Thursday 31 March 2011

Welcome amendments to EMA proposals.

Michael Gove's amendments to the original EMA proposals were greeted by shrieks of "U turn" from the Labour Party. I find this regrettable. It would indeed be nice if governments always got things right at the first go, but when they do not and are prepared to listen and be flexible, in a grown up democracy that should be welcomed rather than mocked.

The arguments for and against paying some students to continue their education beyond 16 are complex. My initial reaction to the EMA was the “grumpy old man” one that no-one paid me to stay on into the sixth form and my parents were certainly not rich. Indeed it’s interesting how perceptions have changed. In my grandparents' day children were usually required to go out to work to supplement the family income. In fact one of my father’s sisters who won a scholarship to the grammar school (that would be in the 1900s) was forced to leave at 13 because the family “needed the money” she could earn in the mill (at which humble level she stayed for the rest of her working life.) Although, in the 1950s my parents never put any such pressure on me it was clear that they regarded it as a sacrifice on their part to allow me to stay on at school.

So what’s their problem today, when we are approximately four times richer? Even families on benefits are probably, in real terms rather than comparative terms, far better off then we were.

These allowances are available to all students where the family income is below £30 000 (though I suspect that the full amount is not available to those at the top of the range.) Maybe I’ve been retired so long (since 1988) that I’ve lost track of the way salaries have moved, but, since the average wage is around £24 000 a year, £30 000 a year doesn’t strike me as the bread-line.

Still on the "grumpy" tack, the evidence is that 90% if the recipients would stay on in education anyway, so there is a heck of a lot of what economists call “deadweight loss.” In an article by David Blanchflower in the Guardian on 21st Jananuary (“Cutting the young adrift”) he claims that the evidence on which this 90% is based is rather flimsy, but one interpretation would be that it’s only 88% - still a lot.

Finally on this tack, a friend who has worked more recently than I with the 16 -19 sector, and who seems to me to have generous liberal instincts, says that for most of them the EMA is just mobile phone money. I rarely use my mobile phone because I feel calls are far too expensive. Better to wait till you get home and use the land line, on which all internal calls are free with the Phone Co-op.

On the other hand, Polly Toynbee, in numerous articles, claims that for “many” studentsthe EMA provides invaluable money for transport and even food as free school meals are no longer available for post-16s (is that right, even if you’re in an 11 to 18 school?) It also provides an incentive to work hard because the allowance can be discontinued for absenteeism, lateness and lack of homework.

In addition to observaions and experiences in this coutry I cannot help comparing the experiences of young people in this country with those of the students in this age group whom I taught in Papua New Guinea. Many came from isolated areas with virtually no cash economy. They or their relatives often had to walk many miles week after week to the nearest market with their produce and then sit patiently besides tiny piles of potatoes or other vegetables which sold at 20c a time in order to raise the "token" $20 fee to attend Sixth Form College.

The new proposals seem more efficiently targeted and cater for the most needy cases. Of course, in theory I prefer universal rather than means tested benefits, but free school dinners etc are already means tested so this is only a development of an existing scheme. Free local bus and train passes for all in full time education would be a sensible universal benefit which would get around the travel problems without much "deadwigth loss, " since the offspring of the rich would use their motor bikes and cars. As with so many other "welfare benefit" propblems, a lot of the difficulties would disappear if the Green's proposal of a Citizens' Income were adopted. If everybody gets it then no-one can grumble.

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Two own goals in higher education.

Tuition fees were increased under the pretext that the allegedly parlous state of the public finances made this move essential. It was pointed out in this blog that, since the existing fees are paid “up front” by students (or their parents) and that under the new scheme fees would not be repaid until later, then the current fees would have to be paid by the government, thus putting the current public finances into even deeper deficit. This obvious fact was little commented on elsewhere.

Now that more universities than anticipated are to charge the “exceptional” £9 000 per year top fee, the government is alarmed that the new scheme is to cost them up to £1bn more than expected over a four year period. It is feared that this “unexpected” expenditure will be recouped by cutting university funding in other areas.

At the same time, by reducing the number of visas for foreign students in order to curb immigration the government is cutting down a valuable source of income for universities. Britain’s higher education still has international prestige and, as well as providing valuable funds for universities, is a valuable source of foreign currency earnings.

