Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence

Miscellaneous September 25, 2011 No Comments »

I was interested this morning to come across these few lines, attributed of all people to Calvin Coolidge:

Press on. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence.

Talent will not; there is nothing more uncommon than unsuccessful men with talent.

Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb.

Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts.

Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.

They seem to sum up to me what we as a society basically do respect more than anything: hard work. If someone is talented but lazy then we certainly criticise them for it, but it also seems to me that if someone is of limited competence but do really work hard, then at the very least we respect them morally, even if we don’t always give them the job. So, for reasons unconnected with the rhetorical abilities of President Coolidge (he was famously taciturn), and indeed of these precise words, we do seem to have taken fully on board this message.

Our actual valuing of hard work is, incidentally, different from what we think we aspire to be as a society, which is a meritocracy. If you ask people what they think we are or ought to be, that’s what they say. But in reality I don’t think we do respect that – just think of the public view of the very highly paid in finance or in business: people are fairly happy to accept that they are clever people, but they still don’t respect them or think they are entitled to all that money.

Personally, I take the now unfashionable view that we shouldn’t even be trying to be a meritocracy. The term was indeed originally coined by Michael Young as a criticism. And indeed why should we think that power should be held by those who were born talented, any more than we should think it should be held by those born rich, or to aristocrats? Although I don’t quite agree with him that pure Stakhanovism is the only real test of value, it is, as President Coolidge says, what we do with it that matters.

How to win the third debate: say something new (but not too new)

Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats April 27, 2010 No Comments »

So I’ve been thinking and I think the way to come out winning the last of the three debates, this Thursday, is to say something dramatic and new.

The first debate was obviously the game changer. People had the chance to see that there was a third real option, they liked it, as few as 1 in 10 people decided to switch to it, and the rest is history.

The second debate was always destined to be the quiet one – neither the first or last chance to see the leaders, supposedly focussed on foreign policy (though if you had tuned in hoping for some actual discussion of foreign policy issues you would have been fairly confused), and it was on the subscription channel (Sky). And indeed all it did was really confirm the impressions of the first one, just with Cameron behaving a bit more like Clegg, and Brown attacking Clegg instead of agreeing with him.

So what strategy for the third one? We’ve now had 3 hours of being able to watch these men and surely by now people have a pretty clear impression of what they think of them. Bar a few more tinkerings with the acting and the nuances of positioning which may tip things slightly in one direction or the other, we can’t really expect people to form a radically different view of the three men from their behaviour this time.

The only two ways it seems to me that the final debate could really change the position again, are these.

First, is the one we always knew about: that a leader could just make a brief and terrible mistake by saying something they really didn’t mean to. A few slipped up words could so easily have an impact out of all proportion to their actual significance, in giving the impression of that leader as incompetent, or really intending to do something that they have denied. Clearly all the participants will want to avoid this way of making their performance in the last debate memorable!

The only other way, it seems to me, is to say something new. Not a new major policy position – at this stage in the campaign that would simply give the impression that their manifesto isn’t a firm plan at all, but something flexible which they’re willing to change just to get a good headline. We have seen hints of this already with Cameron’s instant commitment on alleged cuts in last week’s debate (in response to Brown’s challenge), or Brown’s commitment on NHS funding to the RCN yesterday. At this stage, changing a policy position of any significance does considerably more harm than good.

But there may be other elements which a leader can throw out there, which are both new to the campaign, and actually important (suddenly deciding that you don’t like the phrasing of the commitment on marine biology on page 427 of a rival’s manifesto is not really going to cut it).

This could be a significant attack on one (or both) of your opponents. This needs to be something new and major, which may be a challenge at this stage in the campaign. But there may perhaps be new ways of putting this, particularly if it’s about their political positioning, rather than a policy. Labour is sure to try some version of this, along the lines of “Vote Clegg, Get Cameron”. Cameron will surely also try to sell a line which boils down to broadly “Vote Clegg, Get Brown”. Neither of these are very new – though if Nick is able to come up with an imaginative response to them which is not just the bathtub defence (“They’re both just the same, like squabbling children in the bath: vote Clegg and get Clegg”) then this may qualify as a killer line.

