How to tell when a reform wouldn’t really change a thing

When Tories support it. Wholeheartedly.

Gosh, that didn’t take long, did it?

George Osborne Is Still Not Fit To Be Chancellor

Today’s Guardian has this story about inconsistencies in George Osborne’s claimed savings from raising the male pension age:

The NIESR said Osborne’s team had made a mistake in their calculations, misreading a paper written by the thinktank earlier this year. Osborne aides originally based their calculations on a NIESR document in the House of Commons library. After his speech the thinktank sought clarification of his assumptions. It has recalculated the figures and will present them at a conference on Monday.

The NIESR aren’t, of course, the first people to wonder whether everything about Osborne’s plans really adds up; the Lib Dems’ very own Work and Pensions guru spotted this one a few days ago, commenting:

The only other explanation is that this is a figure for a whole Parliament – ie an annual saving times 5. Presumably in the 2016 to 2020 Parliament you could save over £10 billion from this measure, and then you are not far off the Tory figure. But the impression they seem to want to give is that this is a huge and specific cut, when, in the context of a Government deficit this year forecast to be in excess of £175 billion, £2 billion saving on pensions starts to look a lot more modest. Surely they can’t be trying to mislead us??

Why yes, Steve, they might just be. Not quite the fiddle you guessed, instead they are quoting the figures to us not in today’s money, but in 2020 money:

A spokesman for Osborne said the £13bn savings included inflationary rises between 2009 and 2020.

This, despite NIESR’s judgment that “There is no way of knowing how much it will save except in today’s money,” adding that (in today’s money) “the package that the Conservatives are proposing … will only raise £4bn [in 2016]”. The savings the Tories are talking about will only really fill out in about 2023. Not really going to help much with the deficit in the meantime, is it?

As our own Lord Oakshott comments in the Guardian’s piece: “This saga of incompetence and dishonesty shoots to pieces his claims to be a responsible chancellor.” Coming hot on the heels of a conference where the Tories main aim seemed to be to polish up George Osborne’s reputation and make him look chancellor-like, this is a bit of a problem for George. After all, it doesn’t look great for the NIESR to be holding a conference on Monday at which they essentially mark George’s work, and give him a “must try harder”.

Like Matthew Oakshott said at conference, Vince is a professional, George is an amateur. Not only do we realise it, not only do most people in business and finance realise it, but the Tories know it. Deep down. I watched the conference coverage of Tory conference on BBC Parliament. Ignoring, for a moment, the rather sullen response he got to some of his speech, lets talk instead about how many veiled criticisms were voiced from both the floor and the stage about Osborne’s lack of experience. On the afternoon when Ken Clarke spoke, the session which he lead was full of comments to the effect that people without any business experience shouldn’t be running our economy, to warm applause from the floor. All very well when you’re pointing up some of the experience of the Tory party’s business team, many of them parachuted straight from industry into the Lords, but it rather falls down when you remember that Boy George has done almost nothing in the world of business either.

Wikipedia offers us this summary of George Osborne’s experience before going into politics:

Osborne’s first job was to provide data entry services to the National Health Service to record the names of people who had died in London. He also briefly worked for Selfridges. He originally intended to pursue a career as a journalist, but, after missing out on a position at a national newspaper, was informed of a vacant job at the Conservative Central Office.

Brilliant. OK, so that’s not necessarily a sympathetically written description. But even the Tories’ own website can only manage this:

After a short spell as a freelance journalist, George joined the Conservative Research Department in 1994 and has since dedicated himself wholly to politics.

It doesn’t exactly suggest the kind of background experience that was repeatedly called for at Tory Conference, does it? I might as well throw in, for good measure, a quick reminder: Vince Cable was Chief Economist for Shell. Just mentioning.

The Tories hoped, following a decent conference turn from George, that these waverings might be dying away. George has come of age, they said. But it’s not just this, we’ve also recently had George’s imaginary secret documents. It’s quite clear that George still hasn’t learned to read those details properly. Many more revelations like these, and I’m not convinced that he’s quite so secure in his position as people assume.

And if he stays, and the Tories are serious about installing him as Chancellor, then we all ought to be very worried.

How Shropshire Voted… And What It Got

Well, as I sit here awaiting the trickle of Euro election results, I’ve been doing a spot of number crunching for my local council in Shropshire, a newly created unitary. You can see the results in the chart below. In light of the reputation of Lib Dem bar charts, I thought I’d go with a pie chart. On the outside, you can see the votes cast, and on the inside, you can see the makeup of the council that those votes produced.

As you can see, the wonders of FPTP have struck again. Thank goodness FPTP produces strong, decisive governments. I would hate to think of a party who attracted under 50% of the vote being rewarded with anything other than a stranglehold over the council.

I will console myself with the knowledge that in Shrewsbury & Atcham, we comfortably pushed Labour into third place, with Labour seeing their share of the vote going down by over 14%. In 2005, the county council elections saw Labour in second place, so this could well be an important development for Shrewsbury. In the rest of Shropshire, the Lib Dem vote is more than three times the Labour vote.

Hopefully, this means that, in four years time, if the Tory administration is unpopular, we will be the natural anti-incumbent vote in much of the county.

Open Primaries: An Alternative Answer?

Looking at the Tory talking heads on the news this morning, it appears that, in an attempt to head off electoral reform at the pass, their response to the public wanting a way to chuck out their MP at the ballot box is…. open primaries, USA-style.

Well, it’d be a start. The difference between that and multi-member STV, of course, is that is retains the idea of a party safe seat, but it does indeed allow the public to chuck out one particular person. It’s not, actually, as bad an idea as AV+, which I think would just give electoral reform in general a bad name. But it’s not great. If this gained a bit of momentum, though, and turned into a wholesale debate, along party lines (Labour: AV+, Tory: Open Primaries, LibDems: Multi Member STV), then obviously we’d be in the right, but if it came down to it, we should probably support the Tories over Labour (assuming the policies I posit above, of course).

