Saturday, 15 May 2010

The case against coalition condemnation

As the post-election dust begins to settle, the unrest among some Lib Dem supporters over the coalition agreement is becoming increasingly apparent. It formed the main focus of discussion on Thursday's Question Time, and I have found myself involved in several discussions over the relative merits of the various feasible outcomes of the poll. One such debate has been focussed on the contempt held by the person I was talking to for the principle of Con-Lib co-operation, and the legitimacy of holding this view whilst simultaneously advocating the benefits of proportional representation, which would inevitably lead to coalition governments forever after. (The argument for a proportional electoral system is a separate one, which must be dealt with on its own terms another time.) It seems to me as if this view is outrageously and selectively undemocratic, particularly in light of the fact that the Tories gained by far the highest share of the vote: to exclude them from any sort of power agreement would have been a misrepresentation of the people's verdict. My attention was drawn to an article on the LSE website which  presents the case for Lib Dem supporters having the right to feel betrayed by the new coalition (read the full text here). The point made in the article is that because an opinion poll has indicated that Labour and Lib Dem voters are more likely to switch between each other, the two parties can be viewed as being better ideologically matched than either is with the Tories, and therefore the decision of the Lib Dems to 'get into bed' with the Tories can legitimately be condemned because it does not reflect the ideology of the nation at large. The article's argument seems tenuous in a number of respects.

Firstly, on a fundamental level, it seems dangerous to make too many sweeping assumptions on the basis of opinion polls which at best come with a severe health warning and at worst are entirely misrepresentative. Particularly, I might add, when they are on a purely-speculative subject with no grounding: the opinion poll quoted in the article is based on the hypothetical situation that voters would have the option to specify more than one preference, and it is unclear whether this preference would be one of abstract ideology, or if the questions were intrinsically based on how subjects would have chosen to vote last Thursday. As the general trend of the coalescing of mid-term opinion polls towards a much closer pre-election result demonstrates, responses to hypothetical questions (e.g., 'If there were a General Election tomorrow, how would you vote?') do not necessarily equate to equivalent answers immediately before the vote takes place.

I find it hard to understand why Lib Dems can be angry about something which has given  their policy far more influence in government than they could ever have hoped to have in any other situation, and particularly given that, when asked during the course of the election campaign how they would react in the event of a hung parliament, every single Lib Dem spokesman said that they would seek first to talk to the party with the largest mandate to govern through a combination of largest numbers of votes and seats. We all knew that it was likely that the Tories would achieve such a mandate, so voters should have known before the election that such a deal was a realistic possibility (and therefore not voted for them if they objected in theory to a Tory-Lib Dem coalition so ferociously). Furthermore, according to Lib Dem MPs commenting on the deal (e.g., Simon Hughes on QT on Thursday), the Tories were not only the party with the biggest mandate, but they were also much more willing and prepared than the Labour Party to make compromises in order to ensure security. Is it simply that some Lib Dems don't like being associated with the Tories by name? In terms of policy, this was a far better outcome for the Lib Dems than a coalition with Labour ever would have been, and the fact that the Labour Party was by all accounts unwilling to reach a reasonable compromise by definition undermines the argument that they are ideologically closer to the Lib Dems than the Tories.

It's also important not to underestimate the increased responsibility the Lib Dems found themselves with in the event of the hung parliament. As advocates of PR, the Lib Dems would expect under a reformed system to gain more seats in the Commons, which would naturally give them more responsibility in decision-making of this nature. Of course, the best application of this responsibility depends on the given situation at the time, and at the moment everyone seems to be in broad agreement that the immediate priority was to form a stable government, thus reducing the likelihood of a quick second election and increasing the power of the new government to begin tackling the pressing and serious issue of the budget deficit immediately. The electorate should be admiring of the fact that the Lib Dems sought to do this constructively, without blindly professing hatred of the Tories on the basis of connotation before first considering the offers being made to them and setting aside their differences in a bid to steer the country through a difficult time. 

Notwithstanding any of that, the fact is that a Con-Lib coalition was the only way forward. The alternatives were either an unstable minority Tory administration which wouldn't have lasted any meaningful length of time, or a slapdash left-of-centre coalition involving all the minority parties (assuming that they would have agreed in the first instance), which still would only have just scraped a Commons majority and would have been likely to collapse in even less time. 

