Thursday, 31 July 2008

Latinos go for Obama

Back in February I wrote a piece for Tribune about the trouble that Barack Obama was having with the Latino vote. It seems that Latino voters are now strongly headed in his direction. A survey by Pew Hispanic Center shows that Latino voters are now favour Barack Obama by 66% to 23%. Of the two thirds of Latino voters who were backing Hillary in the primaries, 75% have already switched to Barack Obama.

Inevitably, the issue of immigration comes to the fore when discussing the Latino vote. I had the opportunity when I was in the states to speak to Latino voters, community organisers and political campaigners. It was clear from them that immigration is a very simplistic prism through which to view these communities (we are not talking a socio-demographic monolith here) who have the normal complex array of concerns and issues.

Actually, immigration is partly a subset of wider economic concerns. The reason these communities tended to back Hillary was that they saw the Clinton years as economically prosperous. These communities have a strong political solidarity and loyalty so they stuck with Senator Clinton in the primaries. However, McCain's tack right on immigration reform from his earlier more liberal stance, has harmed him in this group.

Why does the Hispanic vote matter? They are now the largest ethnic minority voting group (see an excellent report from New Democratic Network to see the significance.) They are concentrated in electorally interesting ways. For example, they are relatively large numbers of Latino voters in states such as Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada, all states that the Republicans would be expected to win. Explosively, all three of these states are now 'toss up' states.

So it would appear that John McCain is trapped in a classic pincer movement. His white, conservative vote wants to see a tougher line on immigration, but this is repellent to the Latino vote. This is a terrible situation for McCain. It is also one that could cost him electoral votes come November. The Democrats have already started to win Governorships in surprising places. That could be followed by electoral votes in states in which they haven't been competitive since the civil rights movement.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Obama's VP field

Governors Tim Kaine, Evan Bayh, and Senator Joe Biden seem to be leading the field according to the Washington Post. If Kaine gets it, I would have seen the first time they stumped together at T.C.Williams High School in Alexandria. Post available here.

Kathleen Sibelius is also mentioned. Chris Dodd, Hillary Clinton, Sam Nunn, Chuck Hagel and Jack Reed are mentioned as long shots.

Vince Cable's perverse economics

I have an enormous amount of respect for Vince Cable, not least because he's the only current front-line politician who had a published chapter on my international political economy course reading list when at university. A very good piece it was too, covering the inconsistent pace of globalisation. However, his argument on the Today programme about how the mortgage market should proceed was irresponsibly conservative and, quite frankly, perverse. The audio file is here.

What Cable is essentially arguing is that the housing market has been growing largely because of the availability of cheap mortgage finance. He castigates lenders for allowing borrowers to secure mortgage finance for up to an amount that is five times their annual income. Such lending is irresponsible in his view, and mortgage values should be limited to three times of annual income. By pursuing this more conservative course, we will begin to open up the market for first time buyers. The economics underlying this argument are plain wrong.

If the house sale market existed in isolation then he may have an argument. It doesn't. It exists in parallel to the rental market. If people aren't buying houses they are renting them instead- they've got to live somewhere! What this means in practice is that as house prices decline, the risk-return ratio alters in the rental market. In other words, rents go up, capital costs (i.e. house prices) go down so that spurs investment in rental property. So our first time buyer still does not own a house, but they are paying more rent to support the profits of private landlords.

This point was illustrated in report published yesterday by the National Housing Federation which forecasts a 25% increase in house prices by 2013. House prices will decline in the short term but will then continue their upward trajectory because the main driver of the market is demand. We live alone for longer, live longer, and get divorced more. Whether people are renting or buying, more people need properties and supply is not keeping pace with that. What's more, unless the mortgage market is kick-started even fewer houses will be built making the situation worse.

So Vince Cable's position actually puts first time buyers in a much worse position. The market fundamentals won't change but the ability of people to get on the property ladder will be devastated unless good mortgage finance becomes more readily available.

Turning to Vince Cable's contention that the banks have been lending irresponsibly and that we should return to a three times income rather than five times income norm, this is unduly conservative. Let's do the sums using the BBC's mortgage calculator.

