Sunday, May 30, 2010

Leading in Europe

May 1997: Labour government comes to power. Shortly afterwards, the UK’s Katrina and the Waves win the Eurovision song contest with ‘Love Shine a Light’.

May 2010: Tory-Lib Dem government comes to power. Shortly afterwards, the UK’s Josh Dubovie comes last in the Eurovision song contest with ‘That Sounds Good to Me’.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Breaking the Laws

This seems utterly needless and more than a little sad:

I've been involved in a relationship with James Lundie since around 2001 - about two years after first moving in with him. Our relationship has been unknown to both family and friends throughout that time.

Whatever social pressures David Laws may have believed himself to be under, this episode does rather mark him out as an idiot. If you truly feel that you need to keep a nine-year relationship “secret from everyone I know for every day of my life”, then you don’t claim public money to pay to your partner. And you don’t stroll through a national expenses scandal bragging about how little you claim compared with your colleagues.

He’s hardly a master criminal – it’s not as if he needed the money – but he has shown the sort of self-serving selective blindness to his own conduct that has undone plenty of other MPs over the last year. Really, a moment’s sensible thought would have told him that the kind of legalistic contortions needed to argue that they weren’t ‘partners’ in the rulebook’s sense just wouldn’t wash.

And he now faces trial by media over the next few days. Thankfully for him and for all of us, the press are more enlightened - or at least more restrained - about sexuality than they were, say, 15 years ago. Most of us will sympathise with his fear of homophobia, even if it was OTT. But nonetheless, he shouldn’t have done it. And it beggars belief that he didn’t, deep down, know that. So if he is forced to step down, I really hope it’s just for the dodgy accounting and not for anyone’s rotten, archaic notion of ‘gay shame’.

Friday, May 28, 2010

AV could be surprisingly revolutionary

The Alternative Vote, in which you number candidates in order of preference and the least popular have their preferences reallocated until someone moves past 50%, will be the subject of a referendum if the coalition’s plans work out.

Former Labour MP Nick Palmer says (via):

AV is great for medium-sized centre parties, since they are normally everyone’s second choice, and their voters often get to choose between the other parties, effectively giving them an extra vote.
It’s also quite good for small parties: they probably won’t win more seats (especially if they’re on the political fringes), but at least their supporters can show their support on the first round before giving others their second preferences. It is correspondingly not so good for big parties, especially if they think that the other big party will get more of the second preferences.

This, a pretty good statement of the standard view of life under AV, is true in the short term. But over time, AV could totally transform our party system.

Say that in the constituency of Trumpton, the Red Party has 55% support and the Blue Party 45%. An easy Red win. But there are disagreements among the Reds, and the party splits: now the Crimson Party gets 25%, the Pink Party 30% and the Blue Party 45%. Disaster: a Blue win!

The Reds, however, can see this danger in advance, and so stick together.

But under AV, they can split with less risk to the overall reddish majority. Almost all the Crimson second preferences will go to the Pinks, giving them a win. In nearby Camberwick Green, the Crimsons come out ahead of the Pinks, and while the Pink second choices spilt a bit more evenly, the Crimsons still win there. Likewise, the Blues, who have majority support in Chigley, can split into the Cyan and Azure parties without letting the Reds in.

Back in reality, established parties would try to stay in one piece; inertia will stop significant splits happening for probably an election or two. But if the Labour leadership seriously antagonised its left, or the Tories their right, then you could easily get a sizeable breakaway group, either setting up on their own or merging into an existing smaller party. You wouldn’t want to rule out the Lib Dems rupturing, either.

So AV could give us a political landscape with five or six parties all polling in the 10-25% range. We would always have hung parliaments, but these wouldn’t be based on one smaller centrist party perpetually deciding which of the two bigger ones it’s going to shack up with this time.

The new politics: rebel-rousing media

Never mind the government’s odd hissy fit over Alastair Campbell on Question Time; they’ll all get over it. But there’s a wider point about how media debates will take place in our shiny new era.

One of the novelties of the coalition is a question faced by radio and particularly TV current affairs programmes. In the old days, they could get on representatives from each of the main parties and have a three-way debate. But a coalition makes that tricky.

As Newsnight’s Michael Crick pointed out shortly after the government was agreed, if they have Tory, Lib Dem and Labour spokespeople on, that would be two government supporters united against one person opposing, which would seem a bit off (as well as bad TV).

I think I can see the answer to this: they’ll often end up having one government spokesperson (of either party), one from Labour, and then one disgruntled government backbencher – presumably from whichever party is least happy with the policy du jour. The effect of this will be to keep any Lib-Con tensions publicly simmering.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Of all the talents

In a move clearly designed to take media attention away from the dreary Queen’s Speech, the government has done something very sensible: it’s hired Giles Wilkes, a damnably smart and lucid economics blogger, who will, alas, be blogging no more. This will doubly impair my ability to criticise their economic policies.

