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    Many in the party would like Miliband to pledge to raise the minimum wage to the level of the living wage, but a large rise in the former is more likely.

    The idea of a significant increase in the minimum wage has been floating around Conservative circles for some months. It is one of the policies advocated by the influential Renewal group, led by David Skelton (a frequent NS contributor), which seeks to broaden the party's appeal among working class voters, and enjoys the support of Tory business minister Matthew Hancock, George Osborne's former chief of staff, who made a notable speech on the subject at the Resolution Foundation last year. 

    I was told by several sources before the last Conservative conference to expect an announcement by Osborne himself, but for fear of incurring the wrath of the Low Pay Commission (LPC), which is responsible for setting the minimum wage rate, the Chancellor held back. Now, with the Tories desperate to counter Labour's "cost-of-living" offensive, the idea is back on the agenda, with David Cameron reportedly considering a rise of up to £1. 

    The case for an increase in the minimum wage is both political and economic. A significant rise in the main rate, which currently stands at £6.31, would help to counter the charge that the Tories are only "for the rich" and would go some way to redressing the party's disastrous decision to oppose its introduction by Labour in 1999. As Skelton told the FT, "It was a mistake when the party opposed the introduction of the minimum wage and we are still paying for it politically. It made us seem like we were on the side of big business and the rich and it is a hard perception to shake off. This would help enormously." 

    The economics are similarly attractive. A 50p rise in the minimum wage (viewed as one of the most likely outcomes), which is now worth no more in real-terms than in 2004, would reduce the benefits bill by around £1bn, improve low-earners' spending power (stimulating growth as a result), as well as increasing productivity, staff morale and employee retention. 

    How far the Tories will go remains unclear. The FT reports that Osborne is still unwilling to override the recommendations of the LPC (which may recommend another below-inflation increase when it reports next month) and is concerned about the possible impact on employment (despite the absence of evidence that a rise would cost jobs). One source from the No. 10 policy unit tells the paper: "I think David Cameron would like to do it but he is cautious and I think he would defer to the chancellor on it.  Unemployment has been a good news story for the last two years and we don’t want to rock the boat a year out from the election." But after the briefing of the last few days, it will now be surprising if there is no significant change in the rate this year. 

    While the Lib Dems are busy accusing the Tories of "nicking" their ideas, after Vince Cable called for an increase at the Lib Dem conference, many in Labour are feeling far more aggrieved. Is the party that introduced the minimum wage and that has championed it since, really about to allow the Tories to steal the initiative on low pay? 

    Having emphasised the need to improve living standards, through lower prices and high pay, Ed Miliband and his team have been thinking hard about what the party can offer on wages. Many Labour MPs and activists (and, indeed, most voters) would like Miliband to pledge to raise the minimum wage to the level of the living wage (£7.65 nationwide and £8.80 in London) but with respected forecasters such as NIESR estimating that a stautory living wage would reduce labour demand by 160,000 jobs, the equivalent of a 0.5 per cent rise in unemployment, this is not on the party's agenda. At most, Miliband will pledge to ensure that all public sector contractors and government departments pay the living wage and provide incentives for private sector employers to do so. Alongside this, Labour figures are considering how best to increase the value of the minimum wage, with linking the main rate to inflation one option being closely examined. Policy is likely to be determined when Alan Buckle, the deputy chair of KPMG, concludes his low pay review for the party. 

    But for now, at least, the party can take pride in having moved the centre ground to the left. Until recently, it was still to common to hear Tories warn that the minimum wage was destroying jobs; now they are competing with each other to see who can argue for the biggest rise. Moreover, if all the parties are prepared to engage in a sustained contest over who can best increase living standards, that is good news for all voters and for the economy. 


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    Sasheer Zamata has joined the long-running US comedy show, becoming its first black female cast member since 2007. She's only the fifth black female cast member since 1975. Why?

    Permit me to engage in a round of very slow applause for Saturday Night Live, which has just hired Sasheer Zamata into its ranks as a featured player. She will be the show’s first black female cast member since 2007, when Maya Rudolph left the show. That slow clap becomes even more torpid when you realise that Zamata is SNL’s fifth black female cast member of all time, in a programme which has been on the air since 1975 and had more than 130 cast members. I am a huge fan of Zamata’s (she’s one of the women calling for more penises on television in the skit I wrote about last year) and wish her a long, fruitful and incredibly funny time at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.

    But let’s look at the wider context of her appointment. In the last few years, we have seen the pop scene expand to give us a solo Beyoncé, Rihanna and Azealia Banks (Samantha Cameron is a fan) among others. In 2009, we watched a black man get elected to the highest office in America, and then renew his mandate with a second term, effectively placing a black family at the heart of American culture for four more years. In 2012, we let Scandal’s Olivia Pope into our homes via primetime television.

    To my mind, America in the Obama years has been about many things - the financial crisis, healthcare reform, the Tea Party, drones etc - but the thing that stands out to me, looking at a post-2009 world as a pop culture enthusiast, is race. America with a black president has been looking at itself in new ways, and the cultural landscape has largely reflected that. Black women, from Oprah to Michelle Obama to Beyoncé, have been right at the core of the social and cultural zeitgeist for years now. Consider the New Yorker cover of July 2008, in which Michelle Obama is depicted as an afro-sporting militant with a gun. Think on just how many pieces you have read about the politics of black women’s hair, or Beyonce lyrics, or intersectional feminism. Analyse the speed with which Olivia Pope as played by Kerry Washington gripped audiences in Scandal. Black girls have been having a moment for a very long time now. So why did it take SNL, that juggernaut bastion of American television and arguably the US’s most obvious source of TV comedy, this long to acquire a person who could play several of these pop cultural figures without blacking up? It has been the most glaring and baffling of omissions.

    There was fuel added to the fire when one long-term cast member, Kenan Thompson (who has put on a dress to play Maya Angelou, and Oscar-winning actresses Mo’Nique and Jennifer Hudson among others), said the reason for the absence was because, “in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready.” The response was swift and harsh; indeed, Zamata’s name came up as a counterpoint to his argument more than a few times. The other black cast member, Jay Pharoah, proposed Darmirra Brunson as a cast member, saying: “I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year . . .” The show finally acknowledged this anomaly late last year when Kerry Washington hosted the show. In the cold open she played Michelle Obama, Oprah, and an off-stage Beyoncé. A voiceover apologised for the many roles Washington would have to play, and that they were going to rectify the black female cast member issue soon before ending on a joke: “. . . unless, of course, we fall in love with another white guy first.” The studio audience erupted, but my laughter at home was hollow; the real joke was the set up to the gag. How could SNL not have a black female cast member in 2013? In any case, after rumours of an exclusively black and female audition, here we are: Zamata makes her debut on the show’s return on 18 January. It’ll be interesting to see what material she writes and what they give her to perform.

    Looking closer to home, SNL’s recent appointment throws UK telly into sharp relief. If we had an SNL, would we have a stable of black and Asian female comics to draw from? A cursory look at the panel shows suggests not. But hey, this is a country that once gave us Blouse and Skirt, Goodness Gracious Me and The Real McCoy. It took SNL six years to reset its rudder. There remains a sliver of hope.

     


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    Nigella Lawson’s new reality show The Taste is a phoney, derivative reality show with no charm or drama.

    Here it is at last: Nigella Lawson’s new reality show. She doesn’t present it alone. Beside her are two fellow judge-mentors, Anthony Bourdain, the bad-boy author of Kitchen Confidential, and Ludo Lefebvre, an extremely Frr-rrr-ench chef who runs an acclaimed restaurant in LA (no freedom fries on his menu). But let’s be honest. It’s Nigella who’s the big draw, especially since all that happened shortly before Christmas, though the series was filmed in October, several weeks before her dramatic monochrome sweep into Isleworth Crown Court.

    The gimmick here is that the contestants must present their dishes in the form of just one spoonful: picture the porcelain number with which, long ago, you used to scoff sweetcorn soup at restaurants called Canton Garden or Bamboo Orchard, only minus the dragons and the sweetcorn (an ingredient even less fashionable, these days, than sun-dried tomatoes and kiwi fruit). My hunch, though, is that most of those who tuned in won’t have given a fig (glazed and served with duck breast and cavolo nero) for the challenge of such extreme portion control. They’ll have been more interested in Lawson and her lovely, unreadable face.

    For these viewers, The Taste might be just about endurable. She is on-screen a lot and does more talking than the men. One has the impression that the producers regard her as carefully aged fillet and the blokes as a couple of decent burgers. For those of us who have always found her difficult to watch, the series is sheer hell. I can’t remember the last time I was presented with a format so phoney, so derivative. It has no charm, no drama and a soundtrack so bullyingly melodramatic you expect Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless to appear at any moment to smoke a salmon with a ray gun or something. Even the set is awful. With its artfully arranged “rustic” crates, it aspires to be a touch Martha Stewart. In the end, it’s as if the long-running and somewhat wobbly Yorkshire TV show Farmhouse Kitchen had been exhumed – though Dorothy Sleightholme, that programme’s redoubtable long-time presenter, would have had no truck whatsoever with Ludo and his tendency to shout “Putain!” at every boiling pan.

    The Taste is a bit like The Voice (the judges don’t see the cooks until they’ve eaten their food); a bit like The X Factor (each judge selects a team of cooks to mentor through the series, thus they compete against each other); and a lot like MasterChef (they’re after “gutsy” sauces, the “heat” of chilli, a “balance of textures”). The competitors are a mixture of home cooks and professionals. So far, the home cooks are doing better than the pros because they don’t overthink dishes the way chefs do – by which I mean they’re less likely to show off. How Channel 4 found them is a mystery to me. By now, you’d have thought that every half-decent cook in the land had already entered a television cookery competition. The only four people left in Britain not to have done so are me, the editor of this column, Julie Burchill and William Hague.

    The Taste originated in the United States and it shows. If the judges had been made to marinate in Coca-Cola for a week, it couldn’t be more sickly. Ludo is the petulant one, the stage baddie. His “evil” chuckle is straight out of Theatre of Blood. Tony is the cool one, who drinks beer on-set and tells a sobbing 18-year-old that he needs to “toughen the f*** up”. Nigella is the kind one and, sometimes, the disappointed one. When confronted with the kind of cook who buys ready-made sponge fingers, she is prone to look let down.

    What to say about this? All I can tell you is that I hate the way her performance (and a performance is all it is) obscures her intelligence, her wit, her particular kind of diffidence. Oh, she’s willing to play the game. Talking to the camera, she sounds as if the judging process were the most fascinating experience of her life. But you sense that she is not at ease, that this is an effort of will rather than a (somewhat weird) vocation. It’s for this reason that I doubt the show will be a hit. Clever women make bad fools and reality shows need a measure of authenticity to fly.


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    What ever happened to Timothy? He was perhaps the embodiment of gentle English civilisation.


    Image: BFI

    Watching Ken Loach’s most recent film, The Spirit of ’45, reminded me of a letter I received from my fellow film director Lindsay Anderson, written in the last week of his life in August 1994. Anticipating Ken Loach, I had tracked down the surviving cast of Humphrey Jennings’s seminal documentary A Diary for Timothy, described by his biographer as “the best evocation, in film or any other medium, of the reasons why the country ‘went Labour’ at the 1945 elections”, and I had asked Anderson if he would like to direct the sequel, in which the cast contrasted Thatcher’s Britain with their hopes and fears of 50 years before.

    Anderson told me that Jennings’s vision had long gone and he could think of nothing to replace it. He concluded, “Things have turned out so very differently from the way Humphrey Jennings hoped. I feel too discouraged by the way things have gone and are going to be. I’m sorry about this.”

