Friday, January 30, 2009


Will Cameron Go Hard Euroscpetic on the EU Workers' Issue?

Yes, that 2007 conference phrase about 'British jobs for British Workers' has come back to haunt poor old Gordon. I never liked it anyway as it smacked of a genuflection to the right. But at Davos today, his insistence on the avoidance of protectionism won't go down well when he gets to meet union leaders in the strikes concerned, who will want exactly that. I fear this is only the first of the series of industrial official and wildcat strikes which will plague any government in power until the recession recedes.

But I'm also interested in the EU aspect of the dispute. EU workers are here because EU law says they can be. They are competing for diminishing jobs as the recession bites ever deeper. Labour is officially in favour of being in the EU but the Tories are not; well not so much anyway. They are now offered a rare opportunity to exploit a weakened flank of the government by going in with a hard and critical Euroscpetic line. But if they do that, they will open up traditional lines of division and will they not risk unravelling one of Cameron's latest successes: bringing a big beast back in from the cold?

Ken Clarke has promised to accept the party's mildly critical line on the EU as the price he's paying for being back in the front line he loves and I daresay has desperately misssed. But Ken, which is why I can't dislike the man, is wonderfully honest for a politician. Should he be asked to opine on EU workers, I reckon he'd support and justify the situation which is making the strikers so angry. Then he might have to face resignation if Cameron has hoisted up a sceptical banner. Should Cameron not exploit the issue, then he in turn will open up a flank to UKIP and the BNP, already seen campaigining in the refinery disputes. Should be interesting to wait and see.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


One or Two Reasons to be Cheerful

[Sorry to be blogging somewhat lightly recently but I am unusually busy, writing lectures and updating books into nhew editions]

I thought I'd pick out some interesting Social Attitude trends identified in the annual survey by John Carvel today as some of them inspire that elusive sentiment, optimism, albeit of the cautious variety.

1. From 36% in 2004 49% now think 'the price of an air ticket should reflect the environmental damage that flying causes, even if it makes air travel more expensive.' The government might like to consider that before it plunges ahead with that 3rd Terminal. Also it suggests the message about carbon emissions if finally getting through.

2. 51% said they were satisfied with the NHS compared to 34% in 1997 and 42% in 2000. Evidence all that cash has been appreciated by patients. Take note ye who have decided to give Dave a chance next time. You have been warned and you know what happens to the NHS under the Tories.

3. Only 17% want an English parliament and less than 20% are opposed to the Scottish parliament. Devolution has been more or less acepted, though with reservations.

4. International surveys show that generous benefits do not make people lazy. In fact the higher the benefits- eg in Sweden and Norway, the higher the desire to work and the lower they are- as in US, UK, Canada and Australia- the lower the work ethic. A moral there somewhere?

5. Finally, it seems all that telly watching doesn't really make people happy. Only 37% said they derived a 'great deal of enjoyment' while 23% said they got none or not much. So why watch the sodding stuff then?

Friday, January 23, 2009


Crime Stats and Worrying Trends

Crime Statistics are a curious political phenomenon. Police try hard to manipulate them, as do governments of both stripes. I remeber Tories in the 1980s claiming there was no link between economic hard times and rising crime when figures of serious crimes were more than doubling 1979-1990. Finally a government minister(a Conservative) in the early 1990s admitted there was a link- something criminologists had known for years. The commonsense argument that people streal to acquire necessary things in hard times, happens to be correct commonsense.

It is also the case that while crime reduces as the economy improves, categories of crime like pasrsonal assault, increase as people more freqwuentrly become the worse for drink. It seems now it's Labour's turn to squirm a bit as figures show an upturn as the recession gets into its stride.

While official stats depend upon police recordings, the British Crime Survey, based on responses from 40,000 people, is still reckoned to be the most reliable guide to what is happening on the streets. According to the BCS, we had a fall in overall crime by 3% according to the quaterly figures; since 1995 the decrease has been close to 50%. Problem is, the public do not believe the stats, as an article in The Economist reported recently. This stated that:

Despite the reassuring findings of the BCS, two-thirds of its respondents say they think crime is rising.