Congrats to Giles, goodbye and good luck!

(NB If the new Minister for Sarcasm and Puns is reading this, I’m open to offers…)

Tories miss their cuts target by 10%

The Tories said they’d cut £6 billion of spending this year, and £6bn is what they’re cutting – pledge fulfilled. Right? Wrong. Check the small print.

What was announced yesterday was £6.2bn of cuts, of which £500m is to be used for other spending, leaving a net cut of £5.7bn.

The Tory manifesto proposed “immediate action to cut a net £6bn of wasteful departmental spending in the financial year 2010/11”. So – and never mind the utterly subjective definition of “wasteful” – already they’re £300m under target. What’s more, their manifesto clearly said, twice, that the net £6bn cuts would be “in addition to” several other proposed cuts, including cutting “government contributions to Child Trust Funds for all but the poorest third of families and families with disabled children”.

In fact, they’re scrapping Child Trust Funds completely, which will save £320m. So not only have they had to be harsher on this programme than they said, but it means their first-year net savings excluding this come to just under £5.4bn – or 10% less than they had planned. And the scope for cuts elsewhere is now £320m lower.

Remember how the Lib Dems were going to moderate the Tory urge to cut? Well, maybe this extra harshness was down to them. Their manifesto proposed “scrapping the Child Trust Fund” entirely in this financial year. Alas, they thought they could save £395m from it – so they’ve come in 19% under target on this one. Both parties have already had their numbers fall short.

Cutting spending is harder than you think. It’s harder for them, and it’ll be harder on us.

(NB I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about the redistributive value of CTFs: the scheme gives money – eventually – to young adults, not to children, and with bonuses based on hardship 18 years ago, not at the time of receipt. On the other hand, they are an incentive particularly for lower-income families to save for their children’s future. There’s a feisty discussion chez Hopi.)

Update 27/5: Cameron has just been on the Today programme saying: “We promised 6 billion of spending reductions. We have delivered 6 billion of spending reductions.” Liar.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Oona King for London


The first cuts are the shallowest

Goodbye, Child Trust Funds; adios, the Future Jobs Fund; toodle pip, 10,000 university places… I warn you not to be young?

But Kinnockisms aside, let nobody say that these are just ‘cutting waste’ or ‘efficiency savings’. These are real things that the government does for people. Sorry, used to do. (In fact, the line between ‘bureaucracy’ and ‘front-line services’ is often pretty vague, contrary to the pretence of all parties.)

True, plenty of the £6 billion does fall under the ‘efficiency’ heading, but on closer examination a lot of this comes down to cutting local authorities’ budgets and telling them to either reduce waste or take the blame themselves.

But this sum isn’t vast compared with the size of the economy; it’s smaller even than the margin of error in deficit forecasts. The economy (touch wood) does seem to be strengthening to the point at which cuts on this scale aren’t likely to cause a relapse. They won’t be good for the unemployment figures, though.

If you’re not happy with these cuts, brace yourself; if you do like them, start salivating: there’s much, much more to come.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Topical anagram corner

What are these anagrams of?

Evil cad and cock merging
A dim converged cackling
Vince crackled, going mad

(And don’t say ‘each other’.)

How about these?

Airily told to combine
Allied by ironic motto
Oily mob, rancid toilet

Silly and serious illustrated science

Darryl Cunningham has produced a truly superb cartoon explaining the Andrew Wakefield/MMR saga and what a raw deal the public got out of this whole despicably phoney scare.

Less seriously, but still on a similar theme, the Fake Science blog tickled me pink. Ever wanted to know how magnets attract things or why the dinosaurs died out? Well, wonder no more!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

118 for 1922: Cameron wins and loses

David Cameron’s sudden move to allow ministers to join the normally backbench 1922 Committee has passed, by 168 votes to 118. It was met with surprise and suspicion, but clearly a majority of his MPs didn’t want to humiliate the new PM so soon.

Nonetheless, Cameron has just gratuitously offended 40% of his MPs into defying him. It feels a bit like the massive Labour rebellion in 2001, on whether to remove two ‘awkward’ select committee chairs. That was the portent of further revolts to come.

And now, the 1922 Committee will become a much less clear indicator of the backbench mood; more diffused discontent will be easier to ignore but harder to negotiate with when needed. What’s also likely is that other (Camero-sceptic) factions, such as the Cornerstone and 92 groups, will become more prominent as focuses of criticism.

It’s been a long time since the Tories were last in power; I’d quite forgotten how interesting their backbenchers can be…

Coalition pictures

(1) One of them’s blue, one of them’s orange, and they are clearly not of our kind:

(2) A nice composite by the Telegraph:

(3) While I was looking for (2), I discovered that Google thinks there’s only one Nick for David Cameron…

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why the rush?

It’s crushingly stupid that Labour leadership nominations are going to open (next Monday) and close (next Thursday) so quickly.

