Monday, 17 May 2010

Direct from the IFS...

An informative visualisation. Enjoy.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

New politics need a new journalism

It's been amazing listening to the pre-formed partisan agendas laying into the new government coalition even as the ministerial appointments are made. And frankly it's quite shocking too.

Labour loyalists seem buoyed by their release from the strictures of office and appear for all and sundry to be intent on reclaiming the fuzzy title of 'progressive' - because tories are tories after all, and they're just as much biased by their inverted snobbery as anyone on the right. Right?

Read the press and it's more or less easy to congregate around that pole of opinion which plays best to your sense of 'fairness' and injured justice, but it's too easy to forget the marketplace in mainstream opinion is rigged.

Newspaper and magazine titles may appear to be to most visible form of allegiance, but that ignores the subtle (and not so subtle) variety among them. To be a Daily Telegraph reader may indicate an interest in stock prices and cricket, but despite any political alignment with the Daily Mail or The Times nobody could confuse their respective readerships.

Media ownership, or more specifically, the form of ownership (the BBC shouldn't be excluded from consideration), is a massive determining factor in the editorial line on a preferred style of political decision-making. But the market in news is not democratic; it does not represent the balance of opinion at large within the country. At best (and often at worst) all it does is reflect sections of opinion within the wider spectrum, primarily those in which it has a vested stake in making a commercial appeal towards.

Before the old-school tribalists encourage a massed rush return to the two-party system and accuse the LibDems under Nick Clegg of betraying the independent stance they've built up (too late!) it should be worth highlighting what they bring to the cabinet table. The 20-or-so LibDems in the government are not passive consumers of the most extreme right-wing fantasy lurking in the nether regions of the tory backbenches. 'Tory-lite' may be used to describe Nick Clegg or David Laws, but there are clear issues of principle that can be used as a benchmark to set them apart.

Opponents will of course try to characterise them in typically irreverent shorthand as the 'ConDemmed' regime, but it's not, it is the 'Cameron-Clegg coalition'. It is to the credit (or as we may find over time, to the debit) of the individuals concerned that they stitched the agreement together, and its lasting success will hang on the level of flexibility allowed between each of the personalities.

While journalists resort to their tried and tested trick of opening up differences between the big players they will continue to miss the boat on what is really happening. Journalism has not yet picked up that we are starting from a set of different premises - the positions in the government are discernably different: we must assume there are differences, we cannot presume there should be none.

So the discovery of where the differences begin is not where the most interesting bit will be - that will be in finding out how agreements are to be reached and what means will be used to reconcile those different starting positions.

The past generations of journalists post-Watergate have become overwhelmed by the sense of power they had acquired to attack governments, all to often turning reportage into polemicism, but messengers should never start trying to make up the message. When and where they have they lose all their excuses of plausible deniability and separation from their source and will eventually be put against the wall to be shot.

It is the next stage in the new media revolution. Instead of being used as a voicepiece to go over the heads of their public the media institutions will have to get back to their reporting role and stop trying to influence.

And maybe then journalists will then stop turning the bitterness of their own failed political failures into the grinder on which they sharpen their knives of disappointment.

Amateurs such as myself can get away with it for a while longer but the fate of the industry rests on their decision, and the whole of what was once Fleet Street now faces a choice: are they politicians, or are they professionals?

The public will soon give our verdict.

Monday, 10 May 2010

LibDems set the pace on negotiations

It must have been a shock to dyed-in-the-wool Conservatives who thought they'd simply stroll into Downing Street after the election that nobody was willing to simply fall at their feet, but after a day of drama their desperation and indecision is almost completely exposed.

However it is the skill of the LibDem negotiating team (and their public reticence) which has enabled the initiative to be taken at every stage.

Nick Clegg started it all of by describing Brown as a squatter in number 10. He followed this up by making the decisive intervention consistent with his earlier statements that David Cameron had the first right to attempt to build a majority.

But Clegg has cleverly kept open communications channels with both sides and as the weekend passed and greater analysis of the results showed the disparity between Labour's local results and the national picture it became clear that the election was a judgement on Gordon Brown; while Brown remained leader Labour could not entertain thoughts of continuing in power.

Of course Brown was pushed into his resignation by the urging of reality from either Clegg himself or a combination of senior civil servants and advisors, but the ability to plausibly deny this gave Brown the power to resign with dignity and thereby weaken the Conservative hand still further just as it opened up fresh hope to Labour.

It also shows just how underprepared the Cameron team is and just how bad their contingency planning has been. They are being knocked sideways at the speed of events and cannot keep up with Clegg & Co.

The LibDems are assisted by their greater experience in similar negotiating positions (David Steel in the 1974 pact with Labour, Paddy Ashdown's aborted attempts to do a deal on electoral reform with Tony Blair etc) and have learnt from these mistakes. Each has known exactly the role required of them and they are all immaculately coordinated.

