Category Archives: Politics UK

Reflections on general political developments and ideas in the UK

Are the Tories winning the air war and losing the ground war?

Britain’s electorate does not choose a Prime Minister in May’s General Election. It chooses a local MP. And enough of them have already made up their mind in England and Wales to make that choice a foregone conclusion in most places, so that the real fight is occurring in a limited number of marginal seats. Has the Conservative Party forgotten this basic architecture of British politics?

That might explain something that is rather puzzling about the election campaign. The Conservatives are having a good “air war” in the expression made famous by Bill Clinton. That means coverage on general media on a largely national level. Labour’s strategy seems to be that government’s lose elections rather than oppositions win them. They have not spelled out a clear alternative vision for the country – preferring to keep party unity intact by concentrating on complaining about the coalition government.

Thus Labour have surrendered the initiative in the air war. The Tories have exploited this brilliantly with “bait and switch” tactics. They fly a kite about some policy or other (public expenditure is the biggest; VAT is this week’s example). Labour duly attack, only for the Conservatives to move in a different direction. And they have undermined Labour’s attempt to create sound-bite policies. For example Labour promised to cut student tuition fees by removing a tax break for pension contributions for the wealthier; the coalition duly  removed the tax break and baked it into the budget baseline. Meanwhile previous Labour attacks, on Keynesian economic management, on unemployment and on energy prices have been undermined by events. The Tory leader, David Cameron, seems at ease and in control – even his supposed gaffe over not wanting to serve more than two terms plays to that impression. In contrast Labour’s Ed Miliband has turned into Britain’s whingemaster general – without giving any impression that he would do any better himself. The Conservatives are well organised; they have powerful allies in the press, which still seem to set the agenda for broadcast media, especially the BBC. Labour are being routed.

But here’s the puzzle: it seems to be having little effect on their poll ratings. Both parties have been edging up slightly, at the expense of the insurgent Ukip. The Conservatives cannot establish the lead they need to overcome the awkward distribution of their vote under the country’s electoral system. Notwithstanding Labour’s impending disaster in Scotland (where, unlike England and Wales, most seats could change hands) the Conservatives do not look as if they will even be the largest party in parliament, still less win outright. Party HQ reassures the nervous footsoldiers that things will turn good in the last weeks. Maybe.

But things are worse than that. A recent survey by the Ashcroft organisation of key Labour-Tory marginals showed that Labour was ahead in all but one. Constituency polls also show the Tory coalition partners the Liberal Democrats confounding their dismal national poll rating in Tory-facing marginal seats. The Lib Dem position grows stronger the more voters are reminded that they are voting for their local MP, and not the national leader. And this poses the question: are the Conservatives losing the “ground war”? The process of direct voter contact by doorstep, phone, social media and locally tailored literature – which is focused on those marginal seats.

The Tories seem to have a weakness here. They don’t attract many younger supporters these days (in striking contrast to Labour), and their policies don’t seem designed to engage with that group anyway. Many of their older activists have defected to Ukip, are demotivated, or are, well, just getting too old. Money can help. One marginal reports literature being delivered at full cost by the Royal Mail. Hired help can make up some of the gap on literature delivery. But it is much less effective in direct voter contact – canvassing – and useless in social media interaction. Direct mail, a past Tory favourite, seems to be losing its value for money.

Labour, meanwhile, have upped their game. They are well organised, disciplined and, in many cases, downright cunning. Here in Battersea – which they lost in 2010 and which many had assumed was out reach this time – they have been using camouflaged front campaigns on the NHS and something called Women of Wandsworth (WoW) Mums. They also seem to be outgunning their opponents on literature. The Lib Dems have always been quite good at the ground war, and are targeting their efforts ruthlessly to make up for their reduced number of activists.

So ground war may be trumping the air war. This runs counter to the conventional wisdom of British politcos, who almost always attribute the success of past Labour or Tory campaigns to the air war (though not those of the other parties). This may always have been overdone. It may be that the parties’ ground war campaigns have cancelled each other out better in the past. But it may also be that British electors make their choices differently these days. The coalition may have damaged the Lib Dems’ appeal, but it has planted the idea that smaller parties matter. Cynicism over national politics has always run ahead of the standing of local MPs – from whom people expect more, even as opinions of politicians in general sink. Besides, national news media may be being crowded out by web and social media (even if their content is overwhelmingly non-political).

It may even prove a mistake for the Conservatives to have torpedoed the leader debates, whose original structure supported their two-party narrative and could have drawn more people into the air war.

Or maybe, as Tory politicians hope, people will come to their senses in the coming weeks: something which both Labour and Lib Dem politicians also hope in their different ways. But my betting is that the game has changed and politicians need to catch up.

Share

The European Convention on Human Rights is today’s Magna Carta

I’m going to let somebody else do the heavy lifting today. My Magna_Cartanephew and godson James Green has won first prize in the One Essex Court/Times essay competition, with this essay. The subject of the competition’s essays was: “Is Magna Carta more honoured in the breach?”. The essay is about the same length as one of my normal posts, and at least as well written – do read it!

James makes the point that Magna Carta’s main purpose was to challenge King John’s sovereignty, and set limits to it. Today the concept of sovereignty in Britain rests not with the King or Queen, but with Parliament. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), enshrined in British law by the Human Rights Act, was drafted mainly by British lawyers and likewise seeks to set limits on Parliamentary sovereignty. It can be said to be the true successor of the Magna Carta. The British Bill of Rights, an alternative to the Human Rights Act postulated by the Conservatives, seeks to restore the sovereignty of Parliament – or that appears to be the case from the drafts seen so far.

Parliament claims sovereignty based on the will of the people. King John claimed his based on the will of God. King John’s claim may be the more flawed in modern eyes, but the two claims aren’t as different as we often like to suppose. Parliament is a collection of men and women with there own agendas and interests, and elections (which do not apply to the House of Lords anyway) are but an imperfect check. Almost every other democracy places their legislature in check with some form of written constitution. We have the ECHR and not much else. As I think Lord Hailsham put it (speaking as a Tory peer under a Labour government) we live not in a democracy but in an elective dictatorship.

Imposing a written constitution on the deeply conservative British system is probably too big an ask, in the absence of a major breakdown. So in the meantime let’s celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta by affirming our commitment to the ECHR.

