Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Miliband misses the point

This is the wrong answer:

He [Ed Miliband] also wants to change Labour's culture by allowing the public a vote when the party chooses its leader. He plans to give 25 per cent of the votes to non-party members who register as Labour supporters. MPs, trade unionists and party members would also each have a quarter of the votes in Labour's electoral college. At present, MPs, union and party members each have a third of those votes.

The problem with an electoral college such as Labour’s is that it can give split results. We had one this year, allowing critics to say (correctly) that Miliband wasn’t wanted by the members of his own party. A little embarrassing.

The way to avoid this is to abolish the electoral college, not to increase the number of sections.

We could let MPs keep their special role in nominating candidates, but beyond that it would be better to have a single electorate of equals. We could do this by restricting the franchise to party members only; we could have party members plus union members who choose to pay an affiliation fee – but treated as a single bloc (perhaps by simply giving the union supporters standard party membership for their fee).

Or we could set up a register of party supporters, potentially a millions-strong section of the public, who would then vote for the leader. But please, let’s not make these people into a new category in the electoral college. That would just magnify the problem that embarrassed Ed Miliband.

Not only would it mean that the party membership could still have its verdict outweighed by that of union members (and/or MPs); it would also mean that the registered supporters, who had signed up to join a new era of mass democracy, could find their verdict outweighed by the other, smaller, established sections. The other parties would crow that the ‘old politics’ had triumphed, and the press would merrily sneer that the party machine had crushed the public voice.

And the new leader would start his or her job by having to explain why this didn’t really matter.

Friday, December 24, 2010

God is a Lib Dem

Either that, or the Pope has been getting spin lessons from Nick Clegg:

God is always faithful to his promises, but he often surprises us in the way he fulfils them.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Uxbridge English Dictionary

From time to time, I like to play Uxbridge English Dictionary. It’s a game from ‘I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue’ (new series starts on Radio 4 next Monday), taking an educational look at our mother tongue.

English is a rich and varied language, but there’s often confusion between apparently similar terms. For example, a lot of people don’t know the difference between adverse and averse. But anyone who takes the trouble to look them up will discover that adverse means harmful or unfavourable, whereas averse is the less catchy bit between choruses.

But meanings are constantly changing, so here are some new definitions I’ve spotted recently:

  • Abominable – practice frowned upon by all but the most aggressive of matadors
  • Accomplish – one who aids and abets Sean Connery
  • Admin – contribute the least
  • Apollo – Roman god of chicken
  • Appearing – an iPhone app that pierces your ear while you talk on it
  • Balderdash – the rapid receding of a hairline
  • Canada – a snake in a tin
  • Category – an allegory about a cat (q.v. Allegory – a category of alley)
  • Cauterise – what I did just before she looked away with disdain
  • Cognac – to trick a long-haired Himalayan beast
  • Dysentery – what the seeds of dissent eventually grow into
  • Exist – person who is prejudiced against their former lovers
  • Hackney – IRA punishment before the invention of guns
  • Hammersmith – the legend of Mjöllnir, weapon of the mighty Thor
  • Laxity – a rural area
  • Lymph – mythical woodland seductress with a sore leg
  • Mailbag – scrotum
  • Phobia – not real ale
  • Polymath – if Janet has two parrots and John has three parrots…
  • Post-it – girl who was once fashionable, now of very little note (q.v. Exit – recently fashionable girl now on her way out)
  • Psychotic – nervous twitch that makes you stab people
  • Pumpkin – commit incest
  • Rampart – part of a ram
  • Rueful – a traffic jam in France
  • Seamstress – the consequence of an over-generous lunch
  • Transsubstantiation – providing evidence of one’s sex change
  • Treacle – deforestation
  • Unleavened – the condition of trees in autumn
  • Vagrant – taxi driver’s conversation
  • Watershed – outdoor water closet
  • Wednesday – ‘At what hour does the sun rise?’

Your turn...

Monday, December 20, 2010

I want to ban Christmas

Are you one of those people who says things like: “Raaagh burble splutter NOW THEY WANT TO BAN CHRISTMAS it’s disgusting political correctness gone mad multicultural thought police our proud nation liberal elite great traditions militant atheists historic freedoms nanny state two world wars am I alone in thinking snort harrumph froth”?

If so, I always feel a bit sorry for you. My instinct is to tell you that the people who want to ban Christmas don’t really exist, but I fear that that might spoil the festive magic for you. In fact, I suspect many of you (the older ones) have secretly worked out that there is no Christmas Abolition Brigade, but you still like to play along because it makes it all so much more fun and magical.

Well, I have a gift for you. I hereby declare that I want to ban Christmas. And you can quote me on that.

I demand that laws be passed forbidding the use of the C-word and that this time of year be called ‘the holiday season’, ‘the festive period’, ‘Winterval’ or ‘Seculetide’. (I just made Seculetide up just now all by myself and I’m spankingly proud of it.)

I want carol singing to be replaced by readings from The Selfish Gene, I want nativity plays to be dumped in favour of re-enactments of the founding of the European Union, and I want shopping centres to be enlivened by children’s entertainers dressed not as Santa but as Harriet Harman. I will stop at nothing to achieve this.

OK, I don’t want any of this. This is a string of clumsy lies (apart from the ‘stop at nothing’ bit – I will indeed do nothing and then stop). But let’s face it: you people have no interest in truth. You just like to have a bugbear to shout about. And I hereby offer you my services.

Whenever anyone turns around to you and says: “Oh come off it, nobody really wants to ban Christmas,” you can smugly retort: “Ah, but that bloke off of the internet does, HE ADMITS IT! So you see, I’m not a loathsome bullshitter pandering to the paranoia of the ignorant, I’m a BRAVE CRUSADER FOR TRUTH AND OUR VERY WAY OF LIFE can I have some mince pies and a rabies shot now please?”

Merry Seculetide one and all!

(Come on, it’s clever wordplay: secular and yuletide, they both share a ‘ule’ syllable, so you can – oh, never mind.)

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What’s in a name?

I’m glad to see Ed Miliband doing this:

Miliband has banned the shadow cabinet from using the word "coalition" to describe the government because it sounds too moderate and reasonable, and fails to convey what he says is its true "ideological, rightwing agenda". …the Labour leader's director of policy, Greg Beales, says that from now on they must use the term "Conservative-led government"

And it’s only taken him three months since I suggested it:

What better way to suggest [the Lib Dems’] inability to tame the Tories than disregarding their existence? Refer to ‘the government’ or even just ‘the Tories’ – not ‘the ConDems’, which is cute but maybe a bit too pleased with itself, nor even ‘the coalition’, which sounds too much like ‘the consensus’, and who wants to be against that?

I am confident that he’s shaping up to be a better leader of the opposition than Iain Duncan Smith or even William Hague.

Friday, December 17, 2010

A poverty boom? Wait for the real expert

The claims from the Institute for Fiscal Studies – that the government’s tax and spending plans will increase the number of people in poverty – are eye-catching and alarming. But as with all such superficially striking headlines, we should reserve judgement.

Within a day or two, we can expect an independent analysis of the merits of these claims to be issued by the non-partisan Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, headed by the independent academic Nick Clegg.

The ODPM proved at the time of the Budget and the Spending Review that it has the rigour, expertise and impartiality to provide reliable and honest assessments of the many politically motivated statements, produced by the IFS and other third-rate Marxist outfits, about the effects of government policy on poor people.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Offended? Ram it up your pimhole!

This is very simply the most brilliant opinion poll I have ever come across. Anthony Wells and colleagues at YouGov surveyed people on whether they thought particular swearwords were acceptable to broadcast.

Included among the 20-30 words was the made-up ‘pimhole’, which comes from a 1990 Fry and Laurie sketch about them not being allowed to use proper swearwords.

And? 14% of people said pimhole should be allowed on telly at any time, 38% said it should only be used after the watershed, and 23% said it should be totally banned. 25% of people said they didn’t know.

Anthony speculates:

I expect the main reason was context. The question was all about bad language on television, and pimhole was included in a list of swearwords including some that are considered extremely offensive. It’s likely many respondents assumed that pimhole must, therefore, be a swearword.

Probably that’s some of it. I think it also illustrates the common desire simply to have an opinion, any opinion, as well as the fear of admitting ignorance. It also warns us that polls on things people don’t know about can produce useless answers.

But the point about context can be cast in a different light.

Whether the subject is cartoons of Mohammed or a spoof paedophilia documentary or radio presenters leaving rude answerphone messages or a TV talent show featuring skimpily clad performers, there are a lot of dubious claims of people being ‘offended’ by things in the public domain.

People’s fulminations about things that have caused them offence often seem to be based on what they think they’re expected to find offensive, rather than any genuine, independent judgement about how something makes them feel. This poll suggests that a good amount of any given spasm of public outrage is likely to be empty, bandwagon-jumping bluster.

