Monthly Archives: November 2005

Meeting the Challenge 4/1: Freedom

FREEDOM: to what extent is it justified to limit civil liberties in order to fight threats to those liberties such as terrorism and crime?

Full paper.

This section of the paper is a strange hodge-podge of different issues that don’t fit into the other sections comfortably. As a result, “freedom” is broadened out to cover everything from crime prevention to democratic engagement.

The problem with having “freedom” at the heart of your party’s identity is that it means very different things to very different people. At the most abstract, everyone agrees that people should be free to do whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others, but so what? That is why you should sceptical of liberal fundamentalists who argue that there is only one, true liberalism and that everyone else is a heretic (see Chapter One of the Orange Book by David Laws for a particularly swivel-eyed example of this sort of thing). When someone tells me they are a liberal, I always want to know what kind of liberal. So it is that when we talk about freedom, we should be talking about what kinds of freedom we consider to be a priority.

This sort of goes to the heart of what is wrong with this paper. Instead of looking at the environment, the economy, localism, etc. from the point of view of maximising freedom – our raison d’etre – it risks ending up with the sort of incoherent mess that it seeks to avoid.

When it comes to crime for instance, I’m not going to get anywhere proposing a whole list of different measures we ought to introduce. A better approach at this stage should be to ask ourselves what framework our overall approach should take. Labour, for example, have come to the conclusion that the key to their approach on crime is visibility and tangable results; civil liberties and rights take second place. As a liberal party, much of their approach we abhor, but we can’t get away from the fact that it is popular, so what do we do?

In my view this boils down to two things. We can go down the route of attempting to sound and act as tough as them, but remain liberals at heart. Alternately, we can aggressively attack the whole approach adopted by Labour and attempt to demonstrate that it is ultimately futile. The latter is the more challenging, yet oddly it is the adherents of the former who describe their approach as “tough”.

The first questions we should be asking about crime, surely, is what is causing it and is it going up or down? The paper appears disinterested in both questions, despite its stated objective of identifying trends for the next 5-10 years. The answer to the second question would appear to be that with relatively few exceptions crime is going down, while violent crime appears to be stabilising, yet the opposite impression is always emphasised in the press and the Lib Dems’ own literature. If we aren’t prepared to admit that crime is less of an issue than it was 20 years ago, I would put it to you that we will always be on the back foot when attempting to defend a more civil liberties-based approach.

But just because crime has been going down, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be taking it seriously. The causes of crime are wide and varied, yet there appear to be three main factors: 1. bored, dispossessed, feral kids on housing estates; 2. a culture of selfish hedonism; 3. prohibition. The third will be difficult to deal with both politically and internationally (which isn’t to say we shouldn’t try). The second is somewhat outside of the bounds of politicians as it extends into personal morality, a point that needs to be emphasised. But the first point should be our priority.

Leaving aside the myriad of different planning and economic measures that we should be adopting, in my view one of the major priorities in the next Lib Dem manifesto should be a major expansion of youth services, not merely the “go-karting for yobs” approach advocated by Mark Oaten last year, but a wide programme aimed at kids of all ages, running all year round. As a friend of mine who does a lot of youth work says, one of the biggest things that cuts crime rates in an area is preventing the local kids from getting bored. If we can raise their aspirations in the process, so much the better. But from a strictly pragmatic point of view, it is far more cost effective than investing in police, ASBOs and generally clearing up the mess after the problem has already got out of control.

The other issue raised here that I want to talk about is how you can make citizens more actively engage in their society, even if you do introduce measures such as PR and devolution. In the long term, we need to look at education. Citizenship education appears to have failed to set the educational fire alight and that would appear to be at least in part due to the fact that it has come to be seen as little more than teaching kids a few facts and figures about how democratic institutions work, connected with a trip to dredge a canal.

