Chris Huhne has got a terrible lion up his end

May 15, 2011

Chris Huhne briefing lobby journalists

Chris Huhne is right in it, if reports in the Sunday Times and Mail on Sunday are to be believed. This is from the Staggers blog on the New Statesman:

Following last week’s story that Huhne asked an associate to accept penalty points he incurred for a speeding offence in 2003, the papers have followed up with the fresh claim that Huhne recently called the person involved to warn them not to talk to the media about it.

In what the MoS grandly dubs a “conspiracy of silence”, Huhne is said to have told the person: “The story they are trying to stand up is that ‘Cabinet Minister persuaded XXX to take points’. The only way they can stand that up is by getting you to talk to them. There is simply no other person who could possibly tell them whether it is true or not.”

The rest of the blog is rather interesting stuff. There’s also a section in which Chris Huhne gives advice to the other party on what to do if they are contacted by journalists:

If called by journalists, Huhne says, you should “Just say, oooh, terribly bad line, terribly sorry, bad reception, I’ll talk to you later — and hang up”.

An excellent idea, and a completely original one, too.

As luck would have it, Paperback Rioter has received a transcript of a secret phone call made from a Sunday Times journalist to Chris Huhne. I have posted the audio onto Youtube here, and below, for the first time, is the full transcript, exclusively on Paperback Rioter:

*Phone is ringing. Chris Huhne answers*

Chris Huhne: Chris Huhne speaking.

Sunday Times Journalist: Hello Chris. I’m just calling about the story that you asked an associate to accept penalty points which you incurred for a speeding offence…

Huhne: No I’m afraid the line’s very clllkkkkkk ppppprrrrrr…

Journalist: Chris Huhne? Chris Huhne, hello?

Huhne: *Scrunches bits of newspaper by the telephone. Then bashes phone on table four times* Schnell schnell kartoffelnkopf!

Journalist: I said there’s a terrible line at my end. Please call me back at once.

Chris Huhne: *blows raspberries down the phone* *Sings* A wandering minstrel wandering reeeeeleeelium. Gale Force Eight. 

*Chris Huhne puts the phone down*

Nick Clegg: Come on, Chris! What was the message? I’m on tenterhooks! Do tell!

Chris Huhne: Well, as far as I could tell, the message was: he’s got a terrible lion up his end, so there’s an advantage to an enema at once.

With such skillful evasion tactics, I remain confident that Chris Huhne will remain in his cabinet post.


Nick Clegg’s Social Mobility Strategy: targeting the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.

April 8, 2011

“It’s the law of inverse relevance. The less you intend to do about something, the more you have to keep talking about it.” – Sir Arnold Robinson, Yes Minister.

Nick Clegg has launched a social mobility strategy. A hefty report was published this week which says that “improving social mobility is the principal goal of the Coalition Government’s social policy” (p. 1). That’s because “no one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth” (p. 5).

Most of the coverage of this strategy has gone on the subject of unpaid internships. I’m glad this issue has come into prominence: the glut of unpaid internships is scandalous and I hope to tackle it in a later blog post.

For now, let’s just look at the government’s plans to increase social mobility.

I haven’t read the report cover-to-cover, but I’ve got the gist of it. It’s a very frustrating document for two reasons. First, because it ignores one of the chief causes of social immobility. Second, because ignores that cause, the report doesn’t have any decent policies to combat social immobility.

1) Income inequality

The available evidence is limited, and it certainly isn’t the only cause, but societies with a higher rate of income inequality tend to have a lower rate of social mobility. Via the Staggers, I’ve pinched this graph, which you can also find in The Spirit Level:

The issue is not quite as straightforward as this table suggests. For the counter argument, see pp. 72-75 of this Policy Exchange paper that critiques The Spirit Level. Much of the data on social mobility between countries is not really directly comparable, and as a result the OECD thinks that the academic literature on international social mobility rates should be treated “with a great deal of caution” (see p. 73 of the Policy Exchange paper).

This confusion is reflected in the Social Mobility Strategy paper itself. Take this paragraph on p. 22 of the report:

1.41 There is an active debate about the relationship between income inequality and social mobility. Academic studies comparing levels of social mobility in different countries have found a correlation between high levels of income inequality and low levels of social mobility, although some have criticised the validity of this finding. Of course, correlation isnot the same as causation. The drivers of social mobility are complex, and income alone does not determine future outcomes.

I wonder if you can tell which bits of that paragraph were drawn up by the Conservatives…?

However, it’s common sense that you can only have social mobility, and true equality of opportunity, if there is a certain level of income equality. The first reason, as Chris Dillow put it, is “simple maths; the closer the gap between high and low incomes, the easier it is to leap that gap.”

A second reason is because, as the authors of this study into intergenerational mobility found, there is a strong relationship between family income and educational attainment. The authors found that a child from a family who’s income was a third less than the mean was three or four percentage points more likely to get no A-C GCSEs. Their chance of getting a degree fell by a similar amount (p. 14). In Britain the relationship between family income and educational achievement has gotten stronger, mainly because the expansion of higher education has most benefited those from higher-income families.

