I’m not a poshist; some of my friends are posh. And what good chaps they are, even though some of them are girls; in an earlier age they’d be referred to as the officer class and be the first into battle, no matter the odds. However, I am greatly amused by the rearguard action currently being perpetrated by people who describe themselves as posh, even if they are manifestly ghastly little oiks.

This ‘debate’ came about following an argument on Radio 4 involving a ‘gentleman’ (one presumes) called Lord Fellowes, who made the following gloriously absurd statement:

“There was an era when people wanted to be governed by great kings, then they wanted to be governed by great nobles who would keep the king in his place. Now they want to be governed by great friends. They want to know these people — whether or not they like toffee ice cream — and my natural pull is more towards the statesmen era.”

Quite apart from the obvious rejoinder of people not being free to choose their king or their nobles, what’s missing from Fellowes’ statement is the fact that Fellowes too wants his rulers to be great friends – or rather, to be more like his friends. Wanting rulers to be like your friends doesn’t suddenly become acceptable when your friends are immensely rich members of the Cousinhood. It doesn’t become acceptable when you live in a nice semi-detached house in Wolverhampton either; selecting your rulers on the basis of chumminess is irrational in the modern era, even if it has shadows of the ancient urge to be pals with the chief and get the best cuts of mammoth meat.

Fellowes claims that Cameron’s determination to be ‘one of the guys’ is a reflection of people’s dislike of his Etonian origin, and that this dislike is unwarranted. It’s this ‘prejudice’ at which Delingpole and his stablemate Brendan O’Neill take aim, being seemingly upset that everyone doesn’t recognise them for being the immensely talented lives of the national party they so manifestly are.

As I said, I’ve got posh friends. Individually, they’re great. But individuals are not the same as a type. ‘Poshness’ refers to a set of of qualities which are present to a greater or lesser degree, including accent, etiquette, behaviour and upbringing. Some of those it would be pointless to dislike, such as accent. Some of them it is absolutely fine to dislike, particularly any qualities which relate to inequality of opportunity. This doesn’t just cover extra access to educational resources, but also to modes of behaviour which are seen as social signifiers. This includes a whole suite of references to literature and culture to which the children of the better-off have easy access, but to which the children of the less well-off only have access via bastardised ‘accessible’ versions of Shakespeare and the like. People tend to employ people who are like them, for the irrational reasons given above, and if you can’t evidence familiarity with the culture of the ruling classes you’ll never get into them.

It is for this reason – evidence of an inequality in our society not born of individual choice – that it’s fine to dislike posh people in the round. It is also for this reason that it’s not okay to dislike Boris Johnson for being posh – after all, he wants poor kids to learn Latin too.

The State of Aid

May 29, 2011

You know, if I was in charge of a Government which anticipated an upswing in stories about the poor and disabled being hard-done by by your policies, I’d probably find some way to pre-emptively mitigate that. I’d ensure that if things did start getting worse, I’d have some previous decision people could point to, just so people might say, “That Prime Minister, you know, he’s not such a bad chap. All that dreadful stuff about the poor – at least he’s looking after the worst off in the world. I feel safe to keep voting for him in the knowledge that he’s compassionate towards the most deserving.

“After all, if people in the UK are suffering but still have access to housing, food, and healthcare, we clearly should be spending more on foreign aid to people who genuinely need it. They’re starving, homeless and without medicine.”

Coincidentally, foreign aid spending gets this sort of result much more cheaply than UK welfare spending.

EDIT: I have decided to call this political philosophy ‘One World Conservatism’.

I work for the wind industry, and a very jolly industry is to work for too, I must say. Over the past year I’ve become concerned that the jolliness associated with my industry might take something of a knock thanks to the development of shale gas. What is shale gas, I hear you ask? Well, it’s the gas you get when you drill down to shale beds such as those found around old gas & oil plays, set off a big explosion that fractures the shale, and pump down water and other chemicals to force out the gas that was otherwise trapped in tiny pockets in the rock.

