Tag Archives: conservative-party

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.

The Littlewood Effect… twelve months later

Mark Littlewood has articles on Liberal Vision and The Telegraph reminding us of his pamphlet The Cameron Effect last year.

That’s fair enough. It’s equally fair enough for me to point you in the direction of my rebuttal of that pamphlet.

What has changed in the previous twelve months? Mark is right to say that one thing that hasn’t, frustratingly, is the opinion polls. Nonetheless that is to ignore the fact that they went up for the local elections in June (and down for the European Elections). We have every reason to expect those figures to pick up as we head towards 2010 all else being equal. In fact, I think we have a lot of reason to be confident that things will pick up quite well during an election campaign. Clegg has finally moved on from his “calamitous” period and Vince Cable continues to get good press.

Does that mean that I am prepared to revise my prediction that the Lib Dems will finish the election with roughly the same number of MPs that it started with? No. I don’t see any evidence of a breakthrough this time around. But equally, I continue to regard Liberal Vision’s pessimism as misplaced.

Mark, it has to be said, has subtly shifted his position. Last year the focus was all on tax cuts; this year he has replaced this with more ambiguous language about “winning over those who are flirting with David Cameron’s Tories.” But the people switching to the Tories this time are not the ones clamouring for the Tories to adopt a small government, low tax agenda; indeed they are coming to the Tories precisely because they don’t think that is what Cameron is offering (they may be in for a surprise considering what the new Tory intake looks like). Ultimately, I don’t follow the argument that this is some kind of zero sum game between the Lib Dems choosing between soft Labour and soft Tory voters at all. Instead it is a mad scrabble for floating voters who are up for grabs by any party.

Mark may not have got his wish of the party adopting a position of overall tax cuts, but he should be consoled that the party is in favour of reducing taxes for low and middle income owners and that the party is united behind this position. This isn’t a policy aimed at the left or right (although the right may quibble with the tax increases we propose to impose to pay for them); it has far wider appeal than that.

Talk of tax cuts right now would almost certainly scare people right now and be scarcely economically justifiable; Mark knows this. So the question is, what buttons should we be pressing that would appeal uniquely to people currently in the welcoming arms of David Cameron? Should we be bolder in our talk about spending cuts than Vince Cable has been this week at a time when all Osborne can offer us is flummery and his characteristic whingeing? It is hard to believe that would make us especially popular.

The main thing that has changed is that the economic situation has got a lot worse. That’s bad news for those of us who would like to see greater investment in specific areas and bad news for those who would like to see overall tax cuts. I suspect the all out hostilities over the heart and soul of the Liberal Democrats will have to wait for at least another conference, something which is good news for the hedges outside the Bournemouth Conference Centre.

On sausages, innuendo and electioneering

Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones is a fascinating character. He’s clearly a very able marketing man, being the driving force behind Kettle Chips, Loyd Grossman’s sauces and, of course, Black Farmer sausages. The latter is a fascinating case study. A black man who bemoans people playing the “race card” yet who has carefully crafted a brand out of his ethnicity. He isn’t, by his own admission, actually a farmer (he prefers the euphemism “gentleman farmer“) and it appears doesn’t even breed the pigs for his products on his estate. Nothing especially wrong with that per se, but it does make him an unlikely champion to drive the spin merchants out of politics.

Emmanuel-Jones the political brand is, superficially at least, a lot like the Black Farmer. Over the last few years the Conservatives have frequently encouraged coverage in leftwing newspapers on the basis that he represents the living embodiment of the modern Cameronian Conservative brand, yet in those articles the candidate himself is at pains to talk his ethnicity down. Yet the stories persist. Last year, the Independent got terribly excited about the idea of the BNP “targeting” Chippenham because Emmanuel Jones was standing. Nonsense of course – the BNP are no hopers there – but it did press all the right buttons, all but making the moral case for all progressively minded voters in Chippenham to vote Tory out of principle.