    Anderson called Jennings “the only real poet British cinema has yet produced”. You may remember A Diary for Timothy (incidentally, it has just been re-released by the BFI). Filmed in the last six months of the Second World War, it is a poetic representation of Britain breaking out of fear into hope, out of darkness into light, out of war into peace. News of the progress of Allied forces comes from radio broadcasts, but the film is really about the lives of four characters on the home front which capture the national mood.

    There’s Peter the Typhoon pilot, recovering in hospital from injuries sustained over D-Day. His improving health symbolises national recovery. Geronwy the communist coal miner is determined to maintain wartime improvements: “Once, miners with broken backs were dragged to hospital in flat carts. We’ve got our own ambulance cars now, and nursing services and canteens and pithead baths: nothing at all will stop us after the war.” Alan the gentleman farmer, whose land represents continuity with the past, is digging for victory. Bill the train driver unites the others in the war effort. In the words of the scriptwriter, E M Forster, he is “carrying the miner’s coal, the farmer’s crops and the fighting man’s munitions”. Cut to a gurgling baby, little Timothy Jenkins, born five years after the declaration of war on 3 September 1939, and the words of the narrator, Michael Redgrave, “All these people are fighting for you.”

    Contrary to this optimism and, indeed, to the euphoria on the home front at the end of the war, recaptured in the newsreels shown by Ken Loach, a mood of anxiety pervades the film. The narrator puts a prophetic question to Timothy:

    “What are you going to do? Will it be a world of greed, unemployment and then another war, or will you make the world a more decent place? You will have the power to choose, the right to criticise, so life in a way will be more dangerous. You will have the difficulty of growing up free. What’s going to happen during the next years when you are here and we are not?”

    This is the question that lingers in the mind and must make everyone who has seen the film wonder: what happened to Timothy? How did he cope with being a symbol of the New Britain? I have the answers.

    His mother, Betty Jenkins, told me that Timothy’s stardom began when she received an unexpected visitor at her bedside in the Queen Mary’s Maternity Home, then at Eynsham, near Oxford:

    “Sister hurried in and placed my baby in my arms without any explanation. Then a thin, artistic-looking young man came in and strode about the room looking at us from all angles. After a while, he turned to a young woman I got to know as his production assistant: ‘Well. I’m satisfied, Di, if you are,’ he said. Then he left. He was quite abrupt.”

    And then, according to the New Statesman film reviewer writing in November 1945, “a baby begins to grow up knowing even less than we do of the world into which it has thrust itself”. It is interesting to realise that during the making of the film nobody knew how the war would end nor, of course, what would follow. The NS reviewer, William Whitebait, was prophetic in another way. Placing A Diary for Timothy in his top ten films of the year together with The True Glory and Burmese Victory, he opined that the documentary and semi-documentary had now come into their own with, “it may be supposed, lasting effect”.

    “Will you make the world a more decent place?” “Decency” was the word that got the surviving cast of A Diary for Timothy going in 1994/95, and as Lindsay Anderson had chosen not to direct the film I wrote up my research for the New Statesman (“Glory traps”, 12 May 1995).

    It seemed, however, an unsuitable question to put to Peggy Jones, whose father, “Gronno” (Geronwy), had died in 1973. As late as 1986, 1,800 men had laboured hundreds of feet underground in Ynysybwl, hewing out 14,000 tonnes of coal and 8,000 tonnes of slag a week. While presumably few would want back the life of a deep-pit miner, what Peggy was witnessing was the death of a community. Nothing remained of the once-mighty Lady Windsor Colliery but a memorial of fake coal in a trolley. On the surface, above the ground honeycombed with filled-in tunnels, there were a few jumps so that little girls could exercise their ponies. The pit baths had gone; so, too, had the Workmen’s Hall, the Institute and the miners’ pub, the Windsor. The cottage hospital where Ger­onwy was filmed recovering from a (fake) accident was a home for the terminally ill. It was the comprehensiveness of the destruction that was shocking. “Dad would turn in his grave if he knew what had happened to this place. He would have put a shoe up Mrs Thatcher’s backside,” Peggy said.

    In 1995 both the farmer and nurseryman Alan Bloom and Peter Roper the Typhoon pilot were leading remarkably positive lives. Roper, who migrated to Canada in 1959, had become a distinguished psychiatrist specialising in space and aviation medicine. His views on decency were Blairite:

    “To me, decency means responsibility, to ourselves, to our families, to community and country. This hasn’t been emphasised. You hear a lot about human rights, but you just can’t have them without responsibilities. I think that’s what is missing in Britain. It’s changed since the war. If people stood up to their responsibilities as much as their rights, Britain would be a better place.”

    Dr Roper is still alive. Alan Bloom died in 2005, aged 98, a horticultural legend. According to his obituary in the Guardian, he had bred or named 170 plants, written 27 books, opened a steam museum and created an extraordinary public garden and nursery in Norfolk. In 1995 he looked like an Old Testament prophet rather than the gentleman farmer in A Diary for Timothy, who could have been played by a pipe-sucking Gregory Peck. Silver hair down to his shoulders and a ring in each ear, he toasted bread on a gas fire; by his chair lay CND and Quaker pamphlets and Jung’s Memories, Dreams and Reflections. A Diary for Timothy was “a noble concept” and he had been “full of zeal for fighting Hitler” but he refused to look back.

    There was much of the modern world he found “indecent”, particlarly its materialism, so he went his own way. He kept little money (“for what should it profit a man . . .”), employed a former patient or two from the local psychiatric hospital and immersed himself in the wonders of nature. Perhaps if Jennings or Orwell had met Bloom 50 years after the war they would have recognised an eccentric British genius, and a good man.

    There was no trace of Bill the engine driver. So what of Timothy?

    By 1995 the gurgling baby had become a thin, asthmatic 50-year-old living in the London dormitory town of Houghton Regis. He taught at a local middle school and struggled to introduce a national curriculum to ever larger classes with insufficient resources. He had plenty to say about decency:

    “Children are more assured but more selfish than when I started teaching. There’s little regard for the elderly and they seem more out for what they can get. There’s another thing, too. When I started teaching there was only one kid in my class from a separated family. Now one-third are on income support and I suspect quite a number have single parents. I think it’s the fault of unemployment chiefly. So I don’t think this world is a very decent place.”

    On the face of it, Timothy seemed a promising spokesman for the New Britain with plenty to say. He read the Guardian, sometimes the New Statesman. But he was shy about A Diary for Timothy and he had not shown it to his two children. He resented being cast as a symbol; it was an unwanted responsibility. Perhaps he’d had his fingers burned by previous media exposure, in a Central TV documentary of 1985 which included an excruciating scene of him and his young children wandering round a desolate shopping precinct in Luton on Christmas Eve, with muzak carols over the Tannoy and Space Wars on the computer screens. This was intercut with footage of Timothy’s first Christmas. In the 1945 film, a choirboy’s high, pure voice sings “Adeste Fideles” and a dribbling Tim becomes, in Jennings’s symbolism, a surrogate for the Holy Infant. Across the nation, glasses are raised to “absent friends”, and a card from Timothy’s father is read: “My dear son, a very merry Christmas to you . . . May you always be happy and truly content with the life you have been given.”

    I kept in touch with Timothy until his premature death in 2000. What Humphrey Jennings would have made of his old subject’s life we will never know, because he also died prematurely, in 1950. But George Orwell would have found him a typical Englishman as defined in his “England Your England”, the essay he wrote in the war, just before Jennings made his film.

    Timothy personified “the privateness of English life”, to quote Orwell. He loved his little semi-detached house with garden in the Home Counties and he was “addicted to hobbies and spare-time occupations” – photography, gym coaching, gardening. He showed “the insularity of the English”, being not un-European, but not wanting to go there. Instead he took his children round English castles and museums and subscribed to History Today. He was not a flag-waving, goose-stepping patriot but he always bought a British car (Vauxhall, because its motors were made in Luton) and stood up in front of the television during the Remembrance Day silence. He did not hold strong views about the Germans. As for politics, he was not a socialist but he would never vote Conservative; nor did he and his wife, Sue, discuss how they would vote – another instance of this privateness.

    In A Diary for Timothy the Jenkinses represent, perhaps in a rather smug way, the Christian and family values of the English middle class. Timothy, in the words of Orwell, was “without definite religious belief . . . but retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling”. Unlike him, his children were not baptised and no one in the family was a churchgoer, but he had a Christian burial with that fav­ourite hymn of Songs of Praise, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”.

    Timothy personified “the gentleness of the English civilisation . . . its most marked characteristic”, as Orwell said. This may sound a bit old-fashioned now, as does the very word “decency”. But I hope it does justice to this hitherto anonymous wartime baby who unwittingly stood for so much.


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    Parties also need to reduce childcare and housing costs, improve the quality of part-time jobs and create better progression routes for low paid workers.

    A column in the Times yesterday by Rachel Sylvester suggested that senior Conservatives are pushing for an above-inflation rise in the National Minimum Wage (a move also suggested by Ed Miliband). MPs Oliver Letwin, Matt Hancock and Robert Halfon, plus think-tanks the Policy Exchange and Bright Blue are said to be keen, with George Osborne also persuaded of its political as well as economic merits. Increasing low wages fits the party’s core narrative of making work pay. It also chimes with an emerging argument that continuing to subsidise employers through in-work benefits is unsustainable (see Hancock’s speech to the Resolution Foundation last year as well as the DWP quote in today’s piece).

    It seems obvious that raising the minimum wage (like increasing take up of the Living Wage) would reduce in-work poverty by increasing overall household incomes. But it is worth pausing for a minute to assess exactly how much we should expect such policies to achieve; and what else is needed to tackle very high levels of in-work poverty.

    New figures calculated by the New Policy Institute for JRF show that 44% of adults in working poverty aren’t low paid themselves and don’t live with anyone who is. For nearly half of those in in-work poverty, all of the adults in the household earn more than around £7.40 (the UK living wage is currently £7.65 per hour), 45% live in households where one person is low paid, and 12% live in a family where everyone is low paid.



    For non-low paid people in working poverty, it is the amount of work that seems to matter. Nearly half are in households where one person works and one doesn’t. Almost two-fifths only have part time workers.



    For the other 56% of adults in working poverty, at least one person in the household is paid less than £7.40 per hour, so improving pay could have a significant impact. However, even among this group, more than two thirds are in families where everyone works part time and almost a fifth are in one earner households.



    We can expect that improved pay at the bottom end of the labour market would have a direct impact on just over half of households in working poverty (as long as these increases were not immediately deducted through the tax and benefit system). We might also anticipate indirect benefits in terms of increasing the perception of work paying and perhaps even stimulating some employers to make better use of the skills of some of the workers they are now having to pay more (although these effects are much more unpredictable).

    However, there are at least four other steps that need to be put alongside a commitment to either stepping up increases in the minimum wage or encouraging employers to pay the living wage in order to create a convincing approach to in-work poverty:

    Change the benefits and tax systems to make it more worthwhile for second earners to work more hours.

    Reduce childcare and housing costs.

    • Improve the quality of part-time jobs.

    • Create better progression routes for low paid workers to higher paid and more stable jobs.

    As we face up to a 16 month lead-in to the next election, the parties will compete for the best package to helping working families stuck in poverty. With 6.7 million people in such households, the party who comes up with the best offer might just end up the winner.


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    Gordon Brown, as Chancellor in the UK, and the Federal Reserve’s Alan Greenspan, notably, violated Minsky’s ideas - what will the new twin peaks of global finance do differently?