The great advantage of having a more drawn-out contest – it’ll go on until September – is that the party has more time to think about its defeat and suss out the contours of the new government. But forcing would-be candidates to decide and gather all their nominations so ridiculously quickly means that MPs, many of whom are new, have to do all this taking stock in just a week. Daft. Pointless.

We need to figure out where we want to go from here, and that’s a more basic question than who we want to take us there.

Update: They've extended the deadline. Good.

Responsible uncertainty

I’m giving a cautious and provisional welcome to the Office for Budgetary Responsibility, the new body that’s going to do George Osborne’s sums for him so he doesn’t try to fake the numbers, like Alistair Darling used to.

While I’m deeply unconvinced that chancellors really have been leaning on Treasury civil servants to come up with more convenient figures, the idea of an arm’s-length body to do this sort of thing – economic forecasts, public finance outlook and so on – sounds pretty reasonable. The numbers may not be any more accurate, but they’ll probably inspire a bit more confidence.

Here are a couple of concerns:

First, because the OBR will be both official and impartial (like a cross between the National Audit Office and the Institute for Fiscal Studies), there’s a risk that it will be seen as a sort of Ministry of Truth, making oracular pronouncements that are swallowed uncritically. I really don’t like the mildly Orwellian-sounding name, implying that it is by definition responsible.

Second, and relatedly, it absolutely must not be a body that says what should or should not be done, even in vague terms (‘bring the deficit down faster’), because decisions on tax rates and public spending are inherently political, not technocratic. The OBR must only be advisory, producing forecasts and evaluating policies against politically given objectives. It will be failing us if it endorses, rather than merely accepts as a given, the chancellor’s fiscal targets.

The Treasury press release seems reassuring on this point:

The OBR will make an independent assessment of the public finances and the economy … The Chancellor will retain responsibility for fiscal policy and will set the fiscal mandate, his target for fiscal policy.

Although of course in practice, Osborne will hope to use OBR assessments as political cover for spending cuts. I expect he’ll act as though its judgements are moral decrees rather than technical advice, and in doing so he’ll try to present his own ideological agenda as apolitical good sense. I hope the OBR won’t be flattered into colluding in this. We’ll have to see how it goes.

But another thing the OBR could usefully do is to transform the way we debate fiscal policy. It might allow us to discuss tax, spending and borrowing more like adults than idealistic-yet-cynical children who long for certainty (even as we scorn any attempt to provide it).

The OBR’s numbers will only have credibility (well, with me, at least) if they’re explicit about uncertainty and the inevitable margin of error in forecasting. OK, a politician might well get skewered for being honest about uncertainty (‘you mean you don’t know?’), but the likes of Alan Budd, the seasoned economist and mandarin who’ll be running the OBR, should be able to handle this.

Look at the Bank of England’s marvellous fan chart projections – literally a picture of uncertainty. The media might prefer clearer figures, but they do often seem to accept this approach and some even make the effort to explain margins of error. The Bank has not only changed the way monetary policy has been made, but also changed the way it’s been communicated. The OBR could help us come to accept uncertainty about tax, spending and borrowing as well.

Again, I’m encouraged. Budd says that he is “not claiming that we shall get the fiscal forecasts right; it is easy to demonstrate that that is impossible. Above all, we shall be emphasising the risks and uncertainties”. And the OBR’s remit will be to “present a range of outcomes around its forecasts to demonstrate the degree of uncertainty” and “confirm whether the Government’s policy is consistent with a better than 50 per cent chance of achieving the forward looking fiscal mandate”.

Will it work out well? I don’t know.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I promise I will do a proper post about economic policy tomorrow...

...but in the meantime:

Thanks, as ever, to Andy Barefoot’s generator.

Think locally, deny vocally

Apparently, last month was the warmest April, worldwide, on record. We’ve also just had the warmest January-April period on record (hat tip).

What politically correct alarmist socialist nonsense. These ‘scientists’ with their ‘data’ can say what they like, but let me tell you it’s been bloody chilly lately and no mistake.

In other news, later today I shall be disproving the second law of thermodynamics by tidying my desk.

The Laws of politics

David Laws, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is not a man to whom you should send a personal letter. If he thinks that blabbing its contents to the press will help him politically, he will. His Labour predecessor Liam Byrne has discovered this, to his embarrassment. I wonder how his new Conservative colleagues will view him after this.

Steve Bell, who seems to be having quite a bit of fun with our new overlords, thinks Laws is a cross between Blair and Thatcher:

Monday, May 17, 2010

Turnout, unemployment, safe seats and marginals

Two things that everyone knows: poorer areas have lower voting turnouts than richer areas, and safer seats have lower turnouts than marginals.

I’ve looked at these effects in this general election: they both exist, but one is much bigger than the other. I used data on 2010 election turnout, 2005 election closeness and the April 2010 Jobseeker’s Allowance claimant count for each constituency in Britain.