Whatever else you might think of the New Economics Foundation’s Wellbeing Manifesto, I think the approach they argue for education must surely be the goal of any liberal party. I would argue that this approach has a far better chance of creating citizens who are interested in wider society and have the tools to connect with it, than simply having citizenship classes every week. Simple question, but why is numeracy and literacy regarded as crucial measurements for a school’s success, but not the happiness and satisfaction of the pupils themselves?

But that’s a long term approach. In the shorter term, in my view we need to come up with a basket of systems of direct democracy to compliment our existing representative structures. I will always advocate representative democracy as the best system, but we need to find a system to work through frustrations the public has with government, and that means giving them a greater say.

This leads me to advocate the introduction of a UK version of citizens initiatives. UK citizens should be able to formally petition their national and local governments and expect more than simply a formal acceptance. Instead, I’d advocate something like the following system:

  1. If 5% or more of the populace (local or national) formally petition the government calling for something to be done, it should be raised at the relevant legislative body.
  2. The legislature can either accept it, and undertake to respect those wishes, or refer the matter to a citizen’s assembly/jury, made up of X, randomly chosen individuals.
  3. The citizen’s jury then reports back to the legislature. If it sides against the petitioners, then the system ends. If it sides with the petitioners, then the legislature can agree with the findings, or hold a referendum.

There are two main features of this system that I think lend it strength. Firstly, the legislature can go along with the petitioners at both stages – the petition doesn’t automatically trigger a referendum. Secondly, the citizen’s jury is a more deliberative way of resolving the issue and of widening the debate in a more nuanced way than a referendum. Indeed, the referendum is only presented as a last resort option.

Whether you love or hate this proposal – and it definitely needs fine tuning – the fundamental point is that we need to put citizens back into the driving seat. People are disengaged and disinterested because they feel utterly disempowered by the electoral system. We need to challenge that notion in a very real way, with all the risks that go along with it, if we are to turn this problem around.

Is the Lib Dem Front Bench completely descending into Daily Mail la la land?

Lib Dem DCMS Shadow Don Foster has today released a press release announcing the alarming ‘fact’ that alcohol related crime has increased by 20% in the last two years. You can read the written answer from Hazel Blears that this was based on here.

This is mind numbing, head banging, bat-shit crazy talk. A sprinkling of other ‘facts’:

  • This is a measure of recorded crime which isn’t reflected by the British Crime Survey. According to this, violent crime fell from 2003/4 to 2004/5 by 11%.
  • This is a new measure that was introduced in 2002. As such, one would expect the stats to be all over the place, especially when recording something as subjective as ‘violent offences committed in connection with licensed premises’.
  • Even if you ignore the two points above, the statistics suggest that the police are starting to turn things around. ‘Crime’ increased by 14.9% in 2002/3-2003/4, while in 2003/4-2004/5 it went up by just 4.7%. Meanwhile, total recorded violent crime rose by 14.5% in 2002/3-2003/4 and 8.3% in 2003/4-2004/5. Relative to everything else then, the police are getting pub related violent crime under control.
  • The figures don’t show all policy authorities and are most notably missing the Metropolitan Police. The City of London police meanwhile are recording a drop. Presumably it is quite okay to introduce relaxed licensing laws there then?
  • Even if that doesn’t give you cause for comfort, then realise that this all happened at a time when we didn’t have relaxed licensing laws and there is nothing to suggest that relaxing licensing laws will have any significant effect.

Finally, it can’t be emphasised enough that recorded crime is just as much an indication of the police doing their job as it is a case of crime increasing. As Hazel Blears correctly states:

These figures relate to violence recorded by the police rather than violence committed. Therefore they should not be taken as a complete illustration of the number of violent offences committed in connection with licensed premises.

For example, in certain areas where alcohol-related violence is particularly prevalent, local police are more likely to police city centres on Friday and Saturday nights thus recording more incidents of violent offences committed in connection with licensed premises. If football-related violence is a problem, the choice to send police officers to the match will undoubtedly lead to more violent crime being recorded than if they did not attend. There are other examples, such as the pro-active policing of antisocial behaviour which can increase recorded crime.

