Thursday, September 30, 2010

Beeb says sorry for compulsive commentary

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

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

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

Monday, September 27, 2010

Better Eds than Red

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

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

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A terrible result

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 23, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 20, 2010

Then Kew!

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

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

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

Labour strategy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Labour, cuts and growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

The big political question is how quickly to cut spending.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Behead those who insult atheism!

Oh dear:

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

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

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Love it:

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

Sunday, September 12, 2010

How the leadership candidates come across

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 09, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

“Who controls the past controls the future”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 04, 2010

No UK debt crisis, part 89

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

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

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

Friday, September 03, 2010

The Hague ‘scandal’: a personal statement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did, however, once wear a baseball cap.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

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

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

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

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

“Evidence”? “Research by the BBC”?

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


Wednesday, September 01, 2010

A Journey Into The Past

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

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

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