Or it could be something about their own positioning. Any of the three leaders proclaiming that in the event of a hung Parliament they’d be prepared to work with one of their rivals, but not the other one, would certainly qualify as this, but I doubt very much it’s going to happen.

But something about the way they would govern might do it.

Something which is a radical way of putting something which is already in their manifesto, perhaps implying they would go even further along a road already set out in principle in their manifestos, might do it.

All the parties have certainly left plenty enough room for more detail in their plans for sorting out the nation’s finances that they could outline more detailed plans here without being inconsistent with what they’ve already said.

And of course a good emergency would be ideal, allowing the leaders to give a distinctively different response to their rivals, and allowing them to start from a blank sheet of paper, relatively unconstrained by what they’ve said before.

It could be lots of things. It just has to be new, important, and not obviously inconsistent with anything they’ve already said.

This may not be particularly easy at this stage of the campaign. But it is surely the only way to use the last debate to give your popularity a real upwards boost, beyond the impression that the public already has of you.

Not just Labour’s emergency fuel tank

Liberal Democrats April 22, 2010 No Comments »

I confess that I can’t really fathom what Labour’s campaign strategy has been this week. Ever since the first debate last week they seem to have been content to focus on taking David Cameron down, even if that benefits the Liberal Democrats rather than themselves. Is this just simple cynicism that even coming in third in the public vote, they could still have enough MPs to form a fairly stable government? Surely it can’t be – the British public’s lack of interest in their extraordinary voting system is great, but a party coming in third, with just 27% of the vote, and still forming the government just feels to me as if it would test the British public’s patience too far. I really can’t see a government formed on that basis lasting very long, and I can’t imagine that Messrs Brown and Mandelson would think so either.

No – to listen to Labour figures, all last week but especially this morning, condemning the attacks on Nick Clegg , it sounds as if they really aren’t worried because they think the Lib Dems will simply be so delighted to have the chance to go into government with them, that it is all a done deal. The only thing they need to do is to prevent the Conservatives having a proper majority, and they will get to stay in government.

This really is extraordinary. If this really is what they think, then they simply do not seem to have discerned the very basic insight that if Liberal Democrat MPs and members had wanted to support a Labour government, then they would have joined the Labour party. If you want, as Chris Huhne put it this morning, a cushy route to government, then you do not join the Liberal Democrats.

Liberal Democrat criticism of what this Labour government has been doing over the last thirteen years is not just grandstanding, it’s actually because we think they are wrong.

And Julian Glover at the Guardian makes this point extremely well.

But the extent of this delusion really does amaze me. The most startling appearance of it to me of all – and I promise I am not making this up – came right at the start of the campaign. My wife and I were in a hospital, in the run-up to the birth of our daughter, almost three weeks ago. We found ourselves discussing with a consultant two possible medical courses of action. He decided that the best way of illustrating the point of having to accept a less-than-ideal outcome, was to compare it to the Liberal Democrats’ prospects in the Election. As he explained, the Liberal Democrats might want to form a government, but they would be willing to support a government of another party as the best chance they were going to get.

In the context of discussing obstetric options, this was truly surreal. In the context of the election campaign, the idea that the Liberal Democrats – sympathetic though they may be to a one or two of the things that a tired and directionless Labour government has done – want to support it to remain there, is just wrong.

Lib Dem ratings: still going up

Liberal Democrats April 22, 2010 No Comments »

One of the things that I’ve been interested to note over the last few days, is that once the post-debate Lib Dem surge happened, their share of the vote pretty much stabilised at about 28-32%. While it’s obviously mathematically possible that this is a different 28-32% of people each day, it’s surely more likely that there is a relatively stable group of people who – at least this week – would vote Lib Dem.

I must confess I was a bit surprised by this – as I had kind of assumed that the rise itself would “liberate” a few more people to feel that a Lib Dem vote was no longer wasted, and so they too would give it a try. This is surely implicit in the whole “wasted vote” argument – if when the Lib Dems actually are doing really well, this doesn’t cause more people to take them seriously, this implies that their share of the vote has in fact never been historically depressed by the “wasted vote” argument, as campaigners of all parties believed.