Share

Britain’s politicians scrabble over a weak economy.

Yesterday was one of the great annual set-pieces of British politics: the Budget. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, set out his plans for government finances: taxes and spending. This year, behind the theatricality, it was a bit of a non-event. There were few changes to previously announced plans. Mr Osborne rowed back somewhat in his longer term plans to cut government spending. There were some cheap gimmicks. Political inactivity is not necessarily a bad thing. But what is most remarkable is that neither he, nor the Labour opposition, were prepared to talk about the British economy as it really is. Is it any wonder that politicians fail to be trusted?

Mr Osborne’s speech contained a quite astounding piece of hubris. He claimed that Britain was on the path to becoming the most prosperous country in the world – overtaking Germany in the process.  But there is a big flaw in this notion. Britain’s output as a nation is lagging the impressive growth in the workforce. Britons are working harder but have little to show for it.  Mr Osborne sneered about the French economy – and yet French workers are over 20% more productive. Further, Britain is running a substantial current account deficit – which means that, like its despised Labour predecessor, the economy continues to be built on debt supplied by foreigners (or, perhaps, running down the nation’s overseas assets).

Dwelling on this weakness would have made the political message too complicated. His mission was to point out that Labour’s dire forecasts for the economy had not come to pass. So we heard little of any ideas about how lift the economy from its evident mire. Some talk of making life easier for manufacturing. There was the core idea of economic liberalism (that the left calls “neoliberalism”) that a smaller government will allow the total economy to be more productive. Little was heard of the government’s most promising idea – greater devolution of power to regional centres.

Weak fare. But while Labour love to point out the economy’s weaknesses – especially the low wages of many workers – they haven’t any better ideas of their own. Indeed their thoughts on a more intrusive state clamping down on “predator” capitalism seems destined to make the economy smaller, if a little less unequal. Many of their supporters, including journalists at the Guardian, seem to rely on half-digested Keynesianism. Increased state spending (or less austerity as they prefer to put it) will raise demand in the economy which will then lead to growth. As a formula in 2010 or 2011 this might have had some merit. In the near full-employment world of 2015 it does not. Such policies are more likely to lead to an even worse current account deficit, and an economy even more dependent on debt, public or private. It does not address the productivity problem. To be fair, the Labour leadership seems to understand this – but they are still bereft of ideas to tackle it.

So the Tories say the economy is gathering strength fast, and Labour that it is still on its knees. There is a paradox though. The Conservative fiscal policies are appropriate to the idea of continued economic weakness, and Labour’s on confidence in the economy’s continued strength.

How so? If you think the economy is weak, you need to make sure that government expenditure is kept in check. There is nothing certain about future projections of economic growth – and with a weak economy there will be risks on the downside. With the European and world economies looking weak also, this is easy to appreciate. Fiscal restraint may not appear to be necessary based on forecasts, but it gives the government more options in an uncertain world. In contrast, if you think the economy will bounce back strongly, and that the productivity problem sort itself out, then Labour’s much more relaxed approach to government finances make much better sense.

The problem is, of course, that nobody understands why the British economy remains as weak as it does. Is it because deep structural problems, based on poor skills, changing industrial needs and changing consumer preferences (e.g. towards more work-life balance)? Could it be the progressive hollowing out of local economies outside the main economic centres? Is it because North Sea oil is running out, and the apparently highly productive finance sector just a chimera? Or is it just a temporary blip? Will businessmen respond to the right signals to launch an investment drive that builds economic strength? Perhaps labour shortages will force businesses to use their existing workers more efficiently and pay them better.

Regular readers of my blog will know I tend to the more pessimistic of these explanations – though this is based more on instinct than data. I believe it is perfectly possible to advance human wellbeing in spite of an economy that is weak in terms of income growth. But that does mean that we must break our addiction to debt, public and private. For that reason I like the right’s focus on government parsimony, and the left’s focus on inequality. Alas neither of our main political parties seem to grasp the real nature of our economic plight.

Share

No health without mental health. The genius of Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems.

2015-03-15 10.36.55What is the point of Britain’s Liberal Democrats? Most Lib Dems would point to the party’s liberal values. And yet these are shared by members of other parties. The same can be said for the party’s attachment to the political centre. Others will talk of community politics – but it is plain that many modern Lib Dems, including its leader Nick Clegg, aren’t really interested in this political strategy beyond a few local campaigns. Many outside the party would simply suggest that there is no point to the Lib Dems. The party is destined to be just a footnote in British politics.

But attending the party’s Spring conference in Liverpool in the run up to May’s General Election, the penny at last dropped. The party is the grit in the oyster of British politics, from which great pearls are produced. It is a serious political party that aspires to govern, not just to protest and complain. It stops Britain’s two main parties, the Conservatives and Labour, from having that ground entirely to themselves. And so it can introduce new ideas to a debate that would otherwise be contrived and stale, confined to a few carefully selected issues, based on focus groups and private polling.

What has given me this insight? It is the party’s campaign on mental health. It is pure genius from a party that looked beaten and irrelevant. The party is demanding “parity of esteem” between mental and physical health, and is in the process of securing serious extra resources for mental health support. It is trying to persuade politicians and the public to talk about the issue more. It is an idea whose time has come.

Consider three things. First is that mental health has an important bearing on just about every aspect of public policy – starting with the NHS, but quickly moving on to crime, employment, social services and onwards – and even defence when we consider the state of veterans returning from active service. And yet almost nowhere is it being adequately addressed. It sums up the dysfunctional element of public service provision better than any other single problem. The failure to handle mental health properly causes untold misery and a huge waste of public resources.

Second: it touches people personally. Most of us will know of people who have had serious mental health problems – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and so on. And increasingly we are aware  that we ourselves are vulnerable, given the stresses of modern life. And people are readier and readier to talk about it.

And third: it’s hard. The reason why dealing with mental health is done so badly is because there are few quick fixes. it goes to the very heart of the centralised and functionalised way in which we organise our state (and much else), our tendency to standardise and dehumanise in the name of efficiency, and our reluctance to consider broader philosophical questions about how we manage ourselves. If politicians and the public now want to take the issue seriously, it is just the beginning of a long, long journey. And yet it is one that could transform the state and the way we live our lives. As an idea, it has huge potential.

