Thursday, 30 April 2015

Who needs yesterday's papers?

Newspapers are starting to tell us who they think we should vote for, with the Financial Times and the Economist supporting a continuation of the coalition government, and the Sun (in England and Wales) endorsing the Conservative Party.

So it's a good time to remember that newspapers used to be important. This graph shows paper sales per household between 1950 and 2010:

Toynbee and the Labour Party

The thoughts of Philip Toynbee in The Spectator, 29 May 1959:

'The Radical who supports the Labour Party does not spend his time bemoaning the failure of the Labour Party to incorporate all his hopes. He would be willing to divide the party only on the most fundamental issues of principle. For though he is scrupulous about means, he tries to confront things as they are, and not as he would like them to be. Knowing that the best is unachievable, the Radical will put up, for the time being, with the better, or even the less bad, while continuing to campaign for his own beliefs.'

Who gets my vote: part 4

As I explore the outer reaches of the ballot paper that has been assembled for the Holborn & St Pancras constituency in which I live, I'm terribly excited to find that Natalie Bennett is not the only party leader standing. 
Because look, here's Vanessa Hudson of the Animal Welfare Party. She may not get invited onto the leaders' debates on television, but she's the big boss of the AWP. And she can call on the endorsement of 1960s model Celia Hammond. Unfortunately most of the policies that the party are putting forward relate to animals - apart from calling on the government to promote 'plant-based diets', there doesn't seem to be anything aimed at us humans.

The AWP is fielding candidates in a total of four constituencies, which is twice as many as the Socialist Equality Party. I'm not fully up to speed with developments in the world of Trotskyism, and the SEP is a new name to me. but - having checked - they turn out to be a rebranded version of the International Communist Party, who split from the Workers Revolutionary Party back in the 1980s.

They are also - as their leaflet boasts - the British section of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Not the actual Fourth International, of course (in which we are represented by Socialist Resistance), nor the Fourth International (ICR) nor the Fourth International Posadist. And certainly not the International Trotskyist Committee for the Political Renegeneration of the Fourth International, the Liaison Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International or the Workers International to Rebuild the Fourth International. And, just while I'm clearing up these confusions, there is another rival International Committee of the Fourth International as well, but that's not the one that the SEP are part of. Don't be fooled by the name.
Despite all of which, their election leaflet insists: 'Only the SEP speaks for the working class.' But only in two constituencies, apparently. And one of them, happily, is mine, with a candidate named David O'Sullivan.

These are minor parties, though. Just six candidates between the two of them across the whole nation. Much more substantial is the list of 32 constituencies being contested by Cannabis Is Safer Than Alcohol. That's a statement of intent. Somewhat peculiarly, however, the central demand of CISTA is not the immediate legalisation of cannabis, but merely the setting up of a Royal Commission to look into drug laws. They want government drug policy to be 'evidence-based, cross-party, humane and non-partisan'.

I think they're underselling themselves. They're not even competing properly with the Green Party of England and Wales, whose manifesto promises 'Radical reform of our drug laws'. No mention there of a Royal Commission. And as Peter Lilley pointed out back in 2001: 'Royal Commissions are just a way of playing issues into the long grass.' He added: 'Perhaps appropriate for cannabis.'

Still, good luck to Shane O'Donnell of CISTA. If all the potheads in Camden could get themselves together to vote for him, he'd do alright.
And that's it. The English Democrats and the British National Party - both of whom fielded candidates last time - have abandoned us. And there are no independents like we had in 2010. Still, no doubt we'll survive somehow.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Emperor's New Troosers

I've mentioned before (here and here) that the level of hyperbole in this general election campaign is getting a little silly on all sides. Sometimes this has become a story in its own right. Such was the case with Theresa May's claim in an interview with the Mail on Sunday that a post-election deal between the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party would provoke 'the biggest constitutional crisis since the abdication of Edward VIII'.

Now this is obviously over-the-top, and I'm disappointed that a politician of May's standing has clearly forgotten all about Gough Whitlam. (She must once have known about him; she was at Oxford University at the time of the Dismissal and surely even geography students were vaguely aware of what was happening in Australia.)

Nonetheless, there is a clear problem in the position adopted by the SNP. The party's manifesto is a mix (less charitably, a mess) of policies, some of which relate simply to Scotland, others to the whole of the United Kingdom.

So, for example, the SNP will 'seek an explicit exemption ... from the terms of the proposed Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership' for Scottish Water. But not for Thames Water or any of the other suppliers. On the other hand, the very first page of the policy proposals (after the usual fatuous photographs of the leader) says that the party will 'vote for an increase in NHS spending across the UK of £24 billion by 2020-21'.

This seems to me to be at best impolite. Health is a devolved matter already, even without the additional shift of power to Holyrood that would presumably accompany the SNP having any say in the Westminster government. One doesn't have to accept the Conservative proposal of English votes for English laws to feel that a party with no candidates in England should not be announcing how much money they want to make England spend on its health service.

Nor, even if - as a voter in England - one believes in increased funding for the NHS, should one look to the SNP to deliver this.

Because it's not actually their business.

The manifesto of the Democratic Unionist Party, by contrast, has not a single word to say on the subject of the NHS, though it does mention the devolved health service. Instead the document is rooted entirely in the hope of a hung parliament, allowing 'an opportunity for Northern Ireland's voice to be heard in London like never before'.

The same bifocal approach runs through the whole of the SNP manifesto. The idea that the Scottish Parliament should be given the right to decide which sporting events are reserved for free-to-view television - that seems pleasingly parochial. Telling the rest of the UK how many houses we have to build is rude and wrong.

There is a constitutional issue here. Something to do with representation and taxation, since spending relies on taxes, whether now or in the future to pay today's borrowing.

And the problem is exacerbated by the voting system (which, incidentally, the SNP are proposing to scrap in favour of the Single Transferable Vote). The latest opinion poll, published yesterday, shows the SNP on 54 per cent in Scotland, which is predicted to translate into 96.5 per cent of Scottish seats.

