Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Swine flu goes viral

The total number of swine flu cases confirmed in the UK is doubling roughly every six days.

(The Health Protection Agency didn’t give daily figures for June 27-29, just saying that there were 1687 confirmed new cases in that period. I’ve divided that figure evenly to give bars for those three days.)

It’s clear that in many parts of the country, the containment phase is now over; elsewhere, containment won’t be much use for long. The swine is out of the bag.

But this shouldn’t send us all into a panic. Of these 6538 cases, only three have resulted in deaths – and in all three cases, there were serious pre-existing illnesses.

The official number of cases is also too small. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 1 case in 36 over there has been confirmed. Even if our detection systems are better, then this still suggests that the large majority of cases are going undetected – mostly because the symptoms are very mild or even non-existent.

If the confirmed UK cases amount to, say, a quarter of the total, then that would make a fatality rate of about 1 in 9000.

The major worries will come if a drug-resistant strain of H1N1 starts spreading - or, as the Guardian’s health editor warns:

The biggest concern for public health experts is that the flu will die down and then return in an altered and more dangerous form in the winter. The one positive side of the rapid spread of infection is that those who get it now may have some degree of immunity.

And, of course, countries with less developed health services will be hit harder.


Fifteen minutes ago, I hadn’t heard of Failblog. I’ve just spent fifteen minutes trying not to laugh out loud.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Man in the FT

The FT today publishes an interview it did with Peter Mandelson on Friday (when the world’s media were force-feeding themselves and anyone who came near them a certain celebrity death). It begins thus:

FT: Do you want to start by paying tribute to Michael Jackson, Peter? Everyone else seems to be doing that.
PM: I’m not absolutely sure who Michael Jackson is. Is he the ... he’s called Jacko, isn’t he?
FT: I believe so, in the idiom, yeah.
PM: No, I don’t want to say anything about him, although I once nearly met him in Berlin. Anyway, what I want to talk to you about…


(Then there’s some stuff about politics and that.)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Always tip cash

The bastards:

Employees of Tragus - which owns Café Rouge, Bella Italia and Strada - have come under pressure to ensure service charges are paid by card, and at least one waitress has told the Observer that they are being threatened with dismissal if they do not generate enough card tips. ...
Cash tips go directly to staff, but those paid by card go to the company. ...
...Tragus had sent a memo to restaurant managers telling them to crack down on employees encouraging customers to leave cash. Staff are forbidden to tell customers that the optional service charge is used to subsidise the national minimum wage paid to waiters.
A waitress in one Café Rouge restaurant claimed that the manager produced a weekly league table showing how much each waiter had collected in service charges. Those in the bottom three were denied the free food enjoyed by their colleagues. If this happened two weeks running, they could be sacked. Tragus denies this.
“I love my job, but the bottom line is this: if you want to help Tragus pay my wages (around 14% of it), then leave a tip on your credit card. However, if you want to tip me for the service you have received, I'd be very grateful for a couple of quid in the tip tray.”

Friday, June 26, 2009

Typo of the day

…in light of the current swine flue outbreak…

The pigs are getting out the chimney!!!

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mervyn King slams Tories on debt

I’m not kidding.

A biased and simplistic headline, to be sure, but no more so than the many ‘Kings slams Labour on debt’ stories running today.

Here are some extracts from the Bank of England Governor’s testimony to the Commons Treasury Committee yesterday. You’ll be able to discern some implicit criticism, as well as praise, of the government position:

[18’05] …there will certainly need to be a plan, for the lifetime of the next parliament, contingent upon the state of the economy, to show how those deficits will be brought down if the economy recovers, to reach levels of deficits below those which were shown in the Budget figures. I think the Budget was commendably honest in setting out the fiscal picture, I think there’s just as good a chance that the picture will turn out to be better than was painted in those single numbers than it being worse. And that’s encouraging that that degree of honesty is there. But I think we have to confront the fact that these numbers are very large and they pose a challenge to the UK which we will need collectively to deal with.

[20’55] …it’s likely to be necessary to spell out a path for the reduction of deficit such that if the economy were to recover along the path assumed in the Budget projections for GDP, then I think the time over which deficits need to be reduced is likely to have to be faster than was implied by that projection. But I think what is most important is not to fix an arbitrary timescale for reduction of the fiscal deficit, but to recognise that whatever it is, it will have to be dependent on the state of the economy. But I don’t think we can afford to wait until the parliament after next before taking action to demonstrate credibly that the United Kingdom is going to reduce its deficit and that fiscal policy will be credible.

[22’30] …I think we need to recognise that although we are finding it easy to finance those deficits now, by issuing gilts, there could be challenges down the road. And I think all that’s needed is not action now – it would be quite wrong now to take action this year – but what is needed is credible statement of the path that will guide the reduction in deficits over the years, made contingent on the state of the economy.

A fair summary of this would be: deficits need to come down, and should come down faster than projected in the Budget – but only once the economy returns to decent growth.

Now let’s go back to what David Cameron said in April:

Now some people say: let’s get through the recession, let’s get through the election we can keep on spending more, keep on borrowing more, and deal with the debt crisis later. Wrong - seriously wrong.

Controlling public spending and delivering more for less must start right now. Not next year, not after the election – now.

