Saturday 4 January 2014

Sharon O'Donnell and Jumping the Gun

Politics is a rum business. That's why you have to make sure criticisms of your opponents are grounded in fact and take the whole view, not just the bits you find convenient. Unfortunately, occasionally something can catch you unawares. You spot a piece that sounds plausible, undermines government spin about a foolish, flagship policy and you share it with your Twitter chums. It goes viral and you bask for a minute in the smug glow of self-satisfaction. Then something starts pulling at you. You go through what looked like a good demolition when, in fact, it's a shoddy piece of supposition. You check out what the person at the centre of the storm has to say, and the major hooks on which the critique hung are way off the mark. Unfortunately, it's too late. Hundreds have seen it and a few idiots have started berating the "normal" person involved.

That happened tonight. A couple of days ago Dave paid a visit to a young single mum in Southampton. The occasion was some uncomplicated PR for his reckless, short-termist Help-to-Buy policy. But was there more than meets the eye? This piece suggests there was. The anonymous author clearly thought they were doing a thorough number on the PM's flagship policy. We were told our "single mum", a Sharon O'Donnell (Sharon Ray on Dave's Twitter feed) isn't among the hard-working hard-up the scheme is spun as helping, had a direct financial interest in buying the property via her "directorship" at the estate agent's that were marketing it, that there is no record of the property being sold at the land registry AND that she was actually married, not single.

Damning stuff if it was true. But it's not.

Ms O'Donnell has taken to her Twitter account and set the facts straight. The new car picture taken as proof of a large disposable income was a company car. Sharon O'Donnell's job title, 'sales director' is assumed to indicate that she's in a senior management position, when in all likelihood it's akin to a supervisory role within a branch of her employer's. The land registry is, apparently, updated monthly so will not have recorded the change of ownership yet. And lastly, the marriage the piece "exposes" is based on out-of-date information and the relationship came to an end.

The only unexplained matter is that the PM's press team picked someone whose firm was also selling the house. Enough to raise an eyebrow half-way, perhaps. But nothing more.

In the studied light of reflection, the digging our anonymous writer has done collapses in on itself. All it takes is 30 seconds with Ms O'Donnell's Twitter feed for it to be comprehensively debunked. Yet me and many others took it on face value. It went viral because we wanted it to be true.

We know the Tories lie. Yesterday's revelations only serve as a reminder. But we labour movement and socialist people have to aspire to be better than that. It means casting a critical eye at material before we pass it off as good coin. And holding our hands up when we get it wrong, just like in this case.

Sunday Edit
For those interested, here's the subsequent discussion of the article. While on the basis of available evidence the piece is highly inaccurate, is does draw political attention to a ridiculous scheme. And as Ian and Loz note in the comments, there remain some unanswered questions.


ian cogg said...

Some questions still have to be answered.
Does she own any other property?
What happened to her share of the property she formerly inhabited with her partner and child?
How did the Tories select her as their trophy purchaser and did they know she was agent for the vendor and purchaser?
The hatchet job may have missed the target but it's a bit neffy if Help to Buy turns into Help to Organize your divorce in a tax efficient way allowing you to sell the marital home when the market is at its best while acquiring another property on the cheap.

Alex Dawson said...

Sorry, but I have to disagree.

As a company car driver myself, I can tell you that anyone who drives a convertible BMW as a company car has to be earning a small fortune to cover the immense tax bill it incurs. An ecofriendly, low carbon Diesel hybrid in the lowest tax category this ain''s a showoff perk she has chosen herself and will incur a big monthly bill to keep doing. Companies do not need people driving convertible sports cars to do their jobs, and the tax system recognises this.

Let's not forget this woman invited the media of the nation into her home to take pictures of her, and her young child, as part of a PR stunt for the benefit of a Tory PM shown to be intent on helping people who are already rich at the expense of the poor, sick and disabled.

Ms O'Donnell has invited the public scrutiny on herself. She knew what she was doing. A simple hardworking mum who happened to be visited by Cameron on the offchance? No way...we all know how political PR stunts are put together and she would have willingly volunteered.

Zero sympathy. I mean Zero.

John Blackwillow said...

Sharon O'Donnell may feel that she's defending herself from unfair criticism, however, she should remember the old adage. 'You are judged by the company you keep'. Making yourself a target by allying with a corrupt, proven liar was not a smart move. Certain parts of the article may have been off the mark but, ultimately it showed this PR stunt to be more of the same propaganda and rhetoric the coalition loves so dearly. Ms O'Donnell is clearly not struggling to survive, she is not someone in need of help to buy a home. She is not one of the oppressed masses. Nice try Cameron, youfailed yet again to convince all but your own lickspittle supporters that you're anything but a shoddy, corrupt, fraudulent spiv.

Anonymous said...