This is not a particularly new idea for the Lib Dems. Mr Clegg claims to have brought the matter to Prime Ministers’ Questions very early in his leadership – to the bafflement of mainstream politicians. The policy initiative No Health Without Mental Health, which kicked matters off, came very early in the Coalition government, with Mr Clegg’s imprimatur clearly on it.  But it is only recently that it has shot to serious prominence, promoted by the Lib Dem Care Minister, Norman Lamb. Mr Clegg has made it central to the party’s overall policy presentation, giving it a mjor place in his last two conference speeches.

The interesting thing about this is that there is nothing uniquely Lib Dem in the insight that mental health is central to public policy. The first prominent person to promote the idea was Richard Layard, the Labour peer and a close adviser to to Tony Blair. His efforts saw the promotion of talking therapies, like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Lord Layard’s journey is an interesting one. It started with the idea that the promotion of happiness and wellbeing should be the primary aim of public policy, in place of monetary income – he is an economist. Now promotion of mental health is his big idea. This is a journey that I too have followed. But Labour were unwilling to take on the wider policy implications. It is all very well rolling out yet another highly centralised initiative on CBT, but rethinking mental health education and provision from top to bottom would challenge too many vested interests. It wasn’t an issue that the public were bringing up in the polls and focus groups, after all.

For the Conservatives, David Cameron took the first steps on the journey, by taking on the idea of wellbeing as a direct policy goal, But he hasn’t followed the idea through. But, it must of course be recognised,  he and his Tory colleagues could see enough merit in the idea to allow the Lib Dems to run with it in coalition. That is part of its genius. Its implications may be radical, but everybody can agree that something needs to be done.

Nick Clegg deserves enormous credit for promoting mental health. While the right obsesses about Europe, sovereignty and human rights, and the left with the demon of neoliberalism and the failures of capitalism, the Lib Dems have found an issue that is concrete, and yet whose implications are profound. It moves us on from the stale old debates.This is disruptive political innovation at its best – something that a mainstream third party is well-placed to do.

Whether or not it helps improve the party’s fortunes in a difficult General Election, it has given the party a meaningful mission in British politics. A political pearl indeed.

 

Share

The SNP is killing Labour north and south of the border

These are exciting times in British politics. The two party system, dominated by the Conservative and Labour parties for s long, is under threat as never before. Other parties are increasing their share of the vote.  But the electoral system will mostly shut them out of parliamentary representation.  The real threat to the big parties is that they will fragment. This looks increasingly likely after the General Election in May.

Both main parties are in fact coalitions covering a wide spectrum of political values. This is forced by the electoral system, but a tribal, class-based loyalty provides stability. But class identities in British society are slowly ebbing. Increasingly people support political parties because of their political values, and not tribalism. The initial threat to the two parties came from the Liberal Democrats, whose appeal was largely in the middle ground. This direction of attack proved electorally successful, but the party was unable to build a solid bedrock of support. Entering coalition government in 2010 caused their support to evaporate. Conservative and Labour politicians gloated, hoping for a return to two-party normality. Alas for them, new insurgent parties are proving a much deeper threat.

First came the UK Independence Party, with its appeal to the populist right. This was a direct attack on the Tory bedrock. It has forced that party to tack hard to the right, especially putting Britain’s membership of the EU in play. The party’s more liberal and internationalist wing is under attack, as the party gradually ceases to look like a credible party of government. Ukip threatens Labour too, but the threat is less immediate. The Labour leadership seemed to be successful in holding a moderately liberal line.

The Greens are another source of threat. They are appealing to the hard left, with a tack away from their environmentalist core towards anti-capitalist ranting. But they are at once too anarchistic and too ideological to have a very broad appeal. They may be scooping up some of the disaffected Lib Dems that Labour was counting on. But they don’t look an immediate threat to Labour. It is highly unlikely that they will do much more electorally than hold onto their single parliamentary seat.

It is the Scottish National Party that is proving to be Labour’s existential threat. In Scotland they have used the independence referendum to launch an attack on the Westminster parliament. Labour had long since treated this as an unchallengeable fiefdom. They seem to have no idea how to fight a competitive election in Scotland. Polling consistently shows that they are facing meltdown there, with the SNP on course to win the bulk of Scottish seats.

Unlike Ukip and the Greens, the SNP are a cunning opponent. They have positioned themselves to the left of Labour, with firm opposition to austerity economics and nuclear weapons. They suggest that they could come into coalition with English and Welsh Labourites, and the result would be more  left wing than Labour on its own. Labour’s counter argument that the SNP might let the Tories in is a clear nonsense. They only way that happens is if Labour themselves prop up a Tory government. If the SNP and Labour have a majority between them, they can keep the Tories out. Labour are struggling to come up with a stronger line of argument.

But the SNP threat is changing the balance south of the Scottish border. Many English leftists rather like the look of the SNP, and they are talking positively about the idea of a Labour/SNP coalition. Scottish Labour supporters must feel like the first wave of soldiers that have jumped out of the trenches and into enemy fire, who look behind them so see the second wave heading for the rear.  English Labourites have written them off and are talking up their mortal enemies.

This poses a serious problem for the Labour leadership. Firstly the party line on austerity economics and nuclear weapons is critical to holding their internal coalition together, and to its wider electoral appeal. Rightly or wrongly they are seen as part of the essential core of a credible British government. If they cave in, then they expect to be condemned to life as a left wing fringe, and all the power and status which comes of being a major party starts to melt away. And yet their most vigorous activists, and their union donors, will be highly sympathetic the SNP demands.

And then there is an even bigger problem. What will all this do to the party’s appeal to English voters? The idea of a Labour prime minister being propped up by the SNP would surely be lethal, especially if Labour had fewer seats than the Tories. English nationalism would rise to the benefit of both the Conservatives and Ukip. The Tories have already brought the idea into their campaign literature. Labour could be right that support for the SNP will increase the chances of a Tory government – but because of how it will play in England, not Scotland.

