Friday, 29 May 2015
It says something about our priories (or maybe just the priorities of our media) that the Government's programme for the parliament, outlined in the so-called "Queen's Speech" has been firmly pushed from the front pages and lead news items by the alleged corruption in the organisation of international football competitions.
Taking the programme item by item, and as briefly as possible:
EU referendum bill: inserted only to placate the fruitcake UKIPERS and a Tory right wing anxious for a better yesterday, this pointless exercise will waste time and energy, discourage investment, distract us from the important issues and, if it results in a "No", cast us adrift from our neighbours, in splendid isolation but relatively impoverished and without influence.
Investigatory powers bill: aka "the snoopers' charter" - an expensive and unnecessary invasion of our privacy.
Extremism bill: even a Tory minister recognises it is an unnecessary threat to free speech.
Immigration bill: a positive campaign for enforcement of the minimum wage (and preferably living wage), regulation of "gang masters" and the abolition of zero-hours contracts would be more humane and effective.
Proposal for a bill of rights: happily the "proposal" is really a postponement of the "promise" to withdraw from the Human Rights Act. - let's hope this shameful ploy is effectively kicked into the long grass.
Childcare bill: most people will welcome this, and it will be useful for single parents. However, I'd prefer to see it coupled with measures so that a "double income" is not necessary for a family to achieve a satisfactory standard of living.
Cities and devolution bill: devolution is welcomed but why must it be based on cities and coupled with a directly elected mayor? What is really need is a Royal Commission or constitutional conversion to provide a comprehensive and rational plan for devolution to the nations and regions of the UK.
Trade union bill: contains two pieces of class-based vindictiveness. The proposal that no strike will be legal unless at least 40% of those ENTITLED to vote (ie not just 50% of these who voted) would, if applied to most councillors and many MPs, de-legitimise them. The substitution of "contracting in" rather than "contracting out" of the TU political levy is an attempt to reduce funding to the Labour Party without any corresponding requirement for shareholders to have any say on whether or not companies should contribute to the Tory party.
Housing bill: extending the "right to buy" with massive discounts to some fortunate tenants of housing association properties built partly with taxpayers' money will exacerbate the already critical shortage of social housing.
Education and adoption bill: the proposals to speed up the adoption process are welcome, but the measures to force so-called "failing schools" to become "free" (from what?) or academies is a ruse to increase the centralising powers of the Secretary of State, the bullying tactics of OFSTED, and possibly paving the way for "schools for profit," without any evidence that the education of the children will be improved.
Scotland bill: it is right to implement the proposals "vowed" by the panic-stricken party leaders before the referendum, but anything else should be put into the melting pot of a Royal Commission or constitutional convention (see above.)
English votes for English laws: again, a matter for a Royal Commission of constitutional convention, not piecemeal meddling. There is here an undoubted anomaly but it never seemed to worry the Tories when, in similar circumstances, the Ulster Unionists voted (normally with the Conservatives) on issues in England which were actually devolved to the Northern Ireland government.
Psychoactive substances bill: wholeheartedly welcomed(!) but we need to go further and have a rational examination of our current policy towards drugs and assess its effectiveness.
NI contributions/finance bill: the silly gimmick of "outlawing " any increases in VAT, income tax or National Insurance contributions for the period of the parliament. Should it be necessary to change these rates (and who knows what "unknown unknowns" my hit the economy) any such Act can, of course, be overturned by a simple majority.
Personal tax allowance: to be raised so that the low paid are taken out of liability for income tax. A policy origination with and much flaunted by the Liberal Democrats in coalition, but I've always felt that a more effective way to help the low paid, along with the very low paid and the unpaid would be to lower VAT.
Nothing about our real problems of the balance of (external) payments, which is our most serious deficit, nor our low productivity, nor the creation of a more cohesive, fairer and involved society.
So not much to be cheerful or hopeful about
Monday, 25 May 2015
Way back in the 1980s, when the Social Democratic party was formed, I was at a joint meeting at which one of the SDP members asked what Liberals stood for. I jotted some ideas on the back of an envelope (I think I've still got it somewhere) and spoke briefly on the following lines -
LIBERTY comes at the top of our list of beliefs, with the John Stuart Mill constraint that we are free only to do what doesn’t harm others. This means that we value variety, welcome people with different cultures and religions and believe that diversity enriches society. Where the preservation of liberty clashes with our other beliefs, such as equality, then we put liberty first.
