Watching the local TV here in Boston, I caught part of a trashy TV show that serves as the perfect vignette for the best and worst of America.
The show was ‘Minute to Win It’. The premise isn’t that important, but in a nutshell two strangers are paired up to complete 10 one minute challenges to win a million dollars. Think ‘Ant & Dec’s Saturday Night Take-away’ meets ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. To emotionally connect with the contestants they throw in ‘X-Factor’ style interviews with their families explaining how the Million Dollar prize would transform their lives.
A particularly enthusiastic soul on the episode I watched explained in a matter-of-fact fashion how she used to work as an insurance agent, ‘a good job with an excellent healthcare plan’, but when the recession came along was made redundant. They could make the mortgage payments on one salary but her younger son was on specialist treatment for Asthma, they didn’t want to stop it, without the health-plan the medical bills rolled in. They lost their house.
Just wow. It hammered home to me that our society’s consensus that we treat our population free at the point of the delivery on the basis of need is golden. I have no issue whatever with innovative plans put forward to meet that consensus more efficiently, nor any particular truck with whether the actual health delivery is by private, public or third sector (and so have no philosophical objection to anything Lansley proposes, only concerns about the detail) – but if ever there was a proposal that threatened that core ideal – and could result in stories like the above – well, you could find me at the front row of the protests, entirely up for subjection to a good ‘ol kettling.
But if that story was the downside of America – the upside was there to be seen in the same lady. Behind the whooping and high-fiving, which continued even after she lost – and all the other hoopla nonsense that makes our European toes curl – there was still that relentless optimism. She had a belief to her core that with hard work, personal sacrifice, and just one little break it would all be OK. Now, faith alone aint going to solve her problems. But I have little doubt that the ‘can-do’ attitude that seeped from her every pore massively increases her chances of making herself that ‘one little break’.
That optimism seems hard-wired in the US DNA. Yes, the recession has dulled it, but even now at the pit of the downturn the level of self-belief in ordinary hard-up Americans and that innate sense that they themselves have a stake in digging themselves out of it is something I find inspiring. On a macro level, those tens of millions of souls applying that attitude will be the real driver that picks the country up by its bootstraps and gets it back on-track. If we could only somehow bottle that optimism and transfer it over here to the UK – we’d be a better nation for it. Without it, we must count the blessings we have – and I’ll start that count with the NHS.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Happy New Year. Or is it? The reality is that 2011 is going to be pretty miserable for the whole country. Any honeymoon period for the Coalition (if there was one) is up. The reality of austerity measures are kicking-in. Turning the economy is like turning an oil tanker. Things will get worse before they get better. We will see more public sector redundancies, we will see more cuts to other services, the VAT rise will trickle to the till, we wont see pay rises in the private sector, even the employed will feel -and actually be in real terms – poorer this April than April two years ago. Health and education reforms will spook the Unions. Protest will spread.
The Government has to accept this and hold its nerve. It cannot do what it needs to do and be popular in the immediate or short term. It needs, in the national interest, to do the right thing rather than the popular thing. With eyes wide-open it needs to understand that its popularity will fall this year and it needs to carry on regardless. The instinct and philosophy of this government is the right one. The challenge now is to be competent in delivery. The quicker we get the pain over, the quicker we start the recovery. If we start the recovery then the short-term unpopularity will dwindle and we have a fighting chance of re-election in 2015. Dither and spread the pain over the whole five years and even if the objective of shoring up the economy is met it will just gift the country back to Labour to mess up again.
Labour will blame the Coalition for the pain. They’ll say: “They’re in Government. We’re not. It is their choices, it is their fault” This is a bit like blaming a doctor for making you ill with chemo rather than the fags you only gave up six months earlier. Nevertheless, while the pain is there the public will buy their argument. The Coalition needs to see its program through and see it through quickly.
