2017 General Election Diary Day 34: U-turns, caps and Libertines

Seems I picked the wrong weekend of the campaign to take a break from politics and blogging, as everything appears to have been turned upside down over the last few days. ‘Dementia tax’ went from being the sort of thing you don’t even write on the flipchart when someone suggests it to a Google search term both the Tories and Labour were bidding to advertise on, and meanwhile Donald Trump touched a mysterious glowing orb as part of a ceremony, and Jeremy Corbyn made a surprise appearance at a Libertines gig where he was greeted with acclaim by the thousands of people there.

Yes, I feel like I’ve fallen into a parallel universe too. Apparently we’re in a version of 2017 where not only are the Libertines still a thing, they can also get massive crowds of people along to watch them.

As everyone is fond of pointing out, election wobbles happen to every party in every campaign. Everything up to then has been smooth sailing and easy going, then something comes out of left field – who knew they were going to care that much about one manifesto promise? – and suddenly you’re under pressure, the polls are looking a lot closer than you thought and campaign HQ is inundated with reports of candidates and canvassers being chased down driveways by people saying they’ll never vote for you again. Now, there’s a lot of suggestion that this is essentially meaningless, that campaigns change nothing and elections are decided on fundamental impressions and perceptions decided long before. All campaigns – even Blair in 1997 – have wobbles, they say, and then go on to win and look back at them with a happy nostalgia at their naivety, but we forget that there are an awful lots of campaigns that went on to lose who have similar tales without the rosy tint. If there’s one thing we should have learned from recent years, it’s that politics and public perception can change very very quickly. We don’t know how many hammer blows it takes to knock down a strong and stable wall, but it’s probably not as many as you might think if the first few gentle taps reveal that it’s actually pretty weak and wobbly.

(At present, that final sentence is my entry in the Most Tortured And Painful Metaphor category of this year’s election blogging awards)

And for a question now that may turn out to be oddly prescient in the next Parliament. The Salisbury Convention says that the Lords won’t block any policy that’s in the new Government’s manifesto. What happens if the Government disowned part of that manifesto during the election campaign in favour of something else? (The best answer to that so far involves the Lords killing a cat, and I don’t really wish to find out if there is an official ceremony for doing that somewhere in the bowels of the great uncodified British constitution)

Also from the weekend, here’s the Foreign Secretary being caught out in a lie on national TV:

But don’t worry because the interviewer decides it’s all a bit of laugh and doesn’t go on to press him over it. Maybe if people stopped referring to him by the middle name he only uses for political purposes and went for ‘Mr Johnson’ or ‘Foreign Secretary’ instead, this would stop seeming like a fun little silly game with a comedy character, and serious politics with a man in a position of real power and influence?

For all those who claim that referendums are the settled ‘will of the people’ and can’t be turned over by a mere election manifesto, would you care to explain why the Tories are talking about changing the way the London Mayor and Assembly are elected? They’re actually talking about switching all Mayor and PCC elections to single member plurality systems (the system some refer to as ‘first past the post’ despite it lacking anything that even resembles a winning post), but London’s was agreed as part of the referendum that approved the Mayor and Assembly and overturning the will of the people on Mayoral referendums…is something the Tories have form on, so why are we surprised?

And with things hotting up on the election trail, we now have a decent selection of candidates for Election Leaflet Of The Day, though the winner has to be this one from Lee McCall, independent candidate for Sittingbourne and Sheppey, who has stumbled on an unintentionally creepy slogan. ‘I’m not running for office, I’m running for you!’ he promises his electorate, bringing up the image of him chasing them all over the Isle of Sheppey. It could also work as the closing line of a political-themed rom-com, where the protagonist suddenly realises what’s important in their life and tells them so.

Maybe we all just need to hope in a happy ending. Eighteen days till we find out if we’re getting one…

Bringing American sports to Britain: another unfunded Tory pledge?