As advocates of a more 'democratic' system (I use inverted commas deliberately), surely the Lib Dems wouldn't suggest that it would be just or fair for the Tories, as the party with by far the largest share of the vote, to have been left out of government all together...

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

A Blue Dawn has broken. (With just a hint of yellow...)

Lib Dems in the Cabinet would be a price worth paying for a stable government and immediate action on deficit reduction: thus quoth the Major. That has surely to be agreed. On the basis of party politics, this was never going to be the ideal way of interpreting the election results for anyone. Boris Johnson deplored the possibility of the meat in the government sausage not being Conservative, and at some points over past days this seemed a distinct possibility - but if party politics had won out, the result of the negotiations would surely have been very different:

Undoubtedly the best outcome for Labour would have been for them to form and justify a progressive alliance with the Lib Dems under the refreshed and revitalised leadership of a fresh-faced, charismatic, inspirational young leader. A quick look at the [shadow] front-bench potentials tells us that this mythical personality is sadly absent. We await the leadership election with anticipation; in the mean time, the party is consigned to the naughty corner to think about the mess they've made. The message seems to be that they made little or no effort to reach a compromise with the Lib Dems. Well done, Lord Mandelson, and thank you for once again removing yourself from our lives. Stay away for a long time please.

The Lib Dems seem to have caused immediate (and inevitable) ructions among supporters with their decision to collude with the right. The ideal outcome for them surely would not be the risk of electoral punishment in five years' time, regardless of the immediate gains to be made, and to have stayed away from the Tories at all costs. How illogical that Lib Dem supporters who have done nothing since the coalition was made public but snipe about how they would never have voted Lib Dem if they thought it would put Cameron in No 10 are the very same people who would advocate a full PR electoral system that would command this sort of compromise and bargaining after every election. If they stopped to read the agreement before they started to encourage division within their own party, they would doubtless find that the compromise that has been reached allows for many of their most important policies to be accommodated.

Arguably, the Conservatives might have done well to make little effort with coalition talks, and to stand by and watch the Lib Dem and Labour Parties tear themselves apart over a deal (or rather, no deal) whilst lining themselves up to win an early second election by a good margin. 

So, it seems obvious, then, that this historic agreement has been reached genuinely for the good of the nation, and that party politics and tribalism have been at least temporarily consigned to the bin. How long will it last? Who knows. But it has certainly started in the most positive manner that it possibly could have done. The way forward now is to recognise the great effort that has been made on both sides to reach consensus whilst preserving key principles, and to get behind the new government so that it can start the good work that is proposed in the agreement. Further analysis of that to follow, but one thought: the raising of the income tax threshold is, apparently, to be partially funded by revenue generated from capital gains tax. Does this mean that everyone who stands to benefit from this decision owes personal thanks to Hazel Blears?

Saturday, 8 May 2010

What a surprise: everyone agrees with Nick

It seems clear that the next few months are likely to demonstrate exactly why proportional representation would be an unmitigated catastrophe. The short-term deal-making and veiled attempts at self-preservation have already started, and Labour appears to have slung their idea of making politics more transparent right out of the window.  Do they really think the public is naive enough not to see straight through their offer of a referendum on electoral reform? Brown might as well have come out of No. 10 yesterday and said "we know what Clegg wants, and we also know that the Tories won't offer it, so this gives us the best chance of clinging onto power, and that's why we're doing it." We all saw his unashamed attempts to sidle up to Clegg during the first debate, and his subsequent move away from him having been criticised for it. It now seems as if he has said to himself: "Sod it: it's all I've got." The whole episode just highlights the fact that Brown is clawing onto what he has for himself, and hasn't faced up to the fact that he's lost. Face it, Gordon: at the first opportunity in three years to pass judgment on your leadership, the nation has come back with a resounding 'no'. Even Lord Mandy himself seems to have gone unnaturally quiet, which everyone concerned must count as a blessing of some sort.

Clegg's integrity would go through the floor if he turns around now and accepts a deal with Labour, having said very clearly not only that he would not help Brown squat in Downing Street, but also that the Conservatives should have the first right to try and form a government. The most important thing now isn't some abstract ideological battle over voting: it's trying to avoid an immediate second election, and trying to make a start on tackling the most immediate issues. Priorities, priorities, Nick: the first being to send Gordon packing so that work can begin.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

I agree with Nick....

