Sunday, 30 September 2007

The Swing

Should be self-explanatory. It is a statement of where my political sympathies seem to lie at the time. It is helpful for someone as vacillating open-minded as me to keep a note of these things. Perhaps it may prove that I really am still making up my mind.

It could only be honest to start with a high Labour rating. I voted Blair. I thought about helping the local Labour candidate, Stuart King. I wanted to foam at the mouth every time I read a Telegraph column asserting the straightforward rightness of all things Country/Traditional/Military/etc. I am proud of the amount of tax I pay, and have a small contempt for rich people complaining of taxes.

Lib Dems have gained from closer inspection. I am not anti-European, and reading the Orange book is the closest to a statement of real Liberalism, as the Economist might define it, as you can find. Their stars on their Right are impressive in terms of their backgrounds and intellectual grip. They have a couple of policies I really don't like - anti Student Fees in particular - but seem to combine a scepticism of the larger government with a real progressive streak. I like their Liberal approach to law and order.

Tories have gradually gained. This is partly because of the growing dislike of Labour triumphalism, not liking the faces of the Labour bench for the first time in a while, not liking Brown's speech, it seeming smug and deceptive at the same time. It is partly a recognition that they, like the Libs, have a wing that I could relate to. I am still trying to fathom what it is I really dislike about much of them. Some of the following has an effect, without being particularly rational:

- their grassroots/bloggers. Pretty much the same as the face of Toryism that was so unpleasant in 1997. Bang 'em up, send 'em back, cut the taxes, and God what a dreadful 10 years we (Britain) have had.
- lack of a real direction from the top. Backtracking on Green pledges, for example, the chaos that followed Mrs T's trip
- the sense that they want to build "drawbridge Britain" - it being good enough to bolster the rights of a privileged (but vocally whinging) minority in the name of a skewed reading of libertarian values, and sod the rest.
- things like giving £3bn to show how much they approve of marriage
- illiberal attitude to crime prevention

Anyway, I will try to update the damned thing.

Saturday, 29 September 2007

Grown up thinking on Conservative Home

So the always efficient writer on Conservative Home has written this piece on what the grassroots think needs to be done.

It has a predictable list: emphasize tax cuts, anti-immigration, nothing that looks like a green law, and we'll all be happy. Yeah, sure you will. 32 comments are attached, and I seriously expected them all to be saying, in one way or another "right on". But at least half of them are instead posting "Er, hold on, how will this attract the floating voter . . ."

The Conservative dilemma in a nutshell. Imagine it is 1988 and the Labour Party are wondering how they will get back into power. Some bright spark recommends a poll of their unionists and activists. Would that work?

I will continue to watch the thread

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Cameron speaking at the Conservative club

From Conservative Home

What are the party's clear and simple messages?
Conservatives want to give people more control over their lives.

We want to encourage a new generation of homeowners.
Check, but how pay?

We want headteachers to have more control over their schools.
Big Check

We want real choice for patients.
Not sure what this really means.

Tax is too high and so we will share the proceeds of growth.
Who will have it cut? Does he think City salaries represent a free market? (it didn't when I was paying salesmen not to take their clients away)

We will mend Britain's broken society. In the 1970s the problem was irresponsible unions - today it's irresponsible parents. Then it was inflation. Now it's crime.
So are things ALWAYS crap? Will he admit that some of the 'breaking' happened when unemployment increased by 2m in 2 years?

The overall aim is a safer, greener country. Conservatives will tax pollution - not families.
Like it. But will he add 10p to a litre of petrol?

Opportunity, Responsibility and Family are the new Conservative watchwords.

Overall, not a bad message, you might expect from a PR guru. The question is whether he represents 20 or 70% of his party, or whether there is as large a wing of Mail-ite/blogosphere-like ultras saying "we'll nod along to this guff till we get back".

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Fabian Review part II: Shock! as Britain found to be against Inequality

The Fabian Review led with a survey of 3000 voters, finding to the delight of the researcher that Britain was solidly against inequality. However, what it actually found was that, when asked to discuss abstract values or outcomes, people being polled preferred the nice answer. So:

- 94% of Tory voters supported "a fair wage for a fair day's work"
- 94% of all voters said that nobody should suffer discrimination because of their disability
- 95% backed giving access to high quality healthcare to everyone; 97% said the same for access to a good state school

These attitudes were meant to signal the capitulation of old nasty Tories to the Labour way of thinking. Yes, before Blair et al drummed home the message, presumably:

- a majority of Tories agreed with the idea of paying people 'unfairly', whatever that means
- similarly they backed "picking on people just because they're disabled
- they shook their jowls in anger at the notion of poor people getting well or educated.

What nonsense. Poll answers prove nothing of the sort. Asked their opinion of more apple pie for all, everyone says "sure". No dilemmas or trade-offs are asked for.

honest approach would have been to ask people to choose between trade-offs.

"Would you be willing to pay 10% more tax to ensure that all the kids in your neighbourhood got better schooling"

"Would you agree with the Government forcing all employers to pay at least £6 per hour because that is fairer?"

Megaphone politics never admits to their being trade-offs. When I asked campaigning undergrads at the LSE where the money should come from to replace Student Tuition fees with some middle-class subsidy, most of them thought "cut Trident" was a sophisticated answer (no doubt the Treasury are slapping their foreheads right now, wondering why they never thought of it)

The only interesting aspect of the poll was when Tories were asked whether things had gotten better in 10 yearsn ('fairer'). 10% said yes, compared to 74% for Labour voters. This just proves how bogus polls are: they are not objective measures of peoples' honest views, but a way for them to project what opinion they want registered. If you vote Tory, then regardless of your house tripling in value, regardless of low unemployment and booming capital values, you will want to say "life is crap". Whereas the Labour voter, trapped in insufficient social housing and facing a bigger crime problem, is duty-bound to say "it's getting better".

Iain Dale in the Fabian Review: we agree!

