Friday, October 31, 2008


Worrying About the 'Bradley Effect'

The 'Bradley Effect' still haunts the minds of many Democrats as the days left before the ballot reduce to 4 with Obama leading 49.8-43.7. Tom Bradley was the black candidate for California governor in 1982. Right into the final stages he led in the polls but on the day failed to win because whites who said they would vote for him failed to do so. They were ashamed to tell pollsters of their racism; a bit like voters were relectant to admit they were voting Tory in 1992 as this might suggest they were selfish bastards.

In that California election a big slice for the 'undecided' broke for the Republican, George Deukmejian, and that denied Bradley his expected prize. Today the always thoughful Martin Kettle suggests however that race is not a crucial issue in this election.

Kettle points out that Obama is doing much better than his Democratic predecedssors in coralling the white vote. White Americans voted 61-38 for Bush in 2004, 57-40 for Bush in 2000. Currently Obama has a one point lead amoung whites over McCain, reassures the Guardian columnist: 'This isn't at core a vote about colour' he concludes. Hope you're right is what I say, given that whites might easily be doing the 'Bradley' thing again in the polls cited. Kettle rounds off his piece with:

Americans have spent a long time getting to know Barack Obama. The evidence is that they like what they see, and that they are about to do something both right and great.

Oh, I do hope he's right but I can't get out of my mind that devastating paragraph in Geroge Monbiot's most recent column:

Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves round the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15-year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD. But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many US citizens become so stupid, and so suspicious of intelligence?.

I tell myself that while being one of the stupidest nations on earth the Americans are also far and away the cleverest, as their wonderful universities and leading research proves, not to mention their huge pantheon of Nobel Laureates. I just pray that on 4th November the cleverer ones will be voting in greater numbers than the other lot.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Ross and Brand Will Only Benefit From 'Ansafonegate'

I used to admire and quite like Jonathan Ross when he first appeared on the media as a very quick witted and funny guy. Then I found his relentlesss smuttiness-and I quite like smutty jokes by the way- began to pall. The way he inevitably directed every interview around to his subject's sex life, I thought to be reflect a poverty of his own personality rather than the sychopantic millions who listened, watched and paid his enormous salary.

I recall him asking Martina Navratilova if she used to have sex before she went on court to play tennis at Wimbledon; the obvious subtext was that he was fishing for tawdry details of her well known sexual preferences. But the interview which caused me never to watch the pillock again was with David Cameron when he suggested, that, when at Eton, Cameron might have masturbated over pictures of Margaret Thatcher. Brand, I know less well but had found him intelligent and potentially funny until this latest event.

The current scandal about the leaving of obscene messages on the ansaphone of near 'National Treasure', Andrew Sachs was spectacularly misjudged and the widespread kicking they have received from every quarter has been richly deserved, as is their suspension by ther Beeb. However the biggest loser from all this is the corporation itself, already facing problems with its future funding. This will have substantially weakened its case for continued state funding at present levels. But the sad thing is, both Ross and Brand will not suffer at all.

I realise I'm moving right into Victor Meldrew- 'old fart' territory here, but their kind of celebrity thrives on becoming and remaining media 'enfant terribles'. Even if the BBC sacks them for good, their market value will have gone up rather than down and they won't be unemployed for more than five minutes. I fear they merely reflect the infantile consciousness of a significant portion of the British listening and viewing public.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


Policy Exchange Idea for Fighting Educational Inequality

The rightwing think-tank, Policy Exchange has come up with an interesting idea to improve education: pay schools a premium for taking children from poor areas. Our educational system is hugely marred by the 40% who fail to earn even 'baseline' qualifications of 5 medium grade GCSEs; with only half of that number going on to remedy the omission at a later date. This lumpen group comprise children from the lowest occupational strata- as has always been the case- where study is not valued or encouraged by parents and where children grow up to pass on such negativity to their children in turn.

Policy Exchange suggest schools should get £3000 for each pupil from the poorest homes, with lower amounts given according to category. The report suggests:

"If these resources were used successfully to boost attainment, middle-class families would start to be attracted to the school, [and] schools in wealthier areas might be incentivised to broaden their admissions criteria to attract higher value pupils."

I can see critics might say this is just 'throwing money' at the problem, in the manner of Blair after 2001, but resources are crucial and these children, as anyone with experience of trying to encourage them that learning is a good idea will know, are awfully, depressingly hard to teach. The Conservative Party- to whom the think tank naturally aims its ideas, have noted the report, though not adopted it as yet. The desperate shortage of funds to solve any problem might cause this idea to be sidelined. However, this attempt to solve one of the UK's most enduring problems of inequality and one which holds us back economically is interesting and, perhaps, a sign that the Conservatives are not short of ideas as they limber up for the next election.

