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.


The epic AV Referendum post-mortem blog: Evil triumphs when the good are led by incompetent halfwits

May 10, 2011

This is a lengthy and cathartic postmortem of the AV Referendum campaign. Parts of it (especially the bits about how the Yes campaign could have won) are based on the insights of staff and fellow volunteers in our marvellous Birmingham group. If you don’t fancy reading  all 3000 words of this, a couple of pithy quotes sum up nicely my attitudes to both campaigns:

First, the Yes campaign:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain” – Geoffrey Howe in his resignation speech.

Next, the No campaign:

“There’s a bright future for all you professional liars” – Elvis Costello, How to be Dumb.

Now, on with the catharsis:

Oh dear.

A crushing defeat of 69% to 31% demands a lengthy post-mortem. It’s an absolute thumping, and surely puts electoral reform off the agenda for a generation at least.

A defeat like this has prompted a variety of reactions amongst Yes campaign activists. First, that this must mean the British people are stupid. Second, that it proves that our opponents had too much money, power and influence that there was nothing we could do. The Yes campaign was “doomed from the start” because powerful forces in the media and politics were opposed to a Yes vote. This seems to be the view of this chap/chappess:

Last night a senior source in the campaign for the alternative vote admitted they knew “very early on” that there was no chance of winning the referendum and that Clegg had become part of the problem: “Every time Clegg spoke about AV our polling numbers went into free-fall. We knew from very early on, before the new year, that we couldn’t win, our message wasn’t getting through and the Liberal Democrats in the whole were worse than useless. Clegg was toxic and everything [Chris] Huhne did in criticising the Tories just put the attention on the political spat – made it a Clegg versus Cameron affair. Utterly unwinnable.

To understand why this view is misguided, let’s have a look at the polling data and at the actual votes cast for Yes.

You can see a history of polling data for the AV Referendum here. Around the turn of the year, Yes were continually on early 40s/late 30s, and often enjoyed a narrow lead over No. Yes lost support slowly over April, then rapidly over the last couple of weeks of the campaign. For the last ten days or so of the campaign, the figures were something like Yes 32%, No 68% in most polls, which is remarkably similar to the referendum results.

The trend, then, is the No campaign winning over the Don’t Knows, and Yes losing support. Part of this can be attributed to the hardening of the Tory vote once Cameron started campaigning, but not all of it. What the overall polling suggests, from way back in 2010, is that the Yes campaign had a base of around 30% of voters, but failed to convince any Don’t Knows whatsoever. Indeed, the total Yes vote was lower than the total Lib Dem vote in May 2010.

That’s a remarkable figure, and one that cannot simply be explained by Nick Clegg, or the EVUL NO CAMPAIGN!?, as some would have us believe.

Let’s put things straight first. This referendum was winnable. It goes without saying that the Yes campaign was dealt a difficult hand. People wanted to kick Nick Clegg. The pro-reform vote was split three ways. Elderly voters and Tory voters were likely to vote No, and more likely to vote than Yes voters (often the younger voters). These factors could explain a small Yes defeat, but not one on this scale.

To say that a No vote was inevitable is wrong for a few reasons, and I want to try and outline why below. First I shall explain the main reason why a No vote happened. It’s because the Yes campaign was shockingly appalling:

1) The Yes campaign was run by people who had never run a national election campaign.

It was led by two kinds of people. The first was the Electoral Reform Society/Take Back Parliament people, who were members of a pressure group and had never run a political national campaign of any sort. The other kind of people were Liberal Democrats. As a rule, Lib Dems don’t run national campaigns: they run a series of targeted, local campaigns and do not operate anything on this scale.

The mass incompetency of the Yes campaign ran through it like a stick of rock. For instance:

2) Its central message was very poor.