So I was interested this afternoon to see the latest BBC’s “poll of polls” tracker page. It shows that I’ve got it slightly wrong.  What this shows is that the debate immediately triggered a sharp rise in the Lib Dem vote, from perhaps 21 to 29%. But it also shows that over the four days since hitting 29%, it has continued to meander slowly upwards, now to 31%.  This implies that there is indeed some kind of snowball effect – albeit for the moment limited. If there were no further debate tonight, then I’d expect this to continue to rise over the next day or two – to perhaps 32% – since the dates the BBC uses are those of poll publication, not of the fieldwork. After that, who knows? There surely does have to be quite quickly a correction from the fairly ridiculous hyperbole about Nick Clegg that has been going around. I’m a longstanding very firm Nick supporter – and his performance last week is almost exactly the reason that I and many others backed him so vigorously for the leadership in 2007 – but even I do not believe that he somehow combines the leadership skills of Winston Churchill and Julius Caesar, together with the forensic and brilliant debating abilities of Socrates and Charles James Fox.

But of course there is another debate tonight, which has the potential to change the picture all over again. It could set the Lib Dems off on another major leap upwards. Nick could say the wrong thing just once and that push us all the way back down to 20% again, or lower. The lightweight one or the overly-heavyweight one could say something which becomes the story, pushing their own share of the vote significantly either up or down. One thing we do know is that the media look for a story from the debate, which then reinforces itself as the story, only very loosely based on what actually happened (yes I think Nick did best last week, but it was not the kind of Lib Dem triumph and Labour and Tory disaster which you would think it was if all your information on it had come from any media source since, say, Saturday).

My guess is that tonight won’t do any of these things. We have had one General Election Prime Ministerial debate in this country, and it completely changed the game. I think it would be very rash to assume that they will all do that. I think the fact that that was the first real chance for voters to see all three Prime Ministerial candidates together was what really mattered, and particularly to get a proper look at the third party for the first time. I expect the impact of the remaining two debates (and tonight especially) to be possibly significant, but much more limited.

But of course we will see…

Maybe Cameron is right to leave the EPP, after all

Conservatives March 13, 2009 2 Comments »

A large part of David Cameron’s job, of course, is getting the balance right between keeping his traditional base of supporters happy, while simultaneously also appearing appealing to enough others to vote for him. In striking this balance, generally his strategy as leader has been to prioritise appealing to the new voters he needs, “detoxing” the Conservative brand, and generally trying to end the image of “the nasty party”. Part of this calculation, similarly to Tony Blair  in this respect if not in others, is surely that those on the extreme had nowhere else to go.

So declaring as he did this week that Conservative MEPs after June’s European elections will not sit as part of the European People’s Party (EPP, the main-centre grouping containing most of Europe’s governing parties) to seek an alliance with others who do not share its “federalist” ambitions, appears to go against this strategy. (Whether the EPP really is federalist or not is another question, but it’s close enough for British Conservatives of a not very internationalist bent). It does look very much as though the British Conservatives will end up in a group with some rather odd, and generally very right-wing partner parties.

But presumably Cameron and Hague have made the calculation that to the Conservatives’ core support, being “in bed with federalists” is the sort of thing that renders them spluttering into apoplexy over their Telegraph and cornflakes in the morning – whereas to the population generally, which alphabet soup of foreigners some people that they’ve never heard of sit with, is simply meaningless.

And I have to say I am starting to wonder if they might not be right. The risk they run is that opposition parties such as ourselves are able to paint the Conservatives in these European elections (and of course more importantly set the tone for next year’s General Election) as somehow in league with some very unsavoury people. And this is certainly not unjust.

But I wonder, quite simply, how much this resonance this really has with the average British voter. If I recall correctly we campaigned a few years ago to tell the public that the Conservatives were in league with Alleanza Nazionale (the Italian post-fascist party). But quite frankly I don’t think many British voters cared much.

And perhaps more psephologically importantly, on this one occasion, those to his right do have somewhere else to go: UKIP, the BNP and any other parties who will be attacking the Conservatives from the right, for being too integrationist-minded.

So maybe it is the right strategic thing for them to do. But there must surely be a risk that some normal people – those he needs to vote him into Downing St next year – do actually notice. And remember.

