Sunday, 1 March 2015

Don't mention the - tuition fees!


The one thing we Liberal Democrats would prefer  not to have mentioned on the doorstep, or anywhere else for that matter, is "tuition fees."  That is probably why Ed Miliband has introduced his own policy, to reduce the maximum payable. from £9 000 to £6 000.

So far Miliband's policy, announced last Friday, has been a great success.  Every news bulletin that I've heard or seen since then has, in reporting  Labour's new  policy, mentioned that the Liberal Democrats promised - no, pledged - in the 2010 election  to vote against any rise, and then didn't.  Only one bulletin I  heard mentioned that Labour themselves had said in their manifesto for 1997 that they had  "no plans" to introduce tuition fees, the in 1998 introduced them, at  a means-tested rate  of £1 000 a year, payable up front.  Then their Education Secretary David Blunket promised in 2001 that there would be no "top up" fees, but then  topped them up to £3 000 a year in 2004.  Nor did  any bulletin refer to the Tories' 2010 promise of no "top down " reorganisation of the NHS, but, to be fair, that's not on the topic.

So, it may not be fair, but we Liberal Democrats are the ones stuck with the stigma of the broken promise.  The reputation that Liberal Democrat councillors had painstakingly built up over thirty or more years, that "Vote Liberal/Liberal Democrat" and you really will get what it says on the tin, was blown in one stupid decision.  The damage affects not just our party, but all of British politics. The reported comment of  Caroline Lucas in Guardian Weekend  expresses the wider damage very accurately:

As for Nick Clegg, she says his reversal on tuition fees  is responsible for much of the cynicism  about British politics today,  "What I can't forgive  is that it was always  difficult as an MP  to say 'Trust me', but you can't say that now (28/02/2015)

Milband's ploy presumably  has the additional function of acting as a bribe to the "yoof" vote* to counteract the Tories' blatant courtship of  we pensioners with our costly and unnecessary 4% guaranteed savings bonds (available only to the over 65s), and promises of continued winter fuel allowances and free TV licences (over 75s only).

 Be that as it may, if implemented, and it is difficult to see how Labour would dare do otherwise if they are the majority party in the next government, the benefit of the fee reduction will, according to the highly respected Institute for Fiscal  Studies, go largely to those graduates who go into highly paid areas (banking, perhaps, PR, the law?).  Those in the more humble occupations (teachers, nurses etc) are unlikely to earn enough to pay back much over the amount  of "debt" accumulated at £6 000 a year, whatever the maximum is.

The irony is that the present system, even with a maximum of £9 000, is not all that bad,  It does not seem to have impacted adversely on university applications,  involves no  "up front" payment, applies to part-time as well as full-time students, repayments do not "kick in" until a reasonable level of salary is reached, does not affect graduates' credit rating, and is time limited.  Had we called it a "graduate tax" (an idea I picked up from a Professor Sandford of Bath University way back in the 1960s and have advocated ever since) we should have ended up with much the same result and saved ourselves a lot of opprobrium.

 *  Professor Simon Wren Lewis discusses some interesting aspects of this possibility on his blog:
http://mainlymacro.blogspot.co.uk/

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Pensioners' perks


I hope and suspect that as many pensioners will be nauseated and put off by David Cameron's condescending tone as will be prompted to vote Tory by his latest bribe.

Cameron has promised that we can keep our perks (£200 annual winter fuel allowance and  free bus passes for all, and free TV licences for those of us over 75) because we have, as a block, "done the right thing, worked hard and saved for our retirement."

I am quite certain that there is just as big a proportion of idle layouts, incompetents and variously dysfunctional people in my generation as there are in in the 18 -25 cohort or any  any other.  Having survived to 60 or 65 is unlikely to be the result of virtue.

For those of us with no savings and with no income other than the state pension the above perks are very welcome.  However, many of us have additional public or private pensions and are quite well off.  In fact many, having paid off mortgages, no longer supporting children and with a reduced appetite for positional goods feel that they've never had so much money in their lives.  So these universal benefits are quite unnecessary and, at a time of savage cuts for those really in need, difficult to justify.

Generally I am in favour of universal benefits rather than alternatives which involve means testing.  However, in this case, I feel no means testing would be necessary.  The government knows which of us pay income tax.  That means that our state pension plus other income come to over £10,660 a year.  Not a fortune (and not apparently sufficient to keep the likes of Sir Malcolm Rifkind and Jack Straw in the manner to which they've become accustomed) but quite enough to keep the wolf from the door.  It should be a simple matter to stop giving the winter fuel allowance and free TV licence to those of us in this category.

I would make an exception for the free bus pass, which I think should be universal because, if it were not, those with a pass would be forced to identify themselves as "poor."  (It's for similar reasons that schools contrive to disguise which pupils receive free school meals.)

