Thursday, June 28, 2007

The New Cabinet

Now we've seen the full change in line-up, two themes emerge: "the next generation" and "change in foreign policy stance". The latter has resulted in most of the American papers doing "Brown appoints his cabinet" stories (probably the first time the American papers have covered British cabinet reshuffles).

Here's what Time magazine had to say: The new Foreign Secretary is unlikely to charm any neocons. Skeptical about the war in Iraq, David Miliband also protested in Cabinet last year at the British handling of the conflagration in Lebanon. They also note the appointment of Mark Malloc-Brown as Minister for Africa, Asia and the UN. Mark Malloc-Brown last year criticised the USA for "too much unchecked UN bashing and stereotyping," and added that "the prevailing practice of seeking to use the U.N. almost by stealth as a diplomatic tool while failing to stand up for it against its domestic critics is simply not sustainable." The New York Times takes a similar line, leading on the choice of Foreign Secretary and noting his anti-war concerns. I would say that the Americans have got the "change" message loud and clear, even if some Brits haven't quite twigged what has happened.

The other anti-war appointment of course is John Denham, who honorably resigned over Iraq. He comes back to look after universities and skills.

On the "next generation" theme, we have Jacqui Smith, age 44 as Home Secretary. This is a really bold appointment. Being Home Secretary is no picnic, and giving it to a young woman will please all those who've been irritated that women have hitherto been given "soft" jobs like Culture. David Miliband, aged 41, also represents the new generation as Foreign Secretary. Ed Balls (schools) is 40. Douglas Alexander (international development) and Ruth Kelly (transport) are both 39. James Purnell (culture) and Ed Miliband (cabinet office) are 37.

These are people who came in under New Labour, and represent the future of the Labour party. Under the watchful eye of the experienced Gordon Brown, they are being given their chance to show us what they are made of. Brown is essentially doing what Kinnock did for him and Tony Blair; bringing on the next generation (a duty Blair should have have attended to, but he was too self-absorbed to bother). One of this cohort will emerge as the successor to Brown in six to eight years.

All-in-all I'd say it was a good day's work.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Handover

Well it all went through in text-book fashion. Indeed this transition has been so smooth I believe that future British governments over the next century will be trying to emulate and achieve hand-overs as elegant as this one.

I watched PMQs and thought Blair was a little grave to start with, though he warmed up during the second half when a stereotype Tory (Winterton) and a stereotype LibDem (the guy with the obscure question about the church) popped up. And the standing ovation at the end was poignant. Blair was a star in sheer galactico politics.

Yet one was reminded why a change was needed when we saw the Browns. I think the public will be struck with Mrs Brown in particular (this is probably their first glimpse of her). A more different character to Cherie you couldn't find. People watching the proceedings will have seen Cherie throw her arms out theatrically to embrace the Lady in Waiting who came to greet them at the palace and contrasted that with Mrs Brown's more reticent and normal behavior (I mean does anyone in Britain anywhere greet anyone with their arms flung out?). It's unfashionable to mention this, but spouses matter, whether male or female. You get a glimpse into what sort of person the politician is drawn to, and what sort of person the politician has inspired to love them back. Brown must be a great guy if someone as nice as Mrs Brown loves him.

The slight awkwardness outside No 10 struck an endearing note too. Just five years ago, Brown would have been pilloried over it, you were expected then to be a performer or you were a non-starter. But it's a measure of the change in public mood that people are now inclined to feel touched and reassured by the human awkward unscripted moments. The next decade will be very different from the last, and it's Brown that embodies the change (Cameron with his 1990's script is so last century).

One last thing about Blair's new job as Middle East envoy. People are carping about this. But Blair didn't actually need to take it on. He could have just focused on making a lot of money a la Bill Clinton. The role of Middle East envoy is a horrible thankless job and the chances of failure are very high. So why take it? I think he's doing it because he's seeking Redemption. He's only 54, young in political terms. Suppose he works flat out the next ten years and pulls off a peace initiative, it will then change his final story. It will become the story of a man, who through inexperience and mis-judgement made a mistake over Iraq, and then with very hard-earned knowledge of how war (and civil-war) actually works, tried again and fixed things. He'll be different from the usual envoys who go in with pipedreams about bringing peace and find their illusions shattered. Blair comes at this battle hardened - all his illusions about the middle east are already shattered and all that's left is knowledge about just how difficult it will all be. He may just succeed. I hope he does.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Deputy Leadership

I voted for Johnson, but he got pipped at the post by Harman. Kudos to her for winning against the odds - not easy to pull off at all. She's also very articulate on family issues, and takes apart Tory discrimination towards single parents very well indeed. And kudos to the party organisers who managed to keep the result secret right to the very end (to the extent that Sky news ended up leading with the wrong result).