Daniel Hannan, Guido and the American Right

Guido is terribly proud that Daniel Hannan’s speech, straight out of the Guido playbook of diagnosing Gordon Brown’s “pathologies” and wrapping himself in libertarian bollocks, has become something of an internet sensation. Noting that the clip has attracted the attention of such illustrious organs as the Drudge Report, he declares:

Cometh the hour, cometh the man – we are all ditto-heads now; Rushies and the Co-Conspirators.

He slightly surprises me with his eagerness to take up the mantle of “dittohead“, but it fits like a charm. After all, doesn’t Guido’s blog have exactly the same right-wing echo chamber effect as Rush and Fox News do for the US? Isn’t his comments thread full of the same brand of half-sentient hate-spewing twats that call Rush? Guido seems to be embracing the comparison before any of his regular critics really articulated it properly, just to block off that particular line of attack.

Anyway, on to the clip itself. Since it was released on Tuesday, it has become remarkably well exposed; yesterday it was the most watched clip on YouTube. So is it all that remarkable? Well, to be fair, it’s well crafted, to the point, snappy, and clearly expresses Hannan’s position. What’s more surprising is that it achieved this without much exposure at all from the MSM in the UK. Interestingly, Hannan has become something of a hero to the US right, with Rush Limbaugh (de facto leader of the Republicans) endorsing his words, Fox News cheerleader for the markets Neil Cavuto interviewing him, and well known crazy person Glen Beck inviting him on his show too.

Why, then, are the UK Conservatives not more proud of him? Hannan seems to be viewed by his own party as a slightly loose cannon, being one of the more headbanging eurosceptics in the party, a cheerleader for joining the loony fringe of Europe, and in fact he’s already been expelled from the EPP himself.

In many ways, the interviews with the US media are rather more revealing than the speech itself. In the Cavuto interview, he pretty much takes ownership of being the”do nothing” party (look at about 3 mins in), and answers “yes” in response to the question “in the same situation [of the US banking crisis], would you have said “Let ’em rip”?”.

I have to say, watching those videos is quite entertaining in at least one respect: the right wings of both our countries are currently maintaining that their particular screamingly socialist government is taking their country to much lower depths than are to be found anywhere else in the world. The result, when you bring the two together, is a pissing contest. Witness much claiming to have it worst from both sides of the pond.

The most amusing bit, though, is this big stompy red quote from Guido: “It is the speech that many Republicans wish they had someone to deliver to Obama“. Um, no. The Republicans have plenty of populist ranters who could deliver a little mini-speech like this. Trouble is, none of them could say it with a straight face, because unlike Gordon Brown, Barack Obama hasn’t been in the driving seat for the last ten years. He’s been there for three months. If the Republicans tried to pull this, they would rightly be derided, because it was George Bush who turned a surplus inherited from Clinton into a deficit.

Daniel Hannan is said to be somewhat perplexed at the traction he has achieved in the US. Let me help you out, Daniel: It’s a distraction. Like so much that the Republican noise machine does, it’s a talking point to try to prove a point from a country with different circumstances to those of the US, and then import the “take home message” to the US, without people noticing the bait and switch they’ve just been offered whereby something that reflects badly on the Republicans becomes the fault of “socialists” over there in Yerp. There’s a reason they’d rather talk about the backstory in someone else’s country: it’s because they’ve only been the opposition for three months, and most of that backstory in the US is their backstory.

David Cameron’s Homophobic New Friends

Paul Waugh at the Evening Standard has pointed out that the parties that the Tories are proposing to ally themselves with in the European Parliament include the Polish Law and Justice Party. He points out that one of the party’s MPs made the pretty interesting remark: “Obama is an approaching catastrophe. This marks the end of white man’s civilisation.”

Their founder is also a climate change denier, quoted as saying that “Global warming is a false myth and every serious person and scientist says so.”

A quick scout round the internets produces some more interesting information. The co-founder and current chair of the party, Jarosław Kaczyński, has, for instance, been quoted as saying that “The affirmation of homosexuality will lead to the downfall of civilization.” This, just to be cheap for a second, from a man who is unmarried and lives with his mother.

Meanwhile, the Tories have been hiding behind Kaczynski’s twin brother Lech, who is the current President of Poland, pointing out that he has disowned the remarks made by one of their MPs about Obama.

Maybe, but the charge of a homophobic party is rather less easily shrugged off. Lech Kaczyński himself, on a state visit to Ireland, was quoted as saying that the human race “would disappear if homosexuality was freely promoted”. In march last year he broadcast a video of a gay American couple’s wedding on Polish national television, to warn the nation that supporting the Lisbon Treaty, and therefore the EU Charter of Human Rights, would mean that same-sex marriage could come to Poland.

Make no mistake, this party has made homophobia a centrepiece of its identity.

If the Tories think it’s unfair that people are mocking them for leaving the EPP Group in favour of joining forces with Europe’s nutters, they’ve got some explaining to do.

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Cameron Tries To "Nudge" His Way Out Of Recession

The Tories have announced a plan today to give companies National Insurance breaks on employing people who have been unemployed for over 3 months. Detail on their website, but the gist is this:

It costs the government £8100 per annum in benefits payments and lost income tax receipts to support an unemployed person. So their proposal is as follows:

Private sector employers, who hire someone who has been claiming unemployment benefits for more than three months (13 weeks) and who has not previously worked for that company in the previous year, would receive a credit against Employers National Insurance Contributions. The credit would be worth £2,500 for full time jobs of 30 hours a week or more, or half that amount for part time work of 16 hours a week or more. It would be phased out beyond the higher rate tax threshold so that only basic rate taxpayers would be eligible for the full amount.
• To prevent companies making people redundant in order to replace them and claim the tax cut, the payment would only be available to companies that had made no redundancies in the previous three months, or for three months after claiming the credit.
• To limit the amount given in tax cuts to companies who are already growing rapidly, the tax cut would be limited to a maximum of 20 per cent of the workforce of any one company.
• The credit would be available for one year after the employee starts their new job.

