'Oh, so that's who Richard Morris is..." Lord Hattersley on The Daily Politics

'An influential activist' - The Guardian

'Iain Dale, without the self loathing' - Matthew Fox in The New Statesman

You are a tinker...' - Tim Farron

Sunday 28 July 2013

Into the lions den, armed with only a Capped Graduate Tax...

Well, I blogged at the New Statesman on tuition fees.

The inevitable happened

Ho hum


Unlike the Independent, I’ve not been privy to the 'Learning and Life' paperthat is apparently being presented to Lib Dem conference in September, which suggests we should go into the next election without making any, um, pledges, on how tertiary education should be funded. Just a bit of a vague promise to take a look at it when we’re in government  - by all accounts:

"…we have thoroughly examined the current system and the alternatives – a graduate tax and lowering fees – and concluded that we should stick with the current system and review it once it has been given a proper chance to bed in "

Now, I know us foot soldiers are all meant to be on our best behaviour and act like grown ups right now , so I will be considered and patient and wait until I read the paper before throwing all my toys out of the pram and shouting 'this is madness isn’t it?'; but can I make one small suggestion to the good folk in the working group? We could just rename 'tuition fees' as a 'capped graduate tax' and everyone would immediately feel a whole lot better.
I’ve suggested this before and I willingly admit that there’s more than a tad of the snake oil salesman about it. But there’s no doubt that while the phrase 'tuition fees' is like a red rag to a student bull, a capped graduate tax is not.
Renaming an unpopular fee as a more acceptable 'tax' is effectively just behavioural economics, beloved by the No 10 Nudge Unit and, indeed, popular with the PM himself. It would have been a neat solution to avoiding a lot a lot of unpleasantness for the Lib Dems right from the start.
I’ve never been able to understand why we didn’t go down this road. When I originally asked the question, I was told it was because ministers had been advised by civil servants that they couldn’t do it. So I put in a freedom of information request to see this advice; this revealed that not only were ministers not advised that they couldn’t just call tuition fees a 'graduate tax' - in fact they were given the opposite advice:

"in some respects, the loan repayment is equivalent to a capped graduate tax (and presentationally there is an advantage in describing it as such)"

So why don’t we do it?
Now, is this what I want to happen? No. I’d like a full on debate on tertiary education funding at conference and actual implementation of our current policy. But apparently the leadership isn’t so keen on that. Not good for the cameras. And not very grown up.
So this seems a fairly good compromise, delivering what the Lib Dem working party want (the status quo), the grassroots would buy (no more tuition fees), and be better for tertiary education to boot (because more people would buy into it).
Any takers?

Wednesday 24 July 2013

In anticipation of confernece being a right old punch up this time round...

...I wrote this for the New Statesman. It went down surprisingly well !

It being summer, when the world’s thoughts turn to the key questions of the day, such as why does the unseasonably hot weather make the trains late and when will the royal baby turn up, in Lib Dem land we’re all mentally skipping July and August and embracing the advent of conference season. Yeah, really. Trust me, it will be Christmas before you know it.
While its unlikely that we’ll achieve the chart topping heights of last year's conference (don’t tell me you’ve forgotten already), Glasgow 2013 looks like being a classic and everyone seems determined to get their retaliation in early. On the one hand, we have the party establishment, determined to make us look like a party of government, owning the last three years' agenda and decrying the politics of protest. On the other, we have left of the party, equally determined to divorce ourselves from Osbornomics and make big eyes at Labour (Lib Dem members currently favour a 2015 coalition with Labour over one with the Tories by a majority of 2:1). Of course, there is the odd policy –like Trident – where we’ll be shouting 'a plague on both your houses'….
Meanwhile, we read Nick is preparing to frog march us kicking and screaming into the centre ground of politics, which is a bit rum, really, seeing as he was doing the same last December, and in September 2012, and indeed September 2011. If he spends much more time marching us into the centre we’ll be through the other side before you know it…let’s not give him any ideas.
So, dust ups left, right, and centre (figuratively at least) loom large and some of the joy looks set to return to conference. Votes at Lib Dem conference really mean something – party policy and manifesto content still does get debated and agreed and people really do hold the leadership to account. And that’s all going to kick off in just a few weeks' time.
So as MPs go off on their summer holidays, Lib Dem members are polishing their weapons of choice and dreaming of the leaves turning brown. Glasgow 2013 promises to be a bit of cracker.