Here’s something interesting I noticed in the Tory manifesto over the weekend. In a section headlined ‘We will build on our Olympic and Paralympic legacy’ on page 42, tbere;s a commitment to support elite sports funding along with a list of big events happening in Britain over the next few years and then this:

We will support new sports in the UK, in particular through greater links with the US National Football League, the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball, with the ultimate ambition of new franchises being based here.

It’s curious that this turns up in a section headlined Olympic and Paralympic sport, as only one of those (basketball) is an Olympic sport. They’re also the only new sports mentioned in that section, with no mention of developing any of the other Olympic and Paralympic sports. It feels an odd priority to identify helping major American sports leagues into the UK when talking about ‘new sports’ – not least because there are already long established British leagues in American football, basketball and baseball.

There’s also a question of cost associated with bringing the NFL, NBA or MLB anywhere. While everyone likes to gasp about the huge amounts of money in American sports, a lot of that is supported by government spending, especially on stadiums. The NFL especially is infamous for demanding that cities contribute or pay entirely for new stadiums and new facilities, using the threat of moving teams to cities that are willing to pay to make them cough up. It’s a model where every team is encouraged to demand as much as it can get from its host city, or they’ll decamp and find someone willing to be fleeced, and London’s just the latest city to be waved at others in an effort to make them open their wallets.

Planning to bring an American franchise here is committing to take part in a bidding war with American cities seeking the same thing, with the one willing to give the sweetest deal the victor. It’s another unfunded pledge from the Tories, looking to throw hundreds of millions into attracting already wealthy sports to come here, when that same money could have a revolutionary effect on sports already in Britain. Imagine what it could do for developing women’s sport or para-sport instead of being sunk into enticing someone else?

And I thought Tories didn’t believe in Government picking winners…

2015 General Election Day 17: The Illuminati did not compel me to write this post

We’re two and a half weeks into the Campaign That Never Ends and we’ve finally got the manifestos from the five main parties all published. As I’ve said before, given that the election date was known a long time ago, there’s no real reason why they couldn’t have been released before now, but I’m not a well-paid political consultant who’ll have explained to the party leaderships exactly why it was a good idea to wait this long before releasing their plans for the next five years to the public.

The combined manifestos come to nearly 500 pages in total but the biggest of them by far is the Liberal Democrat one. While the others are all somewhere around 80 pages in different font sizes and designs, this drops in at a quite massive 158 pages, and it’s not using a large font size to achieve that feat. Unfortunately, while it has got lots of good ideas in there, it only gets a Lightfoot Test score of 1 from me, because the policies on the cover annoy me. Don’t get me wrong, I like the idea of extra spending on schools and mental health, as well as the idea of paying less tax – after all, who doesn’t like a government that promises to spend more and tax less? – but when those are coupled with balancing the budget, you’re straying towards the La La Land section of Flip Chart Rick‘s Venn diagram of public spending. Saying ‘cut less than the Conservatives’ shouldn’t be a boast, it’s the minimum commitment for a party that doesn’t want to dismember the state, and these front cover priorities would see other areas cut well beyond the bone to deliver them.

Despite the size, I find myself in the same camp as David Boyle and Ian Dunt in finding it a disappointment. It’s a manifesto of centrist managerialism rather than a liberalism with vision and purpose. The sheer number of policies is impressive – it feels like someone’s trawled through every policy Conference has ever passed – but there’s no vision to link them all together. As David says:

It is a document written to be used in coalition negotiations, and as such it works very well. But it is so hard-headed a document that people may not feel like spending too long in the company of the party which drafted it, for fear that they will start spouting statistics at them.

One wouldn’t want to spend much time in the company of today’s other manifesto, mainly because you’d get very weary of every conversation being steered towards the European Union, regardless of where it started. Yes, it’s the UKIP manifesto, and you’ll not be surprised to find it too scores 1 on the Lightfoot Test, regardless of where you choose to define it as starting to talk about policy. Every page of it is littered with something either stupid or offensive – Paul Nuttall’s photoshopped library on page 28 is a particular favourite in the silly stakes – but I think the most interesting part of UKIP will be watching their reaction after the election. A large number of supporters will be spinning conspiracy theories about how the election was fixed to keep them from winning, while the party’s various factions will finally have the space to coalesce and turn on each other. It’s particularly interesting to note that neither Douglas Carswell nor Mark Reckless were at the manifesto launch today.