The Yes campaign’s main message was “Make your MP work harder”. To which MPs could, and did, plausibly claim that they worked 12 hours a day, 7 days a week. The yes campaign were trying to get the anti-politics vote, but they weren’t turned on by this message. I spent a lot of time giving out the “Make Your MP Work Harder” leaflets in town. I had many replies to the effect that “We don’t want MPs to work harder, we want them shot”. One said “they should work harder making their own gallows”. Our main message, then, was rubbish. It fell between two stools, and didn’t capture either the anti-politics vote, or the pro-politics vote.

The Yes campaign’s other message – about axing jobs for life and ending safe seats – also didn’t work because AV doesn’t help end these problems.

In contrast, not enough time was spent explaining why our current electoral system was not fit for purpose. The two main unquestionable benefits that AV would have brought are that it eradicates the huge amount of tactical voting under FPTP, and MPs would need a majority of support from their constituents. These are the main messages that worked when talking to voters in the street or on the doorstep, and yet were almost totally ignored by the Yes campaign. The only mention of the latter was a slogan on some Yes leaflets called “Make it 50″ which was so awful and obscure it took our office and local activists a couple of minutes to work out what central office were going on about.

As one of our activists commented on Facebook, when I mentioned I was writing a postmortem blog:

The more I think about it, the more the disconnect between the message we found actually worked on the ground and what the national campaign concentrated on, drives me nuts.

This lack of a decent message was a symptom of the fact that our campaign was not led by political campaigners.

3) Too many rubbish gimmicks

See this source from the Yes campaign, quoted in the Guardian:

We even brought in an advertising man to save us. He came up with the idea of constructing a giant pin-striped bottom to take around the country for people to throw things at as a way of illustrating that AV makes MPs work harder. It was desperate stuff.

I’m assuming this is the same person who posted toilet seats, pond cleaner and rubber ducks to us in the Birmingham group (for a street stall linking AV to the expenses scandal) and inflatable axes (“axe jobs for life”). Part of me wants to dedicate the rest of my career in politics to ensuring that people like this advertising man, and a fair few of those high up in the Yes campaign, never work in politics again. Thankfully for them (and me) I’ve got better things to do.

4) Very little was made of our main strength – the breadth of cross-party support

Nigel Farage was our secret weapon, and yet was hardly ever used by the Yes campaign. He’s a good communicator, would have appealed to older voters (Yes’s weakest demographic) and would have been a great answer to the people who said “This should be a referendum on leaving the EU”. But he wasn’t, because the Yes campaign was run by incompetents. It was trying to be a lefty-love in, forgetting that we needed to appeal to all sections of political opinion, and that we couldn’t rely on the support of all left-wing voters.

5) Squandering what money it had

The Yes campaign had less money than the No campaign. Although published figures put the funding for both parties at about the same, that ignores the large amounts of money put into the No camp from Tory central office. However, the Yes campaign still had lots of money – millions of pounds. Therefore a lack of money was not the issue. The problem was that it misspent lots of money.

It spent too much on phonebank co-ordinators, when no political party now uses phonebanking as a way to engage with voters. The Electoral Commission would have paid for the postage of one targeted mailshot to every person on the electoral roll. The No campaign took advantage of this, we didn’t. There was only one mailshot, sent out to a few targeted voters, and even that was a bit rubbish. It was full of celebrity endorsements, didn’t explain why our system was broken and how AV would change that. What’s more, it managed to cause a race row, as well as as demonstration of how not to run your official twitter account.

The truth was that Zephaniah was added, not omitted, to the Yes leaflets after one member of staff commented that it’d be odd if a leaflet featuring no BME faces was delivered to houses in London. However, they were added to leaflets in London, but not to those letters sent to residents in Birmingham (including myself) which is also very ethnically diverse, and also Zephaniah’s home city! It was a bad leaflet, badly targeted, with an awful reaction to the media furore that surrounded it. Utter, utter incompetence.

The simple fact is that some people voted No because they received a No leaflet and not a Yes leaflet. When there was a chance to send out a targeted mailshot to every house in Britain, with the postage paid for. This was an epic clusterfuck of a campaign which will go down in the annals of political incompetence.

