Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Passive-progressive conservatism

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” (Lewis Carroll, ‘Through the Looking-Glass’)

And so to David Cameron’s new year’s message to the masses, delivered on 27 December:

whether you’re Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat, you’re motivated by pretty much the same progressive aims: a country that is safer, fairer, greener and where opportunity is more equal. It’s how to achieve these aims that we disagree about

‘Progressive’ is one of those words that has been almost drained of meaning by the political classes. It has connotations of egalitarianism and liberalism, and has been far more associated with the left and centre than with the right, but in the absence of anyone willing to stand up explicitly for ‘regressivism’, it’s hard to say much definite about it.

I want to focus on Cameron’s use of ‘fair’ – an even more widely claimed, more fundamental and vaguer term. Yes, we all want Britain to be fairer. But do we all agree on what counts as fair? Of course we don’t. This smothering of all ideological difference by a single syllable reminds me of Wittgenstein’s “cloud of philosophy condensed into a drop of grammar”.

Is it fairer for the benefits system to recognise the hardship faced by single parents or to encourage two parents to stay together? What is the fairest point in the trade-off between police powers and civil liberties? When reducing the deficit, are tax rises fairer or less fair than spending cuts? Which taxes are fair and which unfair? Which public spending? What is the fairest level – national government, local councils, community groups, individuals – for any given political choice to be made? Which economic inequalities are unfair and when does action to reduce these become unfair?

The mere concept of ‘fairness’ will not answer any of these questions or a thousand others, and nor are they factual questions to which competent administrators could provide definitive answers. These questions are the stuff of politics, and Cameron is trying to wish it all away.

An opposition leader who was confident of winning for positive reasons, rather than because the government seems knackered and useless, would be making a very different case.

(Anne Perkins deplores Cameron’s attempt to foster a “myth of consensus”, and Paul Cotterill scents unease in Cameron’s plea that the election not be “some exercise in fake dividing lines”.)

I think that the biggest change in the Tory party over the last four years has been not in the image it presents to the public but in the image it holds of itself. I’m happy to credit Cameron and some around him (certainly not all) with sincerely caring about poverty more than their predecessors did – they think of themselves, if you like, as being more progressive. But the change in their plans for government have been far smaller. To adapt John Prescott’s maxim, the Tories have traditional policies for modern reasons.

I doubt this will end well, for them or for us.

Sunder Katwala has a good blog post up about this. He quotes Richard Reeves and Philip Collins:

"At present, he is signing himself up to Labour-style poverty and inequality measures, even as he rejects Labour-style redistribution. In other words, he is setting his own big trap and trotting gamely towards it"
And so Cameron's advocacy of "conservative means to progressive ends" risks turning into "Thatcherite arguments while hoping for the opposite results".

God only knows that Labour’s performance has been poorer than most of its 1997 supporters had hoped, but I’m sure the new Tory blend of fierce anti-statism and compassionate good intentions would be worse overall. They may relish some flavour of ‘fairness’ and they may truly feel themselves ‘progressive’, but I’m afraid their policies will be all too passive in the face of the market’s natural drive towards inequality.

Monday, December 28, 2009

How the other 0.1% live

Liz Jones is an entity of which I’d previously been unaware. She recounts a tale of terror and social injustice in the Daily Mail:

I turned up at the fairly cheap hotel in Shepherd's Bush I always stay in for work. They know me here: they valet-park and clean my BMW and understand I require soya milk with my cornflakes. As I handed the bellboy my Prada suitcase, the man at reception asked for a credit card. It was declined. I gave him another one. Declined.

I left my suitcase hostage and walked to the cashpoint in my difficult shoes. 'The amount you can withdraw today is NIL.' Oh dear. I called my bank manager. He was kind but said I would not be able to withdraw money until the next day.

The wind whipped around my legs and it was suddenly very dark. I had been tossed on to life's rubbish tip. For the first time, I felt what it must be like to be homeless, to have no money, no one to turn to.
I realised that this was about the worst thing that can happen to you. Your humanity is stripped away and you become something to be moved along, stepped over, ignored.
I had reached my low spot through my own stupidity. I had spent too much money and was temporarily broke (my agent eventually turned up to bail me out).

It makes me ashamed to be British.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

All Around My Hat (NSFW)

Adrian Edmondson, of Young Ones and Mr Jennifer Saunders fame, is these days part of a ‘punk folk’ band called the Bad Shepherds. He plays ‘thrash mandolin’.