Monday, October 27, 2008


Nerves Jangle as Obama Approaches the Finishing Line

With 9 days to go to the election and Obama in the lead 50.4%-42.6%, Democrat supporters, like myself and so many people I know, should be quietly confident of victory. And yet, we are worried. When Obama was born in 1962 strict segregation was in force in the Southern states of the USA, some of which would have rendered his parents' marriage illegal. A huge distance has been covered since then, not least by the Republicans under Bush who appointed two African Americans to high office, to some extent paving the way for Obama's rise.

Maybe wobbles like this are inevitable as the day of decision approaches; I recall not believing the landslide poll predictions for Labour back in 1997. Obama has shown by his dignity and resilience that he is an extraordinary candidate, maybe of a 'once in a lifetime' quality. To have come so far and be denied at the last gasp would be the cruellest political outcome I can ever ernvisage happening. Yet prizes are plucked from the grasp of the deserving every day.

Maybe the Republicans are holding back a killer scandal to launch just before the poll? We know they would have not the slightest compunction against such action. Or maybe, in the wild and crazy fringes of the US, there is someone or a group of crazies planning the ultimate plan of denying Obama what destiny seems about to award. That Obama has stoically lived with this danger for over a year is yet further testimony to his truly remarkable character. I fully realise that, if elected, Obama's charisma will eventually pall and that he will make mistakes. But, please God, let's get him elected first.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Shadow of the Bullingdon Returns to Haunt Tories

The Bullingdon Club of 1992: pictured are (1) George Osborne, (2) Harry Mount, (3) Chris Coleridge, (4) Lupus von Maltzahn, (5) Mark Petre (6) Peter Holmes a Court, (7) Nat Rothschild, (8) Jason Gissing.

So much in politics- like voting for instance- is based on which side is disliked least. I thought the Corfu business was media driven froth a few days ago: how wrong I was. It has dredged up all that stuff again about the Conservative leadership being 'toffs' in the worst possible way. Never mind that Peter Mandelson's relationship with Oleg Deripaskais is possibly a more fruitful area for press indignation and investigation, it is George's connections with Nat Rotshchild and their former membership of the infamous Bullingdon Club that has won the focus.

'Not so Smug Now' reads the ST's headline under the above picture of the astonishingly smug looking very rich bastards who clearly have a withering contempt for every bit of humanity excluded from their awful little clique. I challenge anyone to take a look at the expressions and postures of the majority of those in the picture and disagree with my assessment. I reckon more than a few will be reminded by this affair and the widespread publication of the above picture, just which side they dislike more.

But it is more serious than the dash of tribal class spite which probably inspires people like me. Andrew Rawnsley today, makes the point that in response to Brown's charge that 'this is no time for novices', they replied that 'character and judgement' were more important. Well, in the midst of 'Corfugate', both qualities are looking in the shortest possible supply right now in the topmost reaches of the Conservative Party.

[Incidentally, if you haven't seen it take a look at Chris Riddell's simply brilliant cartoon on the Osborne embarrassment in today's Observer]

Saturday, October 25, 2008


Why, oh Why Do we Have to Keep on Putting the Clocks Back?

[Last year, about this time, I expressed my indignation at the absurd putting back of clocks every year by that precious hour. I have not heard one single person in favour of this measure which continues to shroud in gloom a period of the year which does not need any more more gloom than it already has. So I'm republishing my post of last October and intend to do so until this ridiculous outdated practice is done away with(I know, I know).]

No doubt most people in this country have felt the first chill of autumn as recent unseasonably warm temperatures begin to give way. This reminder that winter is at hand is bad enough but what astonishes me is our government's insistence on putting the clocks back by an hour; this year it's on 25th October.

The case against this joyless annual donning of a temporal hair shirt is as follows:

i) studies show that while there might be more accidents in the mornings these would be more than compensated for by fewer in the evenings; The Guardian some time ago, quoted studies predicting a net saving of 140 lives.

ii) 80 per cent of the population want to keep summer time throughout the year.

iii) Many influential pressure groups favour it, including the CBI, the Police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

iv) the experiment of maintaining BST through the winter 1968-71 was, as far as I recall, a substantial success.

v) It would extend the tourist season, the sporting season and..., perhaps most important of all it would make us all feel a damn sight better about the miserable imminence of winter.

