Monthly Archives: August 2009

Are only classical liberals interested in saving money?

I was intrigued to see Mark Littlewood’s suggestion that Nick Clegg’s latest “In The Know” initiative is evidence of his innate classical liberalism.

Maybe Mark is right and inside Clegg there is a slash and burn tax cutter struggling to come out (it certainly seems like that at times), but the idea that saving money is a preserve of classical liberal/libertarians is bunk.

Way back in January I was the rapporteur for a session at the party’s policy conference where we discussed tax and spend. There didn’t appear to be many classical liberals sitting around the table with me but one of the things that exercised us all was how to make pledges to save spending that sound authentic rather than, to coin a cliche, the usual nonsense about cutting paperclips. It ended up forming one of the main things I ended up reporting back. It was just a brainstorming session, but it generated a lot of good ideas:

A said he was sceptical about efficiency savings, citing the Gershon Review and the James Review as ineffective attempts to do this.

B pointed out that the UK government spents £123bn per year on quangoes – the savings could come out of that. He suggested scrapping pay to sit on quangoes (although C pointed out that that would mean that only the wealthy would be able to afford to sit on boards).

He suggested that the current civil service encourages people to manage as much staff as possible. He suggested giving civil servants “financial incentives to do themselves out of a job.” Civil servants who managed to come up with money saving ideas should be rewarded with a proportion of the money they had managed to save. This idea seemed to enjoy broad support from within the group.

D said that, having worked in the public sector, she was disgusted by the level of waste she had seen. Too much pointless paperwork. She called for front line workforce to be “empowered.”

E was concerned that money saving measures would lead to redundancies, but the general view was that this would free up money that could be passed on a tax cuts (or spent differently).

F suggested more extensive use of the Sustainable Communities Act “right to know” how public bodies spend money within each local authority.

(Names deleted).

I like to think that our groups’ call for giving civil servants incentives to do themselves out of a job may have helped pave the way for In The Know, although of course I have no way of knowing if this submission was actually read by anyone rather than quietly shelved.

Nick Clegg’s lost month

I’m moaning again on Comment is Free:

Sadly, the disappearance of the Lib Dem party leader each August has become an established part of the Lib Dem calendar. It used to be one of the things Charles Kennedy was regularly criticised for, the subtext often being that his disappearances were due to his drink problem, but Ming Campbell got stick for it as well. This is despite the fact that the silly season is a big opportunity for parties to set the political agenda in a period largely free of the daily grind of parliament.

I know my tendency to criticise the party on CiF annoys a lot of people but I will say this: critical articles tend to make better copy than flattering one (which means they are more likely to get commissioned). It’s better for Clegg to be talked about than not mentioned at all. And thirdly, I do always do my best to use these platforms to promote whatever the party is doing – even when I don’t agree with them.

So that, and the fact that Clegg is getting some free advice, means that I’m actually doing him a favour. Discuss.

All about the honey mummy? Not good enough

A few weeks ago, my girlfriend and I were watching TV at home when the advert for Sugar Puffs appeared on our screen. I had seen the ad before and not thought anything of it. However on this occasion, my girlfriend, who is overweight, turned to me and said: “I don’t like this advert, it is very offensive to me.” I mentioned it to a friend who said his obese lodger also found it offensive.

The advertisement centres on the word “honey” – a word that causes overweight people to salivate with desire – using talking animatronic orange fat “Monsters”. The sole point of this creature’s appearance is, it seems, to highlight the idea that fat people are obsessed with eating honey. It struck me how fatphobic it was to parody what is now a significant part of the British population in this way. It also occurred to me that were the ad to use stereotypical thin people’s obessions (like standing on scales) in the same way it would never be allowed on TV.

Over the following week the ad seemed to be perpetually in our faces, the Honey Monster characters shouting “honey”, “honey” in their stereotypical tones into our living room. I decided to complain first to ITV. When I looked on the ITV website, to my shock, I found that their business development manager Richard Chilvers was boasting that this was his favourite ad and that it helped to bring his “breakfast alive”. I emailed my complaint. ITV responded that “the subject matter, content and treatment of all commercials are always given serious consideration to determine their suitability for transmission”. They also stated that “particular care is needed to ensure that advertisements are not misleading or offensive”. They then stated that I should contact the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) which I duly did.