This alone is a problem in that fear of crime encourages more of the same in that streets become deserted and left to the mercy of law-breakers. The latest figures also show pulic fears extend beyond serious crime:

The British Crime Survey shows that the risk of becoming a victim of crime remains at a historically low level, yet it also shows increasing concern about people being drunk or rowdy in public places and about rubbish on the streets.

This reflects my own views on litter: I think litter-strewn streets evoke a sense of decay and decline which makes further careless acts more likely. Quite possibly most voters think this general anti-social climate, thus encouraged, is as much of a problem as serious crime itself. A party which picks this up and runs with it, I truly believe, could win loads of votes at the next election.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Obama Eschews Soaring Oratory for Serious Address

So much written in the press today about the inauguration and I would not presume to try to imporove on them. Instead I'm going to quote extracts from two impressive analyses in today's Guardian. The first is by Simon Schama (it also contains online, a video of his speech if you missed it. My first extract notes the serious tone of the new president:

It was though he was talking to us, not from the podium at all, but somehow as though already hard at work, looking up from his desk behind a sheaf of papers and a stack of trouble, interrupting the immense task to give America its marching orders; to say "We're in this together. Don't expect miracles. Life has changed. Get used to it." His exact words were simultaneously daunting and thrilling with the sheer weight of their significance: "The time has come to remake America. Nothing could be more distant from the empty sunshine of Reagan's "morning in America" platitude that inaugurated the chuckle-headed race for loot that has now tumbled over a cliff.

The second hearkens back to America's brutal racist history:

the most startling phrase in the whole speech was when Obama spoke of tasting "the bitter swill" of slavery, civil war and segregation, as though it rose from his gut now and again in filthy reflux.

Finally Schama finished this brilliant piece of writing with the following:

When Obama conjured up Washington in Washington it was not some token history lecture he was giving. It was though the tough, taciturn, clipped general had spoken to him and told him to ease off on the rhetorical honey and give his people instead the nourishment of patriotic fortitude. That he did. And that's why, even if the connoisseurs of verbal fancy demur, the people on the subway were right to feel comforted and inspired. The person they had heard was not, after all, a wordsmith. He is, they know, at long last and in our dire straits, a leader.

Naomi Klein provides the second extract in her perceptive piece:

The great leaders in the US weren't the cheerleaders who promised ­morning in America. They were the ones that forced us to look in the mirror. Since Reagan there has been this tradition, which has become a cliche, of promising morning in America, this fake optimism, we're the best, the city on the hill. In fact the great American task is self-scrutiny. Abraham Lincoln gave speeches about the civil war in which he said, in essence, "We've brought this on ourselves by enslaving Americans." Obama's speech was a diagnosis: "We have to take steps to rebuild our nation."

Amen to that.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


How Much Worse Can it Get?

The latest package of measures by the PM and the Chancellor have given rise to some fears that we are on the brink of a major meltdown a la Iceland. The argument goes like this. During the good times the banks built up huge liabilities of trillions of pounds. The initial attempt to fill the breach via £37bn proved hopelessly inadequate and so another package was whipped together to throw in after it.

The subgsequent continued falls of the market now tell us the rest of the world has no confidence in sterling or in Brown's government to turn things around. If our liabilities exceed our assets then the world's financial system might witness another Iceland only much bigger, in the form of the UK economy.

Against this I hear Sir Alan Budd, former Chief Economic Adviser to the Treasury on the Today Programme this morning and he was confident it had not yet come to this. And it's true the Cassandra voices are mostly on the right but, as a non economist, it all seems like a very dark horizon right now. Whoever gets in next time will have to deal with a mountain of debt and it doesn't look like international markets have much or any faith in lending any more money to help haul us out of the danger area.
Hope I'm being unnecessarily pessimistic but the indicators, as far as I can read them, have seldom looked worse.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Does a "Government of All Talents" Work?

