Tuesday, July 21, 2015 

Violent sexual imagery: the only way to respond to that abstention.

There's an episode of The Thick of It where, enraged by that day's disasters, Malcolm informs Nicola and Terri that he will be using an awful lot of "violent sexual imagery" in order to make them fully understand the level of his unhappiness.

Labour at the moment needs a Malcolm.  It needs someone to set out in the most uncompromising terms just how suicidal yesterday's decision to abstain on the welfare bill was, and how incredibly, mindblowingly fucking stupid it is being in general.  Some at the very top of the party have been so mindfucked by the combination of losing the election, the glee of the right-wing press at that loss and their analysis as to why, and George Osborne's frankly pitiful efforts to "trap" them that they seem to have forgotten the very reason the party came into existence.  If Labour does not stand up for the interests of the ordinary working man, it may as well announce its dissolution.

The party leadership has no excuse then for its failure to vote against the welfare bill.  The act explicitly redistributes money from the working poor to the wealthy in order to pay for the all but abolition of inheritance tax.  It paves the way for the social cleansing of not just London but whole areas of the country, as the new lower cap on benefits makes those places unaffordable for the low paid and temporarily out of work.  It breaks Cameron's twin promises not to cut the benefits of the disabled and sick, as it reduces the payments of those in the work related activity group of ESA to the same as JSA, and to not touch child tax credits.  It makes clear that the end result of these changes will be a rise in child poverty, as the government is at the same time abandoning the target to reduce it by 2020.  It demands sacrifices only from those of working age, rather than asking any from those whom most of the social security budget is spent on, pensioners.  It makes clear the Conservatives don't wish only to play divide and rule between the unemployed and those in work, but between the working poor whom have their wages topped up by tax credits, and those in work who are lucky enough not to need to claim anything.  It says some families are worth less than others, that having a third child is always an active choice, and so it's perfectly acceptable for that child to be denied the same support their siblings received.  It is one of the most regressive, most reprehensible pieces of legislation to go through parliament in a very long time.

You might have thought yesterday's op/ed by George Osborne in the Graun would have concentrated a few minds.  Rarely is there a piece by a government minister that is quite so brazen in the number of outright lies, distortions and misleading statistics it contains.  Cutting an "unsustainable" welfare system is according to the chancellor a progressive measure, and welfare reform is not just about saving money, but transforming lives and social justice.  Let's be clear: this isn't a trap, this is one step up from the very lowest grade of trolling.  You don't respond to trolling, you ignore it.  If you must respond to it, what you most certainly don't do is accept the troll is making a legitimate argument.

And yet somehow, unconscionably, only 48 Labour MPs went through the no lobby last night.  Whatever it was Harriet Harman tried to achieve by saying Labour couldn't afford to ignore what she claimed was the will of the public in both giving the Conservatives a majority and twice rejecting her party, to act in such a cowardly, incoherent way is near to being unforgivable.  The Democratic Unionists, yes, some of the most unpleasant and antediluvian of all the MPs in the Commons, voted against it.  The SNP voted against it.  The Liberal Democrats, fresh from propping up the Tories for five years, voted against it.

Abstaining when you know precisely what a bill will do to those you were supposedly sent to Westminster to represent is a betrayal.  That's what it is.  Not only is it a betrayal of those who will suffer as a result, it's a betrayal of everyone who argued that a vote for Labour still meant something.  That Labour was a vote for a fairer, more equal society, in spite of all the snide remarks, disbelief and cynicism.  It's a betrayal of those who faced down the SNP, with all its claims of being the true progressive, radical force, or who criticised the luvvies who say Labour left them, not the other way around, and did so right at the moment the party needed them the most.

If anything was ever going to legitimise the SNP's claims of being the official opposition, prove Mhairi Black right, or drive those who have long flirted with the Greens fully into their arms, this was it.  Those currently leading the party, or rather not leading it have convinced themselves that only they have the answers, that only they are the responsible ones, and that to merely oppose for the sake of opposing is to not listen to "the very strong message sent by the electorate".  They have convinced themselves that elections are not won or lost during the last year of a parliament, but by how the opposition responds in the immediate aftermath of a defeat.  This is to completely misread what happened in the summer of 2010, as the coalition set out to prove the size of the deficit and the state of the economy were entirely the fault of Labour, rather than a global economic crisis.  This was achieved not through acts of parliament, but by how the message dominated everything the coalition did.  Labour's failure was to not respond ferociously, to fight the accusation, to debunk the lie.  Instead they accepted it.  The party leadership is repeating the mistake.