The leftists who are cultivating the idea of a Labour-SNP partnership are astonishingly naive. The SNP’s goal is to fracture the union by driving a wedge between Scotland and England. Such a fracture will not suit the left’s interests – the left has long since lost its grip on the English middle ground, and is clueless about how to win it back (they demonise the last politician to achieve that for them: Tony Blair). The SNP may not be able to obtain a second referendum on independence this parliament, but that is hardly the point. They have a strategic plan and the left doesn’t. The left needs to create a strong unionist political platform that does well north of the border. If they give up on that, they are lost.

But the Labour leadership, not just the current one, but its predecessors, have done much to create the problem. They have viewed the UK constitution purely through the lens of short-term political advantage. They have suppressed serious discussion of the role of Scottish MPs on English politics. Now it is not just too late, but they have no vision with which to fight back against the looming disaster.

The Labour Party is a tribal affair, with a vicious, partisan face that seeks to crush any idea of political plurality outside their own movement. I will not be sorry to see it collapse. But progressive politicians need to start thinking about how to forge a new political movement.

Share

British economy: neither Tories nor Labour have the answers

The political parties are playing a blame game on the British economy.  Yesterday another report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) was the unedifying battleground. This debate is interesting but unresolvable. And what matters is what the parties might do now if they were in charge. And on that neither Labour nor the Conservatives are convincing.

The controversy starts with the financial crash which began in 2007, and let to wider economic collapse in 2008 and 2009. The crash was a huge surprise to most politicians, and their electors. Before this steady growth of about 2% a year seemed to be a force of nature. There were squabbles about how best the proceeds of growth should be used. The downturn was very sharp, statistically the worst recession since 1945; comparisons with the 1930s are made. But in human terms things were not so bad as , for example, the early 1980s; we are a wealthier country with more fat to draw on – and unemployment did not rise as fast as earlier downturns.

But two things stand out. Firstly, thanks to steady inflation and frozen levels of pay, real incomes have been squeezed since the crash. Previously those in work tended to do better, but there would be more unemployed. Secondly the recovery was very slow – and not the rapid bounce back typical of previous recessions. There is a very powerful graphic in the IFS report which shows how average household incomes changed, adjusted for cost of living, which illustrates both points:

IFS household income

This shows that household incomes were level at first and then dropped steadily for the 22-30 age group until a year ago and then rose. For the 31-59s the squeeze levelled off at the end of 2011 with a gradual rise since. The over 60s have not done so badly, depending on how you measure their cost of living. Individually many people may be better off (things have get better as we advance through the age brackets), but overall the country has not recovered its economic standard of living.

The Labour narrative runs something like this. The economy was hit by a global financial crisis while they were in power, but a rapid fiscal response limited the damage. Measures included a temporary cut to VAT, as well as maintaining benefit levels, and, of course, a big bailout of troubled banks. In 2010 the Coalition took power and cut back these fiscal measures prematurely and increased taxes, causing standards of living to plunge, with only an anaemic recover since. Labour spokesmen claim, and their more partisan supporters fervently believe, that the government’s austerity has been a disastrous policy mistake, especially for the worse off. There is also a claim that the rich have escaped the pain and inequality risen.

The coalition counter-narrative is that the crisis in the first place was Labour’s fault, through profligate public expenditure and lax regulation of the banks. And the fiscal measures after the crash came at a staggering public cost, with a deficit of over 10% in 2010. This was unsustainable, and the current government’s austerity policies have saved the country from huge levels of debt and a huge future tax burden. If the recovery was anaemic, that was because of deeper weaknesses in the British, European and world economies. Now these weaknesses have been largely overcome, we are doing very nicely thank you. And a previous IFS study has shown that inequality has actually fallen, with the richest 10% paying a greatly increased fiscal burden – though admittedly things have been tough for the young and poor.

What to make of these competing narratives? I think the coalition argument is closer to the truth, even if they play up Labour’s mismanagement a bit more than is fair – not so much because there wasn’t severe mismanagement, but because that insight comes mainly from hindsight. But I’m biased and many learned people think that Labour’s narrative is in fact fairer. There is no decisive way of resolving the conflict, which requires the building of counterfactuals with economic models that are deeply flawed. But that’s the past and the important question is what is the best thing to do now.

And the answer to that question must start with this fact: the British economy is displaying a striking level of weakness. Three signs of this are worth drawing attention to. First is the lack of economic productivity growth. The IFS makes much of this. Employment levels are quite healthy, but this has not led to the levels of production that it should – which means there is no money to pay people more.  Economists have been stressing about this for some years now, but they have not provided a clear analysis of what this is all about. Personally I think a lot of it comes about from the diminution of the finance and oil sectors. The former’s high level of productivity was in fact a mirage; the latter is trying to make the best of ageing oilfields. I also think there is a wider issue in all developed economies, as we transition to a world where improved wellbeing does not depend on higher levels of consumption – which used to be the motor of economic growth.

The second sign of weakness is more concrete. Our trade balance, which was strongly negative before the crisis, is not getting much better, in spite of a weaker pound sterling. This is strikingly different from the previous recovery from a recession, in 1992 – when a trade deficit was converted to a surplus quite quickly, and was the first part of a period of continuous growth that lasted until 2008. Martin Wolf, the FT  economics commentator, has said that in the Euro zone an adverse trade balance was a surer sign of trouble than a fiscal deficit. He seems more relaxed in a UK context, but I think it is highly significant. The country is living beyond is means, and has not solved the problems that led to the 2008 crash.

The third sign is closely related – the other side of the same coin. The vaunted recovery is mainly led by increased consumer demand rather than increased investment. The public (as well as the government) is trying to borrow its way out of the crisis. A strong level of investment would lead us to be more relaxed about a trade deficit – but this is not the case. Investment is recovering, but not by enough. And levels of debt remain stubbornly high.

A lot of the problem is actually beyond the control of any government. It is down to the freely made choices of individuals and businesses, and changes in technology, not just here, but in the countries we trade with.  But we do need our politicians to be on the case.

The Conservatives are unwilling to acknowledge the current level of economic weakness. They keep talking about their long-term plan for the economy, but this mainly boils down to further austerity, mainly cuts to expenditure, to bring government finances onto a more stable footing. They hope that private sector investment will pick up, and focus on things that will improve efficiency and wellbeing, rather than the merry-go-round of property prices. But further austerity will cause public investment in infrastructure to suffer, as well as education. Further, the party wants to “renegotiate” the country’s relationship with the European Union and put membership to a national referendum. The country’s international standing has already been a victim of this policy. Since so much of the country’s fate depends on the wider world, this is sheer folly.

