Friday 28 December 2012

Europe: committed paticipant yes, but why leader?

In an interview in yesterday's Guardian on Britain's role in the EU Nick Clegg is reported to use the word "leadership" eight times, along with "leading," "leading role",  "major player," " major role," and "dominant role" once each.

I applaud Nick's  political courage and dedication to our Liberal principles in taking a positive stance so clearly on a subject which is not currently popular with the electorate, but why this obsession with leadership? Nick Clegg is a relatively young man and was presumably not, like me and those of my era, brought up to admire a map the land surface of which was one third red, and infused with the derring-do empire building spirit of the novels of Percy F Westerman and W E Johns (or maybe Westminster School is more old fashioned than I'd thought.)

As both  a former employee of the Commission and  member of the European Parliament Clegg must  be aware of  the effect such arrogance will have on the other members.  Surely they must be irritated by the concept that a condescending Britain will, when it gets round to it, be graciously pleased, by virtue of our superior instincts and political skills,  to lead them into paths of greater economic prosperity and political cohesion.

What they want, and what pro-Europeans in the UK want,  is a Britain  which is committed to he European ideal and prepared to work constructively and the other members to a achieve it, rather than sniping from the sidelines and appearing to take pleasure at every setback.

Monday 24 December 2012

Tax cuts for the comfortable.

Paddy Ashdown has nobly  accepted the poisoned chalice of  leading the Liberal Democrat campaign at the next election, and as a start has Emailed leading activists  with the information that " the tax cuts we have delivered in government" will be a prominent feature.

I am not included in this mailing, but my friend John Cole, described scornfuly as a "member of the Liberal elite" by his right wing Tory MP, and as a "throughly good egg" by an anonymous reader of this blog (John would love to know who) is, and respnded as follows.

Dear Paddy

I write as a paid-up Liberal Democrat who joined the Young Liberals in 1960.

I note in the 7th paragraph of your recent missive to local parties a phrase which caused me to puzzle.   It would seem a main plank of our platform is to proclaim " the tax cut we have delivered in government". 

My question to you is:  did we set out to be a tax-cutting party?  If I were to compile a short list of what I consider quintessential Liberal values I do not think that tax-cutting would be one of them.

I can give two cheers for one tax cut (that which raises the threshold at the bottom end).  I can give two cheers only because that does nothing to help those who are not in work. or whose earnings from part-time or low paid work are already so low that they do not pay tax.

Zero cheers for the tax cut at the higher rate from 50p to 45p.

How do I distinguish between the average Tory leaflet for the last umpteen decades, calling for tax cuts and the phrase in your letter?   It is the sort of phrase which sits us comfortably in the Conservative camp.

So depressing!

I want to hear more from you about social justice, the defence of civil liberties, a positive role within the EU (you were superb on this at the Birmingham Conference, September 2011 - I was in the room) and a responsible capitalism.  These are the themes which will get me off my backside and onto the doorstep.  Not the aping of Tory tax-cutting rhetoric.

Good luck in your endeavours.

Happy Christmas

John Cole

To John's surprise, and Paddy's credit, he received the following prompt reply.


Thank you for this. 

I do NOT think tax cuts are our main platform - very far from it. As Liberals we are about empowering people and as you will see when Nick announces over the New Year our core message that empowering/enabling people is central to what we are about.

But cutting taxes for the poorer in Britain IS one of the main achievements of our time in Government and I think we are right to trumpet this since it is a way to express that, although we want a strong economy to get people back to work, it can only be on the basis of a fair society (again something you will see prominently on display in our core message when it is announced) cf your point about social justice - lower taxes for the poor and the rich paying more is how social justice is
 is expressed in fiscal terms by lower taxes.

I agree about the lowering the 50%  tax band but we are in coalition and this was the price we had to pay to get agreement on tax reductions at the lower end - and BTW a very difficult thing for us to fight against since in reality the 50% tax rate yielded very little to the exchequer because it was so widely avoided. I am all in favour of higher taxes - but they need to raise money and this one did only to a very small extent. Also, please note that, despite the 50% reduction the last Budget saw the biggest shift of taxation overall from the poor to the rich of any Budget (including Labour ones) of recent years - thanks to us.

Thanks for writing. Be confident that I share exactly your priorities and hope that we will be able to make them centre stage in the General Election for which, from the New Year, we will have to start to prepare in earnest.

Have a great Christmas and thanks for your support for the Party.

Paddy .

I wonder that "BTW" means.

John comments:

If, as Paddy says, tax cuts are NOT our main platform, then why should they feature so prominently in Paddy's letter?   My guess is that the answer is  drafted by Danny Alexander and speaks for Danny.  I have no evidence for this - just a hunch.

Food for thought.

A Merry Christmas to all our readers.

Friday 21 December 2012

Nick Clegg - two steps back.

