Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Aid for the Third World

A large part of this morning's Radio 4 "Today" programme was devoted to international aid: does it help development or hinder it, and is it just a gravy train for the well intentioned?

For those who wish to "knock" aid there is no shortage of ammunition. Though now rather dated Graham Hancock's "Lords of Poverty" (1989) is a rich source. The frontispiece contains this extract from a delightful poem:

We bring in consultants whose circumlocution
Raises difficulties for every solution --
Thus guaranteeing continued good eating
By showing the need for another meeting

For the full text see "The Development Set" by Ross Coggins.

Having been a campaigner for more and better aid for half a century, and actively engaged in it (in Papua New Guinea and Malaŵi) for over ten years in total I'm well aware of the problems of misdirected aid, of waste and the dangers of the culture of dependency, but also the inestimable good that well directed aid can do.

Here is a 12 point "Good Aid Guide."

1. Aid by itself will not bring justice to the World's poor, but can help. Always see aid in the context of trade, debt relief, human rights, the arms trade and other relevant issues.

2. Campaign for better quality aid as well as increased quantity.

3. Good quality aid involves local people : make sure that the poor are consulted about what they need and involved in providing it.

4. The most successful projects seem to be small scale ones directed at the needs of the poorest (often women) rather than large scale prestige projects.

5. Non-government organisations on both sides have a good record.

6. Good aid is in an appropriate style...

7. ...and uses appropriate technology.

8. Provision for long-term follow-up is essential.

9. The motivation should be justice rather than charity.

10. Aid should be in the interests of the recipients, not just the donors.

11. Good aid aims to develop people rather than things.

12. Aid directed at individuals rarely solves the cause of the problem: aim to help communities.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Pro Europe

I believe any referendum is an abdication of responsibility by our elected representatives. The proposal in the European Union Bill that any further shared sovereignty with the European Union should be subject to a referendum is clearly populist nonsense designed to tie the hands of British negotiators and stifle the development of the EU itself. This extract from the Christmas Newsletter of Peter Luff, chair of the European Movement, puts the matter well:.

As the Guardian editorial of 21 December put it extremely well: “It remains, as ever, a tragedy that we are led by government who insist that British interests are served by distance and disengagement in Europe – when in reality the reverse is true.” So, when people ask “what is the purpose of the European Movement these days”, the answer is that – more than ever before – we need to be the voice of sanity in explaining that the EU remains our best hope for security and prosperity in the future and that anything that could bring about its collapse would have a massively damaging implication for everyone, including the citizens of the UK.

Despite its occasional descent into anti-European rhetoric designed, above all, to pacify some of its neanderthal back benchers, the Coalition government has taken a generally moderate position (for the UK!) on most European issues. Nevertheless, the proposed EU Bill, which seeks to trigger referendums in the UK before any changes to existing EU legislation can come into force is a piece of populist foolishness that may well be challenged legally as incompatible with the UK’s existing treaty commitments. Keeping the Coalition government sane and sensible in its broad European strategy will be a key test of Liberal Democrat influence.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Yes to fairer votes

Apparently Ed Milliband, who supports the reform of the electoral system , has suggested that it would be better if Nick Clegg kept out of the referendum campaign. He's probably right, but illustrates how unsuitable referendums are for making political decisions - people are likely to vote on something other than the question asked.

On Thursday I had my first session of training for the "Yes to Fairer Votes" campaign. This was again by telephone (for which I had to pay) and lasted an hour. The session was led by Alice, who asked each of us (there were about a dozen people on the line, plus a deep throated mystery voice which kept saying "X has joined the conference" or "Y has left the conference") to tell our "personal story" of why we wanted fairer votes.

Alice's story was that two years ago she had been incensed because a friend of hers was living in sub-standard housing whilst pregnant and the MP just didn't care. This didn't strike me as being particularly relevant to electoral reform for the Westminster parliament, since such problems should be dealt with by social workers and local councilors. I want MPs to be preoccupied with the great national and international issues, and holding the government to account in an informed manner, not earning brownie points by working as highly paid welfare officers for their constituencies.