David Cameron doesn’t believe you can borrow your way out of a recession, it seems. Instead, he seems to intend to Nudge his way out of one. It’s a pity, then, that in the words of Nick Clegg, “Cameron has drawn the fly on the floor”. This doesn’t help anyone who is already in a job. It doesn’t help businesses who are struggling to keep employing the people they already employ. It doesn’t seem likely to boost consumer spending all that much. It doesn’t even seem likely to genuinely get all that many people back into employment. All it really does is tip the scales in favour of people who have been unemployed for over 3 months.

Let’s look at this from the point of view of the people it’s aimed at: employers (and note, in passing, that the last two Tory tax announcements – VAT delay, and now this – have been aimed at helping business, not people in the most direct sense).

To employ someone on minimum wage full time costs them about £11,000 (depends what hours they’re on, so no point being too precise here). £5682 of that is above the Earnings Threshold, so National Insurance is paid on it, to the tune of 12.8%, or £727. So overall it costs the employer £11,727 to employ someone on the minimum wage. The Tory credit reduces that to £9227. Essentially, the Tories want to reduce the price of employing someone on minimum wage by 21%.

The significance of these credits only gets lower the higher the wage you’re talking about. Someone on £20,000 costs their employer £21,891 to employ. That becomes £19,391, a cut of 11%. Or if you’re on £30,000, it costs your employer £33,171, becoming £30,671, a cut of 8%. Much beyond that, the credits stop under the plan in question. So the jobs this is likely to have most impact on is those at the bottom end of the pay scale.

Fair enough. But now ask yourself this: Are you, a struggling company in the middle of a recession, going to set yourself back £9227 a year to employ someone who is currently unemployed out of the goodness of your own heart? I suggest that the answer is no. I suggest that most of the companies who are going to be taking people on in the next few years are the ones who had a pretty good chance of employing some extra people anyway: businesses who are just filling gaps left by employees leaving, or who are recruiting people they would have needed anyway. The Tories themselves admit that this would be true to some extent; the £2500 figure is based on an estimate that only ~31% of the jobs that would be created under this scheme wouldn’t have been created anyway. I suspect it would be rather less than that, depending on how bad the recession gets.

Is it too cynical of me to suspect that this isn’t really a Tory prescription for the recession at all? I reckon what this is is a bit of policy they had on the back burner as a remedy for long-term unemployment, which has been tweaked a bit and packed up in a shiny new box that says “Tax Cut!” on it, to cover up for the fact that the Tories, and specifically Gideon Osborne, don’t know anything about the economy, really, and it has only become obvious to them relatively recently that the “responsibility … sharing the proceeds of growth … no irresponsible tax cuts” line wasn’t going to cut it any more. Everyone else is talking tax cuts now, but they’ve got nothing much to announce, and the fiddly bits and pieces they’d come up with so far (Council Tax “freeze”, Marriage Bonus, Inheritance Tax threshold to millionaire-friendly level, etc) were looking a bit shabby and tight-fisted in comparison. Hence today’s policy.

It’s a good job we’ve got an economic team who were able to beat the rest of the parties to it, despite the slowing effect of the Lib Dem policy ratification process, isn’t it? We’ve had a revenue neutral package to really help people on low and middle incomes for over a year now. The way to create job growth is to give everyone a significant amount of their own money back. Spending goes up, jobs are really created, etc. Today’s Tory plan does next to nothing to mitigate the recession.

Go back to your drawing board and try again, Gideon and Dave.

Cameron Reverts To Type

Well, today David Cameron made the speech that made clear what his opponents have been saying all along: That his first year or two as leader were a complete fiction designed to de-toxify the Tory brand. Now that he’s ahead in the polls, he feels comfortable speaking with conviction about the things he actually believes. Lets take a quick look at some of the contrasts.

In his speech accepting the leadership of the party, Cameron said:

We need to change the way we feel. No more grumbling about modern Britain. I love this country as it is, not as it was, and I believe our best days lie ahead.

Today’s Cameron, though, seems to have no problems grumbling about modern Britain, even criticising as out of touch those who caution against his exaggerated rhetoric:

Some say our society isn’t broken. I wonder what world they live in. Leave aside that almost two million children are brought up in households where no one works. Or that there are housing estates in Britain where people have a lower life expectancy than in the Gaza Strip. Just consider the senseless, barbaric violence on our streets. Children killing children. Twenty-seven kids murdered on the streets of London this year. A gun crime every hour. A serious knife crime every half hour. A million victims from alcohol related-attacks.

But it’s not just the crime; not even the anti-social behaviour. It’s the angry, harsh culture of incivility that seems to be all around us. When in one generation we seem to have abandoned the habits of all human history that in a civilised society, adults have a proper role – a responsibility – to uphold rules and order in the public realm not just for their own children but for other people’s too.

2005’s Cameron was keen that

my children, your children, grow up in a country where the streets are safe, the public space isn’t filthy, where it isn’t a hassle to get around, you can own your own home and where climate change and the environment aren’t an afterthought.

but today’s Cameron made the environment exactly that, tacking onto the end of his speech a solitary sentence on the environment proper, just before coming into the final stretch of his speech:

We changed because knew we had to make ourselves relevant to the twenty-first century.

You didn’t champion green politics as greenwash, but because climate change is devastating our environment because the energy gap is a real and growing threat to our security and because $100-a-barrel oil is hitting families every time they fill up their car and pay their heating bills.

