Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Apostrophe’s: method to their wrongness

We’ve been discussing apostrophes at work. Rock ’n’ roll.

Clearly, there are some people who put apostrophes everywhere and others who drop them in pretty much randomly; these are cases of straightforward mindlessness and decent, sensible folk can all agree that these people need to be rounded up and fed to rabid otters who have been specially trained to build dams out of human bone.

But I have a theory (my colleagues are unconvinced) that there’s another group of people who get apostrophes wrong selectively because they are, in effect, following a (wrong) rule. I think that their approach is like this:

Usually you don’t put an apostrophe before the s when you’re giving a plural. But there are exceptions. If the word ends with a vowel and just adding an s would change the vowel sound to make it wrong, you should also add an apostrophe:

  • taxi’s not taxis (otherwise it would sound like taxiss)
  • zebra’s not zebras (zebrass)
  • logo’s not logos (logoss).

So, do a fair number of people specifically believe in this exception? Certainly, these sad cases seem to be up for it (assuming that the cuprits were thinking at all).

If so, then they are at least trying to make sense out of the crazy world of punctuation, and they probably don’t deserve death by otter. A corrective programme of electric shock treatment should do it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

I have to admit, this is funny

By Beau Bo d’Or:


But of course it’s wildly inaccurate. Charlie Croker’s coach in The Italian Job was in danger because of all the gold in the back, weighing it down. But, as everyone knows, Jock Bottler McBroon and his ZaNuLieBore minions sold off all our gold years ago when the world gold price was so low it fetched less money than it cost to make the ‘GOLD 4 SALE’ placard that he put up outside the Treasury. So his coach would have been fine.

Crowdsourcing posters

Labour is inviting The People Who Live On The Internet to design its next poster campaign. This is very ‘now’, and also reflects the fact that the party has bugger all money for throwing at ad agencies.

Encouraged by the fact that my spoof Saatchi poster got me more hits on Sunday than I’ve ever had before in an entire week (not bad for a 23-hour day; and thanks to MyDavidCameron, John Prescott and others for the tweets and links), I’m going to have a stab at doing something.

Details of the ad brief are here.

Update: the deadline has passed and the above link is now dead. The winning poster will be unveiled at the weekend, but you can see a selection of some of the better ones here - not including mine, although I’m sure that must be some sort of administrative error.

Osborne may have mistimed his tax spectacle

It must have seemed like a great idea. The last time George Osborne announced a tax cut, it sparked a Tory revival that deeply destabilised Gordon Brown. So what better wheeze than to pull the same trick again, presenting himself as the man with the bold ideas, setting the agenda for the day’s debate with Alistair Darling and Vince Cable?

Maybe. We’ll have to wait and see.

But the differences between autumn 2007 and now are telling: then, he announced his plan to rapturous applause from the Tory conference, in a week when coverage of the other parties was bound to be limited, so his momentum could grow and grow. Now, he has announced his new plan to a press conference and gone on to a debate in front of a sceptical public audience, leading to news coverage that showed Darling and Cable both damning his proposals, outweighing his own limelight by two to one.

That said, he could hardly have announced it earlier, having needed to chew over the implications of the Budget first; and if he’d saved it until later, he’d have had less of interest to say in the debate. But I suspect the debate will be forgotten in a few days.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Effing efficiency: the end is NI

Oh, super. The flagship Tory policy on National Insurance is to be paid for by efficiency savings. As is the Ferrari I’m going to buy next week.

Hopi plays a wearied yet effective game of Spot the Hypocrite, and Stephanie Flanders mulls the economic implications. I’ll say just this:

If you’re going to use the money you can make in efficiency savings for tax cuts, then the only way you’ll have left to get the deficit down will be to hit real public services where it hurts.

Spoofing Cameron

Another poster:


Yes, it’s puerile. Sorry. But I blame the Times’s picture editor for publishing that horrible photo in the first place.

Do MPs really get to edit Hansard?

