Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): 05/01/2005 - 06/01/2005

Monday, May 30, 2005

Oh happy day!

Thank you France. For once Britain is not accused of being a wrecker in Europe by acting on conscience. It's your title! With a bit of luck we will now see a reverse "domino effect", that is the thinking of European leaders behind the order of referenda to allow later ones to be influenced by what was seen as a certain "Oui", and this thing will be dead in the water. Now, I say that not as a principled euro-hater. I say it as someone who wants European cooperation but that thinks with some streamlining of the current EU and a bit of butting out in some areas we're probably not far from what I want right now.

Who's laughing at Howard's suggestion of a multispeed Europe now, eh? Who's scoffing at the idea we can renegotiate anything to make the EU more as we want it, eh? And who's concerned that their "European project", imposing their view of Europe on us incremenatally by stealth, might have been rumbled? Oh happy day. Now we may finally see an open and honest debate about peoples' views of the end game of the EU.

I've been away "road tripping" so profound apologies for the complete absence of blogging in the last fortnight. I hope to offer you some pictures also, but I have been enjoying my last few days as an Englishman in Philly!

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Brief update

A couple of new blogs I've been reading recently are the Pub Philosopher and, a collaborative effort, the Sharpener where there has been a spirited discussion about proportional representation. The Sharpener is going straight onto my blogroll as it looks like bedding in as a lively and interesting place and is another example of the increasing trend for group blogs.

Monday, May 09, 2005

A distinction without a difference

According to the Independent in the UK, these are the dividing lines within the Conservative Party between the so-called "mods" and "rockers".

Modernisers want any tax changes to help the poor, pensioners and families with children.
But those on the right of the Conservative Party are in favour of across-the-board tax cuts, including for the highest earners.

Modernisers think the party want more emphasis on policies helping families and working mothers - including single mothers - including a more well-rounded childcare policy. Those on the right favour accentuating marriage and the traditional family as the best way to bring up children. They are less in favour of framing policy to help lone parents.

Public services
Modernisers believe the National Health Service and good state schooling should be at the top of the Conservative agenda. They favour maintaining state provision, but are not adverse to using the private sector to bolster services. The right of the Tory party does not believe the NHS is sacred and favours using the market, the private sector and health insurance in the health service. They are also more supportive of help for those who send their children to private schools.

Social issues
Modernisers want the party to reach out to non-traditional Tory voters, and are comfortable with the make up of modern Britain and the inclusion of ethic minorities and gays within the party. The right is less comfortable with legislation giving rights to gays, unmarried mothers or transexuals. They would prefer to stick with the issues that appeal to the core Conservative vote such as crime, Europe and immigration.

So much of this just seems to be in no way mutually exclusive. What has always infuriated me is that there is a pragmatic way through the middle of all this and it is why I struggle to associate myself with either "wing". I can agree with pretty much every statement for both sides here. Would I be right in thinking the Tories risk seeing distinctions without differences? I worry it's all based too much around personality; a mistake from which I hope and hoped the party had moved on.

Huff and puff...

The Huffington Post launches today then. Much vaunted amongst trendies, the announcement about its conception was greeted with hoots of derision from many in the blogosphere and I must admit some of the guff which surrounded Arianna Huffington's announcement was somewhat toe-curling and she did sound like she was headed straight for the "Luvvies" section of Private Eye. Nevertheless, it looks as if it may have some interesting content from its first offerings. Having said that, I do think a weakness of it will be the lack of a comments feature; whereas a handful of prominent blogs can get by with this they tend to be written by people much more involved in the blogosphere - not something which I suspect can be said about many of Arianna's gang. It also seems like we will get a fair amount of fluffy guff as well; I love Larry David on TV, but this contribution is...'interesting'.

Let's see how well it fares when the excitement dies down a bit.

An Englishman in Philadelphia

I had a shock this morning as "An Englishman in Philadelphia" loaded up. For a brief moment I was worried I'd been hacked and somebody had given the blog a makeover. I need not have feared. It merely transpires there are, at least, two Englishmen in Philly with blogs. Sad that I only find this as my time nears its end, but I'll give a link and a hat tip to the Englishman in Philadelphia anyway. Congrats to him on his new niece as well. I am, however, very jealous that he has a permanent link to this on his blog. I hope I can name this as a new addition to my own very shortly!