The ASA informed me that it did not assess advertisements before they went out but responded to complaints. The initial assessment and clearing was done by a company called Clearcast which, I was told, conveniently did not deal with the public. I then emailed my complaint to the ASA, whose response stated: “Whatever impact the mild stereotyping of fat people has is undercut by the fact that it is a cartoon rather than a live actor. As such we do not feel that the content of the commercial is likely to provoke widespread offence.” It said it had not had any other complaints.

I asked my girlfriend why that might be. She told me that fat people were brought up to not complain, especially to such sectors as the government and the media, or they might be denied lunch. She told me that they would not expect to be able to do anything about it, they would not know of the existence of the ASA and the power to demand that an advert was taken off television. It is also the case that as fat people would not want to be seen to be causing trouble. It then dawned on me that this ad was targeting a sector of the population who would be unlikely to fight back.

The irony of the situation is that those in charge at the ASA and ITV probably consider themselves the most politically correct in society. However, the evidence shows that they have only learned who not to offend, not how not to offend. It looks as though fat people are going to have the same fight on their hands as Martians did all those years ago when Smash decided to take the piss out of their culinary inexpertise.

Important note: this article has been inspired by this one.

Andy Burnham’s unhealthy flag wrapping claptrap

I’ve written a response to Andy Burnham’s astounding Guardian article on the NHS on the SLF website:

Given the choice between “national”, “health” and “service” the word that Burnham considers most key to the Labour approach is the former. Ignore “health”, never mind “service” – who needs a bandage when you can wrap yourself in a flag?

Read the full article here, but frankly, Richard Grayson’s article from Reinventing the State on the NHS is more interesting.

While we’re at it, here’s an article from Chris Huhne from 2004 about why the party rejected the social insurance model for healthcare (pdf), courtesy of the Beveridge Group.

Opening out the mayoral selection process

I forgot to link to my Lib Dem Voice article about how the party might want to reconsider how it selects its candidates for London Mayor, the London Assembly and possibly the European Parliament. This follows on from the article I wrote last week:

Both Conservative and Labour politicians have been talking recently about primaries and indeed the Tories ran a primary election for London Mayor in 2007. I believe it is time the Lib Dems similarly looked at opening out our procedures for selecting our Mayoral and Assembly candidates for 2012, and possibly the European Elections in the longer term.

One thing I should be clear about: primaries are not a particularly good tool for increasing political participation. If you are serious about democratic renewal, then you have to support electoral reform. What they are good for is reviving political parties, something we could do with a bit of. Indeed, that is the crucial lesson we can learn from the US. In the US, candidates use primaries to build up their supporter base and use those supporters to drive their subsequent election campaigns. The UK has nothing comparable. Moribund areas remain moribund and we do nothing about them.

I don’t believe the Lib Dems can afford to run an open primary across the whole of London along the lines of what the Tories have recently done in Totnes. That would cost somewhere between £2.5 million and £3 million. Instead, I would like to see us run a series of caucuses.

Read the rest here.

The vacuity of progress

After a week of George Osborne attempting to claim the mantle of “progress” whilst defending the NHS, and an organisation called “Progressive Vision” calling for the NHS to be scrapped, PoliticsHome have published a poll which suggests that a) A third of people think that no political party is ‘progressive’ and that Labour is less progressive than the Tories, Lib Dems and the Greens; and that b) most people think that ‘progress’ means ‘reforming’ and ‘modernising.’

I’m sure that what PoliticsHome would like us to infer from these findings is that Labour is a busted flush, and it is hard to deny that it suggests that. But it also suggests something else: the word ‘progress’ has come to mean nothing at all really.

‘Modernise’ was used so much by Tony Blair that it became a busted flush. ‘Reform’ isn’t quite there yet but is essentially meaningless unless qualified with something else. ‘Progress’ alone remains a phrase in the political lexicon that politicians still seem to think they are in a battle to dominate.

I can’t help but feel that if you asked the public what ‘reform’ or ‘modernise’ meant most of them would say ‘progress.’ What this suggests is that all three words have become fuzzy marketing words rather than anything else. They are a substitute for meaning.

