The big interview versus the big fight

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Stories. People like them, politicians should tell more of them.

True stories, not Paul Nuttall’s flights of career fancy, but tales of where we are now, where they want to take us and the endless possibilities on the road ahead.

But on Sunday morning I watched the Prime Minister continue her one woman mission to turn this election into the most boring political contest in living memory.

When interviewed by Andrew Marr she didn’t just fail to set out a vision, she actively reduced her Government’s programme to little more than a technocrat’s shopping list. There was no beginning, no middle, no end. No picture of where we could be, no vision for the future, no narrative.

At a key time in our nation’s history we have a foregone conclusion and a dull one at that. There’s not even the prospect of a live TV debate to look forward to. 

The Vicar’s daughter is good on the figures, but to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, she knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing. She appears to say a lot, but when analysed says little new or interesting.

Strong and Stable Leadership faces some pretty stiff competition, but is likely the greyest election tag-line of all time.

Maybe I’m being particularly harsh on the Vicar’s Daughter because the night before I’d gazed at a huge screen enthralled as two six feet six inch men knocked seven bells out of each other.

Klitschko vs Joshua was good, really good. The best fight I’ve ever seen. Eleven rounds of see-sawing drama, courage and exhaustion – an epic contest.

The word epic applies, because the story of Joshua vs Klitschko , was a narrative right out of Hollywood. The 41 year-old former champion, coming back from the career wilderness to fight the 27 year-old bright young thing who has risen from the streets in one of the richest title fights ever.

They go at each other for 11 rounds. One falls, then the other. One staggers to the ropes, then the other. It seems as if there is no way back for either man at various stages, but somehow it lasts until the 11th, when Joshua summons his last bit of energy in a winner-takes-all effort to finally see off his rival.

When the referee finally stops in, saving Klitschko from another knock down, 90,000 people at Wembley go mad, in the pub I was in total strangers hugged each other as drinks flew.

Then, instead of gloating or hatred, both men embrace. Klitschko thanks the crowd, AJ calls the Ukranian a legend. Everyone is happy, they feel better about themselves because of what they’ve witnessed and secretly we all pray that a re-match won’t happen because no fight between them could be that incredible. To do it all again would sully the memory.

This was a compelling ‘event’, a thing to see, a contest to remember, a story to tell – everything our current political slug fest is not.

Why letting ‘Jeremy be Jeremy’ might be a bad idea

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s an election on.

The Vicar’s daughter has maintained a relatively low profile since her surprise announcement, just a visit to a toothpaste factory and engaging Dudley householders in awkward conversations on their doorsteps while West Midlands mayoral candidate Andy Street hovers excitedly in the background.

Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn has been busier. After all, he’s got a raft of new policies to promote – drawn up just before the big announcement – and team JC has a ‘Let Corbyn be Corbyn’ strategy so he’s officially allowed to be himself.

This can make for compulsive viewing and I was up with the political nerds to catch him on Marr the other Sunday morning. He didn’t disappoint.

In a wide-ranging interview we learned that Jeremy is relatively unperturbed by the pressures of the highest office in the land. In fact, he seems carefree and relaxed – however, this might be because he knows full well he’ll never be Prime Minister.

An example came when JC was asked by Andrew Marr about that first horrible task as PM, when the man from the Admiralty taps you on the shoulder and you have to write those letters to submarine commanders patrolling the North Atlantic outlining what they should do if the UK has been wiped out by a nuclear strike.

Those Letters of Last Resort are a chilling reminder of the responsibilities of a British leader. Effectively, you are a voice from beyond the grave, instructing commanders whether to fire back killing millions more or surrender to whatever is left of the world.

So what would Jeremy write in his doomsday note? 

The response wasn’t so much an answer as a breezy ramble that managed to cast doubt over agreed party policy before moving on to a half-hearted analysis of the underlying causes of geopolitical tensions in Korea and Syria.

He appeared to suggest that rather than a simple, ‘fire all weapons/meekly surrender’ letter he’d seek to engage the officials in a conversation about how political solutions were always the answer.

I’m sure at one point, when pressed, he said the commanders would just have to follow orders – obviously not fully realising that it would be he who would be giving them.

It’s more evidence that Corbyn is almost touchingly incapable of the binary answers that are demanded in modern politics. The trouble is that letting Jeremy be Jeremy is what makes him spectacularly vulnerable on questions of leadership.

