Sunday, May 29, 2011

NHS Reform and The Evil Market Boogyman

There is no doubt that the government's proposed NHS reforms have proven to be controversial. Originally backed by Lib Dems, Andrew Lansley has now lost their backing as the party descends into panic mode after the poor local election results. Without the support of the Lib Dems the reforms stand little chance of getting on the statute book.

It seems the main sticking point for the Lib Dems is the extent to which the market will play a role in the provisioning of a free-at-the-point-of-use service.

But, what is this evil market that is threatening our fantastically efficient and effective NHS, in the minds of the left anyway? If you read the Guardian or watch the BBC you'll be under the impression it is some kind of malign mechanism that is designed to sap whatever is good out of anything that comes into contact with it. A diabolical agent of the right wing, whose only purpose is to destroy the NHS and replace it with a US style health care system, where only the rich can afford decent treatment and the poor will be left to die in agony on the streets (because they'd have sold their homes to pay for what inadequate treatment that could pay for).

It suites those on the left, the statist planners and advocates of entrenched public sector interest, to characterise the market as a thing, a device, usually portrayed as an ideological paragon at the heart of the plans of frothing mouth right wingers hell bent on suppressing the poor and enriching their banker mates in the city. But, if you haven't already dismissed this as ridiculous (genuinely) idealogical nonsense, think on a bit more.

What is "the market"? It is nothing more than the choices made by you, me, our neighbours, their friends and family, in fact everyone. It's not an extraneous body with an agenda of it's own. Why shouldn't our needs as patients be put at the heart of our health service?

In Britain we have come to expect a free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system. There are some powerful moral arguments for it and it appeals to our sense of fairness, that everyone, regardless of ability to pay, should receive the best healthcare available. We call the system the National Health Service and we are all very attached to the concept. And quite right too.

Free at the point of use it maybe, but cost free it certainly isn't. The cost to all us tax payers runs to over £100 billion a year. It has the income of a small nation but with the burden of expectations of a very large, complex and demanding one. As multiple reports over the years prove (including this one), the NHS is neither efficient or effective in delivering the standard of care we expect. As someone who has had a love one almost die of malnutrition on an NHS ward, I know for a fact that reform is needed.

The model we use currently is predominantly based on services being delivered by state owned entities and staff. New Labour's early reforming zeal attempted to introduce a more modern and competitive environment but met the same seemingly immovable forces of self interest in the form of public sector unions and others, such as the doctors' union, the BMA, who mobilised to scare the general public and the Prime Minister of the day into believing change was too risky. Old Labour fifth columnists like Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband made sure these voices were heard and moved to scupper all subsequent attempts at reform that threatened their friends and party funders and (as they saw it) loyal Labour voters in the public sector. Sadly, history may be repeating, with Cameron replacing Blair and Clegg replacing Brown. Cameron may not be worried about upsetting Labour voters in the public sector but he is worried about re-contaminating the Tory brand with the poisonous idea, no matter how untrue, that he wants to privatise the NHS.

So, we're spending enormous sums on an organisation built on the 1940's concept that centralised state planning and provision is the only way to provide a national health service free at the point of use. This approach has failed to deliver consistently excellent service as expected. There's been much tinkering at the edges to attempt to improve things but nothing that has been in any way adequate. And now the money's running out. David Cameron is committed to maintaining real terms funding and is avoiding real NHS budget cuts. However, after a decade of fiscal incontinence that has seen the NHS's budget more than double, the organisation has lumbered from poor productivity to worse. Some, politically motivated performance targets have been met (especially around elective appointments) at the expense of professional medical judgement in many cases and overall quality of care has dropped.

What's needed is choice. For example, GPs should be able to assess the performance of local care providers and send patients to the most appropriate one dependent on their needs. If that happens to be a private outfit rather than a public one, so be it. As far as the patient is concerned, it is free. The only difference would be quality. Where appropriate the patient should be provided with adequate information to be able to make informed decisions of their own about where and how they are treated.

I think the proposals have been rushed out and not communicated to key stakeholders in healthcare or to he general public very well. Taking time to pause and refocus is sensible. But, if the reforms are watered down or delayed until the next parliament we will merely end up with an organisation that has grown to rely on massive year on year budget increases to achieve bare minimum standards, if even that at times, facing the prospect of budget increases at barely inflation levels only. It won't know how to adapt. Services will be cut instead of unnecessary bureaucracy, productivity will carry on falling, outcomes will continue to lag behind international standards, cost efficient prevention will still play second fiddle to expensive cure etc etc.

Those that oppose the market playing a larger roll in the provision of healthcare are opposing the NHS becoming more responsive to our actual needs. They prefer to promote their ideological belief that only the state can provide adequate healthcare, despite all the evidence to the contrary.

