Friday, 27 March 2009

Clegg's taxing high-wire act....

. Just as the Conservatives try desperately to untangle their taxation knots it seems we have one of our own. Or do we? Nick Clegg's interview in the Financial Times where he abandons the goal of cutting the net overall burden of taxation *in the short term* has caused great waves on the blogsphere as maybe expected. The operative phrase is in asterisks above to highlight it for those, on left and right, who think this represents a fundamental policy shift. It doesn't.

Towards the end of the article we find this paragraph;

"Mr Clegg said his long-term aim was still to cut taxes and to reduce the size of the state, although he said there was a case in the short term for some expansion of the state to pull the country out of recession.

In the meantime, the Liberal Democrat leader is calling for a redistribution of the tax burden to help low- and middle-income earners, principally by cutting tax breaks and closing loopholes for high earners."

I think this is pretty self-explanatory. Redistributive taxation in the short/medium term, as a kind of fiscal stimulus, but the long-term aim remains the same. Quite what does the Social Liberal Forum imagine will happen not in this election but the election after next? When all the talk from the Conservatives is of further austerity and Labour (now in opposition) is complaining of typical Tory cuts?? Where do the leftish cheerleaders of Clegg's announcement imagine he will want to take policy then?? I would imagine there are pretty large clues in the paragraph quoted above.

One imagines that at this juncture Charlotte Gore may well be frantically piecing back together the membership card she seemingly longs to rip asunder. Leaving aside the always colourful language that Charlotte's explosion brings forth I think it may well be premature. Clegg has not turned a corner or 'repented' as Dave Allen says he has at all but has merely recognised the economic realities of the current situation. Charlotte describes these thus;

"there's really no choice but to increase taxation, in order to continue funding our massive public sector whilst tax revenues are falling and welfare costs increase."

Notice the lack of any attempt to join the dots. Welfare costs are increasing (as is the size of the public sector) because the private sector has collapsed and is throwing people on the dole left, right and centre. Is it true that when a building explodes, if you want a new one erected you first have to actually build one? Yes it is. Alternatively, you could just leave a pile of rubble in it's place but there is little chance of one emerging from the ashes of its own accord phoenix-style.

Clegg is not proposing people be 'taxed more'; what he is proposing in the medium-term is a mildly redistributive fiscal stimulus, taking the pressure off of where the tax burden falls hardest on the lower/middle income earners in order to free up money which they will then spend; thus injecting more capital in the system etc, etc. It is not that this bracket is 'sitting on wodges of cash' it is that they don't have it because the tax-man takes it; so this is not an issue of Clegg conjuring fantasy savings into being.

It is her who indulges in conjuring tricks;

"for every pound the Government spends, it is a pound that cannot be spent by the private sector".

This is a false counterposition; the banks are not lending to the private sector so the private sector has no 'pounds to spend' regardless of what the government does. You can argue rightly that our tax dollars shouldn't have been spent on filling in massive holes in the bankers backyards and actually spent on real recapitalisation but you cant imagine a fantasy booming and vibrant private sector where none exists.

What would the real consequences of a massive 'kicking off the public payroll' now be in real terms other than an increase in unemployment; rising welfare costs (thus the increase of the need to fund these costs either through increased taxation or borrowing)? Saying that this is the solution now is economic madness to be painfully blunt. However, as I said above it would be wrong for anybody to assume that Charlotte might not find contentment in the future with Clegg's direction because it is really true that the more things change...the more they stay the same....

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Conservatives hit their 'Clause IV' moment....?

. Costigan Quist has some on this over at his cafe. He rightly concludes that there are 'deeper, darker splits' splits within the Conservatives however it has been pretty clear that these have been in evidence for some time. The first time they spilled out into the public view was the quite vicious campaign conducted against George Osborne last year. Of course, the sides are not exactly the same (for example, Iain Dale supported Osborne but is against the leadership on the 45p band) however the fact remains that these rebellions are motivated by a core of the Conservative Party whose sole interest in supporting Cameron and the 'Cameroons' is to march the party back into power.