I hope this is one of John Rentoul’s ‘questions to which the answer is no’, but he suggests it isn’t.

In his column yesterday, Rentoul gave a curious aside on Cameron’s Budget response in Parliament:

He also mocked Liam Byrne, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, whose memo setting out the precise duties of his civil servants was leaked a while ago: "Get him an espresso or there'll be trouble." Oddly, Cameron's staff edited that line from the Commons official record, possibly because it was a personal attack, but left in his description of Byrne as "Baldemort", which is more personal.

True. Hansard records the Baldemort crack but not the espresso one, which appears in this fuller transcript at PoliticsHome.

So, it looks as though MPs do have some editorial influence over what goes in the official Hansard record of what they say in Parliament. Never mind why Cameron wanted one thing cut but not the other; why is this allowed at all?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

New agency, new posters... new spoof

Via Jon Bernstein, I see that now the Tories have called Saatchi’s in to revive their flagging campaign, they’re doing what they know best: going negative, hitting hard, saying nothing about themselves:


As MyDavidCameron have said they won’t be spoofing any more posters, it falls to lesser lights such as me to take up the cause:


(Gimme a break, OK? I had to do this in Word... And it probably doesn’t help that I have all the design skills of a drowsy baboon with a bag over his head.)

Update 29/3: I've done another (slightly ruder) spoof.

Update 4/4: And another, more original poster

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Infallibility means never having to do the right thing

And so, as the Vatican’s treatment its own paedophile priests makes David Cameron’s and William Hague’s incuriosity about Lord Ashcroft’s tax status look like waterboarding, my mind is drawn to a recent study in Psychological Science, on the concept of ‘moral balancing’.

Sonya Sachdeva and colleagues “tested the idea that a sense of moral superiority might limit additional future moral behavior”. The results of their experiments “suggest that affirming a moral identity leads people to feel licensed to act immorally”.

That is, if people feel “too moral,” they might not have sufficient incentive to engage in moral action because prosocial behavior is inherently costly to the individual. For example, people might not feel the need to donate blood or volunteer if they have already established their reputation as a moral person. This type of response can be thought of as moral licensing. People may be licensed to refrain from good behavior when they have accrued a surplus of moral currency.

I wonder.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Green Budget: economy’s carbon efficiency doubles

While the Budget, such as it was, has grabbed the attention of most of us who find our thrills in politics and in numbers, there was another important set of national accounts published this week.

The latest figures on UK greenhouse emissions show an 8.5% drop in 2009 – the biggest on record, by far. But, of course, there was a bloody great recession going on last year, and less economic activity is bound to mean fewer emissions.

So I’ve charted the growth (or shrinkage) of the economy alongside changes in greenhouse emissions (the red and green bars, measured on the left-hand axis), as well as the economy’s carbon efficiency – the amount of GDP produced for a given level of greenhouse emissions (the blue line, using 1990 as a baseline of 100, on the right-hand axis):


Last year, emissions fell by a good deal more than GDP, and this follows a period of economic growth during which emissions fell almost every year.

In 18 years, the UK economy’s carbon efficiency has doubled.

However, the government’s target is to reduce emissions by 80% from the 1990 level by 2050. At the average rate of reduction over the decade to 2008, it would take 100 years to achieve this.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Redistribution and retrenchment

Two graphs from today’s IFS Budget briefing stood out for me.

First, the effects across the income distribution of all tax and benefit changes since 1997:


This is something I’m pretty pleased with. The Telegraph, hilariously, reports this as showing that “Ten million middle-income households have lost out because of Gordon Brown’s repeated tax rises”. This is the sort of comment that Chris Dillow might describe as “the Middle England error” and that I might describe as a steaming great lie.

Second, the scale of the tax rises and spending cuts to come:


This one, I’m not not so pleased with.