As an aside, I had a great weekend hiking in the Nockamixon State Park and stayed in a lovely hostel and had a glorious barbeque. The relevance of this to this post was merely that I had a fascinating discussion about the Philly accent with a linguistics expert, who confirmed my original instinct that Philadelphians remove all 'l's from their pronunication of the name of their city. Indeed, she suggested that true locals could write the name "fudufwa"...and confirmed my pronunciation has now become suitably Americanised (or maybe Americanized!). I was oddly flattered!

Friday, May 06, 2005

Blair Mk3

So the results are in and Blair's back. Howard is trying to engineer a smooth and professional handover of power within the Tory Party - much similar to the way he conducted his campaign. The two real themes were a Labour crumbling vote nationally, with Liberals benefiting from a largely anti-war sentiment in urban seats they were well positioned in, and the Conservative successful targeting of marginals in what has become a Liberal style in recent years and shoring up their core.

In a controversial move, I'm going to dredge up my pre-poll predictions. I was spot on when I thought we'd see the Liberals barely break into 60s, but underestimated the swing to the Conservatives and hence Labour's majority. Given that, after their campaign and the short period of time Michael Howard had in charge, I would have called getting Blair's majority into double-digits a decent performance I think the Tories can feel pleased about the result. It does represent the beginning of a renaissance, even if it is only the result they should have got four years ago at a time when Labour's vote plummeted. There are now MPs in Wales and Scotland, real targets in the North of England, and an expansion in the numbers of councils and councillors.

For Labour there were a couple of scalps which will make Tony Blair sad. The great UKIP vote never emerged, although they will have suppressed a couple of potential Tory majorities. Galloway behaved disgracefully, and his election is a condemnation of the attitude of many of the people in Bethnal Green & Bow. Nevertheless, it is a win for Labour, an third successive win for Labour, which is some achievement, albeit one we could see coming. The question now is what the opposition can do to make the next one more doubtful.

The Liberal Democrats made gains, and pulled off a couple of extraordinary results in student urban seats: notably Cambridge and Manchester. I don't think it's possible to say that Kennedy made the bold gains he could have done. The party could look back on 2005 as their chance to break into the big game, but that they passed that chance up. The big challenge facing the Liberals is positioning now. Do they seek to hold student and many ethnic minority votes by becoming a left-wing alternative, spurred on by the presence of Brian Sedgemore, a man many joined the SDP to avoid, or do they go for centrist orange-book liberalism, thereby risking spurning the gains they did make this time. Many of the areas in which they made headway will be tough fights against a less revisionist Labour party; to which many supposedly natural Labour supporters may feel inclined to return. With the increases coming in this way, as Labour support crumbled, it makes the question of resolving their "two faces" all the more pressing. As a centrist alternative the omens were less good, with "decapitation" never really emerging as its targets increased their majorities. Directly against the Tories, the Liberals made no substantial headway. So do they try to hold these gains and face up to Labour on the left hoping they won't be soft votes, or do they risk them much more and hope to pick up disillusioned centrists?

Whatever our feelings about the results, I do think "normal politics" can be resumed.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The good old state of Texas

Just what do they think cheerleading is all about? It's like the legislators have been a 70 year time warp and missed the processes which have shaped modern America!

Prediction time

In a messy general election, not helped by an unengaging media inappropriately responding to the different market dynamics of a three party race, any results are very difficult to predict. My head tells me we will see a Labour majority in the early 90s, with the Liberals not breaking far clear of 60 seats. My heart tells me we could see a shock slump in the Labour vote - which initial postal returns may support - leading to a crumbling majority, a la 1970, or effective campaigning from the Liberals to create a real electoral realignment, albeit an undesirable one. I think my head' s more reliable!

