Category Archives: Politics UK

Reflections on general political developments and ideas in the UK

The SNP are on manoeuvres. Westminster politicians should be afraid.

Scottish politics is an exercise in asymmetric warfare. The Scottish Nicola SturgeonNational Party (SNP) are steeped in the nation’s own political culture, and focus on their objective of obtaining its independence. The unionist parties are more concerned with the politics of UK as a whole, and push their policies concerning Scotland and the Union into the “too difficult” pile until too late. This has been stark in the last few years. The SNP won their referendum on independence (i.e. holding the referendum, rather than the outcome, which they lost). At first Westminster politicians did not take the campaign seriously, relying on comforting opinion polls. Then, as the No campaign went awry and they woke up to the implications, they panicked. The main party leaders made an ill-thought through pledge (referred to as “The Vow”) on devolving more powers. When the referendum was over, the main party leaders could only see the issue in terms of their own struggles for supremacy in Westminster. The Conservative sought to embarrass Labour with a call for “English votes for English laws”. Labour called for a Constitutional Convention to head this off, but offered no vision of how the thought the union should be run. The SNP are now about to make both parties pay dearly for their negligence.

The SNP lost their referendum, but far from being depressed and demoralised, they have treated the affair as a sort of reconnaissance in force preliminary to a longer campaign. They have made a sharp change in strategy. First their long-standing leader, and Scottish First Minister, Alec Salmond  stepped down, to be replaced by his very capable and popular deputy Nicola Sturgeon. Then Mr Salmond said that he would stand for the Westminster parliament in the May election, meaning that Westminster would have one of the party’s biggest hitters. Then yesterday Ms Sturgeon dropped a bombshell. She said that the SNP at Westminster would happily vote on the English NHS. Until now the SNP at Westminster have stayed clear on voting on matters, like the NHS, which have been devolved to the Scottish parliament. The reason offered is that Scotland’s funding formula (“the Barnett formula”) means that their funding might be affected by England’s health policies. There is practically no aspect of devolved policy that this argument could not be applied to. The SNP are now offering themselves as a fully fledged coalition partner to the Labour Party, should the latter fail to win an outright majority. The three main Westminster Parties hadn’t seen this coming, and they are in utter disarray.

For Labour this is unmitigated disaster. The SNP’s sudden interest in Westminster politics makes a large number of their MPs in Scottish seats vulnerable. The current polling is awful; the party could lose 30 seats. Labour has taken Scots voters for granted ever since the Conservatives’ Scottish presence collapsed under Mrs Thatcher. Their ineptitude was on full display during the No campaign. They have no idea how to construct a persuasive, coherent message and stick to it: their preferred method is just crude menace.  Their campaign message so far is to threaten Scots voters with another Tory-led government. “Don’t worry,” say the SNP “if you vote for us instead we can stop the Tories too.” Labour are left with just emptiness in return. They have no vision of Scotland’s place in the union beyond panicky responses to nationalist pressure.

Intelligent Tories (there are some) should be troubled too. The purpose behind the “English votes for English laws” idea was simply to embarrass Labour in England by pointing out how much they depended on blocks of Scots and Welsh MPs. There is no coherent, workable model of a well-functioning UK constitution behind it. But it carries the risk of destabilising the Union by stoking up English resentment without offering an answer. The SNP have just made that much worse. What about the fate of England’s NHS being dictated by SNP MPs? Conservatives (mainly) support the Union. Scottish independence would be seen as national humiliation and a bitter blow. And yet they are playing into the nationalists’ hands.

Things aren’t much better for the Liberal Democrats. Their main problem is political weakness, resulting from a backlash for going into coalition with the Conservatives. This is at least as strong in Scotland as it is elsewhere in the UK. The party has thought through its vision of the UK constitution more than the other parties, and its solutions are much more robust. But its softly-softly approach to devolution within England, and rejection of the idea of an English Parliament and government, look constructed for a gentler pace of politics than is in prospect if the SNP do well. Still there are some silver linings to the very dark clouds. Labour are retreating from seats they were hoping to take from the Lib Dems, in order to face off the SNP in their own backyard. And Christine Jardine, their feisty candidate in Gordon, the seat Mr Salmond hopes to win, will be no pushover, as she rallies the anti-SNP vote.

But each of the main unionist parties need to take a step back, and form coherent ideas on how the constitution of the Union should look. It isn’t enough to call for a Constitutional Convention; each party must spell out a clear vision that looks sustainable in the face of mischief-making by the SNP. Even if such ideas have short-term political costs. The people of this United Kingdom deserve no less.

 

Share

We need to talk about the NHS but our political culture prevents it.

Many Britons complain that political correctness stops important issues being talked about. By that they usually mean immigration and cultural integration. Now we talk about these things all the time, and we are coming to understand why that culture of political correctness was a good idea. Pointless, nasty behaviour to immigrants and people from ethnic minorities is on the rise, while yet more rubble is strewn in the path of necessary economic development. But there are issues that are important but where there is a conspiracy of silence. Foremost amongst these is Britain’s National Health Service (NHS). This is not a good idea.

Well it isn’t that politicians don’t talk about the NHS. It has become a central theme of Labour’s election campaign, and the Green party, in their bid to harvest left-leaning voters, have jumped in too. But these campaigns challenge the very idea that the NHS should be reformed. Any suggestion that elements of the NHS should be run by private businesses, or that a local facility should be closed, is attacked virulently. The idea behind these campaigns is that the NHS is under attack, is being “sold off”, and needs to saved by a government that will let our heroic doctors, nurses and ambulancemen get on with their jobs unmolested by rapacious hedge fund managers and bankers. The government’s response to these challenges is distinctly muted – they try to deny that much is changing at all, and point out that they are recruiting more these wonderful doctors and nurses and keeping the money flowing.

