Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Obama throws Jeremiah Wright under a bus

Star Wars metaphors are cliched and geeky. Here is one. In Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi allows himself to be slayed by Darth Vadar in order to induce the type of rage in Luke Skywalker that will allow him to reach the outer limits of his power to defeat the empire. I wonder if that is exactly what Jeremiah Wright has done for his parishioner, Barack Obama, over the last few days in his preposterous tour of TV studios and the like.

Well, whatever the mad pastor's motivation, Obama finally threw his religious mentor under a bus (see Monday's very well timed post!) yesterday in unequivocal terms. I hope that this is the end of the matter. I suspect it won't be but it had to be done nonetheless.

Here is the video:

Brown's choice: re-erecting the tent v the strategic strike

Labour is poised for a period of internal reflection no matter what the results are like tomorrow. You can speculate endlessly about what the outcome will be but in low turnout elections (and with rain on the day turnout could be affected further- the forecast for Rugby where I am campaigning is here.) The reality is that a great deal depends on local factors such as the effectiveness of local organisation when you are looking at turnouts in the low 20s. That is difficult to judge in advance. So I'm not going to make a prediction other than to say that the London count will be very exciting indeed.

So there will be a weekend of hysterical reaction when actually the results mean very little from a national perspective. Next week, a fierce internal debate about how Labour should begin its recovery will swing into action. Tuesday sees a Compass 'what now?' event and it's the Fabian's turn on Thursday with a talk on Labour's appeal in the south by the thoughtful John Denham MP.

Jonathan Freedland
clearly defines the terms of the debate. The Compass approach of 'recovering the lost Labour vote' of public sector workers, ethnic minorities, "urban intellectuals" and the traditional working class versus the strategic strike approach of targeting a small number of swing voters in a small number of constituencies. Freedland describes this as the approach of the centre-left Progress Group.

This strategic discussion is all very well but in practice what will it mean? Instinctively I tend towards the broad Compass approach but until we see what it means in black and white it is difficult to conclude that they have the answers. We will see over the coming weeks.

Nothing I have heard yet is a convincing platform for halting Cameron's march onto Labour ground. Some of that can be undone tactically- i.e. undermining the credibility of Cameron by challenging the substance or effectiveness of what he is saying on the NHS, the environment or poverty. But there needs to be something broader also.

I will cover the debate as it evolves over coming weeks as this is a key moment for the Labour Government. These debates will be critical in determining the outcome of the next election. Just one comment is worth making at the outset. The Government is going to have to get itself in a position where it is assessing the politics of its decisions not just the administrative merit. This is where it went wrong over the 10p tax issue. This is not government by focus group but it is a more sensitive form of government. If it gets the politics wrong then the strategic discussion becomes an irrelevance. Instead, Brown's administration will simply be playing back-foot politics. The damage will be limited but victory will be denied.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Labour ignores Tory poverty drive at its peril

I am a 'guest author' on The Independent's website today on the latest Tory march onto Labour territory.

Why is Obama not doing worse?

He's just had a bad loss in Pennsylvania (though it was expected, the cash he piled in should have resulted in a better outcome), he has accused traditional working class voters of clinging to religion, guns, and harbouring hostility towards immigrants through bitterness, and the mad pastor is on the prowl. Obama's poll position is remarkably solid.

David Brooks in the New York Times has part of the answer. America is divided, this is a demographic election. Obama and Clinton have different appeals to different demographics and that is just playing out. As E.J.Dionne of the Washington Post has said, this primary is just like the census. You know how each candidate is going to do in each group then you can predict the outcome in any state once you know its demographic configuration.

What I have seen less of and will look out for is why Obama and Clinton have different appeals to different demographics. There will be positive and negative reasons. A major reason for Obama's difficulty in most states with the white, working class could well be that the familiar has more appeal when you find yourself in an economically and socially precarious position. So it may not just be guns and god that you cling to. Perhaps you cling to Clinton as well?

Postscript: The mad pastor problem is becoming corrosive for Obama and it is clear that his brilliant speech on race has failed to limit the damage. I wonder what Jeremiah Wright's tour of Town Halls and TV studios is designed to achieve. Self-rehabilitation would seem to be the obvious motivation but the more he speaks, the more ridiculous he sounds. Perhaps he is not throwing Obama under a bus but, rather, encouraging Obama to throw him under a bus. Obama has a difficult choice to make. Should he disown his former pastor and former church? It may become inevitable. If it does, it is a decision he needs to make sooner rather than later.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Poll Wars

Well, Yougov are reporting a 10% Boris Johnson lead while MRUK and MORI are reporting a narrow Ken Livingstone lead. At least one of the pollsters is completely wrong. It does seem worryingly suspicious that MRUK and MORI seem to have the proportion of certain voters at around the 60% mark when the last two Mayoral elections have seen them hovering in the mid-30s. But as Anthony Wells hints in an excellent analysis, sometimes pollsters can get the right result but for the wrong reasons. Science can be the enemy of accuracy in the polling business.

Let's wait to see what Thursday's result is, but, to be honest, who wins the vote is far more interesting than which pollster gets it right though it does provide an amusing sideshow. No-one has any idea who is going to win. Friday will be an interesting day indeed.

Sunday, 27 April 2008

Beware the cunning of this quiet man

My latest article in Tribune is available here:

Good to hear thoughts and reaction.

Saturday, 26 April 2008

Barack Obama and George McGovern

There is a fascinating interview with George McGovern reported on Huffington Post. Remember George McGovern? He who lost every state bar Massachusetts and DC in 1972 presidential election? The Watergate election?

Well, it turns out that he is backing Hillary. That is good news for Obama because a lot of commentators are trying to tar him with the ultra-liberal, weak on national security, McGovern brush. As he's backing her, it makes it more difficult for Hillary to do that and any restriction on her ability to hurl negative attacks is a good thing at this stage.