And it surely is odd that at the same time as he is doing his best to get the Conservatives to come over as normal people, he feels the need to leap into the arms of some thoroughly un-normal people, just to escape company which even Margaret Thatcher kept – and that was at a time when real leaps forward in integrating European policy and lawmaking were actually on the table.

Does Twitter have a future?

Internet March 9, 2009 1 Comment »

I spent a happy time this weekend in Yorkshire, at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in Harrogate. Party conferences are so often dominated by rows, real or imagined, combined with other frustrations ranging from the purely logistical to policy ones, that it was good to have a conference focussed around a strong theme. We concentrated this weekend on the liberating power of education, backed up by three strong policy papers covering different aspects of this (early years, schooling, and college and university). (Mainstream journalists have written that the the conference focussed on the economy, but they are talking about the media’s conference, whereas I am talking about the actual event).

And unsurprisingly I was pleased that my own preferred outcome carried the day on the one really heated debate we did have: at its third attempt, stretching back over the last decade, the party finally managed to agree a policy on faith schools. This was one of those debates which really makes the case for democratic political decision-making: good speakers making high quality points, and as a result a hall of several hundred people making a balanced, well-informed, reasoned decision (and with a good bit of political drama and tension thrown in, in the form of a very close counted vote). There are those who doubt that this is the best way to make political decisions, but moments like Saturday afternoon’s debate remind you how well it can work, and certainly so much better than its opposite, ‘sofa government’.

On the substance of faith schools, by the way, in summary, we won’t require all (state-funded) faith schools to close down, but we will require them to be inclusive in the way they work (something I myself seen achieved locally already, and which the major Christian groupings are themselves keen to promote these days).

Of all the party’s conferences that I’ve been too – and in a bored moment over the weekend I counted that this was the twenty-fifth that I have attended – this was one of the most cohesive, businesslike and, well, happy.

But it also had an element which was new for me, at least when I was using it (which, contrary to the claims of the friends I was with at the time, was not all of it!). For this weekend I participated in Twitter – reading and following very short electronic updates on what was happening at the conference, and it gave an interesting perspective on it some of it.

For those not familiar, I’ll attempt to summarise what Twitter is (ans this is also a test for whether this newby has grasped it!).

The basic point is that people on Twitter write very short (up to 140 characters long, so no more than, say, 25 words) updates on what they’re doing or thinking.  And of course you can ‘follow’ what other people are writing (“tweeting”, in the parlance). At heart it’s as simple as that.

You can update it and follow others’ updates either from your computer, or (as I do and I suspect most will do) very easily through one of several little pieces of software available you can download to your phone.

Everyone says they like the discipline of having to keep their updates very short, and you can follow either your real friends or celebs – @stephenfry is popular, apparently (it’s regarded as good practice when referring to fellow Twitterers to preface their username with @ so the the system tells them they’ve been mentioned), Peter Mandelson recently did a trial month on it, and there is a rather contrived Boris Johnson version too. I follow several Lib Dem MPs such as Jo Swinson, Lynne Featherstone (dedicated new technology pioneers both), Norman Lamb, Susan Kramer and leading PPC Bridget Fox, as well as various other friends.

Just like Facebook status updates, which with it has quite a lot in common, it can be quite interesting to see what people are doing. But, as you can probably imagine, very quickly you can feel that you’re getting more information than you really need. And it is much ridiculed for being a channel for people to update their friends just on the fact that they’re going to the loo, having lunch, or whatever – do you really need permanently to be fully up to date with the fact that all your friends are now enjoying sitting down and reading the paper?

So many people I think seem to use it to send more occasional updates, of more interesting things. I know several politicans who use it as a way of telling people of the work they’re doing in their constituency, and I guess you can imagine that some people might find it interesting to get an update that their local MP has just, I don’t know, opened a new facility in their area, or raised a local issue in Parliament, or something similar (although perhaps more importantly, MPs would be interested in telling their constituents this).

I can’t imagine that I’ll spend a huge amount of time on it, and perhaps will use it as similar to Facebook status update (with which it can be automatically linked). But it might fill the odd bored moment on a bus and, like Facebook, be a good way of keeping up with people I don’t see often. And last week, when some controversy surrounding the International Criminal Court indicting a head of State for the first time was in the news, I used it to tell my ‘followers’ on my own strong views (as written often on this blog) on this question.