Only this time it's far more serious.  Labour has never seemed more divided between the "realists", epitomised by Chuka Umunna describing those disagreeing with his and the "modernisers" analysis as the equivalent of petulant children, and those daring to believe that Labour has to be, must be more than just the Conservatives with a kinder face.  The view that nothing can be achieved without power is spineless rubbish.  Rare is it that a government just falls apart, and even when they do it's not certain the opposition will automatically benefit: nothing more affects a government's authority than a failure to be able to pass legislation.  To give up even the pretence of opposing a government's worst excesses this early is an astonishing act of capitulation, a failure of belief that demands those responsible be held accountable.  That no one has said Harriet Harman has clearly lost the confidence of her own MPs in a matter of weeks is equally surprising.

It's not as though any of this is difficult.  The welfare bill is about making the poorest poorer, the working poor poorer, and the sick and disabled poorer.  Indeed, it's about making anyone who claims tax credits poorer.  This is not in dispute: Osborne is painting it as being fair and fixing a broken system but not denying the end result, whatever the claims made about the increase in the minimum wage.  Labour has somehow managed through sheer incompetence and the beyond moronic idea that being "sensible" at this stage will win dividends later to make the story not about the Tories doing what the Tories do, but about Labour being split over the most basic of issues.  As Flying Rodent has it, Labour is more afraid of not being shitty and vindictive enough, so convinced has it become that you only gain respect and win back votes through being "tough", than it is of going too far.  The leadership still seems to believe that it can ignore the wishes of its supporters and core voters as they have nowhere else to go.  The election results, the same ones that have apparently convinced them of the wisdom of this masochism strategy, prove the opposite is the case.

So yes, Labour needs a Malcolm to get through the otherwise most impenetrable of skulls just where such an approach will lead, and it most certainly isn't to victory.  It also though needs someone to soothe it, to reinforce that its heart is in the right place, and that it hasn't lost its values.  It needs someone like, oh, Alan Johnson, to play more of a role, to argue against the more out there ideas some on the left do have, like how an EU exit wouldn't be all that bad really.  Failing that, it's difficult to see where the party goes from here.  Under siege from all sides, some prefer surrender to carrying on the fight.

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Monday, July 13, 2015 

Voters are often wrong. Politicians need to tell them so.

There is, I would argue, an extremely big difference between being exceptionally cynical about almost everything, and just straight up indulging in conspiracy theories.  Would the government really for instance suddenly declare Tunisia to be a no-go area just to distract attention from how the budget was falling apart, especially when it had been received in such raptures from the press?  Would it really decide to wreck the holidays of thousands of people on completely spurious grounds, and not come up with a better explanation than saying intelligence suggested there was a very high chance of another attack, despite there err, being no specific intelligence?  Would it really send the message that in actual fact, terrorism does pay, and that already struggling countries should buck their ideas up, despite it being you know, sort of our fault Libya is now a failed state?

Probably not, but never underestimate a government's propensity for being completely and utterly stupid.  Tunisia it seems should follow our lead: hold a few more training exercises, put a few more bollards in front of buildings to prevent a truck or car bombing, despite jihadists' major problem long having been their failure to obtain explosives in any sort of quantity, and you're laughing.  There's not much you can do to prevent an attack by a lone gunman with an assault rifle and (possibly) some grenades other than putting more armed police and security guards on the streets and increasing surveillance, policies that might in fact cause more problems than they solve, but such measures are not apparently good enough for us Brits.  Fine for the French and Germans, but not us.

Was then Harriet Harman in fact being rather sneaky in her interviews yesterday, saying the party she is temporarily leading could not oppose cuts to child tax credits and the new lower benefit cap, as to do so would be to ignore the voters who have now twice rejected that party?  Again, probably not.  It has though had the twin effects of riling up the usual people on Twitter who spent plenty of time during the election campaign complaining about that mug, and has also redirected attention onto the interminable leadership election, with yet another hustings held today.  The Liberal Democrats, incidentally, are to announce whether Tim Farron or Norman Lamb is to be the party's new leader on Thursday.  The reasoning behind Labour going for a longer contest was supposedly about confronting why the party had taken such a mauling, only for all  the candidates to have concluded why within hours of the defeat.  The "debate" since has focused on repeating those positions, and predictably there's been nastiness happening behind the scenes as a result.