It stands to reason, therefore, that if income inequalities rise, the disparity in educational achievement between the richest and poorest in society will increase, and the prospect of social mobility falls. (I feel I should point out, however, that the authors of the CEP study did not go as far as to state this explicitly. We’ll come to their solutions later).

There’s another reason why you cannot have equality of opportunity without some equality of income. For that, I’m going to turn to what is rapidly becoming my bible: Ha-Joon Chang’s 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism. It’s Thing 20, if you’re interested.

(P)oor children are bound to perform poorly in school, whatever their innate ability might be. Some of them go hungry at home and also skip lunch at school. This makes it impossible for them to concentrate, with predictable results for their academic performance…If their parents are illiterate and/or have to work long hours, children will have no one to help them with their homework, whilst middle-class children will be helped by their parents and rich kids may have private tutors. Helped or not, they may not even have enough time for homework, if they have to take care of younger siblings. (pp. 217-8)

For social mobility to happen, we need equality of opportunity. For equality of opportunity, a degree of income equality is needed. This report skirts around that issue, and because of that misses the point on a number of issues.

2) Addressing social immobility

It seems most likely that the issue of inequality was ignored because, for most Tory governments, reducing income inequality is not going to be on their priority list. The question then arises is: if you ignore that, how are you going to combat social immobility? And do you even want to?

As was pointed out in this achingly wonderful piece on what left-wing social mobility would look like, “There are clear problems both of morality and logic – the fact that if one poor person goes up, one rich person must go down - with this model of social mobility [that Clegg is proposing].”

That doesn’t really fit well with a large part of the Tory voting demographic. You can tell that in the Daily Mail’s reaction to Nick Clegg’s plans:

It seems that quite a few people would rather we kept things the way they are, thank you very much.

Charlie Beckett summed up the problems with using terms like “social mobility” very succinctly:

Real social mobility – all other things being equal – must surely mean that some people will rise over their lives and others will fall. If we all rise then that is simply economic growth. If only a lower social group rise relative to a higher group, then that is egalitarianism, not social mobility. If just a few people rise, then that’s just tokenism.

All of which leaves us with a quandary.

3) What now?

So, if social mobility is not only unobtainable (since Nick Clegg is explicitly ignoring equality of income as a goal for his government) and even if the social mobility Clegg talks of is undesirable for the Conservative’s core vote, what does the coalition do instead?

The answer just seems to be to talk about social mobility. There are no proposals in the document that aim to address the causes of social mobility, or inequality, or any form of disadvantage at all.

Take the area of gender inequality, for instance. The report ignores David Willetts’s faintly ridiculous remarks and says that the government sees “gender equality as an important factor in improving social mobility” (p. 57). But you’ll find no policies whatsoever about how to tackle the issue of gender inequality, apart from a brief discussion on the unequal nature of maternity and paternity leave.

Granted, you’ll find discussion of lots of problems, be given some rather disturbing figures and generally get the impression that Something Ought To Be Done. But then you get to the recommendations section.

Bear in mind, when you read these recommendations, Sir Arnold’s Law of Inverse Relevance.

Here’s the list of recommendations, which I’ve put in block quotes with my interpretation in italics:

We have developed ‘leading indicators’ of success in improving social mobility for each lifestage. These will also be included in departmental Business Plans, ensuring that they are at the centre of the work of departments, increasing transparency over the impact of our policies and helping the public to hold us to account.

This is talking about social mobility.

We will provide funding for a successor to the Millennium Cohort Study, ensuring that thereis a rich source of information on the long-term influence of our policies on social mobility.

More talking about social mobility.

We are establishing, on a statutory basis, a Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission to monitor progress on social mobility, as well as towards the measures in the Child Poverty Act 2010.

Even more talking about social mobility.

The Deputy Prime Minister will continue to chair the Ministerial Group on Social Mobility to unite Whitehall departments in improving social mobility.

This is talking about talking about social mobility.

We are setting out the key milestones in implementing this strategy and identifying who in Government is responsible for them.

Talking about talking about talking about social mobility.

All departments will consider the impact of new policies on social mobility.

Talking about talking about talking about talking about social mobility.

You get the idea.

If you follow Sir Arnold’s law, then, the coalition appears to want to do the square root of bugger all about social mobility. All of these groups started, research commissioned, committees set up to do whatever it is committees do…and not one single policy recommendation that would improve the lives of the poorest in society.

It’s not as if policy recommendations don’t exist. They exist in the reports cited in the Social Mobility Strategy document itself. Take the report on intergenerational mobility that I quoted earlier. This is what they have to say on the subject of policies:

To improve this situation we need also to use more direct means such as early years’ education, improved schools for poor communities and financial support to pursue post-compulsory education. Indeed, this is the policy direction that the Government seems to be taking through programmes like Sure Start, Excellence in Cities and the Educational Maintenance Allowance (EMA). (p. 14)

Oh.