For those without alternative means of transport the free bus pass is a godsend.  Most of those who do have alternative means don't use the pass much (unless, like me, they make token efforts to save the planet by travelling by public transport rather than by car whenever it's not too inconvenient) so the extra expense would not be great.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Democracy in danger, say our Bishops



The Bishops of the Anglican Church have written a pastoral letter.  I haven’t read it yet: maybe it will be read to us at church tomorrow morning, but if so there will be a few late lunches as it’s 52 pages long.

Pending reading or hearing it read I’ll content myself with comments on the Guardian’s headline, “Democracy is failing, bishops tell politicians.”

Well, if that sums up what they say, I think they are absolutely right.  In my view democracy is failing for the following reasons:

Politicians aren’t just seen to lie, they really do, routinely.

Labour promised not to introduce student tuition fees, they did, and then increased them.  We Liberal Democrats pledged ourselves to vote against any further rise, but we didn’t.  The Tories promised no top down re-organisation of the NHS, then within weeks of coming to office they introduced top-down reorganisation which was clearly already in an advanced stage of planning before the election when they made the promise took place.

Is it any wonder so many of the electorate say: “You’re all the same, we can’t trust a word any of you say.”?

 These are just recent examples.  There are many others, not least the case for  the  invasion of Iraq.  Over a long period both Labour and Conservative politicians have been pretending that we can improve the quality of our civic  society without raising taxes: in shorthand, have “Scandinavian public services with American levels of taxation. “ This is obviously  untrue, but no other party, no, not even the Liberals/Liberal Democrats have had the courage to challenge this undeliverable bribe.

One of the reasons for these lies is that politicians have an exaggerated idea of what they are capable of doing (or poor Alexis Tsipras of Greece is discovering this weekend.)  Whatever UKIP might like to think no nation is metaphorically an island, capable of  going its own way and ignoring the rest of the world. 
Another reason is that the electorate appear to be unprepared to listen to serious analysis of our choices, but prefer catchy sound-bites.  Until senior politicians of all the parties are prepared to renounce these and engage in serious discussion it is difficult to see the way ahead.

Our political system is patently unfair.

aa)      In the grossly distorted levels of funding available to the parties for  campaigning.  Things are not yet as bad as in the US where the presidency is “up for sale” but we’re moving that way.
bb)      The press is heavily biased to one party, the Conservatives.
cc)       The electoral system gives a biased result (more of this later.)
dd)      We are certainly not “All in this together.”  Bankers and business  tycoons give themselves hugely disproportionate financial rewards, mostly avoid any retribution for wrong doing, whilst people at the bottom of society are told that they’re lucky if they have a “zero-hours contract” and the expansion of these is hailed as a government success. 
      Someone in the riots a few years ago was gaoled for stealing  a bottle of water, whist people who swindle society out of millions get a slap on the wrist even if the “system” bothers to catch up with them.
ee)      Wealthy special interest groups exercise undue influence governments of whatever complexion.

Denigration.

The political system and its practitioners are subjected to persistent denigration, some of it  well deserved , but as senior Tory politician Douglas Hurd (I think it was) pointed out some years ago, it is so much easier  for people to succeed in our society be criticising those trying to improve it, than to try to improve it themselves.  Think of Jeremy Paxman and his sneer and bullying tactics.  I gather he is not to accept the invitation to “have a go yourself” by standing for the mayoralty  of London.   
The “fun” goes back a long way, I know, - eg the satirical cartoons in Punch in the 19th Century – and was refreshed in the 60s by “Beyond the Fringe” and “That was the Week that Was.”   To take the high and mighty down a peg or two has value, but when such denigration becomes the prevailing norm, then our democracy is indeed in danger.

The Electoral system.

Yes, I know, it had to be that for a died in the wool Liberal, but really, if the main engine of our democracy is faulty how can we expect good results?  Not only does the present crude system produce distorted results, and permits a party with the support of a modest minority of the electorate (40% of the vote translates to about only a quarter of those entitled to vote on the sort of turnouts we're getting today) to implement their whims against the overwhelming will of the majority, (eg opening up the NHS to privatisation) but it means that the major contending parties moderate their policies to try to attract the minority of “floating voters” in the minority of “marginal constituencies.”  Hence, give or take minor differences in emphasis here and there, we really are “all the same” (eg the slavish adherence to further austerity).

Only proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies will enable the parties to be themselves and give us a real choice.

Monday, 16 February 2015

Shame.


Over the weekend our prime minister, David Cameron, announced that the Tories, if they win the election, will conduct a  purge on people claiming benefits "who cannot work because they are obese or have alcohol or drug problems." 

An article in Saturday's Guardian noted that: " there are 300 HMRC employees investigative tax evasion of over £70bn, and 3 250 Department of Work and Pension bods chasing down £1,2bn of benefit fraud." 