More interestingly, despite his support for Hillary he makes a number of points that are actually very favourable to Obama:

- McGovern believes that Obama has built a much wider coalition than he did in 1972 and so has a much greater chance of electoral success.
- He warns against divisions in the party that continue beyond the point where the nomination is settled. Such continuing attacks hurt him in 1972.
- Noting that Obama will probably be the eventual nominee, he demands a more civil political discourse between the candidates (hear, hear.)
- Michigan and Florida should NOT be seated according to McGovern. They knew the rules, they were flouted. Obama didn't campaign in Florida and didn't enter the Michigan primary. So the delegates should not be seated.
- He asserts that the super-delegates should strongly take the will of the pledged delegates into account.

So McGovern is a strong Hillary supporter (you may remember back in the Texan primary she talked of the addiction to chilli's that she developed while on the McGovern campaign there- Texan, Pennsylvanian, Arkansan, is there no end to this woman's origins?) but his argument is basically an argument for Obama. Let's hope his protege takes note.

John McCain and George "All too Human" Stephanopoulos get the Jon Stewart treatment


By the way, if you haven't read 'America: the book' by Jon Stewart do so immediately:

Friday, 25 April 2008

Hold on to your hats, Livingstone ahead

This is all rather good fun, Ken might (justly in my view- see post below) pull this one off:

Democrat doom-mongers

Two very similar articles appeared in the New York Times and The Times of London with a deeply pessimistic outlook for the Democrats' chances in November. Paul Krugman argues:

"Well, now he [Obama] has an overwhelming money advantage and the support of much of the Democratic establishment — yet he still can’t seem to win over large blocs of Democratic voters, especially among the white working class.

As a result, he keeps losing big states. And general election polls suggest that he might well lose to John McCain."

Krugman goes on to argue that the rightful path is for the Democrats to re-connect with the old certainties: the successful Clinton economy, and the great social programmes of the past, Medicare and Social Security. And unfortunately, the desire to create a 'new politics' just doesn't mesh well with that narrative. It has left the Democrats in a 'self-inflicted state of confusion' Anyone guess who Krugman is backing?

And in today's Times, Gerard Baker argues a very similar thing. He dismisses Obama and Clinton as 'two cynical losers' and goes on to say:

What they want is a man - or a woman - of character and record to inspire and lead them. That may be why the Democrats are in trouble.
Now. Let's just steady up here for a while. Contrary to what Krugman and Baker argue (both of whom I respect as commentators) the Democrats are not hurtling towards a defeat just yet. In fact, there has not been a national poll that has McCain ahead of Obama for a number of weeks. See here for the latest Real Clear Politics list of polls:

The average also has Hillary ahead. So actually, the portents at this stage are quite good. Despite a bruising and negative primary battle, the only time that McCain has stepped ahead of Obama is around the time of the Jeremiah Wright affair (which hit Clinton as well.) Actually, while Obama has been wounded in recent battles and that harms his chances against McCain or of being a 'transcendent candidate' he is still in a remarkably strong position. A third of Hillary's voters say they won't vote for him and he's still ahead!

Now let's deal with that 'petulant vote' once again. Remember when people were saying that the conservative right would not vote for McCain during the Republican primary? Well, guess what, nobody's talking about that now. Though I haven't seen any figures on this, my guess is that a lot of those nay-sayers are now returning to the fold. It will be more tricky for Obama to win back white, socially conservative, middle class Democrats, i.e. the Reagan Democrats, but not impossible. He will need an 'I get it' moment but he is more than capable of that.

A final point worth making is that the Democratic Primary is focusing relentlessly on the negatives of Obama and Clinton and not on those of John McCain. Anyone who thinks that a candidate with who is comfortable with the notion of 100 years in Iraq for US troops, confesses that economics is not his strongest suit when the US is in an election, can not tell the difference between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, cosies up to lobbyists, maintains a Bushite foreign policy and has a vicious temper will not face a hard time come the Presidential election proper is in for a major surprise.

So the doom-mongers are too hasty. The only confusion is the notion that what is happening now is a definitive guide to what will happen in the election. We ultimately have no idea what will happen post nomination. But we do know that both potential Democratic nominees start off from a remarkably high base.

Quiet Man leads march onto Labour ground

It's not yet on-line but I have a story in Tribune this week about the danger posed by Iain Duncan-Smith's Centre for Social Justice- both for the Labour Party and the socially excluded.

I'll link to it once it's up.

London Mayoral Debate

A fascinating last (?) TV Mayoral debate prior to the vote next Thursday's election on BBC's Question Time glaringly exposed each of the candidate's weaknesses. I was surprised once again as I had been at a debate at Thomson Reuters in Canary Wharf last week at the strong start made by Boris Johnson. But as in the Thomson Reuters debate it is quite clear that Boris is absolutely clueless once he gets beyond his pre-prepared script. The script seems to last about 15 minutes. After that, he just filibusters embarrassingly. His pathetic defence of his claim that he could do a no-strike deal with the RMT was typical.

Both Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson were almost literally floored at various points during the debate. Ken's difficulties with his occasionally venomous tongue and some of the very serious misjudgements he has made with some of the people he has allowed himself to be associated with are well documented. And it continues to trip him up every time. Brian Paddick told Boris to 'shut up' at one point to rapturous applause. It was like a local bobby clipping a young rapscallion around the ear.

The rest of the UK would have been horrified at Ken's boast that he had 'ensnared' the Government into signing an open cheque for the Olympics because it would regenerate East London. He even admitted that it was a bit of a con trick! The reality is that it is what any good Mayor would have done. And on transport, housing, and policing, he has been very successful at getting investment into London. That is the key reason to support Ken.

It is clear that Ken is head and shoulders above the other candidates when it comes to the governance and understanding of London, flaws notwithstanding. He has under-estimated severely how he can no longer claim to be the outsider candidate after eight years in City Hall. But there is no doubt that he has been a good and persistent Mayor over the two terms.

Without a credible candidate against him he deserves a third term.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Hillary Clinton on Iran

There's something about Hillary's promise to 'obliterate Iran' if it launched an attack against Israel that I find deeply concerning. Surely the one thing that we've learned about international conflict is that to escalate rhetoric unnecessarily is hugely dangerous? Just such an escalation day by day made the Iraq conflict more and more inevitable.

