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Politics is the art of the possible

  • Oct. 7th, 2010 at 3:45 PM
The government’s announcement this week about child benefit, the subsequent uproar and the hint at a possible backtrack, have been a good illustration of what happens when you fail to think through the consequences of policy before you make it.

Almost every decision governments make has to take place in the confines of what stakeholders (voters, businesses, trade unions, international partners) find acceptable. Whatever you’d like to do in theory, there’s a limit to what you can do in practice if you don’t want to face a backlash from any of those groups.

Child benefit costs the country about £12bn a year. It’s a universal benefit, paid to everyone with children, however rich or poor, and so must have seemed like a natural candidate for cuts. What the government clearly wanted was a solution that would save a lot of money, be simple to administer and be relatively popular (or at least not too unpopular) with the voters. It could have decided to cut child benefit altogether for children over-16, or to provide it for the first two children in a family only. Both of these would have saved money and been simple to administer. They probably wouldn’t have been that unpopular with voters, either, at least not those who accepted the principle of cutting benefits to address the deficit.

So why didn’t they go for either of those options? My guess is that the government had decided they wanted to target higher-income groups to make it look as if they weren’t making the poor feel the brunt of the cuts. They probably reasoned that as most people aren’t, by definition, high earners, they wouldn’t mind too much that high earners were targeted. They probably also thought that the high earners themselves wouldn’t mind too much losing a benefit that they didn’t really need. After all, as David Cameron says, we’re all in this together.

This is all quite logical. Where the government fell down was, as we all know, in the decision to make the cut, not on the basis of household income, but on the basis of the earnings of one partner. Administratively, this no doubt made perfect sense: working out household income is complicated and expensive and would therefore eat into the savings achieved by the cut. So, they must have thought, let’s do it on the basis of one income and you have something that targets the rich, is administratively simple and will be popular with the voters. Ha!

What they actually ended up with, on the other hand, was a cut that both leaves lots of relatively well-off people unscathed and is immensely unpopular with voters. Many people do want to target the rich, but they don’t like a cut that appears to be unfair. Under the new system, a couple jointly earning £80k a year, provided both are below the £44k tax threshold, will still receive child benefit, while a couple with one partner earning £45k and the other nothing at all, won’t. While many people regard those on £44k or more as well-of, a lot of families on that income in the south east, particularly those with three or four children and burdened by high mortgages, don’t see it that way at all. To make things worse, a lot of natural Conservative supporters, both in the press and among the electorate, have been upset at the fact that the cut particularly affects what you might call “traditional” families: ones where the father goes out to work and the mother stays at home looking after the children.

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of cutting child benefit, it’s been an object lesson in how not to make policy. On paper, every element must have looked fine and dandy; out in the world, it’s been a disaster, alienating many of the government’s core voters. What, I wonder, will the government learn from this particular mistake?

It’s all gone quiet

  • Jul. 5th, 2010 at 1:34 PM

Last week I paid my first month’s subscription to the new Times and Sunday Times websites. I’ve done this partly because I like the sites, but much more because I really want the pay model to work. The way The Times reports the news isn’t any more informative than the way anyone else does it, and while I like some of The Times columnists, I could live without them, given that alternatives are plentiful. My favourite thing on The Times website is Sarah Ebner’s Schoolgate blog, and I’m not sure whether that’s going to be the same without the lively debates that used to follow in the Comments section.

Because the truth is that, since the paywall went up last week, the number of people commenting on stories in all sections has dropped, in many cases, to zero. There was an initial reduction when the site introduced registration a few weeks ago: there were far fewer comments than previously, and those that did appear were much more polite than usual, which one can assume was the result of having to comment under one’s own name. But since Friday, hardly anyone’s been commenting on anything. It’s eerie.

Yet it’s difficult to see how newspapers can carry on offering their content free-of-charge. The Guardian Media Group posted a loss of £90m last year, and it’s not the only one losing money. Why on earth newspapers decided, after charging for their content for 200 years, that it would be a good idea to start offering it all for free is beyond me. The hope was that the money would be recouped by advertising – which hasn’t happened. Worse, you still have to meet the costs of paying for your print product while your readers are abandoning it to read the same articles for free on the web. Whoever thought that was going to be a workable business model should really have thought a little more carefully.