Whereas Mervyn King says:

it would be quite wrong now to take action this year

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Brown announces inquiry into announcement of Iraq war inquiry

“We must learn the lessons of this senseless waste of not-too-awful publicity, while also covering our own arses,” he said. The inquiry will be conducted in secret, chaired by a former Downing Street press officer who for presentational security reasons is known only as ‘M’, and will report in spring 2017.

I before E, except when it’s not

My dander is up. My goat has been got. My blood has been brought to the boil.

First, this is pretty sound:

The spelling mantra "i before e except after c" is no longer worth teaching, according to the government. Advice sent to teachers says there are too few words which follow the rule and recommends using more modern methods to teach spelling to schoolchildren.

Dead right: protein, seize, their, either, veil, weird, height, science, ancient, species, society…

But then this:

But some people believe the phrase should be retained because it is easy to remember and is broadly accurate.
Bethan Marshall, a senior English lecturer at King's College London, said: "It's a very easy rule to remember and one of the very few spelling rules that I can remember and that's why I would stick to it. If you change it and say we won't have this rule, we won't have any rules at all, then spelling, which is already terribly confusing, becomes more so."

I hope for Dr Marshall’s sake that she’s been misquoted somehow, or else was blind drunk when they called her up for a comment.

This rule is already a rule that we don’t have, because the English language doesn’t follow it. Teaching kids a ‘spelling rule’ that isn’t a rule is what’s terribly confusing. The fact that this falsehood is a very memorable falsehood makes it worse, not better. Stopping teaching it isn’t an abandonment of all rules, it’s an abandonment of one rule, which in fact is a rule that doesn’t hold anyway.

And… relax. Deep breaths. Sorry, I clearly need to calm down. I think I’ve been drinking too much caffiene.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Speaking of Speakers...

In perhaps the most cringeworthy moment of yesterday, soon-to-be Speaker John Bercow imitated Tory grandee Sir Peter Tapsell’s reaction to his candidacy:

You're not just too young, you're far too young, given that in my judgment the Speaker ought to be virtually senile.

Bercow is indeed young: 46, compared with Michael Martin (who was 55 on taking the chair), Betty Boothroyd (62), Bernard Weatherill (62), Viscount Tonypandy (67)… and so on.

To find a younger Speaker, you have to go back to Charles Shaw-Lefevre, 1st (and only) Viscount Eversley, who on 27 May 1839 was elected to the Speakership at the slightly tenderer age of 45 (and indeed by the narrower margin of 317 votes to 299; Bercow beat Sir George Young by 322 to 271).

Did Shaw-Lefevre’s relative youth prove a handicap? Apparently not: the Encyclopaedia Britannica records that during his 18 years in the chair, he acquired “a high reputation in the House of Commons for his judicial fairness, combined with singular tact and courtesy”.

Now, I bet you didn’t know that there’s Hansard online going back to 1803. So, on that May evening in 1839, in putting forward his candidacy, Shaw-Lefevre said:

any qualifications which I may be thought to possess for the office of Speaker, cannot in any degree bear a comparison with those of that right hon. Gentleman whose recent retirement from the Chair has now become a subject of universal regret.

The responsibility which in ordinary times, and under ordinary circumstances, is inseperable from the laborious duties of the Chair, is of a sufficiently grave and anxious character. But in these times I regret to say, and in the present excited state of political feeling, that responsibility is immesurably increased. Entertaining, these opinions, it may not unreasonably be thought that I am presumptions in allowing myself to be placed in nomination as a candidate on the present occasion.

I yield to no one in a desire to maintain the honour and dignity of this House, in a strong sense of the importance of protecting its privileges from being in the slightest degree trenched upon, and in a firm determination to exert all the energies I possess in the discharge of any duty which the House may impose upon me. With these observations I cheerfully submit myself to the pleasure of the House.

Plus ça change: the panegyric to the outgoing Speaker (a Scot, who apparently “was not very successful in quelling disorder” and quit the chair for a peerage and a fat pension); the laughably false modesty; the concerns about “the present excited state of political feeling”; the hailing of “the honour and dignity of this House” – but of course.

But “protecting its privileges”? Don’t think that would go down so well these days…


I’m not particularly a John Bercow fan, but I’m really entertained by the attitude held by a swathe of the Tory party. Roughly: ‘We opposed him because he’s a divisive figure, and he’s divisive because we oppose him, and we can’t have a divisive Speaker, so we’ll keep opposing him.’

Monday, June 22, 2009


The spoof Tory MP Nadine Dorries has been detailing her soporific views on the Commons Speakership, and why she so strongly opposes John Bercow’s candidacy.

In a debate on abortion a while ago, Bercow voiced his hope for “genuinely progressive reform, rather than the antediluvian reform that some favour”.

Dorries, after explaining for us that antediluvian “means 'before The Flood' i.e. prehistoric”, says that we cannot “trust a Speaker who has such strident zealot views on such an issue” as abortion.

So she’s backing Ann Widdecombe.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Cameron’s expenses repayment timing

‘I’ve taken the opportunity today to bury some bad news’

By astonishing coincidence, David Cameron has announced his repayment of £947.29 in inappropriately claimed expenses on exactly the same day that the (heavily censored) official details of MPs’ expenses were published. This larger story tragically deprived his own tale of much of the media coverage he had doubtless hoped for.