Or, to put it another way, 1.3 million votes (assuming a similar turnout to last time) would yield 57 MPs. Meanwhile, as I've said before, Ukip - effectively the English equivalent of the SNP - will register over two-and-a-half times that vote for a total of maybe three MPs.

I don't think that, despite May's argument, the emergence of a minority Labour administration propped up by SNP votes will spark a constitutional crisis as such, since the rules of Parliament are perfectly clear about how governments are chosen by MPs. But it will provoke a crisis of confidence in the system of government. I don't know how that will manifest itself, but it cannot simply be wished away. Not in a country where there is already deep dissatisfaction with our version of representative democracy.

The answer, in the short term, can surely only be the introduction of proportional representation. The Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, like the SNP, favour the Single Transferable Vote, while Ukip also support reform.

But whatever the outcome of this election - even if the Tories do get a majority in the Commons (a prediction to which I cling, despite all the evidence) - a reform of the voting system is an urgent necessity. It would be absurd to have another election fought like this.

Postscript: Since posting this three hours ago, a new poll has been published showing the SNP still on 54 per cent, but with Labour sliding still further - projections now suggest the SNP would win every seat in Scotland.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

We're not all Rob Roys

Since the only story in the general election is the performance of the Scottish National Party, I thought I'd have a look through my archive of political quotes to see what's been said on the subject of Scotland from outside:

'One only has to go to Scotland for a moment to understand the Scottishness of Scotland.' - John Major (1992)

'Scotland needs the Labour Party as much as Sicily needs the mafia.' - Malcolm Rifkind (1992)

'I love Scotland. It's a loony sort of place.' - Screaming Lord Sutch (1998)

'A wee, pretendy parliament.' - Billy Connolly (2000)

'I would rather have played rugby for Scotland than be prime minister.' - Iain Duncan Smith (2002)

'Ghastly.' - Camilla Parker-Bowles on the Scottish Parliament building (2004)

'We need Crossrail to keep London's economy ticking over, so that we can continue to pay for the Scottish to live the lifestyle to which they are accustomed.' - Ken Livingstone (2006)

And here's a pot speaking about the kettle that is Alex Salmond:

'A man who fell in love with himself at an early age and has been faithful ever since.' - Alastair Campbell (2008)

Monday, 27 April 2015

Who gets my vote: part 3

Moving on from the Green Party and the Liberal Democrats, I come to the right-wing parties who are fielding candidates in my constituency, Holborn & St Pancras.

Ukip are sticking with Maxine Spencer, a 51-year-old former immigration officer. She got all of 587 votes last time round, when she was beaten into sixth place by the BNP. (In an area not short of luvvies, it is possible that the BNP benefitted from having a candidate named Robert Carlyle).

Since the BNP aren't standing this time, and since Ukip have been receiving much more national media attention, Spencer will presumably improve on her 1.1 per cent share of the vote and might even (though it's unlikely) save her deposit.
I think it's fair to say that - even though Spencer claims she's getting less abuse than in the last campaign - this isn't natural Ukip territory. It's also fair to say that the party won't be getting my vote.

I've probably written too much about Ukip on this blog and its predecessor (most recently here), but I would just make one further point: I'm really rather glad that Ukip exist.

The ex-communist turned Tory MP Eric Forth used to say: 'There are millions of people in this country who are white, Anglo-Saxon and bigoted, and they need to be represented.' He was quite correct on both counts. Any decent democracy worthy of the name needs to allow minority voices to be heard, because the alternative - of suppressing dissent - is immoral and dangerous.

Just to be clear, I'm obviously not suggesting that the Ukip vote is solely comprised of bigoted white Anglo-Saxons: Spencer herself, for example, is the child of a Trinidadian mother and a Welsh father. But it would be daft to deny that there's a strong element of Forth's section of the Conservative Party in there, having been made to feel unwelcome by David Cameron. And, sadly, they're not going to be represented.

Because I think one of the big stories of the coming election may well be a wave of dissatisfaction with a system that rewards the Scottish National Party so disproportionately when compared to Ukip. On current polls, and assuming a similar turnout to 2010, the SNP are in line to secure around 1.1 million votes and are predicted to get somewhere around forty-five seats; Ukip, on the other hand, will receive twice that level of support and will be doing well to win three seats.

This is palpably unjust. But it still doesn't make me want to vote Ukip.
For the last general election, the Conservative Party had a very strong candidate in George Lee. His election address made great play of his back story: Hong Kong Chinese, born in a semi-converted pigsty, child labourer in a toy factory at the age of five, came to Britain, joined the Metropolitan Police, rose to rank of chief inspector, subsequently became vice-president of T-Mobile - this was compelling stuff. He had no hope of winning, of course, but he cut a convincing figure and he got the Tory vote back into five figures for the first time since 1992.

He was so good (the Labour Party had reportedly been chasing him as well) that I assumed he was working his political apprenticeship, and that he'd move on and get a winnable constituency this time to become Britain's first Chinese MP. Regrettably I can find no trace of him having done so.

Maybe Lee was a bit too exciting for the local Conservative Party, because this time they've got a much blander looking candidate:
I'm probably being unfair to judge him solely on his looks, but I know very little more about him, apart from what I read in his literature and in a single newspaper interview. He's thirty years old, he grew up in Dorset, he joined the Conservatives at the age of fourteen, he studied history at Oxford, he's worked for an MP, he lives in Kentish Town, he's gay, he looks pleasant enough.

Oh, and he's called Will Blair. That's Will Blair. Doesn't stand a chance with a name like that. But I bet he turns up in another constituency next time.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Over-egging the pudding

In Peter Hitchens's Mail on Sunday column today, he makes a great deal of Norman Tebbit's contribution to the general election debate.

In case you missed Tebbit's comments, he argued that since the Conservative Party wasn't going to get anywhere in Scotland, then Tory supporters might have to choose between Labour and the Scottish National Party. And since he is in favour of the Union, the conclusion is obvious. So was he advising Tories to vote Labour in Scotland? 'I hesitate to say that. But it is logical from where I stand.'

This, Hitchens says, is 'the most amazing development in politics since another former Tory giant, Enoch Powell, urged his supporters to vote Labour in February 1974'.