    After the cold turkey of Christmas there is a good slice of humble pie being eaten for New Year dessert. One by one, and a little too easily for my liking, the über-bears of the financial system have been falling into line, accepting that things are OK and the bull market for equities can continue. Nouriel Roubini is only the latest voice to turn from a growl to an apologetic whimper. Hugh Henry did his exit stage right, pursued by his own personal bear, before Christmas. Only Marc Faber carries the torch now.

    In any event, they are all being consistent with what the American economist Hyman Minsky (1919 - 1996) recognised, which is that investors have a tendency to exaggerate what is happening rather than seek under-valued investments as a home for their money. Most people follow the momentum of current thought and this is what leads to manias, bubbles and financial crises. In other words, financial institutions are by their very nature unstable, mainly because they are inhabited by faulted human beings whose conscious, rational, self is a slave to the subconscious and the chaotic id that powers it. Consequently, they need managing and regulating, actively, and cannot be left to the self-limiting actions of those involved in the financial system, mainly because they are unable to self-limit.

    Although he didn’t live to see it, Minsky got a number of notable things right about the interaction between money and the psyche. It is a moot point whether he would have found any pleasure in watching his theories play out in the post-2000 era leading, eventually, to the ignominious collapse of once-useful financial institutions. But his theories have proved better models for what happened than any statistically-based piece of software that I have seen.

    Gordon Brown, then Chancellor in the UK, and the Federal Reserve’s Alan Greenspan, notably, violated Minsky’s ideas. Brown advocated "light-touch" regulation (a euphemism for no regulation) while Greenspan looked on helplessly as the Glass-Steagall act (already ineffectual in many people’s eyes) was dismantled in front of him, allowing the walls to come down between commercial banks and securities firms. Brown took the revenues from the financial system and built up state spending. Greenspan had no such ideological or electoral agenda. But when the financial crisis struck all that was left for both of them was to cut interest rates to lower and lower levels while propping up failing financial institutions with unconventional policies like quantitative easing which have now become uncomfortably accommodated and habituated into our lives.

    Minsky has powerful followers, not least of which is the soon-to-be Chair of the interest rate-setting Federal Reserve Open Market Committee, Janet Yellen. One of the conclusions of the Minsky approach is that policy makers need to follow "contra-cyclical" policies to take the mania out of the system. In other words, when the good times roll those in charge should be tightening regulation and rules around financial institutions to stop them from experiencing manic boom and bust.

    So the Yellen Federal Reserve, like the Mark Carney Bank of England, will be fundamentally different animals from their predecessors. Not for them the macho rate setting and systematic policy making that has characterised the previous 30 years. We should be looking for something more administrative, more touchy-feely and circumstantial, gradualist even. Because if you were going to start placing the regulatory corset around a financial system you wouldn’t do it to this one and you wouldn’t start now, not with the current need for a bit of reckless lending.  And, as a final corollary, given that these are both most likely one-term governors of their institutions, maybe staying for just five years, sponsoring Minsky-esque regulatory change via the carrot of low interest rates means that neither of them may touch interest rates during their entire term of office.


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    The MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East has passed away in hospital.

    The Labour MP Paul Goggins has died, a week after he collapsed while out running.

    The MP for Wythenshawe and Sale East in Manchester was elected to Parliament in 1997, and had served as a Northern Ireland and Home Office minister.

    Labour leader Ed Miliband said:

    The statement from the Goggins family said:

    Last night Paul Goggins, our dear dad and husband, died in hospital in Salford with us by his side. We are completely heartbroken.

    He had been very ill since collapsing last week. The way in which he has been cared for at Salford Royal has been such a comfort to us and we can't thank the staff enough for this.

    We have been overwhelmed by the support and good wishes we have received from so many people - a real sign of love and a reflection of the sort of person Paul/Dad was.

    We would also like to thank the media for continuing to respect our privacy at such a difficult time.


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    Sometimes those "Free Public Wi-Fi" networks that smartphones can connect to when out and about are actually fakes, created by scammers.

    A funny thing happened to me on the way to the office this morning. I was sitting in a carriage on a District line train, trying to check Twitter, and when I tried to connect to one of Virgin Media’s public Wi-Fi hotspots I was instead bounced over to something called “PDM Wi-Fi”. Then a login screen appeared:
     

    Now, Facebook doesn’t offer “free wifi [sic] with more than 50 Facebook Hospots in London ! [sic]”. I could also pick the hotspot up when the train was sitting in tunnel between stations, and none of London’s underground trains carry Wi-Fi hotspots. In short, it was a fake hotspot, masquerading as a legitimate one.

    I didn’t put my Facebook username and password into it to see what would happen, as chances are it was a phishing scam from someone - possibly sitting near me in the same carriage at the time, such was the strength of the signal - looking to get my login details.

    Whoever was behind it was broadcasting a bunch of other networks with dodgy names too (I didn’t screengrab, but they included things like “freeBTwifi”). Phishing attacks using public hotspots are no new thing - appearing in public spaces, airport terminals, stations, and so on for years - but this is the first time I’ve seen or heard of one on a moving train.

    Why do it? Well, aside from the passwords, when you access the internet through a public hotspot, you're giving whoever has access to that hotspot the ability to view what you're doing, as long as you don't encrypt your data. This is why tech people get annoyed at Yahoo for taking so long to turn on HTTPS encryption as default for its email service, several years after Google did the same. It's an unnecessary vulnerability that could be exploited.

    To keep yourself safe when using public internet hotspots, the first sign that something won’t be right is the type of connection. Ad-hoc networks are where two or more computers connect to each other (you can create one with any smartphone quite easily, if you need to share its web connection with a laptop, for example), and normally show up as different in any list of wireless networks you can connect to. My phisher had disguised his hotspot as a legitimate router, but someone else may not take that step.

    There’s also the same sense of scepticism used for spam emails that can be used here. Look at that sign-in page above - something immediately feels wrong, doesn’t it? Quite aside from the grammatical mistakes and the off-centre words on the buttons, it should immediately be suspicious that a hotspot is asking for confidential information from a completely separate service, just as it would be suspicious for a bank to call you and ask for confidential information to prove your identity unprompted.

    If you’ve paid attention to the news, as well, a lightbulb should go off as a) Virgin Media’s deal to provide Wi-Fi in Tube stations got a lot of press and cost a lot of money, whereas b) there’s been nothing about a similar deal struck by Facebook.

    I’ve contacted TfL to see if they’ve noticed anyone trying to pull this trick before, and will update this piece when they respond.


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    Yesterday, two people - a man and a woman - were convicted of sending threatening tweets to Caroline Criado-Perez. What do their stories tell us about the causes of internet abuse, and how to tackle it?

    Arriving at court, John Nimmo hurried towards the door - the wrong one, as it turned out - with a hood pulled down low over his face. Isabella Sorley kept her head up, the red bobble on her hat bouncing in the wind. Earlier in the day, she had posted a self-portrait of herself outside Buckingham Palace on her Twitter account. She was accompanied by two people, possibly her parents, who sat in the public gallery for the hearing. Nimmo appeared to be there alone.

    Sorley and Nimmo are superficially similar: both sent menacing tweets to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez in the summer of last year, including veiled and not-so-veiled threats of rape and murder. Both knew that their tweets would be read in the context of a campaign of harassment against Criado-Perez and Labour MP Stella Creasy; they would have seen other messages outlining gruesome threats and deliberately obscene suggestions sent to the pair. "Rape is the last of your worries," wrote Sorley.  Nimmo's tweets included agreeing with another user that Criado-Perez "need[ed] to get fucked until you die". 

    Go a little deeper, though, and their motivations for abusing Criado-Perez seem quite different. Understanding what separates them is vital if social media companies and the police are to tackle online abuse.

    Nimmo was, in many ways, a classic "troll". His own lawyer described him as a sad individual, with little social life in the real world, who sent the abusive tweets for fame (or infamy) and recognition. Attention, whether positive or negative, was what he wanted. He has no criminal record, and it's possible (although, I would say, unlikely) he has not "trolled" before. 

    Nimmo's lawyer said in court yesterday that he has learning difficulties, which is a rather broad label. Although it's rarely remarked on, several of those convicted of "trolling" offences have had anxiety or developmental disorders, or mental health problems - Frank Zimmerman, who abused Louise Mensch, had agoraphobia and other issues. Sean Duffy, who tormented the families of dead teenagers on Facebook, had Aspergers, alcohol problems and possibly schizophrenia, with his father John telling a local newspaper: "Sean is a mentally ill person and he is in the wrong place at the moment. Sean needs to be in some kind of intense psychiatric unit where they can get to the bottom of what has made him do this and make sure he gets cured of it." Colm Coss, one of the first internet abusers to be outed, also argued in court that mental health problems contributed to his actions. There's a hard thought here about whether internet abuse is partly the result of giving unwell people a direct line to strangers, and a readymade "formula" - in the form of rape and death threats - of how to get a response. It's also uncomfortable to face the idea that psychiatric care might do more good than prison sentences, although it's far harder to impose.

    In contrast to John Nimmo's lonely existence, Isabella Sorley has what seems from her social media profiles to be a lively social life and many real world friends. However, she has had previous brushes with the law, linked to drunkenness. I spoke to her before the trial, and she said that she sent the tweets while "highly drunk". She seemed repentant: "I'd personally say the reason why I got into all this shit is because I jumped on the bandwagon, so to speak. That isn't an excuse . . . I didn't even know who [Caroline] was until I was arrested and told by the police what she was about. Of course, I support woman's rights, being one myself. I'm ashamed of my behaviour and like I've previously stated I won't be doing anything like this again." After some deliberation, she said I could quote her by name because if she could "help people in the future to not make the same mistake that I have, [if] that only be just one person, then it will be worth it".

    A few days earlier, though, before she heard the Crown Prosecution Service were pressing charges, she had sent several tweets which appeared to be about the case. "You're in the public eye, you're on Twitter, then you should expect some sort of abuse. People take it all the time. Why are you different?!" read one. "What it has done, though, it has raised your profile. I'm sure you will never struggle to get a job now, unlike us who will. Publicity worked." Another claimed that "letters/words are never a threat. They're hardly going to jump off the page at you". Did the announcement of charges prompt her to reconsider her actions? Or was it only then that she realised the seriousness of the trouble she was in? That Buckingham Palace selfie - what you'd expect from someone doing the tourist trap tour of London rather than someone coming to the capital to face a custodial sentence - suggests that she might still be struggling to acknowledge the profound consequences this trial will have on the rest of her life. 

    It looks as though Nimmo was also blind to the potential consequences of what he was doing, although for a different reason. He was posting under a pseudonym, "Johnny", and the handle @beware0088. It took an investigation by Newsnight to link his Twitter account to a videogame profile where he used his real name and so track him down. Although she opened a new account to abuse Criado-Perez, Sorley made no great attempt to disguise who she was - she told me that she had not protected her IP address, even. (Attempts to find out who sent bomb threats to female journalists have been stymied because the perpetrator(s) used Tor, a programme which allows users to browse the web anonymously.) Nimmo seems to have expected that he was immune because of the superficial anonymity afforded by the internet.

    In their own ways, both "jumped on a bandwagon". Sorley found a new outlet, Twitter, for behaviour which was clearly already a problem in the real world. Nimmo found a method to get plaudits for transgressive behaviour and a strange sort of outlaw glamour among his fellow trolls, some of whom were probably far more scrupulous about concealing their identities and happy to goad others on and watch them get caught. The form both Sorley and Nimmo's tweets took was also shaped by the prevailing culture: rape threats are the internet's favourite smackdown for uppity women (and sometimes men). That's why it's less surprising that one of those convicted was a woman; if you're joining a mob, you don't get to dictate its norms. 