My copy of the Fabian Review came through. Iain Dale and Mark Oaten are opposite each other, smiling nervously as if wondering if smiling at browsing Lefties is a seat-losing offence.

ID warns the reader not to be complacent, because his man Cameron is poised to bounce off the ropes and swing at "control freak short-termist" Brown. He urges more courage to the Conservatives, especially on lower taxes, which "ought to mean picking off Labour voters like ripe plums". Then we get

Anyone with half an economic brain can make the case that lower taxes means a higher tax take and therefore more money to invest in public services.

It makes you wonder what you think if you have the full brain working. We all know about the Laffer curve, but it seems that only Mr Dale and George W Bush of circa 1999 actually think we are at that part of it, or that it is a coherent curve at all. From the wikipedia link:

"In 2005, the Congressional Budget Office released a paper called "Analyzing the Economic and Budgetary Effects of a 10 Percent Cut in Income Tax Rates"that casts doubt on the idea that tax cuts ultimately improve the government's fiscal situation"

Still, you never know where you might get if you just semi-lobotomise yourself. Again, the impression is overwhelming that the preaching to the converted is going full-swing; all the furious thought of the blogosphere has not attuned their prophets to the messages needed to convince the floating voter.

Monday, 24 September 2007

Dammit, they don't even come from here

I like to hit a few golf balls round the garden, into a small net, in preparation for the fifth major, aka Wiltshire Scouts Golf Day (Nearest the Pin, 2003: Tiger never got that one). All six balls have just gone missing. After half an hour of searching the rocks and shrubs that make the western end of the garden such a feared spot for golfers round here, I started to blame F, daughter number 2, who has been known for posting things in bins, flushing socks down the loo, that sort of vandalism. But she had been under tight grandparental supervision, and would not normally organise herself so methodically as to find each one and hide it.

Then I spotted the Illegal Immigrants. I used to find grey squirrels cute, but that was before I realised they were messing with my short game.

I thought I may be paranoid, but then, finding this, I realise I have probably only scratched the surface of a truly massive story. Not only are they foreigners, and in no way resemble anything in Beatrix Potter, but they don't understand the basic institutions of our free society. You can come here, but only if you learn to play by the rules.

Nick Clegg

I am meeting the fella, so may be biased. But I think he speaks well. Watch here. And, I'm sorry to say, but compared to Ming, there is not much comparison. Ming does well, compared to the prior press, but the bar had clearly been lowered through the previous weeks.

People say that liberals are not always liberal, but this speech suggests otherwise.

Sunday, 23 September 2007

Oh s***e I'm becoming biased part II

My problem is I'm a contrarian, most likely to find out his own views by reading what he disagrees with. So if I read Right, I go Left, and so on.

To remind myself that a fair amount I agree with is, if not classic Tory then at least anti-Brownite centralizing socialist-paternalistic nonsense, the Centre Forum has given me more to agree with (OK, it may be a Lib Dem thing, but the small right wing of that small party). And this effort from Civitas is going to get my donations (I may see if I can support one supplementary school), partly because it's a clear good cause, but also because one of my few convictions are that education should be a let-us-alone issue (after giving us some money because of social externalities). Civitas reads like a libertarian blog at times, but was started by a Labour man and has a clear concern with the less well off.

This is why barriers to entry are sometimes a good thing

OK, so I am a bit naive, but I thought that swimming around in the blogosphere might be reasonably informative for someone looking to turn some of their basic values into a firm political allegiance. But this somewhat echoes an earlier attempt (1999-2001) to learn about the fundamentals of the stockmarket through reading message boards on the Motley Fool*; you get nowhere nearer the facts of investment, save for a couple of useful links, but instead learn plenty about the pond-life that makes up the lowest common denominator. Which, in the end, is more useful; no amount of MBA theory could have taught me why Freeserve was at one point valued at more than Dixons, but just reading what some of the more pumped up investors "thought" solves all sorts of mysteries.

So it is with the political blogosphere. This is not Hayek debating with Marx, Keynes disputing a point with Friedman, or even Ken Clarke versus Gordon Brown. Above all, it is not academic. Issues are not proven, peer-reviewed, re-examined in a deliberately sceptical light. Proponents of new theories don't go asking: how could I be wrong? Instead, the major method is assertion. You know - like a drunk who can't understand why you disagree so yells louder, exaggerates his position, swears his loyalties with ever-more pumped up emotion, no doubt believing himself ever more. And this world works perfectly to such temperaments, because the challenges come fast, and the drunk gets more and more belligerent. No-one, in the blogosphere, confronted with the counter-examples, says "Oh, well, given that, thesis-antithesis-synthesis". No, it's a combination of:

"look, what I said just now, but louder. You clearly can't read you scumbag"

"clearly some people disagree with me, but this is because they are enemy activists/convinced anti-patriots/aristocrat-fascists/etc"

So, yeah, I've learnt plenty about policy in the last month but only through downloading about 40 think-tank and policy pieces. And I've learnt plenty about what the zero-entry-barrier bloggers think make for a convincing argument. The two are barely related. And it reminds me why, even with such extreme examples as wikipedia, there is always going to be a suspicion for me about any Internet-only content, the sort where you're published as soon as you can remember a password. There is no reward to research or even-handedness. See the Iain Dale post and thread about the PCSO's allegedly standing by to watch a kid drown because 'NuLab' dictates such supine, procedure-driven behaviour. That's it - that's all the thinking you need to write the post or cheer it. A horribly spun version of a story breeding a trite meta-political view, with pauses for nauseous boasts about the hypothetical bravery the chubby poster would have displayed in the scarcely-understood situation. An edited programme or column might at least have asked whether the cartoon-image of what happened was actually correct, but not here in the blogosphere. So two community volunteers who arrived up to half an hour after a boy has started to drown without being able to see him or even know for sure which lake to arrive at have, on top of this, their names casually blackened by some armchair hero, preaching to a converted audience of similarly evidentially-challenged people. before he moves on to another ten posts of pointless gossip.

