, 61% of Tories do too .


Given the current economic climate and the need for the Government to reduce borrowing in the years ahead, do you support or oppose the following measures that Alistair Darling announced this week?

Requiring banks to pay a one-off extra tax on bonuses of more than £25,000
per bank employee

Support 79
Oppose 11
Don't know 10


The sub editor at the Independent summarised Rentoul's article as "Gordon Brown's party is being propelled into the wilderness by economic plans that repel voters". An improved version of this summary would be:

"Gordon Brown's party is being propelled into the wilderness by economic plans that repel 11% of voters, and are supported by 79% of voters".

And if you think 'but that argument makes no sense, Tony Blair's biographer appears to be launching an unfounded attack on Gordon Brown', then, um, you'd be right.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jobs for all?

One really good thing that James Purnell did when he was a government minister was to set up the Future Jobs Fund.

The Future Jobs Fund subsidises employers to create jobs for young people who have been looking for work for a year - the subsidy is roughly enough to employ someone for 25 hours/week for 6 months. In the day job, I'm hoping to employ a couple of people in January through the Future Jobs Fund.

Purnell and Graham Cooke have a good idea that the Jobs Fund should be extended to include older people, so that eventually everyone who has been unemployed for a year should have a guaranteed offer of a job. Their reasoning, that the government should become employer of last resort, is spot on.

Two concerns - firstly, the Future Jobs Fund has only just started up, so before extending it we should probably find out things like whether it actually works in practice (e.g. what percentage of people complete six months, what happens to them when the funding stops, is it beneficial for employees and employers), and secondly it is an enormous temptation for employers to reduce wages, by replacing people who are on higher wages with a government-subsidised job on the minimum wage.

They also have an idiotic addition to the policy, which is that they want to make it mandatory for people to take a job if offered. As an employer, I want to create jobs for people who are keen to work, learn and develop - not someone who has been compelled to turn up, which is bound to be a total waste of my time and theirs. It's politically correct dogma - fixated on sounding tough about a tiny minority who absolutely refuse to work (or who won't be able to hold down a job and who would be better off volunteering) rather than focusing on guaranteeing work for the overwhelming majority who want to work but can't find a job. They don't go into any detail about this, but a related concern would be what they envisage if the job doesn't work out - would people lose their entitlement to benefits or face other sanctions?

But with those caveats, I think this is an exciting policy and one which it would be good to see the government adopt.

The very next item on the Demos website announces that they are seeking an intern to work on the Open Left project. Instead of creating an unpaid internship for someone who has the independent means to work without pay to boost their CV, they could have recruited someone through the Future Jobs Fund and done their bit to help tackle youth unemployment and give someone a potentially life-changing opportunity. Wouldn't this have been a good opportunity for Purnell and Cooke to practice what they preach?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Shy Glaswegians

I do actually agree with Tom Harris when he writes about 'the need for the Labour Party as a whole, and at every level, to start talking the same language of the people we represent and to reflect their views.' For example, I look forward with enthusiasm to Tom discussing bad landlords or rich bankers in the same terms as the majority of his constituents would use, and reflecting their views about the Iraq war or higher taxes for the rich.

I was confused by one bit, though:

"Knocking on doors in my constituency on Saturday morning, I once again had to try to defend the government’s policies on immigration. This is a very regular occurrence these days, particularly in so-called “solid” Labour areas. These people are not racists by any stretch of the imagination, but they are worried. And they’re talking about their concerns now because it’s only now they feel they have “permission” to do so."

I've knocked on doors for the Labour Party from time to time since 1997 in a variety of places, and for at least the last decade I've regularly heard people raise concerns about the government's policies on immigration. (Some of these people were racists and some of them weren't.)

So this idea that people in Glasgow only now feel that they have "permission" to talk about immigration is one I find strange. It might be that Glaswegians are much more respectful of the views of pro-immigration liberals than people in England, and so only now feel able to voice opinions at odds with the liberal elite. Or it might be that the Scottish newspapers haven't printed lies designed to stir up hatred of immigrants every single day since Labour came to power, as the newspapers in England have.

Can anyone else help with the mystery of the 'shy Glaswegians'?