But the weekend was something different. People at the conference were asked to include in their messages about conference the word #ldconf (this is known as a ‘hashtag’). There’s an easy electronic way to follow all messages with #ldconf in them – and so effectively you are then following all messages being posted by people at the conference. This meant (for me, at least) a far higher volume of messages and so, just for the weekend, a different type of use developing – something a bit closer to a conversation. At peak times this might have reached an average of perhaps 3 or 4 “tweets” a minute.

Where I thought this worked really well, and I enjoyed it, was in a couple of the big events – specifically the big debate on schools policy, the leader’s speech, and Howard Dean’s speech. People were able to post their instant responses – ranging from simply repeating phrases that a speaker in the debate had said that they thought was especially telling, or indeed thought were nonsense, to other people (one in particular) using many points made in the real debate to repeat his request via Twitter for us to vote a particular way, to attempts at satire or humour. People post directly from sitting in the hall: in many ways it’s a supercharged version of the practice of texting other people in the same meeting as you to offer a commentary on what’s being said (a temptation to which I confess I have occasionally succumbed).

In some ways this therefore become a sub-debate, happening beneath the surface of the ‘real’ debate, and it was at times quite interesting, and at others just amusing. It allowed you to get some idea of how well ideas were going down – for example, an instant judgement that some of the points in Nick Clegg’s leader’s speech were popular. As you come out of a leader’s speech there are always some TV crews around the place waiting to vox pop you about what you thought about the speech, and looking at the Twitter #ldconf feed would give them a wider range of responses so you could actually start to make a slightly more scientific judgement on how a particular point has gone down with the party (if arguably not making quite as good telly!).

Some of us used this as an opportunity to make points and respond to each other within #ldconf; others, especially MPs and PPCs, still seemed to have their eyes mostly on constituents back home they were hoping would receive the messages, so tended to be more along the lines of “Nick Clegg has just made another good point about how the LDs will save the nation by xxxx”

The times I was less keen on how it worked were when an enthusiastic user used the system to report on a fringe meeting in real time as it was happening (this is known as “livetweeting”). This was probably quite interesting to anyone at home wanting to know just how a meeting was developing, minute by minute and point by point (but are there really any such people?). But otherwise it meant you turned on your phone to suddenly 40 messages detailing an intricate blow by blow account of a meeting you had already decided not to go to… But it’s not difficult to ignore them if you want, of course.

At its best however, I did quite enjoy it – it was an opportunity to give instant feedback on what you’re hearing, and of course, like blogging and indeed speaking, whether that’s worth listening to depends on whether you want to listen to the person speaking.

It was, however, quite different (at least I hope so) from ‘normal’ Twitter use – I certainly couldn’t cope with that kind of intensity away from what is already an intense event.

Will Twitter last? Who knows. There is much discussion of the lack of business model of the company behind it. Like most things on the internet, it is free – but with such very tight constraints on content, it is very difficult to see how you could introduce advertising into it (and there seems to be an assumption that if you introduced regular adverts in amongst the tweets from your friends, it would be so intrusive that users would simply move to another system that someone else would set up without them). I’m not convinced that status updates alone will achieve sufficient critical mass of interest to drive people to something over time. And I’m also not hugely confident in all my fellow citizens’ ability to produce a steady stream of finely-crafted and stimulating epigrams (with some striking exceptions, such as the supremely articulate @alexmortimer).On the other hand, Twitter does seem to have snowballed in the last few weeks and has also survived a fairly major change in product when they were forced (in this country) to stop sending out text message updates: it adapted and is now a somewhat different product. And maybe we will, as some predict, just get much more discerning about who we decide to ‘follow’ and culling those who issue too many toilet trip updates and not enough interesting thought.

Purely personally, it feels to me more like a craze which some people will enjoy for a while (much as when I was about nine we all madly played with some odd sticky plastic spider thing for a few months), than Facebook, which I can see having a more enduring use as a manageable way of keeping in touch with people.

Whatever, I quite enjoyed it!  (Oh, and by the way, for anyone who feels they could never understand it, if you’ve read this far,  you now know everything you need to to use it – and even more you even speak the language!)

