Tag Archives: labour-party

Which side is Peter Watt’s side of the story?

Why has Peter Watt chosen now to put forward his side of the story? It is hard to see how any of this helps the Labour Party’s cause. If his book were being published six months earlier he could at least argue that there was still time to get rid of Brown; if his book were published six months later it wouldn’t matter either way (and it would subsequently be less profitable for him to do so). One hopes that the full book will go some way to answering that question but at the moment it is mystifying.

Based on the Mail on Sunday extracts, I would tentatively conclude two things. The first thing is that Gordon Brown is even more of a waste of space than I assumed he was. Even if only half the things in these extracts are true, they portray a man totally ill suited to lead the country, let alone a general election campaign.

But if Brown comes off badly, in many respects Watt himself comes off worse. The extracts all have the tone of someone who appears to deny any personal responsibility whatsoever. This may just be selective editing on the Mail’s part – seeking to emphasise all the bits that put Brown in the worst possible light – but it is hard to see how they managed to do this when publishing the substantive section on the Abrahams affair.

David told me he used an accountant to ‘legally gift’ the money to his associates.

He had apparently been advised that as long as they were UK residents, on an electoral roll, and – however briefly – legal and rightful owners of the money, there was no problem. Every donation was reported to the Electoral Commission.

Over a five-year period, Kidd, Ruddick, Dunn and McCarthy collectively gave us a total of £600,000 – money that was gratefully received.

Kidd had also donated money to Harriet Harman’s deputy leadership campaign. Nobody at HQ ever really thought these donations were anything other than lawful.

If no-one really thought that was the case then Labour is in an even worse state than we thought. As Mark Pack pointed out at the time, the guidence emailed to him and Watt by the Electoral Commission was quite emphatic. And as someone whose job at the time mainly consisted of pointing out all the potential loopholes of the Political Parties Elections and Referendums Act 2000, it was clear to me that any rational person perusing the law would quickly conclude that such an act was against both the spirit and the letter of the law. The problem with the law was how easy it would be to bypass in practice, not what it said (in this instance at least).

To read the fact that Watt still maintains that he had been neither negligent nor dishonest therefore is quite gobsmacking. To make matters worse, it appears to flatly contradict this article – written by Watt’s ghost writer Isabel Oakeshott – where it is “understood” that Watt did not know that the donations from Raymond Ruddick and Janet Kidd came from Abrahams:

Now the case against Watt is on the brink of collapse following evidence that he did not know that David Abrahams, the Newcastle businessman and donor, was using agents and took reasonable steps to ensure the gifts did not break the law.

Watt is said by friends to have been devastated by the so called Donorgate affair, believing senior party officials had made him a scapegoat. Sources involved in the inquiry say Watt told police that he believed the go-betweens – Raymond Ruddick, Janet Kidd and two others – were donating the cash in their own right.

It is against the law to make a donation to a party on behalf of someone else without making the true source of the cash clear. No prosecutions have been brought, however, and lawyers believe the wording of the law make a successful case unlikely.

This 2008 account flatly contradicts the Mail extracts. In the latter, Watt admits that he knew about Abrahams using Kidd, Ruddick and others to act as go betweens. In the former, he apparently told the police the exact opposite.

Given Oakeshott and Watt’s subsequent relationship, it seems highly likely that Watt himself was the source for the 2008 article. Perhaps the full book will in some way reconcile these two wavering accounts from the same people. Either way, the account given in the latest extract is barely credible.

Overall, Watt comes across in these extracts as an innocent, something which I don’t mean as a compliment. It suggests that he was out of his depth. It is an interesting counterfactual to wonder whether a more grizzled national secretary would have been able to keep Gordon Brown on track when he wavered over the 2007 phony election.

It is worth noting that, in keeping with other Labour national secretaries, Watt was elected by the National Executive Committee not employed. He was also not Tony Blair’s choice, with the “grassroots alliance” out voting him by 16 to 10. Whatever misgivings I might have about how the Lib Dems’ equivalent – the Chief Executive – is appointed and held to account – I wouldn’t wish Labour’s system on my worst enemies. You need a system whereby committees can come to a consensus, not one in which the individual is seen to be owned by a particular faction on day one. No wonder Brown didn’t bother dealing with him directly and left it to Douglas Alexander to work as his intermediary. The very best thing that can be said about this working relationship is that it cost Labour an unneccesary £1.2million.