Monday 15 July 2013

Tax and Topiary

The nice people at Marketing magazine were kind enough to ask me to write a piece about why business folk should care about the G8 meeting; I should have posted in then - but I forgot. So here it is now...

Richard Morris, chief executive at branding agency Identica, and political blogger at The New Statesman and A View from Ham Common, discusses how this week's G8 summit in Northern Ireland may impact brands.

As nine of the world’s leaders meet in a Northern Irish golf resort currently being run by administrators (oh, the irony, eh?) and chat about how nicely KPMG have kept up the topiary, one might ask why brand owners should care about the G8 - other than to vaguely wonder why it’s still called the G8 and who the ninth interloper is.
And indeed, with an agenda likely to be dominated (quite rightly) by the Syrian crisis, and a general acceptance that it’s the G20 where all the business deals get done nowadays anyway (what use a global economic forum that excludes the world’s second, sixth and ninth largest economies?), readers of Marketing would be forgiven for wondering what relevance the G8 has for them.
But may I suggest we should all care, for a couple of reasons. 
Firstly, given the current diversity of opinion over Syria, but the seemingly inviolate rule that "something" must be agreed at these gatherings, it’s likely that what looked like being a tough series of trade negotiations – which our prime minister announced at Davos would be the main focus of this conference, before Syria got in the way – just got a whole lot easier to resolve.
It’s likely that three separate agreements between the EU (on one side) and theUS, Japan and Canada (on the other) will all make progress – with a possibility that the latter may practically get finalised. So if you care about exports, and taking your brand into new markets (or if, like my agency, your corporate owners are based in Quebec), this round really matters.
What’s more, great progress here means that at the next round of G20 talks, the impetus for China and India (who are not in Northern Ireland) to progress its own deals will have extra vim. Plus I don’t imagine Russian president Vladimir Putin will want to sit on his hands as he sees these deals happening all around him.
Russia is already Identica London’s biggest export market, closely followed by India – so a further opening of those markets really makes a difference. This G8 will have an influence beyond the countries actually attending.
And this will be a two-way street. When Identica was originally asked to create what became Russian Standard, we responded to a brief that called for the creation of the first global icon brand that made a virtue of its Russian roots. Fourteen years later, we see brands like Gazprom sponsoring the Champions League. The world has moved on, and this G8 is going to accelerate that process even faster.
Secondly, there’s nothing a set of world leaders like more than finding a group of fall guys they can all agree really need sorting out, without hurting anyone in the room.  As it seems increasingly unlikely that role is going to by filled by the current Syrian Regime, it seems probable that tax avoiders may provide a convenient new group about which everyone can agree something really needs to be done.
Given President Obama is unlikely to let anyone focus solely on brands hailing from single country, might I suggest any brand whose lawyers and accountants have been creative with their interpretation of tax law might find themselves shortly in the line of fire. Especially if they find themselves hailing from a land that falls outside the G8…
So if you care about free trade, new markets opening up, export opportunities, the possibility of new brands entering your own market, or you fret that you may become the latest brand to find itself in the glare of the tax avoiding media spotlight, this G8 actually matters.
But if none of that floats your boat, do check out the topiary. It’s really rather impressive.

Sunday 14 July 2013

Clegg should take the high ground with Miliband and shame the Tories into action

My latest in The New Statesman; went down better than usual. Can't think why....

