'Oh, so that's who Richard Morris is..." Lord Hattersley on The Daily Politics

'An influential activist' - The Guardian

'Iain Dale, without the self loathing' - Matthew Fox in The New Statesman

You are a tinker...' - Tim Farron

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

BBC Sports Personality of the Year. Here's how to find out who voted - and who they voted for

Much has been made, and quite rightly, of the outstanding lunacy that has led to the shortlist for Sports Personality of the Year containing the names of 10 men - and not one woman. Simply gobsmacking.

The reason why this debacle has occurred is probably revealed when you realise how the shortlist is assembled. It is put together by asking Sports Editors for newspapers and magazines who should be on the list.

Clare Balding has tweeted that she believes every single one is Male

And it's also worth pointing out that such homes of excellence in sports writing as Zoo and Nuts magazines have been given a vote. Amazing. Needless to say, no female targeted magazines were consulted.

But of course overall it underlines how the mainstream media undervalues and under reports womens sport overall.

Here's the list of who voted for whom (from the BBC).

Why not drop the BBC a line to tell them just what you think.


Here's a brilliant Guardian article listing 10 women who should have been on the list. The first - Sarah Stevenson - seems especially worthy.

I'm not flavour of the month with New Statesman readers...

If you fancy reading a lot of abuse ained at yours truly, do pop over and read the comments section of this piece. My use of the phrase 'clear yellow water' has proved particularly ill judged...

If you can't be bothered, here's what's got them all so riled.

In the Autumn Statement, a Tory Chancellor will announce a set of Liberal Democrat policy initiatives, and, all things considered, be congratulated on his foresight and wisdom by his Labour Shadow.

I'll let you all chew that over for a moment. OK? Right then, onward...

Up until May 2010, the easiest way to poke a Lib Dem into fury was to announce, "I often ask myself, what is the point of the Lib Dems?". I seem to recall Anne Leslie was especially good at putting a lot of vitriol into it. I've no idea what was said next, as I was too busy shouting at the TV by then.

Since the last general election, everyone has found it rather too easy to answer that question.

If you're on the left, then the Lib Dems are a bunch of never to be trusted pseudo Conservatives determined to shove a right wing regressive agenda on an unsuspecting public.

If you're a Tory, then we're a crowd of yellow livered wets stopping them thrust a fiscally driven tidal wave of horrid tasting medicine down the throats of Britain.

In truth we are neither of these things. But we did leave a bit of a vacuum -- so we've no one to blame but ourselves.

For 12 months, pursuing a line of "not a cigarette paper between us" did indeed make us look like we were interested in pursuing nothing but a Tory agenda. This was not true and the grassroots hated it. But a narrative was set.

Fortunately, since the nadir of May 2011 -- and our own dose of electoral medicine -- we've started pointing out the opposite is true. Now we get credit all over the place for stopping the Conservatives doing all they want - from the Conservatives. Here for example, is the delightful Nadine Dorries

Mr. Speaker, the Liberal Democrats make up 7 per cent of this parliament, and yet they seem to be influencing our free school policy, health -- many issues -- immigration and abortion. Does the prime minister think it's about time he told the deputy prime minister who is the boss?


Anyway, while we've delighted in playing the role of Tory handbrake, going forward it does beg the old question of what we're "for" once again. Because we can't just be seen to be playing defensive to the Tory bouncers. We need to get on the front foot -- and remind people what we're actually about.

So how lovely it is that we've started setting the agenda.

Last week, Martin Bright (once of this Parish) wrote a good summation of the Youth Contract entitled "So this is what the Lib Dems are for".
And now we'll see George Osborne announcing a whole heap of other initiatives -- infrastructure investment, raising the bank levy, extra school places, cheaper borrowing for businesses -- that have Lib Dem stamped all the way through them. And which Ed Balls, to his credit, has welcomed as the right things to do.

No doubt there will be a ton of measures announced by George Osborne tomorrow that grassroots Lib Dems will find difficult -- any freeze on tax credits, for example, will be especially hard to swallow.

But at least there is clear yellow water between plan A and Plan A+, with A+ combining fiscal accountability with social responsibility.

Which is what the Lib Dems are for, by the way.

Monday, 28 November 2011

My new piece is up at the New Statesman & will upset lots of people.

It's already upset Charlotte H.


Here's the link

New CEO for Party Announced.

He's called Tim Gordon. This letter is from Tim Farron. There may be a new rule for senior Party officials I know nothing about. Tim Clegg anyone?

Anyway, here's the note...


Dear Richard,

It is with great pleasure that I can today announce the appointment of Tim Gordon as the Party’s new Chief Executive.

