Wednesday, February 27, 2008


I'm currently reading Gavin Esler's 1997 book, The United States of Anger which brilliantly records the maelstrom of forces building up in that country (and which we now know led to George W Bush and all he stands for). I was particularly struck by a passage about the 1996 general election:

"Outside a polling station in Arlington, Virginia, voters were waiting in a 200-yard-long line to vote... The line moved so slowly everyone was forced to wait for more than an hour to vote, on a workday, in a society which values hard work above all.

... The Arlington crowd was patient and polite, many voters reading books brought for the occasion. A family friend said she waited for more than an hour and then left without voting because she had to pick up her children. Others told of horrible problems working through the entire gargantuan ballot paper, spending twenty minutes in the voting booth, in some areas electing everyone from the president and senator to members of Congress, governors, local representatives, county commissioners, sheriffs, judges and dogcatchers."

Turnout in that 1996 election was just 48% - imagine what would have happened if it had reached French levels of over 85%+.

Esler concludes that the Americans suffer from over-democracy and are over-governed. Paradoxically making voters spend so much time electing so many officials weakens democracy, because some voters can't afford the many hours it takes to vote, and some would-be politicians can't afford the many months they must devote just to fund-raising in order to be heard. Thus potential voters and potential politicians drop out of the system, leaving it in the hands of the activists and extremists.

This is an important point, because from time to time people here think, if only we could have referendums on everything, if only we could have primaries, if only we could elect sheriffs etc, life in Britain would improve. They imagine that voters will be so enthusiastic about all the extra voting that voter-participation would rise, when the evidence from America shows it will probably go down.

In most of England you elect your council, you elect your MEP and you elect your government (who double as your representative in the Council of Ministers), and you delegate to them the power to appoint other officials, and you are in and out of the polling station in five minutes. It's a good system. Participating in democracy doesn't cost a lot of time, and democracy doesn't cost too much money either (compared to the Americans), which means we have money to spend on other things.

It's no accident that when the Berlin wall fell, the fledgling eastern european countries followed in the footsteps of the ex-colonial countries and opted for the type of parliamentary democracies you see across Europe (and of course the parliamentary system was invented in Britain). The US constitutional experts who had hot-footed east hoping to persuade the newbies to copy the American system (and earn fat fees setting it up), were bitterly disappointed. But if they'd thought for a moment, they'd have realised that only daft people would willingly choose a system like the American one.

This November the US turnout will be much higher than in previous years - but only because a toxic combination of Hurricane Katrina, economic woes and Iraq has made Americans desperate. People are so desperate that some will willingly queue for the entire day to vote and get their new saviour into office. I only hope that the polling officials lay out enough polling booths to accomodate them, else we'll have the tragedy of citizens willing to do their bit and the system letting them down.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Santos of the West Wing was modelled on Obama

Hat-tip to Tom Freeman who says that the scriptwriters of the West Wing have confirmed that they modelled the character of Matt Santos on Barack Obama:

"I drew inspiration from him in drawing this character," West Wing writer and producer Eli Attie told the Guardian. "When I had to write, Obama was just appearing on the national scene. He had done a great speech at the convention [which nominated John Kerry] and people were beginning to talk about him."

Art taking inspiration from life and then predicting it! The only difference between Obama and Santos is that Santos is married to a traditional American who shares his universalist views. Obama's big weakness is his wife Michelle who appears not to.

The secret attraction of Obama is that his world-view is colour-blind and neutral. Listen to his speeches, they are very universalist. Anyone can relate to them, whether you are from Britain, Germany, America, Kenya or the Phillipines. This is backed up by his biography: Kansas mother, Kenyan father, Asian-American half-sister and born and raised in Hawaii, that friendly mixed and exotic out-post of America. This is the melting pot embodied in one family.

Michelle Obama however is culturally African-American in a way Obama is not. All her speeches (which you can see on You Tube) are full of the anger, grievances and victimhood of black America, that are completely absent from Barack Obama's speeches. She doesn't address any other community in America, and gives the impression that without her husband's family connections to white America and asian America, she wouldn't bother with these people at all. Of course black Americans have been victims, but they are also only 13% of the US population. Anyone in the White House has to do the Nelson Mandela forgiveness thing and include the other 87% in their new world. Obama gets this but I'm not sure his wife does. The Obama campaign would be wise to ask her to keep a very low profile, especially as the Republicans have a history of attacking the wife when they can't attack the candidate, as Hillary can attest.

Speaking of Hillary - it looks like she will graciously step aside if she doesn't do well in Ohio and Texas. Her stock has risen during this campaign - it's clear she's the better Clinton, not just intelligent, but calm, disciplined and gracious where Bill is self-indulgent, self-absorbed and impulsive. It was the Bill-the-spouse that scuppered her campaign. If Obama gets elected, I hope he offers Hillary a place on the Supreme Court. It will serve the Republicans right. They plagued the Clintons, determined to try to overturn the 1996 election result, and to attack them beyond endurance. What would be better justice than for them to have to bear Hillary in the court for the next thirty years?

