Archive for the ‘LibDems’ Category

This sycophantic FT piece on David Laws has been kicked around quite a bit already. Personally, I feel it represents a new kind of journalism – writing that should have been kept behind a paywall, so nobody would have to read it. Beyond that, though, it’s pretty weird. Check out this par:

From 1987 to 1994 he worked in the City, ­earning “an incredible amount of money for somebody of my age – and frankly for anybody” in senior positions at BZW and JPMorgan. Going to work for a then fringe political party was not the most obvious career choice. “I seem to remember I was in a bath at the top of a skyscraper in Hong Kong when we were there on a quarterly conference when I finally decided that if I didn’t make this move that year, I never would.”

The surrealism of it. André Breton didn’t say that nothing was as beautiful as the chance meeting of a skyscraper, a bathtub, and a very serious centre-right banker turned politician on the expensively crunchy gravel driveway of a cottage in Somerset, but you bet he’d have got the joke.

In fact there’s a painting in it. The horizon lines thunder off into the distance like a gang of TGVs, the South China Sea standing in for the Mediterranean. Lurching in from the near future, an erect skyscraper dives upwards into the swimming pool. Suddenly an ornate, brassbound Victorian bathtub freed from its stifling interior is zooming and twirling and throwing baroque flick rolls and Lomcevak manoeuvres around it! And here’s the intrepid aviator, trailing an enormous Hérmes silk tie as a squadron scarf over the desert landscape interleaved with the wine-dark sea. The bath bubbles with sticky cash as he gazes into a future – or conceivably, a past – of drastically reduced housing benefits and unprecedented PFI opportunities, inflating to enormous size as a tiny Michael Gove beckons in the foreground, saying:

“David has an old-fashioned English manner and he does look like a Tory, but he has an intellectual coherence that few human beings have.”

And here is a pile of damp Polo mints. Orgasmic shame ensues. (Do you realise Laws borrowed the fifty grand off his dad to pay back the money he ripped off the taxpayer?) PS, if anyone better than I wants to actually draw this and put it up on DeviantArt or wherever, I’ll buy you a drink and I may even buy the thing to go on my wall.

Seriously, having an epiphany about massively redistributing income from the poor to the rich in a bathtub on top of a skyscraper in Hong Kong is not what I call intellectual coherence. Obvious would do it, as would flaky.

Best lobby metrics (lobbylyzer? lobster, for LoBbying Social Topology ExploreR?) result yet. Today I implemented my gatekeeper vs. flakcatcher metric – it averages the edge weights of all the neighbours of a minister, and returns a ratio of the difference between this and the average weight and the difference between the minister’s weighting and the average. The principle is that if you lobby a minister, and then get access to another, your lobbying effort should gain or lose impact depending on the difference between the minister’s own importance and the average. In the null hypothesis, where it doesn’t matter which minister you pick, you’d get exactly the difference between the weighting for that minister’s department and rank and the average for all ministers.

If some ministers are gatekeepers, though, you would see a greater boost to your efforts at influence than the null case. Similarly, if some of them are flak catchers who mainly exist to turn away lobbying efforts, and you happened on one of those, you’d get a lesser boost. This metric should be greater than unity if the minister is a gatekeeper, 1 if they are perfectly mediocre, and less than unity if they are a flak catcher.

Interestingly, the Scotland and Wales Offices score highly. The highest value recorded is for David Jones MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales, with 2.75. His closest rival is David Mundell MP, from the Scotland Office, on 1.94. The highest scoring Cabinet minister is the Scottish Secretary, Michael Moore. Some of this is down to the magic of low expectations. Nobody thinks these departments are great offices of state, not even the Welsh or the Scots – real power there has long since shifted to the devolved administrations. So if you meet any other minister, you’re likely to do better. But the gatekeeper metric should handle this, as it measures influence relative to the structural difference between the minister and the average weighting. Arguably, this is a valid measurement. These ministries’ role really is as a gatekeeper, something like a diplomatic representation in both directions.

So, who’s the all-UK champ? It turns out to be Mark Harper MP, Minister for Political and Constitutional Reform, with an impressive 1.65, contrasting with his network degree of 0.08. Hilariously, one of his lobbies turns out to be the UK Public Affairs Council, the lobbyists’ trade union, which wanted to see him in July, 2010 on the pressing matter of “lobbying”.