Er, no, it's not. I fear that Hitchens's longstanding hatred of the Conservative Party is clouding his judgement a little.

In the first place, Powell did not 'urge' people to vote Labour in 1974. He hinted heavily that this was the best option, in order to secure a referendum on membership of the European Community, and he revealed - a few days before the day of the election - that he himself had already done so in a postal vote. But that's not the same thing as 'urging'.

More importantly, this is not Tebbit's first offence in this territory. Back in 1997 he was asked if he would support James Goldsmith's short-lived Referendum Party. 'I would not go that far,' he said. 'Not yet. But I can understanding why many people who do not have such a strong attachment to the Conservative Party are doing so.'

In more recent times, he has repeatedly implied in his blog on the Telegraph site that his heart is with Ukip and that it's only force of habit that keeps him in the Conservative Party.

Hitchens writes: 'Lord Tebbit's outburst was astonishing.' And he asks: 'why hasn't the Tory Party expelled, or at least suspended him, for this blatant defiance of his leader?'

Well, it's not really that astonishing - it's not out of character for Tebbit at all. It is. however, a good story, and Hitchens is right that it should have attracted more attention. But - just like Owen Jones - Hitchens damages his case with this kind of hyperbole.


A couple of photos from my speaking engagements over the last week, at the Southbank with the great David Kynaston, and from the National Liberal Club with some, er, veterans?

Incidentally, I do have other suits.

Somewhat oddly, footage of the Southbank talk is available on YouTube, though I wouldn't recommend it

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Kids are different today

When I was born, male homosexuality was illegal in Britain. So too was abortion, while hanging was still in use by our courts.

Happily, this situation has changed. And I wouldn't vote for a party that advocated turning the clock back. A group such as the Democratic Unionist Party, for example.

Even so, I find it disturbing when Owen Jones in the Guardian describes the DUP as 'bigoted throwbacks to several centuries ago'. Or, in another piece, when he calls them 'the political wing of the seventeenth century'.

Because that's simply not true; as someone with, say, a history degree from Oxford would be able to tell you. The opinions of the DUP - even the private opinions of individual members - were the basis of the law fifty years ago, and absolutely the norm much more recently. They're not entirely uncommon now.

That's why in the Parliament that has just ended, the DUP formed the fourth largest party. Admittedly the party only registered 168,000 votes in 2010 (fewer, remarkably, than Sinn Fein), but that's still a quarter of those who voted in Northern Ireland, and it's a fair number of people to denounce in such terms.

That share of the vote wouldn't translate to the rest of the United Kingdom. But if a party like Ukip - to take the most obvious choice - advocated the restoration of capital punishment, the introduction of new limits on abortion, and the freedom to override gay rights in the name of religious conscience, my guess is that they'd see a reduction in their vote share, but not by a huge amount. There is a sizeable (if dwindling) minority whose attitudes were shaped in the Britain that existed not in the seventeenth century, but in my lifetime.

It is surely possible to articulate the case against the DUP without resorting to such overblown rhetoric. Apart from anything else, it makes me feel so very old.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Who gets my vote: part 2

Continuing my ruminations about who to vote for in the coming election, the Liberal Democrats in my constituency of Holborn & St Pancras are fielding Jill Fraser.
This is a good choice - Fraser (she's the one in the middle) is a popular figure. In 2003 she won a shock by-election to be elected to Camden Council (this was against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq), and went on to become mayor of the borough in 2006. She stood for parliament in the Holborn & St Pancras constituency in 2005, achieving an 11 per cent swing from Labour to Lib Dem, and she's very active and visible in local campaigning.

Her son is a university lecturer (which is surely a good thing), but most famously she works in a local chip-shop and has done for over two decades. This is not necessarily the image conjured up by the words 'North London Liberal'.

She didn't stand in 2010, but the Lib Dem candidate came in second again, for the third election running. The candidate then, Jo Shaw, got a shade under 28 per cent of the vote. Even with the personal standing of Fraser, it's unlikely to get much better this time. Last year the Lib Dems were all but wiped out in the local elections, and Fraser lost her council seat (as did all but one of their candidates).

The reality, of course, is that it doesn't really matter who the candidate is. This is nobody's idea of a target seat (even assuming that the Lib Dems enjoyed the luxury of having target seats) and the party isn't exactly pouring resources into the constituency campaign. Fraser could promise free chips to every voter without it making any real difference.

I've long thought that the Lib Dems would do better in this election than was being predicted. And my reasoning was that they had quite a decent story to tell. Nick Clegg made the right decision in 2010 to enter a coalition government. Coalitions are what the party had been talking about for my entire adult life, and it would have been absurd to turn down the opportunity when it arose. Further, I have no doubt that the presence of the Lib Dems made the government a better one than it would have been had the Tories governed alone. Those were the two options that existed after the nation had voted, and we got the better of the two.

Now, though, I'm not so sure about the Lib Dem prospects. I think that as the choice between David Cameron and Ed Miliband becomes starker, there is a very real possibility that the Lib Dems will get squeezed. Clegg seems to me to be playing a limited hand pretty well, but for most of this campaign it's been as though the party hardly exists. No one appears to care in the slightest what they have to say.

And that's a bit of a shame, because I think the country benefits from having a moderately strong Lib Dem presence. It provides an alternative where none would otherwise exist, and it can sometimes spring a surprise. Eastbourne, for example, where the Labour Party stands no chance, was Tory for eighty years solid until the IRA murdered Ian Gow in 1990; now it's a Lib Dem constituency and likely to remain so.

I mean, obviously we have no idea what they stand for or what they believe. Lord knows they haven't actually been liberal for a long time, save for the occasional outbreak of concern over civil liberties. But believing in stuff isn't really their thing. Their job is to represent the don't knows. Which isn't intended as a criticism: there are an awful lot of don't knows, and they're entitled to have their uncertain voice heard, just as much as those who think they know everything.

And maybe I'm wrong about them being squeezed. Their best post-war performance came in 1983, in their incarnation as the SDP-Liberal Alliance. The country was then offered the choice of Margaret Thatcher or Michael Foot, and a very large number of people decided that they're rather have neither. The same could hold true for the party this time. Except that I don't think it will.

