Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"Cameron is George Bush mark 2"

Tim Montgomerie, in wingnut magazine Standpoint:

"Cameron would not like the comparison, but his agenda has been much more similar to, if not influenced by, George Bush 1999-2000. Both men have attempted to redefine what conservatism is in the post-Thatcher, post-Reagan era. Both have tried interesting new definitions. Cameron knows that a conservatism that is only about the economy cannot be elected in the UK. In 1997, people deserted the Conservative Party, not because they had not done well out of Margaret Thatcher and John Major but because they felt too many people were being left behind. Blair wanted to humanise the settlement of the Thatcher-Major years. Cameron has been wrestling with that and if you look at the way he has emphasised education, in particular faith-based and voluntary groups, diversity of candidates, putting different faces to the forefront, it was very similar to what Bush was trying to do to the Republicans in 1999-2000."

Monday, June 28, 2010

Learning from the Germans

A thought experiment:

English football is run in the interests of very wealthy people. Ticket prices are extremely high and unaffordable for many families on middle or lower incomes. There are even regulations which tell football supporters that they are not allowed to stand and watch their team play. Fans of top teams pay huge sums of money to watch live football, money which goes to multi millionaire footballers and owners of football teams. Those who choose instead to watch football on the telly pay hundreds of pounds per year to Rupert Murdoch. Many clubs have seen their budgets for investment slashed, and their revenues spent on servicing the debts which their owners have run up. A tiny fraction of this money trickles down from the millionaires to grassroots football clubs, and clubs at all levels of the game have been caught in a financial crisis, with many threatened by closure.

German football is run in the interests of the supporters. Ticket prices are kept low so that supporters can go and watch, and can even stand if they want. Regulations mean that at least 51% of every football club is owned by the supporters, unless a company can show that it has invested in the club for at least twenty years. Those who choose to watch football on the telly have benefited from the most competitive free TV market in the world. German football clubs made a profit, rather than running up debts, thanks to lower spending on players' wages. In recent years, German clubs have massively increased their investment in youth academies, and the national team has benefited from the liberalisation of the immigration laws in 1999, to the point where they proudly talk about how they are the "multicultural" or "liberation" generation. The Bundesliga is more unpredictable and exciting than the Premier League, and we all know what happened on Sunday.


English society is run in the interests of very wealthy people. The cost of housing, child care and social care is unaffordable for many families on middle or lower incomes. There are all sorts of petty regulations which tell ordinary people what they are and aren't allowed to do. People pay huge sums of money for basic services which goes to multi millionaires. The media is dominated by a small cartel of multi millionaires, most notably Rupert Murdoch. The government is slashing its budgets for investment, and our revenues are spent on servicing the debts which the bankers have run up. A tiny fraction of this money trickles down from the millionaires to grassroots community groups, and charities and small businesses have been caught in a financial crisis, with many threatened by closure.

If we want to improve our chances in the next World Cup and stop many of our clubs from going bankrupt, we could learn a lot from the Germans. We could organise the game around the convenience of fans, rather than the Glazers and other multi millionaire owners. We could slash ticket prices, and scrap petty regulations on supporters. At the same time, we could impose new regulations to stop rich people from buying football clubs in order to asset strip them and stop them from paying their debts by squeezing fans dry. We could break up media cartels and increase the amount we invest in our young people, as well as welcoming people from all around the world who have chosen to come to live and work here.

But it strikes me that these same principles which have made German football better than ours - putting ordinary people first, making sure it is affordable to go and watch a football game, regulating the anti-social activities of rich asset strippers, investing in developing young people and being proud of multiculturalism and tolerance - are also ones which are more generally applicable to how to improve our society.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Government adviser: "cut unemployment by locking people up"

Meet Lawrence Mead, the new adviser to the Tory/Lib Dem government:

"For difficult cases, such as fathers who do not work and fail to make child support payments or ex-prisoners on parole, the sanction for not working would be jail...

The key intellectual insight for Mead when he began his assault on the American welfare state was that what changed behaviour was not economic incentives but tough government talking. "It was authoritative statements from people in authority that mattered. We should not [incentivise people] to work. We hope [they will]. We say it because you are supposed to do it, we expect you to do it...

