Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Lib Dem councillor defects to Labour

During last year's election campaign in Oxford, I met an extremely effective Lib Dem candidate, Shah Jahan Khan. From talking to him and campaigning against him in the ward he was standing in it was clear that he was hard-working, got things done and understood the local issues. Come election day, he managed to get elected in what had been previous been a safe ward for Labour.

Why mention this now? Well, after a year of working with the comedy incompetent Lib Dem group which has been running the council, he's decided to join Labour. In doing so, he becomes the fourth councillor to defect from the Lib Dems in the last year.

The Lib Dem leadership revealed that this defection came out of the blue, as did the previous three. Now possibly if one councillor defected without warning, it could be put down to careerism or whatever (I guess that is the spin that they are trying to put on it), but when four different people leave at different times, apparently without any of them feeling able to speak to the leader about what is concerning them, it's an excuse which loses some of its force.

It's always difficult when a group of people who have nothing in common politically and no shared vision for an area have to move from opposition to being responsible for taking difficult decisions. Several recently elected Lib Dem councillors were elected because they shared the values of voters who identified with Labour but were unhappy with Tony Blair's government. They've found that they had been conned and have been propping up an administration which was determined to run the city for the benefits of its wealthiest residents. Not surprisingly, able councillors like Shah Jahan Khan have decided that this is not what they stood for election to achieve, and have decided to join Labour instead.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Red Quentin's new campaign

Fellow comrade Quentin Davies has a new campaign. He is concerned about the possible proposal to put a travellers' site in Stamford. From the Rutland and Stamford Mercury's story 'Quentin tells of astonishment':

"[Stamford] is a major tourist attraction and much of the business and therefore the economy of Stamford depends on tourism. Stamford also has a major traffic problem. Jams regularly stretch half a mile north and south of the single bridge."

More cynical comrades may suggest that this sounds like a good ol' fashioned 'local MP backs the nimbys' story, missing only the reference to the effect on house prices. But remember, Red Quentin is for the many, not the few:

"Far from my concerns being selfish, I am quite convinced that Stamford is quite the wrong place for the travellers themselves. Many of them live on benefit. If they are to have any chance of getting into a job and escaping from permanent welfare dependency, they need to be near a major source of employment."

Friday, July 20, 2007

Good Old Boys #34

So many candidates for good old boy or girl of the day. Honourable mentions to Alastair Darling and Ruth Kelly (who'd have thought it?), and Lord Levy and chums (likewise). Just a shame that the CPS didn't make their decision in time for Tony Blair's resignation honours list.

But it would be hard to argue that Good Old Boys for today are our two newest MPs - Phil Wilson and Virendra Sharma. Two excellent results, much better than anyone predicted or expected, and well done to all involved.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Rights, responsibilities and trust

Today's welfare reform green paper contained one very welcome policy change. It specifically mentioned new responsibilities for employers to help provide job opportunities. It was less than a couple of months ago when John Hutton, under the old regime, specifically denied that employers should have any responsibilities beyond not breaking the law for helping people into work. So credit where credit's due, this is a step forward, and Local Employment Partnerships sound like they might be able to help make a difference.

A less good idea, despite the all party consensus behind it, is that from October 2008, lone parents whose youngest child is 12 years or older will no longer be entitled to income support just because they are a lone parent. Instead, they will claim Jobseeker's Allowance, and be expected to look for suitable work.

Peter Hain said, "Today’s reforms offer a step change in our approach – with new support matched by new responsibilities. Those facing particularly severe barriers to work will now get fast-tracked help. Others who have a history of long-term benefit dependency could face tougher responsibilities from the start of their claim."

The phrase 'have a history of long-term benefit dependency' is a particularly noxious one when used to describe lone parents on low incomes who are caring for their children. This idea that what they need are 'tougher responsibilities' is misguided. Most lone parents, particularly those with older children, work. Many others would work if there were jobs available. The evidence shows that advisers almost never use powers to cut benefits (far less than 1% of cases), because it destroys the relationship with the person seeking work and doesn't address the reasons why people can't find work. So to speak of 'tougher responsibilities' is malign macho posturing.