Following the first of three outings for what felt like The Goons reunion tour on ITV last Thursday night,  it seems from the aftermath to have been a momentous turning point in the career of a previously virtually-unknown figure in British politics. But enough about Alastair Stewart. Ninety minutes is a long time in politics: so long, in fact, that I suspect there will be many people among the viewing public who failed to stay the course of the entire sequence of rehearsed spontaneity. For the benefit of those people, what follows is a potted version of what they were trying to say. (If you wish to check this against what was actually said, you can see the full transcript by clicking here.) For the sake of brevity, I have included only each leader's initial answer to some of the questions, and a few choice highlights of the exchange between them.

Happy Hour (and a half) started with an opening gambit from each of the leaders:
Clegg: I wish to state again that my strategy is to alienate myself from these two jokers as often and as strongly as possible. I would also like to talk to you about greedy bankers. [Note to ITV: rhyming slang does not constitute a legitimate pre-watershed defence.]
Brown: The country is in a mess (I stress yet again as a result of the global financial crisis: nothing to do with me), but I'm here to make empty promises of improvement. Many of them will sound familiar because they are identical to the promises my party has made at the last two elections, and we've brought them back because we thought what better way to win an election than to use the same ideas that have won us the last three? Of course, to do that we have had to refrain from taking any action on them before now. That's why my plan is so much better than these guys': because it's been thirteen years in the making.
Cameron: I would like to cosy up to you by expressing the same dissatisfaction and horror as the public in the wake of the expenses scandal. This may have little bearing on major policy decisions and seem largely irrelevant to the opening of this debate: tough. Through gritted teeth I would also like to add that I think Labour have done some good things during their time in office, but only because my publicity co-ordinator has told me to.

How heartening that so much effort seemed to have gone into preparing something original and inspiring to say. Then came the questions:

Question: What key elements for a fair, workable immigration policy need to be put in place to actually make it work effectively? 

Brown: I can't tell you what needs to be done in the future, but I can tell you how wonderful I have been over my three years as PM. Isn't that nice of me? I think we'll choose to ignore the fact that the system doesn't really work: it's a minor detail.
Cameron: I would put a cap on immigration numbers having first stressed how badly Gordon has got it wrong, and how he has allowed it to affect our public services.
Clegg: Again, I would like to point out the failings of both other parties in the past. I would like to make immigration fair, and to ensure that this can happen, we have a policy that sounds brilliant but is in practice totally unrealistic. I think we can definitely trust all immigrants to go to a single place in the UK and never ever move.

Brown: Let's be honest [yes, Gordon, let's. Let us know when it happens.]: if there are any problems with the current migration figures, it's as a result of whatever the Conservatives did before 1997. Luckily, I have got one of my aides to manipulate these figures so that  they give the impression that we've done a good job. 
Cameron: I've met a black man who might have said that he thinks the system needs to be reformed. So it's not racist to want to put a cap on the numbers.
Clegg: I'm going to tell you a largely-incorrect story about a neo-natal ward that I visited that had no staff, which will illustrate my point rather nicely with only a few slight variations on the truth. 

Cameron: There are benefits to immigration, but it has spiralled out of control. The figures prove it.
Brown: I don't like these words. 

Of course you don't, Gordon. No doubt it would have been better if the Tory advisers could have got their figures from the same 'source' as you did.

Clegg: This is just another example of where both other parties have gone wrong. We need the regional approach. Let's bring it in and worry about logistics later.
Brown: I agree with Nick. [Please, Nick, if there is a hung Parliament, let me be Prime Minister.]

Cameron: Can I ask Nick how he intends to enforce regionalised immigration?
Clegg: Very easily.

Right. That's settled then.

Question: I was born and still work in Burnley, Lancashire. The town has the highest burglary rate per head of population in the entire country. What confidence can you give me that towns such as this all over the UK can be made safer places to live and work? 

Cameron: I went to Crosby the other day and saw that bad things are happening. I would therefore like to put burglars in prison: a novel concept after 13 years of Labour.
Clegg: I would like to emphasise that my constituency is in the North, and that I have been brilliant at reducing the crime rate amongst youngsters there. I Understand Northerners.
Brown: If it means that you will vote for me, I will tell you that we are going to do far more to reduce crime. However, before I do that, I would like to highlight that the crime rate is falling. Or at least it was during whichever timeframe my advisers decided to take the figures from. Parents need to take more responsibility for the behaviour of their children: that way, we can blame them when the figures go up again.

