Recent Westminster Articles

Nick Clegg’s apology wasn’t aimed at the public

by Sunny Hundal     September 20, 2012 at 11:55 am

There is a twisted logic to Nick Clegg’s apology for the tuition fees debacle, I think.

Keep in mind two things: first, the u-turn over tuition fees happened over two years ago. Secondly, Nick Clegg said only last year that he had nothing to apologise for.

He’s apologising now to pre-empt criticism from his own party. He is doing it because he knows that the party is jittery after languishing in the polls for two years, with no respite in sight.

With growing realisation there won’t be a stronger economy in 2014 to boost them at the election, Clegg can turn around to his party and say: look, I’ve made the apology now, what more would you like me to do? Haven’t I humiliated myself enough?

Essentially, it buys him more time. But it is also the last desperate throw of the dice by a marked man.

If it looks like the public haven’t cut him some slack within a year (its unlikely they will) – he has no more options left.

Let me offer another comparison. Ed Balls has apologised repeatedly (Ed Miliband too) in the Commons and the media for getting too close to the banks while being in power, and for being at the helm when the economy crashed.

But voters don’t forgive and forget easily. The Coalition govt and the public have collectively shrugged at Labour’s apology. There isn’t much hope for Nick Clegg either.

This is why I say the main aim was to shore up support within the party, not the public. It buys him some time, which is fair enough, but he is still doomed.

Watch the auto-tune remix

Govt plans a £420m council tax hike on poorest

by Don Paskini     September 18, 2012 at 1:56 pm

For the past few years, the Liberal Democrats have been running a campaign about council tax called ‘Axe the Tax’. They argue that it ‘is an unfair tax, based simply on outdated valuations of property and with no link to ability to pay. It should be scrapped and replaced with a system based on people’s ability to pay.’

Conservative politicians also argued that rising council tax bills are unfair and ‘immoral’.

So now that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are in government together, how’s that campaign against the council tax going?

A new report published recently by the New Policy Institute found that the government’s plans to abolish Council Tax Benefit and require local councils to develop their own systems for support will lead to a £420 million increase in the amount of council tax paid by people on low incomes.

The report also found that:

“Three quarters of the councils we have looked at propose to start taxing low income, working-age households who up till now, thanks to Council Tax Benefit, have had a zero liability.

This is a return to one of the key principles of the poll tax, that everybody (now everybody of working-age) should pay something in tax to their local council. 20 per cent of their normal liability is the most favoured figure today. That’s what it was under the poll tax.

The reason why councils are doing this is that the money they receive from central government to finance the new scheme is 10 per cent less than they were getting under CTB…

Charging the poorest something is not the only proposal: we identify eight others including counting child maintenance and benefits as income, which would exclusively hit families, and introducing band ‘band caps’, which would badly impact families in London and the south east. There are also proposals that damage work incentives, flying in the face of another objective of Universal Credit.”

So here’s a quick guide:

When the Lib Dems said that they wanted to ‘abolish’ council tax, ‘lift the poor out of tax’ and ‘replace it with a system based on people’s ability to pay’, they decided instead to ‘extend it to include more people who can’t afford to pay it’.

When the Tories argued that higher council tax was ‘immoral’, they decided to ‘make it more like the Poll Tax’, and when they wanted to ‘simplify the benefits system and make work pay’, they decided to ‘replace one national system with 350 different local ones which damage incentives to work’.

And when Eric Pickles said ‘council tax rises are a kick in the teeth for hard-working, decent taxpayers’, he meant to add ‘and kicking the poor in the teeth is one of the key objectives for our government’.

Reading the British Social Attitudes Survey through different ‘frames’

by Nigel Stanley     September 18, 2012 at 11:45 am

The great danger with something as wide-ranging as the British Social Attitudes Survey is that people look for the results that confirm what they already think – what psychologists call confirmation bias.

We saw that in coverage, with some highlighting support for higher public spending but others leading on ‘tough’ attitudes on welfare and immigration.

The other temptation is to try to construct a coherent world view and describe this as ‘what the public think’.

The truth is much more complicated – because people are much more complicated than these approaches suggest. Few of the interesting questions in the survey have such overwhelming majorities that there are not a significant number of dissenters. We do not know whether the people on the majority side of questions tend to be the same people, or whether they are more randomly distributed between winning or losing arguments.

