Thursday, 23 December 2010

Cable Conducts Storm

this is my requested response on the subject to the Evening Standard


Vince Cable is clearly still the lightning rod capable of conducting the flow of political events!

The Business Sec's remarks can be considered to have damaged his internal standing within the coalition and reduced his influence, but by stating the obvious he has regained some sympathy at large within the country for his party too - which will certainly help in the forthcoming Oldham by-election where a strong LibDem showing is vital to maintaining membership confidence in party leaders.

Under discussionImage by Steve Punter via FlickrDr Cable has demonstrated in essence that LibDems are engaging in heavy-weight policy discussions behind the scenes with all the voluable disagreements one should expect in any serious grown-up discussion. This will reassure many that policies are being decided on their merits, despite ongoing anxiety about the speed of announcements. The fact that the differences between the parties have been kept under wraps until now is a testament to the determination of both sides to make the coalition work in the national interest.

LibDem ministers have made their point that they aren't attached to power for its own sake, but they can no longer bluff their way through vital upcoming discussions - and this will also satisfy right-wingers that their own concerns are not being completely overlooked.

In particular Vince Cable's public exhortation against Rupert Murdoch is evidence of ruthless calculation, not a gaffe.

It is common knowledge LibDems are worried about the imbalance in media power represented by NewsCorp, but the tide has been against preventing a takeover of the BSkyB (it is already effectively under Murdoch's control with a 39% holding, and has long been treated as such by government departments) since the precedent set by the last government with its decision on ITV. So the handover of the decision-making power to the prominent Murdoch cheerleader and tory Culture Sec Jeremy Hunt MP can be considered a concession with an obvious outcome.

However the manner in which this give and take was made was a matter of delicate manoeuvering and Cable's only real option was to disqualify himself from the task by whatever means he had at his disposal so as to avoid the political booby-trap of further angering his own supporter base. With Tuition Fees it was the lesser of two evils, but BSkyB was Hobson's Choice.

The trade-off between Cable's personal and public standing somewhat neutralises his 'nuclear option' by setting out some much needed boundaries (such as on certain totemic welfare measures) which bolsters the Cameron-Clegg partnership by giving each side a bit of what they want. As a result the separate identities in the interdependent coalition relationship are more clearly defined.

And LibDems certainly aren't displeased to see Ed Miliband make a complete reversal of his strategy overnight - one day LibDems were shielding ideological tories, the next their attacks on the hardliners are impotent. That's the man who leads the official opposition and hopes to replace the coalition, and he can't even hold a consistent line with himself!

Monday, 20 December 2010

Song of the Day

The sun has set for today, but tomorrow morning - for the first time in 6 centuries - a full lunar eclipse will coincide with the Winter Solstice.

It will be visible over the north and west of Europe, but for best viewing (weather permitting) make your way to the outer Hebrides.

Due to the refraction of the solar rays the moon will appear a beautiful blood red.

It's the turning of the seasons.

And it's my birthday.


The song was written about the Solidarity movement, and Bono said, "It would be stupid to start drawing up battle lines," suggesting the unconventional song's success indicated a sense of popular disillusionment regarding contemporary music... and politicians.

There's something hauntingly apt about the tonality of this song, which was set against a backdrop of increasing militancy and political conflict of the early 1980s.

But where U2's development of greater harmony as a musical response to their environment and paved their way to unifying the market and become the accepted global behemoth they now are divergence and stratification among and between musical styles is preventing the emergence of spokespeople for new generations who can synthesise the thoughts of the masses.

Where are the modern bards?

It's illuminating that the names put forward to offer commentary on the implications of the recent X-Factor phenomenon include Elton John, Paul Weller, Seal, Suggs, Alice Cooper, Bernard Sumner, Brett Anderson and Damon Albarn.

Perhaps JLS and Alison Goldfrapp still have time to create greater popular resonance with their art, but is it me or are contemporary musicians not making the same impact?


more music

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Prize Less Nobel

Those crazy Norwegians have done it again - last year the Nobel Institute awarded their premier annual honorarium to Barack Obama, now this year they've stirred controversy again by deeming Liu Xiaobo (profile) as worthy of placing in their exclusive pantheon of peace campaigners.

On several levels this is a bad decision, but it is also indicative of a deeper trend within the establishment institute.

First of all the list of nations boycotting the ceremonial proceeedings has grown to include Vietnam, the Philippines, Kazakhstan, Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Tunisia, Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan and Afghanistan - in addition to China.

While this may comprise a list of most of the less desirable national regimes in the world it strikes me as odd for the institute to wish to unify them in opposition to the supposed aim of world peace, and it can only increase friction and lead to greater global instability - thereby undermining the efforts of individuals for greater harmony.

This is summed up for the BBC by Chatham House's Kerry Brown,
"the dialogue is now hardening into precisely the kind of 'clash of civilisations' that former elite leaders in China like Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s did their best to avoid."
So whatever the actual merits of Mr Liu as a peace campaigner, the recognition of him by the Nobel Institute is contrary to their near-term intentions.

In one particular way this is indicative of the politicisation involved in the process and it highlights the dominant tendency in those parts for a more confrontational approach to high politics. Under these prevailing conditions polarisation escalates until a clash is inevitable. And that prospect is a cause for major concern.

But regarding Mr Liu, his Nobel citation states that the award is "for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China."

In other words the institute is aligning itself not for any successful achievements, but for being on the frontline of a struggle which it wishes to show its support for.

As Francis Sejested, chair of the awarding committee from 1991-1999, wrote in 2001, the prize has had a distinct and sometimes uncomfortable history. He explains:
"Some [laureates] won the prize for their non-violent struggle against racial discrimination, and some for their efforts to establish international human rights organizations, but most were given the award for peaceful but effective struggles for civil and political rights in their own countries."
Clearly not all laureates are given the award on equal merit, and just as clearly Mr Liu falls into the first category.

So it obviously wasn't a year where there was an outstanding candidate, though it was nevertheless a marked improvement on the grounds provided for handing it to Obama last year shortly after he obtained office.

As I said then, this comes down to the arbitrary and artificial nature of an award given on an annual basis and reflecting contemporary circumstances rather than as something objective which will stand the test of time - after all real peace is not a transient state of affairs.

And equally this raises some challenging questions about what we mean by 'fundamental rights' or freedoms, human, civil or otherwise.


Which brings me to asking you, who you think has been the most/least deserving recipient of the Peace Prize and why?

Gandhi would be a common favorite candidate, but he was never given it. Henry Kissinger and Anwar Sadat would be less fovourable for what transpired after their respective 'successful' peace negotiations.

For me the #1 is an often overlooked figure - Fridtjof Nansen - who was a polar explorer, scientist and diplomat.

His life's work can't easily be summed up, but his advances to oceanography, zoology and as a pioneer in neurology alone would be sufficient for one lifetime.

However he did this all while pushing back the boundaries of human endurance in the 'race for the pole' (think Shackleton crossed with Darwin), before then being a principle mover in the establishment of a stable and independent Norway and founding the precursor to UNHCR when millions of people were displaced after the end of World War One and their national statuses were in limbo after partition of the defeated empires (a similar situation three decades later when independence for India resulted in partition couldn't prevent the deaths of millions in mass outbreaks of civil violence even with the intervention of the aforesaid Gandhi).

Nansen's very real and lasting achievements epitomise the worthy contribution to all humanity evisioned by Alfred Nobel when he wrote in his Will that the peace prize should be given for whoever made "the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding of peace congresses," and the memory of Nansen is something his countrymen shouldn't diminish in their zeal to progress their subjective vision of a global ideology.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

More thoughts on the Fifa vote

Shorter than previously, but worth adding anyway.

