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It’s been a tumultuous year for British politics.
The 13-year Labour reign came to an end, and for the first time in 36 years Britain witnessed a hung parliament. David Cameron and Nick Clegg married in the Downing Street rose garden, promising “new politics”, and Ed Miliband became the youngest Labour leader since World War II.
In recent months protesters have taken to the streets to vent their hatred towards the rise in tuition fee rises and the slashing of EMA. The coalition darling, Vince Cable, fell from grace this week after divulging too much to what he thought were two constituents.
Political memoirs have proliferated, as Brown, Blair and Mandelson reflect on their time in government. Britain witnessed the first televised leaders debates, followed by ‘Clegg-mania’ and a more American-style election culture. As Michael Jeremy, ITV’s Director of News, Current Affairs and Sport, told students during his lecture last month, this was an unprecedented event which has totally transformed the way voters engage with politics. After 15 drafts and countless compromises, Clegg Cameron and Brown finally took to the stage and debated in public. Hailed by Jeremy as a “success for a democracy”, the debates are probably the most significant development in coverage of British political life.
So what does the future hold for those walking the corridors of power?
Miliband will be pressed to formulate an alternative strategy, after being mocked by the Tories on a weekly basis in the panto that is Prime Minister’s Questions.
The Lib Dems are likely to come under increasing pressure from voters, as they backtrack on the promises they made on the campaign trail. Accused of being “held hostage” by the coalition government, the Lib Dems will need to carve out their own identity, and restore people’s faith in the party, which many predict will split and splinter. Clegg looks set to be in dire need of some tweezers.
The Tories’ concept of the “Big Society” has gone down like a lead balloon, with widespread confusion about what the idea actually means. Eric Pickle’s desire to empower “communities” and cut the red tape has raised eyebrows, as the logistics of the plans come under scrutiny. It does, however, look set to dominate the 2011 agenda.
The brutality of the VAT rise and cuts to local government will come to fruition next year, as thousands more lose their jobs and homes.
Who knows what the future holds for our politicians, but it will be fascinating to see the melodrama unfold. ‘Clameron’ is keen to convince voters we’ve moved into an era of “new politics”, but voters don’t seem to have bought it. The public’s opposition has dominated the news agenda in recent months, and the sense of betrayal is mounting. But of course voters have a short memory, and it remains to be seen whether the newlyweds will be forgiven at the next ballot box.
David Cameron’s enterprise advisor Lord Young has resigned after claiming most Britons “never had it so good” during the recession.
Young quit at lunchtime only two hours after Cameron had accepted his apology, and appeared to accept that he would stay in post.
The multi-millionare sparked outrage after giving an interview to the Daily Telegraph, in which he said low interest rates meant “for the vast majority in the country today, they have never had it so good ever since this recession – this so-called recession – started”.
Lord Young of Graffham also said those complaining about the cutbacks “think they have a right for the state to support them”.
Overnight Downing Street had described Lord Young’s remarks as inaccurate and offensive. His remarks had sparked criticism from Labour and silence from Liberal Democrats.
The Labour leader Ed Miliband said: “Lord Young is right to go. I think his remarks are frankly disgraceful and many of the people who are struggling up and down this country with the consequences of the recession that we had, the consequences of the spending cuts that we are seeing, will be insulted by his comments.”
Firstly, his claim that 100,000 job losses are within “the margin of error” in the context of the 30 million-strong job market is quite correct. In an excellent blog, stumblingandmumbling explains how the ONS estimates that the sampling variability of its estimate of employment is 152,000. Indeed, the BBC’s Chris Buckler explains how interest rates have been at 0.5% for the last 18 months, compared to 20 years ago, when they were at a peak of 15%.
Secondly, lets take a look at Young’s suggestion that “most people with a mortgage who were paying a lot of money each month, suddenly started paying very little each month. That could make three, four, five, six hundred pounds a month difference.”
In fact, since December 2007 the average standard variable mortgage rate has dropped from 7.68% to 3.93%. With the average mortgage just over £100,000 (11.1 million mortgages with total debt of £1.2 trillion) this implies a monthly saving of around £350. Those on fixed rates will have benefited less. Others, some tracker mortgages, will have gained more.
However, the gains are extremely minor compared to the overwhelming amount of people who have lost out in the recession. Primarily there are those who have lost their jobs – a net 876,000 full-time jobs have gone since the cyclical peak. Furthermore, since December 2007 average earnings have risen 3.7%, but the constant tax CPI has risen 7.6%. Furthermore, in real terms people’s disposable incomes have fallen over the past year. Job insecurity is a genuine concern for thousands, and it is impossible to deny we are experiencing an age of austerity.
Last night Lord Young said he had written to Cameron to “apologise profoundly” for his “inaccurate and insensitive” comments.
“I deeply regret the comments I made and I entirely understand the offence they will cause,” he said. “They were both inaccurate and insensitive. Low mortgage interest rates may have eased the burden for some families. But millions of families face a very difficult and anxious future as we come to grips with the deficit. I should have chosen my words much more carefully.”
One lorry driver from Barnsley told the BBC: “He’s living on cloud coo coo land isn’t he? Everybody’s struggling aren’t they? He’s got to come into the real world.”
Lord Young’s comments have come at the worst possible time for the coalition government. The Conservatives, desperate to break away from the long-standing image of being the “nasty party”, have continually reiterated how “we are all in this together”. The comments of Lord Yong completly contradict this, and have sparked outrage across the country.
The government has published the biggest and most comprehensive spending data in British history, as details of all Whitehall spending over £25,000 become available to all.