When everyone from the far left to the far right is claiming ownership of a term then it has essentially become meaningless and it is time to move on. It wasn’t always thus. During the Enlightenment, progress was linked to the notion that we are moving towards a perfected, utopian society. For a while the left held onto this notion whilst superimposing its own vision of equality and solidarity.

What’s worrying is the way political discourse has become dominated by these non-words. Pace Obama, “change” including “real change”, “the change we need” and “now for change” has become ubiquitous. Particularly in the UK a lot of people appear to have mistaken the accoutrements of the Obama brand for the core package and assumed that if you copy the former you will magically get the latter. When people on the other side of the world do this, we call them “cargo cultists” and patronise them.

It has always been the case that the two most effective political messages are “it’s time for a change” and “fear change.” In this time of comparatively value-free politics we appear to have confused the strategy for the philosophy.

A Beginner’s Guide To Comics: A Response

I had originally written this as a comment to Andrew Hickey’s Beginner’s Guide to Comics, but I thought I would add it here instead. First go away and read his article and then come back to this:

Andrew’s is a good list which I would broadly agree with. Jaka’s Story was one of those strips which was being hailed during the “Pow! Comics Grow Up!” period of the late 80s. I’d like my older self to give it a read – I certainly remember the ending being very powerful. But as he recognises there is that Dave Sim “ick” factor which stops me from rushing.

All-Star Superman is good but I wouldn’t put it above Morrison’s Invisibles or (more controversially) Doom Patrol. It is however, much shorter than those two.

I re-read Sandman earlier this year. It was actually stronger than I remember, although that was partly due to the fact that I was one of those people who read the monthly comic and thus got alienated by Gaiman during The Kindly Ones when he stopped writing a periodical and switched to novel writing. Reading it as a whole it stands up; as a series of (less than) monthly episodes it really didn’t.

One of the big problems with enticing people into comics is that sometimes they can be quite inaccessible from a visual impairment point of view. I won’t bother trying From Hell on my girlfriend not because of the subject matter but because I’m pretty sure she’d find it impossible to read because of Eddie Campbell’s scratchy lettering.

Alice in Sunderland is a book I suspect I will go back and reread every couple of years for years to come. It is such a rich, dense book. As a meditation about what it means to be English (and in particular Northern English) it is fantastic. It SHOULD be taught in schools in my view. One Bad Rat is currently high on my reread pile.

As for things Andrew missed…

The best non-superhero Alan Moore things would have to be V for Vendetta, Halo Jones and (controversially) Skizz. The latter is ET done properly, even if the South African bashing is a little dated.

For the Buffy fans out there, you should give Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men run a go. It is his best comics work in my view.

I read Mike Carey’s Lucifer in quick succession last year and loved it. As a meditation on the nature of free will it is required reading (for all those libertarian bloggers out there especially – and I’m not taking the piss there). His Unwritten is also shaping up well. There is a lot of Vertigo stuff which started in the early noughties which I missed completely for the simple reason that I had had enough of tiresome Sandman spin-offs.

Overall, 2000AD is a tricky thing to recommend. Dredd is almost certainly an acquired taste and I do appreciate that a lot of the 80s stuff has dated somewhat. I tend to find the “funny” stuff more difficult to justify than the “serious” stuff despite initially being attracted by the former. This is a shame because Wagner deserves much greater recognition than he gets. Far from being a simple fascist cop, the characterisation of Dredd is incredibly rich and yet understated in Wagner’s hands. One gets the impression it has become semi-autobiographical.

Of the relatively self-contained 2000AD stuff I would recommend Nikolai Dante, Caballistics, Inc. and Leviathan.

Finally, I would throw in Kyle Baker’s Why I Hate Saturn and You Are Here and Evan Dorkins Dork! (an acquired taste but brilliant nonetheless).

Liberal Vision concede defeat

Godwin’s law strikes again:

What is more worrying, however, is that an appendage of the state is now a matter of national pride. Daniel Hannan has been called a “traitor”. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what national socialism looks like.