The lessons are there in History. Those who remember the 1981 budget may spot certain parallels with today. For the whole period between of 80 and 82 it was inconceivable that the Conservatives would be returned to power. Nerve was held. The budget worked. Britain, after the pain, prospered. Thatcher would have won even without the Falklands. But we must also learn from that period. Nobody would want to see the likes of the Brixton or Toxteth riots again. That’s why it is so crucial that we don’t just deliver on the miserable austerity side of the program – but also on the social side – IDS has made his case well for welfare reform – he needs to be allowed to now get on and deliver . This is the year to get moving. It’s also critical that we strike the right balance in the way we police inevitable protests. Get that wrong and the Government could doom itself.
So on that dour note, I say again: Happy New Year. Put the armour on, 2011 is going to Hurt.
Tim Montogomerie’s reflections on Iain’s Dale’s departure from the blog world got me thinking. Tim says the right previously enjoyed being in front on web campaigning but now risk falling behind if they haven’t already. He points particularly at ‘Movement Activism’. This surge in leftist web-based ‘movement activism’ is something I’ve only recently started to worry about. The Centre-Right (of which I count myself) tend to be quite individualistic beasts. We don’t need, nor wish, to be led. We don’t suffer fools gladly. Gather too many of us together and you typically get too many Chiefs and not enough Indians. Collaboration therefore tends to be loose, short , sharp and limited to specific issues. The discipline to slavishly follow a party line simply isn’t there outside of the General Election. Meanwhile the left are getting far better at that ‘discipline’ and all the while are starting to create a sense of being part of a real ‘movement’ for those who use the net to engage with them.
Does this matter? Up until very recently I would have argued it didn’t. Let’s face it, the people in the blogosphere endlessly retweeting the same political articles to each other would always have been died-in-the-wool supporters of whichever party regardless. The political blogosphere draws-in political anoraks like moths to a flame. The floating voters who matter simply give it a wide berth. My gut instinct was just to let the left get on with their ‘Slacktivism’. Those banal campaigns consisting of “click on this to express your rage at the cuts” or whatever. They’ve confused bleating into the ether with meaningful action. They’ve kidded themselves they’re doing good with empty gestures. My attitude has always been if it makes them feel worthy, they’re doing no harm so let them get on with it. Meanwhile, as they are retweeting each other, us grown-ups can go out and take real action to make our schools and hospitals or whatever else around us better.
Recently though, they seem to have reached a critical mass and realised that they were achieving little. They are finally making the giant leap to real ‘action’. Suddenly it is quite scary. We have a single line in Private Eye hinting in its usual mischievous style that ‘Vodaphone owe £6bn in tax’, and then via a web campaign this leads to real direct action on the streets. Not ‘action’ in the sense of working through the norms of society (investigative fact checking, lobbying, getting legislation etc.) but ‘direct action’ in the 1960s/70s “let’s have fun causing trouble” sense.
Folk self-select their fact sources from the internet – as they do with newspapers – to confirm their prejudices. People who read the Guardian will also tend to bookmark ‘Left Foot Forwards’, ‘UK Uncut’, ‘False Economy’, ‘The Other Taxpayers Alliance’ etc. You could make a similar self-selecting list for those who lean to the right. The thing is that those who lean to the left are, by nature, happier to run with the herd. Once a leftist feels part of ‘a movement’ they can be far more disciplined at toeing the party line. ‘Solidarity’ and ‘Unity’ have always been more crucial to the left than ‘free thinking’ and ‘reason’. Those who understand the power of all this seem to be gleefully manipulating it to edge the mainstream left even further left. Once they’ve got their new foot-soldiers engaged – which they are doing well – they can wreak havoc. That £6bn ‘tax-dodge’ figure for Vodaphone from Private Eye is a powerful example. Clearly it is a dodgy figure based in little more than tittle-tattle – and yet it is accepted as an absolute fact by a whole ‘movement’ to the point that people are willing to commit criminal damage in outrage. We have also seen the power of this ‘Movement Activism’ with the student protests.
I’m not sure what the proper response from the centre-right should be but I do know what the wrong response would be: The last thing we need is for the mainstream right to blindly drift further right as a anxious response to baiting. My idea of how politics should be conducted remains through the normal channels and ballot box – not by violent confrontations with leftist thugs having a jolly day out at a demonstration/riot. We are living in testing economic times. Testing economic times have always created an environment to radicalise people. New technology can be a real catalyst to that radicalisation process. We need to watch it and keep level heads.