Monthly Archives: September 2009

The Peopl(ish) Budget

Vince Cable has been dropping heavy hints about raising taxation over the last few days, so it is not a tremendous surprise to see him and Clegg calling for a tax on the value of properties above £1m.

I will blog in more detail later, but initial responses? Firstly, it is regrettable that this is yet another badly handled stunt announcement which has bypassed the policy committee, but it will surprise no-one to hear me say that I believe it to be a step in the right direction. It doesn’t go anything like far enough though. 0.5% on properties above a £1m threshold? So a £2m valued property would be looking at a £5,000 tax. Chickenfeed for the people who have profited from a property bubble for decades.

It won’t raise very much – £1.1bn. Why, when it comes to public services is the emphasis all on “savage” cuts, yet when it comes to wealth taxes we are taking such baby steps? There is a real cognitive dissonance between the two approaches. We should go further and ideally the tax should be on land values rather than property prices (although if we want to introduce something immediately, the latter will be easier and it can be replaced by a land value tax over time). Even Centre Forum, the holders of the Orange Book flame, are calling for a 1% property tax (plus scrapping exemption of capital gains on property), which they would estimate would raise £6-10bn annually (pdf). That sounds like a good compromise to me.

The right, no doubt, will start hopping up and down and denouncing this as a tax on “aspiration.” What are tuition fees though, if not a tax on aspiration? Vince is currently calling for benefits to be scrapped for all middle income earners – families in particular. If that isn’t effectively a tax on aspiration, what is? They need to get serious and stop realise that aspiration is not a luxury that only the rich can afford.

Anyway, I need to digest this. In particular, I need to read what Vince has to say in ALTER‘s new pamphlet The Case for a New People’s Budget.

And the blog post of 2009 is…

Parliament, The Telegraph and Jo Swinson. Gosh! Thanks a lot. I wasn’t expecting that at all. Obviously, I dedicate the awards to Jo herself and would like to use this opportunity to say fuck you Daily Telegraph (who at least respond to complaints promptly) and up your arse BBC (who don’t).

Congratulations too to Jo for winning the “Best use of blogging/social networking/e-campaigning by a Liberal Democrat” award for her tweeting of Prime Ministers’ Question Time, to Mark Thompson for winning Best New Blog and to Slugger O’Toole for winning Best Non-Liberal Democrat Blog.

On a personal note I was especially pleased to see Brian Robson win the Tim Garden Award for Best Blog by a Liberal Democrat Holding Public Office. I personally recruited Brian to the Liberal Democrats almost exactly nine years ago today at the Leeds Universtiy Union Freshers’ Fair. I seem to recall that Brian was especially attracted to the Lib Dems’ commitment to scrap tuition fees. How time flies.

Finally, congratulations to the Blogger of the Year, Costigan Quist for Himmelgarten Cafe. Costigan couldn’t be at the awards because he has to look after the caff that he runs (obviously). In these harsh economic times, it is useful to remember that not all Liberal Democrats can afford to take a week off work to swan around Bournemouth.

Thanks a lot to Lib Dem Voice for organising the event, and commiserations to those who didn’t win. But please: let’s not use Harry’s Bar a third time? It’s a bloody awful venue.

The Littlewood Effect… twelve months later

Mark Littlewood has articles on Liberal Vision and The Telegraph reminding us of his pamphlet The Cameron Effect last year.

That’s fair enough. It’s equally fair enough for me to point you in the direction of my rebuttal of that pamphlet.

What has changed in the previous twelve months? Mark is right to say that one thing that hasn’t, frustratingly, is the opinion polls. Nonetheless that is to ignore the fact that they went up for the local elections in June (and down for the European Elections). We have every reason to expect those figures to pick up as we head towards 2010 all else being equal. In fact, I think we have a lot of reason to be confident that things will pick up quite well during an election campaign. Clegg has finally moved on from his “calamitous” period and Vince Cable continues to get good press.

Does that mean that I am prepared to revise my prediction that the Lib Dems will finish the election with roughly the same number of MPs that it started with? No. I don’t see any evidence of a breakthrough this time around. But equally, I continue to regard Liberal Vision’s pessimism as misplaced.

