Some of you may remember this rather excellent poem by Giles Wilkes, on the subject of quantitative easing. Inspired by some late night tweeting, I’ve composed a rather crude, fairly short and ultimately just downright poor poem, summing up the days of the Lib-Con coalition so far. It took around half an hour from start to finish, so I won’t be too upset if you think it’s a load of bollocks. So, with no further ado, here it is:
Maggie Thatcher stole our milk,
But David Cameron and his ilk
Are really going hell for leather,
While crying, “We’re all in this together!”
I, for one, am not convinced,
Unlike, it seems, my old pal Vince,
He claims united we must stand,
To bring strong leadership to this land.
“The problem is the deficit,”
And that, apparently, is it.
So we must suffer with pay cuts,
No time to raise our ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’.
The rhetoric has been rehashed,
But services, once more, are slashed.
The poor and needy have to pay,
While banks and business get their way.
Axes swung with such aggression
Will send us back into recession,
But economics isn’t heeded.
“Cuts and more cuts, that’s what’s needed!”
They say five years of being thrifty
Is for the best, so when I’m fifty,
I’ll look back on twenty-ten,
And say, “What brave, courageous men,
Did save us from catastrophe!
They really were quite good, you see.”
But if I’m honest, here and now,
It’s hard to see exactly how
Their policies will work at all,
Their tools an axe and wrecking ball.
But that, I’m told, is how things go,
Under Cameron, Clegg and co.
So I read this morning that a report, sponsored by the ever-impartial Institute of Directors and not-engaged-in-pushing-a-neoliberal-agenda-at-all-we-bloody-well-promise Institute of Economic Affairs, has said that public sector pensions are unsustainable, and will have to be scaled back.
Stephanie Flanders has done a decent job of explaining the various ins and outs of the report. Particularly telling, I think, is this quote.
Anyone involved with private sector pensions knows how much “pension deficits” can change, depending on the discount rate used. The answer given by economists tends to be that there is no right answer – you use different rates to capture different things.
In the report, the IoD and IfEA have used a “mark-to-market” approach, whereby you take current returns available on the market, and use them to calculate the pension deficit. However, the government doesn’t have to realise assets immediately to meet its obligations – that’s one of the best things about government spending, in some ways. Hell, it’s how Keynesianism works. So the Treasury uses a rate of return on government gilts to calculate its pension deficit, which leaves it at 27%, as opposed to the 40% quoted in the report.
So are public employees really getting an unbelievable deal? Of course not. This is just private sector hawks looking to reduce their own pension provision costs and at the same time run down any small advantages the public sector can claim in attracting workers. As pointed out here, 40% of public sector workers earn under £20,000 a year, and Flanders’ report mentions that “very few” will be affected by Cameron’s promise to cap public sector pensions at £50,000, simply because even with a final salary pension, very few of them ever reach this threshold.
Added to yesterday’s report that redundancy payments are to be slashed (incidentally, I was talking on Sunday to my father about possible redundancy, and he replied that he was entitled to 2 years’ salary, so would manage), there is a clear attack on workers in the public sector underway. While they can expect more favourable terms of redundancy and pretty good pension provision, the average salary of a public sector worker is £2,000 below that of someone in the private sector. Over a 40-year working career, that’s £80,000 they’ve effectively foregone for greater job and pension security. Security that’s being forcibly taken from them without consultation or even so much as a hollow apology.
But none of that comes out in the rabid narrative of “public workers given cushy jobs, huge redundancy payouts, massive pensions” that seems to be all you ever hear from some quarters.
So the party leaders are no doubt in fraught discussion with advisors, civil servants and whatever. But in quieter moments, what might they be listening to on their iPods? I’ve come up with some probables for Brown, Clegg and Cameron.
My choice for Cameron is Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist’, primarily for the lines;
Nobody said it was easy,
No-one ever said it would be this hard…
and also because I hate both the Conservatives and Coldplay in roughly equal measure.
Brown? I think he’ll be all over a bit of Phil Collins.
And Clegg? Man, he’s just rockin’ out!
There’s been rather a lot made of this interview in the Grauniad yesterday, where Clegg said,
“It seems to me that it’s just preposterous, the idea that if a party comes third in terms of the number of votes, it still has somehow the right to carry on squatting in No 10 and continue to lay claim to having the prime minister of the country.”
But what does this mean? It’s been assumed that Clegg’s saying that a third place finish for Labour would result in the Lib Dems jumping into bed with the Conservatives (a la Ramsay Mac or otherwise), but Clegg doesn’t say this anywhere. So why did he say it?
Let’s start with the obvious underlying strategic value of making a statement like this – it helps to attract wavering Tory voters who don’t want to vote Lib Dem, only to see Labour continue in power. The Lib Dems need to pull in votes from both sides if they want to break the 100 seat barrier, not only from disenchanted Labour voters, as has largely been the case so far.
He also positions himself to demand he is made Prime Minister in a coalition government if the Lib Dems get more votes than Labour across the country – regardless of the actual number of seats each party holds. It’s no secret that he dislikes Brown, but I’m sure he’d love to sit in the PM’s chair with Gordon (or Alan Johnson?) at his side as Deputy PM.
Across the country, Lib Dem-Conservative coalitions are fairly common in local councils, but to point to this as a sign of things to come at a national level is misleading. There are plenty of things that, at a local council level, the Lib Dems and Tories agree on. The big differences between the parties are at the national level. Trident, European policy and attitudes towards taxation, to mention a few contentious issues, will cause problems in any coalition arrangement. And the Conservatives are refusing even to talk about electoral reform, still banging on and on about the economy and the deficit.