So it is still the tories who have most to fear as they are completely at the mercy of their leaders and cannot engage any so-called 'triple lock' - go too far in any agreement and they risk blowing apart their fragile internal consensus, refuse all agreements and they may lose their chance at the prize. They have no means to bring their leaders to book.

Michael Gove took the first step into the unknown as he was forced to declare he would accept his opposite number David Laws as Schools minister in his place in order to hint that cabinet positions were possible concessions (to all intents and purposes signifying the tory preference was for coalition rather than a 'supply and confidence' arrangement on the Queen's Speech).

And then, when George Osborne of all people responded to the threat of a 'progressive' alliance by announcing the concession of a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (which is exactly what Labour prefers), it was essentially an admission of defeat. Just how far are they prepared to go?

William Hague has become the de facto tory principle, while John Major is being used as the official messenger, but Cameron is barely to be seen. His public relations team have had him wandering aimlessly around tieless and in shirtsleeves just at the moment it is important to look statesmanlike. With agitiation by the hardliners against any concessions he has already allowed his team to go out on a limb - any further and it could easily snap!

Yet the public demonstrations for electoral reform are spreading (I'll be in Reading tomorrow) and it is becoming clear that despite how they are being used by Labour activists to mount pressure on LibDems to reject the Conservative approaches this is also helping put Clegg at the political centre. Keep this up much longer with no new Labour leader in place then it starts to be difficult to see how a Lib-Lab alliance could avoid making Clegg Prime Minister.

So it now becomes likely that an overnight coup will be mounted within Labour as the oft-rumoured contenders for the job see their chance for glory (I'll put on record my prediction that Douglas Alexander will eventually get the job after the shakedown) - Brown in charge is unacceptable and he will make a Lib-Lab government impossible if he stays, but it is equally unthinkable to them that the smaller party could take the top job which is unavoidable if Brown stays put and cannot be shifted. Then again it was Brown in the spotlight of the leadership debates, so who could be a legitimate replacement other than Clegg?

However I'll offer a word of warning to them - I think this creates just the excuse the LibDems are looking for to step back from agreement with Labour and continue the uncertainty to try to extract further concessions from the Conservatives or refuse to make any formal alliance with either if they so wish.

At that stage Clegg will have successfully manoeuvered both of the other parties sufficiently far to be able to argue they are just two sides of the same Status Quo record (well, Labour and tories have now both come out for AV).

The LibDems are in the driving seat and they are shifting neatly through the gears. They have carved out three positive options: alliance with Labour and Clegg as PM, minority rule by Cameron's Conservatives with the ability to bring them down at any moment, or quite possibly the nuclear option - the chaos of a Lab-Con government and the complete fracturing of the party system to make way for more proportional elections.

We can't tell yet which is the number one option for the LibDems, and in some part it will depend on the timing of developments which they are able to take, but with the way they've been playing the hand dealt to them they've shown they are already the number one strategic players.

The universal courting of Clegg and his team (even the SNP have been softening their edge recently) reflects not only the strength of their position in these circumstances, but also just how well they are making it work for them.

Alistair Campbell's smug relief at the thought that Labour may possibly be back in has been noted, but his limited ambitions also limit his imagination about the way it can play out. To a partisan like him it is inconcievable that any opportunity to deprive his tory opponents of the prize will ever be spurned.

So it's worth taking heed of David Laws' Rule #4 on negotiating in a balanced parliament - you need to show you are prepared to walk away in order to extract better terms, the consequence of which is that the more finely balanced the situation the more concessions can be extracted. If you are too attached to the outcome you will only be disapponted.

Just to wrap up this ramble I want add just how revealing the body language of each side has been as the different sides used their walkabouts up and down Whitehall to strut their stuff amid a barrage of press.

Hague looked like a puffed-up cockerel (was he wearing a corset?) at the front of a slightly confused and flattered Oliver Letwin, while Cable, Huhne and Danny Alexander were far more composed and confident. In front of the cameras Clegg looked and sounded serious, while Cameron looked bewildered. Not one Labour figure looked anything other than a lame duck quacking for attention.

An unexpected turn of events then, but as they say in politics, expect the unexpected. The LibDems obviously did.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Analysing the General Election

If anything the election has clarified only one thing - the numbers of votes and the numbers of seats.

What happens next is still pretty much up in the air, but even if the wind does seem to be blowing where we will land is not yet sure.

So I thought I'd look try to look at the figures in a different way and ask if this tells us anything new.

The result

Conservatives return 306 members, Labour 258, LibDem 57, Green 1, Scottish/Welsh nationalists 9, and the various Northern Irish groups 17 (one poll was delayed).

Gordon Brown remains Prime Minister for the moment as the voting factions try to organise a majority. Conservatives alone are 20 short, Labour would be a handful short even with the support of the LibDems.

Turnout rose from 63.1% of eligible voters (27,110,727) in 2005 to 65.1% (29,653,638) this time around.