The point is: do you trust government completely?

Policy March 4, 2009 3 Comments »

Of all the arguments that this government has put up to justify their attempted smash-and-grab raid on the natural rights of us all, the most wrong-headed, spurious and downright pernicious is perhaps the claim that “if you’ve done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to fear”.

To someone who has an absolute trusting faith in the state, this is true. Entrusting a perfect state, which both never did anything wrong and also never did anything with their data that a reasonable citizen might wish to disagree with, is one thing.

But this is of course not exactly what’s an offer, what with us living with a state apparatus that not many of us would regard as perfect, and reasonable people taking different views on things.

What is being, slowly, forced on us, is entrusting pretty much all our personal information to someone else. And although the nature of our relationship with the state is rather different to, say, deciding whether we want to give our phone number out to some random person we’ve just met, or allowing someone access to our personal details on Facebook, at root it is the same. Before you give any information about yourself to someone, you ask yourself: do you trust them?

And what I think makes my run a bit cold is that it simply does not occur to most people who utter this phrase – at least some of whom are sensible and relatively alert human beings – that it is only true if one has pure, unquestioning faith in the apparatus of the state. If you put to such people – Ministers, for example – the proposition that the state could do no wrong – well, if it is were in public they would deny that they think such a thing, and if it were in private, they would surely just giggle. It is not a claim that, put in those terms, almost anyone I know would seek to defend.
But yet this phrase is trotted out as some kind of reassurance that if you’re not a criminal – you’re just a normal person – then you have nothing to fear in giving your information to the state.

And this is the second aspect of its use that makes every alarm bell in my body ring. For in the armoury of governments that start off meaning well but end up falling into totalitarianism, in the drawer just next to collecting huge amounts of personal information about their citizens, is dividing off, bit by bit, one section of society from another. This government is already well down this route in exploiting this supremely cynical tactic, in the way it is implementing ID cards. Throwing off casually to one side one of the hardest-won rights of a free society, living under the rule of law, that the law applies to all equally, they are introducing this category by category.

And of course they start by imposing it on all the unpopular groups of people – foreigners, students, people without an effective voice – basically, every group demonised by the Daily Mail. Yes, Prime Minister called this tactic “salami slicing”. Pastor Martin Niemöller made the same point in his famous lines about the way in which German society was picked apart in the 1930s, group by group. I am not, before someone accuses me of it, saying that this government has the same intentions as that regime. But the tactic is absolutely the same: imposing an unpopular view by “dividing and ruling” may be – despite its extreme cynicism – a powerful way of a government achieving its way, and therefore in a way unsurprising. But even leaving aside what it tells us about this government that it is prepared to employ such tactics to achieve its aims – in a democratic society that does not oblige us all simply to roll over and accept it.

If you believe that you are innocent, that you have “done nothing wrong”, and you are completely confident in every respect in your government, then you might feel tempted to accept this argument.

But even if you are, you shouldn’t accept it. Because you should be worried about protecting not only your own rights but those of your fellow-citizens, some of them perhaps with more non-standard or complex lives than you.

The use of this phrase is the very opposite of reassurance that if you are just a normal person then you have nothing to fear – because it can only be said either by someone who has no idea what they’re saying, or by someone who believes that we can never have anything to fear from any one of the millions of individuals who might ever have their fingers on one of the levers of the state.

Even the supremely innocent person – let alone the rest of us – DOES have something to fear from the government taking all their information

Islington Labour stands for high Council Tax – once again

Labour February 27, 2009 1 Comment »

Last night’s meeting of Islington Full Council to set the Council Tax for the next year sounds like it was quite a lively affair.

At first appearance, the Labour group seem to have been the winners. They managed to overturn the wafer-slender numerical superiority of the controlling Lib Dems (the position is currently 23 Lib Dem, 23 Labour, one independent former Lib Dem, and one Green) to get their budget proposals agreed in place of the official one proposed by the (Lib Dem) Council Executive. Such a victory has been on the cards ever since the 2006 local election results returned a tiny majority for the Lib Dems (figures as above but before the former Lib Dem became a former one). But nevertheless this is something of a cause for celebration for them. At least when I was attending Council meetings, Labour managed to get all 23 of their 23 councillors to turn up to every Full Council meeting. This is no mean Whipping achievement, what with councillors’ other commitments in life and when time after time they miss other (surely more enticing) engagements to turn up at the Town Hall, only to lose every vote, time after time. But – at least at one level – it came good for them last night and for the first time since 2006 (and indeed since 1999) won a major vote in the Council chamber.