I've just read the sympathetic and balanced view from the Beeb, and the acting Chairman declares he will will reverse his reversed decision to apply for the job on a permanent basis explaining that in his liason role it is necessary to build relationships of trust.

The unspoken truth is blinding - Fifa's decision-making process was highly politicised.

Qatar may seem like a strange choice, even when the expansionary argument that it will 'grow the game' is put on the table (it's a country with less than 1m permanent residents). But this is about the machinations of power.

This bidding event was Sepp Blatter's apotheosis - it was his last great opportunity to influence and shape the world in his image, before he is replaced by his anointed successor... the Qatari President of the Asian Football Confederation Mohammed bin Hamman.

Collusion? Nepotism? Corruption? It's the world on a plate.

Or, as Pele said, 'Football is a metaphor for life'.

And as Shakespeare almost certainly didn't say, 'All the world isn't a level playing field'.

It strikes me as an unwise politics which fails to recognise all decisions are inherently and necessarily political. And any politician who fails to maximise their strengths and who then complains about their opponents tactics is simply not worthy - we should be warned about where they will lead us.

This reality is a truth played out on the green spaces (or white this weekend) where we play our games every time the threshold is crossed.

Be it the Ashes, Wimbledon, your Saturday local league or any friendly kick-about: you know the ground rules, they are established before you start.

Unfairness is unsporting and will cause rancor.

Everyone has an opinion on what is most fair, but your opinion is always a reflection of the view from your seat and we should understand therefore that true fairness is a gift.

So the bidding process wasn't objectively objective and only three of the exectutive committee members read all of the 500-page documents with supporting appendices made by each bid. So England's FA spent between £15m and £50m on it. So the technical and commercial sides of the England's bid should have put it in pole position.

We wuz robbed.

"We played all the football and created the better chances." The other teams dived and fouled and cheated and won off a lucky deflected shot which the 'keeper should've had covered after the ref disallowed one for us which was blatantly onside and, anyway, we definitely should've been given us a penalty after a stonewaller in the box...

As is also said - the table stands up because never lies. After all the dust dies down and all the recrimination is buried in the hope it isn't dragged up next time we will see what we've learnt and how we will be able to improve.

We praise the powerful when they show us favour, but we criticise when they turn away from us.

Such is, but should not be. Take note students.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Coe's colossal miscalculation

The fallout from England's failed bid to host the World Cup has been everywhere to see following yesterday's Fifa vote.

With bitter grapes over 'corrupt' members of the executive committee exposed by Britain's free press, anger at the 'reward' given to the racism shown by football fans in the Russian 'mafia-state', confusion over the misleading feedback provided in the technical report fingers are being pointed in all directions. Everyone is asking how it could possibly be that the FA weren't the most deserving.

In this nobody comes out well. Not any of the politicians who hitched their status to the prestige bandwagon, unrealistic levels of expectancy fed to and lapped up by a baying public and commercial interests willing a multi-billion pound economic boon during times of uncertainty.

In all the haste to divvy out blame real understanding why the English bid failed is entirely lacking.

Enthusiasm to mount a successful bid grew in the wake of the victory to host the 2012 Olympics.

When London surprised commentators in Singapore to overturn the long-time favorite Paris there was a feeling of momentum that Britain had the wherewithal to upset any odds and finally bring football home.

Credit was duly given to bid leader Sebastian Coe for putting together a deliverable package which held sufficient appeal to the 200+ IOC voters, but appointing him to a similar position reflected a complete failure to recognise Fifa's 24-man committee is an entirely different beast.

Where the Olympic Games are a sporting event treated as an almost cult-like spectacle, football is the game of the people. Where the IOC are the guardians of absolutist performance between the best of the best, Fifa oversees the relative interdependent competition imbued in matchplay. Where races and demonstrations between top individuals comprise athletics, gymnastics, swimming, cycling and the rest, football is mass participation with a primarily team-based ethic.

The Olympics is the showcase and for every Corinthian fringe activity, but football is the singular zenith of mass-participation regular routine: Olympic success inspires transient shock and awe, World Cup success inspires universal and eternal passion and despair.

The two greatest sporting events in the world calendar are positioned at the opposite ends of the modern political spectrum.

It may seem perverse that we shouldn't treat these two impostors just the same, but with hindsight fresh in our mirrors it should be obvious that the philosophy which goes into a successful bidding process for an Olympic Games and the World Cup must not replicate each other.

These opposing psychologies are reflected in the interests represented by the members of each voting committee. So while London won by presenting itself as the secure option and Paris lost with an emotional appeal it was almost a guarantee that England (and the Iberian or US bids for that matter) would lose out by characterising themselves as the less risky (read more profitable) option in the face of the opportunity proffered by a more vibrant alternative however far out of leftfield it came.

Tony Blair's inherent consensualism was credited as decisive when it came to making vital last-minute converts in Singapore, but the interminable schmoozing and inevitable backbiting during the run-up to the decision made yesterday in Zurich only reinforced the likelihood of a choice more controversial to establishment figureheads associated with it (such as Lord Triesman, Prince William and David Cameron).

And for me it was this fundamental political miscalculation at the heart of the England World Cup bid that almost certainly doomed the outcome from the very start.

If the finger of blame must be pointed then it can only be directed at the principle names associated with both. And there is only one. Sebastian Coe.

In his active athletic career Seb Coe rose to prominence as an Olympic great from outside the establishment circles. He rejected standard training methods and ruffled many feathers by refusing to attend meetings when it didn't fit with his schedule in order that he could peak at the right moment.

During the early 80s the prodigious Coe set a pattern which is now copied by most elite performers and risked non-selection for it. In the latter part of the decade he became more of a money athlete, knowing that he had been surpassed as others adopted a more radical regime and he could trade on his gold-medal-winning reputation to maximise his earning potential.

And his career as an administrator has followed a similar trajectory - the radical outsider broke into the establishment becoming favoured with official responsibility in recognition for his successes and knighted in the process, but declining in his overall performance and less able to deliver excellence as it has been demanded with ever-more consistency after the powers-that-be turned to him on the basis of his track record.

He can be forgiven - even applauded - the first time round, as he was doing it for its own rewards. But after he had accepted the duty to serve others and represent the interests of his country to then fail to understand his requirement to learn how the circumstances are different would lead to certain failure of the shared enterprise.

So if people are looking for reasons and to scapegoat individuals then in Lord Sebastian Coe a better candidate couldn't be found. His is a cautionary political fable.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Wild scenes as man of his lifetime dies

Leslie Neilsen has died. He was 84. It was pneumonia. In Florida.

Amidst all the weepingly funny moments provided by the man of no mirth I haven't yet seen a fully appropriate tribute to the comic career made from unflinchingly inappropriate reactions to disaster.

The son of welsh-danish immigrants to Sasketchawan who later in life fulfilled his all-Canadian dream of becoming a Mountie (at least on-screen in Due North), he came from an unlikely family, but one which was destined for bigger things.

While his elder brother, Erik, became deputy PM in Canada during the 1980s, his uncle, Jean Hersholt, became the president of burgeoning Academy of Motion Pictures during its post-WW2 propagandist heyday (1945-49), and it was this which undoubtedly spurred his course into the acting firmament.

While studying at a radio college in Toronto he recieved a scholarship to New York's Neighbourhood Playhouse where he gained a foothold in aspiring acting circles, studying alongside names like Charlton Heston.