Cameron: Drug addicts are the worst offenders. Forget hug-a-hoodie: hug-a-junkie.
Clegg: And again, I say: I do nice things in the North.
Brown: The Conservatives will cut spending on police. As it is clearly ridiculous to expect a reduction in the absurd amount of unnecessary paperwork that we make them do, it is only reasonable to assume that this will result in fewer police on the street. 

Gordon actually said 'less police'. It's hard to decide which I find more unappealing: his inability to refrain from copious self-congratulation, or his poor command of the English language. The debate continued:

Brown: On an unrelated note, I haven't had an opportune moment so far to mention Lord Ashcroft, so in case the chance doesn't present itself I would like to remind the voting public of his existence.

Question: I own a pub, and people like to chat over a drink. Nothing's provoked more discussion than MPs' expenses. Given the recent scandals involving all parties, how are you intending to re-establish the credibility of MPs in the eyes of the electorate?

Clegg: Those who were involved deserve no credibility. Fortunately, although it's not strictly exactly true, I can say that no Lib Dem MPs abused the system: does that make me credible? [No.]
Brown: My parents always taught me to be honest. In the spirit of those values, I have decided to pass the Tory right-of-recall policy off as my own. It's a good idea, so we'll be having it. This topic also gives me an excellent opportunity to ask Nick again if I can be PM as long as we agree with him on electoral reform.
Cameron: I was really quite cross about the whole thing, and I told my lot to jolly well apologise. I'd also like to draw attention to corruption within Lib Dem funding circles, but I'll veil it with the measured remark that we're all to blame.

Brown: We're promising a referendum on electoral reform next year. Sound familiar?

Brown: I think we need to raise the standard of the debate here.

Probably best if you stop talking then, Gordon.

Question: I'm in my final year of school. I found that the system is incredibly grades-driven, so much so, that often education for its own sake is at sacrifice. We are over-examined and under-taught. What will the party leaders do to improve education?

Brown: Please see my answer on the crime question and replace 'police' with 'teachers'. 
Cameron: Please see my answer on the crime question and replace 'police' with 'teachers'.
Clegg: Please see what David Cameron just said and replace 'Conservative' with 'LibDem'.

Question: How certain can you be that your party's policies will deal with the budget deficits without damaging economic growth?

Cameron: Labour's jobs tax will kill the recovery. [That was definitely a spontaneous line.]
Clegg: We're going to be open and straight with you by putting meaningless, arbitrarily-estimated numbers in our manifesto. 
Brown: And again, I say: the recession was global. Not my fault. 

Repeat ad inifinitum. Finally the Dimbleby impersonator put a stop to it:

Alastair Stewart: I think I'm going to park it there.

There is a God.

Question: British troops seem to be dying unnecessarily and far too frequently. In my opinion, they are under-equipped and massively underpaid. What assurances can you give the armed forces that things will improve?  

Clegg: If we don't replace Trident, we'll be totally unprotected if there's ever a nuclear threat, but we will at least be able to keep soldiers' pay the same.
Brown: In a bid to prove myself as an orator, I am going to answer by paying homage to our armed services. I shall also illustrate that this is yet another area in which we have massively increased beaurocracy, and hence our spending figures have skyrocketed. That makes us look brilliant.
Cameron: I'm also going to pay tribute, which will make me seem like I have the upper hand when I go on to criticise Gordon rather than going into our policy.

Clegg: Did I mention I'm from Sheffield?

Only about as many times as the Prime Minister claimed to agree with you. You could, perhaps, ask these people to make you up some merchandise.

The questions continued, and the boredom set in. Then came the summing-up:

Cameron: I echo my own earlier sentiments about the jobs tax.  
Clegg: I would essentially like to say exactly what I said at the start, but in a cynical bid to prove that I have listened, I am also going to recite the name of each of tonight's questioners. 
Brown: I would rather have been watching The X Factor. 

Gordon, it seems likely that many would go so far as to say that they would rather have been watching paint dry on the basis of the amount of charisma you showed. The sense of anticipation for next week's episode is palpable. 

...And finally: let this be a lesson to us all not to make flippant remarks about Boris on a mobility scooter.