Friday 25 March 2011

The big society, 1960s

As part of some long-overdue clearing out I have come accross the log book of a hike I organised, with a female colleague and her husand, in the mid-6os during a very educative spell as a primary school teacher.

We took eight girls and eleven boys aged 10 or 11 for a five day walking holiday in the Yorkshire Dales during the Whitsuntide holiday (which in those days really was held at Whit and had not morphed into the Spring Bank Holiday which we're now thinking of abolishing.) We travelled by train (a first for several children) and bus, stayed at three diferent Youth Hostels, and the total cost was £3-10s-0, which included 10/- (50p) pocket money. Participants had to pay a 10/- deposit and a "bank" was opened for weekly payment towards the balance. A discount was arranged with a local shoeshop for the purchase of "stout shoes."

In all we walked 50 miles, inculding a one day 14 mile treck from Kettlewell to Stainforth which we had expected to do at least partly by bus, but everyone seemed in good heart so we walked. We had planned for a day of rest and recuperation in the middle but were enjoying walking so much that we climbed Great Whernside
(2 310 feet)instead. The children record our many "adventures" and, perhaps surprisingly, are very enthusiastic about the food. We went to church on the Sunday and outnumbered the regular congregation. We seem to have filled in our spare time and worked off surplus energy by swimming in rivers and innumeralbe games of rounders until the boy in charge left the bat left it in the middle of a forrest.

There are no photographs in the log book as none of us had cameras, never mind moblie phones, BlackBerries or other fnacy gadgets. We did have an emergency contact list for parents. Most of these were to work-places as few people had phones in their homes. Happily most families seem to have had at least one parent in a job: unemplyment was about 250 000 compared with 2 500 000 today(plus another 2.5m on disability benefits.)

Since my female colleague's husband was unable to join us until the the second or third day for part of the time there were only two adults in charge of 19 children, a ratio which would not pass muster today. None of us had any formal qualifications in mountaineering, navigation, first aid or life-saving, none of us was CRB checked as that hadn't been intrduced, and no one had invented risk assessments. There is no record of any allergies or special dietary needs. And, of course, the whole event took place in the holdiay and none of the adults was paid: fairly typical of school "adventure" events in those days.

I do not disupte the necessity of some of the regulations which have since been introduced but I do suspect they have curbed a lot of the initiative and fun. To transfer thes reflections to another context, when businesses complain about over regulation I tend to take the view that one person's "red tape" is another's health and saftey. But maybe there is a case for being a bit more relaxed, partiularly in the case of small businesses.


Thursday 24 March 2011

The real big society

Last week I was flattered to be chosen by my U3A class to propose the vote of thanks to our lecturer at the end of our course. I should have liked to have been elceted to perform this imortant task by the Alternative Vote or some similarly sophisticated method but in fact was approached by "men in dark suits" (actually two ladies in black cardigans)and told "It's you", rather in the manner that leaders of the Tory Party used to "emerge."

Our classes were fortnightly and our lecturer produced for each one a fluent, searching and erudite accout of some aspect of 18th Century British social and economic history. He is a good friend of mine and I know for a fact that he has frequently missed atttractive social alternatives, partiularly jazz concerts, in order to spend time preparing materials outside his normal area of interest. Our whole class (some of whom were attending for the fourth year) agreed that he gave excellent value.

Of course, as with all U3A teachers, he received no money for his services. Actually, that's not stricly true: he was given £30 at the beginning of the session for "expenses." There are two things of interest here. Firstly the size of the payment: cetainly not millions, nor thusands nor even hundrends. Secondly, the fact that the payment was made at the beginning of the course, not at he end for reaching some artificial target. Our lecturer was trusted to do a good job and he did. And he'll do it again next year.

This is just one example, not only of the thousands of people who work voluntarily, as youth leaders, in drama roups, gardening clubs and the numerous other voluntary societies which make up our already existing "big" society, but also the millions in employment who do their best for an agreed wage without the incentive of performance bonuses. All of these simply "perform."

Perfomance bonuses distort because they reward the recipient for reaching targets which rarely reflect the over-all purpose of the function. Examples are legion: in secondary eduction the concentration on A to C pass rates which force more attention on the marginal C/Ds and less on the rest; inappropriate sales of insurance policies and mortgages because they provide a bigger commission for the seller, and most damaging of all to date, the bankers rewarded for short term profits rather than long term stabliity.