This was the world of serious dramaticians where new media forms of television and reporting were taking their first baby steps. Henry Miller and Marlon Brando etched a scar into every word they composed or delivered, but the reading populace was hooked on sci-fi comics and true crime, each in their own way reflecting the political threats of the looming cold war and the baby-boomer generation.

It was a world epitomised by Alexander MacKendrick's 'Sweet Smell of Success', where the unethical and unscrupulous compete in a demi-monde of tyrrants just to survive. Such a backdrop of self-interest and self-promotion inevitably descends into the corruption of ideals, but grows more vital for all that.

But stage-work held less appeal for his rugged middle-class Scandinavian good-looks. In 1950 alone Leslie Nielsen appeared in over 50 live TV dramas. He made it as the pulp actor.

Nielsen then went from live action television to 'B' movie respectability with notable performances such as in 'Forbidden Planet' (which is attributed as the inspiration for Star Trek, perhaps directly enabled by Hersholt's cultivation of Gene Roddenberry as a writer). He continued to ply his trade until he failed to brace himself for the tidal wave which would hit him after accepting the role as captain of the doomed ship in 'The Poseidon Adventure'.

This mid-70s establishment schlockbuster was a staple of church homilies for decades (until it was replaced by Dan Brown's epic credulity-stretcher), but Nielsen's ability to play a serious character equally oblivious and complicit in his fate caught the attention of tentative spoof-artists and paved the way for his latter comedic triumph.

In between, Nielsen was regularly on the fringes of mainstream success with try-outs for everything from Ben-Hur to Hawaii Five-O... parodies which would have written themselves, how different our popular consciousness could have been!


News announcers have attempted to pin him as a master of the dead-pan one-liner, but if anything their narrow focus and short memory is their loss.

Leslie Nielsen was the master at maintaining a running accumulation of absurdity.

Quelle d'hommage

Outside his screen persona the ability to deliver classic links unbeknownst by simply 'acting natural' just began to fall into his lap, and he developed this character art into a dedicated brand as unique and profound as other comedy greats.

Homme de l'age

It wasn't so much that he could carry-off the ridiculous with equanimity, rather it was how his stock character highlighted the ridiculousness of any given situation and our attitudes towards it.

In his transition from doomed commander of space ships and cruise ships to the hapless huckster who somehow wins out through incompetent toil Leslie Nielsen mirrored the change in public appreciation of high-level politics from one of deference to one of scepticism.

And it all happened in one inoccuous line delivered as the supporting lead half-way through a derivative rehash.

He was serious, and luckily for us we saw the moment he turned!

But for a final word I'll leave you with some suitable words from suitable people, the Kings of the Ring, with whom he gave Frank Drebin one last drubbing and closed the case of 'The Undertaker'.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Insensitive, offensive and just plain wrong - Lord Young proves he's an old codger

In an interview with the true-blue Telegraph Tory peer Lord Young said "the vast majority of people in the country today... have never had it so good," but the choice of words by this particular individual couldn't have been worse if he'd tried.

As an unpaid advisor to the coalition Government he obviously has sufficient private means to insulate himself from the government cuts. He is also in a position to be able to watch from the comfortable inside of Whitehall as large numbers of paid workers dependant on state employment are sent into the insecurity of the outside world.

With experience as a former Trade and Industry minister during Margaret Thatcher's tenure in Downing Street he is of a select vintage harking back to a period in history which political folklore has memorialised in thousands of urban regeneration projects up and down the country to compensate for the damage caused. And His Dotage clearly recalls Harold Macmillan's era-defining comment when post-war stability allied to the burgeoning welfare state certainly did make it appear all was well with the world.

But now is not then and neither has the future decided whether the current economic circumstances are merely a blip on the chart of history or a tipping point at which a slide into catastrophe became inevitable.

That Bank of England interest rates are at historic lows certainly does mean mortgage repayments are well below where they might have been given different reactions by decision-makers - 0.5% is a long way off 15% - yet with the home-owning democracy of his former bosses now underpinning the credit ratings of millions and the freedom of mobility enabled by a continuous upwards trend in house prices under threat the general sense of security and well-being is nowhere near where he imagines for the 'vast majority' he spoke of.


It's difficult to guess whether the appearance of such a dinosaur trotting out on the stage with this selection of stereotypical lines will help or hinder the coalition in the longer term, but the damage limitation exercise by Number Ten's PR department will hope the swift retraction and full apology proves sufficient.

LibDems ministers on the other hand must be seething that they may be tarred by this blue brush (especially with their first public test of the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election getting nearer by the day), and they could be tempted to insist that an example is made of him. Such a move would certainly demonstrate a difference in tone between the parties and show they are still an independent force, although an orchestrated move by backbenchers would cause some friction with colleagues in the cabinet.

So new LibDem President Tim Farron has an immediate opportunity to flex his freshly-mandated muscles as the spokesman for the membership and he would make a definite impression in his own progress towards a future leadership contest against Danny Alexander.

The episode provides ample grounds for restating the long-standing LibDem position that although the country has consistently made tangible gains these have been unequally distributed across different sectors of society.

As the furore of definitions of 'fairness' brought to light, the burden of the cuts does have a proportionately larger effect on those at the bottom of the ladder, but significantly the ONS measures also show there is a growing underclass of people who were getting left behind as inequality has continued to rise throughout periods of cuts as well as during phases when growth in government spending has dominated.

So while Labour and Conservatives direct their political messages at business and the aspirant middle-classes of professional and subsistence workers there is a still-untapped constituency of outsiders who LibDems have traditional attempted to appeal to and for.

This messy underclass of NEETs and others remain largely beyond the scope of government intervention. Despite all the efforts and money directed at them these are people who are disillusioned and disenfranchised by the state.

These are the neglected and unrecognised groups who prefer to avoid means tests and the stench of pencil-pushing bueaucrats. They may be non-voters, they may have mental illness or depression, they may be drug-users, probationers or homeless or simply people who see the media construction of state and other people as irrelevant to their own enclosed lives.

They are people who drift in and out of formal society or who've dropped-out completely and live a casual meandering existence. You won't find them if you're looking for them because their art is in avoiding you.

They live on the fringes of political consciousness because they won't ask for help and would refuse it if offered: the state isn't providing solutions for this underclass and I don't think it can provide any direct solutions - instead the state must be reformed.

And this is where only the LibDem belief in freedom can be transformative.

They need to be able to say that their way doesn't have to be the same as your way, and that this is OK if you are prepared to accept the consequences.

For starters it would help if they said Lord Young should be sent on his way.

Over to you, Mr Farron.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Songs of the Day

Boom, Boom, Boom.

Bombs go boom.

It's been a week in which news headlines have been dominated by bombs.

Apparently the printer bomb sent by cargo plane from Yemen and destined never to reach their intended recipients at Jewish institutions in Chicago was defused with only 17 minutes to spare and the implications for the air freight industry has got(ten) the international media wound up with excitement.

In such circumstances intelligence - and especially the calmness to use it when under pressure - comes at a premium and a balance must be struck between the twin imperatives of security and liberty to continue business as usual.

However industry body IATA has warned that this will have a major impact which they won't be able to compress alone.

Unsurprisingly questions have been raised about efficacy of scanning machines - none more eloquently than by the delightfully-if-unfortunately-appropriately-named Geneva airport spokesman, Bertrand Stämpfli, who said without any trace of world-weariness, "Every time there is a crisis we get an incredible number of calls from lobby groups all trying to sell the best possible detection machine," although I'm less confident of his assertion that "Everyone is suspicious of 'the magic detection machine'."