Labour gloat about the current weakness of the economy, but have few answers. I have not heard a Labour spokesman willing to talk about increasing the economy’s productivity. They have ideas to tackle some of the symptoms, like raising the minimum wage to deal with low pay, but have no answers for the disease. And the party lacks a unity of purpose. Its left wants an end to austerity and attack on private business bosses; others talk of devolving power from the centre but have little understanding of what this really means. They do not look like a coherent government in waiting.

Meanwhile there are plenty of things we should be talking about. Encouraging weaker local economies to develop without permanent subsidy from the centre; choosing the right public infrastructure investments; developing a more complete and rounded education of our children and young people; working internationally through the EU and other institutions to tackle multinationals and tax evaders. But these do not reduce to bite-size policies and 140-character debates. So we will keep banging away at the unwinnable blame game.

Share

Why the soggy centre is a good place for the Lib Dems to be

The most recent issue of Liberator, the anti-establishment Liberal magazine, has more than its usual quota of groans about how the Lib Dems have failed to define clearly what they stand for. There is particular venom reserved for the idea that the party should be of the political centre, which implies a sort of rootlessness, allowing itself to be defined by others.

Much of this comes from seasoned campaigners, and there is much wisdom in what they say. But I also sense a rather wilful failure to address how politics really works.

For example, in his article, the veteran Kingston campaigner Roger Hayes says this:”And why do they think people are turning to UKIP and the Greens? Because they seem stand for something and aren’t afraid to say so.” And yet earlier in the same article he says this: “For all their noise and bluster Ukip are likely to take less than a handful [of] seats if they are lucky. The Greens will probably see their national vote soar….but in terms of seats they won’t do better than see Caroline Lucas returned…”. Which leads to the question: if the Lib Dems articulated themselves more clearly, like Ukip and the Greens, would they end up in the same frustrated but powerless place?

Or take another perspective, from talking to a party worker in one the Lib Dem held seats: she explained carefully that they aren’t looking for votes from just liberals. They needed a broad spectrum of people to vote for them. And that is real politics. Talking to diverse groups of people and trying to forge common ground. To be fair on Mr Hayes, he knows all about this – the Kingston Lib Dems are brilliant at it. But it is easy to see how parliamentary campaigners, when trying to move into a winning position, find sharp, clear messages on where the party stands not entirely helpful. For example, the party has some rather clear views on immigration that many candidates would like to soft-pedal.

And this reflects a wider truth about politics that often seems to be overlooked by people who craft political messages. If you want to say something to persuade voters that you are sincere, you need to say something that hurts; which means saying something that will lose you votes. Otherwise you are just uttering cheap words. Voters used to respect the integrity of politicians like Tony Benn and Enoch Powell, and say things like “their voices should be heard.” But they were politically toxic. And under the British electoral system if you don’t appeal to a broad spectrum of voters, you are unlikely to win any sort of representation. Both Benn and Powell needed to tap tribal loyalties or rank populism (Powell’s disingenuous statements on immigration were intended to stoke up racism) in order to maintain their political platform – and even then they were frozen out of actual power.

Politicians can have a sharp ideological edge and be successful. Margaret Thatcher is the obvious example. But that requires both strong political skills and a thirst for change among the electorate. When for Mrs Thatcher both of these ran out in her third term, she was soon gone, replaced by the un-ideological John Major. Today there is much discontent amongst the electorate, but none of the sense of direction that might support change. The electoral system, for example, is clearly failing, but there no strong political movement to change it. And I don’t think our current crop of political leaders and their “strategist” advisers (including, but not restricted to, the Lib Dems) have the political skills to pull off a platform for radical change. And if there is a clear case for strong, liberal political reforms (and there is…) it is far to late to make these part of a winning platform for the next election.

So sharp political clarity is a quick route to electoral failure. There’s something else though. There is a political gap in Britain’s political centre at the moment. Both Britain’s main parties are tempted by their ideological extremes, and by populism. This partly reflects the rise of the Ukip and Green insurgents, who are eating into both parties’ bases (especially Ukip and the Conservatives). But it is also reflects their own memberships, which are becoming more ideological. Increasingly these two main parties are not fighting each other. Instead they are fending off the insurgents and trying to persuade disgruntled non-voters to come out in their support. They are also trying to secure the votes of the Lib Dem supporters, or rather, their former supporters, some 15% of the electorate.

But because both Labour and the Conservatives are being pulled away by their extremes, the appeal of a party without such extremists, that seems to stand for sensible, pragmatic government, is surely growing. The Conservative Party is no longer trying to shake off its image as the Nasty Party, opposed to diversity and environmentalism. The Labour Party isn’t so openly tempted by the extremes, but its policies don’t look as if they are thought through, or fully accepted by their MPs. So amongst their ideas for regenerating the economy they put forward  devolving powers to the cities of England. But as soon as the government suggests devolving powers on the NHS to Greater Manchester (negotiated by local Labour politicians, even), their leading spokesman comes out with the usual anti-devolution tropes. Likewise their policy on cutting student fees looks like gesture politics that doesn’t even convince its own side. A sensible, pragmatic government in waiting Labour is not.

Filling this gap in the centre, however uninspiring, is surely the best idea for the Lb Dems right now. There may be an ideological liberal vote out there to tap, but frankly the party is not in a good place to win it right now. There is too much anger over the party’s role in the coalition. But if the party can prove its worth as a party of the pragmatic centre – and shows its skill in winning parliamentary representation even when times are tough – then this is a platform from which liberals may be wooed in future elections. I don’t have a better idea.

Share

The Coalition wrong-foots Labour on its (lack of) NHS policy

Labour’s plan for winning the General Election in May has a special NHSplace for the NHS. They are seeking to “weaponise” it, and promote themselves as the only party that can be trusted to run this great British institution. And yet their NHS policy has deep flaws. Now the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government has come up with a plan to integrate health and social care budgets in Greater Manchester. To maintain the warlike metaphor, this looks like surgical strike on Labour. In fact the story arose from a leak in the negotiation process, and seems to be the brainchild of Simon Stevens, the politically neutral head of NHS England. But the policy poses serious questions for Labour.