The case against reversing the measure is summed up in the two words: Scottish farmers. They would face much darker mornings as the sun would not rise until 10.0am. However, against this it can be adduced:

i) The rate of decline in accidents would actually be greater in Central Scotland(5.5%) than in the south of England(2.5%).

ii)When I used to visit Northern Sweden regularly, farmers up there did not see daylight until much later than 10.0am and accepted it as part of their cost for living in that latitude.

iii) Now Scotland has its own parliament, why doesn't it set its own regional time and do us all a big favour?

iv) is it fair that a nation of 60 million should suffer merely because a few hundred farmers should be able to see their cows more clearly on a winter's morning?

In the war we had a clocks turned forward two hours- Double Summer Time!- why not return to those good old days? Brown might even find his recently flagging popularity recovering immensely if he introduced this simple yet highly popular measure.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Public Funding for Parties Answer to 'Mandelson's Law'?

Martin Kettle today, argues 'Corfugate' embodies an important message. Given that party memberships have shrunk to the size of Church of England congregations, parties have had to go cap in hand to some pretty unwholesome characters, and not just the Tories, one has to allow. Kettle suggests that suspicion over party funding will follow politicians like a bad smell while the present situation obtains:

British politicians, ministers included, must assume that the pack will always be out to get them over their private life. The company they keep, the places they go, the things they like to do - in the US the state of their health and tax returns - are never off-limits for a second. This particularly applies to politicians who love both privacy and publicity alike. It's an unenviable reality. Call this Mandelson's Law.

His solution? Government funding for parties.

We've heard it all before but no reason not to exhume this hoary old suggestion- it may now have more relevance and resonance. However, with politicians in such low esteem can we believe taxpayers will accept such a distribution of public money? Moreover, wherever public funding has been introduced, politicians have done their best to evade any strictures applied in order to gain advantage. I can see those US style 'independent' bodies being set up over here during election campaigns to ostensibly exercise the right of free speech but in reality to grind party political axes.

Simon Jenkins, that doyen of commentators, has argued fiercely against the idea of taxpayer funded parties, insisting that they should seize upon the need to raise money as ther growth point of a renaissance for popular political involvement. But is this likely? possible? We need parties to make democracy work- maybe the time is approaching when we should accept the financial cost of making democracy work, and resolve to overcome the inevitable shortcomings of such a system.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


"Corfugate" Still Running as a News Story

I didn't think the Osborne 'Corfugate' business would survive more than a day in the headlines but I was wrong. It's now on the inside pages but there could still be legs in the story if someone decides to make an official complaint to the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life or to the Electoral Commission; or even, why not? the police. A couple of things strike me after reading more details here and here.

1. It seems clear Osborne genuinely believed there was a sniff of a donation: why else take his party's fundraiser to the second meeting? As Labour's Denis MacShane has noted, even discussing doing something against the law might constitute an offence.

2. It is obvious Mandelson attracts a certain kind of warm friendship. Both Nat Rothschild and his mother it seems are close friends:

In the last decade an enduring bond has been forged across the political divide as Rothschild has become one of the closest friends of Peter Mandelson. They regularly go on holiday together and socialise in London where Mandelson is now a fixture on the elite social scene as he entertains the great and good in his white stucco Regency house near Regent's Park bought with a legacy from his late mother, Mary.

Rothschild was very supportive of Mandelson during his years in the cold after his second resignation and when his mother died.

3. The case illustrates the old political axiom that in the House of Commons, one's real enemies are not in front but behind.

Many Tory MPs were enjoying Osborne's discomfort because they have resented the way in which such a young figure, who has risen so rapidly, makes no secret of his disdain for lesser mortals. "George does have a swagger," one frontbencher said.

It seems also that George is not above letting people know he thinks he's rather superior- an accusation frequently levelled, it might be added, against the Prince of Darkness himself- and often texts critical comments to junior ministers on their speeches or makes it known others will have no chance of office once the great day of victory arrives.

We also learn that George's ear has received whispers from senior Tories that his indiscretions regarding private dinner conversations have offended many within the party also- this kind of thing generally 'isn't done' within the political class, where 'Chatham House' rules(not outside these walls) tend to apply. There was more than a dash of Oxford Union politics about Osborne's behaviour. However clever he may be- and the Tories are famously ambivalent about cleverness- he's still more than a little immature.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008


The Curious Case of Toffs Falling Out

It's always reassuring for Labour Party members to see top Tories falling out, but the current case of Osborne, Rothschild and Feldman with Mandelson floating aound, malignly on the outskirts, is a bit hard to fathom. As far as I can see it, these are the pertinent facts:

1. Osborne met Oleg Peripaska on his luxury yacht in Corfu during the summer in the company of top Tory fundraiser, Andrew Feldman. It is alleged the two Tories anticipated eliciting a donation from the Russian oligarch, to Conserrvative party funds.