Peter Watt has decided to tweet his experience of this book launch, using the very Grant Shapps-esque “peterwatt123“. Thus far, his utterances regarding the launch and extracts have been very Kung Fu, with him tweeting this morning that “Loyalty is a two way street” (there’s a philosophy essay in that). More bizarrely, with both his profile picture and past tweets, he appears to be using his kids as a shield on the apparent assumption that people will go easy on a family man (see this as another case in point). Why not keep this stuff seperate from the book? It’s all very odd (and before you argue that these tweets are none of my business, I was only alerted to them because his publisher started promoting them).

Will Labour Peers be Mr Cameron’s poodle in 2010?

Over on Next Left, Sunder Katwala makes the case for 1910 being the most underrated year in political history. Reading this, a thought occurred to me: will the Labour Lords respect the Salisbury-Addison Convention if Cameron wins the general election later this year?

As long ago as 2005, Lord McNally refuted the continued legitimacy of the Convention on behalf of the Liberal Democrats (pdf), much to the consternation of the government:

… I do not believe that a convention drawn up 60 years ago on relations between a wholly hereditary Conservative-dominated House and a Labour Government who had 48 per cent of the vote should apply in the same way to the position in which we find ourselves today.

I hope that the Lord Chancellor will approach the issue in a constructive way. However, if the Government’s aim is simply to clip the wings of this House, so that a Government who have already demonstrated hubris and impatience on any check to
their powers check the powers of this House even further without proper reforms both down the corridor and in general governance, then Salisbury convention or no Salisbury convention, we will fight those proposals tooth and nail.

McNally’s argument makes good sense; the purpose of the Salisbury convention was to stop an illegitimate legislative chamber from thwarting the will of a democratic one. Fast forward to 2005 and we had a second chamber which roughly reflected the balance of votes cast in the previous general election and a first chamber which frankly did not. The same is likely to apply in 2010, unless the Tories begin stuffing the red benches, in which case the argument that the Salisbury Convention needs to be reviewed becomes unavoidable.

It looks almost certain that one of Labour’s favourite lines in the run up to the general election will be that if you vote Lib Dem you’ll be helping the Tories. They used this line in 2005 and it was partially effective, and I have no doubt that in their bid to stave off the Lib Dems in their marginals they will try the same. Fair enough. But if they maintain as they have in this parliament that Salisbury still applies, then it will be Labour politicians we will be seeing marching into the division lobby to support Tory policies, not Lib Dem ones.

In some ways this sums up the problem with the current Labour Party. For all their bluster, they have become all too comfortable being the establishment. Now that the ultimate establishment party is poised to retain control of the wheel, for all the bluster, what they can do except go along with it? They’ve blown every chance they’ve had, from taking big money out of politics to electoral reform, to ensure that when the Tories eventually increased their popularity there would be some proper safeguards to ensure they wouldn’t be able to abuse their position, mainly because Labour itself has grown so fond of these little abuses themselves.

2010 is going to be a decisive year for Labour. Possibly the worst thing that could happen to it would be to win a fourth term (whether this would be better or worse for the country is another question entirely). Fortunately for them, this is highly unlikely to happen. But what kind of opposition will they be? If the Straws and Browns have their way, they will continue to mouth opposition whilst only offering a superficial alternative. If control skips a generation by contrast we will probably see the party become more genuinely radical in terms of constitutional reform at least, but never underestimate the reactionary small ‘c’ conservative elements that lie at the heart of the party and the trade union movement. It is going to be a fascinating spectacle.

On a not totally unrelated note, I recommend people read Martin Kettle’s Is a Labour-Tory coalition unthinkable? Only until you think about it.

STOP PRESS: Nick Clegg ends Lib Dem equidistance

With his Demos pamphlet published today, it has to be said that Nick Clegg has ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament following the next election. That isn’t quite the same thing as saying he has ruled in a deal with Labour but it does look as if our latest flirtation with equidistance has come to an end.

In The Liberal Moment, Nick Clegg makes it clear that while he sees progressive liberals (the tradition of which he squarely places the Liberal Democrats within) as enemies of conservativism, he places Labour within the wider progressive movement – and thus our rivals. Far from sidling up to Labour however, the pamphlet is a denunciation of the modern Labour Party and a declaration that Labour’s time has now past. Just as Labour eclipsed the Liberals in the early 20th century it is now the task of Liberal Democrats to in turn eclipse them in the 21st. Indeed, much of this pamphlet might have been written by Mark Anthony: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” pretty much sums it up.