'Kate' has an income of £40,000 and is looking to buy in the South East where a one bedroom flat is likely to cost her £200,000. She has £20,000 savings. If she can get a mortgage for £180,000 over a 25 year time frame at 6%, it will set her back £900 for interest only, £1173 for repayment per month. Her monthly disposable income is £2300 or so. Either option is affordable. At 12% it would be unaffordable (leaving her with a monthly post-mortgage income of £400 or so.) 12% interest rates would only be seen in an economy facing collapse so exceedingly unlikely.

Now let's move Kate to Cableland. Her income is still £40,000 but she can only get a mortgage worth £120,000 now. With her £20,000 savings that means she can get a house worth £140,000. That means that house prices will have to fall by £60,000 before she can buy. That's a fall of 30%!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Of course, that won't happen because assuming that wholesale markets do recover, finance will be in plentiful supply to allow private landlords to purchase the flat that Kate dreams of before it gets anywhere near £140,000. Poor Kate unless she gets a £20,000 pay rise- a 50% increase- is stuck in the rental market indefinitely. How frustrated she will be that she can't get a mortgage even though it is completely affordable with her income and she is paying the same amount, if not more, in rent as she would be in a five times income mortgage.

Now to Vince Cable's final argument that there should be no kick-start for the mortgage markets lest we repeat the mistakes of creating a house price bubble again. His argument against the Bank of England underwriting mortgage debt because it means that the public sector will take the risk and the banks will get the rewards is curiously out of date. The Bank of England has a scheme already in operation called the Special Liquidity Scheme which protects existing high-quality assets in a manner that contains the risk in the private sector. The UK housing market is not like corporate bonds or equities. It can't suddenly junk- the basic underlying assets, i.e. houses, have a pretty sturdy value whatever the short term fluctuation may be.

Sir James Crosby's report into the mortgage market to be published today does not envisage permanent government support for the mortgage market as exists in the US through Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. That is right but an extension of the special liquidity scheme to new as well as existing mortgage assets could be advisable. Any extension would be time bounded until wholesale markets recover.

I'm afraid Vince Cable's arguments would have a devastatingly detrimental impact: house prices would continue their decline, the economy would suffer, and first time buyers, other than the very few at the margins, would actually be harmed rather than helped. Looking seriously at providing more liquidity to the system, but in a way that prevents the public sector assuming the private sector's risk, is the way to go. And hopefully, those five times salary 90% mortgages, at good interest rates, will become readily available again and Kate gets the pride and investment potential of her first flat.

Monday, 28 July 2008

The politics of Batman

The new, critically acclaimed Batman is smashing box office records. So the temptation is to be deliberately contrary and critically put the boot in but it's actually an intriguingly provocative though overly dense take on Gotham's Dark Knight. Heath Ledger's Joker is particularly beguiling and exuberantly anarchic. Readers of this blog though will be interested in the political under-current to the Dark Knight's Gotham vigilantilism especially as they are prevalent in the film.

What Batman actually is, cutting edge gadgets and car chases aside, is an allegorical tale of the fight against the type of terrorism with which there is no compromise. The Joker is Bin Laden, a man that sets society against its own philosophical foundations. His contention is that when spurred or afraid, we cut the constitutional and moral architecture of freedom from under us. How do we as a society respond to such a threat without definable end?

Well, vigilantism is one way around the legal niceties of such a threat is this film's contention though that is not a cost-free choice. Gotham's legal frameworks, combining corruption with cumbersome inflexibility, are inadequate to the task. It needs an extra-legal force, a Batman, who knows no limits, no borders (he apprehends a money laundering villain behind Chinese borders by attaching him to a passing jumbo jet), and little restraint. Batman's first mission is to break up a car park showdown between petty criminals (quite how Scarecrow who poisoned an entire city and sent it mad in Batman Begins is back on the streets is left unanswered but it is an apparent further failing of Gotham's legal process) and Batman clones. What legitimises this vigilante and not his copy cat do-gooders?