Am I alone in being disgusted by this state of affairs???

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Comparative media studies

One story, two newspapers, two angles.

The Guardian: Poorest councils will face biggest cuts

The Telegraph: Cuts in council services to be deeper in wealthy areas as Coaltion diverts millions into poorer towns and cities

Hmm. It’s almost as if the two publications have some sort of inherent political bias. But that’s crazy talk.

Anyway, I want to make another point: when you see headlines like these, using comparative words (“biggest”, “deeper”), you have to ask yourself: relative to what? What’s the other side of the comparison?

The Guardian story explains:

The poorest councils face the biggest cuts next year … Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, today allocated a last-minute emergency £85m fund in an attempt to insulate the poorest areas from the worst cuts next year. But despite his efforts, deprived inner-city areas of London and large cities in the north are facing the most drastic reductions of up to 8.9% this year alone, with the shires and county councils relatively protected by their burgeoning council tax revenue.

And the Telegraph does too:

Ministers have been able to limit the cuts with a special “transition grant” to divert £99milion of central Government funding from richer to poorer areas over the next two years. The extra cash will mean that spending cuts in areas like Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Doncaster, South Tyneside and Hartlepool will be limited to 8.9 per cent in each of the next two years.
People living in more prosperous areas will see cuts almost as big. Residents in Woking in Surrey will see cuts of 7 per cent in each of the next two years, while residents in Tunbridge Wells will see cuts of 5.9 per cent.
While the cuts in urban areas are larger than those in wealthier parts, they would have been bigger if the transition fund had not been set up.

So the Guardian is right to claim that poorer areas are having bigger cuts than richer areas, and the Telegraph is also right to claim that richer areas are having bigger cuts than they would have had were it not for this transition grant. Which is the more important comparison is up to the reading public.

(Oh look, I’ve written a post nominally about the media that in the process manages to illustrate a way in which the government is shafting the poor. It’s almost as if I have some sort of inherent political bias.)

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A palpable hit

I may not be blogging properly right now, but other people are. Go and read this by Cathy Relf, on the media use of “hit by” to jazz up abstract noun phrases, because it’s right and because it’s well-written.

(I’m just very busy at work at the moment, and quite drained the rest of the time. It’s annual financial report season, and I’m struggling to prevent a small band of fanatical yet shambolic illiterates from sabotaging it. Yesterday’s only light relief came when I took a short break to proofread a Christmas menu that included “mice pies”.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Tumbleweeding

So, things have been getting pretty quiet here over the last couple of months. I’ve just not had a whole lot to say lately – or at least not a whole lot of time to think of things that are worth saying. Soon as that changes, I’ll let you know.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

A party political broadcast on behalf of the Liberal Democrats

Some time ago, I tried to persuade my party to support X rather than Y, but I failed, so I then went around saying that Y was right and that we would do it and I would definitely oppose X. Now I’ve agreed to do X.

I’m sorry about all that Y business, but things have changed, you see. There’s another party that likes X too and I’ve made a deal with them, and I’m sure my party and the public will understand that I couldn’t possibly break my word on that. Plus, of course, I’ve thought all along that X was right.

However, I realise that my party still supports Y and opposes X, and so just to make them happy, I’m thinking about not voting for X, even though I’m the individual who’s personally in charge of doing it. But I’ll still publicly support it, and certainly won’t vote against it, and will encourage my party colleagues not to vote against it either, so that we guarantee X happens even while making an incoherent gesture in the vague hope that someone might think it leaves our hands clean.

Thank you and goodnight.

In fairness, this sort of thing goes on in politics all the time. But it’s happening rather more publicly than usual at the moment.

Update: Chris has a good post on this.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Promissory notes

Vince Cable’s brain may be starting to melt under the pressure:

Business Secretary Vince Cable has denied breaking promises on university tuition fees, insisting the Liberal Democrats' pre-election pledge to oppose any rise was not binding. …
Dr Cable said the Lib Dems "haven't betrayed anybody" and that the coalition agreement struck with the Tories was their only binding commitment.
"We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour," he said.

First, the pledge that the Lib Dems proudly signed didn’t require them to “win the election”. It was: “I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament and to pressure the government to introduce a fairer alternative.” Cable could have honoured this promise had he been the only Lib Dem MP in a parliament where the Tories had a majority of 200.

Second, the coalition agreement is no more “binding” than their manifesto. Neither is legally enforceable; both are political statements. What happens if either is broken? The Tories/voters respectively would/will have to decide, ad hoc, how they want to react. That’s all.

Third, given this, the statement that the coalition deal is more important than anything they had previously said to the public to win votes is not going to foster much trust in their reliability in the future.

Fourth, the coalition agreement doesn’t commit them to support raising fees. It says: “We will await Lord Browne’s final report into higher education funding, and will judge its proposals” based on several criteria, including “the impact on student debt”. Either they abandoned their anti-fees promise well after the coalition deal, or they contracted out this “judging its proposals” to the Tory part of the government, or they were just lying so they could back out of a promise they’d never really meant.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

My dependency culture

My name is Tom and I live a life of economic dependency.

I depend for my livelihood on all the strokes of luck – most obviously my parents’ dedication, a hefty amount of genetics and a good, free education – that gave me the qualities I have. More immediately, I depend on an economic system that values these qualities, so that there have (mostly) been job vacancies in the right place at the right time, with a level of pay that covers my needs and even my tastes.

On top of that, I’m willing to work to earn this pay; for this, I’ll take some personal credit (although plenty of people worse off than me have stronger work ethics). But apart from that, I’m responsible for none of the circumstances that allow me to convert my willingness into comfort.

My job, while mostly tedious and often frustrating, rarely places too much strain on me – and is occasionally rewarding. Now and then, if I do something particularly well, I might feel proud of what I’ve achieved. But a moment’s reflection tells me that the more pertinent feeling is gladness at a situation where I have the ability to achieve such things and the opportunity to use that ability (and to sell it for a decent price).

I’ll never be rich, but I’m still dazzlingly lucky. What separates me from all the people who’d like to work but can’t, or want decent work but can only find back-breaking, soul-destroying, minimum-wage drudgery, is sheer chance. They may be dependent on benefits to keep the wolf from the door; I’m dependent on the coincidence of supply and demand that happens to define my labour as valuable. The labour market may more or (often) less efficiently rate our merit as employees, but it isn’t a fair judge of our virtues as people.

Moral crusaders against ‘dependency’ need to remember this.

(This train of thought, if you can call it that, was set off by two good posts from Peter Ryley and Paul Sagar.)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Missing voters: one cheer for Clegg

This is absolutely right:

Up to 3.5 million potential voters are to be targeted by the government as it seeks to ensure that the "missing millions" who fail to register are given a voice in elections, Nick Clegg will announce today. …
Clegg will say: "It is not good enough to simply ignore the millions who aren't registered, especially when you look more closely at where the problem is worst: among the young; among black and ethnic minority communities; in areas with high social deprivation."

Good. I hope it works.

My quibble is how this fits with the timing of the government’s boundary review, which seeks to cut 50 MPs and equalise constituency sizes. The review will take place before any voter registration push, and so the new constituency sizes will disregard these millions of people. The result will be to more deeply entrench an electoral system that under-represents “areas with high social deprivation”.

But it’s nice that Clegg now admits this.

Presenting an image

In order to understand a political U-turn, you need to get answers to both of these questions:

  • Why have you taken the new position?
  • Why did you take the old position?

For instance, Nick Clegg on tuition fees has been trying to focus on the first question, allowing him to plead the necessity of tough decisions, while avoiding the second: the issue of whether his pre-election promises were idiotic or dishonest.

In the case of David Cameron’s very recent decision to put his personal photographer and film-maker on the public payroll, and his decision today to take them off it again, the only explanation we have so far is:

A source has told the BBC that Mr Cameron now accepts it "sent the wrong message" to employ them at a time of public sector job cuts.

From this we can see that the answer to both my questions above is: ‘To make me look good.’

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Useless polls on the tuition fees protests

This week has offered an excellent case study in what effect public protests – including small but prominent violence – have on public opinion. The Sunday Times YouGov polls this weekend and last asked about the government plans for tuition fees.

Unfortunately, the two polls used very differently worded questions, so the results are not comparable. A pity.

For what it’s worth, last weekend’s poll found 11% in favour of universities setting whatever fees they wanted, 26% in favour of the government policy of a £9,000 fee cap, and 50% in favour of a lower cap or no fees at all. It also found 51% in favour of and 32% against the government policy on repayments of student loans (raising the earnings threshold to £21,000 and having higher earners pay more interest).

This weekend’s poll, using very different wording to set the background, had a single question that covered both the increase in the fees cap and the raising of the repayment threshold; 35% supported this, 52% opposed it.

