Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Good Old Boy #37

There are some MPs who are quite liked even by activists from other political parties. Dr Evan Harris most certainly isn't one of those - he's one who you find yourself sometimes gritting your teeth even when he is saying something that you agree with.

But the kicking that he got from the Daily Mail in their profile of him should be enough to raise any decent person's opinion of him. It was a 'no smear left behind' piece, headlined 'Meet Dr Death, who backs embryo experiments, euthanasia and freer abortions'. It went on to describe Evan as 'zealous, obsessive, and self-righteous', 'a difficult loner' on account of his 'fanaticism and lack of social grace', and 'a near cardboard parody of a Leftwinger, still spouting the gospel of student days, demanding more immigration, a soft line on asylum seekers, greater taxation, higher public spending and more gay rights'. For readers who hadn't got the point, there were also nudge-nudge references to him being 'unmarried and without children', to his immigrant parents, and jewish background.

The reason for this profile? Because he publicly opposes the Daily Mail line on abortion. Tory MP Nadine Dorries claims that, "He wants to ignore or distort the evidence to maintain his point of view." And Dorries would know all about that, being an expert in the field of ignoring and distorting evidence about abortion.

So Good Old Boy of the Day, somewhat unexpectedly, goes to Dr Evan Harris.

Friday, October 26, 2007

MPs expenses

Why are MPs' expenses presented in a way which makes them look like members of a privileged out of touch elite? Most of the money they claim isn't for first class tickets, second homes or caviar and champagne, but for employing other people to help their constituents.

One thing which I think is important is that if a constituent contacts an MP, asking for help or about a policy question, that the MP gets back to them quickly. There is quite an easy test to see where this is happening, which is to see how much MPs spend on postage. You can check here for each of them. It's not a perfect test, because I guess some MPs might pay for the stamps out of their own pocket or something, but is quite indicative. An MP sending out 10,000 or more letters is doing a better job of keeping in touch with the people she or he represents than one who doesn't bother.

Phillip Holloborne, Tory MP for Kettering, who chooses not to employ any assistants, is referred to as 'the most frugal' by the Guardian. In fact, it's an example of how his right-wing dogma about not spending money is disadvantaging his constituents. The Labour MP that I used to work for had a full team of caseworkers, and as a result helped constituents who were having problems with the benefits system claim nearly £1 million that they were entitled to, far more than the cost of employing the staff (quite apart from all the other help and opportunities to influence policy).

Others, though, do have a good reason not to claim the cash. Red Shaun Woodward in St Helens, for example, claimed all of £46 in the past year for postage. Why bother to buy stamps, though, when you can just ask the butler to pop round with the letter?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Odd allies

Here is Nick Cohen, writing, "there are more Labour supporters in London than you may realise who are sick of his betrayals [commissioning a report about Islamophobia]. The opposition parties don’t seem to know it, but we will vote against Livingstone with relish."

And here is someone who stands to benefit greatly if Labour supporters vote against Livingstone, calling for London boroughs to be able to build housing for the wealthy without having to provide affordable housing (or, as an approving commentator writes, 'sponger housing').

Right Wing Facebook

via Crooked Timber, here is Right wing Facebook. Can someone please do a British version?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A blog from the back room

A new blog that I am enjoying very much is Hopi Sen's. This, on how the Tory campaign at the next election is based on George Bush's in 2000, is particularly good.

Monday, October 22, 2007

'Out of date fifty years ago'

Jonathan Sacks has written a new book about how multiculturalism is a bad thing, and there is a need for a shared national morality. An extract was printed in the Times, here.

Part of the problem with Sacks' article is that it is filled with sweeping assertions without any evidence or even examples to back them up. I don't think, for example, that 'liberal democracy in Britain is in danger', that 'a combination of political correctness and ethnic-religious separatism is eroding the graciousness of civil society', or that 'Britain is becoming a place where free speech is at risk'. It would at least be nice to know why Sacks thinks that these things are the case. There is also an attack on political correctness, which apparently rules certain opinions out of order for being right-wing, pro-Israel, Christian, or in favour of traditional marriage. The totalitarian effects of political correctness can be seen, I presume, by the fact that these opinions are aired daily in the newspapers and form the basis of the ideology of the government in the USA and across most of Europe.

But unlike many opponents of multiculturalism, Sacks does set out what his alternative is. If you oppose multiculturalism, then you have to explain who should decide what the monoculture which everyone must follow should be. Sacks argues that 1960s liberal measures such as the decriminalisation of suicide, and the legalisation of abortion and 'homosexual behaviour' undermined the shared moral code which society had at its base, and that we are living in a society with no shared 'moral truth'. He cites the example of an Italian politician disqualified from being the EU justice commissioner because he thought that homosexual behaviour was a sin. Bafflingly, Sacks concludes that 'one thing is clear: the new tolerance is far less permissive than the old intolerance'. This is only clear if you agree that being disqualified from taking up a job is worse than, um, being imprisoned for your sexual orientation.