The JSA numbers are hardly a perfect guide to unemployment, but they’re all I can find available on a constituency basis, and the result is striking:

The dots are mostly grouped pretty closely around a very clear line; the correlation between unemployment and turnout is -0.76. So some of those most affected by government policy are least likely to vote.

As for the safeness or marginality of a seat, here the correlation with turnout is still significant, but a much more modest -0.45:

There’s still a clear tendency, but the dots are mostly a lot farther from the line of best fit than they are in the unemployment chart. (The correlation between turnout and 2010 majority is a even feebler -0.13.)

So to all those electoral reformers who say that abolishing ultra-safe seats would boost turnout: on these figures, abolishing pockets of high unemployment would boost it even more. And it might even be a good thing in itself.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The new politics: unconventionally lording it

Under the Salisbury Convention, the House of Lords does not block government bills that were included in the manifesto.

How’s that going to work now? Will they apply it to policies that were in either party’s manifesto, or only to ones that were (in one form or another) included in both? What about a policy that’s a compromise between two manifesto pledges?

However, if Phil Cowley (via John Rentoul) is right, then the Tories and Lib Dems should have enough peers to get their way most of the time anyway.

(On Lords reform, the Lib Dem manifesto promised “a fully-elected second chamber” and the Tories’ said they would “work to build a consensus for a mainly-elected second chamber”. Their coalition pact commits them to “establish a committee to bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation”.)

Update: Gosh.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The 55% rule may not get 55% support

The government’s proposal that 55% of MPs would be required to vote to dissolve Parliament is fast becoming the controversy of the week, although there’s still uncertainty floating around. Following my quick thoughts yesterday, I’ve now made a transcript of Lib Dem Lord Rennard explaining the thinking behind the 55% proposal [about 8 mins in, available for another 6 days]:

It was a very brave decision for the Liberal Democrats to go into this arrangement, we think in the national interest, and of course we wanted to know the Conservatives couldn’t cut and run any time they thought they could win a general election. But the Conservatives also said they wanted the surety of knowing the Liberal Democrats couldn’t do the same thing either – cut and run, and try and force an early general election.

I’m still trying to get my head around the fact that he really has come out and openly said that they’re rewriting the constitution to suit their own interests based on the fact that they don’t trust one another. Power doesn’t usually create blind, shameless arrogance quite this quickly.

But here’s another thought: there may not be 55% support for this measure in the Commons, which would surely strip it of any moral credibility.

55% of MPs is 358 (actually 357.5, but I don’t think they allow half votes). Between them, the Tories and Lib Dems have 364. Take out two for the Speaker and a deputy, and they have 362. So only five rebels would be needed to take them below the 55% threshold. Already, there are three:

Three Conservative MPs - Richard Ottoway, Christopher Chope and Charles Walker have raised concerns about it, saying they believe it could be unconstitutional - as it would mean a government that did not have the support of a majority of MPs - 51% - would not fall.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Confidence trick?


‘Ayes, 311. Noes, 310.’ Even before the figures were announced by the tellers, we on the Opposition benches knew that Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government had lost its motion of confidence and would have to call a general election. … A great burst of cheering and laughter rose from the Tory benches, and our supporters in the spectators’ galleries roared with out-of-order enthusiasm.
– Margaret Thatcher, ‘The Downing Street Years’


MPs will not be able to throw out the government unless at least 55% of them vote to do so, under plans agreed by the Conservatives and Lib Dems. The move would protect David Cameron from losing power even if the coalition partners decided to split up.

The Conservatives currently have 306 out of 649 MPs - a 47% share.

All this means it would be impossible for opponents, even if fully united, to muster the 55% needed to oust the government

Update: According to Left Foot Forward, the BBC (and other media) may have over-interpreted this and confused a confidence motion with a dissolution resolution. Either way, the concept of a majority being defeated by a minority is a new one for Westminster.

And this does feel rather as if the constitution is being changed for the convenience of one particular government: this rule would mean the Lib Dems couldn't walk out and support a Labour-dominated government supported by the other parties, and the Tories couldn't just call a snap election at will if they thought they could get a better result. It stops either party ratting on the other, which I'm sure suits them in their agreement, but I'm not convinced that this is what legislation is supposed to be for.

Update 2: I've just seen Chris Rennard, a Lib Dem peer, explain the rationale for this on Newsnight. He was stunningly, shamelessly open about the fact that the government is buggering around with the constitution because it suits the two parties, as otherwise they'd not trust one another.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The big, bad society

What with IDS now resurrected as Secretary of State for Quiet Men, and his having previously run a think-tank called the Centre for Social Justice, and Cameron wanting ‘society’ to take over the functions of the state, an idle thought just struck me:

In the wrong hands, ‘social justice’ could sound very like a euphemism for lynch mobs.

The Thirsk man

I mean no disrespect to Howard Keal, who for all I know is a great guy possessed of myriad virtues, but he may now be the most pointless man in Britain.

