Tag Archives: environment

Vince Cable talks to Quaequam Blog!

Once again, I was delighted to be invited to be invited to take part in another of Millennium’s interviews with party figures. At first we interviewed the two leadership candidates, but it seemed like a good idea to get an interview in with Vince Cable while he was serving as acting leader. He graciously agreed to do this and so the inteview took place at teatime on Monday. But then you know all this because you’ve presumably read all the other versions of the interview already. Apologies for my lateness, I spent the rest of the evening out with friends and have only just had a chance to sit down and do the interview justice.

So, what to make of the “greatest leader we’ll never have” (TM all newspapers)? Well, when Vince first arrived in Committee Room 19 he came across as quite diffident and uncomfortable. Right from the start it was apparent this was not going to be like the interviews we’d had with Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg.

Millennium allowed me to start off and, a little unprepared, I proceeded to spend five minutes waffling on about what should have been a very simple question: given the party’s opposition to the “Conservative consensus” and the Liberal tradition’s opposition to inherited wealth, how did Vince justify our presently uncosted policy to increase the IHT threshold up to £500,000 (for more on this by me, see Comment is Free)?

Vince’s short answer was that our policy is to crack down on IHT, and that the real issue is that the way IHT has been set up means that the wealthy find it very easy to get around it and that it is the comparatively less well off that end up paying it. The Lib Dem policy to extend the so-called “seven year rule” so that gifts would only be exempted if they were made fifteen years before the individual’s death would make it harder to avoid.

Was I convinced by this? I’m afraid not, for three reasons. First of all, the policy has never been sold as “toughen up IHT”, but rather “raise the starting threshold” (pdf). The matter of the threshold wasn’t dealt with at all, despite it being the basis of my question. But finally, I have serious doubts about the practicalities of extending the gift rule. Both my mother and my partner’s family have recently gone through probate. It takes a long time and isn’t a walk in the park. If the concern is for middle-class families who find themselves caught out by the system, I have real concerns that these are precisely the sort of people who will end up getting screwed. Meanwhile, it may catch out the super-rich at the margins, but only those who die in skiing accidents as opposed to the ones who die in their beds. In short, for people already well versed in avoiding the tax, it will be a mild annoyance. For the rest of us, it will be a serious hassle. I’m still entirely unconvinced this is a more practical policy than an accessions tax, I’m afraid.

My second question was about multiculturalism, something which Vince has written two Demos pamphlets on the subject. I made the mistake of poorly phrasing my question, asking how we “calm down” the current debate on conflicting identities in the UK, something which he strongly rejected we should seek to do. Instead, he said, we should try to create a society where such debate can flourish, knowing that conflict will arise from time to time. He singled out Evan Harris for taking part in the Oxford Union debate with David Irving last week. On tackling discrimination there were no simple, coin-in-the-slot answers, he argued, pointing out that the experience of different ethnic communities – not least of all the white working classes who deserve the same attention as any other group.

This is all impeccably liberal stuff, and despite my rants about the Oxford Union last week I’m quite happy that Evan was there to argue against Irving given that the meeting was going to go ahead anyway (I still question the Union and its rather selective approach to free speech however) – I certainly don’t condone the rather strong arm tactics of the protesters who attempted to shut down the debate by force. But I don’t think it moved us forward particularly. What I was hoping for was a pocket summary and update of his latest paper on the subject Multiple Identities – a pamphlet which I enjoyed even if I didn’t agree with all of it. I got the sense this question rather irritated him however, which wasn’t my intention at all.

Vince warmed rather more to my final question however, on how he rated George Osborne. His answer was, basically, that Osborne is a smart political operator but an economic lightweight. He argued that Osborne and Cameron are inseparable and that he would stand or fall with his leader.

In particular, he took issue with the Conservatives’ “opportunistic” stance on Capital Gains Stance, pointing out that the Tories opposed taper relief when it was first introduced by George Brown. This is a good point, and one which we perhaps ought to drive home more strongly.

Overall, Vince gave us all fairly straightforward answers and by the end had warmed up immensely. I particularly appreciated his responses to Paul’s question about Gordon Brown’s “psychological flaws” (he doesn’t have them, but has deep intellectual flaws) and his satisfactory answer to Jonny’s question about whether the “Mr Bean” line was doing the same to Brown as we deplore was done to Ming (answer: Ming was criticised for his appearance while Cable was criticising Brown for his ineptitude). He was quite insightful, and surprisingly upbeat in response to Alix’s question about the Heathrow expansion, arguing that it wasn’t a done deal, that the fact that the environment has gone up the political agenda makes it much harder for the government compared with the last Heathrow expansion and that could only happen if the government were to get its way over planning reform (which is being strongly opposed in the Lords).