But senior NHS professionals are worried. Today it is the turn of Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, NHS England’s medical director, to speak out. He warns that without major changes to the way care is carried out the service will collapse. That means that many existing facilities will have to be cut in order to make room for more cost-effective ways of treating illness which do not involve big hospitals. You don’t have accept Sir Bruce’s prescription to understand the nature of the threat.

The first problem is demographics. The proportion of elderly people in Britain is on the rise. This is increasing the number of patients, and presenting the service with more complex cases that it is difficult to deal with adequately. It is also undermining the tax base from which the NHS is funded and the pool of workers that the NHS needs to recruit. The next problem is a change to the economics. More advanced and effective treatments cost more money. Rates of pay, especially for skilled staff, are getting higher.

These problems are well understood, even if politicians and public alike would rather talk about their implications another day. There is a third problem too. And that is management. Dealing with health issues is a very complex matter, and it is becoming clearer that the way we try to go about it isn’t really helping. Our default method is to break the task down into a series of specialisms and give each a separate autonomous organisation. Primary care is split from acute hospitals which are separate from social care, with mental health handled by yet another set of organisations. But all these things interrelate, and good patient care depends on getting the coordination right. For example the current NHS crisis in hospitals is presented as overflow in Accident & Emergency, but it has its roots in the inability to move older patients into more appropriate social care settings when the acute phase of their illness is over.

I am very familiar with this type of management problem, albeit in much simpler contexts. It was the focus in the 1990s of a management revolution that went under the name of Business Process Reengineering.  The key insight here is that one of the main obstacles is the shape of the organisation itself. Pouring more resources into it won’t help, or not help by much. If you fix a problem in one area, it simply pops up in another. That means that the shape and structure of health care has to change in order to cope with the extra pressures being thrown at it.  That in turn means politically sensitive closures and, almost certainly moves that can be described as sell-offs. It is worth pointing out, though, that simply outsourcing an element of the service without restructuring the way care is delivered is just as fallacious as pouring extra funds into existing structures. This is a point that some on the right, and in government, have not grasped.

I think this is reasonably clear; there may even be consensus about it amongst those that try to look beyond the short-term politics. But the fog then starts to descend. The problem is highly complicated, and the costs to failure very high. The way forward is not obvious. Both this government and the preceding Labour one grappled with it. Both got some things right; both have made mistakes. But it is a debate amongst a small elite of policy wonks and senior professionals, when broader engagement, to prepare  the political ground, is what is required.

Is the basic model of the NHS under threat? This is an open-ended commitment by the taxpayer to fund health care for all citizens. This has some obvious problems – there is no clear way to limit demand. Health care, it turns out, is not like the drains, where once you have fixed the basics, people forget they are there. That was what some people thought when the NHS was set up. People don’t like getting ill, so, said the optimists, that would limit demand. Alas longer life and reduced pain are consumer propositions to die for; potential demand seems endless.

This is the key to a further insight which few seem to have grasped. People often talk of high levels of health care spending being unaffordable. This is untrue. People prize healthcare above many other things, and are happy to give up these other things for less pain and a longer life. You only have to look at the enormous sums spent in the USA on health care to understand that. The problem is how, exactly, do you get the money from people’s pockets and into that of health service providers. The critical question for the future of the NHS is how much more can be raised through taxation.

Which is another area that we should all be thinking about. Could we raise a lot more through taxes if the process was more transparent and people had more confidence in it? Or should the NHS start charging for more things? Should we develop a model of “basic cover” vs “luxury cover”, and bill for the latter? And what could the latter include (anti-cancer drugs that might prolong life but aren’t deemed cost effective?). And that leads to another series of questions we would rather not ask, about the meaning of life and death.

And there’s a further problem. How much do we focus resources on where the demand is currently, or and how much to where we think the areas of greatest need are. The last government talked often of rectifying “health inequalities”, and started a process of shifting resources to poorer areas with worse health outcomes. That put facilities in areas with high current demand, but less actual poverty, under pressure. Most of the NHS’s big disasters, like the failure of Mid-Staffordshire Trust, occurred in areas that had high demand, especially from elderly residents, but which were not classed as being in poverty.

If we don’t fix the NHS, a parallel private health system will build up beside it and undermine it. Something like this has already happened with dentistry. We have little chance of a serious, mature political discussion this side of a General Election. But the sooner that the public demands their politicians address such issues the better. Rejecting the facile slogans of Labour and the Greens would be a good start.

Share

Charlie Hebdo – time for cosmopolitans to show leadership

As the dust settles from the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, an ugly picture emerges. The consensus that holds society together is breaking down. We may all agree that murder is wrong, but we disagree on how to combat extremists, how to live with foreign cultures and, indeed, the scope of free speech. The cosmopolitanism that prevails amongst society’s elite is challenged. And yet the only solution is to embrace cosmopolitan ideas yet further.

On the one hand we have the Islamic extremists themselves. We haven’t learnt much new here. Their alienation is such that they feel at war with western (and not just western) states, and they have ceased to see their opponents as human beings. The Paris assailants drew a distinction between “civilians”, whom they should not attack, and others, including journalists and Jews, whom it was OK to kill. This will no doubt aid the process of self-justification in their own circles – but the contradictions are too obvious to everybody else. The extremists appear to have momentum, especially led by the success of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. But their attacks, and their revelling in the power of life and death, should alienate them from the rest of society, outside the failed states in the Middle East and Africa.