More than the state of the party at a national level, however, the problem for Jill Fraser is that she's rather wasted on Holborn & St Pancras. She'd make someone a good MP. But not us.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Green Party? No thanks

Further to my consideration of whether to vote for the Green Party of England and Wales, I've been reading a report of a hustings 'for the writing community' organised by the ALCS and the Society of Authors.

During the course of this meeting, Hugh Small, spokesperson for the Green Party, 'argued that e-books were less environmentally harmful than print ones, and would therefore be subject to lower VAT under a Green Party administration'.

This was apparently intended as a serious comment. He genuinely believes that manufacturing a Kindle with a life-span of no more than a handful of years, and then running it on electricity before disposing of the non-biodegradable object, is more harmful than making a book. Despite the fact that I have books dating back to the seventeenth century that still seem to work fine.

He went on to say 'that the Green Party would look to reduce the term of copyright to fourteen years'. So rather than earning money from my work for the rest of my life, and then bequeathing it for a further seventy years to someone else, I'd get just fourteen years. Anything written last century would already be out of copyright.

Who is this idiot? And why does he want to assault what little income authors manage to squeeze out of publishers and booksellers (who make a far better living than mere writers)?

I don't know the answer to that second question, But Small himself is the Greens' parliamentary candidate for the Cities of London and Westminster. He has a website and he looks like this:
He's made my mind up for me. The Green Party really, really can't count on my vote.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Who gets my vote: part 1

I live in a very safe constituency. At the last election the Labour majority stood at nearly 10,000 votes; they were around eighteen percentage points clear of the Lib Dems. But that was a bad year for Labour (in 1997 they were forty-seven points clear) and a good one for the Lib Dems. The latter phenomenon is unlikely to happen again: last year Nick Clegg's party took a hammering in the council elections.

There may be some fall-off in support for Labour now that Frank Dobson's retiring - after all, he's represented the people of Holborn & St Pancras since the constituency was first created by the 1832 Reform Act, and presumably there are some people who liked him. But despite that, the party will certainly hold the seat.

Since it therefore matters not a jot who I vote for, I shall give the matter undue thought and consideration, candidate by candidate.

First up is the celebrity star of television debates and radio interviews, Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party of England and Wales (but not Scotland or Northern Ireland).

Bennett stood for the constituency last time round, when she came fourth with 1,480 votes (2.7 per cent). To put that in context, the previous Green candidate got twice that number of votes and saved his deposit with 8.1 per cent of the turnout. Bennett has also stood for the local council twice and once for the Greater London Authority, failing to be elected on any occasion.

Of course she wasn't leader of the party back in those days. But her performance in becoming leader doesn't give any reason to think she's much of a winner. In the Green Party leadership election, she got 1,300 first-preference votes. That's fewer people than voted for her in the general election, and that's in her own party. Even with the celebrity recognition factor, she'll do well to get above fourth this time.

The point of voting Green, though, is presumably not in the expectation of seeing them get more than one MP. It's to boost the national numbers in the hope that a sizeable vote for a party to the left of Labour might scare Labour into taking a stance that's a bit more radical (or progressive, as we now say).

That assumes, however, that we agree on what the word 'left' means anymore. Or indeed 'radical' or 'progressive'.

So I thought I ought to look at what the Green Party is proposing this time round, now that it's doing well enough to be patronised by the big parties.

And I have to start by admitting that I haven't yet read all eighty-four pages of the manifesto. I was going to do so last night, and instead found myself reading a history of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, in the belief that it would bring me more pleasure. But I have read the education section of the manifesto, and thus far I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced.

The Greens say they want to get rid of league tables and Ofsted. On the following page, however, they boast about the GCSE and A-level results achieved in Brighton & Hove under a Green council; it's good to have this information and to know that grades are improving - which is surely the point of league tables. Furthermore '80 per cent of sixth forms and colleges are good or outstanding as judged by Ofsted'. Again it's nice to know that Ofsted does have its uses after all, but why no mention of how well the schools are performing for pupils in the years before sixth-form?

The manifesto calls for the abolition of grammar schools, academies, free schools, faith schools and private schools. Instead all schools will be comprehensives 'offering mixed-ability teaching'. There would be 'democratic accountability', with 'a key role for local authorities in planning, admissions policy and equality of access for children with special needs'.

Am I being picky in thinking that a genuine democracy might also allow for diversity? And that the Green Party - of all parties the one you might hope would be in favour of diversity - should recognise this.

Similarly there would be modifications of the curriculum, but no indication that that curriculum would be anything but national.

There is some scope for those who stray from the true path, however. Having abolished faith schools, there is a gracious concession that: 'Schools may teach about religions'. Which is nice. And there is promise of protection from 'sectarian attacks' for 'schools that serve particular [sic] vulnerable communities, for example, the Jewish, Muslim or Sikh communities'. My guess is that some members of those communities might see the abolition of faith schools by the Greens as a 'sectarian attack' in itself.

I'm not overly impressed by any of this. I distrust those with the arrogance to claim they have the one true answer, and I distrust those who believe that a single solution is applicable to all situations. I like plurality and a marketplace of ideas and options.

One more thing. The Green Party shares Tristram Hunt's obsession with 'qualified teachers'. The single best teacher I ever had wasn't qualified, but boy, could he teach maths. I, on the other hand, have a PGCE and very clearly I would be completely incapable of teaching in a school classroom, particularly one that required mixed-ability teaching. Because that's really difficult.

These 'qualified teachers', it should be noted, will have received 'comprehensive training ... on all diversity and inclusion issues'. There is, on must conclude, a diversity of opinions about what 'diversity' means.

I guess that what I want from the Greens is a big vision, an alternative to existing practice - some sense of, I don't know, environmentalism, for example. And the only element of such a thing in the education policy is a promise that school dinners won't be contaminated by the evil of GM. Oh, and some of the lessons should be held outdoors.

Apart from that it's just old-fashioned, centralised control by a big state. The man or woman in Whitehall still knows best.