The theme of the training was that, by telling our personal stories, we should convince people that AV would make MPs work harder and abolish jobs for life (ie safe seats). It is true that under AV there will be fewer safe seats but they will hardly be abolished. My own personal story, when asked, was that I believed that AV would enable people to vote more honestly, be fairer and produce a more representative parliament which would encourage parties to work together. Not quite so sexy as a pregnant friend in a rat infested house, but more honest, I believe.

The campaign is to be carried out by "phone banks". Knocking on doors and leaflets are old hat. My comment that I find "cold calling" by telephone intrusive and that it created in me a negative reaction was brushed aside. "Was not door knocking also intrusive?" Well, yes, but at least the canvassers had shown they were concerned enough to get off their backsides and pay a visit rather than pester from the comfort of their own homes (or a phone bank centre.) Phone banking has, apparently, been tried an tested, was used by both President Obama and Ed Milliband and is the new sliced bread.

In my view the great advantage of AV over First Past the Post is that it ends the need for negative voting (aka tactical voting - voting for a second choice in order to keep out a third choice.) With AV we shall be able to vote positively for our first choices and use our second choice for the "keeping out" option. This, rather than the dubious advantages of MPs scrabbling even harder as social workers, should be the spearhead of the campaign.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010


In my somewhat eclectic higher education I studied some statistics and came across the Poisson Distribution, which predicts, if I remember rightly, that disasters come in clusters. With one of our MPs harbouring an alleged Russian spy, the student fees debacle and, now, embarrassing revelations of Vince Cable and his partial emasculation, all in the space of a fortnight, we Liberal Democrats must hope that our cluster of damaging events is now complete. Maybe even that the New Year and a victory in Oldham and Saddleworth will herald the turn of the tide.

Actually I think the disclosures of the opinions of Vince Cable et al could do the party some good, or at least hearten we stalwarts if not the public in general. The revelations show that not all Liberal Democrats in government have been seduced by the chemistry of working together with an alien team, but are actually standing up for Liberal values, and the duplicitous way in which the disclosures were obtained shows the Tory press up to its old game of stooping to any level to destabilise a government it doesn't like.

Monday, 20 December 2010

More Martin Wolf

Martin Wolf had an interesting article in the Business Spectator last month in which three points in particular stand out:

1. Although politicians are arguing that it would be wrong to burden our children and grandchildren with debts run up by this generation (itself a dubious concept) we also have a responsibility to hand on to them a fully-functioning public infrastructure (eg health, education, transport, water, energy, judicial, market, financial and political systems).

2. The UK government can currently borrow at a real annual rate of interest of 1%. "Never can there have been a better time to build up public assets." These would, of course, include higher education, and local authority services, both currently being slashed by the government.

3. Britain's net debt is "close to zero: thus debt is not a burden on society as a whole." In other words, very little of the UK's public debt is held overseas: citizens wearing their "taxpayer" hat are borrowing from others, largely pension funds and similar institutions, very often the same citizens wearing a different hat.

Consequently, a Keynesian policy of public expenditure to pull is out of the recession is not only desirable for the current generation but eminently affordable, and an opportunity to ensure that our children and grandchildren inherit a fully functioning civilised society.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


Devolution of power to local communities has been part of the Liberal creed ever since I joined the party, so I suppose we should welcome Eric Pickles's proposals. However, if I were a trained and qualified librarian I think I should take a dim view of the local library service being handed over to a group of self selected Linda Snells. Liberals have aways understood devolution to imply handing responsibilities and powers (including tax-raising powers) to democratically elected bodies, but neither district nor parish councilors seem to feature largely in the Pickles proposals.

Indeed, rather than enhance the fund-raising powers of councilors the proposals allow council tax demands to be subject to referendums if the citizenry don't like them. In my view referendums should have no part in our system, which is one of representative democracy. We elect MPs and councilors to make decisions on our behalf, using their judgment after having weighed up the pros and cons pertaining to any situation. If we don't like their decisions we choose someone else at the next scheduled election.

The proposal to force 12 areas to hold referendums on whether or not to have a directly elected mayor is doubly flawed. First, how can powers be devolved if central government forces an area to have such a referendum? Surely, under true devolution, each area would be able to make its own decision. Secondly, the concept of a directly elected mayor throws the emphasis away from the reasoned policies of the competing parties on to the personalities of individuals. The growth of prime-ministerial power rather than collective leadership has damaged and weakened government at national level and similar results can be expected at local level if we take the emphasis away from policy and on to the personalities of a few, possibly maverick, individuals.