So Sacks' alternative to multiculturalism is a culture in which our legal system is based on Christian ethics and legislates on private morality, people know their place, everyone knows a set of great texts and gets their news from the same few sources. One of the wonderful things about multiculturalism is that it offers the space for Sacks and other social conservatives to peddle this sort of argument, while acknowledging that they have lost the argument with the majority of people and that they should not be able to make laws to reflect their obsession with other people's sexual behaviour. Far from being in danger, Britain's liberal democracy has proved able to evolve a new moral code which reflects changes in society. Sacks' complaint is not that there is no national culture, but that our national culture is one which he disapproves of. It's well worth being reminded from time of what the alternatives to multiculturalism really are.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Making British Poverty History the Conservative Way

David Cameron's speech about Making British Poverty History included the claim that "In Australia, for example, they have got private limited companies to run benefits and they have cut unemployment by 50 per cent. In states like Wisconsin in America they've cut benefit rolls by 80 per cent. We will follow their lead, and help people out of long-term poverty and into long-term employment."

But that's not what has happened in Australia or Wisconsin, or anywhere else which has adopted this kind of 'work first' welfare reform. Cameron is assuming that lower rates of unemployment mean lower rates of poverty.

Here's a study (pdf) from 2003 of what happened to families who participated in Wisconsin's 'Wisconsin Works' programme. It's worth reading all of it, but particularly relevant is the following:

"This employment did not necessarily translate into self-sufficiency. According to the state’s Unemployment Insurance Wage Records, median total earnings for those four quarters among sample members who were employed in at least one quarter were $4,131. Given that the poverty threshold for a family of three with two children (the typical family in our sample) was $13,874 in 2000 and $14,269 in 2001, it is clear that many of the families in our sample were unable to work their way out of poverty."

In Australia, levels of poverty rose between 1994 and 2004.

What's more, Cameron's proposals for welfare reform involve cutting the welfare bill by £3 billion (based on blind faith in the powers of the private and voluntary sector to get people into low paid jobs), so that he can increase tax credits for couples who live together. This is an inefficient way of reducing poverty (more people would be lifted out of poverty if this money were spent on benefits which helped all low income families). He also attacks the government for not supporting the voluntary sector properly, while elected Conservative politicians slash grant funding for anti-poverty community groups in order to keep council tax rises down.

None of this will help 'Make British Poverty History' - it is an ideological and hypocritical set of policies borrowed from the far right of the Republican Party in America.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Great Expectations

Forcing Ming Campbell out seems like a very risky strategy to me for the Liberal Democrats. They might get a bit of a boost with a new leader, but whoever they pick will have to overachieve seriously (or be very lucky) to get much of a permanent increase in the opinion polls. The reason they did so well in 2005 were that they weren't Tony Blair or Michael Howard and opposed the war on Iraq.

I don't know how true this is across the country, but in my experience Lib Dem activists had a deep faith in the inexorable advance of their party. Because of the unpopularity of the Tories and Labour's decline in support, in many parts of the country they acquired more and more local councillors and moved from third to second in parliamentary elections. They seemed to think that this process would continue indefinitely, and since 2005 have been finding out the hard way that it doesn't. It might be these inflated expectations that have helped do for Ming.

Two Excellent Posts

Harry Barnes on 7 reasons why he is not a Bennite here, and 'Zigfrid' on the need for a vision of a different way of organising human life that can inspire and a theory that sets out how we can can get closer to it, here.

Different kinds of inequality

Paul Linford writes to offer 10 suggestions to Gordon Brown on how to regain the political initiative. The advice is kind of sketchy (point 9 is 'Bring Back Alan Milburn'), and not all that coherent (point 1 is 'do a u-turn on holding a referendum on the EU treaty', point 2 is 'stop adopting policies proposed by the Tories'), but I am particularly interested in points 4 and 5:

Paul calls for Brown to "Launch an all-out assault on inequality," arguing that, "The chickens of three decades of selfish capitalism are beginning to come home to roost for our society. Mr Brown needs to acknowledge that and start to formulate policies that will heal the growing divide between haves and have nots in terms of both income and assets."

I agree with just about all of this, though found it a surprising sentiment from someone who has been writing about the value of abolishing inheritance tax.

Point 5 is about tackling 'fiscal drag'. Paul writes that "Rising average wages have trapped millions of middle-income earners in the marginal tax bracket between 20pc and 40pc." He wants the 40% rate raised and a new higher rate on people earning, say, over £250,000 to make up the loss in income. See also here for more on this theme.

The government took a long time to pick up on the shift in public opinion about inheritance tax. I think this might be a sign of something similar and potentially just as damaging.

By 'reducing inequality', Paul and others don't (I think) particularly mean the gap between the poor and the rich, or even the poor and middle income earners (the idea that the consequences of inequality are just beginning to be felt, for example, doesn't fit). Instead, the inequality in question is that between middle income earners and the very rich. Kate's comment that it is unfair that someone on £37,000 is paying the same rate of tax as someone on £250,000 echoes the argument over inheritance tax that 'the rich just avoid it anyway, it is people who work hard and just want to pass on a bit that suffer'. The language used is similar, middle income earners being 'trapped' by having to pay tax at 40% on part of their income.