Mark, it has to be said, has subtly shifted his position. Last year the focus was all on tax cuts; this year he has replaced this with more ambiguous language about “winning over those who are flirting with David Cameron’s Tories.” But the people switching to the Tories this time are not the ones clamouring for the Tories to adopt a small government, low tax agenda; indeed they are coming to the Tories precisely because they don’t think that is what Cameron is offering (they may be in for a surprise considering what the new Tory intake looks like). Ultimately, I don’t follow the argument that this is some kind of zero sum game between the Lib Dems choosing between soft Labour and soft Tory voters at all. Instead it is a mad scrabble for floating voters who are up for grabs by any party.

Mark may not have got his wish of the party adopting a position of overall tax cuts, but he should be consoled that the party is in favour of reducing taxes for low and middle income owners and that the party is united behind this position. This isn’t a policy aimed at the left or right (although the right may quibble with the tax increases we propose to impose to pay for them); it has far wider appeal than that.

Talk of tax cuts right now would almost certainly scare people right now and be scarcely economically justifiable; Mark knows this. So the question is, what buttons should we be pressing that would appeal uniquely to people currently in the welcoming arms of David Cameron? Should we be bolder in our talk about spending cuts than Vince Cable has been this week at a time when all Osborne can offer us is flummery and his characteristic whingeing? It is hard to believe that would make us especially popular.

The main thing that has changed is that the economic situation has got a lot worse. That’s bad news for those of us who would like to see greater investment in specific areas and bad news for those who would like to see overall tax cuts. I suspect the all out hostilities over the heart and soul of the Liberal Democrats will have to wait for at least another conference, something which is good news for the hedges outside the Bournemouth Conference Centre.

Bullying

Am I a bully? Over the past month I’ve been accused of bullying twice. Once for suggesting that calling one’s political opponents “national socialists” is over the top and yesterday on twitter for suggesting that there is something ironic for the director of a subsidiary of an organisation called Progressive Vision to criticise people for using the word progressive. I will happily admit that both of these jokes were not especially funny and might well be frustrating for their intended targets, but they don’t immediately spring to my mind as acts of bullying. I could laugh these accusations off. I could, as I’ve been advised this evening, note the triviality of the objections, the relationship of the objectors and consider the fact that I might be being played. But for various reasons, “bully” is one of the few things you can call me that actually hurts.

I’ve had an emotionally draining six months and while I’ve been doing a fairly good job at keeping my head above water, it hasn’t been easy. It’s worth considering therefore whether this has lead to me taking things out on people online. Such things are not exactly unheard of and it frequently does result in things going too far.

I’m also aware that at at least one point in my life, at school, I was a bully. I had an epiphany then and rowed it back. If I had the ability to do that then, I certainly should have the maturity to do it now.

With that said however, I think we have to be clear about what is and isn’t bullying. I would never deny that this blog is frequently belligerant, sarcastic, mischevious, obtuse and angry. I don’t suffer fools gladly and have no patience for nonsense. I don’t like beating around the bush or couching my criticisms in platitudinous nonsense. And if you push me, I have an tremendous weakness for pushing back. This blog has a pretty justified reputation to that effect.

I have to confess however, I don’t actually see this blog as always being that. I can write what I consider to be quite thoughtful, diplomatic posts and yet have people praising its trenchant criticism. As the saying goes, if you have a reputation for being an early bird, you can afford to occasionally sleep in until noon. People come here expecting knockabout stuff and that’s what they see; I can’t really complain.

There’s also the Alex Wilcock Factor. That is to say that on two seperate occasions Alex Wilcock has come up with a description of my writing style that is so hilariously over the top that I’ve put it up on as a subheading for my blog (“crass, boorish and more a bruiser than bloggera tactical nuclear bastard”). Why have I done this? Fundamentally because they’re funny; partly because I don’t entirely recognise myself in them and enjoy the cognitive dissonance; and partly because of who they’re from. I have to confess that Alex and I have always had an odd relationship. I’ve known him for 14 years and before the wireless interweb was ubiquitous in the way it is now I read all his pamphlets and articles obsessively. He’s been a big influence on my politics. Yet we’ve never, frankly, really got on; we just don’t get each other. So what do you do when someone you know and respect but are not friends with starts referring to you in quite vicious terms that are almost certainly in jest but seem to have a slight edge to them? You take ownership of them, obviously. To do anything else would drive you insane.

With all that said, I wonder sometimes if there is a personal cost to this “killer rep” of mine. A work colleague once reported to me that he had met someone who read my blog and had commented “that James Graham is such an angry man.” My colleague, having sat next to me for 18 months found this to be hilarious.