Various people have questioned its environmental credentials, not least pointing out that it has similar lifecycle emissions of CO2 to unabated coal. That hasn’t stopped haters like renowned dandelion Christopher Booker from claiming that this is the end of all wind farms, as it’ll make gas cheap enough to rely on into the next century.

Right now, OfGem is predicting that a gas-focused policy for building new generation plant would raise consumer prices by 52% by 2016, as a consequence of this new dash for gas pushing up demand. Comparatively, an energy mix that includes wind raises prices by only 23%, as the use of wind to displace a third of gas generation lowers demand and hence lowers fuel costs. The argument of the gas-lovers has been that shale gas is a ‘disruptive’ technology that will mitigate this price increase.

This is the sort of magic bullet beloved by the anti-wind lobby, who are grasping for any excuse to not build renewables. Doubtless there was a round of cheering in the hollowed-out dead volcano that houses the headquarters of Nimbyism when the committee for Energy & Climate Change decided to give the go-ahead to shale gas exploration in the UK. At last, they must’ve thought, here’s a technology that will give us energy security without having to build the blasted wind turbines!

There’s a small problem with this, and it lies in the report of the Committee, which estimates the UK’s shale gas reserves as totalling nearly a year-and-a-half’s worth of current UK gas demand.

Check that out.

A year and a half of slightly cheaper gas.

‘Disruptive technology’ my arse.

Now, let’s be fair – there may be other shale gas plays in the old oilfields of the North Sea. There’s a bit of a problem there, which is that extracting gas out at sea is more expensive than on land, mitigating shale gas’s price advantage. There’s another, slightly bigger problem, which doesn’t appear to have occurred to anyone yet.

Perhaps you remember that wonderful attempt to keep our old coal and gas plant working in this carbon-conscious age, known as Carbon Capture and Storage. The idea is that you capture emissions from fossil fuel plant at the point of emission and then store them in old oil and gas beds, making gas and coal zero-carbon. However, if at the same time you licence other companies to blow enormous holes in those same oil and gas beds while looking for shale gas, then I’m prepared to bet that the process suddenly becomes pretty bloody carbon intensive, to the point where every Geordie will be able to get a free bubblebath in the North Sea.

It’s certainly true that other countries’ shale gas reserves are more ‘disruptive’ than ours and will have an impact upon imported liquefied natural gas wholesale prices. However, I suspect that the impact of such a relatively limited native supply means that you’ll still want to use the wind when it blows, rather than burning necessarily unabated shale gas.

Everyone, that is, on the Left, including socialist gnome Laurie Penny, charming greenie Adam Ramsay, and the oddballs at OpenDemocracy, have seemingly managed to convince themselves that the sudden spurt of protests that happened in Spain during their recent local elections are the prelude to a revolution.  As I write, news of the protests growing larger is trickling through the internet – my favourite source being the Something Awful Forums, who courtesy of the world-wide reach of IT spoddery have representatives on every continent.

The big problem for everyone describing this as a ‘revolution’ is that the biggest chunk of Spaniards have just voted for their version of the Conservative Party. They won 37% of the vote across the country, giving them a clear lead over the 28% garnered by the Socialists. Over half the electorate voting for the status quo in the form of the two establishment parties isn’t a recipe for immanent revolution.

This is recognised by the protesters at least, who’ve come up with a set of demands which are broadly radical but aren’t asking for ownership of the means of production or similar. There’s a collection of demands for political transparency and accountability, several requests for more transfer payments to young people, a broad commitment to better-funded public services and, of course, a Tobin Tax. Mostly these are left-wing talking points without a broader political or economic philosophy behind them beyond ‘More of nice things, please’.

