Thursday, May 22, 2008

Expectation management

So then, the Tories are going to win in Crewe and Nantwich tonight, and the only question is by how much. What with the state of the Labour Party at the moment, and the fiasco over the whole 10p issue, really anything less than a Tory majority of 6,000 (7,000, 8,000) is really a disaster for the Tories, who need to be polling at least 50% to have a realistic chance etc...
Well, that seems to be the line to take among Labour ministers at the moment, and who can blame them? In reality, of course, losing Crewe and Nantwich by one vote would be a disaster for the Government. The Tories haven't won a by-election since the early 1980s; Crewe was considered a safe Labour seat. So the expectation management being carried out by Labour is an indication that they hope things aren't quite so bad as all that. With any luck they'll be able to set the bar of public expectation so high that they'll be able to present some form of positive spin on the result.
It's dangerous stuff though. When they tried it with the local elections in May, the eventual result was far worse than the 'worst-case scenarios' that were spun out before the event. When you say things like 'We'll be in real trouble if we lose more than 200 seats' in the confident expectation that losses will be in the 100 seat region, you look very silly indeed if you lose 300. Similarly here, although there's no particular reason to predict complete meltdown, these things do happen, and if you put the idea out there that a Tory majority of 7,000 would be acceptable, what happens if the majority is over 10,000?
Managing expectations worked a charm for Labour in Iain Duncan Smith's local elections, when a good Conservative result was initally universally portrayed as a disaster. I think now, however, that it creates more risks than it prevents.

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Classics in City Hall

Boris's first question time as mayor was, by all accounts, an absolute hoot. Poor old Ken Livingstone, sitting in the viewing gallery like Banquo at the feast, must be wondering how on earth Boris makes it all look so much fun. It's also good to see that he is being like the Roman ina n entirely non-Hefferite way.
Having described the proceedings as his first catechism (which has the archaic meaning of rigorous and persistent questioning, as well as its more common use as the teachings of the church), Boris proceeded to trot out his Virgilian gag, last seen when asked about BNP second preference votes, non tali auxilio nec defensoribus istis (not such aid, nor such defenders does the time require). Watching from the balcony, Livingstone could at least have the comfort that uno avulso non deficit alter (When one is torn away another succeeds).
I have commented before on the continuing relevance of Roman politics to the modern day. It is clear that the time for classical allusions is not yet passed either. When looking on David Cameron's happy knack of spinning minimal policies into enormous poll leads, which of us has not thought, with Ovid, that materiem superabat opus (the workmanship surpassed the material).
In resisting the siren calls of the Orange bookers on the one hand and Simon Hughes on the other, Nick Clegg must surely have recalled Ovid's thoughts on the matter: medio tutissimus ibis (you will go most safely in the middle), although he should also bear in mind Virgil's warning that incidit in Scyllam, cupiens vitare Charybdim (wishing to avoid Charybdis, he runs onto Scylla).
As for poor Gordon Brown, though we may feel that, in following Tony Blair, sequitur patrem, non passibus aequis (he follows his father, with unequal steps) he must surely cling to Aeneas's path and say to himself tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito (yield thou not to adversity, but press on the more bravely). Sadly, the rest of us are more likely to think of the raging Polyphemus, Monstrum horrendum, informe, ingens, cui lumen ademptum (a horrible monster, misshapen, vast, whose only eye had been put out). Sorry.

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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dirty tricks and petty politics

I haven't commented on the Labour tactics in Crewe and Nantwich, largely because there really doesn't seem to be any merit in them whatsoever - they descend beyond parody into farce. The combination of class politics, racist dog-whistling and ineptitude is beyond condemnation from me. Gordon Brown seems to have realised that this sort of thing is helping no-one except the Tories, and is trying to row back from it far enough to have a semblance of deniability when the results come in on Friday.
But in trying to justify all this top-hat nonsense, Brown says something downright weird.
"These things happen in by-elections," the prime minister said on BBC Radio Stoke.
Mr Brown recalled that, in his first election, he was followed by a kilt-wearing piper whose purpose was to remind voters he was Scottish.
Well, given that his first election was in Edinburgh South, and he was standing against Michael Ancram, the Scottish son of the Marquess of Lothian, precisely who was this piper trying to frighten? It's surely complete nonsense.

