Sunday, February 28, 2010


What Are the Odds on a March 25th Election?

OK, I know this is only a rumour, but it's been trailed here and there and is worth looking at, if only briefly. It suggests Brown will go for a snap election to wrongfoot the Tories on 25th March. Why would this be a good idea? It would:

1. Avoid the requirement for another budget before the election- a difficult exercise when you have nothing to give away and any new taxes will only lose votes.

2. Avoid the publication of economic output for the first quarter of this year. Financial pages have been full of gloom recently, suggesting these figures will indicate a fall in output, or that awful eventuality, the 'double dip' recession. Given Brown's prefered narrative of having 'weathered the storm' it would be a disatser if such figures emerged mid campaign

3. Conservative support is falling away at the moment. It's not altogether clear why, but from 44% in October 2009, their poll rating has fallen to 37%, a mere 5 points in front after a period when they enjoyed a 20 point lead.{Stop Press: latest poll says the lead is down to 2% which would be enough to keep Labour in power!] Going soon would capitalize on this good fortune and, even if Labour did not win, it might manage to become the largest party and deny Cameron his long expected victory.

Will it happen? The odds have to be against it. Rumours like this have come and gone in the past. Gordon is not decisive when it comes to elections- remember how he 'bottled' it in October 2007?- and nobody knows how much money Labour has to fight such a snap election. So odds against but, whilst it's just speculation, it does have some substance to it. I personally hope it won't happen as I've planned a visit to the House of Commons with my a students on that day and it would ruin my carefully prepared programme.

Friday, February 26, 2010


Abused but Loyal Darling Has Been the Star of Brown's Original Cabinet

David Cameron had a blisteringly good time at Gordon's expense on Wednesday at PMQs. It arose, of course, because Rawnsley's book had revealed Alistair Darling had been furious that Brown had set his dogs on him in August 2008 when he had judged the economic crisis likely to be 'the worst for 60 years', when Gordon was insisting it would be over in six months.

Damien McBride and Charley Whelan were the two Gordon myrmidons allegedly entrusted with this monstering task and Rawnsley reckons they did a sufficiently good job to enrage the Chancellor. But in addition to this injury Brown had tried to replace his fellow Scot with his number one myrmidon, the widely despised Ed Balls, as recently as last June. So when Jeff Randal interviewed him for Sky News on Tuesday the hurt was sufficiently close to the surface for him to- indiscreetly for such a discreet man- to accuse his prime minister of unleasing the 'forces of hell' upon him.

Inevitably both practitioners of the blackest of arts, denied the charge with the straightest of faces and Brown, unconvincingly, tried to do the same at PMQs. But he had to accept the roasting duly delivered by Cameron while his Chancellor sat grimly by his side. At the very top-most reaches of government, true friendship is a fragile, diaphonous idea rather than a reality.

I have not the slightest doubt that most of the things Rawnsley has recorded and much else besides in the same vein, did indeed occur and that this calling to account was wholly deserved by a Brown who has always been happy to have others do his dirty work for him. I would also say that Darling, someone who is often pilloried for being even more boring than Geoff Hoon, has really proved himself the real star of Brown's original Cabinet. He has loyally taken the browbeatings but remained astonishingly calm while the hurricane winds of international crisis blew. What is more, he has had the quiet courage to stand up to his bullying boss on a number of occasions and emerge with dignity intact.

Monday, February 22, 2010


Gordon's Psyche Comes in for a (Deserved?) Battering

The furore over Gordon's character, not to say psyche, dominated the weekend news, which must please the Observer and Andrew Rawnsley a great deal. Readers of this blog will know I have never been a great fan of the moody Scot and Tom Bower's biography drew a picture more or less congruent with that displayed in Rawnsley's new book. Alastair Campbell, moreover, is alleged to have briefed about Brown's 'pathological flaws' early on in New Labour's rule, as a warning of what a Brown premiership might be like.

I recently posted favourably on Gordon's surprisingly effective interview with Piers Morgan but I'm not about to contradict myself. I think there is a Good Gordon and a Bad Gordon. Most people are complex and we all have different facets but in Brown's case the differences are poles apart. People who have met him say he is a witty, warm and empathetic person but there is so much evidence that he is also capable of furious temper tantrums that Number 10 should not seriously try to deny it. I was touched by Mandelson's sweetly implausible attempt to square the circle:

This is a "story of a man who is quite emotional, is quite passionate in what he believes and what he's doing. I don't think he so much bullies people as is very demanding of people. He's demanding of himself, he's demanding of people around him. There is a degree of impatience about the man. But what would you like? Some sort of shrinking violet at the helm of the government when we're going through such stormy waters?" Asked if he had ever been shouted at by Brown he replied: "I think history records we've had our moments, but I would like to think that I took my medicine like a man."

