Category Archives: Politics

This Gove Grand Conspiracy

Michael Gove is not universally popular.  Mention his name to a teacher and it’s likely they’ll react with the face of a cat biting a lemon.  This reaction makes Gove ‘box office’ with our news media. To read politics our dumbed-down news consumers need pantomime villains. In the eyes of Fleet Street Gove’s Evil Wizard is storming centre stage and kicking Lansley’s Wicked Stepmother into the wings.  Oh yes he is.

Every pantomime villain needs a cunning plan.   The Twitter-wisdom, which the Guardian and TES follow rather than lead, is that Gove has leaned on the Exam Boards to lower grades so that more schools fall under floor-targets.  They’ll then be forcibly turned into Academies.  This will lead to a future of Blofeld-led corporations syphoning the education budget away from the careful stewardship of LEAs and into private coffers to then fund the redevelopment of the sports fields they’ve just sold to themselves into branches of Waitrose.    The evidence is out there.  Join-the-dots.  The grades have lowered, the sports fields are being sold at an unprecedented rate.  The man must be stopped.  Right?

Oh come on.  Get a grip.   Gove is no puppet-master.  Yes, he’s single minded and does seem to ‘work around’ as much as ‘work with’ stakeholders.  But he can’t even rely on his people to count to 31 much less engineer ‘The Grand Conspiracy’. You can only join-the-dots-up in that way if you first sex-them-up. Sexing-up Gove stories has been an Olympian endeavour over the last fortnight.  Take the playing-fields storm.  Selling at an ‘Unprecedented rate’?     Even if the sports field figure is 31 they’re selling 15 a year compared with their predecessors yearly average of around 20.  Whilst every sale may or may not be a tragedy, to describe it as happening at an ‘unprecedented rate’ is an outright lie.  It’s happening at the slowest rate for 30 years.

I suspect the truth behind these exam results will be equally mundane, boring  and ignored to keep the pantomime rhetoric in play.  This idea that downgrading is a ploy to make borderline floor-target Schools look worse is a nonsense.  Don’t forget  Academies enter exactly the same exams.   Any downgrading puts the same pressure on them. They’re just as exposed in the same league tables.  If anything they’re under more pressure to raise attainment quickly and under more scrutiny.  Other things being equal, to introduce downgrading will make the Academy program look like it is failing to deliver.  That would be in direct contradiction to the desired ends of our supposed ‘Grand Conspiracy’.

Almost certainly the exam boards will have recognised that grade inflation was an issue people were gunning for and then taken the call to sort it themselves.  It seems the AQA in particular has gone a wee bit further than the others down this track.  Now I share the demand that the same effort and score in an exam of the same difficulty should be rewarded with the same grade and not be variable depending on exam date. That’s why I’m miffed that my own GCSE results are considerably lower than they would be had I taken them this January.  I took mine over 20 years ago.   Those kids on the wrong side of the C/D borderline this year would have been on the wrong side of it in 2010 and every year before.

That said, reading the anecdotes from teachers there’s a genuine  issue in the way students  had their expectations managed.  And the students themselves are blameless in that.  Had the change not  come ‘in year’ and  been properly signalled to teachers then that bit at least could and should have been avoided.   Conspiracy? No.  Cock-up?  A little bit.  British policy development  was ever thus.

I’m no blind Gove fan-boy.  I think some of his views on curriculum are plain wrong.  It’s as if he asked his Mum what she did at school and has decided that’s what kids should still do now.  The idea of ensuring rigour in GCSEs is sound, but the idea that there can only be rigour in traditional subjects doesn’t logically follow.   Raise the bar on subjects like ICT and add rigour to them!  As an employer I can assure Mr Gove that a kid with a credible ICT GCSE or, if such thing existed, even a rigorous media studies qualification would be more use to me than a kid with Latin.

