Wednesday, February 28, 2007


I could be completely wrong about this, but I get the sense that the debate about whether or not to renew Trident isn't one which most people feel all that strongly about.

The issue that really seems to get people going is our support for American foreign policy (which is something which lots of people do feel very strongly about, both for and against), and that the case for and against renewing Trident is mostly conducted as a part of that wider debate (that's the feedback, for instance, I got about last weekend's demo). This is different from the 1980's, with fewer people who hadn't been involved in other campaigns getting involved in the anti-Trident campaign, and fewer people thinking that getting rid of our nukes will lead to surrender to a Communist dictatorship.

One interesting implication of this is that I think most swing voters now (unlike in the 80s) would like us to show a bit more independence from the Americans, and if they are not that interested in the detailed arguments for and against Trident renewal, not renewing might be quite a good way for us to show we are on their side.

Personally, I think renewing Trident would be a bad idea, and the argument that we should do so because we don't know what threats there will be in the future on a par with arguing that billions should be spent to defend against giant lizards invading from outer space (it may sound unlikely, but can its opponents say that it is impossible?) But I don't feel nearly as strongly about it as I did about, say, Iraq.

Free School Meals

This campaign in Scotland is one well worth supporting, that all children should receive free school meals. All children and their parents would benefit, with people on low incomes benefiting most of all.

It would help to reduce child poverty, and improve children's well being and health - all issues highlighted in the Unicef report and currently issues of public concern. It would also put a bit of clear red water between us and the Tories with their idea for spending the money instead on tax cuts for married couples.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Conspiracy theories

The response from John McDonnell supporters to Michael Meacher's announcement that he is going to stand for the leadership has been worthy of the rapid rebuttal team in the mid 90's (to be clear, I mean this as a term of praise).

Just one small quibble. I remain to be convinced that the best critique of Meacher's campaign is to accuse him of being a conspiracy theorist and then theorise that his candidacy is in fact a conspiracy by Gordon Brown's supporters.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Will Hutton wins Observer contest for stupidest article

Each week, the Observer runs a contest called 'the comment section' in which its columnists compete to write the stupidest article. This week's edition was the toughest ever (Nick Cohen didn't even get a look in). There was Cristina Odone on how people she knows have got the flu, Paddy Ashdown on the need for more military intervention, Quentin Letts in defence of useless old Tory MPs, someone called John Dodd on how banning fox hunting is bad for foxes, and Henry Porter on why people should be allowed to buy peerages, like his relatives did.

But none of these really stood a chance of winning the week's most stupid article. For this week, Will Hutton was writing about council housing. He had read a book about how council housing was bad, and therefore was arguing that we need to unmake council housing, whatever it takes, or expect more teenage murders in South London and children's well being to fall even further behind that of other countries.

Even a sub Thatcherite hack in a hurry might balk at some of what Hutton says. Council housing is "a living tomb". If people who live on council estates "are lucky, there might be a branch of a further education college on the estate where [they] might learn catering or hospitality skills. Otherwise, a life on benefit or, if you're a woman, bringing up children on benefit, awaits." In the comments, someone asks Will Hutton if he has ever lived on a council estate. Judging by this article, I don't think he's ever even visited one.

But smug rich newspaper columnists pronouncing about issues which they know little or nothing about and revealing their prejudices in the process is hardly exceptional. What really marks this article out are the solutions offered for this great crisis. He has two ideas (in fairness, only one of these is his idea, the other he has borrowed from a government adviser). The first is to think about time-limiting tenancies - i.e. evicting elderly council tenants after they have lived somewhere for a certain number of years so that young professionals can move into their homes. I guess in Will's world, living on the streets is better for the elderly than being in a living tomb or something - at least then they are not dependent on the state or something.

The other idea is "to allow tenants to own, say, a fraction of the value of their home which they could sell for a fat profit. And it might be a young, middle-class couple who bought the stake as their first step on the housing ladder."