I should like to see all bonuses scrapped and all workers at whatever level engaged to do their best at their particular job for an agreed wage and trusted to get on with it.

Tuesday 22 March 2011

Budget Obsessions

Although I have taught economics for nearly half a century, and media attention to the budget should have been a help in interesting my students, I have always been, and remain,embarrassed by the national obsession with it. The only important thing about tomorrow's budget is how it will affect the macro economy: will Mr Osborne take a Keynesian view and use public spending and cuts in taxation to stimulate the economy, growth and employment. We already know the answer: he won't.

Yet on Thursday the papers, the saintly Guardian being no exception, will be full of naval gazing tables telling us the gains and losses to the single young, the family with two children, the single and married pensioner etc. These changes will be minuscule: a few percentages here and there which are hardly likely to make a serious dent in the comfortable lifestyles of the overwhelming majority. And we already know that Mr Osborne, along with his Labour and Liberal Democrat counterparts, will lack the political courage to make the comfortable share just a little bit of our wealth so that those seriously affected by the recession are adequately compensated.

According to a news bulletin on BBC Radio 4 today, Reginald Maudling brought joy to the nation in his 1953 budget by increasing the sugar ration so we could all bake more cakes to celebrate the coronation. That should put today's alleged austerity into perspective.

From this pathetic self-obsession we need to lift our political gaze to the solving of the really difficult problems: the arms trade which facilitates death and destruction, global poverty and climate change, to name but three.

Thursday 17 March 2011

No to a No-Fly Zone

Coalition ministers are forever moaning that the economic situation, (created by Labour!) requires them to make "difficult decisions." In fact there are no difficult decisions to be made on the economy. Britain is a wealthy country, vastly richer than in the days of our parents and grandparents, and all that is needed is a bit of generosity on the part of the haves to compensate the have-nots who are bearing the brunt of the recession created by the greed and insufficiently regulated market forces. All that is lacking is a bit of political honesty and courage.

The question of a no-fly zone over Libya poses genuine difficulties. On the one hand it is callous to stand idly by while a murderous dictator slaughters his own people. On the other hand "Western" involvement on the side of the rebels will probably strengthen Gaddafi's hand by substantiating his claim that the uprising is inspired by foreigners anxious to get their hands on Libya's oil, and a no-fly zone will almost certainly be insufficient and lead to the involvement of troops on the ground, for which the precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq present a frightening warning.

Whatever the pros and cons, no "Western" military intervention should be made without a UN mandate. It is alarming to hear British politicians blatantly ignoring the lessons of Iraq.

In the short term the best solution is to persuade the Arab nations, probably led by Egypt, to take the intervention necessary to bring a cease-fire to the civil war. In the long term we should stop supplying such regimes with arms in the first place.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

The Tax Gap

It used to be argued that death duties were a "voluntary tax" since those liable to them were rich enough to employ clever accountants who worked out ways of avoiding paying them. A report published this week indicates that much the same is true of Corporation Tax. The report suggests that something like half a million companies disappear from the register each year, and the total tax unpaid is probably in the region of £16billion. HMRC apparently lacks the resources to chase them up. Bizarrely, HMRC has shed some 30 000 staff in recent years and a further 15 000 are to go before 2014 under the coalition spending cuts.

According to the report, the annual cost of running HMRC £4.4billion. How crazy to further emasculate the goose which could collect the golden eggs.

A reminder that HMRC itself estimates that the total of uncollected tax from all sources in the last financial year reached £42billion, so 9% of all taxes. To be clear, that is uncollected, not including tax avoided or evaded.

It is shameful to live in a country which puts so much energy into hounding so-called benefits cheats, particularly the mentally and physically ill, and is so "relaxed" about unpaid taxes.

Tuesday 15 March 2011

Shock horror: dog wags tail!

If it does nothing else the present performance of the coalition disproves the idea that when a parliament is more representative and power is shared the minor party tail wags the major party dog.

As it happens some Conservatives take the view that this is what is actually happening, as was ably put by Chris in a comment to an earlier post:

.... many Conservative activists have had to tolerate the loss of many cherished goals: the abolition of the Human Rights Act, the putting on the backburner of repatriation of powers from the EU, greater use of custodial terms rather than 'community sentencing' (indeed I think Ken Clarke himself is a massive concession of the Lib Dems), lower rates of Capital Gains Tax, reduction in inheritance tax, a firm Trident decision, measures design to aid the family (particularly in the tax system) to name but a few. The fact that Conservatives feel somewhat disempowered to tackle the ECHR head-on is something many will feel particularly sore about.

