Richard Cobden’s achievements

Richard Cobden

“We are on the eve of great changes” Richard Cobden told Parliament in February 1846. He was correct. Britain stood poised to embark on a period of growth unparalleled in its history, which would, in a few short years, bring it wealth and power not seen since ancient Rome. A major reason for this was Britain’s path breaking adoption of free trade, and the man behind that as much as any other was Richard Cobden.

By the late 1830s it was apparent that the Whig government led by Earl Grey and then Viscount Melbourne had exhausted itself in the passage of the Reform Act of 1832. This had given the vote to propertied males, enfranchising many of those made rich by the Industrial Revolution. The Radical faction within the Whig Party sought a new cause with which to restore the momentum which had carried the 1832 Act and settled on repeal of the Corn Laws.

The Corn Laws was a catch all name for the thicket of tariffs which had been erected to keep foreign wheat out of Britain. Justified on the deathless grounds of ‘food security’, these laws also had the handy effect of benefiting the landowning classes, many of whom sat in the Commons and Lords as Tories.

The Corn Laws, as with any tariff, had the effect of making the product in question and associated goods more expensive. The burden of this was borne disproportionately by the members of the emerging working class in burgeoning industrial centres such as Manchester and Leeds who spent a large percentage of their incomes on food. By extension, they raised labour costs. And blocking foreign producers from selling in Britain prevented them from earning the money to buy the output of the new industries.

Out of this shared interest between workers and bosses (and other factions such as dissenting churchmen) came the Anti-Corn Law League, established in Manchester in 1838. One of its founders and leading lights was Richard Cobden.

Cobden was born the son of a poor Sussex farmer in 1804 and started his own textile printing business in 1828. It quickly became a success and in 1832 Cobden moved to Manchester, the centre of the booming British textile industry.

Immersed in the city’s Radical politics Cobden quickly became active. He was instrumental in the shift from broad based reform agitation to a single issue focus which had led to the creation of the League, noting that “the English people cannot be made to take up more than one question at a time with enthusiasm”. Throughout the campaign Cobden would hold to the principle of single minded focus on full and immediate repeal of the Corn Laws.

He became a prolific writer, and in his work he revealed the broader purpose behind the activities of the League. In Cobden’s mind free trade and peace were linked, he wrote in 1842 that “Free Trade by perfecting the intercourse and securing the dependence of countries one upon another must inevitably snatch the power from the governments to plunge their people into wars”.

With the Corn Laws Cobden and the League faced a problem of concentrated interest. While the benefits of repeal were spread across society, the costs were concentrated. Each person in Britain might benefit by a few pounds a year from repeal (though that was no small sum to impoverished workers) but those relatively few people who would be adversely affected by repeal stood to lose far more. The landowners were incentivised to act more strenuously in fighting against repeal than individual consumers were in fighting for it.

Partly because of this the League was frustrated during its first two years. Copying the tactics of the campaign for the 1832 Reform Act and the contemporary Chartists, the League attempted a strategy of mass agitation with open meetings and lectures. These suffered from frequent attacks by Chartists who resented any reforming competition, after one meeting Cobden wrote: “The Chartist leaders attacked us on the platform at the head of their deluded followers. We were nearly the victims of physical force; I lost my hat, and all but had my head split open with the leg of a stool”. The failure of this strategy left the League short of money. Attempts to petition Parliament were heavily defeated and the League members were frequently tempted away into movements for wider reform.

In 1841 Cobden convinced the League to change strategy. He wrote to a fellow member “You will perhaps smile at my venturing thus summarily to set aside all your present formidable demonstrations as useless; but I found my conviction on the present construction of the House of Commons, which forbids us hoping for success. That House must be changed before we can get justice

From now on the League would seek to make Parliament its battleground, starting with a by election in Walsall in February 1841. The Tories allied with their Chartist arch enemies in an effort to defeat the League which still came a close second. Cobden’s strategy had been a success, the Morning Chronicle noting that “one consequence of the contest at Walsall is that the Corn Laws are, and must henceforth be, throughout England, a hustings question”. With a general election approaching the Whig leaders adopted a stronger free trade stance.

The election of summer 1841 saw the Whigs defeated by Robert Peel’s Conservatives, heirs to the Tories, and seemingly dashed hopes of Corn Law repeal for the foreseeable future. But the situation was brighter than it might have appeared. The election saw a number of League members returned to Parliament including Cobden, now widely recognised as the League’s leader, who was elected MP for Stockport. Also, by the end of the year, ‘operative’ associations attached to the League, mostly consisting of working class supporters, had organised to protect League meetings from the violence of the Chartists. But perhaps more importantly, in Peel, Britain now had as Prime Minister one of the most remarkable statesmen in her history.

