Saturday, 26 October 2013

Whatever you think of him, you should expect Ed Miliband to be the next prime minister

Samuel Goldwyn once warned, in his inimitable style, “Never make predictions - especially about the future”. However, I feel confident in predicting that Ed Miliband will be the next prime minister.  

Nothing is 100% certain in politics. However, Miliband is now in a position like that of a star striker with the ball at his feet, standing yards from the opposition’s empty net. All he needs to do is keep his nerve, ignore the vicious abuse from the terraces and put the ball in the net. It’s almost certain that he will.

Many Tories do not take seriously the possibility of a Miliband premiership. They believe that an economic recovery and his perceived personal weaknesses will consign him to the same fate as Neil Kinnock in 1992. Equally, many Labour supporters do not dare to believe that Labour will return to government after a single term.

The latest YouGov poll shows a 7% Labour lead. National opinion polls have shown a consistent, if quite small, lead for Labour ever since the omnishambles Budget of March 2012. However, UK elections are decided not by most voters, who are in safe seats, but by voters in marginal constituencies and here the Labour lead is far larger. In September 2013, a poll was carried out in the 32 seats where the Tories are defending their smallest majorities against Labour. It showed Labour on 43% and the Tories on 29%. A lead in these seats of 14% points to a resounding Labour win.

Of course, voting intentions could change in the next 18 months. However, there are some crucial factors which favour Miliband.

In 2010, the Lib Dems won 23% of the vote. In today’s YouGov poll they are on 9%. Many Lib Dem voters in 2010 were on the Left and then switched to Labour due to Lib Dem actions after 2010. It is highly unlikely that anything that happens in the next 18 months will sway these voters away from Labour.

UKIP is now the UK’s third party, based on opinion polls. It is on 11% in the YouGov poll. It takes significantly more voters from Tories than it does from Labour. Even if UKIP end up with no MPs, they could cost the Tories many seats. Tories will, no doubt, try and scare UKIP voters by saying a vote for UKIP is a vote for Miliband but this may well have limited effect.  Many UKIP voters hate David Cameron and all he stands for – not just on the EU but also on immigration, gay marriage and other issues.

When Cameron became Tory leader in 2005 he set about the necessary electoral task of detoxifying the Tory brand. Now, under the pressure of events and concerns about the threat from UKIP the Tories are becoming the “Nasty Party” again. Under their election strategist, Lynton Crosby, it is likely that the Tories will become nastier still on subjects like immigration and benefit claimants as the election approaches. This strategy may delight the core Tory vote and the press but it is not how to win elections. The British people are too decent.

The First Past the Post electoral system will give the Labour Party a major advantage over the Tories in 2015. It is partly the result of the way that Labour and Tory voters are distributed throughout the country and partly because of anti-Tory tactical voting. According to the IPPR thinktank the effect is dramatic, “the Conservatives need an 11-point lead to secure an outright majority, compared to the 3-point margin Labour would need.”  

But what about the two factors that some Tories believe will trump the others and put Cameron back in number 10 - Miliband himself and the economy?

The Tory belief that Miliband is unelectable is wishful thinking. The latest poll has him narrowly ahead of Cameron on the issue of who is doing a better job. It is true that he is seen as less prime ministerial but so, by a wide margin, was Thatcher compared to Callaghan in 1979. Miliband may not be a vote-winner like Blair was in 1997 but nor is he a vote-loser like Kinnock in 1992 or Hague in 2001.

The Tories hope to be able to say that the economy is recovering well come May 2015. But elections are not won and lost on GDP figures. Most people by May 2015 will still be struggling. The question that will decide the election is - who cares about people like me? People think that the Tories care more about the rich than ordinary people. It is difficult to see what they can do now to change that election-losing perception. 

Saturday, 19 October 2013

A shocking proposal to deprive the poor of a basic democratic right, the ability to challenge unfair decisions by the State

Here is a shocking proposal. To save money, why not say all poor people should be deprived of the vote? After all, a high proportion of them do not actually use their votes and it would simply be a return to the situation pre-1918 and wasn’t the century before then the time when Britain was at its most glorious?

Of course, the shocking proposal above is not a real one. It would be quite obviously anti-democratic and obnoxious and would be met with a huge public outcry. However, the Coalition is doing something now which is no less anti-democratic and obnoxious and yet it is being met with only limited opposition. I refer to the proposed reforms to a little known part of the legal system called Judicial Review (JR).

