Thursday, 23 May 2013

Weather and election outcomes

Thanks to Discover magazine, I learn that a study by the University of Nijmegen has investigated the effect of weather on voting patterns in the Netherlands. Over a span of forty years there is a small but significant disadvantage to non-Conservative parties resulting from bad weather on election day, the study finds.

The abstract on the Discover site raises more questions than it answers. Perhaps the full paper goes into them in more detail, but it is tantalising to have a glimpse of these data from a nation which is so close to us genetically but somewhat different electorally. What are the common factors? Do the Dutch have a significant postal vote? Is there a tradition of election-day cars provided by party volunteers? Did it make a difference as to whether the Christian Democrats (Conservatives) were in power or in opposition?

One of the bits of electoral lore I picked up during my early days as a party worker was that fine weather tends to favour the party in power. It would be interesting to know whether this is still true, if it ever was. Something which probably has changed over the years is the advantage to Conservatives of car ownership, but it would be nice if evidence for this could be teased out.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

"Buggers Briefing against the Conservatives"

In the last few days, BBC certainly lived down to the version of its initials ascribed to Christine Hamilton. Gay marriage, while symbolically important, is not a matter of national well-being like the sluggishness of the economy or the inequities of the benefits system. It does not right a major injustice - that was already done by the Act that introduced civil partnerships - yet it occupied a quarter of Monday's PM programme and has dominated the domestic agenda on the BBC News channel.

Much as I relish the prospect of the Conservative party tearing itself apart over gay rights and EU membership, it is more with a view to future election campaigning than to the here and now. It is not, I respectfully suggest, for the BBC to join in a spectator sport which is not of real interest to 90% of the electorate. There is also the question of balance. If the Beeb genuinely feels that internal party strife is news, then it should also look at the agonies of the Labour party as it tries to reconcile internal differences in the formation of policy, not to mention Nigel Farage's efforts to paste a wallpaper of respectability over the UKIP rubble.

There are more important concerns over the Conservatives' performance in government. For instance, in spite of LibDem ministers' best efforts, disproportionate cuts are being made in the already low benefits paid to the worst-off in society. (I am not referring to the "bedroom tax" and the benefits cap, which are relatively fair and have -surprisingly to some - found favour among those surveyed in some recent opinion research.) I have posted earlier about the below-inflation rises in JSA and some other benefits. Of serious concern also is the implementation of Universal Credit. The concept is welcome, but the level at which it is intended to be paid and the restriction of access to it (only via Internet) are to be deprecated. Shortly, I hope to blog some research which has been carried out in Scotland showing its potential negative impact. The BBC  is in a position not only to analyse this and other research, but also to monitor the progress of the pilot UC programme and report on both.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

La Mer - Trenet, not Debussy

If it hadn't been for Russell Davies's Song Show on Sunday, I wouldn't have realised that the centenary of Charles Trenet fell this month. It is a remarkable sign of the way we in the UK have turned our back on continental Europe that while the French media are going overboard in celebrating one of the 20th century's greatest singer-songwriters, there is hardly a ripple over here. Yet I can recall in the 1950s that Trenet and Jean Sablon rubbed shoulders on record programmes with the likes of Anne Shelton, Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye. Even Trenet's equivocal relationship with the Nazi occupiers did not overshadow his popularity after the Second World War, a tribute to the quality of his writing.

The Song Show closed with the magical La Mer, in Trenet's own hit version. The melody itself was strong enough to survive the ministrations of Bobby Darin and others, but here it is enhanced by one of the greatest arrangements in popular music history, by the orchestra director Albert Lasry. (I see that most references cite Lasry as the composer as well, but the Columbia issue of the recording credits him only as the arranger.) I would put it up there with Gordon Jenkins' setting of The Folks Who Live on the Hill for Peggy Lee. Steve Martin was wise to set the balletic opening of L.A. Story to the Trenet/Lasry original rather than any of the later anglicisations.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Gleision mine trial: a further delay

Originally pencilled in for this autumn, the trial of MNS Mining and the colliery manager over the deaths of four miners in the drift mine in Rhos in 2011 will certainly be postponed until 2014. Since the charges were laid, counsel for Malcolm Fyfield has advised that his client may not be fit to plead. A hearing in Swansea today ruled that a determination as to fitness to plead will, having allowed for reports to be drawn up by experts for both prosecution and defence, be held in the first week of September, subject to the availability of the trial judge. Because the trial will take between three and four months, and because of restrictions imposed by the judge's calendar, it was decided to aim for a trial start date in January 2014, thus avoiding a break over Christmas.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Panic in the Conservative hierarchy