Such sentiments have a whiff of 1930s Germany, something the Twittersphere buzzed with when welfare secretary Iain Duncan Smith said: "Work makes you free" – the same words hung over the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp. "I have faced this accusation," says Mead. "Hitler was non-democratic, whereas work requirements claim a popular mandate."

Government should cut unemployment by locking the poor up, and the problem with forced labour schemes of the past was that they didn't have a popular mandate, says government adviser.

And the Lib Dem supporters read this (for it was in the Guardian), and they were confused that this far right wing drivel had not been condemned by Lib Dem MPs or by civil liberties campaigners. After all, they remembered their leader saying, just two months ago, that "civil liberties and individual freedoms are part of the DNA of the Lib Dems" and condemning Labour for its authoritarianism and for locking so many people up.

So they went back to the barn, and read the statement of Liberal Democrat principles. And it turned out they had misremembered. For the statement of Liberal Democrat principles had been changed, and now read - "civil liberties and individual freedoms are part of the DNA of the Lib Dems, except for those who do not work".

And the rest of us looked from Tory to Lib Dem, and from this Coalition government back to Maggie Thatcher's government, and found it increasingly hard to tell the difference.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Reality based policy development

Shorter Social Market Foundation:

"The Social Market Foundation is a leading UK think tank, developing innovative ideas across a broad range of economic and social policy. The recommendations we put forward are practical and designed to provide politicians with workable solutions to current and developing policy challenges.

The government needs to come up with a convincing and fair plan to reduce Britain's financial deficit. We therefore recommend charging people 20 quid to see the doctor, and privatising all the roads and charging people to drive on them. To protect the least well off, we also recommend cutting Housing Benefit and disability benefits by £3.7 billion.

We think that these are eminently practical solutions, and, no, none of us have ever had a job outside of Westminster which involves contact with the public, why do you ask?"

The true story of the football team which three contenders for the Labour leadership used to play for

It sounds like a piece of satire, but you absoutely must read the true story of the football team "Demon Eyes", written in 2008 by FT journalist George Parker. Demon Eyes were an amateur football team which played in the Thames League between 1998 and 2001, which was founded by James Purnell and Tim Allan, and which David Miliband, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham all played for.

Here's a couple of excerpts:

"By 1998, Demon Eyes were cutting their teeth in the Thames League, where anyone bluffing as a footballer would be quickly found out. The games were bruising and expletive-packed. The fact that the Market Road pitches were knee-wrecking surfaces "like green concrete and covered with sand" gave the games an added physical edge

In this abrasive environment, Demon Eyes twice won promotion, rather undermining the claim they were a load of soft middle-class boys playing at being lads. In 2001, they reached the apogee of their success, winning Thames League Division One.

Tales from the dressing room suggest a degree of toughness and determination that might explain why Demon Eyes players have progressed from the Ralgex-infused gloom of the Market Road changing rooms to the height of politics or their other chosen professions

Hugh Sleight, editor of the football magazine Four Four Two, recalls team members before the match talking about theatre or broadcasting. "It was not like any other changing room I had been in." But once on the pitch Demon Eyes started living up to their dark name. In a league where over-the-top tackles and mouthy behaviour were commonplace, Demon Eyes were notorious. "In all truth, we had a reputation as a fairly unpleasant team to play against," recalls Andy Burnham. "We all backed each other up quite a lot. It could get quite fruity."

Liam Halligan, a Financial Times journalist in the 1990s, recalls: "Most of them didn't have any touch - they couldn't really play football, but they tried. They ran their arses off. And it was when we were playing the really hard-nut teams, when the chips were down, that they fought hardest."

David Farr, artistic director at the Lyric Theatre in west London, says James Purnell, now work and pensions secretary, was typical of the team's fighting spirit. "He was a very capable and solid central defender. He could be very physical."

Andy Burnham was also a "very physical" centre forward, while David Miliband, foreign secretary, was already displaying his diplomatic class, a cultured presence in the centre of defence with "a good eye for a pass". However, colleagues remember that he was able to "shout very loud".

Ed Balls was a more occasional player but colleagues remember him as a rampaging centre-forward with a good line in abuse - sometimes aimed at fellow players, sometimes the opposition, more often at the referee. The team's willingness to challenge authority made them unpopular with the referees who gave up their weekends to officiate. Sleight recalls: "You could tell these people were involved in a lot of debates. They seemed to think if they had a better argument than the referee they could persuade him to change his mind."

