Tag Archives: conservative-party

Three thoughts about Police and Crime Commissioner elections…

You can’t politicise the police any more than they have politicised themselves

Every time the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation or someone like Lord Blair complains about the “politicisation” of the police, the Baby Jesus cries. The police have always been political, and over the last decade have become quite shameless about this: Ian Blair representing perhaps the apex of this.

Let’s not forget the hacking scandal, and the close links between the police and media that it revealed. Or the interplay between police and politicos over the De Menezes shooting. Or the transparent way in which the Police Federation and the Sun worked together over the Andrew Mitchell affair in a blatant attempt to divert attention away from the Hillsborough inquiry.

I don’t like PCCs for very many reasons, but in terms of “politicisation” the only thing they will do in terms of the police is to take that politicisation slightly out of the hands of the establishment and put it slightly in the hands of people at a more local level. Of all the reasons to oppose them, this is the weakest.

The Lib Dems are to blame for holding the elections in November

They deserve the credit for this and twelve months ago, Nick Clegg was claiming it to everyone who would listen internally (I was on the party’s Federal Executive at the time and can claim first hand experience of this). They insisted on this partly because the party was woefully unprepared for fighting the elections in May 2012, the government’s original plan, and partly because they very much wanted them to be held as far from the council elections as possible, fearing that the increased prominence of law and order issues during that period would damage the party. This went hand in hand with a mindset, not universally shared across the party, that it shouldn’t field candidates in the PCC elections at all.

In retrospect, I’m not entirely convinced of the wisdom of this. The answer to the party being weak on law and order issues is to be better on law and order issues, not to pretend they don’t exist. I disagreed with the argument that the party should not field candidates and am pleased that in the face of some quite strong pressure from the centre, the FE did at least say it was a local issue rather than the original position of attempting to actually ban local parties from fielding candidates.

Nonetheless, as it is a stupid policy anyway, moving polling day to November has only undermined it further – and thus increased the chances that PCCs might get replaced with something better sooner rather than later. My only real concern about it is what the Tories got in return for this delay, which I fear we won’t discover until the main player’s memoirs are published.

The Tories are to blame for everything else

The sad fact of the matter is that the creation of a role like Police and Crime Commissioner goes hand in hand with the mindset that you can hold elections without having to promote the elections whatsoever. It’s all part of a “no such thing as (big) society” philosophy that dictates that participation in elections is solely due to personal responsibility and the ability of individual candidates. I’m only surprised that someone managed to force them to provide any online information at all, and that they didn’t ban the Electoral Commission from doing what it could.

Returning to Andreas Whittam Smith, it is hard to see the creation of these posts and not see clear parallels between them and the direction he wants to see British politics to go in: surely this shift from politicians to “managers” is exactly what he wants, so why not simply support the Conservatives? And it is hard to see what he brings to the table. 12 independent PCCs were elected on Thursday, out of a possibly 41. Meanwhile, Democracy 2015 managed to garner just 35 votes in the Corby by-election.

More than 4,000 people have signed Unlock Democracy’s open letter to Theresa May, calling for her to take steps to ensure we never see a repeat of Thursday’s elections, and for her to consider alternatives to PCCs. Please add your name.

Know your place

I’m a bit of a shy republican, but today gave me a glowing reminder of why any sane person should be one (sorry Dad).

On the same day the Queen “generously” agreed to “rededicate” herself to the UK, Downing Street let it be known that the Cabinet spent their time “banging the table” to celebrate the passing of the Health and Social Care Bill.

It is no accident that this little snippet of information was leaked today. The triumphalism is palpable, as is the very explicit attempt to indelibly tie the Lib Dems to the reforms. So too is the signal it is intended to send.

This quintessentially public school act is very clearly meant to send the opponents of the bill a very clear, class-ridden message: “know your fucking place”. It is no coincidence it has been declared on the same day as all the pageantry going on with the Queen’s visit to Parliament.

This is all about class warfare. And, given the country’s response to the royal wedding last year, it will doubtlessly be extremely effective. Until we somehow manage to extricate ourselves from this mindset, the country will always be extremely vulnerable to such propaganda; however much we might consciously find such behaviour repugnant.

Know your fucking place, serf. And if you don’t like it, what are you fucking going to do?

What part of Yes do you not understand?

A review of Don’t Take No For An Answer by Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie (Biteback Publishing, 2011)

I’ve made several attempts at writing a review of Don’t Take No For An Answer, Lewis Baston and Ken Ritchie’s review of the 2011 referendum and the ongoing campaign for electoral reform. It is a highly readable and engaging book. For someone with less inside knowledge it will no doubt be highly informative. But it is flawed, and I’ve struggled with articulating how without just running down a pedantic list of misconceptions.

As one of the main sources cited in the book, it made slightly uncomfortable reading. I know I’m not the only source who has lamented that the authors did not come to us for a more detailed interview. In my case, aside from writing a single article which first appeared in Liberator magazine, I’ve actually written very little about the subject. This was deliberate, not out of a desire to keep things buried, but out of a need to move on from what ended up being a profoundly miserable nine months.

That one article will only give you a vague overview of my views about the campaign. I very deliberately kept discussion about my own role to a minimum and despite going over my word limit, I had to furiously cut it down to ensure that it didn’t take up the whole magazine. Reading the book however made me realise how a number of what I regard are serious misconceptions are well on their way to acquiring legendary status. So with the referendum now more than six months ago, perhaps it is time I made another attempt to give my side of the story.

The biggest problem I have with the book is its criticisms of what it calls the “movement delusion”. Much of the book’s overall thesis flows from this; in a nutshell the argument goes that Yes to Fairer Votes deliberately set itself up as an anti-political, non-partisan campaign which was inward looking, celebrity-obsessed and alienated its non-Lib Dem party political support. Furthermore, it is suggested that this is because the campaign was dominated by naive democracy campaign organisations and Liberal Democrats. There are elements of truth to all that, but the reality is more complicated.

Labour and the Yes campaign

The biggest thing which the book gets wrong, or at least fails to emphasise, is the degree to which the campaign involved Labour Party members in important positions. One of the most annoying statements for me was the claim that Lib Dem President Tim Farron’s admission the Lib Dems “were not in total control of the Yes campaign” amounted to an admission that “Yes was regarded as an arm’s length Lib Dem campaign rather than a real cross party effort.”

