Wednesday, April 29, 2015 

The party that cuts off its nose to spite its face.

It always happens.  Just when you think a point of no return has been reached, something comes along and proves there are always new depths to be plumbed.  Yes, politics really has just got even stupider.

Why it surprises each time is a mystery considering the way politics has been conducted over the past 5 years.  As Paul Krugman in the Graun today set out, the entire defining media discourse of the last parliament has been based on assumptions that don't stand up to scrutiny.  Yes, the deficit does have to be reduced, but the time to do so is the boom, not when the recovery has barely started.  Britain has never been in a position even remotely like Greece's, nor is it any danger of being so when we control our own currency.

By the same measure, the Tories' entire pitch to the country is built on a lie.  They claim to have rescued the country from Labour's Great Recession, and yet as yesterday's GDP figures made clear, the recovery, such as it is, has been built mainly on continued consumer spending rather than the rebalancing away from financial services originally promised.  Despite record low interest rates the economy has not bounced back in the way it has from past recessions, suggesting this time might be different.  This could be partially down to said austerity, or it could be what has been called secular stagnation, where the economic growth we were previously accustomed to becomes all but impossible due to various factors including a decline in the working age population and technological advances no longer leading to improvements in productivity.

Either way, to be proposing now is the time for "colossal" cuts as the Tories are, especially when growth is threatening to come in lower than forecast is at best daft and at worst positively dangerous.   Up until today most economists and commentators had concluded they didn't, couldn't really mean what they say.  It's to keep the hardliners onside.  It's to be negotiated away come the talks on forming a new coalition.  Osborne relented once he realised austerity was having the precise opposite effect to the one he claimed it would.  It would be impossible to make the "savings" they're proposing without putting up taxes.

Only, such is the apparent Tory desperation at how their message doesn't seem to be getting through, now the promise not to put up VAT, income tax or national insurance will be enshrined in law if they win the election.  This is so completely deranged it takes a while to sink in.  We've previously had Osborne trying to "trap" Labour by legislating to cap benefit increases for those of working age to 1%, and they've since put in law the very outline of their spending plans.  This though is something else: quite apart from how it seems to be the Tories admitting there's so little confidence in their ridiculous sums they need to make it illegal to not follow their pledge to get people to believe them, it leaves Osborne with next to no room for manoeuvre in the event of another crisis and closes the door totally on much in the way of alternatives to the mooted cuts.

Laws can of course be repealed, but that wastes time that might be of the essence in a genuine emergency.  As a gimmick, which is exactly what it is, it's a self-defeating one.  The obvious assumption is it would be something else negotiated away in coalition talks, which again raises the question of why you would make such a promise only then to drop it at the first opportunity, exactly the sort of move that invites cynicism.  Are the Tories that panicked by how the polls still aren't shifting, with the most likely outcome remaining a minority Labour government into thinking something, anything that convinces a few more people of their sincerity is worth it, regardless of the all the downsides of such a bill?

Apparently so.  Why though do such a thing when it finally looks as if the Tories' bluff on their proposed £12bn in welfare cuts is being called?  The IFS, as exasperated at the main parties' lack of candour in their manifesto as it ever gets, outlined to get anywhere near that figure (PDF) at the same time as protecting pensioner benefits would mean the absorption of child benefit into universal credit, which would save £5bn, while requiring housing benefit recipients to pay at least 10% of their rents could save a further £2.5bn, still leaving a £2.5bn shortfall.  Labour, in what has been a pitifully underreported press conference this morning, overshadowed somewhat admittedly by Miliband's soiree with Fey Guevara, put out their own take on where the axe would fall, deciding cutting tax credits was just as likely, saving £3.4bn along with the aforementioned child benefit cuts.  Tonight Danny Alexander in an apparent valedictory move ahead of the likely loss of his seat to the SNP has given the Graun Iain Duncan Smith's "Welfare Reform Quad Summer Reading Pack" from 2012, when the coalition was arguing over whether to carry on with Plan A.   Again this focuses on child benefit, with IDS having suggested limiting it to two children, removing the higher rate for the first child, removing it altogether from 16-19-year-olds, and finally means testing it, which all told would save £8bn.

The IFS was far from complimentary about Labour's own failure to outline cuts that would save money as opposed to the equivalent of pennies in government spending terms, but then Labour's plans are such that as the IFS has said, they've left themselves enough room for manoeuvre as to barely cut spending at all if they so choose.  The Tories have now had 2 years to come up with something resembling an outline of where they would make their savings, only to respond every time they should be trusted to do so based on their record.  Their record, as we've seen, has been to sell the country the biggest of lies.  That they've gotten away with it, while an indictment of Labour and a servile media, only makes it all the more remarkable they've now been reduced to one of the most idiotic and cutting off their nose to spite their faces gestures in recent memory.  It will be nothing compared to the effect on the country if we end up with a Conservative majority that governs as it says, mind.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2015 

Me and Stephen Hawking we laugh.

You can't help but be struck by the Tories' lack of serendipity.   The economy is meant to be their trump card, their "jobs miracle" an unquestionable fact.  Of course, the recovery they stalled for two years would be put in jeopardy if Labour were to get in and rack borrowing up again, whereas there wouldn't be any negative effects from the Conservatives front-loading their proposed cuts in the first years of the next parliament in their quest for a surplus.  You know all this.

How desperately unfortunate then that the GDP figures for the first three months of the year are so disappointing.  They are just a snapshot, based on incomplete data and may well be revised up.  All the same, that without the boost provided by the drop in oil prices and corresponding low inflation the economy would be all but flatlining is not the news the Tories were expecting at this stage.  Their response, the only possible one, however counter-intuitive, has been to say this just proves the last thing needed is a change of government or the instability of an inconclusive outcome next Thursday.  Clearly what's needed isn't just the certainty of a Conservative majority, but the impact the further austerity proposed would have on growth.  This is assuming the Tories mean what they say, which is open to doubt considering Osborne slowed the retrenchment programme in 2012 when the economy was double-dipping (since revised away to mere stagnation rather than a second recession), in spite of all his denials of adopting a Plan B.  We can though only go by what they say, rather than what a government not hell bent on an ideological shrinking of the state would do in such circumstances.

The further evidence this was precisely what the Tories weren't banking on is this is their designated "economy" week.  They would have known all too well today would see the ONS publish the latest statistics, and so clearly went ahead presuming their boasts of having rescued an economy on the brink would be further reinforced.  Oh and dear.  

Not that it will likely make much difference when actual news is the last thing on the mind of a press that has long gone past the point of embarrassment when it comes to serving up what's given to them by the Conservatives: the Mail today dredged up a two-year old story on Miliband somehow being a Stalinist for daring to suggest more use of compulsory purchase orders to help get more houses built.  The Times meanwhile declared there are 10 days to save the union, just as there were however many days in the past to save the pound, save the NHS, save Jennifer's ear and so on.  Considering the Conservatives have been going out of their way for the past two weeks to suggest a vote for the SNP is somehow illegitimate, with the two parties almost in cahoots in their attempt to squeeze Labour even further in Scotland, it's an odd line for Cameron to suddenly take.

Equally strange is Cameron feeling entitled to say who his opponents should or shouldn't be interviewed by.  Considering Dave's idea of an interrogation is less Paxman and more Philip Schofield, such is his preference for the sofa of This Morning as opposed to the rigour of appearing on say the Today programme, not to bring up the whole avoiding anything resembling a debate that wasn't a waste of time, it's a bit rich to declare Ed Miliband a joke for agreeing to an interview with Russell Brand.  Apparently Cameron hasn't got time to hang out with Brand, although he did find room in his schedule for the chuckleheads at Heat magazine to ask him a few truly important questions, such as whether Sam prefers pink or brown.