Broadly, I agree with him – at least in sentiment. As I wrote last month, I do wonder if “progressive” is a term that means anything to the non-politico. To the extent that I would consider myself to be a progressive – and for want of a better term, I do – I’m not sure I go along with Clegg’s definition:

At the core of progressive thought is the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society; it’s a political ideology that stems from a restless, optimistic ambition for change and transformation.

I agree with the second clause but not the first. Like Richard Dawkins, whose God Delusion I have thus far failed to write my review of (tsk! tsk!) Clegg seems to have signed up to the quaint enlightenment notion that progress is somehow inevitable. I disagree and consider that idea to be fraught with problems; if we assume that we are trundling along the road to progress then there is a danger that we tend to assume that each staging post is a step along the way. If we are on a journey, then it needs to be emphasised that we very much need to be in the driving seat and alert to every bump in the road (I think that metaphor has been safely tortured to death now, don’t you?). Indeed it is that lack of critical faculties that Labour can be blamed for; blindly following the “greater good” regardless of the cost.

If we are serious about replacing Labour then we need to resolve three things: funding, strategy and thought. When it comes to funding, it doesn’t matter how dead the Labour parrot is the unions will have the muscle to prop it up for years to come. How do the Lib Dems compete? The last time the Liberals were in the ascendency, party funding was a form of cheerful corruption, as the hereditary peers created by Lloyd George can testify. These days that simply isn’t an option.

Secondly, strategy. We aren’t going to ever replace Labour via an election strategy focused on target seats. It will take us decades, during which time Labour will surely regroup. Yet what is Lib Dem strategy except targeting? This isn’t a question we especially need to answer now, but we do need to have a significantly different game plan in place by the next-but-one general election if we are really serious about this.

Thirdly, thinking. There is an odd paradox when it comes to the Lib Dems and policy. On the one hand we undeniably have tended to be ahead of the curve when it comes to a range of issues, be they Iraq, the environment, democratic reform and now the economy. On the other hand, frankly, that policy comes across all too often as slapdash and poorly joined together. The party’s policy making process is more democratic than our rivals’, yet the party as a whole discusses policy least of all. Quoting Lord Wallace, Chris White wrote on Next Left last week that

He said, in effect, that when he joined the Liberals in the 1950s/60s (?), the party was great at talking about its philosophy but hopeless at campaigning. But now the situation was the reverse.

I for one find this incuriosity about policy within the Lib Dems extremely frustrating. It matters because I don’t believe things like “narratives” and core values can be handed down from on high; they have to be absorbed. Somehow we repeatedly fail to have the debates we need to have; each year we get excited about a specific policy here and there but in terms of broad priorities we thrash very little out.

Partly I feel our policy development process is at fault; it isn’t the democracy that’s the problem but rather its inflexibility. It’s extremely resolution heavy and deliberation light. But the other major weakness we have compared to Labour and the Tories are a lack of think tanks out there producing helpful research and original thinking. Both the other parties have a host of different organisations beavering away at this; the Lib Dems have the Centre Forum.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Lib Dems can hope to replace Labour until we start thinking of ourselves more widely than just a political party and build around ourselves a liberal movement. Labour and the Tories both have these; by contrast we have a liberal diaspora squatting inside the other parties. The decline of Labour and (inevitable?) failure of Cameron to fulfil his promise of liberal conservativism may help us change this, but at the centre the party needs to be ready for it.

It’s a worthy ambition, Nick. Now make it happen.

UPDATE: other responses from Anthony Barnett, Graeme Cooke, Costigan Quist.

Balls, dirty tricks and candidate selection

The revelations in the Sunday Times this weekend about Ed Balls being the secret puppetmaster behind “smeargate” seem a little thin to me, but they do remind me of an incident a few years ago.

Long time readers may recall my ill-fated campaign to get Ed Balls a sex change operation so that he could stand in an all-women-shortlist having had his seat abolished by the Boundary Commission. In the event, he didn’t need one after Colin Challen decided to stand down and leave the newly created constituency of Morley and Outwood open for Balls to take (conveniently enough, no all woman shortlist was imposed of course).