So the way to improve chances for the poorest would be to through policies like Sure Start Centres, which are being cut, and EMA, which was axed, and then brought back in a woefully inadequate form.

I’m sure Nick Clegg will point to the Pupil Premium as being an example of Lib Dem policy designed to help the poorest children, but that money is not extra money to the Education budget, so it would be disingenuous of him to do that.

Obviously, the last thing Nick Clegg would want to be would be disingenuous.

All of which means that the government’s social mobility strategy is nonsense. It’s a strategy without a strategy. It’s targeting the wrong thing in the wrong way for the wrong reasons.

Which means the left needs to win this intellectual argument. Owen Jones started this with a good CIF article some weeks back, arguing that social mobility was a distraction that detracted from income inequality.

And I can’t think of a better way to end this piece than to quote Paul’s blog from Though Cowards Flinch that I linked to above:

Well, as I’ve said here, I think it looks like the cider advert, where identifiably working class males mass on the hill side, tooled up and ready to march on the sleepy town in the valley.

It’s a vision of pride in what we are, and a potent image of solidarity in what we can be.  It’s also a vision tinged, if you want to see it that way, with menace to the status quo – a sort of #manualworkeruncut, coming ready or not.

Or in other words, trade unions.

Which is certainly an improvement on the pathetic excuse of an initiative that is the government’s Social Mobility Strategy.


The Libya fiasco: Continuity New Labour?

March 11, 2011

David Cameron is obviously a fan of Tony Blair. That’s been clear ever since he branded himself the “heir to Blair” months into his stint as Tory leader. The admiration also appears to be reciprocal – Blair said he supported the coalition’s spending cuts in his memoirs.

Cameron is also a keen student of Blair’s administration. This coalition is trying to enact change on many different fronts simultaneously – public spending cuts, health and education reforms, etc. One of the reasons why it’s doing so is because a great failure of New Labour – and Blair has admitted this himself – is that they did not attempt to do much in their first term in office, from 1997 to 2001.

The fact that the coalition might have bitten off more than they can chew by enacting these reforms is a debate to have another day. What I want to write about now is the subject of foreign intervention.

Now, if you have studied New Labour in detail, you might think twice about carrying out a badly-planned, ill-thought out military intervention in a countries ruled by a dictator.

Apparently not.

A British diplomatic effort to reach out to Libyan rebels has ended in humiliation as a team of British special forces and intelligence agents left Benghazi after being briefly detained.

The six SAS troops and two MI6 officers were seized by Libyan rebels in the eastern part of the country after arriving by helicopter four days ago.

It’s still difficult to work out how such a daft plan actually came into being. In situations like this I usually try and think of a glib, amusing analogy that makes my point well. Thankfully Douglas Alexander has already done that for me:

Alexander started by reading out the Mustafa Gheriani question from the Times: “If this is an official delegation why did they come with a helicopter? Why didn’t they [inform the revolutionary council] that ‘we are coming, we’d like to land at Benina airport’, or come through Egypt like all the journalists have done.” Then Alexander said this:

The British public are entitled to wonder whether, if some new neighbours moved into the foreign secretary’s street, he would introduce himself by ringing the doorbell, or instead choose to climb over the fence in the middle of the night.

I’ve been quite taken aback by how ill-thought out this operation obviously has been, and it’s taken me to work out exactly why.

I think it’s because this whole cock-up feels like something from the dying days of New Labour, rather than from a new administration that’s been in power less than a year. After all, this was a dysfunctional, ill-planned disaster. It’s got all the hallmarks of something that would have happened during Gordon Brown’s time as Prime Minister.

Instead, Hague and Cameron looked like a group of shambolic amateurs playing toy soldiers. One of the Libyan rebels referred to it as “James Bond tactics”, and that’s not too far off the mark.

This whole episode feels like “Continuity New Labour” on a few levels, that I’ll sketch out briefly below.

The first, that I’ve touched on, is the desire for foreign intervention. Cameron, like Blair, does seem to have been influenced by some neo-conservatives. Prominent among them in Cameron’s case is Michael Gove.

Just as an aside, it seems that Gove is quite influential in Cameron’s thinking. His fingerprints are all over Cameron’s multiculturalism speech, and his desire to take action in Libya.

Secondly, like New Labour the coalition is trying to run a wartime army on a peacetime budget. I’ve written before about the issue of defence spending, and it still applies now. I never thought I’d quote David Starkey favourably, but he was absolutely right on Question Time: You simply cannot have gunboat diplomacy without gunboats. Similarly, you cannot enforce a no-fly zone if you have no aeroplanes.

All in all, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the members of this government, most of whom had never seen the inside of a ministerial box before taking office this year, just aren’t very good at the nuts and bolts of actually governing.

Just like New Labour.