Brand, it cannot be said enough, is a gimp.  He goes after the easiest of targets, has no interest in anything beyond the shallowest understanding of what he talks about, does so in the most infuriating way imaginable and has, up to now, undermined any good he has done by supporting causes like the Focus E15 mothers and generally raising awareness by telling those about to shafted the most by a Conservative government not to vote.  As soon as he gets bored or gets a better offer than spending his days making money from Google via the YouTube partners programme for the Trews channel he'll be off doing something else.  

For Miliband to agree to be interviewed by Brand is nonetheless exactly the sort of thing he should be doing: he has absolutely nothing to lose at this point, and, if as the Graun is suggesting it's finally got through Brand's thick skull that not to at least offer a suggestion as to whom his viewers should vote for if they're going to would be a betrayal, then all the better.  Moreover, detest Brand's way of expressing himself as I do, I'd much rather listen to him and Miliband having something resembling a normal discussion on how to tackle tax avoidance than the cringe inducing falseness showcased in Labour's abominable "Ed Miliband: a Portrait" political broadcast.

Still, if tomorrow's front pages are anything to go by, we've reached the stage in the campaign where cries of anguish about what supposedly isn't up for debate, as exemplified by the Mail last week having the gall to claim immigration was the great unmentionable, have given way to straight ad hominem attacks.  Do you really want this clown ruling us, asks the Mail, the paper owned by the non-domiciled Lord Rothermere.  Oh for the chance, the mere possibility, of being able to say it was the right-wing media wot lost it.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015 

The Liberal Democrat manifesto.

For the second day in the row, the Liberal Democrat "battlebus" broke down.  As metaphors go, they don't come much more obvious and yet all but impossible to avoid using.

Only it's probably too kind to how the party has gone about the campaign thus far to say it's merely having a few mechanical problems and will be up and running again shortly.  In actuality the Lib Dem campaign hasn't so much as got started.  The party has been all but invisible, and when it has succeeded in getting coverage it's been possibly to its detriment.  Clegg was anonymous during the leaders' debate, the party's reliance on their desperately unpopular leader baffling.  It's not as though the party doesn't have other communicators it could push to the fore when they have Vince Cable, Tim Farron or Jo Swinson to name but three they could choose from, and yet it's Calamity Clegg every time in front of the cameras.

The campaign's biggest misstep isn't the reliance on Clegg so much as the patently false, confused and deeply negative message they've decided can't be reiterated enough.  You see, the Tories, the party they've propped up for the past 5 years are heartless bastards, whereas Labour are economically incontinent.  Only the moderating influence of the Lib Dems can ensure the Tories won't bring back the workhouse, while if the numbers go in the opposite direction only the mellow yellows can ensure Labour won't immediately increase the deficit by eleventy trillion pounds.  This assumes firstly that everyone accepts there's going to be another hung parliament, which despite being highly likely isn't a certainty, and secondly that the past five years have been such a wonderful experience everyone will vote for the party that wants to do it all over again.  Precisely who this is meant to appeal to beyond past Lib Dem voters isn't clear.

It also assumes it's accepted the Liberal Democrats have been that moderating influence, when this is a view held almost only by right-wing Tories.  Yes, they did prevent the very worst instincts of the Conservatives from becoming reality, stopping the snoopers' charter, the repeal of the Human Rights Act, further cuts to welfare, but this has to be offset against their support for the immediate austerity that stalled the recovery, the imposition of the bedroom tax, the hardening of attitudes to those on benefits, the welfare sanctions that hundreds of thousands have suffered for the merest of infractions if that, and every other destructive policy the coalition has pursued.

This knowledge makes the party's claims that either the SNP or UKIP will hold their prospective partners to ransom all the more risible.  The UKIPs aren't going to win enough seats to be able to govern alone with the Tories full stop, while the SNP would have to extract a far better deal from Labour than the Lib Dems did the Tories, and they would be making demands not so much for a coalition as a confidence and supply arrangement.  It simply isn't credible, and that the party hasn't realised its pitch has failed to hit home and switched tactics strikes as being in denial.

Nor would it matter as much if the manifesto (PDF) had been written with the intention of being genuinely open to coalition with either Labour or the Tories.  Instead the policies on the front cover, declared by Clegg to be all but non-negotiable are almost a mirror image of the ones announced by their coalition partner yesterday, right down to the £12,500 personal tax allowance.  The only real sticking point would be Clegg's one other declared "red line", the further £12bn in welfare cuts, and that isn't too massive a stumbling block when few realistically expect the Conservatives would even as a majority government eliminate the deficit wholly through reductions in spending as they claim.  Dropping opposition to the Tory pledge of holding a referendum on EU membership all but gives the game away.

Which leads directly on to the other obvious problem: you therefore can't take seriously a single other policy set out in what is by far the most extensive but by the same token least enlightening manifesto of the main three.  Those who like me will cheer the promise to take the very first steps towards reforming our drug laws will at the same time know it'll be one of the first proposals to go.  Then there are the sections that are just embarrassing: the party that as Ian Dunt says went along with the disgraceful ban on sending books into prisons still claims it will put an emphasis on rehabilitation and reducing the prison population.  There isn't so much as a hint of the crisis inside as a direct result of the cuts and overcrowding the Liberal Democrats have to take ownership of, while the spare room subsidy, aka the bedroom tax, which the party belatedly discovered was cruel and unfair is relegated to the very last point on the unbelievably patronising "improving support for the hardest to help" page.

The decision to hug the Tories close, understandable as it is considering most of the former Labour-Lib Dem marginals have been written off as a lost cause with a couple of exceptions, has some especially perverse consequences.  The effective choice in the south-west for instance, likely to be the party's one remaining stronghold come May the 8th, is between the Tories and the Lib Dems.  Following today's manifesto launch that choice has effectively become a Hobson's choice, with all that entails for disenchantment and resentment.  Nick Clegg talks of being the alternative to a coalition of grievance, yet the Lib Dem decision to move to the centre-right when 5 years ago there seemed for the first time to be a real third party alternative is a manoeuvre guaranteed to create very legitimate grievances, with so many of those voting for a change left feeling abandoned and unrepresented.

Nick Clegg opens his introduction to the manifesto with the line "few people expected that many of the policies it [the 2010 manifesto] contained would be implemented by the next Government".  Least of all, the statement begs, the party itself.  We could also quibble on just how many of its policies have been implemented also (three quarters, Clegg claims, hardly any, the Graun answers back) but frankly my will to live is ebbing just thinking about it.  On this day back in 2010 I concluded my post by saying what was holding the party back was knowing when to go further and "most pertinently, their leader himself".  In 2015 the only thing motivating the party is holding on to the vestige of power, and that self-same leader is in a position where he could oversee the loss of half of his MPs and still remain deputy prime minister.  Funny thing, politics.  And by funny I mean hateful.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015 

The Conservative manifesto.

Some days, I don't have the slightest idea how to open these posts.  I doubt this is much of a revelation.  This isn't one of those days.  I thought for instance of something along the lines of today saw the publication of a manifesto written by people safe in the knowledge they'll never have to implement it, and it accordingly reads like the deranged wishlist of crazed fanatics.  And the other is from the Green party.  I could have gone with the more than faintly sinister overtones contained within the Tory manifesto, from the "plan" for every stage of your life, far more Stalinist than anything Labour have come up with in decades, a theme it carries on with through the centrepiece of selling off at a discount houses the government doesn't so much as own.  Then I could have made something out of "the good life" the manifesto is meant to usher in, so long as your vision of the good life is one that is so beige as to not be worth living at all.

We'll settle though for the sheer one-eyed monomania the manifesto confirms prevails within today's Conservative party.  Apart from the Thatcherite true believers, nearly everyone now recognises that right to buy has been one of the most destructive policies of the last 30 years.  The social housing stock has never been replaced, it kick-started the runaway price inflation we've seen since, and rather than creating the home owning democracy initially promised has instead overwhelmingly contributed to the situation we have now where only with the help of said home-owning parents can most of those looking to buy afford to do so.