My question I guess might be answered in the negative by Digby Jones(pictured right), the former CBI supremo who was elevated into a Busines Minister before retiring at the last reshuffle. He has criticised civil servants for never having to work under the threat of the sack, when so many of them deserve it. Former Trade Minister and BP boss Lord Simon-elevated by Tony Blair and pictured left- gave an interesting Radio 4 interview to Peter Riddell last Saturday (18th Junuary) in the Week at Westminster slot. Simon reckoned there were four roles such a minister had to perform:

i) Executive: such a minister has to formulate policy and administer his department in concert with his civil service staff. Given that GOAT appointments often involve people of proven track record in running big organisations, one would hope that this is a role in which such 'incomers' would thrive.

ii) Parliament: junior ministers in the Lords, where so many such appointments are made, have an important job in standing at the Lords Despatch Box and arguingthe case for new legislation. Simon said this aspect of his job caused him as much nervous stress and anything he had ever done in his life.

iii) Political: Incomer ministers often tend to be less good at this side of things. They might be unaware of hostile factions in the parliamentary party or the party outside. They might also not be so good at handling the media, as Lady Vadera recently demonstrated.

iv) Overseas: this role involves meeting EU representatives and others abroad. No doubt this is a demanding aspect of the job, but Simon suggested this was more of a fun part of it.

Simon concluded there was a great need to bring ihn outside talent and that such initiates required great patience as well as determination to wade through the bureaucracy and make trheir contributions. He also made a good point in that in business decisons are made operational by efficient, experienced staff- the levers of control are clear and they usually work. The frustrating thing for a business person in government is that you can pull the every lever there is and sometimes nothing happens. The smoking ban, for example, worked a treat: it was passed and, surprisingly for me, just about everyone complied without demur.

Other pieces of legislation however, are less easy to make operational. Mrs Thatcher thought she had imposed the poll tax but those unpredicatable, perverse creatures, the voters, proved that on many issues they decide if a law works or not. In such circumstances, it matters not who introduces it or how brilliant they might be at running big organisations elsewhere in the country.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


Media Go OTT (again) re Vadera's Gaffe

The media has gone over the top once again, this time regarding Shriti Vadera's remarks, I note. Check out the context and you'll see she was specifically asked if she could see any 'green shoots of recovery'-so the phrase was introduced by the ITN questioner, not her, as might have appeared to be the case when the 'remark' was reported. And her reply was hedged around with qualifications:

"It is a very uncertain world at the moment, globally. I would not want to be the one predicting it. I am seeing a few green shoots, but it is a little bit early to say how they are going to grow."

Result? Item one in all last night's news bulletins, excoriations from the Tories and resultant humble apologies from said former merchant banker. Probably my last two words explain the minor lapse: she is essentially a finance expert, longtime adviser to Broon, not a natural politician- though if you read the biographies she is mentioned as one of the most ferocious Whitehall infighters, known for giving no quarter. So she shouldn't complain at the storm at her gaffe-reverse the situation and she'd be howling for blood too probably- though she might reflect at how sensitive words are when issuing from a a junior minister is such febrile times when all the major indicators are shrieking 'disaster! disaster!'.

Her boss, Mandelson, when interviewed, acknowledged her gaffe with a rueful smile: if the verbally nimble Prince of Darkness had even dreamt of making such a mistake, he'd have woken up and apologised. He got it in its proper perspective when he commented:

What she said today, in response to a point put to her, is a very far cry from a strategic setpiece speech made to the Tory party conference by Norman Lamont all those years ago."

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Harry Was Not Being Racist, You Idiots!

I'm usually the first to join in when the Royal Family are in the dock. With the exception of the Queen, I think they are a pretty useless, parasitic crowd and if Harry came from a council estate he'd be called a 'yob' with some justification. However, the outrage expressed over the 'little paki' comment is nothing short of absurd. I saw the footage and the term was spoken with affection with no suggestion of a sneer or hatred. I fully concur with the evidence adduced today in The Guardian by soldiers and others, that this was merely part of the harmless laddish banter in which many male groups indulge.

Ever since I can remember I have been part of groups of boys, youths and then men, who allocate nick-names-sometimes insulting or insensitive ones- as sign of affectionate 'group membership', rather than anything vicious. For example I have a close mate who had a cancerous testicle removed: he was soon dubbed 'One Bollock' and he fully shared in our delight at the nick-name. Childish? maybe, but Harry racist? I don't think so.