His repayment covers the £680 claim for the repairs to his constituency home that the Telegraph revealed back in May (the wisteria) and that he’d already promised to pay back, as well as a few other smaller claims and £218.91 for mortgage overclaims that were made in error.

His statement started on the censored publication and then moved on to his own case (emphasis added):

…but I think we need a more common-sense approach to releasing this information and I hope we can do that in future.
As for myself, I’ve taken the opportunity today to, er – I’ve been through my accounts in great detail, and I have discovered an inadvertent error I made in 2006 with respect to some mortgage payments – an overclaim of £200 – and I’ve paid that money back today to the Fees Office, along with other announcements that I made previously. I’m very sorry about making a mistake like this, but I think the best thing to do when you discover it is to deal with it as quickly as possible.
…it took a long time to get to the bottom of this particular mortgage claim…
As soon as I got the information to hand, I made the announcement today and I returned the money today.

It could be an innocent coincidence, although the hastily abandoned “I’ve taken the opportunity today” line (watch the video from about 20 seconds in) might suggest otherwise.

But let’s say that it did in fact take exactly this long to sort out the mortgage claim details. Why delay the repayment for the other things, most notably the wisteria clearing that came to light over five weeks ago? This sort of delay isn’t what he suggested when he said, on 12 May:

I want to set out this afternoon the action I’m taking right now. … I mean things that my Party, the Conservative Party; Conservative MPs, the things that they will do – right now.

I will pay back the only maintenance bill I have claimed in eight years as a Member of Parliament.

He added:

We need money paid back now.

Well, so far this looks like little more than standard politician’s slipperiness. But perhaps there’s more to it.

On 22 May, the Oxford Mail covered a public meeting that Cameron held in his Witney constituency:

Mr Cameron said he had voluntarily paid back £680 he claimed for fixing a leaky roof and removing wisteria from his chimney.
He said: “It was for maintenance not decoration, but I felt I had to take a lead and pay back anything questionable.”

But, of course, he hadn’t yet done any such thing. If this report is accurate, it does rather suggest that he was lying.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Unnecessary superfluous redundancy

My work exposes me to some really dire language. The latest sample:

This is a multilateral collaborative partnership

As opposed to a unilateral collaborative partnership? Or a multilateral adversarial partnership? Or a multilateral collaborative rivalry?

The rest of the sentence is pretty bad as well:

This is a multilateral collaborative partnership with the aim to advance scientific knowledge and management of human influenza through integrated clinical research in order to improve patient care and human health.

A hideous spiral of confusion between means and ends. Or perhaps it’s indifference rather than confusion, coupled with the desire to be seen to be using certain buzz-phrases. That attitude would certainly explain the pleonastic pile-up at the start.

This has been written by someone who wouldn’t survive five minutes outside the confines of a large corporate bureaucracy.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Cuts and priming: Labour prepares for 2014

Contrary to popular criticism, the Labour leadership isn’t re-fighting the last election; it’s anticipating the next but one. It may not be the intention, but the latest wave of ‘Labour investment vs Tory cuts’ noise may be less useful at the coming election than it would be to a Labour opposition fighting the election after that.

People are loath to listen to a deeply unpopular government, and unlikely to trust what it says when they do chance to hear. So almost anything that Labour tries now is going to struggle to get traction with the public. But it could lay down a few markers that will help to set the political tone in years to come.

The next government will become unpopular because of what it will do to reduce the budget deficit. This imperative will be a painful constraint on either a Labour or a Tory government. The parties still differ, though: Labour would almost certainly cut services less, raises taxes more and reduce the deficit less quickly than the Tories. It’s risible for Ed Balls to imply that Labour won’t have to cut spending and for George Osborne to imply that the cuts would be the same under either party.

A Tory government, which does seem rather likely, would let public-sector cuts take most of the strain. Many Tories will secretly be very happy about this. Many voters will suspect this.

A Labour opposition, after a couple of years, will find a much readier audience for denunciations of cuts – particularly if the groundwork for such a campaign has been laid, which the current ‘Tory cuts’ attacks may be doing.

There’s a parallel between this and one of the Tories’ recent tactics: as well as opposing short-term stimulus such as the VAT cut, they’ve urged immediate spending cuts. This sort of fiscal tightening mid-recession would have been madness, and it’s our good luck that they haven’t had a chance to do it. But this makes more political sense if the Tories, knowing that they’ll not be in power before the recession is over, are making such proposals purely to create a general impression that public debt is bad and that it needs to be brought under control. This would prime people to be more receptive to the cuts in services that would follow under a Tory government.

Conversely, while Labour attacks on ideologically driven Tory cuts may make precious little difference at the moment, they could prime people to be more resentful of such cuts once underway, and to be more inclined to agree that Labour had indeed warned them about exactly this.

It’s a bit like Tony Blair and spin: he got regular criticism for being slippery throughout the 1990s, which many people nodded along to even while they generally supported him. Then, with the presentational shenanigans around the Iraq war, people turned against him all the more because it fitted with what they’d always been warned about. They’d been primed to suspect that he was a liar, and so, when it mattered, the charge stuck all the more damningly.

Labour is now priming people to believe that David Cameron is a cutter. It could well work, but perhaps not yet.

