Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Who Won the Debate? Depends on Your Prejudices

The great finance debate was about as exciting as I expected- not very- but was fascinating nervertheless. I watched the show right through and then checked out some of the comments online. It was a true insight into how our prejudices influence our perceptions. I'm a lifelong Labour supporter and found I thought Alistair Darling by far the more impressive performer: very calm, very assured, imbued with the gravitas and authority of experience. Osborne, to me seemed lightweight, shrill and wholly lacking in these qualities. Vince, by contrast seemed more like Darling, though with more wit.

Fair enough, you might think but online judgements simply amazed me: 'Osborne wiped the floor with Darling'; 'George is my boy"; made me think they must have watched a different programme. Except that a fair number of the views on Vince I recognised as close to my own. So it would seem, Simon and Garfunkel were right with their immortal line from The Boxer: 'A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest'.

I daresay jugements in the print media will be roughly in accordance with this rule too. The Guardian seemed to plump for Darling too, but so far I haven't seen a poll result on the debate. I suspect Cable would come out of such a survey as 'the winner' as he managed to elicit the most laughs. We forgive people so much if they can make us smile or laugh. But it seems a slightly dodgy basis on which to construct a system of government.

Sunday, March 28, 2010


Has My Campaign Worked?

Readers of this blog might recall that every October(last 24/10/09) I repeat a cri de coeur begging that the ridiculous loss of an hour's daylight be reversed so that GMT+1 continue throughout the winter. Now it seems my prayers might be answered. According to an article in the Observer an all-party agreement is close: the plan is to have GMT+1 during the winter and GMT+2 during the summer. "Hallejulah!

But I'm not breaking open the bubbly just yet. Governments say they are going to do a lot of things and never do, so I'm not going to count any chickens. Also, if Scottish votes become especially valuable in the coming election this could become a pawn in a deal to win them. But my fingers and toes are tightly crossed.

Friday, March 26, 2010


Tory lead Down to a Mere 2 Per Cent in Key Marginals

Always been a big fan of Chris Mullin, maverick MP, minister a few times over and champion of all those people wrongly accused of murder. Also he's an author and his diaries, A View From the Foothills was my favourite read last year. So I was well disposed towards his piece in The Guardian today. In it he argues Labour have done some creditable things. The media stokes up such a storm, and rightly, over the cock-ups and the sleaze and the tantrums that it's easy to overlook the schools and hospitals built and the fact in his constuency his local secondary school managed only 10% C-A GCSE passes in 1994 but last year achieved 60%. 'As a Labour MP I know I helped the poorest' he declares, and I for one would not challenge him.

Nor, apparently would the Institute of Fiscal Studies in the same issue. Its analysis of gain and loss as a percentage of net income shows that Labour really did redistribute income 1997-2010. The poorest 10% benefitted to the tune of 13%; the next poorest 10% by 11% and the next by 8%. Meanwhile the richest decile lost 6%; the next richest 3% and the next 2%. Yet before you start to feel sorry for those losses suffered by the amply rewarded just consider how well rewarded they are. The richest 20% in the UK earn seven times the poorest 20%. In Japan, another rich country, the factor is only three and a half times.

Usually such figures are lost in the welter of political information as if inequality is no more important than a late night adjournment debate. But with the election coming up the IFS analysis has especial resonance. If voters cotton on, Cameron might find he is facing the prospect of not just a hung parliament but defeat. Am I dreaming? Well look at the Yougov poll in 60 marginals published in the Spectator:

Conservatives --- 39 (down 4)
Labour --- 37 (up 1)
Lib Dems --- 35 (up 2)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010


Whatever Happened to Labour's Humility?

I am old enough to remember when Labour politicians did not care overmuch about money. Attlee campaigned in 1950, via his wife who drove him, erratically around the country. Ernie Bevin, the great trade union leader, Wartime Cabinet member and Foreign Secretary 1945-51, never accumulated any wealth to leave to his wife, but I doubt she would have expected to inherit any fortunes. Harold Wilson, he of the HP sauce and support for Huddersfield Town, preferred tinned salmon to caviar and holidays in the Scilly Isles rather than the Caribbean.