But it may be too late. If every newspaper had started charging from the outset, the pay model might have succeeded. But now that so much content on the web is free, The Times is going to have to work very hard to attract paying readers. Nonetheless, it was Rupert Murdoch who managed to persuade the British people to stump up large sums for new television channels when they already had several they could watch for the modest cost of a licence fee. If anyone can make the pay model succeed, it’s Murdoch.

Last week I watched five programmes: Derren Brown Investigates, Have I got News for You, Outnumbered, Ashes to Ashes and Doctor Who. In three of these programmes, the phrase “the elephant in the room” was used. I think that’s excessive. Admittedly, in Outnumbered, it was used to demonstrate that the character employing it was an idiot, while in Doctor Who it was an excuse for a joke about Amy’s pregnancy making her look fat. Ashes to Ashes had no excuse, particularly as the phrase was not in use in 1983, when the series is set.

I can see why writers like the phrase – it’s an easy shorthand way of referring to The Subject That No-One Is Talking About. I just don’t think they should overdo it. I’ve done a search on The Guardian’s website and the phrase has appeared 419 times in the last 10 years. It’s instructive to see how it’s got out of control – The Guardian helpfully tells you how many times it’s appeared each year:

Year        Number of times phrase was used
2000       1
2001       2
2002       1
2003       4
2004     10
2005     25
2006     76
2007     86
2008     87
2009     89
2010    38 (so far)

As you can see, it all started getting out of hand in 2006.

Time to call a halt, then, to elephants in the room.  Perhaps for his next trick, Derren Brown, who did such a good job of exposing a medium in last week's episode, could make the elephant disappear.

Oh no – it’s a hung parliament!

  • May. 7th, 2010 at 1:04 PM

I’ve written a book, and it’s due to be published on June 1st. The last time I published a book was in 1990, so you can’t accuse me of knocking them out Ed Reardon fashion. Like Joseph Heller, I can only produce a book every couple of decades, although unlike Joseph Heller, I don’t have the excuse of being a slow-burn literary genius.

Anyway, this new book is a guide to primary school, aimed at parents. It tells them all about how to apply to a school, how admissions rules work, and what the national curriculum does – the kind of stuff that is, frankly, baffling to most people, who go through life happily oblivious of things like the Infant Class Sizes Act, the Schools Admissions Code and the Early Years Foundation Stage until their first child reaches the age of three and they have to wrestle with the process of looking for a school. The book was all going quite nicely – I’d filed the copy, it was all laid out, the cover had been designed – and then the general election was called.

Dotted throughout the book are references to forthcoming changes to the national curriculum: the introduction of the creative curriculum in 2011, which implements the recommendations of the Rose review; the introduction of compulsory sex education; and the change in the status of PSHE (that’s personal, social and health education) from non-statutory to statutory. The bill to bring those changes into force was due to be passed in April – and then the Conservatives blocked it, announcing that if they won the election, they wouldn’t implement the new curriculum.

We decided to keep in the references for now and then make a decision about whether to remove them once the new government was in power. But of course, now we have a hung parliament, which may be a good thing in some ways (assuming the Liberal Democrats manage to contain the worst excesses of whichever party finally takes power), but is catastrophically unhelpful for my book.

Even if, as seems likely at the time of writing, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats do a deal, it’s not entirely clear what will happen to the curriculum, because the two parties have very different takes on educational policy. It all seems a mess – and a great shame, because the new primary curriculum looked like one government initiative that really would change schools for the better.

I've long been a fan of the writer Laurie Graham. She writes perfect light literary fiction – sharp, funny, witty and warm-hearted. I've always regarded her as criminally under-rated, perhaps because she lies in that grey area somewhere between fluffy chick-lit and serious literary fiction.

