Uncharted Territory

March 18, 2013

When Politicians Go Mad (Part 1): The UK’s Press Royal Charter

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Media, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 5:30 pm

What is it about Clegg, Cameron and now Miliband? Who the hell do they think they are to repeatedly attempt to make constitutional decisions for all time?

I refer, of course, to the clause in the proposed Royal Charter for the Recognition Panel for UK press regulation (pdf) that allows the Charter to be changed (or terminated) only by a 2/3 majority in both Houses of Parliament.

The last time I became agitated about the UK political process was in a couple of posts, It’s the Executive, Stupid and (presciently) Adieu, AV, both written shortly after the 2010 election when inter alia Clegg and Cameron were attempting to lock us into 5 year fixed term parliaments for all time. It seems Miliband has now joined the party as well, since (as far as I can gather) he’s all for the 2/3 majority clause.

Quite apart from the merits of the particular media “legislation” represented by the proposed Royal Charter, it seems to me fairly obvious that all legislation should be under continual and periodic review, in the same way as an organisation’s Business Plan or a Project Plan. Are the organisational structures and processes that have been established actually meeting their objectives? Not that our politicians ever define any objectives or goals in the first place, as I might have mentioned before.

And – to continue stating the obvious – circumstances may change in future. After all, the media domain is evolving at a rapid pace.

And to claim that the current mediocre generation of politicians have a level of wisdom and insight that will never be exceeded in future would be to invite ridicule.

What we’re about to get is a “Royal Charter for the Recognition Panel for UK press regulation”. Yeap, Parliament is going to be two removes away from what amounts to Press Complaints Commission (PCC) 2.0. Instead of defining the terms of reference of a press regulator, a “Recognition Panel” is being set up to “recognise”, that is (as I understand it), license one or more potential regulators. The Charter includes some vague guidelines as to the recognition criteria.

The idea of the Royal Charter rather than normal legislation is to somehow make it seem that government isn’t “interfering” with press regulation. Come on! What exactly is Parliament there for if it’s not to make laws? We elect our MPs, not our media barons. And who’s being fooled by the Royal Charter device anyway? The irony is that a Royal Charter can – again, if I understand the arcane procedures correctly – be modified more easily than normal legislation, i.e. by the Privy Council who (it seems) advise the monarch who is obliged to take heed, thereby making any future government interference possible without consulting Parliament! Hence the need for a clause requiring the approval of the House for any changes. Which makes it legislation for those who don’t think it is already. Except, of course, for those still claiming it’s not legislation.

The Parliamentary response to Leveson seems to me to have degenerated into insanity. A bandwagon (that would be – surprise, surprise! – in the mainstream media, not through widespread mass-participation campaigning) has developed around a bizarre idea that the Press (or “free speech”) should not be limited by law. Even though “free speech” is already constrained, most notably by laws against libel and contempt of court. When people invoke vague principles, in this case “the right to free speech”, you can be pretty sure that’s cover for another interest. To state the obvious, the media are simply trying to preserve as much of the status quo as possible. And Cameron is taking their side to keep them sweet and because the status quo serves the Tories quite nicely thank you.

I want Parliament to do its job and debate and agree what the Press can and can’t do. To lay down in law, in as much detail as required, how the right to free speech is limited by the need to preserve other rights. And to fix the law in future as and when further problems arise.

For me the issue is privacy. I’d like a right to privacy enacted in law, not subject to interpretation by a Regulator accountable to a Recognition Board established by unamendable Royal Charter. Remember, the papers are allegedly in trouble not for allegedly invading privacy per se, but for allegedly doing it in ways that happened to allegedly be illegal (and allegedly getting caught), i.e. by allegedly hacking phones, allegedly buying information from alleged public officials and so on. In some alleged cases they might have been able to obtain the same information by legal means, e.g. kiss and tell.

The real danger with the Royal Charter is that the press regulation it produces will be ineffective (which is quite likely as, if my understanding is correct*, the actual regulatory board(s) will be 2/3* industry – inevitably acting in their common interest – and only 1/3* lay) and, with a 2/3 majority for change required in both Houses, either of the two main political parties will be able to veto any changes to fix the problem, for their own narrow ends.