There’s not really anything we can conclude from that.

The new poll did ask about the protest, though:

Earlier this week there was a violent demonstration against the proposed rise in tuition fees, which included protesters invading and damaging the building containing the Conservative party's headquarters. How much sympathy do you have with the demonstration?
I sympathise both with the demonstration and the direct action against the Conservative party headquarters – 13% (inc. 20% of 18-24-year-olds)
I sympathise with the demonstration, but not the damage caused to the Conservative party headquarters – 52% (inc. 47% of 18-24s)
I do not sympathise with the demonstration, nor the damage caused – 32% (inc. 23% of 18-24s)


Do you think this week's demonstration against tuition fees and the violent scenes at Conservative party headquarters helped or damaged the protesters' cause?
Helped their cause – 11% (inc. 18% of 18-24s)
Damaged their cause – 69% (inc. 58% of 18-24s)

Neither of these, though, comes close to being a measure of how the protests actually changed public opinion – if at all.

And there was a standard question about whether you think the government “will be good or bad for people like you”. Before the protests, 29% of people said good and 48% said bad; after, 28% said good and 48% said bad. Basically, no change. But among 18-24-year-olds, last weekend 24% said good and 46% said bad, while this weekend 27% said good and 40% said bad. This suggests a swing towards the government among those likeliest to empathise with the protests, but breaking the poll down into age groups means you have much less reliable sample sizes (about 130 in each poll).

I don’t think this tells us anything. A wasted opportunity.

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

“An important diagnostic tool”

Sometimes the stuff I have to edit for work is borderline incoherent, sometimes it’s full of painfully misjudged jargon and sometimes it barely even exists. This sort of thing can exasperate and entertain me in equal measure.

But the latest gem is none of these; it’s a simple yet massive failure of perspective:

In medicine, identifying changes in handwriting may provide an important diagnostic tool to monitor neurological disorders and motor function.
In the case of Lord Nelson, British Naval Officer, his handwriting changed dramatically after the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife (1797), when he lost his right arm.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Something new every day

Guy Keleny’s superb Errors and Omissions column in the Independent has delighted me today, by giving me a piece of knowledge that makes sense of a little bit of the English language – and that immediately makes me wonder why I hadn’t already realised it.

Living things are categorised by kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species (‘keep playing church organs, for god’s sake’). Scientists normally use the last two of these to identify organisms: Homo sapiens, Panthera leo, Tyrannosaurus rex, Staphylococcus aureus and so on. The genus identifies the wider group and then the species narrows it down.

What Keleny reveals (in the process of making an entirely different point) is that the adjective for species is specific and that for genus is generic.

Obvious, really.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Government uneasy about allowing prisoners to vote

A Conservative minister said:

Look, we’ve got these people locked up for the very good reason that they can’t be trusted to be responsible on their own. Fortunately, their collapsed poll ratings make it impossible for them to leave the coalition until they’ve served the full five-year sentence – so frankly, it’s the safest place for them.
Yes, we want to reform them into decent, law-abiding right-wingers, and we’re making good progress. But allowing them to have a say over the government’s policy direction before they’re properly rehabilitated would just mean they’d revert to their bad old ways.

Entente cordiale for now, but we may fall out later…

Congratulations to David Cameron for his negotiating skills. I can’t help but feel we’ve got the better end of this deal:

The UK and France have signed treaties agreeing to military co-operation including testing of nuclear warheads. One centre will be set up in the UK to develop nuclear testing technology and another in France to carry it out.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Deficit metaphors: the state took a bullet

What with the government trying to flog us the old ‘government budget as household finances’ metaphor, Liam wondered if anyone had any others.

I suggested we could think of the deficit as a metaphor: a powerful use of it can be stimulating and help to move things along, but if you stretch it to breaking point you’ll lose credibility and have to spend even longer getting back to where you started.

More seriously (and more partisan), here’s one that occurred to me this morning:

Unlike the Tories’ laissez-faire attitude, during this recession Labour decided the government should take a bullet to protect the economy. To prevent the worst of the harm to businesses and households, we let government borrowing take the strain.

Letting the deficit rise was the right thing to do. In normal times, this much borrowing would be a terrible idea, but a global financial crisis is not normal times. And it worked: unemployment and repossessions have not been nearly as bad as in previous recessions. The Tories, on the other hand, wanted us to gut the public sector at the same time as the private sector was taking hits, and they opposed the VAT cut that helped people struggling to make ends meet.

So the government took a bullet, and now we have to repair the harm to the public finances. There are two ways we can cope with this bullet-wound: cut off the injured limb and hobble on as best we can, or stop the bleeding and then take time to heal and grow back to strength. The first option is quick but brutal, causing irreparable damage. The second is less dramatic, but it allows us a fuller recovery.

Does this have potential? Maybe not – it’s a bit all-or-nothing – but I’ve been blogging so little lately I figured I owed you something.

I’ve also got a half-formed idea about the dangers of slamming on the brakes when your car’s skidding, even though it seems the instinctive thing to do – instead, you have to slow gradually and turn the wheel back steadily. Anyone’s welcome to develop that one, but I’m too clueless a driver to do it myself.

(The standard political metaphor for deficits is the ‘black hole’, the most destructive thing in the universe, swallowing anything that comes near it and becoming all the more powerful in the process. If it hadn’t been cheapened by overuse to describe any old gap in the public finances, then it would have been perfect for those warning of a catastrophic debt spiral.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Words fail me

I am ‘editing’ (turning gibberish into language) a graduate recruitment pack. The section that lists the qualities applicants should have is currently divided into subheads with sets of bullet-points underneath, and I’m supposed to turn each of these into a paragraph of flowing, meaningful, engaging prose. One of the sets looks like this:

Curiosity and Critical Thinking:
  • Critical thinking
  • Curiosity

I especially like that they’ve reversed the order to try to avoid the impression that they’ve just typed the same thing twice.

It’s going to be a long day.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Who says geeks can’t get dates?

A couple of friends of mine have been involved in creating the Geek Calendar. They’ve put in loads of work, and luckily it’s really very good, so I can plug it without feeling embarrassed.

What is the Geek Calendar?
It’s what it says on the tin, not that it comes in a tin; that would be madness. It’s a 2011 wall calendar, featuring geeky pin-ups for every month – and it also includes December 2010 and January 2012, so you get extra geek value! (16.6 recurring % more months than a boring regular calendar, or 16.9863% more days.)

Did you say “geeky pin-ups”?
I sure did. These characters are some of the very best (and most photogenic) of British geekery: crusader against bad science Ben Goldacre; maths and science writer Simon Singh; actor and comedian Chris Addison; chess champion Sabrina Chevannes; physicist Brian Cox; former Lib Dem science cheerleader Evan Harris; comic book artist Sydney Padua; gadget obsessive Jonathan Ross… and many more!

Um, are they–
No, they’re fully dressed. Don’t be disgusting.

Well, it sounds fun anyway. So have they done this just for a laugh, or to make a bit of cash?
Neither! Geeks all take a solemn oath to use their powers only for good. And the good cause here is libel reform: all profits from sales of the Geek Calendar go to the Libel Reform Campaign. English libel law, as the calendar geeks explain, is notoriously restrictive, and risks undermining the principles of free speech that are particularly vital in debates on science and medicine.

This sounds like the best thing since the idea of using sliced bread as the benchmark of innovative brilliance. How much does it cost?
A mere £11.75. (But don’t forget those 62 bonus days: once you take those into account, the notional – seasonally adjusted? – price, for real-terms comparisons with unambitious 365-day calendars, would be just £10.04. Excellent value.)

A bargain indeed. And are you a geek yourself?
Of course not! I work for as a copy-editor for a medical research charity, I blog about politics, and I entertain myself with such down-to-earth blokeish pursuits as writing poetry about economic policy and reconstructing famous philosophical arguments in words of one syllable. I am therefore obviously a mainstream alpha male. But I have nothing against geeks: many of my best friends, etc. etc.

But doesn’t your blog have about 12 readers? If you’re doing the PR, that’s a bit feeble, isn’t it?
Oh, it’s not just me. This week the Geek Calendar has featured in the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Metro and elsewhere. They’re selling like hot cakes, albeit non-edible ones at room temperature made of paper and in calendar form.

So, to summarise, should I buy it now?
That’s a very good question. Yes, you should buy it now. Thank you.

Let Clegg join the Bullingdon Club

I’ve finally worked out the dynamic at the top of the coalition.

Oxford’s notorious public-school drinking-and-mayhem Bullingdon Club, which counts David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson among its alumni, has a characteristically deranged initiation ritual.

Members will turn up at the new boy’s room in the middle of the night, force their way in, smash everything he owns to pieces – pictures, furniture, records, manifesto pledges, opinion poll ratings, backbench morale – and then storm out again, after roaring at him that he’s in.