To be fair, the other part of the speech that mentioned the environment was this:

I am also a child of my time. I want a clean environment as well as a safe one.

What strikes you about these two quotes? Most obvious is how far the environment has fallen down the agenda. Compare it to, say, this bit of his 2006 leader’s speech to conference:

As you might have gathered by now, I am passionate about our environment. It’s a very personal commitment. I grew up in the countryside. I’ve always loved the outdoors. As you can see if you look around this conference, I’m quite keen on trees.

We saw in our debate on Monday the scale of the threat from climate change. I know that we have within us the creativity, the innovation, the technological potential to achieve green growth – sustainable prosperity. The Stern report will tell us that the tools of success are in our grasp. But it will also say that the price of inaction gets higher every day.

So I will not pretend to you that it will be easy. That there will be no pain or sacrifice. If you want to understand climate change, go and see Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. Today, I want to tell the British people some uncomfortable truths. There is a price for progress in tackling climate change. Yes of course low-energy light bulbs, hybrid cars – even a windmill on your roof can make a difference and also save money.

But these things are not enough. Government must show leadership by setting the right framework. Binding targets for carbon reduction, year on year. That would create a price for carbon in our economy. What does that mean? It means that things which produce more carbon will get more expensive. Going green is not some fashionable, pain-free option.

It will place a responsibility on business. It will place a responsibility on all of us. That is the point. Tackling climate change is our social responsibility – to the next generation.

And I’ll tell you something:In politics, it’s much easier to take steps that will be painful if political parties work together, instead of playing it for partisan advantage. That’s what we have offered to do. We have asked Tony Blair to put a climate change bill in the Queen’s speech. If he does, we’ll back it. So come on, prime minister. It’s your last few months in office. It’s your last Queen’s speech. Use it to do something for the environment.

At no point in 2008’s speech was there a section on the environment as an issue. In the first quote, the environment is an example of a change to the Tory party. In the second, it’s a piece of character window-dressing for Brand Cameron. Neither sees any hint of a policy direction like 2006’s quote. In both cases, the issue is not important in and of itself, but because of what it supposedly says about Cameron or the changes he has brought to the party. If that isn’t a clear demonstration from Cameron that he doesn’t really care about the environment as an issue, he merely recognises its potency as a vehicle for changing public perception of him and his party, then I don’t know what is.

Some of the Cameron of the past even proves to be quite prophetic about the present. For instance:

I think that when some people talk about substance, what they mean is they want the old policies back.

Appropriately enough, today’s more sober, substantive speech sounded very much more like a Tory speech; no sentence would have been out of place in the Daily Mail.

Let’s also note that whilst the Tories are far too “responsible” to make commitments to cut taxes on low income taxpayers (managing only a fairly pathetic, fiddling Council Tax Freeze that has been taken apart skillfully elsewhere, so I won’t rehash that one here), they aren’t beyond making commitments to help payers of Inheritance Tax, and now also Corporation Tax. The only real commitment that Cameron has made that will genuinely affect most people on low incomes is his moralising Marriage Bonus.

The real turning point in British politics in the last year or two was not Brown’s bottled election, it was Cameron’s back-pedalling on grammar schools, and the quiet distancing of the party from the Goldsmith-Gummer review. That was the point where it became clear that his party could only be pushed so far before they would grumble too much. That is the turnaround that could really make a difference to our country in the long run, not whether Gordon Brown hung on for a couple more years and achieved very little other than reacting to events.

Isn’t Tory Conference Tuneful?

Sat in front of BBC Parliament this morning, this thought crossed my mind: “Why don’t we get to play music at Lib Dem conference, to show off our edgy, liberal tastes in music, in contrast to these bland, painfully “hip and modern” choices the Tories make?”

Then I remembered: it’s because we don’t need to cover up for a lack of anything actually happening at our conferences.

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Are The Tories Finally Backing Up Their Green Talk?

The most interesting thing the Tories have said today is not, of course, George Osborne’s council tax “freeze”, but Theresa Villiers’s suggestion that they are now opposed to Heathrow’s third runway. I know I should be partisan about this, but I genuinely want to congratulate them on this announcement, not least because certain Tories seem to be in denial about it.

It’s been a long time coming, but on a subject as urgent as this, any conversion is welcome. One might think this means that the Tories have accepted that endless expansion in air travel capacity is not, as so many in the party have argued, simply “necessary” (on the contrary, it has to stop). But don’t be so sure about that. Instead, they are justifying the decision with a two pronged approach:

Firstly, to present a high-speed rail link as in some way an alternative to it. This is, as BAA have pointed out (amongst other squeals of pain from the usual “money must come before planet” brigade), a false choice:

“The total number of flights to Manchester and Leeds/Bradford is only 13,356 or less than 3% of Heathrow’s total flights. Even if every flight from Manchester and Leeds/Bradford were replaced by a new high-speed rail line then Heathrow would still be operating at 97% of capacity.”

Of course, I don’t agree with the conclusion that BAA draw from this (that we still need more air capacity). Rather, I would say that the point to take away from this is that green politicians are, sooner or later, going to have to get away from the soft lie that all our current travel can be replaced with a greener alternative that is in no way less convenient. Quite simply, eventually some brave soul is going to have to tell Britain’s (and the rest of the world’s) flyers that it’s no good, they just can’t feel entitled to go jetting off round the world as often as they like. Cameron sailed close to this with his suggestion last year of a “green air-miles allowance” of one short-haul flight a year per person before punitive taxes kicked in. That, like much of the environmental stuff Cameron’s early rebranding exercise floated, seems to have been dropped six months later.

Secondly, the chatter about a possible Boris Island continues, putting completely to rest the idea that this might actually be a good policy shift from a climate change point of view. On the contrary, if both of these prongs went ahead, they would probably see a greater expansion in greenhouse gas emissions than would be the case with a third runway at Heathrow and no high speed rail link. Of course, even the latter is not desriable.