PS I see the Guardian’s political blog has just posted news of a dissenting voice in Parliament:

“Charles Walker, the Conservative MP who chairs the Commons procedure committee, told PoliticsHome he was unhappy about the provision in the royal charter saying it could only be changed by two-thirds majority in the Commons and in the Lords.

‘It’s not how we do things in this country. It should be a 50% plus one majority. Parliament could pass a bill to overturn it anyway. The only precedent for this is the fixed term parliaments, and I voted against that on the same basis.’ ”

Hear! Hear!

——–
* This is incorrect. It’s the committee drawing up the media standards code that is weighted towards the industry. According to the latest (18th March) version of the Charter (pdf), Schedule 3, clause 5, the Board itself must:

“b) comprise a majority of people who are independent of the press;
c) include a sufficient number of people with experience of the industry who may include former editors and senior or academic journalists;
d)not include any serving editor;”

Clause 7 keeps changing and now reads:

“The standards code which is the responsibility of the Code Committee, must be approved by the Board or remitted to the Code Committee with reasons. The Code Committee will be appointed by the Board, in accordance with best practices for public appointments, and comprised of equal proportions of independent members, serving journalists (being national or regional journalists, or, where relevant to the membership of the self-regulatory body, local or on-line journalists) and serving editors. There will be a biennial public consultation by the Code Committee, the results of which must be considered openly with the Board.”

Sorry for any confusion.

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May 11, 2011

You’ve Got to AV a Laugh

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 12:41 pm

Well, laugh or cry, because AV would have made a huge difference to UK politics. Perhaps not immediately, but over the long-term it would have made it possible for a broader political debate, with a larger number of parties.

Today is the first anniversary of the LibCon coalition. Here’s what I wrote precisely one year ago:

“…it seems to me that Clegg is a self-deluding fool. I therefore expect him to go into coalition with Cameron and destroy his party. The pretext will be ‘the national interest’, but the real reason will be the desire for power.

…Clegg’s probably already lost the Lib Dems any chance of AV, let alone PR, for a generation.

Here’s why. Think about it. The Tories have said they will campaign against AV in any referendum they grant the Lib Dems. What incentive will Labour have to support the proposal? None. Sure, they might pay lip-service, since AV was in the Labour manifesto, but, unlike if they were in coalition with the Lib Dems, they will not expend political capital whipping their significant dissenting elements into line. And they’re hardly likely to spend a lot of money on a referendum campaign when they could be saving their pennies for the next election. I simply can’t see the Lib Dems winning a referendum on anything against the Tories, their toadying media supporters AND elements of the Labour party.”

So the outcome of the referendum was totally predictable. I suppose that at least the £200m or whatever it cost provided a small economic stimulus.

I can’t claim to be totally prescient, though. I certainly didn’t expect the mind-blowing incompetence of the Yes campaign.

First, I can still scarcely believe that the Yes campaign failed to get across one simple point. It’s daft to have an electoral system where the outcome depends on whether or not a 3rd or 4th (or other additional) candidate happens to stand.

This is currently the case in every UK constituency. But you don’t have to look back too far for graphic historical examples. Dubya Bush in 2000 benefited from Ralph Nader’s candidature, representing the Green Party, which disproportionately drew votes from, ironically, Al Gore, environmentalist and potential competent President. And maybe the Yes campaign could even have allowed some maverick to point out that divided opposition let the Nazis in.

Second, the timing was absurd. Why the referendum was held so early is a complete mystery to me. The Tories had signalled their opposition and, newly in power for the first time in 13 years, were bound to be speaking with one voice. If time had been allowed for a few Tory splits on the issue to develop (and for Labour to get over the election and be a bit more united) that might have made all the difference. The damage done to the Yes campaign by John Reid wasn’t mirrored on the other side.

Third, the agreement with the Tories should have forced Cameron to declare neutrality. Allowing the office of the Prime Minister to be used could only help the Noes.

Strangely none of these reasons appear in the Guardian Top 10.

But the underlying problem is far more fundamental. There’s no point having a proportional voting system if Parliament doesn’t work in a proportional manner.