You can of course if you want interpret the Tories' win as being a thumbs-up for their policies as a whole, just as if you like you can believe people voted UKIP because they wanted a referendum on EU membership, or SNP because they thought Nicola Sturgeon was a fresh, inspiring leader.  Except, oh, that last one probably is something approaching the truth.  Equally, you can take Labour's defeat however you want, and if you really want to believe it was because Labour wasn't either left-wing or right-wing enough, that's fine too.  The real lesson of the election was in fact what happened to the aforementioned Lib Dems.  The party that had previously meant all things to all people, acting as both a protest vote that wasn't entirely wasted and as a leftish alternative to Labour collapsed once everyone realised there was little to no difference between them and their coalition partner.  This doesn't mean they wouldn't be making something of a difference if they were still in government, as they almost certainly would.  They wouldn't though alter the overall tenor, just as Osborne stealing the best melodies from Labour's song book can't cover up the discordant screeching of his compositions.

The most convincing overarching reason for why Labour lost is Ed Miliband was not seen as a realistic prime minister and in turn was not trusted with the economy.  It's as simple as that.  Could Ed Miliband have been seen as a realistic prime minister and trusted with the economy had the party fought harder against the caricature of spending too much, crashing the economy and leaving behind no money?  I think so.  Then again, I still think Miliband would be a better leader than any of the 4 now on offer, and that time will prove him to be another of those best prime ministers we didn't have, so you can safely ignore me.

This is not to deny there is an awful lot of seething, if not outright detestation of benefits claimants.  If there wasn't there wouldn't be those TV shows, there wouldn't be the support for the cap which takes absolutely no account of exceptional, temporary, individual circumstances, or for little things like a family having lived for generations in an area they are now told they can't afford.  All that's seen is that figure of £20,000 or £23,000, rather than how a hefty proportion of that will be going straight to a landlord rather than for the family to spend on huge screen TVs or iPads.  Those women who apparently told Harriet Harman and the others that they didn't think they could afford to have more children while those less careful just had them anyway, which is to put about the nicest possible gloss on it, seemed to be more justifying not having more children to themselves rather than making a realistic case about the state rewarding the feckless instead of the striving.  When the cuts start affecting real people though, as we've seen with the bedroom tax, or when they specifically target children, it doesn't take much for what was once seen as sensible to begin unravelling.

Politicians cannot however tell voters they are wrong, unless it involves bombing yet another Middle Eastern country.  They can tell their own parties they're wrong, but never that the public is.  It doesn't matter how wrong the public is: whether it be the obvious lesson to take from the tube strike, which is that stronger unions and collective bargaining result in higher wages, while moaning and complaining about how because you don't want to waste time with that nonsense no one should results in nothing; or in Greece, where the people want to stay in a currency that condemns them to unending, self-defeating austerity, rather than face the temporary uncertainty of a default and return to the drachma; to argue with the apparent reached consensus is a sign of madness.

Arguing against something that has become an orthodoxy is all the harder when you're faced with a media so unutterably biased against you, it's true.  When the press either swallows its pride about Osborne's further restrictions on non-domiciled status, having denounced it as leftist lunacy when suggested by Labour, or actively welcomes policies it criticised in the harshest terms mere weeks ago, it's always going to be a struggle to win back the initiative.  This doesn't mean it can't be done.  If Labour had any sense, they would be contrasting the manifest unfairness of the raising of the threshold of inheritance tax with the losses of income those on tax credits will face under Osborne's plans.  They should be making clear how companies that already do their best to avoid corporation tax are being rewarded for doing so with a further cut while the working poor are having their benefits raided to fund it.  They should be making short YouTube videos about it, hiring billboards, running poster campaigns.

Instead, the party keeps apologising, or drawing the wrong lessons.  Andy Burnham today accepted the deficit was too high in 2007; it wasn't.  Even if it was, these cuts are being made out of choice, not because they are necessary to reduce the deficit.  Not opposing the harshest budget in a generation out of the belief it's what the public voted for is nonsensical.  Osborne thinks he has Labour trapped; Harman's response is the equivalent of jumping straight into a spiked pit.  The only people who will remember in 2020 whether Labour opposed the cuts are precisely those it cannot afford to lose.  If the party truly is existentially threatened, and the lesson from the continent is traditional centre-left parties are, the worst thing it can possibly do is tell its sympathisers and supporters they're wrong.  Take on the public, not the grassroots.  It might just work.

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Thursday, July 09, 2015 

All hail the new Tories.

If it wasn't for how it demonstrated beyond doubt just how pointless the Labour party has made itself in such a short time, yesterday's cognitive dissonance at George Osborne's theft of large parts of the Labour manifesto would have been hysterical.  The same document only Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn have seen fit to defend as everyone else, Blairites especially have all but blamed it for the defeat was used in a (futile) attempt to make up for the use of the very worst parts of the Tory manifesto.  Alistair Darling has said Labour's disarray is a result of the failure to articulate a coherent economic policy, except err, in large part Osborne took Labour's apparently incoherent economic aims and made them his own.  Ed Balls' promise was to balance the budget as soon as possible; voters might not have believed it, but that was the policy.  Osborne accordingly put back by a year his surplus plan, reduced the amount to be raised through cuts in departmental spending and also, most shockingly, is borrowing more.  An Ed Balls budget would have obviously done things much differently overall, but he would have without doubt followed the same basic themes.

