Why David Cameron is the ultimate "seagull" manager

He flies in, makes a lot of noise, dumps on everyone from a great height, and then flies out again.

Back when I worked for a large organisation, we had a term: “seagull manager”. It described someone, usually a consultant, who flew in, made a lot of noise, dumped on everyone from a great height, then flew out again, leaving others to deal with the consequences.

Parachuted into action more than two years ago, Cameron squawked hysterically about difficult decisions, the mess he inherited, a new kind of politics and the big society (whatever happened to that?). Since then, he has proceeded to spend the majority of his term, so far, defending arrested pals, disgraced ministers, fiascos, scandals and u-turns.

This week sees another spate of threatened strikes and underlying unrest. To the growing list of greedy doctors taking industrial action for the first time in four decades, unyielding police officers demonstrating outside Parliament, uncivic protesters occupying shops and banks, dishevelled students disturbing the peace and politically motivated nurses and teachers picketing No 10, we can now add unreasonable dairy farmers and unpatriotic border control officers. At what point in this nexus of insubordination, do we begin to consider that the fault may lie with the country’s leadership?

Apologists have posited that Cameron is powerless, caught in the middle of a battle on two fronts; with his torysvestite coalition partners and his own backbenchers. The truth is those are mere political skirmishes. The real battle, the one which threatens to be his Waterloo, is entirely self-inflicted. It is a battle with the country’s public servants.

When a young David William Donald Cameron, son of a stockbroker, grandson of a Baronet and direct descendent of King William IV, was caught smoking pot at Eton College, his punishment was to copy 500 lines of Latin text. I wonder if they included Cicero’s “Ut sementem feceris, ita mete” - whatever you sow, you shall reap.

Last year, he announced that he was “taking on the enemies of enterprise; the bureaucrats in government departments…” Every nurse, every civil servant, every immigration officer, every policeman heard that declaration of hostility. In the midst of the severest programme of cuts, an economic downturn unseen since the Depression and a radical reorganisation of just about everything, he declared war on the very people on whom he depended for delivery.

You may have opinions on the individual policies, cuts, measures; on the rights and wrongs of each dispute. What is indisputably cack-handed, however, is alienating the entire administrative arm of the state at a time when you depend on their effort and good will to deliver your programme; at a time when you require their stiff-upper-lipped acquiescence to having their pensions and salaries looted. The most basic experience of management would teach one that the key ingredient, in securing the success of an organisation, is the staff’s support.

So, is it any wonder those unionised chickens are coming home to roost and choosing a time when they can cause him maximum embarrassment? The government’s reaction is an overwhelming sense of embarrassment that visitors to these shores might be confronted with dairy farmer boycotts, airport queues, terrible traffic, strikes, riots, homelessness and economic misery -  in short, the reality of what most of us experience every day. Instead of seeking resolution, they say “not in front of the neighbours”. Throw a doily over child poverty. Pop some flowers on top of the half-dismantled NHS. A few cushions scattered around unemployment. Make the place look nice.

They even went as far as to announce they were seeking a High Court injunction to prevent border staff from taking action, before the strike was called off at the eleventh hour. A course of action guaranteed to polarise rather than facilitate. Mark Serwotka specifically commented on “the vitriol and vilification” to which PCS members had been subjected by ministers. More evidence of poor management – engaging with staff only when a disagreement has snowballed into a vendetta and, even then, aggressively and destructively.

Cameron never misses an opportunity to mock Ed Miliband’s friendly relations with Trade Unions. But shouldn’t any PM or would-be PM aspire towards friendly relations with Unions? They represent ten million working people in the UK, not even counting their families. The belief that having a pathologically unhealthy relationship with such a large and productive part of UK society, is evidence of strong leadership is not only illogical, but dangerous in the extreme. In what other line of business would you see a CEO boasting that he has a dreadful relationship with his staff?

That indefensible approach has been characteristic of this administration – not only in its industrial relations, but across the spectrum. Unmeasured words keep falling out of this fuchsia, angry man’s mouth.

Attacking immigrants may give him a boost with one part of the demographic. Attacking pensioners may curry favour with another. But what is the long-term strategy? Eventually all those groups start to merge into one angry, explosive mass. The unemployed, the working, the disabled, the impoverished, students, charities, parents with too many children, parents with too few, those with cars, those with caravans, the small business who can’t borrow, the small business who sells pasties, the cleaner paid in cash – it all adds up to an entire country seething with anger.

The difference between good opposition and good government is that the former is judged primarily on the quality of the talking, while the latter on the quality of the doing. But there are no comforting results to which one can point. This week, the IMF predicted that, far from reducing national debt as a ratio to GDP, it will continue to rise and peak by 2015/16. In 2010 it was less than £1 trillion. By 2015 it will be more than £1.5 trillion.

An Austerity Programme is like an episode of The Biggest Loser. Inspirational rhetoric and sweaty montages cannot save the contestants when they step onto the scales. There is a pre-agreed goal – in stones and pounds, or pounds and pennies. And lately what has become painfully clear is that, despite starving the country, the coalition will fail to meet its key self-imposed targets. It seems that the economy stubbornly refuses to be orated up and the debt just won’t be sound-bitten down. Words are not enough.