It gets further complicated by two other things. First of all, I am 6’4″ and half again as wide. As such I tend to intimidate people who don’t know me. It is a prejudice that people seem to think is acceptable in a way that they would agree wouldn’t be if their intimidation was due to the colour of my skin or my sexual preferences, but I don’t let it get to me; if people can’t get over it they aren’t worth bothering with. Nevertheless it is something I’ve been conscious of my entire life.

Secondly, there is my past. Eight years ago, I was not in a good place psychologically; frankly I was a mental wreck and it took me a long time to recover. If I come across as belligerant now, I was much worse then. I took my frustrations out on people in a way that I should not have done. I take some consolation in the fact that a number of those people I took my frustrations out on remain very good friends of mine, and that many of the rest turned out to be real snakes, but it isn’t a period I’m particularly proud of.

Both these factors mean that I have a reputation that preceeds this blog in the real world and that this in turn gets fed back into the commentary in the blogosphere. It is possibly something I should be more careful about and could manage better, but that just isn’t my style.

Moving back to the present I have to ask myself if I’m slipping back into bad habits. Yet I honestly don’t think I am. Indeed, during a period when people have been trying to start a feud with me and my colleagues, I’ve been quite careful to not respond in kind (which is not to say I haven’t responded at all). I have to say that from this end of the telescope I do feel more sinned against than sinned.

Secondly, cyber-bullying by almost any definition I’ve been able to find involves stalking, attacks on people’s appearance and other personal characteristics, and threats. Typically what starts off as an attack on a web forum can take on a dimension in the real world. I’m confident I haven’t crossed the line in respect of any of these but it does feel as if that’s the implication whenever an allegation of bullying is made.

But while I don’t feel particularly responsible for starting this feuding I do feel I need to finish it. It is also timely to review exactly what I am achieving by giving racists and trolls a platform on this blog. For a long time I’ve tended to consider this to be a basic freedom of speech thing; I’ve only censored comments on this blog in extreme circumstances and in clear cases of defamation. But anyone can start a blog – I don’t need to give them a platform – and rolling in the mud with these jerks doesn’t actually make me feel any better.

What this all amounts to is two things: I need to develop a commenting moderation policy designerd to reduce the level of yah-boo nonsense – perhaps a three two strikes system – meanwhile I need to do more to avoid getting into feuds with specific individuals. The latter is slightly more complicated as feuds can be in the eye of the beholder. But generally if one side thinks it’s a feud it is one regardless of how the other side feels.

What I hope this doesn’t mean is that this blog becomes any less brutal in its relentless crusade against idiocy. Ultimately however, for me to keep blogging I have to be enjoying myself. Exposing myself to accusations of bullying, however unjustified, is the very definition of not having fun and something I need to take steps to avoid.

That is all.

Marx, Marquises and Marquand

David Marquand is offering the Liberal Democrats some advice, graciously for free, over on Our Kingdom.

First of all he denounces us for having “more unelected legislators than elected ones” and concludes that this proves that we “can’t be taken seriously as an agent of democratic change.” Unbeknownst to anyone else until now, this is apparently the magic formula for testing whether party is establishment or not. On this formulation – praise the Lord! – Labour is the most anti-establishment party in the country. The fact that they happen to actually run everything is a mere detail that we can safely ignore. Either way, it is likely to rejoin the establishment in May after which point David Cameron will be leading the anti-establishment vanguard.

He goes on to suggest that “surely it would be possible for the Lib Dem leader to announce that he will hold party elections – including Lib Dem voters, not just members – to decide which people will be nominated to serve in the Lords.”

A few points. Firstly, unlike any other party we do elect our peers – or at least a panel of individuals get to select them from an elected list. We don’t run elections for specific places because we don’t know when the next rounds of appointment are likely to take place, or how many will be appointed at that stage, and when we do know we typically get just a few weeks’ notice. With that in mind the panel option is the best one available. Secondly, with the sole exception of Sue Garden, the Lib Dems have had no new appointments to the Lords since the dissolution honours in 2005 – this in stark contrast to the swelling Labour and Tory ranks. Thirdly, dissolution honours are only available to just-retired MPs – no chance of an election there. Fourthly, if Labour hadn’t reneged on its promise in the Cook-Maclennan agreement to ensure that the Lords was roughly proportional to the votes cast in the previous general election we would have something like 100 more peers. The idea that the Lib Dems are somehow sitting pretty in the Lords is laughable.