"A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money", wrote Bill Bernbach, generally acknowledged to be the greatest adman of the 20th Century (which readers of the New Statesman may not necessarily view as the most worthy of monikers, but you’d have to admit, he knew how to turn a phrase).
It’s a sentiment that I suspect Ed Miliband would concur with. And more to the point, I suspect the public would concur with.  If Labour can show they have made a decision that will cost them millions – and they'd better be sure that the New Statesman is right on that, and that the FT is wrong- then the public will reward them for a principled decision. And how deftly Ed Miliband has turned the tables on Cameron, who now has to make some pretty tough decisions himself on party funding and second incomes for backbench Tory MPs (and if he does ban the latter, you’d suspect a few more letters will be heading Graham Brady's way). 
But where does all this leave Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems? The answer is - facing both an opportunity and a threat. Being perennially stuffed for cash, made much worse by the removal of short money when we went into government, funding reform has been high on the priority list for the Lib Dems for some time. It seemed that the chance to do something about it this parliament had gone – but now suddenly it’s back on the table again, an opportunity Nick Clegg was quick to point out in DPMQs yesterday.
More than that,  Nick’s spotted a bit of an opportunity too; why not, as part of the 'opt-in' system let union members name the party they would like their political levy to go to? For example, the majority of Unite members don’t vote Labour. It's quite a thought isn’t it, Unite, Unison and the GMB posting off cheques on behalf of their members to the Lib Dems, the Greens, the Tories…
However, there are downsides to this wheeze; when one party is in the process of costing themselves a fortune on a point of principle, trying to instigate a get rich quick scheme may not play well to the gallery. In fact, you look like a bit of an ambulance chaser. Especially when you have a Michael Brown- shaped rock your opponents can throw back at you.
Far better, I think, for Nick to take the high ground and form an alliance with Labour on party funding reform, shaming the Tories into action. To quote Bill Bernbach again: "If you stand for something, you will always find some people for you and some against you. If you stand for nothing, you will find nobody against you, and nobody for you".
Nick should leave the tactical stuff on party funding to the troops and go climb the high ground with Ed. After all, who knows where such teamwork may lead…

Oh, I like this. Nigel Farage in Blackadder?

Friday 5 July 2013

Why there has been no change in the leadership of any of the three main parties for the longest period since 1967.

It now seems likely that all 3 of the main parties will have their current leaders in place by the May 2015 General Election (Ed M’s current difficulties not withstanding). Presumably shortly after that date, at least one of the parties will then make a change, depending on how the election has panned out. But this means that none of the 3 party’s will have changed leader for a period of 4 years and 8 months – the longest period which none of them changed since the 1975 election of Margaret Thatcher to the Tory leadership, ending a period of 8 years without such a change (as Mssrs Heath, Wilson and Thorpe led their parties).

It is curious, is it not, that at a time when none of the three leaders look especially strong  - with net approval ratings of something like -29 (Clegg), -23 (Miliband) and -10 (Cameron) – that the parties haven’t made a change. Especially when polling for the parties isn’t anywhere where they’d want it to be. Lib Dems have stayed 10-15%, Tories today are at 23% (just 1% above UKIP), and Labour’s lead, while consistent, is nothing like the size most experts think it ‘should’ be at this stage of the electoral cycle – and appears to be falling.

So why no putsch against the leader? Well of course, there have been ‘mutterings’ in all three parties. Anyone observing Lib Dem conference will pick up the vibes of those on the left of the party, we hear over and over again of the letters demanding a leadership vote by the Chairman of the Conservative 1922 Committee, and just look at the civil war now apparently erupting in Labour. Yet I don’t think anyone seriously believes that any of the leaders are about to be replaced. How come this sudden outbreak of loyalty?

Well, dare I suggest that while each party’s internal electorate has more than a few problems with its leader – they each think the other party’s problems are bigger than their own.

If you’re the Tories, you look at Ed Miliband, who they are apparently about to Kinnockise, and Nick, who I think we would all have to agree has a few image problems with the electorate at large; and you think, while Cameron may not be ideal, he’s better than the other 2 – after all, he is described over and over again as more popular in the country than the Tory party overall. So you stay your hand.

