#GE2015: Your Questions Answered #1: Where’s the Best Place to Find Out About Policies?

This is the first in a series of posts attempting to answer questions and comments put to me by family and friends around the General Election.

I’m a member of the Liberal Democrats, so obviously I have some political bias. But one of my main principles is a commitment to democracy and the idea that voters should have access to as much information as they want in order to make better decisions.

Crucially, that information needs to be accurate and political parties need to be transparent, if we are going to get results that accurately reflects the will of the people. It’s a shame that much of the activity at election time – from most, if not all, of the parties – aims to obscure rather than clarify the facts, confusing people with claim and counter-claim.

Anyway, the objective here is to answer the questions as openly and neutrally as possible – my political bias having been declared.

The first question is:

If I want to find out about all the issues that policies relate to (e.g. free market, inheritance tax, etc), where are the best places to do that?

This is one that comes up a lot. What tends to happen at election time is that even media outlets become more partisan. We’ve already seen this, for example, in the way the Tory press has been attacking Ed Miliband, but you can also see it in the way that different papers cover the same poll, or the attention given to different policy announcements.

As a political consultant this is something I have to work hard to do. Much of my job is interpreting the grey areas left by policy announcements, or sifting through the commentary to find the nuggets of real interest. I appreciate that most people don’t have the time to do the same. So here are some simple tips:

  1. Go to the original source. If a policy is being announced, it will be “spun” by different media outlets to emphasise different things. The best way to avoid this is to read the original announcement. Usually that will mean finding the relevant press release on a party’s website. (Unfortunately, political parties also put spin on things – so you still have to be wary. But at least you know there’s only one layer of spin to cut through now.)
  2. If that’s too much effort, then reading different stories on the same policy will help you to get a sense of how it’s being interpreted to fit other people’s agendas.
  3. If that’s still too much effort, then I’d recommend finding a good, relatively neutral policy guide. Generally speaking, the BBC is pretty good at avoiding spin, and their policy guide is as comprehensive as any out there.
  4. There are also some good, relatively neutral organisations dedicated to fact-checking statements and claims by politicians. Two particularly good ones are Full Fact and Channel 4’s FactCheck Blog. These often move rapidly with the news agenda, meaning that they will often respond well to current stories and help you unpick things.

Hopefully that’s helpful – but feel free to continue the debate in the comments!

A Few Reminders about Labour and NHS Spending

Today the Tories have made my previous blog post on the NHS slightly obsolete, by officially pledging to find the extra £8 billion per year the NHS says is required to safeguard the service by 2020. Obviously there are some problems with the practicalities of that pledge. You can read about those anywhere you like: here, for example.

It’s clear to me that Labour should really have nothing to say on this though. There are several reasons for that:

1. Labour still hasn’t taken responsibility for the party’s contribution to the state of the UK’s economy in 2010. That doesn’t mean I buy into the narrative the Tories (and the Lib Dems to an extent) have painted, that says “forget the enormous global financial crisis- it was all Gordon Brown’s fault”. But it is true to say that the Labour government was running deficits before the crash, and stimulating unsustainable levels of consumer debt (particularly around the property market), and it’s also true to say they were warned – many times – by people who foresaw what was to come. Here’s an example, from 2003:

On the housing market, is not the brutal truth that with investment, exports and manufacturing output stagnating or falling, the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?

In case you’re wondering who asked that – it was Vince Cable, in the House of Commons, asking the then Chancellor, Gordon Brown.

2. Labour planned not to protect NHS funding in 2010. This is a key point, and something that is seemingly entirely forgotten. The Lib Dems took the same view, in fact; it was only the Tories that committed to real-terms increases in NHS funding – something that has been delivered.

It is therefore entirely disingenuous and wrong of Labour to scaremonger about the level of funding the NHS is likely to receive under a Tory-led government. To scaremonger, for example, by putting up posters like the one below. Bear in mind that this is the party that has been so keen to take the moral high ground over “negative campaigning”. The hypocrisy is staggering.