Nobody should be under doubt about the depth of Cameron's commitment to a social justice agenda. Conservative Home makes it quite clear that the whole process is about an image driven 'decontamination' so later public spending cuts are more 'palatable'. Similarly the discreet shelving of inheritance tax reform should be seen in a similar light. The narrative weaves together under some kind of 'fiscal responsibility' umbrella; the rich 'pay their share', the banks are regulated and the public finances have to be trimmed. It does show that at least there is a thematic core beginning to emerge to the Conservatives line on the economy however, when we get to policy details they are still light and rather lame being perfectly blunt. Kenneth Clarke will obviously play the role of the 'acceptable face of austerity' as opposed to Osborne who will have slight problems playing that role.

It has often been said that there has yet to be a defining 'Clause IV' moment in the 'modernisation' of the Conservative Party and the question invariably arises is this it? The answer still has to be no for two reasons; a) there has been no large-scale structural reform within the Party (something that did occur in Labour) and b) there has not been a large influx of members to the Conservatives, something that entrenched Tony Blair's modernisation of Labour. Although this rebellion looks serious the fact is it is not significant because the Tories have been out of power so long that their restive activist base will accept anything Cameron says if they feel it helps them achieve a return to government. However, it is a precursor of the kind of troubles that will afflict the Conservatives when they do return to office. How problematic they will be will depend on the size of a Tory majority and shape of the next Parliament.

Interesting times ahead indeed....

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

A few more Conservative logos...

. I know I am a bit late to all this but for what they are worth (not an awful lot really) below are my couple of contributions to the Conservative logo fold courtesy of the generator here;

Sunday, 15 March 2009

First an apology then a retraction....

. Seems I wasn't far wrong in my last post about the insincerity of Sara Scarlett's apology. She has just issued a retraction statement which says;

"As a matter of conscience I feel like I can no longer stand by the apology I made five days ago.The words were not my own and they do not reflect how I actually feel."

So, she doesn't quite appear to know her own mind. Something which really should cast doubt on her demagogic allegations about the 'corporate incompetence' of Cowley Street. She says;

"To place the sole responsibility of all recruitment, campaign literature and political strategy, for members of the party under the age of 26, on the shoulders of unqualified individuals with no relevant experience is insanity. Had I known then what I know now I would never have put myself forward for this role. The organisation is essentially set up to fail and those who attempt to make something productive of it are tarred with the same brush."

Searching questions need to be asked of this; namely, what makes people 'unqualified'? Is it their age? It can only be presumed to be so; if the words of the apology were not 'her own' then whose were they? It is very tempting to be openly critical of somebody seeking election to a post within the party whose position seems to change so radically within the literal space of days; not a subtle change mind but radical volte-face.

Once again her retraction letter shows the complete absence of any hard politics. She talks of her personal animosity to Elaine and in a rather desperate attempt to give that some kind of political raison d' ĂȘtre says;

"Elaine has been an atrocious person to work with. The sycophancy she indulges in and the sycophants she surrounds herself with amidst a non-existent ideological cadre is a caricature of bad politics. Her leadership instincts are essentially New Labour. If this were a professional organisation someone with such poor interpersonal skills would never have made it through a human resource filter to the detriment of Liberalism's soul."

Of course, we find no substantive definition from her what she feels is 'liberalism's soul' (although the presence of both the leading lights of the now seemingly defunct Liberal Vision in her group of Facebook supporters might offer some hints). Getting to the end we see what her real agenda is;

"I think the LibDems are failing the many young people in this country who self-define as liberals. After the next General Election I will be writing a letter to the Chief Executive of the Liberal Democrats which will include my recommendations for an alternative to Liberal Youth."

As is to be expected we find no substance backing-up this serious political accusation. It would be nice if Scarlett could muster-up one specific and substantive policy point but alas it seems beyond her. What might this 'alternative' offer? Maybe we can find some clues on her Facebook group where Grace Goodlad asks;

"Why does Sara keep stifling debate by removing any posts that disagree with her? I have seen dozens go in recent days. If that is the approach she intends to take with LY her presidency would be truly Stalinist."