Thoughts on Barnsley Central: another Lib Dem disaster

March 5, 2011

Before anyone starts designing “Ed Miliband: Prime Minister in 2015″ mugs, let’s remember that this was an average performance for Labour in Barnsley Central. Yes, they won 60.8% of the vote, but that’s almost exactly the same figure they won in 2005 (61.1%).

Even when Eric Illsey had a massive expenses-shaped cloud hanging over his head in May, for which he ended up being imprisoned, Labour won with a majority of 11,000, which is about the same number as Dan Jarvis’s majority now.

So there really isn’t much point in popping champagne corks in Labour HQ just yet. None of this has anything to do with Ed Miliband. He’s the equivalent of a new football manager who has just beaten two teams in the relegation zone in his first two games.

It is interesting that, as with Oldham East, the misdemeanours of the previous Labour MP simply wasn’t an issue. This is hardly surprising, as I remarked in the Old and Sad post-mortem, people care more about the impending spending cuts than who claimed what on an expenses claim form years ago.

In his acceptance speech Dan Jarvis quoted a lifelong Tory voter, a pensioner, who apparently said to him on the doorstep something to the effect of:

This Tory-led government is cutting spending too far and too fast. It’s bad for jobs.

(I honestly cannot remember the exact quote; I can’t find the full speech online and I saw it at 1.20am so my recollection of it is hazy)

I’d be surprised if the pensioner actually referred to a “Tory-led government”, but I am sure she expressed those sentiments about the spending cuts.

For the Lib Dems, this was an almighty kicking. After narrowly finishing second in May, they finished sixth (yes, sixth!) losing 5000 votes in the process. They were beaten into fifth by an independent, who is an unemployed miner with no party machine, and the BNP finished fourth (but lost one-third of their votes from May, which is a reason to be cheerful).

Alarm bells must be ringing in Nick Clegg’s ears, despite his protestations to the contrary. In the long-term, the fate of the Lib Dems depends on the state of the economy in 2015. For now, however, it’s clear that it’s looking disastrous in the short-term for them. Local elections in May could see them completely obliterated.

The big winners of the night were UKIP, who finished second. I don’t know enough about their campaign in Barnsley to comment on why they more than doubled their vote share (4.7% in May to 12.2% now). Judging from this billboard, they went down the “human rights” angle:

It shows that, strategically, David Cameron is falling between two stools. His attempts to “detoxify” the Tory brand didn’t quite work, as seen by the fact he failed to gain a majority against a morally and intellectually bankrupt Labour Party in May last year.

Indeed, one of the most interesting parts of Andrew Neil’s documentary calling for the return of grammar schools was when he discussed polling data which suggested that C1 and C2 types, the “aspirational working and lower-middle-class” that would have voted Thatcher in the ’80s didn’t vote Tory in constituencies like Birmingham Edgbaston because they were perceived as being “too posh”. It’s voters like these that cost Cameron an overall majority.

However, by his attempts to make the Tories appear “fluffy” he has managed to alienate a great portion of the Tory right.

This was well-illustrated by Norman Tebbit, in the most mind-boggling column I’ve ever seen hosted by a national newspaper site.

After explaining that Arabs “don’t do democracy”, defending the poll tax, taking a sideswipe at Chris Patten and referring to the ECHR as “mad judicial imperialists”, Tebbit goes on to say:

I still do not know where, apart from to a Big Society gay wedding in Westminster Abbey, the Prime Minister really wants to go.

Tebbit went within a gnat’s tadger of backing UKIP in Oldham East, and a few more results like that of Barnsley Central could see him fully jump ship, along with, potentially, a few more right-wing Tories.

I’m not sure I can ever fully understand the motives of people who look at this current administration and say, “You know what the problem is with the coalition? They’re just SO left-wing”. But there is definite discontent within the Tory right, and UKIP is picking up on it.

However, one still should not overplay UKIP’s success. They only won 12% of the votes: less than 3000 in total. It hardly sees them becoming, as Nigel Farage put it “the voice of opposition in British politics” – yet. Also, governments always get kickings in by-elections.

Still, Ed Miliband and Nigel Farage will be happy, and David Cameron and Nick Clegg will not. For if David Cameron tries to placate the Tory right with some more “centre-right”-type policies, that can only serve to annoy even more the few remaining Lib Dem voters.

Unlike a few partisan Labourites I know, I can’t take much pleasure from the Lib Dem implosion. It’s like watching a friend you thought you used to know go completely off the rails. I can’t see anything other than oblivion happening in May for them now.


No2AV plays the Nick Clegg card

March 3, 2011

It was obvious that No2AV were going to play the Nick Clegg card at some point. Seeing as he’s now one of the most unpopular men in Britain, tying him to the AV campaign was going to be something they would do, in the absence of any coherent arguments about why we should keep First Past the Post.

