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Does Lord Ashcroft want to be the Rupert Murdoch of polling?

10 Mar

Is Lord Ashcroft trying to carve out a niche for himself as the Rupert Murdoch of polling? In recent weeks Ashcroft’s started playing hard to get with the Conservatives while flirting with Labour. The pollster has distanced himself from the Conservative Party and stopped donating to them. Considering he’s donated £10 million to the Tories during Cameron’s leadership, that’s no small development. And there are reports that he’s met with Labour’s election strategist Douglas Alexander to discuss election strategy – much to the Labour leadership’s surprise.

For decades, securing the best media coverage has been thought of as crucial to parties’ electoral success. Lord Mandelson, in his witness statement to the Leveson Inquiry offered this on the subject: “In the run up to the 1997 election, naturally I was aware of the efforts being made to secure a friendly attitude by News International towards Labour but I was more on the margins of this activity as it was conducted principally by Mr. Blair and his press staff.”

It’s not just getting positive coverage that’s important any more though. Getting the best data on policies, party preferences, voters and so on is crucial. If you’ve got rich and accurate data, you can tailor campaigns and messaging much more effectively than if you’ve got outdated and superficial data. Obama’s presidential campaigns are the best examples of high quality data-based campaigning. In the UK, the very detailed data that the Lib Dems had in the Eastleigh by-election was widely reported as one of the most important reasons for their victory and the lack of it being a cause of the Tories’ demise.

Getting better data than your opponents means doing better polling than your opponents. And Ashcroft is the individual best placed to offer the systems and funding needed to do the highest quality polling. It’s at least possible that Ashcroft’s realised that it’s at least as important that parties have good data as good media coverage and that he can position himself as the pollster that parties should try to ‘secure a friendly attitude with.’

The Leveson Inquiry concluded that Murdoch hadn’t sought political favours in return for positive media coverage. At the very least, we’re going to see accusations of parties trying to accommodate Ashcroft politically to make use of his polling in the same way that we did with Murdoch.

Ashcroft has already shown himself to be someone who gave money to the Tories when he thought they would promote policies he liked, then stopped his donations when things weren’t going his way. It’s arguable then that he’s similarly someone who’d offer his polling to parties and leaders he gets on with and withdraw it from those he doesn’t. As John McCain, Mitt Romney and the Eastleigh Tories have found out, it’s tough to win elections without the best data.

It’s important that the parties find ways of building up the detailed and rich data they need without being beholden to a particularly powerful and well-off pollster. How to do that is a question for another day but – in the spirit that when you identify a problem you should at least try to offer a solution – one way that could be done would be using their members to crowdsource the data. Members and volunteers would, I suppose, do the polling and then data analysts employed by the parties would draw out the lessons and electoral strategies. Now there’s a way to avoid the need for a Leveson-esque inquiry into the unhealthy relationship between politicians and data analysts in ten/twenty/thirty years.

Tax Breaks for Employing ‘Domestic Workers’ are basically a Good Idea

9 Feb

This is perhaps better suited to Twitter but never mind.

David Cameron’s in Sweden for a conference on ensuring women in business are fully rewarded and is making statements supporting tax breaks for parents who pay for ‘domestic care.’  The BBC reports this as “pay[ing] someone to do the housework.” I can’t work out whether Cameron would want this to apply this to day-care too. He should.

The Labour-supporting commentator Anthony Painter criticised the proposal on Twitter saying:

I think this tax break for ‘domestic workers’ idea goes straight in the box marked ‘married couples allowance’

He’s wrong to make the two comparable. The married couples allowance tried to reward people for getting married and sent out signals that other forms of family structure were wrong. Giving tax breaks for employing domestic workers does not necessarily do that but rather is a good way to encourage people to work if they want to. If it makes going back to work when you want to more affordable then that’s a good thing and to be encouraged.

The plan of course needs some extra work. I’m not sure if the very rich who employ domestic workers anyway really need the extra tax break. As I mentioned earlier, extending the plan to making day-care more accessible would be worthwhile too.

Labour Has to Be Ready to Work with the Liberal Democrats

9 May

The news that Labour has started productively engaging with the Lib Dems is a promising development for centre-left politics. The parties simply have to work together now if they are to be in any way prepared for formal or informal collaboration against the common enemies of conservatism and neo-liberalism after the next General Election.