With Britain in economic depression Peel deliberated before finally announcing his budget in February 1842. Despite his Tory lineage, Peel recognised that the Conservatives must learn to accommodate themselves to changing circumstances if the wilder, revolutionary wing of the Chartists was to be held at bay. Given the revolutions across Europe in 1848, this was no minor threat. Peel’s Tamworth Manifesto of 1834, as close to a foundational act as the modern Conservative Party has, had been an act of reconciliation with the passage of the 1832 Reform Act.

Peel’s fiscal proposals were in this tradition, proposing a drastic tariff reduction with revenues to be made up by a new income tax. The moves were warmly welcomed by liberals and, while it represented a significant vindication of the League’s arguments, it also brought danger. As Cobden predicted “The greatest evil that could befall us would be a bona fide concession – The middle classes are a compromising set”.

After some debate about strategy (during which Cobden squashed a move to declare a general strike by factory owners) the League stepped up its propaganda. Millions of leaflets, posters, handbills, and newspapers were distributed with the aim of reaching every voter in Britain, though that was only about 600,000 people at the time.

But despite all this activity the League found it needed an event, a shift in circumstances beyond its control, to provide proof of its arguments and swing opinion behind them. That came in 1845 when the potato crop failed. Particularly in Ireland, where much of the population depended on potatoes, this caused great suffering, culminating in a famine which killed an estimated one million people.

Cheap food was needed and quickly. Faced with this unfolding catastrophe, supporters of the Corn Laws were helpless. A further vital, final, factor was Peel’s reaction. Acting on humanitarian grounds and the perennial desire of Conservative Party leaders to pick fights with their backbenchers (in this case the land owning Tories) in order to prove they are ‘different’, Peel moved for full repeal in 1845. In May 1846 repeal was passed and the Anti-Corn Law League wound itself up.

The benefits for Britain were immense and immediate. The effects of famine receded and a wider program of free trade enacted. Between 1815 and 1842 Britain’s exports edged up from £47,250,000 to £50,000,000. By 1870 they had rocketed to £200,000,000.

How had Richard Cobden and the League managed to defeat the special interests in favour of keeping the Corn Laws?

First, and most importantly, they were right. Free trade became the orthodoxy to such an extent that we can forget that while the League was working its ideas were one strand of a lively discourse. There was a long tradition of bad economics arguing for protection and Friedrich List was giving these old doctrines a new outing even as the League was campaigning.

Second, their strategy of exclusive focus on Corn Law repeal was a success. Cobden refused to be, and refused to let the League become, distracted by any other reform or campaign. This ensured that while the Chartists got nothing from a long list of demands the League actually got more than its comparatively modest aims with Britain quickly embracing free trade generally.

Third, they were tactically flexible. There were three fronts to their activities. First, were the mass meetings. These were of limited success largely owing to the competition, both ideological and physical, of the rival Chartists. The second front was education. Here the League had more success, sending literally tons of propaganda out every week. They pitched to all sections of society, sending lurid drawings of emaciated families to lowbrow readers and helping found The Economist for the highbrow. Third, and most effective, was the Parliamentary front. It was arguably the fact that the League engaged here while the Chartists didn’t that guaranteed the success of the League relative to the Chartists.

The fourth factor was, as Harold Macmillan put it, events, or, more broadly, circumstance. Without Peel’s transformation of the Tory Party into the Conservative Party and its concomitant embrace of free trade, the League would have had to wait until at least 1848 and the possible election of the Whigs who, under Lord John Russell, had finally adopted full repeal as a policy. And without the famine in Ireland it is doubtful whether either party could have carried repeal in as full a form as eventually happened.

To a large extent however, this event is not so exogenous. It could be, and was, painted as the predicted outcome of the bad policies of the Corn Laws.

As a result, when circumstances combined in 1845-1846 in the advents of Peel and the potato blight, thanks to Cobden and the League the arguments for free trade were widely enough known to be accepted as a viable possibility. The lesson is to have rigorous, well tested arguments. Pick a definite, achievable aim then work hard to spread and publicise your views until they become the ‘white noise’ of the debate. Then position yourself to take advantage of changing circumstances and move quickly when circumstances change.

When Richard Cobden died in 1865 the French foreign minister wrote that he was “in our eyes the representative of those sentiments and those cosmopolitan principles before which national frontiers and rivalries disappear; whilst essentially of his country, he was still more of his time; he knew what mutual relations could accomplish in our day for the prosperity of peoples. Cobden, if I may be permitted to say so, was an international man”.

At the end of three successful years The Cobden Centre can continue to draw on its namesakes rich example as it looks forward to furthering his goals of peace and prosperity.

