Archive for May, 2012

As Greece melts down, is anyone meeting in Cabinet Office Briefing Room A (COBRA)?

17/05/2012, 12:23:22 AM

by Peter Watt

Over the years, you always knew when there was a real crisis on, when you heard there was a meeting in COBRA.  Whenever a news reader announced that the prime minister had chaired a meeting of COBRA it was generally pretty serious stuff.  Apparently, in the interests of accuracy, the meetings are actually called COBR meetings – room A refers to just one of the secret command and control centres in and under Whitehall.

Wikipedia describes COBRA as:

“A term used to describe the formation of a crisis response committee, coordinating the actions of bodies within the government of the United Kingdom in response to instances of national or regional crisis, or during events abroad with major implications for the UK. The constitution of a COBR will depend on the nature of the incident but it is usually chaired by the Prime Minister or another senior minister, with other key ministers as appropriate, and representatives of relevant external organizations such as the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Local Government Association.”

These meetings and their venues were once so secret, it was only in 2010 that a single photograph of “room A” was released.

In recent years, and I may be wrong about this, it seems that COBRA has convened more often:  summer riots, foot and mouth, terrorism, contingency planning for fuel strikes and volcanic ash clouds have all prompted the COBRA to raise its head. It is all perfectly sensible that the government has the ability to bring the right people together with the information they need to make effective decisions quickly. Not a panic move, but a good example of our government working to maintain essential services and keep us safe.


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The fall in unemployment is based on p/t working & self-employment

16/05/2012, 12:55:19 PM

by Tony Dolphin

The news that unemployment fell by 45,000 in the first three months of this year, compared to the last three months of 2011, is very welcome. It suggests the current recession in the UK – if it is not revised away when the next set of GDP data are released – is likely to be a very mild one. The drop in youth unemployment – by 18,000 in the latest three months – is further good news.

But there is reason to be cautious.

The labour market is not improving because firms are recruiting more full-time employees. It is improving because more people are taking part-time work, reluctantly, and because more people are setting themselves up in self-employment, possibly also reluctantly.

The 105,000 increase in employment in the latest quarter was more than accounted for by part-time workers. The number in full-time employment fell by 13,000. We know many of these part-time workers are unhappy because the Office for National Statistics asks part-time workers if they would prefer to be working full-time and 1,418,000 said ‘yes’ in the latest three months – the highest number since comparable records began in 1992.

Looking at the numbers differently, 90,000 of the 105,000 increase in employment in the last quarter is due to an increase in self-employment. Unfortunately, the ONS does not ask the self-employed if they would rather be working as an employee – but it is a fair bet that some of the recent increase reflects people who would rather not be self-employed but cannot find a company to employ them.

These are not new trends. The following table shows the change in employment over the last four years (i.e. comparing the first quarter of 2008, just before the recession, with the first quarter of 2012).

The big picture over this period is that total employment in the UK has fallen by just under 300,000. But the number of full-time employees is down by 800,000, while the number of part-time employees and the number of part-time self-employed people are both up by about 250,000. There has also been an increase over this period of over 700,000 in the number of people working part-time who say they are doing so because they want a full-time job.

The continuing legacy of the recession, therefore, is a labour market characterised by companies that are reluctant to take on more full-time employees and workers who are reluctantly working part-time – either for companies or for themselves.

Tony Dolphin is Chief Economist at IPPR

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The status quo in London is not an option

16/05/2012, 07:00:59 AM

by Rob Marchant

As the post-election dust settles, we must hope that the party is, somewhere, currently holding a quiet post-mortem, to take away the lessons for next time. There are many positives we can take away, of course: that the locals went swimmingly and so did the London Assembly. And that we held Glasgow, that vital first step in turning around the Scottish party, a task which is, in turn, a sine qua non for preserving the very Union.

However, in a post-mortem, the biggest lesson to learn – and the easiest to forget if, as in this case, things have gone well – usually comes from what went wrong, not what went right.

In this case, it’s staring us in the face: we lost the mayorals to a mediocre candidate whose party was fairly unpopular, while our London result overall was a resounding win. And what went badly wrong was not the policy offering or the party’s campaign tactics, but the Livingstone candidacy itself.

What is the long-term lesson for Labour, then? How should we be fine-tuning our London strategy? There’s no need to go through again how the election was thrown by the candidate (although, if you need one, there’s a summary here). But he is just one man, and now he is gone. So, job done, right?

Well, no. Labour’s pressing task now is to ensure this can never happen again. And, by the way, he is not gone.


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Gus O’Donnell gives Leveson his prescription for media mismanagement

15/05/2012, 07:00:22 AM

by Atul Hatwal

A little tidbit from Gus O’Donnell’s written evidence at the Leveson Inquiry yesterday:

“When Alastair Campbell was appointed Director of Communications at Number 10, an Order in Council granted him the power to instruct civil servants. I thought that the power was an inappropriate one for a special adviser to have. I felt it was important to have a good civil servant as the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, without any outré Orders in Council. Civil servants are more able to achieve impartiality in briefing and avoid being drawn into political briefing. They have conducted all press briefings on behalf of the Government since that time – Gordon Brown stuck with that approach and so has his successor.”