Osborne's budget was not of course an even vaguely left-wing one.  Nor, however, was it an out and out Thatcherite one.  How Osborne achieved this hasn't really been acknowledged enough.  Most chancellors after all go into elections promising jam tomorrow and then clobber everyone once re-elected.  Osborne by contrast was completely open about how everyone voting Tory would end up being shafted, not expecting for a moment that he would be delivering the first sole Conservative budget in 19 years less than 4 months later.  Both the March budget and the Tory manifesto were put together in the expectation of another coalition.  They were bargaining chips, as proved by allowing the Liberal Democrats to set out what their priorities would be from the dispatch box.  Amazed to be handed a slight majority, the problem was how to not alienate those who voted Tory but had done so for reasons very much other than the contents of the manifesto.

Most in the circumstances would have blanched at going ahead with the £12bn in welfare cuts.  It was never a serious commitment, until it was decided it was, and for the opportunity it provided.  Despite not thinking it would get them a majority, the Tory electoral plan was simple: ensure those most likely to vote, i.e. pensioners and the boomers coming up to retirement age were overwhelmingly on their side by promising not to touch their perks, emphasise the risk everyone would be taking with a unreconstructed Labour party, and then hope something else would turn up.  It did, in the form of the SNP, and it just about took them over the line, thanks mainly to the utter collapse of the Lib Dems.  This targeting has duly become the party's raison d'etre: for all the talk of blue collar Conservatism, one nation and all the other rot, the Tories seem to have come to believe they can remain in power in perpetuity so long as they keep the upper middle, the wealthy, and the old on side.

Yesterday's budget was put together with this at its core.  Not for Osborne or Cameron's Tories the old Thatcherite belief in social mobility, or at least not without pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, as hardly anyone who made it truly did.  No, instead their aim is for society to remain almost completely in aspic: why else would they as Jonathan Portes notes, removed the very incentives to work and earn more that were there in the tax credit system and were already affected negatively by universal credit?  Why else would they continue to do absolutely nothing about the dire shortage of housing?  If anything, their aim seems to be further inflate the bubble; buy-to-let landlords rightly come in for much criticism, but as the IFS points out, the lack of supply is not going to be helped by reducing their tax incentives while allowing property owners to pass their estates on tax free.  Why else remove the grants for poor students?  Why else generally treat the disadvantaged young disgracefully, whether by removing their access to housing benefit, or capping child tax credit at two children for new applicants?  Potentially helping youth unemployment by not extending the "national living wage" to the under-25s doesn't even begin to make up for it.

Going on alongside this targeting and othering, as that's what it is, are disinterred Victorian notions of morality and poverty.  Tim Montgomerie, now of the Times, tweeted his support for Iain Duncan Smith's "rejection of the Left's materialistic idea of poverty for broader understanding of basis of a good life" last week in response to the moving of the goalposts on child poverty.  Rarely is so much explained about a world view in so short a sentence.  It shouldn't shock then when a close reading of the budget red book shows Treasury officials will allow rape victims made pregnant by their attacker to keep their child tax credits if they decide not to abort the baby and already have two children, as clearly in such an instance the mother is blameless.  Having a third child in any other circumstances when already not well off is clearly a choice, and a choice that has to be punished.  No other factors come into it, not least that the child itself is blameless.  To be on benefits is also a choice; ask not what you can claim, but what it is you can do.  Hence why those who cannot work currently, but might be able to shortly will from now on get the same pittance as those on JSA.  Claiming anything, even being employed by the state, is to be inferior: 1% extra a year is all such people are worth.  Don't argue this isn't still a generous safety net: the same politician yesterday pumping his fists as the rebranded minimum wage was announced says it's so.

This point couldn't have been reached thanks solely to an election victory, naturally.  We've arrived here thanks to what always happens following an economic crash: the public biting downwards, rather than up.  The poor are to be envied for the little they have, asked why it is they get something for nothing, equally fetishised and demonised.  Just this week Channel 4 brought us a new series of How to Get a Council House, where the deserving and undeserving are neatly boxed and delineated, while Channel 5 showed Benefits by the Sea: Jaywick.  The Sun, most of whose readers will be receiving tax credits and duly face losses in the region of hundreds of pounds thanks to yesterday's budget are told this is a "WELL FAIR STATE", while the Mail depicts Osborne as no less a saint than the mythical George himself, slaying dragons.  And again, the fact is a majority, albeit a slim one of those who bothered to vote, signed up for this.  You're not supposed to blame the electorate, but it's not as though the Tories hid their intentions.  Like it or not, they wanted it, they've got it.