This article originally appeared at The Cobden Centre


Memo to Dave: No matter how much rubbish you talk, Guardianistas won’t love you

Scorned again

If you wanted lamb chops you wouldn’t go to Holland & Barrett. If you wanted a cheap shirt for work you wouldn’t look down Jermyn Street. And if you wanted a lecture on morality you wouldn’t go to a politician.

But that’s what we got last week in the midst of ‘Carrgate’. On Wednesday, David Cameron branded the comedian’s tax arrangements “morally wrong”. Then, on Thursday, when asked what his thoughts were on the similar tax arrangements of Conservative supporting singer Gary Barlow, Cameron muttered“ I am not going to give a running commentary on different people’s tax affairs. I don’t think that would be right”

On less flip floppy but no firmer ground was Danny Alexander. On that righteous Wednesday he thundered that “people who are deliberately going out of their way to try and bend the rules to avoid tax, are the moral equivalent of the people who cheat the benefit system”

This remark didn’t go unnoticed by singer turned moralist Lily Allen, whose song Fuck You is up there with Bob Dylan’s The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll as one of the great political statements in popular music. “How are tax avoiders ‘the moral equivalent of benefit cheats’ ? . Surely they’re a hundred times worse ?” (sic) she tweeted before calling someone who disagreed a “fascist” – a striking display of idiocy from someone so expensively educated.

’m no fan of Jimmy Carr, although he did once give me directions on Islington’s Upper Street. I don’t find him funny and for a comedian praised for his edginess I’ve always been surprised by how old fashionedly showbiz his TV shows are. Indeed, if you wanted to list your top three Steve Guttenberg movies I’m sure Jimmy Carr would be happy to host a program about it on E4. But has he actually done anything wrong?

Let’s start with Alexander and Allen. There is, in fact, a world of difference between someone acting legally to keep hold of money they earned (tax avoidance) and someone acting illegally to get hold of money someone else earned (benefit fraud). It was precisely this argument that Allen branded “fascist” before saying that “we’re talking morals not legalities”.

This brings us to Cameron’s point. The problem with making tax a moral issue is that taxes have to be, as Adam Smith put it as long ago as 1776, “certain, not arbitrary”. And morality is an arbitrary issue because each of us has their own moral code.

Thus, I find the coalition’s reforms to housing benefit reasonable and long overdue. Polly Toynbee regards them as nothing short of an attempted “final solution for the poor”. Personally, given that our engorged government spends tens of billions of pounds it shouldn’t, I see nothing inherently moral or noble in giving it money you don’t have to. In fact, I view tax avoidance as perfectly moral in the face of a bloated and wasteful government. But that’s me, and you might disagree.

The best way to avoid these sorts of clashes is the old live and let live, maximising the arenas of life in which individual choice is sovereign. However, this is not possible in cases where the actions are of their nature collective, like paying taxes.

But if we are to respect private property, which is not only right morally (in my view) but also from a perspective of increasing all our wealth, then we have to have a tax system in which your earnings can’t be taxed away ‘just because’. At some point we need to move away from morality and towards legality. We are back with Adam Smith.

So we draw up a tax system which all of us know about in advance. You break it, you’re a tax evader. You don’t, you’re good to go. And that is where Jimmy Carr is. Telegraph blogger Dan Hodges put it as well as anyone:

“What precisely has he done that’s immoral? Has Jimmy Carr earned his money legally? Yes. Does he pay tax? Yes. Does he stand accused of tax evasion? No. Has he paid the maximum amount of tax he is legally required to? Yes…We have an obligation to pay our full amount of tax. We don’t have an obligation, legal or moral, to pay more than that. That’s why we have a mandatory tax system, not a system of voluntary charitable contributions to the state.”

So why the outpouring of blather about Carr’s taxes? Allen is just a celebrity dimwit. Alexander is playing to his restive party members. He was at it again this week, saying that“ If we could narrow the tax gap in this country by a quarter we could reduce income tax for every basic rate payer by 2p in the pound” He doesn’t seem to realise that the same effect could be achieved if he just cut spending.

And then there’s Cameron. Never one to let the low hanging fruit go ungrabbed, getting all moralistic about Jimmy Carr probably seemed a great way to try and win a few brownie points with Guardian readers. Predictably, it blew up in his face. When will he learn that he can never, ever, talk enough rubbish to make Guardianistas love him?

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Taxpayer funding for political parties? Why not pensions for life for armed robbers too?


Not the only bubble that’s burst

Whether it’s General Motors or RBS, no failing enterprise has ever truly breathed its last before gasping the plea for taxpayer funding. ‘Dinnergate’ provided the opportunity for Britain’s failing political parties to utter the immortal words.