Welcome to the blogosphere. I've learned nothing about what should have occurred at this somewhere lake in this situation few people could really describe, but all about how a particular political wing thinks. The question is: are these types 20% of 50% of the opposition?


PS Of course, I write all this and then find an intelligent writer, Cicero, pointed out by Iain Dale

*Hey, look: my bearish post on ARM holdings is still the most popular post it ever got. How sad.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

The worst blog I have (tried to) read so far

is this one. Good grief, I don't think I've ever read so much one-sided hate in one pageful in my life.

My brother-in-law who works tirelessly to improve the conditions for 2 million Palestinian refugees in Syria would be horribly depressed.

UPDATE. Melanie Phillips was one of the attendees at the Ibn Warraq talk at Civitas, and her blog on this is actually reasonable, and a better description of my position. Here is what she wrote on the moderate Muslims who criticized Ibn Warraq

They argued that the concept of the absolute authority of the Koran itself was a profound misapprehension, because every statement of what it meant was merely a matter of interpretation. It was therefore a question of whose interpretation should be regarded as authoritative; and since there were reformist traditions in Islam, it followed that it was possible for there to be an Islamic ‘renaissance’ of Islamic values which renounced the jihad and the cult of death. In other words, while the words of the holy text are regarded as divinely inspired, the religion itself is simply contestable commentary. And so, theologically speaking, there is everything to play for. If they are right, this is not only grounds for optimism but it means we should be giving every encouragement to reformist Muslims in their courageous endeavour to excavate from their own tradition precepts which marry their religious faith with an accommodation with the west.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

What I mean by living in a bubble world

This is what the Conservative Home lot think of Nick Clegg's immigration views after the main commentary:


A senior Tory moderniser told me last week that he hoped that David Cameron wouldn't focus on immigration policy again

So this person is not concerned that the character of our country - which means so much to most of us - has been steadily and permanently changed by those who benefit from the import of cheap labour, which is what the recent history of immigration has been all about.

The notion that the voting public is repelled by anti-immigration campaigns is, of course, one of those pervasive 'big lies' that has been pushed relentlessly by the thought controllers of the left for around a quarter-century.

The wholesale sellout to Political Correctness, better described as Social Marxism, is the one thing for which the so-called modernisers in the Conservative Party can never be forgiven.

Its difficult for Cameron to not deal with immigration, unless of course his whole green agenda is nothing more than a sham. For it all comes down to the sustainability of a population, and right now we have one of the most unsustainable populations ever in our history. Yet our politicians are telling us that the greatest threat to us, global warming, is just around the corner.

So 'Dave' is global warming the greatest threat to us? If it is, then you have to deal with population sustainability, and as population growth is being driven by mass immigration, it means you have to deal with immigration. Unless 'Dave' your whole green agenda is a sham, so is it a sham?

I'm sure that the majority of voters would not forgive the Conservative Party for burying it's head in the sand over issues which the average man in the pub discusses day in and day out.

When someone comes in with the more liberal line, you get this:

BenM, you are completely mistaken on immigration policy being a problem for the tories. It is a complete fallousy, propagated mostly by bleeding heart liberals and socialists such as yourself. May I remind you that the Tory policies on crime and immigration are the areas in which they have consistently shown thumping leads over Labour.Fact. We did not lose in 2001 or 2005 because of Immigration policy or a perception of us being the "nasty" party, rather in spite of it. It was the economy stupid.

I'm not claiming the Immigration issue is an open-and-shut case; just illustrating how, if you only mix intellectually with people of a like mind, you can get an erroneous view of what 'everyone' thinks about an issue. This is what the Populus polling conducted at great expense by Lord Ashcroft found:

"The issue that dominated the Conservative campaign, immigration, was never important enough to voters to determine how large numbers of them would cast their votes".

The problem seems to be that people think the Tories are uncaring, dominated by their own class, not really bothered with giving opportunities for all (not if it involves any redistribution), and so on. Coming down on economic immigrants may chime with a portion of the public, but does not move the critical swing voters who need to feel that the Tories care, for a sustained period and for the right reasons, about the social ills in this country.

I accept that although I call myself swing voter, I am not representative of all swing voters. But the tone of the Tory internal thinking here suggests several things that are off-putting:

- A blatant recognition that they have two tones to their party; the David Cameron line (green, not nasty, etc) and the "lieutenants" ('we know the man in the pub wants to hear about immigration'). This is precisely what sceptics like me fear - just like a Blair sceptic might have thought 'he'll go all Left on us when he gets in'

- some very muddled thinking (the link with the environment and global warming was nutty), the sense that we are uniquely strained in terms of population growth, the rise in house prices being uniformly bad (well, it redistributes to the Rich and Old, which is an irony here), the sheer Luddism of counting the jobs the foreigners have "taken"

- no-one ever mentions the demographic timebomb awaiting any country that fails to replenish its stock of young workers as the latest demographic lump finally passes into retirement, or the fact (see Dani Rodrik) that immigration is one of the most potent globalising forces for redistributing wealth.

- no sense whatsoever that individual freedom to move is a factor to be considered at all. In other words, a pretty light hold on libertarian values, a great eagerness to see this as the great exception to freedoms, even a willingness to ban the practice of the British travelling abroad to live

- This line is always unchallenged: "endless mass immigration dissipates and banishes any sense of England; any sense of what it is to be English. " Yeah, that's why Americans are such an unpatriotic lot.

I really don't want to say it is a simple issue; it needs better management, which I think a closer reading of Nick Clegg would find is what is being proposed. But it does NOT bode well for the Tories that they think it's so obvious, innit.

Beginning to like the Lib Dems

I am a classic contrarian, so just as every paper has their leader peering down a toilet, I find myself drawn to the Liberal Democrats. This is partly because a friend of a prominent MP has promised to set up a meeting with him, which prompted all sorts of research on my part, and also because of some enduring disquiet with the Labour Party's still vocal left wing. Reading the policy papers left me quite impressed by the detail that their strong local position had left them with.

What else?