A sensible party, rather than promising to sell off more would be pledging to empower councils to replenish the stock they've lost.  Raiding housing associations whether they like it or not is an act of wanton vandalism, utterly self-defeating and for the briefest short-term gain.  Indeed, it's not even remotely clear if there are votes in this latest cloth-eared Tory venture.  Many housing association tenants are the same people who've suffered the most under the coalition so far, unlikely to be able to get together the heavily discounted amounts mooted.  This might well be the point of the policy: meant to hark back to those glorious days when the party could win a majority, enthusing those who still believe the word aspiration means something, while at the same time not expecting it to be much used.  The reaction from those at the sharp end has been little short of brutal, for good reason.  Taken alongside the raising of the inheritance tax threshold, it speaks of just how narrow and stuck in the past the Conservative vision of what motivates the average person has become.

Apart possibly from the pledge to double the number of hours of childcare available to parents of 3 and 4-year-olds, there is absolutely nothing in the manifesto itself (PDF) that was unexpected.  By necessity, it's a very different document to the one of 5 years ago, which hilariously offered "an invitation to join the government", RVSPed only by a group of people no one is paying the slightest attention this time round as a result.  Gone is even a whiff of the experimentation of the early Cameron years, before the "green crap" was all cleared out, replaced with various shades of blue.  The cover, complete with its angled photo of the Tory "team", George Osborne's fizzog obscured to protect the young and innocent, Nicky Morgan on the far left struggling to remain in focus and with the usual expression of apparent shock on her face, is navy blue, while the fonts inside alternate seemingly at random from light to dark.  The photographs used are all but identical to the ones featured in Labour's manifesto yesterday, the portraits of Cameron the only shots of a politician, then the various images of Brits at work.  At least Labour named them; the Tories leave them anonymous.  Perhaps it was to hide their shame.

Certainly you couldn't pay many people enough to feature alongside such utter lies as are featured in the text.  I honestly don't think I've read a more mendacious official publication from a party in the entire time I've been writing this blog.  Apparently the UK was the fastest growing of all the major advanced economies last year, which must mean neither China or India fit such a description; the national debt was rising out of control 5 years ago, which is why it has gone up even further under the coalition; living standards will be higher this year than in 2010; those with the "broadest shoulders have contributed the most to deficit reduction", which is true only so far as the richest have contributed the most in cash terms, not as a percentage of their actual wealth, with the poorest having been hammered on that score; "International evidence and Treasury analysis shows that the only way to keep our economy secure for the future is to eliminate the deficit entirely and start running a surplus", the manifesto claims, a statement so patently absurd and false that no further comment is necessary; and, just to limit this to a single paragraph of semi-colons, "Under Labour, road and rail were starved of resources".  Yes, really.

The Great Recession then has given way to a Great Revival.  Our friends and competitors overseas look at Britain and see a country on the rise, perhaps even about to make a Great Leap Forward.  Except this Great Revival is fragile, and the slightest deviation from the Plan will result in things going Backwards.  This is why every single thing Labour did in power is blamed for why things still aren't Good Enough now.  Almost every individual part of the manifesto begins by outlining The Evil That Labour Did, even when it jars completely.  Labour for instance forgot that government is the servant of the British people, not their master, goes the introduction to making government work better for you section; it always knew best.  The current government of course doesn't, which is why one part of it has gone to such lengths to demonise its supposedly weak and useless opponent and seems fixated as much on how terrible things were and still are rather than on how it's going to fix them.

Some things go strangely unmentioned.  You won't for instance find any reference to either the bedroom tax or the spare room subsidy, a policy it seems the Tories are completely ashamed of but still won't do the decent thing and admit they got wrong.  You won't discover just where the proposed £12bn in cuts to welfare will fall, nor is there any detail on where the axe will be wielded outside of the protected areas of spending.  There's no detail on how the proposed rise in the personal allowance to £12,500 will be paid for, estimated to cost an eye-watering £3.2bn by the IFS, which again despite the spin of taking those earning the minimum wage out of tax (for those working 30 hours at least) benefits middle earners the most.  The higher rate threshold will also rise to £50,000, again paid for who knows how.  There'll be no increases in VAT, national insurance or income tax, but certainly not guaranteed is there won't be a further cut in the top rate of income tax.  There is, unexpectedly, a mention of food banks, not to promise a desire to reduce the need of such institutions in a country experiencing a Great Revival, but obviously as an example of the role played by the voluntary sector in the country's social fabric.  Absent is a promise to leave the European Convention on Human Rights, but Labour's Human Rights Act will be repealed and replaced with a British Bill of Rights codifying exactly the same things.

In so many places reality is completely absent, none more so than the hysterical Britain standing tall in the world section.  Labour's Great Recession apparently weakened Britain on the world stage, whereas the Conservatives have strengthened our influence.  Quite where our influence has been strengthened is a mystery; certainly not in Europe, not in the Middle East, where we remain beholden to authoritarian Arab regimes that Cameron spent much time fawning over in an effort to sell weapons to, nor in America, where the refusal to sign up to spending 2% of GDP on defence per NATO agreements and the various cuts to the military have been complained about.  We intervened to stop a massacre in Libya, which turned out absolutely splendidly, saw William Hague team up with Angelina Jolie to end sexual violence in conflict once and for all, and helped women and children who have fled violence in Syria.  That last claim is so egregious as to impress with the sheer chutzpah it must have taken to write it.

Then again, the whole manifesto is defined by such chutzpah.  The party that claims to be the new vanguard of the workers is determined to push forward with 40% turnout thresholds on strike ballots, a move which if applied elsewhere would see nearly every local election result declared null and void.  If you want to live in the most vibrant and dynamic country in the world, which is seemingly this one, a decent job is the best weapon against poverty.  The Conservative definition of decent is any job, regardless of the conditions, zero hours contracts meriting a single mention.  The principal reason immigration has not fallen to the tens of thousands is because of how wonderful the economy's been doing, and yet at the same time rather than being attracted to all these jobs the real reason migrants from Europe have been coming is to claim benefits.  Finally, we measure our success not just in how we show our strength abroad, but in how we care for the weakest and most vulnerable at home.

I could just leave it there.  I probably should.  There is though something exceptionally depressing, at least to me about just how limited and limiting the Conservative view of life set out by their "plan" is.  Be born.  Grow up.  Get a job.  Raise a family.  Retire.  Die.  Is that all there is?  Is that all we're meant to aspire to?  Nothing else?  What if I don't have, don't want a family?  What if I'm a hopeless loser?  Where do I fit into this?  I don't.  But then I was never going to. 

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Monday, April 13, 2015 

The Labour manifesto.

"It's about values," said George Osborne yesterday, as David Cameron outlined his dream.  Even by the standards of other people's dreams usually being extraordinarily tedious, Cameron's was stupendously dull.  One of the most basic human desires is to take care of your children, and this instinct remains whether they're 5 months or 50.  Why then should the taxman demand a cut when it's completely natural to want to leave your home to your kids?  What difference should it make if they've already got a home of their own, or if the house is worth £374,000 or £999,999?  To object to this intensely natural order is the politics of envy, plain and simple.

George Osborne was right, of course.  It is all about values.  Alan Clark wrote in his diaries of how "the trouble with Michael [Heseltine] is that he had to buy his own furniture," the kind of attitude that was once so prevalent in the Tories.  Most though at the same time would never have dreamed of suggesting that death duties or inheritance tax as it has become should be all but abolished, for the reason being there is moral virtue in taxing unearned wealth.  Clark might have sneered at someone needing to buy their own furniture, but would have equally sneered at someone in his position not going out into the world and making their own money.  As far as the modern Conservatives are concerned, home ownership is an end in itself.  The how and why doesn't enter into it; so long as the home was acquired somehow and it's worth less than a million it should be able to be passed on.  The effect this will have on the housing market is completely immaterial, or rather is absolutely integral: almost every Tory policy post-2010 has been to boost house prices and to hell with the consequences.  What's good for those lucky enough to have got on the housing ladder is good for the country.  There could not be more difference between a party making such a promise and the others pledging to introduce a yearly tax on properties worth over £2 million.