As Ed said when he read the article, people who have bought, say, 20% of the stake in their house and then sell it at double won't be able to afford to buy anywhere else, and presumably they can't move on in the council sector. So either they continue to live in the house along with the young, middle-class couple, or they move out and rent privately at much higher costs. It is very hard to imagine a problem for which this is the solution.

On one level it doesn't matter that Will Hutton's engagement with housing policy is such that he apparently doesn't understand that if people sell a house then they have to find somewhere else to live. But what he is saying, however confused and illogical, reflects the prejudices of the people who make decisions about the future of social housing. Given the scale of the housing crisis, it is sometimes tempting to imagine that any reforms must be better than the current situation. Reading this article makes clear quite how wrong that is.

After the Second World War, Nye Bevan insisted on a policy of building council houses which were at least as good if not better as those in the private sector, and which working people would want to rent (a policy, of course, ended by the Tories). Sixty years on, many of those houses are so desirable that they are worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, and yet the arguments and prejudices which were discredited in the 1930's are ones which shape the views of government ministers and advisers.

Fun facts from EU reports

One measure of being able to access European public space is whether people can speak and read English and have internet access. The country with the largest number of citizens who meet both these criteria is...


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Is the UK failing its children?

The Unicef report showing that the well being of children in the UK is worse than in most other industrial countries is rightly cause for concern. The people who go on about marriage as a solution to child poverty and lack of well being should perhaps note that the proportion of lone parents in Sweden is roughly the same as that in the UK, and yet Sweden was 2nd and the UK 21st out of 21.

One advantage of comparative studies is that they show what works well and what we could learn from - higher taxes and more support for families. Not that everyone is quite so interested in looking at the evidence before deciding who to blame for the UK failing its children, of course. Here, for example, is the most recommended comment on the BBC's 'Have Your Say' board:

"House prices, utility costs, transport costs and taxes by the bucketload mean that the responsible members of society cannot afford children. Meanwhile, the spongers, often (But not always) badly educated and poor role models find breeding is profitable, and the route to a better house. Add in PC madness, no discipline at home or school, and you get 'Lord of the Flies' as reality. Still, nothing that Tont can't solve by appointing a 'Childrens Tsar' and adding a few new taxes!"

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Join our club

It's often said that politicians are a bunch of liars and that the public shouldn't trust 'em any further than they can throw them. The same accusation, of course, could just as easily be levied at the public themselves, as lefties who trusted polls showing majorities in favour of tax rises in the early 90s or right-wing Tories who believed that people wanted to hear all about their interesting ideas on withdrawing from the EU have found. Being able to draw the correct conclusions from research and polling, and effectively work out when they are lying, is an essential political skill.

Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about public attitudes came up with some challenging conclusions. They found that an increasing number of people saw the welfare state as a 'club', where there are limited resources to be distributed amongst its members, and growing concern about 'free riders' who are perceived to be cheating the system. The people who believe that the welfare state should provide to all according to their need is falling, and tend to be more affluent. While people find it hard to discuss whether there is poverty in the UK, and become sceptical when given statistics on the subject, they believe that there is an abundance of material prosperity - 'everyone' has access to consumer durables, goods and services, and at the same time there is a growing lack of respect and decent values. Poverty, in other words, is caused by people behaving incorrectly.

For us lefties, this is potentially lethal stuff. People think that they will lose out if more is done to help people in poverty, support for universal services is falling, especially amongst those who should be benefiting from them most, and there is growing concern about an anti-social menace which can easily be harnessed against migrants and others on the margins of society.

New Labour's response has not been to ignore these concerns, but to attempt to address them. Alongside the 'respect agenda' and yearly bills to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour, there has a conscious attempt to make sure that resources are, as far as possible, directed towards the 'deserving', including but not limited to tax and pension credits, the New Deal, Sure Start, targeted grants for students, rises in benefits for children, but not for out of work adults. If New Labour had been around when the NHS came to be set up, they would have established Health credits and action zones, targeted at areas where ill health was widespread, and recoiled at the notion that the hardpressed taxpayer should pay for a Lord or a millionaire to get their trip to the doctor or their operation paid for. They've done, in other words, about as much as could reasonably be expected to meet changing public attitudes to the welfare state.