Equally many of the social liberal wing of the Liberal Democrat party are dismayed by our craven support of the coalition's economic policies and the abandonment of the principles of Beveridge and Keynes.

So if both parties are outraged is it possible that the coalition is getting things about right?

As Nick Clegg has repeatedly pointed out, we did not win the election and he is the deputy, not the prime-minister. Chris's comments highlight some of what our junior partnership has achieved. With a stronger voice the damage social liberals perceive may have been even further ameliorated. As Jackie Ashley wrote in yesterday's Guardian:

We can all imagine what a coalition government with a stronger Lib Dem influence would look like. It would not have charged so hard towards free schools and against local councils; it would not have embarked on the NHS changes; it would have scrapped Trident; it would have been more pro-European. It would have castigated Labour, no doubt, over spending decisions, but it would have begun to reduce the deficit more through taxation than spending cuts. It would, we know, have been tougher on bankers' bonuses and more decisive in splitting the functions of the big banks.

So like John Cole I shall keep the faith. Liberal Democrats still have a vital part to play in British politics and the stronger our voice the less the damage to what as been achieved in the past and the greater the progress to a fairer, stronger and more equal society.

Monday 14 March 2011

Mists and Mysteries about Pensions

In a Guardian article John Cridland, Director General of the CBI, paints a glowing picture of public service pensioners living off the fat of the land on pensions funded by the taxpayer whilst the sternly realistic private sector cuts its coat according to its cloth. Somehow he fails to mention the absurdly high pensions paid to Fred the Shred and others of that ilk, nor does he mention what pension he expects for himself.

Several facts reveal Cridland's views to be somewhat distorted to say the least. Lord Hutton's report shows that the flow of income into public service pensions actually exceeds the amount paid out, and that the costs of public service pensions will fall dramatically once the current "spike" of baby boomers has been passed. Unions point out that the average ex-public servant's pension is very modest indeed because most are low paid, and a friend of mine who has worked in local government and knows about these things assures me that in Yorkshire at least local government pensions are funded from investments and the "pot" is healthily in credit.

Clearly if we are going to live longer then we need to pay more for our pensions or receive less, or a bit of both, but the debate should be based on facts rather than the bias of "private sector good public sector bad." We also need to recognise the purpose of a pension, which is to avoid penury once one's earning life is over, rather than to provide vast funds for the life of Riley or to finance advantages for ones children and grandchildren. I should have thought that about half the average income would be enough to avoid destitution, and the average income should be enough to provide a very comfortable existence.

At present values the average income is about £24 000 a year so I see no reason for any pensions to rise above that, and the minimum pension should be around £12 000 a year or £230 a week. It seems to me that the minimum figure should be provided by the state out of taxation, regardless, and the "top up" from contributions. Then we could all get on to enjoy the luxurious lifestyle that our sophisticated economy can sustain without all this fuss, distortion an jealousy.

Thursday 10 March 2011

Liberal Democrats, body language and the NHS

On Tuesday a Guardian leader discussed the present predicament of the Liberal Democrats and I am pleased that today they have published the letter I wrote in response. Perfectly reasonably, and without altering the sense, my letter was edited down, so here is the full version, with the cut (less than savage in this case) in bold.

Dear Editor,

Oh that it were true that “Lib Dems stare silently at their feet whenever the coalition does something particularly egregious…” (Call for a lost voice, 8 March) Unfortunately, as a Liberal/Liberal Democrat activist for almost 50 years I am haunted by the very opposite, particularly the vision of Nick Clegg putting his arm round George Osborne and congratulating him on that first budget which betrayed all the teachings of Keynes and the principles of Beveridge. Ouch! And by all accounts Danny Alexander relishes even more than the Tories the cuts which are systematically destroying our welfare state founded on Liberal principles.
If arcane rules of collective responsibility preclude Liberal Democrats in government from verbally dissociating themselves form decisions alien to the tenets of Liberal Democracy, than at least some distancing by body language would be welcome. For liberal Democrat MPs not members of the government an opportunity arises to establish the party’s true stance at this weekend’s Spring Conference. An amendment heavily critical of the NHS reforms and in particular the opening up of NHS services to “any willing provider” is to be debated. By supporting this they, along with like-minded activists, can express their vigorous opposition and the party can be seen to be doing its best to stop this ideologically driven quasi privatisation in its tracks.