The Thirsk and Malton election was postponed after the death of the UKIP candidate, and is now due on 27 May. It’s a new seat, but notionally it’s a pretty safe Tory one, with Labour in second. The Lib Dems, represented by Mr Keal, are third.

Now that the Tories and Lib Dems have a joint programme for government and have each jettisoned parts of their manifestos, I’m not sure what platform he’ll be standing on. A similar difficulty attaches to Anne McIntosh, the Tory candidate, but she has the advantage of being the favourite to win.

This is just the first oddity of coalition politics. There’ll be many more, large and small, to come.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Congratulations and commiserations

The Tory-Lib Dem government that will take shape over the next day or two isn’t something I’m happy about, but it’s certainly not the worst result there could have been. It’s also a perfectly legitimate and fair outcome of this election that so disappointed all three main parties.

So congratulations to David Cameron and Nick Clegg. And good luck to them – there might be a certain grim political satisfaction for me if they were a disaster, but many millions of people rely on government being done well, and they deserve better than anticipatory schadenfreude.

Commiserations, of course, to Gordon Brown and the rest of the Labour party, but also congratulations on avoiding the electoral meltdown that seemed so overwhelmingly likely for most of the past two years. The outgoing government leaves some rotten mistakes behind, but also some bloody good successes. As Cameron rightly and graciously said, “this country is more open at home and more compassionate abroad and that is something we should all be grateful for”.

Nobody has been more of a driving force than Gordon – although Tony Blair also deserves a lot of praise here – in the fight against poverty, here and abroad. It’s a measure of this achievement that the Tories feel obliged to ask us to judge their progress on the same counts. We will.

What’s more, Gordon and Alastair Darling were absolutely the right men in the right place at the right time when the financial crisis hit. Their response was far from perfect, but it was good enough – which is more than can be said for Bush and Paulson, or for Cameron and Osborne. When it really counted, Brown was a far better Prime Minister than he was a party leader.

And if I had two such stunningly adorable kids, I’d have the same priorities as him:

As I leave the second most important job I could ever hold, I cherish even more the first – as a husband and father. Thank you and goodbye.

STOP! Hold everything!

I’ve just discovered an obscure EU health and safety regulation that bans the forming of coalitions by people whose surnames both begin with C.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Sorry, but a Lib-Lab deal is a fantasy

What is this?

Mr Brown's decision to resign was designed to "unlock" a possible coalition deal between Labour and the Lib Dems, says the BBC's political editor Nick Robinson.

Clegg may well loathe Brown more than other possible Labour leaders, but does he really have the stomach for unending ‘Clegg props up another unelected PM’ headlines?

The timetable for Brown to be replaced goes up to autumn. A coalition decision is need this week. If Clegg does a deal with some caretaker leader, he’ll know that his partner risks losing the job within a few months. And very obviously Labour’s views on the coalition it would find itself in would be a key feature of the leadership election.

I guess there’s the idea that Clegg himself could be PM. That was an interesting fancy when his party was in second place in the polls a while back, but now it seems like a tasteless joke. And the Labour party would never wear it.

One reason Labour’s offer to the Lib Dems can’t in practice be as appealing as it might sound is that a good 10-20% of Labour MPs are utterly against proportional representation. With the best will in the world, any Labour leader would struggle to deliver a vote for anything more than a referendum on AV, which the Lib Dems regard as only slightly better than FPTP.

And regardless of who’s Labour leader, to have a majority in parliament, a Lib-Lab deal would need to involve at least another two minor parties. This would be hard to hold together and much likelier to collapse into a second election sooner, at which the Lib Dems would find their right-leaning supporters deserting them for the Tories.

If Clegg is, as reported, really stepping up his discussions with Labour, then either he’s out of his mind or it’s just a bluff to squeeze a better deal out of Cameron, or he’s just putting on a show for his left-leaning, Tory-hating members, so he can say that at least he looked into that option.

I hate to say it, but Cameron will be PM and he’ll get there with some sort of Lib Dem support. Very soon.

(NB My predictions are usually wrong.)

A modest proposal

Brown and Cameron should form a coalition. True, their parties would be mightily disconcerted, but once they realised how much it would piss the Lib Dems off, I’m sure they’d come round.

What’s more, they could charge tourists £5 a go to see the look on Nick Clegg’s face. That’d pay off the national debt in no time.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Mr 3.7%

Factoid of the day: the rise in the Tory vote share that David Cameron achieved across Britain, 3.7%, is exactly the same as the rise in the Labour vote that Neil Kinnock achieved in 1992. (Kinnock had previously increased Labour’s vote by 3.2% in 1987; Tony Blair then added another 9.1% in 1997.)

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Yeah, do a deal, probably. Whatever. Whoever.

You know what I’ve missed? Opinion polls. It feels like a whole couple of days since we last had one, and quite frankly I’m getting withdrawal symptoms – how else are we going to know what government people want???

Populus for the Times obliges, finding that people are split very evenly on most of the conceivable options (except for a Tory-DUP deal, which is strongly disliked).