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

A surge in tax revenue

The FT reports that we've received a surge in tax revenue this January. Income tax receipts were 15% higher than in Jan 2007 and corporate tax receipts were 23% higher than in Jan 2007. January is the period when businesses pay one quarter of their taxes, and when individuals who complete their self-assessment forms pay what they owe to the revenue. In addition, the ONS had to revise down their estimate of government spending (the govt has been keeping a very tight rein on this as public sector workers will attest). All of which is good news for the public finances.

The thing to understand about tax is that people only pay it on profits or income earned, and only after they've exhausted their allowances (and everybody checks their allowances avidly). If you don't have a job or don't make a profit, you don't pay tax. Tax revenues are therefore a very good gauge of how well the economy is doing, because no one has any incentive to pretend they earn/have made more profits than they actually have, because then they pay more tax. The surge in tax revenue proves that the period 2006/7 was a very good one for UK plc and the corporate tax shows 2007/8 is pretty good too.

The question is what happens in 2008/9. It's still not clear to what extent American problems will affect the UK. The financial sector has tightened their lending criteria quite sharply, but on the other hand employment continues to rise and unemployment continues to drop. The claimant count has been falling for 16 consecutive months and was 794,600 in Jan 2008, which is the lowest since June 1975. The number of economically inactive people also continues to drop (those classed as economically inactive are students, housewives, people who've retired early, the unemployed and the disabled). In order for there to be a proper blowout in the property sector, you either need massive oversupply or massive unemployment. We have neither.

In a way all the economic doom and gloom in the newspapers might actually be to Labour's benefit. It lowers expectations and if it makes people take advantage of the good job situation to earn more and put their financial affairs in order, it should stand us in good stead in the rest of the year, and if we guide the country through this patch, the results will contrast sharply with the darkness of the expectations.

The Tories have been prancing about town trying to claim the country is experiencing a return to the 1970's. Of course no-one wants to see a return to the 70's - or the 80's with it's grim recessions. The Tories electoral message is "it's a return to the 70's, therefore the country needs to elect the Tories". Of course the corollary to that is "if it's not a return to the 70's, then why elect the Tories?" Especially if it is clear that they can't even tell the difference between the dark period of the 70's and 80's and the conditions in this new Labour century. If we weather this storm even while the USA struggles, it will be the second worldwide slump New Labour has seen off (the first being the world recession of 2001). If we go into the next election with twelve consecutive years of growth under our belts Labour deserves to be re-elected - according to the Tories.

Friday, February 08, 2008

LibDems signal support for Tories

Very significant article in the FT where they say the following:

Nick Clegg says his Liberal Democrats could support a minority Conservative government after the next election, if David Cameron proposes genuinely “liberal” reforms in areas such as civil liberties, public service reform and the environment.

.........Mr Clegg’s legislative shopping list is remarkably similar to the priorities identified by Mr Cameron’s team for his first Queen’s Speech. They include a focus on civil liberties, education reforms, the environment and more local decision-making.

In other words, the Lib Dems have decided they are a match for the Tories, and Labour should expect the two of them to do a deal in the event of a Hung Parliament. This is HUGE. It completely turns on it's head the politics leading up to the 1997 general election, where Labour supporters voted LibDem in places where the LibDems were second to the Tories, or in the lead, with the explicit reason of "keeping the Tories out".

In these areas the LibDems originally gained ground in the 1980's when they were the Alliance, and voters who weren't Tories but couldn't bear Old Labour went to the third party. However Michael Foot, Militant and Old Labour have long been consigned to the dustbin of history. There was no reason for Labour voters to continue to vote LibDem except simply convenience and expedience in that the Labour party in the run-up to 1997 didn't want to spend a lot of time reclaiming these constituencies, preferring instead to concentrate their fire-power on Labour-Tory fights.

The new LibDem-Tory coalition changes everything. What on earth is the point of Labour voters tactically voting LibDem if it results in a Tory government? It underlines again how politics is changing. Not only new generations with new ideas coming through, but old coalitions and old tactics being made redundant.

This LibDem overture to the Tories has been coming a while now, and it is a relief that they've made it public. At least we now know where we stand. Labour activists in Labour-Tory marginals should take a screen-print of the FT article and put it on their leaflets. Especially if they are in those constituencies that the Tories won from Labour in 2005 without increasing their vote at all, because some Labour voters switched to LibDem. Ditto if Labour are up against LibDems either in general or local elections. And the Labour party need to start making plans to reclaim those areas we left to the LibDems and Tories, not least because Labour voters in those spots are now disenfranchised.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

What does the Obama phenomenon tell us about the coming changes in our world?

What an exciting night in the US primaries. Mrs Clinton seems to have held her own in the populous New York, New Jersey, Massachussets and California despite wall-to-wall Obama mania in the press combined with attacks on her. A tough woman. But Obama did really well too, cleaning up the mid-west and north-west and taking more states than Mrs Clinton.