Friday, 16 April 2010

A few manifesto-launch highlights, and related pearls of wisdom

You might assume that the radio silence here over the last few days has been as a result of the state of awe and wonderment I found myself in following the unveiling of the remainder of the manifestos this week: you would be wrong. It might not have been the most inspiring week, but it is at least heartening to see that negative smear tactics are being abandoned by some (see here for UKIP's newest addition to propaganda-wielding chip vans the nation over). Fortunately, they seem to have a far more comprehensive grasp of our current economic plight, as made evident by Nigel Farage: "It's time for some straight talking on the economy: we're skint." Such wisdom. Sadly, their grasp on their own manifesto was less impressive:

Journalist: Do you intend to extend your burkha ban to private buildings?
Lord Pearson: We haven't said anything about private buildings.
Nondescript UKIP bigwig: Yes we have, it's on page 15.
Lord Malcolm Powder: I will hand you over to our policy chief. 

Journalist: You say in the first line of your manifesto that, in year one, you will reduce public spending to 1997 levels.
UKIP man: Yes.
Journalist: Can you tell us what spending levels were in 1997?
UKIP man: No.

The UKIP launch on Tuesday was, perhaps fortunately in light of the above, somewhat overshadowed by David Cameron's little blue book (I speak, of course, of the manifesto, and not of the copy of Erotic Poetry for Vegans that a local radio presenter so kindly gave him on Monday evening). Cameron reminded the electorate that 'Labour have lost their way. They don't have anything left to say' (he's a poet - and he didn't even realise, as a good friend of mine would say). The launch was held in Battersea power station: a shell of a building in need of renovation. Nick Clegg chose to interpret this as an apt comparison with the 'style-over-substance' Tory Party (he described it as 'a power station that doesn't generate power'; the art of metaphor is lost on some people). Pity that nobody thought to make the parallel observation of Labour's choice to host their launch in a hospital containing no equipment (one might argue therefore rendering it useless) and what that might say about them. Tuesday's opinion polls seemed to be suggesting a narrowing of the Tory-Labour gap. Happily, William Hague was on hand to offer this warning: 'There are three polls out tonight: one showing a three-point lead, one with five, one with eight and one with ten. And the moral of that story is not to take too much notice of opinion polls.' Surely the moral of that story is, in fact, not to trust Hague's maths skills.

The LibDems seemed to start gearing up fairly early in the week for their launch, and he obviously left a lasting impression on senior citizen Ken Stacey, who when asked by a news reporter what he had made of Mr Clegg, replied 'I haven't met him yet.' 'You've just shaken hands with him,' replied the journalist. Oh dear. The BBC has been covering the morning press conferences which seem to have left Clegg looking like a very small rabbit caught in the headlights of a gas-guzzling  SUV. In essence:

Journalist: Do you acknowledge that cracking down on tax loopholes will not fill the whole of the black hole, and can you estimate how many people will be negatively affected?
NC: I'd rather talk about aviation tax, and how we will blame the airlines if they pass the increase in taxation onto their customers.

Journalist: Can you tell us where you are on VAT?
NC: Our plans do not require an increase in VAT, but by repeating yet again everything that we think is wrong with the Conservatives' tax policy I am setting myself up to be able to pass the buck if we realise at any stage that we're wrong.

Journalist: Are you going to increase taxes in order to compensate for the higher threshold of the lowest tax band?
NC: Our plans will evolve over time. This means I'm not ruling out a tax increase, but if I distract you with talk of increasing bank levies then I will divert your attention towards a common enemy.  

The irony of the LibDems' choice of a city bank for their event on Wednesday and their subsequent announcement of extra bank levies did not go unnoticed. They must have been popular with their hosts. At least they stuck a few numbers in the manifesto for good measure, claiming to have set out exactly how they would afford their plans for tax-and-spend. There were a couple of negligible issues with this: they have purportedly underestimated the cost of tax breaks for income under £10,000 by £5bn, and have plucked and almost entirely arbitrary figure from out of the air to suggest what they might save by clamping down on tax avoidance. Clegg overcame with his usual war cry to the effect of 'the old parties are trying to dupe you, and we're the only ones to give you concrete figures'. Numbers are all very well, Mr Clegg, but if your sums don't add up then one of two things needs to happen: either do some real maths (as Mr Hague will tell you, just saying numbers doesn't necessarily count), or give up on the honesty and openness. It's all very laudable, but if there's one economy that most politicians are exceptionally good at managing, it's economy with the truth, and that's for a good reason: just ask Tony. It's OK to lie as long as it was in good faith. Or something.

