Sexy taxes, jubilee fatigue and expat islanders in Swindon

 

It’s been quite the week for odd policy interventions by random busybodies. First came the leaking of the venture capitalist Adrian Bee­croft’s romp through red tape (sample recommendation: let employers “fire at will”, because removing hard-fought workers’ rights apparently will encourage consumer spending). This was swiftly followed by the TaxPayers’ Alliance report on, you guessed it, tax (I’ll summarise: they’re against it).

Soon after publishing the report – ambitiously priced at £50 a copy – the TPA’s directors embarked on a victory lap through the TV studios, omitting to mention some of their odder deductions.

My favourite has to be the suggestion, in a chapter written by the zoologist Matt Ridley (not only a viscount but also a former chairman of Northern Rock), that support for taxation is down to “sexual jealousy”. No, really. “Even in an age of working women, sexual continence and gender equality, the man with the most money still gets more sexual opportunities than the man with the least money . . . no wonder we want tax to take that money off a Vanderbilt before he grabs all the best women.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, chaps (and I mean that – only one of 16 “commissioners” named on the report’s opening page is a woman), but doesn’t that analysis rather depend on it only being men who pay tax? I think I need to have a word with HMRC.

The Swindon lot

The remote island of St Helena in the South Atlantic – at present accessible only through a two-day, 800-mile boat trip from Ascension Island – is building an airport and advertising in a newspaper for a statistician to deal with the subsequent transition “from a centralised economy . . . to a market economy” focused on tourism. (Currently, half the islanders work for the government and postage stamps are one of the biggest exports.)

I can’t work out my favourite part of this story. Is it that the advert promises a “relocation allowance”? Possibly. Or it might well be the discovery that the largest expat community of the wild, remote and windswept St Helena is in the not-at-all wild and remote, although occasionally windswept, city of Swindon. There are just 4,000 people on St Helena, but 800 expats in the Wiltshire city, winning it the nickname “Swindelena” in the Swindon Advertiser.

IPOcalypse no!

It’s good to know one sector of the British economy is experiencing a boom: the neologism industry. OK, “chillaxing” – the sport in which Cameron allegedly excels at weekends – doesn’t count, having entered the dictionary some years ago, but fans of crashingly awful portmanteaux (crawmanteaux?) have plenty of others to choose from. After Swindelena and “Grexit” – the potential Greek exit from the euro – comes the description of the flotation of Facebook on the Nasdaq. It has been dubbed the “IPOcalypse”.

Jubilympic madness

The closer we get to the Golden Jubilee and the Olympics, the more I’m feeling like an enormous party-pooper, unmoved by the faux-festivities. Mostly that’s because my in-box is being flooded daily with red, white and blue tat. (Brora was the latest, trying to flog me “Union Jack cashmere wristwarmers” for £45, which will come in handy as I’m watching the Jubilee celebrations in THE HOTTEST MONTH OF THE YEAR.) The official London 2012 online shop is a fiesta of patriotic piffle. Is there really a big market for “Team GB handbag charms” at £60 a pop? And how did the “host cities of the Olympic Games ingot set”, a collection of 27 gold-plated bricks at £775, sell out? Don’t even start me on the people flogging their Olympic torches on eBay. If selling overpriced souvenirs were an Olympic sport, Britain would definitely take the gold.

Spelling Bee

Back to Beecroft. I’m not sure that “evidence-based policy”, a Whitehall buzzword, has completely caught on. Following the publication of the report, Clive Hollick, co-founder of IPPR, the left-wing think tank, tweeted: “When I asked Beecroft for the evidence to support his recommendations, he told me that they were heresay [sic] based only on what he had been told”. Robert Peston, the BBC’s business editor, shot back: “Do you mean ‘hearsay’ or ‘heresy’?” Sadly, it was the former: the words “I” or “my” appear 20 times in 16 pages, while the words “research” or “studies” don’t feature at all.

Anatomic power

One upside of the Queen is that she doesn’t half own a lot of stuff. At the weekend, I went to the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, to see Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings. I haven’t seen much press coverage of the exhibition but it’s well worth a visit; the idea of Leonardo as a “Renaissance Man” is a cliché worn down to the stump but the drawings remind you of the scope of his intellect.

They remind you, too, of the strange beliefs he was brought up with, the most startling being that a foetus was conceived using elements from the father’s spinal cord, heart and testes. Sounds painful.

Ninja Dave

The revelation that David Cameron plays a “crazy, scary” amount of Fruit Ninja, the iPad game where you cut and cut (fruit) until you can cut no more, has had one unexpected bonus. The game is now number one in the UK iPad app charts; it wasn’t even in the top ten this past week. Shame its developers, Halfbrick, are Australian, otherwise Dave could legitimately claim to be boosting British industry as he sits on the Downing Street sofa, swiping away into the small hours. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who speaks for British Jews?

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.