Conservatives gained 10,683,787 (a 36.1% share, up from 8,772,598 or 32.3% in 2005) against Labour's 8,604,358 (29%, down from 9,562,122 or 35.3%) and the LibDems 6,827,938 (23%, up from 5,981,874 or 22.1%). Others were 10.9% (up from 10.3%).

Let's say that again.

Conservatives increased their votes by 25% on 2005 levels (nearly two million). LibDems support grew by 1-in-7 (nearly 1m) and Labour lost 1-in-every-10 votes it gained previously.

Popular vote

Liberal Democrat
UK Independence
Scottish National

The winners

Stories from individual seats include Ed Balls hanging on in a widely anticipated 'Portillo moment' and Zac Goldsmith winning Richmond Park.

There were first seats for the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas in cosmopolitan Brighton and for the Alliance's Naomi Long in Belfast as the Ulster Unionists were wiped out across Northern Ireland.

No change there

Remarkably there was stalemate in Scotland as no seats whatsoever changed hands.

The losers

High-profile casualties included former Home Secretaries Jacqui Smith and Charles Clarke for Labour, 6 other Labour ministers, DUP leader Peter Robinson and outspoken LibDems Lembit Opik and Dr Evan Harris.

George Galloway was evicted from the house after 23 years and the Respect Coalition failed to maintain its modest foothold, while UKIP's Nigel Farage and BNP leader Nick Griffin were both brought to earth with a bump in their races, coming third in Buckingham and Barking constituencies respectively.

Performance of the parties

Of the major parties the LibDems retained all their deposits, while Labour lost 5 and the tories lost two. Conversely 125 (or 40.8%) of Conservative, 75 (29.1%) of Labour and 12 (20.7%) LibDem seats were won with more than 50% of the vote, categorising them as 'safe'.

Of the challenger and smaller parties none broke through the important 5% barrier. UKIP came closest with 3.4% of the total vote, followed by BNP (1.9%) and Greens (1.0%). UKIP saved 98 deposits, BNP saved 72, while the Greens saved only 7 and the English Democrats 1.

What happens next?

With the LibDems playing kingmaker and Nick Clegg setting the agenda everything depends how firmly he digs his heels in and how easily the Conservatives are seen to make concessions.

Cameron finds himself in a tight spot as his position now depends on being able to navigate the final step across the threshold without making himself a hostage to fortune from either his major financial backers, his ideologically-motivated activists or anyone he eventually has to get into bed with.

Brown has walked into the wall and is now just going through the motions. Yesterday's ceremony at the cenotaph to celebrate VE-Day he must have felt like he was laying a wreath to his own career.

And just like after the outbreak of peace was declared then the world is now here to be made anew. We have decided we want to change the way things are going, it's just we're not quite sure yet exactly what we want.

So how do I call it?

As yet there is no result, so all I can do is offer predictions and opinions.

However with the opposing trends for Labour the national level (where they suffered heavy losses) and in local council elections (where they enjoyed big gains) this has to be a sign that the country is rejecting Labour's current national leadership without rejecting the party or fully giving their backing into another party.

In the city traders have reacted with expected negativity to the extended period of uncertainty as greater volatility has been introduced into the currency exchanges and the gilts market, but perhaps this is a good thing which will remove some of the distortions on the economic indices and their unbalancing effect on civic society - it could become a significant moment to give politicians a chance to reclaim some power from partial and partially-accountable corporations if the discussions started to extend themselves and become more drawn out.

So for me it is an energising moment - depressing inevitabilities have evaporated (albeit temporarily) as campaign exhaustion sets in and we catch our breath to redraw the battlelines for the future.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

A picture worth a 1000 words


It raises the old question about your preferred style of leadership.

Strong and decisive leadership for dynamism, or a less volatile collegiate and representative form which can account for greater weaknesses.

Me? I think the correct balance between the two for the times will depend on the level of reasoned imagination of all the people involved.

In other words proportionality and relevance: because not all votes are equal, yet neither should they all be the same.

That's why I'm against FPTP, and why I'm against PR lists... at least as the basic mechanism for electing the primary legislature of the country.

So, instead, we must look at the question in the wider context of all the different forums of democracy and begin to understand how they each interconnect.

A House of 'Commons' should be elected by commonality and similarly a House of 'Lords' should be elected from among the groups of peers within every professional estate (which also means the full range of estates must be recognised and represented - bishops and lawyers, admirals and vice-chancellors, business executives and bureaucrats included).

And then, perhaps more radically, more weight should be given to the advice of a proliferating range of representative bodies sanctioned within the constitution of the country.

By way of example, I personally think it would be exciting to use the Mansion House in Whitehall as the formal gathering place for all the Ambassadors and High Commissioners of foreign countries to the UK, where issues with an international dimension could be debated in public rather than making their representations to the foreign secretary and keeping everything behind closed doors.

And by way of contrast with the Speaker, the presiding official of such bodies should be called the Listener.