Tim will take up this position on 9 January 2012.

Tim Gordon brings to the role a lifetime of commitment to the Party, as a volunteer, campaigner and candidate, but also a strong commercial background and clearly demonstrated leadership qualities.

Tim Gordon has been a Party activist since his teens, when he first volunteered for the SDP “Yes to Unity” campaign, and has since campaigned in every major election. He stood as parliamentary candidate in Rotherham in 2005. He worked as a researcher for David Steel when he was Foreign Affairs spokesperson, and has been a member of several policy working groups over the years. He is currently an active member in Islington.

Tim Gordon’s professional career has been shaped in the world of strategic business management. He started at the Financial Times, before working at The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) and most recently as Group Development Director at European Directories, a large European media company. Through this career Tim has demonstrated strategic thinking, use of online technology to deliver change, fundraising ability, an understanding of internal organisation dynamics and experience of building alignment around common priorities.

Tim takes over from Chris Fox, who leaves us on Wednesday to take up a new role as Director of Group Communications at a FTSE100 engineering company.

During the five week interim period, the Federal Executive-appointed recruitment panel have asked Hilary Stephenson, the current Director of Elections and Skills, to serve as Acting Chief Executive. Having known Hilary for many years I know that she will very ably hold the fort for this time and I am delighted that she has agreed to take on this challenge.

Best wishes,

Tim Farron
President of the Liberal Democrats

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Swearing at the police. Still a really bad idea.

Two things.

First off. All those reports that you can swear at police officers now with impunity? Quite wrong. And, as this rather excellent post explains, not what the judge ruled at all. It's a fascinating read. H/t to @davidallengreen for pointing me in that direction.

Secondly. Swearing generally. The police really don't like it. 

My Mum and Dad are fairly quiet souls and are both in their 70's. The other week they were parked in their local Tesco car park when another car backed in to them.

The other driver leapt out and was immediately very aggressive. Point blank refused to give any of her details.  And swore at my parents - over and over again.

So they took her number plate, drove home and called the police (Cambridgeshire)

Who were brilliant.

And do you know what the police were most irate about?

The driving without due care and attention?
The refusing to exchange details?
Nope. The swearing. Which they said was completely unacceptable.

Visits to the other driver ensued, dire warnings given, apologies extracted. Mum says the police couldn't gave been more concerned.

So it's nice to be able to say a big thanks to the Cambridgeshire constabulary for looking after my parents. 

And to warn everyone - don't swear at the police. They REALLY don't like it.

PS. Would love to have seen the drivers face when they told her she'd been volleying endless abuse at a retired vicar...

Friday, 25 November 2011

Nick's letter announcing the new Youth Contract

This just arrived: I think it says everything you'd want it to say. More of this please!!

Dear Richard,

Today I have launched the Youth Contract, a £1bn programme to get every unemployed young person earning or learning again before long-term damage is done.

We cannot afford to lose the skills and talent of our young people – right when we need them most. We need the next generation to help us build a new economy.

Across the UK, youth unemployment has risen to 21.9% and in Richmond upon Thames, there are currently 415 young people claiming Job Seekers Allowance. We owe it to them to make sure that even in tough economic times, we will do everything we can to find them a job, training or education.

That is why today I have committed the Coalition to investing £1bn to tackle youth unemployment. You can read more about the contract here, but it includes:

A work experience place for every unemployed 18 to 24 year old who wants one

410,000 new work places over the next three years

20,000 more incentive payments to encourage employers to take on young apprentices

250,000 new work experience placements

And because we know businesses are struggling to take young people on, we will pay half their basic wage for six months

Young people have been hit particularly hard in the recession, but even in the boom years, Labour failed to tackle the issue. During Labour’s 13 years, youth unemployment rose by 40%. With Liberal Democrats in Government, we won’t allow the children brought up in the boom to bear the brunt of the bust. The next generation must not pay the price for my generation’s mistakes. So the Coalition Government won’t sit on our hands and let a generation fall behind.

Nick Clegg MP
Leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister

Youth Jobs. I'm spending the whole weekend worrying....

Ok. We're all over the news. With good news.

1. There's a new scheme to help solve the terrible problem of Youth Unemployment.

2. Nick has taken ownership of the initiative

3. Everyone - in principle - seems to think that it's a good thing (here's an example from a source who doesn't generally back the Lib Dems...).

What's more - Labour's alternative would create just 100 000 new jobs (compared to the 400 000 this scheme will create) and David Cameron (let's be generous here team, he made a great observation in PMQ's on Weds) pointed out that Labour's funding for the scheme - bankers bonuses - looked a bit flaky. Here's the Sky news report:

Mr Cameron rejected the Labour leader's claim that a bankers' bonus tax could be used to create more jobs for young people.