That the Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham is sending letters to Lib Dem MPs asking them to support his calls for “1. fair admissions 2. qualified teachers in schools 3. ‘face-to-face’ careers advice” at the third reading of the Education Bill on Wednesday is encouraging. Reaching out to the Coalition’s junior partners like this is significant on a couple of levels. It points to Burnham’s trust that the Lib Dems are not a lost cause for those interested in pluralist, centre-left politics. It is also a sign that some within Labour want to start building a working relationship with the Lib Dems as soon as possible, whether they are working (or conspiring as some would have it) with the Tories or not.

As Sunny Hundal at Liberal Conspiracy rightly points out, Labour’s and many others’ obsession with wanting Clegg, Cable, Huhne and Alexander to resign, fail or apologise has distracted attention from the real drivers of the government’s regressive proposals and policies, the Tories. Just as important though is that the Lib Dems need to be aware that they do have a viable choice in who they work with. Labour, the Greens and the broader left must be prepared to continue to build a working relationship with the Lib Dems to be ready to fight conservative and neo-liberal ideologies and politics both now and in the future.

Against the backdrop of NHS reforms unpopular with the Lib Dems, an article in yesterday’s Observer claims that Ed Miliband is openly calling for defections from the Lib Dems to Labour. The caption to the picture to the article states that Miliband would “welcome defectors” from the Lib Dems. I’m not convinced Miliband has actually said any such thing though. I can’t find any direct quotes in the article from Miliband clearly saying that nor am I able to find the original text by Miliband which the quotations in the article came from. [If anyone reading this finds such a text could you let me know?] The only quotations in the article which might be interpreted as encouraging defection are “They can come and work with us. My door is always open” and “Lib Dems have to work out which side they are on. Do they want to be on the Conservative side, backing the Conservative-led government, or on the progressive side? It really is time for them to make up their minds.” Miliband’s comments appear to me to respect Lib Dem cabinet ministers’ and MPs’ continuing membership of a Liberal Democrat party which could and should be able to work with Labour, the Greens and others. Again, these are promising signs from the Labour leadership. 

To publicly suggest that Lib Dems ought to leave their party would surely appear patronising, cynical and tribalistic. It assumes that there is no possibility for the Liberal Democrats to ever do good work with the Labour party in the future and that the Labour party has a monopoly on centre-left thought and action. Neither assumption would lead to a productive engagement with a party who should be an ally in the fight against the common enemy of those informed by conservative and neo-liberal traditions. There is a constructive and positive way forward without requiring Lib Dems to switch tribe. Co-operation between the two parties, the Greens and others outside of party politics allows for the broadest possible consensus against regressive, conservative and neo-liberal politics. The rest of the Labour party should follow Miliband and Burnham’s pluralist lead and treat the Lib Dems’ members and traditions with respect despite the current Lib Dem leadership’s disregard for those same members and traditions.

A caveat to all of this talk of co-operation is that it doesn’t seem possible for the most prominent Lib Dem adopters of neo-liberal economics – Clegg, Alexander and Laws – to continue to lead the party while in any formal collaboration with the Green party or a Labour party led by Ed Miliband. Clegg is electorally toxic and the light-touch economic policy espoused by him – but crucially not huge swathes of social liberals in his party – seems in direct opposition to Miliband’s and the Greens’ politics of democratic resistance to the negative effects of capital. There would surely have to be changes at the top of the Lib Dems before co-operation between the parties was formalised.

For their part, Labour needs to develop economic policies which resonate with the electorate, counter the ‘no alternative to cuts’ narrative and are convincing to other parties within the centre-left. Just saying “we’ll cut less than the Tories” doesn’t seem to do that. Building up a broader narrative based on stimulating not cutting an economy into growth is my preferred approach but I’m sure not the only way to encourage the centre-left unity necessary to oppose the Tories.

38 Degrees’ Strategy is Spoiling the Potential of Email

10 Aug

I wrote in May (twice!) about the problems involved with 38 Degrees offering its users the ability to email MPs without having to write their own message. At the time the Labour MP Tom Watson was complaining about receiving  1700 identical or near-identical emails about PR. Now, a request from Dominic Raab, the Conservative MP for Esher and Walton, that 38 Degrees remove his email address from their system due to being overwhelmed by emails has provoked outrage from the campaign group.