Could the Lib Dems make the process more democratic? Certainly. We could have ordered lists for instance and insist that people should be selected in order (although since the list would have to be published it would quickly become apparent which candidates had been blackballed by the authorities). However, a proper selection process would cost tens of thousands of pounds and amount to a serious drain on resources. If we were to take Marquand’s advice and let the public participate in these elections they would cost even more. Either way they would amount to a serious distraction for the party. And that is assuming that we will ever see another Liberal Democrat appointed to the Lords at all.

Marquand argues that we should do this because it “would punch a huge hole in the present system, shame the other parties, and infuriate the Whitehall mandarinate.” Would it? I would imagine that most people would react with complete indifference. The fact that we already have the most democratic system doesn’t seem to impress anyone. I write as someone who sat on the working group that came up with the current system. It certainly was a fight to get the party whigs to concede every minor point. When I started on the party’s Federal Executive I was a true believer and really thought that such posturing made a difference; now I’m not convinced it amounts to anything. We need reform, not a vanity project so we can pat ourselves on the back for being so worthy. Empty gestures do not an anti-establishmentarian make.

There is an alternative proposal which has been aired from time to time and that is to boycott the Lords appointments entirely. If anything I think I have veered towards this view in recent years. It certainly has the merit of being the simpler option. Once again however, would anyone care? If we’d started a boycott four years ago it would have meant we’d have one fewer life peer. Big deal. Would anyone have noticed?

Even more radical would be to get our people to walk out of the Lords entirely (let’s leave aside their willingness to not claim attendence allowance and other expenses for a second). But here’s the thing: in the real world (as opposed to that bubble in which a lot of people seem to exist where the House of Lords is full of independent-minded sages), the Lib Dems hold the balance of power in the Lords. If they hadn’t been sitting there doing their jobs then, however illiberal government legislation is right now, it would now be significantly worse. Given that this fact is widely unrecognised, do you really think people would even notice a boycott? It is Trot tactics and is likely to make as much impact in the public consciousness as all Trot tactics.

But wait, he has more. Apparently we should also reject any notion of attempting to reform the current system and instead “transcend capitalism altogether.” He helpfully adds that “I don’t begin to know how to do this” and that “it wouldn’t be practical politics in the short term” but suggests that the answer lies in reading more Marx.

Would it be uncharitable of me to point out that David Marquand, a public school educated Oxford graduate, a former MP, a protege of the ever clubbable Lord Jenkins, a reformed Social Democrat and Blairite, a longstanding member of the mainstream media’s commentariat and an admirer of David Cameron, is a little bit on the establishment side himself? Most of his advice here amounts to little more than ‘japes’ of dubious tactical or strategic merit. Former members seldom make the most objective of critics; are we really to believe he has our best interests at heart?

The House of Lords is a dreadful anachronism and not democratically legitimate, but at least the fact that no party has control of it means that it is a place where politics actually happens. The House of Commons by contrast is totally dominated by the executive and, in a very real sense, apolitical (unless you count jeering loudly at opponents as some kind of meaningful activity). The control of the whips is so absolute that even pragmatic amendments get blocked in the Commons for fear of giving MPs ideas above their station. Obsessing about the “establishment” nature of the Lords is simply posturing while the Commons is an open sewer. No doubt Marquand’s answer to that should be we should boycott Commons elections until we have “shamed” the other parties into reforming it. But the other parties don’t have any shame; that’s the point.

As for economics, if the Green Party wants to spend the next 30 years discovering an alternative to capitalism, then good luck to it. This investigation hasn’t done it much good over the previous 30 years and we are still paying the price for the Communists’ alternative. If this is what it means to be anti-establishment, I hope you don’t mind if I carry on with actually trying to make the world a better place.

Quality of Life (3) – Communities, Activities and Mental Health

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper. Part one can be found here. Part two can be found here.

16. How can we actively promote ‘good neighbour’ policies?
Noting that word “actively” my response is that we shouldn’t. More equal societies tend to be more trusting societies but I’m not sure there’s much we can or should do to force people to be good neighbours.

The one thing we could do is scrap all legislation that is designed to tackle this thing called “anti-social behaviour.” Criminal behaviour is a different matter, but we need to avoid giving people the impression that it is the role of the state to intervene when it comes to naughty or irritating behaviour.