Nevertheless I completely agree with Swiss aviation expert Sepp Moser's comment, "There is no absolute security and it can never be achieved."

Meanwhile 14 parcel bombs have been sent to various embassies and political offices across Europe this week - there's nothing like priming a pump to make sure your story detonates with sufficient resonance.

Well, Al-Jazeera is equally right to show balance by pointing out that Europe is under constant threat of internal terrorism in order to show that the phenomena can't simply be written off as the fundamentalist extremism of outsiders - the West does have some very real problems which won't just go away if we ignore them... the rest of the world can't ignore them - just like any powerful expansion the vacuum it grows to fill is only relative.

Anyway in this excursion into the explosive world of medialand I found this fantastic article by Nicola Simpson in which she details how the establishment of 'a successful equilibrium' comes from recognising that one side simply cannot exist without the other as it is in fact defined by the other.

Ms Simpson quotes Franklin's inalienable 'essential liberty' and remarks on Montesquieu's argument that the general political reality has a marked influence on specific individual conceptions of where the balance will be struck.

She suggests complacency about security "will inevitably mean a seismic shift in our attitudes concerning what liberty or liberties we might consider essential."

The big modern example cited is 9/11. And clearly this event informs both the Yemeni ink-jet bomber and Al-Jazeera's giving weight to a campaign of anti-establishment anarchists sending bombs through the post to Berlusconi, Sarkozy and Merkel.

But more interestingly she notes another notorious instance where an unbalanced media enabled the political swing to be pushed: The Reichstag fire in 1933.

It occurred only 4 weeks after the new Chancellor took office and was used as an example of exactly the sort of threat which government should intervene to prevent.

It is easy to compare the conspiracy theories which grew into the information gap in both 1933 and 2001 as examples of apparent coincidence mounted up, but to do so would require a final judgement on the precise details of the full events and this is something we should refrain from as history has a habit of letting the facts speak for themself.

For me at least the lesson is that we can't neglect the potential for distortions in hindsight even when we assume we have 20/20 vision, and the only reliable method to maintain as close an approximation is to seek the widest balance possible.

Although I reject the accusation that I'm a conspiracy theorist I do find it an ironic coincidence to recall the first weeks of the previous Prime Minister's tenure, when a pathetically incompetent series of bombers lined up to undermine the new regime - first there was the Tiger, Tiger incident and then there was a gas bomb attack on Glasgow Airport which resulted in fingers being pointed at an active cell linked to Al-Qaeda.

Bombs are tediously predictable if you've ever seen one explode. They are designed with a single purpose in mind. To cause sufficient impact to make a breakthrough.

All the way back to the original fireworks night when Guido Fawkes (no, not that one) attempted to blow up the pomposity of parliament (yes, the very same one) the results are the same: bombs do not and never have changed the underlying requirement to ensure the essence of liberty is maintained through regularised parameters of behaviour. Bombs are beyond the bounds. They are evidence of an argument backed by force at the expense of right.

So ignore the convenience of a shocking bombing campaign launched during Halloween week and forget who could be trying to manipulate the agenda.

Oh, did I mention 28-day control orders are under consideration?

As Bagehot wraps up, it's an issue which unites LibDems - a curate's egg at the best of times, least of all while being scapegoated for sweetening the economic medicine in straightened times.

But as Andrew Rawnsley points out in his usual muscular editorial voice, this partisan unity is not only a glue which keeps the internal coalition locked within the government coalition, but it is also the charge which is driving the government forwards.

Boom, boom, pow.


more music

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

The IFS, the buts and the maybes - questions of fairness and the CSR

This is a cross-posting. It was originally published on 27th October here and was based on my previous couple of posts here and here.

I'll offer some thoughts on the discussion it raised (50 comments) below.


Last week Nick Clegg and the Institute of Fiscal studies squared up over the issue of whether the cuts proposed in the Comprehensive Spending Review are fair.

It is a debate which strikes at the heart of Lib Dems in the coalition government and it will determine the shape of politics in this country for next decade.

For the first time ever the Treasury included an impact analysis of the announced changes within the CSR, the effect of pressure from Lib Dems. These were calculated according to the sections of society that will bear the burden of the changes (ie how ‘progressive’ it is).

But it is a question subsequent events show it has singularly failed to settle.

It came after years of urging from left-wing think-tanks (such as the Fabian Society) that the Office of National Statistics annual evaluation of the effects of taxes and benefits on household income [pdf report June2010] was insufficient.

The controversy begs two questions:
1) why didn’t Labour force the Treasury to include an impact assessment in 13 years of government under Brown or Blair?
2) if the established measures didn’t enjoy support, why wasn’t a review of the impact analysis methodology introduced earlier?

After the election the IFS attempted to do just that with a report timed to coincide with the coalition’s post-election emergency budget. The IFS argued that “assessing the impact of government activity on the distribution of household living standards is essential to the evaluation of public service provision,” but offered the warning that this “raises challenging conceptual issues” and cited sources claiming that the then current methodology provided by the ONS was too simplistic [pdf report July2010].

The IFS were then charged with developing new criteria to determine a more accurate impact analysis. Their new calculations informed the basis of Chancellor George Osbourne’s speeches to the House of Commons on the spending cuts which the Government could recommend on the basis that the cuts were indeed ‘progressive’.

Following the Chancellor’s speeches on the Budget and CSR, the IFS gave their widely reported counter-briefings arguing a diametrically opposed conclusion [pdf press release August2010, pdf opening remarks October2010].

This is the corresponding graph presented by the IFS:

Can you spot the difference?

The former shows a representation of the impact measured as a percentage of net income by decile. The latter includes a representation measured as a percentage of net expenditure, using projections from two years later to exaggerate the effect. The former explains that the cuts are generally progressive, but the latter that the cuts are massively regressive.

So when Nick Clegg intervened to denounce the IFS briefing as ‘distorted nonsense’, besides the attack the more astute reader would notice that this supported the July review of the need for more accurate assessment of fairness, as written by none other than the IFS.

Clegg stated that he “fundamentally disagreed” with this month’s IFS analysis of the biggest losers in the welfare spending cuts, arguing for a more accurate analysis including welfare spending inputs from services such as childcare and social care which are targetted and taken up by more the most vulnerable lower-income groups and families with children, but who the IFS said would be hit hardest in cash-only terms by the changes to tax and benefits.

As it was the IFS had effectively rewitten the sums devised by the ONS without challenging the ‘conceptual issues’ they had identified – and the standard bearers of the left (Labour, Trade Unions, Fabian Society et al) have swallowed their conclusions whole!

So why the turnaround by the IFS on the issue of fairness?

At last December’s pre-budget report the IFS recommended 13% cuts to departmental budgets to deal with the budget deficit problems, a view which was subsequently taken up as Labour policy on the grounds that deeper cuts risked a double-dip recession. This which was followed by 25% cuts proposed in the budget and angrily rejected by the IFS.

Advocates of a smaller-state might argue that a respected, impartial and independent think-tank actively tendering for projects formerly undertaken by a government quango is a good example of encouragement the private sector needs to make the desired productivity gains and fill the gap left by government cuts.

A sceptic, however, might point out that the IFS report was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which is staffed by appointments made under the previous government, is itself dealing with cuts and agreed to ‘strongly communicate’ the implications of any changes to its financial allocation which it recieves from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Consequently ESRC board members decided it would “quickly respond to questions raised by rapid changes of events” and this may have mitigated against deeper investigation into measures of fairness, possibly causing the IFS to rely too heavily on the previous sums devised by the ONS and which critics had deemed ‘insufficient’.