Raab’s argument that it’s impossible to deal with huge amounts of identical emails is completely understandable. Yes, the taxpayer does pay his wages and should be able to expect him to read and reply to correspondence but this correspondence surely has to be original and unique to warrant his attention. Email, when used in the right way, does have the potential to be a highly useful tool for those without the time or money to lobby MPs. But it’s a huge waste of time and money to have Raab and other MPs’ staff trawling through thousands of indistinguishable emails from 38 Degrees users. Indeed, 38 Degrees’ strategy is proving to be counterproductive in that it is obviously forcing MPs to spend more time working out the logistics of reading the emails and less time actually acting on the issues dealt with in the emails.

38 Degrees’ strategy is not beyond reform. I provided 38 Degrees with a reasonably detailed set of proposals for altering their system back in May. I got some positive feedback from their team but they don’t seem to have changed their strategy in the months since then. One proposal was to ensure that emails sent to MPs are written by individuals and not by the campaign organisers. This is easily achievable by not providing a pre-written message for users, automatically ensuring originality. It would of course still be possible to offer a series of style tips and campaign points to assist the website’s users

There are several advantages to writing original emails (and letters) to MPs. They get a reply from the MP and maybe from a government minister. They provide useable evidence of their constituents’ feelings for MPs to cite in parliamentary debate. They also show an individual’s strength of feeling on an issue in a way that adding your name to a message written by the campaign group doesn’t.

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The Underperforming Lib-Dems and Implications for the AV Campaign

21 Jul

Over my month away from blogging I’ve absolutely lost the sense that the Lib-Dems are making the best possible use of their prominent position in government. Indeed, they don’t really seem to be softening the impact of the Tories’ plans either. After the heights of Nick Clegg’s speech on reform of the electoral system and Parliament’s Upper House, the Lib-Dems appear to have lost their voice at the heart of government. Opinion polls are beginning to reflect this. According to a YouGov poll published yesterday, only 40% of Lib-Dem voters at the General Election approve of the coalition’s performance compared to 36% who disapprove. Similarly, only 46% of Lib-Dem voters at the General Election would vote for them in another General Election today.

It isn’t a huge leap to suggest that a drop in support for the Lib-Dems could lead to defeat for the ‘Yes’ campaign in the referendum on the Alternative Vote. In another YouGov poll published yesterday, AV’s lead over FPTP was down from 13% a fortnight ago to just a single percent. As much as supporters of the ‘Yes’ campaign will try to avoid this, the referendum could all too easily end up being a poll of the public’s view of the Lib-Dems.

As the main parliamentary advocates of electoral reform, the Lib-Dems have a huge responsibility to keep a strong, distinctive and successful role within the government. It’s important that they show that coalition government – slightly more likely under AV – works. Equally important though is that they ensure that they, as the party which will be campaigning hardest for AV, keep to the principles that their supporters voted for at the last General Election. It will be nigh-on impossible for AV to be passed without Lib-Dem voters voting in favour of it. Unfortunately, the Lib-Dems seem to be forgoing the principles upon which they were elected which has of course been reflected in their poll numbers.

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Uncritical History and National Identity: The Beginnings of a British Historikerstreit?

9 Jun

I attended the Republic Annual Conference last Saturday and particularly enjoyed a panel on ‘Our Republican Heritage.’ Geoffrey Robertson QC and Edward Vallance first talked about Britain’s republican and radical history. But then the Q&A session turned to a more contemporary and immediate issue, namely the teaching of history.

Vallance brought up the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s plans to emphasise the British Empire in history teaching. Gove recently invited the right-wing historian Niall Ferguson to oversee the introduction of a history syllabus which ensures pupils are aware that modern history is the history of “the rise of western domination of the world.”

Ferguson and Gove’s ideas were opposed by Vallance on the grounds that emphasising Britain’s imperialist past would relegate the history of its radicals who fought for the liberties which we so value today. In the Historikerstreit of the 1980s Jürgen Habermas criticised right-wing German historians and politicians who wanted to revise Germany’s Nazi history to create a ‘useable’ German identity. Vallance followed Habermas’s line of attack in his condemnation of Gove’s attempts to rewrite the history school curriculum for the benefit of conservative political goals.