So, once again, it is left to the Lib Dems to make the green case, since the Labour government have already leapt in on the side of the airport and airline operators, with this choice quote from Ruth Kelly (still here, Ruth?):

“These proposals are politically opportunistic, economically illiterate and hugely damaging to Britain’s national interests. The Tories are posing a false choice – we need both more capacity in Britain’s airports and on our main rail lines.”

Apparently, unchecked growth in greenhouse emissions from the aviation sector are “in Britain’s national interest”. Well it would explain a lot.

Osborne’s Council Tax Freeze: A Few Questions

This morning, immediately before the speech by George Osborne, there was a bit of a buzz around the rolling news channels and on the Daily Politics that Osborne might be about to pull a bit of an inheritance-tax style rabbit out of his rhetorical hat. “Something to do with local taxation”, hinted Andrew Neil. Then I went out for lunch. Intrigued to see what it was when I returned, I flipped on the news channels, only to find that nobody was talking about it, preferring instead to keep up the constant general rumble about the US bail-out plan. Nothing very interesting, then, I guessed.

Turning to the internet to find out, this was confirmed: Osborne has promised a council tax freeze. Except he doesn’t have the ability to enforce it. All he’s doing is offering councils money from central government worth up to a 2.5% increase in council tax in their area (as I understand it). So, instead of raising the money locally, they are being encouraged to increase the centralisation of their funding stream (nicely localist, George). I wonder if any other strings will be attached to the money?And would the money be withdrawn if a council stepped over the 2.5% threshold, or would it effectively just be a bit of extra money for councils. (That might explain Osborne’s projection of 100% take-up for his scheme.)

The real test on this is whether the Tory government would reverse the Labour trend of demanding that local councils provide certain services or fund certain projects, without providing them with sufficient money to pay for them, thus forcing them to take the political hit for raising the taxes necessary to fund them, while central government basks in the glory of simply having mandated the fruits of said spending. If not, then all that this will mean is an escalation in huffing and puffing by the national Tory party, whilst local councils put up council tax because they have to.

Of course, a genuinely localist party who genuinely wanted to do something about council tax might… oh, never mind.

Tory Hissyfits Becoming A Habit

I will leave to others the point that this morning’s threats from the Tories over our leaflets in Henley are not likely to get very far, since they are bollocks. What I want to ask is this: is it now Tory standard practice to attempt to neutralise criticism of their candidates by threatening to sue people over it? Anyone remember this from Bromley and Chislehurst?

David Cameron has accused the Lib Dems of fighting a “dirty” and “personal” campaign in Bromley and Chislehurst.

The UK Independence Party also got into a spat with Mr Neill, who threatened to sue over a UKIP poster accusing him of favouring “unlimited immigration”.

Or this from Ealing Southall?

After all, the Tories know their pockets are deeper than most other parties at the moment; if it comes to it, they can afford to piss around in court doing this kind of faux-outrage, wasting a judge’s time. And that’s if they even get as far as a courtroom. I mean, in the heat of a campaign, they don’t have the time to actually sue anyone over anything, they can simply say they will. I don’t actually recall the two previous examples going to court, does anyone else?

Frankly, the best thing Stephen Kearney can say is “Well get on with it then. Sue me.”

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A Henley Strategy

What has been bothering me this morning (as I tried to focus on statistics, and failed) is the following question: If the Tory victory in Crewe & Nantwich was about voting for the default “NotLabour” option, then we could have won it if we were in second, right? But that logic depends on it being Labour who are in first. So what do we do in Henley, where, by all appearances, voters are quite sympathetic to the Tories, and Labour doesn’t really stand a chance? So far, the Henley Lib Dems website seems to be going with a fairly traditional mixture of Post Offices, Iraq and Local Issues. Which is all very well and good. But is it enough?

Well, here’s an answer. I don’t know if it’s the answer, I leave that to the reader. But here it is:

We turn Henley into a chance to deliver a message to Cameron that we want to know what his policies are.

Now, I get very irritated when people whinge that they “don’t know what you stand for”, or “don’t know what your policies are”. Yes, it’s up to us to go out and tell people who aren’t interested, but people who claim they are interested surely have an at least equal responsibility to bloody well find out. Especially when it’s as simple as going here.

So, I thought to myself this morning, I must be fair to the Tories. It’s not (completely) up to them to tell me what their programme for government is, it’s up to me to go and find out. So I did. Here it is. It’s very nicely presented, the website looks awfully modern, and the policies sound lovely (except for the ones that sound like a Grumpy Tory).

All four (short) pages of them. [UPDATE: It has been pointed out to me that there are actually links to pdfs at the bottom of the four pages, making it up to more than that, in actual fact. But having had a quick peruse, I can’t say I’m impressed. They are as much efforts in obfuscation as they are genuine policy documents, designed to make everything very dense and difficult to skim and generally look as if there’s rather more content than there is. IMO.] Policies like these:

On Education:

“Improve discipline and behaviour in schools”
“Reform the schools inspection procedure to ensure there is tougher, more effective and more searching scrutiny of under-performance”
“Allow smaller schools and more intimate learning environments to be established to respond to parental demands”

On Prisons:

“We will accelerate the deportation of foreign national prisoners.”
“We will replace automatic release with earned release.”
“We will encourage social enterprises to expand prison industries where inmates can do proper work, learn skills and be paid.”

On Welfare Reform:

“Rapid assessments for new and existing claimants of out of work benefits.”
“Every out of work benefit claimant capable of doing so will be expected to work or prepare for work.”
“Time limits for out of work benefits – so people who claim for more than two years out of three will be required to join community work programmes.”

