The general election in May is one of the most difficult to predict in British history. The result will undermine old certitudes. An incumbent’s share of the vote typically dwindles from one election to the next. An opposition has never won with Milibandite ratings on both the economy and the strength of its leader. Two-party politics, injured in 2010, could be confirmed dead in 2015. Six parties could have a critical role in deciding the allocation of seats. The 650 constituency races each have their own dynamic; it doesn’t make much sense to think of this as a single election.

Scotland is a case in point. Since the independence referendum on September 18, the Scottish National party has taken a big opinion poll lead over the Labour party:

 Read more

In the excitement of the 650 people shouting about probably inaccurate economic forecasts that passes for a major state event, it can be easy to miss the big picture.

This big picture has three aspects.

First, we are only in the fifth year of what the government says is a decade of “fiscal consolidation”. By the time this process is complete, someone born on the day that Lehman Brothers collapsed will be attending secondary school.

Second, there will be further spending cuts. These could see the size of the UK state as a share of the economy return to levels last seen when Neville Chamberlain was prime minister, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.

Third, the government’s economic plans don’t really add up. In the next parliament, taxes will have to rise, fiscal targets will have to missed, or spending will to have to be cut in a way that is even more brutal than currently expected. Read more

This is why the stamp duty land tax was in desperate need for reform:

The chart above, via Neal Hudson, shows the distortions of the “slab system”, where taxes are levied on the whole value of houses above the stamp duty thresholds, as opposed to only the amount above that threshold. The biggest spike was just below £250,000; stamp duty was levied at 3 per cent on properties over £250,000 but only 1 per cent between those between £125,000 and £250,000. This was inefficient. Read more

George Packer has written a fascinating profile of Angela Merkel. As well as revealing the German chancellor’s views on Vladimir Putin, and explaining her cool decision-making process, the New Yorker writer includes this quote from Stefan Reinecke of the left-wing newspaper Die Tageszeitung about Ms Merkel’s views on welfare:

“Half an hour into every speech she gives, when everyone has fallen asleep, she says three things. She says Europe has just seven per cent of the world’s people, twenty-five per cent of the economic output, but fifty per cent of the social welfare—and we have to change this.”

 Read more

This month, in a plebiscite on Catalan independence, four out of five voters opted to secede from Spain. The vote was symbolic: Madrid does not recognise Catalans’ sovereignty or their legal right to leave the Spanish state. Artur Mas, the Catalan president, is under criminal investigation for holding the poll. The Spanish government says his plan for independence in 2016 is “a road to nowhere”.

We do things differently in Britain. We have real referendums on independence, where even the defeated parties end up as winners. On September 18, 55 per cent of Scots voted against seceding from the UK in a referendum whose question, timing and franchise were shaped by the Scottish government. By then, dizzied by the yeasty nationalists, the leaders of the main UK parties had vowed that a No vote would still lead to devolution of “extensive new powers” to Edinburgh. This week, a cross-party group tasked with turning that vague promise into reality issued its recommendations. The conclusion of the commission led by Lord Smith of Kelvin means that Scotland should soon become one of the most powerful devolved nations in the world. Read more

Since Scots voted against independence on September 18 the Scottish National party has surged in opinion polls and appointed a new, popular leader; pro-independence journalists have launched a newspaper, The National; and the Scottish government is preparing to wield more power than any other devolved parliament in Europe.

“No” voters could be forgiven for considering theirs a pyrrhic victory. After all, 55 per cent of Scottish voters opted against independence. Nevertheless, this was not a vote for the status quo. A majority of Scots want more devolution. The leaders of three biggest (for now) UK political parties belatedly then rashly promised as much on the eve of the independence referendum. On Thursday, the Smith Commission, charged with working out the details of further devolution, will issue its recommendations.

Although the comparison is imperfect, the recommendations will mark the point when Scotland becomes, in fiscal terms, the Basque Country of the United Kingdom.

 Read more

It often seems that there are only two types of voices in the debate on immigration. One rails against all immigrants and how they hurt the economy and the British way of life, whatever that may be. The other, in effect, mansplains, by persistently and condescendingly asserting facts about the benefits of immigration to the UK.

This leaves a large moderate majority of the country without a voice, according to an important new research report by British Future, a think tank dedicated to better understand of how immigration affects the country. Sixty-one per cent of people it polled have a mixed, moderate view of immigration; only about a third of Britons are absolutists. (The remaining share presumably say they don’t have an opinion.) Read more

If opinion polls prove accurate, on Thursday the UK Independence party will win its second-ever by-election – and its second in two months. Victory in Rochester and Strood – whose demographics are less amenable to a Ukip win than Clacton, which the party won in October – would be its latest hefty thwack to Britain’s mainstream political parties. It would lead Labour and Conservative members of parliament to call for their parties to change position on immigration, based on the assumption that Ukip’s policies are behind its success in the polls.

