Saturday, May 31, 2008

Why the plebs need God to keep them nice

There are two failsafe ways of getting drivel published: the first is to run your own blog (I thank you), and the second is to be a bishop (archly or otherwise).

Michael Nazir-Ali has chosen the latter route, being Bishop of Rochester. His article is a fool’s goldmine, the general spiel being that Western values were built upon Christianity, and that discarding these foundations will lead to selfishness, relativism, the death of the family, violent Islamism and Deal or No Deal.

But in the process of making this argument, he also accidentally undermines it.

Society needs something to unite around, he says, and this “cannot be [done] only in terms of the ‘thin’ values, such as respect, tolerance and good behaviour, which are usually served up by those scratching around for something to say”; he also dismisses “decency and fairness” as “extremely thin gruel and hardly adequate for the task before us”.

Frankly, if everyone did display respect, tolerance, good behaviour, decency and fairness, the world would be dazzlingly better than it ever has been, but Nazir-Ali’s case is that in practice we can’t have these things without some sort of ballast – which can only be provided by religion, i.e. Christianity.

While some acknowledge the debt which Britain owes to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, they claim also that the values derived from it are now free-standing and that they can also be derived from other world-views. As to them being free-standing, the danger, rather, is that we are living on past capital which is showing increasing signs of being exhausted. Values and virtues by which we live require what Bishop Lesslie Newbigin called “plausibility structures” for their continuing credibility. They cannot indefinitely exist in a vacuum.

But a world without supernatural deities isn’t a “vacuum”, it’s a world full of real people with real hopes and dreams and fears and needs and opportunities and relationships. I don’t think that adding theological constructs to common decency does anything other than diminish “plausibility”.

(I find the idea of grounding values in theism to be inadequate and unnecessary, but that’s another story.)

But, as I said, Nazir-Ali undermines his own case. In describing Christianity’s historical role in shaping common values, he notes that a central part of this was driven by “the rediscovery of Aristotle by Europe”:

One of the features of the rediscovery was a further appreciation of the human person as agent by Christian thinkers such as St Thomas Aquinas. They were driven to read the Bible in the light of Aristotle and this had several results which remain important for us today.
One was the discovery of conscience. If the individual is morally and spiritually responsible before God, then we have to think also of how conscience is formed by the Word of God and the Church’s proclamation of it so that freedom can be exercised responsibly. Another result was the emergence of the idea that because human beings were moral agents, their consent was needed in the business of governance.

Aristotle (384-322BC) was neither a Christian nor influenced by Christianity. If his writings could explore the notions of individual moral responsibility and government by consent, then why not look to that rather than Christianity? And if it took the rediscovery of his work for this centuries-old religion to stumble upon these notions, then that doesn’t speak too well of its own internal resources.

Since the Roman Empire decided to co-opt Christianity, moral thought in Europe has had to take place in the context of that religion – its position of political dominance explains its influence at least as much as its theological merits. In many ways, it came to act as the repository of the (sometimes brilliant) thinking that took place on its watch.

But things have gone wrong; society is fragmenting. The Bishop blames the 1960s:

Callum Brown has argued that it was the cultural revolution of the 1960s which brought Christianity’s role in society to an abrupt and catastrophic end. He notes, particularly, the part played by women in upholding piety and in passing on the faith in the home. It was the loss of this faith and piety among women which caused the steep decline in Christian observance in all sections of society.

Yep, pesky women. With their wanting to be free to think for themselves and spreading this monstrous idea, it’s all women’s fault – it goes right back to that bitch with the apple.

Nice. As is Nazir-Ali’s rueing “the destruction of the family because of the alleged parity of different forms of life together”. We all know what that means. And “alleged parity” is a pretty good paraphrase of Section 28’s distaste for “the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. Lovely.

The upshot is that we’re now in a “moral and spiritual vacuum”, and in public debate “crude utilitarianism, public approbation or revulsion (the so-called yuck factor) or the counting of heads are being found increasingly unsatisfactory” as grounds for ethical discussion. So we need Christianity to take a much bigger role in public life.

But that sounds like “crude utilitarianism” to me: support the Church not because it has the truth but because its prominence is socially useful. Crude, and no longer even remotely true.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

CJ to Bush’s Bartlet

Scott McClellan, George Bush’s former Press Secretary, has spilled some beans. No, not down his shirt, but in a memoir. He’s critical, but tries almost painfully to avoid attacking Bush himself.