It took a couple of months before the real target of these articles emerged. The Telegraph covered the same story from a somewhat different angle. In this, Emmanuel-Jones is quoted as saying:

“The Lib Dems have been very sly,” he told Mandrake at The Spectator’s 180th anniversary party, at the Hyatt Regency hotel, in Marylebone. “They have sent out leaflets saying: ‘Don’t vote for the Devon farmer.’ They clearly want to portray me as an outsider and are planting the seed in people’s minds that I am not local. Yes, I have a smallholding in Devon, but I’m no less of a local than their candidate.”

The Tory, who has launched a successful range of sausages and sauces under the name “The Black Farmer”, adds: “I haven’t had any trouble from the BNP. They put up a candidate, but, unlike the Lib Dems, he hasn’t made an issue of where I am from.”

This is echoed in The Observer’s interview with him this weekend:

“The Liberal Democrats have been very clever. Their favourite slag-off is to say I live 200 miles away. Their strategy is: foreigner, outsider. It’s not exactly racist, but ….”

(as an aside, it does annoy me how interviewers can sometimes be co-conspirators in spin, wittingly or not. In a real conversation you wouldn’t be able to get away with trailing off like that and not having the person you are speaking to ask for clarification – so why the sudden incuriosity of Rachel Cooke here? It’s a serious allegation which she lets just hang)

We’ve been here before. For a long time after his victory in Cheltenham in 1997 I recall Nigel Jones frequently being accused of running a racist campaign against John Taylor. The allegation is familiar: by emphasising that our candidate is local and their candidate is from outside the area we are making a dog whistle signal about their ethnicity and “foreignness.” For such a tactic to work of course, Chippenham voters would have to be racist themselves.

There are four tests however we should apply. Firstly, is the “not local” claim true or not? Secondly, is it a reasonable criticism? Thirdly, would a white rival candidate get the same treatment? Fourthly, is this tactic unique to the Lib Dems?

In the case of the latter two the answer is, respectively, yes and no. Over the past year or so we have had three Parliamentary by-elections and on each occasion the Tories have made an issue out of the Lib Dems’ candidate’s lack of local credentials. This was true for Steven Kearney, a Southampton councillor standing in Henley, and for April Pond, Norwich resident standing in, um, a different bit of Norwich (and it was true for Tory candidate Chloe Smith one of whose opponents – long time Uzbekistan resident Craig Murray – went to the extreme of employing birther tactics to imply her non-Norwich ethnicity).

But is it a fair criticism? I’ve repeatedly said that I think the parochialism of modern politics is pernicious and that the Lib Dems must accept their share of responsibility for the current state of affairs, but while it is not the be-all and end-all there is no question that being local is a positive trait for an MP and while UK politics is as centralised as it is, it will be a bigger factor than it need be for the foreseeable future. Politicians who are rooted in the area they live in – regardless of where they originally came from – pick up local issues every time they walk outside of their front door; politicians rooted elsewhere are dependent on their surgeries and mail sacks. For the typical voter who doesn’t want to have to constantly engage with their MP about every little issue, that is a positive boon.

If I were a Chippenham resident, my key concerns about Emmanuel-Jones would be twofold. Firstly, not only is he not based in Chippenham but when it comes to describing Devon he responds with “I suppose you could say it’s my soul.” That doesn’t exactly suggest that the welfare of Chippenham will be at the top of his priorities, does it? Secondly, there is the question of how much he actually really wants to job.

I follow both of Emmanuel-Jones’ twitter accounts, theblackfarmer and wilfred4change. The former is a highly personal, friendly stream, clearly written by Wilfred himself and broadcasting someone who really loves his job. The latter might as well be churned out by a robot. The former has been updated 703 times and has 317 followers; the latter has been updated 151 times and has 94 followers. There’s no question that Emmanuel-Jones is a British success story, but that doesn’t automatically make him a good MP or the right man for Chippenham. In an ideal world he’d be standing in Devon and have a chance of winning even over and above sitting Tory MPs. But that would involve a different electoral system, something the Conservatives have set themselves against.