The coalition has now revised the cuts to departmental budgets down by a quarter to 19%. It has done this by making additional savings elsewhere, such as by postponing capital spending, and it has done it in order to reach its stated aim of reaching budget stability by bringing nominal growth in budget growth back into line with longer trends in 4-5 years. Yet the vehemence of the IFS opposition is undiminished and appears to be growing as they get drawn into the political arena.

It should be no surprise that this timescale coincides precisely with the period Nick Clegg and David Cameron have promised to remain in coalition before going to the country for the next general election.

Were the total cuts to be smaller this would take longer and therefore require a new mandate to complete the programme, but for the governing coalition to survive until a point after the next election it would demand some form of electoral pact between LibDems and tories – something activists in both parties see as poison – and especially with the prospect of a positive referendum on proportional votes looming, which should be a given as Ed Miliband has stated his support for AV on the grounds of fairness (what else!) and must back to the hilt the item in the coalition agreement LibDems have described as a ‘deal-breaker’ and a ‘game-changer’.

So Labour strategy to attack LibDems over fairness in cuts is three-fold.

The easy solution for them is to undermine LibDems sufficiently to break the coalition and force an early election before government by coalition is effectively locked in by an AV referendum.

Labour’s second option is to weaken resolution within the coalition in order to delay the point at which it can be dissolved amicably in preparation for an AV election where an electoral pact would paint LibDems as ‘tories in disguise’.

And thirdly it deflects from Labour’s own cuts agenda which it needs to maintain any economic credibility.

Maybe this explains why Labour must stoke an argument over fairness to stand any chance of returning to power within the foreseeable future.

But if anyone is in any doubt about Labour’s commitment to fairness, we only need to consider their track record and how growth in economic inequality under Labour carried over from the 1980s and 90s throughout their 13 years in office, according to the Equalities Office [pdf report Jan2010] (this is particularly important here as continuing growth in inequality suggests any calculation of the impact of tax and welfare changes on income or expenditure by decile becomes less relevant over time as the effect of spending on services increases in relevance).

Maybe we should ask, “where were you in the Labour government, Mr Miliband?”

And therefore maybe we should also question the emphasis given to the opinion of the ‘respected’ IFS regarding the progressiveness of cuts when it is only the most well-known of a range of equally respected bodies producing reports into fairness.

A balanced and pluralist perspective undoubtedly gives a fuller picture than a single independent view, however impartial the people giving it – and surely you can’t say fairer than that!


Regular readers will know how I enjoy occasionally entering into controversial territory, and on a fundamental current debate such as this it was to be expected that my piece would draw the usual selection of opposing views.

I originally hoped this article would simply challenge the prevailing orthodoxy, following the model of media narratives thriving on confrontation to dramatise their subject.

Yet it initially seemed several of the readers refused to get drawn into contemplating the complexity of the issues.

As a consequence it was somewhat inevitable that there were strongly positive and negative reactions - the content was disregarded, supported and generally misunderstood; I was blamed and held responsible for making 'dangerous' and 'odious' implications bordering on a conspiracy theory - all within the first handful of responses!

While it may be obvious that those who can least afford it will suffer most from the cuts in the CSR I think the strength of the responses indicate that I was at least partially successful in opening up some daylight between what is meant by 'progressive' and 'fair'.

Indeed, I don't think they are the same thing at all, even where they overlap.

So the problem, as Ian Sanderson rightly explains, is the lack of an accepted definition for 'fairness'.

But in the course of the discussion my main thread - that there is a political and electoral reality which must be accounted for - all too quickly became smothered.

And this is particularly marked where Anthony Aloysius St says, "It’s entirely the government’s decision how fast the deficit is reduced."

As much as the opposition is seeking to paint it as one single stripe, the fact of coalition has forced all practical economic planning in the CSR to be encompassed within the timeframe of the current parliament.

Equally this has a bearing on my supposed attack on the ESRC, where the reality of an interlinking and fluid state of human relationships and interests quickly becomes misrepresented as supposition of bias.

Anyway, after I entered the comments thread it strikes me that the tone changed and the commenters accepted we each have to have a perspective in order to be able to give an opinion.

I can admit here that I do tend to adopt a somewhat provocative stance, but life would be boring if everyone simply agreed all the time, so it is at this point that the discussion enters more interesting territory as Sen and others consider where they are coming from (thereby tacitly accepting the post had a particular intent, even if it was obscured by my spaghetti-like weaving of ideas).

So you can imagine that I was almost dumbstruck (I know!) with George Kendall's comment:
"I can’t think of another debate on LDV where serious discussion has led me from disagreement to agreement. If only this kind of civilised discussion were more common on the internet!"
And when Chris Riley pops up to enthuse that mature political debate should avoid tribal sniping
because the full picture must involve the contributions of all sides despite the "caricatures and imperfect information" we form our impressions under, I started to feel more confident that my mischief-making had actually drawn some real light onto the matter.

So, if you've already made your mind up about the government, the CSR, or even this humble author, I'll recommend you read through the full contributions.

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Easy-peasy, LibDem squeezy

LibDems always suffer from squeezes, but they've never been knocked out despite the rush to paint all issues as either-or questions. So we shouldn't count them out just yet, despite current opinion polls putting them at the lowest for a generation.

There is a simple reason the LibDems are consistently squeezed before mounting a fightback – false arguments are habitually employed against them.

This may be done sincerely or as deliberate politically-motivated scare tactics, but the truth has a way of fighting back.

Labour is currently scaring people that the cuts are a callous ideological-based attempt to hit the poor, and this clearly has some traction, but while some thatcherites may wish this the doubling of the long-term growth rates in public spending since 2000 from 3% to 6% simply can’t be sustained – especially during an economic downturn.

In fact this is one of the major contributory factors in spurring the downturn, and until spending is put right the national economy risks spiralling out of control.

The thatcherites want to see the trend fall below inflation. LibDems are arguing that current spending growth should return to trend.

Cameron has overseen the formation of a coalition between these two different arguments and this enabled him to gain power – it is interesting that he has diplomatically avoided a full declaration of his intentions, which is why he is regarded with suspicion by both thatcherites and LibDems (and outright contempt by left-wingers), but that is how he was successful in becoming PM – he holds the key to maintaining the tenuous balance of power.

Which is also why the left is remorseless in attacking Clegg’s use of ‘fairness’.

According to forecasts the cuts will see the country return to trend in 4-5 years, or about the time the coalition has stated they will call the next general election.

If LibDems didn’t support the proposed level of cuts the point at which their arguments diverge from the thatcherites would occur after the next election and this would necessitate an electoral pact – which is against LibDem interests and runs against all instincts of activists in both LibDem and Conservative parties.

So Labour’s hopes of returning to government within the next decade depend upon either an early election caused by LibDem withdrawl from the coalition, or upon a lower rate of cuts to enable them to paint LibDems as tories in disguise.

Labour is making a big political gamble, but then so too is the coalition gambling that the private sector is able and willing to grow at the same rate as the state will contract - and 120,000 jobs per year would be more possible if it weren't being done at the same time as raising the retirement age.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

A Tale of Two Graphs

It was the best of graphs, it was the worst of graphs...

...and both were prepared according to the same formula by the prominent think-tank, the Institute of Fiscal Studies.

The first was given much weight by the Treasury during the Comprehensive Spending Review (full document pdf).

The second was published as a slide to accompany the IFS' own post-CSR briefing (text pdf).

As Sunder Katwala confirms it was the first time ever that the Treasury had published a distribution of spending annexe, but only after some urging from groups such as his own Fabian Society.