Monday, January 12, 2009


Go On Dave, Appoint Ken and Sod The Old Guard!

Ever since Dave Cameron smoothed his way into the Conservative leadership, some critics and advisers have urged that if he is going to follow the Blair template so slavishly, he should win a big argument within his party. Perhaps one is potentially available over the possible appointment of Ken Clarke to his Shadow Cabinet? Rumours of Ken's possible recall to the front bench given the shadow over Alan Duncan's outside interests and rumours he's not putting the hours in, have been circulating for weeks.

The always restive Tory right-it's their default position- has cried warnings. Norman Tebbitt has delicately suggested, bringing back the 'lazy' big beast would be a 'nightmare' and the Eurosceptic billionaire Stuart Wheeler has threatened to withold funding the party should this happen. Well, I think Dave should go right ahead and appoint Clarkey.

Firstly Clarke might be 'lazy' as Norm alleges- Gyles Brandreth, who was his PPS for a while, coinfirms that Ken was dilatory with his homework- but he is a brilliant politician, the like of whom is lacking on both sides of the House. He seems 'lazy' because he is so clever, just like all the best sportsmen seem to be casual because their abilities give them more time.

Secondly, with the Thatcherite right so opposed, what a golden opportunity to show voters he is his own man and can best the part of his party who put the 'nasty' in 'The Nasty Party'?

Thirdly, the EU seems to have faded a little as an issue-indeed voices have been raised in favour of UK even joining the euro- and I would gues this section of the party is now eminently beatable.

Finally, though this is my reason, I'm all in favour of 'merging sovereignty' and speeding up integration as the only way the world will be able to save itself. I doubt Cameron would listen to my fourth reason but, if he were wise he would attend to the first three.

Saturday, January 10, 2009


Tory 'Charity' no Substitute for State Welfare

I was amused to discover that Conservative Chairperson, Caroline Spelman, has formulated a new word to describe her party's philosophy:

"In recent years we have moved forward to Conservative Socialism, ie helping people to help themselves through support and education."

I'd be quite interested to discover if her senior colleagues agreed with such an oxymoron and the term ewver became official. But, more interesting today was the article by Polly Toynbee. Those rightwing morons who excoriate her should check out her demolition of the Tory idea that boosting charities offers any realistic hope of replacing welfare services. Cameron has recently stated that the voluntary sector:

"will provide many of the solutions to tomorrow's problems". The document on cities by the Tory MP Chris Grayling stresses that the "potential of our voluntary sector to tackle the difficult social problems in our most deprived areas is huge". Iain Duncan Smith concludes that small, local voluntary organisations are the best answer to his "broken Britain", lavishing praise on amateur community voluntarism.

Toynbee adduces the following arguments against such am embrae of the voluntary sector as a substitute for state welfare:

1. Charitable donations are predicted to slump by 52% in the recession, according to a Price Waterhouse's study. Back in the 1991 recession they fell by 64% so this time threatensd to be worse.

2. The success of the voluntary sector has been largely as a result of the massive state funding it has received.

3. What charity provides is 'minute' compared with the state- and what would happen to the poor when donors peg back as in a recession?

4. Research has shown that the richest 10% give less to charity proportionate to their salary than the poorest 10%. So where is the money to help the poor to come from when the rich do not seem disposed to put their hands in their pockets anyway?

Charity, says Toynbee, has a role to play but it is a complementary one:

Charity is mostly a social good in itself, but it is no substitute for the state. It's an add-on: free-wheeling, often innovative, sometimes a beacon showing how to do things better, with ideas to lead the state sector.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Analysing Affluenza

I bought Affluenza by Oliver James a year ago and read it with great interest. He argues that we have been getting richer and richer but not getting any happier. The latter follows because we have been seduced by what he might call 'false' values: the pursuit of material plenty, flaunting our wealth, especially when competing against others; status, appearances and fame.