A more lithe and sophisticated politician would surely make the important point that Iran does not have nuclear weapons as the latest CIA National Intelligence Estimate shows and is at the very least a number of years away from acquiring them, that America would work with its international allies in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere as well as with the International Atomic Energy Agency to ensure that Iran does not acquire nuclear weapons, and if we found ourselves in a situation where Iran had nuclear weapons and was threatening Israel with them that would be a monumental and avoidable failure? There are just too many 'ifs' in the question of what would you do if Iran launched a nuclear strike against Israel. The politician might also say that to accept those hypotheticals is to escalate a situation unnecessarily which is ultimately against US security interests. It is grossly irresponsible to play rhetorical or political games with people's lives or the national interest.

I am worried that Hillary Clinton feels the need to prove herself in the national security arena (particularly following her Tuzla 'sniper fire' political humiliation.) That could have severe consequences.

Whatever Hillary may say about withdrawal from Iraq (which she is in favour of), there has to be a question about whether her election would mark a continuation of a Bushite foreign policy. Sure, there has been criticism of Barack Obama for saying that he would launch strategic air strikes should he receive actionable intelligence even if those camps were based in an ally's territory (i.e. Pakistan.) Actually, Obama's policy doesn't sound so mad. Besides there is a slight difference between shelling terrorist camps and 'obliterating' a nation.

The rest of the world is thirsting for a definitively post-Bush foreign policy (not just on Iraq.) There are now question marks about whether this is what Hillary Clinton is offering.

Postscript: A great 55-45 win for Hillary in Pennsylvania last night at the upper end of expectations. What does it change? It changes two things and emphasises another. It puts the momentum back with her and that will be maintained if she can snatch Indiana on May 6th. Secondly, it means that she is ahead of the popular vote if Michigan and Florida are included. At the very least that undercuts Obama's popular vote argument.

Finally, it emphasises that he is still have a lot of difficulty with less affluent, working class, white voters. As the race proceeds in this bitter fashion the chances that these Democrats will automatically fall behind Obama as a nominee recedes. So Obama still ahead but a very good night for Hillary indeed.

Postscript 2: It appears that Simon Jenkins covered a similar topic in his Guardian column this morning. I am pleased to say that we came to the same conclusion, i.e. that only Barack Obama is likely to mark a decisive break with recent US foreign policy.

Liverpool v Chelsea

There is a Liverpool chant that goes along the lines, "John Arne Riise, ooh ah, I wanna know how you scored that goal." It is sung every time he takes the pitch as it was when he came on as substitute last night. The goal in question is a net-busting free-kick that he scored a few years ago against Manchester United. After the most mind-numbingly calamitous and unnecessary own goal last night I'm not sure it will be sung again.

I feel for the guy. Kind of because he will now have to do something spectacular before the end of the season to continue his employment at Liverpool (and, as we know from when his wage slip was leaked, he is on a cool £140,000 a month.) It wasn't all his fault- Mascherano ploughed the ball into touch rather than clearing up field seconds before. Had he just hoofed it away then the whistle would have gone and Liverpool would have had a deserved lead going into the second leg. In fact, a 1-0 victory for Liverpool would have flattered Chelsea slightly. Instead as Kevin McCarra puts it:

"Against all reason, it is now the Anfield team who are nearer extinction in the Champions League."
Liverpool have come back from more trying situations than this. They were five minutes away from elimination in the last round against Arsenal. Earlier in the season they looked to be heading out before three straight wins kept them in. And, of course, need Istanbul mentioned? There are dozens of other examples. Liverpool always fly by the seat of their pants in this competition. But this time it's so frustrating that what could have been a decisive advantage has been turned into a mountain to climb.

Riise may well be in the starting line-up next Wednesday following Fabio Aurelio's injury last night. There can be no better opportunity to repair the damage that was inflicted last night. John Arne Riise, I wanna know can you score a goal?

Monday, 21 April 2008

Charlie Wilson on 'Morning Joe'

If you enjoyed the film Charlie Wilson's War, you may be interested to see an interview with the real Charlie Wilson on 'Morning Joe' (it's the second link down.) Much better looking and more charismatic than Tom Hanks in real life. He predicts a Clinton win of less than 5% tomorrow. Obama would take that straight away.

Obama the Orthodox

A few weeks ago I wrote that the impact of the protracted Conrad-esque Primary campaign would be to normalise Barack Obama. David Brooks of the New York Times analysed it brilliantly on Meet the Press yesterday. He described how Obama has become an orthodox liberal and orthodox politician over the last few weeks.

In some respects the former is more concerning than the latter. I suspect the anti-liberal attack will not be as effective in a year where the American economy is rocking and the Iraq occupation shows no sign of any conclusion.

The main problem though is what happens when the candidate assumes office. As Brooks pointed out, some of the positions being adopted in these primaries are going to prove impractically limiting in office. Withdrawal from Iraq regardless of the circumstances and absolutely no tax increases for anyone earning less than $200,000 were two commitments made in Wednesday's debate that will soon provide unnecessary obstacles to a new Democratic President (I can see early betrayal coming on....) For Hillary's part, she placed Saudi Arabia under America's security umbrella. For me, this was the stupidest thing said by any candidate in this election so far.

As Robert Novak noted, Obama's post-partisan appeal is being undermined in this process. Once Hillary finally falls he will quickly have to re-discover some of the transcendent appeal that launched his campaign into the stratosphere earlier this year.

What of Hillary? Well, it would be amazing if she doesn't win tomorrow. But increasingly her function in this campaign seems to be to remind independent voters that Democrats are conventional Washington politicians really.....

Her new Chief Strategist, Geoff Garin, who seems like a genuinely nice guy, someone with real integrity, revealed the strategy, also on Meet the Press yesterday. When pressed what was Hillary's path to the nomination, his response was basically that the campaign was just going to stay alive as long as possible and see what happens. Does survival count as strategy? Whether it does or not, the longer it continues the more orthodox Obama seems. Maybe that is strategy after all......

