Tuesday, November 04, 2008 

Labour isn't working.

When your default world-view is cynicism, not much tends to shock you. Even by the modern standards of the Labour party, this is little short of astonishing:

Ed Balls, the children's secretary, and Yvette Cooper, the chief secretary to the Treasury, have launched an attack on the so-called London living wage – the £7.45 an hour recommended minimum for all workers in the capital. They claim it would be "artificial, inflationary" and not "necessary or appropriate."


But the children's ministry, which is a signatory to the Child Poverty Pledge, said: "An artificial 'living wage for London' could distort labour markets and prove poor value for money. Moreover, in seeking to reflect perceptions of the cost of living, this proposal could also raise inflation expectations at a time when increased vigilance is needed on inflationary risks. We do not believe it is necessary or appropriate."

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, utter crap. The real danger at the moment as has been argued by David Blancheflower and others is not inflationary pressures but unemployment and if anything, deflation (not stagflation, obviously. durrr).

Who on earth is New Labour attempting to appease with this in effect two fingers to the working poor? Why, that would be the CBI, the same organisation which opposed the minimum wage from the very beginning and complains every time the government dares to raise it.

To try and get your head around just how foolish this is, even the Tories support the living wage, or at the moment at least pay lip service towards it, as do the Liberal Democrats. Why then would any person in London or other major city on the minimum wage vote Labour when they don't even pretend to be on their side, and make such utterly dismal arguments to defend the indefensible?

The irony is that this comes just as Labour has attempted to mount a defence of its record on social mobility - which the Cabinet Office's report suggests has improved, at least very slightly, since 2000. Pollyanna Toynbee naturally noted this and swiftly determined that the Tories would it wreck this slight improvement should they come to power. This is on top of a recent report from the OECD which found that also, since 2000, inequality had declined. The criticism isn't that the government hasn't tried, it has, although it has often tried to do so without soliciting attention, but that it hasn't done anywhere near enough. For all the spending on tax credits, notoriously complicated, open to fraud and only available to those over 25, the benefits have been slight. This is why increasing attention is being paid to the citizen's basic income, along with the proposal to lift the lowest paid out of tax altogether. To do so though would mean taxing the higher paid a higher rate, and to judge by the complete lack of backbone being displayed towards the bankers that we now own a share of, there simply isn't the political will for any such drastic changes to be made. When a Labour government seems to be abandoning the very basic foundations of what the party was built around, you have to wonder whether there ought to be a prosecution attempted against it under the Trades Descriptions Act.

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Wednesday, August 20, 2008 

The political equivalent of Soylent Green.

There are two ways to look at George Osborne and the Tories' latest kite-flying exercise, this time on social justice, equality and fairness: you can accept that it takes a great degree of courage when very few dispute that under the Conservatives inequality sky-rocketed to levels which hadn't been seen since the early 70s, that it's the Tories recognising their past mistakes and moving onto the New Labour agenda; or you can just be staggered by the chutzpah from a group of politicians that don't seem to have any limits to how far they will go to prove that they really, honestly, truly care about subjects which they previously had very little time for.

On the basis of Osborne's article, it's difficult not to come to the second conclusion. It's with a piece with most of the recent articles by the Conservatives that have appeared in the Graun - big on rhetoric, minuscule on actual policy. The one thing that Osborne's has going for it is that unlike Oliver Letwin, who managed to write over 600 words without naming one specific policy, he actually suggests what the Tories would actually do were they to win power. The problem is that we've heard it all before multiple times, and indeed, some of it is what Yvette Cooper covered in her piece on Monday.

Instead, what we have is mostly the same old mood music, the speaking your weight which so grates, especially when it comes from someone like Osborne. This week's Private Eye, quoting from the Conservative document "A Failed Generation", dealing with the idea that schools have to be the "engines of social mobility - where talent and hard work, not background, determine success" notes that the self-same Conservative shadow cabinet which supposedly drew it up contains no less than 14 Old Etonians. Osborne himself is an Old Pauline. It's the sort of education you require to be to able say, without moments of doubt, that "after a long and bitter ideological argument over two centuries, ... the free market economy is the fairest way of rewarding people for their efforts." The new Conservatives however, being caring and sharing, now accept that "unfettered free markets are also flawed."