But my biggest concern is that in many respects this squalid innuendo about the Lib Dems running a squalid innuendo-laden racist campaign against Emmanuel-Jones is getting their excuses in first. Is Emmanuel-Jones being used by CCHQ as a patsy? They’ve done a great job at convincing journalists that, all things being equal, he is a shoe-in for the job, but all the evidence suggests otherwise. Chippenham, a new constituency, does in fact have a notional Lib Dem majority. Of course, four years on, you could argue that the Cameron effect changes all that. Yet in a year where the Lib Dems did badly overall in the South West, we won both the most councillors and the largest share of the vote in June. Last week we won two by-elections there.

None of these Conservative defeats had anything whatsoever to do with the colour of their parliamentary candidates’ skin. The worry is that an unthinking media, steeped in churnalism, is going to end up being complicit in branding a blameless Lib Dem MP a racist for years to come simply for committing the heinous crime of doing a better job.

“Open Source Politics” in Totnes?

The Tories’ open primary experiment in Totnes intrigues me. Douglas Carswell describes it as “credible attempt to create a new system of open source politics.”

I am a bit dismissive about their experiments with “primaries” thus far (most of the Tory candidate selections which have been labeled as “primaries” have in fact been caucuses). The reason for this is that I’ve seen very little evidence that they have done anything significant to increase participation. Certainly, non-members have been able to participate, but it has generally been in the hundreds. Swapping one self-selecting group for another doesn’t amount to much. Doubling, even trebling, participation in candidate selection is almost meaningless in the face of such mass alienation from the process.

The Totnes experiment is different because all 69,000 voters in the constituency have been sent a ballot paper. At a stroke it means that the major problem inherent in the caucuses – that the people who turn up could be dominated by a single group of entryists (whether they are a political, ethnic or religious grouping) and thereby select a candidate that is less likely to find favour amongst the wider electorate – is gone at a stroke. There certainly will be Labour and Lib Dem members participating in this ballot, but the majority of people who do will belong to no political party. The winning candidate will therefore have already won a constituency-wide test. All things being equal, that will give him or her a significant advantage over the other candidates.

Could this system be used to revive political participation nationwide? I think it could, yes. If the top three parties were to do this in every constituency, the way elections are fought would change dramatically. For one thing, I suspect it could do a lot to increase ethnic diversity. As an alternative to all-BAME shortlists – widening participation instead of narrowing it – it has to be a winner. But it would also work in more subtle ways by making seats less safe.

Let’s say a really strong Lib Dem candidate were to emerge in a safe Labour stronghold. Would people, having got to know that candidate in the primaries, automatically revert to their tribal loyalties come the election itself? More than that, the candidate him or herself would be able to use the primary to build their own supporter base. We do see this sort of upset occur in the US in a way that is much less common in the UK.

There are questions that need to be answered. For one thing, to what extent should candidates be free to campaign during the primary contests? I would imagine that in the case of Totnes, this being the Tories, candidates would have a pretty free hand. But how do we prevent the system from giving the rich such a major advantage, thereby leading to a less diverse Parliament? As with UK elections, for the system to be rolled out nationwide we would surely need some kind of spending limit.

There is also a question about where all the candidates will come from. The big barrier, certainly in the Lib Dems, would be the candidate approval system. The party simply doesn’t have enough approved candidates to have a even a two-way contest in every single constituency. Should we lower the bar for candidate approval, in essence allowing any party member to stand? If so, how would we prevent non-liberals from getting selected as the Liberal Democrat candidate? Indeed, one of the main things we see in the US more than the UK is a convergence with the two main parties ending up almost indistinguishable in terms of broad political philosophy – certainly at a local level (nationally, things inevitably become more distinct, but even so the Democrats and Republicans amount to little more than two sides of the same coin). There is a danger that this will lead to vision-less, pandering politics. Politicians will be more responsive to the electorate, yes, but will be unable to actually say what they mean because they will be in the thrall of every single opinion poll.