Iraq inquiry finds you made your mind up ages ago

11 August 2010: The Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, announced by Gordon Brown last year, reported yesterday, to mixed reaction.

Its findings that A, B and C were dismissed by you as being “old news…we didn’t need this charade to tell us what we already knew”. However, the report’s judgement that P, Q and R was welcomed. “This is exactly what we’ve been saying since the start,” you argued, “and now this means that we can keep saying it, only now we get to add the word ‘official’.”

However, you also branded it a “whitewash” for its failure to conclude that X, Y and Z. “We all know the truth,” you angrily declared, adding that “this so-called ‘official’ attempt to sweep things under the carpet will not wash”.

Perhaps most controversial was this passage from chapter 6 of the report:

There is clear evidence that many members of the public had made their minds up as early as spring 2002, and that they went on to interpret all new information in light of these preconceptions. Many others formed tentative views in early 2003 but then reconsidered over the next two years; despite this apparent readiness to reconsider, though, these people now hold fast to their new opinions with the zeal of converts. Nothing we say can change that.

Your response was swift: “I knew they’d say something like this, and I’m frankly astonished that they have.” You declined to make further comment until you’d gone through the whole thing with a couple of highlighters, deciding which bits of the report were “in my name” and which were “not in my name”.

The Guardian, to save money on writers, reprinted its editorial from 16 June 2009:

What is already known about Britain's decision to invade Iraq is surely more extraordinary than anything that could possibly be uncovered by the inquiry…
The chief point of a new probe, then, cannot be to get at things that have necessarily lain under wraps until now. No, the real reason an inquiry is needed is to draw together what we already know, and in its light to try to grasp how such a monstrous blunder could have been made.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Public services productivity in perspective

‘Productivity’ is how many bangs you get for your buck; it’s not production, which is the total number of bangs put out.

It’s much harder to quantifiably define productivity for public services than for a profit-making private firm (as Nigel Stanley and Andrew R note), but the ONS has had a go in a new report.

Just for argument’s sake I’ll accept its methods as flawless (though they certainly aren’t, as the report concedes).

The headline finding is that inputs and outputs have both risen, but the former more so: productivity in public services fell by 3.2% between 1997 and 2007. The biggest single contribution to this was from healthcare, which recorded a 4.3% fall in productivity.

George Osborne reacted thus:

These productivity figures tell the damning story of Labour’s wasted years of spending. Gordon Brown poured billions of pounds into public services but blocked any attempt to reform them. The taxpayer has been left with massive debts and little to show for it at the end of this wasted decade.

He doesn’t, to his credit, claim that there has been no improvement in services at all - just little to show, which we can compare with the damning, massive waste. So I thought I’d do that.

The blue line shows the rise in healthcare output, the gold line shows the rise in inputs (both based at 100 for 1997) and the widening gap between them indicates falling productivity:

Osborne thinks the bad news far outweighs the good; I respectfully take the opposite view. Productivity is down 4.3% but the actual output of the health service is up 52.5%.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Sounding a note of caution

So the recession might just be over, or has at least paused (see also Chris Dillow and Paul Krugman), and England may have stormed to a glorious, heroic 6-0 triumph over fearsome opponents, but there is still cause for concern.

Mars is going to collide with the Earth (possibly).

And just when house prices were starting to pick up…

Experts say there is only a tiny chance of it happening and it would be unlikely to happen for billions of years.

Yeah, right. That’s exactly what they said about the credit crunch. I’m buying tinned food and heading for the cellar.

Quick thought on the London Tube strike

(Update for provincial readers: there’s currently a two-day strike by workers on the Tube, which is a kind of underground railway, which is like a long series of coaches powered by electricity, which is a magical invisible force that can move things without the aid of horses and rope.)

The more of us who have season tickets, the less a strike can cost TfL in lost profits.

RIP the recession, May 2008–March 2009?

Could it really be over already?

Just two weeks ago, I’d have laughed incredulously at this question. Now, it’s looking as though the answer may well be yes.

But a quick summary of the background:

In the third quarter of 2008, GDP shrank by 0.7%. In Q4, it shrank by 1.6% and in Q1 of this year an agonising 1.9% – and recent figures on Q1 construction output suggest that this could be revised to as much as 2.2%. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Nobody has imagined that the current quarter would be as bad as Q1, but surely we couldn’t just pull out of that sort of nosedive so quickly?

After all, an IMF analysis in April found that “recessions associated with financial crises tend to be unusually severe and their recoveries typically slow. Similarly, globally synchronized recessions are often long and deep, and recoveries from these recessions are generally weak.”

So what grounds for optimism are there?

Exhibit 1: the OECD’s latest round-up of leading economic indicators suggests “a reduced pace of deterioration in most of the OECD economies with stronger signals of a possible trough in Canada, France, Italy and the United Kingdom”.

Exhibit 2 is the purchasing managers’ index for the UK service sector, which recorded growth in activity in April – for the first time in a year.

Exhibit 3 is industrial output – including manufacturing – which also rose in April.

Exhibit 4 is most interesting of all: the National Institute of Economic and Social Research produces estimates of monthly GDP. When you add these up, they tend to tally pretty well with the official quarterly figures, when they later come out. And these monthly numbers have been looking fascinating lately:

For most of last year and January-March this year, the NIESR recorded GDP falls. But April’s figure was +0.2% and May’s was 0.1%. We still have to see what happens in June before we can get a Q2 figure, but it’s looking good.