It would of course be lovely if the Conservatives had came to that conclusion, even if did further constrict the ideological space the three main parties are fighting over. Yet this sudden acknowledgement that unfettered free markets are also flawed seems to be incredibly opportunistic: only last year John Redwood announced his unreconciled belief in the "trickle down theory" and also proposed removing all the current "red tape" surrounding mortgages, right at the time when the unsustainable lunacy of 115% or higher mortgages has brought the likes of Northern Rock so low. In any case, Osborne doesn't actually say what the Tories would do to tame the free market; he only mentions a "robust framework". Yet isn't that exactly the red tape which the Conservatives and business so despise? He mentions also flexible working and a charge on non-domiciles, but with again without providing any details on either.

The same goes for redistribution, which Osborne believes has failed. The Conservatives, the supposed party of radical economic reform, or at least since the days of Thatcher, again don't offer an alternative here. As has been argued before here and elsewhere, the best possible alternative policy is to abolish tax credits and raise the lowest earners out of tax altogether, at the same time instituting a basic citizens' income and raising the top rates for the highest earners, or at least those of over £100,000 a year, and also cracking down far far harder on tax evasion, which by some estimates costs more than £25bn a year in lost revenue, far above that on benefit fraud and through overpayments on tax credits. All Osborne is offering are the same crackdowns on the sick and the unemployed, with an ever harsher regime that that envisioned under Purnell.

Osborne though perhaps really drops himself in it by mentioning fairness between generations. While this is a dig at the huge borrowing, it also brings to mind another tax change which the Tories have promised, that on inheritance. Their raising of threshold to £1 million is one of the only few firm pledges which the party has made, and while it goes down well in middle England, where most seem to be the under the impression that they'll be paying while it only affects 6%, and will even less considering the drop in house prices and the subsequent raises which the government has introduced, it will also mean a further drop in the receipts that the Conservatives will have to work with, as well as backing background rather talent and hard work throughout the generations.

You know full well though that none of this really matters. The Guardian's comment pages have only become more bulging with Tories of late because they think that they need to be slightly less dogmatic than in the past in order to dispense with the fusty old image of themselves not caring in the slightest about things like social mobility. It's also designed to annoy their own grassroots, exactly as New Labour and Tony Blair so often did. He seemed happiest not when he was fighting the opposite party, but instead his own backbenchers, because it so delighted the right-wing press. Here was someone who was doing their job for them, even if the policies were perhaps a bit to the left of what they would like. The difference here is that the promises are so vague as to be meaningless. No one for a moment believes that if Osborne becomes the next chancellor he'll be making many more speeches to the Demos thinktank; no, this is just another step in the public relations battle, the phony war between Labour and the Conservatives over who can occupy the tiniest piece of ground you've ever seen, situated somewhere to the right of centre on the political compass. Russia and Georgia has nothing on this.

Once again, the political choice we are left with, at the exact same time when the politicians themselves so emphasise choice in every sector but their own, is little to non-existent. Would you like James Purnell for your welfare policy Sir, with his slightly less sinister grin and tight fist, or would you prefer Chris Grayling, with his forced smile and glint in his eye? The British political scene really is an unpleasant, claustrophobic place to be in when the most attractive party looks, from here at least, to be the Liberal Democrats. And even their leader and their policies look to be degrading into the same mulch. Soylent Green for you Sir? Honestly, it's delicious.

Update: This has been posted over on Lib Con, where there are more comments. Tom Freemania also has an excellent fisk of the Conservative document underpinning Obsorne's article and speech.

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Tuesday, July 08, 2008 

Dave's raves pt. 94.

The farce is strong in this one.

Do you ever get a sudden feeling that you've been dropped, without any warning whatsoever, into a parallel universe? Everything seems exactly the same, but scratch the surface of your existence slightly, and you discover to your horror that everything's backwards. The sort of world where the Labour party still stands for the working man, where Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps is funny, and where Rupert Murdoch is known as Red Rupert (credit: PB).

I got that dread feeling when reading David Cameron's latest rave about the Broken Society™. In general terms, it's actually a rather good political speech; unrelentingly Conservative, naturally, but it makes sense, which is more than you could ever say for the majority of Blair's attempts. It's this section on personal responsibility, which has always been the stock in trade Tory excuse for doing naff all, which seems so completely bizarre:

"We as a society have been far too sensitive. In order to avoid injury to people's feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said. We have seen a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline, respect for others, deferring gratification instead of instant gratification.

To which you can only respond, has Cameron never picked up almost any newspaper, ever looked at an internet message board, or indeed read any blog? Far from becoming too sensitive, we are as a society demand that there must be someone to blame when something goes wrong; if someone puts a step out of line, we sure as hell let them know about it; and most of all, we make judgements every minute of the day based on the most shallow information we have to hand, informed by our own personal prejudices.

