» Tories ¦ What You Can Get Away With

Via Gareth Epps, and also reported here, it looks like there’s even more evidence building up to show how George Osborne’s ‘shares for rights’ (or employee ownership, to give the official name) is going to cause a lot more problems than it solves. (Indeed, I’m not sure that it’s solving any actual problems)

I’ve concentrated before on the issues this could have for people at the lower end of the pay scale – those likely to be forced to give up employment protection in exchange for a bunch of shares that could well turn out to be worthless when they’re dismissed. The reports today look at the higher end of the scale, where the up to £50,000 in shares that people can take in exchange for their rights could well be a very useful way for them to dodge Capital Gains Tax. This could cost up to £1bn in lost tax revenue, with the report pointing out that this would become part of regular ‘tax planning’ for accountants. Is this the real reason for pushing this in the face of so much opposition? Finding a new tax dodge for the rich?

As Gareth says:

This presents Liberal Democrats, who have been queuing up to rubbish Osborne’s plans too, with a dilemma. Should they hasten the demise of this unloved piece of legislation? Or should they indulge in a spectator sport, as the Beecroft-lite plan is attacked from every angle until even Osborne himself admits it makes no sense?

In the longer game of Coalition engagement and disengagement, there is actually much to be said for the latter approach. The Bill of which shares for rights is part has a long way to go through Parliament, and while it would be sensible for Liberal Democrats to formally signal the party’s view of it, there is potentially more to be gained for leaving this dogma-driven plan hanging out to dry.

That seems like a good idea, but the problem is that this also has the BIS Department’s fingerprints all over it – maybe even more so than the Treasury – and both Vince Cable and Jo Swinson have given support for it. Any attacks on it are going to be targeted at Liberal Democrat ministers as much as they are at George Osborne, and we’ll be just as associated with it. Letting it carry on through Parliament could give it an irresistible momentum to pass – especially if it’s tied in with other proposals – and we should be working to kill it off as quickly as possible.

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It’s amazing how far you can go with funny hair and the ability to say ‘cripes!’ isn’t it? For a start, you can get straight past the Telegraph sub-editors and fact-checkers and bring out this little nugget of non-information:

a new building like the Shard needs four times as much juice as the entire town of Colchester

Yes, that’s right. According to the Mayor of London, who’d you expect to know even a vague something about these things, the Shard – a building that will hold around 8,000 residents and workers when it’s full – needs four times as much power to run as Colchester – a town of 100,000+ inhabitants that includes one of the Army’s largest garrisons. Bur according to Boris, the Shard needs 4 times that much power, which means that every person who uses it would be using 50 times as much power as their equivalent here in Colchester.

Somehow, unless the Shard was the winner of the little-publicised ‘build the least energy-efficient building in the history of humanity’ contest, this doesn’t seem very likely. Let’s see what Renzo Piano, the building’s architect, has to say about how much power it will use:

“It’s a very old dream of mine, this idea of making a building like a little town,” Piano says. “So when people say, oh but it’s going to use up so much energy, it’s not true. An actual town of 8,000 people [the Shard's projected number of occupants] would use up five times as much energy. This is why the Shard is the shape it is. The higher up you go, so the functions change, and you need less floor space, until you get to the very top, and there I just wanted the building to kind of mingle in the air. It’s important that it breathes up there – that it breathes in the clouds.”

So, Boris is not just wrong, he’s wrong by a factor of 250. Rather than use fifty times the power of the average Colcestrian, a person in the Shard will be using about one-fifth.

Now, this might seem just like Boris getting his hyperbole wrong again and I shouldn’t worry about it because he’s got funny hair, but this non-factoid is in the first paragraph of his Telegraph piece for a reason. Because of the huge demand for power he says there’ll be from buildings like the Shard, we have to abandon all our scruples and join the fracking dash for gas. There’s no time to worry about the potential impacts of extracting shale gas – or even whether it’s techologically or economically viable – we have to be rushing to feed the beast of reckless consumption, even if it doesn’t actually exist.

In his rush to grab evidence to try and bolster a weak argument, Boris has failed to notice that the Shard actually punctures it. Renzo Piano has designed a building that anticipates energy shortages by using less power, rather than cracking up the juice on everything and hoping that the payment cheque will clear before the building’s inundated by rising sea levels. Surely the Mayor of London should be trumpeting how forward-looking his city is to create such an efficient building, rather than making up figures to argue for pumping even more CO2 into the atmosphere?

(Original links from Zelo Street, who also point out the flaws in the arguments Boris makes for shale gas and fracking)

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Back in September, I explained my reasons for wanting to see an end to the coalition, and nothing I’ve seen politically in the last three months has caused me to change my mind on that issue.