We can argue until the cows come home whether the campaign would have been better run if it had been by the Liberal Democrats, but the simple fact of the matter is that it was not. Leaving to one side Labour Yes itself, the following strategically key members of staff were Labour veterans:

  • Head of Communications: Paul Sinclair (former Gordon Brown Special Advisor)
  • Head of Ground Operations: Willie Sullivan (Labour councillor and Compass council member)
  • Full time consultant: Patrick Loughran (former Peter Mandelson Special Advisor)
  • Director and paid consultant: Neal Lawson

It is certainly true that the campaign was, overall, headed up by John Sharkey who chaired the 2010 Lib Dem general election campaign. However, even then the story is a bit more complicated. John Sharkey entered the scene having been anointed as the head of the Lib Dem Yes campaign by Nick Clegg. As the person in the initial cross-organisational discussions with, at least on paper, the most experience and best connections, he was seen as a strong choice to head up the campaign itself. What was to later emerge however was that his appointment was not supported by the Lib Dem Campaigns Department and that despite assuming he could be left to handle Lib Dem relations, Cowley Street often felt left out of the loop.

The party itself needs to explain how such a strategically important position came to be appointed without the fullest possible support within its own top team. Indeed, there are alarming parallels between this and the internal tug of war over tuition fees which lead to parliamentary candidates being lined up to sign the NUS anti-fees pledge despite Nick Clegg’s well known ambivalence to the policy and success in ensuring that it was not one of the party’s main headline manifesto commitments. The tuition fees debacle of course was to ultimately prove enormously damaging to the AV campaign.

Regardless of this, I can state for a fact that the Lib Dem campaigns department did not approve of the emphasis on phone banking and certainly did not approve of the decision to not do a full freepost mail shot. They made representations and were overruled. Their attempts to get campaign materials printed at the Yes campaign’s expense were frequently rejected (on some occasions, it has to be said, because the literature was actually quite weak). The only time I can remember the Lib Dem “camp” winning a decision was when they managed to persuade the campaign to include tear off slips at the bottom of a number of leaflets. This was in spite of the very vocal objections by the communications team (the objections became notably more muted when those tear off slips began to net us a quite significant amount of donations).

The emergency of the phone banking strategy was an interesting case in point. This was initially sold to us on the basis that we had experienced Labour campaigners in charge of it who were building on their success using the technique in the last few general elections. Many of us (but by no means all) initially suspended judgement on the plan precisely because it was outside of the Lib Dem comfort zone. I’m afraid to admit that I was one of those people. It was later to emerge that the experience had been vastly oversold, but by then it was too late. In this case, a bit more of an obstinate Lib Dem “not invented here” mentality would have come in quite useful.

I am not for one minute making the counter-claim that the campaign was an arms-length Labour operation. But Labour people were part of every single significant decision made by Yes and in many cases were the primary decision makers. The real questions therefore are: despite this why did we screw up our relations with the Labour Party quite so badly and how did we end up with the Labour people that we did?

I can answer the latter question a lot more easily than the former. Simply stated, the recruitment of the senior team was conducted during the summer of 2010 at the height of the Labour leadership election. With five candidates fiercely contesting the election, most Labour campaign veterans were working on one or other of those campaigns. Our options were therefore extremely limited.

In terms of why Labour relations were quite so poor, I can only give an etic account. It is my perception that the cultural and political divisions between southern middle class Labour and northern working class Labour are as profound as the divisions between most political parties and neither side has any real understanding of the other. Indeed, as a general rule, neither tribe even acknowledges the existence of the other.

Electoral reform has in recent years been seen as an issue of interest only to southern middle class Labour and both Labour and non-Labour electoral reformers have generally tended to exaggerate their importance because, as a rule, northern working class Labour doesn’t tend to get involved in the London-centric think tanks and ginger groups. Of course I’m oversimplifying and I’m sure Labour people can poke plenty of holes in this thesis, but for the purpose of analysing the Yes campaign’s failure it makes a lot more sense than the suggestion that Labour people were simply excluded from the campaign and ignored. In my view, the failure of Labour reformers themselves to engage Labour and trade union members not within their comfort zone is as significant a strategic failing for the ongoing campaign for electoral reform as anything else the referendum campaign has highlighted. And it isn’t really something that the rest of us can do much about.

Anti-politics

Linked to the failure to engage Labour is the tendency of the Yes campaign to indulge in anti-politics and rely on non-partisan spokespeople rather than senior politicians. It is fair that a number of the decisions were simply due to poor judgement. But at least some of it was due to the campaign making the best of a bad situation.

One of the criticisms of the campaign was that we did not make enough use of senior Labour supporters to be our spokespeople. I agree that this was a major failing. What I don’t accept however is that this is entirely due to the campaign, at least not initially. During the summer period when I was privy to the discussions being held at the top of the campaign, I know that numerous Labour politicians were being feted and we were constantly being turned down by them. The general message we were getting was that until the legislation was enacted, no senior Labour politician would publicly support the Yes campaign because they didn’t want to be seen to be somehow supporting the boundary changes by implication. This was of course not a disadvantage that the no campaign had to deal with, which is why they had no problem at all building up their internal Labour momentum.

The “people not politicians” communications strategy was thus initially due to circumstance not design. It was an attempt to obscure what was internally recognised to be a serious weakness. Jonathan Bartley became our key spokesperson because he was a non-Lib Dem who could perform well and had an interesting personal story, not because the people at the centre of the campaign really wanted to focus on non-politicians.

I can’t comment on internal discussions with Labour from October onwards and it is a moot point whether we could have made better use of people like Alan Johnson, John Denham et al once the law had been enacted. We certainly weren’t shy about using them by that stage. But we only got royal assent on 17 February, 10 weeks before polling day and by then we had had to bang the “people not politicians” drum for three months.

Further compounding the “anti-politician” perception was the decision to not use Conservative or UKIP spokespeople until the very last minute. In this case the decision was solely due to a concern that it would alienate Labour supporters. With few Labour figures prepared to publicly endorse the campaign, it would have been especially difficult to use Tories before royal assent. I can genuinely understand why using them during the campaign itself was a difficult and nuanced one, even though I personally sided with the pluralists who wanted to see us publicly embrace them.

What I don’t understand is why UKIP and Conservative relations were handled as poorly as they were. UKIP was barely cultivated at all. In the case of the Conservatives, a Conservative Yes campaign was formed predominantly out of Conservative Action on Electoral Reform, a group which has been in gradual decline since its peak in the 70s. Initially they were given tacit permission to get established and develop a campaign team. At the exact moment however when they, specifically John Strafford (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/mar/06/alternative-voting-row-campaign-sacking), started to get attacked by the No campaign, all support and even formal communication with them was ceased. The way they were left in the lurch resembled panic and personal cowardice far more than it did strategic thinking. It was an absolutely shameful episode and sadly not the only one when people at the top of the campaign lacked basic courtesy.

Finally, one of the things that I don’t think is fully appreciated is to what degree the campaign couldn’t make its mind up whether it was to be anti-politics or not. Time and again a viscerally anti-politics billboard or film would be mocked up, only for it to be blocked at the last minute. Nor was it non-party people commissioning this advertising; the non-party people were, by and large, kept well away from any such decisions.