10p or not 10p?

The Institute for Fiscal studies has been furiously providing the egg-headed analysis of the Government's 10p travails. The irony of this political row is that the 2007 Budget was actually redistributive:

There are losers and they are some of the lowest paid. As ever in politics, the symbol assumes an importance that is greater than the substance. So while row reaches fever pitch (see here for a taste of the tone) it is probably worth remembering that this Government has been consistently redistributive over the years. It is also important to factor in non-fiscal policies such as the national minimum wage and the New Deal which have helped the lowest paid families without children.

Indeed, the 10p tax rate was actually introduced by Gordon Brown in the first place! Disagree with the abolition of the rate. Make a good case but please make it in the context of all the changes that have taken place both in Budget 2007 and over 11 years of Labour Government.

And please make it in a restrained fashion. This is not the Poll Tax. It is more similar to changes to lone parents' benefits made in the early part of the Labour Government which were equally clumsy. But look what happened subsequently. If you look at the IFS chart it shows that Brown's Budgets have increased the income of lone parents who are out of work by over 10% and of those in work by over 15%. That's a hell of a record of betrayal!

My guess is that the Government has got the message on the 10p rate abolition as well. The Pre-Budget report will take significant action to compensate the losers of this tax change I am sure. So ask yourself, is it worth handing a huge political victory to the Conservative Party because of this singular, politically clumsy (albeit mildly harmful) measure?

Saturday, 19 April 2008

Barack Obama draws crowd of 35,000

What can you say? Wow.

Postscript: But the Pope drew a crowd of 65,000 in New York. Let's put it down to the fact that the Pope isn't seeking election....

Gordon Brown: creating a truly global society

The Prime Minister's Kennedy memorial lecture has been getting quite a bit of attention and not without justification. It is one of the most formidable speeches given by a British politician for quite some time. In it he articulates a vision of a global society where reformed international institutions work to alleviate poverty, combat environmental degradation, defeat international terrorism, and work to eliminate treatable disease. As an articulation of liberal interventionism it has been compared to Tony Blair's Chicago lecture in 1999. But it is even better than that.

This is the second intellectually impressive speech that Brown has given in recent months. The other was his discussion of liberty and Britishness. Where that speech left the policy thinking strangely incomplete, the Kennedy memorial lecture proposes formidable solutions: a new IMF to concentrate on early warning of financial turbulence, a World Bank constitutionally established to tackle poverty and climate change, a UN with resources and a mandate to state-build, stronger regional cooperation such as in the EU and the African Union, and a new fair global trade deal amongst other suggestions.

Historically grounded, inspirational, purposeful, and visionary, the Brown that we hear in this speech is a different Brown to the media image that is becoming established. Whatever the criticism aimed at the Prime Minister, if the voice we heard yesterday is heard again and again then a political recovery is very possible indeed.

Postscript: Given that the Prime Minister mentions the frontierless power of the internet in his speech, you would have thought that it would be available as a video or podcast on the Number 10 website, no? Time to raise the game Number 10 web geeks....

Friday, 18 April 2008

Two gangly outsiders from Illinois

I dread the arrival of the New York Review of Books every fortnight. There is always at least two stupendously written and well-informed articles that are completely humbling. In this edition there are two.

1. Gary Wills' 'Two Speeches on Race' compares Abraham Lincoln's address at the Cooper Union with Barack Obama's at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. The political lives of these two men, these two brilliant outsiders, is well-documented and will draw fierce analysis over the coming months. That Barack Obama's speech, given as response to criticisms of him over the Jeremiah Wright affair, should be an echo of a speech given by Lincoln in some similar circumstances is quite mind-blowing. Both had to contend with awkward associations, both chose to confront their critics head-on, and both placed the constitution at the heart of their analysis. Whenever the John McCain-Hillary Clinton hydra-headed beast cries lack of experience at Barack Obama, all he need say is 'Abraham Lincoln.'

2. The Review moves from historical echoes to historical ignorance in Tony Judt's impassioned analysis of how we are losing our connection with the past which leads us inevitably to our mistakes of the present. In the most brilliant passage he compares the 'War on Terror' thus:
But the most serious mistake consists of taking the form for the content: defining all the various terrorists and terrorisms of our time, with their contrasting and sometimes conflicting objectives, by their actions alone. It would be rather as though one were to lump together the Italian Red Brigades, the German Baader-Meinhof gang, the Provisional IRA, the Basque ETA, Switzerland's Jura Separatists, and the National Front for the Liberation of Corsica; dismiss their differences as insignificant; label the resulting amalgam of ideological kneecappers, bomb throwers, and political murderers "European Extremism" (or "Christo-fascism," perhaps?)...and then declare uncompromising, open-ended armed warfare against it.
I look forward to his forthcoming book on the 'forgotten twentieth century.' But this article is incredibly powerful, humane, and salutary.

Until his book comes out in a couple of weeks, do yourself a favour and take out a subscription to the New York Review of Books now!

Gwyneth Dunwoody (1930-2008)

I am very saddened to learn of the death of Gwyneth Dunwoody. She is probably the most effective backbencher of her generation. Awkward, sure, brilliant, yes. She was a formidable combination of intelligence, humour, and persistence with razor-sharp interrogation skills.

A few years back, I worked on a consumer protection campaign that Gwyneth was very supportive of. She did everything within her powers to help the campaign including holding a select committee inquiry into the issue. But I have to say that she did make an awful cup of tea (I think maybe I wasn't supposed to accept the offer....) I was hoping to quietly leave the milkiest tea you can possibly imagine. But no, Gwyneth spotted what I was up to and forced me to drink every drop.

Anyway, I fear that Gwyneth's tribe of individual but brilliant backbenchers are becoming few. I sincerely hope not as we need them desperately.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Obama's tough debate

The only live feed I could get of last night's debate was on a local ABC station (ABC- you should be ashamed of the poor coverage of this....actually you should be ashamed for how this debate was hosted and produced also.....) It was very irritating that the debate was overshadowed by a focus group response graph thingy (what do you call them?) Basically, 25 undecided voters sit in a room and indicate their reaction to what the candidates are saying using a dial on a scale 0-100 (50 being neutral, 0 being very negative.) After a while though, the response graph thingy was quite interesting.