Still, there are elements in the manifesto for political theorists to get excited about. The slogan ‘Believe in Britain’ prompts discussion of Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities and asks if the country goes away if we stop believing it. Meanwhile, their proposed question for a Brexit referendum – Do you wish Britain to be a free, independent, sovereign democracy? – could spawn thousands and thousands of words attempting to define the concepts of freedom, independence, sovereignty and democracy in Britain, the world and the 21st century.

Today’s amusing candidate found on Election Leaflets is South Dorset’s Andy Kirkwood, standing for the Movement for Active Democracy. He’s keen to overthrow the modern system of corporate feudalism, and the large number of pyramid images on his leaflet suggests he’s an Illuminati conspiracy theorist. Or maybe he’s actually an Illuminati agent using his slightly odd leaflet with it’s not-quite Comic Sans typeface to discredit those standing against Illuminati control of the world.

As ever, I’ve had a good idea far too late, but maybe for 2020 (or a second election this year) we can form a Discordian Party who won’t actually stand candidates, but merely declare themselves to be MPs in the style of Emperor Norton. ‘We’ve Already Voted For You’ might make a decent slogan, or distributing leaflets with just the word ‘fnord‘ on them and nothing else.

This time tomorrow General Election Leadershout 2 will be coming to an end, and I might have found an answer to the most pressing question: we all know why Cameron’s avoided it, but what does Clegg gain from not being there?

2015 General Election Day 16: After a Tory victory, this blog will be sold off at half price

Another day, another Tory policy announced and ends up spinning off the rails before lunchtime. I’d seen mention of extending Right To Buy to housing associations last night, just after we were getting over the momentary excitement at the thought of Hampstead and Kilburn’s election being delayed then finding out it wasn’t, but even then it seemed like a silly idea. True to form, like just about everything they’ve tried for the last week, it turned out to be full of flaws, but it’s yet to reach the terrible interview stage. Sajid Javid got to be floored by Jo Coburn as their NHS funding pledge unravelled, so who will be asking ‘and how can you force charities to sell assets at below market value?’ and who will be floundering as they attempt to respond?

Two manifestos were out today – the Greens had their launch at 10am, followed by David Cameron releasing the Tory one at 11am. Both of them revealed problems with the Lightfoot Test I introduced yesterday – based on an idea of the late Chris Lightfoot, it’s the page on which I first encounter something offensive or stupid – in that while Labour went straight for policy on the very first page, they fill several pages with pictures and contents pages, thus managing to artificially enlarge their number. So I’m now modifying the scoring system to not include any intentionally policy-free pages to prevent this inflation affecting any comparison of scores. (Labour’s score still remains 1 under this new system)

The Green manifesto is the most information-packed of all the manifestos I’ve seen so far, and there are a lot of policy pledges in there as well as a lot of scene-setting text and background information. The design suffers from putting seemingly random words in italic text throughout which gives the impression of someone emphasising the wrong words throughout. However, it’s a good attempt at using their increased prominence to push the full range of Green policy, and not compromise on it to get to the big time. However, it only gets a Lightfoot Test score of 9 (page 15 of 84 in the full version) as that’s the page they mention banning all genetically modified food, which is rather silly in my view, and also ignores that we’ve been genetically modifying our food (both flora and fauna) since the dawn of humanity, it’s just that in the past few decades we’ve been able to do it with more accuracy.

Still, there are some good bits in there – I’m always going to applaud a party who’ll put Land Value Tax and Basic Income into their manifesto, and the sections on equalities and digital & information rights are very good – and it’s not a manifesto of despair or Gradgrindian bleakness, which makes it all the more annoying when you run into some of the more stereotypical examples of Green thinking.