Not only do vigilantes spawn vigilantes but the horror of the film is that this super hero begets 'a better class' of villain. The Joker is Batman's shadow. Without Batman, there is no purpose to a Joker. Their masks are mirrors, good deeds are matched by bad. The Batman himself is one big moral dilemma. Well this Joker forces society to choose- hospitals or murder, unmasking Batman or terror, mother or daughter? How can human beings make such choices?

Then there is one of the political choices of our time, security or liberty? Many people have tried to define security and liberty as two sides of the same coin but that just will not wash. Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy, and Batman alter-ego plays up to the image of decadent capitalism but beneath it all is purpose with far more sinister consequences. Seeing the technological potential of a system that uses mobile phones to spy on each and every individual in Gotham, he shifts the boundary from freedom, decisively in the direction of security. What results is an organic, primordial panopticon. Every step in Gotham traced and tracked in the name of counter-terrorism. The end justifies the means.

Morgan Freeman's Lucius Fox is appalled and insists that this all-encompassing, roving CCTV is disabled. Presumably he sees the threat to liberty and privacy, the potential for the corrupt or distorted application of such a technology. Christopher Nolan, the film's Director, seems to be cautioning us about the consequences of defending our security without a proper consideration of our liberty. Unfortunately, at the same time a psychotic madman who wants to destroy society is running around Gotham, blowing up hospitals, corrupting the incorruptible, and murdering for theatre and fun. The choice is loaded and not in the direction of Lucius Fox.

Our minds might want to go with Fox, but our emotions pull us strongly in a very different direction. The worthy message is drowned out by a single adrenaline rush. An action thriller such as Batman is simply not capable of delivering such a textured message so it ultimately fails in its political mission, and perhaps does more harm than good. Surely, any technology available should be deployed against a madman like the Joker? Well, no, actually, but no one will leave the cinema with anything other than that conclusion.

So the politics of Batman are actually deeply unsatisfactory. That won't stop you going to see it. It is still a darkly provocative and brilliantly executed super hero flick. It just bites off more than it can chew. As a consequence, the final third of the film ends up in a bit of a mess. Hollywood blockbusters just can't carry the weight that Batman attempts to shoulder and nor should they. TV drama- The Wire springs obviously to mind- is far better placed to deal with these bigger issues. Political issues just don't seem to lend themselves to rational discussion while men dressed in bat outfits are fighting freaks in clown make-up trying to bring a city to its knees with a full array of pyrotechnics and wizz-bang gadgetry. That's just the way things are but thank-you Batman.

Post script: The Adam Smith Institute has discussed some of this also.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Getting personal with welfare

I've responded to the Government's welfare proposals, published today, on the Indy website. The conclusion is that they are a good step in the right direction, but there also needs to be a more permanent, personal approach akin to having a GP-like adviser on welfare and skills. Article below:

Getting personal with welfare

Obama VP announcement in next two weeks

Speculating about a VP selection is rather like pre-season transfer speculation, it's rather fun but a bit pointless. However, one thing that seems to be beyond speculation is the timing of the decision. Obama's campaign has announced that there will be no announcement during the Olympics (August the 8th to 24th) and given that the Democratic Convention starts just a couple of days later, it is almost certainly to be in the next two weeks.

So the Senator returns from his trip overseas next weekend and then he will be into the final decision making process. Expect an announcement next week or early the following week. John McCain is likely to announce his running mate at the end of the Democratic Convention week to steal some of Obama's thunder.

Over lunch with Jag Singh last week who worked on the Hillary campaign, he gave me a strong hint that the Obama campaign is looking very seriously at Wesley Clark as a running mate. The appeal is obvious: military expert with a distinguished career, former Hillary backer, vastly experienced, nullifies a series of McCain's positives (in fact, Clark has questioned whether McCain's military experience qualifies him to be President.) Jag's thoughts were also that John McCain was looking very seriously at Bobby Jindal, the Governor of Louisiana, who is Punjabi Indian by origin.

Given the biographies of Clark and Jindal, it would seem that McCain and Obama are actually considering selecting...........each other. Now there's a thought.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Why is Nick Clegg so stroppy?

I've just listened to Nick Clegg's interview on the Today programme. I tried, honestly I did, to listen to what he was saying but I just couldn't get past his manner. Why is he so stroppy? It was a perfectly light canter around his own party's tax policies. There was nothing too heavy. No personal attack, no really tough questions. He sounds like he is going to walk out of the interview at any moment having thrown his glass of water over the presenter and upturning the table before kicking the door on his way out.