He’s followed home by Education PUSS Tim Loughton MP on 1.228, Defence PUSS Lord Astor on 1.2, Education’s Lord Hill on 1.1, Justice PUSS Crispin Blunt MP with 1.09, and the sinister intellectual force that is Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State for Government Policy, on 1.05. Francis Maude, whose horrific rise to national influence has been tracked with interest, turns out to be quite the flak catcher, on 0.43 – or is it that he claims to be a figure of authority in his own right? Does the buck stop there? After all, and as expected, once you meet the prime minister you can’t really go anywhere but down.

Of course, what everyone will surely want to know is who gets the wooden spoon. Step forward Andrew Stunell MP, PUSS in the Department for Communities and Local Government, with a mighty 0.21 to go with his network degree of 0.3. Stunell held a large number of meetings around the country, notably in London, Bristol, and Bradford, as “Big Society Roundtables” with a wide range of community organisations. It would appear that nobody was more shortchanged than these. Meeting Mr. Stunell reduced one’s average lobbying impact by a smacking 80%. Such was the coalition’s contempt for, among other organisations, Operation Black Vote, the Stephen Lawrence Trust, and basically everyone in Bradford who showed up. The list is here.

It will surprise nobody that meeting a coalition minister would increase the UK Public Affairs Council’s members’ influence by 65%, but reduce that of council tenants, Muslims, blacks, single mothers, young people (to list just a few) by 80%. But it’s worth making it hideously explicit. And here’s a lesson from all this obscure science that is easy enough to operationalise: if you see Andrew Stunell coming towards you through the Strangers’ Bar with a smile on his face, don’t make eye contact, don’t shake hands, don’t offer him your business card. Run. Spill a pint. Create a diversion. Trigger the fire alarm. Do not, in any circumstances, lobby him.

Here’s the really sad bit. Stunell’s dance card, from TWFY.

Voted very strongly against introducing foundation hospitals.
Voted strongly against Labour’s anti-terrorism laws.
Voted very strongly against the Iraq war.
Voted very strongly for an investigation into the Iraq war.
Voted moderately against allowing ministers to intervene in inquests.
Voted a mixture of for and against greater autonomy for schools.
Voted moderately against replacing Trident.
Voted very strongly for the hunting ban.
Voted moderately for more EU integration.
Voted very strongly against introducing ID cards.
Voted very strongly for laws to stop climate change.
Voted very strongly against a stricter asylum system.
Voted moderately for removing hereditary peers from the House of Lords.
Voted strongly for a wholly elected House of Lords.
Voted very strongly for equal gay rights.
Voted moderately for a transparent Parliament.

I remember the Lib Dems. Do you? I wonder if Andrew Stunell remembers Andrew Stunell.

a lack of liberals

So I went to protest the London Lib Dems’ conference, held in the late Blairite magnificence of Haverstock School NW3. Arriving punctually, what did I find?

London Lib Dems are marked men

No Liberals. In fact, not only had they vanished from the Haverstock, it turned out they’d given up on the whole idea of having a conference and punted it to February. Now you know why the party’s colour is yellow. Not only were they afraid of the general public, but their reputation is now so toxic that nobody wants to give them house room.

Meanwhile, here’s a prominent London Lib Dem in action.

“Right at this moment of financial peril to the nation is perhaps not the moment to introduce mandatory pay audits.”

Just two years ago, the Liberal Democrat MP backed mandatory measures, saying: “A voluntary audit system for private industry is hardly worth the paper it’s printed on. We need to know when the government actually plans to step in if progress isn’t made.”

The Liberal Democrat manifesto pledged to introduce fair-pay audits for all but the smallest companies.

Today Featherstone said: “It was a different world two years ago – financially and in terms of pressures on business. We are in a completely new landscape now … Much more of partnership working, no longer government dictates, this is absolutely the time to make voluntary pay-reporting work.”

Two years ago? Two years ago was December, 2008 – hardly a moment of expansive prosperity. Banks were falling like seagull shit. People were trying to estimate what the absolute minimum level of cash balances was that could prevent the bankruptcy of the entire GM and Ford supply chains. Flocks of great empty ships were gathering in Falmouth harbour and off Singapore, forever delayed by the drying up of trade credit.

Also, check out that last sentence, a real classic of pseudo-Blair verbiage without enough verbs.

elsewhere

Elsewhere: how the Lib Dems learned to love Nemesysco’s fake lie detector and outsourcing to Crapita. Yes, really.

Chris Dillow has a good go at the Government’s “Thatcherism – Choose Your Own Adventure” Web site and the Have Your Say-style idiots who frequent it. But the fate of another, related Government Web project is interesting.