Despite all that, I’m sure that these problems could be overcome and no doubt some will argue I have overstated them. Fundamentally, the higher the level of political participation, the less pronounced they will be (for example, if there were more people engaged, less wealthy candidates would have an easier time fundraising). However, there is one problem that I can’t see getting resolved any time soon: the cost.

I’m surprised there has been so little discussion about the cost of the Totnes primary. It must be costing the Tories around a pound per constituent to hold this contest. Even if they had managed to bring it down to 50p, that is still about £35,000 to hold just this primary. For a national party that is chickenfeed, but to roll it out nationwide would cost at least £20 million. Even the well-funded Conservatives will struggle to raise that amount of money ON TOP OF the amount they need to raise for electioneering locally and nationally (not to mention the costs of each candidate in the primaries). Where US states use open primaries they are at least part funded by the taxpayer, but the Tories would surely be ideologically oppose to such a subsidy. One thing that would be unarguable is that this form of state funding of political parties would do more to entrench political parties and make them a part of the state than almost any other version. You certainly couldn’t fund every single party to run primaries in this way so what would your cut off point be, and how would you prevent it from entrenching the established parties at the expense of everyone else?

Assuming you didn’t fund open primaries out of taxpayer money, and couldn’t afford to hold one in every single constituency, how would you choose which seats got a primary and which seats didn’t? Limit it to target seats? In which case, the whole “open” nature of the system would be undermined. It would only be open in places where the election was already competitive. In safe seats, the electorate would remain just as shut out as ever. A more imaginative approach would be to fund open primaries in safe seats held by political opponents, but it would be a risky strategy (and it is certainly not the approach being adopted in Totnes).

What I can’t see, with the best will in the world, is how such a system can improve on having single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies. STV works by effectively combining a primary with an election – you don’t just get to choose between parties but between candidates within parties on the same ballot paper (of course this depends on the parties themselves playing ball and providing the electorate with a choice, but there is some evidence in Scotland which suggests that the parties which did field a broader range of candidates did better). You don’t end up with a group of candidates who all argue for the same thing because the system recognises that the electorate is not an amorphous whole but a group of individuals with a diverse range of opinions. Instead of all elections being won by the lowest-common-denominator, minority views are allowed representation as well. And the enormous cost is saved, to be spent on other things or even not raised in the first place.

Ultimately then, while I can see that open primaries have real merit, it is hard to see how even the Conservatives can afford to roll them out on anything like a national basis. Without safeguards, they could just entrench plutocracy and lowest-common-denominator politics. It is hard to see how this can be a real practical solution to a nationwide malaise. And everything the system purports to do can be done much more cheaply and simply by changing the electoral system. The question boils down to whether you see the future of UK politics as lying in competing parties setting out broad visions for how the country should be better or narrow communitarianism. For better or worse, that is the debate we should be having about electoral reform, not an argument about reform versus the status quo.

Bercow and burying bad news

It is quite telling that on Monday the Tories opted to a) announce the membership of their new Euro grouping and b) announce the resignation of Ian Clements. Burying bad news? I should coco! At least James Cleverly has the decency to admit it, however obliquely.

There isn’t much more I can say about the Euro grouping that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. Suffice to say, the fact that they could only muster two other parties with more than one MEP to join is all too telling.

I know the Tories like to bang on about how the other European Parties have their fair share of oddballs (I’ve never had the names of the guilty ALDES parties mentioned but no doubt someone can point me to them), but this is a grouping of ALL oddballs. Forming a grouping like this is to make a statement and the statement I hear from this is that the Tories do not consider environmental issues or gay rights anything close to a priority.

The Ian Clements incident is gobsmacking. Boris hasn’t been any better than Ken in terms of appointing his own cronies. The difference is, Ken’s ones tended to be more honest – or somewhat smarter at least.

Meanwhile, the Tory reaction to Bercow’s election is one of the least gracious spectacles I’ve seen in a long time. This, let us not forget, is from people who were complaining at how Michael Martin had politicised the role.