However, the big push of the protest is, interestingly, against Spain’s electoral system, which manages to somehow be perhaps worse than ours. They use the d’Hondt method to elect 350 members of the national legislature in 52 relatively small constituencies, meaning each constituency has an average number of representatives of about 6. Such a small number of representatives being elected under d’Hondt means that the results will be biased towards the two largest national parties, as well as strong regional parties. Because it’s d’Hondt, you vote for parties rather than individual representatives, electing members from the party lists. Especially at the local level, being unable to vote for an individual rather than a party – in a system which allows for a significant number of political appointees – breeds corruption.

The current Socialist government has been implementing austerity measures in an attempt to reassure its creditors that Spain is not going to default, even though it’s been suggested that they probably should. When a left-wing party is implementing austerity measures, the unemployed and the young have literally no-one to vote for who will represent their economic interests – at least, anyone with a chance of getting in. They are, much like certain types of labour in the UK, subject to market forces beyond the control of their Government. And they simply can’t compete in the context of a higher cost of living than that of their peers in the developing world.

Not unreasonably, they want their point of view to have a seat at the table. If they can’t get access to the structures of power by traditional means, they’re required to put on a demonstration of force, which is what a protest has always been. Exactly the same applied to the student protests last year – having had what they believed to be their mechanism for putting their point of view to power removed by my party’s sudden conversion to the cause of tuition fees, their protest was an effort to demonstrate the power available to them and demand a say.

I don’t find any of this immoral, I simply disagree with the temporary measures that are in the short-term economic interests of the people protesting in Spain. Protection from international competition would, in the long run, make Spain poorer. This is recognised by the originators of the document I gave above, which instead is a call for democratic reform rather than economic reform per se. They want a seat at the table, and they’re demonstrating the force that they believe entitles them to it. This is not a revolution, merely democracy carried out by other means.

Tim Worstall is simultaneously wrong and right:

“We don’t actually give a shit about which technology provides us with low carbon power. We care only that we get low carbon power. So, of course, incentives and subsidies should be simple and unique. One system for all.Onshore wind should get the same deal as offshore wind, as solar PV, as tidal, as wave, as nuclear, as hydro. For what we actually want to have is that low carbon power in the most efficient manner possible. So set that one incentive and may the best system win.”

He’s absolutely right that we should aim to ensure that every single type of power generation gets the same deal for its power, to ensure that we move towards a low-carbon grid at the lowest cost possible. Unfortunately, the Government’s reforms to the energy market probably won’t achieve that. It’s because the electricity market is hellishly complicated, because balancing the electricity supply is hellishly complicated.

Let me give a (very) brief overview of how it works. The National Grid, every half hour, announces how much electricity it thinks it’s going to need in half an hour’s time. Generators then bid a certain price to supply that power, and NG picks the cheapest ones (not always, because of something called the merit order, but generally). They agree a contract that says in half an hour’s time they’ll supply that amount of power. This happens 48 times a day, every day. In the event that National Grid gets it wrong, it either has to pay generators a premium to produce less or to produce more. Somehow, this all works, and our lights stay on – we’ve never had a total grid failure since the National Grid was set up, although NG engineers are still required to train for what to do in the event of a wonderfully dramatically named Black Start.

Demand varies throughout the day, by around 20GW, or around twenty Sizewell B-sized nukes. Obviously, when demand is higher, the price that generators can bid with is higher. And herein lies the problem with the Government’s preferred option for supporting low-carbon energy.

It’s based on something called ‘Contracts for Difference’. Basically, a low-carbon generator agrees a long-term contract with the Government to supply a certain amount of energy over a given period, say, a year. They’ll still sell their electricity on the wholesale market as above, but they’ll have it ‘topped up’ to an agreed level if it goes below a certain rate. It effectively sets a guaranteed price floor for low-carbon generation.

This is great for nuclear, because nuclear is always on. At night, when demand and prices are low, their generation is topped up. During the day when prices are high, they can extract a premium. However, it could very easily bone variable renewables, like wind, because they have no control over when they produce electricity and could find that the majority of their income comes at night, on the lower rate. This privileges nuclear even if wind is cheaper at the point of production.