True, local government at the moment is dull, uninspiring and attracts little interest. It should be revived not though imported gimmicks, but by the introduction of an electoral system that makes voting more meaningful, and the granting of genuinely independent and meaningful powers to elected representatives at local level.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Will Hutton on the Press

I have just finished reading Will Hutton's long but worthwhile "Them and Us." Here's what he has to say about the Daily Mail in particular and the rest of the press (Guardian and Observer partly excepted!) in general.

"The info-capitalist proprietors - Murdoch, Rothermere and the Barclay brothers - are happy to peddle the big narrative of a badly governed country with an overblown public sector being carried to the dogs by Eurocrats, liberalism, undue deference to political correctness and moral decay. ... Commonsense views are set against those of lying politicians and untrustworthy technocrats, which are confirmed day by day by the way the news is spun, personalised and angled to support the big narrative. Government statistics cannot be trusted on climate change, swine flu, MMR or anything else. Statistics are twisted to indicate that crime - or teenage pregnancy - is always rising when, in reality, it is falling. Immigrants are allegedly swamping the country, ushered in by anti-British officials and politicians. Anyone who says differently is pitilessly hounded - witness the joint attempted character assassination of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg that was launched by the Telegraph, Times, Mail and Sun on the morning of the second televised debate...The aim was to discredit him and torpedo his dangerous popularity that was threatening the Conservative campaign." (pp327/8)

Hutton recommends "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies (Vintage Books, 2009) for a powerful exposé of the management of the media, including the BBC. Although I've only just started reading it, I recommend that you put it, along with Hutton's book, on your Christmas wish-list.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Less than Hearty Welcome to the Fib-Dems

Three cheers for the 21 Liberal Democrat MPs who kept their word and voted against any rise in student fees, and two cheers for the five who abstained. Unfortunately as a result of those who so publicly broke their highly publicised pledge we now fully deserve the sobriquet, "the Fib Dems" (and that's one of the kindest.) It will take years of hard campaigning, and the avoidance of any similar situations in the future to restore our credibility.

The main loser in this debacle is not, however, the Liberal Democrats, but the democratic political process itself. Labour has cynically and predictably exploited the Liberal Democrats' embarrassment without acknowledging that they themselves first introduced tuition fees, themselves broke their manifesto promise not to top them up, themselves set up the Browne enquiry, and have as yet made no constructive response to it. The Tories pretend that there is no alternative to a rise in fees when there clearly is (an increase in corporation tax, close a few tax havens, get round to collecting all that uncollected tax) The cynicism of the public that no party is playing straight with them is entirely justified.

There are three lessons to be learned. The most obvious is that no party should make pledges unless they intend to stand by them whatever the circumstances. There will be few, if any, pledges, if this is understood.

The second is a revision of our view of the nature of the manifesto and the doctrine of the mandate (the latter always rather an "iffy" concept.) The present theory is that a party will put into practice everything it proposes in its manifesto, and has the moral right to do so because the people have voted for it. If the days of (at least) three party politics and coalitions are here to stay, and in spite of this debacle I sincerely hope they are, than all parties, and not just the Liberal Democrats, should admit, and the media and public understand, that manifesto proposals are aspirations rather than firm commitments, statements of what the party would like to do, the road if would like to travel, unless diverted by the necessities of "events", lack of resources or compromise with another party.

The third is (as already argued in a previous post) that it is ridiculous for exhausted politicians to try to cobble together a coalition agreement in the weekend immediately following an election campaign. A ten day transition period should have highlighted the fact that student fees were a "red line" issue for Liberal Democrats, and the right to abstain was not enough. The Tories saw this in relation to electoral reform. A pity our negotiators, and the conference that endorsed the coalition agreement, were not more alert. More time should give more opportunity for the inconsistencies to show, and to resolve them before they become damaging.

I have my fingers crossed that the damage in this case is not fatal.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

A promise Kept, a Promise Broken, and ???Pledges...

According to today's paper Ed Milliband is to honour the Labour Party manifesto promise to support a referendum on a reform of the voting system by adding his name to the leadership campaign. Good or him, and what a pity the rest of Labour's MPs, who all fought and were elected on this manifesto, haven't the same integrity.