53% would support a Tory minority government that had the backing of the Lib Dems and 47% would oppose it. 46% would support a full Con-Lib coalition, with 52% opposed. A Labour government “in a formal agreement with the Lib Dems” would get 51% support and 45% against. Ambivalence reigns.

The Times report adds: “The public are evenly split — 43 to 45 per cent — on Gordon Brown remaining as Prime Minister.” It doesn’t say which number is for and which against, but that hardly matters.

Certainly, the common assumption that it would be a popular outrage for the Lib Dems to ‘prop up a decisively rejected Labour government’ appears to be rubbish.

(I still think a minority Tory government with limited Lib Dem support is likeliest.)

A clear result, but no clear outcome

Our current situation, unprecedented in modern times, in which the amount of self-serving hypocritical cant produced has actually increased following an election, has nothing to do with first-past-the-post versus proportional representation.

It’s because, as I keep saying, we think as though we vote for a party to be the government when we actually elect a parliament – whose members then form a government. Usually this mismatch between electoral psychology and constitutional reality goes unnoticed, because one party’s MPs have a majority and so the choice they make in forming a government is automatic, barely a choice at all.

The election result is utterly clear: 649 men and women have each won a mandate to be our MPs. Now they have to put together a government that can command majority support – or at least acquiescence – among them.

Under our system, popular vote share counts for nothing - but even under PR, once it had been used to determine who the MPs are, it would then count for nothing when those MPs were deciding how to align themselves. So all this talk of ‘legitimacy’ amounts only to popularity.

As a Tory friend of mine pointed out, Labour has got a lower vote share than the Tories did in 1997, and obviously then they had no right to govern, so Labour don’t now, either. But on the other hand, the Tories now have a lower vote share than Labour did in 1979, and obviously then… When you start treating vote share as meaning the moral legitimacy rather than merely the popularity of coalition options, you can tie yourself in all sorts of knots.

Yes, the Tories got the highest vote share with 36%. But that means most people voted against them. Labour and the Lib Dems between them got 52%, which is surely much more legitimate. But the Tories and Lib Dems between them got 59% - even better! But then the Tories and Labour together got 65%, so maybe they should get together? Although including the Lib Dems too would take that to a spankingly legitimate 88%! But then why do that when they could bring in the DUP, SNP and so on as well?

It’s just silly. Of course in a democracy popularity has to drive legitimacy, but the way it does that is in determining who gets elected, not what the elected representatives then do.

If we elected parliament and the government separately, this sort of nonsense wouldn’t arise. It’d create other complications, sure, but the separation of powers would mean we could be clear on what an election was for.

A caretaker, not a squatter

There are two constitutional conventions that are being (perhaps deliberately) confused at the moment, most prominently by the Sun’s ‘Squatter holed u in No 10’ headline:

  1. If there’s a hung parliament, the sitting PM gets the first chance to see if he can assemble a majority.
  2. If there’s a hung parliament, the sitting PM remains in post while some sort of arrangement is being made, whether or not that involves him and his party.

Gordon Brown has, very sensibly, waived the first of these. But not the second. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have both said that they want to talk to each other and to others in their parties about what sort of deal they might do, so for Brown to have stepped down already would have undermined all this. It would have either forced Clegg to back Cameron immediately and uncritically, or created an unprecedented vacuum in Number 10.

In the next day or two Brown’s not going to sneakily introduce anything remotely resembling a policy. At the moment he’s just a caretaker.

Cameron will almost certainly be PM – if I had to guess, in an arrangement with the Lib Dems that falls short of a full coalition. They disagree on too much and I suspect Clegg knows that a coalition would risk eating his party alive, as well as giving Labour the chance to monopolise opposition.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Election result leaves cats still cute and funny

I am too tired to write. But not too tired to watch this:

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Sun front page meets Guardian front page

(Oh, and it's been a good couple of days since I plugged my Gilbert and Sullivan Cameron spoof - and don't worry, you can peruse the lyrics without having to listen to any godawful 'singing'.)

A democracy is only as good as its voters


Vote as if you cared. Vote as if your actions had consequences. Vote as if your country depended on it. Vote as if you could sketch the future with two strokes of that pencil. Vote as if it mattered.

Vote as if you mattered. Vote as if it was your birthright. Vote as if you were every bit as worthy as the person in the polling booth next to you. Vote as if you wanted to be part of something greater than yourself. Vote as if you had the courage to make a stand without knowing exactly where it would lead.

Vote as if you wanted to be able to look back on this day and know that you counted.

Vote with wisdom, and if you lack wisdom, vote with instinct.

A democracy is only as good as its voters, so be the best voter you can be.


“There are far fewer children in poverty”

A timely letter in today’s Guardian explains why I’m voting Labour:

David Cameron has argued that "the evidence as well as our instincts" shows that "Britain is broken" and that our social problems are getting worse. He has also claimed that "the Conservatives, not Labour, are best placed to fight poverty". But voters should be clear that the evidence he cites on poverty, worklessness and social mobility is deeply misleading (Tories discover poverty, 5 May).