Our elections don’t have to be winner takes all. In the long run greater separation of the executive and legislative arms of government is needed, as I also wrote precisely one year ago. This would allow the House of Commons to debate issues without the outcome having been predetermined by the whips, as happened in the dim and distant past.

But Clegg could have made a start. He could have said he’d support Cameron as PM and vote on the merits of bills put before the House. This is pretty much the position he’s now been forced into, but sometimes it’s not about where you are, but how you got there! He could even have relaxed the Lib Dem whip, since, as is now clear, the Lib Dems – having tried to be all things to all men over the years, and respond to local issues around the country – represent a broader spectrum of opinion than either Labour or the Tories.

It is indeed laughable that the Lib Dems thought they could win a referendum on a more proportional voting system at the very same time as they are giving coalition government a bad name. Do they really think the British public is stupid?

Without a broader vision for the evolution of the Westminster political process, we’re not going to see PR in this country for a century, never mind a generation!

May 20, 2010

Dodging Difficult Decisions

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 6:24 pm

Imagine yourself house-hunting, or just cast your mind back. You’ve worked hard all week, have your normal chores to carry out, but have managed to free up a few hours of your precious weekend. You window-shop, review sheets of details and finally book a time to see some properties. You spend Sunday thinking about them, agonising over your budget, and on Monday take the plunge. Sorry, says the estate agent, the vendor has decided to take that one of the market. Or maybe they’re not so decisive. You arrange a mortgage, pay for surveys, and only then are you given the bad news: sorry, no deal.

This is the awful situation prospective purchasers will once more be in as a result of the abolition of (Home Information Packs) HIPs, by the incoming LibDem Con government. And on the radio at lunchtime I heard a smarmy voice – it seemed to be a politician, but logic tells me it must have been an estate agent or other housing market parasite – justifying the decision as removing an obstacle to homeowners “testing the market”. Look, you twat, Tesco doesn’t let you get to the checkout before saying, sorry, we’ve decided not to sell those today, we might get a better price tomorrow.

I recollect painfully my first attempt to buy property, jointly. If I recollect correctly, we had 5 surveys done and were gazumped in most cases, never buying at that time, in the end. It cost us a fortune in time and effort, yet the (non-)sellers never spent a penny.

The last Government weighed up all the pros and cons and realised that it was fair for sellers to bear the cost of collating information about their properties, in part to show they are entering into discussions in good faith. This involved taking on a number of interest groups.

What have the LibDem Cons done? Yes, without thinking about it, they’ve abolished HIPs, making redundant overnight 3,000 people who had been trained to carry them out.

True, energy certificates have been retained, but you can still market your property without one. What’s the point of them, then, if they’re not available until people have decided which house they want?

So, the first way to dodge difficult decisions is to do the easy thing without any serious thought.

As I reflected on this I realised that the LibDem Con government is set on writing the book on dodging difficult decisions. There are other instances of “doing the easy thing without any serious thought”.

The third runway at Heathrow? Cancelled. Additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted? Refused. Um, shouldn’t we look into it a bit? I mean, no-one wants to concrete over villages, but the previous lot looked into this and reached a different conclusion.

Or take ID cards. Abolished. Now, correct me if I’m being a bit thick here, but isn’t the government also planning to clamp down on immigration? Wouldn’t it be useful for foreign nationals to have id cards? In fact, I thought they already had, so perhaps we can’t actually believe that id cards have really been abolished.

Because when we look more closely at the coalition’s statement of their programme for government (pdf), we say that they also employ other strategies for dodging difficult decisions.

Their second strategy is pretend to take difficult decisions but don’t actually do so.

Remember those Regional Development Agencies that received so much flak during the campaign? This is what the LibDem Cons say:

“We will support the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships – joint local authority-business bodies brought forward by local authorities themselves to promote local economic development – to replace Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). These may take the form of the existing RDAs in areas where they are popular.”

Unsurprisingly, the LibDem Cons are not very clear, but I think we can be fairly sure that we’re not going to be able to tell the new pigs from the old pigs. George Orwell would be proud.

What about other quangos? Read on:

“We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.”

In other words: “We said during the campaign that we don’t need it, so we’re going to abolish it and reinvent it. Britain needs a new kind of government!”