And that’s about it. A mixture of hand-waving wafty shite, and flashes of the same old Tories. And by the way, those are genuinely the only three areas where they say anything even that specific.

The Lib Dems, on the other hand, have, as well all know, a mountain of detailed policy proposals. There is even more policy in our pocket-guide document than there is on the entire Tory website. So I say we turn Henley into a judgment on the policy-free haze which Cameron’s Tories are. We not only campaign locally, but we use the campaign as a platform from which to attack the Tories. After all, kicking Labour right now is the easy part, and it’s not going to do us any good in an area where both main contenders Aren’t Labour.

Thoughts?

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Labour’s 5 Point Lead… Over the Lib Dems

So there’s a new Guardian ICM poll out today. (I know, I know, one single poll does not a trend make… still). It makes some interesting reading for Lib Dems, not only because Labour support has dropped sharply, but because comparatively little of it has gone to the Tories. Look:

Worth noting also this from the Guardian’s story on it:

Voters are moving away from Labour to a range of opponents, including the Liberal Democrats, who are on 22% today, up three points on last month.

The party is now only six points behind Labour, the narrowest gap since the Liberal Democrats were founded. Support for other parties, 9%, remains strong.

Detailed analysis shows that former Labour voters are transferring their support in almost equal proportions to the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats, while some established Liberal Democrat voters are transferring to the Conservatives.

This is worth noting. I know picking up Labour votes is the easier proposition at the moment, but frankly, we need to be making some running against Cameron. It’s no good soaking up disaffected Labour support only to haemorrhage it right back to the Tories.

UPDATED: Telegraph – Clegg Would Offer Tories Supply & Confidence

UPDATE: Paul Walter is reporting that he has it on good authority this is bollocks planted by the Tories. Interesting. I had noticed with some curiosity that none of the other MSM sources had picked up the story (other than the Mirror, who are forever wailing that we’re a bunch of closet Tories and have been since the days of Charles Kennedy, so whatever). Still, if that’s true, it means the Telegraph has been printing some pretty dishonest stuff, since the article contains the words “Mr. Clegg ruled out…”, and so on.

I wonder who Paul’s source is, and how they can be so sure?

Here is the original story, anyway:

The Telegraph is reporting that Nick Clegg will support the Tories if they are the largest party in a hung parliament.

Note, of course, that “support” in the Telegraph’s language appears to mean “keep Tory policy firmly under his boot”. The devil is, as ever, in The Telegraph’s detail:

Mr Clegg ruled out taking a Cabinet seat in a Conservative government in return for his support and instead would provide Mr Cameron with “supply and confidence” – meaning he would promise to back a Conservative Budget and would side with the Tories in any votes of confidence.

As a result, Mr Cameron would be free to accept the post of Prime Minister from the Queen on the day after the next general election, even if he failed to win an outright majority.

In return, the Liberal Democrats would reserve the right to vet Mr Cameron’s first Queen’s Speech – the publication of his legislative programme for his first year in office.

Mr Clegg would have an effective veto over the Tories’ domestic policy proposals as he could withdraw the support of his MPs and order them to vote with the Labour opposition on measures with which he disagreed.

Before now, it had been thought likely that Mr Clegg would wait until after an election to embark on negotiations with both of the main parties in the event of a hung Parliament.

But The Daily Telegraph understands that he has decided that the public would not forgive him if he propped up a Labour administration that they had voted to throw out.

He is uninterested in taking up a Cabinet seat led by either of the other parties, as he believes it would fetter his ability to criticise an administration.

Instead, he wants the power to veto legislation, which, he hopes, would raise the Liberal Democrats’ profile enough to allow them to become the second largest party at a future general election.

Essentially, if you stop and think about this for a moment, that’s the surest way Nick has of ensuring that A) as much Lib Dem policy as possible is enacted and B) the Lib Dems aren’t associated for ever more with the Tories. Think about it: We aren’t in coalition, we aren’t sat round the cabinet table, we aren’t responsible for government cock-ups. We are, however, able to exercise judgment on legislation the government passes, and to exert pressure on those issues which we prioritise. All in all, a pretty good position for us to be in.

If this is true, then I think it’s pretty well judged by Nick.

Hat-Tip: Φ

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Cannabis

I do hope the party is going to make a bit of noise about this. Not because we’re all doped up beardies, you understand, but because reclassifying cannabis as a class B drug would be daft. The police have said they wouldn’t change back to policing it the way they did when it was class B, and now Gordon Brown is clinging to reclassification, desperate not to be called a ditherer, in the face of his own panel of experts’ advice.

Now, I realise that Chris Huhne is already battling away, and I wouldn’t expect anything else from him. But I do hope Nick will make something of this at PMQs, and I do hope there will be no timidity from the party out of fear of being painted as “soft on drugs”. This is a prime example of an occasion when the majority of the public agree with us, if they stop and think about it without the aid of the tabloids. Make a good argument for liberalism here, and it’s likely to stick.

We have some clear political ground here, the Tories don’t want it. New Liberal Tories they may be, but they’re still the party of moralising and “sending messages” through the law. Just like they think paying people in loveless, strained marriages £20 a week to stay in them is going to help those people’s children. Yet again, this is a Cosy Consensus issue. Make something of it.

And Cleggers? If they ask you if you ever smoked cannabis when you were younger, just say yes, for goodness sake. The public know “I think I’m entitled to a private life before politics…” means “yes” anyway. Nothing happened to all those Labour home office ministers who did exactly this, now did it?

Cleggover

OK, now I have been fairly unmoved to post about this in recent days. But I just went and looked at Dale’s blog, and was struck by the absolutely bizarre degree to which the right is wetting itself about this minor gaffe. They are desperately trying to keep it in people’s minds, when most of us are quite happy to move on from what is clearly a fairly open and shut case of Piers Morgan being a rascal and a politician not wanting to sound like a prude.

