Friday 27 April 2012

Three quick points for Liberal Democrats

1. The vindication of Vince Cable continues apace: a) the only government figure who, the Emails reveal, resisted overtures from the Murdoch empire, and b)applauded by Will Hutton in yesterday's Guardian for "(pleading) for some sense of economic vision and direction over and above deficit reduction." 2. Simon Hughes "breaking ranks" with coalition solidarity and calling for proper procedure to be implemented to sort out Jeremy Hunt's partiality with respect to the Murdoch empire. Ironically Hunt's responsibility for this was transferred to him from Cable after the latter was foolish enough to reveal his antagonism. Unfortunately that's the end of the good news. 3. It was very embarrassing to hear Simon Hughes on Newsnight last night making a feeble defence of the government's economic policy, now further demonstrated to be damagingly destructive by the emergence of a double-dip recession,and to be trounced by both Dianne Abbott and Poly Toynbee. Since Simon is not in the government he above all is licensed to say "They have 306 MPs and we have only 57 and so, unfortunately we can only ameliorate, not stop, this madness."

Wednesday 25 April 2012

Rhodesia, Wilson, Clegg and reform of the Second Chamber

Way back in the 1960s when Ian Smith declared UDI for Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) British prime minister Harold Wilson tied both hands behind his back by declaring that he would not use force to bring the rebels into line. Nick Clegg seems to have made the same error by his statement, as reported in yesterday's Independent that he will not "go to war" with the Tories over the question of replacing the anachronistic House of Lords with a largely democratically elected Second Chamber. Surely it can never be good tactics in any negotiations to reveal the limits of your determination. Nick should study how his tough predecessor, Lloyd George, took on the entire establishment and the scorn he poured over them, especially "the Dukes", in circumstances much tougher than today, to achieve the first steps of democratic reform. House of Lords abolition has been on the agenda, indeed on the statute book, for the 100 years since then. It is shameful that the Blair/Brown Labour governments, with substantial Commons majorities for 13 years, did not finish the job. Now they cloud the issue by demanding a referendum (there were no referendums for previous reforms, some carried out by Labour). Embarrassingly former Liberal leader David Steel spouts the feeble excuse that "now is not the time" because there is so much for parliament to do the cope with the economic crisis. It is true that those with a vested interest in keeping the Lords as it is (ie those already in it and existing MPs looking for a comfortable and well-paid afterlife when they lose or retire from their Commons seats) will clog up the parliamentary time-table with spurious objections and alternatives. But it is is a commonplace that parliament already spends far too much time legislating (from knee-jerk reactions to dangerous dogs to the recent complex legislation on the NHS, when those involved pointed out that all changes necessary to improve the NHS could be achieved without legislation). I earnestly hope that Nick Clegg, our ministers and MPs will stiffen their sinews, summon up their blood, pull no punches etc.etc. and finish the job begun by Liberals over 100 years ago.

Tuesday 24 April 2012

Blogspot experts; please help

The method of publishing posts has changed during the pat ten days and I just cant find my way around it. Ideally I'd like to restore the status quo ante, but if that is not possible and we are stuck with this "update" can someone please explain to me: (1) How to get spaces between paragraphs: (2) How to make corrections after a "preview": (3) How to gain access to the statistics. Thanks in anticipation.