The objection to John Bercow from the Tories is not that he is a swivel-eyed racist, but that he isn’t one any more. An odd statement to broadcast to the nation. Dan Finkelstein rightly gives his team a good ticking off. Praise is also due to Douglas Carswell who was one of the first voices of calm this morning. Not only that, but he admitted to voting for Bercow himself (thereby scotching Nadine Dorries’ theory that only two other Tories voted for JB), and voted for my own first choice Richard Shepherd (you see, I love Tories really).

As for the result itself, personally I would have been happy with either Bercow or Young. I’m delighted the speculation surrounding Margaret Beckett’s shoo-in proved to be utter nonsense. I suspect that the hostility shown towards Bercow has been whipped up by a bunch of headbangers in the party and will dissipate fairly quickly. It is certainly the case that nothing like all of the Labour Party voted for Bercow – given that it seems most Lib Dems did a sizeable chunk of Labour MPs must have shored up Young’s vote.

I do wonder however if the electoral system they have used is the best one for letting a “consensus” candidate emerge. The downside of an exhaustive ballot/AV procedure is that it doesn’t always help build consensus. In this case, with one candidate clearly despised by a minority (how large that minority is remains an unknown quantity), it just looks like majoritarianism.

How different would it have been if they had used Modified Borda Count, where lower preferences would have been counted, or Majority Judgement? With both these systems, being despised by the minority would have counted against Bercow (this assumes that most Bercow voters would have minded Young winning less than the other way around). Enough to affect the outcome? I couldn’t say, but it certainly would have narrowed it.

The bottom line is that while we have a system which tends to ensure that a single party has a majority in the Commons, it is that majority that will get to pick the speaker. The convention of picking an opposition party speaker went out of the window in 2000. A system that at least softens the harder effects of that brute fact is at least worth considering.

The Davies Agenda (sic)

David Davies MP has called for “abusive protests against serving military personnel” to be outlawed.

Davies has modelled himself as a staunch opponent of political correctness, but the truth is that he – like most people obsessed with the horrors of PC – is all for it really. He just has different political priorities.

It must be uncomfortable for David Davis MP to be constantly confused with a reactionary such as Davies. Given Davis’ own reactionary tendencies (before he managed to reinvent himself as a civil libertarian and self-appointed torchbearer for the modestly named “Davis Agenda“), that’s saying something. Sadly, I suspect that Davies is rather more representative of his party than Davis, as the fairly lamentable Tory showing at the Convention on Modern Liberty a fortnight ago made plain. Any party which has a Shadow Home Secretary who can utter the phrase “fewer rights and more wrongs” without cracking up can be fairly described as being “confused” (if one were feeling so generous).

This raises a serious question about how the Tories are treated by civil libertarians. One approach is to “hug them close” – i.e. applaud Conservative politicians whenever they make the right noises and emphasise how such behaviour is a clear sign of the party finally modernising and moving out of the Victorian era. The danger of that approach is that its own exponents end up being wary of criticising Tories when they say the wrong things and end up fooling themselves that a few speeches here and there will amounts to a shift in direction. If the use of the carrot approach is limited though, the stick approach is not without its problems either. Specifically, treating the Tories as The Enemy is unlikely to achieve anything much in the short term. At best, it will embolden the civil libertarians within Labour (they do still exist, even if they can be deplorably craven at times) and help to ensure Labour makes the right noises when it returns to the opposition benches.

Ultimately, stroking politicians in Westminster will only have a limited effect. If you want a lasting reversal of Labour’s authoritarian agenda, you have to change minds across the country.

UPDATE: Heh. Great minds think alike.

When is a wunch not a wunch?

Courtesy of David Cameron this week, we now know there are two types of city financier.

The first, epitomised by Sir James Crosby, is the sort of shyster that only a Prime Minister with a serious lack of judgement would dream of putting in a senior role.

The second, epitomised by Sir David Freud, is “a hugely impressive figure” worthy of an insta-peerage (this is the new type of peerage introduced in 2006 where party leaders get to magically give people a lifetime seat in the legislature for doing something Important – such as accepting a job or defecting. If you struggle to recall when the public debate for this new type of appointment took place, forget it, it didn’t happen).