“I still like and admire President Bush,” McClellan writes. “But he and his advisers confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war. … In this regard, he was terribly ill-served by his top advisers, especially those involved directly in national security.”


“Over that summer of 2002,” he writes, “top Bush aides had outlined a strategy for carefully orchestrating the coming campaign to aggressively sell the war. … In the permanent campaign era, it was all about manipulating sources of public opinion to the president's advantage.”

It’s easy to happen. “Boys, we need to be highly candid and honest with the public during this time of war.” “Yes, sir. We’ll immediately get going on a propaganda campaign to manipulate sources of public opinion to your advantage.” “Good stuff. Now where are my golf clubs?”

And, in a way, McClellan blames the media for Iraq:

“If anything, the national press corps was probably too deferential to the White House and to the administration in regard to the most important decision facing the nation during my years in Washington, the choice over whether to go to war in Iraq.
“The collapse of the administration’s rationales for war, which became apparent months after our invasion, should never have come as such a surprise. … In this case, the ‘liberal media’ didn’t live up to its reputation. If it had, the country would have been better served.”

And, bafflingly:

McClellan... relates a phone call he overheard Bush having during the 2000 campaign, in which he said he could not remember whether he had used cocaine. “I remember thinking to myself, 'How can that be?'” he writes.

Effects of cocaine include shortened attention span, twitching, paranoia, impotence and shortened attention span.

‘Feckless sluts for consequence-free sinning’

Jesus and Mo take on the pro-choicers.


I’ll not be paying much attention to Euro 2008, what with Ingerland being out of it.

If I want to see a bunch of foreign players running around a pitch, I’ll watch the Premiership.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Labour’s predicament

More questions than answers, I’m afraid…

Is Brown really the problem?
Labour’s underlying unpopularity pre-dates Brown’s accession to Number 10. The Iraq war more or less marked the point at which the Government stopped being able to shrug off mistakes and failures and attacks and sheer bad luck. Blair’s political skills only grew in his last couple of years, but by then he’d lost the ability to reap popularity from the use of those skills; by contrast, the Tories finally got themselves a leader who had the skills needed to draw support away from Labour.

For a brief while, Brown pulled Labour out of the hole, but then the ground next to the hole gave way and the result is now an even bigger hole. Thanks to his own cock-ups and singular lack of presentational talent, he’s now a significant part of the problem.

Can Brown change?
This is really three questions rolled into one, and two of them are beside the point. (a) Can Brown change who he is? Of course not. (b) Can he change the way he acts as PM? Probably, but only to a degree. The question that matters electorally, though, is: (c) Can he change the way he is perceived? And the answer is surely: not much, not any more. It would take a national crisis dwarfing the upsets of last summer – and for him to handle it very well – for that sort of shift to happen. Doesn’t seem likely. So…

Should Labour get rid of Brown?
There has been a torrent of commentary this month about whether he should go; a majority of what I’ve read thinks either yes, ASAP, or probably, later in the year. But a surprising proportion of these columns and blog posts don’t suggest who should replace him, nor do they have all that much to say about what a new Labour leader should do to regain popularity.

I suspect that things won’t really get any worse for Labour under Brown. But there may not be much scope for them getting better, either. If his personal image is now irreversibly tainted then whatever he does won’t count for much. I’m not sure how big an if that is, but it’s been getting smaller with every month that’s passed since October.

But getting rid of him could be very costly. A full frontal challenge, with or without a candidate starting at its head, would leave blood all over the floor; it also seems unlikely, now that Brown’s survived this weekend with the Cabinet rallying round him. And another new PM mid-term? Wouldn’t it make the Parliamentary party look ridiculous to abandon the man they overwhelmingly backed just last year?

Why and how would he go?
What would be the reason given for turning on Brown? Just his poor poll ratings and lack of charisma? That might work for the Lib Dems (though I’m not sure it does), but for a governing party to try that would be met with contempt.

Martin Kettle asks: “who is going to be Labour's Geoffrey Howe?” But Howe’s attack on Thatcher, which brought about her downfall, was not about personality or popularity; it was about serious policy differences on Europe and how she managed her Government. A challenger would need a substantive, ‘legitimate’ critique of that sort.

