Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Opposition for opposition's sake?

The budget was an opportunity, and one that could lead to a long-term poll lead.

Add to that a real PR disaster with the party funding debacle, and surely this is the time to start the big fightback that we just haven't managed yet.

Party funding, of course, is a mess, and, much like the arguments about representative democracy, I now really am sold on the idea of state funding for political parties - it's the best of a lot of very bad options. Huge donations, which undoubtedly come attached with huge policy influence, are obviously a very poor way for our politics to be run - and so is the Labour use of union funding, which takes money from unions which could be using it for more specific things their members need, and which often gives the appearance, at least, of union interference in policy. The Labour internal electoral system is also a complete mess, with some members having several votes, and changing that would be much easier when money is no longer involved.

The rich list who would lose out in their influence can, of course, continue to give money to political parties - through paying more tax, voluntarily. And as much as I accept that some people would resent their money going to political parties (and the huge complexity of the system involved) I think the potential increase in responsibility to the tax payer could allay some, if not all, of these added problems. Our current system is a mess, and makes our politics very messy.

But back to the point - our opposition. An opposition has to oppose, of course, and sometimes it might seem that policies are opposed just for the sake of doing so. There is a place for this kind of rigorous checking of government policy, and there is also the place for agreement on major policies which come cross party (equal marriage for example). However, Ed has today called Labour members to arms - and what a paltry offering he has given us (

First - tax. This makes sense but how are we going to block it? Labour won't, of course, say that they will reintroduce the 50p rate in 2015 - so what concrete measures can be taken? Fees and energy costs are of course important, but where is the evidence behind this - and how will it be done? And rail fares - surely the best way of doing this is removing the ludicrous system of private monopolies that we now have, rather than just capping fares? Train fares are already far too expensive, and it's a structural change that is needed, rather than just messing around at the edges.

And whilst some of these ideas are thinking relatively big - particularly the energy costs (though surely a better long-term strategy is to radically change the way we harness our energy, and provide incentive for the private sector to research and develop) - in reality this is a five point plan of small ideas, little in concrete, and pure opposition. If we want to persuade the majority that we're on their side, we're going to have to do better than that.

Labour needs to take this opportunity, still a few years away from the next election, and form a story for government. Only doing this will we become the government in waiting in May 2015 - and we're not making enough ground yet. These measures have to be part of this story - sure it's not time to make a manifesto yet, but let's form a set of ideas that sets out the priorities that Miliband et al continually say we should be setting out - the alternative to Cameron's Conservatism.

Small measures may work when we're in government, but we need to radically rethink our policy focus, and the dialogue we want to have with voters. We've heard that we are 'refounding Labour' - well where are the fruits of that labour, and what are the priorities that will guide our policies once we regain Number 10? We need to work them out, we need to get them out, and we need to win - not for our sake, but for the thousands of voters who share our values, but aren't convinced we stand for anything right now.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

What a disaster

That was a pretty pathetic budget - and Ed gave a pretty impressive speech afterwards.

One small point really riled me though; and that was on the 50p tax rate.

The Chancellor gave part of his reasoning for reducing the tax on the rich to be that the 50p didn't bring in as much as was expected - in fact, only a third of what was originally expected. Partly, this was because people chose to retrospectively claim their earnings. Is he really so stupid in that he can't see that is only going to be a problem for the first year of such a measure? And also, that now removing the 50p, we will once again lose a load of the income because people will claim their income a year late?

But wait - it's only going to cost us 100 million quid a year - so that's alright! We don't need that kind of money - we've got loads as it is, and it's not like we're cutting budgets in real terms for universities, schools, the NHS, Aim Higher, Sure Start... oh whoops. Yes we are. Still, what's £100mill between (millionaire) friends?

Because the point is, the Chancellor has told us that the rich will still pay more (5 times more in fact). Some might do, that's true; and people with expensive houses certainly will. But if we're all in this together, and we allegedly are, surely we should be looking at increasing the total amount of money we take in, rather than fiddling around, increasing some and reducing other amounts from the rich. If we can get more money in, then we should be doing that - and not cutting 50p in the meantime. It's a bad message, and yes that is ideological; but it is also working in that it bring in £100mill a year, and it's removal is entirely ideological. It doesn't put business off - there's no evidence for that - and it does increase our annual tax takings.

The rise in personal allowance of course is a good thing - but it doesn't do much to help the squeezed middle who still aren't helped by this change, and are losing tax credits. And neither does it help the pensioners who will be paying more tax in real terms.

The budget was full of some good things and some bad. But the bad things really are disastrous, and this could well be the beginning of the end for compassionate (and intellectually sound) conservatism.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

50p? That's out-bloody-rageous

Apologies for the re-hash - this is a speech I gave to CUS earlier this term. Still pertinent, if a little lacking detail. I only had 3 mins...

I suppose I should start by wondering aloud whether the proposition tonight are heartless or just completely clueless and ill-informed. I’d love to think that it was the latter, but with a student conservative leading the charge (and they really are a special breed) I am not leaping to any conclusions just yet. And with Tory party backers being rather well heeled, perhaps the political pressure is all too much to make a reasoned argument.
Let me make it quite clear here – if the proposition say that tax on the rich is too high, then they want to lower it – and that means one of three things. One – not paying off the deficit. Two – taxing the poor more. Three – slashing welfare and public services more than has been done already.