"We've just heard a new use for the bonus tax - there have been nine already," he told cheering and jeering MPs.

He said the Opposition had already suggested it pay for more tax credits, cutting the deficit, public services, the Regional Growth Fund, turning empty shops into community centres and higher capital spending.

Mocking Ed Balls' tendency to make a hand gesture at the Prime Minister, a wave intended to reflect a flatlining economy, Mr Cameron added: "This is the bank tax that likes to say yes!

So far so good.

Then I read this piece in today's New Statesman entitled 'Clegg comes unstuck on jobs scheme'.

The article suggests that the scheme will be funded by freezing tax credits - thus helping one group by hitting another who need all the assistance they can get.

'That's not right', I thought. 'We've had a fist fight with The Treasury and agreed to raise benefits by 5.2% across the board. Its a Lib Dem victory.'

Anyway, before I fired off a strident rebuttal on the comments section I just thought I'd check via the Lib Dem blogosphere - and it seems things are not clear cut.

Tax credits are a Gordon Brown invention as Chancellor, and were firmly under his control - and therefore are managed by The Treasury, not the Department of Work and Pensions and not included in the 5.2% rise.

The actual truth is - no one knows where the money is coming from until we hear George Osborne give the Autumn Statement, and it won't come from a single source.

But if tax credits are frozen on Tuesday, then we know the line that will be taken - hitting the poor to help the young.

Please don't let it be true.

Update and Cheerier news.

Just dug this off the Telegraph website. Quotes from Nick. Doesn't sound like freeze on tax credits to me...

"We will do everything we can to make sure the poorest are protected. We will not balance the books of this country on the backs of the poorest".

Mr Clegg added: "Over the last year and a half we've increased capital gains tax, we've slapped on a big bank levy, we've made sure that the loopholes that the wealthy enjoy are closed and we will have more of this kind of thing to make sure that the people with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share"

As a public service I present a ten word description of 'The Grapes of Wrath' to save you reading it.

There's a lot of talk about 'The Grapes of Wrath' right now. I think the BBC4 are having a bit of a season. Anyway, I keep hearing people are reading it...

Call me shallow - I know you will - but I can't stand 'The Grapes of Wrath' and always describe it as my least favourite book. Ever.

I am not denying its fine writing. Its important themes. Its interesting analogies with today, in its depiction of greedy immoral bankers crushing the poor underfoot. You can find out all the reaons why its a great book in Melvyn Bragg's piece over at The Guardian

But I found reading it a totally unsatisfying experience. So here - in rather fewer words than Melvyn - is a summation of why I don't enjoy The Grapes of Wrath.

It is:


*shamelessly nicked off Melvyn

If that's your cup of tea and if your idea of a storming night out at the pictures is 'We need to talk about Kevin' then nip onto Amazon now and get a copy; otherwise - my advice? Life's too short...

Sorry and all that

PS Why not read 'The Road to Wigan Pier' instead. Same sentiment, much better

Sunday, 20 November 2011

'Famous person replies to blog' shock. I had to have a lie down.

When I wrote to Prof.Anita Hill asking her to use her influence at Time Magazine to help make Mohammad Al Bouazizi their 'Person of the Year', following their panel event that she appeared on a couple of weeks ago. I didn't really expect her to actually reply.

But she's dropped me a line.

It seems that the panellists were just being asked their opinion about who should be 'Person of the Year' and the decision lies entirely with the Editorial team at Time. So...back to plan A.

If you would like to help make Mohammad Al Bouazizi Time's 'Person of the Year', then please:

1. Write to Richard Stengel, Managing Editor of Time, by clicking here.

2. Sign our petition by clicking here

3. Visit and 'like' our Facebook page by clicking here

and if you need to remind yourself WHY Mohammad should win this award, please click here.

Thanks all!

Saturday, 19 November 2011

"Give me a Tobin Tax and fiscal continence. But not yet"

Hmm. Here's my latest piece from The New Statesman, about the Tobin Tax. It's caused a bit of angst with one commentator saying it reads like a UKIP leaflet. Which is unfortunate as:

A) I'm a Pro Europe
B) I'm pro Tobin Tax
C) The piece reflects Lib Dem policy pretty much precisely
D) It also reflects the views of The Robin Hood campaign ( see this article in today's New Statesman, paragraph 8).

That same article has a right go at Vince Cable, who it accuses of having done an about turn on the Tobin Tax, now saying no when it was a manifesto commitment in 2010. In fact, the Lib Dem position is unchanged - the manifesto promise was to work towards a global FTT, not a European one.