2. Osborne subsequently briefed ST journalists in the late summer that Mandeslon, also on the yacht, had 'dripped pure poison' about Gordon into his ear. Mandelson has denied the story which headlined the ST soon after Mandy was brought back into the Cabinet. Sadly Mandelson's bad-mouthing is only too believable, eevn to Labour loyalists.

3. Nat Rothschild, a life-long friend of Osborne(fellow Bulingdonite), was furious at his breach of confidence regarding Mandeslon and has sought revenge for his friend's discourtesy. This has consisted of a claim that Osborne deliberately solicited a donation from the billionaire, something which would be in contravention of the Political parties, Elections and Referendums Act, 2001. Osborne has denied this, suggested it was Rothschild who was the real initiator of the idea, but has not denied discussioins took place, at least hypothetically that a donation might be made. It would not be impossible, for example, that the Russuian could channel sums via his British companies.

So where does it all this leave us? Well, it's a charming piece of political trivia to ingest with our breakfasts and it could get worse for Osborne, who is on the back foot and might suffer from further revelations. But if this is all there is, I don't think George need worry too mjuch about his job just yet. Michael Heseltine, on the PM programme yesterday, was right to say there isn't really a story here. People met on a yacht, they chatted and possibly explored possibilities, but in the end no law was broken and the fuss is essentially press generated. The same thing happens with the government as the target; this time it's the Opposition.

Osborne might reflect however, that he is being undermined by his deviation from the rule of gentlemanly discretion. His old mate is so incensed he is seeking to end Osborne's political career. I suspect there is more to the history of this spat than meets the eye. He might also reflect that Peter Mandelson is a dangerous kind of friend to have. Incidentally, Hezza's dismissal of the yacht as 'not particularly luxurious' was a bit of an eye-opener. This is a 238 foot vessel costing in the region of £20million. It's a different world isn't it?

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Wealth Gap has Narrowed After All

The Wealth Gap has allegedly been growing apace for the last two or three decades, driven on by deregulated markets, hedge fund traders etc etc. Labour's critics have been quick to point to the 'fact' that inequality has extended disturbingly thoughout its eleven years in power. I always found this deeply depressing, as a Labour supporter, and could not really find much of an answer except to assert, do doubt correctly, that under Tories the gap would be wider, and what is more, they would not have given a fig for it or the poor, (IDS nobly excepted). For a longer analysis of wealth and poverty in Britain visit my companion site right here. Oh yes, and it gives the excuse to use my very favourite Ascot picture, illustrating the wealth gap.

Today I hear on the eponymous radio 4 show, that this is not the case. Let me quote from the BBC website:

A new report says the gap between rich and poor in the UK has narrowed but it is still one of the biggest in the developed world.Despite a vast majority of the UK being richer than 10 years ago, the gap between rich and poor was widening. A report by the Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) now says that the gap has narrowed. Mark Pearson, who wrote the report for the OECD, says this has been due to a large rise in employment and social spending.

So, can Labour now boast some minor success as opposed to abject failure in terms of reducing poverty? You can count on it that they will, but I supect that as the next election approaches, statistical argument about such matters will burgeon, to the enlightenment of few, if any at all.

Monday, October 20, 2008


We Said it Would Happen re Mandy and Now it Has

Well, we all said it would happen... and now it has. Bringing back Peter Mandelson was a clear gamble, given the nature of the beast. I suspected those four years in Brussells might prove fertile for rightwing scrabblers after dodgy dealings. The first result was the so-called close friendship with the Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaski who entertained the epicene new member of the Cabinet during the summer on his huge 238 ft yacht. Yesterday came the full page spread in the ST entitled: The Secret World of Lord Freebie.

Now it seems Mandy is in tight with Nat Rothschild, former party animal-he was once a member of the infamous Bullingdon Club at Oxford- and now mega rich hedge fund manager. The article details his regular flights in private planes and social junkets with the super-rich in exotic locations. One source is quoted as saying:

'He thinks that for a person of his calibre and experience, he is badly paid. He likes to spend time with people who have considerably more money than him.'