If Brown were to stand down himself, presumably after discreet yet ‘full and frank’ discussions with his Cabinet and former backbench supporters, that would make things smoother. It also seems likelier – although maybe not by that much.

Either way, the pressures for a general election within a few months would be immense, so the new leader might have little time to make an impression. That could be either a handicap or an opportunity to make virtue of necessity and go for an all-guns-blazing ‘big push’.

But it’s hard to do a cost-benefit analysis when you only know what half of the ‘replace Brown’ plan involves.

Who would take over?
There’s talk of Alan Johnson or Jack Straw as a ‘caretaker’, to lead the party to as limited a defeat as possible, whereupon the younger generation could get to work on rising from the ashes. That won’t work. An opposition party can get away with putting in a caretaker leader if all that’s expected of it is to improve a bit on its previous poor showing – as with Michael Howard. But for a Government to do that would be rightly seen as running up the white flag.

To stick with a perceived loser can be understood as being due to inertia and loyalty, and with Brown you get the sense that he’d willingly fight the Tories to his dying breath. But to go to all the trouble of replacing him with someone who’s seen, even before the start of his candidacy, as someone intended to steady nerves and lose gracefully… what would be the point? What value a safe pair of hands if the ball has already been dropped? The defeat might be more graceful but it’d be no less big.

So there’s the younger generation of ‘bright young things’. If one of them thinks they can turn things around for Labour, then best of luck to them. Maybe one of them could (David Miliband seems by far the most credible). But if they think they can’t, then why would they want to captain the post-iceberg Titanic?

But then what?
And the bigger question remains: what would any new leader do to deal with the underlying dislike of this government that’s been growing since 2003? A personable face is important but no substitute for a political-governmental strategy.

How can Labour win?
This is perhaps the fundamental question that all the others lead up to. But it’s actually the wrong question, for two reasons. First of all, it’s mesmerising. Labour supporters look at the Tory poll leads, at the mass graves of their local Labour councillors, at last week’s byelection swing and at Mayor Johnson, and try to imagine what might possibly be able to overcome all of this. They stand, like deer in the headlights, paralysed beyond muttering words like ‘change’ and ‘listen’. Some trot out a prefabricated list of their own pet policies, but I’m not sure they really think they have a workable plan for scaling the mountain. I know my own list isn’t one.

So forget about trying to do something called ‘winning’ – the concept is just too daunting. This brings me to the second reason: there isn’t a qualitative difference between ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ a general election. There are degrees. Show me any opposition leader or any Prime Minister who wouldn’t prefer to have another dozen MPs. The phrase ‘fight for every vote in every seat’ is a tedious mantra, but that’s what needs to be done. Not trying to ‘win’, but trying to maximise Labour’s vote and get as many seats as possible. If that still leaves the party in opposition, so be it; at least no effort will have been spared. But trying to do something that seems impossible means that people’s hearts won’t be in it and that the strategy will be feeble and clumsy.

What chance is there?
I don’t know whether Labour can manage to get a majority in (presumably) 2010. Maybe not: it looks less likely than it did even two months ago. But the party is much less divided than the Tories in the mid-1990s, and it hasn’t been as far behind nor for as long. So opinion is not as firmly settled as it was in 1995 – there’s more scope for a comeback, at least of sorts. Perhaps there could be enough innovation to make people really think again about Labour. The economic slowdown may be briefer and milder than feared. The Tories will make mistakes, some of which may be serious; certainly, the constructive ambiguity in many of their policies will come under more critical attention.

The only way to know how much ground can be recovered is to go for it.

Finally, a question that makes all the above look petty. It’s one for Brown, for the ministers talked about as successors, for the anxious backbenchers: imagine, just hypothetically, that you wake up tomorrow morning to find that you have two years in government ahead of you.

What do you want to achieve?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Last in, first out

Chris makes a very interesting argument:

Migrant workers have accounted for a disproportionate proportion… of the rise in employment since 1997. … And as the economy cools and jobs are destroyed, it's these jobs that'll go. This is partly because newly-created jobs tend to be more unstable and prone to destruction than older ones, and partly because migrants have filled jobs in cyclical sectors that are most vulnerable to a downturn…
So, the coming downturn could look different from its predecessors. It'll take the form not so much of voters (and their friends and neighbours) losing their jobs - though this'll happen to some extent - but of Poles going home.