And as anyone who has sat through a focus group knows, most people do not have a coherent set of beliefs about the world and every policy issue. Most people don’t find the need to think deeply about issues that do not affect them directly and often have very imperfect knowledge. If they did follow issues in detail the precise wording of poll questions woud not matter so much.

One helpful concept is George Lakoff‘s theory of framing. He argues that people usually do not make decisions or strike attitudes purely through rational choices but by a more slippery process based on emotion, metaphor and language. Here’s a piece from the New York Times which explains this at a journalistic level. Lakoff argues that much of politics consists of competition between liberal and conservative frames (using these words in the US context, not as Clegg v Cameron).

Almost everyone uses a mix of these, although most people tend to use one more than the other. People in the centre are those therefore with the least fixed framing, rather than those who make the most rational choices.

I have observed people in focus-groups switch frames. One minute they echo conservative scrounger rhetoric, the next complain how tough it is for an unemployed relative to live on their benefits, but with the former completely influencing their political views.

But framing is still a very useful way to think about the British Social Attitudes Survey. I read its results therefore as a competition between progressive and conservative frames for the issues it covers. So we can see that conservatives have very successfully framed the welfare debate as about scroungers and abuse.

This chart tracks those who think unemployment benefits are too high less than those who think they are too low. (I’ve extrapolated data for two years when the question was not asked.) And don’t forget the real value of unemployment benefit has fallen considerably over the period covered by this graph.

The next graph (which comes from the BSAS website) however shows how unsuccessful conservatives have been in the UK in arguing for a smaller state.

The argument is between those arguing for more spending and those who say keep it the same – and there has been a slight shift in the progressive direction in the last year.

F_Welfare _1.1

I am not sure there are any flip conclusions from all of this for progresive campaigners. Shifting views on welfare is hard. Prejudice against claimants runs deep and is emotional. There are similar views on immigration (though wrong to see as racism, other than for a minority).

But while the government wants to frame all economic questions through the lens of deficit reduction, they are not succeeding.

Yet thinking about these attitudes in terms of frames can be helpful for campaigners. The challenge is always to get more people to view more issues through the progressive frame – and a good test for any action or argument is whether it helps achieve this.

a longer version of this post is at Touchstone blog

Mitt Romney isn’t alone in dismissing the poor: Tories use the same rhetoric

by Sunny Hundal     September 18, 2012 at 9:30 am

The Mitt Romney campaign suffered a huge setback last night after Mother Jones magazine published videos of Romney talking disparagingly of 47% of Americans who he claimed never paid income taxes.

Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote: “When he doesn’t know a camera’s rolling, the GOP candidate shows his disdain for half of America.”

Romney’s hastily organised press conference to explain his remarks didn’t go so well either.

The New York Times has published a scathing piece by the conservative commentator David Brooks on Romney’s comments.

But one point strikes me: Mitt Romney’s comments aren’t so far removed from current mainstream conservative ideology.

Attacks on the poor – calling them lazy and state-dependent have become standard fare even in the UK.

Only last month a group of Tory MPs published a pamphlet saying the UK “rewards laziness”, and that, “too many people in Britain prefer a lie-in to hard work”.

Mitt Romney is wrong, and the pamphlet by Tory MPs was full of factual errors and slipshod research.

The Cabinet minister Iain Duncan Smith too has taken to branding the poor as “lazy” for the failure of his own plans.

There is near-identical rhetoric and victim blaming on both sides of the Atlantic. Chris Dillow thinks this is happening because the Tories’ class base is splintering.

I think its something different: conservatives are running out of reasons to explain why their policies have stopped working, and why an increasing number of people dislike them.

In fact, the column by David Brooks, which I mentioned above, has a good critique of this approach:

In 1987, during Ronald Reagan’s second term, 62 percent of Republicans believed that the government has a responsibility to help those who can’t help themselves. Now, according to the Pew Research Center, only 40 percent of Republicans believe that.

The Republican Party, and apparently Mitt Romney, too, has shifted over toward a much more hyperindividualistic and atomistic social view — from the Reaganesque language of common citizenship to the libertarian language of makers and takers. There’s no way the country will trust the Republican Party to reform the welfare state if that party doesn’t have a basic commitment to provide a safety net for those who suffer for no fault of their own.

The final thing the comment suggests is that Romney knows nothing about ambition and motivation. The formula he sketches is this: People who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency. But, of course, no middle-class parent acts as if this is true. Middle-class parents don’t deprive their children of benefits so they can learn to struggle on their own.