I didn’t think the Marr interview was a complete disaster – certainly not deserving of the Daily Mail’s description as a ‘car crash’ – he performed relatively well on the domestic front.

After being widely mocked for suggesting four extra bank holidays, he came back well – arguing effectively that consumer spending on national days off probably outweighs any loss to the economy.

He could also have argued that other countries with more public holidays – for example France and Germany – far outpace the UK in terms of productivity. When it comes to increasing our economic output, the secret is to work smarter, not harder.

But, like several of his shadow cabinet colleagues, Corbyn doesn’t appear to be briefed enough to be able to make ‘killer points’ or change the direction of interviews.

The basics are there, but there’s no policy detail below the surface. It gives the impression of a man who just isn’t serious about high office, something that can be exploited ruthlessly by political opponents. 

Inequality is falling (slightly) but that’s a huge problem for the Left

The rich get richer, the poor get poorer – a favourite phrase of anyone who wants to criticise market economics. A simple message, appealing to our sense of fairness and injustice. It should be the raison d’etre of the left.

But, as you’ll probably have guessed, it’s not quite simple as that. In fact, it’s incredibly complex.

One way of measuring inequality is by something called the Gini Coefficient, it sounds like a household robot from a 1960s TV show set in the future, but it’s actually the measure that economists use to work out the distribution of income – or in fact anything – across a society.

Now I’m not going to get involved in whether the Gini Coefficient is the best measure, it is not the only way to gauge relative wealth, but it appears to be the most widely used.

Gini 1961-2014-15

A quick look at the graph above – courtesy of the Equality Trust – gives us the broad picture. The co-efficient was relatively low during the swinging sixties, it fell lower during the economically troubled 1970s and then, around the mid 1980s, it rocketed.

Britain wasn’t the only place in which it shot up, and economists argue over the causes. In the UK’s case it seems likely it was at least partly due the Thatcher Government’s successive income tax reductions plus a touch of laissez faire economics meaning thousands more people got seriously rich.

However, after reaching its peak in the early 1990s, the Gini rises more slowly, reduces slightly in the wake of the 1992 recession and then fluctuates during the Blair years.

But then, here’s the really surprising thing, as we go past the 2008 banking crisis, income inequality actually starts to reduce, taking us back to levels last seen in the late 1980s.

This happened because the great recession resulted in rich people getting slightly less rich while poorer people are taken out of income tax thanks to one of the Coalition government’s more enlightened pieces of fiscal reform.

And that’s the problem for the left, inequality – by established measures – is actually falling, not by much, but still going in what most progressives would say is the right direction.

There’s no guarantee this will continue, there’s some evidence that the top strata of the rich are beginning to pull away from the rest of us while at the same time average incomes will stagnate until at least 2020. In fact, many of the changes to benefits – which affect millions of working families – haven’t been felt fully yet.

But for the moment, the Left has big problem. As the centre right argues, why does inequality that matter as long as the poor’s incomes continue to grow while those at the top of the pile pay their share in tax? Everyone gets richer, everyone benefits.

And if the gap is decreasing anyway under a Conservative Government, where does the Left’s traditional redistribution argument go?

Do you argue that you want to reduce it further and faster? That soon leads you into politically tricky territory, recently Jeremy Corbyn suggested capping the incomes of some unspecified high earners, and it didn’t play well.

Plus the baby boomers who remember the golden age of income equality will be in their mid to late seventies by 2020, that means a good chunk of the electorate won’t remember a time when incomes were more equal.

It’s hard to land blows with inequality unless people feel that it’s getting really bad or you cherry pick some extreme examples – Philip Green and his yacht for example.

Saying things are getting worse is a staple of opposition politics, but in the case of inequality, at the moment it’s simply not true.

The strange state of a post Scotland United Kingdom

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Thanks to Nicola Sturgeon’s strategic brinkmanship, there could be an independent Scotland in 2019. If it happens, this is the strange state the UK might be in by the mid 2020s.

Yellow submarine

The SNP is unlikely to change its anti nuclear stance and that means the current base at Faslane, where the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent sits, will have be moved.

I can’t see the SNP negotiating on this, it would be political suicide to allow those weapons to stay. That leaves Westminster with a complex and horribly expensive logistics job to build a base elsewhere in the UK, probably on the south coast of England.