We could take comfort from that if it wasn’t for dark forces working within the rest of society. Foremost amongst these is the rise of nativism in Europe and America. Nativists are intensely suspicious of any foreigners in their land. As we come to the end of the era of easy economic growth, and as technology destroys swathes of stable, clerical and factory jobs, faith in the idea of progress wanes. Nativists hark back to an earlier age that seemed simpler. They blame immigration for its undermining. Islamic immigrants have become a particular focus of suspicion. Ideas of a clash of civilisations, even a war, take currency. Nativism seems particularly strong in places with small immigrant communities, such as Clacton in England or, on an altogether larger scale, Dresden in Germany. But large, unintegrated ethnic minority communities provoke similar fears in neighbouring communities too. This accounts for the rise of perhaps the most important nativist movement: the National Front in France.

In Britain the rise of nativism is led by Ukip. Originally  Ukip focused on Britain’s membership of the European Union, but it struck electoral gold when it shifted to opposition to immigration. The mainstream Conservative and Labour parties started to panic as Ukip ate into their core support, giving nativism further impetus. Tabloid newspapers stirred things up. As a result public attitudes to ethnic minorities have soured in much of the country. The idea of “freedom of speech” is now used to defend the open expression of Islamophobic views – though the idea that such freedoms should extend to the expression of Islamist or anti-Semitic views is not aired.  The outcry of the Charlie Hebdo killings has given such nativists and their prejudices a real fillip.

Which makes matters worse. The entire Islamic community finds itself under attack. People say that all Muslims are to blame for extremists, and should apologise for them. Now the Muslim communities must face up to some important questions about how they are to progress and integrate into a modern world – questions that many are reluctant to confront. But ignorant prejudice serves only to alienate them, and prolong the sense of grievance on which the extremists feed.

And so we face the prospect of an unravelling.  Globalisation is integral to the western way of life. Just think of the rise of the British Empire and the cities that have been built on the back of the African slave trade in the 18th Century if you think it is anything recent. Large immigrant communities are simply a continuation of that process, in an actually much more benign way. Denying globalisation is as futile as Britons denying that their country is European. Nativism is a road to nowhere, or rather a road to poverty and conflict.

Instead we must embrace the values of cosmopolitanism. These are articulated most clearly by the Ghanaian-born author Kwame Anthony Appiah (as in Cosmopolitanism – Ethics in a world of Strangers). We must accept that our culture is the product of many cultures melding together in a process that has being going on for millennia, and which is destined to continue. There is no such thing as cultural purity, and no point in trying to defend it. This is not the same as relativism, which backs away from defining any kind of right or wrong ethical values. It means embracing ethical values which accept that all the globe’s inhabitants are part of an “us”, even though we recognise stronger affinities with some rather than others. People of different cultures should enter conversations with each other, and accept that their outlooks may change as a result.

Cosmopolitanism has always been embraced by elites, especially in the west after the nightmare of Fascism, which showed the futility of its opposite. That accounts for the many cosmopolitan aspects of our institutions. But now it is vital that it is taken up by all of society: amongst working class communities and ethnic minorities too. Here in London, perhaps, this process is quite well advanced, though hardly complete (I’m afraid that Islamophobic attitudes remain commonplace). Different communities are forced to mingle. We go to school together; we work together; increasingly we have children together. Elsewhere, though, we have just taken a backward step.

But I remain hopeful. The young are more cosmopolitan than their elders. Our cultural and business leaders, by and large, remain firm. At a time when elites are under attack for being out of touch, it is time for them do what elites should: to show leadership.

Share

Cameron lets the cat out of the bag. The election isn’t a two-party contest

Last night David Cameron, Prime Minster and Conservative Party leader, announced that he would not take part in the proposed leadership debates this year’s UK General Election. Or rather, he wouldn’t unless the Green Party was also invited alongside Labour, Lib Dems and Ukip. This was after Ofcom, the media regulator, suggested that the Greens were not a major party, but that Ukip and the Lib Dems were.

In the petty tactical thinking that so dominates thinking amongst Westminster’s political elite, it is easy to understand Mr Cameron’s move. Two birds can be killed with one stone. First the Greens have emerged as a thorn in Labour’s side, as they are promoting an unambiguously leftist policy platform, and also attract Lib Dem defectors, who are central to Labour’s electoral strategy.  They do not trouble potential Tory voters though. The second aim is that Mr Cameron is not much interested in taking part in the debates anyway. These debates were an innovation in 2010, and greatly expanded political engagement, especially amongst younger voters. But the conventional Tory wisdom were that they were a mistake, assisting the Lib Dems at their expense. And this time Mr Cameron has more to lose than gain. Especially if Labour’s Ed Miliband turns out to be much less of clump than the Tories are portraying him to be.

The announcement was also an opportunity for Mr Cameron to sneer at his coalition partners, the Lib Dems. His claim for the Greens to be a major party was that the Greens beat the Lib Dems in last year’s European elections. But the Lib Dems have 57 seats and record in government to defend, compared to the Greens’ single seat. Mr Cameron’s voice dripped in sneering condescension in a way that only upper class Brits can do.

But it’s a strategic mistake, for all that. Along with the Labour party, the Tories claim that they are the only parties that matter in the election. Electors must choose between these two; everybody else is a waste of time. They dream that a few days before the election, electors will come to their senses and return to voting for the two establishment parties. But now Mr Cameron has painted a picture of a multiparty leadership debate, rather like those we saw on the Danish TV series Borgen. Yet this idea is toxic to the two-party vision. If he had said that he would only debate with Mr Miliband, it would have had strategic value.

All of which reinforces a general sense of Mr Cameron’s weakness as a prime minister. Too clever for his own good. Ever after gaining a tactical advantage, but with no idea of his, or his country’s, strategic interests.