JR is the process by which people can challenge decisions made by the State. This is not only Whitehall or local government but it is also any public body taking a decision. Every day public officials make countless decisions over a huge range of areas. A decision might, for example, be about whether and how to house someone or whether to let a child into a particular school or about awarding a rail franchise or over a planning application or on licensing or about entitlements to services or over benefits or about whether someone should get certain treatment provided by the NHS or whether someone should be sent back to a country where they claim they face persecution. 

JR is concerned with the way decisions are taken rather than the decisions themselves. It is the protection for the citizen against unfair and arbitrary decisions. It makes officials accountable to the people who will be affected by their decision and ensures that they consider all relevant factors and ignore all irrelevant ones when making their decision. They can’t, say, favour their own relative or decide on the basis of skin colour. Nor can they decide on a whim or by throwing a dice or a dart. They have to take the decision properly.

The ability of those with deep pockets to challenge unfair and arbitrary decisions will not be affected by the Coalition’s proposals. However, the proposals will affect the ability of the poor to bring cases as legal aid will be restricted. Without equal access to justice the UK can no longer be properly considered as operating under the rule of law. Effectively depriving poor citizens of the ability to challenge decisions of the State is as fundamental a stain on our democracy as depriving them of their right to vote would be.

Last week the most senior judge in the country, Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court took the unusual step of using a public lecture to express some highly trenchant views on the Coalition’s proposed reforms to JR.  

“The courts have no more important function than that of protecting citizens from the abuses and excesses of the executive – central government, local government or other public bodies…I am not suggesting that we have a dysfunctional or ill-intentioned executive but the more power that a government has, the more likely it is that there will be abuses and excesses which result in injustice to citizens, and the more important it is for the rule of law
that such abuses and excesses can be brought before an impartial and experienced judge who can deal with them openly, dispassionately and fairly.

…we must look at any proposed changes (to JR) with particular care, because of the importance of maintaining JR, and also bearing in mind the proposed changes come from the very body which is at the receiving end of JR.

…the cost-cutting proposals risk deterring a significant number of valid (JRs) and will save a pathetically small sum

…Cutting the cost of legal aid deprives the very people, who most need the protection of the courts,  of the ability to get legal advice and representation

…If a person with a potential (JR) cannot get Legal Aid, there are two possible consequences. The first is that the claim is dropped: that is a rank denial of justice and a blot on the rule of law. The second is that the claim is pursued (without a lawyer), in which case it will be pursued inefficiently (and cost the system more)”

In the introduction to his lecture, Neuberger said as follows.

“I am not being alarmist, but there is a deep truth in the adages that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance and that all it takes for wrong to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

When as distinguished and eminent a man as the country’s top judge says such things the great British public ought to stir themselves just as they would if a government actually did try to stop all poor people voting.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Murdoch, Dacre and Cameron say the BBC is biased towards the Left. It’s not true.

In the last week, Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre and David Cameron have all accused the BBC of failing in its duty to be impartial by being biased towards the Left. It is an accusation made constantly by the Tory Party and their press supporters (at the last election 74% of the press were behind the Tories). As the result of this relentless repetition it is now widely believed that the BBC is biased towards the Left. However, the facts show that the opposite is true - the BBC is biased towards the Right.

To prove bias it is necessary to look at far more than just one story or issue.  What is needed is proper research over an extended period.   

In August 2013, academics at Cardiff University published their research into political bias at the BBC. Their research was funded by the BBC Trust. They analysed news coverage from both 2007 and 2012 so that in one case there had been a Labour government and in the other the Coalition.

A government is always likely to receive more airtime than an opposition. However, the researchers found a clear bias towards the Tories over Labour. They found that whereas in 2007 Gordon Brown outnumbered David Cameron in appearances by a ratio of two to one, in 2012 David Cameron outnumbered Ed Miliband by nearly four to one. Across the two time periods, Tory politicians were featured more than 50% more often than Labour ones. The researchers concluded that 
“the evidence is clear that the BBC does not lean to the Left it actually provides more space for Conservative voices.”

The researchers also analysed the coverage of business and, in particular the 2008 financial crisis. They found that, when covering the crisis, on the BBC 
“opinion was almost completely dominated by stockbrokers, investment bankers, hedge fund managers and other City voices. Civil society voices or commentators who questioned the benefits of having such a large finance sector were almost completely absent from coverage. The fact that the City financiers who had caused the crisis were given almost monopoly status to frame debate again demonstrates the prominence of pro-business perspectives.”

The results of the research should not be surprising. The people in positions of influence in the BBC tend to have similar backgrounds to the elites in politics, newspapers, the City and so on. The BBC is a pillar of the Establishment. 