One of the reasons I gave for wanting to see it end was that “the coalition’s no longer about trying to come up with a joint policy programme, but about horse-trading and threats”. I think this trend is perfectly exemplified in this story, where the Tories in government were supposedly negotiating with Liberal Democrats while also raising funds from donors to stop it from happening.

While this is just one incident, it’s a symptom of how this coalition is failing. For a coalition to work, there has to be mutual trust between the parties involved. No matter how closely the parties want to show they are in public, there will always be disagreements in private that have to be resolved in some way. However, you can’t expect disputes to be resolved if one party is not coming to the table in good faith and pretending to negotiate over something they’ve got no intention of conceding on and, indeed, are actively working against.

However, as I also wrote about in September, this is a trap the Liberal Democrats fall into when we commit to the ‘we have to show that coalition works‘ line. If one party is resolutely wedded to not leaving the negotiating table in any circumstances, then it encourages the other to not play fair – there’s no need for them to build a relationship of trust with their partner, as breaking that trust doesn’t lead to any penalties.

As I’ve argued before, there’s plenty of evidence from across the UK and across the world to show that coalitions can work, so to claim that we have to stick in government regardless to prove they can isn’t strong leadership, it’s reflective of an unwillingness to make a wider argument. (Yet again, it’s the crippling belief that only what happens in Westminster is important in British politics) A single-party government can fail (see 1992-97 for an example), but that doesn’t mean that all single-party administrations are doomed to failure. In the same vein, the argument can be made that coalitions can work, but that the bad faith of the Tories has made this one unworkable. Just as one couple getting divorced doesn’t mean all marriages are doomed to fail, one coalition ending because one party to it is wedded to an unsuccessful economic dogma does not mean that all coalitions will end the same way.

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Various people were buzzing this morning thanks to this story in the Telegraph where UKIP treasurer Stuart Wheeler talks about people he’s had lunch with recently. With this, and the bizarre ‘Sarah Teather’s about to join Labour’ rumour that went round last week, it seems we’re in a new silly season, probably caused when everyone got confused by an MP going on a televised holiday to Australia in November.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, MPs crossing the floor is something that’s happened very rarely in modern times. (See here for a list) They also tend to happen as surprises, because negotiations about defection take place in secret, not with the full blast of publicity. I don’t doubt that Stuart Wheeler has had lunch with Tory MPs, and he might even have floated the idea of them joining UKIP at those lunches, but equally those MPs might well have thought that they were doing their bit for the Conservative Party and trying to lure him back. If UKIP had one Tory MP close to defecting to them, let alone eight, they’d be keeping very quiet about it until it was a done deal. Making noise about it seems to be more about attempting to drum up some interest and make Tory backbenchers restless, rather than a signal of imminent defections.

Indeed, one might want to ask what a Tory MP would get out of switching? The prize the Tory anti-Europeans appear to be seeking at the moment is an electoral pact with UKIP, and if that deal seems possible – and Nigel Farage appears to be indicating that if the Tories defenestrate David Cameron, he might be open to it – why would you defect to a party that’s going to step aside to give a free run to the one you’ve just left? (Though there’s an interesting question about how much impact a pact like that would have – see Anthony Wells’ latest piece for more on that) Defections tend to take place between competing parties, not ones that are seeking to come to an accommodation.

From UKIP’s perspective, there’s also what you could call the Kilroy factor to be aware of too. They got lots of headlines from Robert Kilroy-Silk joining the party in 2004, but the subsequent turmoil caused by his belief that he was the biggest fish in a very small pond damaged the party. UKIP may want MPs, but do they want ones who’ll get lots more publicity than the rest of the party and try to mould the party around them?

I wouldn’t be that surprised to see a Tory MP switch to UKIP at some point in this Parliament, but like many defections, it’ll likely be someone disaffected (and possibly deselected), rather than some mass ideological walkout. They’ll continue to woo Tory MPs, but any actual defection will likely come after a period of silence, not a PR blitz.

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Two interesting stories from recent weeks that show what a couple of Secretaries of State think of it:

From last month, Michael Gove wants more powers to change how schools are run, to stop people having their say over what happens to their local school.

And today, Eric Pickles has started threatening councils that don’t do what he tells them with cuts to their funding. It’s about waste collections this time, but who knows what hoops he might make councils jump through for funding in the future?

As someone once said, while talking about something other than localism: You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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There’s been much joking recently about how part of the wake of the presidential election would be a wave of ‘why the US election means we must support my politics’ columns and blog posts. Lo and behold, you can probably find one on most comment sites in the country, but I wasn’t expecting David Cameron to jump on the bandwagon.