    Nimmo and Sorley are just two of dozens of people who bombarded Caroline Criado-Perez with abuse: her lawyer identified more than 80 accounts which targeted her. As far as I can see, there are two problems holding back the public discussion about how to deal online abuse, and this case underlines both of them. The first is that much of the abuse is simply unquotable in "family newspapers" or before - even after - the watershed. "You never know what it’s like, because no mainstream paper will print it, nobody on the radio will let you say it, and so it came to look as if I was worried that they said I hadn’t done my hair," as the indomitable Mary Beard described the way she was targeted. Everyday Sexism's Laura Bates once told me that it was a grim irony that rape threats were one of the few types of abuse she received that she could talk about in polite company. 

    If you don't know the kind of abuse that Caroline Criado Perez suffered, here it is in her own words: "I remember the man who told me I’d never track him down, only feel his cock while he was raping me; the man who told me he would pistol-whip me over and over until I lost consciousness, while my children watched, and then burn my flesh; the man who told me he had a sniper rifle aimed directly at my head and did I have any last words, fugly piece of shit? I remember the man who told me to put both hands on his cock and stroke it till he came on my eyeballs or he would slit my throat; the man who told me I would be dead and gone that night, and that I should kiss my pussy goodbye, as a group of them would “break it irreparably”; the man who told me a group of them would mutilate my genitals with scissors and set my house on fire while I begged to die. I can see their words on the screen. I remember where I was when I got them. I remember the fear, the horror, the despair. I remember feeling sick. I remember not being able to sleep. I remember thinking it would never end."

    The second problem that we need to confront before we can tackle online abuse is this: there will always be people who are mentally ill, or reckless, or silly, or otherwise not making the best decisions. There is also a prevailing climate of misogyny which means that the mere existence of women, particularly high profile or outspoken ones, is offensive to some people and they very much want to tell them so. Opportunity, motive and the twisted sort of social reinforcement you can get for being outrageously awful coagulate into a toxic brew poisoning public discourse. Caroline Criado-Perez has been very open about the threats and abuse she has received: I've spoken to many other women who feel too scared to speak out, or are convinced that they will be ignored, doubted or dismissed as over-sensitive.

    What we cannot do is ignore what's happening. Social networking has made us more connected than ever before. Where we could walk by the drunk screaming in the street or get away from the man shouting on the bus, we can't any longer. Troubled people - and the hatred, pain and demons which plague them - are right there in front of us. Will it be enough to make us act?

    Additional reporting: Ruby Lott-Lavigna and Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff


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    The PM's warning that means-testing pensioner benefits would raise only "a very small amount of money" was the most notable moment in a sombre session.

    After the sad news of the death of Labour MP Paul Goggins, the first PMQs of the year was a sombre affair, with both Ed Miliband and David Cameron making fine tributes. For the first time in recent months, Miliband split his questions, starting with three on the floods followed later by three on fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs). This allowed him to shift into a more offensive gear, criticising Cameron for his inaction over the terminals, without it jarring too much after the tributes to Goggins.

    FOBTs (dubbed the 'crack cocaine of gambling') are tricky territory for Cameron, with a significant number of Tory MPs and the Daily Mail wanting to seem them more tightly regulated. In response to Miliband, who has called for local authorities to be given the power to reduce the number of betting terminals in their area, Cameron announced that the government's review into them will report in the spring and said that he was making "a reasonable point". Based on that, it seems likely that Cameron will bring forward legislation in the near future. He emphasised that if he and Miliband "work together" they can "sort it out" and that "there may well be more to do". With the Lib Dems having long campaigned inside the coalition for action on the terminals, a cross-party consensus is within sight.

    But the most significant moment of the session was undoubtedly Cameron's response to a question on pensioner benefits. After the DUP's Nigel Dodds welcomed his pledge to maintain the triple lock on the state pension and asked him whether he would similarly promise to preserve the winter fuel allowance as a universal benefit, Cameron replied "we will set out out plans in our manifesto". But, significantly, he added that means-testing the allowance, for instance by withdrawing it from those who pay the 40p tax rate, would save only "a very small amount of money". That is Cameron's first public hint that he is likely to repeat his 2010 pledge to ring-fence pensioner benefits. Since the winter fuel allowance is the most expensive of the main pensioner benefits (costing £2.2bn last year) it seems equally likely that free bus passes (£1bn) and free TV licences (£600m) will similarly be protected.

    It is rather disingenuous of Cameron to protest that means-testing the benefits would raise little money when one could say the same of measures such as the benefit cap (which is forecast to raise £110m) and the bedroom tax (£490m - and both, as analysts have warned, may end up costing more than they save by increasing homelessness and other social ills). But the view among the Tories is that, having lost many pensioner voters to UKIP since 2010, they can't afford to hand Nigel Farage another attack line.


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    A first look at the cover of the first New Statesman of 2014.

    10 JANUARY ISSUE

    The politics interview: Ed Balls talks to George Eaton about Gordon Brown’s place in history, why he could work with Nick Clegg, and the urgent need for airport expansion.
     
    The new intolerance: Cristina Odone on the orthodoxy of liberalism.
     
    Robert cooper on the eu referendum: “we could sleepwalk into something stupid”.
     
    PLUS
     
    Rafael Behr’s politics column: ridiculous or dangerous? The tories are still divided on the threat posed by Ed Miliband.
     
    Laurie Penny: young people are paying for austerity with their health.
     
    Mehdi Hasan: who will speak up for Israel’s Edward Snowden?
     
    Robert Skidelsky asks: what makes us human?
     
    The Trial: a century on, Reiner Stach considers the prophetic brilliance of Kafka’s best-known novel.
     
    NS culture editor tom gatti on a year of reading dangerously in 2014.
     

    THE POLITICS INTERVIEW: ED BALLS

    In this week’s issue, the NS’s George Eaton meets the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, who, in his first interview of the year, talks candidly on a wide range of issues including why “when history is written for Gordon Brown, it will paint a different picture”, why he would not rule out entering a coalition with Nick Clegg with whom he is on “very friendly and warm” terms, and why he believes “effective aviation capacity” is critical to Britain’s economic growth.

    Eaton writes:

    The weeks before the recess were a difficult time for Balls, with a mis-sent email from Ed Miliband’s aide Torsten Bell describing him as a “nightmare”, Conservative attacks over his acceptance in 2012 of a £50,000 donation from the Co-operative Group, and calls by some Labour MPs for his removal following his much-criticised response to Osborne’s Autumn Statement. But if Balls is rattled it doesn’t show. Accompanied by his long-serving head of communications, Alex Belardinelli, he seems relaxed. . . 

    Ed Balls on why history “will paint a different picture” of Gordon Brown:

    Does Balls still speak to the man he worked alongside for 16 years? “He actually emailed me today about a by-election coming up in the next couple of weeks,” Balls says, adding that “from time to time we exchange emails and from time to time we meet up”. When I ask whether it saddens him that Brown is now derided as the worst prime minister in recent British history, he argues that “when history is written for Gordon Brown, it will paint a different picture”.

    He expands: “There is no doubt that, even now, around the world, the contribution he made to solving the global financial crisis and avoiding a depression is already, outside of Britain, very well understood. . .”

    On his respect for Nick Clegg and the prospect of working with him in a coalition:

    “I had a friendly chat with him a couple of hours ago in the House of Commons,” he reveals. “I’m not saying where, but the kind of place people pass in the House of Commons. We had a nice chat about how things were going. I think it was the first time I’d had a conversation with him for a really long time . . . I can say, with my hand on heart, the only conversation I’ve had with Nick Clegg in the last 18 months was very friendly and warm. I may disagree with some of the things he has supported but I have no reason to say anything nasty about him as a person.”

    Even more strikingly, he adds: “I understand totally why Nick Clegg made the decision that he made to go into coalition with the Conservatives at the time. I may not have liked it at the time, but I understood it. I also understood totally his decision to support a credible deficit reduction plan, because it was necessary in 2010. I think the decision to accelerate deficit reduction, compared to the plans they inherited – which was clearly not what Vince Cable wanted – I think that was a mistake . . . I can disagree with Nick Clegg on some of the things he did but I’ve no reason to doubt
    his integrity.”

    Would Balls be prepared to enter coalition with Clegg? “I think what you always have to do is deal with politics as you find it . . . I saw that subsequently he made a further statement to one of the newspapers that these things weren’t about personalities, and I think he’s right about that.”

    On the need for airport expansion:

    When I ask Balls if he favours expansion, he hesitates (“I think . . .”) and then concedes: “Yes, I always have. Yes, I do. I thought the Howard Davies report was a very informed first stage, which I think made the case for airport expansion . . . I think a modern, open British global economy needs effective aviation capacity.” Though he refuses to reaffirm his past support for a third runway at Heathrow, his position contrasts with that of Labour, which has yet even to commit to expansion.

    On the dangers of an interest rate rise in 2014:

    The most notable feature of the recovery has been the sharp drop in unemployment, which now stands at 7.4 per cent, within touching distance of the 7 per cent threshold at which the Bank of England will consider an interest-rate rise. How does he think Mark Carney should respond when joblessness falls to this level?

    “I think he’ll be very cautious about wanting to use unemployment and the labour market as an indicator of underlying strength,” Balls tells me. “I know that they’ll [the Bank will] be very worried and concerned and focused on what’s happening to London house prices and wider house prices, but I hope that the Monetary Policy Committee will look across the piece, rather than at one indicator, before they decide to move on interest rates.” His message is clear: in current conditions, there should be no rate rise this year.

    On NHS spending and why he would be “staggered” if Labour does not pledge to ring-fence:

    When I ask Balls if Labour will pledge to ring-fence NHS spending, he offers the clearest signal yet that it will. In an echo of Nye Bevan’s declaration that “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, he says: “I always think in politics revealed preferences are a very powerful indicator of future actions and, at every stage, Labour has ring-fenced and supported ring fences for the National Health Service. I would be staggered if we are anywhere other than wanting to ring-fence the NHS going forward in 2015-2016 and in the future.”

    *Read the full interview in Notes to Editors below and online at newstatesman.com*

     

    COVER STORY: CRISTINA ODONE ON THE NEW ORTHODOXY OF LIBERALISM

    In a provocative challenge to the left, the former New Statesman deputy editor Cristina Odone argues in this week’s cover story that liberalism has become the new orthodoxy and intolerance of religious believers a daily reality.

    Not only Christians, but also Muslims and Jews, increasingly feel they are no longer free to express any belief, no matter how deeply felt, that runs counter to the prevailing fashions for superficial “tolerance” and “equality” (terms which no longer bear their dictionary meaning but are part of a political jargon in which only certain views, and certain groups, count as legitimate).

    Only 50 years ago, liberals supported “alternative culture”; they manned the barricades in protest against the establishment position on war, race and feminism. Today, liberals abhor any alternative to their credo. No one should offer an opinion that runs against the grain on issues that liberals consider “set in stone”, such as sexuality or the sanctity of life.

    Intolerance is no longer the prerogative of overt racists and other bigots – it is state-sanctioned. It is no longer the case that the authorities are impartial on matters of belief, and will intervene to protect the interests and heritage of the weak. When it comes to crushing the rights of those who dissent from the new orthodoxy, politicians and bureaucrats alike are in the forefront of the attacks, not the defence.

    Odone, author of No God Zone, argues that although religion was “once a dominant force in western culture” it has now been “demoted to, at best, an irrelevance; at worst, an offence against the prevailing establishment”.

     

    THE NS ESSAY: ROBERT COOPER ON A NONSENSICAL EU REFERENDUM

    Robert Cooper, a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations, explains why, far from giving a voice to the people, an EU referendum would simply give a voice to a section of the Conservative Party.

    Why does David Cameron want a referendum on Europe?