Now, Tim might want to come back and say that’s great, because it’s a clear incentive for nuclear plants to produce more during the day, getting us our low carbon electricity more cheaply. The problem is that nuclear is incapable of responding to that market signal – you can’t ramp nuclear up and down with incurring significant expense, which to make economic would require another incentive payment for flexible response. The Government is also considering something called ‘capacity payments’ which are broadly payments intended to deliver that sort of flexible response services, but they’ll be pitched at a price which would only be worthwhile for gas, rather than nukes. It’s an example of a Government intervention in a market which requires further Government intervention in the market after they cock up the first intervention, and this is what Tim Yeo is getting at.

If you want low-carbon electricity, then you can pay a premium for it or tax carbon-intensive generation more heavily. The Government is doing both, but cocking up the former.

One of the (few) things I remember from being a nipper at Middle School are my History lessons, largely because of my teacher, Mr Scialuga. He was a highly entertaining Spaniard whose lessons were packed with the sort of anecdotes that are highly amusing to ten-year-olds – castles taken by spies climbing up garderobes, King Harald’s victory over the Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge, and so on.

He also imparted one rather sage bit of wisdom, which to me explained a significant amount of our history: The British Establishment always knows when to give a little ground to avoid revolution. Indeed, compared to our colleagues on the Continent, the history of British politics over the last couple of hundred years has been one of marked stability. We’ve had no revolutions, no wholesale reorganisation of our parliament, or indeed major alterations of territory following internal wars. Except Ireland, but that’s a whole other island so doesn’t count.

This can, in large part, be attributed to the willingness of the Establishment to undertake reform when it appears necessary to avoid further unrest. The historical strategy of the top ranks of British society with regard to ensuring their grip on power has always been to invite dissenters into its midst and make them their own. This involves a certain loss of power, to be sure, but losing a slice of the pie is far preferable to losing the entire pie.

I’m bringing this up now as the decision of Cameron to come out and fight for the No2AV campaign appears to have been critical for its success. Not only that, the solid closing of Conservative and Labour ranks under that banner was, quite frankly, astonishing – the tribalists in each party seemingly able to put aside their tribalism for the sake of an electoral system that allows them to continue being, well, tribal.

This was very clearly an Establishment victory. But as an Establishment victory, it falls out of the pattern identified above, inasmuch as it appears to aim at more instability, rather than less. Let me explain.

Far from allowing a ‘progressive majority’ to triumph, which was always nonsense, AV would’ve allowed something much more important: the division of the Left. Since 1997, Labour has been unable to fully represent the economic interests of those sections of the electorate it purports to, because as consequence of globalisation, those interests have diverged. A significant section of the working population of the UK have skillsets that in the new global market are valued at less than the cost of an aspirational lifestyle in the UK. They are the losers of globalisation; the factory workers, the call-centre staff, or, perhaps the most iconic, the miners. At the same time, those slightly better off have taken advantage of the boom in cheaper consumer goods that globalisation facilitates – the near universality of mobile phones can be traced back to the comparative advantages generated by cheaper trade.

The least well off have not done well out of globalisation, but by opposing market forces Labour would’ve restricted its ability to represent those who were benefiting from the flood of cheaper goods. The consequences of this on the voting patterns of the electorate are fairly clear:

Source: ‘Trends in political participation in the UK‘.

Turnout collapsed across all social classes in 2001. While turnout amongst the better-off began to rise to pre-1997 levels in the subsequent two elections, the relative increase in turnout amongst the least well-off was tiny. Labour’s strategy of focusing on the middle classes while assuming that the lower classes had nowhere else to go paid electoral dividends, but it did so by turning off a significant chunk of those same lower classes from politics entirely. To ensure that those people didn’t start looking for other political solutions instead of not voting, Labour kept up transfer payments in the form of improved service provision, figuratively stuffing their mouths with gold, while making no moves to reform the economy along lines that would benefit them more comprehensively.