It is actually a particularly stupid decision to choose 12 as the cut off point in terms of age. There are many children who are happy and settled at the age of 8 or 9 who find the transition to secondary school and becoming a teenager a difficult time (I was going to write that every parent will know that, but in fact it is known by anyone who can remember being 12 or 13). This is exactly the age where just about all parents find it harder to check that everything is ok for their children and spot problems, and so it makes sense for parents to have the choice (remember the choice agenda?), according to what is best for their family, between working and not working.

Ah, say the experts, but if you look at other countries, they have 'work tests' for lone parents when children are much younger. No other country pays benefits to lone parents without requiring them to look for work when their children are older than 11. In Denmark parents of four year olds have to prove they are actively seeking work, for example. But the countries where higher proportions of lone parents work are ones where lone parents receive much more support, in particular in affordable childcare.

The 'tougher responsibilities' won't help people find jobs which don't exist, which they don't have the skills for, or which are impossible for them to combine with other responsibilities. All it will do is make life a bit more stressful and a bit more difficult for some people who don't have much money and have caring responsibilities. They are getting the blame this week for not going to work, and next week the moral panic will be about young people causing trouble and the parents will get the blame for being at work and not spending enough time with their children.

Lone parents aren't a problem who need to be taught about responsibility. Every lone parent knows all about those. What the government needs to do is to listen to them, give them the support they need to be able to cope with their responsibilities, and trust them to do the best for their families with the help that they get. The Green Paper acknowledges this in parts, and doesn't in other parts. Over the weeks and months ahead, the aim must be to build on the good ideas and get rid of the bad ones.

Good Old Boy #33

One of the following statements is true, and one is not:

"There is no housing crisis. There is just a housing market. There is no housing “need”, unless you are sleeping in the street. There is just housing demand and housing supply...The assumption that every adult citizen has a “right to a decent home” that they can “afford”, courtesy of the government, must be the last hangover of postwar socialism and a brainless basis for policy." - Sir Simon Jenkins

"Simon Jenkins is a total wanker" - Alastair Campbell

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Inequality and the politics of envy

The report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about inequality in the UK should be read alongside their research on public attitudes to inequality.

73% of people agreed that "the gap between those with high and low incomes [is] too large" in a survey in 2004. Over the last twenty years, large majorities have agreed with this statement. 58% believe that inequality exists because it serves the interests of the rich and powerful, only 17% think it is necessary for Britain's economic success. Just under 60% agree that 'ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation's wealth', considerably fewer than those who think the gap between very rich and very poor is too large, but still a majority.

So you'd expect to find support for redistribution of wealth, right?

Not really. The percentage of people who agreed that 'the government should do more to redistribute wealth from the better-off to those who are less well-off' fell by 12%, from 44% to 32%, between 1996 and 2004. 62% support government tax policies which are either strongly or moderately redistributive, and 38% think the government is doing too little to redistribute income from the better off to the less well off (13% thought it was doing too much). So there are at least some people who think that redistribution of wealth is wrong in principle, but in practice the government should do more of it. Younger people and manual workers were more opposed to redistributing wealth than the average. Whichever way you look at it, about half the people who think that the gap between rich and poor is too large don't think that the government should redistribute wealth.

What about making the tax system fairer by taxing the rich more heavily and cutting taxes for lower income earners?

72% think that taxes for people earning £15,000 or less are too high, but the limitations of using the tax system to redistribute can be seen by the fact that 11% of people thought that people earning £30,000-£70,000 were paying too little tax, and only 29% thought the same of people earning £70,000 or more. Support for abolishing inheritance tax is strongest amongst younger people and those in social classes IV and V - the people least likely to pay it. People think that higher earners pay a higher proportion of their income in tax than lower earners (they don't), and don't think that lower earners benefit more from spending on health and education (they do).

Is that because people don't like the politics of envy?