Meanwhile, unreformed Red Ken down in London ignored the research and articles by people like David Goodhart and has put up taxes to allow under 18's to use public transport for free, expanding the scope of the welfare state to support the 'undeserving' in a very visible way.

By the logic of the model of the welfare state as a club, the government should be getting credit for trying to promote respect and decency, and making sure that resources are going as far as possible to the deserving, and the public should be behind the Tories in London in their attempt to scrap the free travel for under 18's. And yet...

The most popular part of the welfare state is still the NHS, which helps the deserving and undeserving alike. The government struggles to get anyone to pay attention to its targeted social justice programmes and only just managed to get its higher education reforms through parliament. Meanwhile, the Tory attempts to scrap free bus travel for young people (and threaten it for older people, which is even worse politics) have probably guaranteed Red Ken another four years as Mayor.

One implication of people seeing the welfare state as a club, while being increasingly sceptical about government promises and evidence, is that they want to see how they or their friends or family benefit. By drawing the criteria for eligibility to keep out the 'undeserving', the government cuts off support for many of the programmes which should be much better known and more popular. Far from popular attitudes making universal welfare services impossible, it makes them all the more necessary.

Tax cuts

One of the many arguments used against council tax is that it is regressive, and hits those least able to pay. Councillors round the country will be making this point as they struggle at this time of year to keep increases as low as possible.

I think that one big reason why council tax is so unpopular is that people get to see exactly how much it is that they are paying, unlike, say, sales taxes (if you know how much you paid in VAT in the past year, then I am slightly in awe but also pretty scared of you). Another is that local councils tend not to be very good at explaining how the money gets spent. One of my favourite facts is that satisfaction rates with local councils tends not to be related to independent assessments of their value for money or effectiveness, but according to how much they spend on publicity.

Whatever the means that councils have of raising money, the way that they spend it tends inherently to be progressive. Many of the main services are universal, thus in theory, though not always in practice, you don't get a better rubbish collection service if you happen to be richer - it is the same for everyone. Some services are targeted, providing grants to groups which work with asylum seekers or lone parents. And some services are theroretically of benefit to all, but benefit some more than others. A good example of this are parks and play areas. Anyone can go for a walk in the park, or take their children to the local play area. But it is most beneficial for people who can't afford a gym membership, or take their children on expensive holidays, or buy them the latest games. It is useful to remember how few services in Britain are provided on the basis of people getting at least as much if they don't have much money, without the option to buy the 'luxury' service or the 'premium' subscription and get a better deal as a result.

What's more, the effect of failure in providing services affects people differently. If the grant to support a local community group working with disadvantaged people gets cut, most people may be unaffected, but some will lose their lifeline. If the street cleaning services aren't doing their job, you'll notice the difference first in more deprived areas. And if parks and play areas are not looked after, and become havens for drug dealers, and local kids have nowhere safe to go and play, then the knock on effects hit everyone, but act disproportionately on the least well off.

Here's an example of how council spending can make a big difference at a low cost - spending some money on new play equipment and on sprucing up the park means that more children use it and the drug dealers no longer gather there. Here's another - Wandsworth Council were planning to shut Battersea Arts Centre, used by thousands of people all over the country including people from all over the borough, to save hard pressed taxpayers 43p per year. Contrary to widespread myth, councils provide services like this effectively and cheaply, and it costs people far more if their local park is dangerous and a haven for drug dealers, so that crime goes up and they have to drive for miles to let their kids play or if their local community facility shuts and they have to find a commercial alternative.