If you’re at all familiar with ‘All Around My Hat’, the 19th-century folk song popularised more recently by Steeleye Span, then I think you’ll really appreciate the Bad Shepherds version (NB you certainly don’t need to like the song to enjoy this one, and if you do like it you’ll never be able to listen to it in the same way again):

(Thanks to CF, who is just out of shot in the video, for the tip and for a rendition yesterday.)

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Cheryl Cole vs David Cameron

Political earthquake transforms nation; bloggers chuckle

No jokes about puppies, please.

Cheryl Cole, the most wonderful and important person in all of Britain, has cast her vote:

"David Cameron. Brrrrr. Slippery isn't he?" she says. "We’ve always been Labour in our family, it just feels wrong not to be. Better the devil you know."

You can’t argue with that.

The distrust is not mutual, though: Cameron has previously described Cheryl as the “most fanciable” member of Girls Aloud – which, ironically, is the only thing he’s ever been right about.

(A festive tip of my Santa hat to Snowflake5. Smashing story!)

Goron Browen, Prim Minster

Nice work, the Times:

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The demand for deficits

From a report in the Times:

Anxious families are repaying debts instead of spending in the shops, amid concern over the uncertain economic outlook. The share of income saved in banks and building societies has risen to its highest level in more than a decade, heightening fears that faltering consumer demand could prolong the recession.

So what we really need to escape recession is an immediate cut in government spending, reducing demand even further.

And a nice passage from Robert Skidelsky, on market sentiment about government deficits:

The government must cut its spending now, because this is what “the markets” expect. These are the same markets that so wounded the banking system that it had to be rescued by the taxpayer. They are now demanding fiscal consolidation as the price of their continued support for governments whose fiscal troubles they have largely caused.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Anyone in London (and, I presume, lots of other places) is likely to be pretty pissed off with the Transport Misery Caused By Freak Cold Weather In Mid-December (© Daily Mail). People are in danger of losing their Christmas spirit!

These videos will help to avert that:

Merri Chirstmaz!

Friday, December 18, 2009

A dim view of dark matter

I was very excited to find that scientists think they’ve detected dark matter. But then I saw this:

The tests are being carried out in an underground laboratory in a defunct mine in northern Minnesota.

Now, I don’t want to be a killjoy, especially at this time of year, but what with the tests being so far underground, might it not be that what they’ve detected is just ordinary matter… in the dark?

Monday, December 14, 2009

Inheritance tax cuts: it’s what they really, really want

Some people have wondered why the Tories refuse to abandon their promise to raise the inheritance tax threshold to £1 million.

It was stunningly popular when announced back in 2007, being instrumental in talking Gordon Brown out of a snap election. It was the most significant opposition policy announcement in many years. But times have changed a lot: the middle classes are less inclined to identify with the rich (bloody bankers); the Tories are coming under fire for being the party of wealth and privilege (especially on this one issue); and the public finances are not exactly conducive to tax cuts.

And yet, rather than dropping it, George Osborne is still insisting he intends to do it, although not straight away:

It’s now clear that if you want to get on in life, save for your retirement and leave something for your children then the Labour Party is not for you. But it won’t be in the first couple of years.

Why stick to this line despite the transformed public mood?

A possible answer could be inferred from an anecdote that Andrew Grice reports:

A Tory mole tells me that Mr Cameron has received about 4,000 letters of protest over dropping his "cast-iron guarantee" that a Tory government would hold a referendum on the EU's Treaty of Lisbon. … The issue for many correspondents was not Europe but trust, a promise broken. I suspect we won't hear Mr Cameron use the phrase "cast-iron guarantee" again.

Tory policies have been notoriously few and vague. Cameron and Osborne may fear that ditching this one – by far the best-known of their specific proposals – would be more damaging than any hits they may take from keeping it. U-turns can be executed gracefully, but a high-profile one such as this might have compounded many people’s suspicions that Cameron and gang don’t really stand for anything, and are just bog-standard politicians who’ll say whatever’s convenient for them at the time. This is all the more important given that the expenses scandal has subjected the political class to even more distrust than before.

That’s what occurred to me when I read Grice. But then I remembered something else.

Ken Clarke was publicly slapped down for suggesting the inheritance tax cut might be downgraded from a “commitment” to an “aspiration” – all the way back in March. This was before the Tory attack of the vapours over the Lisbon referendum made them fear looking wobbly; it was before the expenses scandal made political integrity into the issue of the year.