One long-time Blair aide, who was regarded as the team's best player, could be relied upon to blow a fuse. Goodhart remembers one "perfectly friendly match" in which the aide ended up punching another player.

On another occasion a West Indian referee - accustomed to Demon Eyes' players moaning at every decision - masterfully disarmed his critics. As future cabinet ministers screamed abuse at him, he gave a laid-back, Caribbean-accented response: "That's right boys. Let it all out. Don't take it home with you."


Playing against Demon Eyes was like watching the Labour party up close. For them it was a case of win at all costs. Demon Eyes had a policy of claiming for every decision, even when it seemed to us that they had blatantly kicked the ball into touch. They knew that the standard of refereeing was variable and they were happy to exploit that. Nor, it seemed, were they averse to leaving their foot in or feigning injury if they needed to waste time.

What stood out - and really grated - was the strong whiff of arrogance and privilege that surrounded the team. Built more like rugby players, as half the team appeared to be, they motivated themselves by shouting "Winners!" every time the ball was launched in the air. It was part Will Carling, part David Brent.

Demon Eyes punctuated their games with comradely cries such as "Come on, Timbo! Win the game for us!"

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

"I agree with Diane"

There is a token candidate for the Labour Party leadership who struggled to get enough nominations to stand and who has no chance of winning.

His name is "Andy Burnham".

Ed Balls has more support amongst MPs, but he can't win either, with his 61% disapproval ratings.

Diane Abbott, in contrast, is a serious contender. She occupies the centre ground in policy terms - anti-Iraq war, anti-NHS privatisation, pro-equality and in favour of reducing the deficit by taxing the rich rather than cutting public services. Even before she gets a bounce from all the favourable media coverage, polls show her as the top choice amongst the general public, and she could easily end up topping the poll amongst Labour members and trade unionists, who between them have two-thirds of the votes in Labour's electoral college. It's also difficult for her opponents to criticise her when they will want the second preferences of her supporters.

She's got weaknesses - no ministerial experience, very little support amongst MPs and not much of a campaign team or organisation. She could easily make a gaffe or end up running a ridiculous campaign and end up as a bit of a joke. But she's arguably starting from a stronger position than Harriet Harman had at close of nominations for the Deputy Leadership.

One of the things which we learned from the first leadership debate back in April was that the leaders of the Labour and Tory parties had absolutely no idea how to respond to an articulate populist politician making centre-left arguments. It will be interesting to see how the Miliband brothers and the fringe right-wing candidates, all of whom have ministerial records to defend, respond to Abbott. My guess is that we will hear a lot of "I agree with Diane".

And let's remember the lessons from Labour's deputy leadership election. Jon Cruddas won all the policy arguments just by making some reality-based soft left arguments, and Harriet Harman got elected with the argument of "I agree with Jon + I've got experience of being in government + I'm a woman'. We saw then that there was a clear gap between the opinion of most Labour MPs and the members and trade unionists. Many MPs and Westminster insiders, for example, thought that Hazel Blears was a strong candidate with mainstream views, who connected well with "ordinary people". Amongst the wider party, Hazel Blears was a joke candidate who supported marginal and ridiculous policies and got a derisory result. I can't imagine that gap between MPs and the wider party has closed much over the past three years.

Abbott's challenge can only be a good thing for the Labour Party. She is an articulate and populist candidate who will put forward leftie arguments which the people in charge of the party have ducked out of debating for all these years. We'll be able to find out which leftie policy ideas capture the public's support and which ones belong in the dustbin of history. Her candidacy will persuade more people to join up and get involved. It kills off the movement to try and make Labour the anti-immigrant party. And whoever emerges as Labour's next leader will have sharpened and developed their campaigning skills, and be all the better prepared to help Labour win the next election.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Throwing money at the problem of poverty

Frank Field:

"Over recent decades, the Left and centre-Left’s answer to poverty and inequality has been to spend more money, to redistribute from richer to poorer. Yet this central social democratic ideal is being tested to the point of destruction...Few people would argue that the solution to the complex social and economic problems Britain faces is even higher spending. "

Yeah, only a few crazy Left wing people would argue for spending more money on tackling poverty! Crazy Left wing people, like, um...