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Monday, May 19, 2008

Heffer redux

An almost perfect parody of Simon Heffer's style in Saturday's Telegraph turns out to have been written by, um, Heffer himself. First there's the now familiary 'elaborate words' error:
I thought Mayor Johnson of London was smart enough to avoid hostages to fortune, but his pledge to tackle knife crime has been followed by a hecatomb of stabbings in London since his election.
Once again, a hecatomb is a word derived from the ancient Greek hekatómbê meaning a sacrifice to the gods of 100 cattle (hecaton = one hundred). It is not a unit of general scale. Sheesh.
There's also a delightful peek into the Heffer view on law and order.
We are dealing with people who regard human life as dirt cheap, so locking them up with computer games and pornography and throwing away the key is hardly going to deter them. If whoever killed Jimmy Mizen, a harmless 16-year-old, last Saturday morning had thought he might instead go to the end of a rope, can we be so sure Jimmy would not be alive today?
Most judges do see the need to protect the public and to imprison criminals. If the Government is upset about this, it should simply construct more prisons - perhaps like PoW camps on our remoter islands.
Yup, lets kill some of them, and send the rest to the Falkland Islands. The smiling face of Hefferite conservatism.

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tax planning

The Tories have explicitly ruled out 'upfront, unfunded tax cuts' (like Brown's latest presumably), but what they haven't done, and really, really shoudn't do, is rule out radical reform of the entire tax system. Something that has given me slight hope in this regard has been Cameron's notable lack of committment to re-instating the 10p band. It would have ben simple and easy opposition politics to pledge to restore it, muttering something about 'helping the nation's poorest'. He hasn't done that, and thank goodness.
Because the 10p rate was a symptom of Labour's problem - their belief that complication is synonymous with sophistication. Look at the bottom end of the tax code (and remember that Tolley's the tax specialists' bible has doubled in size since 1997). It's a mess of tax credits, allowances, and ludicrously low entry rates to income tax. The tax credits, heralded throughout as Brown's principal contribution to the British economy, are noth over-complicated and counter productive. They impose an absurdly high marginal tax incidence on low earners if they seek to break out of their subsidised realm - as high as 80-90% in some cases. They are a nightmare to administer, causing embarrassing over payment as well as sky-high administrative costs, and the benefits they hand out are often swallowed back up by the income tax take.
The Tories must look to simplify this mess. The best way to do this is probably via a substantial increase in the personal allowance. Much of this can be paid for by a scaling back of tax credits, more by that nebulous concept of 'cutting waste'. People are very fond of saying that there is never any fat to be trimmed, but then Ken Livingstone said that, and he was publishing a private newspaper, and ordering 40 copies of the Morning Star every day. Moral? There is always some obvious waste to be dealt with.
This is, of course, very back of envelope stuff - as David Cameron said, 'we have four people, the Treasury has 3,000'. I don't even have four. As such, it isn't really a policy, so much as a principle. The poorest should not be paying income tax - it is absurd that income tax kicks in after 20 hours a week at the minimum wage. Tax ought to be straight-forward and as unobtrusive as possible - Lawson's rule of low, simple and compulsory is as true today as it ever was. So, if the Conservatives do get back into power, they should do two things: announce a public audit of the national finances - including PFI - and then carry out plans to simplify the tax code wherever possible.

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Straws in the wind

Things look pretty bleak for Labour just at present. Not merely in the matter of opinion polls and local elections - though they certainly don't help. Neither is it just the forthcoming by-election in Crewe and Nantwich - though defeat here would be pretty shattering. The real problem is the sudden vacuum of ideas. What are Labour under Gordon Brown for?
That is what the real problem was over the 10p rate fiasco. Labour in opposition had a lot of ideas of what they were for. Civil liberties, ethical foreign policy, redistribution, helping the poorest, regenerating the public service: there was a list of solid principles that underpinned Labour's self-image. After the war on terror, the war in Iraq and the 10p rate fiasco, there's not much left.
So the next question must be: when's the first defection going to happen? When the Tories were ideologically exhausted, this was marked by a stream of defections, both to the Liberal Democrats and to Labour. We ought to be seeing similar moves in the opposite direction fairly soon, if Labour is as doomed as it appears to be. Whether we are talking about Shaun Woodward-esque careerist defections, Quentin Davies (hah!) style defections in a fit of pique, or even a genuinely principled defection on policy (struggling to think of a precedent there) surely there are going to be some rats who want to leave the sinking SS Brown?