At the same time Ken Clarke has decided to ignore the Tory manifesto promise to make imprisonment the automatic punishment for carrying a knife. Good for him too. Mandatory sentences are a nonsense. We have magistrates and judges to decide on the merits of each individual case. Come to think of it, that's perhaps why judges are called judges: they're there to use their judgment. You'd think even Daily Mail readers would understand that.

As you'll gather from the above, it is possible in my view to be fairly relaxed about the contents of manifestos, cheering when the bits of which you approve are implemented, and being relieved when the bits with which you disagree are abandoned, quietly or, as in this case, very publicly.

Can the same relaxed attitude be taken to pledges? I think not, especially when the pledges have been blown up to photographable size, personally signed and then hawked around the target electorate with maximum publicity. One of my dictionaries (Pocket Oxford) defines a pledge as a "public promise" and the other (Chambers) as a "solemn promise." In other words these pledges are not vague aspirations tucked away in the small print: they are solemn and highly publicised promises.

The greatest danger to our political system at the moment is cynicism. If our MPs do not stick to their pledges tomorrow they forfeit our party's claim to integrity and merely fuel public cynicism and the belief that "we are all the same and none of us is to be trusted." They do not herald the new, more honest, politics of which Nick Clegg spoke so effectively in the Leaders' Debates.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

More Thoughts on Fees

1. Over the weekend a Liberal Democrat spokesman on Radio 4 invoked the "parlous state of the country's finances" as a justification for some of his colleagues' possible U-turn on fees (though he himself, bless him, was going to vote against.) But the fact remains that students will not be required to pay these fees "up front." so who will? The state, presumably. So if fees are increased the state will have to pay more than it does at the moment. So if the country's public finances really are parlous, these increases will make them even more parlous. There's the whiff of hypocrisy here.

2. More hypocrisy from the Labour Party. Clearly they're enjoying the Liberal Democrats' embarrassment, and doing their best to stir up ridicule, conveniently forgetting that thy introduced fees in the first place, firmly stated in their 2001 manifesto "We will not introduce top-up fees..." and then did, in spite of a whopping Commons majority and therefore no need to compromise with another party, and themselves set up the Browne Inquiry but as yet have made no clear response to it. What we need from Labour is their alternative. Knockabout rhetoric in Westminster and the media may be good fun but it does not advance the debate or define the options, not does it increase respect for politicians and the political process.

3. Ed Milliband is in favour of a graduate tax. So am I, but it does present problems , as outlined in an earlier post We need to know how Ed Milliband would deal with these, and what alternative his Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, who doesn't agree with a graduate tax, has to offer.

4. Less debated, but in the long run as important as access to universities, is the reduction if not abandonment of funding to subjects other than those the government thinks necessary for economic advancement. This Philistine attitude is disgraceful. Universities are for the exploration of knowledge, whether or not it is deemed "useful", and education at all levels, from infant to post-doctoral,is for the he development of human personality, potential and talent in whatever (legal!) field.

5. As the UCU has pointed out, the additional income from raising our Corporation Tax to the OECD average would provide all the funds necessary to finance higher higher education for free in all areas. Only the Greens, so far as I know, have the guts to propose this alternative. Perhaps the fourth option introduced recently by some Liberal Democrats, to postpone the fees vote and have another long hard think, which should include this proposal, is the best in the present circumstances.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Hanging in the Balance

I have bought, but not yet read, David Laws's account of the formation of the coalition,"22 Days in May." However, I'm already enraged (that's not too strong a word) by the title of his second chapter, "First moves in a hung parliament." If we Liberal Democrats won't use the positive and more accurate term "balanced" to describe such a parliament, who on earth will?

I have no prejudiced objection to the importation of American terms: many of them are both accurate and evocative. "Credit crunch" is from the US. One of my favourites is the "hot potato theory of money " (you hold it or you pass it on.)

The term "hung" is inaccurate in relation to parliaments, and evokes the wrong reaction. It is a US description applied to a jury unable to come to a decision. Its use in relation to parliaments therefore implies that they too will be hamstrung and unable to decide, and so it has entirely negative connotations.