EQUALITY AND SECURITY. We believe that all individuals are equally valuable. Hence we believe that the state has the dual function of both preventing some people becoming too rich (by progressive taxation) and providing a generous safety-net for the poor, so that all have the ability to participate fully in the norms of society. We are proud that Welfare State was introduce by the Liberals Lloyd George (the People’s Budget, sick pay, retirement pensions) Winston Churchill (employment exchanges) and developed on the principles of William Beveridge (conquering the five giants of idleness, ignorance, squalor, sickness and want) and regulating the economy to achieve these aims using the economics of J M Keynes.
DEMOCRACY. Liberals believe that people can be trusted. (Both Conservatives and Socialists believe at heart that we need to be coerced). We want to see parliamentary reform, so that the people’s representatives have genuine control over the executive; reform of the electoral system by the introduction of proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies; an elected second chamber representative of the regions, to which power will have been devolved to regional governments; and vital local government. All political power should be exercised at the lowest possible level. We are devolvers, not centralisers.
WORKPLACE DEMOCRACY. Our trust for individuals extends to the workplace, where we believe that workers should have a share in the decisions their firms make (which often have a bigger influence on their daily lives than the decisions of government.) We have advocated and pioneered schemes of profit sharing (Taylor of Batley, for example), and industrial democracy. Our belief in the value of variety means that we would not lay down a single pattern. The concept of “Stakeholder” firms and, indeed, a “Stakeholder Society”, is essentially Liberal.
INTERNATIONALISM. We believe that Liberal values should extend beyond the shores of this country. We are the only British political party to have consistently supported full, enthusiastic and committed membership of the European Union, not simply because we feel that to stay outside, or semi-detached, condemns us to fourth rate political and economic significance, though that is probably true, but because we see the EU as a bold and exciting adventure. The more idealistic of us even see it as a step on the way to world government. We believe that all international action should be taken through the United Nations, which should be reformed to reflect present day political realities. We campaign consistently for Third World development through the cancellation of unpayable debt, the reform of the world trading system to end the exploitation of poorer and weaker economies, and appropriate development aid from the rich to the poor countries.
SUSTAINABILITY. We reject the concept that further continuous economic growth in the developed countries is the be-all and end-all of politics and life . A more equitable sharing of what we have is far more important, with consideration for the quality of the environment through the conservation of energy, the development of sustainable energy sources and economic processes, and emphasis on greater happiness thorough involvement in art, leisure and the community rather than the accumulation of further private material wealth.
EDUCATION is seen by Liberals as a major liberating experience. We reject the restrictive link between education and employment and believe that every individual should have access to and the opportunity to enjoy education for its own sake throughout their lives.
The 2015 election was fought not on great principles but a series of messy tit-bits which were effectively bribes To revive, and I'm sure we shall, we Liberal Democrats need to establish what sort of society we want, based I hope on the lines outlined above, and make it clear in our campaigning that we are not just pavement politicians who work "all the year round" but have values and beliefs which many people share
Friday, 22 May 2015
A friend has passed on to me a cutting from a ten yea old copy (21/01/2005) of the Guardian which reports the creation of a seven mile walk in York to celebrate the life and work of Joseph Rowntree (1836 - 1925). Rowntree, a Quaker, established the famous cocoa and chocolate business and the article cites him as "one of Britain's greatest and most interesting philanthropists." Rowntree was "far ahead of his time as a progressive employer, radical thinker and social innovator" who "was a pioneer in modern employment, from pension schemes to employee shareholding and works councils."
Apparently he lived a modest life, often walked to work and took quite family holidays in Scarborough (where I spent VE Day: see earlier post).
Rowntree left most of his fortune to various trusts and you can read about the scope of their work on http://www.jrf.org.uk/?gclid=CMyrvZLW1cUCFfQatAodN14ANg
All this seems light years away from the short term profit maximising ethos which seems to dominate the thinking of the hard headed, grasping captains of finance,commerce and industry today, and I regret that things are likely to get even worse in the next five years.