I can only conclude that Cameron and Osborne want to cut inheritance tax because it’s something they truly, madly, deeply believe in. You may agree or disagree, but there it is: this is the social injustice that they’re in politics to fight.

National insurance, jobs and the low-paid

I haven’t really had a chance to delve into the depths of the pre-budget report, so I’m just going to briefly touch on one thing I didn’t like and one thing I did.

Until last week, the aspect of Labour’s tax plans that worried me the most was the 0.5% increase in employer’s national insurance contributions. Given the dangers of a jobless recovery, possibly the riskiest form of tax rise is one that discourages employers from taking staff on.

Obviously the equivalent increase in employee NI would also be unpleasant for those of us paying it, but the number of people wanting work is high compared with vacancies, so I think that small tax disincentives to do so won’t really affect job applicants. But taxing employers for hiring people, when they’ve already been stretching their margins by keeping people on during the recession, is risky.

Now that this 0.5% rise has become a 1% rise, I’m twice as worried.

But given this, it’s a good thing that the threshold at which NI kicks in will be raised, so that lower earners will avoid the pain of this rise. (It was also encouraging to hear that the structural deficit and the taxpayer cost of the bank bailouts are both looking to be smaller than feared. But these aren’t policies.)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gambling with the national debt

From Mike Smithson comes the news that you can get odds of 6-4 on the UK government losing its AAA credit rating.

Alistair Darling can now, if he’s smart and bold, solve all of our fiscal problems at a stroke. All he has to do is to divert all government spending into funding a colossal bet on this happening.

This would be such a deranged thing to do that the government would certainly lose its credit rating immediately. The Treasury would then cash in to the tune of several hundred billion pounds, wiping out the need for any more public borrowing.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

Beware Greeks bearing gilts

Worries about Greece’s soaring public debt have led to a downgrade in the government’s credit rating, and the Greek gilts market has taken a hit.

None of which particularly fascinates me, but I do love a pretext for a punning headline.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Rich early favourites in battle against poor

Because of an extremely extended work Christmas lunch yesterday involving copious alcohol, meat and karaoke, I’m not nearly up to speed on the PBR yet. In lieu of a considered commentary, here’s something from the Daily Mash:

LABOUR'S bid to engineer a battle between rich and poor will almost certainly result in a resounding victory for the rich, it was claimed last night.

"Our strategy for beating the poor is to keep making lots of money and then spending it on lovely things, such as a highly trained accountant and a large house in a small tax haven.
"I don't know the poor very well, but I suspect their central tactic will be to complain about all that while at the same time continuing to be less well off than me."

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Jobs and the recession

The UK has had a nasty recession in terms of lost GDP. See how our current mess compares with what happened in the early 1980s, the early 1990s and the recession that the USA has recently edged out of:

Not good at all. On the other hand, look at how these four recessions compare in terms of the fall in the number of people in work:

Employment, while it has undergone its first serious fall since 1992, is holding up pretty well in comparison. This comparison is even more striking when you factor in the large drop in GDP.

The pain of this recession is being distributed more equally: rather than a big chunk of people losing their jobs, we’re seeing a smaller chunk losing their jobs but a much larger number having their pay frozen or cut (often with cuts to their hours as well). Earnings growth is well down, and part-time employment is at its highest level since records began, as is the number of those part-timers who wanted full-time work instead.

Employers seem to be doing everything they can to avoid having to lay people off completely. This is probably not so much about kindness to their workers as it is anticipatory self-interest: when demand picks up again it’ll be much easier to get the part-timers back to normal hours than it would be to recruit and train up a load of new people to replace the one who would have been laid off.

What’s more, the flipside of ‘employment is holding up better than GDP’ is that productivity has slumped. This will need to be reversed (and it will be) when the recovery comes.

All of this has a few implications.

First, if the recovery is weak, or if there’s a second dip to the recession in a year or so, a much bigger rise in unemployment becomes much likelier: employers can only keep semi-productive staff on for so long before it becomes too expensive.

Second, even a decent recovery may have relatively little impact on employment, at least for a while. Rising demand for labour will at first be met largely by part-timers returning to full-time work. So the people who have lost their jobs, as well as recent school, college and university leavers, may still struggle to find work. There’s a danger of long-term unemployment for many of these people.

Third, part of the surprisingly large fall in tax revenues is related to the surprisingly small fall in employment. To illustrate: if someone on £20,000 loses their job, they stop paying income tax and NI – but a good chunk of those earnings were untaxed anyway, because of the personal allowance. However, if ten people on £20,000 each take a 10% pay cut, then all of the total £20,000 that the employer saves is money on which tax and NI were being paid, so the loss to the Exchequer is larger.