I am reminded of nothing more than Bill Hicks’s bit about the manufactured controversy over Basic Instinct at the time of its original release. Here, I’ve rewritten it to explain the parallel I’m drawing:

I saw this news story recently which everyone called “Cleggover”. Okay now. Quick capsule review: Piece-of-Shit. Okay now. Yeah: end of story, by the way. Don’t get caught up in that fevered hype phoney fucking debate about that Piece-of-Shit interview.
“Is he bragging about this, is that too many, are politicians becoming too dddddddd…..”
You’re just confused, you don’t get it, you’ve forgotten how to judge correctly. Take a deep breath:
“Huuh.”
Look at it again.
“Oh it’s a Piece-of-Shit!”
Exactly, that’s all it is. Piers Morgan squatted, let out a loaf, they put a fucking title on it, put it on a marquee, Morgan’s shit, piece of shit, walk away.
“But is it too, how would we feel about a female MP who ddddd…..”
You’re getting really baffled here. Piece-of-Shit! Now walk away. That’s all it is, it’s nothing more! Free yourself folks, if you see it, Piece-of-Shit, say it and walk away. You’re right! You’re right! Not those fuckers who want to tell you how to think! You’re fucking right!

This doesn’t matter. It’s like Blair’s “5 times a night” thing; yes, everyone sits around and goes “ewww” for a week or so, but it’s nothing more than that, and most people realise this. Unfortunately, the Tories are so unsettled by Clegg that they will make themselves sound absolutely batshit crazy trying to drive forward a media narrative that isn’t there that this is “the beginning of the end for Clegg”.

You might think that’s a charicature, by the way. Well go look here, for instance:

Nick Clegg has had a disastrous week. His comments about the number of women he had slept with have made him into a laughing-stock while his party’s position on the Lisbon treaty becomes more incoherent by the day. Clegg’s interview with The Times this morning shows how difficult it is going to be for him to get past the Clegg-over business. Helen Rumbelow and Alice Miles press him repeatedly on the issue and you have to imagine that every other interviewer is going to do the same for the foreseeable future.

Guys, take a deep breath here, and listen to Hicks. As much as you may want this to be something more, this is a piece-of-shit news story, and nothing more. If you want to have an argument with Clegg about policy, go for it. This makes you look silly.

Dale Has Dug Up A Slide Show, Cue Sarcastic Applause

Cast your mind back to March 2007. Ming is leading the party, Brown has yet to take power, and Spring Conference has just taken place. The one where, afterwards, people wrote things like

Sir Menzies Campbell steered the Liberal Democrats towards a coalition with Labour yesterday, effectively laying out the terms of trade by setting Gordon Brown five tests he would have to pass as prime minister.

Would it surprise you in the least to discover that the parliamentary party had been discussing this before hand? No, me neither. Still, it is a mark of how frightened of us the Tories are, and Iain Dale in particular, that he has posted quite extensively (for him) about this today, here and here.

Apparently, we are supposed to feel it is some kind of revelation that most Lib Dem voters would prefer a coalition with Labour to one with the Tories. Apparently, “gives the lie” to our position that we are not in politics to be an annex to another party, because our parliamentary party was looking at the possibilities.

Perhaps most desperate, Iain is trying to rake up some kind of scandal over the use of Henley Management College, because Chief Executive Chris Bones is a supporter of the party. He presents no evidence that anything improper has gone on, simply asserting that “his colleagues, … are growing uncomfortable with the Centre being used for party political purposes”. This use for party political purposes, it turns out in the next sentence, means four weekends over the space of a year. Which were in all likelihood paid for in the proper manner.

Dale tries to imply that there is something controversial in the following:

The PowerPoint presentation used in the Henley sessions is a substantial document of 50 pages and fully branded by Henley. So if Bones did this in his private capacity why is it branded ‘Henley’?. As it is branded ‘Henley’ it seems likely that Henley wish to be associated with it and that the College is claiming ownership of the work.

My reactions are twofold:

1. Is it not quite likely that this is Bones’s default slide format, and he just didn’t change it?
2. Is there any problem with it being associated with the college? There is nothing in the presentation, at least that Iain has shown us, that is in the least bit damaging to the college, or in any way a departure from the sort of very sensible judgment anybody could have displayed on the issues. Telling us that speculating about hung parliaments doesn’t help us in an election, you say! My goodness, that’s damaging!

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Here, Mr. Dale!

Iain Dale’s obsession with the Lib Dems continues today with an attempt to make Clegg look out of step with the party on the EU reform treaty (as long as for “party” you read “four bloggers”). He asks: “are there any LibDem bloggers at all who support their new leader’s calamitous stand?” Well, on the condition that I don’t accept the stance as calamitous at all (awkward, maybe), I would like to step forward.

Paul Walter has already put forward the best worded technical argument on this that I have heard (including from Ed Davey), and I don’t intend to retread that particular strand of the case against a referendum. If you haven’t read Paul’s post, read it, and then add the rest of my post to it, to achieve a full appreciation of my point of view.

My main reason for disliking the idea of a referendum is that it just seems like a really stupid way to work our membership of the EU. When these documents get put together, years are spent by our (constitutionally) elected representatives hammering out the clauses they want and those they don’t. There are now 27 countries in the EU, and they all have their own positions. It’s a long and drawn out process. Nonetheless, if we believe there is merit in membership of the EU at all, then it is a worthwhile one, and any treaty that makes the EU work better is worth negotiating.

Once all this stuff is put together, right at the end of the process of wrangling that has formed this constitution, its final step before being passed into law is for each country to ratify it. And this is the stage when it is appropriate for the British people (or the people of any other country, for that matter) to have their say?