It's been a messy campaign, almost a dress rehearsal for one that will seem to matter much more in five years time. What is clear, however, is that it feels tricky to predict but that it could offer a very important platform for realignments which could happen in an uncertain political climate. I'll save time for more meaningful musing about what we can draw from the campaigns when it's all over. What has been most frustrating is missing my second electoral hit in twelve months by being out of the country. C-Span beckons tomorrow afternoon...


This is slightly less articulate than it was originally, owing to a computer crash, but I've done my best to resurrect the gist of it...

The message pushed in the last few days by the Conservative Party is a message which they should have been pushing earlier. Unfortunately, now it is lost in the morass having been overshadowed by a guerilla war waged with the intention of attracting specific voters in specific seats. The problem the "forgotten majority" strategy ran into is that people would opt for an optimistic alternative, but they don't so hate and feel personally aggrieved by the Blair Government that they think "things can only get better". They feel let down after their great expectations.

Nevertheless, it has been relentlessly professional and largely very slick. There has been a clearly honed message and very detailed economic plans. Michael Howard has turned around the hopes and spirits of a party which, when he came in a mere 18 months ago, was at the bottom of a period of deep self-loathing and depression. He has begun a recovery towards an effective campaigning unit and the self-belief necessary to stand up and defend your world view.

The Conservatives have tackled a number of undesirable issues that need debate and change. On pensions, on transport, on the borrowing deficit gap they have campaigned productively and positively. In other areas they could have more imaginative thinking, which links to the vision comments I make below, but compared to the pure spin of Labour there have been plans on the table.

The election has seemed to be a genuine fight, and, at the start, was a very long way from anything approaching a foregone conclusion. It's important for politics that there's at least and assertive and confident alternative.

There have been a number of failings though.

The detailed economic plan was sound. It was IFS approved. They said the Party probably wouldn't have to make the tax hikes Labour and the Liberals would have to. It only took Labour to reel off some false statistics about the health of the economy and the issue was never mentioned. The Party plans £4 billion of tax cuts yet we heard no discussion of the benefits that could have for the country. We heard no real loud discussion of the future problems Brown is storing up, although they were obliquely referred to in passing. It almost makes you wonder whether the James Report was worth the effort.

Immigration, whether intentionally or unintentionally, took over the heart of the campaign. It got bogged down in tangential arguments around the policy, rather than the policy itself, and ultimately stalled the campaign. Howard and Crosby hoped it would show a clear difference between Labour and Tory views of the world, allowing Howard to seem principled and prepared to take a stand against the leftist inspired forces of political correctness. Instead dubious campaigning tactics by a handful of activists gave an opening to allow Howard to be painted in a dubious way and made the policies themselves much more difficult to defend. This, and the sometimes irrational response to them, meant the whole question became not one of policy, but one of how close to racist it was fair to brand Michael Howard. In the words of one coloured lady interviewed by the BBC, he raised legitimate issues and, in one respect, sensible policies, but they needed tackling with care. The desire to use it to represent issues of principle between the parties lead to the slurs of opponents being much less obviously incorrect.

Likewise, I would have preferred a more spirited defence of the education and health policies, in terms which show how they would benefit all. They were policies inherited, but they are fairly sound in their detail, if not the most superficially easy to sell. This is how they could have been blended in to satisfy the lack of the "vision thing".

The Conservatives were higher on slickness and professionality, making a fist of a competition, but really lacked a binding and convincing vision of what a Tory Britain would be like. The great challenge is to develop this, and ensure they can put forward a consistent critique of Blair/Brown's direction in the terms of this vision. There was not enough hatred of the way we're going for people to say "things can only get better". There had to be convincing arguments as to why the "change of direction" proposed was the right direction.

In short, if the focus on key voters in marginals through the "plan for action" and its content picked the right issues then I tip my hat to Howard and Crosby. If not, then the party needs to put itself in a position to make the next election a serious possibility, because the strategy will have set back progress towards being a party which can appeal to the majority through a convincing vision. The challenge for them is to fashion that vision of a Britain with a smaller Government, where people keep more of their own money, and where people take more personal responsibility in a way such that the whole country can be seen to benefit. This can only be helped though by what will be Howard's greatest success: being strong enough and professional enough to make the Tories contenders and usher in a new generation of MPs who will be vital to any renaissance.