Which brings us to today's Labour manifesto launch.  Little remembered now is a certain Ed Miliband was the principal author of the last Labour manifesto, not so much the longest suicide note in history as it was an immensely elongated acceptance of fate.  Where that manifesto promised a "future fair for all", illustrated by a family burning out their retinas by staring into the sun, today's instead informs us all that "Britain can be better".  Well, quite.  Britain also only succeeds when working people succeed, which doesn't instantly follow; bleeding working people to the bone might well give the impression of the country succeeding also, but maybe we shouldn't be splitting hairs.  Where the last manifesto's cover was garish, this time the entire document is austere (PDF), the cover simply white with red text, while inside apart from the single full page photo of Ed and multiple images of said hard-working Britons, the design is remarkably minimalistic, or if you prefer, plain.

And that, frankly, is what the manifesto is.  It almost reminds of the semi-witty advert Labour ran at the time of the changeover of power: not flash, just Gordon.  There is very little flash contained herein, and that presumably is exactly the point.  It doesn't so much say there's still no money as it does suggest any there is we're not going to splash on frivolities.  Indeed, everything has been costed, or so it says on the second page, and locked in also.  Not a single commitment requires additional borrowing, and in future Labour will legislate to require all manifestos be audited by the Office for Budget Responsibility.  The deficit will be cut every year, the national debt will fall, dogs and cats will live together, but there won't be mass hysteria.

From not mentioning the deficit Labour has decided it can't be talked about enough.  It's difficult to judge precisely why the party has decided at the last minute to invent this budget responsibility lock, or for that matter what the point of it is.  As the IFS has been pointing out for some time now, Labour's economic plan is broad enough to allow for no further cuts whatsoever after 2016, which would still allow for a surplus come 2020.  The manifesto doesn't enlighten us as to what cuts there will be, beyond the fact there will be cuts outside of the protected spending areas of the NHS, education and international development.  We can obviously expect them not to be as severe as the ones promised by the Conservatives, yet at the same time the areas designated for cuts are those already slashed hardest.  How much more in the way of savings can be found from the Home Office budget, the local government budget, the welfare budget?  The manifesto also restates the commitment not to mess with the taxes that raise the most revenue, beyond putting up the top rate of income tax back up to 50p, further reducing room for manoeuvre if such promises are to be kept.

If this is meant to reassure those convinced it was Labour's profligacy in the first place that resulted in the crash and the deficit (pro-tip: it wasn't) it's both far too late and just not airtight enough.  The Tories might have spent the last few weeks throwing money around, but you can promise ridiculous things like the all but abolition of inheritance tax when, regardless of whether it's deserved or not, the Conservatives are trusted on the economy.  More than anything else the emphasis on the deficit and the triple lock has distracted away from what is the manifesto's greatest strength: not the policies, which are for the most part underwhelming, but the message that work isn't paying.  While not specifically stating there's a crisis of productivity, it sets out how it's the quality, not the quantity of jobs that really matters, and the party will not accept Britain becoming a low-wage economy as the Conservatives are prepared to.

Naturally, saying this when so many are ready to accept secular stagnation as the new normal and doing something about it are two separate things.  All the manifesto really pledges to do to improve productivity is via "a long-term investment culture", while "encouraging small businesses to grow".  An National Infrastructure Committee will apparently achieve this, making recommendations and holding government to account.  Short-termism in business is also fingered, but how much of a difference will really be made by giving additional rights to long-term investors when takeover bids are mounted and by requiring remuneration committees to have worker representation is open to question.

Still, there is radicalism or something approaching it hiding beneath the utilitarian wrapping.  The big six energy companies will be separated into generation and supply businesses, required to open their books and sell their electricity through an open exchange, while the water companies will have to sign up to a national affordability scheme.  The rail franchising system will be reviewed, a public sector operator will be allowed to take on lines and challenge the private firms and city and country regions will be given more power over the bus operators.  Less immediately helpful will is the proposed repealing of the Health and Social Care bill, which will surely necessitate another NHS reorganisation, and the new "Directors of School Standards", which sounds remarkably like a way of allowing free schools just under a different guise.

The one thing more than anything else that seems absent, despite there being few policies to violent disagree with (it's hopefully indicative that I gave the biggest snort of derision to a throwaway line on building resilience in young people through the use of mindfulness) is anger.  Or even a general sense of real concern for what the next five years could bring should we again have a Conservative-led government.  It's not as though the Conservatives are hiding their intentions, as they did last time: they want to spending two years banging on about Europe, and could possibly even lead us out by mistake; they want to cut everyday spending to 1960s levels; they want to all but deny benefits to the young, while feather-bedding the old; they want to repeal the Human Rights Act and leave the European Convention on Human Rights; they want to make life as unpleasant as possible not just for those on benefits, but also those on low wages via universal credit.  The list could go on.

Despite all this, you don't get the sense from Labour or the manifesto that 5 more years of the Tories will be that bad.  We are it's true in this new territory where another coalition or some variety of moderating influence on the Conservatives seems all but a certainty, and with that in mind we've had pithy remarks about the launches of the manifestos being about the beginning of the bartering as anything else.  5 more years could mean the breaking of the public services as we know them.  Britain can be better, but Labour doesn't seem to believe in itself, let alone the country.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015 

An epic day in politics.

"I almost spilt my coffee."  Yes, of course you did George.  While the rest of the country was trying to work out how the Sun could possibly have thought ripping off an already dire advert was a good idea, the chancellor was failing to hang on to his latte, his jaw having dropped.  It would be a difficult story to believe even if Osborne wasn't the type of person who strikes you as the kind liable to stand in front of a mirror, imagining himself all rippling muscles and shit-eating grin, a veritable gift to women.  Osborne does after all think calling someone an idiot to be devastating wit, as evidenced by his past braying reaction to Cameron's description of Ed Balls.  More indeed.

You can then see the low base from which Osborne's subsequent remark, of the Sun's genius, came from.  Only the unbelievably easy to please and those tasked with finding something, anything to crow about from yesterday's budget could have presented it as such an unvarnished triumph, let alone an "epic strut".  Do the kids still use the word epic, you imagine the Sun's hacks asking, after high-fiving each other for coming up with the take on the Money Supermarket ad in the first place.  Epic fail!  Guh-ugh-uh.

Osborne does at least if nothing else retain some self-respect.  Whoever came up with the idea for the Liberal Democrats to present their own imaginary budget, complete with hastily painted yellow box, you can but hope they've got an up to date CV.  Danny Alexander, the coalition's answer to a question that was never posed in the first place duly came out of the Treasury, rather than you know, Number 11, holding up his lunch for the approval of the interns sent along on the off chance there's a sliver of space to fill somewhere in tomorrow's paper.

Of all the various attempts at differentiation the Liberal Democrats have tried, this has to rank as both the most absurd and bizarre, and just as strange was why both the speaker and the civil service went along with it.  Alexander's presented figures for how a Liberal Democrat government would manage the public finances were even more of a farce than Osborne's actual ones, not least because his party has stopped pretending it has any chance of winning the election rather than forming another coalition.  When you can no longer deny that inevitability, how can you possibly maintain there's even a cat's chance in hell of the plans forming anything like the basis of the next government's economic strategy?  The only realistic answer to why this was signed off has to be pity for poor old Danny's chances of retaining his seat, with the SNP likely to win in Inverness.  Too bad that concern came at the expense of the rest of us.

Still, it could be worse: we could be Jack Monroe.  I have to admit to getting incredibly tired of the feel my woe school of political journalism, where those getting well remunerated for their writing or other work start out by saying how terrible it is to be abused for simply doing what they do.  All Monroe did was say I'm joining the Green party, and what do you know, the accusations of being a traitor started and the reactionaries came flooding in.  She was looking for importance to be placed on a national health service, public transport, sustainable energy and fair pay for pay work, all values which Labour under Ed Miliband have abandoned.  No, she hasn't left the Labour party, the Labour party has left her.  Vote Green and get Tories they say.  But we get Tories whoever vote for!