It's a fact of life that the Lib Dems have difficulty making themselves heard in the media. They generally gain support in a general election as they can demand more airtime. I wonder whether that will be the case next time with Nick Clegg as leader. His biography has echoes of David Cameron's but I can't imagine a wider gulf in personal style. Having said that, I'm not sure it is just style. It is temperament as well. It is type of temperament that led to him marching his MPs out of the Commons chamber when he couldn't get his way on the Lisbon Treaty.

I honestly think the Lib Dems have made a huge mistake in replacing Menzies Campbell with a completely unproven alternative. I don't know what the Lib Dems can now do but I really think Nick Clegg needs to look very closely at his way of communicating. Stroppy doesn't cut it in the modern media age.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

"There will be no victory parade for us"- Black Watch at The Barbican

It's on until July 26th. Why haven't you bought a ticket? No, I care not for your feeble excuses. The website is here. Get in line for a late return. It's a very long line but it's your own fault for not being more organised. Or just bribe someone on their way in. That will cost you. A lot. However you do it is irrelevant. You do have to do it. Go and see Black Watch at the Barbican.

So many people, both for and against the Iraq War, have given scant consideration to the human tragedy at the conflict's centre. Gregory Burke's production, Black Watch, following a battalion of the Black Watch Regiment, casts politics, the media, and the public to the periphery though they all occasionally dart back to centre stage lest we forget, lest any of us abdicate responsibility. Instead we are forced to confront the basic and human morality of a group of young Scottish lads on a tour of duty into the 'Triangle of Death.'

Black Watch is not just a scathing confrontation of the remorseless regularity of seemingly futile conflict. It gives a voice to lost generations of Britons let down by leaders in generation after generation. A particularly memorable scene details the history of the Black Watch. Its golden thread expanded the British Empire, fought in Crimean, Boer, and two world wars. It lost in the American War of Independence but won Mesopotamia. 'Where have I heard that before?' asks one of the squaddies.

But the theme of the play is the breaking of this golden thread that connects one generation of Black Watchers to the next, Grandfather, father, and son. It is a military covenant. More importantly, it's a social covenant. The stability of Regimental history interplays with the decline of mines, of shipbuilding, of history. Stack shelves in Tesco's or angle for military glory? No competition.

The play's message is that self-worth is deprived from this group of friends. All they want is their moment of greatness. Rupa Huq rightly compares Black Watch to Trainspotting and it confronts similar themes. These guys do not abandon the galleon of society, they man its cannons. Renton and Sickboy, Trainspotting's central figures, fly off in precisely the opposite direction to Cammy and crew but they are flung from the same waltzer. The Black Watchers do not 'choose life.' They choose glory. When it is not forthcoming, they are left with nothing but the raging emptiness of hope denied.

Ultimately, the Regiment's golden thread is broken when Black Watch is taken over by the Royal Highland Regiment. Now a battalion, once more a generation is let down just at its toughest time.

Re-reading this review, I can't help feeling that I've made it sound heavier than it is. There are some really touching moments, raw humour, a bit of fun, and some incredible songs and dances. It is powerful not preachy, poignant but not manipulative. Like the bar with Sky Sports and the pool table in which the play begins and continually returns, it is what it is. And it is superb.

'Officially sanctioned' Barack Obama jokes...

Who says politics and humour don't mix?

The five 'official' Barack Obama jokes.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Cameron's half-baked economics

Having chided the Shadow Chancellor yesterday for focusing too much on trendy social psychology and think-tank-esque ideas rather than getting on with his day job, I guess I have to comment on David Cameron's economic strategy as outlined today in a speech to the CBI. I didn't hear the speech just read it so I can assume that he didn't say the following with any hint of irony:

The more you look at [the Government's economic plan], the more you realise that it isn't an economic strategy, it's a political strategy."