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Things must be bad

Just how excruciating was Gordon Brown on the Today programme this morning? He still hasn't lost his old interviewing technique - of bull-dozing his way throguh, talking over the interviewer and refusing to address questions directly. Matthew Parris once said, ages ago, that Brown viweed every interview as a damage-limitation exercise - how little can I get away with saying? Very, very little if today's evidence is to be relied upon.
Then there was the continued incoherency of Brown's message: We feel your pain, but everything's all right really, and if it isn't it's America's fault. And there's the ultimately piddling nature of the measures being taken to counter-act all this: £200m on housing, that's what, 1,000 houses? And there's the blatant lying about borrowing to invest. Brown's 'Golden Rule' (that has been devalued more than the benighted dollar) was only to borrow to invest - it's hard, however it is spun, for Brown to portray the tax giveaway as an investment. It isn't. It's an 'unfunded tax cut' - and we know what Brown thinks about them.
There might be hope for Brown - according at least to this New Statesman article.
A more interesting historical precedent can be found in the Wilson government of the late 1960s. Between spring and summer 1969, there was intense speculation about whether Harold Wilson could realistically lead the party into the next election. The Labour prime minister's attempts to introduce new trade union legislation had proved deeply divisive. There was an atmosphere of revolt in the party not dissimilar to the situation of the Labour Party today, with Callaghan circling as a dangerous pretender. Wilson, like Brown, was accused of betraying the core Labour values.
In August 1969, Wilson's personal rating fell to 26 per cent, about as bad as it got before the days of internet polling. But, somehow, he recovered. Like now, the public mood was extremely volatile. It is generally thought that both careful handling of the Northern Ireland situation and the gradual recovery of the economy following the 1967 devaluation contributed to a rise in Wilson's popularity. By October 1969 his personal rating hit 43 per cent, ahead of his rival Edward Heath.
But I wouldn't recommend that Gordon gets too excited by this - Wilson lost the election in 1970 after all.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Seeking help in high places

A commentator on the excellent Political Betting site points out that May 22nd, the date chosen for the Crewe by-election may be rather appropriate, even if inauspicious.

St Rita
Patron Saint of Lost Causes and The Impossible
1381, Roccaporena, Perugia, Umbria, Italy
May 22, 1457, Cascia, Perugia, Umbria, Italy
1627 by Pope Urban VIII
1900 by Pope Leo XIII
Major shrine
May 22
forehead wound, rose, bees
sickness, wounds, marital problems, lost and impossible causes, abuse, mothers
I think lost and impossible causes sounds rather appropriate...

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Monday, May 12, 2008

A very Eden

In haste on Gordon...

The thing that strikes me is just how terribly unwell Gordon looks - and the challenge is I am not sure that he can do anything about it.

He cannot do the job:

  • He is a manic obsessive with a deep seated need to command all the detail before he can be comfortable 'signing off' on something. Some of the chaps who work for me are the same - and it is a real career limitor. You cannot do even a mid-level role these days without being able to delegate, let alone be PM

  • He really needs a break, but as well as being emotionnally unable to let go, the press would crucify him if he shot off for a break (shades of crisis, what crisis)

  • He really dare not go anywhere or delegate because his team are rubbish - look at his team. QED

  • He dare not go any where as he faces the trader's challenge: in the city traders in trouble dare not take holiday lest the person minding the shop notices how godawful their positions really are or because they are hyper aware of massive flaws in their strategy that they have to be on hand to unwind... so they work on getting more and more exhausted...

So no break, no let up, no improvement on the cards, no sleep, no time to weigh up the challenges, no escape from the neverending decisions, no chance to catch breath, no support, no fun, no escape, no time, no point...

People talk about 'resigning on the grounds of ill health' as an excuse... what if it is less an excuse and more of a collapse.

More to the point - what are the steps one takes to cart off a barmy PM?