The United States may be more to the right, but both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have recently offered a full-throated defence of the welfare state and role of government that I think the Labour party should look to adopt.

More broadly, Labour cannot shy away from hitting back when the right attack people as “lazy” – the recent debate in the US shows there is a way to hit back about Conservative mentality, without being scared that voters will run away.

Do the Libdems really want to penalise ‘undeserving patients’?

by Richard Blogger     September 17, 2012 at 9:30 am

Joe Farrington-Douglas tweeted last week an article on Lib Dem Voice posted at the time that Norman Lamb  took over the Lib Dem health brief.

Lamb wrote a paper about his thoughts and followed up with interviews with newspapers. In particular Lamb said:

If you get rat-arsed on a Friday night and get taken to A&E where you are foul and abusive to staff, is it right for the taxpayers to fund your life-saving treatment?

The implication being that it isn’t and we shouldn’t and hence there should be a charge for A&E in these circumstances.

The Guardian said:

He called for wide public debate on whether the community should pay for the excesses of the individual. There was a strong case for charging drunks for stomach pumps or treatment of injuries, and pubs and clubs should also be made to contribute if their complicity could be proven.

This is not only wrong, but it is very unliberal.

Lamb was suggesting that we create a concept of deserving patient and undeserving patient. Under Lamb’s plan the undeserving patient has to pay for their treatment. Where does it stop? Do we charge smokers for their treatment? Do we charge drunk drivers for the injuries they receive, or the injuries they cause?

What happens if someone is foul and abusive but sober? Is Lamb concerned with people’s behaviour, or their condition? If a person does something illegal (they are foul and abusive to A&E staff) then the legal system can be used: they will be punished for their behaviour.

But what if they are drunk but polite, do those drunks get a discount, or get the treatment free? Who decides what is foul or abusive, will there be national standards or will some areas be allowed to be more sensitive? What if the patient has mental health issues which is the cause of the abusive behaviour and is unrelated to the alcohol they consumed?

The whole idea was poorly thought out.

It didn’t matter that this policy was unworkable because Lamb wanted to get a different message out to the public. The message came straight out of the Lib Dem’s Orange Book. Lamb wants to deliberately break the cherished free-at-the-point-of-delivery principle of the NHS.

Once you start charging for treatment, regardless of the reason, that principle has been broken and charges will spread throughout the NHS. Imposing charges will encourage the development of an insurance market. Insurance companies will produce products so that you pay a small premium every month (say, for the cost of 5 pints) and the insurance company will pay your A&E bill if you get injured when rat-arsed.

Such ill-thought-out policies are fine for a spokesperson for a party that will never be elected, but these were the policies of Norman Lamb, who was just appointed Minister of State in the Department of Health. It is a cause for concern for health policies in the future.

How Ed Miliband could save Dave from Boris

by Guest     September 14, 2012 at 11:17 am

contribution by Giselle Green

David Cameron isn’t the only party leader who should be worrying about the rise and rise of Boris Johnson. Ed Miliband, it’s time for action.

The Olympics triumph has meant the Mayor walking away from the Games with more gold (in the bank of Boris) than the British Olympians and Paralympians combined. His pop-star performances in Hyde Park and outside Buckingham Palace have made it clear he can work a crowd as well as Dizzee Rascal, even if he can’t dance like him.

Indeed today the Spectator reports that fourteen Tory MPs have already written to the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee calling for Cameron to be removed as party leader.

The problem for Labour is that the incumbent Mayor of London is very good at evading proper political scrutiny while safely ensconced at City Hall.

Barely called to account, he is able to lurch from one PR stunt to the next, plastering his name all over the Olympics parade, cosying up to royalty (the Queen and David Beckham), and planning a world tour to personally kick-start the economy, a clever way of building his international credentials.

The magic cloak of invincibility that is wrapped around the Mayor while at City Hall needs to be deactivated quickly, or otherwise he could take over the reins of the Tory Party relatively free from negative political baggage.

For Labour to start making something stick to Boris’ Teflon-coated invincibility cloak, Ed Miliband could usefully put in place a Shadow Mayor team, capable of holding Boris to account on a regular basis, leading a feisty assault on his spurious statistics and fatuous facts.

The problem with our mayoral system is that there is no official position of Shadow Mayor. Labour London Assembly members don’t exactly land any killer blows at Mayoral Question Time and are barely known outside City Hall.