Maybe we need a new word, for abolishing something, and simultaneously retaining it. It would save a lot of effort if Cleggeron simply stood up and said: “We’re going to abolain the RDAs and the Infrastructure Planning Commission”. Ra ra ra!

It goes on. School league tables? They’re being abolained as well!:

“We will reform league tables so that schools are able to focus on, and demonstrate, the progress of children of all abilities.”

And on. Remember the hated SATs?

“We will keep external assessment, but will review how Key Stage 2 tests operate in future.”

Which brings us onto another coping strategy for political parties that don’t know what they stand for in, especially those in coalition with those who stand for something different, though they’re not quite sure what. Announce a review! There are 27, according to the Guardian.

Then, if you can’t really think of anything, you can simply repeat existing government policy:

“We will apply transitional controls as a matter of course in the future for all new EU Member States.”

“We will seek to attract more top science and maths graduates to be teachers.”

You can go even further and state policies that are in fact the normal business of government. Here’s my favourite:

“We will make every effort to tackle tax avoidance, including detailed development of Liberal Democrat proposals.”

Or you can make meaningless statements:

“We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy.”

And if you’re in a real mess, you can engage in complete obfuscation. This is my favourite passage, on the rather important topic of taxation:

“We will increase the personal allowance for income tax to help lower and middle income earners. We will announce in the first Budget a substantial increase in the personal allowance from April 2011, with the benefits focused on those with lower and middle incomes. This will be funded with the money that would have been used to pay for the increase in employee National Insurance thresholds proposed by the Conservative Party, as well as revenues from increases in Capital Gains Tax rates for non-business assets as described below. The increase in employer National Insurance thresholds proposed by the Conservatives will go ahead in order to stop the planned jobs tax.” [my emphasis]

That’s right. They’re going to fund a tax cut with money they aren’t spending. “Mummy, can I have that toy?”; “Sorry, darling, we don’t have any money.”; “Can I have some sweets, then?”; “No!”; “Whaaaah! But we’ve saved money by not buying that toy!”.

The most worrying thing about the LibDem Con “programme for governance” is that there are an awful lot of giveaways: an increase in the personal allowance for income tax, reductions in corporation tax, freezing council tax and so on, and very little in the way of clawbacks.

Either there’s something they’re not telling else, or this government’s going to be a dog’s breakfast.

Woof!

May 11, 2010

It’s the Executive, Stupid

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 8:28 pm

So, I hear on the radio that the Lib Dems are getting into bed with the Tories for – Heaven help us – 3 or 4 years. “For the good of the country”, of course.

The poor dead babies seem to be operating under the delusion that a coalition is about agreeing a set of policies. It isn’t. That’s the easy bit and would result from the parliamentary arithmetic anyway. For example, the Tories are dropping their proposal for an inheritance tax give-away, which only their 306 MPs support.

No, what government is about is the day to day decisions, the responses to events, dear boy, events. In short, the executive.

So if we put the policy horse-trading to one side, Clegg has steered his party into the arms of the Conservatives in return for a referendum on AV. Which, as I pointed out earlier, will very likely be lost, so will be worse than no referendum at all. Much worse.

The last few days, though, have shown that proportional representation will simply not work in the UK. Power is so concentrated in Downing Street that further constitutional changes are needed as well.

In fact, many constitutional changes are needed. I started a blog post a couple of weeks ago listing things wrong with our political system. I never finished it. There was too much to write. The franchise doesn’t even makes sense, for Christ’s sake, with votes for Commonwealth citizens living in the UK, but not for EU and others working here and also profoundly affected by decisions on how their taxes are spent and the services that are provided.

Looking at my draft now, though, I see how I was waxing lyrical about how we have strengthened our presidential system with the TV leaders’ debates. And the Tories won the battle in a shamelessly compliant media that the Prime Minister must be “elected”. Which is meaningless in a parliamentary system.

With all this in mind, here’s my proposal: separation of powers (throughout the whole election campaign I’ve only seen this mentioned by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian).

We should directly elect a Prime Minister – who appoints a cabinet – and, separately, a fully proportional legislature – the House of Commons – which will be free to pursue shifting allegiances.