It almost sounds as if he enjoyed being shouted at. That this book came out at the most inopportune time, just a few weeks before the election and when the Tory poll lead has shrunk to just 6 points, is palpably the case. Camereon will exploit this book's revelations ruthlessly, as Brown would do were roles to be reversed. Rawnsley has defamed Brown in his book but will Gordon sue? It would be crazy as the trial would sabotage the election, everyone would believe the allegations anyway and Rawnsley would go to prison before revealing his sources. So Gordon just has to try and ride this one out, as so many before.

Finally, the Bullying Hotline allegations seem dodgy to me. Conservatives as its patron and quoting Cameron on its confused and confusing website? Seems well dodgy to me.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Winterton Right Over Rail Travel for MPs

I recall one time Nicholas Winterton was a guest on Any Questions and in response to a question on public schools replied he supported them totally as they 'had made me the man I am today'. The great Paul Foot, also a panellist, at once replied: 'That's precisely why I am so opposed to them.' At the time I couldn't have agreed more and don't feel so much different even now. However, I did think he had a point regarding first class travel for MPs.
He claimed it to be 'infuriating' that MPs would no longer be allowed to claim first class travel on the grounds that standard class are 'for a totally different class of people.' This has echoes of a remark made about public transport by Steve('Shagger') Norris when he was Tory Opposition spokesperson for Transport and was consequently accused of snobbery. It could well be that Winterton is a snob to some degree but on this point I think he is justified in claiming MPs should be allowed to travel first class.
We should not allow our anger at MPs' profligacy and venalty over expenses to blind us to the fact that they do in fact do a viotal job for the nation and shouild be allowed to use what is often a long weekly journey to London to read, use a lap-top and everything else a busy senior professional needs to do. Standard class is very crowded Manchester to London and he is right that children can make a bit of noise and interupt people trying to make productive use of the journey time. But it seems this privilege has gone and the reason? Exactly the kind of expense claims made so frequently by the Wintertons.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


Piers and Gordon Show Worked for Me- Just

The Guardian editorial gave a somewhat dusty verdict on Brown's foray into 'bloke television'.
The interview was the negation of much that Mr Brown has said in the past, requiring him to shine more of a spotlight on his family than he has done before. It embodied and marked the latest victory of entertainment over politics. It was personally embarrassing for Mr Brown. It demeaned his office. A prime minister should not have to answer intimate questions from a pipsqueak.
I thought this was harsh. Maybe citizens were better off not knowing about Pitt the Younger's port addiction or Gladstone's habit of wandering the streets of London seeking to rehabilittate prostitutes (and then punishing himself when he felt desire for them), but modern voters in our 24-7 media dominated world, need and want to know the type of people who govern them. That seems quite reasonable to me and necessary information in a democracy. The media makes our rulers more than just someone who governs- he or she is also someone to whom we look for leadership and skill in avoiding dangers to our well being. Thedy are also someone with whom we have a close, albeit one-sided 'relationship'
Readers of this blog will know I have no great liking or respect for Gordon and would like to have seen someone else in charge as we enter the election campaign. I also thought parts of the interview were a bit embarrassing- the dwelling on his dead child and cutaways to Sarah in particular- and I tend to think if 'pipsqueak' is an appropriate description of Piers one wonders what Gordon is doing apparently having him as a friend. But I found the sections on Brown as a young man- his prodigious ability, his awful accident and enforced recuperative purdah- were moving and revealing.
I thought he came out of it much more sympathetically than I had expected. He is a shy and private man but is capable of warmth and charm and I had not fully realised that before. Will it win him any votes? Yes, I think a few, and they could be crucial votes so, on balance it was worth doing.

Sunday, February 14, 2010


Wheels Coming off Wagon Just a Tad Dave?