This, if right, is stunning. How could we possibly have such a quick end to such a steep recession (see chart below)? A couple of things may help to explain:

Exhibit 5: The IMF study mentioned above finds “evidence of a bounce-back effect: output growth during the first year of recovery is significantly and positively related to the severity of the preceding recession”. This makes some sense in light of the really ferocious running down of inventories since about last autumn, meaning a brutal halt to factory production – the faster this process, the sooner it stops and even reverses.

The IMF also argues that “expansionary fiscal policy seems particularly effective in shortening recessions associated with financial crises and boosting recoveries” and that “both fiscal and monetary expansions undertaken during the recession are associated with stronger recoveries”. Which brings me to…

Exhibit 6: the Bank of England’s February inflation report (table 2) looked at economic stimuli at early stages of the 1970s, 80s, 90s and current recessions: “interest rates have been cut more significantly than at the early stage of previous UK recessions… fiscal policy and the exchange rate are also more supportive of activity than at the early stage of these previous recessions. And oil prices have fallen significantly, boosting households’ spending power”.

Let’s not go wild, though. One swallow doesn’t put a spring in the economy’s step. Even if the current quarter turns out to have stable GDP – or even a little growth – there’s still a chance of things turning down again later on, as in the kind of double-dip we had in the 1970s (see chart below). And even if growth does resume properly, unemployment is still very likely to keep rising for some time to come.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Support AV to stop the chartists

I’m completely in favour of changing to the Alternative Vote system (in which you number the candidates in order of preference, and then the candidate with the fewest first preferences gets their votes shifted on to the second choices, and so on until someone has a majority of the vote).

Whether more proportional reforms than that might be a good idea I’m less sure, but AV clearly has a few things going for it:

It’s easy to introduce. You don’t need any changes to constituency boundaries or new types of MP. You just have to print the ballot papers a bit differently and spend longer counting them.

It keeps the link between an MP and a local constituency as clear as it is already.

It means that no MP will get elected without having some degree of endorsement from the majority of people voting.

It puts an end to the concepts of a ‘wasted vote’ and of tactical voting – or rather, it institutionalises the latter. If one of the no-hoper minor parties is your favourite, you can put them first and then pick between the likelier winners with your other preferences.

And that, in turn, means an end to those god-awful dodgy bar charts on election leaflets (I’m looking at you, Clegg) trying to prove that ‘in Burblington South it’s a straight fight between X and Y’ or ‘Z can’t win in Gurnchester – only X can keep Y out!’

Surely it’s worth it for that alone.

The fag-end of life

Willem Buiter of the FT is a jolly clever man, but in his latest piece his common sense has utterly deserted him.

He takes umbrage at newspaper headlines such as “Smoking kills five million a year”, arguing:

The headline in question really ought to have read: “Smoking-related illness and disease caused the premature deaths of five million people worldwide in the year 2000. Average life spans were reduced by N years.” If they had not smoked, the five million would not have died of smoking-related illnesses and diseases… Instead they would have died, had they not smoked, at some later date, of [some other cause]…

This is technically correct but very, very silly. His logic would also have us saying ‘Terrorists caused the premature deaths of 52 Londoners in July 2005, reducing the average lifespans of those involved by N years’ and ‘The Nazi policy of gassing (mostly healthy) Jews prevented millions of fatal cases of heart disease, cancer, infection and other conditions’.

Racism and voting

People are aghast at the BNP getting two MEPs. Some are so determined to stop this ever happening again that they’ve taken to throwing eggs. At a party that makes great play of its supposed victimhood. Nice tactic, guys.

But should racists be allowed to vote, and to form political parties? Alas, yes. So: how many racists are there in Britain? The BNP got 6.2% of the vote last week, although this was only 2.1% of the electorate.

It’s hard to find out how many racists there are, because most of them will cunningly say “I’m not a racist”. The fiends.

The British Social Attitudes survey regularly asks: “How would you describe yourself... as very prejudiced against people of other races, a little prejudiced, or not prejudiced at all?”

We can be sure that this question under-records racial prejudice. Nonetheless, the latest survey (2007) found 2.6% of people saying that they were very prejudiced and 29% a little prejudiced. These figures have been pretty consistent through this decade and last.

So if we don’t want racist parties to win votes, then we can: (1) make racists (or people who don’t care about anti-racism – a debatable distinction) less inclined to vote for racist parties; (2) make non-racists more inclined to vote for non-racist parties; (3) make people less racist.

Almost all reaction to the BNP in recent years can be classed as (1) or (2) – which fits with the prevailing cross-party and mainstream media mood that public attitudes are to be responded to rather than changed. Both approaches are worthwhile. (3) is much harder, and slower to work, but much more rewarding because it tackles the problem at root.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Brown lives to lose another day

Well, the results were utterly awful. And we’re stuck with Gordon Brown, at least for the time being.

Maybe that’s not cause for unbridled weeping, though.

I’ve slightly rethought part of my Friday post. I said (among many other things): “If Brown could hang on into the autumn without causing further party convulsions or further hardening the anti-Labour vote, I’d support that. But I don’t see it.”