In the meantime the broad left should be thinking how we can create an alternative ethos, of long term consideration not only for profit but also for people and the planet, for which we can campaign with confidence and enthusiasm at the next election.
What's left of we Liberal Democrats, with our long tradition of advocacy of profit sharing and employee participation, should take a leading role in this.
Wednesday, 20 May 2015
When she entered the contest for the Labour leadership two days ago Yvette Cooper apparently criticised Ed Miliband's campaign for being "anti-business." The only appropriate response I can think of involves too many expletives which would need to be deleted.
I haven't studied Miliband's comments on business in any detail, but, for heaven's sake, it is not being unfriendly to business to suggest that they should:
- pay their taxes;
- observe health and safety laws;
- offer employment contracts which respect the needs of their employees as well as their own.
A letter from a former Cambridge professor, Roger Carpenter*, in last Saturday's Guardian asks: "[I]s it not time for those who care about creating a society that is fair, civilised, compassionate, and protected from the power of the big corporations . . ." to agree that [the Labour party] "be left to die" and "to start again."
Without being explicit the letter seems to favour a Rainbow Coalition of a reformed or replaced Labour party with the Greens and Liberals."who still believe in a decent society."
Whatever the solution that is something to think about and prepare for during the next five years, as the Conservatives exercise unbridled their instincts as the "nasty party," pandering to the powerful and letting the weakest go to the wall.
*Professor Carpenter also usefully defines "aspiration" as "greed and selfishness," also something worth thinking about.
Friday, 15 May 2015
I see from today's paper that David Cameron has appointed an economist called Jim O'Neill, famous for coining the term BRICs to describe the large and increasingly influential economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China, to be Commercial Secretary at the Treasury. I suspect a few of the 330 Conservative MPs, some of whom will have toiled hard and long to retain or win their seats, or get selected for a safe seat, will be a bit miffed and feel that they could do the job just as well. I feel some sympathy with them.
But personally I am made even more indignant that Cameron is perpetuating the daft system by which, as well as bringing an "outsider" into the government (for which there can sometimes be a good reason) he also gives the lucky recipient a fancy title for life, the right for his children to call themselves Honourable, and at the current rate, £300 of our, taxpayers' money (in other context the Tories are very fond of making that point) for every day he chooses to "sign in." (Less fortunate citizens receive £66.45 a week, yes, a week, of our taxpayers' money when they "sign on" for Job Seekers' Allowance (JSA), as unemployment benefit is now pointedly called.) Oh, and under current proposals, or rather lack of them, that £300 a day is for life too, though the right to JSA runs out after 182 days.
For the life of me I cannot see why, when it is necessary to bring an "outsider" into the government, he or she can't be given the right to appear before either House of Parliament, or any of their committees, in order to make statements and respond to questions. This could be achieved by a simple amendment to the rules and conventions until the expensive and undemocratic flummery of the House of Lords is ended and a democratic second chamber substituted.
Unfortunately such common sense reforms are not to be expected from this government and all we can do for the next five years is fume.
Will there also be "resignation honours" even though hardly anyone has actually resigned?
Wednesday, 13 May 2015
After praising Nick Clegg for his "dedication and skill" in keeping the coalition intact for the whole term of the parliament, when many pundits confidently predicted it could not possibly last, our former leader David Steel, in an article yesterday, goes on to make six criticisms of Clegg's leadership. In my view he misses out Clegg's two most crucial errors, but first let's examine the Steel Six.
1. Clegg promised that, in the event that no party had a majority he would talk first to the largest minority. I don't see this as an error but think this was and is perfectly acceptable position. It seems right that the largest party should have first crack of the whip, though there was no need for the discussions with the second party to be vaguely clandestine. I do agree that the idea, floated by panicking Tories in 2015, that a coalition which excluded the largest party would somehow lack legitimacy, is a nonsense.
2. The formation of the coalition over a weekend was too rushed. Agreed. I suggest a minimum a three weeks, which would give the parties time to study the "small print" and recognise the pitfalls (eg in 2010 that a Tory agreement to "bring forward proposals for electoral reform" did not mean that they would vote for them.) *
3. In both he coalition negotiations and in government little use was made of experienced senior people (Ming Campbell et al). Instead jobs given to inexperienced young Turks. Agreed, and so in the coalition negotiations in particular the Tories ran rings round us. Also neglected were the Liberal Democrat council leaders who had already had experience of negotiating successful coalitions at local government level.