I don’t think Katie Ghose gets that though. In her speech she said the public had been “shut out” of the debate on AV. What nonsense. If anything, they were shut out by her campaign refusing to print proper mailshots, and by the last fortnight of the campaign taken up with Chris Huhne calling the No campaign Nazis.

If you really want to hear more about the naffness of the Yes campaign, please read this very entertaining piece on Socialist Unity.

So, how could the Yes campaign have won?

If I, and a few of the people in the Birmingham office, had run the campaign, this is what we’d have done differently:

a) Changed the name

“Yes to AV” is far catchier and to the point than “Yes to Fairer Votes”. “Fairer” is reminiscent of new-politics-coalition-newspeak-fluffy-bullshit.

b) Got a professional politician to run the campaign

Perhaps someone like Paddy Ashdown or Jack Straw. Someone who has plenty of experience of running lots of national campaigns.

c) Spent more time lobbying Labour MPs to vote Yes

This from Tim Montgomerie is an absolute must-read. It’s clear that the No campaign spent a lot of time lobbying Labour MPs:

The hard slog of ‘winning the Labour party’ first so that Labour voters could be won later was carried out by former Labour MPs Jane Kennedy (who took on Militant in the 1980s)  and Joan Ryan. For weeks on end they almost lived in the atrium of Portcullis House – the place in the parliamentary estate where MPs, journalists and researchers mingle. The campaign that resulted in a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposing AV was won over cappuccino and chocolate muffins. The campaign was also fought in the country. “Whilst Joan Ryan was setting up Labour No to AV and building the national campaign as the deputy campaign director – particularly working out the core vote/swing vote strategy – Jane Kennedy spoke at about two hundred meetings of constituency Labour parties.

It was obvious that Labour voters were going to be the swing voters. Why didn’t Yes do the same and lobby Labour MPs? If Labour “big beasts” such as Jack Straw, Ed Miliband, Ben Bradshaw etc etc had lobbied MPs more to vote Yes, especially the No2AV Yes2PR ones, perhaps the result would have been very different.

This is what I mean when I say that a defeat for Yes was not inevitable. People point to the split of the Labour party on the issue as a reason why a No vote was inevitable. What it actually shows is how effective the No vote were at lobbying Labour, which is something Yes should have been doing as well.

d) Ditch the anti-politics message

It was rubbish and didn’t work.

e) Use Nigel Farage more and take advantage of a mailshot with post paid for.

As I’ve said above.

f) Try and turn it into a referendum on David Cameron

It’s clear that Nick Clegg was a complete liability for the Yes campaign. I don’t have the exact statistics to hand, but I reckon that every time he spoke, Yes lost 5000 votes. What we had to do was turn the referendum on Cameron instead. To quote Eddie Izzard, “If No wins than Clegg gets a bloody nose, if Yes win than David Cameron gets a bloody head”. Tory blogs were making it quite clear what dire consequences Cameron would face if there was a Yes vote. Would Labour voters have needed much persuading to inflict these dire consequences on him?

Instead, our campaign said nothing. Because, you’ve guessed it, it was incompetent. Only Labour Yes did so, and we could easily have tailored adverts like these for “ordinary” voters as well.

g) Focus on bread-and-butter issues

We all know that the No campaign adverts were despicable. However, the creator of the “dead-baby” advert, Dan Hodges, is more right than wrong here in this post. He also argues that the Yes campaign lost this referendum rather than the No campaign winning it. This is his logic for the baby advert:

When I helped created the baby campaign, it was partially because I was trying to frame the issue in a way that people worrying about their jobs, their mortgages and cuts to their services could relate to. I was desperately trying to make relevant a subject that 99 per cent of the public find a complete, utter, total irrelevance.

Now I find the advert, as I’m sure many of you do, morally abhorrent. Yet there is surely a way for the Yes campaign to have framed the referendum in those terms too: “Do you care about the NHS? Do you want to have more say in how it’s run? You should have some more say in how you elect your MP then.” We are a Parliamentary democracy. We need electoral reform for better representation, so we can decide who cuts, and how much they cut, better. After all, much more than 50% of people in May 2010 voted for parties who promised slower cuts to those happening right now, but that is in no way reflected in the Parliamentary arithmetic.