Good one David. His speech is actually more interesting for its political meaning than as an expression of economic policy. Not because it could in any way be described as an economic strategy. It's not. It's a rag-bag of loose ideas that are chucked in the economic sack and fail to meet the challenges they set themselves. What marks the speech out though is a wicked sting in the tail. The Spectator has been spitting feathers at the proposals to introduce a British version of the US bankruptcy protection, Chapter 11. So Cameron has given up on creative destruction. He might well get another visit from Margaret Thatcher soon.

That's not the real sting in the tail though. What The Spectator did not comment upon was the policy of massive state intervention that Cameron appeared to sneak in under the radar.

"Businesses need the infrastructure to succeed. And I mean infrastructure in the broadest sense of the word. Transport. Education. Skills."

Wow. That seems to imply major intervention. Are the Tories finally reconciled to post neo-classical endogenous growth theory? Governments do boost economic growth after all. This is a complete accommodation of the economics of new Labour. Perhaps that's something for Gordon Brown to celebrate?

I'm afraid on the specifics, the speech was sorely lacking. Just some examples:

- His welfare to work policy is basically a copy of Labour's with public sector providers excluded. Why, for example, would you exclude further education colleges from provided basic skills? It's what they do, it's what they have expertise in delivering, and they are trusted by local communities.

- Taking first time buyers out of stamp duty. Fine at the margins. But surely David you've read about the credit crunch and its impact on the mortgage market? Stamp duty is not what is holding people back in the housing market, it's the availability of affordable mortgages. You've missed the point.

- On the cost of living, he says, "Of course, many of the problems families face come from abroad." You may be revealing your little Englander instincts there David. We are part of the global economy. Our demand contributes to global demand as does our supply.

- Funding corporation tax reductions by reducing complex reliefs and allowances. Well, (i) firms are interested in their overall tax burden not necessarily just the headline rate; (ii) Does this mean abolishing measures such as R&D credits and how does this sit with promoting hi-tech investment?

- Shire Pharmaceuticals and United Business Media have not left because of the 'burden of regulation.' Most regulation is European so applies pretty much anywhere they HQ.

I was sceptical about the fair fuel stabiliser but I think it's worth having a closer look at for one major reason. It would have an impact on inflation which would mean that interest rates could be more focused on the real economy rather than the price of oil. Though notice that the oil price has increased relative to other EU nations due to the depreciation of the £ vis-a-vis the Euro. There is something you could do about that David......

So this is not an economic strategy at all. There are some good ideas, many just copied from the Government (did I mention underwriting all deposits up to £50,000? There are others....), and there are some largely irrelevant ideas. There is nothing in it to reduce the cost of living in the long-term as his conclusion claims. It confirms my view that George Osborne needs to spend less time on extra-curricula activity and more on economic policy. If you really believe that you are going to form the next government, time to get serious about economic policy, Dave and George.

Monday, 14 July 2008

A Republican VP nominee for Obama?

I'll start with a quote.

"....I believe any attempt by Democrats to pursue a more sharply partisan and ideological strategy misapprehends the moment we're in. I am convinced that whenever we exaggerate or demonize, oversimplify or overstate our case, we lose. Whenever we dumb down the political debate, we lose. For it's precisely the pursuit of ideological purity, the rigid orthodoxy and the sheer predictability of our current political debate, that keeps us from finding new ways to meet the challenges we face as a country."

p. 39-40, The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama
Anyone who has read Senator Obama's personal manifesto will be amused at the accusations of flip-flop/ sell-out that have been levelled at him over the last couple of weeks. He protests that if anyone had listened to a word he said then they wouldn't be making these accusations. He's right. He appeared more liberal than Hillary mainly because his foreign policy stances were more progressive. Actually, he is a centrist and always has been.

More critically, he is comfortable with the notion of reaching across the partisan divide. So would he consider appointing a Republican Vice Presidential nominee?

Absolutely he would. And there is one candidate that is getting a considerable amount of attention.