In the general election of 1951 Labour and the Conservatives got over 95 percent of the vote between them. Labour got 13.9 million votes, the victorious Conservatives, by a quirk of the electoral system, 12.6 million. In the general election of 2005 labour and the Conservatives got just over 67 percent of the vote between them. The victorious Labour party got 9.5 million votes, the Conservatives 8.7 million. Losing that sort of market share is catastrophic.

Though obscured by First Past the Post the trend in British politics in the post war period is clear; a decreasing number of British voters are interested in either main party.

This increasing lack of interest in either the Conservatives or Labour has also been reflected in falling membership numbers. Perhaps counter intuitively for the self proclaimed party of the working man, Labour party membership has always lagged Conservative party membership. But, even so, in 1953 Labour had more than 1 million members and the Conservatives had 2.8 million.

With occasional reverses Labour party membership fell steadily until 1979 by which time it had fallen by a third to 666,000 members. Then came the Winter of Discontent and, as well as losing power to Margaret Thatcher, Labour lost a staggering 318,000 members in one year.

By the late 1960s the Conservatives had fallen to 1.1 million members but held steady until the early 1990s. From 1 million members just prior to Thatcher’s ousting in 1990 membership had halved to 500,000 in 1992.

But even these figures now look like some halcyon age of mass participation. By 2010 Conservative party membership had slumped to 177,000 while Labour was enjoying a “surge” in membership to 60,000 – a disappointing crowd at Old Trafford. No wonder that Britain’s political parties now find themselves in the position of a busted bank or bankrupt car company.

In the absence of membership fees the effect has been a reliance on ever fewer donors giving ever more money. Lord Ashcroft kept the Conservatives going almost single handed in the wilderness years after 1997. Labour, out of power and drifting to the left, holds little appeal for those with bulging wallets; Labour received just 13 private donations in the year from September 2010. Labour is now reliant on the trade unions (who themselves represent just a fraction of the workforce they used to) for over 80 percent of its funding.

The politicians’ ever greater flattery of their ever fewer donors is a nauseating sight and when it doesn’t cross the line into the criminal it certainly radiates a sleazy impression, as with Cameron’s latest kerfuffle.

The proposal for taxpayer funding of political parties is usually floated in the wake of such scandals. Perhaps because the threat of bankruptcy is very real for the Labour party (a rare example of politicians practising in private what they do in office) the demand for taxpayer funding has come loudest from the left. In the wake of Dinnergate, a Conservative scandal remember, the New Statesman carried articles by Labour MP Denis McShane and Mehdi Hasan arguing for taxpayer funding of political parties. As McShane put it, there is a need “for democracy to pay for democracy”

There is nothing of the sort. There is, instead, simply the desperate desire for members of failing enterprises like Britain’s major political parties to be bailed out. If you won’t give them your money voluntarily they will take it straight out of your paycheque.

Hasan quoted the Independent’s Mary Ann Sieghart saying that “our government was being corrupted by shady donors” so we must introduce taxpayer funding. This idea, that because we cannot trust politicians to raise money honestly we must give it to them in taxes, is absurd. By that way of thinking we would ‘punish’ armed robbery by giving the robbers pensions for life.

The question few seem to ask is why this is happening. Why are our major political parties becoming so noxious that Labour, with a 10 point lead in the polls, can lose a safe seat to a sectarian bigot? Why do 72 percent of voters see the Conservative party as “out of touch”? Answer that and you have a solution to party funding which doesn’t involve taxing people more.

There are long term secular trends. In terms of voting the decline can be attributed to some mixture of weakening class identification and growing disillusionment with both main parties’ inability to deliver on their grand promises. In terms of membership people join thing things less than they used to whether it’s political parties or the Dennis the Menace Fan Club.

But there’s another factor. Why should people give money to people who don’t like them? When Gordon Brown was overheard calling a lifelong Labour voter a “bigoted woman” just for asking some valid questions about immigration he revealed more than he knew. He revealed that the Labour party is run by a metropolitan elite which views its core voters in places like Rochdale as a bunch of unreformed hicks.

The same goes for the Conservatives. The strategy behind Team Cameron was that if they alienated enough of their core vote they would attract enough Guardian readers to more than make up for it. It failed. In the Telegraph Iain Martin wrote that “A fundamental miscalculation was the decision by this group to ape Mr Blair and define themselves in opposition to their party and their core supporters.” You can understand why Conservative party members might balk at giving money, or votes, to people who view them like this.

The truth is that both Labour and the Conservatives are run by people who don’t like Labour or Conservative voters very much. Those voters are entitled to keep their hands in their pockets and not have them picked by taxpayer funding.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

Why Charlie Elphicke’s priorities are wrong

The NTE Party – Not Taxed Enough

There is a strand of thought in the Conservative party which holds that the party’s failure to win the last election was because they are insufficiently like the Liberal Democrats or Labour; respectively, a party which has popularity levels that would make Gary Glitter wince and one so bereft of ideas that the only thing they needed to worry about being stolen in a recent break in to its leader’s office was the tea bags.