The point of interest is the difference between the two: the official document omits the two lines indicating the totals as a proportion of income (white line) and as a proportion of expenditure (yellow line).

As we shall see below these illustrations are at the heart of a storm which encapsulates the whole debate over the current agenda of cuts dominating current politics and which provides the backdrop for the current parliament and the coalition government.


When Chancellor George Osborne declared that the CSR "sets out a new vision of fairness for Britain," he determined that an acceptable definition of fairness now meant one which prioritises social mobility, on the grounds that "the existing system of support for the poorest has failed to deliver."

During his speech he used the word 'fairness' 24 times.

Socially-minded Trade Unions were quick to denounce this new definition, while economically-minded voices of business offered staunch resistance.

Fairness has been the watchword of the LibDem contingent in the coalition government ('putting fairness at the heart of the LibDem manifesto', speech to conference announcing the £7bn 'fairness premium', email to party members following the CSR, ) and attacks on their definition of fairness have been a continuous theme of opposition to the coalition - as ConservativeHome's Tim Montgomery pointed out during the conference season the strategy is designed to get LibDems to pull out of the government, and force a neutered minority government to limp on or force a new election.

Even local LibDem councillors are highly conscious that fairness is a dangerously subjective concept which allows Ed Miliband to practise divide-and-conquer tactics by focussing in remorselessly on individual policies.

And in an influential article Julian Glover notes how "LibDems are making a poor job of defending themselves."

Clearly Nick Clegg's party are vulnerable to this line of attack and Labour scent blood.

But in one sense Mr Clegg handed his opponents a recipe for his destruction by setting fairness as a test for the coalition's implementation of the promised cuts in the spending review.

Well he's certainly being tested now!

The public guillotine and the baying crowd

While strikes paralyse Paris and her provinces, in England the watchers wait and wonder where the chop will come.

The Guardian was first to splash how 'the UK's most respected independent tax and spend monitor' IFS exposed a fairness gap in the spending review cuts during their post-CSR briefing, using the proffered graph as the prime illustration of their calculations.

While admitting the difficulty in calculating accurately the full impact, acting IFS director Carl Emmerson announced unequivocally that the impact (as shown by the yellow line graph) was "regressive, not progressive," before prudently adding the rider (with which they would later absolve themselves) that this did not reflect on the fairness of the plan, since fairness is 'in the eye of the beholder'.

But by then the dirty deed had been done and editors everywhere had written their prepared headlines. It was a call to arms. They intended to claim their latest victim and reassert the power of the press over a politician who had shut them out during 5 ravenous days of coalition discussions.

Like a merry dance the press had been primed for this briefing session well in advance - they'd even had a practise run after the budget when Mr Clegg slammed the 'partial' IFS report against it.

Guardian Liveblogger Andrew Sparrow even noted how there was a neat symmetry between the IFS briefing and a simultaneous joint Q&A session with David Cameron and Nick Clegg on the subject, bemoaning the lack of cameras at the IFS which would have enabled 24-hr news channels to show both on split-screens.

And C4's economics editor Faisal Islam tweeted at the laughter in the IFS briefing which greeted "the most regressive graph in history".

What everyone seems to have overlooked in the course of this choreographed entertainment was the partner to the yellow line in the IFS' presentation: the white line.

Or at least everyone except Nick Clegg was conveniently hoodwinked. The Deputy Prime Minister actively grabbed at it, using it to contradict the IFS' assertive conclusions, knowing how he was the prey in their sights he attempted to use the weapon they'd provided for his defence.

Almost immediately an interview with the Guardian was arranged, which he used to accuse the IFS of 'distorted nonsense'.

The Guardian was the obvious title for the job as the repository of opinion formers and readers most likely to be swayed by any controversy over 'fairness'.

Lifting itself up on it's legs, the story now ran.

Reuters boasted 'Clegg rejects IFS austerity criticism'; The Daily Telegraph reported Nick Clegg says IFS claims poor will be hardest hit are 'nonsense'; The FT offered some balance Clegg hits back at criticism of UK cuts.

And that was the friendly treatment!

If you want to check through the pack of laughing hyenas in nearly 5,000 stories (so far) you are more than welcome.

So although Nick Clegg was using conclusions constructed by the IFS, the IFS had pulled the rug from under his feet.

The IFS may be an acknowledged expert in policy analysis, but there are many of those. The IFS has gained its' hard-won tiger stripes as a canny operator within the Westminster jungle - respect is due for its' ability to successfully bait chosen targets... and feared for it.

Even by head-hunting the former top honcho at the IFS, Robert Chote, and installing him in the newly created Office of Budget Responsibility the coalition hasn't blunted the teeth of the IFS.

Clegg had been manoeveured into the trap, which was now sprung. wrote Clegg faces IFS 'trashing' backlash and the flurry of post-spending review opinion polls now announced LibDem support down to 10%, less than a third of the pre-election high.

Perhaps he knew better, but was powerless against the magic of these dark arts - as Mehdi Hassan in the Labour-leaning New Statesman intimates Mr Clegg was happy to give self-congratulatory praise the IFS during the election leadership debates which saw him briefly become the most popular politician in the country. Some coincidence.

With ironic gall Mehdi Hassan signs off, "And then our politicians wonder why the media and the public are so cynical and distrusting..."

Do they indeed?

On it rumbles, Mr Clegg looks wounded, the coalition may be teetering - even ranking hard-liners fear Labour will succeed in toppling the government.

ConservativeHome took up the baton.

It may not be natural territory for them but a quiver of reasons why the coalition is compassionate and good for the poor was hastily stocked, quickly increasing in number from 5 to 20 arrows.

But they were distracted by gains made at the expense of their partner - as Jonathan Isaby hazily admits with a hint of disinterest, the issue does have traction.

Words put in the mouths of the public confirm the pollsters conclusions that the soft underbelly of the LibDems was ripe for a hit, just as perceptions that the vulnerable and 'squeezed middle' would suffer from the 'savagery' of the deficit clawback.

Finally, the till-now conveniently absent Labour leader, Ed Miliband can be watched swooping down from his eerie in order to make the kill assiduously prepared for him by his cohorts.

"Instead of trashing the IFS, [Clegg] should be owning up to the truth that the spending review hits the lower and middle income families hardest."

"The unedifying spectacle of Mr Clegg rubbishing the IFS will convince nobody of the government's case."

If you say so Mr Miliband!

Alighting from her bough as she wings her way to the rescue, Ms Flanders cuts to the chase in order to avoid being pinned down, explaining," it comes down to whether you measure the impact of spending cuts on individuals as a share of their income, or as a share of the overall benefits they receive from the state." other words whether you follow the IFS' yellow line or the IFS' white line.


previous thoughts

Friday, 22 October 2010

IFS – independent and impartial experts on the economy, or Labour astroturf? You decide

In a controversial briefing the IFS has launched an attack on the 'fairness' of the cuts proposed by the coalition government.

Well, not the 'fairness', they say that's in the eye of the beholder, rather they contradict the coalition view that the cuts are 'progressive'.

But according to Nick Clegg, the IFS are guilty of a ‘cavalier misrepresentation’ of the truth, which he explains stems from their continuing adherence to the Gordon Brown’s own analysis of fairness based solely on the tax and benefits system.

He says this is not right and it is frightening people – which appears to be supported by the evidence of commenters in this thread.

Anyway here's the relevant graph from the original Treasury document.

Compare and contrast with the relevant one from the IFS.