With a tired and deeply unpopular government led by a wholly uncharismatic Scot squarely in his sights and a Labour Party likely to suffer the bigger backlash over the expenses scandal, David Cameron ought to be floating euphorically on the imminence of victory. But the past week or so has seen him and his party make a series of damaging gaffes which makes one begin to wonder just a little.
1. Economy: Cameron was initially solid for deep cuts to reassure the bond markets and keep interest rates on our debt low. Osborne led the talking on this, despite his initial £1.5bn cots package not really surviving close scrutiny. Then evidence began to drift in that voterrs were alarmed at the idea of such painful cuts so Cameron obligingly softened his proposals to exclude really deep initial cuts.
2. Tax Relief for the Married: this idea was meant to buttress the institution of marriage but Cameron wavered on this too, withdrew it and then, after further thought reinstated it. Polly Toynbee asserts marriage tax relief 'costs a fortune and gives 13 times more to the rich than the poor.' It would also stigmatise the increasing number of families who live stable lives but have not tied the knot.
3. Education: Polly also points out regarding Michael Gove's plan to import Swedish 'free schools', that the head of Swseden's education inspectorate recently told Newsnight that:
... Swedish education standards have slid backwards with the new free schools the Tories use as their model. It has made schools socially ­segregated, leading to overall worse results as in our grammar school ­counties. This may be popular – but only with Cameron's core vote.
4. Lord Ashcroft's Status The Chief donor to the Tories was given a peerage in 2000 on the understanding that he would return to Britain by the end of that year and pay income tax in the UK. Since then he as refused to answer direct questions about his status and has consequently embarrassed a series of senior Conservatives when questioned in the media, including William Hague, Sir George Young, Eric Pickles, Michael Gove, Caroline Spelman, not to mention Big Dave himself.
5. 'Death Tax' Poster: The Observer today tells the tale of the Tory poster rolled out on Tuesday 9th February:
It showed a gravestone designed to scare voters alongside the message "Now Gordon wants £20,000 when you die." It referred to supposed Labour "plans" to impose a "death tax" on every estate to pay for social care for the elderly.
Criticism came flooding in from all sides as it was widely realised that the suggestion was merely one of a number which nthe government had put up for discussion. The Spectator criticised it as 'dispititing' and Joan Bakewell, spokesperson for the elderly condemend it as 'lies'.
6. Joanne Cash Affair: this involves the good looking A List candidate, married to a Cameron Old Etonian friend(she calls him 'Dave'), was 'parachuted' into the Westminster North constituency to the distinct displeasure of local party activists. Ann Widdicombe has lambasted this practice, pointing out that 'A listers no longer even have to show a recdord of work for the party'. Conservtive reformer John Strafford has laid into this and other signs that 'the party has become an oligarchy, controlled by a handful of people'.
7. Northern Ireland: but it is in Ulster that Cameron is posibly committing his most flagrant mistake. He is trying to forge an alliance with Unionists ihn the province so that the ten seats available in Westminster can be included in the Conservative corral, as they always used to be. However, it seems more than clear that the price will be the exclusion of the hated Martin McGuiness from any senior position in the Executive, even if he ends up the leader of the biggest party. Such a policy is grossly irresponsible and could plunge Northeern Ireland back into pre Good Friday Agreement anarchy.
I know I'm a reader of the Guardian and the Observer and tend not to dip too much into the rightwing press but the article by Andrew Rawnsley today makes too many points about Cameron's fading political touch for it to be ignored even by the most hard core Tory.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


'Motorway Man' More Bad News for Labour?

We all remember 'Worcester Woman, Basildon Man and Mondeo Man from previous elections when parties narrowed down a group of voters they reckoned would be critical to electoral success. What kind of 'man' or 'woman' is likely to grace the party political focus come the forthcoming campaign? The Observer ran a fascinating article last Sunday on a newly discerned floating voter called Motorway Man.
Data gathering company, Experian, have identified a group of voters, often couples, who are young(thirtysomething), childless, often professioinal managers, who live in modern homes close to motorways which they use to travel their separate ways to work. Their homes are often temporary as they will soon move on elsewhere. Richard Webber, from Kings College London, who has been involved in this analysis says:
"These people are much more politically and ideologically footloose. They look at political parties like some people look at cars. How they voted last time is not going to influence them this time. For them, it's purely a shopping experience."
They are likely to have bought at the top of the market and suffer or face negative equity.
The group comprises about 15% of the electorate, according to Webber. But it will have a disproportionate influence on the ­election because, according to this study, it is significantly over-represented in key marginals in constituencies such as Crawley in West Sussex, Milton Keynes South in Buckinghamshire, Eastleigh in Hampshire and Dartford in Kent.
A Yougov poll suggests that 44% of this transient group will vote Conservative with less than 28% opting for Labour. Because they are younger, they are likely to be influenced by celebrity culture thinks Webber, see Cameron as new and exciting, and Brown as yesterday's dour and boring has-been. Because they do not rely on public services and do not mix with people who do they are not likely to feel sympathy for high tax-high spend policies and 'don't see the point of all the tax they pay'. Labour will have its work cut out appealing to this crucial category of voter.

Sunday, February 07, 2010


How Broken is Britain?

