Oh no! It’s a links post!

I don’t make a habit of “links posts”, but here are a few responses to the budget that have caught my eye today, until I have time to write anything myself:

  • David Byrne at Compass: the budget is “completely and utterly wrong in macro-economic terms” and “will be regressive”; but Labour is “flailing about” in the absence of a credible alternative to the deflationary orthodoxy. Byrne also links this article by Tory peer Lord Skidelsky warning of the need to keep pumping money into the economy – a warning the chancellor has chosen to ignore.
  • Shelter on how the reforms to housing benefit could “push many households over the edge, triggering a spiral of debt, eviction and homelessness”.
  • The FT on one of the “real little horrors” buried in the fine print: the proposal to cut housing benefit by 10% for those who’ve been on the dole for a year: “It basically delivers an ultimatum to hundreds of thousands of long term unemployed: find a job or move house. This is the Cameroon version of ‘on yer bike'”.
  • David Osler on a budget “purposely designed to bring about the withering away of the welfare state”, going far beyond anything attempted by Margaret Thatcher: “This is a move for which no obvious parallel in twentieth century British history comes to mind. Cuts of this magnitude can only have wideranging impact on the fabric of the life of this country.”
  • A personal perspective from someone whose employment and financial prospects have been devastated by the budget: multiply this story by hundreds of thousands to get the real picture of what this government is already doing to people.

Though the last word has to go to the inestimable Infobunny, who chose the medium of sculpture in which to give her response to Osborne’s debut:

I commend this post to the house.


Interest vs support: an academic distinction?

Michael Gove has been trumpeting the success of his push to convert more schools to academy status (i.e. bringing them under the direct control of central government rather than local education authorities), with headlines last week announcing that two-thirds of top schools want to be academies.

This refers to the fact that 70% of secondary schools rated as “outstanding” have expressed interest in becoming an academy. Conclusive evidence, surely, of the popularity of the measure: the image is created of hundreds of high-quality schools eager to throw off the dead hand of LEA control and fly free. But is this the reality?

Here’s one example that suggests otherwise. Gove’s push allows primary schools to apply to become academies for the first time, and our two older boys’ primary school, rated as “outstanding” in its most recent Ofsted report, would seem a natural candidate.

My wife, E, told me yesterday that the headteacher, Mrs M, has confirmed that the school is considering academy status. However, Mrs M observed that there are “pros and cons” to academy status, and “so far the disadvantages outweigh the advantages”. This is unsurprising: our impression is that the school has an excellent relationship with the LEA.

But here’s the thing: the only way that the school could obtain the information needed to weigh up these pros and cons is to “express an interest” in becoming an academy. Having done so, it is duly counted by Gove’s Department of Education as an “expression of interest” and spun as another “top school wanting to be an academy” – despite the early indications being that it has no intention of proceeding further.

I imagine the same is true of many, if not most, of the other “top schools” who have expressed an interest. What Gove is doing is fairly clear: spinning expressions of interest into expressions of support, thus helping give the appearance of momentum – of what Marxists might call “historical inevitability” – to his centralising policies.

All in this together?

I don’t propose to blog in detail today on George Osborne’s budget and its likely effects. There’ll be plenty of analysis and discussion going on elsewhere over the next few days.

But while all the discussion is going on, here’s a chart to keep in mind, from p.67 of the Red Book (PDF), showing the percentage impact on net income for different levels of income:

You’ll notice two things. First, those at the very bottom are hit harder than almost anyone else. Only the top two deciles – who can well afford it – suffer a bigger impact.

Second, even the Treasury is acknowledging that the VAT rise is deeply regressive. VAT makes up the bulk of the “indirect tax” impact shown in the chart, and the impact of such rises is -1.5% for those at the bottom of the income range and less than 1% for those at the top. And for those in the bottom deciles, 1.5% or 1.25% is a significant amount of money.

Talk of “lifting 880,000 people out of income tax” by raising personal allowances sounds good, and may mollify the consciences of some Lib Dem supporters, but in reality the benefits of this are far outweighed by the impact of the VAT rise.