We (that slippery pundit’s word) no longer favour a managed economy, but still hanker for something called ‘managed immigration’. Well, a freer and more globalised market means freer international labour mobility; the invisible hand beckons the Polish builders in and then it ushers them out again.

If Chris is right, it also means that such a loss of jobs won’t have as bad an effect on the public finances as a slowdown in which the people who become unemployed all then go onto Jobseekers Allowance.

Furthermore, to the extent that migrant workers send remittances home rather than spending their earnings here, their absence (and that of their jobs) would have less of a knock-on effect on the rest of the economy.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Crewe and Nantwich: comparisons and consequences

In the 1992-97 Parliament, there were three byelections in Conservative seats where Labour was placed second. Labour won them all, on swings of 29.1% (Dudley West, Dec 1994), 22.1% (Staffs SE, Apr 1996) and 17.2% (Wirral South, Feb 1997) – an average swing of 22.8%

Yesterday in Crewe and Nantwich, the Tories won on a swing of 17.6%. Not quite up to early Blair standards, but definitely getting into the ballpark.

Yesterday’s result has made the predictable waves – it’s being reported as something revolutionary, and even as professional a poll-watcher as Mike Smithson has been inspired to come off the fence and predict a Tory majority at the next election.

I don’t think this result tells us anything we didn’t already know, just as the council results earlier in the month only added to an increasingly clear picture of Labour unpopularity. But, as I said about those results, this byelection will ‘send a message’. Not to the Government – if they don’t know they’re unpopular by now then they never will – but to other voters. The result, and the breathless ‘first-time-in-30-years’ coverage of it, will communicate the message that real people are now willing to switch from Labour to Tory in a real Parliamentary election.

There’s a demonstration effect at work: once people see that others really are voting for a previously unpopular party, then their own willingness to do so will increase. Expect a further Tory poll boost, at least in the short term.

This means that anything remotely ‘relaunchy’ from Brown will be completely disregarded if it takes place during Cameron’s current afterglow. Cameron, on the other, hand, would be well advised to unveil something that looks serious, sober and substantial while he has this extra burst of sunshine. Triumphalism, while understandable, would be a mistake.

Timing and impact

I meant to blog about this a week ago – which, given the subject of the post, is apt.

Last Wednesday, Gordon Brown set out his draft Queen’s Speech – an innovation he’s used for the second year running, which involves outlining the bills he expects to be in the Queen’s Speech proper several months on.

I’ve nothing against setting proposals out early for consultation, but politically this is obtuse.

When you’re in government, if you want to create an impact with the public (via, inevitably, the media), you should minimise the time between announcing and implementing your policies.

A long gap means that announcements will get less attention, because they relate to so far off in the future – right now, they’re just not relevant. And when that future time does come around, you’ll get less coverage for the implementation because it’s just not news any more, is it? You announced that ages ago.

The exeption to this rule is for controversial proposals, which from the first time they’re floated start to attract flak. The prime example of this is ID cards, which for some years now have existed primarily as an occasional dripping of government statements of intent and a torrent of mostly hostile commentary. Sure, it gets a lot of attention, but the attention isn’t maybe the sort that was desired.

The way to maximise coverage of a policy that you want to get attention is to go for a big initial burst with a sense of urgency – the craftiest way of stringing this out is to contrive the policy’s passage through Parliament to be slow and complex, meaning that delays officially aren’t your fault. Usually you need the help of a dull-witted yet angry opposition to do this.

(Tsk, look at me: blogging about presentation rather than substance. I feel dirty now. I’ve become everything I’ve always hated. Oh well…)

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Clegg’s incentivising incoherence

Ah, Nick Clegg. All the gravitas of Charles Kennedy, all the panache of Ming Campbell. But hey – he’s young and he’s southern and he’s dry! And he’s definitely not David Cameron (although if you squint…)

Clegg’s been having fun this week. First, he lets it be hinted to the Telegraph that he’d support the Tories in a hung Parliament – which of course is to position his party rightwards and to align his party with theirs.

This can only be part of an ingenious strategy to make the Lib Dem vote collapse in the Crewe and Nantwich byelection, and – cleverly thinking longer-term – to make rightish Lib Dem waverers drift over to the Tories and push leftish ones away to Labour. Smart.