I picked up the following things:

i) Clinton scored very well when she was a unifier, i.e. when she praised Obama and said the party should unite to take on McCain.
ii) She scored poorly when she attacked Obama but
iii) He then scored poorly in responding to her attacks AND his defences went on for longer so he was suffering for longer periods of time. In other words, Clinton didn't gain by attacking him but he couldn't gain either and may have lost.
iv) The 'bitter' gaffe was not playing particularly badly but when he talked about Jeremiah Wright it did.
v) The only big NEGATIVE of the night was when Clinton was talking about the Bosnian episode.
vi) Obama refused to comment on this issue which went down well but then, of course, Clinton was allowed to move off her negatives quickly so she did not sustain long periods of tough focus. The moderators did not step in where Obama did not and this was a major failing in my view as it meant that three-quarters of the first hour of debate were focused on Obama's negatives and that was disproportionate.
vii) Both candidates scored VERY highly whenever they discussed the issues: healthcare, the economy, Iraq, trade, housing etc...

Sorry if the above seems a bit geeky (in my defence, I had to watch the graph thingy...) but it shows something very important. Obama has clearly decided to play these debates fair by and large (there have been exceptions like when he attacked Clinton for being on the Board of Wal-mart.) But he is not, in the short term, getting the benefit from that. Despite having pretty high ratings throughout most of the debate, he lost 2-1 among the undecided voters in that focus group.

So the calculation is clearly that he gains more in the long-term image stakes by the way he conducts himself. That is a really tough call and before the McCain debates he's going to have to re-visit that calculation. My instinct would be that he should punch a little more often but not change his overall approach.

In fairness, Hillary Clinton did perform better in the meaty part of the debate, i.e. on the issues. I don't think that is necessarily of grave concern for Obama though he did seem very shaky on the issue of tax and seemed at one point to be making up policy on the spot after he had clearly contradicted himself on whether he would tax those on $97,000-$200,000 a year more. He'll have to time to mug up before September and McCain is not without weaknesses there.

Postscript: More on ABC news: it was hosted by George Stephanopoulos who worked for Bill Clinton and basically wrote a book of unrequited love to him, All too Human. He more ruthlessly pursued Obama's negatives than he did Hillary Clinton's last night. I lost count of the number of times Chelsea Clinton flashed up on my screen. General Wesley Clark, a Clinton supporter, kept on flashing up when Hillary was talking about Commander-in-Chief issues also. At one point, Hillary almost directed the camera to him in the audience! ABC came across as grossly unprofessional and biased.....

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Obama's gaffe and what it means

Unsurprisingly, Barack Obama's comments about people in small town America being bitter about their economic hardship then clinging to verities of old such as guns and God and becoming hostile towards immigrants, free trade and people who are different have been gleefully seized upon by his opponents. Is it not concerning that John McCain and Hillary Clinton are now hunting as a pack?

That aside, perspective is urgently needed. Ed Kilgore on Real Clear Politics provides it. The gaffe (and it was a gaffe: a much too sweeping a comment that left him open to his opponents' attacks) has presented the Clinton campaign with an opportunity to emphasise that Obama has had some relative difficulty in swaying white, middle-class America to vote for him thus far. There is an under-current to all this but the argument neutralises a core element of Obama's claim on the nomination. He has emphasised that there is large portion of his vote that just won't transfer to Hillary. Now she is emphasising the same and what's more those white, small town, economically alienated, socially conservative Democrats will be attracted to McCain. For some figures see the 'Obama and Clinton's petulant vote' post. Super-delegates get ready to play piggy in the middle (but you're used to that, right?)

Where does this leave things? In limbo really. Clinton will win Pennsylvania by a healthy margin. She will probably win Indiana by a narrower margin. Obama will have a very healthy win in North Carolina. Narrow advantage Clinton on April 22nd/ May 6th. Obama still well ahead overall. Things will have moved a millimetre towards Clinton.

More broadly, either Democrat candidate will face a challenge in converting all their opponent's vote later in the year. In this, both Clinton and Obama have a point. But they both have a three month Presidential campaign in which to achieve the shift. The polls in August rarely relate to the result in November. As James Carville never tires of pointing out on Meet the Press, Clinton was third place in the polls in July 1992 and Kerry was 14 points clear in Summer 2004.

So what to do? How about deciding the nominee on the basis of who has the most delegates? And it would be a very brave decision indeed for the super-delegates to flip the candidate with the most pledged delegates....

Is that John McCain I can hear whistling in his bath?

Postscript: Clinton's ad following Obama's comments can be seen below:

Monday, 14 April 2008

Noblesse Oblige

I was fascinated by an article in The Observer yesterday on the treatment of one young, black, female MP in particular. What amazed me wasn't necessarily the original incidents themselves, appalling as they were, but the justification. David Heathcote Amory MP said the following:

'It is quite absurd. What she is actually objecting to is that I didn't recognise her as a new MP. I simply asked her what she was doing at that end of the terrace, and they are quite sensitive about this kind of thing, they think that any kind of reprimand from anyone is racially motivated.'

'The trouble is that feminism has trumped everything. We are a bit obsessed with getting more women in and I think genuinely broad-based politics is one that takes people from every social and religious group. But we are exaggeratedly courteous to anyone with a different skin colour, so the idea that anything I have said is racist is absurd.'

Now, Mr Heathcote Amory to whom were you referring when you remarked 'they think'? Is there a particular 'us and them' for you? Who is the 'us' and who are the 'they'?

You are exaggeratedly courteous to anyone with a different skin colour? (and was that a royal 'we' I spotted in there?) How generous. How could anyone think that you are anything other than egalitarian? Or maybe others would see this a patrician, colonial form of racism which in certain moments turns nasty as it did on the House of Commons terrace that day?

Noblesse oblige is all very well but it implies status, prejudice, and discrimination and that has no place in modern Britain.

