Every now and then, a policy comes along from a government that in time, is accepted by the opposition parties and becomes entrenched in our body politic and hence country.
The Thatcher and Major governments did lots of things that subsequent governments have been able to unpick or slowly nudge back on. But policies like the Trades Unions reforms and most of their privatisations have stuck and become entrenched. It is not conceivable that a government of any stripe would roll the Union reforms back or for example renationalise British Telecom. By getting broad acceptance of these changes, the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s were able to make permanent changes to the way important aspects of our society work.
In 1997, the Labour government brought in a minimum wage. At the time the Conservative party was deeply opposed to this but over time a consensus was reached and it is now highly unlikely that the minimum wage would ever be repealed. Devolution for Scotland and Wales has also been accepted across the political spectrum from that government.
The truly entrenched policies are sometimes hard to determine until a good while afterwards. I would have included independence for the Bank of England to set interest rates in this list from Labour too until recently but with the financial crisis it is not guaranteed that that will remain and there is some suspicion that politics has been asserting itself in the process in the last few years.
So far, I do not think there is much that the current coalition government has done that one could consider entrenched. The schools reforms could easily be unpicked by a future government. The NHS reforms have not even reached the statute books yet and I would be amazed if they were not overhauled by the next government. The tuition fee reforms may stay in place but the vociferousness of Labour's opposition suggest they will try and do something on this if they get the chance.
There is one change though that I think we can already see falling into this category. The £10K tax threshold. It is undeniably extremely popular. A recent poll showed 83% support for it. But perhaps more importantly it is a very accessible policy. Everyone can grasp very quickly what not paying tax on the first £10K you earn means for them and their family and friends. It is also the reason why it will be very hard to change as any erosion will be equally noticeable. No party is going to want to fight an election on a platform of increasing taxes on low earners. So once the threshold reaches £10K it will never go back. If anything it may go even higher. There are voices off murmuring that the aim should be for the first £12.5K to be free of tax. This would roughly equate to the level earned by those on minimum wage.
The only possible way I can it slipping back is through bracket creep but I expect there will be lots of campaigners and politicians who will be very wise to this and again I think any party trying that on will not get very far.
Perhaps the most surprising thing of all then is that the only policy that currently appears to be in position for this accolade of entrenchment is not from the senior partners in the coalition but from the junior partners the Lib Dems.
It is worth remembering that the next time you hear the Lib Dems are not achieving anything in government. It may be that looking back they actually achieved one of the most significant and lasting reforms of the entire government.
Tuesday, 31 January 2012
Every now and then, a policy comes along from a government that in time, is accepted by the opposition parties and becomes entrenched in our body politic and hence country.
Saturday, 28 January 2012
This is one of my favourite exchanges from Yes Prime Minister:
Sir Humphrey Appleby: [discussing how to stop the PM's anti-smoking legislation] I think the crucial argument is that we are living in a free country and we *must* be free to make our own decisions. After all, government shouldn't be a nursemaid, we don't want the nanny state.
Sir Frank Gordon: Oh, that's very good.
Sir Ian Whitworth: Excellent.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: The only problem is that that is also the argument for legalising the sale of marijuana, heroin, cocaine, arsenic and gelignite.
I wonder if Liam Byrne may come to wish he had had an Appleby around to provide a counter-argument when coming up with Labour's latest approach to the benefits cap. He writes in todays Telegraph, in a piece entitled "The same benefits cap won't fit London and Yorkshire":
But the problem with the Government’s proposal – as presented – is that “one cap fits all” won’t work.
Most of the benefits paid under the cap are for housing. But these are far higher in places like London than in other areas. While all that £500 a week might get you in central London is a one-bedroom apartment, in Rotherham, Yorkshire it would get you a six-bedroom house. How can a “one-size-fits-all” cap be fair to working people in both London and Rotherham?
Perhaps if he had have done the exchange could have gone something like this:
Sir Humphrey Appleby: I think the crucial argument is that a "one-size-fits-all" cap cannot simultaneously be fair to working people in both London and Rotherham.
Liam Byrne: Oh, that's very good.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: The only problem is that that is also the argument for agreeing to regional pay bargaining and even regionally varied benefits. Which the unions and the grass roots of your party will never accept.
Surely that is now Byrne's and Labour's problem. The coalition has been pushing the idea of regional pay bargaining for a while now which has thus far been responded to by protest from Labour MPs. How can they now credibly fight that when they have made pretty much the exact same argument the government make in favour of it in the context of a benefits cap? I can hear Paxman sneering now. If there is such a difference in the cost of living between different parts of the country then how can you possibly argue against regional bargaining? Do you even understand your own policy Mr Byrne?