Tory Secretary of State Iain Duncan Smith's Dynamic Benefits Report:

"The change in benefit withdrawal rates, earnings, and employment resulting from these proposals would increase the total annual benefits bill by £3.6 billion."

Right-wing think tank Policy Exchange:

"People on welfare should be incentivised to take up work by raising the ‘disregard’ (the
amount of money that someone is allowed to earn before they start losing benefits) to
£92.80 for all benefits. This would mean that anyone on the minimum wage who works for
16 hours keeps everything that they earn. This would give over 2.8 million people a better
reason to work.

Raising the disregard would cost £5.1 billion."

And, er, Frank Field:

"A welfare reform bill that looks forwards instead of backwards would centre on two measures. Large numbers of citizens with impeccable work records are going to be sacked. They will then find out that their continuous National Insurance contributions gives them a princely £60.50 a week benefit. That is precisely the sum an individual gets who has never worked.

A relevant welfare reform bill would lay the basis for linking the size of this contributory JSA to a claimant's work record. Somebody who has worked continuously for five years would get double the payment and somebody, for example, working ten years would see the insurance benefit tripled."

Whether it's spending £3.6 billion more on giving unemployment benefits to people who are working from Iain Duncan Smith, paying £92.80 in benefits to everyone working 16 hours on the minimum wage from Policy Exchange, or paying some unemployed people more than £180 per week in Jobseekers' Allowance from Frank Field, the principle that reducing unemployment and poverty requires more spending isn't even controversial, and has been accepted on the Right just as on the Left.

It is a bit troubling that the government's new star adviser on poverty doesn't seem to have realised this.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

Hey, Clegg, leave them kids alone

Shorter Nick Clegg:

"It would be a huge mistake for the "centre-left community" to oppose our plans to cut jobs for young unemployed people, cancel the most successful savings scheme ever for low income poor families, cut the number of university places, take money away from schools, cut training for childcare workers, stop families on low incomes getting laptops, cut programmes which help children learn to read, cancel summer playschemes, close playgrounds, cut youth offending teams, and take away support which helps parents get jobs.

We have to do all these things, because otherwise it will be our children and grandchildren who suffer."

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Affirmative Action for Special Advisers

I am interested in Harriet Harman's suggestion that 50% of the places in Labour's Shadow Cabinet should be reserved for women, but I'm not convinced.

On the reasonable assumption that the Shadow Cabinet will (for the next year, at least) be made up of people who have had ministerial experience, that would mean choosing nine Shadow Cabinet ministers from amongst the eighteen or so women who currently have ministerial experience.

Some of these women, of course, would make very good Shadow Cabinet ministers, but I'm not sure that paving the way for Hazel Blears *and* Caroline Flint *and* Tessa Jowell to return to senior positions in the Labour Party is the most urgent priority for gender equality.

Top priority in securing equal representation for women within the top ranks of the Labour Party, instead, should be how to ensure that by the time of the next election, 50% of Labour's Shadow Cabinet are women. And I think the best way to do this is to build on one of Labour's existing positive action programmes.

Since 2001, Labour has run an informal yet very influential scheme called Affirmative Action for Special Advisers. Under this scheme, Oxbridge-educated men who have been special advisers to Labour ministers have been helped to secure safe parliamentary seats and then fast tracked to help them gain ministerial experience soon after being elected.

This programme has been so successful that there are more ex-Special Advisers standing for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2010 than the total number of women who have ever stood for the leadership of the Labour Party over the past hundred and ten years.

There are 81 female Labour MPs, including many exceptionally talented people from a range of backgrounds. By expanding the Affirmative Action for Special Advisers programme to these MPs, especially the newly elected ones, we will ensure that by 2015 or whenever the next election takes place, there will be a much greater number of women who have the experience needed to be effective members of the Shadow Cabinet, and that by the time it comes to choose the next but one leader of the Labour Party and the Cabinet ministers for when Labour is next in power, we will be able to choose from a much wider range of excellent candidates.

Making sure that the parliamentary Labour Party has roughly equal numbers of men and women, amongst MPs and amongst ministers, is an important part of the wider struggle for equal rights. It is by focusing on the medium term, rather than the next few months, that we're most likely to achieve real and meaningful change.