In the spirit of citing facts rather than sentiment, a BMW 118d convertible is a Band D Vehicle. A higher purchase price will attract more tax company car tax, but in line with lots of bog std repmobiles. No special rules for "show-off" convertibles...

TTG said...

@ Ian Cogg
1. No. If she did she would not have qualified for 'help to buy'.
2. We don't know. But she can't have been an owner (see answer to 1).
3. They did know. She was open about it and it was discussed with the media who were there (per a BBC journo who was there). We don't know how she was selected, but I'd speculate that the tories spoke to local estate agents to find someone who'd used 'help to buy' and she volunteered herself.
4. 'Help to buy' doesn't enable anyone to buy anything 'on the cheap' (it's about facilitating borrowing - no impact on the price paid) and noe of this has anything to do with tax.

I hope that helps.

As various others criticising that objectionable blog have said, 'help to buy' is a rotten policy. However, Ms O'Donnell qualified for it. Any quarrell is with the policy itself, and not individuals who take advantage of it. Any attack on her is unwarranted, and one which got all of the key points wrong - because the blogger didn't even have the decency to ask her about her circumstances - is inexcusable.

Anonymous said...

TTG - an attack on her is warranted when she seeks to ally herself with a government currently attacking the most vulnerable in society.

Not a physical attack obviously but a verbal critique and uncovering why she may have decided to do this is perfectly reasonable. Some of the comments above certainly shed light on the situation!

Alex Dawson said...

I understand she is driving a 3 series BMW convertible with a list price of around £33000.

I stand by my assertion that this is not a bog standard car dished out to a low wage staffer to go around looking at houses...this is a luxury executive car that will be given to a senior/high earning staff member as a perk of their job, and a nice perk too.

Again, good luck to her. But did she really need help buying a house when compared to the inestimable number of more needy people who do not have a home because the are not high flying sales reps? Do we really have any sympathy for those who invite the worlds media into their home for a political publicity stunt who then complain about a bit of public scrutiny?

Anonymous said...

TTG said
1. No. If she did she would not have qualified for 'help to buy'.

Glad you're so sure about that. ANy evidence besides spin?

2. We don't know. But she can't have been an owner (see answer to 1).

So she has always previously lived in rented property, and there were no previous transactions to take her off a mortgage? You may wish to assert that, I'd like to see some evidence.

3. They did know. She was open about it and it was discussed with the media who were there (per a BBC journo who was there). We don't know how she was selected, but I'd speculate that the tories spoke to local estate agents to find someone who'd used 'help to buy' and she volunteered herself.

Excellent. They couldn't find anyone less suspect then?

4. 'Help to buy' doesn't enable anyone to buy anything 'on the cheap' (it's about facilitating borrowing - no impact on the price paid) and noe of this has anything to do with tax.

Sorry, but you just failed residential finance 101 on two separate sets of grounds. Without help to buy a mortgagee, if they were willing to provide a mortgage at all, would charge a risk premium and possible risk insurance, which has huge implications for the cost of borrowing (the effective price for owning a property).
Secondly, in terms of tax efficiency, I have spent a lot of my past life helping divorcing couples get out of existing mortgage arrangements in the most tax efficient way to enable them to minimize the cost of splitting up. Unless the good lady has always lived in rented property (and she'd be the first estate agent outside London I've heard of who did, since that would make her something like a virgin brothel keeper)the that would put her securely in the 'not the person this scheme was advertised for' group.

ou said 'I hope that helps'. Not really, because we still haven't got to the bottom of the matrimonial property / family home conundrum, but for a novice spin doctor you've done very well.

TTG said...

1. The evidence that she qualified for 'help to buy' is that she qualified for 'help to buy'. The whole thing was about how she qualified for 'help to buy'. Or are we back to accusing her of being a liar. instead of just questioning whether someone like her should benefit from government help?

2. Again, see 1. 'help to buy' isn't available to people who've previously owned property. You may wish to accuse her of fraud, but I'd consider that unlikely as she does not appear to be stupid enough to jeopardise her career by doing so in the quest of a relatively modest benefit.

3. I reject the premise. There's nothing suspect about her. Could they have said 'we don't want to use you because someone might make an unwarranted fuss about it'?.. sure.. but isn't that sort of cynical image/PR-obsessed attitude something we'd like to get away from?

4. I accept that 'help to buy' has a beneficial impact on the borrowing rate, but it's fairly modest and I'm surprised that's what you meant when talking about buying property 'on the cheap'. I'd have phrased it more like 'with slightly discounted borrowing'. As for the other bit.. once again I refer you to the first point. You have no evidence that she's owned property before.. only speculation. I do have evidence that she hasn't. the fact that she qualified for 'help to buy'.

You need to decide whether you think she didn't qualify for 'help to buy', or shouldn't have qualified. If the former, then either she's a fraudster, or the tories explicitly lied. If you think she did qualify, then all of your concerns about her, as an individual, fade away and we are left with, as I said, an issue with the policy itself.