Anyway, here's the piece that's caused all the trouble. Do let me know if it reads like I've become Nigel Farage, because that really wasn't what I was trying to say...

Sometime today, in a conference room in Berlin, David Cameron will indulge in a certain amount of spleen venting. No doubt a little tapping pointedly on the table will take place. Who knows, maybe he'll even advise his interlocutor to "listen to the Doctor dear".
And then with a bit of luck, Angela Merkel, bedecked in Lincoln Green, will lean over the table, and whisper "But David. I thought we were all in this together?"
What will have brought all this unpleasantness to pass? Why it's that new favourite wheeze of German and French politicians: the Tobin Tax.
Now, the Tobin tax is that strangest of beasts, a popular levy. One that the public would welcome with open arms. So how come we have the German Chancellor offering to take from the rich to give to the poor, while Cameron, Osborne, Balls and Cable all scramble to play the Sheriff of Nottingham, shouting "no, no, no"?
When all three major parties pass up the opportunity of a populist open goal, you know there must be more to this than meets the eye. And there is.
Firstly - and it would be easy to miss this -- the Lib Dems, Tories and Labour are all actually in favour of the Tobin tax. Everyone thinks it's a grand plan. Just not right now. And not in the form the Merkozy axis has proposed.
"Give me a Tobin tax and fiscal continence. But not yet," they are saying, in a St-Augustine-sort-of-a way.
So what's the problem?
Well the financial implications to London have been extensively written about already.
But there's another issue: French farmers.
No, really.
Of course, it's not just Normandy cheesemakers and the like. It's every other thing the EU spends money on -- though with large parts of the total EU budget going on the Common Agricultural Policy, French farmers are set fair to do well out of an EU wide Tobin tax.
How come? Because as things stand, revenue raised from The City of London would go, not to the Treasury, but to Brussels. You can write your own Daily Mail headlines, can't you? I expect Paul Dacre already has.
And that's the nub of the problem. With 70 per cent of its potential revenue coming from the UK, even the most pro-European British politicians fear that the Tobin tax, excellent idea though it is, may prove rather less popular with the British public when they see what the money is being spent on.
Because given the state of the Eurozone, Angela Merkel knows we're all in this together. But some of us are in it rather more than others.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Sorry to say, I think Brodie Clark may be a bit stuffed....

According to most commentators, Brodie Clark's case all hangs on whether his account of his conversation with his boss Rob Whiteman is accurate. To quote The Guardian:

Clark's version of events directly clashed with that given repeatedly by the home secretary to the Commons over the past 10 days. But it is impossible to judge the competing claims unless the paperwork to back them up is published

I worry that the paperwork will be published - but it won't be able to back up Brodie Clark's claims. This video show's why...

Never a truer word spoken than in jest, I'm afraid

Monday, 14 November 2011


The long trailer for 'The Iron Lady' is out....

A reply to a couple of comments on my New Statesman piece from earlier.

A couple of comments from my latest post on The Staggers over at The New Statesman have questioned the accuracy of my assertion that what it is going on in Italy isn't very democratic.

Here's Carlo Turco:

I think that your opinion is somewhat ill founded and rather misleading. No doubt the financial crisis etc. are at the root of Mr. Berlusconi having been fired. But this has been accomplished within the Italian Constitution rules framework. It's the Italian Parliament that would have not granted Mr. Berlusconi the required votes majority and Mr. B. has liked better to resign than facing a negative vote. Mr. Monti has been appointed by the Republic's President and will have to submit to the Parliament's vote - should not he receive a majority vote he will have to resign and new elections will be called. Democratic rules are being fully adhered to, in Italy, where a Parliament - not a Government head - is being elected by the people and where deputies are granted the right to change opinions and majorities. Where would democratic rules have been violated or imperiled?

Jacob Lester has made a similar point.

So, let me be clear.

I am not saying that the moves afoot in Italy are either unconstitutional or indeed illegal. I have no doubt proper due process is being observed and indeed the parliamentarians of both the Upper and Lower house have to approve the formation of the new government (although of course there are numerous unelected Senators for Life in the Italian parliament who will be approving the government - as undemocratic a position as our own House of Lords. Don't get me started...).

What I am saying is that I do not believe the formation of this government to be particularly democratic. This is not just the case that a new Prime Minister is being chosen. This is an unelected official who effectively has been elevated into parliament to execute a manifesto that has not been held to scrutiny by the Italian electorate.

This is quite different from say, the situation where John Major and Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Both had been sent to Parliament after an election, both were members of the party that had an absolute majority in the main legislative assembly, and both pursued a manifesto led agenda approved by the British people.

