Daily Archives: 7 June 2008

In defence of Caroline Spelman

I don’t rate Caroline Spelman as a frontbencher. She has particularly annoyed me in the past by attacking the government for its proposals to revalue council tax (according to the Tories there is something magical about the year 1991 which means that all property taxes should based on the value of homes at that point). I question how someone who believes such nonsense can be said to be qualified to sit on the front benches of any political party. Sadly however, if you follow that logic you would have to get rid of most of all three front benches.

Regarding what will almost certainly be dubbed “nannygate” in all the Sunday papers tomorrow however, I am less inclined to criticise. I have watched both Crick’s totally unbalanced report and Spelman’s defence and am inclined to side with Spelman.

Let’s be clear; there is no doubt that her decision to employ her nanny to do some secretarial work for her after first getting elected in 1997 was in clear breach of the rules. But by all accounts it was an oversight, and one which was quickly corrected within less than a year. We are talking about what looks like a genuine mistake by a new MP, which was then corrected, and which happened over ten years ago.

Compared with, say, Margaret Beckett’s herbacious borders, this is very small fry, no matter what Crick and Guido might say. I’ve seen up close how bewildering and difficult it is for new MPs to get their offices up and running, and even to find out what they are and aren’t allowed to do. 2005 was the first year, as I understand it, that new MPs were given a formal induction. Such initiatives have always been resisted by whips who prefer to control the information their neonates receive so as to make it all the easier to keep them under control. Mistakes happen, and it is a very sorry state of affairs if we now seek to present even the slightest of cock ups by a politician as a sinister conspiracy against the public; not to mention highly delusional.

The biggest joke is Crick pointing out that the ex-nanny doesn’t mention the small bit of secretarial work she did on her Facebook profile. At around the same time I was doing temping work for the Legal Aid Board but I think Crick will struggle to find that on my Facebook profile either; that doesn’t “prove” I’m a liar for admitting I did it. I also like the comedy voice he put on when “quoting” the nanny, by way of demonstrating she must have been lying (as opposed to trying to recall a minor incident in her life ten years ago). I know what those Crick phonecalls are like having been on the receiving end of one myself; if a gobshite like me can be intimated, I’m not surprised she comes across as a little hesitant and nervous.

Of course, if it turns out that Spelman paid this woman for a longer period of time than she both she and Crick appear to agree she did, it might be a different matter. Otherwise it is a non-story and an act of scraping the very bottom of the barrel.

Now a piece on James Gray on the other hand…

Seumus Milne: why let the facts get in the way of a good argument?

Seaumus Milne is one of my least favourite columnists, to the extent that I rarely bother reading more than the byline of his articles. I bit this week though, although I needn’t have bothered.

His article “A mania for tax cuts at any cost defies public opinion” gets the current political situation pretty much ass-backwards. His overall thesis, that the main political parties are all trying to outdo each other in cutting taxes at the expense of public services, simply isn’t true. Certainly both Clegg and Cameron have recently made speeches about cutting waste, but that is hardly new. Four years ago, all three parties were jumping on this particular bandwagon and it didn’t particularly go anywhere.

But then he outdoes himself by claiming that what the public want is fairer taxes, not lower taxes:

There’s a powerful case, backed by most voters, for taxes to be cut for the low paid and raised sharply on corporate profits and the wealthy. But all three major parties cower before the corporate elite, even as the financial edifice they have erected is crashing all around us, and instead are holding public services to ransom because of their refusal to countenance tax justice.

I’m not particularly disputing the claim that the public want fairer taxes, but it has to be said that Milne provides little actual evidence. What’s more, the public is notoriously contrary in this area. There were several reasons for the Lib Dems axing their 50p income tax rate on incomes over £100,000: one of them was that the policy was not as wildly popular as it had been assumed. Partly this is because it was perceived by some as a “tax on aspiration”. By contrast, the public lapped up George Osborne’s (now unfunded) pledge to cut inheritance tax, despite the fact that the only beneficiaries were the richest.

But more to the point, there is a party that is not only committed to tax justice but has spelt out how it would do so: the Liberal Democrats. Whichever way you look at it, lowering income tax by 4p in the pound while raising tax allowance, and paying for it by a combination of environmental taxes and raising taxes on the rich, is an example of tax justice. Milne knows this is our policy because he has read (or has purported to have read), Clegg’s Policy Exchange speech a couple of weeks ago. So why is he misrepresenting the party in this way? Is it too much to expect a bit of honesty from columnists? Or should we simply accept that the facts should never be permitted to get in the way of a good old fashioned leftist rant?

My suspicion is that tax justice is about to become the latest bandwagon that all parties are going to jump on, with varying degrees of genuine commitment. The cutting waste froth will come and go, as it always does (which isn’t to say that we shouldn’t try to cut waste; just that the civil service will always make it as difficult as possible for us to do so). So Milne will get his wish, but I doubt his efforts this week will have had much to do with it.