The Guardian describes it as a highly unusual step to attack a think-tank in this way, but Clegg argues any calculation of fairness should also include access to public services, and points out that even after the cuts take hold public spending will still be 5% higher as a proportion of GDP than when Labour came to power.

It seems the debate has come a long way from thatcherite ideology if people are now complaining that the growth of the state is not fast enough!

Meanwhile the Daily Telegraph describes the IFS presentation as a traditional post-match hatchet job.

Ah well - everyone's got a newspaper to flog!

If we take 1997 as the baseline and consider the spending review cuts as a rollback of Labour decisions I’d like to know who exactly do people think is still getting that extra 5% of taxpayer (mine and yours) money?

Obviously increased debt levels means higher repayments, in which case Labour has been taking money out of the pockets of working families to hand it over to the bankers.

Taking into account their own £20m overdraft, Labour have an ongoing interest in keeping unscrupulous city loan sharks happy – which means the basis of their opposition to the coalition looks more and more like a massive fraud and that they are the real con-artists.

The public is not stupid – when the next election comes around they will appreciate LibDem pragmatism, even if that includes giving temporary support to the dogma of others up to a point.

It will be interesting to see where that point is.

With a referendum on AV scheduled, and backed by Labour leader Ed Miliband, it strikes me as a short-sighted and counterproductive strategy for Labour to have already put distance between themselves and any prospective coalition partners - perhaps that's why their proxies at the IFS were given the job of getting their hands dirty, so Miliband could be starting their decontamination project by making a show of retreat from favouring them to the extent that Brown did.

If so he's planning on a Lab-Lib coalition.

Which means we can watch to see if any Labour denunciation of the IFS the next step in the orchestration.


Update: Something interesting is definitely going on.

Traditional supporters of a Lab-Lib coalition, The Fabian Society, have hit back at the criticism with a seemingly robust defence of their brethren IFS, suggesting some selectivity in the Treasury presentation - a standard, if strong, oppositional tactic.

Perhaps it is piqued pride at having their preparations thrown out of the window by the coalition, or maybe it's selective emphasis and an inability to take criticism on their behalf.

Still it's a solid point that Robert Chote, the director of the newly created Office of Budget Responsibility (it's still a bizarrely portentous name) and only recently departed from the IFS, hasn't been more prominent in the process.

For one it would defuse some of the more partisan criticism, and for two it would show the OBR is a serious creation which takes its' responsibilities seriously.

I can't imagine Mr Chote isn't busy behind the scenes, although it does make me wonder what he's doing... and then there's the matter of who pushed the particular quote from Nick Clegg at the post-CSR Q&A to Andrew Sparrow for Sunder Katwala to pick over and selectively emphasise (umm, 'take out of context').

But back to the IFS, Faisal Islam's tweet of the laughter which greeted their presentation showing "the most regressive graph in history" is perhaps most informative of all.

Possibly it may have something to do with Robert Chote's prescient departure, but somehow I suspect the IFS' days as the most respected economic think-tank in town are numbered!

The spending review document

Find it here

Read it at your leisure. Then demand hasty repentance.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

The housing market is a mess because the housing debate is a mess

Proposals by the coalition government to remove or reduce security of tenure for council housing residents has kicked off a pretty storm of reaction.

Much of the anger is directed towards the agenda of cuts which left-wing commentators argue is designed to hit the poorest hardest.

But though this may seem justified it is completely unfair.

Over at LDV the well-meaning LibDems identify the problems:
"Millions on waiting lists. An affordability crisis pushing up the average age of the first time buyer to 38. Housebuilding completions falling off a cliff. Empty homes in areas where there are no jobs and scarcity where people want to live."
But the nub of the matter has yet to be fully grasped.

The political problem is all about the term 'affordable housing'.


My stamping ground in Reading has been at the forefront of developing an effective housing policy - for a more detailed look into the background you can read a range of local stories I compiled here.

The town has experienced massive growth in the past 15 years as a hub of the new information economy, helped by good communication links, but boundary problems mean the borough has long been overcrowded as neighbouring authorities tacked their housing requirements onto growing suburbs and even they are now struggling to find space - currently around half of people living in the Reading urban zone live outside the Reading local authority.

Cllr Daisy Benson (who chairs the RBC housing scrutiny panel) reflecting on the Home Truths 2010 report issued by the National Housing Federation, said, "The fact is there is a shortage of affordable housing and because housing is not affordable it puts pressure on social housing."

Everyone agrees on the need for more 'affordable housing', but nobody knows how this can be delivered.

Is it a matter of planning? of locations? of finance and wider economic issues?

There are three interlinking, yet distinct issues conflated into the deceptively simple term - and in my view this is the cause of all the confusion: it's about quantity of supply, quality of supply and the price of the stock.

'Affordable housing' has insidiously penetrated the political vocabulary to become the new default term for all these things together - it is used interchangably to cover everything including council-owned and housing association stock, social and sheltered housing and low-end private rental property as well as average prices and general affordability.

And that's where things start to go wrong.

'Affordable housing' simply can't mean all those things simultaneously and retain any relevance. The term has poisoned the debate and prevents any advance.


Let's go back and cull a few stats from those links:
  • average house prices in Reading are nine-times average incomes (£213,346 compared to £24,487)
  • 832 affordable homes are needed every year, but only 270 are being delivered (32% delivery rate)
  • 6,000 people live in council-run social housing in Reading (including 368 sheltered homes) with another 1,300 in south Reading in privately-run social housing
  • 4,834 households are on the waiting list for social housing (an increase of 41 per cent in five years)
  • the waiting list for social housing in Reading is 7.38 years
  • 90% of increases in housing capacity in Reading are flats and house conversions
Pressures include internal migration to the town attracted by relatively high employment and income rates related to Reading's status as a growth area, helped by a variety of banner social and cultural amenities which make it a more attractive destination (university, sports clubs, retail and entertainment centre, festival etc).

All this helps explain why despite an outward image of success and growth there are a number of pockets of persistent deprivation (8 out of 93 domains in RBC boundaries are among the bottom 20% of most deprived areas in the country) and there has been growing levels of inequality among residents of the borough.

15,558 people, or 11% of Reading's 141,897 population, live in areas of most deprivation - yet this is despite being consistently ranked as the second least deprived city in the country as a whole!

More light can be thrown on this by comparing Reading's council tax bands - although each band is priced at almost 3% higher than the national average [1] the actual average paid by each household at £1,236.00, is over 3% lower than the average paid in England at £1,278.93 [2].

Reading is simply a prime example of the challenges facing the country at this time.

Divergent demographic trends have enabled politicians to ignore the underlying structural problems for too long, but while the public debate remains mired in muddled language I don't see any swift resolution to the issues.

So we must tackle the term 'affordable housing'.

This means getting back to the real issues of quantity of housing stock, quality of housing stock and the prices of the stock.

It means having the foresight to have enough of the right type of housing in the right areas.

It means ensuring cheap stop-gap solutions are not the standard.

And that means government must work together at local, national and intermediate levels in order to coordinate in the public interest.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Doing 'God' - A Debate

Some Sunday fare: Do you believe in God?

Before you answer, don't.

It's the original old chestnut - it's a political question designed to manipulate you according to the questioner's assumed terms of definition.

And different people both make different assumptions and have different terms of definition.

The term 'God' is therefore a perfectly opaque term which can have many different uses.

Atheists criticise the existential truths they see it as embodying, but many believers argue it represents a more conceptual truth about the universe.

And consequently the twain shall never mix.