He made clear that the Tory right, which is putting pressure on him to campaign on more traditional Conservative themes, should take note of Obama’s success. “I believe that elections are won in the common ground – the centre ground,” Cameron said. “That is where you need to be, arguing about the things that matter to most people – that is making sure they can find a good job, they can build a good life for themselves, that if people work hard and try to get on you are behind them and helping them. That is the message loud and clear from this election as it is from all elections. You win elections in the mainstream.”

The hard right in the US and the UK share a common theme. Namely, that all electoral failure by right-wing candidates has one common cause – not being right-wing enough – and therefore, one common solution – being more right-wing. (The basic principle seems to have been taken from the hard left sometime in the 1980s) Although it manifests itself differently because of the differing media cultures in the two countries – there’s no Fox News or conservative talk radio in the UK, no Telegraph, Mail or Conservative Home in the US – the principle is the same: a right-wing echo chamber proclaiming that success comes only through ideological purity.

The problem is that the promise is false. In the US, right wing talk radio (as exemplified by Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the like) began its rise from around 1989-90 after the Fairness Doctrine was revoked by the FCC. Since then, the Republicans have won the national popular vote in just one presidential election – 2004. In comparison, the advent of the British right began after the fall of Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Since then, Tory leaders have been regularly informed that the path to success lies in going further and farther to the right than Thatcher ever did, and they’ve had a similar sort of electoral success – one majority election victory in 1992, and one plurality of seats and votes in 2010. After William ‘save the Pound’ Hague and Michael ‘are you thinking what we’re thinking?’ Howard, the Tories only got some measure of success when Cameron started shifting them towards the centre.

One interesting dilemma that this does pose is that the call of the hard right can deliver some electoral success, though not in major elections. In the US, they have often delivered electoral successes in the midterms (1994 and 2010 are probably the best elections) and over here, UKIP have been successful in European elections. However, the link there is that these are low-turnout elections, and while the right may be good at getting their people out to vote for these, any effect they have is swamped when moderate voters come out to vote in the major elections.

That’s why, just this once, I agree with David Cameron. Salvation for the Tories doesn’t lie in them flying headlong to the siren call of the Tea Party. Their influence comes from the fact that they’re more organised and better funded than the moderates, not from their electoral sway.

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Two bits of news about the business of Government that have caught my attention over the last few days.

The quad has become the sextet – As we’ve come to see over the past couple of years, a lot of the real decisions about the direction of the Government are being taken by the ‘quad': David Cameron, George Osbourne, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander. That’s now expanded include David Laws and Oliver Letwin.
Philip Hammond is pushing on with Trident replacement contracts – The ‘main gate’ decision isn’t meant to be taken until 2016, but work is still being undertaken as though that’s already been decided. Institutional inertia, anyone?

I’ve linked these stories because they both highlight something important about this government that I don’t see being talked about much, possibly because we’ve all internalized the belief that no one wants to talk about process stories. I’m usually inclined to agree, but the problem can be to assume that process and policy aren’t strongly linkes. Sure, in Government they can’t exist without each other, but we must not forget that the way the process is structured can effect the policy as it works through the system. (I had a whole lot of analogies here, none of which worked)

Nick Harvey’s removal from the MoD without a Liberal Democrat replacement coming in for him has already sparked off lots of discussion about the Trident review and replacement and today’s announcement is just a small part of that. The key point here, though, is that there’s now no longer someone like Nick Harvey fighting that corner in the MoD day to day. Clegg and Alexander are supposedly overseeing the issue, but that’s different from actually having a minister in there – overseers tend to only get to see what the process spits out at the end, when what’s needed here is someone to influence it a long time before final reports are made.

This is why I think the recent reshuffle is going to cause lots of issues further down the line as the implications of it are felt. As well as Liberal Democrats leaving certain areas behind, it also saw the Tories shift rightwards, and the additions to the quad make it look unlikely that it’s going to provide any brake to that tendency. The quad determines what does and doesn’t get done in government, what each party is willing to trade off with the other and for what. The Liberal Democrat members of it have an important job to do in not just keeping government running smoothly, but in understanding and representing what the party will and will not accept. Unfortunately, adding David Laws to it doesn’t instil much confidence in me that the party’s full range of views are going to be reflected. Adding in another member of the party ‘right’, someone ideologically closer to the Tories than many others in the party, seems to me to be a strategic error.

If we’re really seeking to act as a handbrake on the Tories, why is the centre of political gravity on the quad so far to the right? The quad might just be a process within government, but the decisions it makes – explicitly or implicitly – have an ideological effect on what policies get pushed through the system. Yet again, too much is being conceded to the Tories before proper discussions even start, and we know where that’s led us before.

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