For a party content to let their inner idiot run freely through the manifesto, however, you need to turn to the Conservatives. You’re probably not going to be surprised that they get a Lightfoot Test score of 1 to match Labour’s. Yes, on the first summary page of policies (page 4 of 83, just before the full page picture of David Cameron’s face to test your strength of will before reading) – which begins with the creepy statement that ‘we have a plan for every stage of your life’ – they feature the Right To Buy for housing associations. But fans of bad ideas will have a field day with this manifesto, as it’s absolutely littered with them.

In short, I’d sum this manifesto up as being both good and Conservative, but the parts that are good are not Conservative, and the parts that are Conservative are not good. There’s plenty of crowing over things that were achieved in Government, but almost all the good ones are Liberal Democrat policies and/or pushed through by Liberal Democrat ministers. Indeed, putting raising tax allowances as one of their lead policies, when David Cameron dismissed it as unaffordable in 2010 is perhaps the defining example of Tory chutzpah.

Moving away from parties with hundreds of candidates, after yesterday’s look at TUSC we head back to Your Next MP’s list of parties fielding candidates and find that next in the list are the SNP, then Plaid Cymru but I think they’re well enough known to not need me writing about them. Instead, we’ll move onto the next in the list – the English Democrats. Unfortunately, the English Democrats still have the odious Steven Uncles standing as one of their candidates. Uncles, for those of you who don’t know, threatened to sue Chris Lightfoot after he said the English Democrats “appear to be some sort of quasi-fascist mob” in the post where he first used the Lightfoot Test, then withdrew the threat after discovering political parties can’t sue for libel. All pretty silly, but then after Chris’s death, Steven Uncles made some pretty horrific comments about him, and for such time as the English Democrats remain associated with a nasty character like him, that’s all the attention they’re going to get from me.

To finish on a lighter note, I have to thank Richard in the comments on an earlier post for drawing my attention to another bit of candidate nominative determinism. The Green Party candidate in Forest of Dean is James Greenwood, combining party and constituency in a single surname. Now, if we can find a few more of those, I might be able to persuade someone to fund a study of whether nominatively determined candidates are more or less successful than others.

And that’s just about it for today except to note that some councils have started sending out postal votes today, so the first votes in the election could well be cast tomorrow. But if you still haven’t registered to vote, you can do it up until Monday by clicking here.

Tory housing policy ditches the Big Society and commits to anti-localism

Back in 2010, the Tories made a big play of how they would transform the country through localism and the Big Society. Localism would free communities from the dead hand of Whitehall controlling everything, while the Big Society would encourage a new era of civic involvement, getting people involved in community organisations, allowing them to really make a difference.

If the first leaks from their 2015 manifesto are anything to go by, both those ideas have been thrown into the bin, which has then been set on fire and the ashes scattered to the four winds to prevent any prospect of them ever coming back together again. Community-based organisations are to be ripped apart by Government policy, while councils will have to follow diktats from the centre in order to raise the money to fund this dismemberment.

Housing associations are private non-profit organisations, generally run by members of the community they’re based in and providing a valuable service in providing social housing. The proposed Tory policy will declare them to be nothing more than another arm of the state, in order to compel them to sell off their housing at below the market rate. Yes, because we’re not suffering enough problems in the housing market thanks to forcing councils to sell their stock off cheaply, they’ll go on to compound the error by doing the same to housing associations. Remember, these aren’t government-owned organisations, and yet the Tories – the usual champions of property rights – seem to see no problem in riding roughshod over someone else’s in pursuit of their policy.

(Of course, this policy won’t apply to other private landlords, and tenants in the private rented sector won’t get any right to buy their homes no matter how long they’ve lived there. Perhaps if Housing Associations were allowed to donate to the Tories, they’d have been exempted from this policy too?)