And then, Clegg gave a speech on tax:

We already have a radical tax package, cutting the basic rate of income tax to just 16p, to make work really pay for everyone.
And scrapping the unfair council tax, which hurts the poorest the most. … Removing this unfair tax and replacing it with a fair local income tax will massively shift the tax burden away from the poor…
It’s absolutely vital that we make these tax changes if we want to make work pay.

Hmm. I happen to think there’s not a bad case for some sort of local income tax, although given that wealth inequalities are greater than income inequalities, this may not be the pro-poor no-brainer he imagines. But my point is that he contradicts himself. He wants to cut income tax to “make work pay” – but is it only nationally levied income tax that affects work incentives? Why would a local income tax not have exactly the same effect?


He also discusses tax credits. These are a real curate’s egg of a policy. They do achieve a lot of redistributive good – neither the Lib Dems nor the Tories dare to talk of scrapping them – but they’re far too complex both to claim and to administer. And as they’re means-tested, there’s also an issue of work incentives, which is Clegg’s point:

At the moment, for every pound you earn over and above six thousand, at least 31p is lost in tax and National Insurance. But for many, because of the loss of tax credits and means tested benefits like Council Tax benefit, much more is lost. 1.8 million people face an effective tax rate of more than 60%. For the worst affected, the tax rate can be 90p in every pound.

So the Lib Dems would do… er… he doesn’t quite say. In the middle of a passage on public spending and waste, he suggests in an offhand way that they’d “scale back tax credits”. For a little more detail, we need to look at the policy document the Lib Dems approved at their last conference: “Better targeting of tax credits to those on low incomes, by increasing the taper rate.”

Hmm. The taper rate, if there’s any doubt, is the rate at which tax credits are withdrawn as income rises. So what the Lib Dems would do to deal with the high effective marginal tax rates would, yes, make them affect fewer people. But those people taken out of the taper rates will be the better-off ones; the ones who remain will be those lower down the income scale. That’s all well and good if you’re focusing on giving money to them – but it does mean that and the marginal rates these poorer people face will be increased.

This is the trade-off of means-tested benefits: the more people you give them to, the less you can target them on the poor; but the more you concentrate on the poor, the higher the withdrawal rate has to be. And the chief bugbear of Clegg’s speech was not the level of credits received by the poor, but the effective marginal tax rates they pay – which this policy would worsen.

Double piffle.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

20 weeks… later?

How would a Conservative-majority Commons have voted on the proposed 20-week abortion limit that was heavily defeated yesterday?

It was a free vote, but there are nonetheless huge party differences:

  • 62% of Tory MPs voted for 20 weeks and 18% against.
  • 12% of Labour MPs voted for 20 weeks and 70% against.
  • 21% of Lib Dem MPs voted for 20 weeks and 67% against.

If we assume that the Tories make gains at the next election off Labour and the Lib Dems in proportion to how many seat those two parties currently hold, assume the other parties stay the same, take into account boundary changes, and assume that party MPs continue to split in the same proportions on the issue…

A Tory majority of 38 will mean more MPs backing 20 weeks than opposing it.

Sharing the proceeds, eroding the public

As a response to David Cameron’s speech on tax and spending, I think Hopi’s is pretty much unimprovable (especially the last three words). That said, Steve Richards is pretty good (less satirical), as is Danny Finkelstein (more sympathetic).

It seems that if Cameron really means what he says about choice in public services and dealing with social breakdown, then tax cuts wouldn’t be possible in a first term. My personal opinion (the rest of what I write being, of course, The Absolute Truth) is that Cameron and Osborne simply would not go into a re-election campaign without having cut taxes – which means that something else will have to give.

But what really does deserve closer attention than it gets is this “sharing the proceeds of growth” business. The theory, briefly: the economy grows, meaning that you can increase public spending in cash and even real terms while letting public spending decline as a proportion of GDP, thus making room for tax cuts as well as spending increases. Some have suggested this is mathematical sleight of hand, but it isn’t. On its own terms, it works. Further, you can quibble with the phrase itself (surely the private sector produces growth, the proceeds of which the Government then shares via tax and spending – the Cameron doctrine calls for less of this).

The problem is deeper, and indeed another Cameron innovation explains why. He has taken care to reposition the Tories as concerned not just about absolute poverty but also relative poverty (although many of us will wonder how much effort the party used to put into fighting even absolute poverty). They now accept, we’re told, that it’s possible to become absolutely better off while still becoming relatively poorer, and that this matters.