One interesting exercise was to ask people how much they think people doing different jobs actually earn, and how much they should earn. What this showed was that people's preferred way of reducing inequality was to raise the incomes of low paid workers slightly, and to reduce those of high earners a lot. So people thought shop assistants earned on average £9,000 (actually £10,300), and should earn £12,000, a 25% pay rise. They thought solicitors on averge earned £50,000 (actually £38,000) and should earn £40,000 (actually a modest pay rise, though intended as a hefty pay cut). They thought cabinet ministers earned £60,000, and should earn £45,000 (actually £94,200), and they thought that the chairman of a large national corporation earned £125,000, and should earn £75,000. In fact the average pay at the time for this post was £555,000.

Looking at pay differentials between highest and lowest wage earner, people thought that on average a chairman of a large national corporation earned 12.5 times as much as an unskilled factory worker (£125,000 to £10,000), and they thought that he should earn 6.25 times as much (£75,000 to £12,000). In fact, the chairman was earning 42.3 times as much as an unskilled worker (£555,000 to £13,100), and since the survey this will only have increased.

So people think the gap between how much the rich get paid, and how much low paid workers get paid should be closed, and in fact the gap is far greater than they imagine. Go go politics of envy!

So what can we make of this?

There is a widespread feeling that inequality is a problem in Britain, but much less clarity about what could or should be done, with lots of ignorance about basic facts like how much people earn and who the tax system benefits. Responses vary widely depending on the language used - people will agree that the gap between rich and poor is too large, but are less keen on phrases like redistribution of wealth. And, as ever, people are happy to sign up for others to pay more to reduce inequality, but less keen if it hits them in the pocket.

As the report about poverty and wealth shows, all of this is compounded by the fact that people are increasingly less likely to live near or have friends who have a very different level of income to themselves. People earning £40,000 a year can quite easily think of themselves as poor when their social circle are all earning more than that, and someone on half that will worry that higher taxes on 'the rich' will affect them.

This is an issue which requires political leadership. Under Tony Blair the government did not see reducing inequality as a priority. Any issue which provokes a lot of concern, but about which there is little knowledge is ripe for exploiting by opportunists. Four initial conclusions of measures to reduce inequality, taking all of the above into account:

1. Find out more about how to discuss inequality - which phrases put people off and which increase understanding and support for tackling it.

2. Improve public understanding of the current situation - in particular how wide the gap has grown between the highest earners and those on low incomes. When rich people complain about the 'politics of envy', remember that most people think that company directors and other high earners should be getting a fraction of what they currently take home.

3. Cut taxes for lower earners.

4. More spending on services which benefit the majority, but particularly those on low incomes. These include health and education, as well as other services such as childcare and housing. People will support policies like these if they can see how they and their families benefit, and better public services help those with least money most of all.

Monday, July 16, 2007

what do tories think of tax breaks for same sex couples? have a guess

So the Tories were awfully pleased with Iain Duncan Smith's proposals that married couples should receive tax breaks, just as they did in the Good Old Days of Maggie Thatcher and, er, John Major. But then their Leader went and spoiled it for them by suggesting that this might also apply to same sex couples.

A survey from the 'voice of the grassroots' Conservative Home found 80% support for Duncan Smith's proposals on marriage, but just 37% support for Cameron's suggestion that same sex couples should also benefit.

The discussion which this has provoked almost made me feel sorry for the minority of modernising Tories, trying plaintively to persuade their colleagues to accept the modern world, for electoral reasons if nothing else, and having to debate against arguments such as:

"Were Disraeli, Baldwin, Churchill et al actually closet supporters of 'Gay Weddings'?
I think we should be told"

"I once attended a church at which the vicar would always preface his announcement of the banns of marriage of a divorcee with the phrase "Under protest, and because I am required to by law, I publish the banns of marriage of X (*divorced*) of the parish of..." If homosexuals became notionally legally entitled to marry in Church, the pressure for disestablishment would probably become overwhelming."