The issue of tax avoidance was the first to be put to David Laws during an interview on Wednesday evening. I must say, I have never failed to be unimpressed by that man, and so far during this campaign he has not disappointed:

Sopel: You say you can raise £4.5bn on tax avoidances - why hasn't this been recouped already if it's so easy to do?
Laws: Labour have failed to recoup even more than we will undoubtedly fail to, so it's the lesser of two evils. At least if you vote for us we'll aim to convince you that our failing has been of a smaller magnitude, and we'll still be able to claim that we have done better even though that will be entirely misleading.

Sopel: Are any of your budgets ringfenced? You said the NHS and International Development budgets were on Newsnight.
Laws: What I said was that money saved from these organisations would be ploughed back into them. It's all there in Vince's homework.
Sopel: Vince said that you spoke out of line, and that you got it wrong.
Laws: This is an opportune moment for one of those tricks where I answer an entirely different question on an unrelated topic to distract you from the fact that I've made myself look stupid: the other parties won't admit wanting to raise taxes... [we all know the rest]

Then came the eternal question, expertly dodged by Nick Clegg on many an occasion (obviously forming a key part of his new policy to be open and honest with the electorate):

JS: In the event of a hung parliament, what constitutes the biggest mandate? Votes or seats?
DL: We have launched our manifesto today that outlines our four key policies. [You know, the ones that Clegg told Paxo probably wouldn't have any significance whatsoever in striking a deal after the election.] It'll be votes and seats that matter.

Clegg's response to the same question was essentially: 'I'm going to harp on about democratic principles so that I can reserve judgment until I know which is likely to serve us best. In the mean time, as we are all so painfully aware of my holier-than-thou pledge to clean up politics, I'll continue to slate both other parties equally. It'll be votes and seats that give the biggest mandate.' Someone really should sit these goons down and explain to them how first-past-the-post works. Having said that, their apparent total lack of understanding might go a long way to explain why they're so keen on electoral reform.

...And finally: The remainder of this week has been focussed on the first-ever live debate between our would-be PMs and Nick Clegg (discussion of this will appear here some time over the weekend). On Wednesday morning, Lord Mandelson gave some canny advice to Gordon Brown. I just love a good, honest, principled politician:

8.36am: I have told the Prime Minister not to compete with Cameron on personal insults. 
8.44am: Cameron has a long, toffee nose. 

Thus spake a Member of the House of Lords.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Manifestly fair, or manifestly disappointing?

I have decided to dispense with the rather prosaic and repetitive subject headings that I have been using thus far, and will from now on make some vague attempt at a subtle introduction to the day's discussion. No prizes for guessing what today has been about: I seem to have fallen at the first hurdle as far as the subtlety is concerned. The first manifesto launch of the campaign meant that inevitably senior masterminds of the Labour Party were out in force to propel their message that Labour is equipped to steer the country into the future (as metaphorically demonstrated by their nauseating front cover, accompanied by some ridiculous cartoon representation of policy, presumably in some attempt to make the idea of economic streamlining more cuddly).

For one horrible split second whilst listening to the Today Programme this morning I thought Tony himself had crawled back once again to lend his excessively-tanned support to the manifesto. Fortunately, Tony seems still to be advertising for St Tropez or whatever it was he went off to do, and I quickly realised that it was in fact Miliband Minor, who seems to have taken up Blair's pre-American-accent fake 'ordinary guy' whine. His exchange with John Humphrys lends itself rather well to a spot of interpretation for the sake of clarity:

John Humphrys: Where have you wasted money?
Ed Miliband: We haven't.
JH: How can you save money if you haven't wasted any?
EM: I can tell you instead where the Tories want to spend money that we say they won't have if that helps.

JH: You said things in previous manifestos that you didn't adhere to, like promising no income tax increase. Why should we believe you now?
EM: Any tax increases that we have made have been as a result of the global recession and not because we made bad economic decisions. 
JH: But why should be believe you?
EM: If you're not going to let me make excuses about the past, I'll make excuses about the future. In any case, it's an academic point because if we're re-elected we'll just shift the tax rises sideways as we have before in the hope that no one will notice.