A side effect of this focus on the 1.5% fall in English (and 0.4% fall overall) is it distracts us from the great August tradition of  praising success.  Ironically, given this wider context recognising success where we see it is more deserved than ever this time.   There are  schools out  there who had a great year and moved forward without a grade inflation nudge.  You wont have heard their head teachers on the radio complaining. There’s one school just down the road from me that against the odds increased its headline 5 A*-C GCSEs rate by 10%.   They can be very proud. It’s customary to say that such improvements are down to quality of teaching and a sterling effort from the pupils themselves.  This year, for the first time in a long time even the cynics will believe it.  And that is no bad thing.

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Filed under Center right, Centre Right, Education, Politics, UK, UK Politics, Uncategorized

Mixing up ‘Loopholes’ with ‘Incentives’

Here’s the reason for this recent tax shit-storm: the morons have mixed up ‘tax loopholes’ with ‘tax incentives’.

It kicked-off with an innocuous story  “Millionare Tax Avoiders ‘Shock’ Chancellor”.     The Treasury team intended to show they’re tuned into the zeitgeist of public concern over ‘tax avoidance/evasion’ and sought the front-foot.  Instead, within a week their imbecilic approach pushed them firmly on the back-foot with everyone.   How did they manage such an ‘epic fail’?

Whilst ‘tax avoidance’ is legal, there is no escaping that in common speak the words are always used pejoratively.  So if the chancellor is saying he’s going to crack down on it, you imagine he’s going to be going gunning for those offshore ploys, those spurious salaries for director’s spouses, the deferred payment of bonuses in copper futures or whatever; basically all that ‘creative accounting’ malarkey.

Instead they deliberately allowed the ‘tax avoidance’ label to be linked to everything that properly reduces a bill.  I quote:  “HMRC found the main methods used by people to reduce their bills was writing off business losses, offsetting the cost of business mortgages and borrowing on buy-to-let properties – all against their income tax bills.  Others took advantage of tax relief on charitable donations”.   My lord.  If they’re shooting at that I’m surprised they didn’t lump in ‘paying into ISA’s or ‘making pension contributions’ with equal disdain.

It was Parliament’s intent that folk can offset their business losses against their income before calculating tax owed.  That encourages folk to invest in new business which may take time to grow, or may even fail.  It encourages folk to stick with loss-making businesses a little longer rather than wind them up and make people redundant.  It isn’t a dirty loophole.  It is an incentive to help the economy.

It was Parliament’s intent to allow the cost of securing finance (business mortgage interest) to be treated as a pre-profit expense.  That encourages people to get business finance, to get business going, to help the economy.  It isn’t a dirty loophole.  It is an incentive to help the economy.

It was Parliament’s intent that folk give to charity tax-free to encourage folk to give to charity.  It isn’t a dirty loophole.  It is an incentive to support charity.

The sniping at that last one has generated the most news-print.  Philanthropists are right to be outraged, the way the reportage has been framed I’m pretty sure that most UK tabloid readers now believe that their generous giving has been at no actual net cost to them, and they are all ‘tax dodgers’.

It hasn’t hit the news in the same way, yet, but I imagine the networks of ‘business angels’ who risk huge losses by supplying capital to start-ups, at a time when banks will not, are also feeling equally bruised.   Is George also going to cap or limit the amount of losses you can offset?   Applying the same logic as to the Charity issue that can’t be far away.

I say ‘logic’ but of course there is very little of that.   I really do want to believe that the government intended to target the ‘abuse of’ all of these tax incentives rather than the incentives themselves, but what a cack-handed way of doing it, and what a miss in the presentation if that was the real target.

If there is an issue with folk setting up bogus charities overseas and funnelling money to them then the way to deal with that is to treat it as what it is – criminal fraud.  The policy on the table is basically saying  “we’re going to let it carry on, but don’t worry we’ve allowed people to only use a quarter of their income for this fraud rather than all of it in future”.  That doesn’t sound great does it?  However it is dressed up they’re also limiting the legitimate donations and making sure that stench of ‘tax dodgers’ for legitimate donors remains.

There are cases to be made for scrapping tax relief for charity donations.  A socialist may think that it is the job of the state to do the stuff charities do, so folk should just pay more tax with no relief and let the state do what needs doing.   A Conservative may make the case that the state has no business whatever with this attempt to socially engineer through the tax system with all the unnecessary (and costly) complexity added to the self-assessment system.  You may disagree with either of these on the basis of philosophy but at least they are intellectually coherent.  The government’s current thinking is not.