    That is simple. It is for the same reason as Harold Wilson proposed one in 1975: to deal with his divided party by appealing to higher authority. There is no popular demand for a referendum, but if you ask people in opinion polls whether they want to have a vote on EU membership, you can get a positive answer; if you backed a poll with a media campaign, you could probably get the same answer on many questions.

    Are referendums a good way to make decisions?

    This is also easy to answer: no. It is shameful that few political leaders are ready to say so. Democracy is not just about voting. It is also about debate and about responsibility.

    Wouldn’t a referendum settle the question of the EU once and for all?

    No. If that were the case, it would have been settled by the 1975 referendum – when two-thirds of the British voters elected to remain in the EU. Those who want to leave now argue that we were tricked, or that Britain has changed since then, or that the EU has changed. These arguments will be available again whenever anyone wants to use them.

    Cooper concludes:

    Probably some of those who tell opinion pollsters that they would vote to leave would think again if the question became real. But the conditions are different from those of 1975. The leading figures opposing membership then were from the fringes (Peter Shore, Enoch Powell, Tony Benn) and the media were almost unanimously in favour. Now we have had ten years of the drumbeat of media opposition. Referendums are unpredictable – never a good way to govern a country – and we might end up out. That would be stupid.

    THE POLITICS COLUMN: RAFAEL BEHR

    In his politics column this week the NS’s political editor, Rafael Behr, argues that the Conservative Party is currently split over how seriously to take Ed Miliband:

    The Conservative Party is unsure whether Ed Miliband is ridiculous or dangerous. Tory optimists think the Labour leader’s glamourless style breaches some unwritten prime ministerial admissions code, meaning voters will bar his entry to No 10. They expect the opposition’s lead in opinion polls to vanish once the nation seriously contemplates placing a fragile economy in Ed’s buttery fingers.

    Conservative pessimists have more respect. They know that belittling Miliband’s manner doesn’t alter the electoral maths that make him the likeliest bet to be prime minister after 2015. If Labour hangs on to disgruntled Lib Dems, and angry Tories continue to side with Ukip – both plausible scenarios – crucial seats in the Midlands and northern England are unwinnable  for David Cameron. A handful of Conservatives even admit that Miliband has played a weak hand with guile, shoring up the unity of the left while the right is divided.

    One source of comfort to the Tories, says Behr, is Miliband’s public image. It is:

    something that everyone in Labour knows is a problem but only a tiny number of top advisers are authorised to discuss. The shadow cabinet has had many presentations of polling data but none refers to the leader’s personal ratings.

    MEHDI HASAN: WHO WILL SPEAK UP FOR ISRAEL’S EDWARD SNOWDEN?

    In his Lines of Dissent column this week, Mehdi Hasan tells the tale of two whistleblowers: Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor who exposed mass surveillance; and Mordechai Vanunu, who has served 18 years behind bars for blowing the whistle on Israel’s nuclear secrets. Hasan explains:

    Vanunu was jailed in 1988 for leaking details of his work as a technician at a nuclear facility near Dimona to the Sunday Times two years earlier. On 29 December 2013, the court rejected his petition, on the grounds that he continues to possess information that could jeopardise Israel’s national security. Andrew Neil, the former editor of the Sunday Times, disagrees. “He told us everything,” Neil told me. “We drained him dry.”

    Neil calls Vanunu’s revelations the biggest scoop of his 11-year editorship of the Sunday Times. “Everyone knew Israel had the bomb but what we didn’t know was the huge extent of its nuclear facilities and also its ability to make the hydrogen bomb,” he tells me. “[The Vanunu story] told the world that Israel was basically the sixth nuclear power.”

    As a result, Vanunu has been persecuted by the Israeli state for almost three decades. For the first 11 years of his 18-year prison sentence, the former nuclear technician was held in solitary confinement in a nine-foot-by-six-foot cell. His treatment was condemned by Amnesty International as “cruel, inhuman and degrading”; Vanunu has described it as “barbaric”.

    Vanunu’s harsh treatment is a clear case of double standards, argues Hasan:

    Can you imagine how the west would treat an Iranian Vanunu? How hysterical do you think the response would be in London or Washington – or Tel Aviv! – if an Iranian nuclear scientist were to come forward with, say, photos of secret warheads, only to be locked up by the mullahs and sentenced to solitary confinement?

    ROBERT SKIDELSKY ASKS: WHAT MAKES US HUMAN?

    Following in the footsteps of Richard Dawkins, Caitlin Moran and many others, Robert Skidelsky is the latest contributor to our “What Makes Us Human?” series, in partnership with BBC Radio 2’s Jeremy Vine show. He concludes that although calculation is a defining human characteristic, the tendency to follow the head over the heart in every scenario ultimately dehumanises us:

    The dilemma in defining what is human is this: calculation is an integral part of the human outfit; animals don’t calculate. Without calculation, there could be no economising behaviour. And without economising behaviour there would be no growth of wealth. But if calculation is all we do, then we cease to be human. For the alternative forms of existence are not human and animal, but human, animal and robotic. Robots can be programmed to act exactly as economists think human beings should: efficiently, purposefully. There is no waste in a robotic civilisation.

    So, as I would see it, the essence of distinctively human activity is action without thought of the consequences, without counting the cost of the activity and weighing it against the prospective benefits to be obtained.

    PLUS

    The Skin: John Gray finds an Italian fascist’s lost masterpiece holds up a gruesome mirror to wartime Europe

    Michael Prodger rediscovers John Craxton’s sun-drenched Greek idylls at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge

    Ed Smith: How did it all crumble into ashes?

    Sophie McBain visits “Mind Maps” at the Science Museum

    Michael Brooks explores the uncertain future of particle physics

    Ian Steadman on a troublesome trip to the Antarctic

    Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire’s latest Westminster gossip


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    The shadow chancellor says for the first time that he could work with the Lib Dem leader, supports airport expansion and says history will "paint a different picture" of Gordon Brown.

    On Monday evening, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ed Balls in his House of Commons office. As ever with Balls, one of the genuine big beasts of British politics, it proved to be a fascinating encounter.

    You can read the full piece, which appears in tomorrow's NS, here, and here are some of the highlights, along with some parts that didn't make the cut.

    On Nick Clegg: "I've no reason to doubt his integrity"

    Until now, the shadow chancellor has always suggested that Nick Clegg's removal as Liberal Democrat leader is a pre-condition of any coalition between the Deputy PM's party and Labour. He said in November 2011: "I don't think there's a single member of the shadow cabinet who'd find it easy to sit down with Nick Clegg ... What Clegg did last year was so shocking. But that's not true of Lib Dems generally." Then in December 2011: "I don't think it's possible for Nick Clegg to lead that move" and in September 2012: "Nick Clegg made his decisions and I think the way he’s gone about his politics makes things very difficult [to form a coalition with him]".

    But when I spoke to Balls he revealed, for the first time, that he is now willing to work with Clegg if the electoral arithmetic in 2015 demands it. After revealing that he had had a "friendly chat" with the Deputy PM in the Commons a few hours before we met, he told me: 

    I think what you always have to do is deal with politics as you find it. We’re fighting hard for a majority, who knows how things will turn out, I think, look, very many Labour Party members, voters, supporters, would find that very difficult and some Liberal Democrat voters would find that very difficult as well, but we’ll deal with the situation as we find it. I saw that subsequently he made a further statement to one of the newspapers that these things weren’t about personalities, and I think he’s right about that.

    Even more strikingly, he said that he "understood" Clegg's decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives in 2010 and his need to support "a credible deficit reduction plan". 

    I understand totally why Nick Clegg made the decision that he made to go into coalition with the Conservatives at the time, I may not have liked it at the time, but I understood it. I also understood totally his decision to support a credible deficit reduction plan, because it was necessary in 2010.

    He added: "I think the decision to accelerate deficit reduction, compared to the plans they inherited, which was clearly not what Vince Cable wanted, I think that was a mistake. I don’t know whether that’s something that, in the end, the Liberal Democrats will acknowledge. I think the decision to support the top rate tax cut and the bedroom tax, that was a mistake, those were an unfair combination. I think that the decision to go along with the boundary changes in return for the AV referendum was a mistake, which I think Nick Clegg acknowledged by reneging on his half of the deal in retrospect."

    But he maintained:

    I can disagree with Nick Clegg on some of the things he did but I’ve no reason to doubt his integrity, we’ve never, I don’t think, ever had a cross word.

    On Gordon Brown: history "will paint a different picture"

    I asked Balls, who worked alongside Gordon Brown for 16 years (for 11 years as his chief adviser and for five as an MP and minister), whether he was saddened that Brown, for so long a titan of British politics, is now derided as the worst prime minister in recent history. 

    He replied: 

    When history is written for Gordon Brown, it will paint a different picture. There is no doubt that, even now, around the world, the contribution he made to solving the global financial crisis and avoiding a depression, that’s already, outside of Britain, very well understood. But I think the fact that the National Health Service is still so foundational a concept in British politics that David Cameron has to desperately try to persuade people that he supports it, even though we know he doesn’t really, is a positive tribute to Gordon Brown, the fact that we didn’t join the single currency is also extremely important...I think the credit for that will come too.

    I also asked Balls whether he still spoke to his mentor and he revealed that, by chance, "he actually emailed me today about a by-election coming up in the next couple of weeks", adding that "from time to time we exchange emails and from time to time we meet up".

    On airport expansion: Britain needs more capacity

    The biggest infrastructure decision that the next government will take will be on whether, and where, to expand the UK’s airport capacity. When I asked Balls whether he favours expansion, he hesitated, seemingly afraid to reveal his true thoughts ("I think..."), before eventually conceding: 

    Yes, I always have, yes I do [support aviation expansion]. I thought the Howard Davies report was a very informed first stage, which I think made the case for airport expansion...I think a modern, open British global economy needs effective aviation capacity.

    While refusing to reaffirm his past support for a third runway at Heathrow, his position contrasts with that of Labour, which has yet to even explicitly commit to expansion.

    On whether Miliband has guaranteed his position

    I asked Balls whether Miliband had personally promised him that he would remain shadow chancellor until 2015. He replied: "I’ve never had that conversation with him ever", revealing that the only time the pair had discussed his position was on the day he got the job.

    In that conversation Ed said to me ‘I want you to be shadow chancellor’ and I said ‘are you sure?’ and he said ‘yep’, so I said ‘then fine, of course’, and that’s the only conversation that we’ve had. These are totally his decisions.

    I’m just going to get on and do my job because it’s really difficult and really important and we’ve got to win, and anything I can do to help Ed to win, I’ll do.

    On his "friendly chat" with Clegg

    After I noted that Clegg had declared before Christmas that he sought to avoid making political argument personal but made an "exception" for "a man named Ed Balls", Balls replied by revealing that he had had a "friendly chat" with Clegg in the Commons that day.

    "I had a friendly chat with him a couple of hours ago in the House of Commons, as you sometimes do, I’m not saying where, but the kind of place people pass in the House of Commons, we had a nice chat about how things were going. I think it was the first time I’d had a conversation with him for a really long time...I can say, with my hand on heart, the only conversation I’ve had with Nick Clegg in the last 18 months was very friendly and warm."

    On NHS spending: "I would be staggered" if Labour doesn't ring-fence it

    Labour's Treasury team has recently begun a "zero-based" spending review, one that will scrutinise every area of public spending for potential cuts.

    But when I asked Balls whether Labour will pledge to ring-fence NHS spending, he offered the clearest signal yet that it will. In an echo of Nye Bevan’s declaration that "the language of priorities is the religion of socialism", he told me:

    I always think in politics revealed preferences are a very powerful indicator of future actions and, at every stage, Labour has ring-fenced and supported ring-fences for the National Health Service. I would be staggered if we are anywhere other than wanting to ring-fence the NHS going forward in 2015-16 and in the future.