- lowering the basic tax
- increasing green taxes
- a liberal attitude to crime, with more community sentences over short "let's teach you how to be a proper criminal" stays in jail
- a quite clear interest in reducing poverty and inequality
- more wholehearted adoption of benefit simplification than Labour can manage
- liberal but managed immigration policy leading to points-based system

If their right wing gets the reins, I might be much more interested - and less self-conscious about wandering into an activist's office than I would if it were Labour. I think there is a better chance that they might actually understand the free market reforms than Labour's heartland does.

Interestingly, the Conservatives seem to hate the Lib Dems even more than Labour.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

"Funny, all of my mates are Tory ... ."

Look, this is not an up-to-the-minute blog, an "ooh, look who I just saw chatting to Ed Balls at the Red Lion" kind of news blog or one of those "flame the hell out of every other dumb writer on the Net" kind of blogs, the sort that allowed the formerly green-ink writers of past ages to suddenly flower forth on our laptop screens. It is slow. Very.

So that is why I have only just read this piece of work commissioned by Michael Ashcroft during the last election. No doubt it was well covered at the time - in fact, this blog has a reasonable stab at it (better than the Swing Voter can manage anyway, with children due to wake him in 8 hours time). For me, it is interesting as a long piece by a Tory reflecting on Tory unpopularity. He asks some pretty brutal questions, and allows some pretty brutal quotes to come out, like:

You look at Howard and think 'Nah'. You wouldn't want to be at the UN and think 'there goes our leader'.

Anyway, the sort of brutal analysis he allows is: ask voters' opinion about a policy, without telling them who proposed it; ask another group whilst revealing that it was a Tory idea. The effect is 'dramatic'; net agreement (agree minus disagree) slips from 55% to 43%, whilst doing the same thing with Labour made no difference. He also reveals the breakdown of who votes Tory. Only social class AB produces a Tory lead, and only the age groups over 55 years old. Tactical voting always went against the Tories, and people wanting to 'give a bloody nose' to the Government would quail at the thought that the Conservatives might thereby win, saying to themselves "what the hell have I done?".

People's views of the Tories came straight out of the standard stereotype. A big lead for "Stuck in the past and out of touch" and "Care more for well-offs than have-nots". A massive deficit for "Opportunity for all whatever their background". So, although on Policies they did not do so badly, seen leading on immigration and breaking-even on matters like crime and tax, the basic view of them was still the same - nasty, interested in and peopled by the elite.

The attitudes of Tory voters themselves also produced some revealing insights. For me, the most salient fact in the whole report came on page 27. There it shows that 55% of voters think that Britain was a better country to live in 20 or 30 years ago. However, the figure for Conservatives is 67%, 'miles away' from younger voters and AB's. And while 38% of all voters thought the Tory party was on the right track to getting back to power, 79% of their convinced voters thought so. Blowing the immigration dog-whistle, meanwhile, only resonated with social groups that generally never vote Tory - it was a big nothing.

My first big bet was on the 1997 election. Working in bubble of the City, all the suits wandered around scoffing at the Polls, hardly believing any change could be happening - after all, "all my mates are Tory". So the market price on Labour seats was tastily low (340 offered?) and even a penniless graduate could afford a fiver a seat. You can still see some of the same self-insulating bubbles in the blogosphere - nice (or not so nice) communities of same-minded people, frothing one another into the same self-righteous lather about the current state of the world and probably possessed of the same delusion that everyone thinks their way - and possibly possessing the same bemusement about why they are not more popular.

So it's all a bit depressing for the policy wonks - no matter how well-written the policy documents (and I found the latest one on crime eminently reasonable on most issues), the question of their getting back into power will be determined by incredibly stubborn impressions of what Tories are like, impressions that were probably cast in stone by the early 1990's. I find Tory unpopularity a mystery. I don't get it, even though I half-share it. I used to think Cameron was the answer to this - he did not have the Hague-IDS-Howard look that made you want to say "god I hope you lose" (Kinnock had it too). Right now, not so sure - particularly if he appears with Boorish Johnson anywhere. For a while they might have been Labour 1994, but for now they seem to be Labour 1985, and still needing a major stand-off with their unmentionables to shake the image.

Did we need Thatcher?

Making no apologies for the dreadful spelling (no doubt they'd say this can be blamed on the Tories' education policies in the 1980's), this post and its thread on LabourHome at least dares to ask if, 25 years later, the Thatcher reforms were in fact necessary. You get an interesting mixture of daft bigots and tentative realists.

My answer has normally been: yes, they surely were. But the fruits of such reforms are now mostly enjoyed by the Labour government. If you ask why the British economy has been stronger than the Continental since the early 1990's, it is a combination of being chucked out of the ERM and the basic flexibility bequeathed by Thatcherite reforms. However, you can also trace the genesis of some of more worrying social trends to the unemployment and dislocation that occurred at the time. It's unfair, but Labour spending what the Tories fought for is probably the right way round.

The Brown-Thatcher photocall has, for me, stimulated a welcome shedload of worried debate from both wings of the political spectrum, which I love for it getting at what the parties really think. Even The Economist gets involved, and as usual hits the nail on the head in Bagehot (Note to self: get Bagehot biog to complement Lombard Street). Labour learnt and benefited from the Thatcher period, and "Brown's economic policies are essentially Thatcherite": low-ish income taxes, none of the traditional loathing for entrepreneurs, flexible labour market (hmmmm). No doubt the Tories would love to fling this in his face, but a Swing Voter likes to hear that Labour have learnt off the Right. Changing your mind is a sign of intelligence: the great Keynes, surely even more quoteable than Smith, said, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Admitting that, be it in Westminster or the blogosphere, is a sign of greater maturity than most can muster.