All that patients care about is that their treatment is of the highest possible quality and free. Who provides it is irrelevant.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Cameron's Dead Pool

I was going to write a post on the growing need for a cabinet reshuffle where I planned to list the cabinet ministers in the frame to be dropped or moved. However, the excellent Fraser Nelson has done just that in his Coffee House blog. Have a read here: Cameron should cleanse his Cabinet of the undead

Fraser lists includes the same names I has in mind. Here's the list with my reasons for believing they may be in the frame for a move or the boot:
  • Chris Huhne - for (allegedly) attempting to avoid speeding penalty points, (allegedly) fiddling his election expenses and disrespecting his cabinet colleagues and party leader
  • Ken Clarke - for being more liberal than the Lib Dems on crime and his appallingly clumsy interview re rape
  • Vince Cable - self obsessed egotist, too tribal for coalition (with the Tories anyway), enjoys attempting to impress young female consistency surgery visitors with injudicious boasts about his political virility, failing to impress the business community he's supposed to be supporting
  • Andrew Lansley - ambitious NHS reforms not convincing key stakeholders or the general public
  • Caroline Spelman - trees
I don't necessarily believe all the above deserve the order of the boot but they are probably all feeling more than a tad insecure. For example, Andrew Lansley deserves to see his NHS reforms through. Assuming the Lib Dems don't totally eviscerate the proposals. However, politically he has failed as he has not sold the proposals effectively and so he could be blamed for any resulting damage to them.

The hysteria surrounding Ken Clarke's clumsy comments on rape overshadow a generally poor performance in convincing people his plans regarding crime and punishment are little more than an attempt to reduce the prison population and save money. It's not fair but people believe he is doing little more than continuing Labour's shocking policies that led to the release of thousands of prisoners early. There is more to it than that, but he's not done enough to convince people.

Similarly, Caroline Spelman failed to sell the forestry reforms and came a cropper on the branches of public opinion, that had been much more effectively influenced by left wing groups like the online campaigning site 38 Degrees.

I considered including the sieve like Liam Fox. His courting of the Tory right (through leaking stories that will appeal to them) looks suspiciously like an attempt to build a power base to challenge Cameron. But God knows the coalition needs reminding from time to time that pandering to the left of the Liberal Democrats is not a long term option and that there is a much more significant constituency with broader popular appeal at the other end of the political spectrum.

As for Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, the charge sheet against them is much more serious (especially in Huhne's case). But sacking them is also much more tricky for Cameron who has to juggle the sensitivities of his coalition partners. But act he must. While he rightly dislikes the idea of constantly changing cabinet personnel, as the previous administration was so keen on doing, he has tolerated a little bit too much from some like Huhne and Cable. Failure to punish ineffective ministers may also lead others to relax and lose the drive that they had when they were first elevated to office.

Cameron's administration is a highly ambitious one and needs highly effective ministers to successfully carry through its reform agenda before the administration's political capital runs out.

Driving Miss Pricey?

In an extraordinary development in the Chris Huhne/Vicky Pryce divorce wrangle over whether Huhne got Pryce, his then wife, to accept his penalty points for a speeding offence, I read in The Sunday Times (£) that Huhne is to admit to police that "he can’t say he definitely wasn’t driving. He doesn’t remember what he did that day. He hasn’t got a diary about whether he drove or not".

This is fair enough. The driving offence occurred back in 2003. But presumably, police have a record of penalty points being issued on his car. Points which were then accepted by his wife. If this is the case then Huhne (who continues to deny he got his wife to illegally accept his points) must have discussed the penalty with his wife, agreed she was driving and completed the relevant forms to reallocate it. This process would have been somewhat more memorable.

Considering the one undeniable fact is that his car was caught speeding that night, if he was confident he was in the right surely it follows, as revenge follows adultery, that he would not have asked his wife to accept the points had he been driving that day. To now admit to not being sure whether he was driving is to admit that he may indeed have asked his wife to accept his points illegally. A significant weakening of his confident denials in the past few days.

The same Sunday Times report also highlights how Huhne's supporters are reduced to attempting to convince Pryce to withdraw her allegation because "If what she wanted was to ruin him, or really ruin him, it’s job done now. It’s time for her to save herself now," and how one of his own children (who was privy to the arrangement) could testify against him. This all paints a picture of a man who inspires distrust and disloyalty in those he goes into partnership with. It shouldn't be a surprise given his antics during the AV referendum campaign when he thought nothing of accusing his coalition partners of being liars and Nazi style propagandists when he could see the thing he wanted slipping out of his reach. After that there can be little trust in him from his Tory coalition partners. And after this affair it seems trust is ebbing away from even his Lib Dem colleagues.

If I were David Cameron I would be preparing to jettison the minister as doubts about his conduct continue to grow and his support begins to collapse. Getting rid of a member of your Coalition partner's party from a Cabinet position is not as straight forward as sacking one of your own of course. But Cameron needs to put his foot down with Clegg and agree an exit strategy for the beleaguered Energy Secretary.