Postscript: Iain Dale has concerns over the spelling of David Heathcote Amory's name in yesterday's Observer. There may one or two other issues of concern that are worthy of comment....

Friday, 11 April 2008

Liverpool FC- just what is Tom Hicks up to?

Tom Hicks has written to Rick Parry to demand that he resign as Chief Executive of Liverpool FC. Immediately after a magnificent triumph against Arsenal to find our way into the Champions League semi-finals, what on earth could the atrocious Mr Hicks be up to?

Well, one theory has to be that he is being deliberately obnoxious. I am strangely encouraged by this latest manoeuvre. Surely, this is so barking mad it can only mean that Hicks wants out and is trying to make such a nuisance of himself that the price is upped and the deal is expedited? It could of course mean the opposite as well- he wants to threaten to tear the thing down unless he gets full control. Shudder.

Given that Rick Parry was instrumental in the Hicks/Gillett deal, he should stay until this mess is cleared up then resign with grace. Is Dubai International Capital the answer? No idea but I suspect not. I'm sticking with the romantic option of Share Liverpool FC for now to whom I have pledged £5,000 if they are successful in their bid.

Clinton and Obama's petulant vote

An interesting analysis of recent poll data on Real Clear Politics breaks down the latest Clinton/Obama v McCain poll. Most interestingly, one third of Hillary Clinton's supporters would back McCain over Obama and one quarter of Obama's supporters would go for McCain over Clinton. The Clinton statistic is even more remarkable when your consider that her support is essentially less affluent, less educated voters plus Democrat women who are in their middle-age and older. These demographics are a core component of Democrat support in any election.

Any pollster will tell you to treat questions such as 'what would you do if...?' with extreme caution. Nonetheless,these numbers must cause concern for the Democrats. It is clear that the ongoing contest between Obama and Clinton is dragging both their ratings down. Obama leads McCain in States such a Wisconsin where he enjoyed support and Clinton enjoys the same advantage in States such as New York. Slightly worryingly for the Democrats, McCain enjoys a significant lead in Ohio over both candidates in the latest poll though Clinton does enjoy a lead there on average.

So both candidates' supporters are showing a degree of petulance. Obama's appeal to independents, Republicans, and the young (all groups that do not necessarily vote for the Democrats- rather obviously in the case of cross-over Republicans!) suggests that these are voters that could be lost to the Democrats should he not be nominated. In other words, they are in it for Obama and no-one else. Cart-loads of independent and Republican voters are being registered for the Democrats so that they can vote for Obama in Pennsylvania. The closed primary there means that you have to be a registered Democrat to vote.

Clinton's supporters should well be different. Given unity, a good Convention, a ringing endorsement of Obama by Clinton, and some sidewalk pounding, it should be within the Obama campaign's capability to win them over.

In a sense, the Obama 'quarter' is more worrying than the Clinton 'third.' But both represent significant challenges for the Democrats and the nominee's ability to sway the petulant refuseniks could determine which way this Presidential election goes.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Barack Obama buys surge

Barack Obama's surge in Pennsylvania has begun. It is partly explained by a phenomenal outlay of advertising spend- $2million in a single week. For a moment yesterday I did a quick on-line search for flights and checked my passport but it is still very likely that Hillary will win so I'm staying put for now. He's catching up in a similar way to his surge in Ohio so he'll fall just short in all likelihood. But he will slash Hillary's delegate and vote take and that is crucial.

The race still winds forward like a Joseph Conrad novel- when will it end and how many bodies will be strewn on the riverbank by the end?

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Ken Livingstone- what's the right strategy?

According to a PoliticsHome panel of experts Livingstone should project himself as a 'competent CEO', portray Boris Johnson as a clown, give jobs to the Lib Dem and Green candidates and avoid Gordon Brown and Labour.

Maybe the PoliticsHome strategy by a committee of 100 experts methodology is flawed. But I don't think that's a winning strategy at all.

Ken's personality (and, let's be honest, his flaws) means that any attempt to project himself as boring, straight down the line corporate boss will unravel fairly quickly. If he is drawing attention to Boris Johnson's colourful personality at the same time it will only make his new persona seem even stranger and could well benefit his opponent. By giving jobs to the Green and Lib Dem candidates he would look weak, desperate, and like he was running out of ideas. Brian Paddick has already said that he wouldn't take up a job offer from Ken anyway. And who exactly do the experts think is knocking the doors day after day for Ken if it's not Labour activists?

Ken can win. He was head and shoulders above the other two candidates in the Newsnight debate last night.

But the way he can guarantee victory is lifting the weight of the world off his shoulders, showing a bit of his natural charm once more, look comfortable in the role and take on his opponents on the policy.

More than that, he needs to articulate just how important the role of London Mayor is from the perspective of security, the environment, transport, the economy, affordable housing, London's international prestige, and to give a focus to major occasions such as the 2012 Olympic games. It is a major role that requires a talented and competent political heavyweight. He doesn't need to attack Boris other than on the policy. If he articulates just how important the role is then people will quickly shy away from the blundering, stuttering, incoherent Boris Johnson no matter how much they may find him amusing.

In the last four years, Ken has contended with suicide attacks on London, the collapse of one the major tube operators, and has won the Olympic games while contributing to the creation of a mesmerisingly brilliant international city. That is a very strong record. That's his pitch. Warts and all, he is the man for the job.

There, a post about London and I didn't use the word 'vibrant' once. A first in modern journalism.

Postscript: Ken manages to avoid calling London 'vibrant' as well. This broadcast is just the sort of stuff that's needed. Needs to develop the 'what could go wrong' line a bit more but the right tone: positive, personal, and clear.

Postscript 2: Steve Richards' thoughts in The Indy this morning are worth a read.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Hillary Clinton's strategist misses the point, loses his job

Mark Penn, former Chief Strategist to the Hillary Clinton campaign, wrote a (rather fun) book, Microtrends, in which he analyses how by targeting small groups that are on the rise, you can have a big impact. An article in Portfolio magazine explains how he did precisely the opposite with Hillary Clinton's campaign. Penn tried to move the mountain rather than quarrying and mining away at a victory for his candidate. I suspect that he actually did apply his theory but just targeted the wrong groups. Penn went for the old micros traditional to the Democratic base rather than the new micros that Obama has attracted: independents, college students, affluent and well-educated liberals, disillusioned anti-Bush Republicans and so on....