It is interesting to note, for example, how differently the BBC treats UKUncut, campaigning for the rich to pay their taxes, as opposed to the Taxpayers’ Alliance, campaigning to cut public spending.

I complained once to the Today program because they described UKUncut as “anticapitalist” – a term likely to undermine their credibility. I pointed out that there was nothing anticapitalist about seeking that the rich pay the taxes that parliament intended.  The Establishment worldview tends to be dismissive of a group of leaderless scruffs like UKUncut and I was told not once but twice that the program stuck by its description. Only when I escalated the complaint did the BBC, at the third time of asking, concede or perhaps finally realise what should have always been obvious: that calling for the rich to pay their taxes may be anti-Establishment but it is absurd to describe it as anticapitalist.

The BBC is wary of organisations like UKUncut. The Taxpayers’ Alliance is a pressure group, just as UKUncut is, but the BBC treats it very differently. It is an organisation well-funded by big business, with very close links to the Tory party. Its representatives are very much part of the Establishment and the BBC regularly quotes its views and invites it on to its programs.

The Left needs to challenge the Right over its constant complaints of BBC bias. It needs to challenge the BBC over its bias too.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

52.2% of our "free press" is controlled by 2 billionaires and 77.8% by 6 billionaires.

Lord Justice Leveson referred in his report to the privileged position that the press hold in our public debate. He said that they "wield a powerful megaphone". Unsurprisingly, the press have used their powerful megaphone in the service of the interests of the men who are their effective owners. 

It matters for those concerned with our democracy that 52.2% of our "free press" is controlled by just two billionaires and 77.8% is controlled by six billionaires. 

The freedom the press enjoys is very much freedom for the rich and powerful. As Isaiah Berlin warned, liberty for the wolves means death to the lambs. Some regulation of the press is needed in order to protect the interests of those that are not rich and powerful.

The Press Gazette has published the results of the National Readership Survey. I have used these results - for both print and online - to draw up tables with readerships and information about owners and political orientation.

UK press weekly print and on-line readership (for papers over 1 million) in March 2013
Combined print and online readership
(In brackets print alone)
Effective owner/s

Information about effective owner/s
Political orientation of newspaper/s
% of  combined print and online (In brackets print alone)
The Sun/The Sun on Sunday
Rupert Murdoch
Billionaire. Lives in US.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Mail/ Mail on Sunday
Lord Rothermere
Billionaire. Lives in France.
Non-domiciled for UK tax
Supported Tories in 2010
Lord Rothermere
Billionaire. Lives in France.
Non-domiciled for UK tax
Supported Tories in 2010
Mirror/Sunday Mirror/ People
Trinity Mirror plc

Public Limited Company
Supported Labour in 2010
The Guardian/The Observer
Scott Trust Ltd
Supported Lib Dems in 2010
Telegraph/ Sunday Telegraph
David and Frederick Barclay
Billionaires. Live on private island near Sark.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Times/ Sunday Times
Rupert Murdoch
Billionaire. Lives in US.
Alleged tax avoider.
Supported Tories in 2010
The Independent/ i/Independent on Sunday
Alexander (father)and Evgeny (son) Lebedev
Alexander is a billionaire, ex-KGB and lives in Russia. Evgeny lives in the UK
Supported anti-Tory tactical voting in 2010
London Evening Standard
Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev
Alexander is billionaire, ex-KGB and lives in Russia. Evgeny lives in UK
Supported Tories in 2010
Daily Express/Sunday Express
Richard Desmond
Billionaire pornographer.
Supported Tories in 2010
Daily Star/Daily Star Sunday
Richard Desmond
Billionaire pornographer.
Alleged tax avoider.
Supported Tories in 2010

Daily Record/ Sunday Mail
Trinity Mirror plc
Public limited company
Supported Labour in 2010
Financial Times
Pearson plc
Public limited company
Supported Tories in 2010

Readership of UK press (for papers over 1 million) in March 2013 by effective owners
Effective owner(s)
%  of combined print and online (In brackets print alone)
Lord Rothermere
27.3       (27.8)

Rupert Murdoch
24.9       (27.9)

Trinity Mirror plc
13.0       (13.9)

Alexander and Evgeny Lebedev
10.6       (10.1)

Richard Desmond
  8.2        (9.2)

Scott Trust
  7.3       (4.7)

David and Frederick Barclay
  6.8       (5.1)

Pearson plc
  1.8       (1.5)