Even if Mrs Clinton wins the nomination and becomes President, it is clear that something very important is happening in the USA and it is personified by Obama. In my last post I wrote about the shifts that occur when new generations come of age. Obama is sort of the left-wing marker that Barry Goldwater was for the right-wing in 1964. It's important to remember that the Boomers, born 1946 to 1960, did not vote for John F Kennedy. They were too young to vote for him, he was just before their time. Their first insurgent election was 1964, when they supported Goldwater. They were far too few in 1964 to make a difference - but the Goldwater phenomenon was realised with Reagan in the 80's when the Boomers had come of age in sufficient numbers to dominate.

Obama is a similar marker of the views of a new generation. The Millenials in the US are really keen on voting, they trend leftwards and seem quite civic minded - they can't bear torture, they are quite internationalist and are thinking about universal health-care, a big shift for the US. And we are at the early stages of this phenomenon - the US Millenial generation is very big (twice the size of Generation X) and only about eight years of this generation is currently old enough to vote - we won't see their full power till about 2018, when lots more of them come of age. This is a very exciting and important change and we will experience it this side of the Atlantic too.

The UK Millenial generation is much smaller than the US one, but they are still bigger than our Generation X. They also seem to be trending leftwards and it remains to be seen what effect this has. It's quite possible they will move politics in general and the Labour party leftwards slightly, because while the cynical non-ideological Gen X demanded pragmatism, triangulation and steady economics from their politics (which New Labour duly supplied), the Millenials seem to be more interested in fairness, civics, human rights, citizens rights. The good news is that polls show this generation is trending left, they believe in government, regulation and the welfare state and are internationalist, so it will be difficult for "smaller-state" conservatives to win them over - indeed polls show that most Tory support currently comes from the 50+ Boomer generation who seem nostalgic for the 1980's. The Tory hatred of the Human Rights Act, Europe and the world, doesn't chime with the Millenials either.

We live in very interesting times because I believe the Labour party will need to reinvent itself again - possibly into Civic Labour and shed the authoritarian impulses that we've inherited from Blair. And we need to do this before 2012 at the latest, or the Lib Dems will move into this space. People like Caroline Flint need to take note - times are a-changing and pandering to the Daily Mail won't cut it anymore, as the Mail represents the Boomer generation whose influence is waning.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Generational Shifts

The Washington post has a very interesting article on how the changing tempers of different generations have changed America. The authors contend that every 40 years a "civic" generation follows an "idealist" generation in the USA, and that this pattern goes back to 1828.

The 1932 generation that brought in Roosevelt, fought WW2 and voted more enthusiastically than their predecessors or successors was a "civic" generation. The 1968 generation that voted for Nixon and Reagan, and ushered in 40 years of Republicanism (interrupted only by Carter and Clinton) was the "idealist" Boomer generation. The Boomer generation it turns out, are not just self-absorbed and self-indulgent, they tilt rightwards. But now there is a new big civic generation coming of age - the 1981 to 2003 "Millenial" generation, which is twice as large as Generation X, and promises to be like their grandparents in WW2 in attitudes (less self-absorbed, more collegiate, willingness to engage in politics, trust in insititutions etc and more left-wing).

However in between the "talking" generations that appear every 40 years (civic or idealist) are the so-called "silent" generations - Generation X (people born between 1961 and 1980) and the people who came of age in the 1950's, whose children they are. The silent generations are much smaller than the talking generations, and thus have less clout. The author glosses over the silent generations apart from characterising Generation X as cynical, "Life sucks and then you die" is their motto.

There are parallels with the UK. Our "civic" generation of the 1940's fought the war and gave us the revolutionary Atlee government and the Welfare state. As that generation starts to die in the 1980's, Mrs Thatcher's majorities increase, as the right-wing Boomers hold sway.

However I disagree with the authors of the article in that I think that Generation X is a very important generation. They are the internet generation, using it with increasing dexterity from 1995 onwards, and more entrepeneurial than previous generations. And Generation X put New Labour into power, aided by the Lib Dems who, via tactical voting, split the Boomer vote. Gen X weren't as sucessful in the USA - they managed to put Bill Clinton into office when they had Ross Perot to split the Boomer vote, but this decade the mad right-wing Boomer generation have out-voted them.

The pragmatic (and sometimes cynical) Generation X, now aged between 28 to 47, is still New Labour's staunchest supporters. But because they are a small generation, they can only continue to prevail in British politics if the Lib Dems continue to split the Boomer vote, or if the new emerging Millenial generation sides with them.

The Guardian ICM poll of 18th to 20th Jan, showed the Tories overall ahead of Labour by 4%, thanks to the Boomer generation (the 50+ group). The LibDems continued to split some of the Boomer vote (they scored their best % among the over 65's), but the new Millenial generation (under 25s) favoured Labour. That's the good news - it means the Millenial generation will ally with Generation X. The bad news so far is that the UK Millenial generation isn't as keen on voting as the American Millenial generation. Hopefully that will change with time. We just need to hang in there.