This was successful, as long as the money didn’t run out. It did, and the Labour Party is currently going through a period of introspection in an effort to resolve this internal contradiction – witness the debate between Blue Labour and Purple Labour. The result can only be a similarly unsatisfactory fudge, as long as the party continues to try to reach out to two groups with differing economic interests. My bet is that the low-skilled will be losers again, from the brutal electoral calculation that the working classes are in terminal decline.

AV would have allowed a better solution – a division of the party into a formal electoral pact between an offering to those whose economic interests are best served by protectionism and nationalisation, and those whose economic interests lie with globalisation. Both would be united by a shared commitment to the provision of public services by the State. The model would be similar to the pact between the Liberal and National parties in Australia, and would enable the least well-off to have their interests represented in Parliament.

My fellow admirers of the free market will at this point be asking why on earth I would want parliamentarians committed to protectionism and nationalisation to have any space in the national debate. The answer is that voting reform has been a long time passion of Liberals for multiple reasons, the relevant one here being stability. If you give everyone an opportunity to have an input into the political process, then you reduce the incentive for civil unrest, because everyone has a stake in society. If there’s one thing the free market requires, it’s stability. The Establishment has moved to ensure that a significant chunk of the electorate will not have the chance to sit at the political table. This, I would aver, is a serious strategic mistake.

I’m not saying that the outcome of the referendum will indirectly lead to riots, merely that it makes civil unrest amongst those whose voices aren’t being heard more likely. Labour avoided this by effectively paying off the losers of globalisation; the Conservative approach has always been to hope that economic growth will be sufficient to somehow buy them off. This is something of a gamble, but it may yet work. I would’ve preferred the Liberal approach of redistributing power rather than money, but the electorate has spoken. It wants money instead. Pity we don’t have any.

AV Post-Mortems

May 9, 2011

A selection of interesting links on the failure of the Yes campaign:

Conservative Home’s Story of the AV Campaign

A fascinating study of how the No campaign developed over time. It confirms that Cameron’s whole-hearted support was crucial in their success, and that much of their messaging was formed by the work of Lynton Crosby, he of ‘dog whistle’ fame.

Liberal Vision’s ‘The humiliation of the Yes campaign’

A broadly correct analysis of the Yes campaign’s failings. I would like to highlight how it focuses on the way in which the campaign was run by luvvies for luvvies.

James Graham’s ‘Crawling from the Wreckage’

I am disappointed that James didn’t take the opportunity to have a proper go at the campaign, but I am somewhat heartened by his optimism that it’s not game over for supporters of electoral reform – a conclusion I would supprt.

Rupert Read’s post-mortem on LibCon

While a lot of this is typical Rupert, he does point out that one of the most egregious errors of the Yes campaign was to not do a full Freepost to everyone in the country. I have to admit, as someone who’s done these before, I smacked myself about the face a bit when I heard this. This isn’t a tactical error, it’s a colossal fucking mistake that someone should be shot for.

I’ll be putting up my own analysis sometime this week, but in the interim I’d like to highlight one particular fact. If you ran a campaign in a local borough, you weren’t allowed access to the email addresses of people from your borough who’d signed up from the main website. Emails to these people could only be sent out by the central campaign. And these emails could only go out on days on which a national email wasn’t being sent. I lost count of the number of events I couldn’t publicise because e-petition no. #3412 just had to be sent to the great British public.

This was a grassroots campaign in which grassroots campaigners weren’t allowed to talk to each other. I would attribute our success in Islington in part to my taking email addresses from volunteers so I could contact them directly, and browbeating the regional staff into sending out emails in any available slot. I would imagine this holds true for Hackney as well, who had a very well developed local communications network.

I’ve put up a post on Labour’s internal coalition and why the Lib Dems should look at working with the unions.