Of course, Ramsay MacDonald famously admitted he'd prefer to be a 'country gentleman' than prime minister; Nye Bevan was something of a 'champagne socialist' not to mention claret sipping Woy Jenkins' love of the good things in life. I'm not saying I'd deny them a fair slice of the good things but there is so much difference between Tony Blair, with his arse-licking holidays with pop stars or rightwing Italian media moghuls, hoovering up super-rich freebies and those principled stalwarts of the Labour Party which first attracted my support in my late teens.

But these latest examples of the Ramsay MacDonald-Blairite tendency(and they were all quintessentially Blairites) were not just venal and self seeking, they were so shamefully and bloody stupid! Had they not learnt a thing from the 1990s with, Tory Sleaze, Lord Nolan and Sunday Times stings? And Byers blithely condemned himself out of his own mouth in a way which can never be rectified. All three, by their self-seeking have exchanged a respected place in the national community as former senior politicians and Cabinet members, for a life when at best their very names will provoke grim smiles and shakes of the head and at worst, expletive laden condemnations. How Gordon, despite the damge this episode will have cost his party, must be inwardly smirking at the own-goal nemesis of his would-be January assassins...

Monday, March 22, 2010


Opinion Polls and the Election- November 2009 Best Predictor?

The Political Studies Association has published a new journal today called Political Insight and it contains a surprising article by psephologist Paul Whiteley from Essex University. Surprising because he argues that polls taken all of six months before an election offer as good a predictor of who will win than many polls taken closer to the date.

Counter intuitive? It certainly is, but the data is compelling. This method produces spot-on accuracy for 1966 and 2001, pretty damn close for 2005 and an average of 3% margin of error for all the elections after 1945 when polling was in its infancy; that's as good as most polls gathered by top pollsters using the most up to date methods.

The statistical problem, apart from nobody being able to predict the future of course, is, according to the author, that the number seats to be won by the minor parties is so 'unpredictable'. Assuming they will win the same as in 2005- 31- he proceeds to make his own prediction based on the polls of November 2009.

So what does it produce? Labour-291 seats; Conservative 282; Lib Dems 42. This would be a hung parliament of course but with Cameron with a majority of 9 if he can cobble together an alliance with the Lib Dems. My bet is, as I've said before, he would opt to govern as a minority government for some months before asking us again if we think he is the man to lead us.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Can we Take the Risk Climate Change Deniers are Wrong?

Like most people, I find the debate about climate change confusing. So I was very pleased to find a relatively straightforward explanation of the 'warmers' versus the 'deniers' in the august pages of the current edition of The Economist.

Inevitably, it is complex but it makes the case convincingly that just because a few elements in the case have proved dodgy that the whole 'pack of cards' is thereby demolished. It seems that certainty is not obtainable given current science- the future outcome could fall within a benign category- or it could be as catastrophic as depicted in Cormac McCarthy's bleakly dystopic book (and film), The Road. If the former comes to pass, maybe we have been worrying over rather little; but if the latter, we will have condemned our descendants, not to mention humanity as a whole, to a slow and very unpleasant death.

The Economist briefing concludes thus:

The fact that the uncertainties allow you to construct a relatively benign future does not allow you to ignore futures in which climate change is large, and in some of which it is very dangerous indeed. The doubters are right that uncertainties are rife in climate science. They are wrong when they present that as a reason for inaction.

To this conclusion I would like to add another concept: managing the risk. In a recent pub conversation some climate sceptic friends seemed unimpressed by the fact that nine out of ten climate scientists believe human agency is responsible for global warming. They focused on the those who have challenged the overall thesis and found lacunae in its structure such as the University East Anglia 'Cimategate' massaging of data and the mistaken predictions about those Himalayan glaciers. My concern, however, lies more with the nine who say 'yes' rather than the one who says 'no'.

Let me pose a hypothetical question. If nine out of ten firemen told you there was a pretty fair chance your house will burn down, would you believe the single expert who said it would not? Or would you set about solving the problem and upgrading your house insurance? Similarily, if nine doctors out of ten told you you needed an operation, would you believe the single dissenter? I don't think a sensible person would take the risk- the stakes are far too high. We have been told, by an array of very distinguished people that there is a fair risk the world will be destroyed unless we do something pretty sharpish about carbohn emissions. I simply cannot believe why the 'deniers', sceptics or whoever- Nigel Lawson, George Bush, Jeremy Clakson- have been unable to grasp this simple fact yet persist in braying forth the views of the minority who agree with Dr Pangloss.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Oh Please, Not More Gordon Even After the Election!