The Green Party promises that in their world: 'We'd all be healthier, happier and more confident'. I'm not convinced that I shall feel healthier, happier or more confident as a result of voting for Natalie Bennett. So I don't think I shall.

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

If you hate me after what I say...

Worse than the politician who knows nothing about popular culture is the politician who claims to know something about popular culture and gets it wrong. There's something horribly embarrassing about, say, David Cameron urging 'his' club Aston Villa to 'go for it' and hoping that they achieve some 'gains'.

On the other hand, there are times when Cameron is clearly telling the truth. When he chose Benny Hill's song 'Ernie (The Fastest Milkman in the West)' as one of his records on Desert Island Discs, that was surely an honest man speaking,

Last week, Cameron filled in a little more of his childhood listening. Pointing out that the numbers of people claiming unemployment benefit were at their lowest since 1975, he said: 'I can't even remember 1975 - I think I bought a Bay City Rollers album, it's that long ago.'

When Cameron praised the Smiths, Johnny Marr famously banned him from ever liking the group. I feel the nation now needs to hear from Les McKeown on his attitude to the prime minister's seal of approval for the Rollers. We know that Les supported the Yes campaign in the devolution referendum ('England and Scotland would be better friends separated than together'), which may give us a hint. But we should know for certain before we're asked to cast our votes.

Incidentally, if you are thinking of buying a Bay City Rollers album, may I suggest that you don't bother with the three records that were available in 1975. Instead I'd recommend Dedication, their 1976 masterpiece, produced by Jimmy Ienner.

Monday, 20 April 2015

A Voice from History: Gordon Brown

In memory of the political career of Gordon Brown, who has now left the Commons at the ripe old age of 64, here are some of my favourite quotes from the former prime minister:

1) 'No chancellor until this one has come to the House and said that because he has money available to him, the rich will get the benefits and the poor will make the sacrifices.' (1988)

2) 'I see Labour as the party of small businesses and the self-employed.' (1995)

3) 'They [the Liberal Democrats] are not fit to make their presence felt in this House. They should go back to their constituencies and prepare to adapt to reality.' (1997)

4) 'I want this generation to be remembered as the first generation in history that truly made prosperity possible for the world and its people.' (2001)

5) 'Tony Blair is the best friend I have in politics. We have worked together for many, many years.' (2001)

6) 'I did maths at school and for one year at university, but I don't think I was ever very good at it.' (2007)

7) 'I could never compare myself to Gandhi and all the other heroes of mine, but I do take inspiration from the way they dealt with the challenges they found.' (2007)

8) 'I admire the fact that she [Margaret Thatcher] is a conviction politician. I am a conviction politician like her.' (2007)

9) 'When things go well, people call me Gordon. When they're bad, they call me Mr Brown. At the moment they are calling me Gordon.' (2008)

10) 'She was just a sort of bigoted woman who said she used to be Labour.' (2010)

And now some words about Brown by his friends and admirers:

1) 'He is a happiness Hoover.' - Michael Howard (1993)

2) 'Gordon Brown talks about no return to boom and bust. He is not going to have a boom, but he might have a bust.' - Kenneth Clarke (1998)

3) 'He is silly and I shall keep at him.' - Barbara Castle (2000)

4) 'I'm convinced Gordon Brown bores 99 per cent of any audience. I once interviewed him for thirty-eight minutes and he gave the same answer to every question. And he doesn't care that everyone finds him so boring.' - John Humphreys (2000)

5) 'The sooner he becomes prime minister the better. In the last couple of years, Tony Blair has been a disaster.' - Denis Healey (2005)

6) 'He is somebody I'm liking very much and I think he will certainly do more and more good things if he has a chance.' - Angelina Jolie (2006)

7) 'Allowing Gordon Brown into No.10 would be like letting Mrs Rochester out of the attic.' - Frank Field (2007)

8) 'He has the charisma of a coffin lid.' - Michael Portillo (2007)

9) 'He is like some sherry-crazed old dowager who has lost the family silver at roulette, and who now decides to double-up by betting the house as well.' - Boris Johnson (2008)

10) 'He could be a miserable bugger, Gordon.' - John Prescott (2011)

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Targeted advertising

One of the joys of the internet is the ability of retailers to hone in on one's interests and to recommend titles that will be personally attractive. I just found on my computer this screen-grab of an Amazon advert for my own book from when I was looking at YouTube a couple of years ago:

Norah Blaney and Gwen Farrar, incidentally, were a double-act of the 1920s, singing in variety theatres. Blaney, who retired from the stage in 1932, later remembered a promoter of the time explaining their appeal: 'Norah fills the stalls with all the young men, and Gwen has all the lesbians in London come to see her.'

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Magic Gardens

I was very pleased to read in last week's Sunday Telegraph of the work of Rose Fulbright. She's the great-granddaughter of  Clough Williams-Ellis who created the village of Portmeirion, about which I once created a book. More relevantly, Fulbright is also the granddaughter of Susan Williams-Ellis, the founder of Portmeirion Pottery.

Apart from her ceramic designs, Susan's great passion in later life was sketching underwater, and a few years back I edited a book of the paintings that resulted, Magic Gardens. This art, I now learn, is the inspiration for Fulbright's new range of loungewear, the Tropical Collection. Which is excellent news: Susan's art has been due for rediscovery for a very long time. There's some much more interesting work in the archive, but this is at least a start.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Ukip - thus far and no further

In an earlier post, I looked at the huge increase in immigration during the New Labour years, which facilitated the rise of Ukip. As a footnote to that, I feel I should point out that there are limits to the power even of this issue. I think Ukip enjoyed its greatest moment at the elections to the European parliament in May last year. It won't get that good again.

Indeed, I said as much at the time when I predicted on the day of the elections that Ukip had now reached its peak number of voters. 'If you don't vote Ukip this time,' I wrote, 'you're unlikely to do so at a general election next year.'

On that basis, I predicted that the party might reach a 14 per cent share of the vote in this general election, adding: 'And even that's being optimistic.' That was before the results had been announced. In retrospect, I think it was indeed a touch optimistic: according to the Poll of Polls on, Ukip currently stand at 12.7 per cent.