Labour's campaign was based upon focussing the electorate's mind on how much they hate the Tories. They lied and misrepresented Conservative policy throught. They deployed cynical slogan after cynical slogan to invoke big bad ogres. They relied upon largely healthy current headline figures for the economy. As a result they will most likely win. Tony Blair made a big point of praising the "niceness" of the Liberals but saying they wouldn't make the tough decisions. Much of middle England, I would suggest, is the same. They haven't yet felt the pinch of economic instability and decline to motivate them to put up with economic toughness from an alternative. They won't make the hard decisions about what has to happen to shore up the economy in advance until they feel the bite - by then it will be too late and people will suffer. Labour have been lucky though, for they have proclaimed the health of the economy and nobody from the political body has challenged this orthodoxy.

I honestly cannot name a single policy which Labour is keen to or plans to push through in the next Parliament. Vital decisions on really quite important and sensitive issues such as the pension shortfall, what will happen with local taxation and housing revaluations, how he will fund the black hole in the economy having promised not to raise income tax or, now, national insurance. Even the manifesto is hugely inaccessible. There is a myriad of meaningless soundbites and platitudes but no tough policy, no serious proposals. I feel, therefore, entitled to ask how they feel anybody can trust them to lead an elective dictatorship when they are so vague on a programme for action - although given their previous contempt for manifesto pledges this is, perhaps, not so great a problem.

The real story of the Labour campaign was the return of Gordon Brown, surely now Prime Minister in waiting. What that signals is a real concern in the Labour camp when the election was called that the Tory resurgence would continue, with the opposition highlighting important and different issues at the start of each week. This lead to the demonisation of the Conservatives as the key strategy, and the depiction of Blair+Brown as a kindly and dynamic pair, who were, despite everything, pretty straight kinds of guys. This has meant Labour can continue, in the minds of the many, to offer responsible government with a heart which isn't going to unduly harm their pockets, even though they don't like aspects of its behaviour. They have succeeded, therefore, in painting the Tories as heartless, and, to a lesser extent, unlikely to be any different in terms of how much of their money members of the electorate will be allowed to keep.

I wish I could say more, but this must surely be the least inspiring and least visionary campaign ever by a governing party. We have heard nothing about a plan for the future, merely the repeated assertion that Labour will continue "forward", alongside contrasts with horrible alternatives. New Labour has come of age as a managerial marketing fad. The fascinating challenge for Labour is whether this is sustainable if a downturn approaches; and if it's not what they do. For now though, it's the short-term economy, stupid.


So it's election day at last. After little blogging from me in the dullest week of the campaign by far (they seem to have got progressively dulller) I thought I would run an overview of the three main parties campaigns; because now there is a genuine three party system in the UK, for worse or even worse.

So, starting off with the Liberals. On the whole they had three main weapons in the arsenal at the start. The war in Iraq, local income tax and opposition to tuition fees, as well as their stock defence of civil liberties stuff. Despite the "real alternative" slogan I didn't feel there was any real theme to the campaign. I saw no vision of a Liberal Britain, but, to be fair, they have been pretty successful in harnessing the "fairness" idea and presenting themselves, when it is beneficial as a party which will take more of your money to spend it in a way they deem better and fairer.

Of their three "trump cards", university tuition spectacularly failed to become even a minor issue, with almost no real debate over the competing plans at all. The greatest prominence which I saw the question given was in relation to the trustworthiness of the PM after he contradicted his last manifesto. I will be surprised if we see a significant shift to Liberal Democrats in predominantly student areas off the back of this issue. Perhaps the small problem of the hypocrisy of Liberal assertions in relation to the continued existence of fees in Scotland, where they are in power, is partly to explain for this.