Well, yes, it's called democracy.  Oh for PR she writes; except we couldn't even get the alternative vote when the option was given.  Yes, she appeared in a Labour election broadcast and they supported the food bank petition, but so too did the Greens.  That some would launch attacks rather than consider why it is those like Monroe are leaving says all you need to know.  The idea they might be perturbed by how a popular figure with a following publicly abandons a party on the eve of an election on fairly spurious grounds, which are frankly what they are, doesn't seem to have occurred.  With friends like these, who needs enemies, Monroe tweeted.  Quite, Labour will no doubt reflect.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015 

Hubris and the wait for nemesis.

You can't help but get a sense of the way the election campaign looks set to pan out from the way the broadcasters have utterly capitulated to David Cameron and the Tories over the debates.  Thanks in part to ITV's apparent desperation to once again host the first debate, with all the bragging rights and ratings that go with it, Dave has made the extremely minor sacrifice of agreeing to one debate with 6 other party leaders at the very start of April.  While the precise format of the replacements for the other two debates haven't been finalised, they're likely to involve interviews with Paxman and a Dimbleby hosted Question Time-athon, each leader lightly grilled by the same audience separately.  Cameron has thus ensured he won't be shown up too much by Farage, while Miliband will be boxed in by both Natalie Bennett and Nicola Sturgeon during the one unwieldy session. He's avoided the ignominy of being "empty chaired", nor will he face off one on one against the "despicable, weak" upstart with two kitchens.  As was predictable, the commercial need to broadcast something, anything with the prime minister overcame the principle of refusing to bow to his demands.

Little wonder George Osborne felt able to act with such hubris in his final (God, please let it be his last) budget.  Few other politicians in his position would have with a straight face claimed living standards are higher now than in 2010, not least when the claim rests on a single cherry-picked statistic, itself reliant on the massive drop in inflation due to the oil price halving.  He insisted that, albeit a year later than planned, the debt-to-GDP ratio is falling, the second of his major economic promises made in 2010.  The Office for Budget Responsibility later pointed out this will only happen thanks to a mammoth £20bn in asset sales.  We heard once again the phrases designed to be used as soundbites, "Britain walking tall again", "the comeback country", liable to please the same little minds his previous "march of the makers" and "aspiration nation" did while washing over the rest of us.

There was not to be even the slightest nod to the all too obvious mistakes of this unbelievably overrated in every sense chancellor.  Plan A had long since been abandoned, but so also have we become inured to the prospect of a further 4 years of austerity.  With as little fanfare as he could get away with, Osborne rejigged the spending plans of the autumn statement that set out those "colossal" spending cuts, the same ones he thought wouldn't attract such attention.  He did this not by sensibly spreading out the extra money found down the back of Number 11's sofa in the past four months, loosening the squeeze up to 2018, but setting out a splurge in the final year of the next parliament, equivalent to the entire defence budget.  The ridiculous surplus of £23bn planned for 2020 is thus a slightly less fantastical £7bn.

Except of course these figures are illusionary.  Regardless of the make-up of the government at the next budget, the chance of anything like these plans being set out again is minute.  As the Institute for Fiscal Studies was quick to make clear, they're reliant on the further £12bn in welfare cuts Osborne has long talked about being found, alongside an equally difficult to believe £5bn being raised through clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion.  We're no closer to knowing where the hatchet will fall in the case of the former, no doubt precisely because there is no more fat to trim.  It's an utterly absurd way to run anything, let alone a state, to cut services as harshly as Osborne plans only then to ratchet spending back up again two years later, and he would have to be a complete moron to so much as contemplate doing so.

Osborne is many things, but a complete moron is not one of them.  For this was a budget less about giving activists something to base a case around than making things as difficult as possible for Labour.  Gone is the mess of Osborne's making, the back to the 30s jibe, to be replaced instead by a return to the day to day spending of 1964 instead.  Spent is some of the money earmarked for Labour's daft in any case reduction in tuition fees, Ed Balls saying it would be found elsewhere.  And then we had the "jokes" courtesy of Danny Finkelstein, only accompanied by fatuous policies in order to shoehorn them in, the most desperate of which had to be the non-gag about bands of brothers and Agincourt, at the cost of a million to commemorate it.

With that out of the way, all that was left were the priorities we've become used to from this government and chancellor.  A further lifting of the income tax threshold, which benefits middle earners the most; allowing pensioners to trade in annuities for cash, boosting the Treasury's coffers at the same time; a "Help to Buy" ISA the government will top up, without any further announcements on building the damn houses in the first place; and a new savings allowance, with the first £1,000 tax free, projected to cost £1bn in the first year.  As for those who can't afford to save, or who probably won't be able to reach the £1,000 figure, be glad you got away with your sweet FA.  It also makes ISAs less attractive as a whole, but seeing as the aim probably was for Osborne to be pictured on the front page of the Mail with the sun shining out of his arse, it's doubtful he'll give it a second thought.

Hubris can after all mask anxiety.  This wasn't a budget to win over voters so much as to yet again consolidate the party's core vote.  Bribe after bribe has been thrown at those most likely to turn out, and still the election remains too close to call.  By this point a Tory lead was meant to have developed, only for the polls to continue to suggest a dead heat.  With Osborne having done his bit, with there being little reason to expect a leap post-Budget bounce from what he unveiled, the onus is back on Cameron to haul the Tories over the line.  Thank goodness the broadcasters stood firm then, eh?

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Monday, December 15, 2014 

Oh the joy (of the next 5 months).

There are a couple of reasons why l spend inordinate amounts of time slamming away at a keyboard instead of advising the Labour party.  First off, I'm not American, nor have I been parachuted into a safe seat, more's the pity.  Second, I cannot for the life of me work out why you would effectively launch your general election campaign in the middle of fricking December when most people's minds are even further away from politics than usual.  Presumably, and I'm really clutching at straws here, the idea is to get a head start on the other parties and begin the process of drilling the 5 key pledges Labour has decided upon into everyone's skulls.  Come May, all concerned will march to the polling station, their minds focused on controlling immigration fairly and cutting the deficit every year while securing the future of the NHS.

The words under and whelming come to mind, as they so often do when the topic shifts to Labour.  If you wanted to be extremely charitable, you could say it's an indication of just how spectacularly the coalition has failed that Labour seems to have pinched wholesale two of the Conservatives' pledges from 2010.  Alternatively, you could point out it's spectacularly unimaginative and an indication of Labour's chronic lack of ambition for it to be defining itself in the exact same way as the hated Tories did.  5 fricking years ago.

Again, to be fair, we're promised Labour is getting the less pleasant of its pledges out first, with the more unique ones to follow, defined by those all time classic Labour values.  Quite why Labour has decided upon the pledge approach in the first place is a difficult one to ascertain: presumably modelled on the 1997 pledge cards (and Christ alive, the photo of Tone on the card is easily as terrifying as this year's Christmas effort), is it meant to bring to mind the good old days when Labour could win a vast majority on the most vacuous of aspirations?  They're not even pithy, as the actual pledges amount to three sentences of deathly prose.  Cutting the deficit every year while protecting the NHS would be great, if the exact same message hadn't been plastered around the country accompanied by Cameron's suspiciously taut forehead.

Dear old Ed today gave what must rank as one of the briefest speeches of his career, outlining the second pledge, emphasising how he wouldn't repeat Cameron's promise of getting migration down to a specific point, only that Labour would control it, and fairly, that distinction apparently intended for both those pro and anti to interpret as they see fit.  Call me picky, but saying you'll control something you cannot still makes you a hostage to fortune in my book.  Miliband's audience helped by moving the debate swiftly on, similarly to how the campaigning against UKIP document leaked to the Torygraph suggested Labour candidates do when the topic is broached on the doorstep.