It really is so depressing! We see Gordon Brown humiliated today by having to apologise to the Chilcot inquiry regarding his claim the Defence budget has increased year by year since 1997. I guess he didn't make this mistake personally but the staff member responsible is no doubt currently being waterboarded somewhere deep within Whitehall. And he has the unbelievable brass-neck to say he is going to stay on as leader even if he loses the election.

The Guardian's most recent ICM poll shows Labour's 'recovery' has stalled: it is now 9 points behind the Tories. Cameron has double point leads as: the man voters want to win(11points); the leader 'best campaigning for people like you'(20 points); and as the most competent prime minister(14 points). As the Guardian leader puts it: "(he)drains Labour's standing with a public that overwhelmingly feels that it is time for a change."

I've been a party member now since 1974 and I don't expect anyone to do more than shrug when I say it, but if the Labour Party-so pusillanimous on this crucial issue- persists with this inappropriate loser of a leader after an election defeat, I will almost certainly(leaving myself just a little wiggle room there) resign my party membership and join either the Greeens or the Lib Dems.

Monday, March 15, 2010


Crucial for Clegg to Navigate Next Few Weeks Successfully

I recently had to deliver my inaugural professorial lecture at my university and, even though the consquences of failure were no more than disappointment and mild personal humiliation, I spent much time making sure I would not mess up in front of colleagues, my Vice Chancellor, Dean, head of department and all my departmental colleagues. Yes, that 'mild personal humiliation' was a consequence I was very, very keen to avoid. So how much more worried must Nick Clegg be that he doesn't 'fluff his lines' in the upcoming TV debates as Rawnsley asked yesterday?

Clegg is right to be nervous that he doesn't fluff his chance to shine in the TV arc lights. This general election is a golden opportunity for him and his party. A whiskery government asks for a fourth term under a disliked prime minister who has presided over the deepest recession since 1945. An unconvincing Conservative party hasn't persuaded the country that its air-brushed leader can be trusted with power. If not now for the Lib Dems, when?

When indeed. Having said that, it's been a pretty good weekend for the Lib Dems. Edward McMillan-Scott, the senior Tory MEP, decided to desert his party of 40 years for the Lib Dems, disgusted with Cameron's preference for racist Latvians and anti-semitic, homophobic Poles as partners in the European Parliament. And there's been their spring copnference which has attracted more attention than the yawns such events usually evoke.

The big debating point, of course, is what they would do if they held the balance of power. Glegg has assured us he does not want to be 'king-maker' but will allow voters that privilege. Easier said than done as if niether big party wins a majority he might find both of them knocking at his door bearing gifts and inducements, just as Ted Heath wooed Jeremy Thorpe back in 1974. Thorpe was quite willing to be be wooed, if I recall (I know, I know, dodgy metaphor etc) but it was his party's opposition to the Tories which scuppered any deal. That opposition still very much remains as Andew Adonis yesterday told Andrew Marr:

"I cannot conceive of the circumstances where the Lib Dems could support the Conservatives in government. I think it would destroy their own party. The issue they have to address is: are they basically on the centre-left in politics ... or are they going to try to shift to the right because they sense that may be a short-term populist strategy, but which would betray their own principles and destroy their party?"

Clegg says the party with the 'strongest mandate from the voters will have the moral authority to be the first to govern', allowing him to delay defining such a mandate in terms of votes or seats. My feeling is that coalitions are not likely anyway. I can't se Labour becoming the biggest party and current polls, while not suggesting an overall Conservative majority, do suggest they will be the biggest party, both in votes and seats. When we consider the SNP in 2007 were seen as 'winners' even though they only had a one seat advantage over Labour in the Scottish Parliament, then Cameron would clearly lead a minority government in such circumstances, hoping to consolidate power with a working majority at some early but later date. Even if Brown somehow fluked it to lead the biggest party, I still think Clegg- and his party- would hesitate before enabling Brown to continue in power.

Personally, I think a narrow defeat for Labour, rather than a wipeout, would be a creditable result for Brown. But I would like to see Lib Dems do well, partly because, I feel they are pretty close to the left of centre pro EU positions I favour myself. So it's crucial Clegg doesn't fluff his lines. On this point I do have one slight worry: Clegg's voice. Rather like Osborne's it lacks gravitas and sounds too much like a flutey teenager. His conference speech was made worse by a slight cold:

Happily, the speech was warmly received with rapt applause of the Lib Dem party faithful managing to drown out some of their leader's more hoarse and whimpering crescendos.