Both parties need to manage the trick of conceding that the other side had a good point about a few things (I don't see the Tories or anyone advocating 1995-levels of NHS spending), without losing face. The question for me seems to be which one comes under worse pressure to 'stay true to its roots/principles'. So far, the answer seems clear. And the Tories continue to struggle partly because the alluring ghost of Thatcher is still so real to them. By the time Blair had terminate his extremists, they had no living saint (like, say, a 111-year old Atlee) to chide him and slow it down.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

What I like about libertarianism

The beauty of reading some of the Libertarian canon is that, when the unit of analysis is the individual and his freedom, the argument can proceed quite logically without much empirical debate. So it is gloriously neat, and you don't need to be an expert in all the world's ugliness to prescribe the right policies. All one needs is to remember that individual liberty is paramount. Hence this purist article arguing the libertarian case for immigration. But it also highlights the difficulties inherent on reducing debates to this one factor; liberties like rights inevitably conflict with one another. One man's right to range freely over this glorious planet in the search for security and economic success; another's right to keep his culture intact against the threats of multiple other cultures crowding in.*

Me, I come down on the immigrants' side, but not because libertarianism leads inevitably there, but because (a) I don't buy the "my culture is under threat" nonsense you get in the Torygraph and (b) I think some of England's most glorious acts have been when we absorbed some fleeing refugees (Hugenots, Jews under Cromwell, etc). I also like the way outside forces challenge stale thinking or the "distributional coalitions" that encrust a society over time, as discussed by Mancur Olsen.

All freedoms - movement of goods and capital as well as people - upset an existing order and force the challenges that ultimately produce capitalism's endless gains. I like those gains, but can recognise that each produce losers. Which freedom gets most effectively suppressed depends on power, as usual, rather than than the paramountcy of any particular liberty.

*today's generation of anti-immigration thinkers are not noted for condemning the massive emigration of well-armed British people over several centuries into the established orders of other countries.

Citizen-centred Welfare

So today, after much faddling around with the IPPR, I found myself sitting, breathless*, in a seat ten feet away from Peter Hain while he expounded to a room full of carefully vetted people about the government's vision for a new sort of welfare contract. To be more exact, he was speaking at the launch of the IPPR's own vision of a welfare shake-up, which was inevitably a more radical version of what he could discuss, but he used it as an opportunity to illuminate his early thoughts on the subject.

I was there to learn about think-tanks, government, Peter Hain, getting into Portcullis House, all that stuff. I must have been the only person there without an explicit, welfare-centred agenda, of which more later. And although the topic is not one I know much about - I live in Toryland, SW15, where benefits are a mere rumour barely discussed by the affluent Putney housewives - it gave me a view of some of government's outer workings.

First, the Hain speech. It summarized broad strategic goals - 80% employment, eradication of poverty- at which the welfare system was aimed. Good start to my MBA brain - important to define objectives. Then, the general methods he felt were to shape his approach. Strengthening Jobcentre Plus. No phoney war between private and public providers of the welfare-to-work help, and frequent mentions of the Shaw Trust as proof of this. Translation: the Tories do not have a monopoly on private provision of worthy works. To beef this up, the speech contained further mentions of companies like M&S making positive efforts to help the unemployed. He emphasized how he had "no interest in compelling lone parents into jobs where they are actually made worse off". Finally, he acknowledged the desirability of simplifying the whole system while expressing vague caution.

He took questions from the floor, bunched into threes or fours. Here it became obvious to me that these gatherings are not akin to Greek symposia discussing the abstract properties of the Ideal Welfare system, but gatherings of hard-nosed lobbyists. Everything came from someone with an interest, either academic (the bird-like Oxford Professor determined to include the notion of Gender in the discussion, or the LSE professor objecting to the nature of low-level work in "this service economy we have made") or representatives of organizations I could not name representing mentally ill, physically disabled, unions, homeless people, and so on. From the latter the questions were basically all: "the people my organisation represents do not get enough". So don't think of making a system that makes it tougher for them.

PH had to disappear to be repeat his message in Glasgow, and the policy wonks took over, describing their more radical approach of simplifying lots of benefits into one or two, which I have already read about in IPPR papers published earlier. They were bright-eyed idealists, who themselves had to fight off the qualms of the special interests who could each detect the risk of their own constituency being undermined by radical change, or a simpler system being too crude to avoid nasty side-effects, that the current complicated system has evolved to avoid.

I am not now an expert on the welfare system. I am also vaguely aware of the rightwing view on this, which is for a massive broom to sweep away the encrusted special interests, break the whole thing into something simple that makes the idle, ill or hopeless work some way or other, just as they must have in Victorian days, or starved. After listening to the complaints of so many lobbyists, I can understand the allure of this approach; once you hear all the stories of deprivation, welfare traps, etc from the bottom of society, it is hugely tempting to pretend that a macho effort of will could somehow bring them all into work. "Stop this fussing: there's enough jobs for the hardworking, otherwise why are the Poles and Bulgarians beating a path to the UK?".

But I don't believe it is that simple. Scratch the surface and these lobbyists clearly have a point, and are in fact the mechanism via which the Powers get to know of the individual stories underneath their grand policy statements. Single mothers turning down work that would put their kids in negligent care all day for a mere £20 more a week. People giving up work to care for cancer-afflicted relatives. The mentally ill scared of workplace abuse and miscomprehension. The "london trap" - childcare and housing too expensive to justify many jobs. I have read enough history to know that what went before was not some sort of Pure Work ideal where everyone knew their place, toiled honestly and was somehow supported by a stern but fair society that recognized merit. Welfare came in because of dreadful abuses that stemmed from a
laisser-faire society. For example, David Kynaston's excellent history of the City describes a handicapped ex-sailor having to push a broom across a stretch of muddy road for tips well into his sixties. Our world is a better one for it having the humanity to pause for those who are somehow not able to be economically productive in the system they find themselves in - and I'm sure leftish Tories agree.

But the event left me with a deep impression of how difficult reform will be. These people lobbying the minister are the reason there is so little room for manoeuvre - they are more than just annoying voices offstage, but his actual constituents, the people he hears behind closed doors. He's been there 2 months - they are at it for life. IF the system needed a brutal overhall, it would be easy for the Tories who have no friends to lose. But they are understandably terrified of being labelled as the party happy to leave a handicapped man starving if it reduces a banker's tax-bill. The best hope is perhaps the "spend to save" option that the idealist academics describe - spend more on personalizing the welfare system, therefore avoiding the abuses from scroungers, the mis-allocated efforts that send locksmiths off to work as lifeguards, and the cruelty of making the genuinely unfit labour in poverty for ideological reasons. But it will clearly be a slog.