I still think Labour would fare less badly, at least initially, with Alan Johnson as leader (a new poll suggests this). And I’m still wary of the effects of much more of Brown’s politically inept lurching (he has promised to change; I think I’ll believe that when I see it). But there’s a flipside, and it relates to another point I made: that the fury at MPs’ expenses is getting in the way of everything else, so a general election in this context would be pretty much single-issue and other political issues would struggle to get a look in.

Likewise, replacing party leaders in the current frenzy of disgust could well have scant political impact amid a ‘so what, you’re all thieving bastards and we hate you’ mood.

So maybe it’s for the best that Brown has survived the last week’s clumsy, inept moves against him (less a putsch than a series of shoves). People may be more receptive to a new Labour leader a few months down the line, with a general election signalled for a few months after that. Although whether there’ll be enough momentum and organisation to edge Brown out later in the year is anyone’s guess. Whether the PLP and cabinet are capable of coherent strategic action at all any more is anyone’s guess.

(Also, I recommend reading Brian Barder’s case for keeping Brown on and toughing it out until next May. I don’t share his conclusion, but he makes some shrewd points very well – particularly numbers 2, 3 and 4. And Paulie has good thoughts on the sort of political reforms that Labour should be getting stuck into.)

Monday, June 08, 2009

David Blunkett attacked by charging cow

I think we Labour Party types could do with a bit of light relief today. Try this:

Former Home Secretary David Blunkett is recovering after being injured by a charging cow in Derbyshire.
The incident happened on Saturday while the Sheffield MP was out walking on his 62nd birthday with his guide dog Sadie in the Peak District. It is believed the cow ran at the dog and while trying to protect her, the blind MP fell and was trampled.
He suffered a broken rib and "painful bruising" but was declared well enough to attend a Labour Party meeting later.

I’m very impressed by his gallant devotion to Sadie.

Alison Pratt, from the National Farmers' Union, gave the following advice to others should they find themselves in a similar position. "The best thing to do is to let the dog off the lead so it can run away because obviously a dog can run faster than you," she said. "The next thing to do is to get quite quickly to the edge of the field, collect the dog and leave."

Probably wise, but perhaps easier said than done when the dog in question is your guide dog.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Britain’s got fascists

Bugger. Our first BNP MEP.

Shame on everyone in Yorkshire and Humberside who didn’t vote because ‘they’re all the same’.

Update: The man in question is one Andrew Brons, who in an earlier incarnation was a member of the nicely named National Socialist Movement. In the 1960s, Brons courageously opposed the bombing of British synagogues by some of his fellow NSM members:

On this subject I have a dual view, in that I realise that he is well intentioned, I feel that our public image may suffer considerable damage as a result of these activities. I am however open to correction on this point.

Update 2: Nick Griffin has weighed in:

Racism in this country is overwhelmingly directed against people who look like me.

How awful. If any of the media Jews are reading this, please stop being so beastly to Mr Griffin and his lookalikes.

Three decades of local elections

For a bit of perspective.

Projected national share of the vote, 1979-2009:
(Using data from here and here.)

Share of all councillors by party, 1979-2009:
(Using data from here, here and here.)

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Pick your headline

You can have ‘Labour poll surge after Cabinet reshuffle’ or ‘Labour kicking shit out of itself distracts media from voters kicking shit out of Labour’.

It can’t go on like this. But it probably will.

Friday, June 05, 2009

How best to play a weak hand

What a bloody mess. There seems extremely little chance of Labour winning the next election; even holding the Tories to a hung parliament looks unlikely. That said, the aim should still be to maximise the number of votes and seats that Labour can win.

Here are some thoughts on what to do next:

(1) Labour’s unpopularity is not all Brown’s fault.
His political clumsiness, his difficulty in changing the terms of debate and many aspects of his record are liabilities. Junking Brown would help with that, but won’t change the fact that a lot of people are sick of this government for a range of other reasons, and have been for some time.

(2) A turn in the economy won’t help.
As I argued yesterday, there isn’t enough time for unemployment to come down before the next election. What’s more, Brown’s strength has been in moments of urgent financial crisis; all we’re faced with now is the grim, gloomy slog of job losses, bankruptcies and repossessions.

(3) The reshuffle won’t help.
Unless he wants to bring in Baroness Lumley as Secretary of State for Gurkhas and Loveliness, it won’t have much political benefit. Reshuffles never do – unless, of course, they lead to major changes in the direction of government. But that could in theory happen without a bunch of new faces; and, in practice, Brown doesn’t give the impression that he’s much of a direction-changer.

(4) Something might turn up – but for whom?
Events, dear boy, events… The utterly unforeseen could radically change the political picture. But why should we expect such a change to benefit Labour rather than the Tories? Other things being equal, you’d expect a fifty-fifty chance here. But other things aren’t equal: Cameron is far nimbler than Brown at responding to events, and in any case the party that’s already more popular will tend to have its reactions viewed more favourably than the party already less liked.

(5) A new leader could well help, but probably not for long.
We may scorn the media for not being policy wonks, but personalities do matter. A reasonably personable replacement with half a dozen decent policy ideas (everyone seems to be thinking Alan Johnson) would likely provide a boost. However, given the many reasons voters have acquired for resenting this government over the years, such a boost might not last more than a few months – that, at least, is what the events of autumn 2007 suggest.