Even the most barking policy to sell assets off at below market price has a cost, and in order to fund this, they’ve decided to show how much they’ve decided localism was a bad idea by committing to a true policy of anti-localism. Councils are part of the government of the country, but in this era of devolution and localism, one would have thought they would be left alone to run their own affairs. Unfortunately, bad policy trumps principle and so to find the money to pay for housing associations, councils will be told to sell off their most expensive houses. They’ll be able to keep some of the proceeds to build new houses, but only one for each house that has been sold off. The remainder of the money raised by these sales – of assets that were built by local councils for their residents, remember – will be handed over to central government to pay for the costs of housing associations being told to sell their properties off cheaply. Yes, it’s a perfect circle of robbing Peter to pay for the tools that are needed to rob Paul. They’re selling off everything that’s not nailed down in order to pay for the removal of the nails to let them sell what’s left.

As Tom King states, it’s the worst policy of the General Election yet, but we’ve still got the rest of the Tory manifesto to see, and let’s not underestimate how bad the rest of it might be.

2015 General Election Day 15: There’s an old adage about political jokes

Today, I’m starting with an appeal. Many of you who read this blog are Lib Dems, and so I’m hoping that some of you are part of, or know someone who’s involved in, the party’s social media campaign team because I’d like to get a message to them. To the person or people who were responsible for this, I’d like to say stop. Please, in the name of all that’s good and holy, stop. It’s not cool, it’s not clever and most importantly of all, it’s just not funny.

Talking of things that aren’t cool, clever or funny, what’s Michael Gove been up to today? If your answer to that was anything other than ‘turning up to Labour’s manifesto launch accompanied by a bunch of Tory activists in Nicola Sturgeon masks‘ then you’re wrong, but you deserve some points for imagining that a senior member of the Conservative Party would be doing something more constructive with his time. (Whatever it was you were imagining, it would surely be a better use of his time)

Let’s leave hardworking Michael Gove behind and instead turn our attention to the work of looking at Labour’s manifesto for working people. Sorry, it’s hard working to get rid of the working habit of putting the word work into as many working parts of your sentence as possible after the work of reading it. Now, there are many things within this manifesto, not least the crimes against grammar and comprehension one comes to expect from British politics, and there’ll be plenty of pieces elsewhere going through it in microscopic detail. Instead, I’m going to subject this (and the other) manifestos to what I shall call the Lightfoot Test, in tribute to the late Chris Lightfoot’s method of deciding how to vote:

Manifestos are long and policies are complicated. However, in this case it turns out that an even easier approach works: read each manifesto until you encounter something really offensive or stupid, then stop and reject that party. If you ever reach the end of a manifesto, then you should consider voting for that party. (In the unlikely event that you reach the end of more than one manifesto without gagging, then I’d suggest that your moral compass is out of order and you need to fix it.)

In this case, Labour get a Lightfoot Test score of 2, because it was on page 2 of the PDF version that I found a really stupid idea. As Page 1 was the front page, this really is impressive.

No, it wasn’t the Budget Responsibility Lock, which is mainly just silly and bad economics pandering to the media narrative about the deficit, but one of the policies linked to it:

We will legislate to require all major parties to have their manifesto commitments independently audited by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Now, I understand that Labour are smarting over the Chancellor banning the OBR from auditing their manifesto to prove how signed up to the ‘fiscal responsibility’ consensus they are, but this seems a dramatic overreaction to that. Rather than just allowing other parties to make use of the OBR, this will be the Government requiring the Opposition to put their plans through a scrutiny process they control. (The OBR is technically independent, but it’s run by people appointed by the Chancellor) The potential for a Government to abuse that process is huge, and what would be the sanction for parties that choose not to meet this requirement? Would their candidates have to have ‘not approved by OBR’ on the ballot paper?

The whole thing feels very like post-democracy in action, ensuring that parties are locked into a ruling consensus and made to alter their plans to fit the priorities and decisions of the bureaucracy. The idea that an arm of the Government would be required to pre-approve manifestos from those seeking to replace that Government is the sort of thing we’d heavily denounce if it was happening in other countries, and should Labour end up in power I hope this becomes a policy quietly dropped during coalition negotiations.