As pointed out by Andrew Sparrow, the briefing paper is about the most sensible thing Labour has said about immigration in months if not years, recognising they're not going to win over the virulently opposed while also suggesting for most immigration is "used as a means to express other concerns".  Except as it sort of implies people aren't steaming about immigration directly, and the party for whatever reason has decided to so much as suggest this is the equivalent of not taking legitimate concerns seriously, shadow ministers have all but disowned their own strategy.  It's also meant the media can talk about the distraction rather than a boring old policy Labour are only re-announcing anyway.

Still, what a jolly 5 month long general election campaign we have to look forward to.  Already the dividing lines are set between Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats on the economy and the deficit, and they are of course the most absurd caricatures of actual stated policy imaginable.  Special marks for dishonesty must go to David Cameron, who managed to scaremonger about a difference between his party and Labour of about £25bn in borrowing terms in the most hyperbolic way possible.  Just imagine if there was another crash and Labour was once again racking up the debt!  Except, err, if there's another crash and borrowing is only falling by as much as the Tories are projecting it will, there will still be problems, although nothing as compared to elsewhere.

Labour meanwhile is making as much as possible out of the 1930s comparison on everyday spending, which is technically correct, again if the Tories mean what they say, just not particularly illuminating.  A better approach would be, as Ed Miliband somewhat tried last Thursday, to set out exactly what sort of state it is most people want.  If George Osborne carries through and magics into existence his surplus, parts of government will be left barely functioning, which really isn't to scaremonger: cutting the budgets of departments other than health, education and foreign aid (which surely won't continue to be ringfenced) by as much as needed doesn't look remotely plausible.  When the best minds are baffled by what the chancellor is up to, apart from mischief, it deserves highlighting.

Even if we look at Labour's plans in the most flattering light, Ed Balls is still promising to run a surplus as soon as possible, not because it's good economics but as a result of the way the debate has been framed.  Doing so is still going to require huge cuts, savings which the party has done the least of the main three to outline.  In the grand scheme of things, as Chris and Alex Marsh have so persuasively argued, this doesn't really matter.  The real issues affecting the economy are the collapse in productivity, and with it the decline in wages growth.  We are though operating in a climate where the difference is between "colossal" and merely "eye-watering" cuts, where the Tories claim to have succeeded on the basis they've more or less reduced the deficit to the level Alistair Darling pledged to, except they've done so on the backs of the poorest, and where it seems personal taxes will never have to rise again, despite government having apparently decided not to bother taxing companies properly either.

There's a third reason I'm not advising Labour.  I'd be even worse at it than the current lot.

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Thursday, December 04, 2014 

You're talking hyperbollocks.

It must be awful being George Osborne.  There you are, making gags in the Commons that would frankly disgrace those £1 packs of crackers (gosh, Ed Miliband looks a bit like Wallace, how original, and rich, coming from someone whose nose more than resembles an arse), the right-wing press mostly lapping it up, and then you have to go on the BBC after Norman Smith dares to suggest that if you scratch beneath the surface you quickly find the cuts projected amount to a "book of doom".  Perhaps even Road to Wigan Pier-esque.

Hyperbolic, raves George, expressing much the same line of faux indignation as regularly voiced by Iain Duncan Smith.  Why, the BBC were saying exactly the same thing back in 2010, and has the sky fallen?  No, we're on the way back to the sunlit uplands, the public services have not collapsed, and if anything they're more highly regarded than ever.  The NHS only needs an extra £8bn a year, which no party has yet come near to explaining how they'll find, despite agreeing with Simon Stevens on how necessary it is, and well, who cares about how beds can't be found for 16-year-olds with mental health problems, instead forced to spend an entire weekend in a police cell?  As for actual lags, prison is meant to be about punishment.  If you don't want to spend 22 hours in a cell every day, don't do the crime in the first place.  Chris Grayling knows what he's doing.

Osborne and Downing Street's ire couldn't possibly be connected to how the BBC's journalists were for once bothering to do their jobs properly.  I even filched the title for yesterday's post from Nick Robinson, who himself had stolen it from elsewhere.  The harsh reality is Osborne's cuts are unachievable, as he knows all too well.  When the Institute for Fiscal Studies describes them as "colossal" and if put in place will by necessity force a "fundamental re-imagining of the state", the kind of statements the IFS simply doesn't make unless the situation is that stark, he really shouldn't have anywhere to hide.

The truth is Osborne can't be straight on just how tough the economic situation will be after the election as it would expose his deficit reduction fetish, undermine his insistence on "trapping" Labour, and worst of all, be to admit his own failure.  The best option would be to push back further the point where the structural deficit will be eliminated, as the markets show not the slightest indication of putting up borrowing costs any time soon, not least when Europe slumps once again into recession, and to bring the cuts/tax increases ratio to something approaching parity.  He can't and won't as Cameron has already insisted on promising the very opposite as soon as the magical surplus is achieved.  Labour, rather than pointing out the impossibility of Osborne's plans, continue to insist they will do things slightly fairer and in much the same time scale.  How and why they don't explain.  As for the Lib Dems, what more can be said about a party whose leader was elsewhere as the statement he agreed to was delivered?  Vince Cable meanwhile whines and moans in the same way as he's done for the past four years, while continuing to stay in government with people he considers to be economically insane.  With politicians like these, is it any wonder so many are looking at the only slightly loopier option?

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Wednesday, December 03, 2014 

The candour deficit.

On Monday, Gordon Brown formally announced he would not be standing for re-election next May.  It was hardly a surprise, considering he rivals George Galloway in the rarely attending Westminster stakes, not that many other former prime ministers have knuckled down to life on the backbenches either.  With Brown leaving parliament and a whole host of other New Labour figures also heading for the exit, it pretty much signals the end of an era of politics which came to be defined by spin, media management, never-ending war (so no change there then) and whisper it, continuous growth.

For one suspects that regardless of how Brown is viewed now (indicative of the general tone is how a goddamned zombie comic portrays him in about the most sympathetic light of anything), history is likely to judge him far more kindly than it will either Blair or Cameron.  Jonathan Freedland fairly sums up why, and while you could argue that Blair and Brown are inseparable, as no doubt some of the accounts to be written shall, it remains the case Blair's failures were principally his own while Brown's were collective.  No one except the odd Cassandra said banking regulation should be tightened, nor warned they were becoming too big to fail.  Yes, Brown without doubt encouraged the City to let rip, to keep expanding, was pals with Fred Goodwin and so forth, but so would any other chancellor of the exchequer been.  The Conservatives it's worth remembering wanted to pare back regulation further.

Brown's departure will nonetheless leave us with those who love to emulate his worst traits while despising his best.  Each time George Osborne comes to the dispatch box for either the budget or the autumn statement, he morphs a little more into his supposed nemesis.  Each time he manages to confound those who said the deficit was going to be up, at least until you read the small print.  Each time he succeeds in finding a gimmick of some kind or another, usually one designed specifically to appeal to the middle-class, aspirational voters the Tories need to reject both UKIP and Labour if they are to ever win a majority again.  Each time he insists none of this would have been possible without the coalition's "long-term economic plan", a plan that has been altered radically from the one he presented in his first "emergency" budget.  And each time, he seems to get away with it, helped by a media obsessed by the very things he targets, and whose bias against Labour seems to only grow.

Osborne has after all failed miserably when judged on that first budget.  He promised a single parliament of pain, after which happy days would return.  Instead he's been forced into claiming everything's coming up Osborne despite how the country now won't be in surplus until 2018.  His big mistake, frontloading cuts in spending on infrastructure, choked off the slowing recovery and gave us two years of stagnation.  Even now, with Britain judged to be growing the fastest of any G7 economy, the quality of the jobs created is so poor and wages so low it's failing to bring in the income tax receipts necessary for borrowing to come down.  By rights, and if these were usual political times, all Labour should have to ask voters is whether they are better off than 5 years ago, and then sit back and wait for the inevitable.