In a subsequent blog post last May, I then put a figure on the number of votes Ukip would attract in this year's election: 2.5 million people. I think I'll stick with that.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Why Ukip?

One of the most striking aspects of British politics in the last twenty years has been the absence of a left-wing party.

With both post-Thatcher Conservatives and post-Foot Labour gradually shuffling towards the centre, space has opened up on either flank for new political forces. But there has been nothing on the Left, save for George Galloway and a feeble little Green growth in the last few months. Meanwhile the right has been very handsomely served. First by the Nick Griffin incarnation of the BNP, and then by Nigel Farage's Ukip.

In one sense this is entirely predictable. The British left has been fixated on incoherent, internecine squabbling since the 1970s and is clearly incapable of finding a popular voice. It can mount the occasional single-issue campaign but only in response to initiatives on the right: Rock Against Racism and the Anti-Nazi League in response to the National Front, the anti-Poll Tax campaign, the Stop the War Coalition. When it tries anything with a broader frame of reference - the Socialist Alliance, say, or the TUSC - no one really notices.

But in another way, the lack of a left party is a bit odd. Because my impression is that there is a left-of-centre consensus in Britain, waiting to be expressed and not finding itself articulated by the Labour Party. (It was there in the mid-1990s, had Tony Blair only recognised it.)

What has been missing, maybe, is the one overarching issue, the thing that catches the attention and encapsulates a wider view of society. Which is where the right has been so successful, of course, since it has, at its core, a deep dislike of immigration.

Why have right-of-Tory parties done comparatively well in the last decade? Perhaps these figures tell the story:

That steep rise in non-EU immigration under New Labour, followed by the steep rise in EU immigration - combine that with a government that failed to defend its policies, and that's the reason for Ukip.

Put another way: If you add up the net migration figures for each of Margaret Thatcher's eleven years in power, you get a total of 26,000 people. If you do the same for each of the thirteen years of New Labour, you get 2.8 million.

But that's net migration. That might be relevant in terms of concerns about the capacity of the infrastructure to cope, but we all know that's not the real issue. The underlying concern is about culture and identity and about the number of foreigners. So, if you add up the total of the immigration figures in each of Thatcher's years you get 2.5 million people. And in New Labour years: 7.25 million.

These are not, of course, the numbers remaining at the end of each period. Many of those recorded entering the country (students, for example) stay for only a fixed time. But the figures have a certain, comparative function. The scale of immigration under the Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown really was quite exceptional, and - as far as I can see - there was, and has been, little attempt to explain the phenomenon.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

I.F.S. Express

It seems that it's now part of the British constitution that all election manifesto launches should be accompanied by the comments of the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies. So I thought I'd look back I'd look back at how the IFS has greeted previous manifestos, to see if there are any lines of continuity:

'"We've had thirteen years of people at the top getting preferential treatment," said [John] Smith. "We are starting to speak up for the ordinary taxpayer and the average family." Labour believes that the endorsement of its arithmetic by the Institute for Fiscal Studies makes it "game, set and match".' - Sunday Times 22 March 1992

'[The IFS document] will criticise Gordon Brown's pledge to stick to the existing government spending totals for the first two years of a Labour government. Andrew Dilnot, the IFS's director, has made no secret of his view that the sharp slowdown in real-terms spending implied by the existing plans will be catastrophic for the provision of some public services.' - Independent 9 April 1997

'Howard Reed of the IFS said there was a limit to what to what could be saved [under a Conservative government] without having to make cuts in "real" services on the ground. If there were easy ways to save money without such cuts then other parties would be doing so too, he added.' - Daily Telegraph 16 May 2001

'Robert Chote of the Institute for Fiscal Studies said: "Will taxes have to go up if the Tories win? No, as long as they can deliver the spending cuts they have promised. Will taxes have to go up if Labour wins? Yes, if we are right that revenues will be weaker than the Treasury hopes and if Gordon Brown sticks to his Budget goals for the public finances."' - Evening Standard 7 April 2005

'The independent Institute for Fiscal Studies said the manifesto gave no certainty on the size and combination of tax rises and spending cuts envisaged to meet Labour's pledge to halve Britain's £167 billion deficit within four years. "The party listed plenty of new things it would like to do, but was no clearer about where the spending cuts will fall," said the IFS. "It listed a few tax increases that it promised not to implement, but left the door wide open to many others."' - Independent 13 April 2010

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Houses of the Holy

The Conservative Party is attempting (yet again) to revive the concept of a property-owning democracy, as they launch their manifesto today. And there are already voices on the Left denouncing their proposals. So here are some figures taken from the Office for National Statistics showing the UK housing stock by tenure in the period 1980-2012:

It's hard to see any real changes as a result of changing government. The rise in owner-occupied housing (the blue line) continued steadily, right up to the credit crunch in 2008, while the quantity of social housing (yellow) continued to decline. The only new development in this period is the rise of privately rented accommodation (red): in 2001 the number of private rents was pretty much the same as it had been in 1980 - over the following decade that number doubled.

Just for completion, this is a breakdown of those social housing figures into the two component elements of housing association (green) and council housing (purple):

Monday, 13 April 2015

A Voice from History: William Hague

In memory of the political career of William Hague, who has now left the Commons at the ripe old age of 54, here are some of my favourite quotes from his ill-starred stint as leader of the Conservative Party:

1) 'Never again will we allow the good name of our party to be blackened by the greed and selfishness of a few.' (1997)

2) 'We must never be the nostalgia party.' (1999)

3) 'Anyone who thinks I used to spend my holidays reading political tracts should have come with me for a week. There were barrels of wholesale John Smith's bitter and we used to have a pint at every stop.' (2000)

4) 'Talk about Europe and they call you extreme. Talk about tax and they call you greedy. Talk about crime and they call you reactionary. Talk about asylum and they call you racist. Talk about your nation and they call you Little Englanders.' (2001)

5) 'Nothing has ever gone wrong in my life.' (2001)

And now some quotes about William Hague from his friends and admirers:

1) 'Shifty little bureaucrat.' - Alan Clark (1997)

2) 'A foetus. I bet there's a lot of Tory MPs that wish they hadn't voted against abortion now.' - Tony Banks (1997)

3) 'The only person to have one of those "Where are they now?" features written about him whilst leader of the Conservative Party.' - Peter Baynham (1998)

4) 'Under William the sad truth is that the Tories have become less compassionate, more intolerant and frankly just plain nasty.' - Ivan Massow (2000)

5) 'The only leader in history whose opinions are delivered to him by the paper boy.' - Tony Blair (2001)

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Top Ten: Most influential post-war British politicians

Are today's politicians really as poor as they sometimes appear? In an entirely non-objective, unscientific spirit of enquiry, I've drawn up a list of the people I consider to be the ten most influential post-war British politicians. The criteria are simple: they must have been elected to the Westminster Parliament, and only their impact on Britain counts - this isn't about foreign affairs.