"Many of us recall the development of 'gay rights', which was of course from beginning to end dominated by the left, and very often the far left. Now we have a few johnny-come-latelies of the gay persuasion telling us that this is something Tories need to support. Funny they were so quiet about it before. Well, I don't buy it - and nor do a majority of CH respondents."

"Marriage is beteen man and woman ideally for procreation and should attract the tax allowance in recognition of its importance and benefit to society. Civil partnerships are of no special benefit to society only to those involved. Once again Dave is trying to be all things to all men (and women). I do not believe that the majority support tax allowances for persons in such situations nor in adoption by gays. Up north they will be rolling their eyes and looking up to the heavens. Those that wish to partake of a civil partnership, that is their business, but I do not wish to be taxed to assist them neither will I vote for a party that believes I should."

"I think our tax policy should be a flat rate of 10%.
"You shall surely tithe all the produce of what you sow which comes out of the field every year." (Deutoronomy 14:22)"

"We shouldn't go screwing around with things that have worked for 1000s of years. Leave such ignorance and arrogance to the left. I didn't take the survey but am opposed to such an extension, which will not benefit the working poor and serves no useful purpose at all - other than as a shameless bribe to a minority of the electorate"

"The obvious problem with drawing God into the rulings of HMRC is the multiple married allowances that devout Mohammedans and Mormons will then trouser."

UPDATE: also this

"I have nothing against gays I might add and many excellent eurosceptics are also gay, although it seems that gayness and treachery can on rare occasions be close relatives judging by the Cambridge lot who supplied our nuclear secrets to Moscow, and now we have the Portillista gang like Bercow. I do have a lot against Europhiles though..."

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Hunt and housing

Tristram Hunt, who is seeking selection as a Labour MP, agrees with the Tory Party that building on the green belt would be a 'retrograde step'.

It's better than, say, a Will Hutton article in that he spends a bit more time writing about the historical development of the green belt, and hence has less space for his musings on current policy challenges, but on the basis of this and his other columns on housing policy, his selection as a Labour candidate would, most definitely, be a retrograde step. Given that he is seeking to become Bob Wareing's successor, this is quite an achievement.

There is a difference between building on sections of the green belt which are scrubland, and which have been identified as suitable sites to build sustainable housing developments, and 'concreting over the counties'. The housing crisis can't be solved solely by building on brownfield sites, and there are choices to be made. If the priority is to meet the massive need for more and better housing, then as well as new 'eco-towns' and getting private developers to build on land which they have acquired, local councils and housing associations need to be able to build social housing on sites which they have identified, some of which are in the green belt.

It's often said that there is a consensus now that building more homes needs to be a top priority. But as well as the people who pretend that the problems are caused by how we allocate social housing, there are people like Hunt who claim to support the aim of more housing, but won't support the means needed.

Lib Dem tax plans

Over the years, the Lib Dems have had many different tax policies. Their latest one (pdf) is to announce a four pence in the pound cut in income tax, plus other changes designed to make the tax system 'fairer, simpler, greener'. It's quite a shift from calling for higher taxes to fund public services.

What they call a 4% cut in the basic rate of income tax in fact means reducing it from 20% to 19.5%. Or, if you believe Sir Michael Lyons, increasing it to 23.7%. This is because the reduction in national income tax is counterbalanced by the introduction of a Local Income Tax. The rate of this is the subject of some dispute - the Lib Dems say the average increase will be 3.5%, the Lyons Review said 7.7%. Whether or not this is a contribution to making tax simpler is rather dubious.

The other major change for simplicity is to replace regulations to prevent tax avoidance with a 'General Anti Avoidance Rule' which automatically withdraws any tax benefits where the avoidance of tax is the main reason for a transaction. This sounds great if it works (apparently it is copied from Australia), but it sounds implausible that preventing tax avoidance is that easy.