What I reported at the time, from a good source close to Challen, was that he had jumped after a dirty tricks campaign had been launched to discredit him. The most high profile example of that campaign was the secret briefing that had gone on to make a bicycle accident he had been involved in look like an attention-seeking exercise.

I found the failure of the mainstream media (and, it has to be said, Guido), to join the dots and ask pretty basic questions about all this remarkable at the time. If it had been challenged, Balls could have had to struggle to find another safe seat (especially one so close to his wife’s). With Damian McBride now exposed, this is a possible avenue that journalists might want to explore further.

Candidate selection seems to be a particularly murky business in the Labour Party. The Guardian carried a very anti-Georgina Gould story yesterday, alleging that Margaret McDonough’s PR agency bbm communications helped run her selection campaign and co-ordinated a dodgy postal vote strategy. But the other side of the story – specifically that Charlie Whelan was running Rachael Maskell’s campaign in a similar manner – seems equally unsavoury. And as Alice Mahon has been keen to emphasise, this is not an isolated incident.

The overall picture is of a party utterly dominated by a self-serving elite (or, more precisely, a number of interconnected self-serving elites and dynastic families). I suspect it will require at least a couple of Parliaments in opposition for them to start to sort themselves out and become something resembling a proper party again.

In The Loop Review (spoilers)

This is magnificent — and it is true! It never happened; yet it is still true! What magic art is this?
Robin Goodfellow in Sandman #19 by Neil Gaiman

In The Loop was generally what I expected and hoped it would be – a hilarious, somewhat unsettling satire on how we managed to stumble into the Iraq War. But I also got a little bit more, partly due to accident and partly due to the film’s reception itself.

It’s always weird to watch a film when recent events give it a disturbing extra resonance. I saw a preview of the first Austin Powers on the day Princess Diana died. The joke in it about forcing Prince Charles to have a divorce was greeted with total, uncomfortable silence. Then later, watching the news reports, the friend I saw it with and I were grimly amused by the lack of information about the bodyguard who had been involved in the crash and the film’s ironic refrain of “no-one thinks about the henchmen.”

In The Loop had a sort of opposite effect. On the one hand, the joke about hotel porn got an extra yelp of laughter from the audience due to the proclivities of Jacqui Smith’s husband. On the other, it seemed that little bit more chilling in light of Damogate.

The revelations about Damian McBride and the growing awareness that he is part of a wider, endemic culture within Downing Street and the Labour Party went some way to dampening the criticisms of the film’s most damning critic, Alastair Campbell. It would be tempting to respond to Campbell by paraphrasing Carly Simon (“you’re so vain, I bet you think this film is about you”) but in fairness to him, the theory that Malcolm Tucker = Alastair Campbell has done the rounds for quite some time. Iannucci himself has repeatedly stated that Tucker is not an essay of Campbell himself. McBride this week, and the appearance in the film of another, equally odious press office, makes it clear that what Iannucci is doing is reflecting on a much wider phenomenon.

What I find most fascinating about Campbell’s criticisms though however are, ironically enough, how they parallel a crucial part of the film itself. Because ultimately the film is a study of Tucker and ultimately at what a wretched, pathetic character he is.

Tucker starts the film at the height of his powers, striding into 10 Downing Street and very quickly swooping down on International Development Minister Simon Foster for a gaffe in a radio interview. He bullies, cajoles and manipulates Foster and his staff throughout the film but at one pivotal moment it is revealed that he is ultimately as emasculated as all the other characters in the film. Having been put in his place by John Bolton-alike Linton, for a brief moment we are given a glimpse behind Tucker’s mask and get to see his fear and panic (it only lasts for a couple of seconds but here Peter Capaldi demonstrates what a great actor he is as well as a terrific ranter – I still always think of him as the blue eyed boy in Local Hero).

He pulls himself back together of course and over the course of a couple of hours manages to fake the intelligence necessary to persuade the UN to approve the war. But having done so, he goes back to Linton and attempts to publicly humiliate him in the most cutting and hurtful way he can think of. He calls him boring. Yet, while earlier on the film conspires to make you actually admire the savage nastiness of Tucker’s attacks (like all good movie monsters), by now we realise what a broken character he is. Far from cutting, the remark just comes across as sad.

And how does Alastair Campbell describe the film? He calls it boring.

Gethsemane: feel the fear (SPOILERS)

I went to see Gethsemane by David Hare at the National Theatre last night. Political drama is always hard to get right, and even harder to keep politicos content. Even so, I was particularly disappointed.