I fully expect the nation to be watching the first ever prime ministerial debate in some numbers so Clegg will need to have cleared up his hoarseness by then. And he needs to be on top of the detail as Gordon was yesterday on the Politics Show in front of a group of non-aligned Stourbridge voters. And my lecture? As with so many things one agonises over in advance, it went fine.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Two Reasons Why I Won't be Voting Tory

I know this is of scant interest to most people but, as a somewhat disillusioned Labour voter who voted Green in the Euro-elections, I wondered recently if I could ever bring myself to vote Conservative. Unsurprisingly, the answer if negative and here, with the election looming for 6th May, are two very good reasons:

Andy Coulson and the NoW: the Tory media adviser, Andy Coulson claimed he knew nothing about journalists and private investigators the hacking into mobile phones of well known people when editor of the News of the World. As editor and given the widespread practice of the illegal informatio gathering it was always hard to believe he was completely unaware of what was going on- a staff member Clive Goodman and private eye Glenn Mulaire eventually took the rap and are doing the time, allowing Coulson to go on to greater things. Now it transpires the NoW has paid £1m to Max Clifford to buy the silence of complainants. Paul Farelly, a member of the Media Select Committee claimed:

"This seems to be another settlement by the News of the World that preserves the cloak of secrecy and confidentiality around its affairs. It all mounts up to give the impression that silence is effectively being bought. People will draw their own conclusion about what are the real motives behind the settlement."

And here's another reason

Conservatives Represent the Interests of the Rich and Powerful: it seems incredible one has to articulate such an obvious truth, but Dave's successful efforts to detoxify the Tory brand has raised an efective smoke screen. It is even suggested that to accuse him and his advisers of being 'toffs' is 'below the belt', an unfair, outdated 'class war' way of conducting politics. I was pleased to see Jonathan Freedland disagreed, in an excellent and spirited article.

He inists quite rightly:

that for all the window-dressing and air-brushing, the Conservative party in Britain remains what it has always been – the party of the landed and moneyed interest.This is why the revelations about Michael Ashcroft are so damaging, because they play into a pre-existing – indeed, a centuries-old – perception that the Tories are the party of the well-off, looking out for the well-off. The heart of the matter remains simple: the Conservatives' deputy chairman is a billionaire hell-bent on influencing who writes the laws and sets the taxes of this country, but equally determined not to pay his share. Hear, hear!

Monday, March 08, 2010


Labour Back from Dead Hard to Believe

I freely confess, I had written off Labour's chances in the forthcoming election- testimony to my defeatism? Yes, though I was in good and distinguished company and had all the signs- months of substantial opinion poll leads- to support such a position. But now it's changed and I'm still unsure why. The Economist gives much of the credit to the much maligned-not least by me- Gordon Brown. Bagehot, in this week's issue, attributes the change in fortune to Cameron's attempt to emphasise cuts, reawakening fears of Tory heartlessness and to the sympathy Brown has attracted in the face of ferocious attacks from both Conservatives and elements on his own side. Gordon, firm of purpose, despite the onslaught and a bigger figure than his critics, has survived and still stands to give a possibly good account of himself in the campaign. Those sneering Tories who assumed a walkover election must be feeling genuine anxiety and that feels good to Labour members.

Cameron has come out with elements of his manifesto since January- a bold strategy which has backfired as several parts of it have been taken apart by Labour and exposed as shoddily thought through.

And Labour has indeed climbed off the canvas to land some punches of its own. This is precisely the fight it was hoping for—in which it runs more as an opposition than an incumbent, lambasting the Tories rather than defending the government’s somewhat awkward record.

And Labour is much happier in Opposition than the Tories who have been used to and better as incumbents of power. Mandelson, Balls, and company, have their faults, but they are in their element in a dog-fight as Cameron is discovering. Andrew Rawnsley gave his own take on the turnaround:

Having relied for so long on David Cameron being personally appealing to swing voters, the Tories have hit the limits of that strategy. Their lead in the polls, once in big double figures, has shrivelled dramatically. Get downwind of any senior Tory these days and your nostrils are filled with the unmistakable odour of anxious sweat.