Nick Clegg’s approval ratings, which were higher than Winston Churchill before the general election, have been falling steadily ever since. The latest polling suggests that Clegg’s approval rating stands at -34, with 28% thinking he’s performing well and 62% thinking he’s doing badly.

Most importantly from the referendum campaign’s point of view is that Nick Clegg is immensely unpopular with Labour voters.

In my view, the result of the referendum will be decided by the proportion of Labour voters that decide to vote Yes or No. Most Tories are going to vote No, most Lib Dems will vote yes, with Labour being split on the issue. How their members vote will therefore probably decide the result.

Clegg’s approval ratings amongst Labour voters is a comically bad -87, with only 5% thinking he’s performing well and 92% badly. No wonder Ed Miliband has asked Nick Clegg to take a step back from the Yes campaign and avoid being its poster boy.

This makes good sense, though the thought of Ed Miliband being Yes2AV’s poster boy instead doesn’t exactly fill me with joy and happiness.

So, now to No2AV’s advert:

A Labour-supporting friend I showed the advert to said, “This is REAL?! I thought it was a parody.” That tells you all you need to know about it, I think.

It does seem like a parody, mainly because its claims are wild bollocks hyperbolic nonsense.

Duncan Stott has already written about a few of them, but I’ll expand with a bit of detail below.

1) Nick Clegg won’t be Lib Dem leader forever

At the rate things are going, he might not even be an MP in 2015. He’s MP for Sheffield Hallam, the only seat in South Yorkshire not held by Labour, and was elected courtesy of a large student vote. Something tells me that students and young people aren’t going to be so keen to vote for the Cleggmeister in the next election.

2) AV doesn’t mean the Lib Dems will get more seats

The advert indicates that the Lib Dems will automatically benefit from AV. To explode that myth you only need to look at the polling data. The latest Yougov poll puts the Lib Dems on 10%. And that’s a surge in the polls, by their standards.

The Lib Dems have consistently been the second preferences of many voters, particularly Labour voters, but I cannot see that remaining the case now. Also, as the Yougov polling data I linked to indicates, they have lost more than half of their first preference voters. Only 45% of people who voted Lib Dem in May still support them now, according to those latest figures.

I cannot believe that the No campaign have overlooked what ought to be a rather simple principle: that AV will only benefit the Lib Dems if people vote for them.

3) AV does not lead to more hung parliaments

As discussed before on this blog, there’s no evidence that AV leads to an increase in the number of hung parliaments.

Indeed, it might have escaped the No camp’s attention, but we have a hung parliament at the moment, under First Past the Post. And it’s not the only one in living memory: take 1974 for example.

4) Nick Clegg does not decide who forms a government: we do

In May, when the polls were increasingly predicting a hung parliament, Nick Clegg said that he would enter coalition talks first with the party that had the biggest mandate. And he kept his word on that (again, not something you’ll read often these days). As I’ve written before, there was no way that the Lib Dems could have entered a coalition with Labour, because the numbers just weren’t there.

So even if we had a situation, as in May, where a hung parliament looked likely, it wouldn’t be Nick Clegg who decides whether there is a hung parliament, or who decides who enters into a coalition: it would be you. Me. Us. The voters.

If anyone is reading this from No2AV: well done. This latest advert is nowhere near as morally repugnant as the baby one. However, it’s preferable if campaign adverts:

a) Are not morally abhorrent.
b) Contain some facts that are, you know, true (yes I’m looking at YOU, the bogus £25om figure still included on the advert).
c) Contain a clear, principled argument.

I suppose 1 out of 3 is an improvement from 0 out of 3.

If anyone is reading this from Yes2AV: can we have some billboards of our own, please? Ones that conform to the three points I just listed would be even better.


The Lib Dems in government part 5: the secret tapes edition

January 15, 2011

Just before the general election I went to a hustings in my hometown, with my parents and some family friends. This was just after the first leaders debate and the outbreak of Cleggmania. Our constituency had been represented, for the previous thirteen years, by a very popular Liberal Democrat, who had turned the seat from a conservative stronghold, in the 90s, to the nearest thing the Liberal Democrats have to a safe seat. Labour had been squeezed down to 10% of the vote and all but given up on the seat, putting forward a candidate who was younger than me. In the event, the evening turned out to be a bit of a one horse race.

The Conservative candidate’s opening gambit was that whilst the incumbent was all well and good these Liberal Democrats would never have any real influence and only he could guarantee a “seat at the top table” from which to represent his constituent’s interests. This was delivered in such a pompous style that it was hard to hold back laughter. As one of the family friends said later, far from being at the top table he was “lobby fodder – at best”. He compounded his error by saying, in reply to a question about the representation of women, that we needed more women in government because “women know how to balance a household budget”.

 Neither the Labour nor UKIP candidates managed to hold their own under even the most gentle of questioning. The sitting MP just stood up and confidently laid out his record in office and after that any sense of competition was just blown out of the water.