Given the looming fiscal tightening, it’s hard to see how as much direct redistribution as we’ve seen can be repeated any time soon. Clearly, anti-poverty measures over the next decade are going to have to be more focused on getting people into work and making that work pay.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

2010 to be ‘Morse Code election’

The coming political contest is set to be fought as a Morse Code election, experts claimed yesterday.

A report commissioned by the British Society for the Promotion of Morse Code found that the number of Morse Code users is growing exponentially, after they took on a couple of work experience kids who couldn’t find proper jobs.

The claim follows earlier suggestions, mainly made on blogs, Twitter feeds and Facebook status updates, that 2010 would in fact be an ‘online election’.

However, a spokesman for the BSPMC said that Morse Code offered a unique opportunity for politicians to communicate with young voters in ways that were relevant, instant and “cool”.

But Tory attempts to capitalise on the medium came unstuck when their ‘-.-. .- ... .... / --. --- .-. -.. --- -.’ campaign was hacked to transmit ‘....- ----- ....- / . .-. .-. --- .-. / -.. --- - ... / .- -. -.. / -.. .- ... .... . ... / -. --- - / ..-. --- ..- -. -..’ instead.

And Labour’s so-called ‘M-launch’ was derailed when it emerged that former slightly relevant person Stephen Byers had been recorded claiming to have invented Morse Code for a fee of £5000. Gordon Brown’s earlier Downing Street MorCasts had to be abandoned after he somehow managed, even through the medium of dots and dashes, to appear randomly grinning like a serial killer’s dyspeptic uncle.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The subtle art of persuasion

I remember the exact moment when I realised the Tories had given up on the 1997 election and were just throwing campaign money around for the hell of it. It was when I saw one of their ads in the New Statesman – yes, the New Statesman. It said: ‘Trade unionists: if New Labour won’t have you, the Conservatives will’, followed by some sort of waffle vaguely attempting to justify this unlikely call to arms, and then it signed off with the line ‘The Conservative and Unionist Party’.

Wrong in more ways than I could count. Desperate, cavalier and pointless all at once.

Anyway, dear reader, I draw your attention to exhibit A:


This is a stunt involving eight self-respecting young men wearing specially designed masks to make them look slightly like a man that fairly few people have heard of and far fewer could recognise, who has close links to Gordon Brown and a trade union that supports Labour. Paid for by the Conservative and Unionist Party.

Obviously they haven’t given up on this election, but they do still seem to have more money than sense – and after the torrent of spoof posters, they’re not really sure how to spend it effectively.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Moody’s blues: social cohesion vs credit ratings

This week there was a commendably frank statement on the biggest political issue of the decade. It came from a credit-rating agency, and concerned public spending cuts.

There’s disagreement (recall those economists’ letters) about which is the bigger economic threat: cutting public spending and the deficit so fast that a still-feeble private sector can’t take up the slack and we fall back into recession; or letting borrowing stay so high for so long that the markets take fright, the government’s credit rating is damaged and public-debt servicing becomes much more expensive.

Both sides of the debate claim that their approach can achieve the aims of the other side: the cutters say that a lower deficit will improve business confidence and boost growth; the borrowers say that public spending will support a stronger recovery, which will lower the deficit.

FWIW my own view, at least at this stage, leans towards the borrowers:

  • Private-sector weakness is likely to persist due to tight credit availability – the crunch hasn’t gone away, you know.
  • Recessions caused by financial crises tend to have weaker recoveries, as do global recessions.
  • The flipside of our relatively resilient labour market is the risk of a jobless recovery, at least for a while.
  • Gilt yields are up, but despite the end of quantitative easing, they haven’t surged, so the cost of borrowing still isn’t anything like as much as in previous decades – and we’re pretty much getting to the peak of gilt issuance now.
  • UK public debt is pretty long-dated, so we’re not needing to raise as much cash on the markets to replace expiring bonds as other countries with smaller deficits.
  • And by international standards, our total public debt isn’t that large.

But timing matters. Last year, as the recession was raging, only crazy people were advocating immediate deficit cuts. Assuming continued growth, the economic case for cuts will become far stronger in the next year or two.