4. Tuition fees. Yes, the issue is not the tuition fees themselves, but the dramatic loss of trust in our reputation for credibility and honesty which, painstakingly built up over the years, was our major asset. Thanks, young Turks.
5. The constitutional reforms (AV referendum and House of Lords proposals) were ill thought out and introduced too hastily. I would be more inclined to accept that the proposals were the best that could be obtained in a coalition compromise. Electoral reform failed because the Tories misled us (see above), the campaign against was disreputable and the campaign for feeble. Lords reform failed because of Labour's duplicity (they voted for the reform but not for the parliamentary time to implement the legislation).
6. The debate with Farage. I don't see this as an error. By taking part Clegg enhanced our pro-EU credentials and I fully expected him to win the day with may plaudits. Sometimes, alas, over-confident bluster triumphs over reasoned argument, but this was not to be anticipated.
The two major errors which Steel does not mention are:
1. Clegg's early declaration, made in the era of the misguided "rose garden" hubris, that we could not pick and choose, but must "own" everything the coalition did. Rather we should have, in the coalition negotiations, defined:
i. those issues on which we agreed and on which we would argue and vote together;
ii. those issues on which we, as the minor party, took a different view, but on which we would give "confidence and supply" support;
iii. those issues on which we would reserve the right to campaign for an alternative and to abstain in on any vote in parliament;
iv. issues on which we would reserve the right to campaign and vote independently.
This taxonomy, or something similar, should be noted and argued for if and when we got the chance to be part of another coalition government.
2. The craven support of a misguided, vindictive, unnecessary and counter-productive economic policy way outside the traditions of the party, heir of that of Keynes and Beveridge. One if my worst political memories is that of Nick Clegg patting with approval the shoulders of George Osborne after his first and highly illiberal budget, which reversed the economic recovery already under way. On this issue we should have at least taken option (ii) above, explained that the Tories had over 300 MPs, we had only 57, so we couldn't stop them, but were the numbers reversed we should do things very differently.
A minor irritation rather than a personal error (lots of Liberals are equally guilty) was Clegg's repeated claim of occupying the "centre ground." He and others have been told repeatedly that that definition allows others to define our position. We are a distinctive party with a distinctive position; on liberty, the rule of law, democracy, internationalism, compassion, the responsibility of the government to attempt to regulate the economy in the interest of all etc. We define ourselves and don't and won't allow anyone else to do so.
* Comments below claim, and I accept, that it was always clear that the Conservatives would campaign against.
Monday, 11 May 2015
The first phase of the Labour party's inquest on their election defeat has unearthed the view that their campaign concentrated too much on those at the bottom of the pile - the unemployed, social security recipients, those on zero-hours contracts - and neglected to appeal to "middle England" - the aspirational middle classes. In the words of Chuka Umunna, already the bookies' 2 to1 favourite in the race for the Labour leadership:
"Our vision as a party must start with the aspirations of voters: to get on and up in the world, to see their children and grandchildren do better than they did, to get that better job, to move from renting to owning, to take the family on holiday, to move from that flat to a house with a garden."*
Well, apart from he mention of holidays that vision of society doesn't do much to inspire me, and the emphasis on going "up in the world" and "children and grandchildren [doing] better than they did" envisages a hierarchical society which has little to do with socialism and is the very antithesis of liberalism.
Surely the comfortable middle classes, of which I am one, are not totally devoid of altruism, decency, "doing unto others as you would they would do unto you" (however you like to put it). I want to live in a society which cares for those who, for one reason or another (and often through no fault of their own, as with the disabled) need help.
Or, as the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution puts it, a society: "in which no one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity."
For what it's worth, here or my views on the reasons for the failure of the Labour campaign:
- they failed criminally even to try to defend their record of reasonable economic competence in government, allowing the Tories to get away with placing the cause of the world economic crash on Labour, whilst making a risible claim to their own economic competence:
- they were unable either in opposition or the campaign to challenge effectively most of the errors of the Tories because Labour itself had introduced the neo-liberal and authoritarian policies against which they should have been campaigning (privatisation of the NHS, PFIs, 42 days detention without charge etc. - see previous post). New Labour was and is a hindrance to a truly progressive society, not a pattern to be followed.