Contained in the IFS's analysis of the impact of yesterday's budget reforms is the starkest of truths: the only people to gain are those in income decile group one removed from the richest.  Those right there are the people the Conservatives are governing for, the only people they imagine they need to govern for, as everyone else is either stuck with them or written off.  The poor either don't vote or vote Labour or UKIP; public sector workers vote Labour; the young either don't vote or vote Labour or Green; they're all lost causes.  Everyone else, well, why would they vote for a Labour party that only represents those people?  Such is the new Conservative way of thinking.  Such is the space a Labour party that has taken all the wrong lessons from its election defeat has left its opponent to move into.  If they won't defend their manifesto, we'll take it.  Osborne isn't a genius, he's an opportunist and a strategist.  Shrinking the state is secondary to winning.  Ideology helps to explain, but doesn't tell the full story.

All hail the new Tories.

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Wednesday, July 08, 2015 

The rat and the rabbit.

After all the leaks, the raid on the BBC, the talk of how this one nation Conservative party would be creating a low tax, low welfare, high wage economy, there was only one real question left to be answered by George Osborne's wholly unnecessary second budget in three months: what's the fucking rabbit going to be?

First though, if on presentation and build-up only, today's budget is difficult to fault.  Almost all the nasty stuff was briefed about in advance, from the swingeing cuts to both tax credits and child tax credits, the reduced benefit cap and the abolition of inheritance tax for all properties under £1m.  There were still some extremely devious measures that weren't announced beforehand, like the abolition of grants for the poorest students, to be replaced with loans, but in the main all the changes to welfare were expected, leaving the way open for Osborne's surprise to dominate the headlines.

This budget was then all about him.  That Osborne is an exceptionally overrated politician, and unlike some of those also lauded by the press and commentators, believes his own hype, matters little.  Despite loathing him, he is more than the heir to Gordon Brown, only unlike Brown he hopes to make a success of taking over from his predecessor.  The difference is that whereas Brown and Osborne are remarkably similar beasts in how they always put personal political advantage ahead of everything else, Brown had the nous to recognise when he had gone too far, and also to act in a crisis.  Osborne by contrast just keeps on pushing ahead regardless, covering up his mistakes as he goes along, hoping no one will notice.

That something would materialise to sugar the pill was then apparent; not even with the backing of the majority of the press, a cowed opposition and a BBC in disarray would Osborne have got away with making the poorest undeniably poorer while cutting inheritance tax and raising the 40% threshold.  That Osborne decided to steal almost directly from Ed Miliband's Labour manifesto, the one that apparently no one can defend such was its rancidity, ought to have surprised no one.  Rather than abolish non-dom status outright though, perhaps the most obvious choice, Osborne opted to filch Miliband's minimum wage rise policy instead.  Only he went even further, promising that whereas Miliband outlined a rise to £8 an hour by 2020, Osborne's new "national living wage" will be £9 an hour by then.

Except, of course, Miliband's proposed rise in the minimum wage was meant to operate alongside the living wage, with sweeteners for businesses that opted to pay the latter.  Osborne's national living wage is nothing of the kind, for a whole host of reasons.  First, the living wage in London is already calculated to be £9.15 an hour.  Second, the living wage has always taken into account tax credits; remove them entirely or cut them viciously, as Osborne has done, and it would need to be even higher.  Third, as the IFS has already pointed out, not all businesses, especially small ones, can afford to pay the living wage, or at least not without raising their prices dramatically.  The further cuts in corporation tax will not help them one jot.  Workers over 25 will either have to be replaced with younger ones still on the lower rate, or another slew of smaller retail businesses are likely to be forced to close, or break the law to survive.

The distributional analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility lays it bare: just as with the continued rises in the personal allowance, those who will gain the most are once again the already comfortably off.  The end result is that regardless of the rise, the cuts to tax credits will mean the vast majority will still be worse off, albeit by perhaps half as much as they otherwise would have been.  The poorest in society are in effect being asked to subsidise what David Cameron described as the "most basic, human and natural instinct", i.e., to pass on what even they themselves may have received entirely tax-free, at a cost estimated at £940m by 2020.  This truly is, as Chris said, the something for nothing culture in action, and as Rick argues, sets the Conservatives out not as defenders of wealth creators, but those who buy a commodity and do nothing with it other than just watch it grow in value.