If proven, it may seem a harsh price to pay for what many people might consider to be a minor transgression (albeit a criminal one); a transgression many others may have committed themselves when their driving licences were at risk following a driving offence. But a) it IS a criminal offence and as a cabinet minister it is unacceptable b) his confident denials and assurances to Clegg and Cameron will show him up as being untrustworthy and a liability to the government.


On top of the above. It's been alleged that another female confidante of Huhne also took points for him (Telegraph).

Two former Lib Dem councillors have lodged a complaint with the Electoral Commission regarding Huhne's general election expenses saying that he made a "false declaration". (BBC News)

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is Liam Fox A Tory Version Of Chris Huhne?

I read the The Times (£) that Liam Fox has been opposing Cameron's commitment to enshrine in law the maintenance of a foreign aid budget at 0.7% of Gross National Income.

The defence minister's thoughts on the subject were exposed via the familiar (to him anyway) medium of the leaked letter. Yes, surprise, surprise, this isn't the first time a letter has been leaked that relates to a subject in which Dr Fox takes a starkly different point of view to the Prime Minister, a point of view that would appeal to the Tory right and boost his reputation as a more authentic voice for the party as a whole.

So is Liam Fox to the Conservative party what Chris Huhne is to the Liberal Democrats? Well, I don't know how reckless a driver he is but it certainly looks like he shares the same deluded ambition to be leader. He markedly described Cameron recently only as a "good coalition Prime Minister". He also seems keen to court the right wing of his party in the same way a Huhne is courting the left of his.

Now, I've got a lot of time for Foxy and his dogged defence of the Defence Budget but I can't see him as a credible leader of the party. Regardless of whether he has a point on the overseas aid budget, he would do better to leave the over-ambitious, internecine behaviour to the likes of the increasing pointless Huhne.

The timing of this leak seems odd though. After the successful elections and referendum Cameron is in the strongest position he's been in as leader than ever before. Fox would do well to apply the breaks and play a longer game. If he can tame his drive for the top spot, others may be more likely to accept his points.


I've just read James Kirkup's blog on the subject. He makes some interesting observations including asking how much insubordination can Cameron tolerate before he starts to look weak. He's allowed Huhne and Cable to get away with it. Now it's a Tory can he afford to turn the other cheek? But if he doesn't and sacks Fox (an unlikely prospect in the short term perhaps) Tory backbenchers will be justifiably angry at the inconsistent treatment of Lib Dem and Tory ministers expressing dissent.

I spotted this in The Telegraph, made me chuckle:

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Spending Cuts In Context And The North/South Divide

A report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) tomorrow will expose the true extent of the Coalition's cuts.

It will point out that analysis of figures from the OECD reveal that the UK is cutting public spending LESS than the European average over the next 2 years. And this despite the fact that public spending increased far more sharply in this country than other major economies during the recession years.

This report is just further evidence of the myth being propagated that this country is being put through some kind of especially draconian state spending squeeze. Fraser Nelson's Coffee House blog analysis further proves the point. Fraser demonstrates with the graph below how Osborne isn't even cutting as hard or as quickly as Labour did the time they bankrupted the economy before last.

Indeed, projected spending in most departments is expected to increase by 2014/15 compared with 2009/10.

Worryingly, the CEBR report highlights that the economy in regions like the northwest, northeast, Wales and Northern Ireland will still be dominated by the public sector where it will still account for over 50% in 2015, after the spending cuts have been implemented. So we will still have large parts of our country where the sector of the economy that contributes tax income is smaller than the part that consumes it.

Of course, Ed Balls, seeing a report that undermines his economic "master plan", has already begun to spin it in his favour. It is obvious that public spending cuts will affect areas with the highest public spending the most. But rather than address the questions this report raises about his economic strategy, he prefers to point to the obvious fact that proportionately, northern areas dominated by the public sector will see bigger affects of the cuts. He ignores the government's plans to assist private enterprise in these areas so they can take up the slack and instead claims the government is attempting to exacerbate the north/south divide.

Expect a lot more of this kind of spin from Labour and the left generally. Attempts to revitalise regions of the UK to make them less dependent on the dead hand of the state will be portrayed as typical Tory attacks on traditional Labour voting areas. Labour's fear being that once freed from the employ of and dependancy on the state people there will take a more independent view when they vote. God forbid.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Muscular Liberal Democrats?

They are threatening the NHS reforms and last night they teamed up with Labour and cross bench peers to reject the central plank of the Government's police reform bill in the Lords. The Liberal Democrats have interpreted their poor results in last Thursday's elections as a message from the voters to distance themselves from the Tories and return to opposing policy rather than providing leadership.

Nick Clegg says his party needs to be more muscular in the coalition. If their opposition to the police reforms in the Lords is a taste of things to come we could be seeing the reforming zeal of this government coming to a disappointing end.