When I began the formal study of politics way back in the 1950s my first lecturer, a Mr Chekanovski (I may have spelt that wrongly) actually included "the British sense of fair play" as one of the unwritten aspects of our constitution. I doubt if anyone would make that claim today.
What Britain lacks is a party that can combine competence with fairness. That is the gap which, out of our own introspections, the Liberal Democrats must try to fill.
* quoted from today's Guardian
Saturday, 9 May 2015
A friend of mine with far more experience than I of so-called "senior management" in British secondary schools tells me that, whenever he wanted a discussion of the causes of some debacle or other the response was inevitably : " Never mind that, George (and assumed name): we must put it behind us and move on." So the causes of errors never received adequate examination and the team continued its merry way to the next omnishambles.
It seems to me that both the Liberal Democrats and Labour are in danger of making the same mistake, with the rushed resignations of the leaders precipitating the participants' engagement and the media's speculation on the next stage - the new leadership. Tim Farron has already been tipped as the Liberal Democrat favourite, Alan Johnson has already declared that his hat will not be in the Labour ring. So we are encouraged to pant with excitement about the next contest instead of pausing to reflect on why we lost the last and far more crucial one so spectacularly.
Both parties, indeed all the "broad left," need to take a long hard look as to why the Conservatives were able to win an election on the basis of a false claim for their own economic competence, the equally false claim of Labour's economic incompetence, actual bribes (borrowing from we over 65s at 4% when they could have borrowed on the markets for a fraction of that rate), and potential bribes (housing association stock built with taxpayer subsidies to be sold off at a discount to the lucky occupiers whilst there is a a critical shortage of affordable housing), and many more misrepresentations and obfuscations
Was it he fault of the media: the overwhelmingly hostile press, largely foreign owned or by non-doms and tax exiles? Was the print media, in an age of twitter and other digital forms of communication, significant, and if so what should be done about it? Rules to break up ownership? Full implementation of Leveson?
What about election spending? We shall receive the precise details in a few weeks, but can safely assume that the Tories outspent Labour by a factor of three and the Liberal Democrats by a factor of umpteen. How can we convey the unfairness of this? How limit it in the future?
And what about spending between election? Someone (a PhD student?) needs to be commissioned to assess the effect of Lord Ashcroft's (once again a tax exile?) spending in key marginals the Tories hoped to gain. Was the swing to the Tories greater in these, and if so how do we combat it in the future?
There will clearly, as is normal, be much talk of electoral reform. And, as normal, interest will evaporate after a fortnight or so. What can be done to keep it alive, and what can be done to secure agreement between the broad left parties on a revised system to be introduced when we next get the chance?
The above affect all the parties, and I'm sure there are many others.
Here's one specific to the Liberal Democrats: that of honesty. I'm not sure but I think it was Professor John Curtice who said in a radio interview yesterday that, in his view, the Conservatives won the election on the day the Liberal Democrats reneged on our pledge and failed to vote against the tripling of university tuition fees. His reasoning was that, in that moment, we lost our credibility and reputation for direct dealing and our support in Liberal/Tory marginals (of which there are, or rather were, more than Liberal/Labour marginals) promptly switched to the Tories. And no amount of huffing and puffing about what a good job we were doing in the coalition could win it back
Never again should we make any pledge or promise that we don't intend to do our best to keep.
Media-generated excitement about who are and are not to be the next leaders should not detract us from a thorough inquest in our flawed performances in 2015
Friday, 8 May 2015
Seventy years ago today Britain celebrated the end of the Second World War in Europe. Easter must have been late that year because, aged seven, I was with my parents on our Whitsuntide holiday in Scarborough and can remember wandering with them and family friends through the streets singing a pop song, the opening words of which were: "Let him go, let him tarry let him sink or let him swim" and ending with the declaration that somebody or other was going to ". . .marry a far nicer boy."
There was outside the station a mini-obelisk which was illuminated by blue lighting, celebrating the end of the war-time blackout. That was the first time I can remember seeing any neon lights.