Why on earth did the Yes campaign not attempt to do that? I’m sure you can guess by now…

h) Kicked the local Lib Dems’ arses into gear

The Conservatives put their mighty party machine behind a No vote. It would have been nice for the Lib Dems to do the same, as opposed to gently encourage a few activists to give out Yes leaflets and hope for the best. I’m sure it would have been less resourced than the one run by the Tory’s but the fact that not all those who voted Lib Dem last year voted Yes last Thursday shows that not enough was done to win over all the Lib Dem support.

What about the lies of the No campaign?

All this means that, although it would be nice to blame everything on the lies and misinformation put out by the No campaign, and the unpopularity of Nick Clegg, that doesn’t seem wash for me. We had money, but it was spent badly. Labour was split so badly because little effort was made to lobby them (and Labour MPs were put off voting Yes because of our central message). Our message wasn’t getting through, because it was rubbish. Nick Clegg is unpopular, but so is David Cameron. The No campaign was terrible, but as many people were put off by their tactics as voted No because of their lies. You can’t blame a defeat of this scale on one horrible poster, and ignore all the other stupidity that went on with our campaign, even if it is very frustrating that there’s no way of sanctioning the No campaign for putting a figure on posters all around the country that even they have admitted was made up.

The fact is that we cannot say there was a big conspiracy against us that stopped us winning. If you blame the press, or the No campaign’s money, or the “structures in society” for a No vote, you’re basically saying there’s nothing we could have done. You might as well blame the lizard people, or the Jews, for us losing. Whereas we have agency. That’s the crucial thing. We could have run a much better campaign and won. To say otherwise is foolhardy and risks not learning the lessons that I’ve spelled out in this blog post. Worst, it would be an abdication of responsibility.

The future of electoral reform

Even if we’d’ve had a much-improved Yes campaign, it may still have lost. As I wrote above, it was dealt a very difficult hand, and played it badly. Even if it still lost narrowly, A defeat of 55-45, could have been spun credibly as “Well, this motion only failed because more would prefer PR to AV”, since the pro-reform vote would have split three ways: Yes, No and Meh. A loss on this scale buries the prospect of reform of the House of Commons until about 2040 at least, surely?

I assume so. There are two main possible scenarios here that I can think of.

The first is that a No vote means the two-party system is entrenched. The Lib Dem vote shrinks, or the party splits, and its votes are redistributed between the Conservatives and Labour. First Past the Post is kept, and although electoral reformers won’t be happy, it won’t be another 30-35 years before anyone even dares to speak of reform again.

The second is that the trends we’ve seen since the mid-1970s continue. More people vote for parties other than Labour or Conservative. A sizable minority (say 10-15%) still vote for the Lib Dems, whilst UKIP and the Greens gather more and more votes. This means we see more coalitions, or parties winning parliamentary majorities on yet-smaller minorities of the vote. If that happens, the calls for some form of PR could come around quicker than you think. However, I’m not sure any government would actually change an electoral system that had served them so well (c.f. Labour 1997).

There are other short-term consequences that I’ll hopefully write about later this week. This post is long enough as it is.

If anyone still wants to read more on the AV referendum, as well as those pieces already linked to this, by No2AV’s press officer, is well worth reading.

Conclusion

I hope anyone reading this from Central Office (if they do read this) isn’t too offended by this post. I’ve tried to be as constructive as possible. What I want people to take away from this is the fact that the result wasn’t out of our hands. This referendum was winnable, if we’d done things slightly better. That, surely, should cheer us. Even if AV passed, it was going to be the first step of a long journey. Sadly, the journey for political reformers seems a lot longer now than it did on May 4th.