The basic plot (spoilers) revolves around the teenage daughter of the Home Secretary being gang raped by a group of men at a party, one of which turns out to be a high profile political sketch writer for a major national newspaper. Alienated from her mother the girl acts up, leading to the threat of expulsion from her prestigious public school. Fearing a scandal, the Labour party machine moves in, utilising a rather unethical fundraiser to essentially bribe the school into suppressing the incident. But this bribe backfires and the story gets into the press anyway. Meanwhile the teenage daughter goes into hiding with her former comprehensive school’s music teacher – who also happens to be an employee of the fundraiser (as well as a former civil servant in the Home Office).

So much for that; the plot is largely immaterial really. Rather, the play is a meditation on the state of politics today. “Gethsemane” is a reference to Jesus’ Agony in the Garden, his momentary loss of faith just before being captured by the Romans and, eventually, crucified (you can understand the bloke’s reluctance). In modern parlance this is known as “feel the fear but do it anyway.” The school teacher in the play, played by Nicola Walker, keeps referring to her decision to quit teaching being her “Gethsemane” – as the play makes plain at the end however, she didn’t really have one: she quit, Jesus didn’t. By contrast, the character who does have a Gethsemane is Tamsin Greig’s Home Secretary.

This is all very clever and literary, but is it really that revealing? The problem with this play is that it is neither allegorical or satirical, but instead wades about in a stodgy middle ground. Stanley Townsend’s engaging and flamboyant fundraiser isn’t Lord Levy, just a character with enough incidental characteristics to make it obvious who he is based on. The result, though entertaining, perhaps lingers too closely near an anti-semitic caricature – this is Levy-as-Fagin. Anthony Calf’s Prime Minister isn’t Tony Blair either, but again has many of the same superficial characteristics. This isn’t an attempt to understand either men, merely an opportunity to traduce both of them. All good fun but… so what?

The problem with having both these two characters so obviously sourced from reality is that the brain inevitably then starts making links with the other, more allegorical characters. The Home Secretary isn’t really Jacqui Smith, but with her corrupt husband she is plainly modeled in part on Tessa Jowell. Adam James’s sketch writer (from the newspaper which has a proprietor locked up for tax evasion) and former medieval historian (the PM at one point echoes Charles Clarke’s infamous contempt for medievalists) is remarkably similar to Quentin Letts; does Letts have a sleazy child rape past we don’t know about (to avoid being sued, I should add: I sincerely doubt it)? And then there is the daughter; clearly echoing Kathryn Blair.

The problem with all this real life intruding into something that Hare describes as “pure fiction” is that it becomes impossible to pretend that this play is a comment in individuals rather than a system. And that point is reinforced by the fact that despite its premiere taking place in 2008, it only deals with Blair-era politics. There is an attempt to wash over this when one of the characters asks “what happens when the money runs out?” but the clear inference is that those bastards were bad and it should all be different now.

The closest the play comes to any sort of insight is the implication that the ex-teacher – who we are to understand is an Everywoman – is essentially as culpable for What Has Gone Wrong as everyone else. She quit. If we don’t keep fighting, of course these bastards will end up in power. That is a perfectly legitimate point to make, but it isn’t really dwelt upon. The audience – for it is us who are the target of this message – is ultimately let off the hook.

For me, the real final denouement of the play is not this, but looking at the back page of the programme. This is where you find the real twist, because here you discover that this play about how nasty corporate interest infects and corrodes politics, is supported (presumably tax free) by J.P. Morgan. You literally could not make this up. We are told that “at J.P. Morgan we believe that the arts have the power to do many things: Inspire; Challenge; Stimulate; Question; Entertain; and Enlighten.” As part of the National Theatre’s “New Views” programme in association with J.P. Morgan, “students will undertake a challenge to change one thing in the world that gives them a sense of injustice. Their work will explore the power of critical, creative and polemical writing to promote change and their endeavours will culminate in a ‘Day of Protest’ to be held at the NT in December 2008.”

Did that Day of Protest pass you by? It did me. Notably, all reference to it has been expunged from the National Theatre’s website. Somehow I doubt it resulted in many windows getting smashed. Ultimately then, this play is as much a creature of the corporate machine as the system it is denouncing. I doubt David Hare had a “Gethsemane” himself.