It is this strain of thought which recently led Francis Maude to say that it was the Conservative party’s stance on gay marriage which would decide its electoral fortunes, a view which suggests he hasn’t spent much time canvassing lately.

It is also this strain of thought that has led Charlie Elphicke MP to write a piece for ConservativeHome titled ‘We should target overseas tax dodgers, help the low-paid and only then abolish 50p

In a country whose government is borrowing £450 million per day, whose national debt is rising at £4,000 per second, yet which is seeing the merest trim of government spending Mr Elphicke has deduced that the problem is not that we are spending too much, but that we are not taxing enough.

At the heart of this lies what has motivated much of the opposition to the coalition’s attempts to get Britain’s ruinous borrowing under control: the idea that things can carry on as before; all we need to do is find someone else to keep paying for it.

The twist in Elphicke’s argument – what sets it a couple of millimetres apart from the sort of thing you get from any number of Dave Sparts – is that instead of targeting ‘the rich’, however defined, Elphicke has non-doms in his sights.

“We should learn from these international lessons” Elphicke thunders. Which international lessons? Well, there’s Spain with its 23 percent unemployed and the United States which, Elphicke notes approvingly, doesn’t “sit there worrying about non-domicile status. They just tax everybody, everywhere”

Well, they haven’t been taxing the increasing number of Americans who have been renouncing their citizenship rather than stump up to two countries’ governments when they only live in one. And Elphicke doesn’t address the rather obvious point that we might actually want to attract these people. He says that “This measure (taxing non-doms on their worldwide income not just that earned in the UK immediately) would raise between £500m and £1bn” annually, one or two days government borrowing in other words. But he doesn’t say whether this figure takes into account the negative effect on inward investment this would have.

As the Telegraph reported, when the £30,000 levy on non-doms which Elphicke celebrates was introduced in 2007, 16,000 of them upped sticks and left. As the Telegraph said

“The latest Treasury estimate is that 5,400 non-doms paid the levy in its first year, worth £162m in tax – way below original estimates. But how much revenue did the Treasury lose by the 16,000 non-doms leaving?

 Well, again according to Treasury estimates, non-doms pay £4bn in income tax and another £3bn in other taxes such as capital gains, VAT and stamp duty. So if 11.5pc of non-doms left in 2008-2009, as Inland Revenue figures show, then it’s not unreasonable to estimate that must equate to about £800m in lost taxes”

Can our battered finances really afford a repeat of this fiasco? They might have to. Just this last weekend the Financial Times carried a report that the number of non-doms in the UK has fallen by 16 percent since the levy was introduced. Now George Osborne is rumoured to be planning to raise it to £50,000.

If there’s no economic logic to all this neither does Elphicke even attempt to offer a moral justification. But then he appears to subscribe to the other foundational myth of the ‘anti cuts’ movement, namely that all government spending is good and, therefore, so is all tax. Tellingly, Elphicke makes no mention of spending cuts in his article.

But the truth is that there is much government spending which is a complete waste, especially following Labour’s spending spree over the last few years.

Labour more than doubled spending on education but we slumped from 7th in reading, 8th in maths and 4th in science in 2000 in the Programme for International Student Assessment rankings to 17th, 24th and 14th respectively in 2008. Labour doubled spending on health but productivity, at best, only “probably improved”. It’s little wonder that people aren’t simply sitting still to be taxed to pay for all this waste.

Rather than dreaming up probably self defeating plans to find new pips to squeak Elphicke would be better off attacking this colossal misuse of taxpayers’ money. The truth is that there is much public spending which is not virtuous and, by extension, there is much taxation which is not virtuous. Some tax, quite frankly, ought to be avoided.

Elphicke is correct that moves should immediately be made to make the first £10,000 earned tax-free but this should be paid for, not with further taxes, but with genuine cuts to runaway government spending, not the glorified budgetary topiary which is the cause of so much misguided fuss.

Elphicke says that “As Conservatives we are committed to fairness and social justice”, well, who isn’t? The real question is what form you give these malleable phrases. He says “That means we believe everyone should pay a fair share” – again, who would disagree?

But it ought not to be the job of the Conservative party to define ‘fairness’ as “tax everybody, everywhere”. After all, besides wooly phrases like ‘social justice’ and ‘fairness’, the Conservatives are supposed to believe in the sovereignty of the individual and over his or her rights over their property. This is especially so when so much of this tax goes to support wasteful spending.

Leave defending that sort of nonsense to Labour and the Liberal Democrats.