3. Labour still hasn’t committed to giving the NHS the funding it needs to survive. Under Labour’s plans the NHS would get only an extra £2.5 billion a year, well short of what the NHS itself says it needs. Today they are decrying the Tories’ pledge as “fantasy funding”. Yet only a couple of weeks ago, their main political goal was to get the Prime Minister to rule out various tax increases – something that rather blew up in Ed Miliband’s face at the final PMQs of the Parliament, and meant Ed Balls had to rule out NI increases similarly hastily.

If you want to talk about fantasy funding, maybe don’t waste time on tactical manoeuvres that will narrow down the options available to any government to raise revenue – revenue that needs to be put into vital public services such as the NHS.

Striking Differences in Scottish Leaders’ Debate

I’ve just finished watching the Scottish leaders’ debate on the BBC. I missed last night’s, but from what I saw on Twitter and in newspaper commentary, tonight’s had some similar themes.

Compared to the UK-wide, 7-way leaders’ debate last week, there were some very striking differences. The first was the general tenor of the debate: for the most part, despite the presence of a highly disagreeable UKIP MEP, there was a tendency towards plain speaking and even a willingness to meet straight questions with straight answers. This made for some of the interesting moments and occasionally policy apparently being made on the hoof.

This leads me to the second and most important point. Nicola Sturgeon, fresh from her “victory” last week, where she effectively played the role of Nick Clegg circa 2010, was under serious pressure at three key points tonight.

Firstly, on the issue of a second referendum, she effectively admitted that this would depend on shifting public opinion – implying that polling might be enough of a trigger for the SNP to push for another plebiscite. More sensible was her suggestion that an EU exit might be a suitable trigger for a referendum, a position with which I have far more sympathy.

Secondly, and very significantly, Sturgeon came under heavy fire for her support for “full fiscal autonomy” for Scotland. Short of a referendum, this is the obvious next-best policy for the SNP. The trouble is that it would create economic chaos overnight, a point made by almost everyone else on the panel. Sturgeon had no answer to this and at one point looked almost Cameronian, her face rapidly reddening and her temper clearly fraying.

Thirdly, she was put under real pressure over Trident. Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, did a great job of putting her on the spot with what was a genuinely forensic question, pointing out that while it was one thing for SNP MPs “not to support” Trident renewal, it would be another for them to commit to voting against it no matter what. Sturgeon again was forced to make an immediate policy decision, stating that her MPs would indeed vote against Trident renewal. This is a highly significant issue as the Main Gate decision on Successor is due to be taken in 2016. Sturgeon prayed in aid the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, suggesting that even if a minority government were to lose a vote on such a significant issue as the defence of the realm, it would not constitute a vote of no confidence. I am not so sure, and neither are many constitutional experts, but it is another indication of the likely importance of the Act in determining the stability of the post-2015 government.

As for the rest of the panel, I felt Jim Murphy was too aggressive, often shouting over other people (particularly Ruth Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon). He did well to challenge the UKIP MEP on immigration, but the fact that he represents a party that has entirely pandered to the demonisation of immigrants made that sound a bit hollow. Willie Rennie did a good job when given the chance, but probably didn’t intervene enough in what was a lively debate. I actually thought Patrick Harvie for the Greens was very articulate and did fairly well – his only real rabbit-in-the-headlights moment was when he was asked whether he was saying the Green Party wouldn’t support any capitalist government by James Cook, the BBC host! For a moment it seemed Harvie was channelling Natalie Bennett’s disastrous freeze on LBC the other week, but thankfully he recovered himself after a short interval.

A final, general comment: the debate was, broadly, both more entertaining and of a better quality (in terms of policy and straight talking) than the UK-wide equivalent. The Scottish leaders have much they could teach their Westminster counterparts.

Shock as Middle-Aged, Middle Class Men Dress Age-Appropriately

A bit (OK, a lot) of silliness yesterday, as it was pointed that Nick Clegg, David Cameron and Ed Miliband were all wearing similar clothes. Buzzfeed even ran an entire article on it even though the “news” had already been discussed extensively on Twitter.

Dan Hodges even tweeted this earlier today:

I was talking to a friend yesterday who suggested that politics is the most cynical profession out there. Tweets like Dan’s above are partly to blame for that view. The implication is that these middle-class men of a certain age have carefully considered whether teaming a light blue collared shirt with a navy blue jumper will position them correctly in the eyes of the voting public.