*not to be fair because of the inspiring quality of the speech, but the mad rush to complete a school run in Putney and get to Westminster in time. Welfare reform does not produce inspiring words.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Supply side arguments

In case I ever give the impression that I think all bloggers are blinkered zealots determined to "prove" their case by ever noisier assertion and invective rather than argument (pause for breath), I also have The Economist to draw on. Its blog requires subscription, I suspect, and I have no illusions about its bias (at one point, I thought it could have saved the trouble of actually publishing itself and simply written "we think vouchers solve everything this year"). But it introduces me to debates I would not run into normally; what I run into normally is of course the standard cat-fights and gossip of glorious British blogotics.

I tend to find left-wing hysteria about the dreadful state of American inequality a bit shrill, but this fellow Jonathan Chait at least writes well, which should forgive him anything. His point is that the Republicans are still suckers for the Laffer curve, which has caused them to adopt policies that have massively increased American inequality. That this inequality exists is clear, and that it matters is also, at least to me; the excellent Catalyst paper "Why Inequality Matters" makes a strong enough case for this simple mind. For me the most startling fact is this: at $33,800, the US has by some way the highest GDP per head amongst large developed countries, at least 20% above most. But if you only looked at its lowest decile, its income of $10,922 is behind nearly all of the rest: Switzerland has $15k, Belgium $13k, France $12k. That bottom decile is the reason we watch so many US crime movies; it dies early and lives horribly. I guess an important criteria for my vote will be: does the party in question reckon this matters too?

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Education: the "core" principles of each party are seriously split

So my Fabian Review has arrived, and it has not so far helped me make a journey any time soon into the warm bosom of the Labour Party. Education gets a thorough look at here, in particular by the Editorial Director of the Fabians, Tom Hampson. I won't summarise his entire article here, as it goes on for a while about how "there's barely a pie that doesn't have one of Ed Balls' fingers jammed firmly into it". This is meant to be good. However, it is an image I will struggle to dispel for a few hours yet.

What bothers me? Firstly, on Acadamies, "there simply must be a greater level of central government control in maintaining standards and ensuring fairness in provision in these schools. We must protect ourselves from bad news stories about academies using public money to teach creationism or being tied into sponsorship deals with large multinationals." (my italics).

There is SO MUCH WRONG HERE. Firstly, no pause for thought about how much added admin they load onto teachers every time centrally managed standards are mentioned. Secondly, there is a blatant lack of trust typical of all fantasy-centralizers. "If we don't watch them carefully, they'll be teaching creationism, the existence of Santa Claus, or that dock leaves are a cure for cancer. Luckily, we have forced them to fill out 120980 forms and that will stop them". The best way to avoid such horrors is bottom up - letting ordinarily concerned parents have some sway over the school. Thirdly "we must protect ourselves from bad news stories". Glad Tom has got his priorities right. Finally, the kneejerk student simpleminded equation of "multinationals" with "baby-eating fascists". What precisely do they think will go wrong if multinationals provide money to schools? A nation of McDonald addicts?

The other disquieting aspect of the Fabian policy stance, both here and in a subsequent article by Fiona Millar, is the out-and-out hatred of private schools. Private school fee paying parents put far more money into education, via their tax bills and school bills, than any other set of parents on the planet. The result is a set of often obnoxious, frequently overconfident but nearly always amazingly well educated kids. These kids doing well is not a bane on society. Fixing inequality is important - I recognise that, subject for another blog, and it is well discussed by Catalyst here. But denying the right of parents to spend money and time on their kids' education, in case, horror of horrors, those same kids should actually become high achievers, sends thousands of wrong messages out.

To be fair, John Denham is much more reasonable. Attacking the Lib Dem approach to tuition fees (my favourite policy; if you've spent a year with undergrads 15 years younger than you, you'd see why), he calls their position "intellectually untenable".

Finally, the closest I have found to a sane, thoughtful approach to education is of course that of David Willetts. His priorities are similar to a Labour politicians' - "We must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids. This is a widespread belief but we just have to recognise that there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it." But he is not so scared of interesting solutions, and even praises the Girls' Day School Trust, where my wife teaches, and my first daughter has just finished a year of schooling.

So, of course,the Tories demote him. Where is a swing voter to look?

Why can't government run as easily as this?

Having spare capital (it is a key part of being a conscience-tortured capitalist swine) I decided to try out ZOPA. Now I have a few grand sitting there on the offer, and this missing adrenalin from having a trading job is somewhat replaced. It's basically another disintermediating idea from the people who brought you the World Wide Web; most of us struggle to get 5% out of a bank, and most of the poor who need it struggle to get less than 10%. To anyone in the City (who might have seen FX spreads drop from 5 pips in 1990's to zilch now), this seems like both an opportunity to earn a return on capital AND to do something remotely 'good'*. Wide spreads - win-win-win business opportunities.

It's been amazingly easy. Click, click, password password, you know the routine. No paper, and all the credit checking etc is done by someone who understands this. My major concern - that I had to personally deal with the going-round-with-a-cricket-bat-for-your-TV bit, is not there. This ought to be a British version of Grameen.

This adds some substance to a gripe against the Left; their blindness to the sheer creativity and efficiency that stems from having a £-sign attached to an idea. It is amazing what the prospect of Profit can do to your imagination. Compare this with trying to find out if you can pull down a tree in your garden (I have 3 Antipodeans at it right now) or, heaven help you, getting a permit to park your car. I have a left-wards view of the number of a services that should be provided by the state, but a definitely Right-wards one towards who should do it. It is remarkable that after a decade of mostly successful privatizations (leaving aside the Rail), it should still be a dirty word.