Council tax rises do cause hardship, particularly when they go up by more than benefits or wage rises for people on low incomes. But when people claim that they are keeping down council tax to help the poor, have a look at how how they are planning to do it. It may be a result of genuine efficiency savings, by not wasting money and by working with the private and voluntary sector where each of those can provide the service more efficiently. But what's much more common is for people to boast that they are giving back what often amounts to no more than a couple of pounds a year in tax cuts, while in fact burdening people with much higher costs through these cuts.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Bad Science

The 'Bad Science' column in the Guardian is always good, but this week's one really takes its target, 'Dr' Gillian MacKeith, to pieces. Here's part of it (the whole thing is here)

In reality, again, away from the cameras, the most significant "lifestyle" cause of death and disease is social class. Here's a perfect example. I rent a flat in London's Kentish Town on my modest junior doctor's salary (don't believe what you read in the papers about doctors' wages, either). This is a very poor working-class area, and the male life expectancy is about 70 years. Two miles away in Hampstead, meanwhile, where the millionaire Dr Gillian McKeith PhD owns a very large property, surrounded by other wealthy middle-class people, male life expectancy is almost 80 years. I know this because I have the Annual Public Health Report for Camden open on the table right now.

This phenomenal disparity in life expectancy - the difference between a lengthy and rich retirement, and a very truncated one indeed - is not because the people in Hampstead are careful to eat a handful of Brazil nuts every day, to make sure they're not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists' advice.

And that's the most sinister feature of the whole nutritionist project, graphically exemplified by McKeith: it's a manifesto of rightwing individualism - you are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that's why you're healthy. You're going to see 78. You deserve it. Not like them.

How can I be sure that this phenomenal difference in life expectancy between rich and poor isn't due to the difference in diet? Because I've read the dietary intervention studies: when you intervene and make a huge effort to change people's diets, and get them eating more fruit and veg, you find the benefits, where they are positive at all, are actually very modest. Nothing like 10 years.

But genuine public health interventions to address the real social and lifestyle causes of disease are far less lucrative, and far less of a spectacle, than anything a food crank or a TV producer would ever dream of dipping into. What prime-time TV series looks at food deserts created by giant supermarket chains, the very companies with which stellar media nutritionists so often have lucrative commercial contracts? What show deals with social inequality driving health inequality? Where's the human interest in prohibiting the promotion of bad foods; facilitating access to nutrient-rich foods with taxation; or maintaining a clear labelling system? Where is the spectacle in "enabling environments" that naturally promote exercise, or urban planning that prioritises cyclists, pedestrians and public transport over the car? Or reducing the ever-increasing inequality between senior executive and shop-floor pay?

This is serious stuff. We don't need any more stupid ideas about health in the world. We have a president of South Africa who has denied that HIV exists, we have mumps and measles on the rise, we have quackery in the ascendant like never before, and whatever Tony Blair might have to say about homoeopathy being a fight not worth fighting for scientists, we cannot indulge portions of pseudoscientific ludicrousness as if they don't have wider ramifications for society, and for the public misunderstanding of science.

I am writing this article, sneakily, late, at the back of the room, in the Royal College of Physicians, at a conference discussing how to free up access to medical academic knowledge for the public. At the front, as I type, Sir Muir Gray, director of the NHS National Electronic Library For Health, is speaking: "Ignorance is like cholera," he says. "It cannot be controlled by the individual alone: it requires the organised efforts of society." He's right: in the 19th and 20th centuries, we made huge advances through the provision of clean, clear water; and in the 21st century, clean, clear information will produce those same advances.

Poverty Awareness Tour

Northern Ireland Anti-Poverty Network have put together a video on their website about the gap between the income which the government says is enough to lift people out of poverty and the actual cost of living. It's really good, and can be seen here.

Quick question

Why do some people get really angry when a democratically run organisation decides not to give fascists special privileges in getting their message out? See here, in the comments.

A related question. Why is it always the people who are least able to put a coherent argument together who are most keen to create more opportunities to debate with fascists?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Recruiting councillors

Ruth Kelly has proposed giving councillors 'ward budgets' of up to £10,000 as a way of increasing the diversity of councillors.