In short, the Budget is as many predicted: a re-run of this celebrated Labour election poster from the 1930s:

The only differences are that the guy at the top is arguably being asked to step down two rungs – and the guy at the bottom to step down one and a half.

I agree with Diane (getting nominated)

Excellent post by Don Paskini at LibCon that sums up why I’m delighted Diane Abbott is on the ballot for the Labour leadership.

As Paskini argues, Diane Abbott is no token candidate – that honour belongs to Andy Burnham – but a “serious contender”:

She occupies the centre ground in policy terms – anti-Iraq war, anti-NHS privatisation, pro-equality and in favour of reducing the deficit by taxing the rich rather than cutting public services.

Paskini also acknowledges that Abbott has serious weaknesses. In particular, her lack of support among MPs (with most of her nominations being “donated” by other contenders, notably David Miliband) is I think fatal. As the Tories discovered to their cost with Iain Duncan Smith, it is a big mistake for the wider membership to elect a leader who lacks support in parliament.

But as Paskini points out, Abbott’s candidature will confront the “establishment” candidates with “an articulate populist politician” making “reality-based soft left arguments”, as happened when Jon Cruddas stood for deputy leader. The result is likely to be a lot of “I agree with Diane” (or whatever euphemistic paraphrase David and the Eds can come up with to avoid using that precise form of words!).

I agree with Paskini that “Abbott’s challenge can only be a good thing for the Labour Party”. It will increase engagement both within and outside the party, move the conversation away from immigration to underlying issues such as housing and employment, and force the other candidates to raise their game as they respond to Abbott’s arguments (a point also made very well by the Guardian yesterday).

It will also be both an opportunity and a challenge for the Labour left, as Abbott puts forward “leftie arguments which the people in charge of the party have ducked out of debating for all these years”:

We’ll be able to find out which leftie policy ideas capture the public’s support and which ones belong in the dustbin of history.

I’m not one of those who believe that “the masses are to the left of Labour”, but I still suspect we’ll be more surprised by how many ideas belong to the former category rather than the latter – particularly as the radically right-wing nature of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition becomes more apparent over the coming weeks.

“Punch and Judy politics” will be back. Good.

Simon Hoggart bemoans the tedium of the new grown-up prime minister’s questions: the atmosphere “kindly, thoughtful, concerned”; David Cameron admitting when he didn’t know the answer to a question; any jibes that he did get in being “good-natured digs, the kind of banter old friends might use against each other”. “Gosh it was dull”, Hoggart observes.

Don’t panic, Simon. Every new prime minister starts by insisting that PMQs will now be a serious opportunity to debate policy, with no more “Punch and Judy politics”. That was the stated reason for Tony Blair changing PMQs from two fifteen-minute sessions to one half-hour session each week, and I’m sure similar noises were made when Gordon Brown became PM. I certainly recall the death of John Smith (and the bipartisan expressions of regret that followed) leading to claims that his legacy would be an end to the worst excesses of adversarial politics, not least at PMQs.

In each case, though, the realities of adversarial politics soon reasserted themselves. Once the Tory/Lib Dem government starts to actually do things (in particular, once the budget takes place on 22 June ), once things start to go wrong, once the pressures of office mean Cameron can no longer feel so coolly on top of things, then Simon Hoggart and his fellow sketchwriters will once again be able to revel in the weekly political boxing match.

Adversarialism is deeply rooted in our political culture. That’s partly because the British people like adversarial politics, more than we perhaps care to admit (just as Bill Bryson suggests that the many strange and evocative place names in England reflect the fact that we just like living in places called Nether Wallop or Bishop’s Widdle).

But it’s also a reflection of something healthy about our political life. We don’t have a legislature composed of a political class engaged in maintaining a cosy, self-serving consensus – though in recent decades we’ve moved uncomfortably closer to that – but a parliament in which MPs represent the interests of their constituents. And often (not always, but often) those interests compete or are in conflict with one another. The adversarial “Punch and Judy” of PMQs reflects this; a “grown-up” PMQs would not only be dull, but a further slide into the managerial consensus of a separate political class.