Bear in mind we’re already looking at a £30bn bill to replace Trident then add another £20bn – and 20 years – to build another deepwater submarine base. That is a fair chunk of UK Government spend on a weapons system that many see as out of date and of no practical use in modern warfare.

Might all that hassle prompt a Westminster Government to think again about the weapons and if not abandon nukes entirely, then at least think about another platform or a strategic alliance? The SNP could not only rid Scotland of nuclear weapons, but prompt the rest of the UK to follow in the same direction.

Checkpoint Angus

Checkpoints on the A1. It might seem like something out of an alternative history novel, but there is a real risk of a ‘hard border’ between England and an independent Scotland. In fact if Scotland got its wish and stayed in, or joined, the EU it would likely later adopt the Euro and principles of freedom of movement. That might mean a hard border with a non-EU country like England.

Flagy McFlagface

We’d need to have a new flag. There’d be no more blue and white in the Union Jack. There are some attempts at what it might look like here. It’s worth remembering that New Zealand recently held a public vote on its flag with some hilarious submissions. If the UK altered the flag, could it still be called the Union Jack? By the way, the current Union Jack doesn’t reflect any of Wales’ national colours. Could we drop the blue and add some green?

Windsor in a knot

The current monarch has a long standing relationship with Scotland, but the new breed not so much. While I can’t see SNP activists seizing Balmoral just yet, I can see a gradual perception that the Royal family is an Anglo German institution and having them in Scotland might be seen as a throwback to the days of union. An independent Scotland would in essence look and feel like a republic.

Good evening, welcome to SBC

There’s a possibility an independent Scotland could have its own state broadcaster, loosely modelled on the BBC. The SNP’s stance is that it will push for the BBC to be federalised, and will continue to push for new services to be set up as part of the charter renewal process. Opting out of the BBC entirely might be impractical, perhaps BBC Scotland might run alongside any national broadcaster. However, would Scots be happy paying towards the costs of both BBC and a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation?

A version of this blog also appeared in the Birmingham Press.

PMQs is rubbish – here’s how to make it better

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‘Would my right honorable friend agree with me…’

There are fewer depressing phrases uttered in Parliament, a signal that what is likely to follow isn’t a question but a mindless endorsement of party policy or a reference to an obscure constituency event that somehow reflects well on Government policy.

Cliche time, but Prime Minister’s Questions is Westminster’s set-piece political event, when the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition trade blows roared on by squawking, cheering – sometimes moo-ing – backbenchers.

Trouble is, it’s rubbish. Really dire. Dreadful stuff and a poor reflection of the good work, particularly around scrutiny and checks and balances, that the Houses of Parliament actually do.

Added to which, outside of the Westminster bubble, it doesn’t matter. Whisper it, but no-one is really watching. Most normal people never see it, only a small minority regularly watch. The excellent Isabel Hardman makes that point here.

Only political nerds like me watch the whole thing – and even we think it is desperate viewing, a 40 minute advert for why people tend to dislike politicians.

I’m writing this after a particularly eye-gougingly bad exchange between Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. It wasn’t ‘incr-edi-ble.’ In fact, the exact opposite. I seriously recommend you avoid it, but here’s the highlights if you want to go start a revolution.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be this bad. The basic principle of the most powerful elected official in the land coming to explain herself to representatives of the people once a week is a good one. Here are a few radical, but achievable, ideas on how it could be improved.

1. Voice of the People

There’s no reason why PMQs couldn’t be opened up to members of the public as well. In a 40 minute session there could be three moderated questions, with follow ups, chosen by an independent panel. These questions would set the agenda before a  return to the traditional running order, opposition, followed by other party leaders and then backbenchers.

Famously, Jeremy Corbyn tried, and later abandoned, this ‘voice of the people’ approach. However, put in a neutral, non-party, context it could be interesting.

2. Live Fact Checking

Every time PM or opposition makes a claim, fact-check live – the speaker might interrupt to provide clarification – and publish a succinct report afterwards via social media and on the parliament website. It might show up some of the more outlandish spending claims made by government and opposition.

3. Change the Time

Who, apart from nerds like me, is watching The Daily Politics at noon on a Wednesday? If you want to get more public involvement, move it to 5pm, giving something for the later TV news bulletins to get their teeth into.

4. Move it out of Westminster

Soon the Houses of Parliament will shut for years for an eye-wateringly expensive refurbishment. Despite what security staff and others might tell you, there is nothing to stop PMQs and most of parliament taking place outside London. I don’t care if Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn clash about social care spending in a community center in Solihull. It would do them both good and taking MPs out of their usual tribal environment might help the quality of the exchanges.