The details of yesterday’s news are a little vague. The Coalition had already announced plans to devolve more powers to Greater Manchester, working through the local councils (mainly Labour, but with Conservative and Lib Dem ones too) and an elected Mayor. And integration is everybody’s favourite reform idea for the NHS. It refers to merging the health budget with that of social care (currently controlled by local authorities), so that the policies for the two can be coordinated properly. This is important because one of the main problems at NHS hospitals is that they cannot release patients to social care beds. Integration of this sort is already being piloted in such places as Torbay. This looks like a pilot on a grander scale.

As a reform idea, the Manchester proposal looks entirely sensible. Sarah Wollaston, a Conservative MP who is a doctor, and no government stooge, offered a knowledgeable and effective advocacy on Radio 4 yesterday lunchtime. Integration has been one of Labour’s big ideas. But Labour can’t bear to give the government any credit for policy on the NHS – as this undermines their weaponisation plan. So their spokesman, Andy Burham, rubbished the idea. He attacked it as undermining the “National” in the NHS, because it was a localised solution rather than being dropped from a great height from Westminster. He also suggested it would be another “top-down reform”, which the government had promised not to do.

And yet both these lines of attack expose weaknesses in Labour’s own NHS policy. In the first place, if they are serious about promoting NHS integration, how on earth are they planning to do it? The quid-pro-quo of an integration plan is surely more local devolution – otherwise you simply create a monstrous bureaucracy, and a feeding frenzy of large consultancy firms proposing over-engineered implementation plans (er, like the last Labour government’s reform of NHS commissioning). And secondly, are Labour or are they not planning a top-down reform all of their own? Their proposal to scrap the government’s Health and Social Care Act suggests just that. And if they intend to  implement integration across the whole country at once… well, that just proves it, doesn’t it?

Which highlights the real problem for Labour. Their plan is to ride the tide of anger amongst NHS insiders over the government’s record on the NHS. They headline attempts to outsource some services as an NHS “sell-off” or privatisation. This is vastly exaggerated – no major hospitals are being outsourced (private businesses would be mad to take them on) and GP surgeries, er, have always been private businesses (a fact that confused the hell out of a save-the NHS campaigner that called on me a couple of months ago). But any plan to reform the NHS in any serious way involves taking on these insiders. The idea of integration to insiders is popular probably because it is seen as a way of hitting the ball into the long grass: the setting up of some toothless committees of professionals who purr about “collaboration not competition” and achieve very little except requests for yet more money. The more serious and specific Labour gets about reforms that promote efficiency, the more dissent they will get from their core supporters, and especially the trade unions. The hard fact is that Labourare proposing to dismantle the Coalition’s health reforms at the moment they are starting to show some promising results, like this devolution initiative.

Now the public probably don’t think much of the Coalition’s record on the NHS, but they surely accept that reforms will be needed to make the organisation more efficient. And if Labour appear not to be serious about that, then their line on the NHS is undermined, and their line on tax-and-spend, already weak, gets shot through. With enough pressure this weakness will become more and more apparent – and there will be a greater and greater risk of dissent in Labour ranks. They are offering just bluster. Far from trying to avoid the NHS as a campaigning issue, the coalition parties have the opportunity of a devastating counterattack, especially if Labour persists in opposing the Greater Manchester plan.

All of which shows how fatally bad is Ed Miliband’s leadership. He has valued party unity over making serious political choices. He has chosen sound and fury over policy substance. He hoped to craft clever policy positions that cover the cracks in his own party while providing credible ideas for saving the country. Alas serious policies mean taking on vested interests in your own ranks, not just the usual villains. The unity of silence in Labour ranks  is not a token of assent – it is a token of denial. Labour’s most vocal supporters, and the providers of the bulk of their funding, do not think that Labour is serious about public sector reform and austerity. As Labour is pressured by the coalition parties the greater it is in danger of falling apart just when unity is most important. It is a political strategy put together by policy wonks and campaign tacticians – and not those with serious nous about taking on political responsibility.

The Coalition parties have their own weaknesses of course. These may yet save Labour. But a meltdown for Labour cannot be ruled out on this form.

Share

Can any of Britain’s political parties break the deadlock?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The rise of fringe parties takes British politics into a whole new era. and yet the outcome of the election due on 7 May 2015 seems strangely predictable. The parties seem to be stuck in a deadlock where none can win. What are the chances of one of them breaking free?

Britain’s electoral system (misleadingly referred to as “first past the post”) is capable of producing dramatic swings in the balance between the parties. But a plethora of constituency polls allows pundits to make some quite stable predictions this time. The main features are these: the Liberal Democrats will lose up to 30 seats of their current 57. The Scottish Nationalists (the SNP) will pick up a similar number, or perhaps more, giving them 30-40 seats overall. The new insurgent parties, Ukip and the Greens, will only pick up a handful of seats, and the latter maybe none at all. Overall Labour will advance, and the Conservatives will fall back. The main debate is whether Labour will be able to overhaul the Conservatives to become the largest party. Interestingly, the fortunes of both major parties will be largely determined by how well they do against the smaller parties rather than each other. But neither party will win enough seats to form a government with one of the smaller parties; they will need to do a deal with each other to form a stable government. This is the outcome nobody (except the SNP perhaps) wants.

Can any of the parties break out of this stalemate? Sudden changes of fortune can happen. Two stand out in recent history. The first was in 1992, when John Major’s Conservative government suddenly overhauled Labour in the last week of the election campaign to win a comfortable majority, under the slogan “Labour’s Tax Bombshell”. The second was Cleggmania in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats surged forward after the performance of their leader, Nick Clegg, in the first of the television leadership debates. The surge faded, but the party avoided the drubbing they were heading for, defending their record result in 2005.

Such sudden surges are entirely possible this time. No political leader dominates the scene as Margaret Thatcher  did in the elections of 1983 and 1987 or Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005. As in 1992 and 2010, political leadership is weak, and so things can be more fluid. Public frustration with politics is high.