Two moths later the UK electorate rejected the party of the celebrated war leader Winston Churchill and installed a Labour government with a majority of 146.
That government set out to defeat the "five giants" William Beverage had identified: idleness, illness, ignorance, squalor and want. It promised a new society in which there was full employment, a health service free at the point of use, free education from primary to tertiary level, affordable housing, and a social security network for those who "fell by the wayside."
There was a vision of a "New Jerusalem." We had indeed been "all in it together" during the war and there was a sense that we could be all in it together during the peace. Justice, fairness and consideration for others would prevail.
Seventy years on, what on earth has happened to us?
We are now four or five times richer in real terms than we were then, and the government's public debt is minuscule by comparison. Yet, in spite of our universally educated electorate, we have believed a party that uses the excuse of an allegedly serious deficit to reduce the social security network; demonises the poor and disadvantaged; in health, education and housing, not to mention transport, public utilities (water, electricity and gas supplies), gives primacy of the profit motive over the needs of people, and will continue to organise our society so that the very rich will prosper at the expense of the rest.
Already the "media circus" has moved on and from seven o'clock this morning the chattering classes have switched to discuss the futures of Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband, and presumably by this afternoon the talk will be of whom Cameron will chose for his new cabinet.
We need to pause and consider how our highly educated electorate could be deceived by such a squalid election campaign dominated by lies, distortions and bribes, which failed to offer any alternative economic policy to continued austerity, and barely mentioned, vital issues such as climate change, prosperity without growth, taxation reform, banking reform, the unhealthy dominance of the City (George Monbiot has a good article on these), the distortions of our press largely owned by non-doms and tax exiles, and why the broad left put put up such a dismal counter-case.
These issues need attention while we batten down to endure another five years of our society in which "wealth accumulates and men* decay."
*Yes I know, women as well but it's a quotation from Goldsmith's "Deserted Village" written before we were properly sensitive about these things.
Wednesday, 6 May 2015
A recent Guardian leader cited a claim made by Keynes in 1926 that: "The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: economic efficiency, social justice and individual liberty."
Such clarity is a far cry from the silly squabbling and petty bribery of this election campaign.
On Economic Efficiency: Thanks to an astonishingly successful PR campaign the media have accepted the Tories' bizarre claim to economic competence. In fact they have failed on both their stated main objectives (to retain our AAA rating and eliminate the internal deficit within the one parliament), and the economy has certainly not been "rebalanced." In addition the external deficit (balance of payments) is a at a record high, productivity is alarmingly low, the much vaunted increase in employment is largely achieved through involuntary self-employment along with low paid, insecure, unskilled work, and the modest recovery after years of "flat lining" is already running out of steam. They can only be regarded as successful if their real aim is to roll back the welfare state (which I suspect it is.)
By contrast Labour's record in government, though by no means perfect (the inexplicable obsession with PFIs, for example) is almost a model of rectitude. (See previous post for more details)
Sadly the Liberal Democrats in government have, at least in public, betrayed our Keynesian heritage and gone along with the popular obsession with reducing the government deficit. I suspect, however, there has been internal pressure for "pump priming" stimulation and the change of course and increased public investment in 2012 is the result of Liberal Democrat pressure.
On Social Justice: Clearly the Conservative approach has been and will continue to be to demonise and punish the less fortunate in our society. Even Labour are beginning to get cold feet on his issue. A Liberal Democrat party true to our roots (Beverage) would have been more vocal in trying to protect the social security safety-net but at least we have been less savage than the Tories.
On Individual Liberty: In this I would include human and civil rights rights and in these areas the Liberal Democrats win hands down. It is very easy to dismiss human rights as a fad because most people who are comfortably off and secure in their status and circumstances can easily dismiss the need for them, because they don't feel personally vulnerable.
But it is at the margins that human and civil rights become important. Neither Labour nor Conservatives have good records nor, it appears, good instincts. Labour notoriously and infamously tried to extend the period of possible detention without charge to 42 days (the original habeas corpus was 24 hours). The Tories would withdraw from the European Convention on Human rights, not wanting our own vulnerable to be subject to its protection. To our credit the Liberal Democrats have stuck firmly to our principles, in spite of the derision this engenders with the red tops and Daily Mail.