What’s most important is that we learn our lessons from this referendum and remember that we do have the power to change things. We do have agency, and there’s no big conspiracy stopping us from changing things. As FDR might have said, had he been involved with the Yes campaign, the only thing we have to fear is our incompetence.


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.


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.


Old and Sad: Labour hold; Lib Dem disaster

January 14, 2011

So, at the end of all that, it’s a Labour hold. It feels like an anti-climactical end to a roller-coaster of an eight months for the Oldham East and Saddleworth constituency. We’ve had one of the bitterest general election campaigns fought in recent years, two recounts, a wafer-thin majority, a court case, an MP leaving in disgrace and, according to the Independent, “the most unusual by-election ever“.

Now Debbie Abrahams has been elected as the Labour MP (full results here), the area should return to some sort of normality until 2015, the most likely date for the general election. I doubt anyone living in Oldham East wants to see any election leaflet until then; everyone is suffering from election fatigue.

I’ve been saying on Twitter and Facebook (and to anyone who would listen) that Labour would hold Oldham East for about the past week or two. This has hardly involved sticking my neck out much, though. Ever since the polls showed that Labour were 17 points ahead on Sunday, the result has felt a bit of a formality.

In May, 14,186 people voted for the Devil Incarnate with a Labour rosette attached to it. The Labour vote would only have gone up since then, given their boost in the polls. In contrast, the Lib Dem vote of 14,083 would only have gone down, despite a significant amount of tactical voting from the Tories.

To win this by-election, the Lib Dems were relying on two factors. Firstly, that the personal vote that Elwyn Watkins had developed would over-ride his party’s current chronic unpopularity. Second, that people voted Lib Dem out of a sense of injustice and outrage over Phil Woolas’s leaflets. Both these factors turned out to be insufficient.

The Woolas shenanigans has not been a factor in the campaign. Both Debbie Abrahams and Kashif Ali have said that it just was not a doorstep issue. I’ve mentioned before that it was a big issue for me, but it really isn’t that surprising that most residents of Oldham East and Saddleworth don’t care much about it. After all, we have the biggest cuts to public spending in living memory coming up. That’s a much bigger issue then who-said-what in an election leaflet eight months ago, and I say this as someone who thinks that the Woolas case is, to paraphrase Joe Biden, a pretty big deal. The fact that anger over cuts seems to have caused people to vote Labour, who would have made the majority of these cuts had they been in power anyway, seems to be by-the-by.

The big story here: disaster for the Lib Dems

Let nobody try and persuade you otherwise: this is a terrible result for the Lib Dems.

Saddleworth is, as one of their main organisers in Oldham put it to me, “the kind of area where people vote Lib Dem because their parents do”. That kind of area is thin on the ground. It was also a by-election, where the Lib Dems generally excel, in a constituency where they only finished 103 votes behind Labour in May. They had a reasonably popular local candidate, hundreds of activists on the ground, and Nick Clegg visited Oldham three times. Not to mention the fact that their campaign had a head start of both Labour and the Tories, and they also moved a writ to hold the by-election as early as possible.

Nick Thornsby has been admirably trying some damage-limitation. He said last night:

A Labour majority of 3,558 is less than Phil Woolas achieved in 2005, when the seat was identified as a target by the Liberal Democrats – not an outstanding result for them by any means.

Ah yes, 2005. When the Lib Dem candidate was Tony Dawson, who screwed up his party’s chances of gaining a winnable target seat by, as I recall:

a) Claiming he lived in the constituency when he actually lived in Southport
b) Being accused of doctoring photos on election literature
c) Making obscene comments on internet forums

You could hardly claim, then, that 2005 was a high water mark in Lib Dem support.

The other argument against a Lib Dem collapse is the fact that their share of the vote actually increased. However, this rose from 31.63% in May to the heady heights of, er, 31.9% yesterday. The number of Lib Dem votes actually fell by almost 3000, and would have fallen by much more were it not for tactical voting from some Conservatives. UK Polling Report reckon that at least 22% of Tory voters switched to the Lib Dems. Most of the other Lib Dem voters, it seems, just did not turn up at all.