When in Rome

Michael Meacher, in the Guardian, writes an article describing all tax avoidance (ie: legal techniques designed to minimise your total tax hit) as "legal but immoral". Two brief points here. Tax avoidance as an individual is not only not immoral, it is encouraged by the Government. What is an ISA but a form of tax planning? What is contributing to your pension if not a form of tax planning? How is any of this immoral? Tax avoidance by a company would, one would have thought, come very clse to being a fiduciary duty for the directors - if by a legal and common method a director can reduce his company's tax bill then he would be remiss if he did not.
The second point is that Mr Meacher has picked a strange medium for his message. The Guardian, after all, is currently involved in libel litigation against Tesco's after it described precisely the sort of tax planning that Meacher decries as being an immoral tax steal of £1bn. Shortly before it was revealed that the Guardian does precisely the same thing itself.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Public School Prime Ministers

With the Conservative victory in the local elections, and Boris's election to the London Mayoralty, the left are looking to try the 'Tory toffs' card for all it's worth. To be fair, they do seem to be running out of alternatives. John Harris, who also wrote a marvellously whiny post-election article, has written about the apparent lock-down of the Conservatives by public schoolboys. It's hampered a bit by Harris's inability to entertain the possibility that one of the reasons that the proportions of public school entrants to Oxbridge may be because the public schools really do produce better students than the state sector, but it's not altogether worthless.
He also touches on something, briefly, that really goes to explain all this:
Not, of course, that the Tories' political opponents are without their silver-spooned elements. Last year, the leadership of the Liberal Democrats was contested by Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne, both alumni of Westminster School. Such high-ranking young(ish) Labour ministers as Ed Balls, James Purnell and Ruth Kelly were educated at fee-paying establishments; indeed, at the last count, just less than a third of current government ministers went to private schools.
He also cites, at the end of the article, this figure. Of the 52 prime ministers since 1721, only 12 have not been privately educated: 18 have gone to Eton, seven have gone to Harrow and seven to Westminster.
It's not really a very useful figure in that form: there was no non-private education until the very end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps a more useful (ahem) article was published in Attain Magazine in the Spring. Modesty forbids, etc, but the more interesting figure is surely this:
In the first sixty three years of the twentieth century, there were 14 Prime Ministers of Great Britain. Of these, ten had been to public school, five to Eton alone.
In the years since 1963, however, there have been seven Prime Ministers. Of these only one, Tony Blair, was privately educated. The years 1963-2008 have been politically dominated by the state sector. Now, however, as Harris points out, it is the public school that is in the ascendant. It's worth finding out why that is. Outright class privilege is unlikely to be the primary reason. Far more likely is what Alan Milburn identified - the educational collapse of the state sector. Harris mentions Balls, Purnell and Kelly. He doesn't mention Harman, Clarke, Jowell and Jack Straw. The vein of grammar school talent that has served both main parties well for forty years looks like it has been exhausted.

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There aren't going to be many smiling faces in Downing Street this morning. The latest YouGov poll in The Sun (and I believe that this is the first link from here to there) has the polling figures as:
Conservatives: 49
Labour: 23
Lib Dem: 17
This would give, according to electoral calculus, a Tory majority of 288. Among the big names to lose their seats would be Geoff Hoon, John Hutton, Jack Straw, Ruth Kelly, Jon Cruddas, Alan Milburn, Tessa Jowell, Alastair Darling, Charles Clarke, Jacqui Smith, John Denham and James Purnell. Oh, and Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Mark Oaten. Rather cuts down the leadership options doesn't it?
UPDATE: A thought occurs, incidentally. I wonder how Quentin Davis is feeling at the moment?

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Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Two reasons why it's almost all over for Brown