In both cases it is suggested favours might have been extended in lieu of the hospitality. Mandeslon robustly denies any such allegations as the sniping of the rightwing press doing the job of ther Conservative Party. The ST followed up the article with a leader demnding answers to a series of questions. I suspect this is only the beginning of a long running campaign to destabilise Brown's mildly resurgent government. So far only a few crumbs have been scuffed up, but who knows where and when the rightwing attack dogs might discover a genuine juicy bone?

Saturday, October 18, 2008


Strategic Problems for Cameron

I can see that David Cameron and his advisers are in a difficult position just at ther moment. As Gordon bestrides the world's financial landscape like a giant nail biting colossus, his ratings on economic management continue to prosper- currently 42% to Brown and Darling to only 31% for Cameron and Osborne. After the conference season the Tories seem to have lost much of the momentum they generated during the summer.

Being bipartisan won't help him much as it doesn't win attention thus headlines and therefore polling points. So he's casting around what to do and has opted to attack Brown for causing the crisis in the first place. This risks alienating some support and it also poses the question of what line can he reasonably take? Brown clearly didn't cause the banking crisis- though it's true he allowed the boom to continue instead of quieting it down- so it seems odd to launch that arrow at him. Moreover, I don't recall the Tories proposing to do much different in terms of reining in personal debt.

And on solving the crisis, the party of (ultra) light rein regulation is scarcely going to sound as credible as the party long familiar with economic intervention.
Tristram Hunt today elaborates on this theme. Comparing Cameron's latest opus- Cameron on Cameron- with the Opposition effusions of- ahem- Tony Blair(no JS Mill he)- he notes:

While Blair addressed his Christianity, talked about his debt to the philosopher John Macmurray, and pointed to the role of New Liberalism in influencing the Labour movement, David Cameron offers us his views on Pot Noodles, Midsomer Murders and digital radio. He thinks marriage is important, but so too are civil partnerships. And, in a later interview, compares his religious sensibility to Magic FM's reception in the Chilterns. It comes and goes, apparently. Small wonder he is unable to deal with a significant geopolitical event in any credible way.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


Last Debate Didn't Change Anything

I didn't see the debate so I'm only basing this on the views of others. Justin Webb, BBC editor, reckoned McCain was much better in this debate expressing restrained aggression. Obama was calm, as always and maybe a bit too professorial according to Webb, but he came back well at his opponent and reported that early polls suggested Obama won it overall.

Frank Luntz, the US pollster, watched the debate with a group of swing voters, four of whom, at the end of the debate said they would now vote for Obama. To some extent this was McCain's last chance to knock Obama off his perch and the verdict, albeit mostly impressionistic, is that he failed. Polls in the Observer the week before last had Obama winning 264 delegates in the electoral college- he only needs 270 to win. Fingers crossed by Obama supporters nothing major happens to affect this lead.
For a full briefing on the campaign so far go to here

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


Gordon as Lazarus-Even a 'Snap' Election Can't be Ruled Out Now

Why study boring old politics I'm sometimes asked? Well, what's happened to Gordon Brown over the last few months provides the answer: the fascination with 'who is in' and 'who is out'; 'who is up' and 'who is down'. A political career in intensive care and apparently over, is suddenly revived. Brown is the Lazarus of the age.

A few months ago I asked students to identify what achievements Brown could chalk in his 'plus' chart since becoming PM. They could not find a single item- and nor could I. But now....? Paul Krugman, the recent Nobel Economics Laureate praises our man as the saviour of the world! That's some transformation. While presidents faltered and company CEOs stood helpless, Gordon, and his faithful lieftenant Alistair, marched boldly into the breach like an economic Nelson or even Henry V.

Of course this could be temporary as the world decides the Brown solution, like the Paulsen solution before it- doesn't work. But if it does work Gordon might win Glenrothes and might even look good for 2010. One US academic in a discussion forum to which I belong has even suggested he might go for a snap election?! I know that's not going to happen but I think it's unlikely he'll have another such favourable opportunity before 2010. Amazing, just amazing.

Monday, October 13, 2008


Salmond faces poser over Glenrothes after Banking Crisis

Reently Alex Salmond spoke of an 'arc of prosperity' to which an independent Scotland would belong: Iceland, Ireland and Norway. The first two are now in deep doo-doo of coúrse and the third has had billions wiped off its prosperity by the banking crisis.

In addition to this, Scottish banks seem to have led the Gaderene rush to the precipice. The question is: could Scotland have survived, WILL it survive without the billions UK taxpayers have poured into the banks? What price an SNP victory in the Glenrothes by-election now, one has to ask?