As for 'fairer', they are proposing a shift from property taxes (by abolishing council tax and raising the threshold for inheritance tax), to indirect taxes (through 'green taxes' such as quadrupling the tax take on flying) and taxing wealthy non-residents. As Lib Dem Jock Coats points out, one effect of reducing taxes on property is to make housing less affordable - with house prices rising by about eight times the level of council tax. Entrenching the gap between those who own property and those who don't is a curious way of promoting 'fairness'.

Understandably, they spend more time talking about where they are reducing tax, and almost nothing on their plans to increase tax, so it is hard to evaluate their 'greener' tax plans. In particular, it's not at all clear who will pay the vastly increased level of tax on aircraft take-offs, or what will happen if the tax level is sufficient to alter people's behaviour so that they fly less and revenue drops. The 'polluter pays' principle which can work well when levied on a business is much more problematic when levied on a low or middle income family.

It'll be interesting to see how much of all of this gets picked up by Labour or by the Tories. If we get the chance, can we have the bit which includes higher taxes for wealthy non-residents and less 'tax avoidance', but skip the bit which takes money from working people and gives it to property owners?

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Breakdown Britain

First thought on reading Iain Duncan Smith's Social Justice Policy Group report was that at long last someone had managed to claim Evelyn Waugh's prize for the longest essay, irrespective of merit.

It is a curious report. Right-wing Tories who want to slash public spending will be delighted to hear that there are 44 new spending commitments, adding up to several billion pounds extra expenditure per year - perhaps wisely many of the proposals are not costed, with two additional sources of funding identified (taxing gambling operators and taxing alcoholic drinks). It rails against bureaucratic regulation on headteachers, and then proposes new regulations for all schools to follow (Educational Failure) and warns against the dangers of the welfare state while proposing to increase welfare spending by at least £6 billion (Family Breakdown). At one point women should be supported to stay at home and look after their children, but at another they should go out to work to provide a positive role model for their children - particularly if they are lone parents (Family Breakdown and Educational Failure). It identifies the need for more childcare, but believes state-run childcare services should be shut down because they offer unfair competition to the private and voluntary sectors (Family Breakdown).

But there are some clear principles underlying it:

1. Marriage good. This has been debated elsewhere, but one thing which is worth mentioning is that the section on Family reports that 'since 1992, divorce rates have fallen by 15%' (I guess it is one of the problems of having such a long report that it's hard to check that you've managed to remove all the facts which demolish the argument that tax and benefit incentives have affected divorce rates).

2. Faith groups good, state bad. IDS believes that currently faith groups are discriminated against when it comes to funding to deliver services. He would like them to be able to set up schools, and receive a lot more funding from the government to run services. For many services, he believes that the private and voluntary sector are intrinsically better than the public sector, though he offers no like-for-like comparisons to back this up.

3. There is a consensus about welfare reform amongst the three main parties. The section on 'Economic Dependancy' reaches conclusions similar to those which the government's Freud Review did, which in turn have been supported by the Lib Dems. These envisage using the private and voluntary sector to support people into work and keep them in work. Given how far out a lot of the rest of this report is, it is interesting that this section mostly echoes the government's own policies.

4. Trust in the market to deliver, even in areas of obvious market failure. Rent controls are ruled out explicitly, and the problem with doorstep money lenders is, apparently, that there is not enough competition between them to deliver better value for the customer.

5. It took 18 months to prepare, and allegedly involved all sorts of different people, but the conclusions had already been determined in advance. Anything which did not conform to Duncan Smith's prejudices has been removed - this is not an evidence-based report, but quite literally a faith-based one.

The model for all of the above (though not explicitly credited as such) is the Republican Party - and even George Bush's most loyal supporters would find it hard to argue that the situation for poor people in America have improved since 2000. No one seriously believes that a future Tory government is actually going to increase spending on benefits, or that the people who complain about the overstaffed public sector are going to spend millions on employing 'Home-School Co-ordinators' in every deprived area, but take out all of the unfunded spending commitments and what is left involves handouts for Christian groups to deliver services rather than local councils or the NHS, a transfer of wealth to better off people who are married together with attempts to force people in unsuitable relationships to stay together to fit a 1950s view of what a family should be, and attempts to get people into work without tackling the real barriers to employment.