Share

Good and bad news about the Lib Dems NHS funding pledge

Today the Liberal Democrats announced and eye catching policy toNHS improve NHS funding by £8bn a year by 2020 (in England).  This matches the figure asked for by NHS England chief Simon Stevens – so it isn’t plucked from thin air.

How is this to be paid for? First £2bn extra is already planned and accepted by the other parties (Labour want to add another £0.5bn). A further £1bn comes from more taxes on the wealthy. The rest will be gradually added as the economy grows. The Lib Dems say that public expenditure should keep pace with national income.

There are good and bad things about this new policy. First the good thing. The £8bn funding figure is entirely credible, given the direction of demographics. Mr Stevens is no lefty. He knows that the NHS can be more efficient and has plans to make it so. But that only gets you so far. Any party that promises to keep the NHS within its current scope and free has to address this gap. This moves, or should move, the debate on the NHS out of the area of gimmicks and into serious choices.

Except that it doesn’t. They’ve made the whole thing look to easy. Tax some other people a bit more and the rest comes from growth. If it’s that easy the other parties can do it too. This is not different in substance to what Labour are offering. It is more of a challenge to the Tories who want to use the proceeds of growth to fund tax cuts.

And growth cannot be guaranteed. There are severe economic headwinds, from demographics, from changes to technology, from changes to world trade – to name but three. To say nothing of the legacy of piles of household and state debt.

To be distinctive, the Lib Dems needed to make it look harder. Which in practice means raising taxes – income tax, national insurance or VAT. Remember Paddy Ashdown’s promise of 1p income tax for education?  This would have made the promise more credible, and got a real debate going.  It would then be Labour who would be forced to mutter promises about future growth, which the public are likely to discount.

Instead this looks like another politician’s promise that is less than it seems. What a pity.

Share

The Lib dems – successful in government, unrewarded by the public

2015 is here at last. For British politicos this is the  endgame – the year of the General Election and the verdict on the politicking of the current parliament, elected in 2010. That election remains very open, but for the Liberal Democrats it is fair to say that things have gone disastrously off script.

The party languishes at 5-10% in the polls, compared to the over 20% it achieved in 2010. This has shown no sign of improving as the election approaches, and there have been plenty of real life elections to show that such dismal ratings are not just inaccurate polling.

This follows the party’s entry into coalition government in 2010, a ground-breaking event both for the party and for British politics. This government has been pretty successful all told. It inherited an utterly unsustainable government deficit that demanded cuts to both public services and benefits – “austerity”. It struck a fairly prudent course between extreme austerity, and using the relative ease of government borrowing to postpone the pain. For all the political sound and fury over the sense or otherwise of such austerity, there has been little difference between the main political parties on its scale.

There have been failures. Benefits had to be cut, but many of the reforms to the benefits system were misconceived.  The centrepiece reform of Universal Credit might be a nice idea in theory, but its dependence on unobtainable real-time data make its demise only a matter of time. Many attempts to sub-contract government services to the private sector have proved misconceived too. Reforms to the NHS were well-intentioned but it would surely have been more sensible to build on the previous government’s reforms incrementally. Reforms to immigration were popular but unhelpful to the nation’s economic and social health.

But there have been many sensible reforms along the way. A lot of bureaucratic over-engineering from the last government was dismantled. The management of schools is more sharply focused, with a welcome emphasis on the progress of pupils from more challenging backgrounds – and a search for performance measures that can be gamed less easily. Reforms to university finance have improved accountability and spread the financial burden more fairly. The burden of taxation has been shifted to a more progressive and redistributive pattern, not least with a spectacular crackdown on tax avoidance by the very rich. This has helped stem a rise in inequality – though I don’t think the statistics are conclusive as to whether inequality has actually been held in check. overall.

Many (or even most) of these sensible reforms have Liberal Democrat fingerprints on them. The party has proved good at the exigencies of being a governing party – including the discipline of its parliamentarians. A lot of small scale policies have been implemented that Lib Dems have spent years campaigning for (like being able to declare pubs as community assets). Previously characterised as being chaotic lightweights, Liberal Democrats have proved to be up to the job.

There have been major disappointments for Lib Dems in the area of political reform. A referendum on changing the voting system to the Alternative Vote just gave an opportunity for the rest of the political establishment to gang up on the party. Plans for an elected second chamber collapsed in the face of hostility and indifference from Conservative and Labour politicians. Ironically these disappointments may help the party’s fortunes. With the current state of public opinion AV might well have  helped the Conservatives and Labour more than the Lib Dems, allowing them to scoop up Ukip and Green votes. And the strong presence of Lib Dems in the House of Lords immeasurably adds to the party’s heft in any negotiations in a hung parliament – something the SNP, for example, cannot offer. In the PR elections the party wanted for the Lords (or rather, its replacement), it would almost certainly have been nearly wiped out, and surely behind Ukip, the SNP and perhaps even the Greens.

But Lib Dems had expected better rewards from the electorate. It is commonplace for governing parties to lose popularity in the middle of a parliament, but then they are meant to recover. The Liberal Democrats hoped to present themselves to the electorate as a credible coalition party, firmly rooted in the political centre – having put to rest any doubts that it was incapable of achieving practical political power.  Even as Labour and the Conservatives seem to be vacating the political centre, few centrist voters see the Lib Dems as a respectable alternative.

What went wrong? The first problem is that the party has disappointed many of its supporters. In 2010 (and earlier General Elections, come to that), the party set itself up as standing for a new brand of politics – and a break from the lies and cynicism of the other parties. But what the public saw was just another established party wheeler-dealing like the rest of them, and enjoying the prestige of ministerial office. Reforms to university finance may have been an elegant compromise in practice, but it involved reneging on a very categorical election pledge.