Monday 23 April 2012

French politics exciting and vibrant

There have been no posts on keynesianliberal for the past week as I have been walking in the Peak District with, among others, some French friends. They all companied of feeling over-exposed to reportage of the presidential election campaign so clearly they were not political anoraks. Equally none expressed any support for President Sarkozy or Marie le Pen, so they were not a representative sample. They all, however, expressed firm intentions to vote. We now know that the turnout was just over 80%, which compares very healthily with the 65.1% achieved in Britain in 2010, although this was an improvement on 2001, when our turnout dipped below 60%. The surprise to me is the strong performance of le Pen, who at 18.1% swamped the rising star of the far left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who obtained only 12%. The centrist candidate Bayrou, who achieved 18% in 2007, slipped to 9%. I find it exciting that, although France already takes a higher proportion of GDP in taxes than does the UK, and in my view gets very good value for money, 40% of the French (the combined votes of Hollande and Bayrou) were prepared to vote for even higher taxes - Hollande proposing a marginal income tax rate of 75% and doughty Mélenchon 100%. How lily-livered and in hock to the rich are our British politicians by comparison. It is a cliché of French politics that in the first round you vote with your heart and in the second with the head. So the next couple of weeks will be dominated by how the votes of the eliminated candidates will transfer. Assuming that all Mélenchon's 18% transfer to Hollande, as he requests, and Hollande receives half of Bayrou's 9%, then that puts the socialist candidate on a comfortable 55%, compared with 50% Sarkozy will receive if all Le Pen's votes transfer to him and he receives the other half of Bayrou's vote. However, politics does not obey logical rules, (as we found to our cost in the AV referendum),so the remaining candidates' fights to retain their core votes, attract transfers and dissuade abstentions will produce an exciting fortnight. PS While I have been away on holiday BLOGSPOT seems to have altered the procedures for publishing posts, and, try as I might I cannot get the final version to produce paragraphs. Nor can I find the statistics. Help and advice on either of these problems from more experienced bloggers will be appreciated. ideally I'd like to go ack to what it was before as this "update" appears to have no advantages.

Friday 13 April 2012

Tax and Charity.

I'm not sure sure that I support the backlash against George Osborne's proposals to cap the amount an individual can give tax free to charity at £50 000 or 25% of income. "Charity" in the UK covers a very wide range and includes public (ie private fee-paying) schools, including Eton et al, posh opera at Glyndebourne, as well as the Oxfam, Save the Children and other more obviously worthy causes (although, incidentally, Oxfam's campaigning arm is not regarded as being charitable.)

It is a government's duty to spend money on what economists call public (eg street lighting, defence, public order) and merit (eg health and education) goods and services and the political process is designed to apportion the money according to the will of the people. Ideally politicians should take a long term and dispassionate view in determining the distribution of tax income, since some of these goods and services (sewage systems, offender rehabilitation) do not necessarily have much immediate popular appeal.

To allow the very rich to opt out of the public weal with very large proportions of their incomes in order to finance their own pet projects is not necessarily in the wider public interest. Many of us who are not rich would like to have more choice, such as not spending money on Trident or its replacement, but we have to abide by "the will of the people" however imperfectly it may be expressed. To allow the rich to have free range on 25% of their incomes, but require them to spend the taxed part of the other 75% as the political process determines, seems about right.

Of course there would be less painful opportunity cost in financing the less popular public projects if the rich paid all the tax to which they are liable.

Monday 9 April 2012

Haz the cat sat on the mat - and duz it matta?

During the election both coalition parties promised less "top down" micro-management from the centre. Now, by introducing tests on phonics into the infant schools, they are trying to dictate how children are taught to read. This is in stark contrast to the 50s when I trained as a teacher. Then it was our proud boast that, unlike the regimented French teachers , who were clearly not trusted by their governments, our teachers were free to teach whatever and however was in the best interests of their pupils.

I do not claim to be an expert on teaching reading, but, unlike, I suspect, those ministers who claim to know best, I have actually and successfully taught a handful of "backward" readers to read.

It is hardly rocket science, but seems to have escaped these know-all ministers that:

*all children are different;,
*some are ready to read before others (my next-door neighbours younger son reached "reading readiness" very early because he was desperate to read the instructions on his video-games);
*forcing young children to learn things before they are ready is usually a waste of time and often counter-productive;
*different children respond in different ways to different methods of learning to read.

In my brief period as a junior schools teacher (with one hectic half-term taking the reception class in the infants) reading was taught by "look and say" and phonetics. The standard system was "Janet and John" and page five contained the word "aeroplane", after reaching which every long word was "aeroplane" to some children.I'm sure that fifty years later things have moved on a bit but, in education as in medicine and most other areas it is a nonsense for politicians to be dictating the minutiae of professional practices. The result inevitably leads to a "tick box" mentality and lower standards.