A movement by default

That sense that decisions were being made on the fly and without any real sense of direction became awfully familiar to me during the campaign. And this is why I take issue with the idea that we were labouring under some kind of delusion about our status as some kind of popular uprising. It wasn’t a delusion, at least not as far as most of the people I worked closely with were concerned. It was all we were left with once all our other avenues had been eliminated.

Baston and Ritchie approvingly quote Angela Harbutt’s quip about “hard core fanatics waving around big pieces of fabric around the crack of dawn.” The video this references was filmed in Trafalgar Square on the day the referendum-enabling legislation received Royal Assent. At the time it was an awfully big deal for us because we had just gone through weeks of damaging speculation that the legislation would be passed too late for the referendum to take place in May 2011. That being the case, I would entirely defend the decision of the campaign to make a short one-minute video to provide its activist base with a bit of reassurance that we weren’t about to call the whole thing off.

That video does however highlight two major problems: yes, we did spend an awful lot of time getting our activists to wave banners around and yes, if you look at the campaign’s social media output, we did indeed appear overly focused on motivating our activist base at the expense of reaching out to the wider public. I think there is a danger however that in recognising we got the balance wrong that we conclude that activist engagement was not important. The real problem was not so much that we were doing such things but that so many other more productive approaches had been explicitly vetoed early on in the campaign.

The high visibility strategy which put so much emphasis on “fabric waving” activities was, to put it politely, not the first choice of most of the core ground operations team. It was borne out necessity for two reasons. Firstly, the emphasis on phone banking meant that the campaign had a perception problem; simply put, our plan was to put most of our activists behind closed doors making phone calls not out on the street. Secondly, a similarly disastrous decision had been made that the official campaign was at no point to spend any time or effort attempting to explain the Alternative Vote system.

The “don’t show, don’t tell” policy meant that, for example, we were specifically banned from encouraging local groups from running mock ballots on topical issues. The original plan by our local groups outreach team was to go out showing people how easy the system was to use by getting them to vote on things like who should win X-Factor or the Sports Personality of the Year. The anecdotal evidence we had received from local groups was that such activities had been highly successful; as well as a good tool to engage people on the street with it also meant you could follow it up with a local newspaper-friendly press release. This was ruled out by the top team purely on the basis of instinct. Shortly before polling day, the IPPR published a poll (ironically paid for by the Yes campaign) suggesting that people who had tried using AV were significantly more likely to support it. As Pyrrhic victories go, that was a particularly empty one.

If you aren’t allowed to show how the system works, and you are certainly not allowed to explain how the system works, all you are left with is slogans and photo opportunities. To this extent the book’s authors and many of the campaign’s other critics badly miss the point. Complain about slogans like “makes your MP work harder” all you like but the simple fact is that if you are prohibited from doing anything to justify what you say beyond the odd hackneyed soundbite, no slogan in existence would have sounded particularly compelling.

Killing the movement

Talk of the campaign labouring under a “movement delusion” also misses the point that in many crucial respects the operation was more centralised and micromanaged than any party campaign. I would argue that if anything the campaign was not movement-y enough.

The plan which developed over the summer was to roll out a major training programme to skill up our local activists and empower them to run autonomous campaigns as much as possible. This was based on what I personally felt was the realistic assumption that the ground campaign would only have a marginal effect. It was better to give local groups at least some degree of autonomy, despite the (small) risks that it entailed and preserve as much good will as possible for when it was needed (the short campaign) than to burn up that good will in activity which might on paper be more efficient but which treats people like robots.

All that changed when the phone banking strategy suddenly arrived from on high, seemingly on tablets of stone. There was always going to be a degree of phone banking in the campaign, but until late October it was assumed by many of us that it would be relatively small scale. Certainly the software we purchased to do it with was only really designed for volunteers to make 5-10 calls with in an evening from the comfort of their own homes; it was never intended to be used to run a full scale centralised phone banking operation with. Opinion differs in terms of to what degree we were missold this tool and to what degree we deluded ourselves; I was not involved in the contract negotiations so cannot comment on them. All I know is that it was made perfectly clear what the purpose and limitations of the tool were in the initial sales presentation and that if we really had intended to go down the route of organising mass-canvassing there were plenty of off-the-shelf packages available that would have done a far better job.

The initial training meeting of our regional organisers was a fairly stressful affair for all involved as it rapidly emerged that our organisers who had been recruited on the basis that they would be training and supporting local groups to work independently were actually going to be coordinating phonebanks. What could have been a productive winter in terms of capacity building ended up becoming a textbook exercise in how to kill off your own campaign’s momentum.

The web campaign

As the person nominally in charge of web and social media, I faced a similar problem to the ground operations team. When I was first given the job, I assumed that our web presence had to do two very distinct jobs. Firstly, and primarily, to motivate our activist base and give them something to do. The simple fact is that the vast majority of people who look at political websites have already made their minds up one way or another.

But the second job, of providing information and rebuttal was also important – not least of all because our activists needed it to support us. This was the aspect which the campaign top brass in its wisdom decided to not go near. If you don’t provide those tools however, and if you don’t focus your online campaigning on timely rebuttal, you don’t have much else you can do other than, what Baston and Ritchie call “whingeing”. That’s exactly what it was but once again this was the result of closing off our other options rather than making a clear strategic decision to go down that path.

It wasn’t that I disagreed with the observation that even the most simple explanations of AV risked causing confusion, merely that this was a problem we needed to solve rather than one we could afford to sidestep. I had assumed, naively, that the purpose of hiring a communications agency at great expense was to help with this. Instead the brief we gave them was effectively to become the most highly paid graffiti scrawlers in London and trash talk our opponents, only to loudly complain when they failed to come up with anything useable.

Convinced that we badly needed strong online content for the campaign, my only recourse was to beg volunteers to produce material and hope they would deliver. Even then I did it on the quiet; early on I had been officially banned from talking to any bloggers, a rule which was not rescinded until January, and I deduced that if I asked for a green light to approach independent creatives over whom we would have no control I would simply be turned down. One volunteer in particular, Barnaby Dawson, had set himself the task of building an AV Facebook app. I encouraged him to continue despite being told on numerous occasions that it would never be approved. In the end we released the app quietly under the Unlock Democracy banner.

What supporter generated content that emerged more than justified my faith. Indeed, the second official referendum broadcast was a remake of a video that Dan Snow had made with volunteers entirely off his own back. However, for the most part it arrived too late and with no advertising budget they could not be promoted adequately. The fact that the “reform cat” video ended up with more than four times the number of viewings that the most watched No campaign video, bolstered by a ceaseless advertising campaign, shows quite how much of a demand for factual information there was out there which we systematically failed to capitalise on.