1. Edward Heath - Useless in so many ways, but he was the man who took Britain into the European Community, which is surely the biggest political development since the war.

2. Roy Jenkins - The best home secretary in living memory, the man who made parliamentary time available for backbencher bills that ushered in the civilised society (as he called it) or the permissive society (as everyone else called it).

3. Aneurin Bevan - He gave us the NHS, the great sacred cow of modern politics. (Unless you believe Leanne Wood of Plaid Cymru, in which case the NHS was a gift to the UK by the Welsh people.)

4. Ken Livingstone - A bit of a cheat, since his contribution was made before he was elected as an MP, but the identity politics he pioneered at the GLC in the early-1980s have transformed the country: the loony left became the mainstream.

5. Margaret Thatcher - She may not have achieved many of her goals, but she did persuade the British people that they didn't like socialism. And none of her trade union reforms or privatisations have been reversed, or show any sign of being reversed.

6. Enoch Powell - Nearly fifty years after he was sacked from the Conservative front bench, his obsessions with free-markets, British sovereignty, Europe, immigration - all deeply unfashionable at the time - continue to dominate the political agenda.

7. Clement Attlee - Since William Beveridge was never elected, he doesn't get on this list, so Attlee's here in his stead as the man who presided over the implementation of the Beveridge reforms. And because Attlee's government also gave us National Parks and a decent Town and Country Planning Act.

8. Harold Macmillan - The break-up of the empire was inevitable, but Macmillan's 'wind of change' attitude helped ensure it happened with relatively little violence.

9. John Major - The much maligned Citizens' Charter emphasised users rather than providers in public services, which will be a great idea when it kicks in. He also takes the credit for initiating the Northern Ireland peace process.

10. Tony Blair - The massive, unprecedented increase in immigration during Blair's government is still in the process of transforming Britain.

Others who made this list at one time or another during my long cogitations included Gerry Adams, Alex Salmond and a brace of Tory chancellors - Anthony Barber and Nigel Lawson - who screwed up the economy.

And then there's Tony Benn, the man who gave us colour television, post codes and commemorative postage stamps; he also introduced the concept of the referendum and, by changing the Labour Party constitution, inadvertently and ironically strengthened the leadership. But since he's best known for his socialist message, which is now conspicuous by its complete absence from the political agenda, he doesn't make the cut.

Of the present crop, the only one I think might make it onto this list in the future is Iain Duncan Smith, if his benefit reforms last. (Of course this should have been Frank Field, but Tony Blair and Gordon Brown chickened out.)

Saturday, 11 April 2015

I'd like to help you, son...

In an earlier blog post, I showed a graph that, amongst other things, illustrated the decline in turnout in elections since the heady days of, er, 1832. Consistently low turnout is primarily a problem of the last two decades (ever since Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, coincidentally), and is particularly associated with the young.

So the chart below shows the general elections since 1970, the first one for which the voting age was lowered from twenty-one to eighteen, with figures for turnout amongst the young (in orange) and the old (in green):

The message is clear. Turnout in the over-65 age group has remained almost unchanged for forty years. Even in 2001, in an election whose result had been blindingly obvious for four years, 70 per cent of pensioners cast their votes. What's changed is the level of voting in the 18-24 age group. There was always a differential, but starting in 1997, this grew alarmingly. According to these estimates, 74 per cent of old voters turned out in 2005, and barely half that - just 38 per cent - of the young.

And, of course, during this period the number of old people has increased, while the young are less likely to be registered in the first place.

Maybe this is changing again. In 2010 over half of young people registered to vote did go to the polling booths, and perhaps the gap will narrow again this time. But it does feel to me like there's a longer term issue here. And it's one that plays into that decline of representative democracy I mentioned previously: the system is failing.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Where's Willie?

In November 1990, the Conservative MP Emma Nicholson asked Brian Griffiths, the head of the policy unit at 10 Downing Street, to pass on a message to Margaret Thatcher. The message was that Nicholson would not be supporting the prime minister in the forthcoming leadership election, in which she was being challenged by Michael Heseltine.

Griffiths's response to this request was one of genuine surprise: 'Are you telling me that this election actually matters?'

At the same time, a loyalist MP, Alan Clark, went to see Peter Morrison, the 'noted pederast' who was running Thatcher's election campaign, and found him fast asleep and 'sozzled' at three o'clock in the afternoon.

The Conservative Party often struggles to tell the difference between confidence and complacency. There are times when it works: Harold Macmillan exuded self-contentment to great effect as prime minister. And then there are times - such as the fall of Thatcher - when it all goes very wrong indeed. The current campaign is beginning to look as though it might fall into the latter category.

Obviously the key message is meant to be steady-as-she-goes. And perhaps the strategists are thinking that, with nearly four weeks to go, they don't want to peak too early. But some sign of life would be sensible.

We all know that this election isn't about policy (it's the greatest cliche in modern politics, but there really is very little to choose between what the two main parties would actually do in government). We all know as well, however, that it's part of the game to try to catch the eye of the media - and maybe even the electorate.

And so far, I'm struggling to remember what the Tories have come up with. There was something reported on Radio 5 Live with the curious phrasing: 'Primary school children who fail their SATS will have to retake them under a Conservative government.' Which raised the image of five years of Labour government, after which a new Tory administration would summon back 16-year-olds for their re-sits. And that's about all that sticks with me. Oh, and they want to do something about internet porn.