The questions mainly stuck to local issues and by the end of the evening the audience had sunk into a stupour. On the final question I thought of something to ask. I put up my hand but someone else was chosen. His question was something parochial about primary schools that had been covered earlier in the evening. You could feel the sense of anticlimax in the room. Then the host, our local vicar, decided to put an end to that question and take a new one. This time I was picked. Phrasing my question carefully to maximize the chance of a straight answer, I asked our MP, in the event of a hung Parliament upon what basis would the Liberal Democrats choose a coalition partner and prioritising which policies.

There was a rumble of interest as the audience roused from their stupour. He replied (or didn’t reply) that it wasn’t vote Clegg get Cameron, or vote Clegg get Brown but that a vote for him would get Nick Clegg and Vince Cable (this was back when this still had some cache) and that if we wanted to know their priorities we should look at their manifesto. A couple of weeks later he was returned to office, the Liberal Democrats went into coalition with the Conservative and he himself was made a junior government minister.

Looking at events since, their manifesto doesn’t seem to have been such an accurate indicator of their action in coalition. It has become clear that, even as early as the coalition negotiations, Nick Clegg was arguing against his party’s own stated position on deficit reduction. Of course since then we have had the u-turn on tuition fees from most of the Liberal Democrat front bench and a good number of their backbenchers, as well. This was something that went beyond a manifesto commitment, each Liberal Democrat MP, individually, signed unequivocal pledges, promising not to raise fees, garnering lots of votes in the process. Now we learn that they may even back down on control orders, conceding their one remaining position of high ground on civil liberties. At least one Lib Dem MP has dishonestly tried to argue that there apparent argument that their apparent reversal is in fact not a reversal at all.

The more common argument has been that they didn’t win the election and so are in no position to implement their manifesto, and if the public wants to see Lib Dem policies, they should elect a Lib Dem majority. This is not only irrelevant in the case of tuition fees – the controversy was not over their manifesto, which people cannot expect to be implemented in full in coalition (although it would be nice to see some of it), it was about individual pledges by individual Lib Dem candidates to vote a certain way- but disingenuous. Nobody seriously expected the Lib Dems to win an overall majority and, as the exchange in my local Baptist church hall shows, people were most highly concerned with what would happen in the event of a coalition. Most importantly, whilst the Lib Dems did not win the election, neither did the Conservatives. They are now in the position of pushing through the most radically conservative fiscal policy seen in generations, to devastating effect to many if not most people in the country, with a 36.1% vote share on a 65.1% turnout. That’s just 23.5% of the available vote. They have only been able to do this because a party has completely reversed the positions on which it campaigned. There is a fundamental subversion of the democratic principle here.

This all brings us to the revelations in the Daily Telegraph. Several Liberal Democrats, including Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and my very own Steve Webb MP, were recorded by Telegraph journalists posing as constituents, making indiscrete comments about their coalition partners. Notwithstanding Vince Cable’s apparent inability to maintain blood flow to his brain in the presence of certain female journalists, these revelations actually make me respect them more. The worst part of the Lib Dems’ incorporation into the government has been the constant cheerleading for the policies that have been fed to them; the pretence that nothing is wrong. The suggestion that there may be policies that “haven’t seen the light of day” because of Lib Dem intervention and that they may be picking their battles is encouraging. The only hope for coalition between such diametrically opposed parties is one of open negotiation, where the differences are clearly delineated, possibly with independent portfolios. This would be challenging for British politics, with its dominant tradition that the government must maintain a united front against the public, with whips and collective responsibility. It would certainly mean running the gamut of press obsessed with gossip and psychodrama. Instead the Liberal Democrats seem to be being gradually cannibalised by their senior partners in government.

In reality, this was always going to be an extremely damaging term of office for whichever government was formed in May, especially with the numbers as they were. Labour couldn’t have survived another term of office without suffering electoral wipeout. No party has ever governed for more than four terms, and Labour was facing a tough economy and falling popularity. The Lib Dems faced a choice of patching together a wafer thin overall majority with an unpopular party with an unpopular leader and a rag tag of minor parties with their own agendas, or tying itself to a party whose policies its supporters abhorred. The only question was who was going to take the poisoned chalice. With their poll ratings going through the floor, the Lib Dems are now in a dire position. Do they activate Vince Cable’s nuclear weapon soon and face an angry electorate, or soldier on, possibly sustaining even more damage? They may, even now, be past the point of no return.


2010 Dick of the Year: Wayne Rooney

December 31, 2010

The very last post of 2010 *sobs* I wrote this for Bright Green Scotland; it’s my nomination for 2010′s Dick of the Year. Enjoy!

I’m not nominating Wayne Rooney because of his woeful World Cup performances. As Bill Bailey has observed, the English crave disappointment, so Rooney was only giving the public what they want. The nomination is also unconnected to the revelations that he slept with a prostitute whilst his wife was pregnant.