We ended up in a scenario straight out of Alice in Wonderland. While our independent supporters set about producing relatively straight-laced informational videos, the official campaign spent thousands of pounds developing “edgy” so-called “virals”. Some of these short films were actually quite good but all of them failed miserably for three reasons. Firstly, top brass would repeatedly get cold feet over releasing videos despite commissioning them in the first place. Sometimes this was for good reasons, but the worry that Bob Dylan might sue us was perhaps the oddest and hard to counter argument I came across (if Bob Dylan ever decides to take on the whole of YouTube, passing up the royalty payments he receives in the process, he might well eventually come across this innocuous little film). We released most of it in the end, but a number were simply dribbled out half-heartedly weeks after they had been completed. Secondly, the official stamp of approval is the kiss of death for any genuine viral campaign. Thirdly, the campaign was not prepared to invest in internet advertising meaning that we were solely reliant on the dwindling reservoir of goodwill to give them an initial push.

In total, the campaign spent less than £5,000 on online advertising. £1,500 of that was to pay for advertising on a single website, Left Foot Forward. £3,000 was given to MessageSpace (the agency behind, erm, the no campaign’s social media operation), due to some obscure reindeer game which had something to do with winding up no supporters by putting banner ads highlighting the BNP’s support for a no vote on their favourite websites.

All other requests for advertising were turned down. In the end, by every possible metric, we still beat the no campaign in terms of social media despite the large sums they spent on advertising. I’m quite proud about that and I’m proud of the amount of money we ended up raising online, but I’m certain that if we had been given an advertising budget early enough it would have more than paid for itself and would have resulted in us gaining extra activists and supporters in the process.

Timing Redux

If anything therefore, many of the misconceptions in Don’t Take No For An Answer obscure a reality which was, if anything, even worse. Before I come across sounding too critical of the campaign however, I do feel that the very genuine dilemmas that the situation presented us with are all too frequently dismissed.

With the benefit of hindsight, the biggest single mistake of the campaign in my view was that we rushed into things when we should have taken our time. If we had relaxed over the summer and contented ourselves with not building a core team until after the Labour conference and leadership election, we could have picked from a much bigger talent pool. Campaigning could have still continued over the summer under the Take Back Parliament banner and we could have ensured that we had really explored every avenue before we committed to anything.

It’s easy to say that now however; at the time such an approach would have been highly controversial to say the least. Pretty much as soon as the referendum was announced, all the organisations involved were under daily pressure to start making real progress. Our advice from the people behind the successful 1997 Yes campaign in Scotland was that we needed a bare minimum of 12 months of coalition building and planning, time we palpably did not have.

There was also the fact that the democracy “sector” was in a bit of a state following the general election period. We had a real problem in terms of brand recognition and coordination. In addition to the Electoral Reform Society and Unlock Democracy, we had to contend with POWER2010, Take Back Parliament, Vote for a Change and Make Votes Count. Leaving aside the parties’ involvement, the “sector” desperately needed to consolidate this mess and coordinate itself and to do this under a different flag before switching again to Yes a few months later would have had questionable merit.

Finally, we were faced with a media that was quick to write us off. When the No campaign announced their core team in September, the media was falling over itself to claim that they had stolen the march on us when in fact they were operationally behind us at that stage. One thing our communications team deserve credit for is managing to convince the media that we weren’t dead in the water. Any further delay would have made that job far harder.

Despite all these factors, I still feel that key to our failure was our drive to get moving and I’m convinced that a completely different team would still have made remarkably similar mistakes given the circumstances. Of course, that being said, the real question is therefore why we ended up with a referendum on the topic that it was on, in that timescale, bundled up with those blasted boundary review proposals.

Return to Jenkins

Rightly, Baston and Ritchie begin their book with a brief overview of the history of electoral reform in the UK. It’s a fair summary but there is an omission that is all the more disappointing given the authors’ inside knowledge on the subject. Specifically, what the book does not explore at all is the fact that since the Jenkins Report was mothballed by the Blair government in 1998, an emerging consensus had been forming between electoral reformers in Whitehall around AV.

When I first started working for the New Politics Network in 2004 (NPN merged with Charter 88 to form Unlock Democracy in 2007), I was quite surprised at to what degree this was buzzing around within both Labour and Lib Dem circles. At Labour conferences, it was de rigour for reform inclined government ministers to make speeches in favour on AV on the fringe. We would receive almost monthly reports (from some admittedly eccentric circles) about how the government was going to announce its support for the policy any day now.

Inside the Lib Dems, I became aware of quite how keen some parliamentarians were about damping down party support for STV. When I sat on the party’s policy working group for democratic reform in 2006, I was once told that we couldn’t expect to introduce STV within a single parliament because the boundary changes would be so complicated, and would have to settle for AV at first. This was nonsense; even leaving aside the speed at which the current boundary changes are taking place, multi-member constituencies can be easily created simply by combining the existing single-member ones.

But perhaps the most tacit admission that the Lib Dems were geared up for compromising over AV was the party’s response to the expenses scandal in 2009. At a time when the mood for reform was at an all time high, Nick Clegg abandoned the party’s support for STV in favour of AV+ (indeed, given that this was a clear gesture of compromise, it makes Clegg’s later critical comments about AV being a “miserable little compromise” all the more inexplicable).

It was very clear that talks between Labour reformists and senior Lib Dems had been going on and that the groundwork for AV being introduced was being laid. Outside of Westminster however, the number of people privy to these talks were very limited indeed and while it appeared that ERS people and certainly the Labour Campaign for Electoral Reform were involved, I’ve never personally been clear about to what extent this included the staff team.

The hush-hush nature of the talks was almost certainly a response to the fallout following the Jenkins report which ERS tore itself apart over in the late 90s and beyond. But one of the problems about this lack of frankness was that there seemed to be a lack of strategy. For example, back in 2004 there was clearly a lot of hope that Labour might introduce AV without a referendum and this continued despite a 2005 manifesto commitment not to introduce any change to the voting system without one. Yet this was almost inevitable given that the Lib Dems, ERS and Charter 88 had all been taking Labour to task for failing to hold a referendum on the Jenkins proposals. The divisions within ERS meant that while ERS appeared to be continuing to push for AV behind closed doors, the public position of the organisation became more critical of AV – which predictably became a problem once the referendum became a reality.

(If it reads as if I, as an Unlock Democracy employee, am playing organisational politics here I can assure you I’m not. I’ve been a member of ERS since 1996 – barring a brief resignation at the height of the Meadowcroft-Russell wars – and have stood for council on three occasions. But the simple fact is that in terms of funding and history, ERS is the main player when it comes to electoral reform and its internal divisions have affected everything else).

By the time the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition talks began in May 2010, so much spadework had been done behind the scenes with Labour on AV that it is no surprise that it rapidly became the only real option. Those of us who had been pushing for an alternative plan such as a citizens assembly followed by a referendum were given short shrift.

In hindsight, the conditions attached to the referendum were such that it was almost certainly doomed to failure. But I would argue that if reformers had done a better job at uniting behind a single strategy before May 2010, we could have potentially got more out of the coalition talks and would have been better placed to fight the campaign when it happened.