Then there are the polls, which show that Lib Dem voters prefer Labour to the Tories. Naturally – after all, the Social Democrat element isn’t dead within the party. I know from personal experience that within the party, there is still a sense of the Tories as the enemy of all things progressive. They’re pragmatic, and I know a few who voted Labour in areas where it was close between them and the Conservatives. Hell, that’s half the reason Lib Dems want the STV system – so they can back their candidate, then everyone who isn’t a Tory.
Of course, Clegg may simply elect to prop up a minority government initially, without forming any formal coalition. This may be his best bet, as it will allow the Lib Dems to make demands of government from the outside, reinforcing their standing as the “outsiders” of British politics. If there’s something they don’t like, they can shut it down. If they agree with something, they can help push it through.
So what will Clegg do on May 7th? I suspect not even he knows quite what yet. At the moment, he’s in the business of getting votes, and if that means bashing Labour, he’s not afraid to do it. Is that commendable? Not really. Is it deplorable, though? Of course not. I see the Lib Dems as the party of the centre-left already, it’s possible that more people will after this election.
NB: Despite all the talk of hung parliaments, I still reckon the Tories will get a barely workable majority of 12-20 seats (I’m going to keep saying this in case I’m right, in which case I shall tout myself as a master of political analysis).
There has, predictably, been plenty written all over the web regarding the Lib Dems’ rise to prominence since the TV debate last Thursday. On Monday morning, I took a short walk down to my local students’ union, where Clegg put in a personal appearance. I must admit that while I was impressed with how he came across on TV, I feared that without the distance of a camera and a screen his style would seem more of an act. In fact, the opposite was true. He seemed very personable and open.
I’ll be honest, and admit that I was approaching the debate as an ex-Lib Dem member, who not so much left but simply allowed my membership to lapse. Perhaps I was biased. Even so, he looked perfectly at home (apart from some obvious annoyance when someone said he was “just like Cameron” because he is a privately schooled son of a wealthy banker. His reply? That such accusations were “utter bilge”. They were, too – their policy differences alone show that they are not the same.
Another interesting feature was that, despite being scheduled to appear with Vince Cable, Clegg appeared alone owing to “unforeseen circumstances” which prevented Cable from joining him. While there may well have been a legitimate reason, it could also be that whoever’s running the campaign decided to leave Vince at home. This is an interesting twist. I also heard on the Daily Politics today that Cable is no longer on the front page of the Lib Dem website.
In the past, they’ve been a double-act – Clegg is the fresh face, Cable provides the gravitas. Now he’s going out on his own. The TV debate has made the name “Nick Clegg” a brand that people recognise. Despite this, the initial Cleggmania may have already peaked, with most of the polls I’ve seen today reflecting a more normal picture with the Tories back on top.
Are there similarities with Blair? Of course there are. We’ve had a long stretch of the same party in government, he’s a young, relatively inexperienced leader. There’s also the way each has mastered the new demands the media has put on them. The Tories may have the support of large swathes of the press, but the Lib Dems really have mobilised their support base well since the Iraq War gave them a surge, both online and at a local level. This is a major factor in their increased prominence, as well as the TV debates giving them an outlet without the filtering influence of the newspapers.
This has also been dubbed the “twitter election”, and with the Lib Dems’ fairly young support-base (and the tendency for younger voters to see a hung parliament as a good thing) may be helping with this. None of this changes the fact that 4 out of 10 voters will be over 55 this year, though. It does bode well for the future of the party, though.
The second TV debate is almost upon us, and personally I think we’ll see Clegg attack Brown more, while Cameron takes aim at Clegg, and tries to paint the Lib Dems as Labourite. The Tories have to try to crush this surge, because all the polls I’ve seen on the topic have shown Liberal Democrats would rather see the party in coalition with Labour than with the Conservatives.
It’ll be interesting to see how Clegg does tomorrow, but my initial feeling is that Cameron will do much, much better on a topic that tends to mobilise voters on the right of the spectrum far more than those on the left.
I’d also be very surprised if the election throws up anything other than a Conservative majority of at least 12 – my personal belief is that we’ll see a Tory majority of about 16-20, which is barely workable and should lead to an election within a couple of years. All the talk of a hung parliament is being overhyped in my opinion, however much I’d love to see one.
I won’t be voting Lib Dem on May 6th, for the simple reason that there’s a TUSC candidate standing in Cardiff Central, which is a safe Lib Dem seat anyway (check whether there’s a TUSC candidate in your constituency here).
But I’ve been impressed with the Lib Dems this year, whether it’s been their opposition to the draconian Digital Economy Bill, their pledge to bring capital gains tax in line with income tax, or their ‘mansion tax’, which is commendable even if it smacks somewhat of populism.
I was a member of the party until a few months ago, but have not renewed my membership for a number of reasons. The main one has been my gradual drift toward a more extreme left-wing political philosophy.
I’m not saying the Lib Dems are perfect, and Clegg himself has pissed me off before now, but I certainly think that they represent a realistic alternative for the centre-left. The party seems to have moved away in recent years from the ultra-free-market stance that they held in the ’90s, and towards a more compassionate liberalism like that seen sometimes in the Nordic Left.
Added to this, their views on matters such as drug policy and more general personal liberty issues, and they are a party I can get behind. 2010 is the Lib Dem’s big opportunity to make Britain a genuine three-party democracy, and while it may sound rash, if that is at the expense of New Labour then so be it.
They are competitive in more seats than ever thanks to their strong 2005 showing, and Clegg’s performance in the first debate has seen bookies slashing odds left, right and centre.
As a certain Mr. Dylan once observed, “The times, they are a-changing.”