None of these things is true in Italy. Hence I find the process profoundly undemocratic - even if it is constitutionally sound.

Jacob Lester makes an additional point:

There are no unified "markets" who decide anything. There's only politicians who make bad decisions and are exposed to the pressure that their irresponsibility has led to.

Of course, in the sense that there's not a big meeting where every banker in the world gets together, has a group hug and then sticks pins in models of leaders they want shot of, Jacob's quite right.

But none the less, the markets do act in unison according to how subjectively 'confident' they feel - and expect politicians and non politicians alike to act accordingly. To quote the BBC over the weekend:

Mr. Monti, a well respected economist, is exactly the sort of man that the markets would like to see take charge at this time of crisis, says the BBC's Alan Johnston in Rome, and he has support in many quarters. But there is significant opposition to him within the country, and a feeling that Italy's troubles are just too deep for a mere change of government to make any rapid, significant difference.

Maybe the BBC is right. Maybe they are wrong. Only one way to find out - ask the people. Except this seems very out of step with how the real power brokers at play, the Group de Frankfurt, want things to operate. To quote The Guardian:

Here's how things work. The real decisions in Europe are now taken by the Frankfurt Group, an unelected cabal made of up eight people: Lagarde; Merkel; Sarkozy; Mario Draghi, the new president of the ECB; José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission; Jean-Claude Juncker, chairman of the Eurogroup; Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council; and Olli Rehn, Europe's economic and monetary affairs commissioner.

This group, which is accountable to no one, calls the shots in Europe. The cabal decides whether Greece should be allowed to hold a referendum and if and when Athens should get the next tranche of its bailout cash. What matters to this group is what the financial markets think not what voters might want. To the extent that governments had any power, it has been removed and placed in the hands of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. It is as if the democratic clock has been turned back to the days when France was ruled by the Bourbons

Or if that's not your cup of tea - the Telegraph:

In Italy, the European Central Bank has engineered the downfall of Silvio Berlusconi by playing the bond markets, switching purchases on and off to enforce compliance with its written dictates ("La Lettera"), and ultimately allowing 10-year yields to spike to 7.45pc to drive him out.

Europe’s president Herman Van Rompuy swooped in to Rome to clinch the Putsch. "Italy needs reforms not elections," he said.

That last line says it all really. Don't you think?

Oh Please FIFA. You saying sport and politics don't mix is just laughable...

Putting aside the issue of whether the England football team should or shouldn't have worn poppies on their shirts yesterday, it has given rise to that old canard that sport has nothing to do with politics. Indeed to quote FIFA on Friday...

Jim Boyce, a vice-president of Fifa, said: "I'm glad that a compromise has been reached [and] I'm delighted that Fifa has now said to the FA that players can have black armbands on Saturday with the poppy on the black armbands. Let me also say that I can understand why Fifa do have this rule. Football and politics should not mix and, if you do give in to someone, it can create problems further down the line".

Now, I've blogged on how sports and politics are intertwined before. But as FIFA appear to have forgotten, here's a picture of how they apprently are quite happy to have them mix.

(Picture from the Sultan of Snow Blog, via Flikr)

So, lets not have any more of that old nonsense.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Mohammad Al Bouazizi makes top 10 in list for 'Person of the Year"

Please click on this link to the Huff Post story to see who else is in the list and then add your comment asking for Mohammad Al Bouazizi to be named as Person of the year. Thanks

Here's another quick reminder of all you can do to help get Mohammad named as the overall winner

Thanks everyone.

Finally, here's the panel debate where Mohammad Al Bouazizi is nominated

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Time Magazine 'Person of the Year'. Please read this and then nominate Mohammad Al Bouazizi. It will take 2 minutes.

Yep. It's now time. I need your help.

Click on the links in the box on the right of this post or follow the links here to write to Rick Stengel, Managing Editor of Time, sign the petition, or visit our Facebook page - or ideally, all three!!

Please visit this story at Time Magazine now and nominate Mohammad Al Bouazizi as their 'Person of the Year' by either liking my own comment, or adding a comment of your own - or doing both!!

Now - why should you do all this?

Time Magazine gives the title 'Person of the Year' to the individual who 'for better or for worse...has done the most to influence the events of the year'.

They are clear that the title should not in itself be a prize, but an acknowledgement of influence on world events. Recent winners include Mark Zuckerberg, Ben Bernanke and Barack Obama.

I think in 2011 that title should be given to a Tunisian street vendor called Muhammad Al Bouazizi. It would be a fitting tribute to one man who has clearly already influenced the world in ways he could never have imagined.