Thursday, October 09, 2008


Who is to Blame for the Crisis?

Occasionally a time happens- and this is probably one of them- when you feel a watershed in being passed. The global financial system has ben found wanting and no-one quite knows what will happen; it seems nothing will be quite the same again. So I thought I'd try to identify the reasons why things have gone so irrevocably pear-shaped over the past year or so. I have written a longer briefing on this topic elsewhere but here I'll confine myself to pointing fingers at a few culprits, some well known, others less so.

The 1970s were a turbulent and unhappy time for the left: high inflation, unemployment, union power excessive and living standards in decline. Thatcher and Reagan came into power determined to allow market forces to 'work their magic'. Over here this meant crushing the unions, privatisation, slashing taxes and deregulating financial dealings via the Big Bang. These steps helped to launch trading in shares and securities to phenomenal heights and racked up levels of debt in the way investment banks operated. These changes also introduced the City bonus culture and the arrival of the 'super-rich'.

Subprime Loans
Faced with a glut of investment during the 1990s US banks hired it out to initiate a boom in home buying. Urged by government to help the low paid, just about anyone qualified. Some loans were given on the basis of 'no income, no job, no assets' or 'ninja' loans. Often they came with 'teaser' discounts of 4% or below, set to double after a couple of years. It followed that irresponsible lending like this caused an avalanche of foreclosures, rising from a quarter of a million in early 2007 to three quarters of a million in mid 2008.

The secondary mortgage market has long existed. This entails mortgages being sold on, like IOUs, to investors abroad who hope the income stream of payees will realise a profit for them. In the past this has worked perfectly well. However these subprime loans loans were dodgy so financiers wrapped them up with good loans in Collateralised Debt Obligations which were so complex few could separate the good from the bad. By now, the 'build my bonus' culture was such that few bothered to look too closely and these toxic CDOs flooded the world's financial system. As debtors in the US began to cease paying, however, the extent of the problem slowly became obvious.

Underwriting High Risk Mortgages
Underwriters are the people who assess the degree of risk attached to loans regarding the borrower's ability to repay. Assessments used to take a week but a near automatic electronic system was introduced in the USA which completed the job in 30 seconds. These guys carry a heavy burden of responsibility in the wake of the crisis.

Credit Agencies
These bodies assess the credit worthiness of issuers of securities plus the securities themselves. Their incompetence was fully demonstrated by the case of Enron but in the euphoria of constant growth and huge bonuses they alolowed their eyes to be taken way off the ball and the CDOs were often given triple A ratings. These agencies also carry a heavy responsibility.

The Bonus Culture
Finally, as we all are now aware, bankers became transfixed by the ridiculous sums they could make if they acquired sufficient business for their firms. Close scrutiny and caution- the once hallmarks of bankers- gave way to a desperate desire to acquire that parking space beneath the skyscraper HQ in Wall St or Canary Wharf, for the new Ferrari. The super-rich thought nothing about spending a £100mn on new yachts or even private submarines to swank their way around the world's pleasure spots during vacations or a hugely early retirement, funded by all those bonuses, companies bought and sold.

Simon Jenkins suggested a week or so ago that a tribunal into the crisis was required. Well, he could fill up his dock from the above three categories with no trouble and if public executions were still allowed many would gather at Tyburn to watch those responsible breath their last. However, there is a problemette here. There is another group of people responsible and this is a huge one: all those people who exploited cheap money by loading up with chronic debt, which they now find they cannot sustain by further borrowing. We are all complicit, to a degree in what has happened and, I'd guess, will have to return to a much more sober and cautious way of spending from hereon. If you need a mortgage, you might even have to spend an awkward hour or so in the bank manager's office, as my generation had to back in the 1960s and 70s.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Can it be the US Election Will be Won on Substance Rather than Style?

Sunday's Observer carried an article by Professor Patricia Williams, bemoaning the acceptance in the US election of 'folksy directness' as somehow superior to knowing something about the issues of the day. Referring to Sarah Palin she says:

When I hear her failing to recall the name of a single newspaper she'd ever read, I feel willing to offer up my teenage son as a sacrifice to the Republican party; he could serve in her stead with so much more fluency. When she prattles smoothly yet non-responsively to questions about the war, economics or foreign policy - or when she brightly changes the subject altogether - I want to weep.

But it really does seem that appearing to know little about the political background is OK in the US as long as one dresses up one's ignorance in folksy 'good old boy' charm. Actually mastering the complexities of the massive problems facing the uSA and the world, seems to have been downgraded to 'boring' or being part of the reviled 'Washington elite'.