This is a superficial reading of why Ukip and other populist parties are gaining support across Europe. Contrary to what they or Jeremy Clarkson may say, party leaders have been talking a lot about immigration. They have changed their policies. And yet Ukip marches on. Something more profound is happening in politics in the UK. For a deep and prophetic analysis of what is going on, turn to Peter Mair, an Irish political scientist who died in 2011. Ruling The Void, his last and latest book, is a terse and cogent explanation of “the hollowing of western democracy”. Read more

The question raised by Labour’s intervention – and the various Conservative announcements, past, present and future – is ‘where does this end?’ Curbing migrants’ access to condiments, the Paddington Bear movie, Cafe Nero loyalty cards? Contrary to what politicians seem to think, there is no reluctance among Britons to talk about immigration – quite the opposite. The Labour and Conservative parties have talked a lot about migration. They’ve incrementally become tougher on EU migrants’ access to benefits. And has it curbed the rise of Ukip? It doesn’t seem so.  Read more

And doesn’t he have lovely moustache:

The image is produced by YouGov, a polling and market research company. Using its database of opinion surveys, it has built a nifty new marketing tool that shows the quintessential characteristics of the people who like a certain brand. This brand could be a newspaper, a supermarket, a music group – or even a political party Read more

Welfare, migration and Britain’s membership of the EU – three areas of policy that are unlikely to prompt cool thinking. Throw them together, as in the question of which benefits EU migrants should be entitled to, and you have a recipe for opacity.

On Tuesday, a European Court of Justice ruling cleared a few things up. It could – could – make for more comprehensible policy in an area that has been full of confusion, empty rhetoric, and public anger. It will also encourage the prime minister to think he can go further in restricting access to some benefits for some EU nationals, a move he is reportedly considering. This is not because the ruling changed EU law but because it clarified the law, implying that, broadly, the approach successive UK governments have taken is legal.

 Read more

Digital technology is changing the labour market, from the supermarket check-out to the trading floor. A lot has been written how automation will mean robots doing jobs otherwise done by humans, and how artificial intelligence means that professions are no longer immune from the change brought by machines. Many of these predictions cite research by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford university suggesting that 47 per cent of jobs in the US are at “high risk” of replacement in the next 20 years.

In a report published on Monday, Frey and Osborne apply their model – discussed in more detail in this post – to London. The chart below summarises their results, depicting the distribution of jobs in the city that are at low, medium and high risk of replacement in the next 20 years. Thirty per cent of jobs are classed as “high risk” – many of them in sales jobs or in office and administrative support work.

 Read more

“Social mobility” is a leitmotif in British politics. Successive governments have launched strategies to improve “equality of opportunity”. Alan Milburn, a Labour MP, publishes an annual report listing “indicators” of its progress. There is common agreement that social mobility has stalled: that the UK is in an uniquely immobile spot. The truth is far more nuanced but it is nevertheless a depressing picture.

 Read more

This week the UK government began sending letters to income taxpayers that suggest how the state spends its citizens’ money. For example, someone paying £10,000 in direct taxes will be told that they are “contributing” £1,900 to public spending on health, which accounts for 19 per cent of state expenditure; £100 to overseas aid, which makes up 1 per cent of spending, and so on (see picture). George Osborne says that by giving people bespoke descriptions of how their contributions equate to spending by various parts of the state, he is increasing transparency.

On the contrary, the chancellor is being opaque. What is pitched as an exercise in numerical transparency is also a lesson in how language confuses public policy.

 Read more

A politician wants to vote for the decriminalisation of marijuana. But she knows that opinion polls suggest that her electorate is against easing access to weed. Although she cares about the issue, she also cares about being re-elected. What should she do?

Should she: 1) Heed the pollsters and vote against decriminalisation; 2) Appeal to her electorate, citing evidence and appealing to their values; or 3) Just vote for it, since her electorate will support her anyway?

I think most political advisers would suggest the first or the second option. But a fascinating new experiment by David E. Broockman and Daniel M. Butler suggests politicians have broad latitude to shape public opinion without any electoral cost. The third option – vote for decriminalisation – may be more viable than it appears. The research implies that politicians could worry less about what the public thinks. Read more

In his conference speech, David Cameron said a Conservative government released from coalition would make two changes to income tax by 2020. He presented the first – a rise in the amount of money people earn before they pay income tax to £12,500 – as a tax cut for minimum wage workers. He presented the second – a rise in the level at which workers start paying the 40p rate of income tax to £50,000 – as a tax cut for the middle class. Neither change is quite what Mr Cameron says it is.

The chart below suggests how much people making various incomes stand to benefit from the changes. (Source: Ben Richards.) Treat it as illustrative: the exact numbers will depend, among other things, on when the cuts are introduced. But it shows how the bulk of the benefits would be skewed towards those in the top quarter of earners.

 Read more

‘We love our city and belong to it. Neither of us are English; we’re Londoners, you see,” wrote Hanif Kureishi in his screenplay for Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. The film touches on a theme that has become even more powerful since its 1987 release – the idea that to be a Londoner is to transcend nationhood and, in particular, Englishness. Economically and financially, London has diverged from the rest of the country. Culturally and politically, there are signs that its 7.8m inhabitants are doing the same.
 Read more

The Parisian arriving in London by train alights at a resplendent station. St Pancras, and the adjacent King’s Cross, make Gare du Nord look like a provincial hub. The surrounding area, once a ramshackle collection of properties, is gleaming with new hotels, offices and prime accommodation. It is a clear sign of how London’s economic geography has changed in the 21st century. The inner city has developed rapidly. Poverty is moving to the outskirts of the capital. As its core grows faster than its periphery, London is becoming more like Paris. Read more

Pollsters would have been confounded by a Yes, instead they were mildly surprised by differential turnout.

The “shy Nos “were not so shy. The “missing million” went missing. Read more

On Thursday, Scots will vote on whether Scotland should be an independent state. Such a referendum seemed unlikely 10 years ago. A Yes vote would have seemed even more surprising. This is an attempt to explain why the vote is happening – and why it is happening now – for interested and befuddled people from all over the world. In other words, it is a history of 1,000 years of Scottish nationalism. Read more