He argues that by imbibing the blandishments of 'super' capitalism we have contracted a virus which can only harm us. We have been misled into thinking appearance is more important than substance, that being better than one's fellows is the only satisfaction worth achieving in life. James was on Jim Naughtie's Book Club this afternoon and explained his ideas with some enthusiasm. His key argument is that such 'infections' really do make us unhappy and clinically ill, mentally ill.

The USA, Canada and UK-the home of laisser faire capitalism- have twice the percentage of people who are mentally ill than other developed countries, something like 23% to their 11%. We can never reach that Holy Grail of being better than others and feel constantly stressed- hence the extra candidates for the psychiatric wards in Anglo-Saxon countries. My feeling is that he's dead right but that we are so far gone in our 'illness' that we cannot heal ourselves easily and maybe not at all unless we do it individually out of conviction.

James sounds a bit like many moralists exhorting us to eschew selfishness and live a more self denying life. He says the Danes have managed to avoid the worst aspects of the disease: even top executives rarely earn more than five times the average wage; conspicuous consumption is sneered at rather than envied; and women are treated as true equals to men. Having visited and lectured in Denmark many times I agree with all this and have kind of always hoped, that Labour would eventually adopt a similar approach to social democracy. James won't cure us with his book but it has served to highlight the problem and maybe that's as much as any single author can do.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


Dave Advised to Bring Back the Beasts

Despite all the low points of the last ten years, I remain a Labour voter, simply because I think the alternative-in the absence of any achievably perfect government- would be much, much worse. And Labour has done many good things. It does not mean, however, that if you are part of a team seeking to defeat the other side, that you cannot see how that side might improve its game. It is for this reason that I find myself agreeing with Iain Dale- smug uberblogger dying to become an MP- in his short article in the Guardian yesterday(can't find a link). He argues that his team need more strikers upfront, naming 'Clarkey' and 'DD' as his favoured picks. I think he's dead right.

In the dying days of last year we learnt that Cameron's imminent reshuffle might see the old bruiser ex-Chancellor back in the fold; over half party members expressed this view in a Conservative Home poll over Christmas; 72% wanted Davis to return. Dale argues his old boss(he was chief of staff for DD when he stood for the leadership) should be brought back.

Cameron has been a successful, though given the circumstances underachieving, leader of the Opposition so far but he has a major disadvantage: that plum in the mouth and obvious preference for those of the same ilk. British voters are not so prejudiced that they would not accept an old Etonian as prime minister, but the neon lit identity Cameron cannot help have beaming out of his person does not help one little bit. Having Clarke and Davis back-one blokeish ex grammar school, the other ex council estate- in the front line would help neutralise this perception and sharpen the Tories' teeth by some measure.

Sunday, January 04, 2009


Can Dave Cut the Mustard?

I'm quite as fan of Peter Oborne as a journalist, author and broadcaster but his piece today raises more questions than it answers in my humble opinion. He builds his article around party reactions to the economic crisis, acknowledging that Brown's response has been aided by Labour's traditional belief in the benign reach of the state. Oborne believes Cameron is resolved on the "extraordinary enterprise" of arguing the other end of the proposition: that the state-

"lies at the root of Britain's recent economic and social failure.

To this end he will find:

Defending Conservative economic principles means arguing that failing businesses should be closed, with the loss of thousands of jobs. It means making the case for cuts in public expenditure on vital services.

Oborne goes on to assert that Cameron is working up a revolutionary approach to Britain's travails:

Fundamentally, he has been calling for the British state as it currently stands to be dismantled, with power taken from central government and given back to local communities and institutions.

Now this kind of 'giving power to the people' has been promised by parties ever since I could recognise Harold Macmillan and still the centre has become more powerful under whoever has been in power.

Oborne developes his case by urging Cameron to eschew 'wealthy young men' and bring in some harder edged 'authentic' types like William Hague or Eric Pickles to add some bite and credibility to his mission:

In the new year, Cameron will announce his shadow cabinet reshuffle and would be well advised to promote men and women who will make his case at the next election, not those with whom he would enjoy a country house weekend.

But Oborne is whistling in the dark here; Cameron seems wholly cocooned in his upper-middle class social bubble, favouring fellow Old Etonians oe Bullingdoners to anyone even vaguely of the Tebbitt tendency.