Think of it this way. You commission an architect to design a building for you, on the basis of your brief for what it must do. They then go away, and get the building’s design accepted by your neighbours, which involves the odd compromise on one or two points. They have to change one or two building materials to comply with environmental regulation (quite right too!). They draw up a design. At the end of it all, they stand back and say “There you are, it may not be exactly what you wanted, but we did our best. You can now either accept the job we’ve done, or tear it up.”

What would be on offer to the public in a referendum on this treaty would not be a meaningful say on the treaty, it would be petulance. If we want to be in the EU, we have to accept that treaties must be negotiated, and must inherantly be compromises. If we don’t like what they come out with, we should not derail the process for the rest of the nations who are quite happy with the way it is going. There is no point in sending them back to the drawing board, we are unlikely to get anything better back if we do. If we don’t like it, we should leave the EU.

And that is why the referendum the Lib Dems are proposing is the only sensible one to be offered. Referenda are always blunt instruments, and the idea that a referendum is the appropriate instrument with which the British public should express a view on something like the contents of the EU reform treaty is barking. Not when we have already had, for some time now, a much more sensible instrument with which to do so: a representative democracy. Nobody could argue that a party’s position towards the EU was not a big issue in the minds of many when they elected the parties that they did.

(You might, of course, take issue with the way our representative democracy is organised. For instance, you might point out that the Tory party is not as outright anti-Europe as many of its MPs and supporters might like, and that as such, your only option for expressing an explicitly anti-EU stance is to vote for a party like UKIP with little chance of success. I know. Frustrating, isn’t it? Why not vote for a party with a committment to change that, then.)

So lets not waylay the EU’s progress any more. If the great British public are so set against the EU reform treaty, despite the government’s having done their best to negotiate it in our interest (it is not in their interest to do otherwise, surely?), then lets take the opportunity to leave them all to it. But lets not insist on remaining in the EU, sending them back to the drawing board with every attempt they make to reform the EU. And if we entertain the notion that actually, given an in or out vote, the majority would vote to stay in the EU, then can we also accept that membership of the EU entails a committment to compromise and due process, and that referenda are wholly inappropriate to that process?

When we passed Maastricht, there was a case for a referendum. When we entered the EC, there certainly was. And there is a case now for a referendum. And it is the one the Lib Dems are offering. But I just don’t see that it is in any way helpful to have a referendum on the reform treaty. Once we accept that we want to be members of something called “the European Union”, and that we do not want to be the only members of it, then we no longer have the right to expect it to be everything we might want. It belongs to other people as well. If, on balance, we don’t like it, we should get out of it.

And that is why what Nick Clegg has done is eminently sensible.

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Lib-Connery

Another day, another article in the Guardian. This time it’s Michael Cockerell, who has written that:

Tory electoral prospects could now be in the hands of the Lib Dem’s new Davealike leader.

Clearly the MSM have already chosen their preferred albatross to hang around our neck, and it is that our new leader is a clone of Dave Cameron. This, it seems, on the back of the following startling simmilarities:

1. Young
2. Not been MPs for very long (so… pretty much the “young” point again)
3. …… dark hair?

Well, never mind. We’ve had worse.

What amuses me more about this whole thing is the idea that David Cameron clearly thinks it’s such a great tactic to play this up, by making noises about a “progressive alliance”, as if this is going to really sabotage us but do him no harm at all. From where I’m sitting, the reverse is true: Dave Cameron’s strategy has, as Cockerell points out, been to try and move onto our ground.

The new Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, has been widely characterised as a Cameron clone, but much less widely noticed is that Cameron’s strategy has been quite specifically to target Lib Dem voters.

In a speech just a fortnight after becoming leader, Cameron dubbed himself “a liberal Conservative”: his two core values, “trusting people and sharing responsibility”, were those of the Lib Dems. And he said that in most of the seats the Tories needed to win to topple Labour, the size of the Lib Dem vote was larger than the Labour majority. So the answer was staggeringly simple: “It is time for Liberal Democrat voters, councillors and MPs to come and join the Conservative party.”

The co-author of Cameron’s strategy is his reclusive media guru, Steve Hilton. An ex-Saatchi man, Hilton is an expert in political marketing, commercial rebranding and so-called consumer segmentation. And he has put his knowledge to work for Cameron.

One top Tory in a position to know explained the Hilton strategy: “Since our high point in 1992 we have lost over 5 million voters, as well as over 150 seats. Meanwhile the Lib Dems’ share of the vote has steadily risen and they have more than trebled their seats – almost all at our expense. Dave’s prime aim is win back those 5 million lost voters.”

And last weekend the Tory leader reinforced the message he had first sent to the Lib Dems two years ago, in a subtly different form. Instead of calling for Lib Dems to defect, he offered to join forces, to create “a new progressive alliance” to oust Gordon Brown.

So surely the response to overtures from Dave to the electorate to try and paint himself as “basically a pretty liberal kinda guy” is to turn round and ask why, if he thinks that what the country wants is basically a Lib Dem-alike party, should people vote for him and not us. That is, if people want someone who looks a bit like Cameron or Clegg and are attracted by how many times we can use the word “liberal”, then why should they choose the one dragging a half-unreconstructed Thatcherite party behind him? Instead of simply replying that the offer is mischievous and that Dave lives in “cloud-cuckoo land”, as Vince has, why can’t we instead respond with something like:

“If David Cameron wants to join a liberal, progressive movement for the future of this country, then why doesn’t he just join the party he has so flatteringly sought to emulate for the last two years? Of course, he would have to accept a few basic liberal principles…” Cue list of points on which we hold the undeniably progressive higher ground.

Of course, I hope Nick has his own ideas for dealing with Cameron, as has been suggested at his meeting with the assembled Lib Dem blogging royalty yesterday. As Alix reported it:

Don’t worry [dark expression]. He’ll be dealt with.

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