One feature of this Government, usually described as a weakness but actually a strength, has been that when a U-turn has been necessary it has come very quickly.  Nudge politics is central to Cameron’s view of the proper relationship between the state and the individual, the role of charity is another.   A proposed policy that acts as counter to both is nuts.  He needs to speak to George about that U-turn.  And fast.

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Filed under Economy, Politics, UK, UK Politics

The best arguments for and against AV

The public ‘debate’ on the referendum for the alternative vote has been shameful. Red herring and dishonest arguments have been pushed by both sides. I’d have rather they kept the debate on the following terms:

The best case for the YES Campaign

  • Today it is common for an individual MP to be elected with a minority of the vote in their constituency. This ‘sounds’ undemocratic. AV keeps the model of an MP representing an individual constituency (which is a good feature of our system) but means that they will have had a positive vote from over 50% of valid votes counted*. It allows those of us who have tactically voted for years under the existing system to now vote with our hearts and know our votes will be counted. That ‘sounds’ more democratic.
*yes, because you don’t have to rank everyone on the paper the number of votes that constitute 50% of the valid vote will get smaller each round as some people decide they couldn’t vote for anyone else on the paper beyond those they have – so 50% of valid votes in a round may be less than 50% of the total vote. yawn. It is still a clearer mandate than winning with a fringe agenda with 20.1% over four other moderate candidates who people struggled to choose between each polling 19.8%.

The best case for the NO Campaign.
  • Just because something ‘sounds’ more democratic in theory, does not mean it will ‘be’ more democratic in action. It is reasonable to assume that AV would result in Coalitions being more common. True, not to the extent that full PR would, but the case can still be made: If you like parties to be judged against their manifesto pledges then post-general election Coalition negotiations can be a nasty surprise. Ask a Lib Dem who is horrified by the new level of tuition fees or a Tory who is horrified by this very referendum. In reality, we already operate broad coalitions WITHIN our main parties. Labour had diverse views such as George Galloway and Tony Blair together for decades, the Tories had Tebbit and Chris Patten together for an age. The parties had their debates before the election and had a transparent process to put together their policies before presenting them to the nation ahead of the vote., You are clear what you are going to get if x,y or z wins. As a party member you would even have been able to have some influence and input to the process of policy formation. Coalitions BETWEEN parties instead lead to Government programs being put together in a smoke-filled room contrary to anything the electorate thought they were going to get. The deal brokers may not be the cuddly types at the center but may just as likley be the parties at the margins – the nutters. Anything that increases the likelihood of that kind of policy formation is less democratic than what what FPTP has delivered for most of our history.

Everything else – the gumpf about cost, simplicity, one person’s vote being counted more times than anothers etc. etc. is just bullshit frankly. As it happens I’m persuaded by the NO argument above as a case against full PR, but not quite as a case against AV. I think AV would be a small, incremental improvement to our voting system, and I don’t think we’g get a glut of coalitions at all. I voted YES already by post. However, I fully expect the NO vote to win – the YES campaign have had their chance to make their case in the face of a terrible NO campaign. They didn’t up their game, if/when they lose they need only look at themselves, I’ll not lose sleep.

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Filed under Election, Politics, UK, UK Politics

“1.6 Million Children in the UK Live in Severe Poverty”. Erm. Really?

Today there has been an alarming headline that 1.6 million children in the UK live in ‘severe poverty’.   Examples of the reportage can be seen at the BBC and Guardian.  Every now and again a news stat sets off a little alarm bell in my head.  This was one of those times – according to the Office of National Statistics there are somewhere around 12.1 million children in the UK (2000 census, I suspect little variation since then).   So according to today’s reports approximately 13% of children in the UK must live in ‘severe poverty’.   That little alarm in my mind was making a coughing noise which only thinly disguised the words ‘bull-shit’.   I usually go off on one when pointing out the rotten state the UK was left in after 13 years of Labour but even with blue-tinted specs on I would never claim that they left us with 13% of all kids living in ‘severe poverty’.    This figure needed some sniffing.