Yours faithfully.

Another article in today's Guardian hints that opposition to the Tory proposals is gaining ground in our party. If it is successful, and the Tories are forced to backtrack, this would not only be good for the nation's physical and mental health, but also our political health if it begins the restoration of the Liberal Democrat party's reputation after the debacle of the student fees issue.

So all power the the elbow of our activists true to the faith at our spring conference.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

Barnsley, UKIP and the Liberal Democrats

A friend of mine has written the following letter for publication in Bradford's local paper, The Telegraph and Argus


Nigel Farage is entitled to UKIP’s twenty four hours of glory following their second place in the Barnsley Central by-election. However, he and UKIP are surely getting ahead of themselves in prophesying that they will oust the Liberal Democrats as the UK’s third party.

Yes, the Barnsley result was a shocker for the Liberal Democrats. But as a political party we have a philosophical basis and one which is both broader, more intellectually coherent and more optimistic than the narrow anti-Europeanism of UKIP. Our roots go back not just to John Stuart Mill but beyond to the thinkers of the Enlightenment and to John Milton.

Thirteen years of New Labour, with its encroaching state authoritarianism (not to mention an illegal war), disqualify Ed Miliband’s party from any early return to the moral high ground. The Conservative Party continues to contain too many people with sharp elbows prepared to let the devil take the hindmost.

Liberalism, with its 20th century contributions from Keynes and Beveridge (it would be handy if Clegg & co. paid more attention to these) remains the party of both individual liberty and societal fairness.

I for one shall “keep the faith”.

John Cole.

And so say all of us

Monday 7 March 2011

CAAT Petition

I have been a passive supporter of the Campaign Against Arm Trade (CAAT) for many years, having been introduced to it by a member of one of my WEA Classes who was an enthusiastic anti-arms campaigner as well as an advocate of the wit and wisdom of the Methodist Recorder.

I regret that I've never found the time to come to grips with the detail of the iniquity of Britain's trade in arms but of the following broad principles I am sure:

1. We supply arms to all sorts of unsavoury regimes. The excuse is that every country is entitled to defend itself and there are rigorous rules about what we sell and to whom. Such rules are either meaningless or flouted and much of what we sell can equally be used for internal repression. Tear gas to Colonel Gaddafi is just one example. David Cameron's embarrassing trip flogging arms in the Middle East at this highly inappropriate time just highlights the hypocrisy that has been going on for years.

2. A powerful excuse is that the arms industry is highly profitable and provides lots of employment. In truth this is only so because it is heavily subsidised by the government. If our universities were subsidised to a fraction of the money poured into arms they would continue to be world class without either difficulty or charging tuition fees to domestic students. Umpteen other worthwhile industries would also thrive if the subsidies were diverted to them (wind and wave power technology to name but two).

3. Employment could be maintained be converting arms factories to other more worthwhile products. For example, anyone who has ever travelled on an unsurfaced road in the Third World would know that any resemblance between a bus and a tank is to be welcomed. Hence the tank factory in Leeds could be converted to building robust buses and trucks for export to Africa.

CAAT is currently organising a petition, "This is not OK",the first tranche of which will be presented to Downing Street on Wednesday 9th March. Please find it by clicking this link and then adding your name to this very worthwhile manifestation of the Big Society.

Friday 4 March 2011

Tories, Murdoch and the Competition Commission

Arrogance, effrontery, nerve, chutzpah,audacity, brussenness; it is hard to find a word to describe the Tory mindset in the Murdoch/Competition Commission issue. Perhaps "Shameless" has the best connotations. The sequence of events: the transfer of the decision from the declaredly partial Vince Cable to the equally declaredly partial but in the other direction Jeremy Hunt, the Camerons at a dinner over Christmas with the News International chief executive,the promise that isn't worth tuppence of the editorial independence for Sky News, and now the shameless assurance that all correct procedures have been followed and all is well in the best of all possible worlds.

Clearly neither the BBC nor media plurality are safe in their hands.