This is what Osborne is currently doing to Nick Clegg.

It’s taking a while longer than the usual initiation, though. Clegg, like most new recruits to the Club, doesn’t particularly welcome the wreckage that’s forming around him as such, but on the other hand he’s thrilled to bits by what it means: the much bigger prize of a place in the cabinet Buller.

Now and again, though, one of the braying mob crushes something of sentimental value, and a pang of sadness and frustration runs through him. Like the Lib Dem commitment to helping the poor, for instance.

Back in the Budget in June, for instance, Osborne produced a graph that showed poor people came out best. A torrent of independent experts, led by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, promptly tore this claim to bits for its manifest shoddy falseness on multiple counts.

George didn’t care; that wasn’t the point. It was Nick who charged into the media, struggling to defend the indefensible, and he (and his party’s reputation) got a thorough kicking.

Now we have the spending review, and George has stuck another distributional chart in there, with most of the same inadequacies as the earlier one, and the IFS et al. have reacted in the same way, and once again it’s Nick who’s taking the hits.

Enough damage to the new boy. Dave, you need to call George off. Let Nick in, let him buy his fancy jacket and tails, and the three of you can get on with the serious business of smashing other things up.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Trained in the ways of the Dark Side

Best. Fact. Ever.

When Christopher Reeve first got the part of Superman, he was tall and fairly athletic but not all that muscular. So he took an intensive training programme to bulk up, which was run for him by David Prowse – weightlifting champion, Green Cross Code Man… and the occupant of the Darth Vader suit.

One of the great movie clichés is the training montage. Wouldn’t you just love to see one of Darth Vader training Superman?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

George Osborne: cheerleader for higher public spending

I gather there’s some sort of spending thingy going on today. What better occasion for a stroll down memory lane?

Whenever you hear the Tories blame Labour for the cuts on the grounds that spending was too high before the recession, remember this, from 3 September 2007:

George Osborne today pledged to match Labour’s public spending plans for the next three years

In his Times article that day (which began by noting that “mortgage defaults in America have sent shock waves through financial markets in London”), Osborne proposed to “share the proceeds of economic growth between the funding our public services need and the competitive lower taxes our economy demands”. He mentioned the (then-smaller) deficit briefly, but didn’t mention anything about reducing it. He also smirked that Gordon Brown “has now been forced to adopt our approach to spending”.

If Labour is guilty of complacency about the economic good times, so are the Tories. If Brown is to blame for wanting higher public spending rather than ‘fixing the roof while the sun was shining’, so is Osborne. Like ERM membership, it was a misjudgement shared across the political mainstream. As he likes to say, they’re all in this together.

Monday, October 18, 2010

How not to get sperm

(I’m experimenting with search engine optimisation in my headings)

I saw an ad on the Tube the other day and couldn’t help but notice this logo:


I would love to have been a fly on the wall when the ad agency managed to rationalise this to the client. But then, after my teenage sense of humour calmed down, I noticed the oddness of the rest of the ad:


This is an attempt to appeal to sperm donors, not to would-be mothers or couples wanting to conceive. Does the LSB really think that potential donors, who may be tempted to get some cash in hand in return for taking, er, something else in hand, want to be reminded that the consequences of this will be their biological kids running around out there?

This level of communicative incompetence makes me think that the logo was genuinely thought to be a good idea rather than something someone did for a dare. I fear that the ad campaign will come to nothing (sorry).

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cable, Clegg and the fine art of manifesto escapology

I’ve already looked at why David Cameron feels that he’s entitled to abandon his election promises – despite the fact that the deficit is not turning out to be worse than predicted pre-election.*

The Lib Dem leadership has also, of course, been dropping its own commitments willy-nilly. Yes, part of this is to do with the necessity of coalition compromise, but not all of it is. Like Cameron, the party leaders in the Cabinet are subtly implying that the Lib Dem manifesto is something that it’s positively right for them to discard as they see fit.

Vince Cable (the one who’s allegedly a bit of a disgruntled lefty) offered a fine case study this week on tuition fees. On the subject of the pledge (“I pledge to vote against any increase in fees in the next parliament”), he told the Commons:

Like many Members, I wanted to ensure that my children's and my grandchildren's generations enjoyed that free system of university education. In an ideal world, that is what we would do, but we are not in an ideal world. We are in a world in which we have inherited a massive financial mess. We have come to terms with reality, and it is time that the right hon. Gentleman and his friends did the same.

Implication: Before the election, even though everyone knew full well about the big deficit, the Lib Dems were not in touch with reality; now, he, Clegg and the rest are having to shake off some of the party’s delusions so that they can run the country properly.

I signed that pledge with my colleagues, and I have explained the reasons why I did so. It was a stand from a commitment to try to keep universities free, which is what I enjoyed. I have explained, however, that in the current financial situation, which is truly appalling and which we inherited, all commitments and pledges will have to be re-examined from first principles.

Implication: And it’s not just fees. A lot of what his party said before the election was impractical rubbish, and he’ll have to bin a good amount of it.

The DUP’s Willie McCrea tried to challenge him on the ‘financial mess’ card, which he keeps playing as a fig leaf when disowning his party’s policies, and got an answer that in part was frank but refused to give any kind of explanation:

Is the Secretary of State telling the House that he did not understand that the United Kingdom was in dire financial straits when he signed the pledge five months ago?
Vince Cable: Of course we realised that the financial position of the country was serious. We must now make very difficult choices on the back of that, which I am sure is understood as well in Northern Ireland as it is everywhere else in the UK.

Implication: He fears that his party members did not understand the financial position (and politics forced him to play along with them); he, Clegg and other senior Lib Dems in government are U-turning not out of unexpected fiscal necessity but because they think their party was wrong – and perhaps they always did.

*Darling’s March Budget put the deficit at 11.8% of GDP in 2009/10, then 11.1, 8.5, 6.8, 5.3 and 4.0.
The OBR’s report in June put the deficit at 11.1% of GDP in 2009/10, then 10.5, 8.3, 6.6, 5.0 and 3.9. This was after the Greek crisis had supposedly made everything worse and before Osborne’s Budget had supposedly made everything better.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Mr Cameron, what a big society you have...

Norm bemoans, as I have now and then, the term ‘big society’. But listening to this bit of Cameron’s speech, I stopped to think again:

So that great project in your community - go and lead it. That waste in government - go and find it. That new school in your neighbourhood - go and demand it. The beat meeting on your street - sign up. The neighbourhood group - join up. That business you always dreamt of - start up.

He sounded tired just saying this – imagine how we’ll feel after trying to find time to actually do it. Big? It’s bloody huge.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Cavalier Cameron: I’ll say what I like and then I’ll do as I see fit

Does anyone else find this a disturbing attitude in a Prime Minister? From the Today programme [about 8’05 in]:

Jim Naughtie: What I’m suggesting is, perhaps, that if the chancellor says something in the run-up to the election campaign – “we will preserve child benefit” – quote, George Osborne – that is changeable...
David Cameron: I don’t think that is fair. Look, what we’re having to do as a government – and frankly, we’ve all made pledges about child benefit, ’cause we all like child benefit... We’ve all made these promises. But in government, you cannot afford to just put off difficult decisions, you have to go through them, and with child benefit we’ve made a difficult decision.

Does he think that being in coalition entitles him to abandon promises so breezily? Does he think that the problems with the public finances give him carte blanche to do anything? Maybe a bit, but I think it’s more that he finds this whole electoral politics business a dreary, distasteful chore that one has to go through in order to get hold of power; that promises and manifestos are vulgar trifles when what really matters is his freedom to exercise his own thoroughly sound judgement.

Out of the danger zone, into the...

If I were David Cameron, I’d be careful about saying that Britain was “out of the danger zone”. It suggests that “Labour’s debt crisis” has now been averted, which rather implies that large, rapid spending cuts are now simply a matter of choice. The popularity of these cuts depends in part on maintaining an air of crisis.

What’s more, if Cameron and Osborne have taken us “out of the danger zone”, then any future economic difficulties would be an entirely new danger zone that they’d have taken us into.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Some employers are more unequal than others

As John Rentoul and Sunder Katwala note, we’re inundated with party leaders who emote about the gap between rich and poor while having little to say about policies to address it.

Here’s a small suggestion: require organisations to publish, as part of their annual accounts, the ratio between the highest- and lowest-paid of their workforce.

This in itself wouldn’t force any changes in pay, but it would at least give us information about which employers produce the biggest inequalities. What’s more, those that like ‘nudge’ thinking may see this as something that could motivate change, if the media compile league tables and campaigners put moral pressure on employers to narrow their own pay gaps in light of social norms.

Perhaps as a second stage, once we’ve had some data to look at, government could offer tax breaks to those that have lower ratios. But let’s walk before we run.