The original report is from Save the Children.  It can be downloaded here.  It’s pretty hard to find how they technically defined ‘severe poverty’ for their ‘research’. After a bit of digging it turns out they define it as those living in households with incomes of less than 50% of the UK median income (disregarding housing costs).   A median single income in the UK is circa. £20k. I have no idea how they then use their methodology to ‘disregard’ housing costs – but the top and bottom is that a couple with two kids who, after housing costs are paid, have an income of £12.5k a year are classed as in ‘severe poverty’.

When you look at the methodology the metric they use is not about poverty – it’s a about income distribution.  Without wishing to belittle the quest for more equitable income distribution- I can’t help but think that such loose use of language cheapens the words ‘severe poverty’ and so insults those millions in the world (including in the UK) who, very literally, do not know where their next meal is coming from.    We could have a very important national debate about income disparity and this data could be used to support the case of those who believe the gap is too wide – however to hijack the language ‘severe poverty’ is a distraction from all that is valid in that debate.

Now don’t get me wrong: that couple with those two kids on that income are going to have a horrible time.  The report does do a good job of highlighting the very real issues they face.   I am also under no illusion that genuine severe poverty exists in this country – the kind were parents go and beg on the street to feed their children – I see some of this here in Birmingham.   Some stories that happen right now in my City would make you weep – but to say ‘severe poverty’ is anything other than at the very margins of our society is a fantasy.  To suggest, as the words they have chosen do, that 13% of all children live in squalid, desperate circumstances is ludicrous.  By overstating it, all Save the Children have done is muddle two debates and distract some focus from tackling those very real cases that do blight our society.

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Filed under Center right, Centre Right, Economy, Politics, UK, UK Politics, Uncategorized

My Tiny Brush With the Mubarak Regime (1993)

In 1993 I had my first sapping experience of what it must be like to live under a truly authoritarian state.   My misfortune took place in Tahrir Square in Cairo.   It is no surprise to me that this place has now become the focus of popular rage against the State.  My own Orwellian brush with petty officaldom has left me with an aversion to ‘big government’ that still influences my politics today.

It was the winter months and the much younger, slimmer me was backpacking around that part of the world.  I’d come down into Egypt by bus from Israel.  My original plan was to stay a couple of weeks, maybe hit North Sudan then get a sail-boat back up the Nile, get over to Suez and then ferry over to Jordan.   More aware travellers told me I had no chance of getting into Jordan with an Israeli stamp on my passport – the two countries were still technically in conflict so if I turned up with my current passport they simply wouldn’t let me in.  No problem – I could get a clean UK passport from the embassy and carry on with my plan.  Fair play to our consular staff, three days after I turned up at their door I had my nice new passport.   I was told I would have to go to the interior ministry to get a replica entry visa in my new clean passport or I would have trouble leaving.   The place I had to go to was called the ‘Mogamma Building on Tahrir Square’.  Now my problems started.

The Mogamma was an enormous 1950s Soviet-style-architecture building which acted as the hub for all aspects of the operation of Mubarak’s state machinery.  If you lived in Cairo and needed a licence for anything (and you needed a licence to do just about anything you may wish to do) this was where you had to go.   It teemed humanity.  Folk wanting permission to open shops, permission to import goods, permission to export goods, permission to go-to-university, permission to employ foreigners, planning permission for new buildings, permission to keep animals, permission to install satellite TV etc.  all had to find the relevant official, with the relevant Government stamp somewhere in this building.  They then had to convince the official to press that stamp on their piece of paper.  That step, as I found, could never be taken for granted.