I think ward budgets are a good idea (though £10,000 doesn't even cover a proper refurbishment of a play area, so doesn't exactly give councillors masses of power), as part of an initiative to persuade councillors that their role is about improving the area that they represent, listening to local people, improving local services and working together with the local police, PCT etc., instead of being judged by how many meetings they go to. But it won't do anything at all to change the mix of people who become councillors.

I was one of the 0.3% of councillors who is aged under 25, and the reason I stood was nothing to do with the details of the role of a councillor. In my area there was a strong organisation which involved younger people in campaigning and encouraged them to think about standing for the council if they wanted (as I did) to have a chance to help some of the people who we met each week out campaigning. After being elected, I didn't think that going on about being a young councillor was a good idea, partly out of a deeply held belief that anyone who does so sounds like a nob, and partly because I reckoned that it was not a clever strategy to advertise that I was in my early twenties when trying to get highly paid and experienced officers to agree to prioritise projects in my ward or redesign their services according to what I thought was best. But if the people doing the review are looking for an example of a Labour Group where younger councillors continue to be recruited and are given a chance to use their skills to the fullest, they could do worse then look at Oxford Labour Group - currently one of the members on the exec board (a Muslim) is under 40, the other is under 30, as is the deputy leader, and the group has a wide range of ages and backgrounds. When I was a councillor, about half the councillors in my group were under 40, many worked full time and there was therefore a culture where it was possible to combine full-time work with being a councillor. Getting this 'critical mass' of people is important - it is no more fun being the councillor in a group who is thirty years younger than everyone else than it is being the member of the branch who is thirty years younger than anyone else.

In many areas changing the profile of councillors necessarily involves political parties taking action, because there are few if any independent councillors. One particular challenge for the Labour Party is that we have many fewer safe wards than the Tories, and most of those are occupied by people who have been councillors for a long time. As we will presumably discover again this May, many of the wards that used to be safe for us are no longer so. Someone who wants to be a Labour councillor, therefore, also has to commit to doing a lot of election campaigning, which appeals more to some people than to others. There are many people who would be great councillors, but who can't or won't do all the different and often hateful things which people who are successful candidates need to do, like going out to talk to strangers night after night even when the news is full of scandals about our party. It also means that positive action to increase diversity amongst selected candidates has less of an effect in changing the make up of our political groups, which at a parliamentary level has been the main way of changing things for the better.

The review should also note that it is much less likely that someone in their twenties will be a councillor for a long time than someone who is retired, whether it is because of changing jobs, deciding to try out new things or whatever, the turnover amongst younger councillors will always be high. Political groups need to plan for this - even if they manage to recruit two or three keen young people to stand, they need to build on this and find ways of using their younger councillors to build up a good youth organisation which can provide a steady stream of people who are interested. This is much easier in London or university towns than in other parts of the country, for obvious reasons. I also suspect that nearly all of the 0.3% of councillors who are under 25 have a university degree, and finding ways of making the prospect of standing as a councillor appealing to people who aren't current or recent students is something well worth investigating (not helped by the fact that people without degrees are more likely to be working in jobs where taking time off for campaigning and councillor duties is difficult if not impossible).

The New Local Government Network had one of their more stupid ideas (no mean feat) in suggesting that councillors ought to be offered the opportunity of one job interview with a local authority per year of service. A better, though related, idea, would be to give councillors opportunities to take up training or develop skills which would help them not just as councillors but in whatever career they wanted to follow - recognising that by spending 15-20+ hours on council duties means that councillors who are in work will be missing out on opportunities to develop skills and pursue career opportunities. If nothing else, these might be more popular and useful than seminars on how to be more effective at scrutiny or whatever drivel they choose to inflict on elected members in your local area.