Only they aren't, and if the coalition has succeeded in one area, it's in blaming Labour for the recession and everything since.  It was all the "spending, borrowing and welfare" that got us into this mess, not the most serious worldwide economic crisis since the great depression.  It doesn't matter that borrowing is now higher than it was under Labour, or indeed that the welfare bill remains stubbornly large despite the coalition's attempts to slash it, demonising the most vulnerable in the bargain, as those determined to err, do exactly what Osborne has done will never be trusted with the public finances again.  We are on the road to surplus, to prosperity.

Hidden away in the Office for Budget Responsibility's report is what it thinks of the cuts Osborne is proposing to get us there.  As they put it

The implied cuts in RDEL during the next Parliament would pose a significant challenge if they were confirmed as firm policy, one that would be all the greater if existing protections were maintained. But we do not believe that it would be appropriate for us to assume, ex ante, that these cuts would be inherently unachievable and make it our central forecast that this or a future Government would breach its stated spending limits if it chose and tried to implement them. But... we might need to include an ‘allowance for overspending’ in our forecasts, similar to the ‘allowance for shortfall’ that we currently incorporate to reflect likely underspending against DEL plans.

In other words, they're a fantasy.  All the obvious fat has already been sliced off.  Already it's resulted in this sort of situation in prisons.  Day to day spending on public services is projected to fall to 12.6% of GDP by 2019/2020.  Total public spending meanwhile as a proportion of GDP will fall to its lowest in 80 yearsAs Rick says, were this to happen it wouldn't mean shrinking the state, but closing sections of it down.

Clearly, this isn't going to happen.  Osborne is many things, but suicidal isn't one of them.  He most likely will look to further cut benefits, as he says, only as we've seen doing it in practice is far harder than in theory.  He could slow the pace of reduction further, except Cameron has already promised tax cuts once the surplus utopia is achieved, and Osborne is set to force a vote in the new year on whether Labour will sign up to his plans.  That leaves only raising taxes, with VAT being the most appealing to a Tory who won't countenance putting up the top rate of income tax, as demonstrated by his swift removal of the 50p rate.

That's all for after the election though, when a Tory government or led coalition can do whatever it likes.  Trapping Labour just as Gordon Brown stitched up the Conservatives is Osborne's game now, even if it costs him money as the stamp duty cut will.  Nothing is too much for the aspiring classes, boosting the housing market once again just as it looks to be cooling.  It also helps those buying to let, and could have the perverse effect of making those about to exchange contracts think again now the £250,000 mark won't see the stamp duty to be paid leap.  Ed Balls was smart enough to say this was Osborne catching up with the idea of taxing expensive property more, just that it wasn't enough, as indeed it's not.  The best option would still be a complete revaluation of the council tax bands, only the howling about the proposed mansion tax would be nothing compared to the wailing should any politician dare to suggest those who have seen their home double or triple (or more) in value since 1993 should be contributing more to local services.  It also wouldn't reach the Westminster coffers, another reason it's not going to happen.

As for what further damage this approach will cause to politics once everyone realises they've been had again is anyone's guess. Only the Lib Dems came near to being frank in the 2010 campaign over the scale of the cuts that were to come, and it could be the same again this time.  What made Gordon Brown more than just a cunning, always out for political advantage strategist was he thought long-term also.  Without the funding poured into public services the cuts imposed so far would have been truly devastating; had we joined the Euro we'd facing the same problems as the rest of the Eurozone; had Brown and Alistair Darling not recapitalised the banks the chaos doesn't bear thinking about.  Osborne and Cameron by contrast have no long-term vision despite their "long-term plan".  Their approach has been to mortgage the future and use us as collateral.

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Wednesday, October 01, 2014 

The Tory cult of insincerity.

At the very first opportunity, the language of modern warfare descends into euphemism.  It has to, such is the mundane, horrific reality it hides.  Places where fighters might be sheltering become "command and control centres"; "a heavy weapon position", which could mean a tank or more likely, some form of artillery, is "engaged"; reports that civilians may have been caught up in the bombing are always "being looked into", while raids are invariably "intelligence led", as opposed to being carried out on the off chance.  War is a business, and since 9/11 business has been extremely good: how can it not be when a single Brimstone missile, used yesterday by the RAF to destroy an "Isis armed pickup truck" costs over £100,000?

War all the time, all of the time.  Our enemy is always intractable, impossible to negotiate with.  Always we try every possible step first, always we go into combat with a heavy heart.  Always those who rightly become ever more indignant with each new conflict are mocked, shouted down, asked what their solution is, have their arguments misrepresented.  It takes a lot for me to agree with George Galloway these days, but every single thing he said in the Commons on Friday was right.  Islamic State could not have established itself in either Syria or Iraq without the support of some of those it operates alongside; he wasn't claiming for a moment the Yazidis, Christians or Kurds were quiescent in the face of their onslaught.  The Obama strategy, our strategy, offers no solution except a fantasy one where a mythical "moderate" force in Syria overcomes IS while the Kurdish peshmerga and Shia militas that are now the de facto Iraqi "army" make nice over the border.  The one realistic option, a truce between the Syrian rebels and Assad, is off the table, such is the Syrian president's lack of "legitimacy".  As compared to what, exactly?

As for matters closer to home, the threat will once again be used to justify otherwise unthinkable restrictions on free speech and liberty.  Give credit to Theresa May: she coated her speech to the Tory conference yesterday with so many platitudes and doths of the cap to liberalism you could have almost missed she was proposing the equivalent of 19th century controls on activists and political campaigners.  If necessary she would legislate to enforce the limiting of stop and search; she quoted from the Quran in an effort to prove that the Islamic State is not Islamic (which is a completely baffling line of argument: no, IS is not in any way representative of Muslims, but to claim it has no connection whatsoever to Islam is just as ludicrous, and seems as much as anything a way of distracting from how our friends in Saudi Arabia are most responsible for spreading the Wahhabism IS and al-Qaida are indebted to); and even at times seemed to be coming near to criticising her party's own foreign policy.  "We can't just remove dictators and assume liberal democracy will follow," she said, to which you almost felt she was dying to add, like we did in Libya.

Only later did it emerge quite what her "banning orders" and "extremism disruption orders" would amount to in practice.  Banning orders the Tories have banged on about for years, constantly threatening to outlaw the likes of Hizb-ut-Tahrir without ever going through with it.  May's extremism disruption orders by contrast seem to have been designed to deal with the Anjem Choudary "problem": i.e. the gobshites who just about stay on the right side of the law and whom the media love to quote for their own purposes.  The police, suitably empowered, will able to apply for an order against someone judged to be a "threat to the functioning of democracy" or as little as "causing alarm or distress", almost exactly the standard currently in place that has resulted in evangelical Christians being arrested under section 5 of the public order act.  If granted, those sanctioned would then have to submit any online communications to the police in advance, and would also be barred from taking part in protests.

Ostensibly targeted against the far-right as well as Islamists, so broadly drawn are the plans they're an authoritarian wet dream, capable of being used against protesters of almost every conceivable hue.  Rather than being out of character, the proposals are of a piece with the Lobbying Act's crackdown on charities daring to poke their noses into politics, epitomised by Brooks Newmark's comments on how they should concentrate on their knitting.  Little wonder the Conservatives are set on repealing the Human Rights Act, knowing full well the orders would be judged to breach it.

David Cameron for his part insisted getting rid of the HRA was all about sticking two fingers up at Strasbourg, "the country that wrote Magna Carta" needing no lectures about human rights.  Not that he mentioned leaving the European Convention itself, meaning those not satisfied with the replacement "British" Bill of Rights could presumably still go to the ECHR, just at far greater expense than at present.  Perhaps the family of Trevor Philpott would like to ask if their action against Essex police would still have gone ahead under the replacement act, or indeed which rights it is exactly the HRA provides the replacement won't have, a question left unanswered before.