Quick question: after Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, UKIP and Greens, which group is standing the most candidates? That would be the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) who have 132 candidates (according to Your Next MP) across the country. TUSC emerged from the ‘No2EU’ list Bob Crow and the RMT put together for the 2009 European elections and consider themselves the left-wing alternative to Labour. They are a coalition, not a party, expecting candidates to adhere only to their core policies, but free to run on their own priorities after that. It involves many of the usual suspects of the hard left including the Socialist Party (the one that used to be Militant, not the older SPGB) and everyone’s least-favourite cause-hijackers, the Socialist Workers Party. 132 candidates means £66,000 in deposits being paid to Returning Officers across the country, and I’d expect at least £60,000 of that to be doing its bit to relieve austerity by remaining in local council coffers after the election. The odd TUSC candidate may get success at a local level, but their Parliamentary breakthrough is probably about as far away as their dreams of uniting the Left.

Finally, something interesting but rather distasteful found through Election Leaflets: an anonymous ‘Silent Majority’ leaflet attacking ‘the LibLabCon’ that looks like it’s being delivered in Thanet South. It’s published by something called ‘The Political Reform Society’ which is based in a Northampton PO Box and while it’s not promoting any particular party or individual, the intent of it seems quite clear.

Libellous thoughts

I’m wondering if somewhere in Nick Clegg’s office, there’s a giant Wheel Of Fortune-style spinner, with all the party’s principles, policies and promises written on it. Every so often – around once a month or so – when he gets bored, the wheel gets spun, and whatever comes up is determined as the next big liberal idea to be jettisoned overboard.

The wheel has spun again, and this time it’s libel reform that’s being gutted, because liberty demands that we stand up for the right of big business to silence those who criticise them. No, sorry, that’s not the reason being given for it, as that would involve someone pretending to have a principle, even if it was insane. The stated reason is:

“Unfortunately we are in a Coalition and this was one of those areas where we could not get our Conservative colleagues to agree with us”

In English, that translates as: ‘The Tories wouldn’t budge on this, so we had to’ an idea so crazily flawed, it’s hard to know where to start. As I pointed out last year (here and here) the party has a seriously weakened position in coalition negotiations because the leadership have bound themselves to the ‘we have to show coalitions work’ argument. With the Tories not operating under the same assumptions, the party leadership are continually giving way instead of standing their ground and saying no.

Of course there’s give and take within coalition, but both sides are meant to be doing it, not just one giving and the other taking. Supporting libel reform was featured in the party’s 2010 manifesto, and as there’s no mention of anything like the proposal the MPs are supposedly going to be voting for in the Coalition Agreement, there’s no reason the leadership can’t say ‘sorry, we’re not voting for this.’ It’s not a bill that affects any other part of the Government’s programme, and the party’s MPs should be being urged to support the Defamation Bill, not gut it before it reaches the statute book.

To borrow a metaphor from Geoffrey Howe, the current situation feels like the party leadership have broken their own bats before walking out to the crease, and are then congratulating the bowlers on what a splendid job they’ve done in getting them out.

A manifesto idea: Repeal one, pass one

As we’re at the point of the political cycle where people appear to be demanding what should appear in the party’s manifesto for the next election (current working title: No, You Can’t Have A Pony Because You Didn’t Follow Uncle Vince’s Advice) I thought I’d put forward an idea of my own. It’s liberal, it’s distinctive, and it hopefully wouldn’t cost much, if anything at all:

For every law we pass, we’ll repeal at least one old one.

Picking up on the idea of a Great Repeal Act that Nick Clegg proposed when he was Shadow Home Secretary, it would be a clear statement that we already have enough laws in this country, so if the Government feels it necessary to pass a new one, then at least one old one has to go to make room for it. I don’t think there’s much of a shortage of bad old laws that need to go, and it also allows us to push forward the liberal idea of removing restrictions on people imposed by previous Governments, not adding on more.