Of course, this is the same Sir David Freud who brags about the misselling of Eurotunnel shares as “successfully [selling] the market a pup.” Who went on to do it all over again over Railtrack.

Anyone else struggling to tell the difference?

Kawczynski is a disgrace

In a very short term, Daniel Kawcynski has, for me, come to represent everything that is venal about the Conservative Party. I’ve already written about him a couple of times, about his fact-free attack on electoral reform and his equally evidence-lite claim that evil liberals were trying to stir up hatred against Poles. Now he has turned his particular line in smear at the police, already (justly) reeling from the Damien Green affair.

There are several ways in which this is not at all like the Damian Green affair. For a start, it would appear that the police were investigating a serious issue. Sending white powder to a minister, post 2001, is a genuinely big deal. If there was an attack – and we have no reason to assume there wasn’t – then I would expect any MP to cooperate with the police. But even if this wasn’t the case, after the incidents of November last year no MP can be in any doubt about what the police can and can’t do. They didn’t have a warrant and so if Kawczynski didn’t feel like cooperating he should have simply shown them the door.

Except of course he has to have it both ways. So rather than turfing them out, he cooperated with their “intimidating” request while at the same time whinging about it on the floor of the House.

It is hard to see what case the police have to answer here. Worse, while the Green affair genuinely did raise some important questions, shouting about the Kawczynski One threatens to trivialise all that.

At a time when the State is taking a turn for the sinister, it is all the more important not to cry wolf. That Damian Green chose to sit next to Kawczynski and thus symbolically support his complaint to the Speaker, suggests that the Tories as a whole have got this whole business out of proportion.

Do you “deserve” your rights?

Anyone who thinks our civil liberties will be any better protected by a Conservative Government should think again. Speaking in Bangor (the Northern Ireland flavour) on Friday, the News Letter reports Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve saying:

… there is “a rights culture” which is “out of control”, not just in Ulster, but throughout the UK.

It did not help that “the undeserving in society” can often use rights legislation for personal gain, he added.

The Conservatives, he suggested, intend to create a UK Bill of Rights which would have in-built safeguards to prevent those “whose own behaviour is lacking” from abusing the powers.

I’m used to people from across the political spectrum differentiating between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor when it comes to welfare but not when it comes to fundamental rights. This rhetoric even goes beyond the talk about “rights and duties.”

In fairness to Labour, even the Jack Straws of this world have fallen short of using language as stark as this. Michael Wills was arguing last month that by “responsibilities” all they are talking about is the vague rhetoric about responsibilities that you can find in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and I have heard Straw on more than one occasion insist that by “duties” he means nothing more than the riders which can be found in the European Convention. Of course, that doesn’t stop them from using loaded rhetoric whenever they want to court favour with the Daily Mail.

I suspect that tailoring your rhetoric to suit your (in this case the dinosaurs in the DUP and UUP) audience is something that Grieve himself is guilty of here but even at their best, the Tories don’t offer the same reassurances that Labour do. It is rank cowardice on their part not to call for its outright rejection, rooted in a knowledge that it would make us the pariahs of Europe (we would have to leave the Council of Europe and subsequently the EU). More to the point, he is talking tosh: when challenged, the anti-HRA brigade consistently fail to come up with concrete examples of how eeeeevil people are using it for “personal gain.”

I don’t actually think the Tories mean all this nonsense. I do fear however that if they regain control the constant undermining of the HRA that Labour are guilty of will be turned up several notches.

And let’s not forget that Grieve is a supposed “wet” – just imagine how much further his own backbenchers will want to push him? And before you carp “never mind this human rights nonsense, at least the Tories will be better on civil liberties” – nu-uh.

Andrew Pelling MP becomes punchline to much loved joke

On the one hand, this story is yet another example of the paranoia that is dominating the police at the moment. It is telling that the only MP who seems to be happy about the situation is a man who had the whip withdrawn for assault allegations (now dropped).

On the other hand, it does remind me of that old joke about tarmac.