Even the argumentative stalwart Humphrys seemed to be growing tired by the end of the interview, which led to a particular highlight of irony:

JH: This is all a bit vague.
EM: What's a bit vague?

How prophetic, too, that Mr Miliband should foresee the day's controversy over three former Labour MPs claiming legal aid to fight criminal proceedings over their expenses claims. When asked by Mr Humphrys asked him to name one thing that people want but won't be able to have as a result of the inevitable post-election spending cuts, Miliband immediately responded that a reduction in the funding of legal aid would be necessary, but that the public would resist its reduction. Not so, Mr Miliband: if members of the Labour Party are to claim on this resource for their own ends, it's fair to assume that the electorate will be more than willing to forego the extra public funding it involves.

The consensus seems to be that the Labour manifesto is an underwhelming list of non-policies, most of which sound glibly familiar to anyone who was paying attention in the Blair years. The latter observation in itself may explain why Lord Mandelson described the document as 'Blair-Plus': hardly a great advert. The comment later drew Harriet Harman into an exchange with Jon Sopel along these lines:

JS: Do you agree the the Labour Manifesto is Blair Plus?
HH: I think that if that's the description that has been given by Peter Mandelson it must be right, but I don't know what it means.

You're not the only one, Harriet, although there are those of us less willing to put our trust in the Dark Lord so blindly. Douglas Alexander was the other key Labour policy maker to be in interview action this evening, the result of which was rather embarrassing to say the least for someone supposedly so closely involved with the writing of the manifesto. The highlights of the gist:

Eddie Mair: Why won't you rule out a VAT rise?
Douglas Alexander: Alistair Darling won't let me. We have never put up VAT. The Tories did. Blame them if it's too high.
EM: You put it up in January.
DA: That doesn't count, because it was the Tories' fault that it was so high in the first place.

EM: Can you guarantee that no more post offices will close?
DA: We have a good record in supporting the post office network financially.
EM: That's an interesting answer to a different question.

EM: What is the link between immigration and crime?
DA [after a noticeable pause]: I'm not clear why you're asking that.
EM: It's one of the chapter headings in your manifesto. 

Oh dear. 

Elsewhere on the campaign trail, Nick Clegg locked horns with Paxman, who optimistically introduced the interview claiming that 'in the coming minutes, we'll find out what Nick Clegg believes'. Good luck, Jeremy. He quickly returned to reality, however, opening the interview by asking: "Let's just establish what planet we're on. You don't seriously think you're going to be Prime Minister do you?" Mr Clegg refused to be drawn on whether he would support the party with the strongest mandate based on share of the vote or number of seats, although it seems as if whichever party ends up having to bargain with him may not have much of a fight on their hands:

JP: What would your priorities be for supporting another party in government?
NC: We have four criteria.
JP: So would any party wanting to form an alliance with you have to accept all four of those?
NC: No.

Excellent, excellent. Heartening to know that Clegg will defend his party's principles to the hilt [insert snigger here] in the event of forming an alliance, despite having waxed lyrical only moments before about the electorate's power and influence over a potentially-close result, and his unwillingness to enter a power-bargain after the election. Paxman went on to begin a grilling on the issues of immigration (unlike the Labour Party, the LibDems are at least refraining from fuelling the BNP's fire by not making the direct link here with crime) and economic policy:

JP: Is it acceptable that the Office of National Statistics is predicting a population of 70 million by 2030?
NC: It's a lot of people.

Ten out of ten for observation.

JP: Would you support a Tory emergency budget if it was going to cut spending?
NC: I would prefer to talk about how I could save the country by scrapping Trident (despite the fact that it's completely unrealistic) and how neither of the other parties will commit to doing this.

JP: Did you really mean that everybody would benefit from your rise in tax-free income threshold to £10k?
NC: The fact that a few high earners wouldn't benefit is a minor detail.

Paxman rightly reminded Mr Clegg that this election campaign is "all about detail". It is a loophole of logic that it seems reasonable to them to attack the Tories for not seeming to have costed their tax proposals properly, but that similar anomalies in their own claims can be dismissed in such a way. Having said that, this is, sadly, in no way a surprise. Tomorrow sees the turn of the Tories to lay out their stall. It remains to be seen whether they can present the manifestly-inspiring case for their election that was absent from the Labour Party today.