    On interest rates: the Bank of England should not rush to raise rates

    The most notable feature of the delayed recovery has been the sharp drop in unemployment, which now stands at 7.4 per cent, within touching distance of the 7 per cent threshold at which the Bank of England will consider an interest rate rise.

    How does he think Mark Carney should respond when joblessness falls to this level? "I think he’ll be very cautious about wanting to use unemployment and the labour market as an indicator of underlying strength," Balls told me. "I know that they’ll [the Bank] be very worried and concerned and focused on what’s happening to London house prices and wider house prices, but I hope that the monetary policy committee will look across the piece, rather than at one indicator, before they decide to move on interest rates."

    His message is clear: based on current conditions, there should be no rate rise this year.

    On whether Labour will borrow for investment: "we're going to continue [looking at it]"

    Throughout our conversation, Balls referred to the need for Osborne to do more to increase "underlying growth" through greater public investment. Having pledged not to borrow to meet day-to-day spending in 2015-2016, would he consider borrowing to fund new infrastructure projects?

    "That’s something that we’re going to continue to look at," he says. "I’m not going to rule it out, but I’m also not going to say now that it’s definitely the right thing to do. But I’d make a broader point, which is that if you want to have a stronger, sustained recovery, and if you want to get the housing benefit bill down, and if you’re trying to help people on to the housing ladder by supporting housing on the demand side, this is absolutely the time when you ought to be doing more to support investment in housing supply – in particular, but not entirely, affordable housing."

    On why the Tories can't win a "values-driven" election

    Balls ended the interview by perceptively noting of Osborne's Today programme interview: "the word he kept using throughout was ‘values’ . . . He knows when it comes to values – whose side you’re on, fairness – he knows he’s got a huge problem . . . They will have to be totally negative because they know, [and] they’re going to try and neutralise it, but they can’t win on that basis".

    He went on to explain why Labour is best placed to win an election based on values and why his job is to make sure "that the sums add up":

    The thing for Labour is, the place where we are really strong at the moment, is who will be on your side, who’ll do things in a fairer way, who’ll put growth and jobs first, who’ll stand up for me and my family, in a values fight, we’re on the right side, we’re on the winning side. My job, and that is an important part of the reason why Ed Miliband had such a good conference, because he set out that values message, it was policy linked to a view of what’s right and what’s fair, I don’t think that will change in the next year and a half. Labour can win a cost of living election around values, but people have got to know that the sums add up, that in the end they can trust us. My job is to make sure that we are tough in fiscally underpinning of that values choice.

    On PMQs: "the government figure really sets the tone"

    Balls's exchanges with Cameron at PMQs (normally prompted by one of his famous hand gestures) are increasingly celebrated, so I couldn't resist asking him whether he ever feels like going up against the PM for a full session. He replied: "No, no, it’s the hardest thing, Prime Minister’s Questions, and I’m there to support Ed Miliband. I think he’s doing really well; it’s incredibly frustrating for us. For Ed, he only gets six questions, when I’m there with George Osborne we only get two, whereas the government side, David Cameron or George Osborne will answer 20, 30 questions, so it’s so imbalanced. Many of the times that David Cameron will lash out, or attack, happen after the exchanges with Ed Miliband, rather than in those exchanges. Often Ed Miliband will elbow me to say 'keep him under pressure, keep him under pressure'."

    He addded: "The thing that's really important to understand about the chamber in the House of Commons is that the government figure really sets the tone. David Cameron can choose the tone he sets at Prime Minister's Questions. And I think the Prime Minister's Questions of this parliament have been very much a reflection of him. I think very many people find that frustrating, that at Prime Minister's Questions there's often very little attempt made to answer the questions at all, things are very partisan, hugely political, but as I said the tone is set by the Prime Minister, the event reflects his or her personality, and our job as opposition politicians, we can't set that tone. But we have to deal politically with the situation as it's set."

    Intriguingly, Labour are suggesting that today's more subdued PMQs was a trial of Ed Miliband's new approach. The Labour leader is seeking to disagree "without being disagreeable".

     


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    The shadow chancellor on why he could go into coalition with Clegg, why airport expansion in the UK is essential for growth and why history will judge Gordon Brown kindly.

    Christmas has been and gone, yet the festive spirit endures in Ed Balls’s Westminster office. The shadow chancellor greets me by offering a mince pie, and quickly devours one himself after a long day of political combat marked by George Osborne’s speech on austerity.

    The weeks before the recess were a difficult time for Balls, with a mis-sent email from Ed Miliband’s aide Torsten Bell describing him as a “nightmare”, Conservative attacks over his acceptance in 2012 of a £50,000 donation from the Co-operative Group, and calls by some Labour MPs for his removal following his much-criticised response to Osborne’s Autumn Statement. But if Balls is rattled it doesn’t show. Accompanied by his long-serving head of communications, Alex Belardinelli, he seems relaxed, engagingly discussing the future of the media after I mention the recent growth of the New Statesman and straining to remember the name of the song by Sophie Ellis-Bextor he was listening to on YouTube. He will run in the London Marathon again this year, for the third time (“I’m the slowest MP by far, but I’ve been the best fundraiser”), and has re-entered for his grade three piano exam after it clashed with the Autumn Statement (“I’m desperately worried it will be Budget day”).

    We eventually turn to the subject that has defined Balls’s career: the economy. After warning of a “lost decade of slow growth, high unemployment and stagnation” in his speech to the 2012 Labour conference, has he been surprised by how growth has quickened in recent months? “We’ve got so used to the economy flatlining that, for many people, and not just in the media but business, too, the return to any growth is such a relief,” he says. “It happened later than we all expected but the truth is that this is a recovery that has so far historically been very disappointing.”

    Balls perceptively remarks of Osborne: “I think as a politician he’s decided that growth is better than no growth; that he’s going to bank the recovery and move on to the politics. I think, actually, the economic task for a chancellor at the moment is to think, ‘What can I do to deliver stronger, more balanced growth?’”

    The biggest problem for the Tories, he says, is the enduring public belief that they are not committed to fairness. “I thought it was very interesting, the George Osborne interview this morning [on the BBC’s Today programme], because the word he kept using throughout was ‘values’ . . . He knows when it comes to values – whose side you’re on, fairness – he knows he’s got a huge problem . . . They will have to be totally negative because they know, [and] they’re going to try and neutralise it, but they can’t win on that basis.”

    The most notable feature of the recovery has been the sharp drop in unemployment, which now stands at 7.4 per cent, within touching distance of the 7 per cent threshold at which the Bank of England will consider an interest-rate rise. How does he think Mark Carney should respond when joblessness falls to this level?

    “I think he’ll be very cautious about wanting to use unemployment and the labour market as an indicator of underlying strength,” Balls tells me. “I know that they’ll [the Bank will] be very worried and concerned and focused on what’s happening to London house prices and wider house prices, but I hope that the Monetary Policy Committee will look across the piece, rather than at one indicator, before they decide to move on interest rates.” His message is clear: in current conditions, there should be no rate rise this year.

    Throughout our conversation, Balls refers to the need for Osborne to do more to increase “underlying growth” through greater public investment. Having pledged not to borrow to meet day-to-day spending in 2015-2016, would he consider borrowing to fund new infrastructure projects?

    “That’s something that we’re going to continue to look at,” he says. “I’m not going to rule it out, but I’m also not going to say now that it’s definitely the right thing to do. But I’d make a broader point, which is that if you want to have a stronger, sustained recovery, and if you want to get the housing benefit bill down, and if you’re trying to help people on to the housing ladder by supporting housing on the demand side, this is absolutely the time when you ought to be doing more to support investment in housing supply – in particular, but not entirely, affordable housing.”

    The biggest infrastructure decision that the next government will take will be on whether, and where, to expand the UK’s airport capacity. When I ask Balls if he fav­ours expansion, he hesitates (“I think . . .”) and then concedes: “Yes, I always have. Yes, I do. I thought the Howard Davies report was a very informed first stage, which I think made the case for airport expansion . . . I think a modern, open British global economy needs effective aviation capacity.” Though he refuses to reaffirm his past support for a third runway at Heathrow, his position contrasts with that of Labour, which has yet even to commit to expansion.

    The party’s Treasury team has begun a “zero-based” spending review, one that will scrutinise every area of public expenditure for possible cuts. But when I ask Balls if Labour will pledge to ring-fence NHS spending, he offers the clearest signal yet that it will. In an echo of Nye Bevan’s declaration that “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”, he says: “I always think in politics revealed preferences are a very powerful indicator of future actions and, at every stage, Labour has ring-fenced and supported ring fences for the National Health Service. I would be staggered if we are anywhere other than wanting to ring-fence the NHS going forward in 2015-2016 and in the future.”

    Balls’s political godfather Gordon Brown has been more visible than usual of late, making a widely praised tribute to Nelson Mandela in the Commons and warning in the New York Times of the risk of another financial crisis. Does Balls still speak to the man he worked alongside for 16 years? “He actually emailed me today about a by-election coming up in the next couple of weeks,” Balls says, adding that “from time to time we exchange emails and from time to time we meet up”. When I ask whether it saddens him that Brown is now derided as the worst prime minister in recent British history, he argues that “when history is written for Gordon Brown, it will paint a different picture”.

    He expands: “There is no doubt that, even now, around the world, the contribution he made to solving the global financial crisis and avoiding a depression is already, outside of Britain, very well understood. But I think the fact that the National Health Service is still so foundational a concept in British politics that David Cameron has to desperately try to persuade people that he supports it, even though we know he doesn’t really, is a positive tribute to Gordon Brown. The fact that we didn’t join the single currency is also extremely important . . . I think the credit for that will come, too.”

    Shortly before Christmas, Nick Clegg said on his LBC radio show that he tries to avoid political arguments becoming personal but that he makes one exception: “for a man named Ed Balls”. When I put these remarks to the shadow chancellor, I expect him to respond by assailing Clegg as a “collaborator” in Conservative austerity, but he is unexpectedly warm. “I had a friendly chat with him a couple of hours ago in the House of Commons,” he reveals. “I’m not saying where, but the kind of place people pass in the House of Commons. We had a nice chat about how things were going. I think it was the first time I’d had a conversation with him for a really long time . . . I can say, with my hand on heart, the only conversation I’ve had with Nick Clegg in the last 18 months was very friendly and warm. I may disagree with some of the things he has supported but I have no reason to say anything nasty about him as a person.”

    Even more strikingly, he adds: “I understand totally why Nick Clegg made the decision that he made to go into coalition with the Conservatives at the time. I may not have liked it at the time, but I understood it. I also understood totally his decision to support a credible deficit reduction plan, because it was necessary in 2010. I think the decision to accelerate deficit reduction, compared to the plans they inherited – which was clearly not what Vince Cable wanted – I think that was a mistake . . . I can disagree with Nick Clegg on some of the things he did but I’ve no reason to doubt his integrity.”

    Would Balls be prepared to enter coalition with Clegg? “I think what you always have to do is deal with politics as you find it . . . I saw that subsequently he made a further statement to one of the newspapers that these things weren’t about personalities, and I think he’s right about that.”

    This is markedly different in tone from what Balls said in September 2012, when he declared that Clegg’s departure would be a precondition of any coalition deal with the Liberal Democrats: “Clegg made his decisions and the way he’s gone about his politics, I think, makes things very difficult [to form a coalition with him].” With just 16 months to go to the next election, the shadow chancellor is shrewdly hedging his bets.