Travelling with Barack Obama to Iraq in the next few days, will be a Republican Senator, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. He is a Vietnam war veteran, highly respected on foreign policy, and he has been a vocal critic of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq. Famously he said:

"To question your government is not unpatriotic- to not question the government is unpatriotic."
So he has VP credentials coming out of his ears. What does he offer the Obama ticket? Well, it would signify 'change' as it would be a post-partisan manoeuvre, he would bolster the security and foreign policy credentials of the campaign, and he could neutralise some of John McCain's biography positives. The downside? How wouldObama's supporters react? More importantly, while quotes like the above get you in dictionaries of political quotations, they can also make good text to overlay some really threatening music on a campaign ad.Obama is desperately trying to establish his 'lapel pin' patriotism. Could Senator Hagel undermine that?

My guess is that Senator Obama would love to go for such a bold mood as appointing Chuck Hagel his running-mate. The politics may just end up being too risky.

A 'nudge' in the right direction?

George Osborne writes on 'nudge theory' in today's Guardian. As argued elsewhere, Cameron's Conservatives are busy hoovering up a whole range of concepts borrowed from social psychology in order to build an ideological platform.

Non-state, collectivism is the approach and it's characterised by local interventions by voluntary groups and behaviour influencing public policy. The rather cheap point to make, but I'll make it anyway, is how does all this tally with lecturing people about 'good. bad. right.wrong'? We'll come back to the glaring inconsistency another time.

Osborne provides three examples of how 'nudge theory' can work in a political context: encouraging energy efficiency, paying people to recycle (he strangely gives a US example when other European countries have been doing this for decades), and discouraging people from getting into store card debt. The latter example doesn't seem to follow his argument unless he is saying that customers are being nudged into getting into debt so they need a cool off people to un-nudge themselves. All three sound like sensible and workable policies.

A couple of things strike me about the argument though. Is Osborne just using 'nudge' as another word for incentive? It seems that the authors of 'Nudge', Thaler and Sunstein, mean something different to incentive. They refer to 'nudge ' as an act of social persuasion. Paying people the more they recycle is not social persuasion. It is economic incentive. A very different thing and something we are very familiar with in politics. Tax credits work in exactly this way: they incentivise people to work.

The other thing that strikes me is that these are all really neat ideas. They are also pretty micro. They are the sorts of ideas that local authorities should be coming up with and implementing. A Conservative government is going to need something a little more macro if its to deal with (in their words) 'social breakdown', environmental degradation, and economic woe.

George Osborne is Shadow Chancellor. It is to economic difficulties that his attention should be focused. He completely fluffed the ball on Northern Rock. He has no identifiable analysis about why we are facing an economic downturn and what the response should be. The Tories have no proposals about how we can get the housing market going again both in terms of sales and construction, or the regulatory architecture that a modern economy needs in an age of global and free financial flows. It is a huge gap in the Tory platform. They can get away with blaming the Government for only so long. At some point, they will have to reveal their hand.

So perhaps, I could respectfully suggest, rather than fiddling around with nifty think-tank-esque ideas inspired by the latest fad in social psychology, Mr Osborne needs to go back to some economic basics? By far the biggest service he could offer to his Leader would be to knuckle down and come up with a credible alternative economic plan. Thanks for the ideas, now back to the day job.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The price of Mugabe

A friend of mine has just come back from Africa and she brought me back this gift.

In July 2007 (you can see the date on the note), $1 was worth this:



By January of this year, $1 could buy you this:



That's the exponentially increasing price of Mugabe.

Also notice that both notes expire on 30th June 2008!

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Saving David Cameron's bacon?

The European Parliament is introducing a rule change according to Tory, Dan Hannan MEP, that will mean that European Parliamentary groupings will not be recognised unless they have members from seven countries. This makes Cameron's proposed breakaway euro-sceptic sect much more difficult to achieve (it is not even clear that they would have achieved members from five states, however....)

Of course, the Tory euro-neurotics are screaming conspiracy. I've got a little conspiracy theory of my own. The former Leader of the Conservatives in the EP, Timothy Kirkhope, was instrumental in this new measure progressing. Perhaps Mr Kirkhope has come up with a cunning little device to save his Leader from himself?