There is a limit to the credibility with which one can say “I’m not being nasty. Times are nasty.” The evidence disproves the flannel: Privatising public assets, mass outsourcing, protecting The City, lowering taxes for the wealthy and corporations, handing out contracts to friendly donors, cutting services to the bone – when has a Tory government ever done any different, in good times or bad?

There is a limit to the rhetoric of “difficult decisions”. Difficult decisions are made harder to deliver and less likely to succeed when they are meted out in an arrogant, mean-spirited, ill-tempered manner. The progressive voter understands this and will condemn Cameron for his character. The conservative voter understands this and will condemn Cameron for his failure to deliver.

Flashy but incompetent, clueless but obdurate – Cameron is the ultimate seagull manager. Whether judged on attitude or aptitude, he is truly, hopelessly bad at his job.

 

David Cameron: scary seagull. Artwork: Dan Murrell/New Statesman

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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Why Labour's manifesto wasn't regressive

The Institute for Fiscal Studies' analysis did not take into account the progressive effect that most of the party's policies would have. 

Think tankers, for example at the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the Resolution Foundation and IPPR, often like to use ‘distributional analysis’ to assess the impacts of policy on households, and these analyses are often picked up on in wider debates over fairness.

To test whether a policy change is ‘progressive’ – where its impact on poorer households is more positive than it is on richer households – a preferred method is to group all households in the population into buckets, ordered from lowest income to highest, and show the average effect of a policy for each bucket.

The benefits of this type of analysis are obvious. The relatively complicated question of progressivity can, at least for a given metric, be reduced to a visually clear and accessible chart: answering the question of fairness seemingly irrefutably, at least in quantifiable terms.

An influential part of the IFS’s excellent election manifesto analysis was just such a chart, showing the distributional impact of all tax and benefit proposals from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos (reproduced below).

The analysis is striking on two accounts. First, it appears to show that the policies in Labour’s manifesto are almost perfectly regressive: from the second to the ninth decile, the poorer a family is, the worse off Labour’s plans would make them. Second, Labour’s plans appear pretty regressive even relative to the other two parties: almost as regressive as the Conservatives, and far more so than the Liberal Democrats.

This chart in particular has helped fuel a broad, alternative narrative that has emerged about the Labour manifesto since the election. This narrative suggests that, far from being radical, the impact of the policies recommended wasn’t even redistributive. For example, John Rentoul reproduced the same chart in his article for the Independent and Andrew Harrop leant on IFS analysis for his piece in the Guardian. Less formally, the arguments have attracted particular traction on social media with commentators such as Robert Peston at ITV and Jeremy Cliffe at the Economist reposting the chart on Twitter.

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Is this correct? Would the effects of implementing Labour’s manifesto be not only to take away from the poor, but to take away far more than they would from the rich? The answer is either an unequivocal ‘no’ or ‘we don’t know because the analysis hasn’t been done’, depending on the interpretation of ‘effect’. But the answer certainly is not ‘yes’.

Commentators have misinterpreted the IFS work in two important ways.

First, the IFS did not assess the whole of the Labour manifesto. They did not even reflect most of it.

Distributional analysis is most effective in assessing impacts that can be measured, reasonably unambiguously, in a monetised form. Quite sensibly then, and as is often standard practice, the IFS applied their analysis to tax and benefit reforms only – excluding services or other government programmes. Even tax measures where the ‘effective incidence’ (the final, often indirect impact of a tax on households, as opposed to the entity that might have paid the tax in the first instance such as a firm) is equivocal, such as corporation tax, were excluded.

This means the analysis only assessed a fraction of the Labour manifesto’s tax rises (around £8bn from £49bn) and spending commitments (around £4bn from £49bn). In the case of Labour, unlike the manifesto itself which was supposedly cost neutral, the analysis included almost twice as many ‘takeaways’ (tax rises) as it did ‘giveaways’ (additional welfare support).

The final picture, then, is not a reflection of the whole manifesto, but of less than 8 per cent of spending commitments and 16 per cent of tax rises. Some of the measures excluded would likely have had a broadly progressive impact, such as increasing the living wage to £10 per hour, applying VAT to private school fees, scrapping planned giveaways in the taxation of inheritance and capital gains, restoring the Educational Maintenance Allowance and boosting Sure Start.

For those reforms that reflected a stronger principle of universalism – such as the National Education Service, increased child care and scrapping university tuition fees – the effects are less clear and possibly regressive in a strict accountancy sense.

But the IFS work cannot help us reach a conclusion either way because they are excluded from the analysis. Since the UK is one of only six countries among 35 OECD members where the state spends more on welfare in kind than it does in cash, it would be an especially poor outcome for our political discourse if benefits in kind were to be excluded from our redistributive conversation altogether.

The second reason is that the IFS did not at any stage assess manifesto commitments in isolation.