    Yet, coalition or not, has Ed Miliband guaranteed that Balls will be shadow chancellor in 2015? “I’ve never had that conversation with him,” Balls tells me. “I’m just going to get on and do my job, because it’s really difficult and really important, and we’ve got to win, and anything I can do to help Ed to win, I’ll do.”


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    It's a sweet irony that Margaret Thatcher is the heroine both of some of those who wish to come here and many of those who oppose their doing so.

    In the summer of 1992, after two months teaching English at Bucharest University, I asked my students which lesson they had enjoyed the most. In unison, they said: "the one about Margaret Thatcher".

    Bucharest was a bit of a mess then, and it was Ceaușescu’s fault. His plans for 'systematizing' Romania’s capital around his grey Palace of the People, the heaviest building in the world, were half complete. He had managed to destroy much of the city's historic centre but not yet replace it with all the blocks of flats he wanted to squeeze people into.

    Bucharest was also a mess because of the revolution of Christmas 1989 that finally brought Ceaușescu’s rule to an end. Important buildings, like Bucharest University's library, were destroyed or pockmarked with bullet holes. Temporary wooden crosses marked where people had been injured or killed in the 'Mineriads' of 1990/91, when miners came to Bucharest to attack those protesting at the ex-communists who had seized power.

    The west was intruding but in odds ways to begin with. The most visible signs were chewing gum everywhere and a graffiti battle between the local fans of Depeche Mode and Metallica. Seeing a huge mass of men clamouring for sight of something, I joined them to see what the fuss was about. In the middle was a little table with some American pornographic magazines on.

    Romania has long been famous for two things: Dracula and the Roma (gypsies). Given that Dracula is fictional (albeit based on Vlad the Impaler) and the Roma live all over the world – with apparently more in the United States than in Romania – that is an inaccurate picture.

    In fact, Romania has a bit of everything. Anyone who has criticised the country in recent days without having been there should book a vacation without delay. They'll find skiing holidays, beach holidays and lots of sites of historic interest. Visit Bucharest and you’ll discover why it is still known as the 'Paris of the east'. 

    Having lived under such a brutal communist regime for so long, Romanians cherish their freedom just as much as we Britons do. It's not because I taught the lesson on Margaret Thatcher well that they liked it so much. (I didn't.) It was because they genuinely thought she had bought them freedom by challenging communism head on and never giving an inch.

    I tried to give my students a fair assessment of Thatcherism (despite being a paid-up Tory). I spoke about the gap between rich and poor, north and south and even played the Morrissey song 'Margaret on the Guillotine'. But they didn't buy it. Whatever I said about the shortcomings paled to insignificance against her anti-communist stance.

    It's a sweet irony that the Iron Lady is the heroine both of some of those who wish to come here and many of those who oppose their doing so. Yet back in 2007, when Romania joined the EU, both groups also supported the concept of a wider Europe. It is those seeds we are now reaping.

    Some of the opposition to Romanian and Bulgarian newcomers arises from the changes they will bring. As the parent of a child starting school in 2014, I understand that. Looking around our local primary schools, I have been astonished by the expansionary pressures they face – even before any new influx. It is the duty of politicians to respond to such problems and absurd to claim they must not be discussed.

    But the debate goes wrong when people treat Romanians as an alien species. After all, they understand the fear of change as much as we do. William Blacker's book 'Along the Enchanted Way', published in 2010, shows just how immense the pressures of the new world have been on Romanian villages and gypsy communities. But read it alongside Carmen Bugan's harrowing recent memoir 'Burying the Typewriter' on the treatment of her dissident father under communism to remind you how necessary it was for change to happen.

    Life has improved for many but those Romanians coming to the UK will have the same motives as those who voluntarily chose to attend our English lessons soon after the revolution – they want to better themselves. Of course that's not true of all – just as not all British people moving abroad do so for honourable ends – and those camping on Park Lane do pose a challenge for the authorities.

    Yet the current furore has missed a key point: Britain is actually less appealing to most Romanians than it was to those Poles who arrived during the 2000s because there are fewer historic links between our two countries. Romanian is a Romance language that has more in common with Italian, Spanish and Portuguese than it does with English. Such things matter as much as benefit rules in deciding where to settle.

    As we now start to assimilate those who do arrive, we should spare a thought for the captivating country they come from because every time a skilled person leaves for the UK, their skills shortage gets a little worse and ours gets a little better.

    Nicholas Hillman is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute


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    Japanese scientists have made hundreds of tiny plastic balls float around like miniature spaceships.

    Today’s news from the world of Awesome Science comes from the University of Tokyo, where a team has been levitating and controlling objects using sound. Here’s the video:

    As the video points out at the beginning, levitation of objects using sound has been around for a few years. If you’ve ever stood in front of a large speaker you’ll know that they can pump out what feels like quite a forceful blast of air as they vibrate - but, somewhat deceptively, that’s not quite the whole story.

    Rather than physically push air out from the speaker, what you’re experiencing is a wave of compression moving through the air. The speaker compresses a packet of air, which then “rolls” through the room, with the size of the compressed air corresponding the wavelength of the sound wave. And, just like sound waves, waves that overlap each other create new waves.

    To levitate something just requires creating a standing wave. Think of it like this - if you’re watching a sound wave plotted out on a graph, it’ll be rolling along, going up and down as it oscillates. A standing wave occurs when two or more waves combine to create a new wave where, as the wave oscillates, there are points where there’s no movement. They’re called nodes.

    Here’s a gif to illustrate how that works. The blue and green waves are combining to create the red wave, which has those points on the central axis that aren’t moving:

    (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

    If a speaker outputs a standing wave, in the most basic sense it means that it won’t feel like the areas of compression - those blasts of air - are moving. The gaps between those blasts of air will be positions of neutral force, with air pressure pushing in on it from both directions. If you stick an object in there that’s light enough, and smaller that the size the gap (which will be the sound’s wavelength), the force of the air should keep it floating in a stable position.

    What the Tokyo University team has done is build upon that idea, by combining sound waves in three dimensions. The video shows not just tiny little plastic balls being levitated and controlled, but also resistors, LEDs, screws, bolts, and other small items. Rhett Allain at Wired worked out that you could levitate anything both smaller than 8mm and less dense than 1,000kg/m3, which is tiny - but it does have practical applications, particularly when people are working with sterile things they want to move but can't touch, like spaceship parts or medicines.


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    Part of the problem is that even Labour MPs find their boss remote.

    The Conservative Party is unsure whether Ed Miliband is ridiculous or dangerous. Tory optimists think the Labour leader’s glamourless style breaches some unwritten prime ministerial admissions code, meaning voters will bar his entry to No 10. They expect the opposition’s lead in opinion polls to vanish once the nation seriously contemplates placing a fragile economy in Ed’s buttery fingers.

    Conservative pessimists have more respect. They know that belittling Miliband’s manner doesn’t alter the electoral maths that make him the likeliest bet to be prime minister after 2015. If Labour hangs on to disgruntled Lib Dems, and angry Tories continue to side with Ukip – both plausible scenarios – crucial seats in the Midlands and northern England will be unwinnable for David Cameron. A handful of Conservatives even admit that Miliband has played a weak hand with guile, shoring up the unity of the left while the right is divided.

    Tory differences over how seriously to take Miliband are inseparable from the question of how easy it will be to woo voters who are currently sojourning with Nigel Farage. Downing Street strategists expect them to come back to Cameron in droves once they realise that their dalliance risks creating a monstrous lefty prime minister. Casual Ukip supporters are supposed to grasp that the things they want – less immigration, benefit cuts, a referendum on Europe – are available only under a Conservative government. Though braced for a strong Ukip performance in the European parliamentary elections in May, senior Tories are quietly confident that the tide will then recede.

    This view presumes that Farage’s supporters make rational choices based on a menu of preferred policies. Some Tories doubt it. In their constituencies, they encounter “Kamikaze Ukip” – people who are so filled with hatred of the political class and Cameron in particular that they might swallow the prospect of a Miliband-led government, which they would expect to fail promptly, if that is the price for provoking a purgative Tory crisis.

    Ukip’s organisational backbone is built from former Tory activists. They see the Prime Minister as an arrogant, unprincipled toff who has wrecked the party they once loved and whose electoral punishment is a task of moral urgency. There is sure to be a drift back to the Tories in 2015 but it doesn’t take many stubborn Ukippers – perhaps as little as 6 per cent of voters – to rob the Conservatives of power. The calculation that depresses some Tory backbenchers is that the alliance of people who want Cameron out at all costs, though ideologically disparate, is bigger and more motivated than the coalition of people who want to reward him with another term in office.

    If that is true, Labour can be the biggest party in the next parliament by default. Yet opposition MPs are reluctant to celebrate this bounty. There is some disbelief that the catastrophic defeat of 2010 can be overcome in a single term. There is also reluctance to credit Miliband with engineering their positional advantage. It feels unearned. A tiny victory delivered by the perverse interaction of a hard-right insurgency and an obsolescent voting system doesn’t exactly make a social-democratic renaissance.

    Then there is Miliband’s public image, the source of so much Tory comfort and something that everyone in Labour knows is a problem but only a tiny number of top advisers are authorised to discuss. The shadow cabinet has had many presentations of polling data but none refers to the leader’s personal ratings.

    Insiders say the arrival of Spencer Liver­more, a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown who has returned as an election strategist, has brought more focus to the question of how Miliband’s candidacy might best be sold. The preference so far has been for town hall-style meetings in front of live audiences, where he performs well. It is a device that can be pitched as a break from sterile Westminster convention but it can’t replace the mass reach of TV. The discussion now is about the broadcast formats that work for Miliband – what balance to strike between the heavyweight news shows and daytime sofa slots and how to play televised leader debates. Aides insist that Miliband can confound his critics in that arena, going in as the underdog against the famously glossy Cameron and emerging as the more substantial figure.

    Miliband’s team recognises that the public still needs to get to know him better. (Tory pollsters say voters have seen enough and aren’t impressed.) But part of the problem is that even Labour MPs find their boss remote. He is wedded to the Mount Sinai model of leadership – disappearing into the clouds for weeks and emerging with new positions on tablets of stone.

    He successfully stamped his authority on the shadow cabinet in last autumn’s reshuffle, leaving none in doubt that he can be ruthless. Yet despite having elevated a cadre of young “Milibandite” protégés, the Labour leader still seems isolated. His party backs him because he can win, yet very few people even in the shadow cabinet really know his mind. They can’t anticipate his instincts or claim to speak on his behalf on a range of issues – welfare, education, crime, immigration, Europe. That means they must stick to a narrow script or stay silent for fear of going off-message, which in turn makes it hard for the public to get a rounded sense of what Labour is all about.

    So far Miliband’s inscrutability has served him well. After three years, the Tories still don’t have the measure of him, which is why some of them think he can’t possibly win and others say he can’t lose. It is good for Miliband that his enemies don’t know what to make of him. The problem is that neither do his friends.


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    The ten must-read comment pieces from this morning's papers.

    1. We may all pay a price for the crushing of democracy in Egypt (Daily Telegraph)

    The junta in Cairo is bent on repeating the mistakes of the past – as I saw this week, writes Peter Oborne. 

    2. Mark Duggan inquest: questions must be answered before police and community relations can heal (Guardian)

    Public trust in the police is fragile. Amid the wider perception of a lack of justice, it is imperative that trust is rebuilt, writes David Lammy. 

    3. Dave must give the Tories back their dreams (Times)

    Cameron’s idealism has been lost in the economic nightmare, writes Patience Wheatcroft. He must rediscover his inspirational vision.

    4. A healthy media would stand up to the powerful and wealthy. Ours targets the poor and voiceless (Independent)

    A long, slow handclap for TV executives turning communities against each other, writes Owen Jones. 