He continues:

The very unpopularity of Gordon Brown induced complacency in the Conservatives. For all their talk about not taking victory for granted, six months ago the Tories started to do just that. At their last party conference, they were banned from quaffing champagne in front of the cameras, but they were already imagining themselves planting their bottoms on the back seats of ministerial limos.

Tory policies came under closer scrutiny by the media as they relaxed and assumed they would serenely glide to victory and shortcomings were exposed. On top of that we have the Ashcroft scandal which Labour are rightly playing for all they can. Will Labour pull off the surprise of the century? My natural pessimism says no. Brown is desperately unpopular, Labour have lagged for too long and Ashcroft's millions might already have swung up to 100 of the 117 seats Cameron needs. But a hung parliment, as I write, seems more likely than not and all those complacent, triumphalist Tories, who took victory for granted will have to recalibrate their expectations and learn a little humility if they want voters to give them the support they crave.

Saturday, March 06, 2010


Michael Foot: One of the Good Guys

In 1997 I interviewed Michael Foot for a tiny political journal. I recall entering his office and not being able to see him. Eventually he peeped out from behind a pile of books and soon became the most lovely politician I have ever met. But his stint as leader was a disaster. If Healey-the outstanding Labour politician postwar- had won our history would have been a lot different. Foot's inability to control the left produced that rubbish manifesto (which caused me to vote SDP!).

Really nice guys come last in politics but I am so glad there are some of them in the 'game' anyay. They serve to humanize it, restrain the nastier types and reassure the country decent values are not irrelevant. But just don't make them leader!


Wednesday, March 03, 2010


Ashcroft Scandal Good for Labour

It's disingenuous of Conservatives to claim moral equivalence between Lord Ashcroft and the likes of fellow non dom, Lord Paul. The core points are that Paul has been open about his status and plays only a peripheral role in Labour politics. Ashcroft, on the other hand has been central to the Tory revival and policy-making, with his own desk in their cen tral offices.

He has masterminded a shrewd and well funded assault on crucial marginal seats which could make nonsense of any predicted 'national' swings and clinch a victory. And he has done this on the basis of an untruth, about which Cameron must surely have known, (just as, one might hazard, Andy Coulson, knew about all that mobile phone hacking when he was editor of News of the World). In 1999 his nomination as a peer was refused as he was not resident in UK and did not pay taxes. He was given a peerage in 2000 on the understanding his status would change in both respects, something regarding which he gave written undertakings.

Labour can be forgiven for falling so gratefully upon this provident scandal, just as the Conservative campaign is, remarkably, running out of steam. That 2% You-gov lead was probably a rogue poll and a lead of at least 5% seems more credible. Students ask me why voters are dropping away from Dave's project and I have to confess, I'm not quite sure why. I suspect they are alarmed by phrases like 'age of austerity' and comforted by Labour's more emollient approach to the demands of the faltering recovery. They are also beginning to feel the Tories are not quite what they seem as the FT has exposed his wafer thin credibility in an unflattering series of articles.

Ashcroft has done his party a grave disservice and now has both Labour and Lib Dems at Tory throats over the issue. Chris Huhne rightly observed that the Belize based peer, through his dishonesty, had effectively given the Tories only a small percentage-some £10m- of the £100m plus he has saved by virtue of his non dom status since 2000. Voters senitised to cynical fat cat greed will not be impressed though, to be realistic I doubt the issue will have much traction outside Wesminster and the existence of Paul, Ronnie Cohen and the like among Labour donors scarcely strenthens their case.

We do indeed seem to be in 'hung parliament' territory, now more likely an outcome than not I'd say. Which makes the election so exciting for political anoraks of the kind who occupy the blogosphere. The odds, however, are still on the Tories emerging as the biggest party and if/when they do Cameron will lead a minority government. This outcome might not be too disastrous for Labour in that a further period of them in power does not seem credible, given their less than wildly successful 13 years stint and their current unpopular leader. But the polls, currently at least(they are very volatile right now) suggest it won't be a 'wipe-out' as I feared it might.

The prospects for the country inspires less sanguine thoughts. The Conservatives will find it very hard to govern given the parlous UK economic position, and imposing deep cuts from the outset will be both unpopular and possibly disastrous for the emergent but fragile recovery. I suspect that long periods of power which were initiated by Thatcher in 1979 will now give way to more traditional and shorter swings of the political pendulum

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