Savage cuts lose elections

Vox EU has an article which seeks to prove that "it is possible for fiscally responsible governments to engage in large fiscal adjustments and survive politically. Moreover, acting on the spending side is no more costly that doing on the tax side". They've got a rather strange method of assessing this, which looks at how many changes of government occurred while the cuts were taking place.

I think that the evidence suggests the opposite - when a government slashes public spending, they are punished for it by the voters. I did a simple test, which was to take the examples given by the paper, and look at what happened in the first elections to take place after the cuts started.

Portugal 1980. Next election in 1983, right-wing coalition defeated, Socialist Party tops the poll.

Ireland 1987. Next election in 1989, "the result was a disaster for Fianna Fáil", forced to enter coalition with Progressive Democrats.

Netherlands 1990. Next election in 1994. "Landslide loss for the governing coalition of PvdA and CDA. The two liberal parties, VVD and D66 profited from this. As did two parties for the elderly, AOV and Unie 55+, and the socialist SP".

France 1993. Next election in 1997. Right-wing government "obtained its worst result in a legislative election during the Fifth Republic."

UK 1993. We know what happened here.

Sweden 1993. Next election 1994. Centre-right government defeated, Social Democrats return to power.

Austria 1995. Next election 1999. Government parties lose support, the Fascists finish second.

So past experience in Europe is that governments which undertake large fiscal adjustments by cutting public spending lose elections. It's up to Labour to make sure that the Coalition doesn't make history by bucking the trend and avoiding defeat at the next election.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

How do you solve a problem like student fees?

Some time later this year, the Browne Review about higher education funding will report, and is expected to recommend that universities be allowed to increase the fees that they charge students.

I would be interested to know what the candidates for the Labour leadership think about this, as it presents a problem and an opportunity.

Until April 2010, it was reasonably clear what most politicians thought about this issue. Labour Party Lefties and Lib Dems opposed any rise in student fees, and indeed wanted to see them scrapped. Labour Party "Moderates" and Tories supported student fees, and were clear that any extra money for universities would have to come from increases in fees, rather than extra government money.

But now in the New Politics, the Lib Dems have discovered that it is all very difficult and are planning to abstain on whether or not student fees should be raised, and some Labour Party Moderates such as Ed Balls have identified public anger over student fees as one of the reasons that Labour lost the election, and hence something that Labour needs to reconsider.

What Ed Balls and others discovered, when they went canvassing for the first time in several years, is that tuition fees are a massive stealth tax on aspiration. New Labour had thought that the only people who cared about fees were middle class lefties and students (two groups which it always felt were worth annoying in pursuit of the "political centre ground"). Yet in fact, fees hit New Labour's "hard working families" hardest of all, as people on modest and middle incomes spend their savings on enabling their children to go to university in the hope that this would help them get a decent job in the future.

There will be people inside the Labour Party leadership, and lobby groups such as Universities UK, who will urge Labour to back an increase in student fees. They will argue that it would be irresponsible to deny universities the funding that they need, and it would show a lack of seriousness about the nation's finances to turn down the opportunity for universities to reduce their dependence on state funding.

But burdening aspirational middle income voters with unaffordable fees is wrong in principle and unsustainable in practice as a way of funding public services, and would also show how out of touch Labour still is with its supporters. It would also squander a chance to win over former Lib Dem supporters.

Instead, Labour's next leader should pledge to vote against any rise in student fees, and should develop an alternative way of funding post 18 education on a more sustainable and fairer basis. That would not only show that they've got the political judgement to deal with this difficult issue, but also show how they would cope with difficult policy challenges which go right to the heart of big political debates which we will be faced with over the next few years, such as how to improve public services while reducing the deficit, and how to make sure that the UK is a good place for people to study and invest in.


One other objection to subsidising the cost of higher education is that most of the benefit goes to people on higher incomes. One possible way to avoid this problem would be to give everyone an individual education budget, which they could use for any kind of education or training after the age of 18.

Whether that's covering the costs of an accredited course so someone who is out of work can get a job as a security guard; helping a student get a degree in Golf Course Management so they can find work in one of the UK's fastest growing industries; or allowing someone who has worked hard all their life to study Ancient Greek for the sheer love of Herodotos - the principle should be that everyone deserves an equal chance to learn.