The number10.gov.uk e-petitions site will be remembered mostly for its role in kiboshing the horrible “road-pricing” (aka total surveillance of all vehicle movements) proposal. It’s now officially “under review”, and isn’t accepting any more petitions or signatures on existing ones. (Also, the ones that were outstanding at the election have been binned.) At the same time, a variety of suggestions-box websites have proliferated across the public sector.

The distinction is clear; the e-petitions project was intended, among other things, as a way the public could protest about policies it didn’t like. The example of road pricing shows that it was more effective in this role than cynics like me might have expected. “Spending Challenge” and friends, however, don’t lead to anything – nobody has to respond to them, there’s no mechanism to build a campaign on. It’s just a pipe leading to the government’s File Zero.

Also, the e-petitions site was engineered by competent people, notably Chris Lightfoot. The Coalition’s multifarious efforts went online and duly crapped out as soon as production traffic hit them. You can read how MySociety scaled up the e-petitions system here. It’s the Big Society for you – a meaningless suggestions box for half-literate blowhards, as opposed to a fairly useful tool, incompetently built by SomeCompany, as opposed to MySociety.

Meet the new project, everyone – reporting on our new Stable and Principled government, especially its unstable and unprincipled bits. I have just broken my duck.

There’s also a twitter feed, facebook group, so on and so forth. It comes with Tom Boriswatch and Naadir Random!

Well, ha ha. But I do think we should note that David Cameron’s appointment as Prime Minister was greeted by the markets with a dramatic spike in the price of gold, not usually seen as a vote of confidence. Here’s the data, at Felix Salmon’s; as he points out, trying to map events in consensus reality to market charts is a sucker’s game (although I did once have to explain that the giant V-shaped downspike in MTN stock on the chart was the day when half the management team died in a plane crash).

In other post-election cleanup, YouGov did some polling about the public’s preferences. The only group of people not to be consulted about the coalition – that’s us! – broke 20% Tory, 33% Unholy Alliance, 39% Lib-Lab. Anthony Wells, like a good Tory, points out that this means 53% of the public wanted Tories in government, but doesn’t mention that by the same token, 72% wanted Liberals in government. Ah, the times when we were the nation’s least despised option. Also, how many people would have wanted a Labour minority government?

Hopi points out that the key lubricant in the coalition is money, and that both parties have agreed to give money to each other’s pet clients. Interesting contributions in comments from Alan Beattie and Dan Paskins, babbling idiocy from others.

Computer Weekly is interesting on the future of the NPfIT debacle. Also here.

Healthcare volunteers in Kenya: it doesn’t work. Turns out you need to “pay” people to “work” in “jobs” if you want to achieve anything lasting.

Whatever the coalition does, I’ve a feeling this story will determine how it ends up – on China’s property bubble, banks, and the coming blowout of the government deficit as it inevitably bursts and lands on the government’s books. As Doug “always up to no gooood” Henwooood would say, he believed in the collapse of capitalism until he realised the power of a good bailout. When the Chinese banks blow up and get bailed out, will American right-wing nuts blame that on black people?

Well, that was grim, wasn’t it? I refer, of course, to the new government. Having read through the coalition agreement, I’m almost convinced by Charlie and Jamie‘s argument that it’s really not that bad. Almost. I’m not particularly worried by the supposed 55% thing either, for reasons well explained here – it’s fairly obviously an attempt to self-bind, a costly signal of commitment to cement the deal, and it’s probably content-free.

On the other hand, there’s the NAMELESS DREAD. It’s pre-rational, emotional, Lovecraftesque…political. And look at some of the gargoyles and Queen’s bad bargains in the government. Also, Vince Cable at the Mandelsonministerium is a reasonably good idea, but couldn’t we have got at least one real job? Obviously, the Tories couldn’t have worn a Liberal foreign secretary for ideological reasons.

What went wrong with this post? I think the key unexamined assumption was that the Labour Party could be treated as a united actor for negotiating purposes; I didn’t take into account that significant numbers of backbench MPs wouldn’t support a coalition or wouldn’t support an electoral reform bill. I still believe that significant numbers of Tory backbenchers will rebel, but the coalition whips have more leverage over them with the Liberals as a reserve pool. Obviously, it’s telling that the Labour whipping operation would pick this moment, rather than – say – March 2003, to break down.