That doesn’t necessarily mean picking a single system and running with it. Indeed, I think that has been the mistake we have made in the past as all it leads to is the sort of divisions and intrigue that we’ve seen over the past decade. For what its worth, I think that uniting around a process will have a far better chance of success.

Baston and Ritchie suggest that for a reform to have any chance of success, the Labour Party needs to feel that it owns it. I think that may well be true, but for the reasons I outlined above, I think the first step in that is for Labour reformers themselves to recognise the importance of moving outside of their comfort zones and start engaging with the side of the party which they generally tend to ignore. They need to tackle this phenomenon whereby the closer to the leadership Labour politicians become, the less inclined they are to champion electoral reform. I would certainly agree that the Lib Dems can’t be left to it but if no-one else will champion the cause we can’t be surprised or complain if they are the only ones that are seen doing it.

Ultimately though, I share Baston and Ritchie’s optimism. This year’s referendum has been an awful and painful but it has also served as a reality check we sorely lacked until this point. Meanwhile, the fundamental problems lying at the heart of the UK’s electoral system are not going anywhere. The biggest single factor that will decide when and if we get another chance at changing the voting system is how many hung parliaments we have over the next few years. Even if the Lib Dems are seriously crushed at the next election, the long term trend towards multi-party politics is likely to continue.

It is important to be ready for when the next opportunity arises, learn the lessons from this experience and ensure that cross-party and cross-organisational dialogue is kept alive and constructive.

In terms of learning the lessons, Don’t Take No For An Answer is a start but we have not yet seen the definitive account of what went wrong with the Yes campaign. Ultimately, I think that both Baston and Ritchie might have too much of an insider’s perspective to produce that account. I remain hopeful that a politics department somewhere decides to make this a special project and unleash an army of PhD students to investigate, or at the very least a journalist with a nose for a good story decides to have a go. Most of the comedy gold from the campaign has still not emerged if that is a selling point!

James Graham was the Web and Social Media Manager of Yes to Fairer Votes and is the Campaigns and Communications Manager of Unlock Democracy (and a member of the Lib Dem Federal Executive). He writes in a personal capacity.

The Lib Dems will be nobodies’ patsies

With Labour activists and Guardianistas wobbling over the startling revelation that if they don’t win the election, the Lib Dems won’t win it for them, I’ve written a short article on Comment is Free explaining why that doesn’t mean the Lib Dems are about to jump in bed with the Tories and that Labour needs to get real:

If Labour is slowly waking up to the fact that the Lib Dems will be nobody’s patsies, that’s great. I like to think that Labour can bring itself back from the brink over the next 10 days and will stop arguing itself into political oblivion. As their newly exhumed supporter Elvis says, it’s now or never. What they have to wake up to, however, is the fact that there are a lot more possible scenarios out there than either a Cameron or a Brown-led government. Every time they oversimplify and insist that a Lib Dem vote is a vote for Cameron, they merely discredit themselves by mirroring the Tories who are insisting that the Lib Dems are a proxy for Brown.

Read the full article here.

Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Tories have decided to make this whole election a referendum on hung parliaments. Their new PEB, is unique outside of BNP broadcasts in that pretty much every sentence in it is the opposite of the truth. It could have come straight from Bizarro World or (if you have more literary pretensions) Airstrip One. New Tories, Newspeak!

I’m not sure they are necessarily wise to do this, since not only are hung parliaments popular but their arguments against them are patronising in the extreme. But while people are showing no signs of submitting to such scare tactics yet, we need to redouble our efforts to reassure them.

One thing is for sure: the Tories can no longer claim to be about change in this election, as if that argument ever had any resonance in the first place.

Why the Conservatives have been making class an issue

David Cameron and his party have been bending over backwards to tell us how petty and spiteful it is to bring class into politics.

They have a point, up to a point. Certainly the Crewe and Nantwich by-election was a dreadful miscalculation by Labour – who, let us not forget, were treating the constituency as an hereditary seat and the idea of someone with the privileged background of Ed Balls claiming to be some kind of latter-day class warrior is just stupid. But regardless of how weak Labour are on the issue, the fact remains that it is primarily the Conservatives who have been making an issue of class in politics in recent years

Where do I start? Clearly there is that single, emblematic tax cut they want to give to all those who stand to gain from hereditary wealth, and in the last week there has been the eye-watering way in which Zac Goldsmith has sought to belittle his own bit of local difficulty by shrugging off a tax saving of £10,000 as if it essentially the same thing as a tenner he might lose down the back of a sofa. This was a highly charged political statement. What he was saying was: “I’m safe and I feel confident enough that I can rub my wealth in your face. What are you going to do about it?” If that isn’t making class an issue, what is?

A few weeks ago, Cameron made the highly controversial statement that what mattered was not the widening gap between rich and poor but the gap between the poor and the “middle” – if that isn’t a statement charged with class consciousness, what is? Again, the fact that Peter Mandelson has been saying essentially the same thing for the past decade and a half, doesn’t exactly help Labour provide a counterpoint to this.

The fox hunting ban is not something I feel particularly strongly about – I view anyone who takes pleasure out of the killing of a wild animal with contempt but there are good reasons for keeping the rural fox population under control and it is an issue that would be better regulated at a local government level in my view. I also feel that the ban hasn’t really worked and that for a lot of the Labour MPs who pushed it through, it really was a class issue. Rather than responding in kind, the Tories tack is instead to emphasise that this is not a class issue but a civil liberties one, whilst simultaneously announcing an intention to limit the right to protest. It is hard to see how legislating on fox hunting could be a priority for any government over the next decade, yet Cameron is determined to do so whilst simultaneously trying to mask it as some kind of march towards freedom. If they weren’t preoccupied with class, it is hard to see why they would be so determined to scrap the ban or to pretend it is about something it blatantly isn’t.

And then there’s this obsession that the Tories have had over the past decade with the social class of John Prescott and Michael Martin. The latter has been particulary interesting. All the time the Tories have been chuckling about the ineptness of “Gorbals Mick” it has emerged that the real Speaker Martin has been bending over backwards to defend the entrenched privilege of MPs – especially the wealthy ones – to trouser hundreds of thousands of pounds in public money in the form of “expenses.” He’s been their most faithful servant, and yet they have bullied him and hurled the most appalling insults at him. It is hard to look at this and not see a resemblance to arrogant Eton schoolboys behaving not like elected politicians but like people who have been born to rule. The only people who turned the expenses issue into the class issue have, consistently, been the Tories and their supporters.

