Making it to five (not out)

This blog opened for business five years ago today. The first post was Can the Big Society be anything more than BS?, reblogged from Liberal Democrat Voice. It felt like quite a big step to strike out on my own rather than post occasionally at group sites. The most recent post – yesterday’s Compassionate friends of Conservatism – just tipped me over 600 posts.

A blogging anniversary is conventionally a time to pause and reflect. I did so on the blog’s second anniversary – Reaching the terrible twos – but I don’t think I’ve done so since. Last year I was knee deep in party conference season and the anniversary was marked with a post originating at a fringe event about The Orange BookNotes from a small gathering.

I guess reflection might be even more in order this year because quite a lot of blogs fall silent long before they reach the five year mark. So I’ve longevity on my side. Not only that but this blog apparently gets used as a case study in talks about blogging for and by academics. It occasionally get accused of thought leadership and suchlike.

So one might assume that I’ve got some pearls of wisdom to share. [Read more…]

Compassionate friends of Conservatism

016d71e5-b3e1-4390-897a-79d8cfe670f3We all know that the talk of compassionate conservatism that characterised the early years of Cameron’s leadership was quietly dropped. When one of your main political strategies is taking money from the poor and disabled – reducing thousands to penury – the whole compassion thing comes across as a bit incongruous, regardless of how often you claim you were doing it for their own good.

While the party had sought to shed its image as the nasty party this proved too much of a stretch. Critics claim that the mask has slipped: there is clear evidence that the party has reverted to type.

Whether or not that is the case, we got an illuminating insight into the thinking of one of the party’s favourite think tanks today. [Read more…]

The Q#3 quintet (the while you were away edition)

Here are the five posts on this blog that recorded the most hits between July and September 2015:

I can only think that the frequent appearance of Mr J across the media over the summer has forced more people on to the internet to ask the question posed in the title of the list-topping post. It was a long, long way ahead of the other posts on the list in terms of traffic.

[Read more…]

Sell offs and sell outs

An awful lot seems to have happened on the housing policy front this week. Or at least the volume of housing talk has increased considerably.

We started the week with Brandon Lewis announcing that the Government wants to see a million new homes by 2020. But the Government then clarified that this doesn’t constitute anything as ambitious as a target. Nor does it appear they are proposing any significant new strategies, plans or actions to increase the likelihood that a million new homes might appear in the next four years. There was some reference to making it easier for people to build and to brownfield sites. But then there usually is. So precisely what this announcement signified was not altogether clear.

Lewis pitched the million homes figure into the news media during the Liberal Democrat conference. [Read more…]

JC will save us

There can be little argument that politics just got a whole lot more interesting. While we’ve been discussing – indeed anticipating – a Jeremy Corbyn win in the Labour leadership election for several weeks now, it was all tinged with an air of unreality. Now he’s been elected. The situation is still tinged with an air of unreality, but that will pass. Reality will intrude soon enough.

Lots of people appear to have been inspired by JC’s victory. There are reports of 15,000 new members for Labour in the half day following the declaration of the results. From my Twitter timeline it would appear this includes several people returning to the fold, having given up on Labour under Blair/Brown/Miliband, as well as those joining the party – any political party – for the first time.

Comment on social media and in the mainstream media indicates that some people are re-engaging with optimism, accompanied by a clear sense of realism at the challenges facing the Labour party under any leader committed to reorienting the party to the left. But the optimism evident elsewhere seems rather more touchingly naive. JC will be able to bend the world to his vision. That’s a function of getting people to engage with politics for the first time, I guess. They have yet to discover the constraints, compromises and disappointments of the realpolitik of, well, real politics.

Yet at the heart of all that optimism is something important. There are plenty of people crying out for some genuine opposition to the Conservatives. Miliband Labour, for all its portrayal in the media as being unreasoningly and unrealistically left wing, rarely took a principled stand against the Coalition when it mattered. That was in part because the Conservatives were simply strategically so much more adept. They managed so often to frame the narrative and box Labour into a corner. Labour got tangled up in its own attempts to triangulate. In the end no one knew whether the party stood for anything distinctive.

A Corbyn-led Labour party is clearly going to be a very different proposition. [Read more…]

Policy capture, busy work and the housing problem

It is tempting to think that the UK housing system is uniquely dysfunctional. Policy over so many years has so manifestly failed to get the measure of the problem and failed to take sufficiently radical action that we might be tempted to consider those in charge uniquely inept. If it’s a choice between cock up and conspiracy, go for cock up every time. Type of thing.

We might, however, review the recent policy past in the light of a paper by Gurran and Phibbs entitled Are governments really interested in fixing the housing problem? (£), which has just appeared online in Housing Studies. It tells a story of policy inadequacy in the face of chronic housing affordability problems that feels rather familiar. But the authors take Australian housing policy at federal level and in New South Wales as their subject.

The themes of their policy story have features strongly in the British context over the same period: placing the blame for sluggish housing supply on overly burdensome regulation and state attempts to capture value from rising prices for public benefit; in the face of calls for more radical action, rejecting public housing as a solution to affordability problems. Gurran and Phibbs offer some examples of high profile policy pronouncements that seek to carefully construct the issue as one to which income redistribution or public housebuilding cannot be seen as effective solutions. The policy response is therefore to dilute planning regulations and lift requirements to provide affordable housing and infrastructure through the planning system. Significant funding for public housing only featured as part of the extraordinary response to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008. All the while prices and rents continue to rise.