The executive vote should be by Alternative Vote (AV), since otherwise the outcome depends on which candidates are on offer, as we’ve seen in the US when Ralph Nader ran against Al Gore.

Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies makes sense for the legislature, since it is desirable for legislators to have some contact with what happens on the ground. To all intents and purposes, the legislators in this proposal would operate in a similar way to back-bench MPs at present.

There’s a lot more that could be done – for example, power, including the right to set the appropriate tax rate could be devolved to departments such as health, and the executives of such departments elected separately – but my point is that electoral reform in isolation makes no sense in the UK.

Other proposals, such as fixed-term parliaments, also make no sense in isolation. The UK’s constitution relies on a Prime Minister with the confidence of the House of Commons. It’s entirely possible that no-one would be able to “command a majority in the House”. We’re not far off that situation now. AV (or PR) plus fixed term parliaments in fact creates an even worse situation.

I’m not sure I agree with fixed-term parliaments anyway – what’s the point of lame-duck government? – but in isolation it makes no sense.

It seems to me that a whole package of constitutional changes needs to be agreed by all the major parties, as a coherent whole, and put to the British people in a referendum.

Changing the voting system alone would simply exchange one unfair system for another, even more unfair system, where Clegg and his successors remain permanently in power! And as far as the vast majority of the electorate are concerned it will still be a case or Tory or Labour.

Adieu, AV

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 3:53 pm

What does Clegg think he’s doing?

The situation will probably have changed by the time I finish and post this piece, but, as I write, the Lib Dems are back in talks with the Tories, who seem to want a coalition to govern for a full term! That’s just not going to happen, guys.

If I was a Lib Dem, I’d not agree a deal at all. The Tories would just have to try to struggle on with a minority. The news-flow would be caustic for Cameron as his party shows weakness on a daily basis as they struggle to get legislation through.

Here’s one possibility: once Labour has a new leader they could ally with the Lib Dems and others to vote Cameron down on a confidence motion. But then refuse a dissolution (I assume this is allowed in the constitution), instead indicating that Miliband can command a majority. The Queen would have to ask him to form a government. This probably wouldn’t last long either, but would allow the Lib Dems and Labour to control the timing of an election and prepare with some populist legislation and executive action. Maybe they’d even get through a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV).

The trouble is, it seems to me that Clegg is a self-deluding fool. I therefore expect him to go into coalition with Cameron and destroy his party. The pretext will be “the national interest”, but the real reason will be the desire for power. Many Lib Dem voters who lean towards Labour or even tactically voted – together possibly a majority of Lib Dem support – will be long gone by the next election. And then there’s the risk that the Lib Dems will be seen to prop up an unpopular Tory government, or will be seen as hopelessly split on whatever issue brings the folly to an end.

And whatever happens, Clegg’s probably already lost the Lib Dems any chance of AV, let alone PR, for a generation.

Here’s why. Think about it. The Tories have said they will campaign against AV in any referendum they grant the Lib Dems. What incentive will Labour have to support the proposal? None. Sure, they might pay lip-service, since AV was in the Labour manifesto, but, unlike if they were in coalition with the Lib Dems, they will not expend political capital whipping their significant dissenting elements into line. And they’re hardly likely to spend a lot of money on a referendum campaign when they could be saving their pennies for the next election. I simply can’t see the Lib Dems winning a referendum on anything against the Tories, their toadying media supporters AND elements of the Labour party.

Especially after what’s happened since last Thursday. It’s same old, same old. Like many voters I might support the Lib Dems if I could just work out what they stood for.

Given all the talk of Lib-Lab tactical voting, I rather hoped we’d see Clegg talking to Brown first. By 6am last Friday morning I was able to sleep because I was contentedly absolutely sure the Tories would have around 10 seats less than the Lib Dems and Labour combined. I didn’t lose a night’s sleep willing on the Lib Dems to reach a position to prop up a Tory government.