I expect they'll have an argument against this but I fear it will end up as convoluted as their approach to the cuts and will be far too easy for their political opponents to shoot down as muddled and incoherent.
How much longer can Labour keep dithering around like this before Miliband's position becomes untenable?
Posted by Mark Thompson at 17:45
Friday, 27 January 2012
Compare and contrast:
The candidate with the most votes wins.
• The number 1 votes for each candidate are put into a pile and counted.
• If a candidate receives more than half the number 1 votes cast, they win and there is no further counting.
• If no candidate receives more than half the number 1 votes there would be at least one more round of counting.
• The candidate with the fewest number 1 votes is removed from the contest – in this case Candidate D.
• Each ballot paper on Candidate D’s pile is looked at again.
• If the ballot paper shows a number 2 vote for another candidate, it is added to that candidate’s pile. For example, if a ballot paper showed a number 1 vote for Candidate D and a number 2 vote for Candidate B, it would be moved to Candidate B’s pile.
• If the ballot paper does not show a number 2 vote, it is no longer used.
• Again, the candidate with fewest votes is removed from the contest – this time it’s Candidate C.
• Each ballot paper on Candidate C’s pile is looked at again to see if any of the remaining candidates are ranked.
• If so, the ballot paper is moved to the pile of the candidate ranked highest on that ballot paper.
• If none of the remaining candidates are ranked the ballot paper is no longer used.
If more candidates are involved, this process can be repeated until one candidate has more than half the remaining votes.
They are both taken from the Electoral Commission's official literature (opens PDF) circulated before the AV referendum last year. The 7 word one describes First Past The Post. The second one that spans several paragraphs and bullet points describes how AV works.
During the AV campaign, as a supporter of the Yes camp I could see that the fact that FPTP could be described so easily and AV took longer was damaging us. It is hard enough to get people interested in political issues and anything that makes your message harder to get across decreases your chances of gaining traction. I am not saying this was the only reason why the Yes2AV campaign failed. There were lots of reasons but this definitely did not help and contributed to the failure.
Now compare and contrast these:
We have to make these cuts as we are spending beyond our means.
If we were in government, we wouldn't be cutting this fast or this much. But because the Government's cuts are damaging economic growth, there will be fewer tax revenues and more spending on unemployment benefits, so even with their cuts, the deficit won't shrink as fast as the Coalition wants. That means, by the time of the next election, the deficit won't have been eliminated, which means, if we win, that we'll have to make even more cuts. So we won't be able to reverse the ones that have already been made.
The first is a reasonable synopsis of the coalition government's economic position, the sort that you hear mnisters regularly trotting out.
The second one is about the best synopsis I have seen of Labour's latest economic position on the cuts (taken from a Mary Ann Sieghart piece in The Indpendent last week).
The first one takes less than three seconds to say. The second one takes about 10 times as long.
Sadly, nuanced political messages are a very difficult sell. Unless you can distill your policy down into a short, catchy ten second or less soundbite then you are on the back foot from the get go. I have lamented this problem before but it is undeniably true and if anything is getting worse as people's attention beomes ever more fragmented with many different sorts of media and leisure activities competing for our time.
Perhaps even more importantly, as we discovered to our cost during the AV campaign, the fact that Labour's message is more nuanced makes it very easy for their opponents to paint it as muddled and overly complicated. Along the lines of "They were against the cuts, now they are for them" (with unfortunate echoes of John Kerry's worst gaffe during his doomed 2004 US presidential bid). I received an e-mail from Nick Clegg sent out to party members recently that does exactly that.
I'm not sure what the two Eds thought they would achieve with this policy. They have both been around in politics long enough to understand the rules of the game. I fear that unless they can quickly find a way to explain it as succinctly as the government can explain theirs then it will fail to cut through.
They may well rue failing to learn one of the main lessons of the AV campaign.
Keep it simple, stupid.
This post was first published on Dale & Co.
Posted by Mark Thompson at 08:30
Thursday, 26 January 2012
Consider these two hypothetical scenarios for GDP in the economy:
The two scenarios are essentially mirror images of each other with the signs inverted. I am assuming that in Q4 of the preceeding year and Q1 of the following year there is positive growth.