"Balanced" by contrast, is positive. It implies, first, that the parliament more accurately reflects the opinions and wishes of the electorate than does a majority for one party based on on minority of the votes, and an even smaller minority of those entitled to vote. It also implies that, as a result of negotiations between the parties forming the government, decisions will be more balanced and reasoned than if left to the unchallenged dogmatic beliefs of a minority.

With all its faults, there is evidence of this balance from the coalition. We are to have a referendum on voting reform. It is not to be on STV, which Liberal Democrats would prefer, but AV is certainly an improvement on the first past the post, so the referendum is better than nothing. Wholesale second chamber reform is going to happen, whereas, left to the Tories alone, it probably wouldn't have, and all Labour achieved in 13 years with a thumping commons majority was minor tinkering.

Vince cable's tinkering with the Browne proposals for student fees is certainly an improvement on the original, ( though it does not, in my view justify Liberal Democrat MPs' breaking their pledge to vote against any increase. A pledge is, after all, a pledge - even stronger than a promise in a manifesto.) Without Liberal Democrat intervention the Tories would probably have introduced the Browne proposals without any cap at all, and with the "pay back" threshold left at £15 000

So here's an appeal to Liberal Democrats to ignore the ill informed media crowd and recognise and name a balanced parliament for what it is: a balanced representation of the views of the people.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

More on Equality

Just a few lines from Shirley Williams's highly readable autobiography, Climbing the Bookshelves

The historic evidence is clear deeply unequal societies are far less committed to democracy and the rule of law than fairer ones. The most stable and happy societies, according to much international research, have moderate differences in wealth and incomes both within and between the public and private sectors. They enjoy high standards of education; they support and admire public service; they understand that a good society requires as its foundation a sense of the common good. (Page 383, Virago paperback edition)

And to turn for a moment to another aspect of equality, a short paragraph in yesterdays paper informed us that during the election campaign the Tories spent £16.7m, Labour £8m and the Liberal Democrats £4.8m. (Guardian, 02/12/10, page 18). This is campaign expenditure only and does not take into account the cash poured into key marginals by Lord Ashcroft and others between elections

If the coalition is serious about fairness then the nettle of party funding and spending has to be grasped. Contributions from individuals and organisations need to be strictly limited, and public funding based on a system in which the parties have to make some effort to obtain their subsidy introduced. The scheme by which parliament decides the total for public funding for all parties, divides the sum by the number of the electorate, sends a voucher of that value to each elector and it is up to the parties to collect the vouchers and cash them in seems to me to be the fairest, and has the advantage of forcing the parties to keep in touch with the public. See earlier post for a fuller esplanation

Friday, 3 December 2010

Equality: a response to a response

As Chris Wales acknowledges, the "equality" question is so broad and deep that it deserves several posts rather than a few comments. After all, R H Tawney wrote a whole book about it.

So here are a few rejoinders to the detailed and thoughtful comment Chris has made to the previous post

1. Is promoting equality designed to save the rich for themselves of to save society form the rich?

Both really. As Wilkinson and Pickett show, the rich themselves are happier in more equal societies. I think this probably arises from "all being in it together" (and having to spend less time and effort protecting their wealth from the dispossessed.) Perhaps David Cameron's attempt to measure happiness will confirm this.

But equally democratic societies meed to be protected from the rich who, through being disconnected from society, and, believing (mistakenly) they have no need of it, withdraw their support from the means of sustaining it. In addition the very rich can and do wield undue influence in trying to manipulate the political process to preserve their privileges, not only for themselves, but also for their offspring. Why else is no party prepared to introduced effective inheritance taxes?

2. Some rich are philanthropic.

Yes of course they are and thank goodness for them, especially Bill Gates's foundation to combat AIDS in Africa. But neither national nor international society should be dependent on the whims of the rich for "good works." The rich should pay realistic taxes to repay, preserve and improve the societies which have enabled them to prosper.

3. People who strive should be rewarded.

They should and they will be, but that does not mean they should become so disproportionately rich in material and financial matters that they endanger democratic health. Even in societies with a high measure of equality (which, to repeat, does not equate to "sameness") individuals will still strive for job satisfaction, the good opinion of their neighbours, political power, sporting prowess, domestic happiness, and, for those for whom it is a priority, a superior level of material wealth.