I wanted insight and all I got was cynicism. If this is theatre doing its best to hold politics to account, it is failing abysmally.

UPDATE: Had an interesting chat with the gf and her mother this evening. She didn’t get the Everywoman thing at all (although she admitted I had a point), so either I’m wrong and the play didn’t have a discernable point at all, or I’m right and the message was too sotto voce.

A secret Lib-Lab plot?

So claims Peter Oborne, something which appears to have got the Tories into a right tizzy. Stephen Tall at Lib Dem Voice has debunked most of it so I will try to avoid repeating what he has said. It should also be pointed out that Clegg in particular has been linked to rumours (also by rightwing commentators) of planning a coalition with Cameron at various stages over the past couple of years. The idea that Vince Cable has suddenly become Gordon Brown’s “poodle” because, um, Gordon Brown has finally started agreeing with Vince is ridiculous – is he really supposed to start disagreeing with his own policies once Labour adopts them? Lead by Cable and Clegg, the Lib Dems have recently worked with the Tories to force a vote on the VAT cut – a fact conveniently not mentioned by Oborne.

The Lib Dems’ opponents like to think the party is just itching to jump into bed with whichever party pulls back its duvet. The reality is somewhat more complicated. The party embarked into a near civil war at the end of the nineties when two distinct schools of thought emerged: one that the party should strengthen its ties with Labour and eventually merge (the Ashdown option) and one that the party needed to regain its independence and walk out of the Joint Cabinet Committee it sat on to oversee the constitutional reform agenda (a joint agenda post-1997 following the Cook-Maclennan Agreement). The latter school won. Yet at almost the same time we were in government with Labour in Scotland and about to enter a partnership government in Wales. Fast forward to 2007, and the Lib Dems walked away from coalition in both Scotland and Wales, the latter subtly (and sometimes not-so subtly) framing the recent leadership election between Kirsty Williams and Jenny Randerson.

For a third party, coalition is an opportunity to get your hands on real power, but it is also liable to blow up in your face. Look at what’s happened to the FDP in Germany (more controversially perhaps, I would argue it has happened to the Scottish Lib Dems, going by the opinion polls, the fact that they are on their third leader in three years and personal anecdote – it remains to be seen if Tavish Scott will get them back on track). And in recent history, every time we’ve had to seriously consider coalition, we have been well aware of this fact. That’s part of the reason why it is the one issue liable to split the party down the middle; as a party which tends to resolve its policy disputes by debate and voting, we can pretty much weather anything else.

So when Oborne starts doing his 2+2=5 calculations, you have to factor that in. You have to consider it in relation to the late nineties – a far more fertile period of Lib-Lab cooperation – which failed to result in coalition. Nonetheless, with the Tories the strongest they have been in fifteen years and the clear realisation that their current economic policies (such as they are) would be ruinous to the country, you can see why there is at least a temptation to think about formalising the two parties’ relationship once again.

The clearest stumbling block to a coalition however is Labour’s continual attack on civil liberties. The Lib Dems would lose their reputation as civil libertarians for all time if they entered a coalition with the party of identity cards and the database state. Unless Labour were to recant all these policies (which a number of its own backbenchers would have a thing or two to say about it – they aren’t all called Bob Marshall-Andrews you know), Clegg would have to be suicidal to contemplate it: a new, authentically liberal party – with at least a dozen MPs – would have formed before the ink on the agreement had even dried. As readers may have noticed, I have a tendency to be a bit down on Clegg so you might think I’d want a reassurance that this won’t happen – but it is so far in the realm of fantasy that I think I’d make myself look silly even demanding it.

The bottom line is, we no longer live in a political age where a few people in a Commons tea room can decide to enter a coalition. It is an area that any party leader treads very carefully in. Even if we found ourselves in a no-overall control situation after the general election, I don’t see the Lib Dems agreeing to anything more than providing confidence-and-supply to the party which won the plurality (this was bizarrely dismissed by Clegg in 2008 back when it was cooperation with Cameron that was the rightwing press’ “dead cert”, but then he does a lot of bizarre things – it was Kennedy’s stated policy in 2005).

One thing I will confidently predict is that in 2009 we will have at least one major “revelation” that, in fact, Clegg is in secret talks about a coalition with Cameron. Until Clegg makes his equivalent of the Chard Speech, I won’t be putting much faith into either spin.