If David Cameron can't form the new breakaway grouping because the bar to official recognition is raised, he will be able to wriggle out of a futile gesture of a policy made when he thought he needed to stretch further to the right than was actually the case in the Tory Leadership election in 2005. What's more, he gets to blame Europe for it! What an ingenious climb-down Mr Kirkhope has engineered.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Tories on social justice: back to the future

Just when you think that the Tories have changed, along comes a sharp reminder that there is a Thatcherite instinct lurking within. Tim Montgomerie, Editor of ConservativeHome, argues that the Conservatives are becoming the home of social justice.

Montgomerie's argument is without content. It is a broadside at the deeply ingrained social problems that we face with some random policy solutions. Quite why this claims the mantle of the 'party of social justice' is beyond explanation. If this is representative of the depth of thinking in the modern Tory party then Labour can breathe a little easier.

What are these 'values' to which Montgomerie refers? Take 'commitment to the family' as a case in point. Well, this is just as much an outcome as a cause of deprivation. Of course it is desirable that kids are brought up in a stable home environment. That stability can not be legislated for or incentivised using the tax system. Instability at home is corollary of unstable communities characterised by casual labour, uncertain futures, an absence of hope and self-confidence, and infected with organised as well as petty crime. It's all well and good discussing family breakdown as a adjunct of 'social breakdown' but a hectoring approach will reap few if any rewards. It may actually cause more harm than good.

Into the fray, enter the Leader of the Opposition stage left. Previous posts will demonstrate that I take the intellectual and political challenge posed by the new Tories deadly seriously. Yesterday David Cameron announced that the Tories will issue sentencing guidelines that anyone convicted of a knife crime should receive an automatic custodial sentence. The vast majority already do of course. What was interesting though was the language that David Cameron is now deploying:

"We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion - it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.

"Of course, circumstances - where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make - have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.

"There is a danger of becoming quite literally a de-moralised society, where nobody will tell the truth anymore about what is good and bad, right and wrong.

"We as a society have been far too sensitive. In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said.

"We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, deferring gratification instead of instant gratification.

"Instead we prefer moral neutrality, a refusal to make judgments about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong behaviour. Bad. Good. Right. Wrong. These are words that our political system and our public sector scarcely dare use any more.

What is this if it isn't Thatcherite moral posturing? More seriously, it is yet another attack on the public sector which actually has a fundamental role to play in fighting knife crime. Instead, Cameron is going to rely on the likes of Ray Lewis to deliver his social policy.

Self-styled community leaders and reformers are a mixed bag, some are inspirational for sure but you never quite know what you are dealing with. Working alongside the police, social services, the schools, and local authorities they can be effective. To contract your entire welfare policy to them, without proper vetting or oversight, is absolutely barking mad. The impact on deprived communities will be patchy and minimal and the waste of state money will be serious.

So with their voluntary approach to social policy shaken to its foundations, the Tories have reverted to type. We are now back to hectoring the poor for being poor. Public policy ideas have a habit of coming back around every decade or so. In the Tory universe, you can watch the policy cycle on fast forward, ideas swing back around every few months. The only conclusion has to be that they haven't really decided who they are and what they are for. Whatever it ends up being, this vacillation will in no sense claim for them the mantle of the 'party of social justice' no matter how many times they assert it.

Post script: The Spectator launches a predictable attack on The Mirror's predictable attack (as the arguments are roughly similar, I guess that makes my attack predictable as well. Everyone's predictable just like the English Summer!)

Friday, 4 July 2008

Blogging in the extreme

Blogging is an indulgence of the ideologically pure. That is the message from a recent study on blogging behaviour in the US. People read blogs that echo their own political instincts and it tends to be individuals on the edges of the ideological spectrum (not extremists but those congregated away from the centre) who read blogs. They self-reinforce and get something from blogging that they don't get from the conventional political process. In a sense then, blogging is, in and of itself a rejection of conventional politics seems to be the implication of the study. But does it have to be this way?

If it does, then mainstream politics (and perhaps the mainstream media as a corollary of that) will simply reject blogging as the burblings of a disaffected minority. Coincidentally, I happened to pick up the article I have referenced above on the (generally excellent) blog site, Liberal Conspiracy, while ploughing my way through comments made in response to a post by the Government Minister, David Lammy, who had argued that the Labour party should look at adopting primary votes for selections. I happen to think that this is an idea that should should be taken seriously and argued so a couple of months ago:

What can Labour learn from the Democratic primaries?