So the local elections were a hearty kicking for Labour. So the Tories are now riding pretty high. Is Brown going to be able to get up from this and avoid defeat at the next election? I'm pretty sure he can't, and I've got two reasons why that is.
The first is that he is going to be ever more beset by siren voices like this one from James Macintyre on the Independent's Open House blog:
So, one or two of us were indeed very wrong about the London maroyal election, having underestimated the extent to which real, electoral politics can be influenced by a right-of-centre rampant media pack at Westminster.
In other words, nothing's really wrong, it's all the fault of the media. This was precisely the line taken by the Labour Party in 1992. It's thoroughly wrong-headed. The media reflect public opinion far more than they shape it. It's perilous to forget that.
Much has already been said about recent history, with some prominent bloggers declaring Brown now much worse than John Major. The same circle of centrist and Tory bloggers - inevitably - warn Brown not to move to "the left", in advice which obscures the reality: that the PM's only true way out in the face of a universally hostile media (including the BBC, who long ago went with the flow) must be to alienate only one side of it - the right - as opposed to both, as he is at present. It is clearer than ever that Brown will never be embraced by that (dominant) side of the press, so again some of us ask: why not fight your way out of this disasterous mess with a bold, progressive agenda, true to your instincts and roots, instead of hopelessly remaining - like a battered wife - imprisoned by those who most enthusiastically attack you and are willing your demise?
In other words, hard-a-port and ho for clear red waters. It must be tempting to say the least for Brown to get a kind word from somewhere, but a hard turn to the left is as good a way as any for the Labour Party to lose power for a generation, rather than a term of Parliament. But, hey! Don't let me talk you out of it!
The second reason why Brown is doomed is perfectly captured by his first answer in PMQs today:
Mr Brown was asked by a Conservative MP how long he thought he had got as prime minister - he hit back by accusing the Conservatives of ignoring issues of substance and listed Labour's achievements, to cheers from its MPs...
Mr Cameron returned Mr Brown's "salesmanship" accusation back, saying Mr Brown had "gone on American Idol with more make-up on than Barbara Cartland" - to laughter from MPs. He asked Mr Brown: "Why doesn't he give up the PR and start being a PM?"
Mr Brown highlighted what he said were Labour achievements on things like the minimum wage, record employment numbers and children being taken out of poverty before saying the choice was "between a Labour government that delivers and a Conservative Party that just talks".
Someone should ask Brown a question on sorghum yields, or tractor production in East Anglia next. Brown's problem is that he is increasingly a figure of fun, and even of pity - look at the number of times attacks on him cause laughter on all sides of the House. He seems unable to reply to questions with anything other than a litany of Labour's 'achievements'. And this pitiable Prime Minister is not going to be able to get himself out of this mess.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Fantasies and delusions

Ha! A belated catch-up of the weekend's papers has left me rather bemused by this article by John Rentoul in the IoS. I'm not sure whether it's supposed to be high-farce burlesque, counter-history, prediction or what. The premise is that Cameron loses an election in 2012, after running a minority Government, because of the failures of Boris Johnson as Mayor of London. But it's so, well, odd. Look at the fatal "gaffes" that Boris is scheduled for:
But the real damage was done by the reintroduction of hunting for urban foxes in the Greater London area. After that, 74 per cent of people agreed that Tories were "toffs who think they are born to rule".
He had reckoned without the declining but still strong instinct of discipline among Labour MPs. He had not anticipated the steel of David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, in wielding the knife. He was still kicking himself for buying the conventional wisdom that it would make the Labour Party look ridiculous if it changed its leader twice in one parliament. Of all people, he should have known how such assumptions about leadership contests are there to be overturned.
But he was proud of the way he had responded to the changed situation. He had kept his balance and prevented his party from talking itself into a downward spiral. Miliband had pulled the Government back from the depths and Chancellor Ruth Kelly's Budget had been a clever one that enabled Labour to go into the election with the narrowest of opinion-poll leads.
Chancellor Ruth Kelly? Stop, you're killing me! I mean, come on, it's a bit bloody much. Last week all these people were predicting that voting for Boris as Mayor would mean that there'd be anarchy on the streets by now. And now, even in John Rentoul's laboured work of mental masturbation, the worst thing he could is introduce urban fox hunts? I think it's time for all those who pledged to abandon London to call the Removals vans...

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Did I miss anything?

Perhaps not the ideal weekend to go sailing then. Labour's worst results since when? 1968? 1918? Livingstone finally expunged from City Hall, Tory vote shares hitting the middle forties, Labour getting wiped out in the South and Midlands, the Tories winning seats and councils in the North. Happy days.
Two thoughts occur. The first was a letter in the Telegraph that said, effectively - look how well the Tories have done in the election. Now imagine how much better they would have done if they had elected a right-wing leader instead of Cameron. It's about as good an illustration of the fundamental Heffer error as you could imagine.
The second was a look back to the Ealing/Southall bye-election of last summer. It was in the height of the Brown bounce, Tory hopes of a victory were unrealistically ramped up, and third place duly ensued. It was a bad result for the Tories, though a long way short of disastrous. Solicitous leftist blogs piled in to offer sympathy. If they were so keen to "hug a Tory" after we failed to win two seats, what on earth are we expected to do for them after their worst results in 40 years? The mind boggles rather.
Apparently, during the summer Tory malaise, Labour MPs were gleefuly texting each other the rather cryptic message "PODWAS". It stood for Poor Old Dave, What a Shame. I suspect that the S in POGWAS stands for something else.

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