Much the same thinking is presumably behind the cutting of rents in social housing by 1%.  What looks on the surface to be about helping the low paid is more than counteracted by how the OBR points out this is likely to reduce further the building of social housing.  Combined with the government policy of extending the right to buy to housing associations, this seems destined to further inflate the housing market bubble, and indeed in turn, the housing benefit bill, despite the motive being the opposite.  The new lower benefits cap will also have an effect, and is likely to lead to more landlords rejecting housing benefit claimants outright.  That buy-to-let mortgages will only be able to be offset against the basic rate rather than higher rate of tax is also likely to lead to a race to do so before the measure kicks in in 2017, further overheating the market.

Underneath all the wounding cuts to benefits and the rise in the minimum wage is the fact this was a tax-raising, rather than a tax-cutting budget.  With the major taxes off-limits, as promised and set to be legislated upon so they cannot be touched, Osborne has resorted to the stealth taxes Gordon Brown was so pilloried over.  The big money raisers are the tax on dividends, forecast to be bringing in nearly £2bn a year by the end of this parliament, a rise in the tax on insurance premiums, which should raise £1.5bn a year, and the changes to vehicle excise duty, meant to gain the Treasury by a similar amount.  Some of this though is going straight back out the door thanks to the further, unexpected cut in corporation tax to 18%, estimated to cost almost £2.5bn by 2020.  As Aditya Chakrabortty has been setting out in the Graun, this is in spite of the estimated £93bn a year given out in corporate welfare.

Osborne has then all but abandoned the plans he set out in March, opting instead for a smoother path to his idealised surplus, coming a year later than planned.  The cuts to government departments will not be quite as severe as anticipated, almost certainly down to how there's so little meat left to cut.  £18bn will nonetheless still have to be found, and with the defence budget now also protected, that leaves one area less from where money will be taken.  This has also only been achieved thanks to overall savings in welfare of £34.9bn, the difference made up by the continued freeze on yearly increases to benefits of 1%, and changes to universal benefit before it has even been introduced.  All this is predicated on Osborne's savings and cuts being achieved: when £5bn is again meant to come in from clamping down on tax avoidance and evasion, this looks extremely dubious.  The OBR also rates the chances of most of Osborne's tax rises raising what the Treasury says they will as having a "very high" uncertainty.  Should they not, will Osborne again postpone reaching his surplus, raise the taxes he's legislated not to, or cut benefits even further?  Take a wild guess.

George Osborne's task today was relatively simple, despite all the talk of how clever he's been and the boost to his chances of taking over from David Cameron.  All he needed to do was get the pain out of the way, disguise it as best he could and hope that by 2020 what voters remember is not how he picked their pockets, but how their wages have now increased thanks to his living wage.  The fact is Osborne has been a remarkably lucky chancellor: the "omnishambles" budget would have been the downfall of other politicians, as would his abysmal failure to eliminate the deficit in a single parliament, or indeed how he cut too far and fast in the first couple of years and stalled the recovery.  Thanks to a very friendly press, a weak Labour party and the Liberal Democrats covering for him, he's still in place.  Moreover, he's only implementing what the Tory manifesto promised.  Those who voted Tory might not have expressly wanted a crueller, smaller state, where everyone who earns below the 40% threshold can essentially go hang, and the aim is to ensure the moneyed and propertied stay that way, the drawbridge permanently raised up, but that's what they've got.  The only thing that can blow Osborne off course now is another downturn, and the further suffering that would entail hardly bears thinking about.  Such is the position of strength an exceptionally weak government finds itself in.  Such has been the failure of all opposition to austerity.

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Wednesday, July 01, 2015 

Oh for an incompetent government.

Government, we tend to think, is at its worst when it's either incompetent, or obtuse.  Well, excepting those who really do believe, as the Gipper put it, the nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help"Philip Hammond wringing his hands about how the Tunisian gunman Seifeddine Rezgui was likely trained in the "ungoverned spaces" of Libya and then in his next breath defending the intervention that led to that very space being ungoverned is pretty much par for the course.  We expect government to defend itself despite knowing full well it had more than a hand in how the current situation came about.  It's just how it works.