...And finally: In a bid to remain party-neutral, see here for some excellent contributions to the collection of spoof Tory campaign posters doing the rounds.

Weekend antics: Campaign Days 4 & 5

The policy watchword of the weekend seems to have been 'couples', with the  big argument focussing on Tory proposals for tax breaks for married couples. Nick Clegg immediately dismissed this idea as 'patronising drivel that belongs in the Edwardian age' in a continuation of a week's worth of lashing out at the two larger parties. It seems, however, that there may be trouble in paradise for Clegg and his campaign wife: yes, Gordon has Sarah, David has Sam, and Clegg has.... well, Vince. Perhaps some sort of domestic clash had propelled grumpy Mr Clegg's less-than-charitable remarks on Cameron's support of marriage - at least he can take comfort in the fact that he and Vince would, in theory, be able to celebrate their partnership with an extra pint thanks to the extra £3 a week that Mr Cameron would give them. On that sort of money, though, it's debatable whether it would be a celebratory pint of anything worth drinking.

The LibDems found themselves at the centre of the other major bone of contention on Saturday, following Lord Adonis' remarks in the Friday press that LibDems in Labour-Tory marginals should get behind the reds to keep the Tories out. Frankly, I marvel at how long (four whole days) the Labour Party has managed to maintain enough belief in its own principles and fearless disregard for patronising the electorate not to have to resort to encouraging tactical voting: party morale must be high. You might be forgiven for thinking that the best way of salvaging this situation would be to stress the right of the voter to make an informed decision based on policy rather than tactic (although admittedly this is wishful thinking), and to acknowledge the presence of the not-insubstantial LibDem support rather than assuming them all to be lacking in principle and fickle enough to form allegiances on the basis of smears from the opposition; that seems to be a job very well done by the politicians, and we can leave them to it. It goes without saying that Gordon "Face for the Radio" Brown (Thanks, Lord Kinnock) did not counter Lord Adonis' comments with such good measure. The message on Saturday was clear: Labour voters in LibDem-Tory marginals should vote LibDem with the same purpose in mind. Whether this serves to appease a disgruntled LibDem votership remains to be seen, but constant Tory-bashing isn't going to convince anyone that the Labour Party has anything of substance to say, and that is what will matter on Election Day.

The issue of tactical voting raises the issue of the continued calls by the LibDems for political reform, one of several topics of conversation between Jon Sopel and 'Saint Vince' Cable on Sunday morning. The discourse followed roughly the following outline:

Jon Sopel: How can Nick Clegg argue that voting Lib Dem will eradicate corruption when 
surely political corruption is the fault of all three main parties?
Vince Cable: This is essentially an extension of our blanket policy to insult both of the other parties at any given opportunity. My colleague has made it abundantly clear at every stage this week that this is the primary focus of our campaign.

JS: Where does the £389 extra VAT figure on your Tory-bashing poster come from?
VC: It's an arbitrary number based in some excessively-tenuous fashion on what they did twenty years ago.
JS: It's not reasonable of you to state as fact on a poster what you've estimated on the basis of past figures
VC: We don't have anything else to go on. [Whether or not our argument is based on fact is a triviality; as a political journalist you should know that this goes for almost anything that any of us ever says.]
JS: Will YOU guarantee not to raise VAT?
VC: No.

Away from the economic debate, anticipation of the Labour manifesto launch seemed to be growing as the weekend drew to a close, no doubt fuelled by Peter Mandelson's claim that 'this is no time for business-as-usual manifesto'. Well done, Lord Mandelson, so you've noticed that the situation that this government has landed us in is no ordinary one. Undoubtedly he will have something canny up his sleeve: as Sir Menzies Campbell said on Question Time last week, 'the Lord Mandelson moves in mysterious ways'. If only he would move a little further away.

...And finally: The BBC provided us with a comprehensive run-down of the most witty jibes and observations of the week (see here). I would like to quote one in particular, from Ann Treneman, which embodies everything that I wanted to say about Brown's last appearance at PMQs: "Almost every Labour MP who spoke had been prompted to ask a question that went something like this: 'Is it true, oh wonderful master, that you have created a land of milk and honey?' Mr Brown, preening, would turn around and admit that, yes, actually it was true."