Cue Alistair Darling’s pre-budget report.

(Data for charts: UK GDP growth, X13, series IHYQ; UK adults aged 16+ in employment, seasonally adjusted, LFS summary, series MGRZ; US GDP growth, table 1, page 6 (recalculated to quarterly rates); US number of adults aged 16+ in employment, seasonally adjusted.)

Friday, December 04, 2009

’Tis the season to be satirical

The Onion is more effectively anti-consumerist than a billion self-righteous Guardian articles:

New Device Desirable, Old Device Undesirable

With the holiday shopping season officially under way, millions of consumers proceeded to their nearest commercial centers this week in hopes of acquiring the latest, and therefore most desirable, personal device.
"The new device is an improvement over the old device, making it more attractive for purchase by all Americans," said Thomas Wakefield, a spokesperson for the large conglomerate that manufactures the new device. "The old device is no longer sufficient. Consumers should no longer have any use or longing for the old device."
…the new device is so advanced when compared to the old device that it makes the old device appear much older than it actually is. However, the new device is reportedly not so radically different as to cause confusion or unwanted anxiety among those familiar with the feel of the old device.
"Its higher price indicates to me that it is superior, and that not everyone will be able to afford it, which only makes me want to possess it more," said Tim Sturges, owner of the old device, which he obtained 18 months ago when it was still the new device. "I feel a strong urge to purchase the new device. Owning the new device will please me and improve my daily life."

Consumer Robert Larson agreed.
"I'm going to take my new device wherever I go," said Larson, holding the expensive item directly in the eyeline of several reporters. "That way no one on the street, inside the elevator, or at my place of business will ever mistake me for the sort of individual who does not own the new device."

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Money, not class

Gordon Brown seemed, for once, to have a good PMQs yesterday. And Labour does seem a bit more self-confident lately, even though there’s still no expectation of a win next year. Some sort of coherence does seem finally to be forming in the party’s positioning.

Ann Treneman, parliamentary sketchwriter for the Times, offers her take on this:

So it’s going to be class war. Now we know. Forget the Duke of Wellington and what he said about Waterloo. At PMQs Gordon Brown made it clear that he wants the next election to be won not on the playing fields of Eton but by attacking them.

But Simon Carr, her counterpart at the Independent, sees the strategy differently:

It's not majoring on Tory toffs, Tory do-nothing, or even Tory cuts. The lead proposition is rich vs poor. They are the party of the many not the few, remember. And he's going to "grow the economy out of recession". There – they are the party of growth and everyone who's not rich. And whatever the electorate think of it, Labour loves it. It feels optimistic, it gives courage.

I think – or, more accurately, I hope – that Carr is right and Treneman wrong. For Labour to rant about class is feeble and off-putting. True, plenty of people are suspicious of toffs and old Etonians, but if this is going to put them off the Tories then it will anyway: Labour needs to do no work. However, fulminating against a certain type of person based on their background is more likely to make you look nasty yourself. As the Crewe and Nantwich byelection showed, a ‘Tory toffs’ campaign just doesn’t work.

What has much more mileage, though, is the line that the Tories are the party of the super-rich and would govern for the super-rich (I say “super-rich” rather than “rich” because it distances these people from the rest of us more effectively).

The risk of being seen as anti-aspirational is now much reduced thanks to the antics of the bankers over the last couple of years. The trick will be for Labour to position itself as standing up for everyone else, not just for the poor: if you lose the middle, you lose.

With a Shadow Cabinet in which millionaires outnumber women by three to one, and an inheritance tax cut whose popularity belongs to a different age, there’s fertile ground there. Although it’s important to focus the attack on policies that favour the super-rich rather than just on the super-rich themselves for who they are.

This is almost certainly not enough for Labour to win the election, but if it’s pursued effectively it could get us back in the game. But please, let’s not use the C-word.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Protect marriage: ban divorce

This is superb:

John Marcotte wants to put a measure on the ballot next year to ban divorce in California.
The effort is meant to be a satirical statement after California voters outlawed gay marriage in 2008, largely on the argument that a ban is needed to protect the sanctity of traditional marriage. If that's the case, then Marcotte reasons voters should have no problem banning divorce.
"Since California has decided to protect traditional marriage, I think it would be hypocritical of us not to sacrifice some of our own rights to protect traditional marriage even more," the 38-year-old married father of two said.

Hat tip: NL.