This disdain for public opinion and promises augurs badly for the NHS.

Surely now is the time for Liberal Democrats in parliament to show their metal. I can't remember whether it was in a Laurel and Hardy or an Abbot and Costello film that I first heard the immortal phrase: "Even a worm will turn, just as a sausage will if you keep it long enough."

Here we have an explicit election promise of "no top down reorganisation,", an issue that is not in the coalition agreement, a proposal that is opposed by the overwhelming majority of the medical profession.

I earnestly hope that at our Spring Conference next week there will be such outrage that our people in parliament will be steeled to say "Enough is enough."

This is not a call for the end of the coalition. We are suffering for our own broken promise and betrayal of our economic and social principles, as the result of the Barnsley by-election shows. Surely we don't have to go along with a Tory broken promise as well, especially as it reveals rather than betrays their principles, which in the context of the NHS are the opposite of ours.

Thursday 3 March 2011

Deficit hyper-uppers

In an article in the Observer last month William Keegan wrote:

"There is something barbaric about the way this coalition is setting about a deficit problem whose seriousness it has cynically magnified for its own political purposes."

Alas Liberal Democrats are in this deception up to the neck. In an "all member" issue of Liberal Democrat News which I have just received Nick Clegg begins his front-page article: "Tackling the legacy of Labour's debt is one of the most urgent tasks facing the government," continues "Labour left us well and truly in the red" and later cites "the deficit and debt left by Labour" as "the most obvious symptom of a much deeper economic malaise." On an inside page, in an article which could well have been written by Tory, Lorely Burt writes: "Our economy really is in a mess...You really can't underestimate how bad our debt situation is," and later, "(o)ur role as Liberal Democrats is to pick up the pieces... The first task is to reduce the deficit. By doing so , we can give confidence to businesses that they can invest in our economy without the worry of our becoming a financial basket case like Greece or Ireland."

Patiently in this blog I have tried to put the case that Britain’s debts are not historically high, that Labour’s expenditure was reasonably prudent up to 2008, the year of the crisis, and that the current deficit is a result of falling revenues arising from the recession rather than profligate expenditure. Above all, we are not Greece, are not and never have been in danger from “the markets,” who are, after all, largely institutions within our own economy , including many pension funds, lending to the our own government. The “savage cuts” are far from a matter of necessity but are ideologically driven. Liberal Democrats, as heirs to the party of Keynes and Beveridge, should be advocating pump priming rather than cuts. This case is supported by a group of distinguished economists and commentators , including including David Blanchflower, Martin Wolf, Joseph Stieglitz, and Paul Krugman.

Further support for this view appeared in yesterday's papers. No less than the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King was reported as placing blame for the deficit not on Labour's profligacy but on the city and financial sector, and regretting that "(t)the price of this financial crisis is being borne by people who absolutely did not cause it." A correspondent in the Guardian, Barry Krushner, gave devastating detail on the real state of the economy. His letter is worth quoting in full:

* The Guardian, Wednesday 2 March 2011

George Osborne dissimulates. He knows that Ed Balls is at odds with Labour party policy on cuts, knowing that we have 12 to 13 years to pay off debt and deficit. But he also knows that our level of debt (less than 60% of GDP net of bank assets) is within Maastricht Treaty limits (60%) and lower than almost all OECD countries; that this debt is low by historical standards (we sustained debt at more than 100% of GDP for 20 years up until the early 1970s); that debt repayments (less than 3% of GDP) are lower than they were under Thatcher (5.15%) and Major (3.8%); that our deficit is partly created by a low overall tax-take (around 36% compared with the EU average of 40%). He knows this because these are official statistics (available on Google - mostly Office for National Statistics but also

He knows, therefore, that whereas our economy, dominated by manufacturing up to the early 1990s, delivered GDP growth of 2.5%, the financial sector since then has delivered growth rates of less than 1.5% – another element of structural deficit. He knows that, whereas public sector costs have risen year on year over the past 30 years, so has outsourcing to the private sector – currently at around 20% of total public sector resource. Though he may privately be content with Labour's failure to stem the concentration of wealth (the index of inequality rose under Labour – the Gini Coefficient up almost 5 points), Osbourne will be more circumspect that Labour borrowed less and repaid more debt than previous Conservative administrations (borrowing was roughly 50% less under Blair/Brown than it was under Major – more than twice Thatcher's debt repayments were made).