To understand that we only have to look at Scotland, where the SNP have surged forward after last year’s referendum on independence (or, more precisely, they are consolidating their spectacular gains in the Scottish Parliament in 2011). Labour, who are defending 40-odd seats at the election are in serious trouble. That surge, however, is already built in to the forecasts. The surprise might be if the anti-SNP vote rallies and votes tactically. That’s a real possibility, though – and it would mainly benefit Labour (whose majorities are generally big), and might stem some of the Lib Dems’ anticipated losses. It would be particularly satisfying if the Lib Dem candidate Christine Jardine is able to hold off former SNP leader Alec Salmond.

What of the English insurgents, Ukip? They won the European Parliament elections as recently as last year. But their support has sunk to 15% (less than the Lib Dems achieved last time) and it is too thinly spread. Their novelty is wearing thin, and there is quite a strong anti-Ukip reaction, visible in their leader’s negative approval ratings in polls. The press, who often set the news agenda, found it convenient to boost them, but they  are now poking fun at them. Yet they are well-funded and in some regions (along the south and east coasts especially) they might yet hit the zeitgeist, and pick up a few more seats than the pundits expect. There is a more remote possibility that they do well in northern urban Labour strongholds – but this looks too high a hurdle for them this year.

How about the other insurgents, the Greens? They have done well in the polls this year, catching up with the poor old Lib Dems quite often. They have picked up the “none of the above” vote that dislikes Ukip. They have the possibility of repeating Cleggmania and advancing into teens of %age of votes, if not better. But they could suffer if they come under scrutiny. They have a rather mad collection of policies and their leader, Natalie Bennett, struggles to break out of fringe appeal. There is a challenge for the party. If they could dump Ms Bennett as their figurehead and replace her with their only MP, the impressive Caroline Lucas, and if they ditch most of their silly policies as “aspirations”, with a more mainstream manifesto – then they might be in business. It would be a big moment of growing up – but, my sense is that they can’t. Too many activists would see such a move as a betrayal. A further difficulty is translating an advance in the polls into seats, as their vote is thinly based. They seem to do well where Labour are already strong – and they lack the time and organisation to marshal a stronger vote in particular seats.

Could the Conservatives repeat their feat of 1992, and break through to an overall majority? They have an impressively disciplined campaign. They could even repeat the tax bombshell line of 1992 line with some justice (Labour’s instincts are free-spending); and Labour’s leadership is seen as not up to it, again as in 1992. Their leader, David Cameron, may not as impressive as Mr Blair or Mrs Thatcher, but he is more convincing than John Major was. But. But. I just think that the Conservatives are on the wrong side of history and will find it impossible to extend their appeal enough. Back in the 1980s they were the party that broke the unions (which most people saw as a good thing) and made the country self-confident again. Mass affluence broke out – even if a lot of it was through the false wealth of rising property values.  Now we seem stuck; the rich do well, but few others. Even increasing property values are seen as double-edged, forcing youngsters from even affluent families back onto “the bank of Mum and Dad”. In the 2000s the Tory brand became toxic; they haven’t done enough to reverse that.  Tactically they are in a bind too. They need to win back Ukippers with sour policies on Britain’s international role and immigrants – while at the same time as appealing to more optimistic, liberal voters. I just can’t see a breakout. Their only hope of a breakthrough comes from the collective weakness of everybody else – which remains possible.

How about Labour? They have the opposite problem. They are much more in tune with the popular zeitgeist. They understand a lot of what people feel is wrong about society. But their narrative is chaotic. They look like a coalition of grumpy protest groups rather than a coherent government in waiting. I am reminded a little of Labour under Jim Callaghan in 1979: when they try to make a clear stand on a policy, one of their number undermines it. Tough on immigration? Protests from London MPs. Stop any serious reform of the NHS (which they call “saving” it) – yes one moment, no the next. The current awkwardness is on a promise to reduce university tuition fees. They want a headline policy to whack the coalition with (especially to consolidate former Lib Dem voters) – but how to do so without damaging universities or giving a gift just to the richer students? It seems as if the party has lost the discipline of the New Labour era. But the party does have some strengths – in particular an army of younger canvassers, especially in London, and probably the strongest central organisation of any UK political party.

Like the Tories, the main hope for Labour seems to be the weakness of others: the Lib Dems, the Greens, Ukip and the SNP. On the other hand, it is easier to foresee some sort of implosion by Labour than it is for the Tories. A public rift on economic policy could be the cause: the tension between their trade union backers and the more realistic parliamentarians is palpable. There is rather strange paradox here. Ed Miliband has kept the party together much better than expected over the last four years. But this has been achieved by placating rather than resolving the tensions within it. Which makes the unity and discipline less easy to achieve when it is most needed.

Which leaves the Lib Dems, in my review. Their fall has been dramatic. They commonly show up with a poll rating of just 7%, compared with the 23% they achieved in 2010. In many places they would do well to get 2-3%. But they have strongholds, and a strongly focused constituency-led campaign strategy is helping to limit the damage. They are helped by Ukip undermining the Conservative vote, though they seem to have fewer defences in the minority of seats where Labour is their main opponent. In terms of popular vote it is difficult to see the party falling much further – but there is a risk that their constituency-led strategy falls apart, and they are left with very few seats indeed. But they do have upside potential. Their hope is to be seen as a sensible, liberal party, with none of the extremist politics of Ukip or the Greens. The more Labour and the Conservatives move to the extremes to face the threat of Ukip in particular, the more appealing the Lib Dems might look. There is reason for them to hope that their poll ratings will rise – though this may make surprisingly little difference in terms of the number of seats that they lose. Indeed a surge in the polls might undermine the party discipline needed to make the constituency strategy work.

All of which leaves British politics in a predicament. An electoral system that used to practically guarantee a succession of stable single party governments, is now moving towards one that simultaneously disenfranchises most voters (by stranding them in seats where their vote makes no difference), while delivering a result from which it is hard to form a governing majority. And yet such is the conservatism of Britain’s politicians and public, that it is difficult to see any successful move to change it.