That would be a real shame and a real missed opportunity for Nick Clegg's party to show leadership and prove they're more than just a third party of opposition that exists primarily as a repository for the protest votes of disenchanted supporters of the other two mainstream parties.

My view is that the Lib Dems have the potential to replace an increasingly left leaning Labour party and be a genuine alternative to the Tories. But they have to demonstrate courage, fortitude and vision to earn that position. I also suspect there are many on the front bench who are rather more comfortable sniping at governments than they are running them.

Clegg may want to bulk up and be more "muscular" with his coalition colleagues but he should remember that steroids can help increase muscles size at the expense of shrivelling up other parts of the body.

If the Lib Dems flex their steroid boosted muscles and gut the reforming agenda the government has embarked on, they will show they have muscle but no balls.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Could Cable Be To Cameron What Brown Was To Blair? highlights analysis of the parties national share of the vote during Thursday's elections by Rallings & Thrasher. It confirms that the Tories actually had a (slightly) higher vote share than Labour. Given recent opinion polls that regularly gave Labour 6 to 10 point leads, the Tories have got to be pleased with that.

Considering the controversies over the spending cuts, tax rises, the NHS reforms and that the only repository for protest votes against the Con/Lib Dem coalition is Labour, this result is extraordinary and must be very disappointing for Labour. The coalition parties amassed 54% of the votes verses Labour's 37%. It's unsurprising that Lib Dems support dropped significantly from its impressive 2007 level. It is surprising the Tories actually did better than their 2007 result and their 2010. The Lib Dems were always going to have to face up to losing their soft support from the anti-establishment left. Their moderate left of centre support will also be flakey until they are convinced that the path the coalition is taking is correct. That will only happen once the path has been trodden and the results are tangible.

However, if the coalition is to deliver, all parties need to be working together constructively, supportively and with a shared vision of what is to be achieved and how. As I suggested in a previous post, the Lib Dems need to spend less time trying to win back the niche anti-establishment leftists that have abandoned them and try to build support back up from the true centre of British politics (that's a bit more to the right of a significant number of Lib Dem frontbenchers like Cable and Hughes). The aftermath of Thursday's election results has led to a lot of noise from the left of the Lib Dem party suggesting that they need to become more obstructive and demand more policies that would appeal to the supporters they've lost since allying themselves with the Tories. While there is sound logic in Lib Dems maintaining their identity apart from the Tories, I suspect much of this talk exposes good old fashioned anti-Tory feelings that have been painfully suppressed by their originators since the coalition was formed. And it's dangerous talk.

Tony Blair came to power intending to achieve radical reforms that would improve health, education and social cohesion. He failed miserably. Any improvements to public services were achieved through enormous increases in spending with little or no reform whatsoever. The result was ever diminishing returns on the investments. Productivity fell as budgets expanded seemingly inexorably. What improvements there were often proved to be illusory as real world experiences of public services were ignored in favour of managerial performance statistics that just ticked the right boxes for the politicians who started setting priorities instead of, for example, medical, educational or policing professionals. We were told that our young people had never been better educated, but employers were coming across increasing numbers of innumerate and even illiterate school leavers. We were told that our health service was the best in the world thanks to the enormous increases in spending there (it now costs over £100 billion a year). But cases of patients dying of malnutrition in hospital beds increasingly appeared in the media, complaints about uncaring and incompetent treatment increased and health outcomes lagged behind countries who's health services really did provide best in class care.

If there is one lesson this government must learn from the previous administrations it is that reform is the only route to genuine and long lasting improvement. What stopped Blair from achieving his goals? The answer is Brown. More accurately, it was the competing agendas of two camps in the Labour party, the Brownite left and the more reform friendly Blairite modernisers. Brown crippled Blairs reforms and eventually undid many of them. He was all for spending tax payers money but he didn't want to alienate the left of the Labour party by reforming services run and staffed by predominately natural Labour supporters in the public sector; staff who paid their dues to Unions who funded the activities of the Labour party. Indeed Brown thought that by massively increasing the number of people employed by the public sector (incredibly, and disastrously for our economy, to over 50% of the entire country's workforce) that Labour's future would be secured as "turkeys don't vote for Christmas" i.e. they're not likely to vote for the Tories as they believe they will reduce their numbers. In the end many did vote for Christmas and we are about to eat a lot of turkey. But I digress. The point is that, reform is vital, especially in health and education. And now we are finally starting to pay for Labour's largesse there won't be great wads of cash raining down to paper over the cracks that will inevitably appear if cuts are delivered without reform.