So be it. “Sharing the proceeds of growth” means that the state will become relatively poorer. The quality of the services that it can offer will dwindle relative to those in the public sector; so will the calibre of employees it can attract. This point applies, of course, not just to the public sector proper but also to the services that the state may contract out to businesses and charities, as these have to be paid for by the relatively dwindling public services budget.

The result will be that the state – and any entity funded by the state – will gradually have to do less and less to meet people’s rising expectations in what it does do, or else provide increasingly unsatisfactory standards. Public services will come to be seen, and come to be, poor-quality and for poor people as the better-off buy their way out.

Conservatives used to want to slash public services; now they merely want to erode them. That’s progress, I suppose.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Stupidest Parliamentary quote of the week

And what a week. I’m well aware that this choice precedes the abortion debate, but I’m confident it won’t be bettered.

From Dominic Grieve, Shadow Attorney General, in the ‘saviour siblings’ debate:

We are embarking on a new field of ethical activity - the creation of human beings specifically for the genetic benefit of others.

That’s reproduction. Try reading The Selfish Gene…

The sanctity of human life

I’m very glad that the Commons has voted so strongly against a ban on hybrid embryos. I think that medical research with potential to help people with terrible illnesses is immeasurably more important than the oft-shrieked ‘sanctity’ of… well, what exactly?

(Images from The Visible Embryo website.)

The first one is a 13-day-old embryo; the second is 16 days old. The HFE Bill would mean any hybrid embryos created for harvesting stem cells from couldn’t be kept past 14 days. I haven’t actually said that these images are of human embryos; indeed, they are. I’m guessing that most readers lack the expertise to tell by looking. Perhaps that tells us something.

Anti-abortionists like to put a lot of weight on images that show ‘unborn children’ actually looking childlike – you can see their little hands and faces and so on. These clumps of cells are somewhat different. The 13-day embryo is 0.2mm long – in old money, that’s under a hundredth of an inch. The 16-day embryo is 0.4mm – nearly one-sixtieth of an inch.

Hardly “Frankenstein proportions”. Nor, I suggest, are these people with rights in any way.

Tory MP Edward Leigh, moving the ban on this research and trying to explain why 14-day embryos are so vitally important, accidentally explained why this is much less of an issue, when he argued in the Commons last night:

I was today e-mailed by a scientist, who told me that I had got it wrong and that I should not worry about admixing animal and human embryos because we have a large number of animal genes. He told me that I was 30% a daffodil and 80% a mouse. I am not sure that even my greatest political enemies would say that I was 30% a daffodil and 80% a mouse. I do not believe, with my soul or my brain, that I am 80% a mouse or 30% a daffodil. I think that the human race is special and different from the animal race, and that we should take the issue seriously for that reason.

The curious thing here is that he’s right (except for the soul bit; they don’t exist). Whatever our genetic commonality with other creatures, we are quite unique on Earth in being capable of self-conscious reasoning, feeling, decision-making, reminiscing, planning and social interaction of a cognitive and emotional complexity that leaves the finest chimps in the dust; we are capable of art, science, politics, blogging and more. This is why we’re special.

But a 14-day embryo can’t do any of these things. The 14-day point may be significant as neural cells haven’t yet started to differentiate. Before that, the embryo can have precisely no mind at all. A retarded ant is Shakespeare, Einstein and Churchill rolled into one next to the ‘monstrosities’ that this part of the Bill covers.

All such an embryo has in common with us is DNA, which is precisely the commonality Leigh dismisses.

This does not, as one BBC reporter said last night, pit ‘science’ against ‘the sanctity of human life’. Rather, scientific progress using these embryos is what could help make many actual human lives that bit more – in a slightly woolly secular way, of course – sanctified.

A good result.

[Update: I realised I managed to get the imperial conversions wrong by a factor of ten. For instance, 0.4mm is not about a sixth of an inch but about a sixtieth. Oops. Have changed in the above.]

Monday, May 19, 2008

And no spasming grannies, please…

Hopi is right. The Crewe and Nantwich byelection has produced far more ‘Crewe’ puns in the media than any post-industrial society should ever need.

Let’s put an end to it. From now on, all puns relating to this byelection should be plays on the word ‘Nantwich’.


Thursday, May 15, 2008

A ten-pence piece: (2) the policy

(See here for part 1 – the politics.)