Another thing that might help would be to move away from gated communities and sprawling housing estates and promote mixed housing wherever possible. I simply can’t see what will stop people from drifting apart on socio-economic lines however if we don’t have some way of discouraging it via, say a land value tax system (i.e. you can have that gated community if you are willing to pay wider society for the privilege).

17. Should government provide greater financial support for community activities – community spaces, clubs, other collective activities? Should it provide other support? If so, what?

Again, rather than doing more it might be an idea if government did less. The Independent Safeguarding Authority is an example of an interference too far in this respect.

18. Should we try to increase significantly the status of those who carry out voluntary activities? If so, how? Should some kind of honours or rewards system play a role? If we increased the status of these activities, would we reduce the stigma attached to unemployment?

If something is rewarded it ceases to be voluntary. I certainly believe that unemployed people should be encouraged – and certainly not be penalised – for doing voluntary work. Perhaps we could combine job centres with time banks (but if Mrs Miggins can’t leave her home, how will she notify the job centre that she needs her shopping done?).

Ultimately though, we don’t want “voluntary” work to be restricted to unemployed people because they have nothing better to do. If we want to avoid such volunteering to lose status as more unemployed people take it up, we have to find ways to encourage employed people to participate too.

I can’t see that there is much national government can do however. The answer, surely, is decentralisation and allow local government to experiment.

19. How can we ensure everyone, including people of diverse ages, ethnic, social and religious backgrounds, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation or ability is included and welcome in the life of their community? How do we combat prejudice while respecting difference?

This is like the “good neighbours” question. I’m not sure there is anything active we can do about this at all. What we need is to break down barriers, which is why I think mixed communities are crucial.

20. Watching large amounts of TV is a major contributor to lower wellbeing. What is the right Liberal Democrat approach to discouraging or limiting it?

We need to make our minds up. Either British TV is the best in the world and a public service, or it is trash that we should discourage people from watching.

TV is on the decline and increasing numbers of people are turning to the internet. This may be a problem that is solving itself as mass media becomes more interactive.

The simplest way to discourage poor people from watching television is to replace the licence fee with subscription television. That way, a number of people – especially older people – will be priced out of watching. But if my grandmother is anything to go by, Eastenders and Countdown are a great comfort to them. Taking the goggle box away from them is certainly unlikely to be popular.

21. How do we combat loneliness, and in particular the isolation of the elderly?

Again, more mixed communities and a more equal society will help.

I’m actually relatively optimistic about this for the future. I strongly suspect this will be much less of a problem for my generation in old age as we will have the internet and a range of opportunities to explore our interests and long distance relationships (assuming climate change hasn’t sent us back to the stone age of course). Even my parents’ generation will have made strides towards this.

22. Should more public money be spent on improving the appearance of local areas?

Again, that is a local matter. Are we talking broken windows theory here? Certainly I can see a case for local authorities responding to vandalism as quickly as possible. But once again, if young people lived in a more equal society where they felt like stakeholders instead of trespassers we would probably see less vandalism.

23. How should government be involved in promoting good mental health?

Greater experts than me will, I’m sure, make specific suggestions. Again I feel the need to point out that the evidence suggests that more equal societies face fewer mental health problems.

24. How can we use education to enhance public understanding about mental health issues?

I certainly would not support adding yet another clause to the national curriculum. If people were taught critical thinking more in schools, it would almost certainly help as they would be less prone to prejudice and I would be happy to see whole swathes of curriculum trashed to make way for this to be on the core syllabus.

Ultimately however, we should leave teachers to get on with it and encourage them to learn from each other.

25. If we make mental health treatment a much higher priority for government spending – do we spend more on health or make cut-backs elsewhere?

This sounds like a false dichotomy to me. Mental health appears to be linked to physical health problems – it thus follows that more investment in the former will lead to savings in the latter.

26. How do drugs and alcohol impact on mental health? What should government do to reduce demand or supply?

Not a lot. We need to be treating people when they’re down not treading on them.

The experience in places such as the Netherlands is that decriminalising drugs leads to a reduction in usage simply because people get less trapped in the criminal justice system. Alcohol is a more intractable problem and alcohol abuse seems to be more a symptom of wider problems than a problem in itself.

How do we deal with that? Empowering local authorities to take a firmer grasp of their licensing policies would be a start. Designing pubs so that they cater more for talking and families and are less Viking drinking halls would help too.