It’s also telling just who was lobbying the Labour backbenches; David Blunkett, John Reid, and Charles Clarke! The three monkeys of Blairite authoritarianism, a sort of negative triumvirate of failed home secretaries. Because, after all, as I said about identity cards back in 2004, we are going to win. That is, in fact, the only good thing here; the achievement of NO2ID and Phil Booth is that all political parties except one went into the 2010 general election pledged to abolish the National Identity Scheme. And, crucially, the civil service gets it – I hear that IPS is actively looking at contingency plans as to what to do with its officials when the NIS shuts down, how to cancel the contracts, disposing of office space and kit, that kind of stuff.

Hilariously, my dad spent quite a lot of time trying to get the IPS to give him an identity card, in order to demonstrate various flaws in the process – he was eventually issued one after the intervention of the chief of identity cards. He’s now trying to decide whether to sell it on EBay or frame it. Does anyone have suggestions as to what to do with an British National Identity Card?

So, no ID cards, no NIR, no ContactPoint. Home Office junior ministers have swung from people like Phil Woolas to Lynne Featherstone. I should be delighted. But then, yes, nameless dread. I agree that it wasn’t so long ago that it looked like we’d get Dave from PR with a majority of 100, so I should be pleased that the damage control exercise has been a success. But, no. Perhaps I should concentrate on MySociety stuff; perhaps I should concentrate on London politics. I have no idea if I’m going to stay a Liberal member.

One thing that will be happening is a new blog patterned on Boriswatch that will be covering our Stable and Principled new government, especially the unstable and unprincipled bits. Check out our statistical model of coalition survival, which is currently showing them sticking it out for the full five years…yup, nameless dread all right.

A quick lesson in political plane-spotting: we observe, about 2.25pm today, a small business jet type, with minimal wing sweep and a tail about half-way up the fin, in an approach profile heading northwest over North London. Conclusions? It’s an RAF Hawker 125 heading into Northolt, and Gordon Brown is probably back in London.

This article, meanwhile, is one of the most factual I’ve read so far.

Something I think is worth pointing out: Labour plus the Liberals, plus the sister parties who take the whip automatically, only need three seats to reach the 322 mark (don’t forget the Sinn Feiners). Plaid Cymru would do. And it’s not a question of forming a three- or four-party coalition. You can have a coalition with the Liberals and a toleration agreement with Plaid (or the SNP, or whoever). Arguably there are constitutional issues with Scottish, Welsh, or NI parties having ministerial posts with UK-wide responsibility – I’m on record as saying that no-one has ever been killed as a result of the West Lothian question, but it’s a point.

Also, Labour has leverage on the Scots and Welsh parties; Labour did well in Scotland, and could only do better campaigning against an SNP that put Tories in national office. The Tories did unexpectedly well in Wales, and a similar effect might be expected for Plaid Cymru.

Another point is that the bargaining payoffs are quite interesting (I finally get to use my International Relations MSc!) – the Tories must get Liberal support to get Labour out, so they have an incentive to bid high. Labour can stay in office to the wire, and then dare the Liberals to vote in a Tory government – because of the King-Byng Thing and the Senex letter, there is no requirement for a second election in the event that the government is voted out on the Queen’s Speech, so this would make Nick Clegg into a suicide bomber. Therefore, they have an interest in starting the bidding low (although not so low as to risk insulting the Liberals).

On the other hand, the Tories probably think they are still winning, so they have an incentive to cheat, making a high offer to the Liberals without any intention of carrying it out, rather than calling an election at the first opportunity. As significant numbers of Tories are potential rebels against electoral reform, the Tories’ bid incentives are high offer but low credibility. Labour’s are lower offer but higher credibility.

In classical IR theory, we’d be looking at this point for a costly signal, as described so well in Diego Gambetta’s classic book Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate. The reason why the Tories and Labour can try to obfuscate their credibility is that talk is cheap. For a signal to be credible, it has to cost the signaller something. This could be either general or specific; whatever the cost is, the fact it exists lends greater credibility to the signal, but signals can also be “cost-discriminating”, when it costs someone who is telling the truth less than it would a liar.

Labour has apparently already hoisted a costly signal – offering the Liberals a referendum on strong proportional representation and several cabinet seats. The cost here is that Labour might lose out from PR, and that offering cabinet seats to Liberals means sacking existing cabinet ministers.

But the Tories’ offer is startlingly puny. Offering a Speaker’s conference real-soon-now pretty much defines the concept of a cost-free and therefore worthless signal. Perhaps they are trying to signal that they don’t think they need the Liberals, so as to bargain us down? If so, they’re very close to the point of making an insultingly pathetic offer. Of course, there’s no reason to assume the Tories are competent, or that they have an accurate assessment of their own capabilities – the Dunning-Kruger effect will be playing a major role here, especially as no Tories have ever operated in coalition since the time of Winston Churchill. The “Tory coup” strategy, which is the Tories’ bargaining threat, seems to be going the way of the Schlieffen plan – once it starts losing time, it’s doomed.

