Monthly Archives: November 2010

Insider View of Coalition Negotiations

On Tuesday I attended a fascinating seminar at Portcullis House on the nuts and bolts of the Coalition negotiations in May.  The speakers were Lib Dem David Laws and Tory MP Rob Wilson, both of whom are peddling their respective books on the subject*.  For me, it was a unique chance to get a perspective from people who were ‘in the thick of it’.

A  blow-by-blow account of the evening has been done by a Lib Dem blogger here and I wont try to better that.  I will just summarise my take-away points:

  • The Lib Dems were genuinely knocked backwards by their election showing.  Nothing in their private polling had led them to expect so few seats.  Before polls closed Danny Alexander (then Clegg’s chief-of-staff) was briefing his colleagues to expect 80-85 seats.  He was way out.
  • The Lib Dems were between a rock and a hard place.  Although many of their key players would have felt more comfortable in a ‘progressive coalition’ with Labour – the Parliamentary maths and Labour’s attitude made that a no-go.  At the same time if they couldn’t form a coalition with the Conservatives we would enter a period of unstable Government with another election in November.  They reasoned a) they would do worse and b) a short-lived impotent hung parliament would be very damaging to their long term aspiration for PR – a system which would lead to hung parliaments as the norm rather than the exception.
  • The Labour party machine seemed to have done literally no planning for the eventuality of a hung parliament.  Laws had the sense they were making it up as they went along – a sense that Wilson confirmed through his interviews with the key players on their team.
  • The Conservatives had done proper planning for the Hung Parliament scenario.   They were very quick to produce a document that conceded so much the Lib Dems had no choice but to take them seriously.   Laws’ view was that the Tories essentially came into discussions with a ‘cut-to-the-chase’ final position.   The only thing that was unacceptable in the first offer was on electoral reform  (the proposal being to simply to set up another Commission to look at the subject).  I pressed Laws on whether with hindsight – if the Tories showed they had wiggle room on Electoral reform, perhaps there was wiggle room on other areas had he pushed harder.  He didn’t think so.   I personally do wonder.  Wilson made the point that for many, if not most Tories the ‘key concessions’ – the no tax on first £10k and the pupil premium were not any wrench to concede – most would have loved those policies in their manifesto in the first place.
  • Laws and the Lib Dems struggled in the negotiations to figure out how to navigate so much so quickly whilst still staying within their internal party processes.  When Laws observed the Conservative Party was spared these constraints with the leader being an effective ‘absolute monarchy’ William Hague knowingly shot back that the check and balance was “our monarchy is qualified by frequent regicide”.
  • On the final day Brown had lost the plot so much he even offered the Lib Dems 50% of Cabinet seats.

It was a good event and the second time that I have heard Laws speak.  He does impress and seems a very good counter-balance to the more loony fringes in the Lib Dem party. It underlined for me the sadness that through his wrong-doing he excluded himself from Cabinet.   If you do the wrong thing for the right reasons, you still do the wrong thing.  His replacement is not half as able.  I noted yesterday that Cameron was asked if he wanted Laws back: “Yes, and soon” was the reply.   On reflection, I could live with that.

* Rob Wilson has released 5 Days to Power while David Laws book is 22 Days in May.

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Filed under Centre Right, Politics, UK, UK Politics

Does the Irish bailout teach the UK anything about austerity measures?

Ireland has bowed to the inevitable and accepted the necessity of a bailout.   There will be a lot written about the causes and blame for the sorry state of affairs.  Take your pick:  Reckless bank lending, reckless corporate and individual borrowing, reckless State spending, reckless lack of regulation, etc.   Folk will write very studious books on these events.  The headline conclusions will be the same old broad themes they have been after every financial crisis in history.  Initially people will earnestly take on board these lessons and kick off the new economic cycle.  The age old truth that the ‘collective memory’ is shorter than the ‘economic cycle’ will then slowly kick-in.   As time passes people will forget the lessons and again rationalise that the laws of economics ‘are different now’.  The whole thing will rise and collapse again – probably more than once or twice in our lifetimes.   It was ever thus.

Back in the here-and-now there are political points being scored as the Irish brown stuff hits the whirly thing.   An argument gaining currency amongst leftist commentators is that the Irish humiliation shows that austerity measures (read government cuts) do not work.  There is one example here.   This needs to be taken head-on.

At first pass there does sound a clear logic to their argument.  Ireland hit breaking point first so went first with austerity measures .  The measures manifestly haven’t done the job given the need for this bail-out.  Therefore, ‘logically’, austerity measures do not work.   Therefore, ‘logically’, they would have been better to keep pumping more state money around the economy to avoid this final meltdown.  Therefore, ‘logically’, the UK must take note and course correct.

It is a compelling narrative.  It is also dangerous.  If you  stop and think about it this argument  is no more or less a ‘logical’  as saying “A man was in a hole, he stopped digging, he found he was still in a hole, therefore he should have kept digging”.