A further problem is that many of the party’s supporters were Labour defectors, who saw teaming up with the Conservatives as betrayal. The impact of austerity and reforms to the benefits system and the NHS hardly reassured these voters. That the party was in practice no worse than Labour wasn’t really the point; they hoped for better. The Tory brand remains as toxic as ever.

But all is not lost. The party has upped its game in the seats it holds, and constituency polls show that its candidates there are much more popular locally than the party itself. And their opponents are distracted by the need to keep Ukip, the SNP and the Greens at bay. The public may yet give the party more credit, especially if it gets its messaging right. The liberal centre is not close-fought territory – it is notable that activists have never found the alternative parties less appealing than now.

But a job needs to be done to define better what the party stands for, and communicate this to the public. The party is confident of its core liberal values, but these are not producing sharp, distinctive policies for the more practical issues that bother voters – the economy and the NHS in particular. That’s a shame because some interesting thinking has come up through the party’s policy making machinery – but these ideas need to be turned into something much sharper. This week has not been particularly encouraging. The party has joined in the excessively negative slagging off of other parties – as have all the other parties, mainstream and fringe. Wouldn’t it be better to set out a stall of distinctive policies, on the economy, taxation, the environment and public service – and damn the other parties with faint praise? The public get that small parties can make a difference in coalition – but they need a better idea of what that difference might be in the case of the Lib Dems.

The party has to go through the final act of its years in coalition, and endure the outcome. After that though, the party needs a period of deep reflection, whether or not it re-enters government. But the country does need a liberal party, and there are no others challenging for that space.

 

Share

Polly Toynbee is right – we need more honest debate on tax and spend

I don’t approve of Polly Toynbee. She’s so deep in the Guardian bunker that she rarely has anything useful to say. She writes polemic that will entertain the left, but not persuade anybody else . So I wasn’t expecting much from her article last week Economic dishonesty is the deadliest deficit of all. I was expecting her to repeat the Labour myth that the economic crisis was somebody else’s fault, and that austerity policies have strangled the British economy. But she was making a point of value. It was that the Conservatives and Labour have very different views of the future government finance – but they were both concealing their differences.  The Conservatives do not want to spell out the implications on services and benefits; Labour do not want to look irresponsible, or to be painted as the party of high taxes.

She wrote her article before the Autumn Statement delivered by the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Ms Toynbee should be pleasantly surprised at how things turned out, though I doubt that she is. The British government’s future policies on taxation and public expenditure have taken centre stage, and important differences have emerged between the political parties.

It started with some rather excitable coverage on the BBC Radio Today programme, which pointed out that Tory party plans for future spending would take it back to being the lowest proportion of national income since the 1930s. The bare statistics were factual (inasmuch as future projections can be described as factual) – but a comparison with the 1930s is farcical. National income is incomparably bigger than then – so a similar ratio of spending to income will not produce destitution that is in any way comparable. For similar reasons, the economic crash of 2008-09 is no way comparable to that of the 1930s, in spite of some of the ratios to national income being similar. Mr Osborne rather publicly objected to the coverage, drawing attention to the whole issue. Up to that point Ms Toynbee’s forecast seemed to be coming true.

In turns out that though Labour and the Conservatives are aiming at the same date to eliminate the structural deficit in British spending (i.e. cyclically adjusted spending less taxes), beyond that the difference between Labour’s spending plans and the Conservatives’ is as high as £27bn per annum. Differences on this scale are significant.

The next act in this drama was an attack by Mr Osborne on his Liberal Democrat coalition partners that they had lost the plot on economic policy because their plans were closer to Labour’s than the Conservatives. Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Treasury minister, made a robust response about the impossibility of Conservative spending plans. Ms Toynbee, in typical Guardian bunker style, had painted the Lib Dems as indistinguishable from the Tories, so she would have been less than pleased about this – but not too upset since she no doubt thinks that the Lib Dems are a political irrelevance these days.

It is to be hoped that these spats are the beginning of a serious political debate. Up until now we have experienced manufactured political rows over the immigration, the European Union and the NHS. Admittedly the Tory preparedness to take big risks with Britain’s membership of the EU is a serious political issue – but the row is more about tactics and competence than strategy. On the other issues the politicians have very little of practical value to say. But the gap between left and right on state spending (I refuse to call it “economic policy” as most commentators do) foreshadows very different visions for how the British state should work.

The right has an economically liberal view of the state, with both state services and benefits being pared back, leaving more space for private enterprise and consumer choice. The left does not seem to have such a clear vision – much of its energy is being devoted to keeping public services and benefits as they are and avoiding serious questions about the future. That is a pity, because shifts in both demographics and the distribution of economic power point to a larger role for the state.

The problem with the debate, though, is that none of the political parties is being clear about what they want to do. It is good that we are talking about broad numbers on the size of the state – but this needs to be brought down to specifics. The Conservatives need to be clearer about what they plan to cut, and how they want to reshape benefits. Labour and the Liberal Democrats need to do this too – because their plans also involve big cuts. But they also need to talk about taxes. The Tories are quite right that the only tax raising idea that they will talk about, the Mansion Tax, is small beer.

Britain, along with most of the developed world, needs to rethink tax, state benefits and public services. I do not believe that they can be shrunk in the way the right suggests. But neither are they sustainable in their current form, as the left seems to think. That, not immigration, exactly who delivers health services, or even membership of the EU, is one of the critical issues of our time.

The more politicians debate these issues, the better. But if they obfuscate, then Polly Toynbee’s angry rhetoric will for once be justified.