And now we see Eric Pickles entering into that bear pit which is the Conservative attitude to class. Whatever you might think about Pickles, he is a politician with a track record in his own right. Yet what has happened to Pickles under Cameron? Well, he’s reinvented himself as the Tories’ answer to John Prescott. In doing so, he has adopted an avulcular, parodic working class persona which seems to have been plucked wholesale from the Beano circa 1959. Let’s be under no illusions here – this performance has precisly nothing to do with attracting the working class vote. You won’t see him playing up to the camera and mugging about his “chums” on Question Time or the Today Programme. No, it is about giving the party faithful what they want to hear on his regular emails and “war room briefings” in his role as Party Chairman. As far as they are concerned, the acceptable face of the working class appears in charming Ealing Comedies, not on housing estates. The fact that Pickles feels he has to transform himself into some kind of clown in order to keep the party masses happy speaks volumes about the view of class within the Conservatives. Frankly, I await the day before Pickles starts one of his war room briefings with an establishing shot of him showing his prize pet ferret around CCHQ, with all the bright young things around him cooing and stroking the creature. It is only a matter of time, trust me on this.

In short, the one party still obsessed with class in this country are the Conservatives. Frankly, it would be nice if there were a bit more class consciousness within the other two main parties.

(On a personal note, it isn’t that I don’t want to live in a classless, divided society, I really do. It’s just that it is painfully obvious to me that I don’t live in one and that we need to be talking about this much more.)

Michael Brown donation: we got lucky

So the Lib Dems won’t be handing back the £2.4m donation from 5th Avenue Partners Ltd after all. Yay.

I do hope however (against all the evidence?) that this won’t now result in large numbers of Lib Dems crowing about how the party’s actions have been vindicated and that the was never any question that the legitimacy of the donation was ever in doubt. The simple fact of the matter is that we cocked up, we got lucky and the law is deeply flawed.

Reading the case summary, it would appear that the party has been saved by the fact that Michael Brown has been found guilty of fraud. The question rested on whether 5th Avenue Partners Ltd was acting as an “agent” to siphon money from Michael Brown or his German company 5th Avenue Partners Gmbh, both of which could not legally donate directly. But because it emerged that the money came from investments made by 5th Avenue Partners Ltd’s clients – i.e. Robert Mann et al – then it is legitimate. Of course, Robert Mann and the Fraud Squad might demur from the word “legitimate”.

Now, the party had no way of knowing the extent of Michael Brown’s deception. Nor can it be denied that it went out of its way to establish whether there was anything out there to suggest Brown was not a man they should be doing business with. But the fact of the matter is the world is a big place and with the benefit of hindsight it is clear the party was looking in the wrong place.

Fundamentally, it has never been clearly established who took the decision to accept the donation. Treasurer Reg Clark resigned shortly before the first donation in circumstances that have never been made clear. The party’s federal executive was not involved, nor was the finance and administration committee. And you don’t need hindsight to tell you that accepting £2.4m from a man who comes out of nowhere, who isn’t resident in the country, whose company hasn’t yet filed its first set of accounts to Companies House and whose donation has come so late you can’t properly spend in the general election anyway, is an unacceptable risk. But then I suppose Lib Dem politicians were as goggle eyed with the glamour of the hedge funder as all other politicians at the time, and had lost all perspective. Exerting caution only makes sense if you aren’t wined and dined by city wideboys on a weekly basis.

Suffice to say, a law which lets one party off on a technicality like that, while forcing another party to repay hundreds of thousands of pounds simply because a donor dropped off the electoral roll for a couple of months, is an ass. And an Electoral Commission which takes so long to establish such technicalities has deep organisational problems as well. We need a system which doesn’t potentially force political parties to go bankrupt because of the mistakes of a couple of officials by allowing parties to get the Electoral Commission to clear large donations in advance.

And so we turn to Michael Ashcroft and Bearwood Corporate Services Ltd. Here again, the Electoral Commission have been dragging their heels for months. On the one hand, things look precarious for the Tories because, on the face of it anyway, it does not appear that Ashcroft has been defrauding any UK investors. But if the Electoral Commission have managed to conclude that 5th Avenue Partners Ltd was trading legitimately then I wouldn’t hold your breath. As for what is really going on, that’s anyone’s guess.

Note: I was a member of the Lib Dems’ Federal Executive from January 2003 until I resigned in November 2005. I was a member of the Federal Finance and Administration Committee from February 2005 until my resignation from the FE.

David Cameron’s vision of a McSociety

Many people will have blogged already about David Cameron’s Hugo Young lecture by now, but as I saw it being delivered live, I thought I ought to add my two-penneth.

My first observation was the eagerness that Cameron was to please his Guardianista audience. This is actually the second speech I’ve seen Cameron give in person and it was true when he delivered his speech to the Power Inquiry Conference back in 2006. Certainly he spent a significant amount of time couching what he had to say in fluffy, leftish language and he went down the usual list of name checks to keep everyone happy. That said, there was some meat in what he had to say which should trouble anyone of a left persuasion.

If the reaction to Cameron’s conference speech last month is anything to go by, there are almost certainly some out there saying that this was a speech that Clegg should have made. And in terms of some of the rhetoric, that is certainly true. Indeed, some of the rhetoric was actually borrowed from Clegg. Does this sound familiar to you?

Not far from here the incredible wealth of the City exists side-by-side with some of the poorest neighbourhoods in our country. For every tube station along the Jubilee Line, from Westminster to the East End, Londoners living in those areas lose almost an entire year of expected life.

I’m not convinced it amounted to a convincing whole however, or that it was especially well thought out.

Income Inequality

Two of the first names he was to check were Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett and indeed he went on to summarise the whole Spirit Level thesis. For a second this sounded quite exciting – a Tory government committed to reducing income inequality would be something to see. But before we could get our hopes up too high, he went and threw it all away:

We all know, in our hearts, that as long as there is deep poverty living systematically side by side with great riches, we all remain the poorer for it. That doesn’t mean we should be fixated only on a mechanistic objective like reducing the Gini co-efficient, the traditional financial measure of inequality or on closing the gap between the top and the bottom.

Instead, we should focus on the causes of poverty as well as the symptoms because that is the best way to reduce it in the long term. And we should focus on closing the gap between the bottom and the middle, not because that is the easy thing to do, but because focusing on those who do not have the chance of a good life is the most important thing to do.

Shares of total household income by quintile group
Shares of total household income by quintile group
Dowhatnow? This simple graph from the Office of National Statistics shows clearly quite how problematic a focus on comparing the poorest incomes with the middle is. As a proportion, the incomes of the middle earners have actually gone down as a proportion over the last thirty years. True the gap between the poorest and the middlest has widened, but only because the poorest have done even worse. You could of course reverse this trend by ensuring that the poorest’s share of the national wealth started declining more slowly than the share of the middle incomers – while the top 20 per cent continued to rake it home.