All distributional analysis is essentially an exercise in simulating a number of scenarios, one of which is treated as a ‘baseline’, and all the others as counterfactuals. The estimated impact of a specific counterfactual scenario is essentially just the total difference observed with the baseline scenario.

In addition to the issue of which, and how many, manifesto measures are included, the issue of what is in or out of the baseline relative to the counterfactuals is therefore also critical.

In the case of the recent IFS work, the baseline excluded the suite of policies that have already been legislated for and in some cases already begun to be implemented but nonetheless not come into full effect. The IFS make this clear by labelling each manifesto scenario in the chart as the sum of both ‘current plans’ and the personal tax and benefit announcements from a respective manifesto.  Most notable among them is the introduction of the coalition government’s flagship welfare reform: Universal Credit (UC).

This choice is not without merit but it is also not beyond question: for example the Office for Budget Responsibility’s standard baseline always includes all planned policy that is presently legislated for.

For the purposes of assessing distributional impact, then, the IFS excluded the entire system of UC (which has been legislated for since 2013) from the baseline. This meant that each of the counterfactual scenarios  (including the Labour one) included the full effects of UC as well.

This had an especially large impact on the analysis since the backlog of government reforms currently still being implemented dwarfs the comparatively smaller tax and benefit measures proposed in the manifestos. The Liberal Democrats are the closest to an exception where, unlike Labour and the Conservatives, a far greater proportion of their spending plans affected welfare spending in general, and spending on UC in particular.

Whether this is the right way to conduct analysis depends entirely on the question that is being asked.

If the question is: compared with the world as it is configured today, would the tax and benefit system be more regressive in five years’ time after taking account of all the government’s current reforms that are in the process of implementation in addition to party manifesto pledges? The answer is the same for all parties because of the sheer scale of government reforms in the pipeline: ‘yes’. (Although the point remains that this would still only represent a small portion of total tax and spending announcements from Labour’s manifesto in particular, so the full picture is still unknown).

But if the question was: after taking into account the government’s current reforms to today’s tax and benefit system would the additional impact of the personal tax and benefit reforms scored from Labour’s election manifesto, taken in isolation, be regressive? The answer is absolutely not.

If interpreted correctly, the IFS analysis actually gives the answer to both of these questions. Compared with the world as it currently is (essentially the x-axis itself) all the manifesto policies are broadly regressive, albeit to varying degrees. But compared with the world as currently planned (the IFS’s scenario labelled in green) both the Labour and Liberal Democrat lines are clearly more progressive.

What determined whether the absolute figures presented in the chart were largely negative rather than positive – and therefore perhaps the immediate impression that the analysis leaves with readers – was the choice of baseline. If the ‘current plans’ scenario were to have been the baseline (as is more consistent with the OBR’s standard baseline) the Labour and Liberal Democratic manifestos would have been presented as having a net positive and progressive impact on households in the bottom half of the distribution.

Had that chart been produced instead, any alternative narratives about the Labour manifesto would have been less likely to misinterpret the evidence – although the chart itself would have been no more right or wrong for it.

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This discussion does not amount to a criticism of either distributional analysis of personal tax and benefits in general, nor of the IFS’s work in particular. The former is an essential tool – when applied appropriately – for assessing particular measures of fairness. The latter execute their work extremely well and in a way that often enhances the quality of the UK’s political conversation.

In particular, on both the main points raised above (the limited number of manifesto measures included and the choice of baselines), the IFS are entirely transparent. The title of their chart is labelled as analysis of ‘personal tax and benefit measures’ only, and the full list of policies included are published for all to see. They also make clear that their analysis has excluded ‘current plans’ from the baseline, and that current plans are included in each counterfactual scenario. The author was also extremely helpful and obliging in answering any queries.

The very worst that can be said of the IFS in this instance is that they have not gone further out of their way to tackle what has grown into – at times – a dangerous misinterpretation of their analysis. But in a political climate where both wilful and accidental misinterpretation of economic evidence and theory is endemic – and often on far more serious issues than the technical progressivity of a single manifesto – their lack of intervention is unfortunate but understandable.

Neither do the points raised here absolve the Labour manifesto from an alternative or progressive critique: in particular, the absence of a more serious reversal of the government’s welfare plans is highly conspicuous, not least given that the Liberal Democrats were able to go far further in their own commitments. And the critique of universalism from a principle of reciprocity, though not the final word, remains an area of useful discussion.

Probably the best conclusion that can be drawn from all this echoes that made by Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation in May. Commentators should be careful to not overstate the decisiveness of broad-brush analysis during an election campaign, where seemingly mere technicalities over methods and assumptions can actually shape entirely the final interpretation as much as the facts themselves.

Instead, more attention should be given to the broader direction of travel and the choices on offer.

At the last election, the real debate centred on the size and scale of the state, the balance of state support between welfare in cash or in kind, the divide between young and old, between the super-rich and the rest, and how principles of universalism, reciprocity and targeted redistribution should be brought to bear on questions of fairness. 

These are the tests against which commentators should judge our political parties at the next election as well.