The reason the language emanating from the likes of Cable and Hughes is so dangerous is that, if it is listened to and acted upon, the Lib Dems will become the Brownites of the coalition. Hell bent on obstructing reform in order to focus on a subset of their support base that exists (actually existed would be more apt) out on the left wing. Believing, wrongly in my view, that a) they will ever come back and b) that they need them to survive as a real force in British politics. Ed Miliband's Labour is their natural home. Many politically aware leftists who may have once supported the Lib Dems will harbour a deep sense of betrayal as their world view leads them to believe most people agree with them deep down, that there is a "progressive" majority in Britain that's main aim should be to keep the Tories out. We heard Huhne, Mandelson and others describe this view during the AV referendum campaign. These people will not return to voting Lib Dem. Certainly not by the next election anyway.

This politicised view of the people of Britain is wrong. There is no progressive majority who would keep the Tories out for ever if only the Labour and Liberal Democrats got together. It's no coincidence that it was when Yes to AV campaigners started more explicitly describing AV as a way of "stopping the Tories" that their support started to plummet. It was a mistake, not least because AV wouldn't have "stopped the Tories". In fact what voters want to see is a government working with purpose, unity and competence to achieve real improvements, such as fixing the nations finances while improving services. They understand doing both is not easy but expect results none the less.

Those results won't come if Brownite style obstructiveness rears its one eyed grumpy head again within government in the form of Lib Dem attempts to win favour with voters who will never consider them again after they dared to stand with the great Tory Satan. Instead a better option would be to work constructively and supportively in government to deliver real and effective reform that will enable savings to be made in order to address the budget deficit, while entrenching long term improvements to services and avoid or mitigate the cuts short term affects. This will involved challenging policies as they are developed but doesn't include the public wholesale blocking of reform in order to be seen to be an opposition in government. Because if they do that, it won't be long before that's where they'll return, permanently.

If they stick together and make this coalition work, both parties can emerge at the next election and claim their fair share of the successes. Looking back from 2015, Labour will look as irrelevant as they really are in modern Britain. If things go very well there may even be an opportunity to replace Labour as one of the big two.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Winds of Change Are An Opportunitity For The Liberal Democrats

It's been a bad night for the LibDems but it's also been a bad night for Labour who, despite having probably the most favourable climate possible to gain seats against their opponents given the difficult decisions the government has had to make, failed to make the kinds of gains expected. They should have gained well over 1000 seats and that would just have put them back to where they were before their disastrous 2007 local election performance. Starting from a low base, as they were, gave them a chance to make substantial gains. And the Tories, starting from such a high watermark, were widely predicted to lose hundreds, if not over a thousand seats. In the end they actual GAINED seats! On top of all this Labour lost in Scotland and it looks like Ed Miliband has led the Yes To AV campaign to a humiliating defeat as well. The broadcast media have been quick to airbrush his elbowing of Nick Clegg out from the campaign leadership and are focusing on blaming Clegg, which is quite unfair.

So we won't hear much about Labour's woes. Clegg is in the firing line especially from disaffected and deselected members of his party. What with a massive defeat on the AV referendum it will be a dark few days and weeks for the LibDem leader.

There's talk of him playing a "more critical" role in government. I assume by this they mean being more questioning rather than more important. Perhaps they mean both. Either way I think this is the wrong reaction.

Clegg did well to win as much as he did in the Coalition negotiations. His vision and bravery are to be admired and applauded. But he, and his LibDem colleagues, already exert more influence on the agenda and policy than their support in the election justifies. Rather than attempting to distance themselves from the Government they should be proudly promoting what has been achieved via the joint venture. And not in terms of the "Tories would have been a lot worse if it wasn't for us" angle they so often take.

Instead they should look to the future and consider a permanent realignment that reflects where the true centre of British politics now is. Look where they suffered most last night; in the North where they used left wing friendly messages to gain seats; and in college/university towns and cities where students supported them as the anti establishment / anti tuition fee party. To some it may seem logical to readopt or re-emphasise these messages and shift to the left to regain lost support in these areas.

I disagree. The true centre of British politics is to the right of where the LibDems have traditionally pitched themselves. Not a lot to the right but enough to alienate many of the genuine leftists that liked the non-establishment / left wing combination. The reality is that the LibDems are now a party of government. They cannot be anti-establishment any more. So the leftists are left with Labour as a more attractive option.

The elections last night were effectively a hurricane ripping through the LibDems support, knocking down the weak but leaving the strong in place. As in nature, a disaster is often part of a natural cycle. These results blew away the leftist/anti establishment supporters and left the truly centrist supporters intact. I don't believe the LibDems can ever get the old supporters back fully and certainly not without destroying any credibility they will gain from seeing through the agenda of economic and social reform they are now committed to in the coalition.

Instead they should try to build on the new make up of support. Ed Miliband's union backers will be keen to see him take Labour further to the left while he will be keen to keep using language that won't alienate the parties' moderate supporters. The LibDems have an opportunity to expose this deceit and offer themselves up as a more economically credible (having helped fix the nations finances), truly liberal (meaning less authoritarian than Labour, accepting the free market but with a demonstrable social conscience) and, possibly, more libertarian than the Tories. This is one position to take, there are probably several options for realignment. But the important point will be to realign as a real alternative to the Tories and to replace Labour altogether as their main rivals. This would free up the Tory party to offer up a purer idealogical free market, socially conservative position that many of it's member desire and for which there is a demand in the country.