 

Share

Labour should be taking credit for the coalition’s economic policy, not whingeing about it

“Too far, too fast.” Remember that criticism of the British coalition government’s economic policies? It was repeated incessantly by Labour politicians in the first years of the government. And, it appears, the government was listening. The actual trajectory of progress on the country’s massive fiscal deficit is close to what Labour were recommending. And economic growth has returned. So what are Labour saying now? They are vilifying the government for going not going far enough and doing it too slowly!

It is, in fact, quite hard to understand Labour’s political strategy on the economy right now. The party lacks credibility, according to opinion polls. It is natural for them to try and change the subject, to more comfortable topics like public services, but foolish to think that they can avoid talking about it. Following yesterday’s Autumn Statement by George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the biggest noise from the party was about the coalition’s broken promises. And indeed, back in 2010 the coalition’s plan was to eliminate the structural deficit by 2015; instead, it seems to be generally agreed, they will only be half way there. Progress is, in fact, more or less what was envisaged by Labour’s alternative plan. This sounds like criticising the government for following Labour policy.

It’s not a first. Labour were equally scathing about the government’s record on immigration, after its pledge to reduce net immigration to under 100,000 was spectacularly missed. And yet Labour was not advocating any policies that would have made this promise more achievable. Indeed it is not at all clear whether Labour would have done much different.

And there is a ready explanation for why both the government’s promises were not met. World events. Economic growth in the rest of the world, and especially elsewhere in Europe, has been below expectations. You can get only so far by rowing against the tide – and if you do on the economy, net migration goes against you. Of course neither promise should have been made (if indeed the deficit reduction plan can even be called a promise). They were dependent on matters outside the government’s control. This is obvious, and it is to grossly underestimate public intelligence to suggest that the anybody thought that the numbers were written in stone. What matters to the public is what the government should have been doing differently. And here there is no clear message coming from Labour benches.

What we get instead is a flood of expressions of discontent. Pay has not kept up with inflation (“the cost of living crisis”); the rich have been let off; we don’t like the public service and benefit cuts.  It’s all like the children’s complaint “it’s not fair!”. And the weary response of the public to this complaining is surely that of the child’s parent. It’s a difficult world. Could you manage any better?

What is the purpose of Labour’s relentless negativity? It is a poor way to attract votes to itself. Perhaps they just want to reduce turnout, or encourage Conservative voters to support Ukip? Perhaps they plan to flourish Labour’s vision of hope a bit closer to next year’s election? But the last time Labour won from opposition, in 1997, the message of optimism was clearly apparent by this stage. Labour seems to have an ambition to win a majority in Parliament with the smallest ever number of votes, by splitting opposition votes and persuading people to stay at home. What sort of a vision is that?

But I don’t Labour’s negative and confusing rhetoric is part of a cunning plan. It is a reflection of confusion that goes deep into Labour thinking, especially about the economy. The party has not admitted that it made major mistakes in handling the economy in the years up to 2007, at which point the economy collapsed. They mumble something about being a bit to easy on bankers. They also say that they should have been tougher on immigration, though exactly how, and whether this would have helped the British economy, is very unclear. Instead, in private, they complain that the criticism of their record is unfair, and that the public is wrong to blame them. It was the world banking crisis that did for them; and the government was not as profligate as it is made out.

There is an element of truth to these complaints. Few criticised the government’s record at the time, after all. But the party has to confront some difficult facts. First is that the party was clearly guilty of hubris before 2007. There most memorable slogan was “no more boom and bust”, which they shouted out at the height of a boom, and just before one of the most spectacular busts in British economic history. Shrugging it off and saying it was somebody else’s fault does not pass muster. And second is that the level of government services and benefits that prevailed at 2007 was unsustainable. It may have looked OK according to the size of the economy at the time (though that is debatable), but a lot of that economy was built on air.

What Labour needed to say back on 2010 and 2011, after having chosen their new leader, Ed Miliband, was that Labour had messed things up badly. They were honest mistakes, made from the best of intentions, and following the best advice, perhaps. But they were mistakes and the party must learn from them. But instead Mr Miliband fudged the issue, preferring not to provoke a big argument in his own ranks. At the time he wished to ride a wave of anger at austerity, and it was necessary to leave unchallenged the fiction that public service cuts were unnecessary.

It is too late for that confession now. But it can be no wonder than the party’s credibility on the economy is so weak. As one columnist said in this morning’s FT, you can think that the coalition economic policy is disappointing, a mess even, and still think that Labour would be even worse.

Share

David Cameron pitches for the political centre on immigration and EU. How depressing

The Conservative leader and British Prime Minister David Cameron’s grasp of the dark political arts is not gone. Last Friday he gave a long-awaited speech setting out his proposals on managing immigration from other EU countries better. It received generally favourable coverage. And, before anybody had a chance to think through what he had said, the story was muscled out by a series of announcements about public spending commitments, in advance of tomorrow’s Autumn Statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. If this goes according to plan, Mr Cameron has redefined the political centre ground at a stroke. Will he succeed?

In the preceding weeks, not coincidentally while the Conservatives were trying to fight off a by-lection challenge from Ukip, various suggestions had been floated about what the speech might say. The most eye-catching was some sort of quota system for accepting intra-EU migrants. This drew much criticism from other EU leaders. In the event this idea was dropped. Instead Mr Cameron proposed to limit their access to benefits and tax credits, including those for both those in work, and those out of work. Migrants would not be entitled to these benefits unless they had been resident for a full four years.