This year, as we’re just inching into recovery, the debate is more balanced. Neither a double-dip via over-hasty cuts nor a borrowing spiral is an outrageous fear, and any sensible approach will have to take both risks into account.

But there’s a third aspect to this, beyond any of the economics: spending cuts have social consequences. Let’s not imagine that deficit reduction on the scale that the IFS describes can be done via efficiency savings. Services that people – particularly but not exclusively poorer people – rely on will suffer.

And here’s where the credit-rating agency Moody’s comes in, this week grimly warning the UK and other countries:

Preserving debt affordability at levels consistent with AAA ratings will invariably require fiscal adjustments of a magnitude that, in some cases, will test social cohesion… the severity of the crisis will force governments to make painful choices that expose weaknesses in society.

Moody’s, as you’d expect, treats massive deficit reduction as the sine qua non and everything else as an unavoidable shame that we’ll just have to get through somehow.

But is that right? It’s a political belief, not a mathematical fact, that the government’s AAA rating needs to be protected whatever the social cost, whatever the sacrifice, by fighting to the dying breath of every last teacher, nurse and constable. A credit-rating downgrade is neither necessary nor sufficient for raising the cost of borrowing.

The quality of public services should be treated as a factor – a really important factor – to be weighed alongside others (the cost of borrowing, the enfeebled private sector), not a sad but inevitable piece of collateral damage in the War on Debt. Intelligence reports suggesting that the ratings agencies possess weapons of mass destruction are deeply dodgy. And so is the argument that we have to inflict the mass destruction on ourselves to appease them.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What brain scans can’t teach us

(Cross-posted, with minor edits, at Liberal Conspiracy – they get rather more traffic than me, so feel free to post comments there instead.)

This month’s Prospect magazine has a section on neuroscience, and in particular its political implications. As well as being a political junkie, I find psychology and the brain really interesting, so this should have been manna from heaven for me. And there’s some decent stuff there, although most of the contributors don’t get the chance to make any extended arguments. There are also plenty of banal, incoherent and irrelevant points made.

But one thing came up in their roundtable discussion that always gets my goat: the idea that neuroscience is going to be a good way of telling what effects on people different policies will have. Barbara Sahakian, a clinical neuropsychologist at Cambridge, says:

For years we changed our education system again and again, but these changes weren’t based on evidence about how we learned. Instead, wouldn’t it be useful if we thought about how the brain really works, and how children learn best, and in turn formulated educational policy based on that?

And the RSA’s Matthew Taylor adds, in a similar but more nakedly political vein:

I am confident that, as we find out more about our brains, it will strengthen the progressive case, in the sense that children learn best when they are actively involved, not being passive.

No, no, no.

Think about it: how could you use neuroscience to tell which teaching methods promote the best learning?

Well, what you’d do is get a load of kids, try out different teaching methods on them and then test how much they’ve learned, and give them brain scans to see what neurological changes have taken place. This should let you identify the neural correlates of learning. So then, in the future, you can get another load of kids, try out another bunch of teaching methods on them, and use brain scans to see what the results are.

The only weakness here is that the brain scans are completely redundant. You’ve already got ways of testing how much children have learned – and however fallible these might be, bear in mind that the neurological method you develop is of necessity based on these already existing methods for its validity.

So, unless brain scans become quicker, easier and cheaper to administer than pencil-and-paper exams, there’s nothing being added here. Yet very many intelligent people are still drawn to neuroscientific evidence as something so much more impressively real then mere psychological or behavioural phenomena (i.e. what we say and do and think).

As Zoe Drayson, a doctoral researcher at Bristol, explains:

Getting back to the issue of why we think neuroscience is so compelling, there have been studies done that show if you give people explanations of behaviour on a purely psychological level, and then you add a bogus additional neurological explanation which is logically irrelevant, people still think that explanation is better. That’s not to say that there are no good neuroscientific explanations, but it does mean we must be careful.