The true left - statist planners, tax and spenders, militant unionists etc, will still have their home in Ed Miliband's Labour party. But the LibDems will represent a much more popular, centrist body of opinion and deservedly replace Labour as one of Britain's top two parties, representing the centre against the Tory right.

It will be a painful transition though. The likes of Huhne and Hughes will not fit into the new order. They want to return to perpetual opposition so they can return to being the representatives of sandal wearing anti-establishment students, hippies, celebs too embarrassed to admit they're really Labour and environmentalists too embarrassed to admit they're really Greens. Ex-leaders will also struggle, having led the party through '97 onwards when there was strong left wing support for the LibDems and of course there's the ex-Labour/SDP members who will struggle. But those that have vision and are long sighted enough will know that they can't ever be more than a third party bit part players if they continue to compete for the ever decreasing left wing constituency.

There is no left of centre (or progressive as they like to call themselves) majority in this country. Most people don't align themselves on the left or right at all. They want to see clarity of thought, competent economic management, honesty and have confidence their politicians are working in the national interest. If Nick Clegg can keep his party whole heartedly committed to the economic rescue package and the public services reform agenda being pursued by the coalition, in four years time he can rightly claim his fair share of credit for it and make a credible claim that his party is a true party of government when the next election comes around. If they start playing silly buggers by disrupting business and attempting to show they're still great oppositionists - that is where they will return, permanently - to the opposition benches where, sadly quite a few of their current MPs are more comfortable.

And now there's a threat of Scottish independence with the SNP in power in Scotland. Scotland is a massive left wing counter balance to the naturally right of centre England. Removing them from Westminster elections will further decrease the scope for success of left leaning parties in England, Wales and Northern Ireland only elections. Scottish independence is far from certain but if it happened it would make a realignment of British politics essential.The LibDems would be in an even stronger position if they had already made the move.

So, through all the gloom and depression, Liberal Democrats with vision and ambition to play a full and responsible role in the country's future should dispel from their minds the myth of the existence of a "progressive" majority in the country and look to their future representing the real political centre, even though such a shift will be painful. The party is already feeling the pain of losing many of their harder left wing supporters. The process of transition would be even more painful as they lost activists and some big names as well. But worth it in the long run as they gained new supporters from the moderate left and right and eventually overtook Labour just as Labour overtook the Liberals at the beginning of the last century when Labour adopted a more relevant agenda that voters actually wanted at the time. Labour have long since lost their raison d'etre and, with a weak leader, are ripe for picking off at the next election.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Why I'm AVing None Of It

The nation votes on Tomorrow to decide if it wants to switch to the Alternative Vote (AV) electoral system for choosing future governments. Our current First Past The Post system (FPTP) is definitely creaking under the strain of changing voting habits and many of our politicians look out of touch and, in extreme cases, downright corrupt. So a vote for change is a no-brainer, surely? I don't believe it is. This is a change that will fix none of the issues we face with our politics and could, potentially make some worse. 

The nation votes tomorrow. It votes across England to select local councillors, there's a by-election in Leicester South and mayoral elections in Leicester, Middlesbrough, Mansfield, Bedford and Torbay. It votes in Scotland in the Scottish Parliamentary elections. Scottish council elections had to be delayed there because of confusion caused the last time they combined parliament and local elections (and that is WITH voting machines in use!). In Wales, the National Assembly elections are taking place. And in Northern Ireland there's Assembly elections and local council elections.

Oh, and then there's the trifling matter of a proposal to change our electoral system to use the Alternative Vote system.

Anybody who has been following the Yes and No campaigns who didn't know where they stood before they kicked off will now be completely baffled, annoyed and turned off. As a result many won't vote, which is a shame because this is a very important decision. The last thing this country needs is to make a major constitutional change based on a small turnout. But that is a distinct possibility.

I will be voting and be voting No. My main reason for rejecting the proposal is that the case for change has not been made. Most of the claims made for AV by the Yes campaign have no solid evidence to back them up. They are based on poorly thought through theoretical arguments and are almost entirely focused on the election process for each individual MP. Notice how little Yes refer to the national effects of AV. When they do they make misleading statements about parties winning power with less than 50% of the national vote. This situation will not be resolved with AV in the slightest. If anything, AV can deliver even greater disproportionate results. Electing MPs with over 50% of the vote does not translate into Governments being elected with over 50% of MPs in parliament.