And the lack of coercion may help such a policy’s political appeal: people may be concerned about massive pay inequalities but that doesn’t necessarily mean they want government-imposed salary caps. This policy would be a clear statement that the gap matters and that a rising tide really should lift all boats without any suggestion that the Chancellor should become every firm’s payroll manager. It’s not against success; it just want to encourage that success to be more widely shared. (If you like the kind of soundbites that only think-tank wonks can digest, you could call it ‘progressive aspirationalism’.)

It would also demonstrate that the biggest pay gaps by far are in the private and not the public sector.

There are plenty of practical questions about this policy, some of which have clearer answers than others. For instance:

Should all employers have to do it? I think smaller ones should be exempt from having to jump through the hoops. Individually, they have little social impact; collectively, there are so many of them that we’d be snowed under with numbers; and smaller organisations tend to have smaller gaps between top and bottom pay anyway.

Should bonuses be included? Yes, otherwise it’d be a way to play the system. Should benefits in kind be included? Likewise, yes.

Should the pay of external contractors be included? Yes, as many larger organisations outsource lower-paid functions like catering, cleaning and security, which artificially reduces their own direct payroll ratios.

How should we treat part-timers, people getting overtime pay, and people doing unpaid overtime?

Should we just look at the very best- and very worst-paid individuals or take, say, the top and bottom 5%?

Would it be worth breaking the ratio down into bottom-to-middle and middle-to-top as well?

Just thought I’d throw that out there…

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Beeb says sorry for compulsive commentary

The BBC has replied to my complaint about their presenters talking over the announcement of the Labour leadership vote, rendering it inaudible. The reply says:

This was a significant political event and our aim was to reflect that in our coverage by striking a balance between live coverage of the event itself while offering analysis of the developments of the day as they unfolded.


However, complaints on this issue were forwarded to senior figures within the BBC Newsroom and BBC’s political team and they agree that on this occasion it was inappropriate to continue with the commentary and analysis whilst results were being read out. We would like to apologise for the interruption during the announcement.


Monday, September 27, 2010

Better Eds than Red

Given Ed Miliband’s need to shake off the silly ‘Red Ed’ tag, we at Freemania Rhyming Consultants have been hard at work brainstorming more voter-friendly yet equally catchy nicknames for the new leader:

  • Bed Ed - Nick Clegg first came to public notice by claiming to have slept with 30 women, and now he’s Deputy Prime Minister. We calculate that a revelation of 60 former lovers will therefore help to catapult Ed into the top job.
  • Bled Ed - To counter fears that Ed is too much of a softy, we will create the image of him as a tough street fighter who has suffered numerous horrific wounds but still keeps coming. Alternatively, this could reassure adherents of medieval medicine that Ed is free from noxious humours.
  • Bred Ed - David Cameron’s posh heritage has clearly impressed the voters, so promoting Ed as a toff with good breeding is bound to help (NB this may not help to distinguish him from David).
  • Dead Ed - Zombies, vampires and the like are increasingly common in popular culture. The implication that Ed may be such a denizen of the underworld could help with certain segments of the youth vote. We may need to target the use of this one quite narrowly.
  • Fed Ed - You can’t run the country on an empty stomach, so the public will need to be reassured that Ed has had a proper dinner in this age of austerity. This is a particular concern to address given that 37% of British mothers, on being shown a photo of Ed, believe him to be “a boy at my son’s school”.
  • Head Ed - Our personal favourite, conveying a simple but effective air of authority and leadership. Also a subtle dig at Ed Balls, which is always fun.
  • Lead Ed - Maggie had great success as the Iron Lady, and our Psephological Metallurgy Department’s research finds that lead is the substance swing voters most look for in a modern leader.
  • Shed Ed - Labour needs to demonstrate that it has shed its old Blairite/Brownite baggage, and also to appeal to men who like sheds.
  • Sped Ed - Very fitting, given Ed’s meteoric rise and the implied speed with which he seeks to transform his party and his country in years to come. (Why a rise is said to be meteoric when what meteors actually do is fall to Earth is a question we have referred to our Metaphor Aptness Department.)
  • Wed Ed - This is a possible future direction, should Ed and his partner Justine decide to rebut the Mail’s “living in sin” sneers by marrying. We’re currently looking into how David would perform in the electoral college Labour uses to select the leader’s best man.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A terrible result

I’ve just emailed the BBC to complain about the fact that Emily Maitlis and Nick Robinson talked over the ACTUAL LIVE NEWS EVENT HAPPENING RIGHT IN FRONT OF US so that they could give us a bland piece of commentary that was ALREADY OUT OF DATE BY THE TIME THEY FINISHED MAKING IT.

A painful example of how the desperate urge to be seen to be ‘adding value’ actually makes things worse.

Oh, and congratulations to Ed. Bloody hell, that was close!

(Update: But it could have been closer. Ed's 50.65% vote was better than Nick Clegg's 50.62% leadership win over Chris Huhne.)

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Why the government is not a household, by Nick Clegg (aged 43¾)

He wheeled out Thatcher’s old canard in his conference speech:

It's the same as a family with earnings of £26,000 a year who are spending £32,000 a year. Even though they're already £40,000 in debt. Imagine if that was you. You'd be crippled by the interest payments. You'd set yourself a budget. And you'd try to spend less. That is what this government is doing.

But wait a minute. Let’s take him seriously and imagine exactly that situation.

Would you think to yourself: ‘Yikes! We’re spending about a quarter more than we’re earning and the loan interest payments are mounting up! How can we deal with this debt crisis? Well, here’s the solution: next year, we’ll spend 20% more than we earn. The year after, we’ll overspend by 14%. Then by 9% and then by 5%, and so in 2016 we’ll only be spending 3% more than we earn. That’ll sort us out!’

No, you wouldn’t think that. You’d act a lot more urgently.

The above (as if you couldn’t see this coming) is the government’s timetable for deficit reduction. Their actions prove that they don’t for a minute believe their own rhetoric.

So, intuitively compelling as the analogy is, the government’s finances are nothing like those of a household. Or else it’s a pretty funny kind of household:

  • It can borrow at well below commercial rates.
  • The worst thing at all likely to happen to it – in an unexpected once-in-a-century calamity – would be a 6% fall in its income (that was the change in government revenues over the two years from peak to trough).
  • It is in effect immortal, and has indefinitely long to service its debts, paying some off and rolling some over.
  • A lot of the money it’s borrowing is going to subsidise the family firm while business is slow, which helps to generate income.

Update: Patrick Osgood also deplores the use of this domestic analogy by deficit-phobes.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Then Kew!

I saw highlights of Clegg’s speech on the TV in the gym, and of course the sound was off so we had to make do with the live subtitling. The end of it, I thought, was utterly inspired:

Stick with us and together we will change Britain for good. Then Kew!

And who says the Lib Dems are a bunch of oddballs who’ve failed to extract any major policy concessions from the Tories?

Labour strategy

I agree with Paul that Labour needs to treat the Lib Dems with something other than disgust and fury.

Luke puts the other case trenchantly: “We shouldn't just be attacking them we should be trying to destroy them as a viable political entity.” Now, I’m all for taking as many votes as possible away from the Lib Dems. I just don’t think a full frontal assault is the best way to do that. These are people who did, after all, choose to vote for the party and still at least in part identify with it. They may be uneasy, but most of them are still giving the coalition the benefit of the doubt, and if we try to savage the party then we risk deterring these would-be switchers.

(Have you ever had a friend who was going out with someone who you thought – and your friend was starting to suspect – was bad news? Slagging off this other half is tempting, but often counterproductive if your friend then rallies in defence.)

I’d have three tactics to use on the Lib Dems: (i) Ignore them. What better way to suggest their inability to tame the Tories than disregarding their existence? Refer to ‘the government’ or even just ‘the Tories’ – not ‘the ConDems’, which is cute but maybe a bit too pleased with itself, nor even ‘the coalition’, which sounds too much like ‘the consensus’, and who wants to be against that?

(ii) Make gentle overtures towards them on issues where their position differs from the Tories. It would be politically smart to campaign with them for AV. Even if the referendum fails, it’ll be handy to have stood with them on the side of reform. Also push hard on democratising the Lords: a government paper is due out on December, so we should be well into the debate before then. Also, we should scour their manifesto for any decent policies that didn’t make it through the coalition deal, and cheerfully adopt them.

(iii) Chastise Clegg, more in sorrow than anger, when he moves rightwards away from prior party commitments. Did the hopeful progressives who voted Lib Dem really sign up for this?

As well as straightforwardly winning voters from them, I want at the next election for Labour to be getting tactical votes/second preferences from people who still prefer the Lib Dems. Naked aggression won’t help so much with that.