In October Rooney said he wanted to leave Manchester United because they did not “match his ambitions”. Two days later he performed a Clegg-esque u-turn, and signed a five-year contract. The consensus was that Rooney had been “posturing” to receive an improved contract offer, taking his weekly wages from £90,000 to an eye-watering £250,000 a week.

The coalition insists that “we are all in this together”.  The salaries of Rooney and his ilk make a mockery of that claim. They are unjustifiable given that the impending cuts that will affect the poorest most, and that inequality causes corrosive social problems.

Even after tax, Rooney earns five times more in a week than the average annual salary, and will earn more in 2011 than the average person earns in a lifetime. Aditya Chakrabortty argued for the introduction of a “Rooney tax“. If this happens, maybe Wayne Rooney won’t be Dick of the Year 2011. 


First thoughts on Cablegate (type 2)

December 22, 2010

What on earth did Vince Cable think he was doing? Is that how he talks to all his constituents? As far as he knew, they were two mothers asking questions about child benefit. Perhaps all Cable’s constituency meetings take a decidedly queer turn:

Random constituent of Vince Cable: I’ve come to see you about my neighbour’s garden hedge. It’s grown to a massive height, it’s invading my garden, and it’s blocking light to my prize rhododendrons…

Vince Cable: That’s very interesting. It’s a battle between you and your neighbour isn’t it? But is this the isue you really want to fight over? I’m having to pick my fights in this coalition. Did I mention I’m going to war with Rupert Murdoch….

And so it goes.

The circumstances of this conversation being leaked are interesting, to say the least. Michael White reckons it might have broken parliamentary privilege. I’m not sure on this, and even if it is a breach, it was still massively indiscreet of Cable to be mentioning a “war on Murdoch” to his constituents.

There are lots of sorry things about this issue that need to be addressed; not least Labour’s response, who rather than try and show some opposition to Murdoch have gone in for a spot of Lib Dem bashing instead.

The worst thing now is that Jeremy Hunt is now in charge of the Media and Communcations Portfolio. He seems to think that the BBC has a left wing bias.

The reason Hunt gives for the left-wing slant of the BBC is because more people at the Corporation voted Labour and Lib Dem then did Tory at the last election. Then again, so did most of the country, so not quite sure how he’s going to make political capital out of that.

Thank you Vince and your great big gob. Was it too much to ask that you KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT and then veto the BSkyB takeover? Obviously it was. You daft ‘apeth.

Ed Miliband has got it wrong. He should be calling this coalition a Murdoch-led government.


Nick Clegg makes a tin of spam look like a calculating political genius

December 7, 2010

In one sense, Nick Clegg has kept his word.

I know, I can’t believe I’ve just written that sentence either.

In an article for The Times specifiying the priorities the Lib Dems would have when brokering a deal to enter a coalition. These are the same priorities listed on the front of the Lib Dem manifesto:

You could well argue that the Lib Dems have hardly fought tooth and nail for these priorities, to put it mildly, but that’s an argument for another time.

The point to note for the moment is: these priorities do not include anything on university fees. Indeed, it seems that the Lib Dems had decided before the election that they would not spent too much time defending their pledge to vote against any rise of tuition fees:

A month before Clegg pledged in April to scrap the “dead weight of debt”, a secret team of key Lib Dems made clear that, in the event of a hung parliament, the party would not waste political capital defending its manifesto pledge to abolish university tuition fees within six years. In a document marked “confidential” and dated 16 March, the head of the secret pre-election coalition negotiating team, Danny Alexander, wrote: “On tuition fees we should seek agreement on part-time students and leave the rest. We will have clear yellow water with the other [parties] on raising the tuition fee cap, so let us not cause ourselves more headaches.”

Chris Davies, a Lib Dem MEP for the North West, articulated quite clearly what a lot of you must now be thinking about “that pledge”:

Our opposition to tuition fees was born of principle and sustained by electoral popularity. It was an indulgence. The truth is surely that it survived as party policy because in our heart of hearts we didn’t think we would be in a position to put it into practice.

It’s no wonder, then, that people talk of “betrayal”. This behaviour from the Lib Dems is certainly very cynical, if not downright deceitful.

Vince Cable has defended the current position on the Lib Dems on tuition fees (which is currently to vote for the proposal to triple university fees, though who knows what the policy will be tomorrow, or the day after that) on the fact that the Lib Dems have a coalition agreement to follow:

We didn’t break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn’t win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it’s the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I’m trying to honour.

Except this is what the coalition agreement says on university fees:

If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote. (p32)

I’m not sure abstaining on the issue would be much of an improvement either. As Nye Bevan once said, “We know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run down.” But it would at least honour the coalition agreement. The worse aspect of this whole sorry business is the fact that the Lib Dems gave themselves an opportunity to abstain on any fees arrangement, but are now voting for it, meaning they’re neither honouring their coalition agreement nor their pre-election pledge.

This FT blog catalogues the catalogue of strategic errors the Lib Dems have made on the fees issue, concluding with the fact that:

(R)ather than keep the reforms at arms length, the Lib Dems took on full responsibility for redesigning the system. By getting too involved in creating the policy they effectively gave up their right to stand aside.