What Penn's failure shows is that for all the polling in world you can't beat good old-fashioned political instinct. Any old mathematician can sit down to read and interpret polls. But it takes real political instinct to inspire whole new (and some old) groups of people. Obama has pursued his message of inspiration because that's what he believes. His organisation have maximised that appeal into a fund-raising and campaigning machine that is formidable and incredibly innovative.

Candidates that are built from the bottom up lack authenticity. Hence the likely failure of the say anything candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Better to have a candidate who lives and breathes their beliefs then work out how that can have maximum impact.

In politics it is not just about making a profit, it is about winning an election (or primary.) If you are an electronics manufacturer and sell millions of MP3 players because of clever targeting and marketing that's great. But in politics you have to get more than your rival not just satisfy your shareholders. Microtrends
are fine but they rarely suggest a winning strategy. That is down to good old-fashioned policy and politics.

Housing market- need for decisive action

I am in the unfortunate situation of having to re-mortgage and so I can see just how scary it is out there at the moment. I have enjoyed a 4.6% mortgage rate for the last two years with monthly payments of £456. The very best rate that I can get is 5.79% with a monthly repayment of £576 (with a re-mortgage fee of £995!)

Base rates were 0.5% lower in April 2006 than they are now (assuming that the BofE cuts rates by 25 points on Thursday.) But the mortgage rate available to me is 1.23% higher with less favourable terms though (because I'm staying with the same provider) better than available in the market more generally. Today's interest rate cut is unlikely to filter through into lower fixed rate mortgages as the issue is the global 'credit crunch' rather than base rates. You lucky, lucky people on tracker mortgages. How I envy you.

Now today, Halifax has announced the biggest monthly fall in house prices since September 1992. Why is September 1992 so important? Black Wednesday was on the 16th September 1992. Interest rates went temporarily to 15%. Shudder.

Of course, we are not remotely in that type of environment but there is little doubt that the housing market is going to take a bit of a battering unless the flow of mortgages to the market increases and soon. Alastair Darling is engaged in multilateral discussions with his American counter-parts about putting a floor under mortgage backed assets. Decisive action may be necessary to re-stabilise the market. Politically difficult as that may be, the alternative could be worse. It is all very well pontificating about moral hazard, but those academic debates are probably best left for a more benign financial environment.

The good news is that while the economy retains its robustness, the current crisis should be containable. If this feeds through into the real economy in any real way and precipitates job losses then things could get very hairy indeed: a further argument for decisive action.

I'm afraid people who have purchased in the last two to three years are going to feel the pinch and first-time buyers are going to have to rent for a while longer (that may be no bad thing for them in the longer term.) I can afford to take the financial hit in the short term. The problem is for those who can not and that's why things need to be returned to an even keel ASAP.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Princess Diana...

...was killed by a drunk driver being pursued by paparazzi in a high speed chase that resulted in a crash that killed two passengers (including the Princess) who were not wearing seat belts. Wow, hold the front page.....'sensational news' according to BBC News. Apparently, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon as well, the CIA was not behind 9/11 and there is no Roswell alien. Will our world ever be the same? Yawn.

'Olympics and politics don't mix'

So says Paula Radcliffe. Of course, the Chinese Government has a very different view. So for us to pretend that the Olympics is nothing more than a sporting event defined by 'the Olympic spirit' is insanely naive.

The IOC has made an horrendous error in awarding the Olympic games to China. It has rewarded the Chinese Government for brutal internal suppression, eradication of dissent, elimination of free speech, and support for murderous and genocidal regimes such as those in Sudan and Burma and received nothing in return by way of an improved human rights record.

Hu Jia, the jailed dissident, wrote a J'accuse and it is available here. Ms Radcliffe may find it interesting to know just how political the Olympic games are for China. Perhaps the 400,000 people who have yet to be re-settled after their homes have been demolished due to Olympic construction understand a bit better the inter-weaving of politics and sport?

"One world, one dream," is the slogan of the Beijing Olympic games. What use is an Olympic dream that has no regard for human rights? I'm afraid the joke is very much on us. And it's not very funny. Perhaps we should be rather more embarrassed about that celeb-fest (Trevor McDonald? Sugababes? Konnie Huq? why?) to carry the torch through London that was arranged yesterday?

Sunday, 6 April 2008

China- support heroes like Hu Jia

I have the cover story in Tribune this week with an article I wrote on China just as the latest bout Tibetan repression was beginning. The article is here.

The dissident whom I quoted at the end of the article, Hu Jia, was jailed for 3 and a half years on Friday for 'inciting to subvert state power.'

I don't support a boycott of the Olympics. That is weak gesturism. A more direct and critical form of engagement is the better approach. Embarrass China, pressure it, but don't isolate it. In so doing, we will support the heroism of people like Hu Jia.

Friday, 4 April 2008

John McCain must choose wisely

Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George Bush (Sr) are all twentieth century Vice-Presidents who made it to the top. So it's actually quite an important role in US politics, frustrating as it is for the post-holder. There are some huge names in that list- Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon obviously stand out (not all for the right reasons.) You get there by your predecessor finding a stray bullet or meeting his maker. So you can understand why Lyndon Johnson felt like a raven on JFK's shoulder.

John McCain must choose wisely. His running mate will be a huge issue. It will be less of an issue for his opponent.

Just a salutary thought but imagine if George W. Bush hadn't made it to the end of his Presidency. He has been an abysmal President but can you imagine Dick Cheney?

Barack Obama re-establishes lead. A matter of time?

It is clear that Barack Obama has found firm ground again following the Jeremiah Wright hiccough . Most polls are showing him back in a solid lead. The Real Clear Politics poll average shows him back ahead of McCain also.