Not all that bad, actually. It’s simple to implement and to understand. It gives a lot of people a bit of extra income just as the economy could do with some stimulation. It doesn’t throw any of this money at the rich. While it doesn’t make up for all the income lost by all the people affected by the 10p abolition, it does cover 80% of them fully and the rest on average have their losses halved. Among the gainers, indeed, will be the hard-up working families with children who were the target of the tax credit rises that the 10p abolition paid for.

(The Institute for Fiscal Studies judged that the measures in the 2007 Budget would overall take 200,000 children out of poverty, the autumn 2007 Pre-Budget Report another 100,000 and the 2008 Budget a further 250,000 {click through to the PPT presentations]. Politically, the Government has been all over the place and it’s made some serious policy blunders but underneath all that its anti-child poverty zeal is undimmed.)

But it costs money: this week’s changes will be £2.7 billion this year. As Peter Riddell puts it: “This means either higher taxes or lower spending since higher borrowing cannot be continued.”

Chris Dillow, though, disagrees, saying that this can, will and should come from higher borrowing:

Mr Darling is striking a blow against the tired cliché that chancellors must be fiscally prudent. …
This would take Mr Darling's planned borrowing this year to £45.7 billion. That means net debt could get very close to the 40 per cent of GDP limit that Mr Brown set back in 1997; the Treasury forecast in the Budget that it would be 39.8 per cent of GDP in 2010-11.
Isn't this reckless? Many commentators say it is. But there is only one man whose opinion really matters. And he doesn't care.
That man is Mr Market. Long-term real interest rates - longer-dated index-linked gilt yields - are less than 1 per cent. The market is therefore content to lend to the Government at rock-bottom rates. And if the market is offering Mr Darling the chance to get out of trouble cheaply, why shouldn't he take it?

I can’t say I’m quite so sanguine as Chris – better for public debt to be lower – but at the moment, given the choice between a couple of extra billion of higher taxes, spending cuts and raised borrowing, I guess I’d take the borrowing. £2.7bn is less than 0.2% of GDP.

But there’s something else on this point. Mentioned towards the end of an FT piece on the policy comes this:

The Treasury seems to be counting on the economy staying strong and on September’s scheduled large revision to the measurement of financial services in national income, which will raise the measured level of GDP by close to 1.7 per cent, making its [debt] rules easier to hit.

This was news to me. Quick, to the bat-web! According to the Office for National Statistics [PDF]:

European regulation instructed EU member states to introduce the allocation of ‘Financial Services Indirectly Measured’… into their GDP statistics… The effect of doing so raises the level of GDP. The UK… plans to introduce FISIM into the GDP series… [in] September 2008.

Another ONS paper suggests that making this change would increase GDP by about 1.7%. Not a statistical trick to make things look better than they are, but a genuine reassessment so that we can see the economy is bigger than we thought it was.

A 1.7% revision of GDP would mean that the 40%-of-GDP debt rule effectively becomes 40.7% of what we thought GDP was. Not a big change, but a little more breathing room. Handy, as the IFS reckons there’s a 50-50 chance of the 40% rule being breached, in which event the sky would fall in the Government would be criticised. For context, public debt was nearly 44% of GDP back in 1997.

A ten-pence piece: (1) the politics

(See here for part 2 – the policy.)

Lamentable. The government won’t get any credit at all for this week’s raising in personal allowances, just as it didn’t get any for the cutting of the basic rate or the increasing of tax credits last year; the difference is that this time it doesn’t deserve any.

The fact that Alistair Darling kept using the word “compensated” in his statement shows that the government has been forced into accepting the narrative that abolishing the 10p rate was somehow an illegitimate. ‘Compensation’ is what you give people when you’ve wronged them.

The move is made from a position of visible weakness, so the best political result for Labour will be a few days of ‘U-turn’ headlines followed by the stopping of the bleeding. But this self-inflicted wound will take some time to heal. In one inexplicable move, Gordon Brown managed to blow most of his (justified) reputation as a pro-poor redistributionist. Recovering from that will be very tough.

(Also inexplicable is the failure of more Labour MPs to kick up a fuss back in March 2007, when a quicker and easier resolution would have been possible. It’s said that they didn’t want to mess things up as Brown was cruising towards the leadership, but surely there were a good number of ‘ultra-Blairites’ and Campaign Group types for whom this wouldn’t have been an issue?)

