Daily Archives: 7 May 2007

Remembering ’97

Today was a family day, but I still managed to catch most of the key moments of the 1997 General Election results on BBC Parliament. I was having problem with our set top box but I just managed to tune in in time for David Mellor.

It was weird watching it – on the night itself I watched the coverage with about 500 other people in the Main Debating Hall at the University of Manchester Students Union. The film society, which I was also an active member of, was projecting the coverage on its big screen (I understand that the union has managed to kick MUFS out of the building now, which is a crying shame).

The Mellor bit I recall quite vividly, right down to Dimblebum making a wild prediction during it that the Lib Dems were set to win 61 seats (in fact it took us another 8 years to get to that point). His rant about Goldsmith failing to buy the election was much mocked at the time, but he had a point: millionaires should not presume to buy elections out of personal vanity. Goldsmith, having largely failed in his mission, was dead within weeks.

Neil Hamilton was as ungracious in defeat as I remembered (I’d forgotten about the Miss Moneypenny Party, with their candidate towering over the returning officer), Michael Portillo very much the opposite. Two points about the Enfield Southgate announcement. Firstly, Jeremy Browne was the Lib Dem candidate. Secondly, the BBC commentary was by Lance Price, who quite soon afterwards of course jumped into a job at Number 10.

The Enfield Southgate declaration was swiftly followed by the Stevenage one. I remember seeing Alex Wilcock standing on stage with his partner Richard (these were pre-millennial times, otherwise, I suspect a certain elephant would have been there as well) – at the time he was one of the few people I knew who was actually a candidate.

All the Lib Dems being interviewed kept talking about the Lib-Lab constitutional deal. Of course, a large amount of that was indeed delivered – it seems odd to hear people talking about creating a Scottish Parliament, Freedom of Information Act and Human Rights Act as these are all very much part of our daily politics now. Shirley Williams prediction that this was the last – or at worst last-but-one election to be fought under first past the post however proved to be somewhat wide of the mark.

Blair looked close to tears when he spoke at the Sedgefield Labour Club, and shockingly young. Various other faces popped up as well, such as Nicola Sturgeon, then 27, at the Glasgow Govan declaration (with black hair!). Peter Snow’s graphics were fantastic, particularly the animation where they flew over the UK showing Labour/Lib Dem target seats exploding and transforming from blue to red/gold (it reminded me of a cross between the post-2004 BBC weather map and the Death Star trench battle at the end of Star Wars).

If we’d known then how it would all turn out, very few of us would have cheered as loudly as we did, but nonetheless it was a fantastic evening. With the Tories now back on the rise and Labour in long term decline, it is just conceivable that we might have a similarly momentous General Election next time around, or maybe the next-but-one. Can the Tories make the bulk of non-Labour, non-Tory supporters as happy for them as we were for Labour winning 10 years ago? I suspect the answer is no, and I suspect that lies at the heart of Cameron’s problems.

I should explain that last sentence better. As the coverage today repeatedly reminded us, Labour’s vote share in 1997 wasn’t actually that high. What did it for them was the degree of tactical voting, with people voting for anyone but the Tories. Fewer and fewer people are prepared to vote in such a way, but the Tories only really have a shot if the public becomes so sick of Labour that they start to vote tactically against them. I don’t see that happening, not in the numbers that it did in 1997. People are open to Cameron, but the Tory brand remains toxic.

A difficult choice for French liberals

Rightwing bloggers Andy Mayer and Tom Papworth have been picking fights with their own party, accusing large numbers of us of being guilty by association of being unreconstructed socialists. Andy cites the fact that UDF supporters were split 50/50 in the Sarko/Sego playoff, while even more incredibly Tom bases his argument on an online poll of 40 visitors to his blog in which 53% supported Sego.

Personally, I have no idea how I would have voted, but the idea that this is simply a left/right divide is completely flawed. Simplistically, the French were given the choice between a rightwing leader of a centrist party and a centrist leader of a leftwing party. Policy-wise, and leaving immigration to one side, I am probably closer to Sarkozy than Royal. However, it was a presidential election not a parliamentary one, so personality counts for a lot.

A vote for Sarkozy was a vote for a politician who makes David Blunkett look tactful and libertarian. I remain doubtful about his ability to operate on the world stage or even domestically without causing far more heat than light, a point on which Iain Dale of all people appears to agree. Segolene Royal had a point when she suggested that a vote for him could provoke riots.

Is Sarkozy capable of creating a consensus about the need to reform, or will his combative personality result in deadlock? That is what the French ultimately had to decide yesterday. The Papworth-Mayer slur rests on the calculation that anyone who voted for Royal was simply in favour of the status quo. For that to be true, France would have to have an elective dictatorship. In point of fact, the French President has less power than its US counterpart.

If you think that France wakes up to a bright new morning with reforming zeal in its heart, you are about to be sorely disappointed.

(Speaking of Lib Dem bloggers picking fights, anyone understand why Jeremy Hargreaves is making wild allegations of a Huhnista-putsch going on inside the party, his only evidence being a few critical comments about Ming by someone who supported Simon Hughes in the leadership election? Colour me confused)

The first nail in the coffin of Local Income Tax?

I’ve been very good this past month and have managed to keep schtum about the Liberal Democrat Youth and Students’ decision to reject local income tax in preference to land value taxation until after the elections were out of the way. Now I see that the entire motion is up on the ALTER website, I suppose my self denying ordnance can come to an end.

LDYS has a proud history of leading where the party subsequently follows, and I’m hopeful that this will prove to be another example of this. And it is timely, with the National Institute for Economic and Social Research comparing the rise in property prices to the national debt. Aida Edemariam wrote a good summary of how the problem is affecting the whole of the UK in the Guardian on Friday. We have to do something, and a tax on land values is a lot more economically respectable than a crude property tax.

One of the problems the party faced in the latest round of elections was a failure to stand out from amid the crowd. Taking on intergenerational equity would give us a USP. It isn’t simply an old-versus-young issue as older people who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time have lost out just as much as the younger generation who are now left with the consequences. The introduction of any new tax could be matched by a cut in other taxes, ranging from existing property taxes such as stamp duty through to income tax. Such a tax shift need not be unpopular.

Fundamentally, we have to tackle this situation whereby people have more incentive to invest in bricks and mortar than in stocks and shares. That is bad for the economy whichever way you look at it. I don’t want to sound all Marxist, but if the political system doesn’t solve this problem, the economic system will do it for us in a way that will be much more painful. I’m amazed that the political class isn’t looking at the emerging picture and isn’t worried. To be fair, some individuals such as Vince Cable and David Willets, have been warning about this for some time, but their views have been falling on deaf ears.

But there is no prospect of Local Income Tax on the horizon. With the combined SNP/Lib Dem seats in the Scottish Parliament 2 short of a majority, it won’t be introduced there. Labour and the Tories have resisted the simple populism of LIT with good reason: they appreciate the danger of scrapping property taxation altogether even if they lack the courage to introduce a proper system that doesn’t have the flaws of council tax. Rather than dismissing this as stupidity, the Lib Dems ought to consider why this is one popular policy our rivals (except for the SNP, which in itself should tell you something) have declined to steal.

I still have high hopes that sooner or later the Lib Dems will realise that this is one issue that we could really make our own. Gordon Brown’s announcement to cut income tax by 2p in the pound has forced us to revisit our taxation policy (it’s amazing how much of the paper we passed last year has been borrowed by the Tories in Labour in such a short space of time). Hopefully, more radical minds will prevail.