In fact, anyone earning £36,000/year is at the upper end of middle income earners. The average wage is about £21-24,000 (depending on different ways of measuring it) and even in London £36,000 is a significantly above average salary. If there are to be tax cuts, I think they should be targeted at people earning less than the average salary, because I believe in reducing inequality and because a tax cut will do more good for someone on £18,000 than someone on £36,000 (as, indeed, would spending on public services like housing or childcare). Also, there aren't in fact very many people who earn more than £250,000, and they are quite hard to get money out of, so raising taxes for them wouldn't in fact pay for much of a tax cut for the quite rich (which is not to say that we shouldn't raise taxes on the very wealthy).

But the sense which many above average earners have - that others are benefiting more than them and that they deserve a tax cut - is politically very significant, given that they mostly live in London and the South East, often in marginal constituencies. Indeed, they are often journalists or friends of journalists, so their concerns are guaranteed plenty of coverage and the kind of sympathetic hearing which, for example, people in receipt of incapacity benefit will never get.

One of the big challenges facing Labour is to decide how to respond to this. Getting into an auction with the Conservatives about who will offer bigger tax cuts would be a dispiriting response, but equally, the temptation to respond by telling people to stop whinging and realise that they are in fact much better off than they feel is not one which should be indulged.

Equally, there is an opportunity here if middle income earners don't automatically identify their interests with those of the very wealthy. Maybe one way to proceed is to point out who benefits most from tax cuts to the upper rate of income tax (it isn't those who are only paying a couple of thousand pounds at the higher rate), and to offer an alternative which boosts the disposable income of both middle income earners and those living on low incomes.

The other task is to boost turnout amongst poorer voters. There are a lot more people earning £20,000 or less than those earning £35,000 or more, but they are less likely to go and vote, so the so called 'centre ground' usually ignores them except to lecture them on their need to work harder, acquire new skills and be available for new jobs (whether or not they find them rewarding). If politicians responded to the concerns of middle income earners about their living standards in this way, there would be howls of fury.

Monday, October 08, 2007

About you now

When deciding what to say today, instead of taking more advice from his Very Clever advisers who have done such a splendid job over the past month, Gordon Brown should have listened to the Sugababes:

Can we bring yesterday
Back around
Cos I know how I feel
About you now

I was dumb I was wrong
I let you down
But I know how I feel
About you now


The sheer relief of not having an election in which they would have done very, very badly indeed has affected the Liberal Democrats' ability to reason. Ming Campbell put out a press release in which he said, "Gordon Brown should have called an election when he took office...The only way in which to get certainty in these matters is to have fixed term parliaments" [but if we had fixed-term parliaments, Gordon Brown couldn't have...ah well, never mind.]

I was out campaigning in a Labour/Lib Dem marginal constituency on Saturday, and I spoke to a lot of people who weren't at all interested in the election speculation, but were definitely supporting Labour, whereas in the past they were uninterested or actively hostile. The local MP and councillors are active, spend a lot of time keeping in touch with people and helping with their problems, and not surprisingly this counts a lot more with people than what the latest excitement is in the newspapers. If we want to turn round the Tory advantage in the marginal constituencies and stop Lord Ashcroft's attempts to buy the election, then this kind of active local campaigning needs to happen a lot more - fewer meetings just talking to other members of the party, more time spent instead talking to people we represent and aspire to represent.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Living Apart Togethers

This, from Ministry of Truth, is excellent on the reality about the 'Living Apart Togethers' .

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

No Millionaire Left Behind

The Tory proposals to raise the threshold for paying inheritance tax to £1 million have been presented, even by opponents, as a tax cut for the 'quite rich', with Middle England being the main beneficiaries. People who think that have been fooled.

Most middle class people (as well as everyone else who won't inherit at least £300,000, soon to be £350,000) would make more money if there was a 1p cut in the basic rate of income tax, or if, say, the government reduced the amount of tax on the motorist by £3 billion/year. Or cut council tax.

If you want to know who benefits most from this Tory wheeze, look at the man who announced it. George Osborne will certainly inherit more than £1 million. This means that he, personally, will get an extra £240,000 which would otherwise have been spent on schools, hospitals, the armed forces and all the other things that he now claims to care about so much. To be clear, no middle class family will benefit by as much as George unless they inherit over £1 million.

But it's not just George who will benefit. David Cameron is another who is likely to receive a tax free windfall with his inheritance. Boris Johnson is another. The owners of the Daily Mail and Express will benefit from this as well. To be fair, not every member of the Shadow Cabinet will necessarily benefit, there are probably some of them are so wealthy that they don't see what the fuss is all about because they've arranged to dodge inheritance tax altogether.

There's been plenty of criticism of the Tory plans because they don't add up, but even if they did, tax free handouts for millionaires would be wrong when people working on the minimum wage or pensioners struggling to pay the council tax bill gets nothing.

This isn't about personal corruption, for all I know George Osborne is one of those who will avoid paying any tax at all when he inherits, as many of the super rich do. What it does reveal is that leading Tories are so out of touch with the majority of people that they believe that it is right that the people who should benefit most from any tax cuts are millionaires.