The Lib Dems really believed they could win this by-election; for them not to makes you wonder where they can win at all now.

The strange collapse of the Tory vote

Baroness Warsi has been on the radio talking about how effective the Tory campaign was, despite losing 6500 votes from May. In some respects, Warsi was the perfect choice from the Conservatives to front the by-election campaign. On the one hand, she is a senior Tory (party chair, no less), Northern, Asian, and therefore could connect to the large Asian vote. On the other hand, she is completely incompetent and a liability. For an election where the Tories didn’t really want to win, but wanted to pretend that they did, Warsi was the perfect choice.

In any other situation where the Tories finished 2,500 votes behind Labour, there would have been a massive Tory campaign to win the seat in a subsequent by-election, and potentially destablise Ed Miliband’s leadership. Arif Ansari, the BBC’s political editor in the Northwest, made the point last night that whilst the Lib Dems and Labour were constantly telling him what events they were planning and who was coming to the constituency, he was having to chase the Tories to work out what was going on with their campaign. Then, when David Cameron did campaign in the constituency, he forgot the candidate’s name.

This blog from Guido Fawkes gives some of the reasons Tory activists were grumbling about their by-election campaign. It inclues this briefing note that was given in the last week of the campaign:

Suggesting they hadn’t updated their briefing notes since November. Nice one.

Still, we probably cannot read too much into this result. It’s been a Labour seat since 1997, governing parties don’t usually win by-elections, and there’s a long way to go until the next election. However, we do know now what the political narrative of the next year will be: the crumbling Lib Dem vote.


Why you should vote Liberal Democrat in Oldham East and Saddleworth

January 11, 2011

The start of the second day of our online hustings. This article on why you should vote for Elwyn Watkins and the Liberal Democrats comes from Nick Thornsby, winner of Lib Dem Voice’s Best New Blog 2010.

The Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election is many things, but one thing it isn’t – or shouldn’t be at any rate – is merely a referendum on the government.
 
The media and the Labour party will try and tell you otherwise, for obvious reasons. The media, because framing the election in this way allows them to write endless stories before, during and after about ‘what the by-election means for the coalition’.
 
And the Labour party because, well, what else have they got to say?
 
One thing this by-election certainly is, is the voters’ chance to take part in the free and fair election they were denied in May thanks to the lies told by Phil Woolas about his Liberal Democrat opponent.
 
Were it not for Elwyn Watkins, the Liberal Democrat candidate, Phil Woolas’s lying and stirring-up of racial tension would have gone completely unpunished – it would have been five years before the voters of Oldham and Saddleworth got to have their say again.
 
Now, like Elwyn, the people of Oldham and Saddleworth have the opportunity to take a stand. They can say that they are angry about having been told outright lies in May. They can decide that they deserve better.
 
They have to ask: Will voting for the Labour candidate really do that?
 
There are two more reasons that Oldham and Saddleworth voters should vote Liberal Democrat on Thursday 13th January.
 
Firstly, a vote for Liberal Democrat candidate Elwyn Watkins is a vote for a hard-working, straight-talking MP who is not simply in politics to be part of a cosy Westminister club. He has years of experience as a Councillor, and knows the constituency well.
 
And secondly because, in short, more Liberal Democrat MPs means more Liberal Democrat policies. The coalition is already implementing dozens of Liberal Democrat policies from our May manifesto, including raising the income tax threshold, reforming our politics and investing in education, yet we only have 57 MPs out of 650. Every extra Liberal Democrat MP means Nick Clegg has more leverage to implement more Liberal Democrat policies.

So, if Oldham and Saddleworth residents think Elwyn Watkins was right to stand up to Phil Woolas; if they believe that Oldham and Saddleworth deserves better; if they want an MP who will fight for the area in Parliament; and if they want more Liberal Democrat policies implemented to improve Britain, then voting Liberal Democrat on Thursday 13th May is their only choice.


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