But we also do need to win votes from the Tories – if they stay in the high 30s, we’re stuffed. So we can’t just play to left-liberal anxieties. We need to have things to say that are worth a broader audience’s attention in traditionally right-wing areas, such as the economy and immigration.

Even before the recession, living standards for middle-income people (I mean that literally, not in the newspaper columnists’ fantasy-land way) were stagnating. So Labour needs to focus hard on economic growth and job creation, which also brings us onto the matter of the deficit.

People aren’t going to listen to Labour on the public finances if they think we’re too statist and spendthrift, and many do. I think we’re in the same sort of situation as the Tories were with immigration in 2005: voters may in theory prefer our approach, but their general view of the party’s motives means that they don’t trust us to carry it out. We need to change that.

A ‘fight the cuts’ approach has virtue of simplicity but there’s also a hollow desperation to it, an implication of all-or-nothing that will leave many people resignedly thinking that it’ll probably just have to be all, then. But ‘slower cuts and faster growth’ is a positive proposal, turning the debate into a matter of choice between different degrees of action – not reality vs denial – highlighting that there’s a trade-off and pushing the government onto what many will think is the wrong side.

We should also go to great lengths to show that Labour isn’t just about the state. We should aim to outdo Cameron on the ‘big society’ front. Whatever specifics emerge from the current fog, the rough principle has merit. No doubt the policy agenda that comes under that heading will have failings – lack of funding and other support, incompetent organisation, too demanding of people’s time, unfairly distributed between different social groups, too much like government abdicating its duties, disregarding the negative social effects that the market can have, or just not amounting to very much – so we should develop a vision of decentralising and redistributing power that’s better than Cameron’s. And please, think of a better name.

And then there’s immigration, which has come up in the polls again and again as a big complaint for a lot of people. I don’t believe that Labour can win a numbers game: we’ll never convince the right-wing press that we’ll keep as tight a limit as they’d like, and trying to do that will tear us apart as well as repelling potential Lib Dem switchers.

So we need to change the terms of the debate: make it about the impact of immigration. We should pivot on Gordon Brown’s most painful moment (in the way that Cameron played off Thatcher’s notorious “society” quote) and say that most people worried about immigration aren’t “bigoted” but reasonably concerned about coping with change and whether they’ll get a raw deal as a result. It’s completely true that a lot of people moving into your area can be disconcerting – whether they’re from elsewhere in the UK or halfway round the world. There are all sorts of impacts on housing, public services and the labour market. That’s the set of concerns we should take on.

‘Managed immigration’ should be about this, not clumsy attempts to set a national limit. The total number of immigrants coming here is probably unknown to most people anyway, and official figures are distrusted. And of course immigration isn’t distributed evenly across the country; it’s the local amount that has an effect on people.

There are, of course, bigots who just don’t like foreigners; I don’t propose we try very hard for their votes.

I expect this parliament to last the full five years (certainly, I think Labour’s ability to shorten it is basically zero). But unlike the Tories after 1997, we’re not stuck miles behind an unnaturally popular government, so people are going to be looking at Labour sooner, with genuine – albeit critical – interest, so we need to get our act together quickly.

(These quarter-formed thoughts don’t add up to a strategy. But I think they point in roughly the right direction. And I think David Miliband is most willing and able to take this sort of approach, so he gets my vote. Ed M’s not too far behind, though. Also, I think David comes across a bit less awkwardly than Ed on the telly box.)

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Labour, cuts and growth

Labour’s position on the public finances needs to do several things:
  • show that the big deficit isn’t due to irresponsible spending
  • show that the party is serious about getting borrowing down again
  • argue that the government’s position is unnecessary: the scale and speed of cuts is their choice
  • argue that the government’s position is positively dangerous to the economy
  • avoid getting stuck in the bog of detailed shadow spending reviews that are quickly rendered irrelevant by events
  • be reasonably easy to grasp in outline.

I’m sure that’s not an exhaustive list, and I’m sure I’ve not wholly succeeded on these counts, but I’ve had a stab anyway.

In brief
During the recession, the government had to offer what support it could to the economy. This meant more borrowing, but it was the right thing to do. And now we need to reduce borrowing, so there will have to be spending cuts – but not at the expense of economic growth. Public services are part of the economy too, so the responsible way to cut public spending is when the private sector is strong enough, not in a dogmatic rush to cut savagely no matter what.

In depth
The credit crunch hit the economy hard. Households had to cut back their spending, so the businesses they bought things from had to cut back theirs and lay people off or go bust, which just meant more households cutting back their spending and so on and so on. If the government had joined in with this spiral of cuts, that would have sent the whole economy into complete meltdown. But we didn’t. We knew that the government had to stand firm and limit the scale of the recession with temporary tax cuts and more spending.

And it worked. Even though it’s been tough going, there were fewer job losses and fewer repossessions than in past recessions. But this did mean that government borrowing went up. And now it has to come down. In fact, it already is: it’s been falling since the start of the year, as the economy’s started growing again.

And growth is crucial to getting the deficit down. A stronger economy with more jobs means more people paying tax and fewer people claiming benefits. But higher taxes for those who can afford to pay, as well as cutting public spending, are important too.

The big political question is how quickly to cut spending.

Once upon a time, it was written that the timing of spending cuts should be based on an “assessment of economic conditions, not political dogma”. That was the Lib Dem manifesto. The story didn’t have a happy ending, and now the Tory plan is to cut as savagely and hastily as possible, come what may.

Never mind what harm the cuts will cause to people who use public services – although of course that matters – just think about the effect on the economy.

The money we spend on public services doesn’t just disappear. It flows through the rest of the economy, because public-sector workers spend their pay just like the rest of us. So if you work for a business that sells things to ordinary people, then big cuts that make a lot of your customers worse off could hit you too.

The economy is still fragile and big cuts are risky until the recovery is secured. If the economy falters then more and more cuts will just make things worse.

We set out a bold but sensible timetable to get borrowing back down – not the Tories’ mad rush to cut. The government’s own Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed that our approach would have eliminated two-thirds of the deficit by 2015. But, crucially, we want to look to economic conditions, not political dogma.

We think public spending should be cut when the rest of the economy is strong enough to take the strain. There are many people out of work today because of the recession, and the speed of cuts should take into account whether businesses are hiring them again. As the private sector steps up, the public sector can step down.

But now, of course, we’re in opposition. The Tories are running the show, with a little help from their friends. So whatever detailed numbers we might come up with, events will quickly move on. But we will do all we can to push the government in the right direction. If they do propose responsible cuts, we’ll support them. When they propose over-hasty cuts driven by ideology, we’ll oppose them.

So that’s the choice we face over the next few years: faster cuts and slower growth and fewer jobs, or slower cuts and faster growth and more jobs.

This is a development of some earlier thoughts of mine, and has been shaped along the way by blogging by Duncan Weldon, Hopi Sen, Sunny Hundal and others.

I think this sort of approach could more or less be adopted by any of the leadership candidates, although Diane Abbott would want to steer leftwards. David Miliband is the only one to stick by Alistair Darling’s timetable, so the others would need to change that bit, but the broad thrust, particularly the contrast with the government, would basically be the same.

Update: a MORI poll out today finds that 23% of voters think that “It is important to cut spending quickly even if this means immediate job losses, because it will be better for the economy in the long term”, while 75% think that “It is better to cut spending more slowly, to reduce the impact on public services and the economy”. It strongly suggest that if Labour can communicate this position clearly and credibly, there are votes to be won.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Behead those who insult atheism!

Oh dear:

One of the Pope's senior advisers has pulled out of the papal visit to Britain, after saying the UK is a "Third World country" marked by "a new and aggressive atheism". Cardinal Walter Kasper, 77, made the remarks in a German magazine interview.
The Vatican said the cardinal had not intended "any kind of slight", and was referring to the UK's multicultural society. It added that he had simply pulled out of the Pope's visit due to illness.

Or, perhaps, rather than beheading him, we could send his eminence our condolences on falling unwell and our best wishes for a speedy recovery.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Mash-tastic

Love it:

The Labour leadership contest has been blown wide open after the shock return of Stryker, the secret Miliband brother.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How the leadership candidates come across

The YouGov poll [£] in today’s Sunday Times puts Ed Miliband very narrowly ahead of his brother, due to a big swing among trade union members. Among the general public, though, things are different.

30% of voters think David Miliband would make the best leader, 16% think Ed and 54% don’t know. The question seems to have excluded the other candidates, but another poll from just over a week ago covered all five. It gave David 19%, Diane Abbott 10%, Ed M 9%, Andy Burnham and Ed Balls 5% each, and 51% don’t know.

There’s obviously no strong public preference: most people know little if anything about the contenders. David Miliband’s profile after three years as Foreign Secretary is still not all that high, reflecting the dominance of the last government by Gordon Brown.