We cannot let their spin distract us from the fundamental issue:  the nation was spending four pounds for every three that it brought in.   We have an unsustainable debt and government spending polices were making it worse.  You don’t solve a problem and delaying the inevitable for longer.  When you have a bubble – sadly you have to let it burst.  Pouring more soap into it doesn’t let it down gently – it just makes for a bigger bang when it comes.

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Whatever You Think of Him, Why We Should All Stand Up For Gareth Compton

It is the stuff of nightmares.  You’re listening to a radio interview.  The interviewee  winds you up by saying that you have no moral authority to take a view on human rights.  You react immediately by putting on Twitter an ironic response to that specific point.  You don’t think hard.  You just hit send.   Just another moment in the day, just  another narky tweet.   Then things get out-of-hand.   Within 24 hours this tweet makes worldwide news headlines.  Next there are statements made in Parliament.  Next the police come and arrest you.  For Gareth Compton this nightmare is a terrifying reality.

Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan’t tell Amnesty if you don’t. It would be a blessing, really,

Any reasonable person given just those words to judge would conclude that the author is a bigot, an idiot and nasty.  I know Gareth Compton.  He is none of those things.  But you only have that one tweet to judge him on.  So I don’t expect you to believe me.

Context matters.  He was listening to Alibhai-Brown on a Radio 5 Interview (which you can hear in full here – fast-forward to 53 minutes).   Alibhai-Brown made her point that British politicians do not have any moral right to protest human rights abuses including the stoning of women in other countries.  She claimed only human rights groups or Nelson Mandela should engage in that debate.  I can imagine Gareth’s jaw dropping with outrage at the assertion he should shut-up on human rights.  He is, and I don’t expect you to believe this either, a believer in human rights and a fighter of bigotry.

If you knew Gareth, were listening to the radio and clocked the tweet when the interview was playing you would probably have ‘got it’.  You may not have found it funny, you may still have taken offence but you would have ‘got it’.  The world doesn’t know Gareth and wasn’t listening to the radio when the tweet went up.  So, the world didn’t ‘get’ it.  Truth be told, even with full context it is neither funny nor clever and has an unpleasant snarl to it.  Nevertheless, it isn’t incitement to murder. It is simply what the kids would call ‘an epic fail’ in joke telling.  Since when was that a crime?

Gareth Compton is a grown man and a partisan politician.  He takes and gives heaps in the virtual political bun-fights that litter the internet.  He has apologised unreservedly but in the rough and tumble of politics he would now expect the opposition vultures to circle and tear shreds.  If the boot was on the other foot he would do the same.  He would expect calls for ‘resignation’.  He would expect the Conservative Party to suspend him given the furore.  All of that is fair game in the playground of local politics.  But the Police? Arrest? Criminal charges?  Come on.

Voltaire famously nearly said:  “Sir, I do not agree that your jokes are funny, but I will defend unto death your right to tell them”.   I would appeal to anyone who has ever said anything knee-jerk in a pub, who ever momentarily wished harm to George Bush and said so, who has ever said anything they regretted, or ever had anything they said taken out of context (which must be all of us, right?) to stand up for Gareth in the event of any prosecution.

Even if you still think he is an idiot, a bigot, and nasty (he isn’t).  Even if his politics are Mars to your Venus.  Stand up against this thought police nonsense.

This whole sorry affair has left me terrified to type.   I have a real sadness that the hysteria that these storms whip up will deter our politicians from engaging in new social media.   It brings to mind the telling scene in “The Social Network” where the main character is confronted by an ex-girlfriend he berated on his blog.   His apology falls hollow, she looks him in the eye and says with all the power of a great metaphor –  “The internet is not written in pencil.  It is written in ink.”   It is a lesson for us all.

Nevertheless, no matter how staggeringly misjudged Gareth was, the chain of consequences has been out of all proportion.  I honestly wish Gareth well.  I believe his apology and I hope that Alibhai-Brown can find the grace within herself to accept it.  I trust the Conservative Party will be fair in their investigation and measured in subsequent action.  Our democracy needs us to have the right to say daft and wrong things without criminalising us.  We already saw yesterday with the mad judgement in the Robin Hood Airport case that this right is vanishing.  So most of all –  I pray that all thinking people – whatever their political hue or view of Gareth – demand the CPS drop this case.

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The Woolas Judgement: Good News For Our Democracy

That Phil Woolas will lose his seat (pending any last ditch legal challenge/judicial review) is sad news for the man himself but very good news for British democracy.

One of the things that struck me during my campaigning at the last general election was how little people seemed to care about the rules.  I documented my own astonishing experience here.  Electoral courts have been so few and far between that there has been no sense of consequence to deter people from bending the rules.   Bending quickly becomes breaking.  Consequences help focus the mind.  This judgement should focus the minds of many.