Local income tax leads in to one of the two greatest problems I see facing the Liberals. Charles Kennedy. Yes, the man's wife had given birth two days before the press conference, but he may well live to rue his spluttering performance when asked about local income tax. This, like top-up fees, was a winning card which never was, capped in the bidding stakes by Tory then Labour concessions to pensioners. Likewise I have vivid memories of Mr Kennedy looking distinctly uncertain when faced with the explanation that a household with two working parents in the public sector, doing "vital" services such as a fireman and teacher, would end up paying more. This, and his lack of clarity over his assertion that the average family would save either £450 or £540 just go to cement the image that Mr Kennedy is affable but not quite up to it, and that the party is not actually a real or serious alternative platform, but makes comfortable noises for much of the electorate with eye-catching individual policies which will be popular. This needn't stop them becoming an established third party, however.

The one area in which they did make progress and land real punches was on Iraq, despite their own slightly incoherent position. Such is many peoples' dissatisfaction over this on the left, however, that they are keen for any mainstream party they feel can accommodate their resentment over what took place. There was a risk that it could feel overdone - and I do think many were put off by too much talk of assigning blame from the past - but the strategy of leaving it alone until the final ten days seemed very wise and has allowed an added jump in the polls towards the tail of the campaign. Indeed this is the one area in which Mr Kennedy, by now very well versed in populist appeal on the issue, really did seem confident of his position and capable of inspiring confidence in others.

There was also a healthy dose of cringeworthy "we're the only honest and positive ones unlike those horrible, evil Tories and Labour. The bastards only call each other names which we would never do." My own opinion is that this running down of the main parties in order to present yourself as slightly removed from the kerfuffle plays a key part in the public's poor perceptions of politicians and politics in general. I really do find it annoying. Nevertheless, it works. People perceive the Liberals to be making the same aggrieved noises as they do about the process and feel they can connect with them more.

So, all in all, if the polls are right, it's been a pretty successful Liberal campaign, if a little nauseatingly "holier than thou" for a voter in my demographic. They played the nice cuddly populism card very well and it has continued to pay dividends for them. They did benefit from surprisingly little in terms of early hard attacks from Labour and the Conservatives over their questionable arithmetic and shaky parts of their platform, but that may well be explained by a fear on behalf of the big two that a higher profile for policies which sound nice and only fall apart under scrutiny could lead to an unengaged electorate being pulled to the party. I think this was a fortunate break, as it allowed them to define their own campaign much more as polling day approached. A campaign I would call "fake cuddly" - cynically dressed up to seem cuddly and harmless in order to mop up people disaffected with those going for it more rigorously.

The great challenge ahead for the Liberals is whether they become a left-wing protest party for a centrist Labour, with the likes of Brian Sedgemore - from whom the SDP, most ironically, once fleed - at its heart or whether they become a classically liberal party to govern. This will require the development of an actual ideology and a confrontation of the inherent internal tensions between social democrats and liberals.


Full text to follow.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Broad Street Run

Yesterday I took part in the 10-mile Blue Cross Broad Street Run through the center of Philadelphia. Broad Street is the longest, straightest road in America and, I believe, was also the first road in the states to be paved for motor cars. Going from North Philly (and the end of the subway line) down through the center and around City Hall whilst the statue of William Penn looked down on us, we went straight down to the old naval docks and a reception with the Eagles, Phillies and 76ers stadia at the finish line. Seeing all the sights of Philly made me realise quite how much I'll miss it when I move on.

But, boy, what an experience. They had a record number of competitors this year - a whisker short of 14,000 - and the whole route was lined with supporters and good citizens of Philadelphia cheering us on. Particular highlights included seeing Governor Ed Rendell and Mayor Street, chatting to the eventual runner-up in the queue for the "porta-potties" at the start and being urged on with one and a half miles to go with the "Rocky" theme tune, forever linked to Philly. My time was 1 hour 27 minutes which, for the first time I'd run a distance quite like that, I was pretty proud of, especially with a stunning one week's training! It worked out at about 8:31 a mile and put me just inside the top third of male runners I think. I was a competitive runner till I left my mid-teens but seem to have got the hunger for it back now. I think I may regret having promised myself the London Marathon for next year though!

Apologies for the comments problem - I am trying to sort it out, but it looks like my original comments provider has finally bitten the dust. If you could use the small comments system for now please! It seems like I missed a fairly quiet weekend of blogging action anyway.