Daily Archives: 19 September 2007

Cameron less popular than Campbell (UPDATE)

To paraphrase old Rudyard, we should treat our triumphs with the same contempt that we reserve for our disasters, but it is nonetheless glorious to see Cameron slipping in the opinion polls behind Ming Campbell (credit: Paul Walter. More here). What’s more, this can’t be called a conference bounce since most of the polling was done before conference started.

Ming makes the perfectly valid point that if you compare Ashdown and Kennedy’s standings at the same point during their leaderships, they had pretty much the same ratings that he has now, and Newsnight’s decision on Tuesday to misrepresent Ming by comparing his current ratings to Kennedy’s in 2004 was an utter disgrace. It’s clear that we still have a long way to go, but Cameron and the Tories seem to be stuck in self-destruct mode.

The most striking thing about this poll is how relatively unpopular Cameron is amongst his party faithful compared to Campbell. Having a net rating of only +25 among your own supporters is cause for alarm.

My challenge to all you Tories out there reading this is, given how much you’ve crowed in the past about Campbell failing to make an impact, what possible justification do you have now to support your own leader? Isn’t it time you called for him to resign? I await your comments with enthusiasm!

UPDATE: I’m still waiting for a single Tory to explain why Cameron should continue given his unpopularity.

Democracy and deckchairs

As David Heath alluded to, the media are studiously ignoring any discussion of democracy at this conference, so it’s incumbent on those of us who happen to think it is important to report what has been decided. Much as I agree with the motion on packaging, the fact that it has been prioritised (by whom? the media? the press office?) over and above proposals to fundamentally change our constitution is appalling.

I’m pleased that For the People, By the People was passed overwhelmingly and unamended. And while I only got to make a one-minute intervention, I’m pleased that there were two speakers who explicitly rejected the idea of an English Parliament to only one who spoke for (using the usual tired threats about “sleeping giants” – even Don Liberali would baulk at the disgraceful tone of English Nationalists – “nice country you’ve got there – it’d be a shame if something were to happen to it”).

Debates about democratic renewal are always an opportunity for certain people to make bonkers speeches, and we were not disappointed. Sandy Walkington did the rhetorical equivalent of a dad deciding to dance at the school disco by informing us that apparently there’s these things called the internet and text messaging that young people use a lot, and that because the paper wasn’t all about the internet and text messaging, it missed the point and that the members of the working group were thus all face slapping morons fit only to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic.

It all sounded remarkably similar to the sort of speech New Labour ministers would make in the early noughties. Never mind all this bollocks about having a constitution; if we want to engage young people we need to embrace text messaging! Despite Sandy’s exhortation, I don’t think Twitter is about to take the political world by storm just yet. He failed to appreciate two fundamental aspects about MoveOn. Firstly, in the broad scheme of things, despite huge numbers of supporters it hasn’t actually been terribly effective. Since its creation, every single presidential and mid-term election apart from the last one has gone Republican not Democrat. The Democrats’ victory in 2006 was more due to Bush’s incompetence than net activism; indeed the net’s most high profile intervention in 2006 – the attempt to oust Lieberman – was a crushing failure. That isn’t to say net activism hasn’t had an impact in softer, more subtle ways, but it hasn’t changed anything fundamental about American democracy.

Secondly, the model has not exported well in the UK. OurWorldOurSay failed to fly. Avaaz is going well, but that’s because it is a global movement, not just a UK one. The model hasn’t worked here mainly because we have neither the political culture associated with aggressive political advertising on TV, nor the philanthropic culture of giving to political causes. The tectonic plates may well be shifting, but there is no evidence to suggest we are sitting on the political equivalent of the San Andreas fault.

Fundamentally though, these developments only make the case for an entrenched constitution and Bill of Rights even more pressing. I’m all for an initiative and referendum system for example, but without a written constitution I fully accept we would need to be extraordinarily careful to prevent it being abused. Without these safeguards, the changes in culture that Walkington alludes to could lead to chaos. Far from rearranging the deckchairs, the working group has made a strong case for the need for the Titanic to change course.