Gurran and Phibbs are, however, very much not on the side of the cock up theory of inadequate policy. [Read more…]

Changing behaviour

At the end of last month Stephen Tall posted an essay entitled A liberal approach to evidence-based policy making on his blog. The essay had originally been submitted for last year’s CentreForum essay competition on The Challenges Facing Contemporary Liberalism but, for whatever reason, hadn’t appeared. I keep meaning to write a response to Stephen’s post, but I don’t seen to have managed it yet.

More to the point, I submitted an essay to the CentreForum competition but it wasn’t ever going to be published in that form. There is the possibility that I might develop a longer version of the argument. But I’m not sure when that’s going to happen. In the meantime I thought I’d follow Stephen’s lead and post it on the blog, rather than let it languish. So here it is.


Governments have traditionally relied on “shove”. When market failures result in inefficiency governments have used regulation to “shove” economic actors in directions perceived as socially beneficial. This is a relatively blunt instrument. More recently, policymakers have been persuaded of the power of fiscal incentives. Taxes, subsidies, and manufactured markets have increasingly been the preferred shoving mechanism.

Similarly, many liberals have robustly, but not uncritically, advocated choice and competition in the reform of public services. This is an attempt to capture the benefits of market mechanisms without wholesale privatisation. Some of the enthusiasm for this approach flows from a desire to combat the inefficiencies inherent in monopoly provision and the risks of government failure.

Concern about the cumulative burden of individually well-intentioned regulations is evident in the Orange Book. In addition, not only were market mechanisms within public services advocated but also manufactured markets to achieve environmental policy goals.(1) The subsequent decade has seen the embedding and extension of Better Regulation and the creation of substantial artificial markets such as the continent-wide European Emissions Trading Scheme.

Much can be said about the success, or otherwise, of these initiatives. But I want to explore the broadening of the policy agenda. Concern with market failure and government failure is longstanding; over the last decade it has been joined by a concern with “individual failure”. Indeed policy in some fields has become rather preoccupied with individual failure and “behaviour change”. The agenda poses potential challenges for liberals. [Read more…]

Capitalism’s real enemies

7134884983_5301865c77_zMuch of the political commentariat is currently obsessed with the soap opera of the Labour leadership election. The peculiar dynamics of the contest itself are fascinating. It is easy to forget how quickly we’ve moved from the prospect of a continuity Blairite Labour party to a party reshaped in the image of the Corbynistas. The prominence of the language of purge and putsch is remarkable. Commentators seek to frame proceedings in a particularly unfavourable light by seeing unflattering historical resonance with the grisly history of socialism. Beyond the unfolding drama of the process everyone is seeking to grapple with the implications of a Corbyn victory, if such a thing were to occur. Does this signal the rise of unelectable hard-left anticapitalism, as many of the right proclaim – and fervently hope? Or is it a reawakening of a genuinely rejuvenating socialism, as supporters claim?

In this context, Tim Montgomerie’s recent post at the Spectator is intriguing. Montgomerie dismisses much of what is happening as so much sound and fury, signifying nothing. It poses no real threat to the existing social order. The anticapitalist sentiment that has emerged in the wake of the rise of JC emanates from the paper tigers of the hard left.

Montgomerie looks elsewhere for what he sees as the real threat to capitalism. [Read more…]

Towards postcapitalism?

postcapitalismPaul Mason’s new book Postcapitalism: a guide to our future is a serious book with an ambitious agenda.

But you wouldn’t necessarily have picked that up from some of the early reviews. Political commentators from the centre and right were pretty quick to the pages of the Times or the Spectator to offer their dismissal. Even some reviews from the centre-left have been a bit tepid.

The book should, we’re told, be viewed as some form of regression by Mason to the driveling Marxism of his youth. The book indicates bankruptcy of the intellectual left. Mason’s argument that we may be seeing the beginning of the end of capitalism is taken to indicate his failure to understand the remarkable resilience of capitalism.

Quite a bit of the commentary on Mason’s book doesn’t do it justice. It isn’t entirely clear that some of those commenting on the book have done Mason the courtesy of actually reading what he’s written, or engaging with it seriously. Those who have taken time to do so, such as David Runciman in today’s Guardian, find plenty of interest. Which isn’t to say that Mason’s argument is unproblematic. Or, for that matter, that criticism isn’t justified. [Read more…]

Slums as a housing solution

6605979025_d5b50310c2_zAt the end of last week there was a bit of a furore generated by a blogpost published by the Adam Smith Institute. A young man called Theo Clifford argued that the solution to the British housing crisis lies in deregulation. That in itself is not, perhaps, an earth-shattering observation to find emerging from a libertarian think tank. Clifford, though, takes the argument a stage further than we usually see. He argues that Britain’s housing problem is an absence of slums. Social welfare would be improved if we were to deregulate so that housing consumers can “choose” poor quality, cramped, overcrowded and/or insecure accommodation, if that is the amount of accommodation that would satisfy their preferences.

This argument can be criticised from a number of directions. And it has been. [Read more…]