A few months ago I read her latest book, Life according to Lubka, a typically barbed story about a 42-year-old female music industry executive - a vain, designer-obsessed woman called Buzz, who's made her name discovering and promoting urban music. Her boss, wanting her out of the way, sends her on a tour with a group of singing grannies from Bulgaria. Comedy, as you can imagine, ensues.

When I finished reading the book, I realized that I didn’t really know a lot about Graham, so I looked up her website, where she has a semi-serious Q&A that she’s clearly written herself. I was startled to read the following:

A: Not very. I am a member of the British National Party, partly because I don’t want my grandchildren to grow up in an Islamic republic but mainly because I think the BNP needs all the non-lunatic support it can get."

The first time I read it, I was shocked. Then I thought, No, it’s a joke: how hilarious to say that you’re not very political just before admitting to being a member of the BNP. Having gone back and forth like this a few times, and then having read Graham’s blog, I came to the conclusion that she really means it.

I suppose lots of great writers have flirted with fascism, but Graham isn’t a great writer, she’s a comic one. And if there’s one thing we know about fascists, it’s that they haven’t got a sense of humour. What bothers me is that I never spotted it before – all these years I’ve been reading her lovely comic novels and haven’t once had an inkling that I’m dealing with someone who thinks that Nick Griffin would make a great prime minister.

After that, I’m not sure I’ll be able to trust writers again. What next? I suppose we’ll find out that Philip Larkin was a closet racist and Kingsley Amis had a problem with women.

(Not) expecting the unexpected

  • Apr. 20th, 2010 at 2:13 PM
If I had a pound for every article I’d written about business continuity planning over the past few years, I’d probably have, ooh, nearly a tenner.

Business continuity planning is all about making sure your organisation can continue functioning when something goes badly wrong – your head office gets struck by lightning, say, or none of your employees can get to work because the roads are flooded.

When you interview people involved in business continuity planning, whether they’re independent experts or people tasked with continuity planning for an actual business, they always come up with the same examples: epidemics (such as bird flu or swine flu); terrorist attacks; heavy snowfall or floods. What no-one has ever come up with is volcanic ash from Iceland preventing planes from flying. Least of all preventing them from flying at exactly the time when a large number of people need to come home after holidays abroad. And when we technically don’t have a government because parliament has been dissolved in the run-up to a general election.

It all seems freakishly unlikely, and is therefore exactly the sort of contingency no business will have planned for: a situation where some of your staff are unable to get into work; business colleagues from abroad can’t travel to meetings in this country; employees in this country can’t travel to meetings overseas; and a supply chain that is disrupted because essential goods are stuck somewhere in China. A good business will have planned for those events happening independently, but not all at the same time.

For this to happen at just the time we’re emerging from a recession is especially unfortunate. I’m not given to superstitious explanations or conspiracy theories, but it's almost as if someone's got it in for us. A cleric in Iran is apparently blaming women for causing earthquakes ): I wonder what he’d have to say about the Eyjafjallajokull eruption.

I must admit that I know very little about the impact a volcanic ash cloud might have on an aircraft, though I’m certainly better-informed about the subject than I was two days ago. Luckily, it’s not my job to know about these things, so I’m happy to leave it to people who do know about the subject to make decisions about whether aircraft should fly or not.

Like me, Richard Littlejohn  doesn’t know anything about volcanic ash clouds and aircraft. Unlike me, however, he has formed an opinion on whether aircraft should be allowed to fly or not and has concluded – guess what? – that they should!

You see, the decision to close airports has not been made by aviation experts with years of experience in assessing risk. No, it’s been made by “brain-dead imbeciles” who “take a perverse delight in causing the maximum possible inconvenience.” What is more, it’s a “breathtaking demonstration of the elf 'n' safety paranoia which has engulfed this country over the past decade.” (Oh, come on. You knew “elf ‘n’ safety” would feature in them somewhere, didn’t you?)

What I enjoyed most about the article is the comments the Mail moderators have let through. I still don’t really understand, incidentally, what advantage a newspaper gains from publishing dozens of comments hostile to its star columnists, but that’s another area I’ll leave to the experts.