* For the definition of "good", please read founders of major religions, Aristotle, or some other blogger.

PS, if jackart is there, is there a straightforward way to RSS your blog?

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Oh s***e I'm becoming biased

I was determined that this blog should in some way live up to its title. I have been a swing voter, and intend to genuinely consider my political affiliation as being up for grabs, particularly given the immersion in politics I hope to achieve in the next few months. But instead I have just been blowing off about how unpleasant the more reactionary kind of Tory columnist is. As if that gets any marks for originality.

So, I should remember some of the things about the Left that most irritate me:

- the assumption that all money-making is zero-sum, stealing, rather than often a reward for innovation, hard work and skill
- denying the individual basic liberties like the right to spend your money on your kid's education
- control from the centre - ethical authoritarianism
- disingenuous attitudes towards war e.g. if you order soldiers into war you are a murderer
- failing to grasp the usefulness of market mechanisms and how this does not mean you are a fascist. E.g. student fees are a GOOD idea.

If I had the eons of time of other bloggers I would no doubt link to examples of each of these, but you get my drift.

Once I wrote a poem

I came back from a perfectly pleasant weekend in a family friend's house, but found myself continually annoyed by the endless pictures of hunting scenes. Driving the motorway to Dorset, I found this being composed in my mind, and I jotted it down when I returned, to post on my then-regular message board.

I still reckon it is alright, and it returned to my mind when this horrible article by Michael Henderson appeared in the Telegraph (surprise surprise). My Tory-parody says:

For education, public schools
drum into youth respect for Rules,
a love of England and of God
and Discipline – don't spare the rod!
A measured beating is the way
to teach young minds how not to stray.

In winter, rugger, in summer, cricket.
Sport makes a boy both fair and tough.
Standing firm on hostile wicket
Instils in man the sterner stuff.
Though as for soccer, I won't stick it.
The game's effete, its followers rough.

6 years later, Henderson chooses the emotion shown by Scouse football supporters towards the Rhys Jones killing as an excuse to trot out his views on how football makes people into yobs, and Rugby into hard-hitting but fair gentlemen. Beyond parody, clearly.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Two angles on Rule by Others

A quick thought - why is it that the same people who protest most vehemently about the possible takeover of British sovereignty by Brussels, sanctimony itself in their defence of a Nation's Right to Choose, are also the ones to defend the idea of the British Empire having been a great thing?

A more human take on citizenship

I am in the process of joining the Fabian society, and was impressed by this piece of research by two Labour politicians. Citizenship and feelings of national pride can't be ignored by the non-Right, but there are better, more nuanced approaches than the broad-brush simplemindedness we read in John O'Sullivan.

I think they are also being quite politically shrewd here. A points-based system for citizenship would be popular, but can be managed positively. And their take on the Tory problems with this subject, as they write here:

Moreover, it will provide a vitally important new dividing line with
the Conservatives and the twentieth century politics they dominated.
The right’s concept of identity is inextricably linked to tradition. In the
past, this was one of their electoral strengths: it is increasingly a
liability. Their typical noxious tactic is to play on the politics of fear
about change, to call for a return to the Britain of the past. This is the
equivalent of looking in the rear-view mirror instead of the road
ahead. Far easier to fall back on John Major’s evocation of maids
cycling to church in the dusk, or Michael Howard’s dog-whistle
politics, than attempt to apply established values to the reality of

This inheritance remains hardwired into much of the Tory party. It still
traps them, dramatically diminishing what they have to say about
Britain’s future at a time of great change. David Cameron may claim to
be different, but his party simply do not have the intellectual traditions
which allow them to respond effectively to the modern world.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Cultural Conservatism as the Answer to Everything

I don't read that many newspapers, at least not in the last year when studying for the degree in Global History. But when a paper ends up in my house, it tends to be the Saturday Telegraph, owing to its (supposedly) superlative gardening section; I imagine the Telegraph readership has the highest proportion of large-garden owners of any newspaper in the Western world, so that follows.

I have found it useful to read, as it defines those viewpoints that I find difficult to agree with, which have contributed towards my alienation from my 'natural' party, the Tories. (Natural? because I am a property-owning, public-school attending, ex-City employee with absolutely everything to gain, personally, from the onward march of Right wing ideas). Nearly every week I find something distasteful. To be more exact, it is its presumption of possessing the right ideas, tested with a full historical consciousness of the values that mattered in the deep past, that irks so. The best recent example I can find was on Saturday 1st September, by John O'Sullivan, here.

Let me try to summarize the article; it contains several classics of the genre.

  • We are comparatively ignorant about 'our' history - the heroes and dates. Cites some polling evidence of crass ignorance
  • This has caused a current crisis over Britishness.
  • This crisis is a causal factor in several dreadful things, from the 7/7 bombings to the shooting of poor Rhys Jones
  • People used to be decent, quiet, and behave well. Cites a letter of a foreigner written in 1924 who claims that the British are responsible for all tolerance, dignity and respect for the individual
  • This all started to be destroyed in the 1960's. Crime rose, because 'cultural liberalism eroded authority'
  • This coincided with Britain moving closer to Europe than the Commonwealth, and we then lost our knowledge of history. Our 'brand' weakened, and immigrants came here wanting to remain the way they were rather than adopt British decency
  • Labour hates real patriotism, and the Tories are afraid of being seen as nasty, so no-one does anything about this.
  • The answer is to stress our imperial history, which "unites the British with their former imperial subjects". Goodwill should abound, because of the lovely things some Indians did for us, like die in our regiments. And they should remember how we ended slavery so selflessly.

Where does one start with this? Firstly, there is that constant of disaffected Right-wing thinking - the 'aren't things awful' bit. List a few bad events like 7/7 and the death of Rhys Jones, even the vague "spread of cultural customs incompatible with the liberalism of British life", and you have the necessary starting point to all analysis, the Problem to be Solved. Never mind that absolutely every era could similarly list, in disregard of any context, its own terrible social ills as proof of its own time being uniquely dreadful. Go backwards: Irish terrorism, economic recession and uncompetitiveness, massive unemployment, poll-tax rioting, more unemployment, rotting hospitals and schools, football and nationalist hooliganism, you can pick any decade and find it to have been dreadful if chosen without decent perspective.