As I mention in the previous post, I am to play Cardinal Wolsey in an amateur performance of Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons" next month. Another of the things I say to Sir Thomas More (if I can remember - learning lines is no longer the cake-walk that it was)  is: "You are a constant regret to me. Thomas."

It would be unfair of me to claim that Clegg is a constant regret - in previous posts I've praised some of his initiatives, and I certainly think he receives more than his fair share of opprobrium, and bears it well -  but his speech on the fifth anniversary of his election as leader of the Liberal Democrats shows a disturbing lack of understanding of the nature of Liberal Democracy and life in the less fortunate layers of British society.

If his speech is correctly reported he states:  " The centre ground is our home."    Ouch! Has he never read any of our literature, any of the many publications, pamphlets, articles in our party newspaper?  One Liberal Democrat activist/philosopher after another- Tony Greaves and Michael Meadowcroft to name but two - have hammered away ad nausium that to be a "centre party" is to allow the other parties to define your position.

We are not a centre party, we are a Liberal Democrat party.  We have our own philosophy and policies independent of what positions other parties take.  Our guiding light is to create and preserve the maximum amount of liberty for each individual commensurate  with the liberty of others.  We believe in a society in which income and wealth are equitably distributed, in an adequate safety-net for those who cannot cope without help, in state intervention where necessary to maintain a balanced economy with full employment, constitutional reform and devolution to create a participatory democracy rather than one that can be bought, democratic participation in industry and commerce, and the preservation of civil liberties and the rule of law both nationally and internationally.

So Nick, please take that as your guiding light and yell it to the rooftops.  Never mind the "centre ground" and what the others do.  That's why thousands of activists over the decades have tramped the street and knocked on doors, served on councils and as lonely back-benchers, to put you where you are.

Equally alarmingly , for the leader of the party which is heir to Beveridge, Clegg defends the benefits squeeze and "tough sanctions to get (some people) active."  Well yes, I'm sure there are some, but I'm pretty certain that the overwhelming majority of the 6 000 who have just lost their jobs at Comet will be desperately looking for more work rather than rejoicing at the opportunity to live in idleness on the £71 a week job seekers' allowance.  Is he not aware of the estimated 32 people who die each week after having been certified fit for work by ATOS?   Clegg apparently justifies his stance on the grounds that ". . . .two thirds of people think the benefits system is too generous."  This from a member of a government that has just agreed to a salary of over half a million pounds a year, plus a housing allowance of over £4 000 a week, for the new Governor of the Bank of England.  You couldn't make it up.

Nick, we should not let the tail wag the dog.  With very very few exceptions people do not chose to be unemployed, and I doubt if anybody at all chooses to be disabled.  A rich society such as ours has the means to look after them and should do so. We must not let the Daily Mail and the Sun set the agenda.  If people are misinformed about the benefits system it is our job, your job, to inform them correctly. 

Thursday 20 December 2012

Comet - a sign for our times

The collapse of the electrical retail chain Comet seems, on the face of it, to be yet another example of the capitalist system having evolved to a state in which  profits are privatised and, despite the Thatcherite philosophy of their being no such thing, "society" usefully emerges to bear any losses. 

As I understand it, a loss-making Comet was handed over by its conglomerate owners to a private-equity group allegedly skilled in rescuing  failing businesses, To help in the turn-round they were given a dowry of £50 million.  In less than a year the rescue has failed, nearly 7 000 people have lost their jobs, £26million in unpaid VAT and payroll taxes is owed to the government , and, just to rub salt in the wound, the government, that is, we the taxpayers, must foot the bill for £23 million of redundancy payments.

So what happened to the £50 million sweetener, and how is it that the private-equity group turn out to be secured creditors and are thus first in line, before even the government, to receive any funds recouped form the débâcle?

I understand that Vince Cable is to set up an enquiry, but I think we're all a it fed up of enquiries.  In January I play  Cardinal Wolsey in a local amateur production of Bolt's "A Man for all Seasons."  The plot centres around Henry VIII's need for an heir and I repeatedly ask Sir Thomas More:  "What are you going to do about it?"

 So to Liberal Democrats in government I ask, "What are you going to do about this racket  in which  the rich seem again and again to walk away with the cream and those at the bottom of the pile get hammered?" 

Monday 17 December 2012

Nick Clegg flies the Liberal Flag

In the past few weeks Nick Clegg has given us incontrovertible evidence of the value of having Liberal Democrats in government.  He has supported the Leveson recommendation of a statutory underpinning of press regulation, opposes the "snoopers charter" by which the government would require the communications industry to keep records of all our emails and internet searches and give access to them to over 300 public and semi-public bodies, called for a Royal Commission on drugs  to develop an evidence-based policy in place of the present shambles, and , we hope, is about to give unconditional opposition to the proposal for secret courts.