In an attempt to make government more transparent, £80 billion of expenditure -195,000 lines of data – has been published.
From today, anyone and everyone will be able to see each transaction by any of the 24 core departments, detailing every item of spending over £25,000. Some departments, including Communities and Local Government, have decided to release data on payments over £500.
A total of 157 spreadsheets, this is the latest in a series of data publishing by the government. Cameron hopes unveiling this data will help make Britain the most “open, accountable and transparent governments there is.”
Cabinet Office Minister, Francis Maude, said: “When you open up the books, let people start to do some auditing of their own, I think there will be a great deal of pressure on government to use money, other people’s money, much more carefully and be prepared to answer questions more.”
In a video on the Number 10 website, David Cameron talks about a “landmark” in the current and future governments.
“It is our ambition to become one of the most transparent governments in the world,” he said. “Open about what we do, and crucially, what we spend. And today you’re going to see just how transformative our plans really are.
“Starting from now, and updated each month, each department will publish every item of spending over £25,000 online.
“Just think about what this could mean – people will be able to look at millions of items on public spending, flagging up waste when they see it, and that scrutiny is going to act as a powerful straightjacket on spending, saving us a lot of money.”
From January the government will also publish all government contracts over £25,000, which Cameron argues will help to “get real value for money for the taxpayer”.
Cameron urged people to “use [the data], exploit it, hold us to account. Together we can set a great example of what a modern democracy ought to look like.”
He also promised a new “Right to Data”, which will allow people to request streams of government data, and use it for social or commercial purposes.
So how useful is this data?
The data itself covers over 194,000 individual transactions, payments to suppliers and bills covered by government departments in the first five months of the Coalition.
The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, praised the move. “Today’s publication of the details of government spending over £25,000 marks the start of a new and exciting chapter for freedom of information – or what FOI version 2.0,” he said.
However, a lot is excluded: the NHS, benefit payments, spending by quangos, information removed for “national security” and personally confidential reports. The Guardian claims it amounts to about £80bn of an annual spend of £670bn.
Critics have also warned the data is almost meaningless without context. Furthermore, will people actually be able to understand it? 195,000 lines of data is a daunting prospect for even the most savvy reader.
There has been criticism of the way some data has been released. Some civil servants are said to be privately critical of the way personnel numbers were released early on in the coalition. Furthermore, the publication of Coins data was so confusing the Treasury had to run seminars on how to use it.
What is your verdict? The Guardian has put together an excellent app to help decipher the data.
The data is also available at data.gov.uk
The UK government plans to measure people’s psychological and environmental wellbeing, and use the data to steer new policies.
The government’s aim is for respondents to be regularly polled on their happiness, and how well they are achieving their “life goals”.
The government already polls people on their life satisfaction, but experts say the new tests will ask more subjective questions, and will be put to a larger sample size. The combined wellbeing data is intended to have a more central role in policy-making.
Questions are likely to focus on “evaluation”, “experience” and “purpose”, and could include:
-“How satisfied are you with your life these days, on a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 is ‘not at all’ and 10 is ‘completely satisfied’?”
– “Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?”
– “How much purpose does your life have?”
Alongside data sets on life satisfaction, there will be more objective data on levels of sustainability and recycling.
In Opposition, Cameron called for general wellbeing to be assessed alongside traditional economic indicators, claiming there was “more to life than money.”
Speaking at the Google Zeitgeist Europe conference in 2006, Cameron said: “Wellbeing can’t be measured by money or traded in markets. It’s about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships.”
On 25 November, the government will ask the Office of National Statistics to produce measures to implement Cameron’s plans. The independent national statistician, Jil Matheson, will devise questions to add to the existing household survey by as early as next spring. It will be up to Matheson to choose the questions.
A government source told the Guardian results could be published quarterly in the same way as the British crime survey, but the exact intervals are yet to be agreed.
The source said: “The aim is to produce a fresh set of data, some of it new, some of using existing data sets currently not very well used, to be published – at a frequency to be decided – that assesses the psychological and physical wellbeing of people around the UK.
“So that’s objective measurements of, for instance, how much recycling gets done around the UK, alongside more subjective measures of psychology and attitudes.”
British officials say there is hesitation in some parts of Whitehall about going ahead with the plans in such difficult economic times. However, almost 30 MPs have signed a Commons motion calling for the move, arguing that promoting happiness and well-being is “a legitimate and important goal of government”.
If the plans go ahead, Britain will be among the first countries to officially monitor happiness. France and Canada are considering similar measures. Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposals intend to gauge how much time people spend sitting in traffic jams, the ratio of working hours to leisure time, and whether men and women are treated fairly in the workplace and home.
The Guardian began carrying out a brief “happiness poll” of their own today. So far, 66.7% have answered “no” when asked “are you happy?” on the Guardian website. Votes are counted every 60 seconds, and polling will close on Wednesday.
Commenting on the website, readers have generally been hostile towards the idea.
One said: “happy?? HAPPY??? just had 80% of care allowance stopped! why? health better? no. fit again? no. Crippled, wheelchair users, limbs missing, broken bodies, damaged minds paying for bankers greed??? YES!!!!”
Another reader said: “This is ridiculous. Do they not have anything better to do, for example the public sector needs to be reduced, taxes cut and VAT abolished in order to create growth and stimulate the economy.”
A third reader said: “Don’t you think the problem with this is, you may very well be happy in your personal life and have a generally very positive approach to life while also being spitting mad and furious with the bloody government and terrified for the well being and happiness of those less fortunate than yourself? Isn’t “happiness” a rather glib assessment of what makes life good?”