5. Proper sanctions for badly behaved MPs

I understand that people get passionate, and I don’t want to turn PMQs into a dry policy debate. But some of the barracking, name-calling and general silliness demeans the entire event. Interestingly, this rowdiness – along with PMQs itself – is a relatively modern phenomenon. This would improve if MPs were named by the speaker and given a yellow card warning before being excluded from the following week’s session. Constituency parties might also be encouraged to have a word with representatives who regularly cross the line.

6. Separate Sessions for UK Nations

The current PM is a firm believer in the Union, but non-English parties get sidelined at PMQs, despite the SNP being allowed to ask two questions. What about getting the PM to return to the house for a second session exclusively for Plaid, SNP, Ulster Unionists? Or, even better,  once a term, get the Prime Minister to travel to national assemblies to take questions from representatives.

A version of this blog post also appeared in The Birmingham Press

Using Data to Tell a Story – RIP Hans Rosling

I caught this on the BBC News Website as part of a tribute to Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician who died today. I hadn’t come across his work before.

I love the way Rosling visualises data to tell a compelling story – it’s a perfect example of where statistics and story can meet and it’s particularly relevant to today’s post fact, alternative truth, world.

In this case, he’s talking about the remarkable progress we’ve made in both wealth and life expectancy across the globe during the last 200 years. I’ve talked before about this, but Hans tells the story far better than I ever could.

The next time anyone – either from the left or the right – tells you that 2016 was the worst year ever and that we are all going to hell in a handcart, show them the video below.

 

Playing Fields of Dreams

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There’s absolutely nothing going on in the world of politics right now…but we are half way through the football season. The perfect time for a parent’s guide to children’s football.

1.Boot-buying

The choosing and buying of footwear is hugely important and your girl or boy will want boots loosely modelled on those worn by their zillion-quid a week idols. Most boots nowadays are hideous and resemble those fluorescent glo-sticks that people used to wave about in bad 1990s night clubs. I once threatened to buy my lad a pair of the Puma Kings, only to be told it would be social death and that black boots belonged in a museum.

2.Learn off-side

You will be asked to officiate as linesman and eventually you will no longer be able to say ‘no’ or hide in time. Being linesman is a kids’ football rite of passage and a profoundly uncomfortable one as you will be scrutinised by opposition parents while running along the touchline in wellies. My advice, go on YouTube to learn the offside rule and then use the flag as sparingly as possible.

3.Help out

Helping out with other tasks may help you temporarily avoid linesman duties. This will mean carrying huge bags of balls (relatively easy) or dismantling heavy steel goalposts and carrying them back to a shed which is five miles away up a 45 degree angled slope in the driving rain (really hard). Try to avoid putting the nets on posts before a game starts, which means finding invisible corners and clips while laughing children fire balls towards you during their pre-match kickabout.

4.Forget about lie-ins

Weekend lie-ins will now be over. Our home games take place 20 miles away from where I live and there’s been 9.30am Sunday kick offs on freezing November mornings. Also, double check timings before you set off. I’ve been known to arrive up to an hour early to be greeted by an empty field, a solitary dog walker and much eye rolling from my young Lionel Messi in the passenger seat.

5.Don’t believe the hype

Read some media stories and you might think under 12s football was like the Hunger Games but played out on muddy fields outside community centres in North Tyneside. In my experience, this is nonsense. The vast, vast, majority of parents and children are absolutely fine. And that old cliché – beloved by grumpy middle aged men on football phone ins – about children robotically copying bad behaviour of Premiership players, also absolute nonsense.

6.Don’t cross the line

There’s often a ‘Respect’ line these days, a piece of shiny tape designed to separate parents from the action. This is the playing field equivalent of the ‘fourth wall’ and crossing it will result in severe embarrassment to your child. Don’t attempt to take part in the pre-match training and try not to interrupt the half time team talk with an offer of a banana and a bottle of water.

7.Enjoy it

It is a real privilege being able to watch your daughter or son on a Saturday or Sunday morning and that feeling when they score, make a tackle or save that penalty – there’s nothing like it. Cherish it and enjoy it. It won’t last forever, even if they do make it professionally, earn millions from salary, endorsements and image rights and buy you that Mercedes you’ve always wanted.