We are stuck with the age old problem of the wide discrepency between recorded crime and the BCS. But I don’t think this is terribly hard to explain. Aside from the explanation given above, just as people’s aspirations tend to increase at a faster pace than the economy, so it is that as crime falls we start getting increasingly concerned about every minor infringement. While there are fewer victims of assault than ever before, every clip round the ear which would have been ignored is getting reported.

By all means read the BCS with a critical eye, but it doesn’t then follow that you can ignore the thing entirely.

Why are the Lib Dems playing this Daily Mail game so whole-heartedly? Cynical Labour hacks would argue that it is because we’re shameless opportunists and I’d like to say they’re wrong, but I’m finding it more and more hard to justify. “Tough liberalism” appears to amount to nothing more than running around screaming like Chicken Licken about the sky falling (apologies – I promised not to mention childrens stories again this week). That doesn’t sound terribly “tough” to me; in fact it sounds like a position of weakness.

It really angers me that the party plays this game while simultaneously accusing the other parties of playing fear politics when it comes to terrorism. What’s worse, I just can’t see it doing us any good whatsoever. The other parties will continue to accuse us of being ‘soft on crime’ and we fail to carve out a distinctive platform. I didn’t get into politics to play this game and when I read this sort of shit being churned out I really do wonder if it isn’t time I jacked it all in.

I’ll let Don Foster himself have the last word:

These last minute spurious arguments smack of desperation.

Quite.

UPDATE: I’ve just had another look at the government figures and noticed that the “incomplete” figures that the Lib Dem press release doesn’t mention almost all indicate a fall in crime from 2003/4-2004/5, including Essex, Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire, North Yorkshire, West Mercia and Wiltshire.

Little Britain backlash

Nick Barlow and Johann Hari have been mouthing off about Little Britain. Fair enough, personally I gave up on the thing after the first series, although I did catch a few episodes of series two.

I think it has fallen into the same trap that Ali G fell into, in that its initial edge has been blunted by its popularity with a huge number of people who spectacularly missed the point, ably assisted by the artists themselves who could see a quick buck coming a mile off. Ali G was originally a dig at people who would tolerate the most outrageous things out of a fear of seeming uncool. The point of Little Britain initially, I always assumed, was that it was taking the piss out of people from all walks of life. As Nick says:

While Little Britain was never the subtlest of comedies, there was a sense that their characters were – like those that inspired them in The Fast Show – not too far from ordinary life and just exaggerated for comic effect, but now they’ve become little more than grotesque caricatures, devoid of any sense of reality or pathos.

What has happened now is that the most popular characters have taken over, and this has lead to it taking on a degree of nastiness that it didn’t have before.

Johann is right that it is mysogynistic and anti-poor, but in his cute little Johann way he spectacularly misses the point that it isn’t actually funny and has simply become confirmation for certain unsavoury people’s prejudices. Comedians shouldn’t be overburdened with a social conscience, but cannot be overburdened with wit.

If ever there was a comedy that shouldn’t have gone on longer than its first series, this is it.

Party branding

The Independent has seen fit to publish this bit of free advertising and I am happy to be in on the conspiracy, if only to indulge in a round of Spot the Twat:

“The catholic tastes of Labour voters, ranging from traditional favourites like the News of the World to relatively new categories like Nivea for Men indicate that the party still has the broadest appeal across the population despite its reduced majority at the last election.”

You have to read carefully to realise that the only brands mentioned appear to have a contract with Young & Rubicam.

As for the lists themselves, I’m intrigued that the Lib Dems’ Top Five includes two yoghurt brands, one of which, the Munch Bunch, could pretty much sum up the average Focus Team. The Energizer batteries are appropriate, although I’d worry about the environmental impact.

The Tories meanwhile seem to have both Switch and Maestro down. Hello? Haven’t you seen the penguin adverts?

Ridiculous.