So it was (really) reassuring to read Michael Tomasky in The Guardian, suggesting the very opposite of his fellow US commentator. He recalls in 2004 how John Kerry, authoritative in the debates, was rubbished as boring while Bush was seen as the kind of guy you'd like to have beer with(though Bush didn't drink beer). And Bush went on to win, not because he was the better candidate but because he made voters feel OK about their own ignorance and uninformed prejudices.

But he goes on to suggest that this time people are genuinely listening to the substance. In the debates McCain had:

'more zingers and one-liners than Obama did and generally speaking was the aggressor that night. And Sarah Palin, with her repeated winks at the camera, had far more of a folksy, I'm-just-like-Joe-Sixpack approach than Joe Biden did. One-liners, aggression and emotive warmth are supposed to win these contests, we are told, and they usually do. But literally every poll I've seen shows that voters think Obama and Biden - who were direct and substantive and between them barely said one zingy or folksy thing - won the debates, and handily so.

If it happens in the US, it might even happen over here.

Monday, October 06, 2008


Reshuffle Surprises

I've probably written enough about the reshuffle but the full list, published today, reveals a few surprises.

1. Lord Adonis(pictured), fervent advocate of academy schools, who seemed safe in his niche for the duration of the parliament, has been moved to transport(albeit at a higher ministerial level), a brief with which, I would venture, he has no familiarity whatsoever, or indeed, affinity. The rumour that he has clashed with his S of S and therefore been moved by request from Balls to his patron, carries some credibility.

2. The four ringleaders of the plot to oust Blair in 2006-Chris Bryant, Sion Simon, Wayne David and Kevin Jones- have all been rewarded with ministerial posts. The plot did not succeed but it led to Blair having to promise he'd go within a year. It seems their reward has come once all the fuss has died down. Evidence that there is such a thing as a payoff, if not gratitude, in politics; you might just have to wait for it a little longer than you might wish.

3. The appointment of the capable Jim Murphy as S of S for Scotland, joining Paul Murphy(I guess no relation) at Wales and Shaun Woodward at Northern Ireland begs the question as to their need in the first place. With all those domestic functions devolved to the executives what possible reason is there to persevere with these two dimensional ministries? The time is long past when their residual functions should be grouped together in a single unit.

4. A point made by a few commentators, including Peter Riddell, is that the import of Mandelson has effectively drawn the sting of the so-called 'Blairite' rebellion. Miliband's feeble speech at Manchester had already sidelined his challenge, though he remains bookie's favourite as the man most likely to replace Brown, but Mandy's return and Blair's clear endorsement of the move, not to mention the rallying to Brown of Campbell and Prescott, scotches the nascent threat to Brown of any of the young pretenders like Miliband or Purnell. Indeed, some columnists are now talking of brother Ed Miliband, now at Energy and Climate Change, as a more likely contender.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


'Economic War Cabinet' Appropriate for the Times?

For nostalgic and history loving reasons I like using pictures from the time of Churchill and Attlee. The picture on the left of the 1941 War Cabinet seemed relevant once the press started to name Gordon's new assemblage of available talent, an 'Economic War Cabinet'. Having had a day to ponder the dramatic reshuffle, I have a few small things to say about it.

1. The 'War Cabinet' description might be useful in flagging up the importance of the crisis we are in, but it might prove a little too alarmist for some.

2. The assembly of a 19 person 'National Economic Council' supports this 'war emergency' theme headed by Paul Myners, Head of the Guardian Media Group and a former head of M and S. Brown argues that:

he was seeking "to reconstruct the way we govern to meet the new challenges coming from financial instability, oil price rises, food shortages and by making the right investments in science and technology. We need to have a sharper focus on all these areas." He predicted that every government would reconstruct their ways of working in a similar fashion over the next few months.

3. Mandelson's appointment has had a mixed reception. Some have called it a 'masterstroke', others on the left a disaster. He is a gamble and who knows what secrets of his private life, conducted away from the tabloids for the last four years in Brussells, will be unearthed by the journalistic lowlife. But in terms of experience, expertise, contacts and strategic planning, he can have few equals. We hear the feud is a long time over and that he has been advising Brown for some months past, even commenting on his much improved conference speech. No doubt the likes of Ed Balls and Douglas Alexander will feel aggrieved as their master's ear is occupied listening to a different set of whispers. Stand by for some more interesting times as an authentic 'big beast' re-enters our national life.