The curious thing is that the first scenario would not technically be considered a recession. There is one quarter of negative growth (-0.7%) followed by two quarters of only just positive growth (+0.1% each time) followed by a final quarter of negative growth again. Beause a recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of negative growth, the non-contiguous nature of the quarters where growth was negative means the dreaded word "recession" cannot be applied.
The second scenario however does fall into the definition of a recession. This is because despite relatively good growth in Q1 and Q4 there are (just) two quarters of negative growth in succession in Qs 2 and 3.
The crazy thing is, in the first scenario, during the year where there is no recession overall growth is -1%. Whereas in the second "recession" scenario growth is +1%!
Some may say this is all a bit technical and doesn't matter but it does. Because words make a big difference. In the second scenario, the media would be all over the "fact" that the country had tipped into recession, there would be all sorts of news reports about it and of course opposition politicians would make as much political capital as possible out of it. This in turn damages confidence and actually makes further contraction more likely.
So the definition of "a recession" seems like it is a little bit inflexible. In the scenarios it is clearly the first one that is worst for the economy and we surely need a way to reflect that? Something that perhaps looks at the trend across three or four quarters and takes the average to see if things are negative might be a bit fairer perhaps?
I would be interested in hearing thoughts from others about this and perhaps a justification of why the current system (which apparently evolved from an article by an economic statistician in the New York Times in 1975) is the best.
I think I may take some convincing!
Posted by Mark Thompson at 09:36
Monday, 23 January 2012
I was thinking the other day about the Labour Party and its recent history and I realised something that had not really occurred to me before. Despite having held power for almost half of the last 50 years, there are only two Labour PMs from that period who have actually won an election. They are Harold Wilson and Tony Blair.
I think perhaps this sometimes gets a bit lost in the detail of the 7 election wins and 24 years of power they yielded. Of course Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown were also PM during this period but they never won any elections.
The reason I am interested in this is because it shows that it is actually quite rare for Labour to have leaders that actually win power following an election. In that period there has been Wilson, Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown. Seven leaders and only two of them managed it. OK in the case of Smith fate intervened to prevent him from contesting an election as leader but even discounting him it is a success rate of only one third. And Kinnock even had two bites of the cherry and failed both times.
What is particularly interesting about this fact for me is that from that list of leaders, Wilson and Blair both stand out as being particularly charismatic. Wilson was the first leader to really get the importance of TV and its effect on the electorate. Looking at old footage of him it can seem quite staid and fuddy-duddy but for his time he was able to connect with the electorate in a way that his contemporaries struggled to do. That must have had a strong bearing on the fact that he managed to win 4 of the 5 elections that he contested between 1964 and 1974 (inclusive). Blair of course was indisputedly the most charismatic politician of his political generation and used this as leverage to help his party win 3 elections.
Callaghan had some avuncular qualities but made a number of mistakes and was rolled over by the Thatcher juggernaut. Foot was an intellectual powerhouse but was unable to connect with the electorate. Kinnock never connected either, perhaps because of his tendency to make long winded speeches that struggled to get to the point. Smith as discussed never had a shot as he died in 1994 and Gordon Brown was a charisma disaster area.
This suggests that far from the pendulum swinging back and forth between the two main parties with any sort of regularity (the Buggins Turn rule) there is a lot of resistance by the electorate to elect a Labour leader as PM unless they are particularly charismatic. I'm not quite sure why this is as the Conservatives don't appear to obey this rule as much. Heath was terrible at connecting and yet won in 1970 and Thatcher was reguarly derided in the 1970s for lacking what was needed in this area (note the joke in that episode of Fawlty Towers about "The wit of Margaret Thatcher" being one of the world's shortest books for example). And John Major was not exactly blessed with a great ability to connect either and yet he won in 1992 with the highest number of votes in UK electoral history (although he was up against Kinnock of course).
Maybe this is unfair to Labour but the barrier does appear to be set a fair bit higher for them. Which brings me to Ed Miliband. Looking at him purely in historical terms, his characteristics are probably closer to Foot and Kinnock than they are Wilson or Blair. He is a policy wonk who like some of his predecessors who failed to win elections is struggling to be heard. Much of the talk is about his personaility and lack of being able to connect. He has made some brave attempts to break through this. His speech at the Labour conference last year was widely derided but it contained some interesting ideas that chime with the times we are in. But of course hardly anyone remembers that now amid all the talk of his fragile hold on the leadership and attacks from the left and right of his party on a seemingly daily basis.
I would be surprised if Ed Miliband manages to get to the end of the year as Labour leader. The rumblings are already quite loud and it is only mid-January.