I expected a long haul.  I got there at 9 in the morning and joined a queue.   Three-and-a-half hours later I got to the front.   I explained what I needed, I was given a desk number and told to report there.   Another long trip through a seemingly endless Labyrinth and I found my ‘desk’.  My heart sank.  Another enormous queue of people with tickets for the same desk.  I stood in line for another two hours.   I got to the front and was confronted with a stout, middle-age lady with a black Islamic head-dress and as stern-a-face as I’ve ever seen.  She looked me up and down  and curled her nose and lips.  Body language is broadly universal, so I don’t need translation to know when someone is looking at me with disdain.   “What?”  she barked.   I explained I needed a new entry visa.  She sighed.  “Give me your passport.”, she ordered.   I passed it under the glass.  She opened her top drawer, dropped the passport in and slammed the drawer shut.  She did it in one fluid motion without breaking her gaze of resentment at me..  “Come back this time next week – now go away”.  She sneered.  I tried to clarify.   She looked around me and shouted what I assume is the Arabic equivalent of “Next!” – I tried to hold my ground and ask for a receipt at least.  “This time next week.  Go Away.”.

You couldn’t travel outside Cairo without a passport so I spent the week exhausting the city’s charms.  The Egyptian museum is truly astounding – but other than that the technical description I would use for the place is ‘a shit-hole’.   The next Tuesday could not come fast enough.  I got there even earlier.  There was still an hour and a half queue to see my charming lady.  “You.” she said.  For a small moment I was pleased she recognised me,  it saved having to explain why I was there again.  “It’s not ready.  Come back next week.”.  I was dejected.  Again, I tried to protest.  She again looked around me and called the next person, and told me in perfect English to “Shut your mouth and go away”.

Another week to kill.  A miserable time, the local food had got to me, and I spent the week reading in the hotel room not able to get very far from a bathroom.   For my next weekly visit I had to bung up on stomach drugs in the hope I could last out the queue without disgracing myself.   A very uncomfortable queue (usual couple of hours).  Exactly the same script.   It required my every ounce of self control not to lose my rag.  I decided I was not going to move.  I demanded to see a superior.  She barked behind the glass to someone in her office.  They muttered to each other in Arabic.  The man came around to my side of the screen and told me “Sir, you must go.  Your passport will be processed by next Tuesday.”   I pointed out I’d been waiting two full weeks.  He looked at me earnestly “Sir, if it is urgent we can have an express service for 100 dollars.  It would be ready by end of day.”    Suddenly I realised I was being shaken down.   Two things stopped me just paying up.  The first was I was actually on quite a tight budget, the second was that I was still quite ill and realised that even if I got my passport that day I would still probably be stuck in my hotel recovering for another few days going nowhere fast.  I told him I didn’t have that sort of money, and would come back next week – when I expected it to be ready.  He said very politely “As Sir wishes”.  That was it for another week.

I was feeling much better on the final week.   I’d spoken to the embassy for advice and had my plan.   I got to the building before it opened.  I raced to the desk and was still beaten by a couple of others but this time the wait was only 15 minites.   As predicted, we went through the now usual weekly ‘not yet ready – so piss off’ dialogue.  I smiled, and told her I ‘would see her later’ – and made my way to the Egyptian Tourist Police Station.   The ‘Tourist Police’ in Egypt are an agency dedicated to stopping Tourists from being ripped off.  Mubarak knew that Tourism was vital for his country’s economy and anyone who went home bad mouthing Egypt could harm that revenue.  So he had a whole separate police-force just to look after people like me.  I explained my story.  The captain sighed wearily.   “Come with me.”   We marched over the Square, back into the building, up to the desk, he ignored the queue, banged on the glass and gestured with his thumb to the ‘lady’ to head to a corner office.  Her eyes narrowed and she snarled at me as she went to join him.  You could see through the window her standing arms folded as he jabbed his finger at her whilst shouting.  She half-shouted back, and for a moment I thought he was about to punch her.  She walked out the office, back to her desk, opened the drawer where she had dropped my passport three weeks earlier, pulled it out, opened the back page, picked up a rubber stamp on her desk and pressed it down.  She passed it through the glass and said.  “It’s done. Go away.”

The passport had never had to go anywhere.  The stamp could have been done in five seconds flat entirley at her gift.  She waited three full weeks and would have kept going until I paid her.  The policeman shouted at her once more and we left.  “Enjoy the rest of your stay in our Country” he wished me as he went back to the station.

