Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Mandelson’s blinkers and Labour’s trajectory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 27, 2010

Labour’s lost voters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Clegg vs the IFS: reductio ad absurdum

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Office for Distributional Responsibility?

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

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

I would like to protect Osborne from this criticism.

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 20, 2010

Alistair Darling’s deficit speech this week

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

Thursday, August 19, 2010

“I couldn’t agree with Nick”

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

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

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

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

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

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

AV and tactical voting

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

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

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

But the truth is that it does both.

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

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

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

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

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

And those bar charts will become obsolete.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Odds and ends

The Times has a list of ‘100 things you may not know about the first 100 days’ [£]. A few caught my eye.

10 Downing Street is cutting down on “garden girls” — No 10’s administration officials. One insider said there was less need for 4am help since Mr Brown’s departure.

Gordon Brown was criticised for shouting at these women. Much more compassionate to sack them.

53 Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, wanted to list “no top down reorganisations” as a success of his first 100 days. He was stopped by officials.

I wonder whether they actually believe their own PR?

82 Crispin Blunt angered No 10 by suggesting taxpayers should start paying for parties in jail. A Downing Street aide boasted that Mr Blunt was subsequently “bitch-slapped”.

The culture of aggressive, macho briefings against colleagues is dead. Long live the…

Monday, August 16, 2010

Bought t’book

Two things follow from this:

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair is to donate the profits from his memoirs to a sports centre for badly injured soldiers. A spokesman said Mr Blair would hand over the reported £4.6m advance payment plus all royalties to honour "their courage and sacrifice".

First, it will officially be unpatriotic not to buy the thing. Twice.

Second, it sets a bugger of a precedent for any other former prime ministers who may or may not currently be writing their memoirs and who may or may not be as cheerfully loaded as the Blairs.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Lib Dems try to airbrush their support for stimulus

It’s doubly sad to see Chris Huhne attack Labour’s increase in public spending over the last couple of years:

Labour leadership candidates say that spending was not the problem, it was taxes. Nonsense. ... Spending went from 44p in every pound generated by our economy in 2007 to 51p in 2009. Taxes went down by 1p in the pound.

First, an economist such as Huhne should know better. Another Lib Dem economist, former blogger and now government adviser Giles Wilkes, could set him straight. Giles, in his superb paper A Balancing Act, broke down the elements of the deficit and found that the loss of tax revenues accounted for far more of the increased borrowing than did the rise in government spending.

I looked [long-ish piece – a look at the third and fourth graphs should do it] at the Treasury figures and came to the same conclusion: while tax may have fallen by less than spending rose as a share of GDP, the sharp drop in GDP means that this disguises the fact that real spending rose by less than real tax receipts fell.

Second, as is well known, the Lib Dems have found themselves changing some of their pre-election positions (VAT rise, spending cuts this year), but now it seems that the Tories have persuaded them to change their views of the past as well. Because during the recession, the Lib Dems were in favour of more deficit-based spending to stimulate the economy. They disagreed with Labour on the details, but not on the principle.

In November 2008, Vince Cable said: “I hope the fiscal stimulus will work... it needs to be tried. Levers have to be pulled. … There would be massive civil disobedience if the government simply let the recession run its course.” And in March 2009, Nick Clegg said: “We accept that borrowing goes up automatically in a recession. Tax receipts go down; benefit costs go up. But we also accept that you should borrow sensibly on top of that, to try to help. A so-called fiscal stimulus.”

So really the Lib Dems should be demanding apologies from themselves for having supported a bigger deficit. Maybe punishment for this is why the Tories are making them squirm so much.

Relativity isn’t right

The theory of relativity is a mathematical system that allows no exceptions. It is heavily promoted by liberals who like its encouragement of relativism and its tendency to mislead people in how they view the world.

Yes, it could only be Conservapedia, the place where the religious right do battle with reality.

The New Scientist investigates.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where’s Osborne’s axe when you need it?

And so, as the government recoils in terror from a cut that might get some bad headlines, I notice another exemption to the age of austerity (via Catherine Bennett).