If you’re Labour – you see a relatively recently elected leader still finding his way, yet consistently leading a party polling ahead of the rest - and compare him to Cameron, pulled ever rightward by a set of uncontrollable MPs and the rise of UKIP, and Nick Clegg (same image problems apply) – and again, conclude you have the better of the deal, and stay your hand.

If you’re the Lib Dems, you see Ed Milband struggling to control a party split between the Blairites and the Unions, and Conservatives torn apart by the rise of the right and UKIP, and conclude that your leader is the only one leading a vaguely united party – and you stay your hand.

So, unusually, all three party’s conclude that while their leader has a few issues (to put it mildly) – he’s a better leader than the other 2. And generally, its only when you conclude that your leader is inferior to one of the other 2, or they lose an election, that you change.

Funny old world, isn’t it.

Tom Watson: has he been reading my stuff?

I published the piece below in the New Statesman on Weds. I worried it would be seen as stirring the pot somewhat, but in fact its had lots of nice comments, including as many from Labour as the Lib Dems.

But can I point out the last line - and then this line from Tom Watson's Glastonbury blog, whichwas published Thursday morning just before he resigned.

Me: "Or to put it another way, Mr Howells: you may be happy to have "pragmatism over principle" etched on your gravestone. But it’s not why most activists go into politics".

Watson: "...I get a sense of understanding that I'd missed in the Leftfield debate the previous day. It's been missing from the Labour Party since Tony Blair marched us into the arid desert of pragmatism that was so electorally successful. It’s belief."

Spooky !!

Here's my New Statesman piece

While everyone else got irate about Kim Howells kicking off a 'unions vs. Blairites row' in his The World this Weekend interview (and I’m not about to intrude on private grief), I was shouting at the radio for a whole different reason. I appear to be in a minority of one, but why is it acceptable for senior politicians to say stuff like this about their own activists:
There are a lot of people inside the Labour movement who hate being in government because it means making very difficult decisions. They’d rather be a ginger group outside, they’d rather be calling for what we used to call ‘impossibilism’ because it sounded good and they fitted their rhetoric. It’s a nonsense of course…
Is it really a nonsense? And is it really "impossibilism"? I only ask because the progressive wing of politics seems to be terribly good at telling the folk who’ve been traipsing up and down the streets, banging on doors and shoving leaflets through letterboxes, that expecting their politicians to deliver some elements of party policy when they’re in power is 'na├»ve', a sign of political 'immaturity' or 'wishful thinking' and that we need to 'get real'. It was only a couple of weeks ago that Lib Dem councillors were told that:
If we try and turn back the clock, hankering for the comfort blanket of national opposition, seeking to airbrush out the difficult decisions we have had to take, we condemn our party to the worst possible fate - irrelevance, impotence, slow decline.
Now, I don’t think anyone expects their party to go into government and not make tough decisions. But it's not the tough decisions that get the activists irked. It’s the decisions that appear to be the diametrical opposite of either party philosophy or party policy that get everyone worked up. And if we didn’t, you fear that the Snooper's Charter would now be on the statute books and the original NHS white paper might have gone through on the nod.
It does seem odd to me that politicians can’t see that one of the reasons their stock is not so much in the gutter as several layers further down is exactly because they duck the difficult philosophical decisions in favour of 'what they can get through'; and why, when backbenchers from all parties refuse to knuckle under and back the party principle, they get applauded by activists and the electorate alike.
Lest we forget:
The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
Or to put it another way, Mr Howells: you may be happy to have "pragmatism over principle" etched on your gravestone. But it’s not why most activists go into politics.

Thursday 4 July 2013

Is Tom Watson's resignation letter any good? Depends on your politics it seems...

You can read Tom Watson's resignation letter here and make your own mind up; but if you ever doubted the tribal nature of British politics, then have a glance at the Twitter reaction, not to the news of his resignation - but to the views on the style of the letter...