The departure of Tessa Jowell would be a good moment to ensure that a high profile successor is put in place who can keep Boris in check – for the sake of Londoners, and the whole country. Unless Boris is forced to take seriously his job of representing eight million Londoners, the next few years will be one big PR junket for the man who may lead the Tories into the next election.

David Cameron may well be hoping that Ed Miliband can save both of them from Boris.

Giselle Green ran Siobhan Benita’s media campaign in the London Mayoral election

Salma Yaqoob’s departure further exposes George Galloway as a sham

by Sunny Hundal     September 12, 2012 at 9:10 am

Last night the Respect party leader Salma Yaqoob published her resignation letter from the Respect party, effectively signalling its eventual demise.

In her statement she said:

The last few weeks have been extremely difficult for everyone in the party. I feel necessary relations of trust and collaborative working have unfortunately broken down. I have no wish to prolong those difficulties, and indeed hope that they may now be drawn to a close.

I’ve heard from multiple sources that the disagreement over George Galloway’s comments on rape was the final straw – not an abrupt decision based solely on that incident.

There have long been skirmishes and disagreements, including the persistent rumours that Salma was never really kept in the loop about the Bradford by-election.

Nevertheless, Salma Yaqoob held the Respect party together. She was a strong voice in the media and a popular local figure that rallied people to support the party.

With two women now the victim of Galloway’s refusal to admit he was wrong, this incident reinforces the obvious: George Galloway is only interested in promoting and supporting George Galloway.

He didn’t even bother to apologise or retract his comments to keep his party leader on side. That is how much of a team-player he is. He did nothing for the constituents of Tower Hamlets while he was an MP, and he will do nothing for the people of Bradford West.

Last week Socialist Unity’s Andy Newman said it was, ‘Time for the Left to stand up for Galloway‘. The sentiment was so ridiculous I could only laugh at it.

The latest developments only serve to justify my point: there isn’t a single justifiable reason for left-wingers to support Galloway. He would rather throw his party leader under the bus than apologise for his mistakes. The Galloway worshippers, who would rather tell women to shut up about rape than listen and take their points on board, have been exposed.

Lastly, I know that Salma Yaqoob hated the Labour party under Blair and Brown for going into Iraq, but I hope she will reconsider. Ed Miliband should be applauded for admitting Labour was wrong to go into Iraq (it wasn’t his war to apologise for, I believe, Blair and Brown should do that) and she should take that into account. The party would be better off with having campaigners like her.

Green Party passes its own Clause 4 motion

by Adam Ramsay     September 10, 2012 at 10:01 am

It didn’t take long to discuss, but one policy motion at last week’s Green Party of England and Wales conference marked a line in the turf for the party.

It was a part of broader proposals around economic democracy, and reads as follows:

We will grant employees the legal right to buy out their companies and turn them into workers co-operatives. Buy outs would be funded by a Green National Investment Bank and contingent on the co-ops following green and ethical policies. These co-operatives would localise economic decision-making and give employees incentives for greater productivity.

There was a bit of a debate about whether this should apply to all companies, or if the motion should be opposed as it implicitly includes small as well as medium and large companies.

But one speech about labour rights abuses in small companies put paid to that.

The motion was opposed by one member who said that this was effectively Labour’s old clause four. Much of the conference floor cheered in agreement – yes, it is, yes, that’s what we want.

It passed overwhelmingly. And so the Green Party committed to collective ownership of the means of production.


As a Libdem councillor, I think it’s time to end this Coalition

by Guest     September 8, 2012 at 10:03 am

contribution by Nick Barlow

I voted for the coalition at the Special Conference in 2010 and given the circumstances at the time, it was the least worst option available to the Liberal Democrats.

However, what we’re seeing now is not the coalition we were promised then, and errors made by the leaderships of both parties has contributed to the situation we’re in now.

This week’s announcement of the Government reshuffle has finally tipped me off the fence and into writing this.

continue reading… »

Can Bennett’s Green strategy pay off with former Libdem and Labour voters?

by Guest     September 6, 2012 at 10:01 am

contribution by Dr Matthew Goodwin

For political parties, the arrival of a new leader is often a catalyst for change. But as the relatively unknown Natalie Bennett will quickly find, the wider environment offers the Greens both problems and opportunities.

Like their counterparts in other Western democracies, over past decades the Greens have benefitted mainly from a broad process of value change that has seen more educated and secure citizens increasingly embrace progressive and post-material values, such as concern over the environment, human rights issues and economic equality.
continue reading… »

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