Shortly after the coalition agreement was arrived at in 2010, I predicted that the Conservatives would win the next general election with an overall majority, Labour making practically no gains and Liberal Democrats being the main sufferers. I did this without joy, based purely on my reading of political history. I also predicted that Liberal Democrats in government would keep their side of the coalition bargain, but that the Conservatives, as the economy improved, would be emboldened to break the agreement. This would lead to a change of government at least, but possibly also an early dissolution of parliament if Labour were deceived into thinking that they would do well at the ballot box.

Today, I am not so sure. Certainly, the Labour party, by failing, in a time of financial hardship, to regain in the English county election results the wards it lost in 2009 has shown that it will not be capable of mounting a national challenge when the economy is on the up. On the other hand, I assumed that the Conservative party would turn more Thatcherite, but remain monolithic. Now the possibility of their MPs splitting three ways has suddenly arisen after the media-fuelled rise of UKIP. The likelihood of a split* is still remote. However, David Cameron's flip-flop over an EU referendum is not only a panic acknowledgement of its possibility but also a sign of weakness in the face of his little-England critics who have immediately asked for more.

My own view is that an "in-out" referendum should have been in the coalition agreement and held as soon as possible after the government took office. Both Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos implied that the UK electorate would have been allowed to express their view on EU membership, though the weasel words "major change" were in the small print. Such a referendum would have replaced the pointless and more damaging one on Alternative Vote. I am also confident that there would have been  shown to be only a minority voting for change.

The danger for the next government, whether Conservative or coalition, is that an EU referendum will be used by Labour as a vote against the government as a whole, not on the merits of EU membership - just as they did with AV, which, it should be remembered, was a Labour idea.

* I envisaged some of the more extreme Tories forming a UKIP parliamentary party (see the closing paragraphs of this Nadine Dorries piece from a year ago), the core Conservative party becoming more reactionary and in response the more liberal and socially aware Conservatives switching to the Liberal Democrats or possibly even Labour.

Monday, 13 May 2013

ANC leadership feeling the strain

The former Archbishop Desmond Tutu's public repudiation of the African National Congress government may have been driven by a growing resentment that religious leaders are no longer given credit for their part in the fight against apartheid, but the immediate cause of his outburst - the withdrawal by the Dalai Lama from a visit to South Africa - raises the issue of a wider disquiet.

Appeasement of the Chinese, big investors in Africa, may have been behind the Dalai Lama decision. Charges of corruption still hang over president Jacob Zuma, who has now begun a PR offensive. Part of this, an invasive photo-shoot with the ailing former president Nelson Mandela, has not gone down well.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

Dangers for the parties in government

In my opinion, the danger to the Conservatives' electoral prospects does not come from immigration or from continental Europe. These fears will recede as prosperity increases. It may not be prosperity on the scale of the false boom of 2006/7, but people will feel better by comparison with the last few years. What the two governing parties must not do is to overreact to the UKIP bubble by enacting more authoritarian and xenophobic legislation. This is particularly important for Liberal Democrats, who would lose members as well as votes by turning more reactionary.

My real fear is that as the economy becomes more active, the Treasury and the Bank of England will lose control of inflation. There is already a threat to the well-being of the most disadvantaged families with the deliberate pitching the annual uprating of many benefits at no more than 1%, well below the current CPI inflation of 2.5%. (Shopping-basket inflation may well exceed this.) We are told that if it had not been for Liberal Democrats in government, there would be no increase at all. I trust that this unfairness, which is far more iniquitous than the freezing of the higher age allowance or the room-restrictions of housing benefit, will be addressed in the Liberal Democrat manifesto for the next election. Labour have been headlining the "granny tax" and the "bedroom tax" rather than the more disadvantaged benefit recipients   either because they fear being lampooned as being on the side of scroungers or calculating that better-off pensioners are more likely to vote.

Now we have a warning that the income of mortgage-holders will be straitened over the next five years. The negative equity of the late 1980s shook the then Conservative government. It will not be long before Labour rediscovers Mondeo Man - and of course forgets its enthusiasm for printing money when in office.