Meanwhile David Cameron's lack of preparation for his TV appearances seems to have continued. His campaigning style brings to mind Willie Whitelaw's great comment about Harold Wilson 'going round the country stirring up apathy'.

But then, as Thatcher rightly pointed out, every prime minister needs a Willie.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Polly and the Non-Doms

I like Polly Toynbee. In my book A Classless Society, I celebrated her 1995 article in the aftermath of the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day, when she chided the British nation for being so obsessed with the past on 8 May that it forgot to make anything of Europe Day on 9 May. Leave aside that nonsense about defeating Nazism, she urged us, and get on with celebrating the EU. To be charitable, let's assume it was satire.

Her latest piece in the Guardian is a little less frivolous. She argues that the Labour Party's commitment to (sort of) abolishing the non-domiciled tax category may prove to be as 'totemic' as Margaret Thatcher's policy of selling council houses to their tenants. Whether the commitment (if enacted) would raise any revenue is irrelevant: 'The message, not the money, is what matters.'

I think she's right. This is a purely symbolic gesture. And I suspect it may play very well, possibly even among those Labour voters who are being tempted toward Ukip.

But what is the message that Ed Miliband is sending out with this announcement? According to Toynbee, it represents, along with the 'mansion' tax and the 50 per cent tax rate, a 'significant break with New Labour's contamination, infatuation and fear of the super-rich'.

And that seems to me to be a bit of a letdown. If even Labour's friends (and I believe that Toynbee is presently a friend of the Party) can only spin this as being an exorcism of New Labour ghosts, that doesn't really fit into the category of 'totemic policies that announce what a party stands for'. Rather, it's negative; it announces what Miliband is against, not what he's for. And what he's against, says Toynbee, is Tony Blair. Which is as a good way of uniting the nation as any, but is a slightly odd approach to take for the leader of the Labour Party.

A decent policy, but not one that feels like it's in the same class as council-house sales. More like Blair's own attack on Clause Four, though a bit later in the day.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

The slow death of representative democracy

This is a graph showing the number of votes cast in every general election since the Reform Act of 1932 (that's the blue line), together with the size of the electorate (the red line):

The growing gap between the two lines obviously represents declining turnout in elections. Which is something of a concern. In 2010 somewhere around 35 per cent of the registered electorate (that's well over fifteen million people) didn't vote. And beyond them, of course, are the millions who aren't even registered in the first place.

Nonetheless, this was a slight improvement on the previous election in 2005, when Tony Blair's Labour Party won 55 per cent of the seats in the Commons, despite securing the support of just under 22 per cent of the electorate.

More than this, though, I think the graph illustrates another - less discussed and more troubling - aspect of our politics. The electoral system simply wasn't designed for this many voters. In 1832 the electorate numbered around 1.2 million; now it's over 45 million.

Or, to put it another way, in 1832 an MP represented on average 1,787 voters. Today it's 70,160 voters. In the former case, there's a reasonable possibility that you can make your views known to your representative; in the latter, there isn't.

Marxists used to point out that quantity transforms quality. We now have a completely different concept of government from the one that was originally envisaged. And, judging by the turnout, and by the general lack of belief that politics is capable of changing the country, this is a system that is clearly not working.

As Peter Mandelson (himself a former Marxist) said in 1998: 'It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is slowly coming to an end.'

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Plus ca change

'The rules were precise and invariable. Money attracted money, accumulating always in the same places, going by preference to the scoundrel and the mediocre. When, by an inscrutable exception, it heaped up in the coffers of a rich man who not a miser nor a murderer, it stood idle, incapable of becoming a force for good, however charitable the hands that administered it. One might say it was angry at having arrived in the wrong place, and avenged itself by going into a voluntary paralysis when possessed by one who was neither a swindler nor an ass...

'But it reached its real height of monstrosity when, concealing its identity under an assumed name, it called itself capital. Then its action was not limited to individual incitement of theft and murder, but extended to the entire human race. With one word capital decided monopolies, erected banks, cornered necessities and, if it wished, caused thousands of human beings to starve to death.'

- from Joris-Karl Huysmans, La-Bas (1891)

Monday, 6 April 2015

Election predictions

This is, according to David Cameron, the most important election in a generation. And, according to all commentators, it's the most unpredictable election since 1945.

The first claim is simply wrong, at least in the sense that Cameron means. The second is undeniably true. But that merely invites the making of predictions. There's no fun in predicting the inevitable; much more entertaining to commit oneself when there's every chance of being completely wrong. So, to launch this new incarnation of my blog, here is my prediction for the result of the forthcoming election:

There will be a Conservative government with a small majority.

And some more predictions... After the election, things get really interesting. That Conservative majority will wither on the vine in the heat of the EU referendum, and Ukip - having won fewer than five seats in the election - will blossom, fed by a steady stream of Tory defectors. And that will skew the balance of power within Ukip towards Douglas Carswell and away from Paul Nuttall, to the ultimate detriment of the party's fortunes. The defections will sufficiently panic the Conservatives that when Cameron steps down (having won the referendum), they will opt for Boris Johnson as leader, thereby ensuring that they lose the subsequent election.

Meanwhile, the Labour Party will decide it ought to have a woman as leader, and will choose Rachel Reeves over Yvette Cooper, thereby ensuring that they also lose the subsequent election.

Also choosing a new leader will be the Liberal Democrats. They won't perform disastrously in the election (though they'll win fewer seats than the SNP), but - finding they're not needed in government - they will go for a change anyway. The new leader will be Tim Farron, thereby ensuring that they do rather well in the subsequent election.

PS I would like to point out that on the day of the 2001 general election, I correctly predicted - against all conventional wisdom - that Iain Duncan Smith would take over as Tory leader. Since then, however, I've been wrong on almost every occasion. So if any of this turns out to be correct, I'll be trumpeting it for years to come.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

(Dawning of a) New Era

After a long break from blogging (following technical troubles too dull to discuss), I've now started this new bog. My previous version, Omniana, is available here.