In all of these Clegg is in open disagreement with the prime minister and our Conservative coalition partners.  This is as it should be. Coalition does not mean, as Clegg foolishly decreed in the early stages, that we should "own" every government policy.  Where we do not agree, and agreement is unlikely in many of these civil liberties issues, we should say so, and, although, because we have only 57 MPs and the Tories have 305, our views cannot always prevail in their entirety, we should  make it clear to the public where we stand, and the stance a government with a Liberal Democrat majority would take.

Unfortunately, and in my view short-sightedly, the issues above are not the uppermost in the electorate's mind.  For the overwhelming majority "it's the economy , stupid."  A pity that  the Liberal Democrats in government do not dissociate ourselves from the failed economic policy, and the lies to justify it, with the same candour that they do on civil liberties.

 Never the less, thanks be for some mercies.

Thursday 13 December 2012

On the buses - or maybe not.

It was announced on Monday that unemployed people are going to be given free bus travel to enable them to look for jobs or finance journeys for interviews.  This is an obvious move which has been part of my "measures to improved the mobility of labour"  lessons for about 50 years.  I wonder why it took so long.

Many readers will have lost touch, through possession of a car or an elderly persons' bus pass, of how much bus fares are these days.  I conduct a few tutorials at the Business School of a local university once a week. Unfortunately these tutorials start at 9am so I have to catch the bus before the 9.30 am "watershed."  The fare to the city centre , about five miles away, is £2.80, and the fare to the outskirts where the Business School is situated, about a 7 minute journey, is an astonishing £2.  That total of £4.80 would be a large slice of the Job Seekers' Allowance of £71 (only £56.25 if you're under 25).

So thank goodness that, at last, there is something which is genuinely helpful for unemployed people, though watch out of articles in the Sun and Daily Mail about job seekers joy riding on the buses to no purpose (just as many of we pensioners do.)

However, all is not sense. It has emerged that one of the major casualties in the cuts of grants from central to local government is the subsidies to buses.  So once again the government's austerity measures impinge on the poorest in our society, those who have to rely on public transport to get them about (often to get to work in the very early hours, for example the cleaners who make the working environment  ready for the more highly paid who will arrive later.)

At the same time the government has given in to the motoring lobby and cancelled the scheduled 3p rise in fuel duty.  Surely our long-term aim should be to price gas guzzling motorists off the roads  and promote the alternative of public transport.  There is much talk  about not burdening future generations with debt.  We don't seem nearly so concerned about  bequeathing them them a clapped out infrastructure and poisoned planet.

Monday 10 December 2012

Poverty, Pareto and trapdoors

On the evening of George Osborne's Autumn Statement, in which he announced an effective cut in welfare payments, Rachael Reeves, Labour Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, roundly and rightly condemned the proposal on television's Newsnight.  Yet when asked, repeatedly, whether Labour would therefore vote against the proposals, and reverse them if they regained power, she slipped into a predicable mantra of evasions:  that was a matter for  her boss, the Shadow Chancellor; she hadn't yet seen the details in the bill; no-one could predict the circumstances of the future; etc.  Asked a similar question of Radio 4's "Any Questions" Chuka Umunna, another member of the Labour  Shadow Cabinet, launched into an identical, presumably  "on message," evasive litany.

At the other end of the political spectrum Tory Treasury Minister David Gauke, interviewed on Radio 4's Today programme, found it impossible to condemn the Starbucks coffee chain for the astonishing fact that over ten years or so they have paid hardly any profits tax in the UK.

So the poor get hammered with no champion to stick up  for them, and the rich get  velvet glove treatment

Surely the time will come, if it is not already here, when the bottom 20% of our society,  the "underclass" (I dislike the term but can't think of another), will conclude that this "democracy" does not work for "us."

It's a long time since I studied  Pareto's Theory of Elites, but I remember being taught that society is in the shape of a large triangle with an elite at the top, who form  a smaller triangle which makes the rules.  If this little triangle is separated from the rest by an impenetrable barriers, the able and ambitious people in the lower part rise to the barrier but can't get though it , and they become rebellious  unstable as their ambitions are frustrated.  Historically the UK had  a "trapdoor" through which these able people could pass into the ruling group (Wolsey was the son of a butcher, Thomas Cromwell was a blacksmith's boy), so the British system survived. The French had no such trapdoor, so they had a revolution.

Perhaps the trapdoor into the elite still exists: after all Eric Pickles sits in the Cabinet among the Old Etonians.  And it would be wrong to claim that , like Tawney's famous "tadpoles of character and capacity" (see p142, Equality, Allen and Unwin, 1931), the more enterprising of the underclass cannot escape their  situation and rise to be the equivalent of frogs. Yet if the overwhelming majority feel trapped, despised and not only excluded from what is normal in our society, but actually forced to take the punishment  for its failings, then surely instability is on its way.