    5. Carney must consider raising rates (Financial Times)

    The Bank of England has been proved wrong over its forecasts on unemployment, writes Chris Giles.

    6. It's time Dave and George gave the traitorous Cleggie and Cable a biff on the hooter (Daily Mail)

    It would be an offence against collective responsibility, but the Lib Dems jettisoned that principle long ago, says Stephen Glover. 

    7. Why is outsourcing shrouded in secrecy? (Daily Telegraph)

    Billions in spending are at stake, and ministers should come clean about the grisly details, says Sue Cameron. 

    8. First world war: an imperial bloodbath that's a warning, not a noble cause (Guardian)

    Tory claims that 1914 was a fight for freedom are absurd – but then history wars are about the future as much as the past, says Seumas Milne. 

    9. Jailing so many is a waste of time and money (Times)

    As sex attackers and violent criminals walk free, prisons are full of the wrong people, writes Jenni Russell. 

    10. Asian democracy must serve the people (Financial Times)

    The emergence of forces to challenge imperfect democracies is welcome – but dangerous, writes David Pilling. 


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    Dynasties, after all, can wind up frighten­ingly quickly, with or without hubris at the top.

    “All reviews are bad for you,” argued Ted Hughes, “especially the good ones.” So it has proved for the England cricket team, victorious against Australia four months ago, now utterly vanquished 5-0 by the same opponents.

    How did it happen? Good ideas, reinforced by credulous admirers, were taken to counterproductive extremes. Congratulated for their industrious work ethic, the team became their own slave masters. Praised for leaving no stone unturned, they found ever more stones to upturn, each less relevant than the last. Lauded for their professionalism, they snuffed out the last glimpses of play (from a game, let’s remember). Admired for their dedication, they fantasised it was the answer to every problem.

    The resulting atmosphere: anxious, dutiful, earnest, fearful and highly professional. Too little in evidence: fun, naturalness, mischief, adventure, lightness, wit and maverick independence. As always, collective mood is partly a consequence of losing rather than a cause of it. In this instance, however, team dynamics influenced performance as well as vice versa.

    At the heart of the story are three good men – the coach, Andy Flower; the captain, Alastair Cook; and the batting coach, Graham Gooch. Taken individually, they all have great qualities. Flower is direct, analytical and forthright; Cook has integrity, calmness and resilience; Gooch is respected, understated and down-to-earth. But somehow this triumvirate, reunited after a long-standing alliance at their county team, Essex, has proved less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps they reinforced each other too much. As they searched for players with their own single-minded approach to success, the template for “their” kind of player hardened and shrank.

    A classic paradox emerged: instead of developing 16 cricketers into ultra-efficient players in the Cook-Gooch-Flower mould, they watched a team lose its collective clout. Instinctive players cannot reinvent themselves overnight as gutsy battlers. They just become bad versions of their old selves – scoring unnaturally slowly then getting out, disorientated by a lack of familiarity with their own performance. That is pretty much what happened for five Test matches. Yet after each defeat the mantra was “We’ll work harder”. There seemed no one around to suggest trying something different.

    Frequently throughout this tour of Australia, two quotes have returned to my mind. The first is the dictum of Cook’s successful predecessor as England captain, Andrew Strauss. “I wouldn’t want to captain a team full of people like me,” Strauss used to say. He was not pretending to be a difficult character – quite the opposite. I have, in fact, captained Strauss, and he was strik­ingly considered and courteous. That was his point. Where a few players are naturally establishment figures (such as Strauss), others must remain true to their feisty, even egotistical nature. You can have too many of the “right” kind of player.

    The second comment is an insight by Luiz Felipe Scolari, the football manager who coached Brazil to World Cup victory in 2002: “My priority is to ensure that players feel more amateur than professional.”

    Combining these two ideas leads to the central challenge that faces all managers, in sport and beyond. Some players need to be managed towards greater discipline, focus and restraint. Others require the opposite encouragement, to be set free from stifling executive control. Hence two questions – where each player stands on that spectrum, and how to move them in the appropriate direction – add up to a definitive set of judgements for all captains and managers.

    Yet none of this will quite suffice as a complete explanation of perhaps the most disappointing England tour ever (in shortfall between expectation and performance).

    The Australian fast bowler Mitchell John­son, often more miss than hit, bowled with lethal pace and venom. Had England’s batsmen been on top form, they might have weathered the storm and Johnson’s fragile confidence would have waned. But England looked jaded from the start. And extreme speed can turn a jaded batsman into a burned-out player within the space of a few well-directed 95mph bouncers. Australian fast bowling and English jadedness reinforced each other, creating a whirlpool effect that dragged England underwater.

    James Anderson, who has taken more wickets than anyone who has worn an England shirt, has been ridiculed for writing in his autobiography that this was perhaps the greatest England team ever and they wanted to create a dynasty. This has been interpreted as fatal hubris.

    Dynasties, after all, can wind up frighten­ingly quickly, with or without hubris at the top. Niall Ferguson’s essay “Complexity and Collapse” exposed the dangers in searching for long-term explanations (a natural historian’s impulse) within every dynastic collapse. A complex human system, Ferguson argued, resembles a termite hill more than an Egyptian pyramid: “They operate somewhere between order and disorder. Such systems can appear to operate quite stably for some time; they seem to be in equilibrium but are, in fact, constantly adapting. But there comes a moment when complex systems ‘go critical’. A very small trigger can set off a phase transition from a benign equilibrium to a crisis – a single grain of sand causes a whole pile to collapse.”

    In comparison with the apparently reassuring ultra-professionalism of English cricket – the groomed lines of accountability, glossy mission statements and 82-page booklets about player nutrition – a few thunderbolts hurled by an Aussie fast bowler doesn’t sound like much. But the termite hill has crumbled all right, disintegrating into ashes.


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    With Labour uncertain of winning a majority and the Deputy PM certain to be around in May 2015, Miliband and Balls can no longer afford to treat him as a barrier to an agreement.

    In the aftermath of the 2010 general election, senior Labour figures wasted little time in signalling that Nick Clegg's departure would be a precondition of any future Labour-Lib Dem coalition. As Ed Miliband told the New Statesman in August 2010: "Given what he is supporting, I think it is pretty hard to go into coalition with him." Asked again, "so you wouldn't work with Nick Clegg?", he replied: "That's right. No."

    Ed Balls similarly suggested that there was little or no prospect of Labour working with Clegg, stating as recently as September 2012: "Nick Clegg made his decisions and I think the way he’s gone about his politics makes things very difficult [to form a coalition with him]". Just as Clegg demanded Gordon Brown's head in 2010, so Labour would demand his if it won in 2015. 

    But as my interview with Balls in this week's NS revealed, the shadow chancellor has had a dramatic change of heart. After telling me that he had a "friendly chat" with the Deputy PM in the Commons a few hours before we met, he said of the possibility of a coalition with Clegg: 

    I think what you always have to do is deal with politics as you find it. We’re fighting hard for a majority, who knows how things will turn out, I think, look, very many Labour Party members, voters, supporters, would find that very difficult and some Liberal Democrat voters would find that very difficult as well, but we’ll deal with the situation as we find it. I saw that subsequently he made a further statement to one of the newspapers that these things weren’t about personalities, and I think he’s right about that.

    While criticising Clegg's support for an accelerated deficit reduction programme in 2010, for the abolition of the 50p tax rate and for the bedroom tax, he also told me that he "understood" his decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives and his need to support "a credible deficit reduction plan", because "it was necessary in 2010". 

    Miliband has not gone as far as Balls in seeking rapprochement with the Lib Dem leader, but it is notable that he no longer suggests that his departure would essential for a coalition agreement between the two parties. Last summer, for instance, he told the Independent, "I would find it difficult to work with him", which is some distance from the unambiguous "no" he offered in 2010. 

    So what's changed? First, Labour's poll lead is no longer large enough for the party to be confident of winning a majority in 2015. At the end of 2012, its average lead in YouGov surveys stood at 10 points, it now stands at six with over a year still to go until the general election. As a result, Labour cannot afford to ignore the significant possibility of another hung parliament and of coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems. One shadow minister recently told me that he had been encouraged to look for "points of agreement" with the Lib Dems and to consider constitutional reforms that would appeal to the party, citing the example of proportional representation for local elections. 

    Second, Clegg is now almost certain to lead his party into the general election. Until last year's Eastleigh by-election (defeat in which would likely have been terminal for the Deputy PM) and the humbling of Vince Cable at the 2013 Lib Dem conference, it was far from clear that this would be the case. As Balls told the Times in September 2012: "I would be very surprised if Nick Clegg fights the next election for the Liberal Democrats — I don’t think it’s in the Liberal Democrat or the national interest."

    But the Eastleigh victory, which reassured the Lib Dems that they are not destined for electoral wipeout in 2015, and the return of economic growth, which raised hopes that they could derive some political benefit from the coalition, combined to shore up Clegg's position. The Lib Dems' subsequent decision to endorse his stances on deficit reduction, tuition fees and the 50p tax at their conference finally confirmed him as master of his party. 

    Third, defining politics by individuals, rather than ideas, sits uneasily with the more principled approach that Miliband is a tireless advocate of. It is not personalities but policies that will determine how and whether Labour strikes a deal with the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament. As Harriet Harman recently noted, Clegg and Miliband have worked together on issues including the boundary changes and press regulation. She said on Question Time: "He's [Miliband] worked with him on, for example, tackling the problems of all the phone-hacking and the Tories trying to rig the boundaries, so actually when we've put forward a proposal that the Lib Dems are prepared to support then they do work with us."

    Labour MPs have been struck by the increasing degree of policy overlap between the two parties. In the last year, Labour has called for the introduction of a mansion tax on property values above £2m, a 2030 decarbonisation target for electricity, the removal of Winter Fuel Payments from the wealthiest 5 per cent of pensioners, higher capital investment (in preference to a temporary VAT cut) funded by a rise in borrowing, and a reduction in the voting age to 16. What all of these policies have in common is that they have all either been proposed or championed by the Lib Dems.

    This is far from the only motive for their adoption but Miliband and Balls are too shrewd not to know that this shift will greatly enhance their chances of reaching an agreement with the third party in 2015. One of the most popular reads among Labour MPs last summer was Andrew Adonis's 5 Days in May in which the Labour peer and former transport secretary laments the party's failure to prepare for the 2010 hung parliament and urges it not to repeat this error. His advice has not been ignored. 

    In response to the voting age pledge, Lib Dem MP Stephen Williams remarked: "If we can bank that as an agreement then if the next parliament does result in an inconclusive election, which I think is quite likely, the more issues that we know in advance that we're likely to agree on will make the negotiations swifter." His parliamentary colleagues are saying much the same thing. 

    In 2010, the thought of Clegg and Miliband ever working together in government after 2015 seemed fantastical. But as so often in politics (recall that David Cameron described Clegg as his "favourite joke" before the 2010 election), all sides have been forced to think again. 


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    Unlike their counterparts, none of the Labour MPs in the Liberal yearbooks listed membership of any clubs. William Johnson (Nuneaton, 1906-18) listed his address as “miners’ offices, Bedworth”. William Abraham, known by his bardic name – Mabon – gave the Westminster Palace Hotel as his London address. Opened in 1861, it was the first in the city to have lifts.

    Frederick Hall (Normanton, 1905-33), stayed at Hummums. The name was a corruption of hamam, the Arabic word for bath; since 1683 the site had been a Turkish bath where, a source recorded, “people get themselves cupped”. It competed with Lazenby’s, Haddock’s and other “hummumses”.

    Converted into a hotel in 1781 and rebuilt next door in 1887, it became a London institution and is mentioned in Vanity Fair and Great Expectations


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