This article originally appeared at The Commentator

The growing pains of the Liberal Democrats

Hands up if you’re screwed

“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things

– I Corinthians 13:11

The Liberal Democrats were always a silly party. They were also a rather dishonest one. The disastrous election results of May 5th were punishment for that.

For a little over two decades the Lib Dems told voters around the United Kingdom whatever they wanted to hear. In the Conservative dominated south the Lib Dems told voters they were a less extreme version of the Conservative party. In the Labour dominated north the Lib Dems told voters they were a less extreme version of the Labour party. This put them in just the right position to become the party of protest. When asked what, exactly, they were protesting against, the Lib Dems could reply, like Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild One’, “Whaddya got?”

In opposition both pitches could be true. They could attack the Conservatives for being soft on the deficit while pledging to abolish university tuition fees, a promise even Labour wouldn’t make. The Lib Dems could play this game because, despite lip service to the contrary, they never expected to form a government.

But a political party with no expectation of power attracts a certain type of member. It attracted people who wanted to flirt with the real world by giving their harebrained environmental schemes and impossible promises of lower taxes and higher government spending a trot round the political paddock. None of it was very serious. It was silly.

Once in government only one of these pitches could be delivered; the Lib Dems would have to disappoint either their right leaning or left leaning voters by siding with either Labour or the Conservatives. The glare of government would expose one set of promises as empty.

This is the choice Nick Clegg faced last May. The Lib Dems had campaigned for years about the benefits of coalition government and the hung parliament bought them the opportunity to build one in the real world. Labour’s desire to get as far upwind as possible of the fiscal stink bomb it had let off meant that the only possible partner was the Conservative Party. Clegg could either take the Lib Dems into a governing coalition for the first time in 80 years or he could continue to lead a silly party.

To his credit Clegg chose the former. There would be no more flirting with the real world, instead the Lib Dems would get a full on, Jilly Cooper-esque wedding night ravishing.

They began losing voters almost immediately. The first to go were the people who had voted Lib Dem in order to ensure a Labour government. These were the sort of voters too silly even for the Lib Dems at their silliest.

As the enormity of dealing with a £150 billion deficit in the real world and not just talking about it on the doorstep began to sink in more voters left the Lib Dem fold. The party’s poll ratings halved from over 20% to less than 10%. In by elections the Lib Dem vote either held up with the help of voters on loan from the Conservatives, as in Oldham, or collapsed completely, as in Barnsley.

May 5th was a new low point in this trend. The Lib Dems lost over 800 councillors and control of major cities across the north of England and took a battering in Welsh and Scottish assembly elections. Voters realised that the Lib Dems could only keep one of the two sets of promises they had made and their left leaning voters realised it wasn’t the set of promises made to them. They switched to Labour.

How the Lib Dems react to this is crucial to the survival of the coalition and their survival as a party. The only way those voters lost on May 5th could conceivably come back is if the Lib Dems could convince them they are a little bit like the Labour party which has nothing resembling an economic policy. But how can they do that while staying in a deficit cutting government with the Conservatives?

Back in April Nick Clegg said “I don’t even pretend we can occupy the Lib Dem holier-than-thou, hands-entirely-clean-and-entirely-empty-type stance”. He must hope that Lib Dem party members are similarly aware that the party is growing up and that growing pains are, well, painful. Many of their erstwhile voters have fled the party for the cloud cuckoo land offered by Labour but the Lib Dems must continue to put away childish things.

A tale of two Britains

He should have helped himself to forty large

Ian Faletto is the long serving and much loved station master at Lymington in Hampshire. According to regular station users Mr Faletto “spent thousands of pounds of his own money buying flowers, magazines and sweets to make the station more welcoming, while also putting in thousands of hours of unpaid overtime to maintain his own rigorous standards of cleanliness”

Now Mr Faletto has been sacked. He saw a Tesco shopping trolley lying on the tracks and, fearing a derailment, he went and removed it. In the sort of story which left wingers always tell you the Daily Mail makes up, this was a breach of Health and Safety regulations and cost him his job.

David Laws is a Liberal Democrat MP. A year ago he was a vastly impressive Chief Secretary to the Treasury until he was forced to resign amid allegations of serious diddling of his expenses. This week he was found guilty. He had, it turns out, claimed £40,000 in expenses he wasn’t entitled to, his motivation being, apparently, to conceal his homosexuality.

The Right Honourable David Laws MP has been suspended from the Commons for seven days.

Compare the fates of Laws and Mr Faletto. Laws, suspended for falsely claiming tens of thousands of pounds, Faletto sacked for shifting a shopping trolley that posed a danger to the passengers in his care. Is it any wonder our politicians are so disconnected from everyday life, a life where you can be sacked for doing your job because some overzealous jobsworth says you broke some stupid rule? Is it any wonder they consider themselves a class apart? Is it any wonder they consider themselves above the law. Compare the fates of Laws and Mr Faletto; they are.