As I say, I find neuroscience compelling. But I think its main practical benefits are going to be in medicine, not policy design.

And the reason there’s so little progress in the popular educational policy debate is that teaching is something we’re very ideological about while also thinking that our own experience and common sense have already given us the right answers. It’s not because the academic evidence that already exists isn’t of the right kind.

Monday, March 15, 2010

And there was me thinking he only had the one

Political Wife Swap

Justin McKeating argues:

If you are the sort of person who approves of, or allows their voting preference to be swayed even a little by, the interventions in our electoral process by the wives of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, you are a moron who should be interned until after the general election.

I completely agreed with this until I thought of an even better idea.

The position of Prime Minister’s Spouse should be directly, and separately, elected. So we could pair Gordon with Samantha, Dave with Sarah, or maybe even Nick (Clegg) with Nick (Griffin). The possibilities are as endless as the attention span of an ITV early evening news viewer.

The morons would vote for the spouse, and the rest of us would vote for the actual government. Everyone gets to engage with the election on terms that they can understand.

(Via Chris.)

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Words, words, words

Three nice political quotes from the last week.

First, Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell responding to Tory criticisms that the government is setting long-term ‘pet projects’ into motion not long before the election:

Ministers are entitled to take decisions about the administration of the country's affairs.

Second, former Tory party treasurer Stanley Kalms on the Ashcroft affair:

Just because you can find a way of doing something that is not illegal does not mean you should do it.

Third, Paddy Ashdown on Lib Dem rules, introduced under his leadership, about whether the leader is allowed to take the party into a coalition without the consent of members:

“It was a long time ago”, he said, adding that some of those who were supposed to know what it meant were now dead. “One of them may have been me, but I can’t remember.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Slogans that don’t work for you

The new Lib Dem slogan is, I think, even worse than Labour’s ‘A future fair for all’ and the Tory ‘Vote for change’. It is:

Change that works for you

Is that ‘works for you’ as in ‘sure, we can meet half an hour later, whatever works for you’ or as in ‘a dedicated local councillor who works for you’?

The former is too formal for a political party to get away with, and the latter is a category mistake: the change itself is the work that will be done, rather than the doer of the work. Unless we’re talking about some sort of high-interest bank account for people with very little money, so your 47p in change will work really hard for you.

Please let it all be over soon.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Latest sensational event probably poor guide to underlying long-term trend

(For Hopi…)

A NEWLY RELEASED statistic shows that the thing it measures has sharply and unexpectedly changed. The move takes the number index past the psychologically important level at which overexcitable fools gibber a bit.

The sheer oddness of the number, which has been met with gaping and shrieks aplenty, almost certainly means that it means very little. The index usually only changes gradually, and this latest statistic represents the biggest ever change since records began not all that long ago. The nearest comparison was the sudden shift a couple of years back, after which nothing much happened except that it later turned out to have been wrong.

Today’s statistic is the first provisional estimate for the number covering a period of time that did actually pass some while ago without anyone noticing anything unusual. It is still liable to be revised a few times as new data comes in, then encased in concrete and dumped in the sea, before being revised again in a very quiet voice in the dead of night.

A spokesman from the Institute For Stuff (IFS) said: “You got me out of bed for this?”

Normalisation vs business as usual

The Tory electoral alliance with the Ulster Unionists was part of an ambition to “normalise” politics in Northern Ireland, so that it isn’t dominated by issues of sectarian identity.

It’s a very noble ambition: it’d be great to see Catholics switching to the DUP because of their transport policies, or Protestants voting for Sinn Fein because of their plans for education.

But the Tories don’t want to risk the electoral chances of their historic allies in the UUP by standing against them – hence the joint ticket. And here’s where the risk comes in.

If the Tories become participants in NI politics as well as playing the more neutral brokering role of a UK government, such a pact could make things difficult.