So we’re still painfully short of information about how people think the five come across.

I’ve been waiting for somebody to run some focus groups, showing potential swing voters the candidates in action and finding out what they think; it was a similar exercise in 2005 that first showed how receptive people were to the little-known David Cameron. And now Newsnight has done one [available to view until Sep 15], consisting of 12 people in Bristol who voted Labour in 2005 but not this year.

It’s a very limited sample, and their pre-existing views weren’t checked at the start, and the moderator was a Newsnight reporter rather than a professional market researcher, but it’s something. After hearing from and questioning the candidates, seven of them preferred Burnham and five David Miliband.

Personally speaking, the little I took from the programme was that the more I see of Ed Miliband interacting with people, the more awkward and self-conscious I think he is. His supporters boast that he “speaks human”, but to me he seems more like someone who’s just got a good grade in his GCSE Human. To give him credit, though, he has shed some of his fondness for polysyllabic abstract nouns.

As has David, who is also looking less wonkish than I’d feared. He manages more gravitas than the others, too, but remains in danger of being seen as a second-rate Blair rip-off.

Burnham and Balls probably ‘speak human’ better than the others. Burnham comes across as nicer, and earnest, but maybe a bit wishy-washy, and Balls a more confident, feisty proposition – although, as Paul Sagar cruelly puts it, with “the eyes of a toad and the smirk of a pedophile set free on a legal technicality”. Abbott remains a bad joke. I agree it’s good that the candidates aren’t all white men, and it’s good that the party’s left is represented, but it’s a shame that the person doing all this representing is so manifestly unsuited for the job.

I’m still unsure, so I’ll tune in to the BBC Question Time debate on Thursday, and leave the actual voting as late as I can (deadline for votes by post or online is September 22.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Bin Laden surrenders – “please, just don’t burn the Qur’an!”

The world of competitive moronism was stunned today by the news that Osama bin Laden, leader of terrorist network al-Qaeda, has surrendered.

Handing himself in at the US air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, bin Laden made the following statement:

For years we have fought to overthrow the Western world order, destroy the liberal capitalist conspiracy of crusaders, Jews and atheists, and establish a global caliphate in which decent, peace-loving Muslims can safely cover women in tarpaulins and then throw rocks at them until nobody wants to rape them. But no more.

On hearing of Pastor Terry Jones’s ingenious, terrifying plan to burn copies of the Qur’an this Sunday, I knew that we could no longer face the horrors of this jihad. I therefore announce the immediate and unconditional surrender of all al-Qaeda operatives worldwide.

Furthermore, while anticipating the pain that the burning of the holiest of all books would cause us, I have had occasion to reflect upon the suffering that we have inflicted upon others on the past. It has been an eye-opening and saddening experience.

I deeply regret any offence that may have resulted from our long campaign of mass murder.

From now on, all former al-Qaeda funds will be used, through the Osama bin Laden Faith Foundation, to promote respect and understanding about the world’s major religions and show how faith is a powerful force for good in the modern world.

Pastor Jones, this afternoon appointed as US Defence Secretary, was too busy receiving the Nobel Peace Prize to comment.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

“Who controls the past controls the future”

Lacking any real ideological dispute between the Milibands, Sunder Katwala looks at a difference of strategy:

What the Milibands really disagree about is why Labour lost and how to win again. … What does "moving on" from New Labour mean, and how deep should it go? David Miliband warns that throwing out too much of a recently successful formula could mean a long spell in opposition; Ed Miliband fears that it is failing to recognise the scale of change needed which would keep the party from power.

I think this disagreement isn’t so much about how successful the New Labour “formula” was or is – rather, it’s how the brothers feel about the Blairite principle quoted in the title above.

Ed thinks Labour was more comprehensively and thoroughly rejected than David thinks. So Ed’s arguing for a bigger reinvention of the party, perhaps on the scale of what Cameron or even Blair did. He’s trying to persuade the party to get on with this quickly, repudiating the last government’s failures, so it doesn’t spend several terms in opposition as Labour and the Tories have done before.

David thinks the party’s not as deeply and widely unpopular as it was in the 1980s or the Tories after 1997, and that it should stand by its successes. He also thinks that such a radical transformation isn’t something you can convincingly pull off in one parliament. He fears that if Labour swallows the narrative that the last government was a failure then it will become accepted fact, making it all the harder for the party to recover.

Ed thinks that Labour lacks control over its past – or rather the public perception thereof – and should focus on moving away from it. David thinks that Labour can affect the way voters view its time in office, and thus how much punishment they think the party still deserves.

In practice, their difference on this is just a matter of degree: both defend and recant various aspects of the last 13 years. But which end of this spectrum should the party lean towards?

In support of Ed’s view is, very obviously and powerfully, the general election result. A half-decent tally of MPs – which won’t survive the boundary review – shouldn’t distract us from a vote share midway between Major’s in 1997 and Foot’s in 1983. It was a kicking.

In support of David’s view is the fact that (despite being rudderless and self-absorbed with its leadership contest) Labour is the first opposition party in many, many years to be significantly up in the polls very shortly after defeat. This doesn’t suggest massive public revulsion at the party. Also, there’s the fact that the coalition is doing its damnedest to blame Labour’s alleged profligacy for the cuts.

So it looks as though who controls the past will have more control over the future. And David may be right to be treating his own cute soundbite - “our task is not to debate a better yesterday, but to build a better tomorrow” – as a tad simplistic.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

No UK debt crisis, part 89

Via Stephanie Flanders: an IMF report [PDF] has looked at how much governments are relying on the bond markets to fund their borrowing. The chart shows the overall gross financing needs of various developed countries’ governments. This includes both the new borrowing (the deficit) and the renewal of old borrowing, which depends on how much national debt there already is and on how long-dated the country’s bonds are.


On both of those counts, the UK does pretty well, so despite our large deficit we’re actually less dependent on the goodwill of the bond markets.

(I don’t know why these countries and not others were included. Germany in particular would have been good to compare. The best information I have is a Fitch analysis earlier in the year, suggesting that it would need to raise 38% more debt than the UK in 2010, in cash terms. Yes, the German economy is bigger than the UK’s, but not that much so.)

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Hague ‘scandal’: a personal statement

Four years ago, I shared a twin room in a hotel with a male friend of mine, J. The decision to have one rather than separate rooms was taken purely on cost grounds and not because we were having any kind of sexual relationship. Suggestions that we were are false, baseless and highly upsetting to J, who got married just two weeks after the night in question.

The fact that I also booked several other twin rooms in the same hotel, also to be shared by pairs of male friends, should not be interpreted as meaning that I had organised some sort of weekend of illicit gay coupling.

The fact that this took place in Brighton, a city renowned for its gay scene, is of absolutely no significance.

The fact that J described me at the time as his “best man” reflects only my unofficial job title at the time and not any romantically or sexually motivated evalution.

The fact that, two weeks later, I made a wedding speech that was by turns affectionate and mocking towards J is no basis for suspicion of anything improper. The affection was purely platonic and the mockery was in no way a bluff to conceal any kind of closer relationship.

The fact that J and I were both wearing skirts at the time can be easily explained by the fact that the wedding took place in Scotland. I believe they are known as ‘kilts’ and reflect an ancient warrior tradition rather than any urge to experiment with gender roles and sexuality.

I accept that my actions could be misrepresented by irresponsible journalists, as they now have been. In hindsight I should have given greater consideration to what might have been made of that, but this is in itself no justification for allegations of this kind, which are untrue and deeply distressing to me, to J and to his wife.

I did, however, once wear a baseball cap.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

‘Fact in public domain for 17 years’ exclusive!!!

This is one of the stupidest things I’ve read in a news report for a long time:

Labour has defended its leadership election rules amid evidence some people can cast multiple votes. Labour MPs, MEPs, party members and members of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies are all entitled to take part in the contest. But people can register for more than one vote by joining different bodies.

Research by the BBC found it was possible to join a number of unions or societies - more than 30 of which are affiliated to Labour - and secure separate votes in the leadership contest.

“Evidence”? “Research by the BBC”?

The leadership election rules – last changed in 1993, if I remember rightly – state that this is so very clearly.

Morons.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Journey Into The Past

What the hell is wrong with everyone? I am desperately trying to find something, anything, about the Blair memoirs in the media, but no: all the papers and airwaves and blogs are full of ‘actual current events of real significance’. Pathetic.

The worst of it is that the one possible source of precious information on this, Blair’s BBC interview tonight, has been ruined by Channel 4’s deeply irresponsible decision to schedule its so-called Labour leadership debate to clash.

I really don’t know how any of us is ever going to find out whether Blair thinks exactly what we all already know he thinks.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mandelson’s blinkers and Labour’s trajectory

I think the political positions being adopted by Ed and David Miliband are a lot closer than the current sniping suggests – and both possessed of more depth than merely marking points on a left-right axis. Labour’s history is also a good deal more complex than ‘old’ versus ‘new’.