Comparing Britain now to Britain in 1997, there are fewer children living in relative poverty (and far fewer – less than half the number – in absolute poverty). Figures relating to the "very poorest", the bottom 3% of the income distribution, are statistically problematic, with the Institute for Fiscal Studies cautioning against their use. The percentage of children living in workless households is also lower than in 1997, despite the current recession. Widely cited negative trends in social mobility refer to the difference between those born in 1958 and those born in 1970, who grew up under Margaret Thatcher. The latest figures, relating to children born in 2000-01, suggests that this upward trend has now been stemmed.

Labour inherited extremely high levels of poverty, inequality and social exclusion. Their ambitious strategy to tackle these problems has had an impact; that the impact was not greater does not indicate a failed strategy, but that more of the same was needed. Conservative plans to cut back on successful government programmes such as child tax credits and Sure Start (while simultaneously lowering inheritance tax for the wealthy) will damage precisely those whom Cameron purports to help.

Dr Kitty Stewart, Dr Ruth Lupton
Professor Anne Power
Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, LSE

And then there's this article in today's (Tory-backing) Financial Times:

Life in Britain’s most deprived neighbourhoods has improved during Labour’s time in power, a Financial Times analysis has revealed, casting fresh doubt over David Cameron’s claims that society is “broken”.

The Conservative leader has been forced to tone down his rhetoric about “broken Britain” in the run-up to Thursday’s vote after he was accused of painting a false picture of a crime-ridden country beset by social ills.

Instead, the Tory high command has trained its fire on the poorest towns, arguing that they are a potent symbol of the government’s failure to create a fairer country. In a speech last week, Mr Cameron said “the evidence – as well as our instincts – shows that our social problems are getting worse, not better”.

FT research shows that even the most deprived local authorities have shown signs of improvement over recent years when looking at figures ranging from crime and truancy to teenage pregnancies and children living in unemployed households.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

What rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouches towards Westminster to be born?

Heeeeeeeeere’s Davey!

This monstrous picture first made me think of Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’, but then it made me think of WB Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming’:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Westminster to be born?

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

The Very Model of a Modern New Conservative

This is a bit more ambitious that what I usually do here –in fact, it’s several hundred miles outside my comfort zone – but once I had the idea I couldn’t resist trying. Hopefully, the poor recording quality helps to conceal the lack of tunefulness. [Update: as the consensus is, correctly, that the recording is the worst thing ever, I've taken it down. The lyrics will do.] (With apologies to Gilbert and Sullivan, whose Major-General’s song from The Pirates of Penzance I have of course ripped off, using music from here.)

I am the very model of a modern new Conservative
Of Thatcherism’s image I’m a necessary purgative
Of middle England’s prejudices, I’m still quite affirmative
I’m sure those immigrants can find somewhere that they prefer to live.
I like to ride a bicycle for photo-opportunities
If you doubt I’m a real Tory I can put you soon at ease
I want to spend your money saying marriage is superior
And not (well hardly ever) getting rid of my wisteria.

Our public spending plans are years of jolly, harsh austerity
If anyone survives, there’ll be a furious posterity
For lesser men may find my fiscal policy perturbative
But not this very model of a modern new Conservative.

My modern Tory party is a model of plurality
For rich people of any age or race or sexuality
We have reformed ourselves with an impressive singularity
To look as nice as we need to to win more popularity.
My policies and principles have seasonal variety
My Bullingdon and PR background give me notoriety
I wish I could deny it but they’ve got me bang to rights, you see
And yes, I know precisely what is meant by ‘Big Society’.

I’m silver-tongued and shiny-faced and empathise most cheesily
I charm the lords of Fleet Street quite embarrassingly easily
I am the very model of a modern new Conservative
And adding ‘new’ to ‘modern’s not redundant but superlative.

I’ve Osborne, Clarke and Hague (who sadly wasn’t quite electable)
I’ve Ashcroft, Fox and May (who wears those kitten-heels delectable)
I’ve Hammond, Hunt and Herbert, and I’ve Gove and Grieve and Grayling
I’ve Duncan Smith and Neville-Jones – I just can’t see us failing.
We aim to be the model of a modern Tory government
We’ll hack away at benefits and say we’re ending smotherment
Of paupers who, without handouts, will dance themselves a merry dance
And then we’ll use the proceeds to cut taxes on inheritance.

In my desire for power I’m increasingly hyperactive
You say you want a leader but I think you just deserve a spiv
And so I’ll give you all the bullshit that I’ve got the nerve to give
For I’m the very model of a modern new Conservative!

I’d like to apologise to any notes that I may have accidentally hit during the recording of this song.
(Also: this take-off of Common People is a far, far more professional David Cameron satire song. And if you want to see Gilbert and Sullivan done properly – indeed, superbly – I recommend seeing The Pirates of Penzance at Wilton’s Music Hall in east London, showing until 16 May.)