Finally Oborne suggests Cameron has a more difficult task than Blair who merely adopted the 'neoliberal Thatcherite consensus' while Cameron must enter 'unknown territory'. This neglects the fact that Blair had to persuade a still left leaning party that market forces should be embraced and the probable fact that Cameron, unlike Brown, hasn't got a clue how to navigate this new terrain successfully.

Friday, January 02, 2009


Hamas Winning PR Battle in Gaza

The Israeli-Hamas war in Gaza offers an interesting study in modern warfare. Hamas has the weaker hand with only a handful of fighters, a tiny budget but, crucially, a stack of rockets with the range to strike nearby enemy cities. Few dispute that Hamas have provoked the current conflict with rocket strikes into Israel from early 2008. Quite possibly the rockets were smuggled through tunnels to Egypt either whole or in sections during the past year.

They have thereby called down upon themselves a furious Israeli response aimed at their leaders and administration which has so far caused 400 collateral civilian deaths compared to the single figure fatalities caused by Hamas's best efforts. It seems to me Hamas are doing two things.

'Guantanamo Analogy'Firstly, they are trying to argue that conditions for the million or so Palestinians in Gaza's 140 square miles are so bad that firing rockets is merely responding to prior Israeli aggression. It's as if Gaza conditions are as so bad they resemble the torturous conditions of somewhere like Guantanamo thus justifying retaliatory action. Anyone who has read The Iron Wall by Avi Schlaim, the radical Jewish Oxford historian, will accept that the basic unresolved issue remains the fact that millions of Palestinians were displaced, 'ethnically cleansed' or terrorised into leaving in the years after 1945.

'Suicide Bomber' AnalogySecondly, by causing their civilians to be slaughtered through their continuation of the rocket strikes, they are effectively using the suicide bomber tactic of sacrifice in the collective cause.

Israel, meanwhile are relying on their old method of massive retaliation for the relatively small number of fatalities they have incurred, convinced that Hamas will be brought to heel by their firepower and determination to ratchet up the ante to full scale invasion if it is thought necessary. However, Hamas represent the new irrationalism of terrorism: they have supporters prepared to give up their lives to continue what they see as their justified struggle. So far it's 400 and counting but I suspect it could exceed one or even two thousand and Hamas would still not back down.

How many deaths will world opinion accept before even the USA peels away its support? How determined is Israel to ignore world opinion and become a reviled pariah state? Israel, with its masive superiority is winning the military battles but it seems to me that in the battle of perceptions by the rest of the world, Hamas is winning this tragic contest hands down.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


Lib Dem Fillip from Mandarin Consultation

The fact that the government has allowed the Lib Dems to consult with senior civil servants in case they hold the balance of power after the next election, must be reassuring to Nick Clegg. Elected as the antidote to Ming Campbell's failure to boost his party's poll ratings, Clegg has not really excelled, though a shift to the higher rather than lower teens in recent weeks must have helped clinch the decision.

The practice was initiated by Alec Douglas Home in 1964 whereby permanent secretaries from the major departments were allowed to meet the Opposition, under strict guidelines, to discuss their plans in the event of a goverenment defeat. It used to be timed for 6 months before the last date for an election but has since been increased to 15 months. Also alerted to the prospect will be what Peter Hennessy calls the 'Golden Triangle' of the Secretary to the Cabinet(Sir Gus O'Donnell); No 10's permanent secretary(Sir Jeremy Heywood) and the Queen's private secretary(Christopher Geidt). They will be checking out what happened in February 1974 when Edward Heath, despite gaining four fewer seats than Labour, still tried to form a coalition with the help of the Liberals. He failed, Wilson formed his minority government, and won a slim majority in October of the same year.

Is a coalition likely in 2010? The polls currently suggest it would be now that Cameron has failed to capitalise on his 20 point lead from the autumn. But if Cameron leads the biggest party, I can't see Clegg collaborating to keep Brown in power. Expect a further nudging of Clegg towards Tory positions over the next twelve months. And don't expect the Queen to have much or even anything to do with it: the Golden Triangle will make sure of that.

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