Now as ‘police state experiences’ go I got off lightly.   I don’t even register on the scale of possible abuse of power.  I was merely delayed for a few weeks in a crappy hotel.   I wasn’t held in a cell, or tortured with electricity or any of the other nightmare things that citizens of dictatorships endure.  But it did give me a tiny glimpse of how crushing to the soul it must be live in the kind of place where your every interaction with government has the potential for you to be held to ransom simply because some minor official is bored by their pointless job and wants to show off their minor power or increase their pathetic state salary.  I imagine all of those thousands of people in that building, all chasing their licenses for this and that, and all being frustrated unless they had the means to pass on the expected ‘baksheesh’ to grease-the-wheels.    I imagine the hundreds of thousands of people who must have been frustrated by officialdom in that building over the last 18 years.  Those people who would have no ‘Tourist Police’ agency to help them solve their nightmare.   The collective frustration.  The accumulated economic damage to the Egyptian economy.  The simmering resentment of Mubarak and his elite.

So it is no surprise to me at all that they camp in their thousands outside the Mogamma building in Tahrir Square.  That the place hasn’t been flattened or burnt to the ground by the protesters is, in my view, testament to extraordinary restraint of the Egyptian people.  I wish them well.

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Conservative Policy Forum Launch

The last time I heard Baroness Warsi speak her big thing was to make sure the Conservative party was “a political party, not a dining club”.   The sentiment was spot on.   New members (like myself), will have realised the party is good at getting money out of you, good at getting you to post leaflets, good at organising social events – but not so good at giving you any sense of voice or influence.   It’s not unreasonable to suppose that many people who might feel motivated to join a political party may have as much or more of  an interest in policy as they do in giving money, stuffing leaflets or attending BBQs.


Today Warsi took a step to address this by re-launching the Conservative Policy Forum.  100+ activists from across the UK gathered at the old Custard Factory in Birmingham.  The event got off to a bit of a stilted start, the morning session was a succession of speakers (Warsi, Jeremey Middleton, Fiona Hodgson and Natalie Elphick) who were individually good, but unfortunately had very repetitive content.   The gist was:

  • they were encouraging local associations to set up groups to discuss policy (all under the framework of ‘The Conservative Policy Forum’. )
  • This is intended to mirror the history of member involvement in the old CPC/CPF.  It is recognised the forerunner got broken somewhere over the last couple of decades and this initiative is about putting that right.
  • To  help facilitate these new groups they would share discussion papers each month
  • they had agreed clear channels to receive feedback on the discussion papers from the local groups .
  • They then have a process to consolidate all feedback and get it to the relevant Ministers
  • They’re also looking at launching a website to solicit similar input for those who cannot attend the meetings..

It needn’t have taken more than 10 minutes to tell us all that:  It took an hour and half.  The irony in launching something  to enable members to talk, rather than be talked to, by  lecturing the same message four times wasn’t lost.  It contributed to a little frustration in the audience which bubbled over into the first question and answer session.  I actually quite felt for Baroness Warsi – here she was launching a sincerely positive initiative yet was getting criticised for the ‘lack of democratic involvement’  – as a flavour she was asked:  “who elected the regional co-ordinators?  Who elected the forum council?  Who elected you Madam Chairman?  Why is this kick-off the first I’ve heard about it?”.    Leadership in a voluntary organisation is an exercise in herding cats and I don’t envy anyone who has to perform that role.  Warsi handled the more direct comments with self-deprecating aplomb and just about managed to stop the moaning minnies from sapping the energy out of the room.