Three pinheads dancing on an angel

I’d like to echo David Smith’s comment:

The most recent winner in the election campaign was not the Liberal Democrats but the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and its director, Robert Chote. Chotemania has not yet replaced Cleggmania but, by upbraiding all three main parties for their dishonesty over the pain that lies ahead, the IFS has seized the moral high ground.

The IFS has produced a series of papers on election issues, valiantly number-crunching the parties’ proposals. Most notably, they calculate that all three parties have left between three-quarters and nine-tenths of the spending cuts needed for their deficit-reduction plans unexplained.

Clegg, Brown and Cameron bickering about a few billion here and there when they share a mass of (partly inevitable) uncertainty is pathetic. Chote and his IFS colleagues are the angels of our better nature, whispering in our ear that we should concentrate on the vast numbers that will shape our government for the next decade rather than a stupid remark about a pensioner in Rochdale.

Fat chance. With the indulgence of a public that doesn’t want to think about difficult things, our pinheaded leaders are dancing all over such angelic counsel.

Monday, May 03, 2010

I want to fight poverty. I want Labour.

There’s a popular argument that goes something like this:

Blah blah economy schools hospitals deficit crime jobs poverty blah blah. These are all vital issues. What Britain needs above all is proportional representation, so that in the future we can get governments that would do uncertain but wonderful things in all of these areas and others.

I caricature, but there’s a strong flavour of this to the Observer’s endorsement of the Lib Dems:

Nick Clegg's party offers the prospect of political renewal… There is a moral imperative to consider in this election, distinct from the old Labour-Tory contest. Opinion polls throughout the campaign suggest that the country wants the Lib Dems to take a place of equal standing alongside the other main parties. A grossly unfair voting system has historically deprived them of that right. It is vital this time that they win a mandate for real change expressed in the overall share of the vote, not just in the discredited distribution of seats in parliament.
There is only one party on the ballot paper that, by its record in the old parliament, its manifesto for the new one and its leader's performance in the campaign, can claim to represent an agenda for radical, positive change in politics. That party is the Liberal Democrats. There is only one way clearly to endorse that message and that is to vote Liberal Democrat.

Well, I’m not buying it. I’m sympathetic to constitutional reform, but this attitude skates too close to writing off this election, and the coming parliament, in favour of being able to have better ones in the future. But there’s a lot that needs doing now, in the key areas of blah, blah and blah.

This attitude seems akin to that in some Labour circles, of ‘Let’s take some time in opposition to sort ourselves out, let the Tories take the blame for all the cuts’. Bollocks. Yes, governing over the next few years will be pretty tough. But that means the decisions that would be made by the different parties matter all the more.

What would they each do differently? To be honest, it’s hard to say in much detail. The debates were interesting but not really enlightening (other than to people who didn’t know Nick Clegg existed). The manifestos contain some useful pointers but very often they’re written too vaguely to tell how any given policy would work in practice; and even at their best they’re only a limited guide to what a party would end up doing with several years in power.

I rely, as I suspect many do, on a judgement of the parties’ instincts. The Tories still really don’t like the state, and would cut public spending faster and deeper than Labour, with the Lib Dems somewhere in between. And what priorities will they have in deciding who bears the most pain and who gets whatever extra help is available? Here I do agree with the Observer:

Labour's historic instinct is to protect those most vulnerable in a harsh economic climate. Many voters will want to reward that instinct even if it has been poorly expressed by the party's high command.

And I agree with this from the Guardian’s own endorsement of Clegg:

The Liberal Democrats… remain in some respects a party of the middle and lower middle classes. Labour's record on poverty remains unmatched, and its link to the poor remains umbilical.

And the Tories?

I want to give David Cameron, whom I loathe, some honest credit. He has made more than merely presentational changes to his party. On several issues, the Tories are more to my liking than they were five years ago. But their movement towards where I’d a government to be is probably akin to ‘Essex man’s view of Labour in the late 1980s: closer, but still not very warm yet.

There are many things, not least of which is Gordon Brown, that madden me about this Labour government. But I still don’t doubt that it would, in its faltering and timid and way, continue to fight poverty harder and more effectively than the other parties. And while I’m not quite a single-issue nut, that’s the biggest factor for me.

The idea of a Lib-Lab coalition has some appeal; on the environment, civil liberties and the constitution, the Lib Dems are often more to my liking than Labour. And a coalition could be a way to breathe fresh energy into a fairly stale government. It might also be a way to have political reform and egalitarian redistribution.

But the mere sentiment that it’s ‘time for a change’ is empty, so while I can’t say with wild enthusiasm that Brown deserves to win, I am sure that we don’t deserve even a semi-reformed Tory government.

New look

Been meaning to do this for a while. Think this is much cleaner than that yellowy-green colour scheme I used to have.