Share

Danny Alexander is the Lib Dems most successful minister. Why does he not get the credit?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The Liberal Democrat Treasury Secretary Danny Alexander’s placeDanny and George in history is assured. He is a member of the “quad” that sets the coalition government’s agenda, along with the Lib Dem Leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Chancellor George Osborne (with whom he is pictured here). But recently there was a revealing kerfuffle, when the Lib Dems named their election “shadow cabinet” with him as the Treasury spokesman. Shouldn’t it be the more senior Vince Cable, people asked? Many Lib Dem activists fell for the bait and were suitably outraged. In fact this was a non-story – the shadow cabinet simply reflected current ministerial responsibilities with the gaps filled in. But if anybody had doubted Mr Alexander’s weak reputation, the response to the story proved it.

But more recently the highly respected Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) published a study of the effects of government policies on tax and benefits on people of different income bands. For the rare few voters who are interested in the facts of the coalition’s record this 30 page report is a fascinating read. The core of it is contained in this graphic:

IFS Graphic reducedWhat this shows is that the burden of the changes has fallen hardest on the top decile, but that every other decile has benefited from a reduced tax burden (i.e. the solid green bars), mainly the increase in income tax allowances. That, of course was the Lib Dem manifesto promise in a nutshell. Reductions in tax credits and benefits, however, have hit the poorer, so that as a proportion of income the overall effect on the bottom decile has been greater than the top (about 4% to 3%). The lucky 7th decile have suffered a net effect of nil. Further analysis shows that households with children have been hit the hardest, while even the poorest pensioner households have been protected:

IFS Graphic reduced 3

This represents a reversal of generous policies for families from the last government. If you take the whole sweep of policy since 1997 you get the following change:

IFS Graphic 2 reduced

Now this shows that the treatment of families overall lines up with that of pensioners – but that working age people without children have ended up with little net benefit. This may feel a bit harsh, but politicians have never suggested that their policies would do anything else. Pensioner and child poverty were the stated priorities.

And in case you are swept on by leftist rhetoric that these changes will be swamped by changes in income inequality before tax, a separate IFS study suggests that pre-tax income inequality has actually narrowed over the period of coalition. Put the two together and you get the picture of a government with a clear agenda to redress income imbalances. All this follows the policies Liberal Democrats advocated before the election.

The Treasury is also held responsible for managing the government’s overall finances, and Mr Alexander had a critical role in managing government expenditure. In 2010 the Conservatives promised to eliminate the structural government deficit in 5 years. Labour and the Liberal Democrats converged on about 8 years. Guess what? Though the coalition initially talked about the former target, it moderated when the economy struggled, and it is on course to follow the original Lib Dem (and Labour) target. Overall economic growth projections have disappointed the politicians, of course. But what, in Labour’s alternative strategy, could have led to a better overall outcome? They called for a softening of austerity and that’s exactly what the coalition did. Beyond some sound and fury over Keynesian stimulus, now irrelevant, Labour has had nothing to say about redressing weak productivity, the real reason for the lack of economic growth and real incomes. The scale of the deficit was such that it was always going to be hard going.

So Mr Alexander has, in spite of his position as junior to one of the most powerful men in the Conservative party, delivered a government record that is much more similar to what the Lib Dems had planned than the Tories had (they had planned to be much easier on the rich). Quite a record.

How does that compare with other Lib Dems? Poor old Mr Clegg’s political reforms have largely sunk without trace, and he also failed to spot the problematic NHS reforms quickly enough (as did Mr Cameron). Vince Cable was responsible for the reversal of Lib Dem policy on tuition fees, as well as the PR disaster of the Royal Mail flotation. Chris Huhne and Ed Davey battled valiantly at Energy but have had to give ground on nuclear power and fracking. Michael Moore and Alistair Carmichael at the Scottish Office have supervised a calamitous straining of the Union. All of these men, it should be added, have a string of positive achievements too, but they’ve been forced to compromise more than Mr Alexander has. There have been some impressive performers in the junior ranks (Steve Webb and Norman Lamb in particular), but their scope is inevitably narrow. Surely Mr Alexander is top of the heap?

So why are Lib Dem members reluctant to give him credit. First is a rather indifferent record on media interviews. He lacks a sense of ease and the ability to move away from pre-prepared sound-bites, unlike his Lib Dem cabinet colleagues. He doesn’t sound as if he is in command. He manages the detail rather than the big picture. And he sounds a bit Tory sometimes in the messages he gives.

But I don’t think that’s all. I don’t think that many Lib Dem members are at ease with the government’s record on tax and benefits. Those graphs in the IFS report show that the effects of increased tax allowances have not really helped the poorest, and that cuts to benefits and tax credits, especially to those with children, have squeezed the bottom half of the wealth distribution. There has been no offsetting increase in real incomes before tax. Labour have been energetically pointing all this out.

But given Lib Dem promises on tax allowances, on cutting the deficit, and on reforming pensions, cuts to benefits and tax credits were absolutely inevitable. The government has already gone after the richest 10% heavily, in increased taxes and, especially, a clampdown on tax avoidance (something with Mr Alexander has particularly championed). The only major budgets that haven’t been heavily squeezed are those for education and the NHS (foreign aid does not count as major), something Lib Dem members would support. Benefit cuts may not have been in flashing lights in the Lib Dems’ manifesto for 2010, but they might as well have been.

And this leads to a question that many Lib Dems would rather not think about. Just how much is it the state’s duty to top up low incomes with automatic entitlements to state benefits? And how much do such entitlements create dependency and a sense of victimhood from rich and poor alike? The great Liberal designer of the the welfare state, William Beveridge, was very worried about creating unconditional entitlements. Just what he would have made of the blank-cheque of the old Housing benefit we can only imagine. But modern leftist thinking takes such entitlements for granted, forever trying to raise the bar. But most of the public regards the idea of topping up incomes with taxpayers’ money with suspicion. It stinks of a freedom with other peoples’ money.

Personally, I think the expansion of automatic benefit entitlements  is a blind alley. Instead we need much more intelligent and directed interventions to help people cope with poverty, and manage their way out of it, if they want to. This needs to be done in a person-centred way that to tackles the underlying problems (housing, mental health, addiction and so on) head on, instead of paying people money to go away and keep quiet.

But that’s just my view. Meanwhile Mr Alexander has implemented a liberal agenda at the Treasury and deserves more credit than he gets.

 

Share