I understand that Harman will be party Chairman as a result, and am happy with this. I think she'll be a much better Chairman than Blears, who made chirpy comments from time to time, but didn't seem to engage with party members much further.

I wonder who will get the Deputy Prime Minister job - Straw? I guess we'll find out in a couple of days. I must admit to feeling more cheerful than I've done for a couple of years. The whole transition has gone really smoothly, even Michael Portillo referred to it as "elegant". And it seems like the look of the government will change too, with lots of tired faces retiring from the scene. I detect a new cheerfulness among the public too - they were tired of Blair and wanted something different. I think we've read the mood of the country well in how we've conducted this and who we selected for leader.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Lib Dems and Power

According to the Guardian, Gordon Brown was prepared to do the John F Kennedy thing and offer positions in the government to Lib Dems in the House of Lords. Apparently Lord Carlisle was suggested for attorney general, Lord Leslie for something to do with constitutional affairs and Lord Ashdown for position unknown.

While like most Labour people I'd object to LibDems MPs in the Commons being part of the govt, I've no objections to the idea of LibDems in the Lords participating. In particular I think giving the post of Attorney General to someone independent of the government is a splendid idea, and it might safeguard democracy if a precedent could be set for all future governments to appoint an independent non-government-party Attorney General.

It's all got quashed by Ming Campbell under pressure from his own MPs - apparently they want to maintain "ideological purity". Maintaining ideological purity is code for being scared of power exposing them as useless. After all anyone and his dog can carp from the sidelines, but power, with all the responsibilities, contraints and pressures to compromise that it brings, is a difficult thing to deal with. Anyone most certainly can't cope with it.

This might be a moment of truth for the Lib Dems. They've been prattling on about proportional representation - but PR means coalitions. Not only that but being part of a coalition under a PR system is no different to being part of a coalition under the FPTP system - you are still representing the strand of the population that voted for you. So if they are scared of coalitions, they'd be scared of them under PR too, and we'd simply end up with a succession of unstable minority Labour or Tory governments. Perhaps this is the time for the LibDems to ditch PR and endorse FPTP, which at least guarantees that they will never take power and allows them to navel gaze to their heart's content.

As for Gordon Brown, he can say to the electorate, look I tried to be inclusive but they weren't interested. And therefore a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted vote. Of course there are non-Labour people who arn't LibDems. If I was him, I'd still look for an independent attorney general, there must be someone on the cross-benches who qualifies.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Economic Perceptions

I'm of the firm belief that the Labour party's fortunes are tied to the economy, and that when voters are alone in the polling booth, economics trumps all other considerations no matter what they tell the pollsters. So it is worth looking how people perceive their own personal financial situation is doing.

YouGov asks the question "How do you think the financial situation of your household will change in the next 12 months", every two months. Unfortunately their figures don't go further back than Jan 2003, but there is still enough to tell an interesting story.

Get Better Stay Same Get Worse Don't Know
Jan 2003 21 31 47 1
Apr 2003 17 28 53 2
Jan 2004 21 31 47 2
Mar 2004 19 31 48 3
May 2005 23 34 37 6
Nov 2005 18 33 44 5
Mar 2006 21 31 44 5
Nov 2006 21 32 43 5
Mar 2007 24 30 44 4
May 2007 23 35 38 4

The important figure is those saying things will Get Worse.
Some of those who say things will Get Better or Stay the Same will give the government credit, but most will just pocket the benefit. Those who think things will Get Worse however, are highly motivated to kick the government.

It's notable that people were most pessimistic in April 2003, when the Iraq war had started, and the FTSE had reached a low of 3287 in the previous month (March 2003), down from 6900 in December 1999. But by the time of the general election in 2005, the Get Worse figure has dropped 16 points from the April 2003 figure (the FTSE had recovered, housing was going well, and unemployment was 4.5%).