And von Schlieffen famously wanted to keep the right wing strong; Tory unity is far from given.

What’s the Liberal position in signalling terms? Obviously, the more Labour thinks it can count on Liberal votes, the less it’s going to offer – if they are certain we won’t vote with the Tories, their optimal strategy is to sign up Plaid or the SNP, form a minority government, and take it to the Queen’s Speech. The Tory position is similar, but marginally less so – they don’t have the option of simply digging in on the high ground.

So, we need to signal Labour that they have to make us a real offer. We also have to make an opposite signal to the Tories that a centre-left coalition is a serious prospect. And the signalling has to be costly to be credible, although obviously the least costly signal is to be preferred. The simplest way of doing the first of these is to let the Tories keep talking. It keeps the press hanging on, but it doesn’t involve any actual policy commitment. And, if they act rationally, the longer they wait, the higher they’ll go. It pisses off most of the party, which would appear to be the cost of the signal.

So I suppose I agree with Nick. That leaves a question; what should the corresponding signal to Labour be?

I’m actually quite pleased with our little demo. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic when we assembled in Trafalgar Square, where various speeches were made of which not one word was audible (note to the various orgs involved: I’d happily spring for some batteries for the loud hailer. I mean, my student union would have got that right, to say nothing of the SWP…). And Morrismen kept invading our space.

I originally thought this was some regrettable, Lucky Jim example of sandal-socks liberalism. Actually no; I’m informed by Tom from Boriswatch that this is actually our mayor’s idea of culture, and actual taxpayers’ money is being paid out to them. Perhaps it’s a sort of defensible-space gambit to make it harder to protest there.

Eventually, Billy Bragg – for it is he! – suggested from the platform that we march to Smith Square and picket the Local Government Association building, where the Lib Dem MPs were meeting. This basically turned the demo around, and at least it stopped him singing; off we went down Whitehall, snarling up the traffic, calling on the recently expanded camp around Brian Haw’s pad, hurling abuse at the Sky News media-slum in College Green, flanked by policemen radioing each other to work out where we were heading.

Smith Square is not roomy; this is why those TV pictures of Tories celebrating outside Central Office always looked like more of a party than they probably were. So the crowd looked bigger and the shouting was louder. And, well, we stuck around yelling until Nick Clegg came out to speak. Again, I couldn’t hear a word, and we actually found out what he said via Twitter on Tom’s BlackBerry. Which made sense, as a major aim of the demo was to get onto the TV streams and RSS feeds the MPs would no doubt be obsessively monitoring.

It wasn’t a big demo, but it was targeted – the LGA building was already staked out by a huge media presence, with the steps of the church opposite festooned with camera crews, reporters buzzing around like flies round shit, and a big ambush of photographers and more TV cams on the LGA’s steps.

This was crucial – as we were arriving during the meeting, there would be nothing for them to report on or film other than the outside of a decentish Queen Anne block, which is better architecture than it is telly. All it took was for the camera gang on the steps to swivel through 180 degrees to get a perfect angry-mob shot, while the ones on the church had a reverse angle view of a crowd apparently besieging the building. Cropping in to emphasise the speakers would tend to compress the scene, giving the impression of a more dramatic confrontation.

The results? Well, we got far more news than I expected; and we seem to have traumatised Kay Burley.

The expression on her face at the beginning is priceless. How dare they! This wasn’t on the autocue! There’s more here; later in the day, I was with Boriswatch and his charming son, Alfie, who seems to be training as a Dickensian pickpocket (he relieved his father of a £10 note with positively Sicilian panache), in the Westminster Arms, which offers its customers two TV screens, one locked on Sky News and the other to BBC News-24. With a bit of neck-craning, you could just about watch both simultaneously in a sort of split brain media experiment – what was telling was that there was more Shannon-information in the BBC feed, far less repetition, the BBC didn’t deliberately misquote Nick Clegg in all its on-screen graphics, and the BBC didn’t insist on informing me every three minutes that Mohamed Al-Fayed had sold a rather unfashionable department store.

Seriously – yesterday of all days, Al-Fayed’s sale of Harrods was in the top three stories on Sky News for at least two hours. And, as a hint, Nick Clegg didn’t say the Tories had a “right to govern”, which they repeatedly asserted as a direct quote; he said that the largest party had the right to be consulted about a coalition first, which is far from the same thing.