The same goes for the foisting of the legal requirement on schools, hospitals and prisons to prevent extremism, and the ridiculous official definition of what constitutes "extremism" ("the vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs").  The path to radicalisation is different in almost every case, and the idea that a teacher reporting up the chain that one child has an exceptionally negative view of homosexuality could ever prevent something further down the line is completely absurd; the government knows this.  Nonetheless, Nicky Morgan, forever looking as though she's just put a hot chip in her mouth seconds before being dazzled by studio lights, must go on television to insist that black is in fact white, as government has to be seen to be doing something.  It isn't simple coincidence this has the effect of putting more responsibility on the shoulders of teachers, transforming them yet further into social workers, as it couldn't be clearer the Tories hate the entire profession with a passion, but it's a happy side effect.  The government approach to radicalisation seems to be that so much as discussing what might lead to it in schools is tantamount to a betrayal of British values, and if you don't talk about it, clearly it doesn't exist.  Job sorted, now we can get back to putting the blame wholly on Muslims as though they're a homogeneous entity?

No, government is most definitely at its worst when completely and utterly open about what it's doing, and yet still lies about it.  George Osborne's second budget of the year, now only a week away, should finally start to set out precisely where the £12bn in welfare cuts are going to be found.  As has been apparent for quite some time, if you're going to protect pensioners, the disabled and not cut child benefit, the only possible way to get close to that figure is to do something very drastic indeed to both tax credits and housing benefit, both of which are mainly claimed by those in-work.  David Cameron started the softening up process last week with his deeply disingenuous speech about putting an end to the "merry-go-round" of those on low incomes being taxed only to then be handed the money straight back.  It didn't seem to matter that's how the tax system in general works: you are taxed, and services are there as and when you need them.

The obvious problem with cutting child tax credits back to the level they were introduced at back in 2003, one of the most efficient ways of clawing back £5bn, as identified by the IFS, is that you're not hitting the nasty undeserving poor, the scummy mummies and the perpetually drunk, but the strivers at the heart of the "one nation" the Tories have suddenly discovered they stand for.  Even worse, there is or rather was the small problem of the 2020 child poverty target that Gordon Brown managed to get enshrined in law in the dying days of the last Labour government.  One of the targets, long criticised by Iain Duncan Smith, was the aim to reduce relative child poverty, defined as family income 60% below the median, to less than 10%.

What to do?  Even at this point rethink the cuts?  Perhaps not sell off RBS until the share price means the taxpayer won't lose the equivalent of £13bn, as Osborne wants to?  Don't be silly.  No, you just scrap the target entirely, as IDS has today done.  You see, the aim of reducing relative child poverty has led to "unintended consequences for good reasons", namely the increase in tax credits.  And this hasn't really had the effect of dealing with poverty; after all, if you're only £1 better off than the 60% below benchmark, you're still damn poor, aren't you?  Besides, there are the perverse side effects of the target, such as how when everyone is worse off, such as after a recession, it means there are supposedly fewer paupers than there were before.  Or if the government puts pensions up, the opposite becomes true.

Instead the government will focus entirely on getting social mobility going.  Measured will be worklessness and family breakdown, as well as debt and drug dependency.  IDS has long been obsessed with worklessness, and for good reason: as Rick pointed out, and recent studies by the Resolution Foundation have found, worklessness, let alone the long-term worklessness the Tories have so often identified as being the root of all evil in the benefits system, barely exists any more.  There are more people in work in poverty than not, for the reason that work has become that much more insecure and low paid.  Tax credits have duly gone up to compensate.  As commentators pointed out after David Cameron's speech last week, it was Ed Miliband who tried to flesh out an alternative with his clumsy predistribution.  Now the Tories have their majority they don't need to bother to find that alternative: they can just cut tax credits as a whole, say you voted for this, and argue their great economic plan will see everyone's wages go up.  Eventually.  IDS getting rid of the child poverty target was simply the final hurdle.  He's been completely open about why he's done it, while still putting in place a diversion.

Next week the government will announce that the poorest are about to get poorer.  It won't of course be presented like that, and no doubt another rise in the income tax threshold will come alongside it, which will mainly benefit those on middle incomes but will look as though it's helping those on low wages.  The blame will be put not on those who caused the crash, who might in fact be rewarded with another cut in the top rate of income tax, but the Labour party.  Labour in turn might find the remaining fire in its belly, but the leadership contest so far has revolved around accepting the narrative set by the Tories and the right-wing press, so it's unlikely to last long.  Besides, summer's here, parliament's about to go into recess, and by the time it returns it's practically time for the conferences.  Osborne and Cameron some say aren't ideological, that the cock-up version of history is always more convincing the conspiratorial one.  Even if true, it doesn't alter the fact the Tories are doing this because they want to, not because it's the best, let alone fairest way to reduce the deficit.  Give me incompetent government over this any day.

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Wednesday, June 10, 2015 

The intoxication of power, via the Simpsons.