In terms of pure politics this was astute. More moderate commentators were relieved that the quota idea, and its immediate confrontation with other EU leaders, was buried. Limiting access to benefits, on the other hand, sounds a bit like what the opposition Labour Party, and even the Liberal Democrat coalition partners, were suggesting. But the time limit and scope was much greater than anything these parties proposed – pleasing the more hawkish commentators, especially in the right-wing press, who are the main attack-dogs in British politics. Sensibly he left the matter of access to free health services under the NHS untouched. Many older Britons have retired to Spain, where they get access to that country’s health services for free; indeed Britain seems to be exporting oldsters almost as fast as it importing youngsters – something the government will not wish to discourage.

And so Mr Cameron will try to present himself as the voice of sweet reason and moderation as the General Election approaches. On the one hand we have the liberals and the left, who are ignoring the British public’s anxieties over immigration. On the other we have the swivel-eyed loons of the Ukip, who demand must more drastic measures, including departure from the EU, which would do severe harm to the country’s economic prospects. Mr Cameron does the faintly plaintive, sweet moderation act pretty well. He praised the contribution of immigrants in his speech, and simply suggested that the country had been having a little too much of a good thing.

And the bulk of the British public may well agree. Mr Cameron’s suggestion that we renegotiate our EU treaties and put the result to an in-out referendum sounded similarly sensible and centrist. That the political centre seems to be drifting so far towards muddled populism might alarm liberals like me, but this is reality.

But there are problems. The most immediate is whether his own fractious Conservative Party will buy it. Many party workers, and a lot of MPs, actually agree with Ukip about immigration and the EU. Mr Cameron’s policy may sound like a cop out to them. If they start to get  vocal, the Tories will look divided, and their credibility will fade. There were mutterings over the weekend, but we will have to wait and see on that. His party did allow Mr Cameron a free hand before the 2010 to define it as more moderate than it really was. If they have any sense they will do so this time. If the British public has any sense they won’t fall for it.

The political class are obsessed with the General Election due in May 2015. Any dates after this only matter in terms of manoeuvres designed to secure an advantage at that point. And in that light, divisions within the Tory party are Mr Cameron’s main threat on the issue. It is looking beyond that date that the real un-wisdom of Mr Cameron’s stance starts to emerge.

The first point is that it still leaves a problem with the EU renegotiation. While there is some scope to limit access to benefits under current EU treaties (by moving towards a contributory principle), changes of this nature will apparently need treaty changes. Mr Cameron had calculated that the EU would need treaty changes anyway to secure the struggling Eurozone – so adding in a few goodies for his benefit would not be too onerous. But the EU’s leaders are heading in a different direction. With anti-EU populists on the rise across the continent, leaders want to avoid any treaty change, since these are likely to be held hostage to referendum results. Unfortunately voting No to a treaty change has not proved fatal to any EU country so far – it has simply improved negotiating leverage. Going through this process just to save Mr Cameron’s bacon may well be too much. This takes the country a further step towards the EU exit, something that Mr Cameron seems to want to avoid.

The second point is that this plan does not actually address any major economic stress point. Access to Britain’s benefit system does not seem to be a major draw for intra-EU migrants – though it may be a stronger incentive for migrants from outside the EU. The British public will not notice a diminution of EU migrant numbers. The policy is designed to address tabloid exaggerations, not reality. The tabloids will simply move on to some other nonsense. All that pain for no real gain.

Still practical solutions to the country’s problems count for little in the current political debate. The populist right blame the EU and immigrants for the country’s problems. The left blames some combination of bankers, capitalists, greedy rich people or deluded neoliberals. We may suspect that our problems lie deeper – with demographics, globalisation and the development of technology. We may also suspect that the proffered solutions of left and right will make things worse not better. But no politician, campaign group or tabloid journalist seems to care. That is the real scandal of Britain’s political class.

Share

The slow suicide of Britain’s two party system. Only AV might have saved it

Two-party politics used to be the norm for developed democracies. Most countries’ politics were divided between tribal blocks based on the urban working class and on the aspirant middle classes. But the dominance of these two blocks has faded in most countries. There are two interesting exceptions: the USA and Australia. Here in Britain two-party politics looked as if it would triumph with the demise of the Liberal Democrat,s and the No vote in the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) in 2011. But now the system is its death throes.

It is worth considering the architecture of two party politics for a moment. Electoral politics is dominated by two political parties, each of which may govern on its own, without the need for support from smaller parties in coalitions or pacts. Each of these parties has a tribal character, defining themselves as much in opposition to the other as by their own core values. But there is an undeniable class base two. This divides the country into heartlands, where one or other of the parties dominates to the exclusion of all others, and marginal territory, contested by both parties, where elections are won and loss. Many, if not most, politicians build their own careers in the heartlands, where advancement depends on internal party politics, rather than winning over marginal voters. This leads to the system’s major flaw – the political classes are more worried about their own backyard and internal politics than in appealing to the electorate at large. Or they worry about marginal voters to the exclusion of the heartlands. Distance between voters and politicians grows.

The breakdown of this system follows the weakening of class loyalties from the 1960s onwards. New parties have emerged, from the liberal centre, from populist anti-political movements, from environmentalists, and from parties based on regional identity. In much of Europe coalitions became commonplace. Electoral systems played an important role. Those with proportional representation (PR) were the first to find that one party could not govern on its own. But in countries with single member constituencies one party could still aspire to win on its own. France’s two-round system promoted pacts and alliances between parties, and the major blocks split into separate parties – before the whole system started to be challenged by the populist Front National. Countries with First Past the Post (FPTP) systems have placed a greater role on party solidarity. But in New Zealand disillusion with two-party politics led to the introduction of PR; in Canada each of the two party blocks suffered existential crises that allowed more modern alternatives to replace them, at least in part. Australia’s AV system seems to have entrenched the two party system there, however. I will come back to that.