Let’s get to the heart of this issue; what is tax for? If you listen to some of the Republican nonsense in the US, you’d be forgiven for thinking tax is just there to punish success, and we could do rather well without it. That’s true – if you don’t want roads, public services, a health service and a welfare system (although looking across, I’m not sure if the proponents do want that). And in today’s financial mess, caused mostly because of an obsession with credit and a fundamental misunderstanding of risk, on a personal, governmental and system level, and a pitiful regulatory framework, we need to get back to the simple addition that we all learnt at primary school – we must be able to afford what we spend. And contributions from citizens, or tax, is rather a useful method of creating a state income. And remember that deficit, chaps – the one you keep blaming Labour for? We need to get back to sustainable levels on that too.

What the agitators for tonight’s motion seem to be arguing for is Bush-style US tax cuts for the rich, and hence increasing the deficit (or getting the money to pay it off from cloud cuckoo land). You would have thought this lot would have learnt from their ‘compassionate conservative’ colleagues across the water that that really doesn’t work. Which is fairly obvious to a thinking human being, surely – hence why Bush enacted them, I suppose. And they will, of course, be appalled by government waste – Sure Start for one – and would argue that we could do more for less. Yes, let’s cut inefficiency and support only evidence-based measures, sure. But let’s not kid ourselves that, were we to find we could cut tax, we should pop it back into the Armani suits first. But at the same time, we would clamp down on the tax loopholes which the same suits use to steal from the exchequer.

So what do we ask of our rich that is so unreasonable – and remember here that only 300,000 out of our population of 70 million pay this amount? 50% of their income above £150,000? Outrageous! Of course, we don’t have much leverage over their shares, and the super-rich still get paid an obscene amount in bonuses, but come on – how unreasonable we are! Why on earth should the state levy high levels of tax on people, like the Chief Executive of Boots, who earns over a thousand times that which an average employee earns? It’s a moral outrage! It’s punishing ambition, surely. It’s doing down success. Or is it asking people who have benefitted from our financial system to pay some of their success into helping the less fortunate (and indeed, in some cases, the less greedy).

But wait, they have another solid argument up their sleeve – people will run away, businesses will leave, the world will end. Which is of course likely in a country with competitive rates of tax on business – and which has of course been borne out by the fact that the entire executive work force legged it overseas when the 50p rate was introduced. The bank bonus tax was to cost the exchequer 1.2 billion when everyone departed for more iniquitous shores – but no, we raised 2.3 billion. And a recent report into the Laffer curve of tax burdens becoming counterproductive for the government shows the 50p rate as being very much a revenue creator.

We’re behind here – rich mainland Europeans and some very rich folk in the US, Bill Gates amongst them, are calling for more voluntary contributions, either to the exchequer or charity. But here we seem to be having an argument about an intolerable burden being placed on our richest. And don’t get me wrong – were there to be a more equal spread of income, tax rates would certainly be different. But whilst we have gross, some would say disgusting, inequality of income, our rich must, with the rest of us, accept their civic duty and responsibility, and help to pay for the liberal democracy that has helped them get rich. And, if they have any soul, they should give a lot more to those in need, voluntarily. I urge you, with all the moral fibre and intellectual ability that you have, to oppose this outrageous motion.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Sorry, Varsity - you can't silence me that easily

The University of Cambridge doesn’t seem to be very good at PR.

These last two weeks, we’ve seen the rather lenient slapping of the wrists of a paedophile Don, whilst at the same time seen a student sent down for two and a half years for taking part in a protest. It doesn’t sound quite right – and surely this is just another own goal in the list of own goals that our wonderful institution seems to score. And to single out a student seems bizarre at best – unless there is information that we haven’t yet been told.

Now don’t get me wrong – the protest was ludicrous, erring on dangerous. I fundamentally oppose any attempt to shut down an event when the sole reason for doing so is because someone with a differing view to one’s own is speaking. David Willetts, the universities Minister, has undoubtedly upset a good number of students and Fellows alike in his higher education ‘plans’ (education plans, we must admit, which were a natural conclusion to Higher Ambitions, the Mandelson-sponsored Labour predecessor). So, like any thinking person at the time, I was fairly appalled by the crass way that our so-called saviours, some of whom hailed from, Cambridge ‘Defend’ Education, attempted to destroy the idea of debate.
But the whole argument got a bit more convoluted yesterday when a petition against the suspension, partly fronted by CUSU, had as a major statement that ‘opposition to the government's higher education policies is a stated aim of a broad range of organisations’. In what way is this relevant to the petition? Rather, it gives implicit support to the protest, as a method of ‘opposition’. I do not support the government plans. I do not, however, see the protest as anything other than idiotic, misjudged, childish and useless. Therefore, I do not see this rustication as having anything to do with ideology – and nor, seemingly, does the university court, given their ruling on grounds of freedom of speech. Once again the extreme left, who doubtless had some shaping over the statement, have attempted to justify their actions by lumping an ideological viewpoint with the petition – and it will put people off signing it.

They didn’t help themselves, either, by C’D’E’s release of a tweet stating ‘this means war’. What on earth does that mean? Why are the extremists so imprudent that they can’t realise the best way to win an argument is to stick to the parameters in which that argument is framed. Students who protest do so in a country where it’s legal – and where we should defend that legal right. They also go to a university which prides itself on freedom of speech – something these fanatics prevented that day. How they manage to do their degrees at the same time, I have no idea – some of us have to work for ours. And for some in the protest movement, two and a half years away from studying won’t be much of a change, I might uncharitably suggest.

But taking it all together, and rising above the nonsense spouted by the self-confessed radicals, I still support, and have signed the petition against the sentence, on the sole grounds that it is disproportionate and will not help in the university’s furtherance of freedom of speech. The university should have every right to punish people who obstruct lectures, occupy their property and prevent freedom of speech – but should be proportionate about it.

But the extremists should be warned – your aggressive, all pervasive, flawed ideological posturing is unhelpful to your cause, and may one day just mean that you lose any empathy the rest of us would otherwise feel.