In the leaders' debates before our 2010 general election Nick Clegg warned  of riots if the inequality  and unfairness in our society persisted.  The low turnout in recent elections demonstrates that confidence in the democratic system is rapidly fading.   Political leaders in every party  need to take a long hard look at the society they are helping to create before the people at the bottom take some version of "justice" into their own hands.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Pension pots and welfare payments.

Our government is to freeze increases in welfare payments to 1% per year. which is below the rate of inflation, so effectively a cut.  This will save the public purse some £3.7bn a year.  To make it fair, and so placate we Liberal Democrats, the amount that the wealthy can put  into their pension pots  free of tax is to be reduced from £50 000 a year to £45 000, thus saving the Treasury  £600m a year.

I suppose the disproportionate savings to achieve this "fairness" can be justified by the fact that there are a lot more people receiving welfare payments than there are with £50 000 left over after current expenditure to put into their pensions.  However, the mater of "need" tells a very different story.

Contrary to the George Osborne stereotype that recipients of welfare are scroungers who lie idly in bed and twitch the curtains to watch the "strivers" go off to work, 60% of welfare recipients are actually in work, but paid so little that they cannot maintain a civilised standard of living without help.  Cuts will mean inflicting even further distress which should not be acceptable in a civilised society, whatever the alleged austerity (see previous post.)

At the other end of the scale we have those with high incomes  building up enormous pensions essentially at the state's expense.  If tax were paid on that £45 000 it would,  at the new highest rate of 45%, amount to £20 250.  So effectively, even after the reduction the state will still be contributing over £20 000 a year (an income which would probably be beyond the dreams of avarice for most welfare recipients) to people who are then likely to receive "lump sums" in the millions and annual pensions in the hundreds of thousands.

As I've argued before in this blog, the purpose of a pension is to avoid penury when one's earning days are over.  Tax concessions to achieve a pension  up to the average wage, about £25 000, are perfectly justified.  Beyond that, if people want to make an even more generous provision for themselves, in a Liberal society they are perfectly welcome to do so, but not at the taxpayer's expense.

Arguments that, as a result of the above, George Osborne has achieved some sort of "fairness" are risible: that Liberal Democrats in government mouth their support is disgraceful.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

Austerity: what austerity?

Yesterday the annual survey by the ONS on UK household expenditure was released.  Apparently each household spends on average £484 a week, broken down as follows:

 Average weekly household expenditure on main commodities and services, 2011

What I find astonishing is that "recreation and culture" comes second, even though "alcoholic drinks, tobacco and narcotics" are classified separately, as are "restaurants and hotels."

Perhaps we should take these figures with a pinch of salt, as the "housing, fuel and power" section does not include mortgages, which seems a bit daft.  That apart, if our second highest expenditure is fun and games, we can hardly be said to be living in an age of austerity.  In fact, some 80% of us are living the life of Riley.

The sufferers are, of course the bottom 20%, whose expenditure pastern is probably very different.  Yet we shall probably hear today, in George Osborne's Autumn Statement,  of more cuts in welfare expenditure to make their lives even more miserable,  There will be lots of talk of "tough choices."  That's a lie. Providing a civilised standard of living for  the disabled, unemployed, elderly, does not mean the rest of us making serious sacrifices.  We just need to cut back a bit on recreation.

Incidentally, jogging is free, good fun, and makes you feel great.

Saturday 1 December 2012

Nick Clegg beginning to see the light.

An aptly named Mr Bone MP tried to prevent Nick Clegg's giving a different view to that of the Prime Minister on the Leveson Report, calling it "something that has never happened before in parliamentary history."  Actually he was wrong: it happened in an earlier coalition in 1932, but even had it been true  I'm sure the public is far more interested in politicians giving their honest views than they are of breaches in arcane parliamentary traditions.

Nick's response shows that he is beginning to learn from his earlier mistakes:

"(Mr Bone) still struggles to get coalition . . . .we have a government of two parties that must compromise. That is different to one party governments.  It might lead to anomalies, glitches and innovations in this venerable place that he finds unwelcome.  I suspect it will be repeated a lot in the future."

That's a far cry from the rose-garden love in.  You've been a slow learner, Nick, but now let's hear the distinctive Liberal Democrat voice on the disastrous economic policy and the shameful cuts in welfare taking place, embarrassingly on the 70th Anniversary of the publication of Beveridge Report.

Another thing I, and I expect the bulk  of the public, fail to understand is why the government should spend £5 million or more on an enquiry that they themselves set up and then reject its central finding.  Time and again the press barons have promised to regulate themselves  more effectively and each time self-regulation  failed.  The right-wing papers are screaming that they must remain unfettered in order to be defenders of the freedom of speech.  What they are really defending is their ability to pry into people's private affairs in order to make money out of any salacious gossip they can find.  Legal underpinning of sanctions is necessary to haul them into line.