(6) People don’t grasp the true value of a caretaker leader.
All the commentary I’ve seen about Johnson (presumably) as caretaker has focused on how he could steady nerves and steer the party through to the election, probably losing but not as badly as Brown would. That may be true, but reducing the scale of defeat is not the main reason to want such a person: his true value will come after defeat.

Party leadership contests just after election defeat tend to produce bad results: William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, for instance. Far better to give it a while – maybe a year – and see how things go. A new Tory government would start with a fair amount of goodwill or at least benefit of the doubt, and nobody will be much interested in what the opposition does internally. Labour, post-defeat, would gain from spending some time mulling over what lessons to learn and seeing what the Tories’ strengths and weaknesses turn out to be in power.

I can’t conceive that Brown would want to stay on post-defeat – and in any case, he’d be too discredited to steady the ship. With his union background and broadly modernising (but not factionally Blairite) position, Johnson could be a good post-defeat caretaker, allowing time to rethink and regroup, avoiding civil war, scoring some hits on the Tories here and there, and letting potential successors show what they can do (as Michael Howard did for Cameron and Osborne).

But a post-defeat contest would be fought to win by various younger candidates of left and right (which could get nasty) – so for Johnson to be post-election caretaker, he’d almost certainly need to become leader beforehand.

(7) Tax rises and spending cuts are on the way.
Given the spiralling budget deficit, there is surely pain to come. Whoever is in power after the election is likely to become very unpopular. Assuming that the Tories win, Labour will need to be in reasonable shape to take advantage of this fact.

(8) Forcing Brown out will look bad.
The best replacement scenario would involve him leaving voluntarily, but clearly he will only go under fierce pressure. This will make the party look divided.

(9) Keeping Brown on will look bad.
Because he looks bad. And in any case, it’s widely known that there is a lot of internal party opposition to him. The choice may be between divisions that lead to a de facto overthrow and divisions that keep bubbling away, unresolved.

(10) A leadership election now could look bad.
A properly contest might expose ideological rifts and factional rivalries in the party, and could also give the impression that Labour is more interested in its own affairs than in the needs of the country. It would take much longer than an uncontested succession.

(11) Another ‘unelected’ PM could look bad.
An uncontested Johnson succession might feed into the view that Labour tries to avoid elections wherever possible, and it would make it easier to argue that he has no mandate and must call an immediate election.

(12) But there will be calls for an election ‘now’ every day, regardless.
If Brown stays, if Johnson smoothly replaces him, if X beats Y in a contest – nothing will still the demands for a snap election. And while these demands are a problem, they shouldn’t be seen as overwhelming all other factors.

(13) The post-expenses turmoil has to be soothed, a bit.
At the moment, voters are in little mood for politics beyond expressing disgust at MPs’ conduct. This is getting in the way of everything; many urge a snap election to purge the system, but such an election would be single-issue in a way that made it almost apolitical. Things need to come off the boil.

What Brown should have said when Cameron asked why a snap election would mean chaos is that the current intense fury would prevent proper debate of other – vitally important – issues; that anyone winning an election now would have little mandate beyond ‘clean things up’; that the parties do need a bit of time to put their houses in order before putting candidates up for election.

(14) There are two good grounds for not having an election yet.
Perhaps the best way for a new leader to resist demands for an early election would be to say that MPs have been elected to do a job of work; that across the board they haven’t done as well as they should have; that the new leader wants a chance to put things right and reform parliament, rather than just walking away when the headlines get tough; and that there will indeed be an election not too far away.

The second reason to hold off is that there’s still important work to be done dealing with the recession.

(15) But a new leader probably shouldn’t leave it too long.
The ‘call an election ASAP’ dynamic, fed by the expenses row and by any change of leader, points in the same direction as the fact that a new leader’s novelty value won’t last. I’d guess three months might be about right.

Summing up
I think Brown has to go – he’s far from the whole problem, but he’s preventing even a partial solution – and to be replaced probably with Johnson, as smoothly as possible, pretty soon. If Brown could hang on into the autumn without causing further party convulsions or further hardening the anti-Labour vote, I’d support that. But I don’t see it. Johnson needs to go hell-for-leather on sorting out parliament, and perhaps also say that he intends to call an election later this year – and that he won’t be saying another word about election timing until he goes to see the Queen. Health, education etc. mustn’t be ignored, but the focus will have to be on the economy and on cleaning up parliament. Then the election could be called perhaps just after the party conferences or the pre-Budget report.

The Tories would still almost certainly win. I’m recommending a path strewn with landmines, but such is life when you’re in the middle of a minefield.

One final thought
Neither the above, nor most of the commentary elsewhere, has much to say about the importance of governing the country. Brown is not just Labour leader, he’s also Prime Minister, and some strange people may think that the latter job is more important. Will another change of PM get in the way of the business of governing (to a greater extent than the current seething mass of frustration and despair)? Is Alan Johnson really cut out to be PM, even if only briefly? And if Labour really is doomed to defeat, why throw away six months or so of power to what (some of us still firmly believe) is a far inferior party?

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Labour is in a terrible hole and the economy will not help

Regardless of the council and Euro election results, we already know how things look for the parties generally.