David Lammy's article had some interesting points that I had expected to be picked up in the ensuing debate. That was naive. The debate soon descended into a stream of political hobby horses and attacks on mainstream politicians, especially those who dare to stray into the blogosphere. Nothing good can come out of the political process it seems. Only bloggers have the answer. It's a pity because any politician will think twice about engaging in this way again. How dare you look to have an open discussion if you, for example, voted for a 42-day pre-charge, detention limit or you supported the Iraq War, or you favour ID cards, or you want to reduce the term limit for abortions in the UK or any other positions that are not the conventional for the liberal left. Surely there's more to the blogosphere than this?

I regard myself as as being on the centre-left with the emphasis on centre but I don't feel uncatered for in the blogosphere. Blogs are far more spread across the political spectrum than the research suggests. Some are even funny. Or well written. When they are intellectually imaginative or irreverent, they can really contribute something to the political process beyond being laundromats for gossip that the national press won't run with (see http://www.order-order.com for this style of blog.)

I would wholeheartedly recommend Liberal Conspiracy. It has run some really imaginative campaigns, particularly on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. This debate on David Lammy's post was so disappointing though because I really felt that it was exciting that a member of the Government would look to engage in this way.

Three years ago, a young Senator from Illinois, our old friend Barack Obama, posted on the DailyKos on the issue of a judicial appointment and the way that some of his colleagues were being criticised. As you will see, the post attracted 843 comments and it is worth comparing the tone of the majority of those comments with the tone of the comments in reaction to David Lammy's post.

Hopefully, David Lammy will actively engage with the debate but he would be perfectly within his rights to just walk away. I know that he is friends with the Illinois Senator so I hope that he will draw inspiration from him. More broadly, it is critical that the political blogosphere doesn't just become a self-indulgent exercise in screaming from the ideological edges. There has to be meaningful political discussion not just, if you don't agree with x or y then you are: (a) immoral; (b) a careerist; (c) a sell-out; (d) engaged in some mainstream political conspiracy; (e) a brainwasher; (f) all or some of the above and many other terms of abuse.

Without addressing and engaging with the mainstream, blogging will simply be a minority pursuit of ideological purity that will freeze in irrelevance and alienate the majority. It is far more exciting than that now, as sites such as Liberal Conspiracy constantly prove. Let's keep it lively and relevant.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Easyjet: hero or villain?

Easyjet has broken ranks with the remainder of the airline industry and supported the Government's proposals to replace Airport Passenger Duty with a per flight charge. The current system is levied on individual passengers and flight distance. The new system will be levied per flight and will be based on take-off weight.

Of course, this campaign is completely self-serving- Easyjet happens to have a modern fleet and its business model means that it generally flies with a full plane and to short haul destinations- but should it be ignored on that basis? Actually no, the effect of Easyjet's public stance is to shine a light on the irresponsibility of airlines that have aging fleets and have a heavier impact on the environment. Other airlines are busy lobbying for all sorts of loopholes such as transfer passengers being exempt. Their environmental stance should be out in the open and Easyjet will ensure that this is the case.

I am afraid though that hailing Easyjet as environmental heroes (as they almost seem to hail themselves) is rather like praising a cad for not being a crook. It's very amusing to see an Easyjet booking form on the page that announces their campaign. Beyond that, it is slightly less amusing to see Easyjet's adopted environmental slogan. Easyjet: high efficiency=lower emissions=low fares. Lower emissions than what exactly? Not flying? I don't think so. And surely the lower fares just encourage more emissions?

There is congruence of sound business and environmental virtue which allows Easyjet to laud its credentials. It milks it for all it is worth. So yes, Easyjet is more enlightened than its competitors. It reduces the negative impact of its business on the environment. Its business though is getting as many people onto to planes as possible. That has a negative impact on the environment, notwithstanding voluntary carbon offsetting, whether you like it or not.

Well done Easyjet for being the best. Bad luck that it's in a weak race. Just like low fat food can still be quite fattening, lower emissions still means polluting. Easyjet needs to be clearer on that to its passengers to avoid any confusion.