Waiting in the wings is a possible increase in crime rates. We have benefited from a reduction in reported crime across the western world but this decline can surely not go on for ever. As economic activity increases, so other social activity, including the illegal variety, is likely to increase also. Even a small increase across the board in reported crime is going to fuel a Labour campaign, especially as the imposition of police and crime commissioners by the coalition can readily be cited as a cause.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Dodgy data don't help the case for EU membership

Pro-membership coalition ministers are wont to claim that three million jobs would be at risk if the United Kingdom ceased to be a member of the European Union.

However, Professor Iain Begg revealed on "More or Less" (a BBC/Open University co-production) last Friday that the three million figure resulted from research he had done around the year 2000 and had been calculated as the proportion of jobs in industry related to exports to the EU. Clearly not all exports to the EU would stop instantly if the UK left, tariffs need not be an insurmountable barrier and new markets could be found for, say, the estimated 40% of car production which goes to the EU.

Professor Begg explained that numerical arguments on both sides of the debate depend on a huge range of assumptions and that it is a "methodological almost impossible task" to measure the net cost or benefit to the UK of being part of the Union.

So in the end it is a political and cultural decision as to whether to remain. It seems to me that we have a choice between cementing an alliance with nations with a shared history going back more than two thousand years, an alliance in which we have a democratic say, or becoming yet another client state of the United States.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Labour's county elections strategy did not work

A further thought on this week's elections: if the Labour rhetoric about "tax-cuts for millionaires"* and attacks on the "bedroom tax", which seemed to be the main thrust of their campaign for Thursday's local elections in England, had resonated with the voters, then they would have swept the board. As it was, a 1700% increase in their number of councillors was registered by UKIP, a party which, if anything, would like to reduce taxes on the well-off even further and would remove most allowances (apart from invalidity benefits).

After the election, the talk switched to "jobs and growth". It is a pity therefore that, when Nigel Farage appeared on BBC News Channel's post-election analysis programme yesterday, Chuka Umunna did not challenge UKIP's leader to spell out his proposals to increase employment. To be fair, the other panel members also concentrated on UKIP's immigration policy, though Ed Davey was the only one to take on Farage's assertions about EU migration and demolish them.

* In fact, as Mark Pack's graphic shows, for every £1 gained by the well-off, £5 is recovered from them in other ways as a result of successive coalition budgets.

Friday, 3 May 2013

UKIP has broken the class barrier

Although leading Conservatives like Ken Clarke and David Cameron have attempted to distance themselves from the United Kingdom Independence Party, it has always been clear that UKIP and Tories are of one mind on such issues as Europe, immigration, social services and education. That many parliamentary Conservatives could happily take the UKIP whip if this was already an established party was exemplified by David TC Davies's remarks on Sharp End last night. I have found that the overlap is even more marked among activists.

All the more remarkable then that thousands of people in the South Shields constituency, who would one assumes rather be seen dead than voting Conservative turned out for UKIP, putting them in second place in yesterday's by-election. Perhaps I should have been more alive to the implications of John Bufton's success in the last EU elections, halving Welsh Labour's representation in Brussels.

If this class-blind voting pattern continues through to 2015,  there is a threat to Labour* as well as Conservatives outside London and South-East England.

In theory, George Osborne and the Tory "dries" in the House of Commons ought to be reassured that UKIP, who are even more reluctant to increase the welfare budget, have done much better than Labour in the English county elections. However, the Conservative leadership must be worried about a split in the parliamentary ranks.

* Mark Pack has a graphic illustrating the damage done to Labour this time.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Our ministers must keep an eye on Royal Mail

After 1997, Labour allowed Post Offices and Royal Mail to wither under public ownership. The Conservatives were obviously intent on allowing both to be asset-stripped, so there was hope when the coalition was founded that there would be a progressive solution for what are still essential services. Regrettably, the decision was taken to have a full-scale sell-off of Royal Mail albeit with 10% of the shares being offered to staff.

There is a FT report behind its paywall:  which has been confirmed by a short para in other papers yesterday. The involvement of at least two high-powered banking advisors, with no doubt consequential high fees, concerns me. I still think a co-ownership solution could have been found and there is no shortage of expertise in this field.