The black day of the Liberal Democrats

Quite a few of the results are in from yesterday’s elections for councils in England and the Scottish and Welsh assemblies. We can make a few tentative judgements.

Labour – Mixed bag. Picked up alot of seats from the rancidly unpopular Lib Dems but failed to make any headway in the Conservative held areas they need to win the next election. Wales was about what theyd have expected but losing like they did in Scotland is a disaster. Ed Miliband claimed to be pleased (he would) but others in his party were less convinced.

Lib Dems – Ouch. As someone said today they are paying the price for a couple of decades of pretending to be Conservatives in the south and Labour in the north. Rumours that they will be throwing their weight around in cabinet to please their supporters are rather undone by the fact that these elections show they have rather few supporters left. The party may well be finished.

ConservativesDecent showing. Actually managed to be up in both councils and councillors as of now.

SNPThe nights big winners. They can now have their referendum on independence which they havent a prayer of winning.

Paddy Pantsdown’s poetical problems

Always worth another airing

The British public was never too impressed with Paddy Ashdown. By turns sanctimonious and silly, Paddy Pantsdown, as the tabloids memorably christened him after an affair, took the Liberal Democrats from 25.4% of the popular vote which their predecessors, the Alliance, won in the election before he took over to 17.8% of the vote in his first election in charge and 17.8% again in his last election in charge. This lack of political achievement hasn’t stopped him sounding off in the wake of the Liberal Democrats worst set of election results since, well, he was in charge.

In the Guardian today Ashdown fulminates against the “regiment of lies” put about by the No to AV campaign and warns, none too ominously it must be said, that

“So far the coalition has been lubricated by a large element of goodwill and trust. It is not any longer. The consequence is that when it comes to the bonhomie of the Downing Street rose garden, that has gone. It will never again be glad confident morning”

You wonder if Ashdown knows where the quote “Glad confident morning” comes from? If he did it’s hard to see why he would use it.

It comes from ‘The Lost Leader’, a poem by Robert Browning excoriating his former idol William Wordsworth for his betrayal of the Liberal cause

Just for a handful of silver he left us,
Just for a ribbon to stick in his coat—
Found the one gift of which fortune bereft us,
Lost all the others she lets us devote;
They, with the gold to give, doled him out silver,
So much was theirs who so little allowed:
How all our copper had gone for his service!
Rags—were they purple, his heart had been proud!
We that had loved him so, followed him, honoured him,
Lived in his mild and magnificent eye,
Learned his great language, caught his clear accents,
Made him our pattern to live and to die!
Shakespeare was of us, Milton was for us,
Burns, Shelley, were with us,—they watch from their graves!
He alone breaks from the van and the freemen,
He alone sinks to the rear and the slaves!

We shall march prospering,—not thro’ his presence;
Songs may inspirit us,—not from his lyre;
Deeds will be done,—while he boasts his quiescence,
Still bidding crouch whom the rest bade aspire:
Blot out his name, then, record one lost soul more,
One task more declined, one more footpath untrod,
One more devils’-triumph and sorrow for angels,
One wrong more to man, one more insult to God!
Life’s night begins: let him never come back to us!
There would be doubt, hesitation, and pain,
Forced praise on our part—the glimmer of twilight,
Never glad confident morning again!
Best fight on well, for we taught him—strike gallantly,
Menace our heart ere we master his own;
Then let him receive the new knowledge and wait us,
Pardoned in heaven, the first by the throne!

Given that the Lib Dems never “loved (Cameron) so”, “followed him”, “honoured him” or, as far as I am aware, “Lived in his mild and magnificent eye” you have to wonder if Ashdown isn’t actually talking about Nick Clegg. Indeed, if this is the starting pistol for a leadership challenge then it may be the first time one has been fired in catalectic tetrameter. If being a party of government doesn’t suit them the role of party of poetry is all theirs.

It’s a No to AV from me please Bob

I’ve found it quite hard to get too excited about this vote. Both sides have made some ridiculous claims. The Yes camp say that the Conservative leadership elections and X Factor use AV. They don’t. The No camp say that the vote is costing alot of money, an argument which could just as well be used to get rid of elections full stop.

That said I’ll be voting No. I started to make my mind up when I heard a debate on the radio between John Reid (No) and some guy for the Yes camp. Reid made quite a worthy defence of the No position, one person one vote and all that, and the Yes guy just responded by being rude to him. As time has gone on I’ve been struck by how much of the Yes campaign has been about complaining about the No campaign (the idiotic Huhne has been the worst, but then he’s less interested in the AV campaign than the next Lib Dem leadership campaign). They haven’t offered anyone much of a reason to say Yes.