A sample few:

“Maybe Richard should fly around Britain in a single engine plane just to prove his point.

“Over the years more than 60 aircraft have had to be totally written off because of damage by volcanic ash, so to belittle the problem in this way is (as one might expect from Mr Littlejohn) foolish in the extreme.”

And my favourite:

“Richie, I know you're a world expert on the production of hot air and dirty noxious gases, but I'd leave the decisions on safety to the people who actually know what they're on about rather than, say, a fat pub bore with a pathological aversion to looking up facts.”

I never thought I’d say this, but – aren’t Mail readers great?

I’ve found a use for the iPad

  • Feb. 2nd, 2010 at 5:03 PM

If either of my readers have been wondering why I haven’t been writing blog posts for a while, the answer is: I have. Generally I write brilliant, incisive, thought-provoking posts (no, really) in my head at 3am but by the time I get up I can’t be bothered writing it all down. Some people have complained that the new iPad doesn’t have a built-in camera, but where Steve Jobs missed a trick is in not providing it with a built-in mind reading capability – something that scans your thoughts at 3am, converts them to HTML and uploads them to the Internet.

Others have pointed out that the iPad is too big to put in your pocket, but too small to sit upright on your desk. Its main function, as Charlie Brooker  says, is probably as a lap-warming device. As it happens, I already have one of those in the shape of a large feline named Frankie (“he’s not fat, he’s just a big cat”). Unfortunately, after half an hour or so sitting on my lap, Frankie tends to get bored and bites my hand with the degree of savagery more properly applied to the act of decapitating a rodent. And then when I throw him off, he looks at me as if it was my fault.

So if Steve Jobs is still grappling round for a unique selling point for the £350 iPad, here it is:

A lapwarmer that doesn’t bite your hand.


Based on a sample of comments on the Mail and Guardian websites -showing a rare unanimity - they are:

1. "One tiny bit of snow and the country grinds to a halt" - usually followed by a long rant. A variant on this is: "I live in Canada/Chicago/Switzerland and we can cope with the snow so why are the British so useless?"

2. "It must be global warming - LOL!"

Why do people bother writing this stuff? Why do I bother reading it? And where do these people come from anyway, these anonymous posters who want to share their deeply unoriginal thoughts with the world?

If only they could be persuaded to wear a t-shirt that reads: "I'm so stupid I think that a short spell of cold weather disproves the theory of man-mind climate change." Then you'd know who they were, so you could avoid them. Or shoot them.

So, farewell then Observer Woman…

  • Nov. 16th, 2009 at 9:42 PM
I shall miss Observer Woman, even though I hated it while it was alive. I’ve never met anyone who liked Observer Woman, but we all used to read it avidly, presumably so we could enjoy the sensation of tsking and tutting and sighing over Sunday breakfast at what they’d come up with this time. (Is there, I wonder, a demographic that actively enjoys Observer Woman? Who thinks, “Oh good, just what I wanted – an article on whether it’s better to buy my jeans pre-ripped or not”? )

We all worry, those of us who couldn’t stand Observer Woman, about what will happen to Polly Vernon now. Is there any other publication that would tolerate a more-or-less endless stream of articles about drinking cocktails in bars? Among Polly fans (or detractors, as we’re also known), there were two articles that summed up the quintessential Polly: the one where she talked about how thin she was; the other about how she didn’t want children because women with children were such boring conversationalists. I know. It was tough, coming from Polly, whose ability to discourse on a vast range of subjects (thinness; fashion; cocktails) we all long to emulate.

So, farewell to Polly, and to Observer Music Magazine, and to Observer Sports Magazine – the latter a genuinely good read, to my mind, even though I have only the dimmest interest in sport.

But at least Observer Food Monthly remains, and so we’ll just have to sigh and tut at that instead, complaining about all the recipes we’ll never cook and the restaurants we’ll never go to and moaning about Alex James, the poor man’s Polly Vernon – someone who consistently manages to be slightly irritating on the subject of food but never truly makes you want to tear up the paper in rage.

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