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Leaders’ Debate No 2

I’m writing this immediately after the debate has finished, therefore uncontaminated by pundit commentary and related ‘spin’. I watched the first half with the sound off. Why? Because I wanted to observe their behaviour uncluttered by the verbiage. I had to put up with that annoying Sky tickertape instead.

VERDICT: Cameron seemed more on his game than last week; Clegg seemed more convincing than I’d found him previously; and Brown frankly doesn’t look the part at all. In fact, at one point before I turned the sound up, I’d lapsed into an assumption that the debate was really between Cameron & Clegg, with some other bloke butting in now and again.

Not much changed with the sound on again. Both Cameron & Clegg answer the question put; Brown answers the question he wishes had been put. The two ‘C’s speak normally; Brown piles clause upon clause into his pump-driven statements. And of course, Brown looks like Bagpuss compared with his sleek younger rivals.

I guess a different person would play to the wisdom of age, making these upstarts seem callow. But not Brown; he doesn’t have that touch. Everything he does or says smells of formula. Very disappointing.

POSTSCRIPT

Post-debate polls: 10.00pm

YouGov:  Cameron 36%; Clegg 32%; Brown 29%

ComRes:  Cameron 30%; Clegg 33%; Brown 30%

Verdict? Pretty grim again for Cameron. The Tories nearly fell apart in mid-week after his first poor showing. Pretty good again for Clegg, consolidating his position. And frankly excellent – in relative terms anyway – for Brown.

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Leaders’ Debate No 1

Leaders’ Debate? I almost walked out after five minutes. I probably would have done but the cat had just settled on my lap. So I struggled through an hour of it. Not quite as grim as I’d thought it was going to be. Not good either.

Verdict? Brown did pretty well, but my expectations were extremely low. Cameron looks peevish and sounds confused, desperate not to shift from centre ground but needing to feed his inner toff. And Clegg? Early opinion seems to think he ‘won’. Maybe. All I can say is that he looked and sounded like a shallow prat. I kept thinking ‘David Brent’.

On balance? Poor for Cameron – which frankly is all that matters.

POSTSCRIPT

First polls an hour on show Clegg the clear ‘winner’. YouGov has Clegg 51%; Cameron 29%; Brown 19%. Meanwhile ComRes has it: Clegg 46%; Cameron 26%; Brown 20%

Could be Clegg picks up support because of his novelty value. After all, most people have never seen nor heard of him. And Brown, we know only too well. Later debates may tell us more.

Mention ‘elections’ and ‘voter turnout’ in the same breath, and you can be sure a journalist’s thoughts will turn to Liverpool, and in particular to my constituency, Liverpool Riverside.

John Harris in the Guardian started the trend in March with a video diary on the political state of Britain. He began his journey by filming in Riverside. The thread has now been picked up by former Aigburth resident, Jane Merrick, now political editor of the Independent. She has returned to her old constituency to comment on the lie of the land in the run up to the General Election.

Details have at last emerged of David Cameron’s favoured stunt to reward marriage through the tax system. It’s a very attenuated proposal compared with the original, applying to four million marriages, not twelve million as in the original scheme. The overall cost has been reined back too – from £4.9 billion to nearer £0.6 billion – while the benefits are targeted at marriages with incomes below £44,000. The net gain to these couples will be £150 a year; the net cost will be borne by raiding the banks for £1 billion.

Usually the tax system is used to incentivise behaviour, nudging people in a certain approved direction for the public good. Tax incentives or disincentives usually encourage private funds to be committed, or withdrawn, in response to the tax stimuli. So tax relief on mortgages stimulated private house purchase; and tax on cigarettes has encouraged people to stop smoking. After a time, once behaviour has been locked in, tax remedies can be withdrawn.

But with this current proposal, it’s hard to see anything other, in public policy terms, than a waste of public money. Couples will be handed £150 for doing what they are already doing ‘for free’. It’s difficult to imagine that £150 will ever make the difference between a couple thinking of separating, but deciding against it. And it’s not clear that £150 will increase the likelihood of couples marrying rather than cohabiting, nor what public benefits might follow if it did.

So it looks like this proposal is a gift from the Tory party to four million couples, paid for by the banks initially, but thereafter, by you and me. I say ‘gift’, but this is General Election time. So let’s call it for what it really is.

It’s a bribe!

But there’s more – and it’s worse. The payment is triggered for standard rate taxpayers only – ie the less wealthy. It would work best, where it works at all, for low-pay couples where one person stays at home. On Planet Tory, that stay-at-home is the wife & mum. But the moment that mother/wife seeks some independence through a job, or seeks to improve her family’s income by the same means, the gift/bribe is likely withdrawn.

So the unstated Tory message is simple: if you are a woman in a low-wage partnership, stay wed, stay in bed, and stay poor.

Amid the soporific opening exchanges of the UK’s General Election campaign, something stirs. If you can hack your way through the tedious technocratic detail of the dispute over NI increases, and skirt round the defensive palisades thrown up by business leaders in front of the Tory position, you might catch a glimpse of the real battleground ahead.

Ian Jack, of the Guardian, finds his range with a nice exposé of the private school backgrounds of the leading protagonists. Meanwhile, at the Independent, Johann Hari carpet-bombs Tory proposals with an energy unmatched by anything Labour has said to date; and they continue the assault with further criticism of business ‘vested interests’ behind Tory support. Even ex-Tory MP, Matthew Parris, is getting nervous in the Times, wondering whether the Tories have left themselves exposed to counter-attack. It’s not all one way though. You can always rely on Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph to mount a defence of any Tory position. He doesn’t disappoint either, calling for the mass sacking of public sector workers.

So what’s going on here? Has good old-fashioned class warfare been joined? I don’t really think so. Some journalists are occupying a space vacated by timid politicians, and speaking to their newspaper’s demographic. For the moment, broadsheet commentators can mine a seam of unease with rich Tories & their highly-paid business mates. But the agenda will move on. Labour politicians will not engage in the ‘politics of envy’ for fear of alienating the ‘aspirational middle class’. For now, we should just enjoy the ‘war’ while we can.

The inconvenient truth is that we are not really witnessing ‘class war’. We are spectators in a squabble between rival oligarchies. None of the political parties reflect via their principal actors the country they seek to represent. As Ian Jack’s piece shows, the parties have more in common, by dint of private education & Oxbridge for their leaders, than they care to admit. Disputes within this ‘ruling caste’ will break out from time to time, but the caste characteristics remain unchanged.