But I can’t help feeling that some of their more thinking Councillors might have wondered – privately – this morning, where that has left them in the longer term. Fun and games in the Council chamber may keep people like them and on occasion, yes, I admit it, me, entertained and amused. But to most people it is not even tomorrow’s chip paper – it is simply not interesting at all – just something that happens on another planet.

But what non-political obsessives do most certainly care about is how much of the money they get every week or every month they have to hand over to the government or the Council. And what last night did establish for residents here is that Islington Labour have put your Council tax up. For many people this is one of the very very few things that the Council does that they notice – which makes it all the more unfortunate (if you are Labour) that this is the only action on the Council that they have got successfully implemented for almost ten years.

Was this really the strategic move that Islington Labour wanted to make? Because this is an issue with some considerable history: Labour have spent years now trying to overturn their reputation for being high taxers here in Islington.

When Labour last ran the Council, in the late 1990s, Islington had the highest Council Tax in the capital. The then opposition Lib Dems made considerable political success out of this, and Labour charging you too much Council Tax was (along providing very poor services, and a range of other things) one of the major weapons they were able to use almost to win control at the 1998 elections (the result was 26-26) and then actually to do so in a byelection the following year.

To reinforce that political gulf, the by-now-ruling Lib Dems then cut the Council Tax for three years running (in 2000, 2001 and 2002). And since 2002 they have pledged to keep it below the London average which they have done. More recently the Labour group have even copied this latter pledge and this seemed to take the level of Council Tax out of the Islington political arena as a major issue. Labour have made much of saying that they have changed and are different now to the late 90s – and specifically that they are more financially responsible.

All of which makes it all the more striking that Labour have now taken this dramatic step which stains their hands afresh with the association with high Council Tax here.

I’m sure this wasn’t what they had planned – and indeed a party doesn’t just put up Council Tax for the sake of it: it does it in order to pay for some additional services. In this case Labour put forward this position in order to introduce free school meals – and also a Council Tax discount for pensioners: you can read the details on their website. They presumably think this is in itself the right thing to do; the Lib Dem group disagree and have a set of reasons why they think it is not the best use of taxpayers’ money. This may be the right or wrong thing to do, in itself.

And also considered more narrowly as a political calculation, free school meals would presumably normally be a popular thing to do – as most promises to spend more money on something are (especially when they involve children!). And Labour are understandably very pleased to have got their proposal through and I wouldn’t expect them to say anything that detracts from that publicly.

But I can’t help wondering if – privately – some of them don’t wonder if getting through these one or two spending commitments in specific areas were worth it to sacrifice their many years trying to distance themselves from exactly this kind of political positioning, as tax and spenders. They won the vote last night but the real prize – what they are surely really after and which will really allow them to have an impact on Islington – is winning control of the Council in next year’s elections. Some of them will be aware today that associating themselves with high taxing has cost them dear in the past at the ballot box, and is surely unlikely to help them in these recession-hit times.

Is free school meals for children worth more votes than continuing your efforts of the last few years to distance yourself from high taxing? Make your own judgement.

Personally, I can see that it will be popular with those who benefit directly: those parents whose children do not already receive free school meals. But I don’t think its positive impact will be felt much beyond that group. Increasing Council Tax will be felt by much more people directly – and perhaps even more importantly it is seen by almost all as emblematic of a party’s general approach. The recession and the generally very low level of Council Tax rises this year, especially in London, will also affect the way it plays politically – as will the campaign that the local Lib Dems have been running over the last few weeks for a Council Tax freeze, deftly re-associating themselves with their traditional low Council Tax position.

“Islington Labour means high Council Tax” was a successful political weapon for their opponents ten years ago, and one that last night the Labour group took down off a shelf, dusted down and put back in their hands again.

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