The Yes campaign has attempted to discredit its opponents by calling them liars, dinosaurs, idiots and, of course, Tories [queue Labour supporters suggesting the latter is just an amalgam of all the former!]. It's for others to decide whether I'm an idiot, a dinosaur or a liar but I can confirm I vote Conservative. AH! HA!.. banged to rights. Stop reading, my views are worthless now. Of course I'm against AV; it would be like a turkey voting for Christmas, wouldn't it? Well no. Actually it wouldn't. I don't subscribe to the Huhne/Mandleson doctrine that AV would be especially bad for the Tories. It would benefit the LibDems, certainly, in the short term as they would benefit from most peoples' 2nd preferences. But I actually think it will damage them in the long term as the two main parties move even closer together than they are now and completely dominate the centre ground that is the natural habitat of the LibDem. AV could lead to LibDems needing to enter into a permanent coalition agreement with one of the two parties to survive. Something that happened with the Liberal and National parties in Australia shortly after AV was introduced there. 

The most worrying aspect of the Yes campaign has been the unrealistic expectations it has set for AV in the public's mind, should they be successful.

AV will increase voter participation 
There's no evidence in other countries (well the three that have it) that this is the case. Part of the case made here is that AV reduces (or eliminates, as Yes campaigners often claim) the need for tactical voting. This is true (the reduction is true, not the elimination) with regard to the first, primary vote. However, AV allows you to state 2nd, 3rd and more preferences. This is where the tactical voting takes place. Tactical voting isn't eliminated it's formalised.  Huhne's (and other pro-AV campaigners') claims that AV is an anti-Tory system proves that point. They believe AV will encourage preferential anti-Tory voting (i.e. I like the LibDems so I'll vote for them, but they can't win here so I'll place the party most likely to beat the Tory as my 2nd preference etc). I don't believe the Tories will be the only victims of this kind of tactical voting, many left wing supporters of AV are deluding themselves if they believe they will not be victims when they are unpopular. However, under AV voters will be encouraged to vote tactically by parties, just as they are in Australia, who hand out voting advice cards that show them how to vote most effectively for their primary choice.

FPTP disenfranchises large numbers of voters

Those thinking that FPTP disenfranchises large numbers of voters and causes widespread tactical voting to compensate, should note that only 16% of people voted tactically in the last election. The idea that a vote for a losing party is a wasted vote is nonsensical. People look at the parties/candidates on offer and choose the party/candidate that most reflects their own values and opinions. Some (a very small number) choose to vote negatively, if their preferred party is unelectable in their constituency, to block a party they've taken a particular dislike to. That's fair enough. But AV doesn't stop that behaviour. And just because your political opinions aren't shared by many people in your constituency doesn't mean you have been disenfranchised or that the system should allow you to change your vote if your candidate is knocked out so that you can switch from your positive choice to a tactical 2nd/3rd preference.

Switching to AV is about fairness and not an attempt to stitch elections up for one faction or another

Huhne's talk of AV being about beating the Tories seems to be a big mistake as the Yes poll rating have collapsed since. The idea that a system will benefit the left or "progressive alliance" as he likes to call it against the right is not an attractive reason for people to vote for the change. They've gone public with their deluded belief now and the cat is out of the bag.

Talking of cats. This is the best pro-AV video I've seen. Not least due to its Goebbelesque effectiveness in getting the message across using cute little kitties as metaphors and avoiding hard facts, and any political talk that so turns off the general public. It even alludes to the Huhme delusion that the left would have been in power if only it wasn't split by multiple parties up against one united right wing party - Note the Dog sporting a top hat vs a number of cute kitties. Again, AV does nothing to stop this even if it was true but it can't hurt to entice some more lefties to vote Yes, can it?!

AV will make MPs work harder and be more honest because it eliminates/reduces safe seats.
This is utter nonsense (in the words of Professor John Curtice, expert in Electoral Reform and Elections at Strathclyde University). AV will make some marginal seats a bit more marginal, and may even make some seats (especially Lib Dem seats, even safer due to the "middle party 2nd preference effect"). So some close seats will change hands but most will remain as they are. Also, analysis of expenses that had to be paid back by MPs shows that there was no correlation between the safeness of a seat and the abuse of expenses that went on in 2009. So even if you choose to believe the claim that AV significantly reduces the number of safe seats, it would make no difference to MPs behaviour whatsoever. I believe there are real reforms that could be implement that would make our government and parliament more effective and responsive - but AV wouldn't play any part in them. 

MPs are elected with more than 50% of the Vote
Firstly there's the technical fact that this won't necessarily always be the case as not all voters will rank all available candidates and so many will be "disenfranchised" because their vote won't count when their candidate/s are knocked out. But what worth is a candidate with over 50% if that threshold was crossed thanks to non-primary votes? Any candidate that finished 2nd or 3rd on primary votes but ends up winning because they received more 2nd/3rd preference votes would be seen as a 2nd choice MP, less legitimate than parliamentary colleagues who win on primary votes alone.