As Chris argues in two posts, at its root Cameron's argument comes down to class. Cameron is not talking of his own roots when he emphasises that we've failed to say what's wrong and what's right, otherwise we'd have to bring back up that embarrassing fact that Cameron and two of his closest political allies were members of the Bullingdon club. Classic recent examples of this, and how the middle classes get defended while the "lower" classes and different races get it in the neck could not be more emphasised than the treatment meted out firstly to Fiona MacKeown, a traveller who left her daughter with two adults while on holiday who was tragically murdered, whom was pilloried in the Daily Mail by Allison Pearson, whom also just happened to be the staunchest defenders of the McCanns, giving the game away by saying how "these sort of things don't usually happen to us", and then by the Shannon Matthews case, who received far less of the coverage than that given to the McCanns, almost undoubtedly because of casual snobbery. When it became apparent that her disappearance could have been a scam, the entire neighbourhood in which she lived was likened to Beirut, although not presumably the modern-day Beirut but the civil-war fused city of the 80s, and her family itself was described as a real life reflection of the one in Shameless.

The reality is that we find ourselves assaulted daily by the moral warriors that have set themselves up as arbiters of what is right and wrong while they themselves refuse to open up their own lives to similar scrutiny, probably because most of them have details which they want to keep well hidden. One can't help but be reminded of Paul Johnson, one of the crusaders against such vice, who was subsequently exposed as regularly receiving spankings from Miss Whiplash. Somewhat hilariously, after he jumped ship from the Mail he denounced the paper for being "bad for society" for printing exactly the kind of why-oh-why despairing he had contributed.

In fact, what Cameron's speech and thoughts are clearly threatening is the age old separating of the poor and downtrodden into deserving and undeserving:

"We talk about people being "at risk of obesity" instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it's as if these things - obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction - are purely external events like a plague or bad weather. "Of course, circumstances - where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make - have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.

It also certainly helps when you're born into a family that can afford to send you to Eton and can pay for the damage you cause to restaurants once you're at university. This seems to be where the New Blairite Conservative party and the Post Blairite Labour party appear to be parting on policy: the Conservatives now seem to be saying that regardless of your circumstances, regardless of how hard you try, it's all down to the choices, often the extremely early ones that you make before full maturity, that will define where you get in life. This seems to ignore the number one thing that everyone learns early in life: that it isn't fair, and if you're unlucky enough to be born into a family on the borderline poverty line, it's really really unfair.

The really pernicious thing about this apparent new line in Conservative policy, turning away from the spurious compassionate one, is that this comes just when social mobility itself has almost completely collapsed. This isn't because of a collapse of personal responsibility, a failure to condemn bad behaviour or otherwise (certainly not the abolition of grammar schools, as argued by those who were lucky enough to attend them while everyone else suffered), it's because equality of opportunity has slumped. The drawbridge has been closed, and now Cameron thinks it's the perfect time that those who have failed both through their own fault and no fault, to be told exactly what he thinks of them and why they're such miserable washouts.

With all this talk of the Broken Society™, broken families and complete social breakdown, you'd think that the Tories might have something approaching a plan to turn all these things around. And they have (PDF). It just turns out to be as similarly wanting as their analysis of personal responsibility and public morality, as the only real policy on helping families staying together is that old bung to give families up to £20 a week simply for being a couple, which will delight middle class families that have been together for years but will do nothing whatsoever to stop others from splitting up, while discriminating against the single parent families that need the most help in the first place. The other stuff is just laughable: a health visiting service to help parents cope with raising a young family? Isn't that nanny statism at its worst which ought to be providing by the private sector? "Relationship" lessons for young people when we ought to perhaps concentrate on reforming sex education first, which it would go hand in hand with?

Yet you can understand why this is all so attractive. It feeds directly into everything which the Daily Mail and Telegraph rail against, that the welfare state creates dependency, that anything other than the traditional nuclear family, itself only a recent construct, will lead to a moral breakdown which directly feeds into the knife crime we see on the streets, and the idea that you can no longer say what is right and wrong. That this is nonsense, and is in fact motivated by one thing, which is the fear of being told you're wrong and getting criticised, which is in reality what some rail against as "political correctness", i.e. the right not to be contradicted, doesn't affect the overall feeling that everything is permanently getting worse and will keep on getting worse. It leads directly to the hilarious chutzpah of Tim Montgomerie saying that the Conservatives are now the real party of social justice. He's right, as long as you define social justice as the right to stay in exactly the same position you are when you're born for the rest of your life. The sad thing is that Labour or indeed the wider left doesn't seem to have an answer to any of this, and it looks like we'll paying for it for years to come.

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