Of course, if NI politics has indeed become ‘normalised’, then the government needn’t worry about neutrality, as there’ll be no political crises for it to negotiate through. So Cameron’s approach will only really work if the sectarianism it aims to bury is already much enfeebled.

And here’s where we get to this week’s devolution of policing to the NI authorities. The UUP’s insistence on voting against the move is a very clear statement that politics there is still too sectarian – something that holds true, in one way or another, whether their opposition is justified or not.

So the Tories’ electoral partners by their actions refute the very premise on which the pact was formed. A sticky wicket.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Saturday, March 06, 2010

New bullying allegations? His porn alias?


No, it was how the BBC chose to present his comments about Saddam Hussein and UN resolutions. When it came up on the TV in the gym I almost fell off the treadmill.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The really important thing about Iraq: us

Today Gordon Brown gives evidence to the Chilcot inquiry. This weekend, amid violent attacks on polling stations, Iraq holds an election. I wonder which will get the most coverage?

The rest of the world exists primarily as a mirror for us.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Orders of magnitude: Usshering Ussher

The age of the universe, I have discovered, is 23 hours 4 minutes and 6 seconds.

Well, obviously not. That’s a bizarrely small and bizarrely precise number. Even if you’re a young-Earth creationist, you should be looking at this and thinking that I’d have to be out of my mind to seriously believe that.

Now you know how the rest of us feel about you.

Archbishop James Ussher notoriously calculated the date of creation to be 4004 BC, just 6014 years ago. The best current science, using observations of cosmic microwave background radiation, puts the age of the universe at 13.73 billion years (plus or minus 120m). So Ussher was out by a magnitude of around 2.3 million times.

So here’s where my 23 hours 4 minutes and 6 seconds comes in. If you take how wrong Ussher was, and then apply the scale of his mistake to his own number, this is what you get. From a young-Earther point of view, this age would look as ridiculous as the young-Earth notion looks to anyone who respects science rather than guesstimates based on mythical genealogy.

(You think I’m kicking a straw man? In the UK, about a third of people think young-Earth creationism – less than 10,000 years ago – is either definitely or probably true. In the US, over 40% believe in it. That’s a lot of straw.)

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Ashcroft: missing the point

Yes, there’s a cloud of hypocrisy and secrecy floating around Lord Ashcroft – as well as William Hague and David Cameron. But this is a side issue.

For years, the strategy that Ashcroft has been masterminding (and partly funding) has meant large sums being spent in key target seats. This has been possible because while there are legal limits on how much a party can spend on campaigning in the run-up to an election, these do not cover spending during the rest of a parliament.

The same principle – that there should be a check on the ability of parties and candidates to ‘buy’ an election by vastly outspending their rivals – should obviously apply equally to both the pre-election period and any other time. But the government, which accepted this principle in legislating as it has (and which has had a clear political motive to stop the Ashcroft money flowing into marginals all these years) has failed to follow through.

The point is that there should be a check on the money – whether it comes from little old ladies selling jam in the Home Counties or is channelled via the Caymans from Kim Jong-il’s finance ministry – that is spent on party campaigns and that it should apply year in, year out.

One other small thing on Ashcroft’s statement. He said:

David Cameron has said that anyone sitting in the legislature - Lords or Commons - must be treated as resident and domiciled in the UK for tax purposes. I agree with this change and expect to be sitting in the House of Lords for many years to come.

This is a tad cryptic: “for many years” seems at odds with the concepts of permanent residence and a life peerage. My reading of it is that he’ll be willing to forsake millions of pounds to the taxman so that he can stay in the Lords for as long as he likes it there; perhaps if he finds he has less influence than he’d like, or doesn’t get the government job he fancies, then he’ll dump his ermine and take his money back to Belize.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

British Pie Week

It's British Pie Week! Admittedly, this is according to a manufacturer and purveyor of, ahem, pies, but that's no reason to ruin a perfectly good excuse.

Let's get on with it.