You know what we haven't done for a while?  Quoted from the Simpsons, so let's remedy that.  In the New Kid on the Block episode, Bart foolishly asks Homer for advice on the opposite sex.  "A woman is a lot like a beer.  They smell good, they look good, you'd step over your own mother just to get one.  But you can't stop at one, you want to drink another woman!"

Homer could just have easily been talking about the intoxicating effects of power.  Only it wouldn't have been funny or made anything approaching sense, so would have came from a more recent season of the show.  Yes, I just made a the Simpsons ain't what it used to be joke.  Another philosopher, arguably one not quite on the level of Homer but thereabouts, wrote the slave begins by demanding justice and ends by wanting to wear a crown.

Very few once they have tasted power find it within themselves to either give it away or relinquish it, at least not without a fight (The War Nerd in his latest post wonders if the Soviet Union is the only empire to have collapsed without a shot being fired, although that's a questionable version of 1989-91).  Politicians for decades have promised to devolve power to cities and local communities, only to decide not to once they themselves have power, or find those they want to empower in fact don't really like the idea of mayors or regional assemblies much.  London and Scotland are the exceptions that prove the rule, and as we have seen, once given demands for further powers only increase. 

A case in point is the attempt to force a by-election in Orkney and Shetland, under the specious reasoning that Alistair Carmichael lying about not leaking the comments supposedly made by Nicola Sturgeon to the French ambassador means the contest should be rerun.  It's a campaign ran by SNP supporters, but obviously the SNP themselves have nothing to do with it.  56 seats out of 59 just isn't enough when they could they have 57 instead.  Not that it's fair to pick just on the SNP, or the Tories with their legislation on trade unions designed to damage Labour, or the likely at some point boundary review.  All parties are determined to make life as difficult as possible for their opponents, only realising too late that domination builds resentment and the seeds of eventual downfall. 

What is a new tactic is the use of legislation to bind a future government to the same path of righteousness as the current one.  It's an innovation of especial vanity, an attempt to retain control when the people who put them there in the first place might well have slung them out.  It's also, as with so much of our politics now, little more than a gesture when the law can so only easily be repealed by that new government, but it remains a gesture designed to trip up the opposing side in the most petty of fashions.

No surprise then that a man as clearly petty as George Osborne is so keen on the mechanism, having pinched it from that other petty man, Gordon Brown.  First he attempted to trap Labour by legislating for the next government to be required to cap spending on social security.  Then during the election campaign the brilliant idea of making it illegal to raise income tax, VAT or national insurance before 2020 was come up with.  Now Osborne has decided it's a wicked wheeze to go one step further with his deficit reduction fetishism and require all future governments to follow his plan to run a budget surplus, or at least so long as the economy's growing, as he's not a complete bastard.

Cynics might think it takes some chutzpah for the chancellor who failed to eliminate the deficit in a single parliamentary term as promised to propose to tie the hands of his successors.  Considering we're still to be informed also of precisely how the sunlit uplands of the surplus is to be arrived at, demanding all do as Osborne says could be thought of as breathtakingly arrogant.  Nothing though is off the table when it comes to continuing to pin the economically incontinent tail on the soiled old Labour donkey, which is of course the real point of Osborne's jape.  With some of the Labour leadership candidates now accepting the utterly risible idea that they overspent when in government, the obvious riposte to which is to ask exactly what they would have spent less on, and if they answer welfare you reply with a baseball bat with a nail through the top, all the better to demand they sign up to Osborne's completely sensible surplus plan.  And if they won't, as the less self-hating ones won't, you carry on lambasting them for not accepting all this austerity is their fault.

Everyone's a winner, except for oh, the people who will suffer as a result of the shrinking of the state necessary to reach such a perpetual surplus.  The otherwise excellent Flip Chart Rick argues that despite the caricature from some on the left, Osborne and Cameron are not ideological state-shrinkers.  When it comes to Cameron he could be right, mainly because there's never been the sense Cameron believes in anything.  With Osborne, it's becoming ever more difficult to think otherwise.  As Rick has pointed out, both the IMF and the OECD have changed their tune of late, advising governments that are not Greece they can dial down the deficit reduction, especially if the proposed cuts have the potential to affect growth.  Coupled with how everyone assumed that the £12bn in cuts to welfare were to be negotiated away in the coalition talks, Osborne if he wanted has had more than enough opportunities to step back from his surplus now and surplus forever mantra.  Instead, he's gone one step beyond that into the realm of the completely gibberingly stupid.  

That £12bn in cuts to welfare looks unachievable is besides the point: Osborne looks set to try and reach for the top regardless.  The difference between playing political games and acting out of ideological purity is a fine one at the best of times.  The chancellor has surely now shown his true, somehow even ghastlier face to the world.

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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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