Peter Oborne has argued that Nick Clegg has shown that he is a man of judgement and courage. Actually he seems more like an opportunist and a lightweight, who is playing a bad hand very poorly indeed.


Naughty and NICE

November 19, 2010

In the week that saw the wrecking of the Conservative party headquarters by student demonstrators the Coalition Government continued, more quietly, in its ongoing project of vandalism against the machinery of the British state.

This time it’s the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) facing the axe. There have been many cruel and callous acts by this government during the six and a bit months it has been in office and it’s difficult to know where to begin when writing about them because cruelty and callousness often defy rational analysis.

Sheer stupidity, on the other hand, is easier to get a handle of and this move is profoundly and irredeemably stupid.

NICE was one of Labour’s more successful creations. It was designed to provide uniformity of access to innovative treatments and to control costs within the NHS by assessing every new treatment by a single standard. Treatments judged to be cost-effective would be offered to all NHS patients, whereas treatments judged too expensive would be rejected.

This idea was so simple and so effective that it soon began to attract international attention attention, as this New York Times article shows, with many other countries talking of introducing similar policies. Dr. Donald Berwick, the Administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), in the US, described NICE as an “extremely effective, … conscientious, valuable and- importantly- knowledge building- system.”

The importance of NICE was that it tackled one of the major problems facing all advanced healthcare systems. The fundamental aims of healthcare – the treatment of ill health and the extension of lifespan – are goals without any natural limit. The ultimate logical aim, of immortality and perfect health, are forever out of reach and a country could very well expend all its resources in the effort.

This is particularly true given an intellectual property based model of healthcare innovation that means that drug developers can pretty much charge whatever they want and the end of the era of rapid advances in medical technology meaning that vast amounts of money could be spent on incremental improvements in outcome. NICE proved very effective at containing drugs costs by providing a clear non-negotiable cap on what the NHS would pay for treatments. It also helped to shield British patients from over-hyped and ineffective treatments.

Naturally, the pharmaceutical industry didn’t take this challenge to its control over drugs pricing lying down, whipping patients into a frenzy over “life-saving” treatments that were being denied, and creating fake patient advocacy groups. The tabloids relentlessly pushed this narrative, carrying multiple, emotive articles highlighting patients stories, and blaming NICE relatively poor cancer outcomes in the UK; a claim that makes no sense – the months of survival benefit these drugs have shown in clinical trials does not translate into years of advantage on a population level.

This campaign has often led to NICE being steadily undermined, a process that began with the Labour government intervening to ensure the approval of Herceptin for breast cancer in 2006, and continues with the coalition, first creating a separate fund to pay for refused cancer treatments, effectively neutering NICE in price negotiations, before removing its powers to approve or refuse new drugs altogether.

Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, wants to replace this function with what he calls “value based pricing”. This will mean companies negotiating directly with the Department of Health over prices, and drugs being approved or refused directly by local GP consortia.

This plan is riddled with potential problems.

The DoH will be subject to extensive lobbying by industry and political pressure not to be seen to be denying drugs to needy patients – the ball will be entirely in the drug companies’ court and they know it.

GPs have neither the time, objectivity nor clout to handle these negotiations. Dr Ben Goldacre has written that it would take GPs 600 hours a month to read all the studies relevant to primary care alone, and that drugs companies are adept at massaging the data to favour their products, for example by failing to publish negative data and using positive data in multiple studies in different journals. These are tricks that are difficult to spot by all but the most careful reader, and certainly to busy GPs, themselves subject to corporate marketing and “hospitality.”

This plan effectively removes the ability of the NHS to force the pharmaceutical companies to lower prices, the GPs don’t have the clout to stand up to big multinational corporations and the government certainly doesn’t have the political will. It’s safe to say that the champagne corks will be popping in the boardrooms of those companies and their lobbyists (lobbyists such as the one wheeled out to defend the changes in the Guardian editorial linked to at the top of this paragraph) at the news.

Further to the reforms of the funding of the new medical treatments, we hear the news that many of the regulatory functions of the Food Standards Agency (FSA) with ”food networks” including representatives of the food companies to discuss “voluntary not regulatory approaches.”

We can see very clearly where Lansley’s political sympathies lie. He cannot plead ignorance, certainly on the issue of healthcare. He has spoken about the issue many times with Private Eye’s “MD” columnist (aka Phil Hammond), who has christened him “la-la Lansley,” assuring him that he has fully understood the need for rationing in the NHS.

These moves completely contradict the Conservative portion of the Coalition’s stated raison d’etre of fiscal responsibility- in an era of tightening health budgets, diverting precious resources to a small and vocal group of patients, to little end, and to pay to patch up an increasingly unhealthy public. This cuts away the myths of Conservative principles, exposing their core values of deference to business, deference to wealth and pathological hatred of the state.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.