Update — 10.6.2010

The similarities with the original German Historikerstreit are growing already. Seumas Milne has written an article for the Guardian criticising the planned reforms: ‘Part of the motivation appears to be a doomed and perverted attempt to create a sense of national identity out of a historical inheritance that should be utterly rejected.’

The introduction of the history of British radicalism into the curriculum would certainly be worthwhile. Of course, it is healthy for pupils to be exposed to radical ideas but not necessarily as a part of an attempt to increase the number of radicals in British society. The best reasons for teaching not only about the history of British radicalism but also about the less than glorious parts of Britain’s  past are that it would engender pupils with critical mindsets.

History education should not concentrate on trying to achieve a common understanding of history which can be used to achieved a narrowly patriotic national identity. Indeed, the growing embarrassment at Britain’s imperialist past originally led to the marginalisation of the Empire within history teaching and subsequently within British national consciousness and identity. Similarly, teaching of World War Two history tended in my experience to focus on the successes of the Allies and never on more questionable aspects such as the bombing of Dresden or Soviet war crimes.

History should never be an exercise in merely remembering (or should that be memorising?) Britain’s proudest moments. Nor should it be about creating a supremacist national identity built around British victories and European domination of the world. German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Kniefall at the Memorial for the victims of the Warsaw Ghetto showed remorse for Germany’s Nazi past but it also offered a more self-critical way of understanding and problematising German national identity. It is deplorable that for the most part Britain does not critically engage with its past and its national identity.

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We need a Minister for Equality who votes for Equality!

14 May

A petition has been started calling for the new Home Secretary Theresa May to be removed from her other new role in the government, Minister for Women and Equality. The petition states that:

Whilst we recognise her commitment to women’s rights, we believe that Theresa May should not occupy the post of Equality Minister when she has a voting record that actively deprives the homosexual community of their rights.

It is certainly true that May has a poor record on voting for LGBT right. She voted in 1998 against voting for lowering the legal age to have homosexual sex to 16. She abstained on repealing Section 28, the legislation outlawing the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality by teachers. She also voted against a Bill which would allow gay couples to adopt. And in 2008 she voted for a (defeated) Bill ordering IVF clinics to ensure that children would have a male role-model, in effect removing IVF as a method for lesbian couples.

She did vote in 2004 for the introduction of civil partnerships but the trend seems obvious. May does not seem to be in favour of equal rights for people of various sexualities. It just isn’t appropriate for a Minister who is responsible for advancing equality to have such an outdated view on LGBT rights.

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Co-operation Rightly Trumps Tribalism

12 May

I came home this evening to see David Cameron entering Downing Street. It’s a truly momentous occasion, a turning point in British political history. All my instincts tell me to be deeply unhappy to see a Conservative as Prime Minister. But after a couple of hours to consider the policies in the coalition agreement and the makeup of the new coalition, the outlook is not so grim. The policies in the coalition agreement and the makeup of the cabinet seem to have given a lot of ground to the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems’ best policy of a fairer tax system is there and the Tories’ worst policy of a tax cut for Britain’s richest is not. Nick Clegg is Deputy Prime Minister and several other leading Lib Dems will have top cabinet positions. As a passionate supporter of Proportional Representation I am saddened at the lack of fundamental electoral reform in the agreement but it was obviously too great a stumbling block for the Tories who have compromised instead on a wide array of issues. Continue reading

Britain Isn’t Broken and Here’s Why

19 Feb

This is a reprint of an article I wrote for the University of Birmingham student paper ‘Redbrick.’ The original is available here.

Lately, newspaper headlines have announced that we live in ‘Broken Britain.’ David Cameron, the Conservative party leader, regularly refers to British society as broken. And it seems Cameron and the headline writers have found – or created – a ready audience. A recent edition of the BBC’s Question Time was dominated by the topic of Britain’s broken society with one audience member saying she ‘couldn’t recognise it from when she grew up.’ In a Populus poll, 70 per cent of participants agreed with the statement, ‘society is broken in Britain.’ But what is meant exactly by ‘Broken Britain?’ Is this vague phrase anything more than just a catchy slogan, playing on the public’s fears? Continue reading


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