Where I've lived the variety and range of beliefs at large is a matter of constant and consistent surprise - not least for the confidence with which people seem to carry them. In a two mile stretch I once counted the establishments of 23 different Christian denominations alone, and in the course of one week I successfully managed to get approached by Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses, National Spiritualists, Seventh Day Adventists, Salvation Army and several others.

It struck me that it was impossible for them all to be unique bearers of the truth unless they all believed exactly the same thing, so I began to respond to their opening gambit by asking them "what do you mean by 'God'?"

And the range of responses was truly enlightening.

In particular the young missionaries from Utah look mystified and said, "well, everyone knows what it means," before proceeding with their personal outlook. I suggested to them that they should perhaps visit one of the other churches to understand the differences in doctrine.

And this is what causes the dismay at large among the public.

We're not really all that bothered with all the various theological debates and disputes which have been behind so many schisms and magnified into so many wars. The general public, it seems to me, is more concerned that there is a level of agreement which allows for enough social stability to enable us to live our lives free from overarching imposition which may arise as a reaction to any such disputes and controversy (particularly the terrible violent scenes filling our media and the knock-on impact in our pockets).

And this also carries over into the political sphere too.

Gladstone famously (or notoriously, depending on your perspective) intoned a strong religious conviction, but religion has been a consistent and remarkable thread all the way through to Margaret Thatcher's strict religious upbringing when she went to church three-times on Sundays, and Gordon Brown's Presbyterian minister father who passed his views on to his pious son. Yet each of their conspicuous religioneering is somehow overlooked when it comes to consideration of their political choices.

This notably includes Tony Blair whose (damascene?) conversion to Roman Catholicism was a decision ostensibly brushed under the carpet by his then press secretary Alistair Campbell, saying "We don't do God."

It is simply inescapable that the beliefs of each of our former political leaders contributed to the decisions they made for which history judges them so harshly, if justifiably.

So the current Papal visit by Benedict XVI is significant for publicly presenting a challenge to many of our preconceptions about the place of belief in society.

Prominent atheists such as Prof Richard Dawkins have been continuously priming the pump for this debate, provocatively arguing that religion has no place in public life since 'religion is the only thing which causes good people to commit evil.'

But the principle motive of the visit, that being for the Pope to be present as he promotes the late Cardinal Newman on the road to sainthood, is a symbolic event addressing multiple pressing questions of secularism (text of Hyde Park speech).

Other than Iran, Britain remains the only nation where religious leaders have seats reserved for them in the national Parliament and for centuries the Churches of England, Scotland and Wales were (and to some extent still are) pillars of national identity: adherence to the national church as an expression of patriotism.

Cardinal Newman is held in such high esteem largely for rejecting this view, but also as an advocate of Christian unity in the face of increasing 'Liberalism', as he saw it, according to the relativism of the late 1800's (though I'm sure his contemporary, the aforementioned Gladstone, will have had a lengthy pre-prepared sermon on that subject if he'd asked).

There is something delightfully paradoxic in this, since for me the freedom of conscience (of which Newman is both an archetypal defender and beneficiary) is the absolute underpinning of English social and political liberty which also refuses to censure polemical academics and instead rewards them with book deals and series of tedious TV documentaries demonstrating the exact same skill of deceitful manipulation as they deride in others to inflate their egos and win them scores of acolytes.


So what place does 'God' deserve in public life?

This can be broken down into constituent questions:

- The political question:
With the forthcoming referendum on electoral reform and the moves to increase legitimacy through public elections should Bishops retain their seats in the House of Lords?

As I see it a 'flat' democracy of uniform universal public elections is unrepresentative of the diversity of society and unable to fully represent the range of communalities, so we must ask what additional structures and reforms are necessary to provide compensatory benefits to fill any gaps that would be created - could an enhanced multi-faith Synod with a statutory advisory role on certain issues provide an adequate replacement?

But there's also a policy challenge equal to the legislative challenge and the desire to reform our institutions.

The 'unity' theme of the papal visit chimes with much of the recently announced coalition policy to enable faith groups to take on a greater role in service provision - and given the current government's cuts agenda some are arguing this is a political move either or both convenient and necessary.

- The practical question:
Is there a way to reconcile the divergent motivations and aims of a secular society?

With so many of our public figures and representatives fortified by their personal systems of understanding I think this is a question which is long past overdue asking - because it is, frankly, impossible to consider public figures without starting to dissect who they are, what made them and how they got there.

In effect this relates mainly to the schooling we offer, the principles society wishes to promote and a more overt expression of the cultural tradition in which they originated. How strongly is it possible to emphasise the past without detracting from the present?

- The philosophical question:
If all truths are relative, then how is it possible to maintain public order through any rule of law?

This third part of the whole is potentially the most difficult. The Blairite wish for greater inclusivity and Cameronesque 'Big Society' appear on the face of it to oppose the papal wish for at least some absolute fixed certainties: should issues of personal, social and national identity be indoctrinated, or discovered?

Even the pop icons and sports figures which Pope Benedict railed against for the sometimes contradictory values they imbue as role models to today's youth do, in my opinion, still deserve the position we give them as the best in (and on) their respective fields. After all, each discipline has it's own independent measure which is not a matter of dispute.


This general debate appears to be the main umbrella theme which society will have to grapple with over the course of the next parliament, if not decade or longer, and the way we reunderstand the issues will do much to shape the ways in which we reform our institutions.

Just as the past decade since 9/11 was about the challenge of intra- and extra-parliamentary terrorism and the campaign to defeat the attacks on personal and civic liberty, so the next will be about how we can define what our liberties mean to us in a more concrete form in order to defend against the risk of future attacks and financial or legal incoherence.

...all of which brings me back to the beginning... and the middle of this ramble.

Do I believe in 'God'?

Well, I guess from reading this post again it should be clear that my answer must be 'it depends'.

Ok, so that's a typical fence-sitting kind of answer which regular readers might expect from me, but I do think it does depend on what you mean by the term.

The most common synonym I found people used to explain this term was 'The Creator', and when I probed deeper on a variety of lines (including the devil's advocate 'flying spaghetti monster' standard) the best response I got was that the term could best be replaced with 'The Future'.

And I'll readily admit the papal emphasis on children as the future of the Roman church (or perhaps any church) does tickle.

Of course anyone with an interest in public affairs must believe in the future and have hope and determination to make it better; that reforms will be improvements.

Equally, therefore, we must finally escape the renaissance view, represented so vividly in Michaelangelo's Sistine Chapel, of a 'God' made in our own image - which is surely an inversion of the biblical teachings still prevalent.

If modern European secular Liberalism is to survive (and within that I include the LibDem party which has expeditiously attached itself to a coalition government) then it must also escape the dogmatic view that there isn't a balance to be struck between opposing perspectives - absolute truths must be married with the relative truths we see around us, and we must learn how to draw the line and distinguish between them: cabinet LibDems must be able to draw a clear line between themselves and their senior Conservative partners or risk being swallowed up by them (either actually or in the public perception).

The 'new' politics spoken of throughout the general election campaign must be accompanied by a change in old assumptions about what beliefs are, where they come from and to what ends they can be put.

To carry a political cross we must acknowledge we inherit the legacy of religion, and whether we go to church, regularly, occasionally or never, we may not deny there is a different political legitimacy to spiritual knowledge even where this contradicts more concrete fact - the flame of liberty must be kept alive to ever burn brighter.

While religion does have a place in society, and although this place may not take quite the prominence it has been used to, we do still need to create a political structure which respects the constructive contribution religion can make to the overall whole: religion remains one of the principle estates of any national polity and will continue to do so whether we like it or not.