In the biggest and oldest developed-world democracy of them all, however, the two party system remains completely dominant. In the USA there is no alternative to the Republicans or Democrats, although the occasional challenge comes and goes – even as more and more voters self-describe as Independent. But the US system of democracy is unique. Apart from the widespread use of FPTP (some states use a two round system – which is why the Louisiana Senate race is not yet over after this month’s nationwide election), I think there are three, inter-related factors: primary elections, decentralised  power, and direct executive elections. Each party’s candidates are selected using primary elections which include much more than official party members. Such elections are part of the formal, state electoral process. Voters may register as Democrat or Republican. This allows them to take part in publicly-run primaries; in some states primaries are open – any voter can take part. That makes heartland elections competitive – and not a matter of manipulating small groups of insiders to secure your party’s nomination. It helps that each party’s national leadership is weak – so wheeler-dealing in Washington will not help a political career by much. This is a function of a system where much of the power is wielded at state level. One of the factors that keeps party functionaries weak is the prominence of direct executive elections, notably for President and state governors. In these cases personality often matters more than tribal allegiance.

It is an interesting paradox – for the two party system to be robust, the party leaderships must not be too strong. This allows the primary system to flourish, and gives outsiders a chance to break into politics. But party solidarity is important enough for those in power to rig the system to provide incumbent politicians with electorally safe seats through the gerrymandering of boundaries. A diminishing proportion of seats in the House of Representatives are competitive between the two blocks. A large proportion of the important politics is now in the tribal heartlands, and not in marginal territory. As a result of this, it would not be right to describe the state of politics in the USA as healthy. There is increasing polarisation, which is causing deadlock and the prospect of extremist policies. Most Americans seem fed up with the state of politics in their country, though not necessarily with the system itself.

Another case study in the survival of two-party politics is Australia. Politics is divided between two long-standing political blocks: Labor and the Liberal party, though the latter is a coalition of state parties (some of which refer to themselves as National or Country). There have been challenges to this duopoly over the years, but these have not made headway. No doubt there a number of factors that have contributed to this – but I think one factor is critical. And this is the AV electoral system. The legislature comprises single-member constituencies, and there is a single election day. Voters are asked to rank candidates in order of preference. If one candidate does not achieve more than 50% of the votes casts, the lower ranking candidates are eliminated and their votes redistributed. This is a bit like the French two round run-off system, except that with a single election day there is little scope for political deal making over second preferences. It is so important for candidates to maximise first preferences that it best not to talk too much about second preferences.

This makes it very hard for challengers to win seats. First their first preferences have to overhaul one or other of the two main parties. But to do so they cannot say “vote for me to keep the other guy out”, because that is an argument for second preference votes, not first. Second preference votes are useless without sufficient first preferences. And then, of course, you must have sufficient first and second preference votes to get a majority. In marginal seats challengers will be beaten by the lack of first preferences; in heartland seats there will be lack of second preference votes. As a result almost all seats go to one or other of the blocks. In 2013 in order to turn out a lacklustre Labor government, voters opted for a Liberal one that is now pushing forward a series of extremist policies on the environment and immigration.

So what of Britain? For a long time the main challenge to the two party system came from the Liberal Democrats, based in the liberal centre. It was skilful in winning seats under FPTP by establishing a local base, and then winning tactical votes from the weaker of the two blocks. This allowed it to win a substantial block of parliamentary seats in 1997, but not the balance of power until 2010. It then entered coalition with the Conservatives. And then disaster struck – the transition from a protest party to one of government was too much for the voters, and its poll ratings collapsed. Labour and Tory politicians breathed a sigh of relief – normal two-party politics could be resumed.

Ironically, in view of the Australian experience, the Lib Dems placed some hope by proposing to change Britain’s FPTP system to AV. This would have helped the party in the short term, where it had built up a sufficient local base to win second place in first preference votes. Both major parties agreed with the Lib Dem analysis, and for that reason opposed the change (Labour through faint praise rather than explicit opposition). In a referendum on the change in 2011 an overwhelming majority opposed AV. This seemed to secure the future of two-party politics.

But unlike the US, Britain’s politics is highly centralised. Party managers in Westminster like to keep a tight grip on their parties. And, again unlike the US, executives are elected indirectly, and candidates must master the internal politics of their own party in order to progress to high office. The idea of primary elections has not been allowed to gain traction. The Tories have moved small steps towards it, but without being able to harness state resources. The public has no way to channel its disillusion with politics than to vote for insurgent parties – since they are denied a role in the main party elections. And this they have been doing by supporting the populist Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland.

Unlike the Lib Dem challenge, these insurgencies have affected the main parties’ heartland voters. They are creating unbearable pressures with both party blocks. The Conservative and Labour leaders try both to fend off the insurgent challenge, and to retain the political centre – and as a result both appear weak, driven by events rather than leading them. This is creating unbearable strains and it seems likely both will fracture, especially if they have to endure the pressures of being in government. Labour face calamity in Scotland, as the SNP overturn their heartlands. In England Labour are a fragile coalition of public sector unions, liberal centrists and heartland machine politicians; each’s expectations of the party seems completely incompatible. The Tories look likely to fracture over Europe.

Ironically, if both parties had embraced AV, they would have been in a stronger position to fend off the insurgents and maintain party solidarity. And yet this is just another face of a bigger problem that both party’s face. their obsession with winning the next election has meant a loss of strategic focus. The demise of the two party system looks alarming, as fringe parties gain prominence. But in the long term it is to be welcomed. As the USA and Australia shows, a two-party system is too easily captured by political extremes.

 

Share