If any issue should be a cross-party issue it should be this.  The way we conduct ourselves at elections is core to our ability to lay claim to even be a ‘democracy’.  I’ll put my cynicism aside and take Harriet Harman’s rationale for dumping Woolas at face value and offer full support for her stance.  We follow the USA on many things but the drift to negative campaigning and attack ads is a road we should stop following –  all the more when attacks are based on tittle-tattle, rumour or downright lies.

Many of Woolas’ colleagues now say they feel he was hard-done-by and  worry that this judgement ‘could open the floodgates’.   Good.  Let the flood gates open.    The unfortunate truth is that had this not been a wafer-thin majority then the case would never have come before the Court.    Now that this precedent has been set it is my sincere hope that any future candidates who plays loose with the truth on the character of an opponent should be in fear of the result being annulled immaterial of the size of their majority.

Full respect to Lib Dem candidate Elwyn Watkin in risking all to bring this case.  He has done the country a great service.

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Filed under Election, Politics, UK, UK Politics

Student Tuition Fees: The Weird Thing

When tuition fees were introduced in Labour’s first year in office I actually marched on Parliament in protest.  At the time I had just completed my Masters and was clinging on for one last year as my University’s Student Union President (still the most fun ‘job’ I have ever had).

Every press release I sent out, every letter of protest that was written, every person who gave me the opportunity to bend-their-ear got the same message.  It seemed to me to be self-evident that the introduction of student fees could only:

  • Lead to lower take-up of Higher Ed across the board
  • More worryingly – lead to even greater social exclusion for those from poorer backgrounds
  • Lead to University closures and a diminishing of Britain’s academic standing

The only crumbs of comfort I could think of was that if students were paying they would become far more fussy and demanding which would drive up the standard of tuition.

Here’s the weird thing:  I’ve never been more wrong with a set of predictions in my life.  The take up of higher education went up and up.  This includes an increase in take-up from people from disadvantaged backgrounds.  Far from closures the number of higher education institutions and overall capacity increased.  I was wrong on every count.  The anecdotal evidence I have is that even my certainty that tuition standards and one-on-one teaching time would improve was  off.  I still find just how wrong I was quite sobering.

I obviously mention this now, because with today’s announcement that fees will increase to between £6,ooo and £9,000 per year the current crop of Student Union Presidents up and down the land are making the very same points as the once fresher-faced me.

Despite being proved spectacularly wrong on this issue in the ‘90s, to be honest I am still as nervous this time around.  I can’t sit here all smug that I got through the system with fees paid for and a maintenance grant because  I now have to worry about how my own two kids will afford the opportunities I had.  At some point we surely must hit the tipping point?  There has to be a cost that will put people off?  The headline £27k for a degree before living costs does sound overwhelming.

This prompted me to dig a little deeper into the detail of what is proposed.  As is so often the case the reality of the detail isn’t quite as alarming as the screaming headline – but it is still scary.  The proposals have students only repaying their loans at 9% of their income at a real rate of interest when they earn £21,000, up to inflation plus 3% for those earning £41,000 or more.   Any outstanding loans are written off after 30 years.  If you don’t end up in employment, you don’t pay anything back.  In terms of the technicalities of repayment and pressure to repay these proposals are actually a step forward from the current arrangements – though of course the overall amount to be repaid is much higher – but a step forward nonetheless.  A kind of ‘no-win, no fee’ arrangement.

It is still a whopping burden though.  I really do pity the kids who start life with that kind of debt, on top of already silly marginal tax rates to pay for the excesses of their parents’ generation.

Of course, Labour will oppose these moves.  That’s the nature and job of opposition.  There is no need to put forward an alternative, you can just yell ‘nay’.  The media will ignore that it was the Labour Government (actually Mandelson) who commissioned the Browne Report in 2009 that led to these changes.  In many ways this is history repeating itself.   In 1996 the then Conservative Government appointed Ron Dearing to do an ‘independent’ report knowing full well the recommendations that Blair and Blunkett would inherit and which led to the first tuition fees.  This time Mandelson and G. Brown knew full well what would be recommended by Lord Browne and that whoever won would have to go with it.  One silver lining for the loser of this last election was always going to be not having to catch and deal with being lobbed this particular ticking grenade.

The Coalition have actually watered down Browne’s recommendations a bit.  There is a cap on fees (albeit a quite high one), and there is more money for bursaries for the poor and early repayment levies so that the richer folk can’t get out of paying their share by paying off their loan early.

It is what it is.  The choice was always either to revisit student funding or cut back on HE provision.  Access to Higher Ed benefits the whole of society and so it was the right choice to revisit funding.

The changes are necessary but still depressing.  All I can do is hope that the weird thing happens again and that effects of student financing policy continue to be subject to counter-intuitive economic freakery that prove me, and all those earnest fresh-faced student union presidents, totally wrong.

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Filed under Centre Right, Economy, Education, Uncategorized