O’Donnell clearly felt he was making a telling point. A political appointee directing civil servants was such a self-evidently bad thing that neither of Tony Blair’s successors had chosen to repeat this ill-starred experiment.

That’s one view.

Alternately, part of the reason that press coverage of each of Tony Blair’s successors has careened off the rails so violently is that there hasn’t been a single, partisan media chief in control of the government communications machine since Alastair Campbell.

Gordon Brown and David Cameron have each appointed media advisers, but with a limited reach across Whitehall.

The vast empire of hundreds of departmental press officers has been outside of Number 10’s purview. This army of media managers reports up through the civil service hierarchy, independent of the government’s political operation.

It’s an important distinction. Despite the frequent and genuine pleas from civil servants to their ministers that all they want to do is serve them effectively, ultimately, departmental press officers’ future career advancement is in the hands of the mandarins.

That means they are beholden to different masters.


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The Sunday review on Monday: Ed Miliband’s speech and Phil Collins’ hook at the Progress conference

14/05/2012, 07:00:07 AM

by Jonathan Todd

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be Ed Miliband was very heaven.

Rejection of our Tory government has given us 824 new Labour councillors. Rejection of austerity by French and Greek voters presages a new chapter in Europe’s history. Everything seems to be moving in Miliband’s direction. He said this would be a one-term government and maybe it just might.

He began as leader by talking about the squeezed middle and was derided for doing so – but not now. As Alison McGovern noted, when introducing him as key note speaker to the Progress annual conference on Saturday, squeezed middle was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2011. Just as it is undoubtedly worrying that the definitive English dictionary conflates the plural with the singular, even if these two words demonstrate our leader’s capacity to capture the zeitgeist, so too the potency of Miliband’s omnishambles line has been undeniable. No wonder Mary Riddell told the conference: “Ed Miliband has proved himself to be so far ahead of public opinion.”

A new dawn has broken, has it not?

Phil Collins opened his remarks to the conference with this quip. And the sun was shining on Saturday. But it was chillier in the sun than might have been expected.

Collins suspects the Tories will try to turn the general election into a leadership referendum. Recent polling gives some support to this view. He also expressed a “slight worry that the return of growth will let Labour off the hook of answering the key question: What does it mean to be Labour when there is no money?” We’ll need a return to growth, which seems elusive, before that becomes a live concern. But there are several crucial points here.

First, the possibility of pro-growth rhetoric, rather than the reality of growth, creating a false sense that Labour can get off Collins’ hook.


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Sunday review: The election of Francois Hollande

13/05/2012, 07:00:53 AM

by Anthony Painter

Last Sunday, France elected a technocratic centrist. He tips slightly to the left of the centrist band but not far. He’ll shift the debate at the EU level about emphasising growth but expect incremental rather than seismic change. He’s really just a French version of Mario Monti only with a democratic mandate. The problem is that it is not at all clear that is who the French thought they were electing. They think they voted against austerity but they did anything but.

Hollande’s election slogan was ‘le change, c’est maintenant.’ More accurately, it will largely be a case of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – domestically at least. Hollande’s fiscal consolidation plans track Sarkozy’s for the first year then deviate slightly, returning the French budget to fiscal balance a year later. The major flaw in his economic programme is the lack of any determination to reform France’s labour markets. It has some of the heaviest regulation and highest unit costs in the EU. The best performers in Europe on unemployment are those with moderate regulation (lightly regulated countries such as the UK perform less well than the moderate group). France’s regulation is a drag on growth and employment – as is that of Spain – but these are structural concerns whereas there is an immediate issue with demand.

Overall though, his plans are largely sensible. He plans to cut small business tax, enable the state to employ the young unemployed and create a national investment bank. He intends to decentralise the French state. Any European moderate will be completely relaxed about all of this – indeed, they would applaud it. The problem was not in the programme, it was in the rhetoric. On Sunday, Hollande declared:

“In all the capitals… there are people who, thanks to us, are hoping, are looking to us, and want to reject austerity.”

The simple fact is that austerity has become defined in a very broad manner across the EU. It now basically means public spending cuts and tax increases. The bar is set very low and this narrows room for political manoeuvre. Europe’s voters (including in the UK) are being told by political leaders on the left that the choice is either growth or austerity. Would you like to chew on mud or munch a tarte tatin? I’ll have the tarte tatin please.

The problem is that, unfortunately, in this convulsive and volatile world, someone has sprinkled the tarte tatin with mud. And we’re very hungry. What to do?


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David Cameron lied to the House of Commons about Andy Coulson

11/05/2012, 07:00:07 AM

by Atul Hatwal

The reviews for Andy Coulson’s performance at Leveson yesterday might have been glowing, but he did reveal one critical fact. A fact with no caveat or wriggle room.