For those who don't know, and you can read much fuller accounts here and here, (and from Time Magazine itself here), Mr Bouazizi was a fruit seller in a small provincial town called Sidi Bouzid. Following a confrontation with a local government inspector on Dec 17, and several attempts at getting anyone in authority to listen to his complaints, Mr Bouazizi set fire to himself in protest at his treatment and the treatment of millions like him, in front of the gates of the Governors office.

He died on Jan 4th from his injuries. In the intervening time, rioting, sparked by Mr Bouazizi's act, had started in cities across the country. Before he died he was visited in hospital by President Zine el-Abidine Ben, and 10 days after his death, the President fled the country.

As we now know, this is nowhere near the end of it. A second dictatorship has fallen in Egypt (the world watches to see how the military will make handle the transition to, hopefully, full democracy) and now Libya has gained freedom also. Meantime, protest movements continue across the Middle East.

Of course, he could not have known where his protest could lead. But that is not the point. One man's selfless act has changed the Middle East more than decades of diplomacy have managed. And I think his influence and memory must be marked.

In addition to visiting the piece at Time and commenting, I have sent the following note to the Managing Editor of Time Magazine, Richard Stengel. If you feel you would like to send a similar note, please feel free to copy the note and forward it to Time by clicking here. Also please sign the on line petition by clicking here

Dear Mr Stengel

Before he is forgotten, I would like to nominate Tunisian market trader Muhammad Al Bouazizi as your Person of the Year for 2011.

Your criteria is 'the person who has done most to influence events of the year'. Already we have seen his selfless protest leading to the collapse of dictatorships, and popular uprisings across the Middle East as the people demand democracy and influence over their own destiny. It is hard to imagine any individual who could do more in the coming months to change the course of an entire region, if not the global political map itself.

It would be all too easy to forget, as events unfold on a daily basis, that all this started thanks to the actions of a single man, selling fruit on a street, in a small provinicial Tunisian town.

The 'Time' award is of course not a prize; but it should be a marker for the world to acknowledge the acts of others. And Mr Bouazizi, in a single act, has done more than Presidents, Prime Minsters, Diplomats and opinion leaders have achieved in 30 years in the Middle East.

Please, over coming months, don't forget him, and make him your Person of the Year

Yours sincerely

Richard Morris

Behavioural Economics: Some light relief

Here are two brilliant Ted Talks presentations explaining some of the value of Behavioural Economics, which as I've blogged previously could probably solve all the issues around funding tertiary education at a stroke (for once, quite apposite, given events in London today). Have no fear, they are entertaining as well as illuminating and don't require a PhD to follow them

The first is from Rory Sutherland, erstwhile President of the IPA. I'm betting he's not a Lib Dem - but boy can he present.

The second is from Dan Ariely - who I didn't know, so thanks to once again to Nicola Prigg for the lead.


The 'Theresa May is a safe pair of hands' myth...

Here's my piece that appeared in yesterday's New Statesman...

The first lesson you’re taught when you enter the world of branding and advertising is this : say one thing simply, clearly and consistently, and the consumer will quickly learn the message you want to send them.

Persil washes whiter.

The world’s favourite airline

Beanz meanz Heinz

Theresa May is a safe pair of hands

I’ll say that last one again shall I?

Either Theresa May herself, or someone very close to her, really understands the power of a consistent and clear positioning. Just Google ‘Theresa May is a safe pair of hands’. You’ll find articles from The Guardian, The Telegraph, Sky, The Spectator, The Express, Dale and Co… all anointing the Home Secretary as the Alastair Darling of the current cabinet – the Minster who can be trusted with the tricky portfolio.

Here’s James Landale on Monday’s ‘BBC News at Ten’.

“Theresa May has been that rare Home Secretary, one that has pleased her Prime Minister by keeping the Home Office largely out of the headlines.”

And then later

“…a Home Secretary who thus far has protected her reputation as a safe pair of hands”.

Now hats off to Theresa May’s spin doctor – we’ve all heard the message. But sadly, that same person seems to have forgotten the second golden rule of marketing: make sure your message reflects the consumer experience.

A Mars a day really does need to help you work rest and play.

A Volkswagen really does need to be reliable.

And your Home Secretary really does need to be a safe pair of hands.

Not someone that mistakenly cites owning a cat as a reason for avoiding deportation. Or ends up with her diary engagements being left in a Glaswegian Concert Hall. Not someone who unilaterally calls for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped and ends up being publicly contradicted by the Attorney General.

They certainly shouldn’t end up having to admit to the House of Commons that ‘we will never know how many people entered the UK who should have been prevented from doing so’ – not when you’re meant to be in charge of that very thing.