One other point, while I'm on this stream of consciousness ramble. It sometimes seems like these kind of government initiatives are based on the view that councillors are all old incompetent time servers, out of touch with their communities and so on. I found that the opposite was the case. One of the best things about serving as a councillor was being able to work with and learn from Labour councillors who had served their communities with considerable distinction for many years - people like Bill Buckingham, Bill Baker, Bryan and Beryl Keen, Bob Price and Val Smith. I learned more from discussions in group meetings and just the chance to chat to and work alongside them than from every single local government seminar or piece of training put together, and I think that any time a government minister talks about local government they should make the point that without people like this up and down the country and the patient, often difficult work that they've done, then there wouldn't be a Labour Party, let alone that we would be in government.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Wisdom of the Crowds #8: Attitudes to poverty

Taken from Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, pdf of which is here

55% think there is 'quite a lot of poverty' in Britain today, 41% think there is 'very little'

35% think poverty has increased in the last 10 years, 19% decreasing, 39% roughly the same

46% expect poverty to increase in the next 10 years, 13% decrease, 33% stay the same

32% think people living in need is an inevitable part of modern life, 28% think it is caused by laziness or lack of will power, 19% think it is caused by social injustice and 13% think it is individual bad luck

42% think government should redistribute wealth from better to worse off, 32% disagree, 24% undecided

61% think ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation's wealth, 13% disagree, 22% undecided

40% think benefit levels for unemployed people are too high and discourage them from finding jobs, 34% think they are too low and cause hardship

90% think poverty is when people don't have enough to eat and live without getting into debt, 47% think it is if they have enough to eat and live but not to buy other things that they need, 19% think it is when people have enough to buy what they really need, but not to buy the things which most people take for granted

Monday, February 05, 2007

Stop helping the Tories

The Labour and Lib Dem MPs who managed to beat the Tory candidates funded by Lord Ashcroft at the last election all have my admiration. In a more just world, every report of the 2005 election campaign should start by explaining how the Tories tried and failed to buy the election. They came close to succeeding, as well. Even with the loans (which might still end up smashing our party to pieces), we were still heavily outspent and won some desperately close elections. One of our organisers, for example, was responsible for two key marginals and managed to hold one by 254 votes, and the other by 79. If instead of being outspent by £5 million or so, the Tories had been able to spend twice as much as us, we might even have lost our overall majority.

I mention this now because those Tories haven't gone away, and some of them have a new project, which is to bring Fox News to Britain and create a new home for the conservative movement. Now political internet telly initially sounded just a bit comical to me, and nothing much to worry about, but while the people behind it might be fully paid up members of the Forces of Evil, they aren't stupid. They're currently testing out things like attack adverts and other techniques pioneered by the Republican Party. In the mid 90s, New Labour used campaigning techniques from America to help take the Tories to pieces, and internet campaigning may well offer similar possibilities in the next couple of years to set the news agenda and launch well funded and co-ordinated attacks and smears against our government.

There is nothing subtle about this - their first two adverts were against state funding of political parties (which would stop them taking money off people like Michael Ashcroft), and for lower taxes, and the latest one is an attack on Ken Livingstone (who is a popular left-winger who uses his elected office to be on the side of the majority against the rich, and who the Tories consequently hate with an abiding passion).

Of course there is the pretence that 18 Doughty Street is 'independent of all political parties', on the grounds that sometimes they'll attack Cameron for not being right wing enough. The pretence of independence is at least marginally important because the credibility would be reduced if everyone on the programme were as right-wing as its funders and staff. Less credibility would make it harder to try out new techniques for bringing right-wing Republicanism over here and reduce the effectiveness of attacks on the Labour Party.

And yet just about every day, there is a steady parade of Labour activists desperate to go and hang out at the home of the conservative movement. By definition, anyone watching 'Blogger TV' is not going to be persuaded by their clever arguments, which means that all they are doing is helping the Tories. Comrades, you are not using the Tories' weapons against them, they are using you just as surely as if you were going along to your local Conservative association to help at a fundraiser. Ignore their ethical and social seduction and think about why you're being invited.