Nick wears it best though, yeah

Steve Parsons / PA Wire/Press Association Images

This was also taken to ludicrous extremes by Howard Jacobson’s somewhat turgid and exhausting discussion of George Osborne’s trousers on A Point of View today.

It’s unsurprising that we want to relate absolutely everything back to ourselves – after all, we’d like to think the world revolves around us as voters. But isn’t it far more likely that these men barely gave a second thought to their wardrobe when they got up yesterday? They wear these clothes because they’re what men like them wear, especially in early spring in 2015. What’s the alternative? A suit at all times, even on a Bank Holiday weekend? A V-neck tee and skinny jeans? They’re in their mid-to-late 40s, for goodness’ sake.

How about we ignore what politicians are wearing and listen to what they’re saying? And that applies not just to these men but also (and in particular) to the tiresome, predictable misogyny meted out to the likes of Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood.

Only the Lib Dems are listening to the NHS

Most of the political debate around the NHS, certainly in the Leaders’ Debate on Thursday night, has focused on who should deliver NHS services. In particular, the anti-austerity parties, as well as the Labour Party, are extremely sceptical about what they call “privatisation” – the provision of NHS services by private companies.

This is ironic, as the NHS itself has made its position very clear. Before Christmas, a document called the Five Year Forward View (FYFV) was published. This was really a manifesto for the future of the NHS – written by senior management figures within NHS England, the central body that controls much of the NHS’ commissioning and funding decisions, and based upon the collective and specialist knowledge of the NHS itself. The NHS FYFV doesn’t talk much about “privatisation”. Instead, it focuses on what are really the biggest challenges for the NHS. To summarise:

  • The NHS needs to focus much more on prevention and public health – this is aimed at stopping a sharply rising burden of avoidable illness
  • The NHS needs to move towards new models of integrated care – at the moment there’s a big divide in lots of places between GP surgeries and hospitals, between hospitals and care homes, and between physical and mental health

The FYFV also made it clear that without making the right sort of changes, and assuming funding levels stay broadly as they are over the next five years, the NHS will be under-funded to the tune of around £30 billion by 2020. Given the entire NHS budget currently stands at around £100 billion, that constitutes what some might call an existential threat. The document sets out various ways to meet that challenge. In short, NHS England thinks that with the right service reform and the introduction of these new models of care, it can make efficiency gains representing about £22 billion of the shortfall.

But that still leaves £8 billion of extra funding. And this is where the political parties come in. They are the ones who make the decisions about where tax is spent on our public services. They have a choice as to whether they will listen to the NHS itself – which is effectively lobbying them to put in this extra funding – or whether they will prioritise other public services, or indeed whether they will simply spend less overall and give people more tax cuts instead.

This graph shows how the parties are planning to fund the NHS over the next five years:

(h/t Paul Valentine @iampav)

As you can see, only one of the major parties has actually listened to the NHS itself when it comes to the vital funding needed to maintain “a comprehensive taxfunded NHS”.

If you believe in the value of such an NHS – one that doesn’t need to go cap in hand to private companies to provide vital services, or force people to rely on private medical insurance, or introduce new or increased charges for GP appointments or minor surgical treatment or prescriptions – then there’s only one choice at this election. The Liberal Democrats are the only party that truly wants to protect the NHS.

Two Worlds Collide in the #LeadersDebate

I’ve never really been the kind of person to give an instant reaction to anything. My sister is the complete opposite: you could tell us both the same news and you’d know instantly what her response was – usually incoherent rage righteous anger. I’m usually slow to react, either because I’m still trying to get my head around what I’ve heard, or because I am feeling conflicted about it, or because I want to maintain my lofty rationality in the face of base emotion. (That last one’s more theoretical.)

So having watched the heptagonal #leadersdebate, aired on ITV last night, I’ve taken some time to chew over what I saw. I am sure that there has been no end of commentary, and with the Easter Bank Holiday weekend now in full swing, most politically-engaged people will have read much of it already.

Certainly on Twitter and Facebook there seems to have been some consensus emerging. A lot of this was around the fact that Nigel Farage is a horrible individual. I’m not sure how surprising that is, but it certainly bodes well for any future EU referendum that even naturally right-wing voters (and I know and love quite a few of those) simply find him appalling.