The other thing you’ll see from this graph is that the reduction in the bottom 60 per cent’s share of national wealth started in 1979. Funny how all these problems that Cameron has summed up with the phrase “Broken Britain” – marriage breakdown, anti-social behaviour, etc. – all seemed to start to exacerbate around then. I suppose it is just possible that the problem was that as the middle got poorer, the poorest got poorer still, but I think it probably has something more to do with the top quintile’s incomes shooting up at everyone else’s expense. That is certainly Wilkinson and Pickett’s thesis. Isn’t it funny therefore that in summing up the history of the welfare state, Cameron develops a narrative that starts in the early 30s, progresses through to the War and the founding of the welfare state, reaches 1968… and then zooms forward to 1997. Move along, nothing to see here.

I think I know where this focus on the “middle” comes from. I suspect that Cameron has been reading the same research I have been this summer which suggests that everyone seems to think they earn an average amount. By developing a policy which effectively lets off the top 40% – most of whom assume they are earning only slightly more than average and who will be scared off by talk of actual redistribution – Cameron gets to wear progressive clothes without having to promise any of the pain to the wealthy that goes along with it. It is entirely about playing into the hands of people’s prejudices and salving their consciences. It is less clear what any of it has to do with reducing poverty of social problems.

The Big State

I’ve blogged before about Cameron’s equation of “big state” with “means testing”. Suffice to say, it is nonsense. If you want to get rid of means testing, you have two choices: spend more and create universal benefits or cut those benefits all together. If you do the former then you end up with a “bigger” state. If you do the latter then you shrink the safety net and make the poorest poorer – something which Cameron claims to oppose.

The tax credit system designed by Gordon Brown is a classic example of his doctrine of progressivism by stealth – and a perfect example of why this doesn’t work. The benefit to the poorest is reduced by creating an incredibly complex system and disincentives to work. From the chancellor’s point of view however it is great because it is relatively cheap.

Of course, aside from slamming these disincentives, Cameron has nothing to say about how they should be actually reformed. He wants to increase them for married couples – to bring them in line with single parents – yet surely this would just lead to more welfare dependency (and a larger state), not less? He wants to focus Sure Start on the poorest families – yet surely this suggests more means testing, not less? He wants a pupil premium, but unless he is proposing to pay for it by cutting investment in schools elsewhere, that too would suggest a bigger state. With the exception of making employment benefits and employment services dependent on payment by results, in almost every area Cameron seemed to be calling for both more means testing and more investment.

The Big Society

In the final section of his speech on the “Big Society”, the role of the state seemed to grow still further.

This section was the most intriguing. His argument was that the left want to grow the size of the state while the right want a larger and more vibrant civic society. Is that really the case though? It certainly seems to me that most of the civic republicans throughout history have been on the left, not the right. Even when Cameron talked wistfully about “the vibrant panoply of civic organisations that meant communities looked out for one another” he listed “the co-operatives, the friendly societies, the building societies, the guilds” – most of which have their roots in the left and was careful not to mention rather more problematic forms of “mutual aid” such as the workhouses. Throughout the 80s and 90s the Tories were all too eager to see the co-operatives and building societies demutualised. He could also have mentioned trade unions – a system of mutual aid which the Tories have and continue to attack – and mass membership political parties – the club of which the Conservatives only joined in 1999.

In short, yet again, there is a whole narrative here that Cameron left out: that being the sustained attack of the “strong society” waged by the Tories between 1979 and 1997. Tories get terribly upset when you mention that famous quote by Margaret Thatcher, but her actions spoke louder than words. And Cameron’s failure to address this was deafening.

Cameron now recognises there is a role for the state in rebuilding that strong civic culture – and this is something I wholeheartedly agree with. I’m not so sure about what he plans to do however.

His three pronged approach lies in “identifying and working directly with the social entrepreneurs”, “engaging with community activists” and developing “a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation.” None of this seems especially well thought out and sounds remarkably similar to the sort of thing Blair was saying in the late 90s. Why should we assume that Cameron’s vagueness will go on to become any more concrete than Blair’s?

What’s more, two phrases set my alarm bells ringing. The first was his suggestion that the state should “franchise” proven social programmes. After EasyBarnet we have McSociety. Can you really reduce every civic minded venture down to a manual and a uniform? Surely, by definition, these initiatives defy mass production? Plenty of organisations have attempted to spread themselves out over the years – what will bad old government be able to do that the social entrepreneurs themselves can’t?

The franchise model seems entirely inappropriate to social enterprises. It suggests a by the numbers approach when what is needed is a careful application of fairly universal organising principles to specific local circumstances. And in what way will these franchises differ from quangoes, those bete noires of the modern Conservative Party? They sound pretty quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisational to me.

The other aspect of all this that made me uncomfortable was Cameron’s vision of social engineering. Of course he didn’t use that term as it is seen as perjorative, but how else do you sum up this “nudge” theory of establishing social norms? Much of what he had to say about developing a broader culture of social engagement seemed to be focused not on creating active citizens but on creating good ones.

It is hard to see what this three week long “National Citizens’ Service” will achieve other than telling “good” 16 year olds how to behave while trying to stop the “bad” kids from sneaking off. What good is three weeks? Shouldn’t the emphasis be on getting citizenship education right in schools, from 5-18?

Ultimately, can’t we think of a better summary of the sort of stronger society we want to create than the largely tautological “responsibility, mutuality and obligation”? What about interest? What about curiosity? And can any of this be achieved without, at the heart of it, a culture rooted in egalitarianism?

Overall then, what Cameron leaves out in this speech is as interesting as what he actually says. And at the heart of what he does have to say is a profound oxymoron: stronger societies tend to be egalitarian ones precisely because that sense of “them versus us” is diminished. Yet while Cameron recognises the need for a stronger society, he cannot bring himself to embrace equality. And having denied himself a pretty crucial tool to rebuild the “broken” society, the only thing he has left seems to be yet more state intervention.

It is a pretty hollow analysis.

Is Julie Kirkbride’s resurrection thanks to her Midlands Industrial Council links?

It is quite astonishing to see Julie Kirkbride apparently announcing that she intends to restand for Bromsgrove after all, and that CCHQ is apparently actively helping her. If, as ConservativeHome contend, she is going to be subjected to an open primary (and not a misnamed open caucus) it will be an interesting contest as this will be the first time an incumbant will have been subjected to the system. It certainly has the potential to blow up in her face; it also has the potential to blow up in the party’s face. How will this no expenses rule of their’s apply when one candidate already has such an in built advantage?

As for why CCHQ have decided to be so generous to her, one has got to wonder if it has something to do with her links to the cabal behind the Midlands Industrial Council scam a few years ago. You may recall that after a lot of resistence, Kirkbride was announced the “link person” between the MIC and the Conservative Party.

The full list of the MIC’s donors have never been revealed (they were very careful to only publish a “membership” list) and it is understood to be behind such things as the Taxpayers’ Alliance (which, naturally, has it’s own well resourced West Midlands office – but not an office in one of those minor regions like Scotland where the Tories don’t have a cat in Hell’s chance presumably all money is being properly spent). What we do know is that their campaigning operation has, under Lord Ashcroft, been streamlined into the main CCHQ operation.