If AV is good enough to elect the party leaders, it's good enough for the people to elect a government.
The Liberal Democrats and Labour do use AV but the Conservatives don't. The Conservatives have a similar system in that involves multi-round voting but they get a chance to vote again after each round. This allows the electorate to compare the remaining candidates and make ever more focused decisions until a winner is found. It's better than AV but completely impracticable for national elections. AV isn't a bad system for electing individuals, but isn't suited for parliamentary elections electing whole governments due to the unpredictable results and it's potential to accentuate landslide results even more than FPTP does currently.

The worst thing about this referendum is that there are serious problems with our democracy: Lack of public engagement in politics; out of touch parliamentarians (as evidenced by the expenses scandal) and an over powerful executive that can ride roughshod over parliament and make major policy mistakes with little effective scrutiny. AV is the solution to precisely none of these problems. It isn't even part of the solution. The tragedy is that so much energy is being burned up debating this irrelevant proposal, that the real issues are out of sight and, regardless of the result, will probably not come into focus again for another generation.

Monday, May 2, 2011

No Complacency For No Campaign As Turn Out Is Crucial
With the referendum a mere two days away many people are writing off the chances of Yes winning. Polls published on Sunday show No have a healthy lead over Yes. There's clearly no appetite in the country for this change but these polls and the constant talk of the no hope Yes campaign is probably the biggest threat that the No campaign faces.

The Yes campaign can easily muster its supporters, many of who have a vested interest in achieving the change. Those that don't and have come to the conclusion that AV is a good idea will still be more motivated to vote than your average voter on council election polling day. It's hard to get excited about voting against something, about maintaining the status quo. Especially when you know there are real problems with politics in this country but don't think the change on offer will do anything to address them. So, if there's one thing the No campaign needs to focus on this week, it's getting its vote out on Thursday.

Nick Clegg knew what he was doing when he insisted on the 5th May as the date for the referendum. He knew there were only local council elections in England, no elections at all in London while important Scottish and Welsh Parliament/Assembly elections would be held, meaning low turn out in England and higher turnouts in Scotland and Wales where he calculated support for AV would be highest. Polls bear this analysis out. Although not to the extent that the Yes camp must have hoped. The problem for the No camp is that failure to get their vote out in England could allow Yes a victory, even if the most populous region of the UK rejects the change. This would seriously damage the integrity of the United Kingdom and lead to even more dissatisfaction with politics in an England that would have had a system it didn't want foisted upon it.

Recent polls suggest there could be a turn out nationally of less than 40% for the referendum. That's not good and would seriously damage the credibility of a Yes decision should that be the outcome. If only 35% of the electorate turns out to vote and 51% of them back this constitutional reform, that leaves 82% of people who either don't want it or weren't convinced enough to go and vote for it. Personally, I don't have any sympathy for the non-voters in elections but I do believe that referendums that propose major constitutional change should require a minimum threshold on turnout to ensure solid popular backing for change. However, I think whoever loses on Thursday should accept the result and never darken our doorsteps again with talk of electoral reform or a return to FPTP. However, a low turnout will create deep unease amongst many and could lead to further expensive reviews, political establishment navel gazing at a time when there are much more important matters for them to be sorting out and even another referendum on an alternative to the Alternative Vote. And that's the last thing anybody wants to see (apart from most of the people behind the Yes campaign, of course, who actually want PR instead).

So, let's hope for a healthy turnout on Thursday, 5th May and a decisive, truly national result.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Rap Music Knows No Bounds - From the NHS to Keynes and Hayek

NHS reform is not the only unlikely subject to have been addressed via the medium of rap music [does that make me sound enough like an out of touch Dad Yes? Good]. Before the MC NxtGen/Unison internet hit was accusing Andrew Lansley of being a "tosser" or a "grey haired manky codger" or having a face that looks like a "shrivelled up ball sack", an altogether more sophisticated attempt had been made at presenting an even heavier subject matter... namely the battle between the Hayek and Keynes schools (or should that be skools?) of thought.

This is "Round 2" I place this first as it's my favourite of the two.

The original rap, posted to YouTube in January 2010 long before
the NHS rap so many thought was so original.

I'm not a trained economist but I think Keynes is often misquoted and often used to justify (and often gets blamed for) economic management that has led to major problems both in the last century and today. These videos show Hayek smacking down every point Keynes makes, although Keynes always ends up looking like the winner. There's a lot of relevance in that today, with deficit deniers demonstrating on our streets for more spending on their special interest groups and talk of the need to maintain state spending to "support the economy". I'm sure Keynes would be rolling in his grave to be associated with much of this talk and to the actions that led us to the predicament we find our national budget in today. These videos probably do him a disservice, but they do illustrate today's big political and economic divide: between the top down, statist planners with their higher taxes and spending and the bottom up, empowering society and individuals with their lowering taxes and lower spending.