One idea might be to lower the drinking age on real ale and wine in pubs (to 16?), while retaining the 18 age for things like spirits, alco-pops, cider and lager. I’m serious. If we encouraged young people to acquire a taste for proper alcoholic drinks they would be less tempted to blag things like Bacardi Breezers that taste like soft drinks and promote binge drinking. As a positive by-product, it would also help local breweries.

STOP PRESS: Nick Clegg ends Lib Dem equidistance

With his Demos pamphlet published today, it has to be said that Nick Clegg has ruled out any chance of doing a deal with the Conservatives in the event of a hung parliament following the next election. That isn’t quite the same thing as saying he has ruled in a deal with Labour but it does look as if our latest flirtation with equidistance has come to an end.

In The Liberal Moment, Nick Clegg makes it clear that while he sees progressive liberals (the tradition of which he squarely places the Liberal Democrats within) as enemies of conservativism, he places Labour within the wider progressive movement – and thus our rivals. Far from sidling up to Labour however, the pamphlet is a denunciation of the modern Labour Party and a declaration that Labour’s time has now past. Just as Labour eclipsed the Liberals in the early 20th century it is now the task of Liberal Democrats to in turn eclipse them in the 21st. Indeed, much of this pamphlet might have been written by Mark Anthony: “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones” pretty much sums it up.

Broadly, I agree with him – at least in sentiment. As I wrote last month, I do wonder if “progressive” is a term that means anything to the non-politico. To the extent that I would consider myself to be a progressive – and for want of a better term, I do – I’m not sure I go along with Clegg’s definition:

At the core of progressive thought is the idea that we are on a journey forward to a better, and especially more socially just, society; it’s a political ideology that stems from a restless, optimistic ambition for change and transformation.

I agree with the second clause but not the first. Like Richard Dawkins, whose God Delusion I have thus far failed to write my review of (tsk! tsk!) Clegg seems to have signed up to the quaint enlightenment notion that progress is somehow inevitable. I disagree and consider that idea to be fraught with problems; if we assume that we are trundling along the road to progress then there is a danger that we tend to assume that each staging post is a step along the way. If we are on a journey, then it needs to be emphasised that we very much need to be in the driving seat and alert to every bump in the road (I think that metaphor has been safely tortured to death now, don’t you?). Indeed it is that lack of critical faculties that Labour can be blamed for; blindly following the “greater good” regardless of the cost.

If we are serious about replacing Labour then we need to resolve three things: funding, strategy and thought. When it comes to funding, it doesn’t matter how dead the Labour parrot is the unions will have the muscle to prop it up for years to come. How do the Lib Dems compete? The last time the Liberals were in the ascendency, party funding was a form of cheerful corruption, as the hereditary peers created by Lloyd George can testify. These days that simply isn’t an option.

Secondly, strategy. We aren’t going to ever replace Labour via an election strategy focused on target seats. It will take us decades, during which time Labour will surely regroup. Yet what is Lib Dem strategy except targeting? This isn’t a question we especially need to answer now, but we do need to have a significantly different game plan in place by the next-but-one general election if we are really serious about this.

Thirdly, thinking. There is an odd paradox when it comes to the Lib Dems and policy. On the one hand we undeniably have tended to be ahead of the curve when it comes to a range of issues, be they Iraq, the environment, democratic reform and now the economy. On the other hand, frankly, that policy comes across all too often as slapdash and poorly joined together. The party’s policy making process is more democratic than our rivals’, yet the party as a whole discusses policy least of all. Quoting Lord Wallace, Chris White wrote on Next Left last week that

He said, in effect, that when he joined the Liberals in the 1950s/60s (?), the party was great at talking about its philosophy but hopeless at campaigning. But now the situation was the reverse.

I for one find this incuriosity about policy within the Lib Dems extremely frustrating. It matters because I don’t believe things like “narratives” and core values can be handed down from on high; they have to be absorbed. Somehow we repeatedly fail to have the debates we need to have; each year we get excited about a specific policy here and there but in terms of broad priorities we thrash very little out.

Partly I feel our policy development process is at fault; it isn’t the democracy that’s the problem but rather its inflexibility. It’s extremely resolution heavy and deliberation light. But the other major weakness we have compared to Labour and the Tories are a lack of think tanks out there producing helpful research and original thinking. Both the other parties have a host of different organisations beavering away at this; the Lib Dems have the Centre Forum.