So what is Hillary up to? Some have suggested that she has a financial issue and that is why she is staying on. You can understand why she is concerned at the prospect of quitting the campaign with an $8million debt with $5million of her own money in the race as well. But no, that doesn't really explain it. She still believes that Obama will stumble. And she wants to be around to save her party when he does.

My guess is that he's been through the worst of it. The Jeremiah Wright stuff has blown over. It will come back from time to time but he won't be fatally wounded. The Rezko link is unfortunate but that sort of thing tends to frustrate the voters as it's like trying to clench yoghurt. An excellent summary of the current state of play is in this week's New York Review of Books. It includes a quote from James Warren, Managing Editor of the Chicago Tribune, about Obama. For him, the 'vetting' has happened.

Though he's unlikely to win it, he's closing the gap in Pennsylvania, and he just has to keep to his current course. Nancy Pelosi who will chair the convention has said that the candidate with the most pledged delegates should win. Expect Howard Dean, Al Gore, John Edwards and Jimmy Carter to start to suggest the same thing.

Obama is good to go.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Faith Schools II

A Government survey of the admissions policies of a range of schools is reported in the press today. It finds that in the three local authority areas covered, 76 of 136 voluntary-aided schools (i.e. faith schools) broke the new Schools Admissions Code (NB: 106 were written to which makes a non-compliance rate of 72%.)

This is clearly unacceptable and the Government has now tightened enforcement of the Schools Admissions Code, requiring Local Education Authorities to report on compliance with the Code to the Schools Adjudicator. Faith should not be used as proxy to select by ability or class. Any school that breaks that should be severely sanctioned.

A couple of days ago I wrote
how it struck me that many of the criticisms levelled at faith schools could equally apply to non-faith schools. If you look at the DCSF data for non-compliance with the Schools Admissions Code, you find something very interesting. 17 of 20 foundation schools (which are not faith based schools) are non-compliant with the Code. That is a non-compliance rate of 85% compared with 72% for faith schools. Both figures are appalling and should be zero.

What is the similarity between foundation and voluntary-aided (faith) schools? They both run their own admissions. They have had much greater freedom in the past to rig admissions. Those days are gone and they need to comply with new fair admissions.

Selection by parental wealth or occupation in our state schools exacerbates class division and narrows choice and opportunity. It is outlawed by a statutory Code. Where there is non-compliance, the perpetrators should named, shamed, and sanctioned. But let's not pretend this is unique to faith schools or we will be falling into a different type of divisive attitude- one that holds faith schools to a higher standard than others and that will inevitably lead to resentment.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008


A report out today by the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee is going to create a political storm. The central argument of the report is that the economic benefits of high net migration are either small or non-existent (the report doesn't go into the social or other impacts of migration- for example, could we really have expanded the NHS over the last decade without the work of doctors, nurses, and care workers from overseas? No is the answer.)

It is worth reading the report because it makes a lot of good arguments and contains much authoritative analysis. Its conclusions are based on available evidence but, as the report acknowledges a lot of information that is needed, is just not available. We can not properly quantify, for example, what the spillover effects of immigration are. Having more skilled people in the UK can increase the skill levels of the resident community and that is something that is difficult to measure.

The strangest argument in the report is that annual immigration should be within a 'target range.' To cap immigration would be economically damaging. As the report itself argues:

"We recognise that there is a case for enabling employers to hire significant numbers of highly-skilled foreign workers. But whether this implies positive net migration is another issue."

Well, no it isn't quite 'another issue.' If employers such as the NHS, the City, Universities, high-tech and research industries want to hire additional highly-skilled workers they may be prevented from doing so if there is an artificial cap. John Wakeham's argument in The Guardian today (that is also expressed in the report) that increased mechanisation or increases in pay could resolve skills shortages just doesn't apply in a lot of very significant cases such as those mentioned above.

To my knowledge, nobody is arguing that high net immigration- the target of this report's criticism- is per se a good thing. The basic policy position, as underlined by the new demand -based system where non-EU economic migrants will only get a visa if they have needed skills, is aimed at meeting the needs of employers', the economy, and local communities rather than at promoting a particular level of immigration (or emigration for that matter.) To that extent, this report is criticising a policy which does not exist.

However, the report is most interesting in its analysis of the impact on recent immigration on low-pay workers. There is no doubt that we need to actively consider better protection of these workers: better skills provision, protection for agency workers, and proper enforcement of the national minimum wage.

With these changes we can ensure that the immigration system provides economic benefits, protects the vulnerable, secures better public services, complies with international obligations and human rights and ensures that the UK is the open, welcoming, embracing and diverse nation that is its great strength.

Faith schools

I made a (brief) appearance on Nicky Campbell's 'The Big Questions' show talking about faith schools- you can see it here. Listening to the debate in the studio, it struck me that a lot of the criticisms of faith schools could equally be levelled at schools that are not faith-based. It also struck me that faith schools have a lot of work to do in communicating the benefits that they bring the wider community as well as people of their own faith.

Whatever the arguments in favour or against, the notion that you can change the governance, leadership, ethos, community relationships of a third of our schools without a deeply destructive impact on the education of a generation of young children is preposterous.

So it's time that the debate moved on from the shrill pro/anti religion debate by proxy and moved on to a practical discussion of ensuring that each school makes a contribution to whole community.

That is an issue for schools, Ofsted, local education authorities, the Schools Adjudicator as well employment tribunals and other courts: access should be fair and equal as legislated for, employees should not be unfairly discriminated against as outlined in employment legislation and challenged in the courts, and schools should demonstrate that they provide an exceptional education and promote cross-cultural understanding/ community cohesion. Many faith schools (and others!) don't meet all these provisos and they should be legally and administratively challenged when they do not. But 'faith' is a bit of red herring in all this.

On Friday night, I heard a comedienne (who happened to be Iranian but I don't think that's relevant) describe her schooling in the 1970s, "I went to christian school in the 1970s. We used to just call it school in those days." I think that sums it up nicely....there is a broader and divisive cross-culture agenda occurring and the issue about faith schools is just a current aspect of that. It will be something else next....