It came during the passage of questioning on Coulson’s vetting. When asked by the lead counsel for the inquiry, Robert Jay QC, whether he had attended meetings of the National Security Council (NSC), Coulson was unusually clear.

“Yes” he said.

There was no “maybe”, “might have” or “I can’t recall.”

It’s important because attendance at full NSC discussions requires the highest level of clearance, developed vetting (DV) so that participants can view content classified as top secret or above. As has been well established, Andy Coulson did not have this clearance.

So what you might say. If Coulson attended a meeting without the right clearance then that’s not ideal, but hardly front page news.

What elevates this from being another example of shoddy internal government process to significance is the identity of the chair of the NSC: the Rt Hon David Cameron MP.

In this context, Cameron’s reported comments to the House of Commons on Wednesday 20th July 2011 take on a new salience. Responding to questions about Coulson’s security clearance, he stated,

“He was not able to see the most secret documents…It was all done in the proper way“.


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How Labour can get out the vote that other parties cannot reach

10/05/2012, 02:22:14 PM

by Peter Goddard

One of the perennial concerns of political observers and party campaigners alike is the problem of low turnout. It’s a particular issue for the Labour party given some of the most disadvantaged groups, who would potentially be natural Labour supporters, are also among the least likely to vote.

Admittedly, high turnout is not the be all and end all – after all, elections with 100% turnout are generally characterised by a 100% vote in favour of the excited gesticulating man in a general’s uniform. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from the world of sales and marketing which could increase the number of our supporters making the effort to have their say.

When campaigning to increase turnout, the temptation is to take an approach which attempts to convince people that voting is ‘a good thing’ and that the current government are the heartless friends of bankers.

This may be accompanied by a range of well-meaning liberal talking heads despairing that voters are not exercising their democratic rights to fight back against the government and wondering what more can be done to win back these disillusioned voters.

Whilst this seems logical on the face of it, it is an approach that may actually be doing more harm than good. The reason? Social proof.

Social proof is the principle that people tend to do what other people are already doing. One person standing and staring into the sky is an oddball. A dozen people doing this will soon find themselves joined by a flock of fellow skygazers. The government have latched onto a variant known as ‘nudge’ but that doesn’t mean it can’t be of use for Labour.


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Time for politicians to be straight with the voters

10/05/2012, 07:00:10 AM

by Peter Watt

Real life is full of doubt and ambiguity; shades of grey dominate and we are rightly suspicious of people who peddle certainty.

But when it comes to politics it seems that certainty is still the preferred currency, or at least that is the perceived wisdom.  Politicians cannot express uncertainty, only 100% assurance, because to allow for anything else is to invite a charge of weakness and ridicule.

Much of the time we are all complicit in this nonsense.  Can you imagine if Ed Miliband, or any of the other candidates in the leadership contest, had said ‘I think I will make a good leader – but I’m not sure’?  Or if David Cameron had stood at the despatch box yesterday and after being excoriated by Ed Miliband, angrily asserted he was ‘reasonably certain’ that Ed was wrong!

Yet the truth is that most political decisions are subjective involving the weighing up of evidence and options and then making a decision that is hopefully right.  It’s not surprising that the public are increasingly sceptical about politician’s ability to tell the truth.  They just do not believe that politicians can or will deliver.

Remember how polls said that Ken’s fares policy was popular?  Well the same polls often showed that the public also did not believe that Ken could make this happen.  So for all Ken’s façade of certainty over his policy, including a promise to resign if he failed, the public were unmoved.

Politicians are caught between a rock and a hard place.  They must appear certain at all times or they will be seen as weak.  But this certainty does not mean that they are believed and in fact feeds a sense amongt voters of politicians as liars who do not, or cannot, deliver.


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What the Queen’s speech tells us about this dysfunctional government

09/05/2012, 06:37:20 PM

by Atul Hatwal

One thing is clear from this derisory Queen’s speech. Underpinning the paucity of content and the laundry list quality to this rag bag of measures is a central truth: the gangrene of government has well and truly set in.

The most obvious tell-tale sign is the absence of a top-line.  If the BBC is calling your programme a “hotch-potch” with “no over-arching theme”, you know something has gone wrong.

The package of 15 bills and 4 draft bills is rare in that there is virtually no truly distinctive or news-worthy initiative. All of the headlines from these proposals will be generated by the politics of their parliamentary passage, notably with Lords reform, rather than the substantive impact of their delivery.

In coming forward with a programme like this the government has ceded the news agenda. It will be pushed and pulled by the rebellion du jour from right-wing Tories or left-wing Lib Dems on a variety of amendments to Dave and Nick’s anodyne bills.

The real question that should be asked about this Queen’s speech is why? Why is there not a single bill that will draw a dividing line between government and opposition? That will draw their side together and focus the debate on a distinction with Labour. How can the coalition party managers in have been so incompetent?

The answer lies not in their political ability or ambition, but the process of government.


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