A fine case in point is Peter Mandelson. He says [£]:

Ed... is wrong when he describes new Labour as a comfort zone. On the contrary, it was about some difficult choices and some tough decisions on policy. There was nothing comfortable about many of the issues we had to face up to. … I think that if he or anyone else wants to create a pre-new-Labour future for the party then he and the rest of them will quickly find that that is an electoral cul-de-sac.

I understand that people of a certain age like Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley want to hark back to a previous age, and they believe that [Ed] Miliband would reconstruct the party in that image.

If you shut the door on new Labour you’re effectively slamming the door in the faces of millions of voters who voted for our party because we were new Labour.

Look at that line about Kinnock and Hattersley. Of course, it’s easy to make the quick retort that Mandelson is also a man of “a previous age”, but there’s more to it than that.

Think about what Kinnock did with his time at the top of the party. Yes, Labour was then to the left of where it has been since, but that sees things too statically. It was, in fact, an era of tremendous and furious modernisation – leading to improved popularity. During 1983-92, Kinnock and others (including Mandelson) reformed Labour probably more than Blair and others (including Mandelson) did during 1994-97, fighting harder battles than that over Clause IV.

Both were periods of reinvention appropriate to their time, and the specifics of both are of limited relevance to today. Mandelson should be able to see that, but he can’t.

So, what should we do about ‘new Labour’? Much of the debate assumes there’s a single, clear meaning to this phrase; there isn’t. Was ‘new Labour’ a marketing tool or an overarching political strategy or a programme for government? It was all three.

The marketing tool of that name was born in 1994 and has now become dated, useless and even counterproductive. The broader strategic principle, that Labour should adapt itself to changing circumstances and not sacrifice electability to any absolutist view of ‘ideological purity’, goes back to the mid-1980s (and indeed operated in one form or another under pre-Foot leaders), and has as much importance now as it did then.

The programme for government, as manifested in the policies of the late 1990s and 2000s, clearly has had its day. The legacy is of mixed quality, and should now be defended, repudiated, improved upon or entirely transcended as appropriate.

This is all theory, of course. The practice is harder.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Labour’s lost voters

As this has come up lately during the Labour leadership campaign, I thought I’d look at the socioeconomic status (or ‘class’ as I believe some people quaintly call it) of voters abandoning the party.

I’ve used MORI’s ‘how Britain voted’ data going back to 2001, the last time Labour won convincingly. To focus on political shifts rather than changes in the population, I’ve assumed a consistent electorate for all three elections of 2010 size and social structure: 44.4 million people, of whom 27% are social group AB, 29% C1, 21% C2 and 23% DE.


Over the two parliaments, Labour lost about 80,000 ABs, 560,000 C1s, 990,000 C2s and 650,000 DEs.

I’m not saying ‘therefore we must elect X’ or ‘therefore we must move to the Y’. These are just the numbers.

Update: Following some interest from Left Outside, I’m happy to share another chart I produced en route to the above. It shows the percentage of each social group – the total electorate, not just those turning out – that voted Labour. Since 2001, Labour has lost 3% of its support among ABs, 19% among C1s, 39% among C2s and 22% among DEs.


I’d focused on the previous set of numbers because – from the point of view of a party wanting to recover from defeat – you need to gain numbers of votes. A big percentage drop among a small group could distract from this. That said, I think a fairly similar picture emerges either way.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Clegg vs the IFS: reductio ad absurdum

Via Sunder Katwala, I see that Nick Clegg has reprised one of his greatest moronisms.

Back in June, the Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that George Osborne’s Budget would hit the poorest hardest. Clegg responded by saying that the IFS analysis didn’t take into account the effects of unspecified future policies that the government might introduce. This met with general ridicule.

Undaunted, Clegg has reacted in the same way to the latest IFS report:

It doesn’t cover what we’re going to do in future Budgets to build on the steps that we included in this Budget to make the tax system fairer.

Let me explain, in language that Clegg can understand, why this criticism is wrong.

It doesn’t cover what the IFS is going to do in future Budget analyses to build on the steps that it included in this Budget analysis to assess whether the government is making the tax system fairer.

An Office for Distributional Responsibility?

The Budget in June included a chart showing that its measures would hit the rich hardest and the poorest the least. Within a day, the Institute for Fiscal Studies had demolished this as a farrago of dishonesty (I paraphrase) and that the truth was exactly the opposite.

Now they’ve done a more thorough analysis that confirms and deepens this picture, and the government is getting a deserved kicking all over the media. Its spokespeople are still pathetically clinging to the bar chart George Osborne produced, which included some of Labour’s redistributive policies and omitted some of his new ones.

I would like to protect Osborne from this criticism.

Shortly after the election, in setting up the Office for Budget Responsibility, he said:

We need long-lasting change in the way we put together budgets in this country. The final decision on the forecast has always been made by the Chancellor, not independent officials. And that is precisely the problem. Again and again, the temptation to fiddle the figures, to nudge up a growth forecast here or reduce a borrowing number there to make the numbers add up has proved too great.

It’s obvious that we can’t trust the Chancellor to produce a distributional analysis of his own policies. The temptation to fiddle the figures has proved too great, and the political importance attached to them means that politicians don’t have credibility to speak authoritatively here.

Given that the government has followed Labour in declaring that it wants to fight poverty, and that it has asked to be judged on the impact its policies have on the poorest, it’s clear that we need an independent expert body to do its own, non-partisan assessment here. The IFS is fantastic, but it doesn’t have full access to all the government data.

So maybe the government should set up an independent Office for Distributional Responsibility – not to rule on how much redistribution should happen, that’s a political judgement – but to analyse the financial effects of policies on different income groups and to assess progress towards whatever aims the government might set.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Alistair Darling’s deficit speech this week

Is there a full transcript of it online anywhere? I can't find one...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

“I couldn’t agree with Nick”

I’m deeply sceptical about Ed Miliband’s statement that he wouldn’t go into coalition with the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg.

Hopi thinks Miliband is spot on, though. He makes several very sound points, mostly boiling down to the fact that Clegg is the absolute embodiment of the Lid Dems’ rightward shift, their working with the Tories and their championing of a government agenda largely defined against Labour’s record. Hopi thinks that “whatever future relationship Labour and the Lib Dems may have, Nick Clegg won’t be part of it”.

This is probably true. But I still think Miliband was wrong.

In effect, he’s said that in the event of another hung parliament, the Lib Dem leader’s only option will be to do another deal with the Tories and ignore Labour. Lib Dems who’d prefer a coalition with Labour are being told that they’d have to dump their leader. Remember the weekend after the election when Clegg was swanning around demanding a new Labour leader? Remember, even given the limited support for Brown, how little the party liked getting an ultimatum like that from an opponent?

It may well be that Clegg and Labour couldn’t work together. But for Miliband to come out with it so bluntly would do serious damage to Labour’s negotiating position in another hung parliament. And it pushes the Tories and Lib Dems closer together.

In other news: I will definitely be voting for a Miliband as leader, although as yet I’m not sure which. I’m observing their tactics, reading their speeches and so on, but what I keep coming back to is whether the incipient white patch at the front of David’s hair or Ed’s ghost of a lisp comes across more oddly. I am shallow.

AV and tactical voting

I think Tom Harris misses the point here – or, at least, he misses the point I’d make. Possibly he very squarely addresses a point other people have made.

He claims to “explode another myth” about the Alternative Vote:

It will mean that every vote counts, say its “supporters”; no more tactical voting for candidates you don’t actually support.
Ah, bless.
In fact, AV will institutionalise tactical voting and make sure that many, many more voters than before will use their votes tactically.

But the truth is that it does both.

You use your first choice for whichever candidate you most like, without fear that you’re wasting the vote on a no-hoper. Because if they are a no-hoper, then you can use your lower choices to pick between the likelier candidates as you prefer. Under first-past-the-post, the first choice is all you get – so there is a conflict between between showing your support for your favourite and trying to get the best plausible option elected.

AV removes the need for tactical voting in first choices by institutionalising it in the lower choices.

What’s more, the type of tactics involved changes. Tom says that “Voting tactically with your second or third preference vote is no different from placing a cross against the name of the person you dislike the least under the current system.” But this isn’t true.

Tactical voting under FPTP requires you to know/estimate/guess which candidates have a genuine chance of winning and which don’t. This is often difficult, particularly with lots of horrendous ‘Only Party X can beat Party Y in Wibblesford North!’ leaflets, complete with dodgy bar charts, flying around.

Under AV, all you have to do is decide which candidates you prefer to which others. You need spend no time poring over opinion polls and past results.

And those bar charts will become obsolete.