Blair’s secret plot to abolish the monarchy

You’ve got to laugh:

The plot to destroy the Monarchy began with the disenfranchisement of the Peerage and the emasculation of the House of Lords. In 1997, when Labour ended twenty years of Conservative Party rule in Britain, the Peers served as a partial check on the powers of the Lower House of Parliament. Between 1997 and 1998, the Lords rejected Labour’s bills thirty-nine times. As we know such a rebuff was, in reality, only a one-year impediment as a result of the Parliament Act of 1949. Still, however negligible, this political check was on the Commons and it allowed the mostly Conservative Peers to slow down the wheels of Tony Blair’s vision of a socialist Britain.

Blair’s response to the Lord’s opposition was particularly dictatorial. He pushed through the House of Lords Act of 1999, which effectively destroyed the minor political check the Peers held over potential abuses by the Commons. Today, only 92 elected Peers remain in the House of Lords; the remaining seats have been principally packed with Labour cronies who have been more then willing to rubber stamp the actions of an all- powerful, Labour controlled Commons. The House of Lords Act has, in effect, left Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as the only remaining check on the Presidential ambitions of Tony Blair and his Labour zealots.

I’ve put a response on the webpage, but I didn’t bother to deal with this paragraph, which I thought was just wonderful:

As an American, allow me to be politically incorrect and point out that Prince Charles is not a villain but a victim. He is not the one who violated the Statute of Treasons which outlaws having sexual intercourse with the wife of the Monarch’s heir. Under this law, if the illicit relations are consensual then both participants are equally guilty of the crime of High Treason. True, the Prince used unusually poor judgment by having his own affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, however, in doing so, he violated no laws and certainly did not subject the Royal Blood line to the peril of illegitimacy. The reality is that history is want to name one English King who did not have a mistress. This is not an issue that disqualifies Prince Charles from becoming King.

With all this talk about reintroducing the death penalty at the moment, perhaps we ought to consider a retrospective execution of Princess Di?

Pity the rich

The usual suspects have taken over tehgrauniad letters column.

Andy Mayer has an interesting argument:

It is regrettable that Charles Kennedy has not yet seen the light on the 50p tax rate (Kennedy plans policy shift on taxation to woo floating voters, November 19). Aside from the usual arguments about taxing aspiration there is the point that those earning £100, 000 or more are those most able to influence their own remuneration. On the day after this policy is implemented they will have been hit by a tax rise of up to £1,000 for every £10,000 over £100,000 they own. They will demand or execute wage rises that compensate them for the tax rise. Those rises will be extremely disproportionate because for every additional £1 rise, there will be 50p going to the government. So far from contributing to social justice, the 50p rate makes inequality even worse.

Mayer here is taking the opposite view of Tony Blair, in that he claims that the 50p rate will increase tax revenues, not lower them. Personally, I’m a little sceptical however, for the simple fact that someone who has that degree of control over their own earnings will surely have already paid themselves as much as they believe they can possibly get away with. But he is right in so far as it is true that income tax is inflationary.

But please. Spare me this guff about about taxing aspiration. Few people aspire to incomes above £100,000, and we aren’t talking about 1960s style super-tax here. If you’re worried about taxing aspiration look at the other end of the scale. If the Tax Commission does its job properly, then the revenue raised by the 50p rate will be committed to flattening exactly that.

Fairy tale taxation policies

I had almost forgotten to comment on this:

Charles Kennedy is to drop the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to increased total taxation in favour of a more flexible strategy which matches Labour’s spending but still makes the rich pay more.

The Lib Dem leader and his economics team are determined to abandon the position they have held through three general elections on the need to raise total taxation. The new “tax-neutral” strategy will alarm MPs and party activists on the Lib Dem left who gave the leadership a bloody nose on spending issues at this year’s Blackpool conference.

Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but “annoy” would be a better adjective than “alarm”. Not because there is anything of substance that comes out of this article that I disagree with but that Kennedy and Cable are a) pre-empting the very Tax Commission they set up to deal with this sort of thing and b) appear to be coming at it from the wrong direction.