4. All the appointments seem to have logic to them, especially Ed Miliband's to a new ministry of Energy and Climate Change and the elevation of Stephen Carter, from No.10 to be a minister for Communication. It was a pity John Cruddas coul;d not accept housing; exhuming Beckett to do the job smacked just a little of desperation.

5. The appointment of Nick Brown as Chief Whip will annoy many Labour MPs who find his sycophantic Brown-nosing a bit much to take and who might well look back on Geoff Hoon's tenure as a golden era.

6. While the reshuffle seems to have merit as an answer to the economic crisis, it does seem as if Brown has returned to a New Labour comfort zone with the reappearance of Mandy and Becket. Polly Toynbee wonders if this '1997 Tribute Band' can be in tune with the problems of today.

The polls show Labour closing the gap from 20 points to 12 in today's Guardian with 55% judging Brown to have handled the crisis 'well'. Gordon is enjoying a deserved mild recovery; we'll have to await Glenrothes to see how significant it is.

Friday, October 03, 2008


Reshuffle Sensation: Machiavelli Brought Back into Cabinet!

Since coming to power in 1997, Labour have not been too good at reshuffles. Mind you, few governments are; telling ministerial colleagues, and often friends, that they are no longer required is one of the worst aspects of being PM. After his partial recovery at Manchester, the last thing he needs is a botched reshuffle with journalists crowing and smarting colleagues giving spitefully negative briefings. I started this post just as the radio came on and have just learnt of the astonishing appointment of Peter Mandelson to the Cabinet.

This sounds like a bold step- certainly it was unexpected. Ministers lined up to go, apart from Ruth Kelly were Digby Jones, a non Cabinet post at Business at his own request, and, allegedly, Des Browne, Geoff Hoon John Hutton, and possibly Alistair Darling. But it was also rumoured that several of the 'fingered' ministers were not willing to go quietly. So Brown had a problem.

Bringing back Mandelson could be seen as a masterstroke in that: it will grab the headlines away from the more controversial moves; bring in from the old one of the most talented, and arguably mistreated New Labour politicians during the past decade; and demonstrate Gordon has sufficient magnamimity to welcome back someone against whom he had long directed the blowlamp of his visceral dislike. It seems he will replace John Hutton at Business, who now goes to Defence. Mandy would be perfect for such a post, especially in present circumstances. Des Browne? Backbenches it would seem.

Mandelson will need to be made a peer to qualify for office and it seems Geoff Hoon, tipped to replace Mandelson will not be leaving for Brussels. The cunning of this arrangement is that no embarrassing byelections will be necessary, apart from the Bolton West one in the case of Ruth Kelly; this will almost certainly be a loss(later note: sorry, I had not realised when writing that Kelly was staying until the election) but more losses would have lost serious momentum, especially as Glenrothes is probably a shoo-in for the SNP. Finally, having Mandy back in the fold re-establishes at the centre of British politics, the most creative political intelligence and the williest strategist since Nicholo Machiavelli. What other surprises will this reshuffle bring I wonder? How will the party react? Given Mandy's long list of enemies, not well, I would guess.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Cameron's Blairite Speech

A friend of mine, observing my son, aged 18 months, bringing his hands together in an unwitting clap, observed: 'Congratulations, you've just qualified to be a delagate at the Conservative party Conference. My how they applaud! Seeing the nicely turned out and coiffured Tory women, lips open in anticipation and hands poised for the imminent clap line, made me realise why I vote Labour. They even cheered to the echo, the assertion that Michael Howard, Thatcherite loser of the last election, was a 'great leader of the Conservative Party'. God, they are awful!

But, to be fair, they are on the up and Cameron was bloody good this afternoon. His speech was essentially Blairite I thought: full of warm vacuities and nicely judged applause lines on the character of his party, its adaptability and so forth. He even said, in effect that he would be 'tough on crime: tough on the causes of crime.' But for this I applaud him- though not with the blind sychophancy of his audience today, of coure. I liked the way he gave credit to the maligned IDS and cited his party's record of social reform. 'Progressive Ends, Conservative Means' is a really good slogan for 2010.

On the 'novice' question, I think this will hang around his neck until he has been in office for a few months at least. The 'experienced expert on the economy' is working for Gordon and will continue to do so until the crisis is over. Meanwhile, Dave's ploy of offering full support to Brown during the crisis is the best he can hope to do. I noticed his citing of his constituent, Mr Wood, who's wife had died after poor NHS care. We'll hear a lot more about such cases in the run up to the election not to mention during the campaign itself.

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