Saturday 7 April 2012

VAT: worry about histroic buildings, not pasties.

There has been much publicity regarding George Osborne's decision in the budget to charge VAT on warm Cornish pasties, and I've enjoyed David Cameron's thwarted attempt to prove he is a "man of the people" and once ate one in Leeds. However, this furore is just a populist storm in a teacup (yes, I know, there ought to be a better metaphor, but I can't think of one): merely an attempt to introduce fairness by taxing hot pastries in the same way as fish and chips.

What is far more serious in the long run, and will even have consequences when we're all dead, is the decision to apply VAT on repairs and renovations to listed buildings. Historic churches will be among those affected. The Cathedral of our diocese, Wakefield, has just embarked on a major renovation project assuming that it would be VAT free. Osborne's proposal will, if implemented, add £200 000 to the expected costs, which the Church simply hasn't, at the moment, got. I'm sure donations will be welcomed.

More to the point there is apparently an opportunity for discussion, so please send your views to (Sorry, can't get the link thing to work.)

In France, which has the highest number of tourist visitors in Europe, the government actually contributes towards the cost of maintaining its historic buildings. It is daft that we propose to do the opposite. You'd think that a party called Conservative would actually want to conserve our heritage, even if only for its commercial potential for attracting tourists.

Friday 6 April 2012

Reform of Second Chamber (2)

For earlier ideas on the replacement of the House of Lords see post on 4th October 2011

Neanderthals on all sides (including some Liberal Democrats) continue to strew obstacles in the path to the replacement of the Lords by an elected chamber suited to a modern democracy. Some months ago Labour dinosaurs (led by Jack Straw, as far as I can remember) were chuntering that, because of the alleged economic crisis, it was not appropriate to devote precious parliamentary time to what they seemed to regard as a peripheral issue. That's the easiest refuge for all the faint hearted. It never will be the "right time" and it is to Labour's shame that, with solid majorities for over 25 years since the War, they have only nibbled at the edges.

Now a joint select committee has recommended that there should be a referendum before any further change can be made. What nonsense. There were no referendums to introduce the earlier reforms: the reduction of the powers of delay, the introduction of life peers and women, the reduction of the number of hereditories. Nor, for that matter, were there referendums to introduce reforms to elections. The Great Reform Bills of 1832 and 1867, the extension of the franchise to women, the lowering of the voting age to 18 were all introduced by decisions of parliament, and that is how it should be in a representative democracy. Referendums should have no place in our constitution.

So all power to Nick Clegg in his efforts to face down the opponents of reform. The present proposals are not, to me, ideal. I'd like to see seven year terms (perhaps with a maximum of two) election from constituencies based on the regions of England and the nations, using PR by STV until the Commons gets it, a ban on ex-MPs and even other elected representatives so that the Second Chamber does not became a refuge or reward for "has-beens," and no appointed members at all. But we must not let arguments about what is best get in the way of the long overdue removal of this blot on our democratic escutcheon.

Wednesday 4 April 2012

"A" level exams: what goes round comes round.

When I took my 16+ (then called "O" levels)and 18+ "A" level examinations in the 1950s they were set by the rather grandly named Northern Universities Joint Matriculation Board, NUJMB or JMB for short. No one doubted their integrity or veracity, which may be because that was a more deferential age, but I suspect also because they did what they did honestly and to the best of their ability in the light of the teaching materials and examination techniques available at the time.

I don't actually know, but am fairly certain that, although they would levy a charge to cover their expensivenesses, they would aim to cover their costs rather than make a profit out of the enterprise. There were other examination boards run by other universities, notably London and Oxford and Cambridge, which covered other parts of the country and presumably had a similar ethic.

However, these university dominated boards have, over the years, been merged, amalgamated and I suspect, semi-privatised. If they don't actually make vast profits I suspect they pay there executives vast salaries based on the proportion of the "market" they manage to grab.