Ultimately, I don’t think the Lib Dems can hope to replace Labour until we start thinking of ourselves more widely than just a political party and build around ourselves a liberal movement. Labour and the Tories both have these; by contrast we have a liberal diaspora squatting inside the other parties. The decline of Labour and (inevitable?) failure of Cameron to fulfil his promise of liberal conservativism may help us change this, but at the centre the party needs to be ready for it.

It’s a worthy ambition, Nick. Now make it happen.

UPDATE: other responses from Anthony Barnett, Graeme Cooke, Costigan Quist.

F**k you very very much, Lily Haw-Haw

Good grief. Who put Lily Allen up to this? It has become a cliche to bemoan politicians for not “getting it” but where does one start?

The whole POINT about file-sharing is that it enables artists to by-pass record companies. This massive debt that Allen complains about is part of an old, outmoded business plan. To complain about it is to give the game away about what it is that the music industry is really seeking to defend here.

And mix tapes are crap quality? Oh really? So before the internet we didn’t have vinyl, tape and CDs and had to depend solely on (presumably long wave) radio? Anyone would think “Home Taping Is Killing Music” never happened.

But the worse thing about this article is all the cheap knocking copy aimed at Simon Cowell and designed to position Allen as some kind of edgy artist with street cred. Back in 2006 when she first emerged, all that fake housing estate stuff really grated. I actually bought her last album because I thought she’d finally stopped being such a fake. I wish I’d downloaded it illegally now.

If you want to listen to good, unsigned and independent musical acts that don’t have rich mummies and daddies on hand to get them started, I thoroughly recommend you check out EyeSeeSound (the new name for The 411 Show):

Why is Jenni Russell praising Cameron Come Lately?

Jenni Russell has written an article attacking ContactPoint, the much maligned national children’s database that the government are still insisting on trotting out. The only problem is, she has written it as a piece of Tory hagiography.

We might be able to let her off the title – Another invasion of liberty. And only the Tories are alert – as a bit of subbing hyperbole. I’ve written enough articles for newspapers over the years to know this happens. But she can’t blame the sub for the final paragraph:

Labour will not reverse this; only the Tories might. They promise to review CAF database, ditch ContactPoint for a small, targeted database, and invest in strengthening people’s relationships instead. It’s depressing that Labour supporters who believe in liberties, privacy and humanity should find themselves having to cheer the Tories on this issue.

I first became aware of ContactPoint due to Terri Dowty’s article in Liberator back in 2002. I couldn’t actually tell you when the Lib Dem’s formally adopted policy to scrap ContactPoint but the line was pretty clear in 2007. Here’s Annette Brooke raising the core concern about ContactPoint while the Childrens Act was being debated. It formed a central blank of our Freedom Bill earlier this year. Vince Cable even called for it to be scrapped in his Reform pamphlet published yesterday. The Conservatives came off the fence this June.

I think we can rely on Cameron to scrap this database since it is £200m he will badly need. In better economic circumstances, I wouldn’t be so sure. Either way, at a time when Guardianistas are habitually bemoaning how come the media don’t give Cameron a harder time, it seems odd to hand them so much credit and deny the Lib Dems even an acknowledgement.

Quality of Life (2) – work and unemployment

This is the continuation of my series of posts in response to the Lib Dems’ Quality of Life consulation paper, the first of which can be found here.

Taking the next three questions in one go next:

6. Should there be compulsory limits to working hours? Can employees make a genuinely free choice to opt-out of the European working time directive? Is it liberal to restrict how much we work?

7. Would a more flexible approach to working make a difference to people’s happiness? How would this be achieved without creating unnecessary bureaucracy?

8. Should we incentivise part-time jobs through NI or other employment tax breaks, especially to encourage employers to create senior part-time roles?

I have to admit that I don’t have much of a problem with the current working time directive (i.e. 48 hours). Most countries have worked perfectly well without the opt-out and the 17-week reference period stops the rule from being silly. There might be a few areas where we might allow for some exemptions but the current blanket opt-out option, in practice, seems as meaningless as the rules of shop workers working Sunday shifts (I worked in a shop full time when these rules were introduced. I was formally told I had the right to opt out but it was made very clear that anyone who did would be looked at unfavourably in the future). If a compromise could be brought forward between the opt-out and compulsory options I’d be open-minded about it, and I would certainly be sceptical about a France-style 35 hour week, but I would have little problem with the current European law.