The Conservatives are not doing as well as Labour was in the mid-1990s. However, Labour now doing even worse than the Conservatives were back then (nowadays the smaller parties are doing better, at the expense of the two biggies).

Danny Finkelstein and Andrew Cooper discussed the Brown vs Major comparison a couple of days ago, but didn’t do what’s necessary to get a decent answer: you have to control for accuracy against real election results.

(Here comes the maths bit; skip down to the graphs if you trust me.)

Opinion polling methodologies vary between pollsters and over time. The only company getting credible results in the mid-90s was ICM: the several polls it conducted during the 1997 election campaign gave an average Labour lead of 13.6%; in the end, Labour led by 12.8%. So subtracting the 0.8% difference from ICM polls conducted in the years before the election should give a decent estimate of Labour’s implied lead across the mid-90s (using data from UK Polling Report).

For current polls, I suggest a similar adjustment based on the accuracy of polls conducted during the 2005 election campaign. As Mike Smithson reports, the only pollsters who’ve kept their methods constant since then are ICM, YouGov and Populus.

The 2005 result was Labour 2.9% ahead of the Tories. ICM’s campaign polls averaged a 6.5% Labour lead (3.6% too high), YouGov had 2.9% (spot on) and Populus had 8.5% (5.6% too high).

Also, to smooth out the short-term blips and rogue polls, I’ve taken averages over three-month periods.

Here’s Labour’s implied lead through the mid-1990s:

And here’s the Tory implied lead in recent years:

(For 2009 Q2 I have, for obvious reasons, had to settle for April and May.)

Clearly, things have been more volatile lately than in 1994-97. A steady Tory advance was reversed by Brown’s becoming PM, but everything went very wrong very quickly for him, and in the last year or more the Tory lead has been in early Blair territory (Labour’s short-lived semi-recovery towards the end of 2008 was over-hyped).

I need hardly say that this kind of hole will be very, very hard to get out of – if it’s even possible at all.

One argument is that Labour’s position will improve as the economy does. I’m not convinced.

After two terrible quarters, it’s starting to look (touch wood) as if the worst of the recession has passed. I find it wholly plausible that growth will return by the start of next year. However, I think the most politically and psychologically potent economic number is not GDP but unemployment. And, as a lagging indicator, unemployment seems likely to keep rising through most of 2010.

Labour will not get much credit for an initially jobless recovery. If there were another three years until the general election, this strategy might be a goer, but there just isn’t the time.

John Major complained of presiding over a ‘voteless recovery’, but his situation was different. Unemployment had indeed been falling for almost four years before the 1997 election. But the key thing was that the Tories had lost the ability to claim credit. Their political strategy for handling the early 90s recession was that it was “a price well worth paying” for controlling inflation, and that “if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working”. They claimed ownership of it, effectively saying that they were screwing us over for our own good – but then, on Black Wednesday, it turned out that they couldn’t even do that properly.

The recovery only really took off because their economic policy – high exchange rate, high interest rate – collapsed. They were never going to get any credit after that.

Brown’s situation is different. He gets a middling amount of blame now for letting the pre-credit-crunch situation build up, but most people do appreciate that this recession is worldwide. People also appreciate that he’s trying to boost the economy, even if they may not think that’s working much yet. Against this backdrop, he could perhaps eventually get credit for an improvement – but there isn’t time.

He also gets some credit for his handling of the more urgent aspects of the crisis. Labour got a moderate poll boost after the worst of the financial carnage last autumn, and the bailing out of the banking system. But that’s been and gone now. Panic has given way to gloom, and Brown looks far less good in that light.

The nearest Brown’s got to economic crisis management this year was the G20 summit at the start of April. An ICM poll just afterwards found that 20% thought he’d handled it very well, 50% quite well, 11% quite badly and 5% very badly. Encouraging stuff. But the same poll also found that this made no difference to the voting intentions of 72% of people; 11% were more likely to vote Labour as a result and 13% less likely.

Then, later in April, there was the Budget. Populus ran three polls asking whether Brown and Darling or Cameron and Osborne were better able to manage the economy properly. The weekend before, the Tories led by 45% to 35%. On the evening of the Budget, Labour led by 38% to 35%. The week after, the Tories led again, by 42% to just 26%.

These things have a very short-term impact and do little to change the underlying situation. Part of that situation can be seen in my final graph – YouGov’s figures for which party would run the economy best:

Labour had a decent brief surge late last year, as ‘run the economy well’ became pretty much synonymous with ‘handle the immediate financial crisis’, but since then the story has been bad. The Tory ratings seem solid.

Labour needs something big, and the economy will not be it.

I love voting

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

What not to say just as your boss’s boss’s boss’s boss walks past

“Aah! I’ve got ants on me!”

(Having just got back from lunch in the park.)

Things I hate, part 58,909

Them: Mumble mumble mumble.

Me: Sorry?

Them (at exactly the same volume): Mumble mumble mumble.

Me: No, I didn’t catch that.

Them (at exactly the same volume): Mumble mumble mumble.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Total Eclipse of the Heart: Literal Video Version

This may well be the funniest thing ever, or at least in the top thee along with Del Boy falling through the bar and that time in the 34th century BC when somebody genuinely did slip on a banana skin.

You don’t need to have previously seen the real video to enjoy it (I hadn’t), but some familiarity with the song is a must.