Dying to cut the deficit

With all due respect to the Independent’s economics editor, Sean O’Grady, his remarks here about inheritance tax betray a woeful ignorance of basic supply-side economics:

In the proposals by the shadow chancellor George Osborne… the threshold would be raised from the present £325,000 to £1m. That means the yield would drop below £1bn – compared to £3.9bn taken in inheritance tax in 2007 – raising questions about where the Conservatives might make up the shortfall as they seek to tame the budget deficit

Oh dear. Allow me to set him straight.

If you make dying cheaper by cutting the taxes wealthy people have to pay to do it, then more of them will be incentivised to pop their diamond-encrusted clogs. This increased death rate will then actually lead to an rise in the overall inheritance tax take, even as the amount payable on any individual estate falls.

Simples.

Monday, March 01, 2010

‘If elected, I will jet off with rich businessmen to do their PR for them’

I have to agree with Red Rag: David Cameron’s attempt to turn a negative into a positive was painfully inept. In full:

And you know what, Gordon Brown sometimes says that I'm a bit of a salesman. And do you know what? I plead guilty. And I'll tell you why, because in this country, with all our difficulties, we are going to need some salesmanship. I want to get out round the world, not filling up the aeroplane with journalists, but filling it up with businessmen. I want to get out there and sell our country to the world, say these are the companies you should be doing business with, this is the place you should be investing, Britain's the best place in the world to come and set up and invest.

That’ll definitely stop the polls narrowing.

But if he does still get elected, then we’ll have to keep a close eye on who gets to go on these elite sales trips (taxpayer-funded, unless they’ll be flying Air Ashcroft) and whether they’d made large donations to the Tory election campaign. It would make sense: for the government to ‘pick winners’ is such an old leftist idea; if, however, these private-sector winners got to self-nominate in advance by picking the political winners, that would be much more… post-bureaucratic.

How to make a negative campaign sound positive

‘Vote for change’ – it sounds wonderful. Change, you say? And little old me gets to vote for it? Sign me up!

But think about it. It’s in fact the very emptiest slogan that an opposition party could use. It says nothing at all about what that change might be. The Lib Dems could use this slogan, the Greens and the BNP could use it, the Natural Law Party and Mebyon Kernow (the Cornish separatists) could use it.

All the slogan communicates is that the way things are is bad – and it doesn’t even say why. It implicitly invites you to picture Gordon Brown and whether you want to gaze at him on TV and listen to his dulcet tones for another four or five years.

‘Vote for change’ sounds like a generous offer. But it’s just a subtle attack, and it’s an unsurprising tactic from a party that finds its poll lead shrinking the more scrutiny it faces. Consider the rallying call at the end of David Cameron’s speech yesterday:

And as you go out there and campaign, I want you to do it fortified with two things in your mind. The first is that every day Gordon Brown is running this country is a grey day for Britain. Every day he is in charge is another day we're not gripping our problems, another day we are wasting our opportunities, another day when this country is not being all that it could be. But I also want you to think of this, to think of the great changes we can make in this country.
We're an amazing people in this country, when we get knocked down, we don't roll over and die, we get up and fight. So as you go out and campaign, I want you to think of the small businessman who's got a great dream to make his business take on the world and win it for him. I want you to think of the mother with the young child desperate for a great school, so that her child can fulfil all her dreams and ambitions, and win it for her. I want you to think of the nurse, of the doctor, of the teacher, of the probation officer, all of whom went into public service with a great vocation, but feel crushed by the weight of bureaucracy and government targets, who we're going to set free, and I want you to win it for them.
And while you do it, I want you to think of the incredible dark depression of another five years of Gordon Brown and say no, no, we're not going to do that, so come on then, let's get out there and win it for Britain!

So: first of all, Brown is awful. Second, there are nice people who would like things to be nicer. Oh, and did I mention Brown is awful? Huzzah for Britain!

(Of course, as the election gets nearer, we can expect much more overtly negative campaigning from all sides. It's enough to make you want to hide under a rock until it's over...)