I’m one of those Lib Dem “lefties” who was irritated at our post-1997 decision to replace our proposals to shift the burden of taxation from the lowest off to the highest earners with a general slush fund which we raised by charging incomes over £100,000 at 50p in the pound. As such, this move towards making this policy revenue-neutral sounds fine to me. The question is, what do we cut? Trebling our “efficiency savings” from £5bn to £15bn sounds all very well, but unless there’s a £10bn stash of paperclips lying somewhere, it means signalling a significant shift in government policy.

What we need to be hearing from Vince Cable right now is how exactly he proposes to do this. And whatever we do decide to cut, we have to agressively make the case. My big concern about the Lib Dem policy of scrapping the DTI for instance is that we have failed to spell out exactly what that means. It does mean, for instance, a significant rolling back of the state’s provision to bail out struggling companies. There may well be sound economic reasons for doing this (I’m inclined to believe that there are), but we need to make that case, not simply talk about the DTI as if it is some abstract, anonymous department that doesn’t have any responsibility over anything.

I happen to think that the overall levels of tax and spending at the moment are about right, if not the priorities. I happen to think you shouldn’t go into an election pledging to raise tax unless there is an absolutely clear need due to underinvestment. These are good reasons for changing our policy. What isn’t good policy is that we must rush headlong towards the centre and avoid being too much out on a limb. There is nothing wrong with having a distinctive policy on something that the other mainstream parties disagree with – that’s called having a unique selling point. Yet, this article suggests that Kennedy and Cable aren’t really interested in working out what level of taxation is best for the country, and more interested in what level of taxation is best for the party, given our electoral system. It suggests a weakness for political opportunism, which itself is one of the weaknesses that is already undermining the Lib Dems electorally (the accusation that we’ll say anything to get votes does hold some water). When both the other parties are haemorraging support, now is not the time to be following their lead.

So I’m fine about the proposal that we shouldn’t go out on a limb in terms of overall taxation levels, but wonder what this article suggests about Kennedy and Cable’s appetite for how radically we are to shift the burden of taxation within those constraints.

A final point, but if you are going to indulge in silly fairytale analogies, get your facts straight. The “medium-sized” bear in the tale was Mummy Bear and she was the one who liked her porridge cold. So when Kennedy talks of making us one of two “medium-sized” bears, he’s actually talking about making us a tax cutting party!

(no more posts about children’s stories for a while – promise!)

Leave those kids alone!

A couple of months ago I came across “Help! Mom! There are liberals under my bed!” This book seeks to explain to children in simple terms why liberals are evil wicked people who want to steal all your money, and features thinly veiled caricatures of Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton.

I liked to think that this was just another example of quite how bonkers the American Right has become. Unfortunately, it would appear that elements of the US Left are dedicated to doing the same thing. “Why Mommy Is A Democrat” is presumably not a joke, but nevertheless hard to take seriously. It appears to be aimed at the under-4s and is full of blandishments like “Democrats make sure we are always safe, just like Mommy does” (cue picture of elephant – symbol of the Republicans. Subtle, eh?) and features creatures that I think are meant to look like squirrels but with their mad starey eyes they look like the recent recruits to a new religious movement on acid.

What does this achieve exactly? It is the sort of thing that makes me uncomfortable about organised religion with all that “Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man” guff. It is why I get so irritated with people who persist in joining their children up to the Lib Dems at birth.

Liberalism at its most basic is rationality and non-conformism: denying children the opportunity to make up their own minds is the very opposite of what we stand for. It’s what the Other Side do. Indeed, this book seems to have more in common with the worst excesses of Fabian-style socialism and as such seems to live up to the very caricature that “Help! Mom!” is portraying.

The author, Jeremy Zilber, signs of his website biography with this:

I currently live in Madison, Wisconsin, with my partner Julia, her daughter Isabella (age six), and our cat Zachary — all lifelong Democrats.

Poor kid will probably be scarred for life! Here’s hoping this trend doesn’t continue.