Even if all 188 policy recommendations were implemented in full, they would do little to tackle 'Breakdown Britain', because they are confused and incoherent, and have excluded any policies which go against a conservative Christian view of our society. If they really were given a blank sheet of paper and asked to come up with a 'money no object' set of recommendations to tackle poverty, then it exposes the poverty of thought that this is the best they could come up with. While it is good to open a debate on poverty in the UK, it is not just the section on promoting marriage which is misguided

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Victory for the Good Old Boys

Obviously I hope that whichever of the shortlisted candidates in Ealing Southall is successful goes on to become the next MP for the seat. But shortlisting two men in a seat which had been agreed for an All Women Shortlist was the wrong decision. Indeed, shortlisting two men was the wrong decision full stop, AWS or no AWS. (The process in Sedgefield was a bit less blatant but similarly depressing).

The dilemma that the NEC faces is that if a disappointed candidate who thinks of himself as the natural successor runs in the election as an independent, it could well cost Labour the seat. So it's important to appease them, but not to pay attention to the pro-equality people who accept decisions about selections and get on with supporting Labour regardless.

As Piara Khabra said, "We should give more opportunity for women to play their part in running the country". Selections for these by-elections offered a good chance to offer that opportunity, and we (and, of course, Tories and Lib Dems, goeswithoutsaying) missed it. The priority between now and 18th July is to make sure we do get our candidates elected, but after that we do need a bit of a think about how we can get away from selecting favoured sons in safe Labour seats.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Kirsty McNeill re-selected in Bermondsey and Old Southwark

Well done to Kirsty McNeill, re-selected to take on Simon Hughes in Bermondsey and Old Southwark. Kirsty managed to cut the Lib Dem majority last time even though they were riding high in the polls nationally (before it all started to go so very badly wrong for them), and in 2006 she was elected as a local councillor, defeating a Lib Dem incumbent. It's a seat which the Lib Dems only hold because of Simon Hughes' personal vote, and is likely to be very close next time even if he stands again.

It goes without saying that Kirsty is a formidable campaigner and would make an excellent MP, and those of you down in London should definitely find time to go and help out in the campaign ahead :)

climate change

Henry Porter makes a decent living from writing a weekly article in the Observer in which he tells us how Bad the state is and how important our ancient liberties are. Imagine my surprise to discover in this week's column that he appears to hold the view that "If the government had pursued national carbon emission targets with the Jesuitical fervour of its plans to stamp out smoking in public places, we'd be in a lot better shape."

It's a deeply weird column, actually. Pop stars are good, but maybe they are bad because they use aeroplanes, but maybe they could sell more energy efficient lightbulbs. Politicians are bad, because a man who doesn't believe in climate change thinks that they try to be too much like pop stars, but Al Gore has integrity because he did a movie. The only way to stop climate change is through personal action, but the reason the government hasn't done anything about climate change is because it is caused by big business.

One thing that this reflects is that if you think that the biggest problem facing us is the over-weening power of the state, then working out how to tackle climate change gets a bit tricky. It goes various ways - some say that climate change is a myth, some that individual action is what's needed, some that it is all hopeless because nothing we do will make any difference.

The American scientist and writer Kim Stanley Robinson recently published the third in a series of books about climate change. He identified three main strands to the work to mitigate the effects of climate change - new technology, social justice and protecting the natural environment. Governments have an important role in all of these, helping to direct future research and make sure that scientific breakthroughs which could help aren't suppressed for commercial advantage; helping to promote social justice so that, for example, women all over the world have full and equal rights (the only possible way that the global population could be stabilised), and protecting the environment and trying to support ecological diversity during a period of abrupt climate change.

At its heart, this is a far more optimistic and practical vision for how we can meet the challenge of climate change than the alternatives - whether they be those who think technology alone will save us, that we need to turn back on the last two centuries of technological progress, or that there is nothing we can do. And if even Henry Porter is being won round, maybe we're starting to get somewhere.