During the grumpy 2006 period, the Get Worse figure climbs, but the May 2007 poll, which was done after Blair announced he would step down (fieldwork done 21-23 May), shows a return to roughly where we were in May 2005, during the general election. Note that this improvement came despite interest rates rising, though it's worth noting that electricity and gas bill have fallen in this period. To me this improvement in the economic polling indicates that voters actively associate Gordon Brown with prosperity. They feel that while Blair's priorities have been foreign policy, Brown's will always be the economy.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Schools, selection, and all that stuff

I thought it might be worth looking at the whole schools thing from another angle. I've been re-reading Freakonomics by Steven D Levitt and in particular his chapter on Parenting (chapter 5 page 148), where he tries to work out which behaviours and decisions make a difference to a child's success or failure in life.

He cites a very interesting study done on the Chicago Public School System. From 1980 onwards, primary school children could apply to enter any Chicago High School they wanted (as opposed to going to the school nearest their home). The choice is huge (more than sixty high schools within the Chicago system to choose from), and hence the take-up rate is high - about half of CPS students opted out of their neighbourhood school. Because it was impossible for every child to go to the best school, CPS resorts to a lottery. If you decide to opt out of your neighbourhood school, you pick your school of choice and your name is entered in a lottery - and you either get in or you don't based on the lottery. The choice plus lottery system makes it ideal to test whether there is an advantage to going to a "better" school or not.

Here's the interesting thing: the data shows that the students who won the lottery and went to a "better" school did no better than equivalent students who lost the lottery and were left behind in their neighbourhood school. They gained no academic benefit from going to a better school and those who got left behind in the neighbourhood school did not suffer from any supposed brain drain either. However, the students who entered the lottery in the first place were more likely to graduate than the students who didn't, regardless of which school they ended up in.

Conclusion: the parents and students who enter the lottery tend to be smarter and more motivated to begin with (that's why they are trying for a better school in the first place) and this motivation is what affects the academic outcome, regardless of school. i.e. it's the parents that make the difference, not the school.

Which suggests that New Labour is on the right track with it's emphasis on parenting classes, and trying to intervene early so that ignorant parents don't pass on bad behaviours and neglect onto their children. Good parenting is a skill, and though people are supposed to have learnt this from their own parents, some in the underclass haven't (which is why they are in the underclass). If only parents on the sink estates realised that all they have to do is make sure their children eat properly, do two hours of study at home each night, and then go to sleep on time so they get their rest, and they will do well in school. How well you do in exams is correlated with the amount of time you spend studying, and no matter how brilliant your teachers, you will fail if your parent does not insist you put in the study time. Instead too many neglect their children and let them hang around outside late at night, getting tired and wasting their time. The world in 2007 is very different from that of 1907 or even 1957, most (though not all) class barriers have been smashed - all you have to do is get good GCSE's and A Levels and you are on your way to a decent job and good life.

Friday, June 01, 2007

Tory U-Turns

Latest U-Turn from the Tories - first " we will not promote the opening of new ones" (Osborne) and now they are going to allow new grammars to be built.

This is the latest in a series of U-Turns. Cameron was going to leave the EPP within six months - now it's been postponed indefinitely while they wait the approval of some minor Czech party for the formation of a new group sometime in the future.

He was going to assert his authority on candidate selection by imposing an "A-list" - then under pressure he produced a B-list (or whatever they called it) and then abandoned the lists altogether and let the local party associations to do what they'd been doing before Cameron came along.

He was going to put a windmill on his house - and then abandoned it a week later, when he found he was foul of the planning rules.

All these have a common theme - he says things purely for PR effect and it never once occurs to him to check if his ideas are feasible, practical and can actually be implemented. i.e. he has none of the skills required for government which is all about making sure your plans are feasible, practical and can be actually be implemented.

Alastair Campbell once said that he thought Cameron was actually trying to do his job rather than Blair's or Brown's. There is truth in this. Why on earth didn't Cameron apply for the post of communications director for the Tories, rather than party leader/leader of the opposition, which requires somewhat more substantial skills?