You may well think that given all the venom she reserves for 'ideological cadres' and being as 'in-tune' with 'liberalism's soul' as she claims to be such an approach would be anathema to her but seemingly not; if her candidacy continues in this vein then it is hard to see how it cannot be damaging both for Liberal Youth and for the wider party.

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Chair elections and hissy fits...

. One of the slightly less documented and probably less edifying aspects of conference is documented by Chris Lovell over on his blog. Not present on Chris's blog are the contents of a rather snide and deceptively coloured lilac leaflet that Sara Scarlett also circulated at conference. Subsequently an apology has been issued which can only, charitably, be called insincere.

One of the most noticeable things about her campaign website is the complete lack of any political content which probably explains why she is trying to turn the contest into a purely personal one. Also, notable is the screeching lack of mention of how she intends to relate to the wider party (apart from to complain bitterly about the non-compulsory nature of entering your DOB upon joining) which, of course, where the issues raised in this election become of a concern to the wider party. Elaine Bagshaw's site has the distinct virtue of linking both to Liberal Democrat Voice and Lynne Featherstone's blog and openly stating;

"Whilst Liberal Youth is separated from the Federal Party, we are still all Lib Dems, and want to see more Lib Dems get elected."

This forms part of a promise to organise a national Liberal Youth action day in a different constituency every month. How a parties youth organisation relates to the main party is always a thorny issue; I have to be totally honest and say I am not in favour of formal separation from either perspective because the closer the links the more a youth voice gets heard in the policy process and obviously the wider party is damaged by a complete sectioning off of young members. In that context such a promise from one of the candidates for Chair has to be welcomed.

Scarlett's website raises other interesting questions especially the section where she promises to seek funding from 'sister organisations' in order to 'free-up funds'. It is hard not to wonder specifically which 'sister organisations' she has in mind and whether these associations would be altogether wise politically (given that she has demonstrated such serious lapses of political judgement herself already). Overall though this election seems not to be getting much coverage on the wider blogsphere it is one that unquestionably has a bearing on our party as a whole.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Messy or necessary compromise?

. James Graham and Jonathan Calder both have pieces on the Guardian's Comment is Free pages commenting on the faith schools debacle at conference. James attacks the newly amended policy as a 'messy compromise' where as Jonathan clearly sees it as a necessary one.

Jonathan doesn't seem to have much to offer in his argument except that 'messy compromises' are often how it is with social institutions which on the surface is all well and good but really lends nothing to our vision of trying to change things for the better. Some faith schools no doubt perform their task well and are good schools to those that are allowed to attend however, the choice offered those parents who are happy to send their children to them does nothing to expunge the lack of choice for those parents who cannot send their children there or who do so reluctantly.

Does our policy enhance the choices of these people?? The answer surely has to be no; no doubt what we would see under this policy is a scramble to prove inclusiveness by the admission of token groups of differentially or non-faith pupils. Great for those that are lucky enough to benefit but not so great for those that remain excluded. What is more, children that are part of these 'quotas' now face the rather horrific prospect of social ghettoisation within their own schooling community and I think we can all agree that is defiantly not a 'good result'.

How often do proponents of this system speak-up for those whose choices are crushed totally and utterly by the continuation of this 'messy compromise'? Besides, it is now the case that if faith schools; regardless of quality or otherwise, are unable to prove their inclusiveness to the satisfaction of a local authority they would face arbitrary closure under our proposals. So, as I said at the time what we now have is the worst of all worlds which is all about fudging the issue within our party and has nothing but bad implications for the real world where these policies are supposed to be implemented.

Jonathan asks;

"Are we seeking a society in which people with quite different views of the world to live peaceably together? If we have the latter aim, then a range of different types of schools, even within the state-maintained system, should attract us."

Sounds ok in theory doesn't it?? Until you face the spectacle of different faith groups bickering over the allocation of what are set to be increasingly limited resources; then this approach begins to look ever so slightly more fragile. Of course, that is to totally forget how peeved the non-selective state school down the road is because it is groaning under the weight of all those excluded from the land of milk and honey with the same or less resource; then your magic formula for unity and harmony becomes a fire-crackling explosion of discord, dissent and prejudice.