Andrew Lansley has replied to the Commons Health Select Committee’s (highly critical) paper on homeopathy. He says that funding of this practice is to continue, despite a mass of scientific advice to the contrary. And why? Simple: “the overriding reason for NHS provision is that homeopathy is available to provide patient choice”.

Yes, you can have homeopathy on the NHS not because it works but because you might want it. You can choose to waste my money on a piece of quackery. Super. So, can you ask for any useless ‘treatment’ at taxpayers’ expense? Well, no. It seems that the power of lobby groups comes into it. Lansley says: “Given the depth of feeling on each side of the debate, it is unlikely that this controversy could be resolved by further analysis of literature or research on the efficacy of homeopathy.”

The “depth of feeling”. Is that peer-reviewed depth of feeling? Have double-blind studies been used to measure how deep these feelings are? Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. So it’s acknowledged that scientific evidence has no bearing on people’s tendencies to fall for the homeopathy industry’s PR, and in light of that, the government will boldly let them spend our money.

But how much money? Alas, we don’t know. The Committee urged Lansley to find out, but he replied that doing so “could well require a disproportionate amount of resource”.

This sits uneasily with David Cameron’s insistence [£] this weekend that “no detail and no sum of waste is too small to escape the microscope of efficiency… we are having a root-and-branch audit of recent public spending”.

Bah. And yes, Labour funded this crap as well. It’s cross-party pusillanimity.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Many happy returns! (The happiness of your returns can go down as well as up.)

There wasn’t a single moment at which the credit crunch started, but today is a good candidate for being its third anniversary – when a major investment bank announced it was having desperate liquidity trouble, and the ECB and the Fed started large-scale support operations.

To mark this, and given that I’m not in a position to write much at the mo, here’s a self-indulgent plug for my old explanation of the credit crunch in words of one syllable. Still just about hangs together, I reckon.

The internet giveth and the internet taketh away

On Saturday my laptop was assailed by a virus that’s stopping me from opening any programs. It’s masquerading as ‘Antivir Solution Pro’, which is a big fat dirty fake, as suggested by the iffy grammar in its offer of help for the problem that it’s causing. I’ve got hold of some instructions on how to purge it from my system, but if that doesn’t work then I’ll be blogging very little if at all in the near future. So you may have to miss out on my potential series of intermittently coherent brilliantly insightful posts on what strategy Labour should adopt over the next couple of years.

On the flipside, the Times website seems to think that I’m a paying subscriber, despite me cancelling my direct debit at the end of the one-month trial, telling them I’d cancelled it and getting an acknowledgement from them that I’d cancelled it. Great business model, Rupert.

Blessed be the name of the internet.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Weapons intelligence misreports

David Cameron says that “Iran has got a nuclear weapon”.

A No 10 source said the PM "misspoke", later adding he had been talking about Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Tony Blair must be kicking himself for not having thought of that one.

Grammatical nuance and scientific methodology

Two distinctions in one:

  • We looked at all the evidence, which supported the hypothesis. (Systematic review; non-defining clause)
  • We looked at all the evidence that supported the hypothesis. (Cherry-picking; defining clause)

Monday, August 02, 2010

Janet and John consult on welfare reform

The DWP has produced an “easy-read” guide to changing the benefits system. These guides have been around for a few years, but I hadn’t seen any before today.

As someone with an unhealthy appetite for policy documents and a desire for more people to be politically engaged, I’m torn between thinking that these are obviously a good idea and rolling on the floor laughing like a smug overeducated git.

We want to help people to get a job and to do well in that job. We also want to look after those people who need a lot of help.

We do not want to give less help to people who really need it. But we need to make sure we are helping the right people.

But first we want people to tell us what they think about these changes. This is called a consultation.

I’m very concerned that the government may be trying to encourage less well-off people to spend their newly earned wages down the pub. I’m also worried that most of the people seem to have been doing so much coke that their entire noses, not just their septums, have been eroded.