Considering just how low the bar was set by Ed Miliband, forgetting the deficit aside, it was always likely Cameron's speech would be seen as a success by comparison.  That doesn't however absolve the media from failing to notice Cameron has delivered essentially the same address three years in a row now.  Last year he contrived to answer the sneering of a Russian politician by pointing out how we battled fascism; this year he related his experience in Normandy with a D-Day veteran, "how when people have seen our flag - in some of the most desperate times in history - they have known what it stands for".  Well, quite.  Last year, as he has repeatedly, he built himself up into a fit of faux righteous indignation over some slight from Labour; this year he did it twice, over Labour daring to suggest the NHS isn't safe in his hands and over Labour's plans to deal with the deficit, or lack thereof.

It was nonsense, but it was nonsense decreed acceptable whereas Labour's nonsense is pounced upon.  Cameron's plea for a majority government isn't so much you've had four years of us and hated every minute, it's either me for another 5 or it's Ed Miliband, as it is I'm a bit shit, you're a bit shit, don't put your trust in someone completely shit.  As Larry Elliott points out, Cameron's tax promises today now make them the party without a plan for cutting the deficit: if cuts of £25bn already look next to impossible without certain parts of government shutting down completely, how can a further £7.2bn worth be found to finance cutting taxes for middle earners?  Just as Cameron says he's a relatively simple man, it simply can't be done, unless that is he gives with one hand and takes with the other.  Which is precisely what he's doing by raising the income tax threshold to £12,500 at the same time as freezing tax credits, hoping the lowest paid won't notice his sleight of hand, or how the continuously rising threshold helps middle earners the most.

For all its manifold, myriad faults, Cameron and the Conservatives have a vision.  It's a vision that ignores the inexorable rise of food banks, the penalising of the most vulnerable through a "spare room subsidy", the fact living standards have fallen and show no sign of recovering despite inflation coming in below 2%, and instead emphasises things could be worse.  You can only be sure of continuing mediocrity with the Conservatives, so long as you're upper middle class like they are.  Everyone just needs to work harder, do the right thing, and they'll get the same rewards.  It's the natural order.  Should they win, they'll make life even harder for those whom continue to oppose them.

Labour, meanwhile, doesn't have anything resembling a vision.  Yet still on choice of party if nothing else it retains the edge.  That's how beatable the Tories are, should be, how people want a vision of something better that isn't cod-Thatcherism from a politician who can only remind you of how much better Tony Blair was at insincerity.  You believed Blair's insincerity.  Cameron can't even pull that off.

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Monday, September 29, 2014 

I chose not to choose Osborne.

If his actions hadn't been so unfathomably stupid, you could almost feel sorry for Brooks Newmark.  Chris Bryant is still constantly reminded of his posing in a pair of y-fronts for his Gaydar profile (and I, err, seem to have also just brought it up again), but at least he kept his pants on.  Newmark, being the archetypal Tory rather than a wannabe vicar turned MP, was just a touch more classy in his exposing.  Not by deciding upon a sepia filter or anything though, which might have been trying just a little too hard.  Instead he flopped the old johnson out of his dark blue and red paisley pyjamas, apparently convinced this would ignite fires of passion in his correspondent on Twitter.  Who just happened to be a freelance hack trying his luck with the old honeypot ploy, rather than Sophie Wittams, blonde Tory PR bombshell.

Cue many complaints about entrapment and all the rest of it, moans which were few and far between when Mazher Mahmood finally met his match in Tulisa.  Admittedly, they have a point: rather than a targeted operation against someone known to be liberal in their sending of private images, this seems to have been a fishing expedition, with "Wittams" contacting a number of Tory MPs.  All the same, I can't be the only one thinking it wasn't so long back Lord Rennard was being denounced for his (alleged) threatening sexual behaviour and touching of prospective Lib Dem MPs.  Even if this was a consensual exchange of pictures, should an MP be doing such things in any case, or indeed, shouldn't it be seen as indicative of a lack of judgement?

Newmark being ensnared by the Sunday Mirror would have been bad enough for the Tories on the eve of their conference, only for Mark Reckless to join his compadre Douglas Carswell in defecting to UKIP.  Much as we could just defer to nominative determinism on this one, as many others have, it says much about the state the Conservatives find themselves in that Nigel Farage's merry band has proved more attractive to not just one but two Tory MPs with healthy majorities.  Reckless could no longer stand being in a party apparently doomed to defeat at the next election, so he's joined one that's err, even more doomed to defeat at the next election.  Still, at least he can now be happier in his own skin, no longer forced to defend his party to those in Rochester who believe themselves to be "over taxed" and "over regulated", those key complaints on the doors.  As for the cost to the taxpayer of his decision to resign and seek re-election when he could have waited a few months and done exactly the same thing at the time of the general election, more important is the Farage bandwagon.  Quite how this is championing his constituents' interests rather than his new party's isn't clear, but no doubt he can justify it to himself somehow.

Yesterday in Birmingham then felt more like a conference of a far-left sect than it did that of the main governing party, with Reckless being denounced from the platform for his lies and betrayal.  Not that you could ever imagine Grant Shapps, aka Michael Green, aka Sebastian Fox being a leftie agitator, mainly as he comes across as far too dim.  Nothing is too obvious for Shapps, no sentiment too trite, no soundbite too overcooked.  If all else fails he can perhaps look for work at GCHQ, as the Tories now do a sideline in recording phone calls without the other person's knowledge and then playing them to all and sundry.  More the actions of an authoritarian one party state than the Tories of old, but needs apparently must when it comes to exposing the double dealings of those who are Reckless.

It was still preferable to what's become the Monday ritual, the delivering of the George Osborne gospel.  Worth keeping in mind is by some difference Osborne is now the most popular and also the most successful of all the coalition's ministers: that he's been a miserable failure when judged by the goals set by err, George Osborne doesn't matter when the competition is even worse.  By any real measure Michael Gove would rank as most successful such has been his impact on education, only for his charms to be deemed just too offensive to teachers and in turn voters.  Osborne by contrast, who must inspire thoughts of doing a Mantel in many, remains in place and dividing and ruling the same as ever.

Having got off relatively lightly of late, one would hope due to the Tories realising just how unpopular the bedroom tax has become, those on benefits whether in or out of work are due to cop it once again.  Should the Tories get a majority the under 21s will face the equivalent of "community payback" once they've claimed JSA for 6 months, while they also won't be able to get housing benefit.  The benefit cap as a whole will be lowered to £23,000, while only those in the support group of ESA will see their payments rise in line with inflation for a further two years.  Meanwhile, those under 40 who can afford to buy their own home could potentially get a 20% discount whether they need one or not, and another "death tax" will be abolished, with what's left of a pension pot no longer taxed at 55%.  It really couldn't be any more stark: if you're "one of us", aspiring to own your home, wanting to pass on money to your kids, Osborne and pals will be more than glad to help.  If you're struggling to make ends meet, claiming anything from the government whatsoever (with the exception of those able to jump through the hoops of the work capability assessment and everyone lucky enough to be 65+), you're on your own.  We hear that nice Mr Miliband, the same one who couldn't even remember the deficit, instantly disqualifying him from entering the room of the Very Serious People, will be happy to have you.

You could understand Osborne's gambit more if the £3bn estimated to be saved by these changes went a lot of the way to making the savings Osborne claims they will.  The problem is this is just £3bn of the £12bn total from welfare, with another £13bn to come from savings from the non-protected government departments.  Neither figure seems likely to be achieved without extreme pain, nor does it seem realistic taxes won't have to rise in some way, despite all of Osborne's fine words, if that is he means what he says about running a surplus.  It could be just as he's failed miserably to get rid of the deficit in a single term, he could relent once the election has been won.  Equally, he could raise taxes straight away to get it out of the way, even if it was to break his promises.  Or it could be he means what he says, and to hell with the consequences.  Whichever it is, there's no evidence making his stand now will win the support he believes it will from those who favour the Tories on the economy.  Keen as he apparently is on paraphrasing Trainspotting, no doubt to Irvine Welsh's ire, he and the Tories shouldn't be surprised if we decide to choose something else.

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