(h/t Financial Times)

The other thing that came out strongly from many of the responses I saw was that it was great to see some diversity in the debate. Certainly it was good to have some balance, although it was painfully white. I always flinch a bit, too, at the idea that it’s in any way surprising when politicians of the calibre and experience of Nicola Sturgeon – who is, after all, the current First Minister of Scotland, and who has been in government for longer than anyone else on the panel – prove themselves articulate and competent.

My main reaction to the debate was that it really was a collision of worlds. There were two separate conversations running simultaneously, each only including some of the leaders. Nigel Farage was of course having his own personal conversation, aimed at people who already think he is Churchill reborn.

On one hand, you had a serious-minded, largely managerial discussion between David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband on the realities of government and policy. This was painfully familiar to those of us who live and breathe the political process, but would still have been relatively new to most voters. I thought all three leaders did well in stating their case, but that as in 2010, Clegg did a particularly effective job in demonstrating that there is a middle ground to be found. It felt far less fresh this time around – and will have a drastically diminished impact on the Lib Dems’ fortunes – but it will still have an impact on the ground.

On the other hand, you had a far more free-wheeling conversation led by the anti-austerity brigade. Sturgeon in particular took on Clegg’s 2010 mantle as the sharp, intelligent and human alternative to “politics as usual”. She also capitalised well on the other leaders’ ignorance of Scottish politics, which enabled her to make bold assertions on issues like privatisation and funding of the Scottish NHS that, on closer inspection, simply fall apart.

To me, the big tactical question of the evening was whether Ed Miliband would get dragged into that debate. He will be pleased today that he largely avoided it. The decision he had to make was whether to present himself as the main challenger to David Cameron, or to spend his time fending off attacks from smaller parties. He chose the former – correctly – and emerged unscathed.

What does it all mean? In terms of this campaign, very little. None of the parties will receive a major boost in the polls as a result of the debate. While Sturgeon probably “won”, as far as anyone could, her party has already risen as high as it can in Scotland alone.

Does a seven-strong debate change the view people have of general elections? Perhaps. But until we have seven parties capable of having one conversation, not much will change.

Lack of Ambition is Killing Politics

Aside from the usual April Fool’s Day tomfoolery, today has begun with debate over a letter from 100 prominent business people to the Times warning about the impact of a Labour government on the economy.

As one would expect, the responses to such a letter are tiresome and predictable.

The Tories crow over their economic record and the support they have “won” from people who would probably always have voted for them.

Labour point out that these people would always have supported the Tories and anyway they are all tax avoiders.

A few Lib Dems pipe up to suggest that if the past five years have gone well, maybe it’s something to do with Vince Cable being Business Secretary. They are ignored.

It’s all pretty unexciting and unedifying. But it does serve as a good illustration of the problem of lack of ambition. This is a big part of what is crippling our politics, and why voters often don’t care, or say all the parties are the same.

A voter (even one like me) looks at this letter and goes through this kind of thought process.

So the Tories are content to rely on the support of their core voters at this election? That’s fine if you’re a wealthy businessman, or looking to become one, but what about me? I’ve got nothing in common with people who work in glass towers. I’m not sure I want to vote for a party that so transparently values such people higher than the rest of us.

What about Labour? They don’t seem interested at all in addressing what these people are saying. Their argument amounts to “well, we could never have reached them anyway, so why bother?” I’m not sure I want to vote for a party that isn’t willing to appeal to voters that aren’t a natural fit.

Hmm. Anyone else about?

This isn’t to suggest that other parties don’t fall into this trap. I’m a member of the Lib Dems partly because I believe they want to represent and speak for the whole of society. The party has very few vested interests.

But the party has suffered in government from the same affliction that affects the larger parties. The campaign this time around is based on warnings about the other two and what they would do on their own. That’s fine as far as it goes – some might say it’s even a necessary part of modern politics – but it’s hardly ambitious or visionary. For the fictional voter above, it gives nothing to grab on to.

If parties genuinely want to avoid a further haemorrhage of political support to the fringes and backwaters of nationalism and xenophobia, they must address their own lack of ambition. It’s highly ironic that their desperation to hold on to power blinds them to this greater and more strategic need.