But who should replace him? A lot of the talk is about Yvette Cooper. There is no doubt she is capable and we shouldn't underestimate how the electorate may react positively to Labour's first female leader*. I even predicted she would be Labour leader by the end of the year myself in my 2012 predictions a couple of weeks ago. But Cooper is also a policy wonk by background. She has an unfortunate tendency to speak in the way that lots of New Labour rising stars of the noughties cannot seem to help, reeling off statistics and repeating the same points over and over again in the same interview. I think with her the party could end up with pretty much more of the problem that they have with Ed.
Which makes me wonder if it might be time for them to skip a generation. There is somebody who was only elected in 2010 but who has already reached the Shadow Cabinet. He definitely has the charm and charisma that Wilson and Blair had and is already being tipped for the top, albeit usually mentioned as the "next leader but one". He is also highly intelligent and has a way of talking that really does seem to connect with the public. I am talking of course about Chuka Umunna.
His youth (he is 33) and lack of experience may count against him but David Cameron had only been in parliament for 4 years when he became leader of his party. And Nick Clegg had only been an MP for less than 3 years when he became leader of his. The trend for younger and only recently elected leaders is well established.
So the question is whether Labour is willing to take a chance on an untested youngster who seems to have the characteristics required to win elections. History would seem to suggest that it will take someone like him for the party to regain power in 2015.
*I am aware that Margaret Beckett was also leader briefly in 1994 but I am talking about leaders who were elected by the party.
NOTE: For what it is worth, from my personal experience I met Yvette a few years back through my professional work. She breezed into the meeting, made a set speech, took a few questions which she basically didn't answer and breezed out before the meeting ended. In stark contrast I was on a radio show with Chuka a couple of years ago and he was charm personified. Despite the fact that I was disagreeing with him he was very graceful and made me think more about my position. He also contacted me on Twitter afterwards to say hello and thank me for the debate.
An edited version of this post was originally published on Liberal Conspiracy.
Posted by Mark Thompson at 10:22
Tuesday, 10 January 2012
Monday, 9 January 2012
The top story today is how David Cameron is trying to coerce the Scottish parliament into holding the putative independence referendum early. There is also talk of him trying to influence the question on the ballot paper, and whether a "devo max" option is allowed.
The thinking seems to be that because only the UK government can sanction a "binding" referendum that Cameron has leverage here to try and impose his will on the way the plebiscite is held. Without the binding aspect, he seems to think that the Scottish government would not want to proceed.
But that approach seems to be politically naive to me. Let's hypothesise that Salmond tells Cameron where to go and sticks to his plan to have the referendum in 2 or 3 years time in the second half of the parliament (which seems quite likely). Let's also hypothesise that the SNP government chooses the wording without allowing the UK government to influence this. And finally let's imagine that the referendum is won, either for devo max or full independence.
In either of these cases, if the Scottish public has voted by a majority to either have more powers for the parliament or to cede from the UK entirely, does anyone seriously imagine that the UK government can stand in the way of that? Sure, there would be lots of detail to work through and the changes would clearly affect the UK as a whole but the idea that Westminster could just ignore the result and carry on as usual blithely claiming it was "not binding" is politically unrealistic. The democratic will of the Scottish people would need to be respected.
If Scotland votes in a referendum for further or full independence, regardless of whether David Cameron likes how and when the vote occurs, it will happen.
I suspect Alex Salmond knows this full well and is simply playing this situation for all the Tory bashing he can get out of it to nudge a few more votes his way. Nicola Sturgeon has been doing a sterling job today getting the phrase "Tory led government" in almost every sentence she has uttered in copious media appearances. You can almost hear them ticking off another 100 votes for independence every time she says it!
The real question is what does Cameron think he is doing? I can't possibly see what good he can do with this approach for his party's unionist cause.
Sunday, 8 January 2012
I was listening to Radio 4 a few weeks back (I think it might have been Front Row) and heard Harriet Harman being interviewed about her new role as shadow for the Culture, Media and Sport brief.
Dearie, dearie me.
She was given ample opportunity to show her more human side. Indeed the brief surely requires that the holder is able to show how they have enjoyed culture and hence inject a bit more of the personal? No chance from Harman. She came across like an "I speak your policy" robot. The only thing I can really recall her saying was about how vital the performing arts and film etc. are to the economy. When something like this is reduced to such technocratic terms it makes me want to weep.