Because then articles like this get written. And next time someone types ‘Theresa May is a safe pair of hands’ they’ll read this - and realise that she actually appears to be a rather the opposite.


Monday, 7 November 2011

This democracy business. It's really under the cosh, you know....

When I wrote my piece 'Saving capitalism? The Price could be Democracy' for The New Statesman last week, I wondered if I'd get a lot of 'don't be ridiculous' type comments at my gross exaggeration of the threat to our civil liberties and human rights.

Rather worryingly, the opposite has happened. Everyone seems to be agreeing with me.

Certainly the comments section on my piece is generally in agreement (although one chap in particular has taken a rather unfortunate line - B. Small, I'm talking to you...)

Even before my piece was published, Paul Mason was asking similar questions about the fate of democracy in the Eurozone (didn't go down well with Sarkozy...).

The Guardian has reported this morning that a third, unelected group is now running the levers of power in the Eurozone.

"My colleague David Gow, who is racing to Brussels from Athens, points out though that the levers of power are really in the hands of a third, more secretive group:

GdF used to stand for Gaz de France (the state-owned gas group now locked in fusion with utility company Suez). Now it stands for Groupe de Francfort or Frankfurt Group, an ad hoc, entirely unaccountable cabal of Sarkozy, Merkel, Juncker, Draghi, Barroso, Van Rompuy, Rehn and, the real powerhouse, Lagarde.

It was formed at the October 19 Mozartfest in Frankfurt's Alte Oper to say goodbye to Trichet as president of the ECB. This octet controls, or think it does, the eurozone and - memo to Dave and George - the EU. To whom do they report on their talks, say, with Obama or Wen Jibao?....

The group should not be confused with the Frankfurt School: the philosophers Adorno, Marcuse, Horkheimer et al who mounted a sustained critique of American cultural imperialism in the 1960s. Times change."

While The Telegraph points to another unelected body that is making a concerted effort to topple the Italian Government - the markets..

"This graph shows just how keen markets are to wave goodbye to Berlusconi. Italy’s benchmark share index, the FTSE MIB, surged this morning on the rumours that he was about to resign - before dropping back as he denied the chatter. But the index is still about 2pc up, suggesting people are not convinced by the official line".

And now, Christine Lagarde, Head of the IMF, has this morning said that Sovereign nations need to start ceding some...sovereignty.... (again, I am quoting The Telegraph here...)

'Euro nations must "cede a little bit of authority, budgetary sovereignty" to overcome the crisis, Christine Lagarde, IMF managing director said. “Critical decisions” have been made by the European Union to resolve the crisis,’’ Lagarde said in speech at Moscow’s State University of the Ministry of Finance. Ceding some sovereignty is required implement the deal “to the benefit of the global economy as a whole.” '

I could go on...let's not forget it wasn't too long ago that our own Prime Minister was suggesting we should start curtailing the free use of social networks to control the people - and getting applauded by the Chinese Government as a result.

But I think my point is made. Democracy is under assault here. Panic is setting in, and democracy is apparently the first thing our leaders run roughshod over to protect Capitalism. And we need to be alert to this - and stop it.

So on a happier note, enjoy this Ted Talks presentation -that (despite some dodgy shooting from the hip with the examples chosen) presents a happier suggestion that maybe, just maybe, Democracy is a more productive system under which Capitalism can flourish than the totalitarian alternative (hat tip to @nicola_prigg for sending me the video).

Meantime everyone, back to the barricades.


Sorry - can't resist. here's what The Guardian says is happening in Greece right now; does this sound like democracy in action to you...

"Formally the governor of the Bank of Greece for almost eight years, from October 1994 to May 2004, Papademos is widely regarded as a "neutral figure," who is well respected in Europe and would be a safe pair of hands at the helm of government. But friends who know him well have told our correspondent that Papademos, who is also a well-respected academic, is unlikely to agree to the job without carefully weighing things up first.

"As things stand, the leaders of both political parties want to give him his cabinet, tell him what to do and let him go by the end of January. It's a recipe for disaster," said Stefanos Manos a former conservative finance minister.

"Lucas is a thoughtful person, an honest guy, a clever person but he's also very cautious ... he's going to want to lay down his terms and as they stand I very much doubt that he will accept. I don't think for a moment he is willing to be a puppet PM."

The confusion may well mean that nothing is decided before this evening, when markets in Europe have already closed and Wall Street could be getting edgy.

Saving Capitalism? The Price could be Democracy.

Here's my piece over the Weekend in "The New Statesman". I'll be expanding further on it's themes anon...

Right now everyone seems to be getting terribly excited about saving capitalism. Which is fair enough, in the face of global meltdown.