It is simply ludicrous for the Lib Dems not to know who their natural allies are until after an election. Clegg may be a closet Tory, but whatever, the strategy is entirely wrong. In fact, it’s more than a strategy, it’s what the Lib Dems are, the way the party has been shaped over decades, so it’s not entirely Clegg’s fault. If we’re going to have PR, or even AV (which gives a slightly more proportional outcome in terms of MPs per vote), the electorate (and MPs of other parties!) needs to understand that the Lib Dems will ally with Labour (or the Tories), if at all possible. Only if the natural alliance is absolutely impossible should allegiances of convenience be considered.

We wouldn’t be where we are now if Clegg had campaigned on the basis of being a more moderate progressive party than Labour, so would seek to form a coalition with them. Or, if the party is really the wet wing of the Conservatives he should have made that clear. If any party wants to be taken seriously they have a duty to tell the electorate what they are voting for.

When the dust settles, I think the Lib Dems will find the voters are really quite cross with them.

Sorry, I’m in favour of electoral reform, but, in my judgement, the British people are simply not going to vote for an electoral system where only one vote counts – Nick Clegg’s.

A future of continual tawdry soliciting by the Lib Dems for coalition partners after every election is not a prospect that can be sold to the voters.

And why the hell the Lib Dems want a referendum they’re likely to lose is beyond me. They won’t get another chance for decades. I guess they simply haven’t thought it through.

Since the Lib Dems’ appeal during the election campaign was to break the two-party mould and usher in PR, I fear – no, I can feel it to be the case – that support is ebbing away from both the policy and the party advocating it. Don’t throw away those red-blue swingometers just yet.

Adieu, AV, it was nice knowing you.

April 9, 2010

Job Sums

I’ve been trying to avoid commenting on the General Election campaign, since it would be a huge distraction from far more important issues, but I can no longer ignore the absurd reasoning that’s making its way into the media.

Yesterday, the Guardian, bless their little cotton socks, tried, under the banner “Reality check”, to answer the question “Do national insurance rises cost jobs?” (if you follow the link, then don’t be puzzled – as usual, the online title is different to that in the print version of the paper). The Guardian’s answer is slightly to the “solid” side on a cute little dial that goes from “shaky” to “solid” – let’s call it “mushy”. They seem to think NI rises might cost jobs.

The article included some strange logic, most notably from Richard Dodd of the British Retail Consortium who apparently argued that “…in a competitive market, retailers will struggle to pass the tax on in the price of goods…”. The “competitive market” has nothing to do with it, since the tax will affect all employers. No-one has a new competitive advantage as a result of the tax.

The Guardian also failed to question why business leaders might be against an NI rise. The point is that increasing taxes (like other costs) reduce profitability (temporarily) because in general it takes time to raise prices and recover margins following an increase in costs. As clearly testified by Richard Dodd’s concerns about how “retailers will struggle to pass on the tax”.

But the Guardian’s piece made a bigger mistake – in fact they managed to completely miss the point. You can only answer a question like whether an NI increase will “cost jobs” by considering also what happens to the money raised by the tax. Taxes rob Peter to pay Paul, so if you can only evaluate the effect on any measure – in this case jobs – by looking at the issue in the round.

Since, as argued by the Guardian, the effect on (private sector) jobs of the NI increase is marginal and the money will be spent on retaining jobs in the public sector, then, if it’s the overall number of jobs in the economy you care about, you should be in favour of the NI proposal. The arguments put forward by the Tories and their business friends are misleading.

[I should say I don’t actually believe the prime goal of an economy should be to create jobs and I don’t believe the Tories or business leaders do either. The goal should be to produce as much as possible with as few resources – including people – as possible. Then we’ll all be rich and jobs will then take care of themselves. What I object to is all the dissembling. Having said that, unemployment is high and rising, so it’s not the best time to be bearing down on jobs. In other words, the trajectory Labour wants to put the economy on makes more sense to me than that which the Tories propose. We may as well, for instance, maintain staffing levels in the NHS – thereby saving and improving lives – and, in particular, continue to invest in the IT necessary for future efficiency savings, rather than have people sitting around on the dole].