What I find shameful is not just that we have a party with such such despicable values, but that over a third of  our electors are likely to vote for it. 

At a time when many of our population claim no religious faith, and many others adhere to faiths other than Christianity* it is perhaps now  tactless to cite the teachings of Jesus.  But it is Cameron's party which is for ever banging on about this being a Christian country and insist that schools must hold regular collective acts of worship which are "predominantly Christian."  

And of course, Cameron went to a School** with a Christian foundation, and which gets tax relief (avoidance?) on the strength of it.

The "goody" in last night's television adaptation of J K Rowling's "A Casual Vacancy" said "We must not turn our backs on those who need our help."

Cameron should call to mind what he learned at school.

* All of which, as far as I know, also teach some version of caring for our neighbour and the Golden Rule of "Do unto others as thou woulds't they would do unto thee."






Wednesday, 11 February 2015

SNP right on the economy


On the radio this morning the new SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon pointed out what is patently obvious to almost everyone except the leaders of the other parties: that "austerity has failed." Yet all the others can offer is "more austerity."

Sturgeon  advocates that, rather than further cuts, there should be a "modest " increase in public spending of 0.5% which, she claims, will free up an additional £180bn  for "investment in the infrastructure, innovation and growing the economy."

Hurray!

 I'm glad the penny has dropped for at least one leading British politician. I could almost wish there were SNP candidates standing here in Yorkshire.

Alas, her interviewer ("Today's"James Naughtie?) pointed out that this would involve further public debt and would "ask future generations to pay for our profligacy " (or something like that).  And the Tories accuse the BBC of a left wing bias!

M/s Sturgeon didn't respond to these canards: maybe she didn't get the chance.  But here, for the umpteenth time:

  • with interest rates at an historic low this is a good time for governments to be in debt, and there are good reasons for being in debt as extra public expenditure will help revive the economy, create growth and jobs,  increase the tax take, reduce expenditure on social security and thus reduce the deficit.
  • public expenditure now will  not place a burden on future generations.  You can't consume  today what is  to be produced by the as yet  unborn. This, as Professor Paul Krugman puts it far more eloquently that I, is "money we owe ourselves," here and now, not at some future date.   If you don't grasp this* please, please, please see::http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/debt-is-money-we-owe-to-ourselves/
What a pity the chance to cast a Keynesian vote is restricted to Scotland and  the Liberal Democrats are not banging this drum loudly and clearly throughout the UK

*  I've tried to explain this in an earlier post by pointing out that those of us who have taken  advantage of Osborne's bribe by buying the pensioner bonds now hold part of the National Debt, and the interest we receive will be financed by the taxes we pay. In this particular case that does involve a generational shift since only the elderly can buy the bonds but almost everyone will pay the taxes.  However most of the Nation Debt is owned by "everyone" in one way or another, through financial institutions, insurance companies, pension funds etc

Monday, 9 February 2015

Hard-working businesmen who do the right thing


The Tories never tire of telling us how keen they are to support  "hard-working families" who "do the right thing,"  We of the left should be equally assiduous in making it clear how much we favour hard-working businessmen who also  "do the right thing," namely:
  • live in Britain rather than as a tax exile;
  • register their companies in Britain rather than in tax  havens;
  • have no truck with contrived schemes to avoid and evade paying their fair share of taxes;
  • give their employees proper rather than zero-hours contracts;
  • pay at least the minimum, and preferably the living wage;
  • run real apprenticeship schemes and offer in-service training and re-training
  • observe the laws regarding their employees' health and safety
  • recognise their employees' need for sick leave when necessary, and holidays with pay;
  • re-invest a large portion of their profits in research and development, and, where appropriate, expansion
  • run decent pension schemes.
It is surely a nonsense when parties which advocate the above, largely a matter of obeying the law, along  with a dash of decency and a vision beyond short term profitably, are accused of being anti-business. David Cameron goes further and writes that  Labour has " a sneering hatred of business.":*

It is even more ludicrous that one of the accusers,  Stefano Pessina, himself a tax exile in Monet Carlo who has attempted to relocate the company  he leads, Boots the Chemist, to Switzerland for tax purposes, gains front-page headlines in our right-wing dominated press.  Labour is consequently forced onto the back foot  and shadow cabinet member Tristram Hunt is forced to grovel that Labour is a "furiously, passionately, aggressively  pro-business" party on yesterday's Andrew Marr television programme.

Our Liberal Democrat election slogan, "Stronger economy, fairer society" enables us, if we have the courage of our convictions, to campaign robustly on the  list above.  If it is achieved our society will be fairer.  And if business leaders really do "do the right thing" our economy will be stronger because employees treated fairly work better together for the common goal.

Add a dash of profit sharing and democratic participation (whatever happened to those policies?) and we could be living in soar-away Britain.

* In yesterday's Sunday Telegraph, so I'm told.