Oliver Letwin came after lunch and did a sterling job in properly positioning the intended focus of the CPF.  He was crystal clear that the CPF must not become a forum to critique current policy implementation – that’s the opposition’s job.   Current policy is current policy and it is the Government’s job to properly implement it.  The CPF is there to inform the 2015 manifesto and respond to the needs of Britain as it will be then.   Letwin comes across as a bit of a policy wonk on TV and his manner on the box is not everyone’s cup of tea.  In the flesh he was very convincing in his narrative.  He talked about the eyes-wide-open choices the current government has made, the strategic reasoning for doing the more ambitious stuff early in the Parliament and why there will be no respite in this current pace of policy implementation until mid 2012 (“After 13 years preparation, I don’t know why people find it surprising that we actually had a well prepared plan we’re putting into play”).    For me, the gold of the day came when he put up a straw-man of the possible priorities for the 2015 government – the CPF is expected input to a manifesto that will help:

  • Rise to the challenge of an ageing population and other demographic changes,
  • Keep our nation and citizens safe amidst the new security challenges at home and overseas,
  • Make the most of changes in technology and innovation, and support enterprise
  • Ensure we have an adequate skills base to meet the future demands of the market
  • >Respond to increasing pressures on our natural resources and changes to our global climate
  • Meet the economic challenges and opportunities of emerging economies
  • Ensure policy takes account of geographical differences in our nation
  • Strengthen the family, help the vulnerable and poor in our society, and tackle the causes of poverty; and,
  • Support ‘big citizens’ and the ‘big society’

I found it reassuring in the age of the 24-hour-news cycle that at least some politicians still do some forward thinking.  It’s not a bad first stab at what challenges we will face in 2015– he was also at pains to express this list was not exhaustive, and the CPF could well add to it.

Launching something is not the same as delivering on it – but I have high hopes for the CPF.  It is absolutely a step in the right direction for letting ‘membership’ of the party mean more than the right to be mugged for more cash.   The instinct that solutions and great ideas need not come from smoke-filled rooms in Whitehall, but can come from the collective wisdom of the huge pool of motivated, bright people outside the Westminster bubble is something that could really differentiate Conservatives from the heavily centralised Labour Party.  We’ve always claimed to be different in that way – if we can make this work – then we can make that claim demonstrable.

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Ed Balls: The Return of Brownite Economics

Let’s face it:  Ed Balls was to Gordon Brown as Laurel was to Hardy.  His return will no doubt lead to ‘another fine mess’.   This surprise reshuffle does change the calculus of Labour’s electability.   When Ed Milliband decided not to appoint Balls to the role in October it was a deliberate and calculated move.   It was possibly the only truly leader-like think young Ed has done since he got the gig.   The reasoning at the time was surely:

  • You would not want someone so intimately connected with the entire economic calamity facing this country back on point for economic policy
  • You could not want someone who has had an insider view (and leading role) in using the office of Chancellor to undermine and oust a previous leader, sitting there ready for another metaphoric stab.

Well, nothings changed.  Those reasons still stand.  Yet here Balls is.  He’s got the job he craved from the moment he realised he was out-of-the game for the last leadership shot, and young Ed will be feeling his breath on his neck from here-on-in.

To give him his due Balls is a bruiser.  A political big-beast.  From today George Osborne will be looking forward to his turns in Parliament with a tummy rumble.  Balls knows his stats and figures and will not be easy to trip up.  Worse, he’s more than capable of scoring some points through sheer statistical battery.   But that’s all just fluff in the Westminster village.   Balls fundamentally is the living, breathing embodiment of the leftish or centre-leftish vision of Big Government/Big State/Spend and Tax Labour.  As Shadow Chancellor he will push them more so.  Even with all the current national woes, when push comes to shove that positioning is simply electoral poison.   The ‘squeezed middle’ – the people who count – the very people who switched to Labour in 97 and switched away from them in 2010 – those floating voters just don’t drift in that direction.

And that is the reel rub for Labour.  The one man on the Labour front bench who could appeal to that ‘thinking middle’ was Alan Johnson.  He was simply impossible to dislike.  Even though he was struggling to catch-up with his brief, even though he talked rot – people, even me, warmed to him.   For a politician that curious ‘nice bloke’ charisma is the X-factor stuff.  It is priceless political alchemy.  Blair had it.  Johnson had it.  Brown didn’t.  Balls doesn’t.   And so the Labour party is a weaker party this evening.

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As I say, for reasons I cannot put my finger on I like Alan Johnson despite his politics.  I have no idea why he has stepped down.  I wish him well and sincerely hope that whatever the personal issues are they are the kind that can be put right and have a happy ending by making this move.

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