And then there was the ironically named Paul Baron, who managed to combine a Marxist view of capitalism with a paean to the hereditary principle. His argument was that hereditary peers would be less corruptable than elected politicians – you could audibly hear the spirit of David Lloyd George groaning as he spoke. Presumably the argument goes along the lines that if you are already utterly corrupt, your price will be much higher. I could go on, but it is cruel to mock the afflicted.

So. We’ve renewed our policy on democratic renewal. In manifesto terms, the main points in it are the commitment to STV and the establishment of a constitutional convention. I have no doubt that both of these will appear in the manifesto, but have less confidence they will end up listed as a top priority. This will be a missed opportunity: the Lib Dems’ critique of the political system is one of our USPs. If we run away from it instead of building it into our overall narrative, we will simply end up with another 10 disparate bullet points that only appeal to people’s basest self-interest. That may make sense for fighting target seats where the swing voters are the only people who matter, but it fails to sell us as a party of government to either the public or the media.

If the Lib Dems are about anything, it is bringing power to the powerless. That applies whether we are talking about health, education, poverty, local government or democratic renewal. That connects with the widespread sense of alienation within the public. That challenges the other two parties who are nakedly only concerned with feathering their own nests. It is high time we started to shout about it.

Progress and Poverty

The above title is also the name of Henry George’s greatest work (which I strongly recommend everyone on the planet to read). I mention this because, while the Lib Dems broadly voted the right way during their poverty debate yesterday afternoon (certainly in rejecting the option to support differential age rates for minimum wage), I couldn’t help but feel there was an enormous Georgist hole in the paper.

Why? Because despite what we managed to do today, you can’t divorce taxation from issues relating to poverty. One point I didn’t make this morning was that one of the other poor decisions the party made on its tax proposals yesterday was the decision to effectively kick our “long term goal” of removing people on incomes of less than £10,000 from income tax into even longer grass. This has been sacrificed in favour of a crowd pleasing commitment to cut income tax by 4p in the pound (entirely neutralised by an income tax hike due to the introduction of LIT). Just as Labour does, we will continue to force people on minimum wage to pay income tax – not only is this unfair to the individual, but it adds inflationary pressure onto the minimum wage (since one of the considerations is not unreasonably whether you can afford to live on it) and thus discourages employers to recruit in this country.

I supported the amendment to introduce flexible working for all employees (not that I had a vote…) but again, this adds to the costs of labour. If such policies are to be successful we must somehow relieve the pressure on employers in other ways, and that brings us back once again to personal allowance.

On the other hand, so much of this paper was concerned – rightly – with housing. Yet the focus seemed to be on targets and empowering local authorities to tackle the issue themselves (there is, come to think of it, a slight oxymoron there). I remain sceptical of the rose-tinted view that all of this can be achieved by fiddling with planning law and introducing Community Land Auctions: we need a more fundamental shift in approach.

Of course, LVT would have both enabled us to take the bottom bracket out of taxation, create greater incentives to build housing and dampen speculative investment in property. It’s no accident that George’s book, which develops the argument for authorities to collect economic rent, has as a starting point the need to attack poverty. It just seems that we are attempting to tackle this area with one arm tied behind our collective back. Worse, by scrapping residential property taxation in the form of Council Tax, in many ways we make it worse.

The Federal Policy Committee really need to throw us a bone here. At the very least, so as to demonstrate that our commitment to LVT is more than just “jam tomorrow” they should commission a review about how we might facilitate its introduction. Tony Vickers’ book Location Matters vividly spells out what a government would need to do to introduce the tax and it would certainly take a while. But if we aren’t prepared to even think about it until the start of a second term, then what we’re really promising is to not introduce the tax until the start of a third term. It’s no wonder that Georgists feel as if they are being paid lip service and nothing else.