However it seems to me that the price of saving capitalism is increasingly likely to be ‘democracy’. Which would be a shame as I’m a big fan of democracy. On the whole, I think it’s a good thing.

“What insight” I hear you cry, “what understanding of the basic tenets of human rights’.

No? Well, consider this.

Let’s start with Occupy London (or Wall Street, Oakland, Tunbridge Wells, wherever). Apart from the fact that some folk think they make the place look a bit untidy, the main issue people have with the Occupy crowd is ‘that they don’t have any answers’.

They have a list of things they don’t want – but not a list of things they do.

And I say, so what? What’s wrong with just asking the questions? The Occupy folk aren’t standing for elected office, nor claiming to be able to solve the problems of the global economy. The finest economic minds in the world plus George Osborne haven’t cracked that one. So it seems a bit unreasonable to expect some bloke in a tent who just thinks that taxpayers money shouldn’t be shuffled through to bankers in the form of bonuses, to then have all the answers to the greatest economic crisis since the 1930’s. If it was that easy, we’d all just pop into Millets and seek the opinion of the man on the till.

We’ll ask the questions. It’s the job of our elected elders and betters to answer them.

And now it would also seem we’re not allowed to mark our representatives homework either. Hence every democratically elected politician in the world goes white as a sheet at the thought of asking the Greek people if they’re happy with the deal done on their behalf.

Funnily enough, I’m not a huge fan of referendums at the drop of a hat. I rather like Edmund Burke’s view of democracy: “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion’.

But there’s a time and a place for everything. And when years of extreme austerity measures stretch out before a population, pensions are slashed, public spending is squeezed, every ministry has an independent ‘observer’, installed from Brussels, and none of it ever featured in any sort of manifesto proposal – well, asking the people if they are up for it doesn’t seem so bad? Does it?

So, we seem to be in a world where asking questions without knowing the answers, or questioning the answers you’ve been given, is seen as a thoroughly bad thing. Which to me is an affront to democracy.

Still, at least no-one’s raising the spectre of war or postulating about the chances of a military coup to force things through.

Oh? Lordy.

Friday, 4 November 2011

I'm not a liar. I'm a snake oil salesman.

Neither the news that applications to university have dropped off as the new tuition fees regime approaches, nor the boost in applications that occurred a few months ago as people got in early before the change, should come as a surprise to anyone who knows anything about behavioural economics.

For those who suspect that behavioural economics sounds like some wheeze dreamt up by a set of marketing whiz kids to pull the wool over consumer’s eyes – well, yes, you’d largely be right. It’s the art (I use the word advisedly) of positioning a product or service in a way to specifically change people’s behaviour, capitalizing on the fact that humans do not necessarily always act logically. A commonly quoted example is how to persuade people to take the full course of a medicine they have been prescribed. People tend to stop taking medicine as soon as they feel better, get ill again, and have to start the course from scratch. Give them a set of blue tablets and white tablets, and tell them that they are not allowed to take the white one’s until the blue have all gone – and hey presto, nearly everyone finishes the blue course, which is actually the full dose.

Such thinking has been popularised in the book ‘Nudge’, and is of course a favourite of and George Osborne in particular.

Where tuition fees are concerned, the laws of behavioural economics are acting against government policy, not in favour of it.

You can tell people until you are blue in the face that the new system is fairer, that they’ll pay back less each year, that more people are eligible for assistance and all the rest of it. They won’t be listening.

Because behavioural economics says that trebling fees can’t be a better or fairer deal than the current system, can it? Even if it actually is….

Now, this is the part for me where the sleepless nights kick in. Because I can solve the whole issue in a minute. I can encourage people from less well off backgrounds to go to university, genuinely give people a better and fairer deal, and secure funding for tertiary education going forward. And snake oil salesman that I am, I can do it without resorting to messy old legislation.

I’ll just stop calling them tuition fees. And call it a capped graduate tax. And instead of telling people they have a debt, I’ll give them a long-term tax commitment.

No promises broken. No upfront fees. A higher threshold for payments to start. Everyone happy?

I’ve been told Ministers received advice they couldn’t call the new system a graduate tax. So I submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Department of Business and Skills. No such guidance has been discovered. In fact, it seems the opposite is true. The advice I’ve seen says – ‘in some respects the loan repayment is equivalent to a capped graduate tax (and presentationally, there is an advantage in describing it as such).’

Actually everyone, it’s not presentation . It’s behavioural economics.

And you might all call me a slippery, manipulative, sleight-of-hand merchant of spin (go on, you’re already typing it, aren’t you…).

But at least people will stop shouting liar at me.