Today’s FT gives us some clues on how many jobs would be lost by reducing public expenditure by an amount equivalent to that which would be raised by the NI increase. The FT appears to consider a slightly different question, i.e. the effect on jobs of additional public spending cuts in 2010-11 (i.e. this financial year), as proposed by the Tories. The point, which several BBC news bulletins have missed this morning, is that the NI rise only comes in in 2011-12. With the usual disclaimer that unless I’ve completely misunderstood something, in which case perhaps someone will be good enough to put me right…

And it’s surprisingly in the FT, where a “Cameron adviser discloses cuts detail” that the serious dissembling starts.

First, there’s an enormous howler. The article describes a proposal for £1-2bn in job savings by natural wastage this financial year, 2010-11. That is, during the year that’s already started. But the article appears to reckon on a saving of the full annual cost of the jobs – estimated to be £50,000 each – this financial year. Wrong. You can only reckon on that saving if the jobs disappear at the start of the financial year. On average they will disappear halfway through the year (actually later than that, because the Tories wouldn’t even be able to start until May 7th). So on average only £25,000 will be saved this financial year per job shed. Therefore, to save £1-2bn this financial year would require the wastage of £1-2bn/£25,000 = 40,000 – 80,000 jobs, not the 20,000 to 40,000 stated.

Note that if the jobs are lost other than by natural wastage there will be redundancy costs and less, or more likely negative, cashflow savings this financial year. Basically the Tories need to find 40-80,000 retirees or leavers this year who have not yet been accounted for. And whose jobs are so inessential that they don’t need to be replaced. Tough call, I’d have thought, when there aren’t so many other jobs out there to move to.

Furthermore, some of the cost savings are in things like office space, not salary. There’s always going to be a delay in realising such savings, because you can’t move to a smaller office every time someone retires and is not replaced.

Even furthermore, the cost in benefits of 40-80,000 people who would otherwise have had a public sector job to go to needs to be subtracted from the fiscal saving. Let’s be generous and assume that this has been taken account of in the £50,000pa annual cost of a public sector job quoted in the article. You can do your own sums if you want to assume the actual saving is less than £50,000pa (or less than £25,000 saving on average in the current FY, 2010-11).

Second, we’re discussing jobs in the overall economy. The FT article considers how the Tories propose to save an extra £12bn this financial year:

“Other cuts set out by Sir Peter include reductions in IT spending, yielding ‘potentially at least’ £2bn to £4bn. Renegotiation of contracts with suppliers of goods and services – which Sir Peter described as ‘not rocket science … it’s not about beating them up on price’ – would save about £3bn.

Cuts to ‘discretionary’ spending, such as consultants and staff expenses, should yield a further £2.5bn for 2010-11, he said. He declined to be drawn on a figure for property costs.”

Let’s see. Reductions in IT spending will cost jobs at IT suppliers, not all of them overseas. “Consultants” last time I looked were living, breathing working people as well. Reducing staff expenses would cost jobs indirectly as would renegotiation of contracts. The trouble is the lead time on renegotiation of contracts as well as “property costs” – realised presumably by selling offices – is months to years, so achieving the promised cashflow savings this financial year is implausible, to say the least.

I simply don’t find the Tory plans credible. They’d have more chance of getting my vote if they were actually honest about what they believed in. I remember Labour came to power in 1997 with a promise to stick to the Tory spending plans for the next two years. Cameron thinks he knows better. His position is contradictory – he said on the radio this morning that it was difficult for an Opposition to make spending plans, yet he’s confident he can make huge additional cuts this year. Cameron was once thought of as the new Blair. He now seems to have morphed into the new Thatcher. It seems to me that he’d give the economy the sort of shock treatment it received in the early 1980s. Steeply rising unemployment, an assault on the public sector and so on. Maybe it needed it then. I don’t know. But if it needs it now, perhaps Cameron should be making that case, not promising to save jobs when, at least in the short term, his policies are more likely to produce higher unemployment than would otherwise be the case.

Cameron is giving the impression that he can reduce public sector borrowing and unemployment this year and next compared to Labour’s plans. If he really believes this then he’s seriously wrong and not ready for the job of PM. If he doesn’t believe he can square the circle, then perhaps he should clear up the misunderstanding (or is he already planning to make his old chum George Osborne the fall guy when the Government can’t deliver?). The only other possibility is that he’s deliberately misleading the electorate.

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