The return of clear blue water? I’m bored already

As regular readers of this blog will be able to testify, whenever I say nice things about the other parties, it always comes back to bite me in the bum.

So it was that I backed Caroline Spelman and Ray Lewis, shortly before it became clear their actions were indefensible. And last weekend I wrote a favourable review of plans to cut VAT, responding to reports that the Labour Government were planning to do precisely that.

I still say that cutting VAT now and short term unfunded tax cuts in general, makes a certain amount of sense right now. They won’t stave off recession, but they could give us a softer landing. Doing nothing and whinging about how “I wouldn’t start from here” – the Tory approach – is likely to make things worse. What a shame therefore that the Pre-Budget Report was such a confused mess.

You can sum up the confusion at the heart of the PBR with one statistic: NI is set to increase by 0.5p in the pound. When you’re reduced to playing with silly numbers like that in taxation policy (and that’s only after 2011 – something tells me the Treasury will have rewritten their plans several times by then), it’s clear you lack the confidence of your convictions. It’s just so faffy.

Putting VAT back up in 13 months is just daft. Personally, I’m willing to be on it not happening. We’ll get to next November and the CBI, FSB et al will be lining up to demand the rise get deferred another year. And since when did the Treasury do January-January budgeting anyway?

What we needed was something strategic. Gordon Brown is a tactician, not a strategist and this has always shown in his budgets. It is all about the detail. The Lib Dem proposals for a tax shift are all about strategy – where we want to be in 5-10 years time not merely about getting out of the current hole. As it happens they would help there too.

And what of the Tories, this back to the 1992 bombshell stuff is already getting old. They’ve now replaced the vague, ominous threats with specific threats. The Treasury’s stupid fumble over releasing the wrong draft of the PBR enabled them to start talking about a VAT increase to 18.5%, and now they’ve managed to magic up a VAT increase to 20%. All very scary sounding stuff, except for two things. 1) You cannot argue, as Cameron and Osborne are that a 2.5% reduction will have no effect on the economy while claiming that a 2.5% increase is a “bombshell”; 2) If the situation is really as bad as they claim it is, if they do get into power they will either have to detonate the “bomb” themselves or slash public spending – we’re talking decimate the numbers of schools and hospitals here. In reality, they’ll probably end up doing a bit of both.

So it appears we are back to clear blue water: the Tories scarifying about tax increases and Labour scarifying about public funding cuts. None of this is to question the fundamentals of our economy or to ask why it is that individuals at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder pay so much in tax while those at the top pay so little. None of this is to question whether we can continue to base our economy on financial speculation. None of this is to ask how we might start to rebuild our industrial base. And don’t even mention the environment, that is so 2006. A return to party politics in other words, in which the main parties conspire to avoid talking about anything that actually matters.

Curb your enthusiasm.

Cutting tax is not a zero sum game

I’m cautiously optimistic about the rumoured plan of a 2.5% drop in VAT. It sounds like a good move to me, for several reasons.

One thing a VAT cut won’t do is lead automatically to a reduction in prices. Most food isn’t VAT-rated and it is hard to believe that a CD priced £9.99 this week will be priced £9.78 next week. However, taken together those 11ps start to add up. At the top end of the scale, being able to shave a bit more off the asking price for that plasma screen might just make the difference between whether it sells or not. If spending on the high street is down a couple of percentage points, dropping VAT by about the same amount could save real jobs. That means more people paying NI and income tax (and VAT) and fewer people claiming JSA. Looking it in that way, we have to ask ourselves the question: would it cost the Treasury more or less to keep VAT at 17.5%?

Gideon Osborne is not this blog’s favourite Shadow Chancellor, but I will give him credit for one thing: he has managed to get the media to completley buy into his claim that tax cuts now – any tax cuts – will automatically lead to paying a greater price in the longer term. The truth is much more complicated than that. VAT is a deadweight cost – a tax on commerce which is generally seen as a good thing. In my personal utopia, we wouldn’t have it in the first place. Dropping it at the start of a downturn has a real chance of softening the landing. It isn’t a magic feather, and there is certainly a point where the cost of dropping it outweighs the benefit, but it is a practical measure.