It is traditional at this point to moan about the state of the Left and say that we should be setting up our own internet telly. I think that would be a mistake. Projects like 18 Doughty Street are aimed at a small number of people and there is no way that we would be able to get access to the kind of funding that the Tories are lavishing on it (it's like how setting up 'Air America' was not in fact the way to beat 'Fox News'). The weakness in their approach, as the Tories found in 2005, is that what rich people want is not in fact what most people want. Their ideas were so unpopular that they had to pay people to deliver their leaflets, and as a result the strategy is based on Newt Gingrich's mantra of 'go negative early' and 'never apologise, never explain', winning with an ideologically committed minority and then implementing an extremist agenda.

We need to use new technology not to appeal to insiders and find more vicious ways of attacking our opponents, but to do the opposite - to boost turnout and give people positive reasons about how government and socialist politics is a force for good and needs their support, and to disrupt the efforts of the Tories.

Specifically, useful actions for lefties (widely defined to include anyone who doesn't think that increasing the influence of rich people in deciding who wins elections) are to stop lending credibility to Tory TV by appearing on it or watching it, and instead to listen to and act on the ideas of the people who know what they are talking about, like Tim Ireland at Bloggerheads and Unity at Ministry of Truth.

Best. Threat. Ever.

At 1.18am this morning, someone from the Provisional wing of the Liberal Democrat party read Jackie Ashley's article in today's Guardian and felt moved to comment:

"the only thing I can disagree with is - an all elected Lords - Fact is the existing parties have screwed up democracy with the crappy first past the post system - What was it Labour elected with 26% of those eligible to vote - No Not more of the same - Proportional representation - and sod the link to the constituencies - we the people want influence on law makers in proportion to our range of beliefs - AND IF YOU DON'T GET ON AND DO THIS - IT WON'T BE LONG B4 THE FIRST HOME GROWN SUICIDE BOMBERS ARE RIPPING THINGS UP A BIT"

Sunday, February 04, 2007

We Can Cut Crime

I think it is fair to say that the Lib Dem leadership don't think that the strategy of voting against measures to cut anti-social behaviour between 2001 and 2005 turned out to be a great success. Hence their new strategy which appears to be claiming that they have the best policies on cutting crime. This appears to involve hiring extra police officers instead of implementing ID cards, and then presumably sacking the police officers when they realise that you can't pay ongoing salary costs with money from one off set up costs.

Anyway, it seems like the message about their new focus on cutting crime is taking a little while to get through to their activists. You can see the achievements of one Lib Dem local administration by visiting here, and then clicking on the link to 'Safer City' (also here).

Cracking down

I once had my picture on the front page of the local paper next to a big headline 'crackdown on council tax cheats' (interested readers would have had to turn to page nine to find out that I was doing the cracking down - on people with substantial assets who owed the council thousands in council tax - rather than the cheating).

Round where I live at the moment there are lots of posters about the penalties for benefit fraud, and also adverts on the telly about how it is not ok to claim and work etc. One thing I didn't realise is that this has been one of the government's successes, in that levels of fraud in working and claiming fell by 70% between 2000 and 2004. One of the peverse effects of the current high profile campaign is that most people will assume that this is still a massive, and possibly growing, problem, rather than one where good progress has been made. In fact, a much bigger problem at the moment is levels of error in processing benefit applications, where progress has been much slower. I appreciate that this does not lend itself so well to a big publicity campaign (a big target sign round a pile of paperwork doesn't have quite the same visual impact), but it highlights how skewed the debate is.

There are regular stories in the papers about the people who claim thousands in incapacity benefit while running marathons or whatever. Considerably more typical than that are cases like the one of a young woman in Northern Ireland who was caught working while claiming benefit. When her case came to be reviewed, it turned out that she would have been £10/week better off if she had been claiming all the benefits that she was entitled to than what she had been earning while 'doing the double'.

Of course what would really be good is a campaign against tax evasion by rich people. Having posters up everywhere of a man in a posh suit with a target round him with things like 'IF I don't pay tax on my million pound bonus it doesn't make me a tax dodger' and a tag line of 'No Ifs, No Buts, tax avoidance is a crime, break the law and you face a criminal record' would not only raise far more money than any number of benefit fraud crackdowns but also provide something cheering to read on the bus ride into work each morning.