This idea of 'Broken Britain' certainly has some resonance with most of us. I've posted often enough on binge drinking, anti-social behaviour by young males and the rest and I was surprised recently when interviewing politics teachers for the Political Education Forum websitethat so many of them emphatically endorsed the idea that our nation is 'broken'. I note that Gordon Brown refutes the idea in his Observer interview today but for a much broader treatment check the Economist this week. It admits there is a case in the form of outrages we encounter nearly every week: the two boys in South Yorkshire, binge drinking in our cities, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy higher than in most European countries, ther high number of single parent families. But, the journal cautions:
Stepping back from the glare of the latest appalling tale, it is clear that by most measures things have been getting better for a good decade and a half. In suggesting that the rot runs right through society, the Tories fail to pinpoint the areas where genuine crises persist. The broken-Britain myth is worse than scaremongering—it glosses over those who need help most.
i) The police have just recorded the lowest number of murders for 39 years
ii) burglaries and car crime are half as common now asw they were 25 years ago.
iii) figures show alcohol consumption is beginning to go down.
iv) consumption of drugs is also dropping.
v) teenage pregnancies are declining:
"A girl aged between 15 and 19 today is about half as likely to have a baby in her teens as her grandmother was."
The Economist blames the rightwing press for dwelling on the bad bits and ignoring the better ones. It also attacks the Tories:
His proposed tax break for married couples and gay civil-partners is an example. It does nothing for workless households. It would help only 11% of the 4m British children in poverty, while handing bonuses to plenty of well-off people. That would be a bad idea at any time; in a period when the state must tighten its belt it is an extraordinary proposal.
The article concludes judiciously:
Britain has a crunched economy, an out-of-control deficit and plenty of social problems; but it is not “broken”.

Thursday, February 04, 2010


Angry White Men: Membership of the BNP

I don't normally draw for my posts on academic journals as they tend to be a bit too dry and esoteric. But the article by Robert Ford and Mathew Goodwin in the current(Feb 2010) Political Studies examines the social background of BNP members. And it makes interesting reading. What would you think its typical membership was? I'd have said young working class whites, primarily males, living in the south-east and the Midlands.
And I might have been right once but would be wrong now. The days when skinhead soccer supporters provided the shock troops of the far right have gone. Since Griffin became leader in 1999 the party has become the most successful far right party in British history. It has 50 local councillors. a member of the Greater London Authority and two MEPs. The 2009 garnering of a million votes at the Euro-elections was a tenfold increase on the 1999 result.
The two authors discern a distinct constituency for the BGNP: middle-aged whites, mostly poorly educated who feel theatend by immigration- and are 'profoundly dissatisfied with the political status quo'. BNP support is concentrated in constituencies with low educational levels and large Muslim minorities. Precisely, in fact, in those northern Labour strongholds. The far right used to take votes off the Conservatives producing a toughening of Tory positions on immigration policy from time to time but the threat to Labour is just as profound and the authors of the paper believe the:
'social and political trends that underpin the emergence of the BNP- high immigration, the perception of conflict between white and Muslim communities and the erosion of institutions and traditions binding social groups to the Labour party- are liklely to continue.'

Monday, February 01, 2010


British politics today: Essentials

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Find out more information about the book, including a full contents list.


Ban the Ads- Let Smokers Keep their Doorways

I heard Andy Burnham being interrogated by John Humphrys this morning in his best rottweiler style but his earler treatment of the guy from the pro-smoking pressure group, Forest, was more compelling. The spokesman insisted on the rights of smokers but hesitated when asked if he wanted his kids to smoke. 'No, he said, but once they are over 18 they can make up their own minds'.

He didn't think there was an implicit4 contradiction between thinking it harmful for his kis when under 18 but being unconcerned once they reached that age. We drew our own conclusions.

Smokers now constitute only 21% of the adult population and the governmment want to whittle it down to 10% over the next decade. To this end a battery of new measures will shortly be introduced. One of them is a ban on 'doorway smoking', a standard ploy used by smokers in pubs and elsewhere. As a militant anti-smoker I judge, nevertheless, this is going a bit far. I would prefer not to walk through their smoke but it's a small price to pay to get unpolluted air inside the pub.

If they want to kill themselves slowly, let them continue I reckon- a few seconds of their smoke is unlikely to inflict lasting damage on those walking through it.
Banning adverts, we learn, is thought to be an 'unwaranted interference with human rights'. Now I would disagree with that. I think smokers have been punished enough- banned from buildings everywhere and now from their entrances I think is a step too far. Ban the ads, let smokers keep their doorways.

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