Vince Cable has broadly welcomed it, while emphasising the Lib Dem’s own policy for a tax switch (both policies are compatible). Cameron and Osborne have rubbished it. That should surprise no-one because VAT is the tax of choice for the Conservatives. It was Mrs T’s favourite tax. Raising it still further was one of Norman Lamont’s first acts as Chancellor. Ken Clarke, keen not to be outdone, expanded it to gas and electricity (Clarke has now come out as a VAT-cutter, suggesting his common sense now outweighs his dogma). Tory ginger group Direct Democracy – the closest the Conservatives get to genuine localists – envisage a world where council tax will be replaced by, you guessed it, a sales tax.

Once you remember that the Conservatives are not a pro-business party but a pro-entitlement party, it is easy to see why: piling the VAT on the proles means that you don’t have to pay for things by taxing unearned wealth. So for future Baronet Gideon Osborne to recoil at the merest suggestion is no surprise. The only tax cuts he will consider are on things like inheritence tax for millionaires.

The Tories have decided they are back in 1992, and have relaunched their “tax bombshell” posters. Labour should follow suit. Anyone remember VATman?

Is UK politics institutionally racist?

Trevor Phillips thinks it is:

The public in this country would, he believes, embrace a black leader but the system would prevent it happening. “Here, the problem is not the electorate, the problem is the machine.” It was no coincidence that there were only 15 ethnic-minority MPs, he said. “The parties and the unions and the think-tanks are all very happy to sign up to the general idea of advancing the cause of minorities but in practice they would like somebody else to do the business. It’s institutional racism.”

I actually disagree with Trevor Phillips in as much as I don’t accept that the UK political system is any more institutionally racist than the US system. The House of Representatives does relatively better than the House of Commons, but the Senate does far worse than either the Commons or the Lords: Obama was the only black senator and he’s now out of the door. Meanwhile, in terms of gender balance, we do significantly better. But Adam Afriye does have a good point when he says:

“In the US a fresh face like Obama can make it in one electoral cycle. In Britain it’s generally a gradual process of service and promotion over many years, and often decades, before leading a political party.”

If we had a presidential system, it is certainly true that we would create within our own system a similar opportunity for an anti-establishment candidate such as Obama to come out of nowhere. But would we want a presidential system? I can see strong arguments either way, although my mind opposition to directly elected mayors has hardened over the past two years after seeing London’s gradual shift towards post-Livingstone politics. The same system that would prevent the meteoric rise of a “British Obama” also prevents the meteoric rise of a “British Palin.”

But we should also be mindful of the fact that neither Obama or Palin did, in fact, come from nowhere. Obama had been a state senator for eight years before entering the US Senate in 2005. Palin also made it in local and state politics first. The difference between these levels of government and their UK equivalents is that they wield far more influence and power. In the UK, even the Scottish Parliament has very few tax-raising powers; in that respect it is no different from a local authority which can only control how it allocates the cash not make strategic decisions about the level of that cash and how it should be raised. As Mayor of Wasilla (pop. 10,000), Palin had powers that Alex Salmond would hanker for. If we don’t have proving grounds such as these, how can we expect our stars to rise (indeed, I made this point about the London Assembly last year)? Currently the only real avenue is the House of Commons, and that is where there is also the most party control.

The UK Parliament and the system we use to elect its members institutionally favours candidates who are capable of running their own campaigns and working extremely long hours for years before polling day. Inevitably, this tends to favour rich people, successful entrepreneurs and lawyers, who tend to be (but are not exclusively) white, middle class and male. The Labour Party has an additional category of standard candidate background – the trade unionist – but these days these too tend to be white, middle class and male. For every Dawn Butler there are dozens of Tom Watsons and Sion Simons. Labour these days may be unlikely to foster an Obama, but it is unlikely to foster a Keir Hardie either.

Getting elected to the UK Parliament is, currently, an extreme sport. You have to be ever-so-slightly insane to want to put yourself through it. The serious question is whether this is actually healthy? Scrutiny certainly is, but in most parts of the country where we have safe seats, we have patronage in place of that. Fundamentally, we have a system that puts parties, not the public, in control.

Some have argued that the solution to all this is to have primaries, but for reasons I have already rehearsed, I don’t think that will work (nor do I think it works well in the US outside of presidential candidate selections). No, if we are serious about putting the people in control, we need a system like STV which combines a fairer electoral system with a more open system for selecting party candidates. If the Equality and Human Rights Commission are serious about exposing institutional racism (and sexism and all other forms of discrimination for that matter), then they should come out in support of electoral reform.