Then there is the fact that I don’t relish the idea of having the Lib Dems in power forever and giving their leader the ability to pick the Prime Minister every four or five years.

On top of that I am quite wedded to the idea of one person one vote and despite what the Yes campaign have been saying, that will end with AV. If you vote Labour in a strong Labour constituency your vote is not counted again. If you vote UKIP, however, and they finish bottom your second vote, perhaps for the Conservatives, will be counted again. Thus, your vote for UKIP and the Conservatives gets counted. If you vote Labour only your Labour vote does.

The fate of smaller parties has been a focus of both Yes and No camps. The No camp say we don’t want extremists votes deciding things, a very weak argument as the vote of an extremist is worth just as much as anyone else’s. The Yes campaign say that their system will allow smaller parties to flourish and, hence, offer more choice.

But voters already have choice. In Kensington and Chelsea, one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, voters had a choice last May of Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrat, Green, UKIP, Alliance for Green Socialism and an Independent. Proponents of a Yes vote argue that AV will make it more likely that one of these other, smaller parties would win and that the current system gives them no chance.

But they can win. What they have to do is get out, work hard, and convince enough of their fellow constituents that they should have their vote. Sounds impossible? Tell that to Caroline Lucas. Tell it to the Labour party, founded in 1900 and in government inside of three decades. ‘Ah but’, its been said to me, ‘Labour had the power of the trade unions behind them’. Indeed they did. And perhaps the lack of any similar manifestation of support for, say, the Alliance for Green Socialism, shows that it is their unpopular ideology and not the voting system that ought to be their most pressing concern.

The Yes campaign argue that under FPTP the people in Kensington and Chelsea who voted for any one of the six losers will not be represented. This is rather a strange argument given that AV does not propose to award the constituency of Kensington and Chelsea seven seats in the House of Commons so there will always be at least one loser and, by extension, some voters who are not represented.

AV, in short, kicks away a keystone of British democracy in one person one vote and replaces it with something which doesn’t remedy the failings even its supporters diagnose with the current system. That’s why, on Thursday, it’ll be a No from me.

The massive mandate for fiscal sanity

“Don’t blame me, I voted for 10.9% spending cuts as opposed to 12%”

One of the most common arguments put forward by the Keep Spending Brigade is that there is no mandate for these cuts. This is as false as anything else they put forward.

Leave aside any consideration of how a representative democracy, such as ours, works. Leave aside also any worries about what is meant by a ‘mandate’, a deceptively elastic term on the left. Just look at the numbers.

Between them the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democratic parties got 88% of the vote at the last election. Few ever doubt that the average Conservative voter is behind the coalitions plan to regain control of our nations finances so that’s 36% of voters supporting the governments efforts to reign in the deficit. That’s a large way towards a mandate in anyone’s book.

Then there’s the rest of the 88%, the 23% who voted Liberal Democrat and the 29% who voted Labour. Surely the Lib Dems didn’t vote for this fiscal program?

Well if they read the Liberal Democrat manifesto then yes, they did. Once upon a time the Lib Dems were the party of public spending restraint, Nick Clegg, at the height of Cleggmania, warning “There is this big black hole in the public finances” and telling off other parties for “kidding people” and “failing to show candour” about the scale of the problem. Among other things the Liberal Democrat manifesto pledged to cut tax credits, winter fuel payments to pensioners and child trust funds. Vince Cable, at the time St Vince, warned that this wouldn’t be all, “There is more to be done. I fully appreciate this isn’t enough. We have to go beyond that”.

So yes, Liberal Democrats did vote for this fiscal program and we can add their 23% of the vote to the Conservatives 36% to get us 59%. That’s a pretty good mandate but we can do even better.

Labour’s economic policy is currently a total void. But, back in 2010, they had a Chancellor in Alistair Darling who wasn’t, in Labour terms, totally useless. He managed to reign in some of Brown’s scorched earth fiscal impulses and had a plan to cut the deficit.

Darling’s plan involved lots of spending cuts. When he was asked a few weeks before the election “The Treasury’s own figures suggest deeper, tougher than Thatcher’s – do you accept that?” Darling replied “They will be deeper and tougher”. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this plan, which Ed Balls rejected, then accepted, now, perhaps, is rejecting again, would have seen a Labour government cutting spending by a Snowden-esque 10.9% this fiscal year. The coalition cuts on the other hand, which Labour never cease to tell us are “too fast and too deep”, amount to 12% this fiscal year.

10.9% and 12%, there’s not much of a difference. I think we can put the people who voted Labour in 2010, voted, that is, for “deeper and tougher” cuts than Margaret Thatcher ever made, into our mandate for austerity group giving us the 88%. Now that’s what I call a mandate.