Although it’s noteworthy that at PMQT yesterday, David Cameron’s main attack on Brown was scattershot, mentioning the 10p affair as one of a string of issues – so presumably he thinks there’s now not much political mileage in it.

This change is supposedly temporary, for one year; Darling also said, though: “For future years our aim is to continue the same level of support for those on lower incomes”. In practice, it will be politically near-impossible to actually cut personal allowances back again next year, so this is surely here to stay.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Still too busy to blog

But not quite too busy to comment. On Danny Finkelstein’s look at the latest shift in opinion polls. (I reference another recent column of his, which can be found here.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Move along, nothing to see here

Actually, I’ve got lots going on. Flat-hunting, friend’s-wedding-preparing-for, work work work, and so on. Just none of it productively bloggable. Anyway, it’s sunny. Stop reading this and go out.

Hopefully a bit more normal next week.

(This is good. So’s this.)

Friday, May 02, 2008

This is a local election for local people

I won’t try a proper political post-mortem, particularly as the corpses are still dropping (and some unexpectedly rising from the grave), but here are a few extremely idle thoughts on my local experience:

  • I’d forgotten how much I love counts. Even though people’s hopes and dreams are competing to avoid destruction, it’s all very good-natured. Election days generally seems to be the best way of making political opponents get on well. And there really is something mesmerising about watching ballot papers being counted into piles by someone who’s really good at it.

  • Although it does seem to take for-bloody-ever to get from a fully counted set of ballots to the announcement of a result.

  • A lot of Tories are lovely people. I mean, obviously they’re evil, but they’re quite nice with it. Especially the ones that know full well they’re not even coming anywhere near second place – although that generalises across parties. I like the mindset that takes futility and turns it into a sanguine cheerfulness.

  • The Lib Dems have a fair bit of talent. I mean that not in the highbrow political analysis way, but rather in the crude, slack-jawed, objectifying way. Sorry. Doubtless they’re lovely people too, and with fine ideas on transport policy.

  • Respect activists, or Left List or Listing Leftovers or whatever the faction that does and/or doesn’t have Galloway in it, are a bit odd. When one of their candidates mutters that the proceedings of a local election are a “charade” and another talks about “all three parties”, you have to wonder what they’re in it for.

  • Personal votes don’t accrue automatically: in the ward where my parents were standing, there was a City Council election and a County Council byelection. The City seat was being defended by a Lib Dem who’d held it for ten years; the County seat was being contested by a Lib Dem who hadn’t lived in the area long and had never stood for election before. The Libs both won (my folks were both pretty good seconds), but the stalwart got just ten votes more than the neophyte. One personal vote per year of service – just enough to fill a nomination form. Conversely, in another ward, the city’s first ever Green won by sheer dogged personal effort put in over years.

  • Democracy is a wonderful thing, both in theory and in practice. Reams have been written about how it develops and the conditions needed for it to survive, but I think it boils down to one thing: the willingness on all sides to be a good loser. Isn’t that right, Bob?

Thursday, May 01, 2008

God, I love the smell of voting in the morning…

I adore voting. It’s nothing to do with whether my candidate’s likely to win, nor even the fact that democracy is wonderful and all that. It’s just the experience of it.

The party tellers (been there, done that, of course) are unfailingly polite and mutually cooperative. You could sit Brown, Cameron and Clegg outside a polling station with notepads and I guarantee they’d be friends within a couple of hours.

The ballot paper, with its surprising middle names and hitherto-unnoticed minor parties. The faux-private ‘booth’. The wonderfully archaic stumpy pencils on municipal string.

And the ballot box itself. What a piece of design. Plain, calm, solid, no-nonsense.

My best voting experience ever was for the European Parliamentary election in 1999. It was on the day of my last final and, being at Oxford, I had to dress like a posh tit. The informal tradition added to this look is that you wear carnations to your exams: white for the first, pink for the middle ones and red for the last. This meant that end result was that on the dot of 7.00am (dread and panic were regularly waking me before 6), I strode into the polling station down the road in full sub fusc with a Labour-coloured flower on my lapel.

I was the first voter of the day – the tellers were just setting up their chairs and my ballot paper was the first one torn off – and my outfit and timing clearly caused a bit of bemusement. But they were ready.

Then I went off to find some breakfast, half-heartedly cram, sit a rotten exam and get smashed.

This morning, though, I’ve had the unlikely pleasure of voting for both of my parents.