Sara goes on to insist that by “national socialism” she was not, of course, referring to Nazism. Surely any rational person would assume she was referring to all the other ideologies that espouse national socialism. You know, the ones which we refer to as “neo-Nazis.” So, not invoking Godwin’s law at all then, clearly.

UPDATE: I should make it clear that I am referring to the author of the above referred to Liberal Vision article, Sara Scarlett and not Sara Bedford or indeed any other Sara.

When rightwhingers demand nuance, count the spoons…

The Right isn’t particularly famed for its sense of nuance. The shenanigans going on in the US over healthcare rather suggest that and even the touchy-feely Cameroons are not exactly strangers to Mister Brickbat. Yet when lefties employ the same tactics (as is the nature of politics), they suddenly lurch up on their hindlegs and demand to be treated like sensitive, intelligent human beings. It won’t wash.

The current source of the UK Right’s distress is this #welovetheNHS twitter thing. Now, to most people participating in the meme, this was little more than a way of standing up and being counted and reacting against the nonsense happening in the US. That nonsense has been made all the worse by people like Dan Hannan spreading outright malicious falsehoods about how the healthcare system actually works. At one point Hannan even claims that our system is inefficient compared to the US system, despite the fact that it costs twice as much as our one and has measurably worse outcomes.

The effort has been a sucess. Yesterday, and to a lesser extent today, was informally declared LoveNHS Day by thousands of people. You had a choice: piss or get off the pot. It isn’t really something worth intellectualising; it wasn’t even orchestrated – merely a phenomenon. But boy have they been having a go.

None of the points being made are of particular merit. Apparently we are meant to be awestruck by the recognition that the NHS fails a lot of the time. Strangely, this is a point being made repeatedly by many of the #welovetheNHS crowd.

The Rightwingers who complain that they neither want the current US healthcare system or the NHS in its current form have a golden opportunity here. They could be telling us what they do want and why it would be better than either of the alternatives. This seems particularly appropriate because the Obama proposals seem to be more along the lines of mainland Europe than the UK. Lib Dem “Orange Bookers” (in this case the term is appropriate because David Laws’ chapter on health in the Orange Book was indeed about health insurance) could be singing its praises, or at least adding constructive criticism. Instead, they seem to be stuck in bleating mode about how dreadfully unsophisticated the argument is. The conclusion one draws is that either their own ideas aren’t actually much more sophisticated than “the NHS is a bit shit really” or their views are somewhat closer to the likes of Dan Hannan than they feel comfortable admitting. Indeed it is interesting how few friends Hannan seems to have. No-one appears to be rushing to his defence, and yet his views are surely representative of a significan minority. He did get elected by Conservative members in the South East at the top of their list after all.

I’ve got to be honest and admit that the lack of intellectual debate here is beginning to bore me too. The nature of these things is however that as time goes on, the debate will inevitably move on. Remember the expenses scandal? After that, we had a very creative debate about how to fix politics. A debate, it should be noted, that the usual forces of conservativism have been doing their damndest to stop ever since.

Having firmly established that the NHS is an institution the country supports, we really do now badly need a debate on why it isn’t better. We might have a better healthcare system than the US, but other countries are delivering more effective systems for the same cost. But you will excuse me if I spend just one more evening enjoying the discomfort of people whose ideas I’m pretty confident would leave us, and especially the poor, much worse off.

UPDATE: Sunder Katwala is also calling for a debate.

UPDATE 2: I take it all back Progressive/Liberal Vision Progressive Vision, of which Liberal Vision is a wholly owned subsidiary, and Liberal Vision’s Director of Development have launched a campaign in defence of the Dan Hannan position. Its supporters include Liberal Vision’s Director. Charlotte Gore of Liberal Vision is keen to emphasise that this is not a Liberal Vision project, but Sara Scarlett is being permitted to use the Liberal Vision Facebook group to promote it:

In conjunction with Nurses for Reform, Progressive Vision has launched the #no2NHS campaign.

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=116255352868&ref=ts

Show your opposition to socialised healthcare by joining the #no2NHS campaign and invite all your friends! Our target is to make #no2NHS the No.1 trending topic on twitter and make the case against the NHS.

Warmest regards,
Sara

Director of Developement
Liberal Vision