But the more I have reflected on it, the more I am thinking that this sort of thing is inevitable. Harman has been an MP since 1982 when she was 32 years old. She is now 61 so that is almost half of her life and the vast majority of her adult life. In other words cutting edge television when she entered parliament was Game For A Laugh.
I know the pressure that is on MPs and the hours that they have to work so to expect an MP of nearly 30 years standing, with the last decade near the top of government, to be in touch with popular culture is unrealistic.
It further occurs to me that maybe this is part of the problem. I imagine if Chuka Umunna or Rachel Reeves for example had had that role they would have come across in a much more human way. Because they have lived a relatively normal life until recently where they would have had the time and inclination to keep in touch with popular culture.
So should there be a shelf-life for politicians? Should we say after maybe 20 or 25 years, thanks very much for your service but you cannot serve any longer than that an an MP (or in a reformed upper chamber)?
Friday, 6 January 2012
I greatly admire Peter Oborne as I have said on here before. He has done some sterling work over the years, especially in exposing political hypocrisy but a piece he wrote for the Telegraph yesterday in which he claims that the right is winning the argument in every major area of policy is wrong-headed in my view.
Mehdi has already had a crack at fisking the article here so I won't go through all of it but I wanted to highlight a couple of things from the last 10 or 15 years that prove Oborne is wrong.
His central thesis is that it is "widely accepted" that the Labour government was an utter failure and therefore the political momentum is now with the right, that their ideas are in the ascendency and even many on the left are coming to accept this.
I don't buy it. Here are just two examples of things that the "liberal left" brought in that the Tories have accepted through gritted teeth:
- Equal rights for homosexuals. Labour did some good work in this area when they were in power. The equalised rights for age of consent were introduced on a free vote in Labour's early years despite bitter opposition led by Conservative Peer Baroness Young. And a few years back they introduced civil partnerships.
- The minimum wage. One of the first acts of Labour in 1997 was to introduce this. The Tories were deeply opposed to any such move and I vividly remember how convinced Conservative spokespeople were that it would damage the economy and raise unemployment. Of course in the event the economy was fine and a decent floor was put in to stop people, especially the young being exploited for derisory wages.
"[throughout the] post-war period...the liberal Left, as general election results show, has tended to be unpopular with voters. But its progressive ideas have enjoyed a disproportionate amount of traction among British governing elites."
Thursday, 5 January 2012
Imagine if a white MP had said something like this:
"Black people love playing 'divide & rule'. We should not play their game"
There would quite rightly be outrage and calls for apologies for this sort of racist comment. If the MP had a front-bench or ministerial position there would doubtless be calls for resignation or sacking.
Well that didn't happen yesterday. This however did:
In the middle of a discussion on Twitter, Diane Abbott tweeted that. She made a broad generalisation about a group of people in society based on the colour of their skin. That is racism.
As Tory Radio has pointed out, in a further exchange later on, far from apologising she appears to be standing by her comments.
Diane Abbott has form for these sort of generalisations. A couple of years ago when discussing her children she said "I’m a West Indian mum and West Indian mums will go to the wall for their children.". The strong implication there was that mothers from other ethnic backgrounds would not, otherwise why single out the background as a distinguishing factor?
I don't think Abbott should have to resign from her position as a front-bench Labour spokesperson as long as she apologises for her comment yesterday. Also she needs to cut out the broad sweeping generalisations about people based on their skin colour or ethnicity in future.
If she chooses not to apologise however then I expect the Labour leadership will have to act. They surely cannot condone this sort of comment?
Diane Abbott has now tweeted the following "clarification":
And she has now deleted the original offending tweet. If she is standing behind it why would she do that?
Posted by Mark Thompson at 09:12
Tuesday, 3 January 2012
Here are my predictions for the coming year:
- HMV will go bust.
- A currently living former Chancellor of the Exchequer will no longer be with us by the end of the year.
- Barack Obama will win reelection with an even higher percentage of the vote than in 2008.
- Chris Huhne will leave the cabinet.
- David Laws will rejoin the cabinet.
- Kate from off of Teh Roayls will announce she is pregnant. The media will go loopy at the prospect.
- Mo Farah will win Gold at the Olympics.
- Pointless will be promoted to prime time TV (i.e. after 7pm) with increased prizes to match.
- By the end of the year Yvette Cooper will be leader of the Labour Party.
- In a shock move I predict that Eddie Mair will become the new host of BBC Question Time. For the fourth year running.
Posted by Mark Thompson at 16:09