And his biggest dissimulation – under the continuing influence of the previous Labour administration, 2010 saw £20bn more than forecast wiped off the deficit as a result not of spending cuts but of "New Deal"-style growth stimulation. It is unremarkable that Osbourne can point to the OECD and IMF supporting cuts – they are the global advocates of public austerity. He does not mention the three Nobel prize-winning economists (Pissaredes, Stiglitz, Krugman) and Martin Wolf of the Financial Times, all of whom condemn this austerity policy as a serious historical error. Why not? Clearly because he wants no balanced public contestation over the sustainability of a public sector. The real question is why opposition parties and dissident Lib Dems allow this level of narrative control by the coalition government – "crisis", "unavoidable cuts", "Labour's fault". It's neither "middle" nor "muddle" nor an economic crisis – it's a crisis of democratic debate.

I have noticed that when, on BBC1's "Question Time" or Radio 4's "Any Questions," politicians "on message" quote the alleged "mess" left by Labour as a justification for current policies the audiences responds with a combination of a groan and a hiss. Apparently you can't fool all the people for too long a time. I hope that if these dissimulations are repeated at the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference next week they will be treated with similar derision.

A consequence of this hypocrisy as serious in the long run as the effects of the cuts on the quality of our society is the effect on the quality of our democracy. In the election we promised a new, more honest, politics. Distorting the record of the "last lot" is old politics, and we should be ashamed of using them, particularly as the deception serves not our, but the Tories', ideological ends.

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Confessions of a Non Baby-Boomer

Baby-booomers are predicted to be in the news today, as the National Pensioners' Convention is to lobby parliament to point out that not all the retired are living the life of Riley by squandering their children's inheritance.

Having been born before rather than after the war I am not strictly speaking a baby-boomer but in many ways I feel I have had even better fortune than they. Of course the war years and those immediately following were austere, but I wasn't old enough to realise what I was missing and as no one I knew enjoyed the luxuries of "normal" life there was no one to compare with. Sweets were limited to 2oz of cleargums a week but I do not remember ever being seriously hungry or cold, except that boys in those days were expected to wear short pants up to the age of 12 or so,so we all experienced chapped knees and thighs during the winter, and the only remedy, "Snowfire" I think it was called, really wasn't much use.

When I reached the age of 11 secondary education was free and compulsory and all medical attention was free at the point of use. When I left school all higher education was free, along with maintenance provision and fares to and from home three times a year. When I eventually qualified as a teacher there was no difficulty in finding a job, nor even the necessity of elaborate applications (I did not become aware of CVs until I was almost thirty.) In teaching there was such a shortage that if you could hold the chalk and walk three paces without assistance you were in, and the same applied to most jobs. Those who found they had chosen the wrong occupation had no difficulty in leaving and training for another. Until the mid 1970s unemployment hovered between 200,000 and 250,000. When it began to creep towards half a million (whilst Michael Foot was Secretary of State for Employment) we wondered if society could survive.

Throughout my working career the question of redundancy never arose: I either stayed where I was or moved as the fancy took me. Then, to my great surprise, I was offered early retirement about 15 years before I expected it. The offer arose not, I think, from my incompetence, but from the fact that the effects on the birth rate of the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the 1960s meant that there weren't quite so many sixth formers around to teach, and Mrs Thatcher was threatening to rate-cap local authorities to force them to cut their expenditure. So I was surplus to requirements and could be jettisoned to meet the financial requirements.

I firmly believe that my generation is the most fortunate ever. I do not, however, believe that I have been or am a parasite on society. I paid for my pension throughout my working life, and the superannuation deduction was a significant portion of my salary, which was modest for most of the time. I also had the sense to "buy in" those years for which I'd missed making contributions whilst working abroad.

I do, however accept that my generation has been selfish. We have demanded, and largely received, "Scandinavian" levels of services but been prepared to tolerate only American levels of taxation to pay for them. The real problem has been a failure of political leadership. Throughout the second part of the 20th century all political parties have pandered to this illusion and none, not even the Liberals, has had the honesty and courage to say that if you want a civilised society you have to pay for it.

Alas today's dominant philosophy is to dismantle the welfare state I have enjoyed rather than fund it properly. Unless successfully challenged it is this philosophy which will rob our children of their inheritance.