So we Liberal Democrats get some marks on Keynes's first two issues and most marks on the third. I confidently expect our party will do much better tomorrow than the opinion polls predict. I certainly hope so. It is clear that to ensure a more civilised and decent society we need to retain and win as many seats as possible with the highest possible total vote.
Tuesday, 5 May 2015
I cannot understand why Ed Miliband is so feeble in his "defence" of Labour's borrowing record. Indeed, he fails to defend it at all (twice in the last week: in the "Leaders' TV Question Time" last Thursday, when David Dimbleby repeatedly badgered him "Did you borrow too much?" and yesterday on the Radio 4 "Today" programme, when he was harassed by John Humphries on the same topic).
Instead of robustly refuting this bit of Tory spin Miliband burbles on about new schools and hospitals built by PFI - a double error as PFIs are a costly nonsense and it is foolish to remind us of them.
Briefly, in their first few years in office Labour were determined to establish a reputation for financial probity and ran a budget surplus such that, by the time of the crash, the debt/GDP ratio was lower than that inherited from the Conservatives. ( A sixth form student at the time rather charmingly asked me if it were true that Gordon Brown had a girlfriend called Prudence.) As a result of the recession following the crash tax revenues fell and the deficit increased.
For fuller details see Oxford Professor Simon Wren-Lewis's blog for 22nd April,or simply accept his conclusion (23rdApril):
". . . if you cannot shake off that idea that Gordon Brown was profligate, one final set of figures. Between financial years 1979 to 1996 (the 18 years of Conservative government), the deficit averaged 3.2% of GDP. From 1997 to 2007 it was 1.3%. Now maybe the Conservatives were a bit unlucky with having two recessions on their watch, so the equivalent cyclically adjusted figures are 2.6% and 2.1%. One last time: Labour fiscal profligacy is as mythical as the unicorn."
Monday, 4 May 2015
In the immediately previous post I've argued that all parties should avoid indulging in "red line" speculation however hard the media press. Far more fruitful would be for us all concentrate on the policies on which we are are campaigning and say that, in the event of our not winning an outright majority of MPs, which the minor parties obviously won't, we will in post-election negotiations, argue as strongly as possible for the items on our "wish-lists." Obviously we shall be unable to achieve them all: that's the nature of the compromises made necessary in mature multi-party politics.
Unfortunately this advice has been ignored and the party leaders are spending too much time, and in the process being made to look feeble, by evading commitments about what they will and won't do.
The Liberal Democrat list of "red lines," (issues on which we shall refuse to join a coalition or give tacit support to a minority government without agreement to them) grows longer every day:
- guaranteed increases in education spending;
- personal tax allowance raised to £12 500;
- balancing the budget (this from the party which is the heir of Keynes!);
- investing a further £8bn in the NHS;
- protecting the environment;
- wage rises for public servants once the budget is balanced.
The Liberal Democrats are not a "think tank"or pressure group whose aim is to influence the government. We are a political party whose aim is to be, or be part of, the government and see our policies put into practice. In spite of our unpopularity and errors we have in fact achieved a good deal in government, (I'm happy to offer my list of 23 if anyone's interested) and should be fighting hard to do the same again.
Retirement to the opposition benches to lick our wounds and "regroup" is not a bold option.
More worryingly, it seems to me that the "red line" issues are in fact rather woolly and it wouldn't be difficult for a Tories, with a fair dollop of fudge, to acceded to them.
Education is a "protected" department and there are many ways in which "increased spending" can be interpreted; the Tories have already grabbed the personal tax allowance issue and pretend it is their own; we have already caved in to the "balanced budget" obsession; investing in the NHS will be acceptable to the Tories, if, as is likely, it is accompanied by further privatisation; protecting the environment can be interpreted in many ways; and public servants' wages cannot be frozen for ever.
By contrast the pledge that, whatever the circumstances, we shall not join a government which depends on SNP support (see previous post) is quite specific and, unless we and Labour (plus the Green[s] and Welsh) between us can cobble together a majority without the SNP, that rules out any "rainbow coalition."
Has Nick Clegg carefully crafted a situation in which the only possible outcome for us will be either opposition or another coalition with the Tories? I hope not.