Secondly, and at the core of such arguments, Mr O'Sullivan sees a straightforward cultural causation making things happen. People - whole nations - can be described as like something - they are decent or rude, law-abiding or disrespectful, and all 45-60million British can be casually summarized in a few words, and with a flimsy letter as 'proof'. The past had moral heroes; incorruptible policemen, decency oozing from the walls, scouts absolutely everywhere, no crime or corruption. There is no real evidence offered for this, but to the Tory mind it is incontrovertible fact.

Thirdly, this is brought down by government decisions, or at least its demise is wilfully allowed to occur. So, somehow, if governments had taught the right history, backed the right legal cases, passed the right laws, we would all be much more respectful of the neighbourhood bobby, Rhys Jones would have been putting up a tent and his assailant collecting wood for a fire.

Finally, and most ludicrously, there is the prescription for the article - more teaching of 'our' Imperial heritage. We belong as the father-figure for a bunch of variously-conquered Peoples from Asia and Africa, and if we teach the bullet-points of Imperial history, with a sufficiently fuzzy light around some of the family's old squabbles (Amritsa? the profits of slaving? hmmm), they will arrive here, busting to get hold of the proven-superior British basket of values, and not instead spend their time plotting how to stab or shoot us.

What do I think here? I am not a columnist, and so think things are more complicated than those simple-minded folk tend to be. There is not a lever to pull for any government that would determine whether the people it rule will be 'decent' or not. The question of how people behave is hugely determined by their context. There is nothing wrong with cultural liberalism - it is not the straw man of conservative nightmares that allows anything to go unchecked. The changes in people's attitudes since, say, 100 years ago are often the outcome of welcome social trends, like the rise of women's rights, or more flexible working lives. The world might have appeared more decent 80 years ago, but probably not to a close social commentator willing to dive into the slums of pre-war Britain. Instead, what the Tory memory is probably finding is a preference for a period when the ugliness was brushed under someone else's carpet.

I would also like to point out how much more patriotic the Americans are than us, and how their murder rate tends to be 4-5 times higher than ours. In fact, just look here and tell me whether you can find any links between patriotism and the murder rate. Any social scientist worth his salt would look at you quizzically, or more likely wonder if you were joking.

In my course of Global History, we mostly found that cultural descriptions were a lousy way of explaining why some nations did better than others. Once you understand the significance of geographical endowments, traditions of law, trade relationships, and sheer luck, the residual, culture, is often the black box for the historian who is too lazy to look closer. It is also a nasty, pessimistic way of dooming whole classes to their fate. Once there would have been similar writers explaining why the Irish, say, are doomed to be second-rate economically, why the Asians will never be inventive, why you can't trust the Arabs, and so forth, all the while holding as axiomatic that the British way is the only one. It is clear this is nonsense now - read this article of O'Sullivan's in another 50 years and one will be amazed it was ever written.

Sunday, 2 September 2007

Explaining myself

Blogging surely epitomizes the self-obsessed and narcissistic period that technology has thrown the developed world into. I feel bad doing it! But I am trying to redefine my direction, which may necessarily involve clarifying my political views on things, and have always felt that the creative act of writing is as good a means of eliciting what one feels about something as exists. Writing privately would lack the tension that stems from the tiny possibility of someone else reading it, critically. There is moreover something quite permanent about a blog, something standing as a record of how things evolve. Anyway, enough b***cks about that. I will try it out.

A defence of uncertainty
The blogosphere, and its offline equivalent, the British newspaper Punditocracy, are filled with people of enormous conviction and self-belief. However a favourite motto of mine is only the fool or fanatic are ever certain. A definite conviction in political matters requires the blurring of boundaries, deliberate ignorance of fine distinctions, a narrowing of focus or the wholesale disqualification of whole groups as irrelevant. Furthermore, efforts to convince the fainthearted by great displays of certainty almost always repel those they wish to attract.

I tend to think of the world in rosy terms, and of things generally having improved, and commentary that takes isolated moments of disaster and extrapolates from these a viewpoint of everything being dreadful really winds me up. It is another consequence of being a centrist fence-sitter; both Left and Right have a particular pessimistic angle which somehow gives them strength, or adds bile to their bileousness. For the Left, the triumph of capitalism is dreadful for the environment, enslaving of worldwide populations, ruinous of democracy, and somehow widely immiserating. For the Right, modernity has overthrown the correct order for How Things Should Be, which seems to mean an unimaginative hierarchy of peoples, cultures, professions and so forth, and is often as ludicrously misplaced historically as the Left is ignorant economically.

I look out on the world and see it as continuously breaching past high-points in terms of long, fulfilled, basically free human lives.

Lack of Tribalism
I am distinctly suspicious of nationalism, and hate it when influential writers set forth how one ought to feel about being British, what is real England rather than the fake or new or unfamiliar or varied England they find. I equally dislike the class-envy used to fuel the further Left view of things; that certain classes are luckier, get more than their 'fair' share of the economic product, is certainly true - that they are morally negligible is not. Too often political views seem to be sustained simply by the dismissal of the views outside a particular tribe - for example, The Telegraph seems hardly to notice the group outside of Southern Little Englanders.

Historical perspective
My year of studying a Masters in Global History at the LSE has utterly changed my perspective on history, and as a result the Britocentric views peddled in the press, knowingly or not, act as a wind up, particularly when twinned with the nationalistic assumption of certain mythical values referred to earlier. The history of the world is not one of England working out how best to run politics and economics, and kindly exporting it elsewhere. The sum total of what you need to know does not run from 1066, through the dates of a few dozen kings, with a pause for a couple of Parliamentary moments in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, past a couple of World Wars, and then into a morose tale of unjustified Decline.

Anyway, that's enough for now