With all that said, I do think there is a lot we could do to make it easier for both employers and employees. Fundamentally, we tax work far too much in this country while leaving wealth almost untouched. While this is the case there will always be pressure on employers to employ fewer people for more hours (as opposed to more people for less hours) and pressure on staff to work whatever hours they can. The right to flexible working is all very well, but are making it has hard as possible for people to be flexible. A liberal government would consider changing this to be a priority. The poor record of the Lib Dems in this respect has been deeply disappointing.

The party’s move towards lifting the poorest paid out of taxation is a long overdue step in the right direction (it should be noted that this was party policy in 1997) but I would like to see us go much further.

The 1992 Lib Dem manifesto, which more than anything else is the document which made me join the party, contained a commitment to a modest citizen’s income. I believe we should revisit this policy.

How would all this be paid for? The only way I can conceive is by establishing a national Land Value Tax, something which has been Lib Dem policy for a long time but which we have been very lukewarm about in recent years. Instead of cravenly following public opinion on this one, it is time we started to make the case for a fundamental shift in the burden of taxation. I really do believe it is an argument that can be won.

9. Are they ways we can promote greater employee responsibility for their work, and/or involvement in deciding how they work? How could we encourage staff stake-holding?

All the evidence I’ve read – and personal experience – indicates that greater democracy in the workforce leads to a happier workforce and greater efficiency. It would almost certainly also help control out of control executive pay in a way that crude mechanisms such as a “maximum wage” could not.

Again, in the not so distant past the Lib Dems had much stronger policy on this and the time is right to rediscover our passion for “industrial democracy.” This means much more emphasis on obliging companies to consult their workforce, share ownership schemes and mutualism.

10. How could quality of life thinking shape our approach to education, training and career choices?

This is a huge topic and I am not an expert in education. I certainly think we need to broaden apprenticeship training in this country. A shift away from income taxes would encourage this, as would greater workplace democracy.

Vocational qualifications such as MBAs can be fearfully expensive. Some employers are better than others at helping staff cover the cost of these. A great many employers are simply too small. I certainly think there is a case for government subsidising these qualifications through small businesses and non-profit organisations.

11. Should we have more public holidays or increased holiday entitlements? Or even statutory education and training days where employees would be free to pursue skills related either to their current job or future employment prospects?

A few more public holidays would bring us up to the European average. I’m not convinced about the need for statutory training days as the need for these would vary enormously depending on the employee and employer.

12. Technological developments have changed the way we work and at times can contribute to unemployment as companies need fewer people to do the same work. Would it be better for wellbeing if we reversed this trend?

I didn’t realise Ned Ludd was on the working group! Technological developments certainly can lead to structural unemployment in the long term but if anything the experience of the past 250 years points in the opposite direction: we are working longer hours than ever and are able to afford a welfare state. Technology also creates new types of work and will continue to do so in exciting ways. The fact that fewer people are working themselves to death in factories and farms than in the past is a good thing.

With that said, it does bear repeating that while companies are free to make whatever capital investment they wish, labour costs come with a deadweight cost. We should be less concerned about technology putting people out of work and more concerned about ensuring that the two are put on a level playing field. Once again, this means taxing labour less.

13. How can we tackle the stigma of unemployment?

14. Should employment policy be refocused on creating a more flexible employment market with more active government intervention, like Denmark, where it is easier for the unemployed to find new work and consequently less necessary to have high job protection? How would this be achieved?

15. Can we better use unemployment as an opportunity for people to retrain and gain new skills?

Unemployment should carry a stigma and there are too many parts of the country where it doesn’t have enough of one. That isn’t to say we should ever write people off – quite the opposite.

Again, I think a shift away from taxes on labour would help increase the fluidity of the labour market (I know I sound like a stuck record here, but this is the problem with answering each question in turn). This, combined with a citizens’ income would reduce the disincentive within the benefits system to take on low paid work.

We also need to remove the barriers for internships and volunteer work. Currently in my experience the system all but discourages these by forcing people to do less than 16 hours a week and insisting on a paper trail. Yet such activity ought to be encouraged – even incentivised. We could even extend this to political parties: there are much worse things people could be doing with their time than actively working within their communities.

I don’t know enough about the Danish system. Since the working group is clearly looking at this model, it would have been useful to have an explanation, or at least a footnote for us to explore in more detail.