Raising to the challenge of the indoctrination argument, Jonathan dismisses out of hand "the idea that the state can offer an aseptic form of education until children are old enough to decide their own beliefs, uncontaminated by the influence of family or anyone else" as unrealistic. Of course, it is true that the state cannot and should not try to influence the way families wish to raise their children however it can control what it does. Looking at it through it through this prism the idea moves from the realm of the unrealistic to the highly possible.

Bear in mind this; this is not about outlawing the presence of faith schools or saying no they can never be; what this is about is the state determining how our tax dollars are actually spent and if we are actually happy with a situation where our tax dollars are spent fostering not a system of opportunity for all but actually choices for some and damn the rest. Our policy is now on this question very bad policy because it does nothing to actually strike any balances and actually risks creating worse in-balances; that is what makes it a very messy compromise indeed.

Sunday, 8 March 2009

My day in Harrogate...

. I lost my conference virginity to the Liberal Democrats yesterday (excluding leftie conferences I have attended) and, I have to say, it was a pretty painless experience and even more than a little pleasurable. I missed most of the morning though I am told Howard Dean's speech was quite amazing. I know for a fact that Vince Cable's was and he fully deserved his standing ovation.

Rewinding a little a few minor quibbles; I was less than impressed that I couldn't vote due to me being able to afford one day of the weekend and despite me actually being a delegated voting representative. I guess this is to encourage people to stay the whole weekend but it scarcely seems fair that people should be penalised in this way when there is plenty of reasons for only being able to attend one day. Similarly, charging £5 for a brochure is well just plain excessive and wrong (again this was down to me only being there for one day). Fortunately, I didn't have to pay but frankly I shouldn't have too (this time being financially punished for only one days attendance) and neither should anybody else when you are already paying a registration fee. Still, if i had been enfranchised as I should have then I probably would not be so sore about the brochure. Also, I would like to go on record as saying it is a total disgrace that those who work for the party are denied a vote.

We are rightly proud of the our status as a party where policy is democratically formed and therefore owned by all parts of the party but that in no way means we should be smug and self-satisfied and assume we have everything perfectly formed. I think it falls to our new President to look into these issues and I think our constitution should be amended accordingly. Regarding conference it has to be borne in mind that democratically and fiscally punishing people for only attending one day is not going to encourage maximum participation and therefore is a bad thing; something that needs to be addressed in the future.

Right; ranting over (well, at least until we get to faith schools). Vince Cables speech was grand and, rather interestingly, made specific mention of the 1909 People's Budget. Thematically it focused on attacking Labour for timidity; he rightly said that the banks should have been nationalised and lampooned a supposedly 'socialist' Labour for being unwilling to do this; the Tories, he said, simply had no worthwhile ideas to deal with the crisis. He ended by calling on the Liberal Democrats to take-up the mantle of being the truly progressive party; all of which, as you can imagine thrilled me.

I then attended a training session which meant i missed a goodly amount of the debate on the education policy paper, 'Equality and Excellence'. Unsurprisingly, the debate was heavily dominated by the section on faith schools. As a compromise this proposed that our policy on faith schools would be to create no new ones and gradually phase faith-based selection within the state sector out over five years. Three amendments (with the last one sub-divided) were put with the first one seeking to make faith schooling a matter of individual conscience (leaving us with no national policy); end faith-based selection immediately or in the case of the third one allow faith-schooling to continue but requiring them to prove their 'inclusiveness' or else face possible closure by local authorities. The second section of the third amendment would have allowed faith schools to actually make appointments based on a teachers religious views.

Only the first part of the third amendment was passed which, to put it mildly, leaves our policy a complete and utter shambles. Faith based selection continues subject to the fulfilling of vague criteria (which raise the rather horrific prospect of faith-based quotas) which, if they fail to meet, they will then be subjected to arbitrary closure. As I said later there is no doubt in mind that this policy will be challenged and any substantive debate on education will once again be overshadowed by the faith school issue. Having watched the debate I am starting to tend towards the gist of the first amendment purely from the terms of practical politics because this debate will always inflame passions and frankly, neither side will ever be satisfied.

