Lobbyists in the spin crowd, the folly of “the third umpire” and opting out of the royal birth

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

The case of Lynton Crosby, an Australian who has been appointed the Tories’ chief election strategist, suggests that public relations (or spin doctoring), private-sector lobbying and government policymaking have merged into a seamless whole. Crosby’s company has advised private health-care providers, hustling to get their hands on the NHS, and tobacco manufacturers, desperate to see off plain cigarette packaging. This allegedly creates conflicts of interest.
 
David Cameron claims that Crosby “does not advise on government policy”. If so, he is an odd sort of strategist. PRs are no longer just technical assistants who, once policy is agreed by ministers, explain how to present it. They help to create the policy and sometimes have the decisive voice. George W Bush’s spin doctor Karl Rove became the White House deputy chief of staff, with specific responsibility for policy development. Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s spin doctor, was described by many (unofficially) as “the real deputy prime minister”. But neither carried Crosby’s baggage. Though Rove briefly advised the tobacco company Philip Morris, he gave up the role precisely because he envisaged conflicts of interest. Campbell, for all his faults, was a passionate socialist who acquired the cynicism necessary for spin doctoring from a career in journalism.
 
Policy and presentation have become two sides of the same coin, so that planning “election strategy” inevitably entails forming policy. Private-sector lobbying, however, remains the most important influence. By employing Crosby, Cameron has brought it further into the heart of government.
 

The son and heir

 
Kate Windsor – like her husband’s late mother, Diana, and his grandmother Elizabeth – managed to produce a live, male heir at the first time of asking, even though this child was not required to be in possession of a Y chromosome. Think of how much Henry VIII’s first two wives, Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, suffered for their difficulties in achieving that goal. In the premodern era, the birth of a healthy royal male in direct line of succession promised peace and stability. These were regarded as God’s most precious and elusive favours, making the birth a true cause for celebration.
 
Now, thanks to scientific and medical advances – but not, I think, the grandfather Charles’s homoeopathic remedies –birth and the child’s survival beyond infancy are almost routine. The anxious wait and subsequent celebrations are public rituals like Christmas and Bonfire Night. Nobody spares a thought for our ancestors, just as nobody thinks that, on Bonfire Night, they are burning a member of a persecuted minority driven to terrorism.
 

Push the button

 
As soon as the young Mrs Windsor went into labour, the Guardian website kindly allowed me to screen out its “live coverage” of her progress. But why was I required to “opt out” (using a not-very-prominent button labelled “Republican?”) rather than, as Cameron proposes for internet pornography, “opt in”? And why do the Guardian’s masterminds think anyone who wants regular updates on royalty would visit their website instead of, say, the Mail’s or the Telegraph’s?
 

Unfair play

 
Players and coaches in all sports make an enormous fuss about marginal decisions: whether or not a football crossed the goal line, a rugby ball was grounded behind the try line or a bat touched a cricket ball before it was caught. If the umpire or referee gets it wrong, they imply, a cosmic injustice is done. Sports governing bodies hope to settle matters by using technology as a court of appeal.
 
However, technology – and the interpretation of it – turns out to be as fallible as a human being. Several times during the current England-Australia Ashes series, the “third umpire” was accused of getting a decision wrong even after he had examined slowmotion replays, listened to audio feeds and scrutinised a device called the “Hot Spot”.
 
The cry “We wuz robbed!” is integral to sport and always will be. Cricket should abandon its pompously named “Decision Review System” – which involves tedious delays, compared by one sports writer to a mobile phone ringing repeatedly during Hamlet’s closing soliloquy – and get on with the game. Injustice cannot be eliminated. A batsman who narrowly fails to hit the ball, rather than edging it for a catch, didn’t skilfully contrive to miss it. He was beaten by the bowler. If he misses completely, he is less competent than the batsman who manages a thin contact. In that sense, an incorrect “not out” decision carries more justice than the correct one.
 

Only connect

 
My Apple iMac computer (of a 2005 vintage) recently gave up the ghost – it was “obsolete”, the repair people ruled. So I bought a new one. It came with a battery-powered wireless keyboard.
 
Can anyone explain how this is an improvement? The computer continually tells me the batteries are running out, though they clearly are not, and the keyboard connection is lost if I hit the keys hard, as I am apt to do when writing about Tories.
 
When the batteries do run low, I shall have the trouble and expense of buying new ones. I am reminded of Hutber’s law, named after the late Patrick Hutber, an economics journalist: “Improvement means deterioration.” 
The arrival of the future ruler, as imagined by Legoland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 29 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

***

Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.