What Michael Gove's move, to restore the dominance of the elite universities, demonstrates, is that there are vast areas of human activity in which business ethics and the profit motive are inappropriate. Education is one of them. Would that he also recognised the malign effects of the gradual privatisation of other vast swathes of the education service, so that it is in danger of rapidly ceasing to be a service and becoming a business. See Melissa Benn's article in Open Democracy for details.

It would, in my view, be a mistake to place the posher universities in the driving seat for "A" level examinations, since they are, or should be, designed for much more that selection for universities. Those engaged in the actual teaching at "A" level should obviously have an important input, as they know more about it than anyone else.

Whatever new structure is devised should be firmly dedicated to stimulating the interests,enthusiasms and critical faculties of those who are going to spend two years of their lives to studying the resultant courses. Other issues, including the the requirements of the universities and the needs of business, should be secondary. The profits of the organisers should not feature at all.

Monday 2 April 2012

Two lessons from Bradford West.

Bradford West is such a maverick constituency, and George Galloway such a maverick candidate, that I doubt if many nationally relevant lessons can be drawn from his extraordinary victory. However, I think there are two important lesons for Liberal Democrats.

First, Galloway apparently made great use of the odious but effective simile that if a backside could have three cheeks then Tories, Labour and Liberal Democrats are the three cheeks of the same backside. There is too much truth in this for Liberal Democrats to be comfortable, particularly in reference to the economy. Labour under Gordon Brown adopted the neo-con mantra of deregulation and unbridled market forces, with only modest attempts to curb inequality, the Tories have used the lie of the supposedly parlous state of Britain's public finances to implement their policy of rolling back the state and flogging off the profitable bits to their mates, and alas, those now in leadership positions in our party have signed up to the "inevitability" of public austerity, and without too many protests about the private affluence that goes with it.

To our shame the opportunity to be truly distinctive by sticking to the heritage of Beveridge and Keynes has been missed. No wonder fewer than four out of ten Bradford West voters opted for one of the three main parties.

(I must confess, however, having joined the party when we had only six MPs, to still getting a little thrill when we are lumped in with the "main" parties. Pity the blood sweat, toil and tears over half a century that have brought us from the fringes to the centre of power, albeit in a minor way, is being dissipated and our core beliefs obscured if not exactly abandoned.)

Back to the main theme.

The second lesson is that, in the high and far off times, Bradford West is one of those by-elections where it was Liberals who would have pulled of the miracle. Clearly those "Orpington moments" owed much to the protest vote and the "plague on both your houses" tendency. We have, quite rightly, forfeited the protest vote by becoming "mainstream", a process which preceded joining the coalition but which has obviously been exacerbated by it.

All the more reason why we must make greater and greater efforts to garner the committed and continuous support of that proportion of the electorate which actually shares our core beliefs:
* the greatest measure of individual freedom compatible with the freedom of others;
* a fairer distribution of income and wealth;
* concern for the poor and marginalised;
* enthusiasm for Europe;
* enjoying the diversity of a multicultural society;
* support for international law and institutions, especially the ECHR and UN;
* commitment to the preservation of civil liberties and the protection of human rights;
* determination to share some of our wealth to promote the development of the Third World;
* devolution of powers to the nations of Britain and the regions of England;
* refining our democratic processes, not least proportional representation by single transferable vote in multi-member consistences;
* industrial democracy and profit sharing;
* working for fair trade as well as free trade;
* and the use of the government's powers to maintain full employment, eliminate squalor, conquer ignorance, maintain health and remove want. (To those not steeped in our history, these are the Five Giants Beveridge set out to destroy.)

In the next four weeks households throughout the country will be flooded with Focus leaflets telling them that our Liberal Democrat councillors and candidates work hard "all the year round" and are "winning here." Great stuff, but we also need to tell them why, as well as caring for the quality of the pavements, we, at our core, are Liberal Democrats.