My final stop before resting in the bar was the Social Liberal Forum fringe which I am very happy to report was well-attended indeed. It was strictly standing room only and the panel which included the likes of Steve Webb and Alison Goldsworthy spoke enthusiastically about putting the passion back into our party and into social liberalism. So, all-in-all a good day....can't wait for Bournemouth in the Autumn.....

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Jenni Russell flys a kite....

. Regular readers will probably not be surprised that Jenni Russell's piece in todays Guardian caught my eye. It has to be said it has not been unnoticed that the Guardian has been openly flirting with David Cameron's Conservatives; recently it's progressive future series of discussions openly wondered if they could be part of said progressive future. Openly flirting with and certainly thinking of jumping in bed with if the tone of Russell's arguments are anything to go by; it seems very much to me that some of the Guardian editorial staff are kite-flying. I will lay a wager now that The Guardian will in fact, at the next general election, call for a Conservative vote (along with us as a side, tactical, mention).

Firstly, we have to admit that at least one of Russell's preconceptions is very true; we are headed for a Conservative government which is gathering steam to the point where inevitability seems to be beyond question. Secondly, it should be openly admitted that anybody who is serious about politics will, of course, not refrain from seeking to influence the government of the day whatever hue they maybe. So far, so good right?

Well not really; because Russell seems to want us all to abandon our 'short-sighted hatred' and well...i'm not actually sure what she is proposing unless she thinks we should give up our respective affiliations to the Liberal Democrats and Labour and engage en masse in some weird kind of kitsch entryism. Riding valiantly to the rescue of the 'Cameron-wing' we will then take our seats at the heart of government I presume?? According to Russell;

"A small group of determined people at the top is trying to pull the party behind some version of green, progressive, or compassionate conservatism. Its members are doggedly establishing the Conservatives in the centre, and sometimes the centre-left, of the political battleground."

One presumes this is the same group of people whose most striking proposal regarding taxation for a long time was the abolition of inheritance tax?? Hardly 'Red Toryism' is it? Russell's main mistake is to confuse the consideration of ideas with their acceptance. Many ideas get considered by all the main political parties but of course the likelihood of their acceptance is always determined by the political DNA of the party in question. Also, it should be noted that calling for the 'markets to serve society' does little more than indicate that David Cameron is an astute politician and has picked-up on the increasingly widespread frustration that people feel with the markets and how they operate.

One policy does not a program make and here again Russell falls down by being easily impressed by the 'startlingly redistributive' pupil premium' (why she fails to be impressed by our 'startlingly similar' idea is not mentioned). So-called 'One Nation Conservatism' has always been part of the Conservative body politic and to hear it reiterated from the party that did spawn Thatcherism is simply a reminder of the reality that political parties are complicated beasts. The contours of how this will be intertwined with a conservative ethic have already been sketched out by Cameron in terms of a 'belt-tightening' philantrophy to 'fix our broken society'.

Instead of a state with a sense of social responsibility that it is willing to follow through on what we will have is a state that thinks it is a good idea in theory but unwilling to do hardly anything about it in practice. Now of course there is nothing wrong with pointing to this to apply pressure but this cannot be done from the point of view that the best way to achieve this is to entrench the power of Cameron's 'wing' of the Conservative party itself; rather it must be done from the outside perspective of constructively opposing the governance of this party.

Russell also overestimates how much power this 'wing' has within the party and would be fascinated to hear how she accounts, for example, for the more radically restrictive views on abortion of the potential Conservative intake. Incidentally, this sits uneasily with her view that the Tories are 'much stronger' on civil liberties. Fine if your view of civil liberties is restricted to not wanting to carry an ID card; more problematic if it includes a women's right to choose. Russell is far too easily impressed with rhetoric about 'wanting the market to serve society' in lieu of delivery of what she herself admits is a 'patchy' Conservative narrative on the economy.

She says that 'constructive criticism' is what is needed without specifying what that actually means; people in other parties, in the business of politics, will naturally want not to cede ground to their opponents. Opposing a party for governance does not mean your criticism becomes less constructive; writers in the business of airy speculation will naturally feel that is an alternative to the 'nastiness' of politics but then that is a luxury they can enjoy....