Win or lose, an open primary will cost the Bromsgrove Conservatives around £40,000 to run. Previous open primaries have been conducted to cleanse the party’s reputation – here the money appears to be being spent to at least give Kirkbride an attempt to cleanse her own. The party itself will be getting less out of it – Kirkbride’s continued presence will not exactly help the brand in the rest of the country. Clearly therefore, someone thinks she’s worth it. I just hope people will be asking the right questions.

Cameron’s Lisbon pledge is “grammar streaming” all over again

Do you remember “grammar streaming“? That remarkable non-policy that Cameron came up with in 2007 designed to shut down the spiralling rows over grammar school policy that had been raging throughout the summer? Cameron’s announcement about European Policy today reminded me of that prime example of ridiculousness.

Like grammar streaming it is an attempt to square a circle which a large proportion of his backbenchers, frontbenchers and grassroots are obsessed with beyond all reason, despite the fact that a compromise in this case isn’t really possible. Part of the problem is that the Tory rhetoric about Lisbon for the past four years has been so over the top that lamely muttering “never again” doesn’t begin to rectify things. If the Lisbon Treaty was as bad as they have been claiming it is then the logical course of action is to call for the UK to leave the EU. That they are not tells you everything you need to know about what they really think about how pernicious this treaty really is.

European Treaties consist of rules that we have to live with from the moment they are ratified. They are not mere events. They aren’t a kick in the balls that you feel sore about for a while but which don’t fundamentally change anything. Yet this is how the Conservatives have consistently portrayed them. Maastricht was supposed to be the treaty to usher in the European Superstate. It didn’t happen. Then we were told that the secret plan was in Nice. Didn’t happen. And so we go on, treaty after treaty. Each time the Tories confess quietly that, yes, the last one wasn’t anything like as awful as they had been making out but THIS one on the other hand… it is laughable.

Cameron’s new cast iron guarantee appears to consist of two legislative steps: first, they will pass a law asserting Parliamentary sovereignty. Second, they will amend the European Communities Act 1972 to prohibit the further “transfer of power to the EU” without a referendum.

The first one is interesting because Bill Cash attempted to introduce precisely this rule into the Lisbon Treaty bill last year. Cameron – and most of the Conservative Party – abstained. So this is another EU-turn. But they had good reason to abstain – Cash’s amendment was meaningless. Parliamentary sovereignty has always been a mythological concept, as evidenced by the fact that the executive in this country wields enormous royal prerogative powers. The Tories may now want to shave off the worst excesses of the royal prerogative, but they have shown no sign of ending them. In particular they haven’t called for the government’s treaty-making powers to be invested in Parliament. Laws such as the Treaty of Lisbon Act are really just niceties – there is nothing to stop the government from ratifying treaties without Parliament. And indeed they do in the case of less controversial treaties.

One thing you can’t do is call for Parliamentary sovereignty with one hand and then demand popular referendums to ratify EU treaties with the next. Unless, it seems, you happen to be David Cameron (to be fair, most of the Conservative Party thinks the same thing). In any case, what does this pledge mean in practice? Under Lisbon, the European Council can make all sorts of changes without going as far as agreeing another treaty as long as all the member states agree. If Cameron agrees to one of these cosy little deals will he subject it to a referendum vote, or claim that it doesn’t count because it isn’t in a treaty? And what does “transfering power to the EU” mean anyway? We have done no such thing. We’ve pooled sovereignty which is a very different thing. Once again, that appears to give him a lot of wriggle room.

What is so special about European treaties anyway? If, heaven forbid, the Copenhagen talks result in a radical global commitment to reducing carbon emissions, it will have a profound effect on UK law. We will in effect be ceding our power to set energy and environmental policy for decades to come. It will be far more profound in practice than Lisbon. Will Cameron therefore be demanding a referendum on it (I right this as someone who thinks it might not actually be a bad idea as it would force the country as a whole to contemplate the crisis we face)? What about the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, due for renegotiation in the next couple of years? Is there a more profound impact on our sovereignty than security issues?

The whole thing smacks of style over substance and an attempt to buy a handful of naturally very angry people off. What I don’t understand is why it all seems to have been written on the back of a fag packet. Cameron must have known he was going to have to come up with a Plan B this summer as the opinion polls made the Irish “yes” win look increasingly likely. Yet he carried on pretending that the Lisbon Treaty was dying. The decision to promote Dan Hannan was especially surprising given the whole NHS debacle. He knew Hannan was a loose cannon and one who was causing him grief at the time. He knew Hannan would rather garotte himself than accept a U-turn on Lisbon. Yet he appointed him anyway, with predictable results.

I think Cameron will be a disastrous Prime Minister if he gets the chance: another Tony Blair but without the steel. His photo in the Guardian yesterday summed it up perfectly, something which Alastair Campbell has been mercilessly taking the mickey out of. It really is the most excrutiating photo of Cameron since That Bullingdon group shot. Here is a man who clearly puts more thought into his image than into his policies. The result is that both end up pretty laughable.

And yet, and yet… Gordon Brown is so spectacularly awful and incompetent that none of this seems to matter much. Despite the fact that UKIP will be having a field day trying to extract as much support from Eurosceptic Tories as they can on polling day, it probably won’t be enough. As with grammar streaming, the loony wing seem to have been largely bought off with this vague assortment of half promises and purple rhetoric. It certainly looks at the moment as if a sizeable chunk (by no means a majority) of the British public have made their mind up that they want Cameron as the next Prime Minister. I’m pretty sure they will shortly repent, but there doesn’t seem to be any telling them.

Poverty, marginal tax rates and the big state

Are Conservatives serious when they bang on about the high marginal tax rate of people at the bottom end of the income scale and its symbolism as a failure of the “big state”, as David Cameron referred to on Thursday and William Hague repeated on Any Questions?

I ask this because this “tax rate” – which I don’t dispute – is mainly due to our complex benefits and tax credits system. Simply put, there are two ways to reduce this marginal rate: increase the tail off by cutting means testing or at least extending the income levels at which people still receive benefits, or reducing benefits altogether. The latter option would of course lead to more people living in poverty.

The former option however would increase the size of the state, which we are to understand is a total no-no. This is one of those areas, in short, where you have a very simple choice: reduce poverty or reduce the size of the state. You simply can’t have it both ways and in this respect the Tory conference this week has begged more questions than it has answered.

That isn’t true of all areas of public policy – there are plenty of areas where the small state option is the more pro-social one. But it does highlight how the poverty in aspiring for a “smaller state” as an end in itself. It seems to me that the Tories are obsessed with these second order indices and lukewarm when it comes to the fundamentals.