The best leader we’ll never have? Impossible to tell. If he had been a candidate I suspect we would have had a very different interview, just as he would have had a very different past month. It is clear that he is a major talent however and one that the new leader – whoever he is – should ensure remains at the centre of our front bench team.

See also: Liberal England, Liberal Burblings, Lindyloo’s Muze, The People’s Republic of Mortimer, Millennium Elephant (plus Love and Liberty and Hug a Hoodie when they get around to typing their versions up).

Gordon Brown invokes the John Major legacy

Green Traffic Cone
Gordon Brown has finally got around to making a speech on the environment. The beef?

Prime Minister Gordon Brown has said there will be a “green hotline” to advise people on what they can do to cut their impact on the environment.

There is something about the word “hotline” that will be forever associated with John Major, partially because it is the only thing anyone can remember about his premiership. Not sure this was the wisest decision of Dr Brown ever.

EXCLUSIVE – Nick Clegg on Tax: “er…”

Nick Clegg is going on the GMTV Sunday Programme this Sunday, following Chris Huhne’s appearance last weekend. I’ve been sent a transcript and, well… I kind of get what he’s doing but it’s just so woolly.

He’s very keen to push the Pupil Premiums idea, but worryingly he appears all over the place about how to pay for it:

Nick Clegg: £1.5 billion will come from taking above average families out of the tax credit system altogether. And we’ll take that £1.5 billion out of the tax credit system, or at least we’ll take families on above average income out of the tax credit system, use that money to give to the kids from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. That leaves a gap of a million… of a billion, sorry, and it would be one of the first things I would do as a leader to say to the party that we will have to find that extra billion, so that the total sum of £2.5 billion is a fixed pledge by the time we go to the country in the next general election.

Steve Richards: You’d accept that you’ve got a black hole there. You haven’t found where the money’s going to come from, the other billion.

Nick Clegg: Er, yes, but I mean there are other ideas. For instance there are other ideas, I mean for instance I’ve also this week been floating ideas for how I think we should introduce a 10% tax on the non-domestic earnings of so-called ‘non-doms’. In that particular case that raises about £1 billion. I would like that to go to alleviate the burden of Council Tax on those in Band A and band B properties, those on the lower rung of the property ladder, if you like. But it’s just an example of where we can be creative in trying to find that extra money in order to fulfil that pledge, and I’m absolutely confident that we will under my leadership make that fixed pledge by the next general election.

Steve Richards: By one way or another taxing the better off, presumably. Because it has to come from somewhere.

Nick Clegg: Yes, er well no, hang on, or, sorry…

Steve Richards: You said yes, so tax increase?

Nick Clegg: No, no, let me correct that. I think there is plenty of scope to cut back on some of the waste in government, some of the duplication in government. I think there is a strong case to look at how government expenditure’s been duplicated in many areas. Everybody is familiar with the general degree of waste in public expenditure in the last few years, so I have given you if you like a fluctuating answer precisely because I think that I’m not fixed in my own mind about where that money would come from, but absolutely confident that with political will that money will be found.

On the page it looks awful (much worse than using a word like “Gadarene”), although obviously it might not come across as quite so vacillating on screen. But surely Team Clegg should have got the answer to this basic softball question down pat by now? This is Clegg’s CENTRAL campaign policy. What have I been saying about clarity?

As Chris Huhne said in our bloggers’ interview on Tuesday, nice guys are all very well but if they don’t look like credible potential Prime Ministers, they’re ultimately a waste of time. A potential Prime Minister needs to look credible on economic matters. Clegg doesn’t here.

And while I’ve said nice things about his position on the environment in the past, I’m beginning to wonder if it is beginning to ring hollow:

Steve Richards: … Chris Huhne when he was here last week – you’re in a contest, and maybe in that context it’s understandable – but he was, how can I put it, critical of you for criticising him. In particular, well he was quite specific, he said that you had claimed that the party had not done enough on the environment, and he actually came up with endless statistics to show how much he had personally done on the environment. Was he right to pick up the fact that you were criticising him on this or wrong?

Nick Clegg: My feeling is that many party members in the Liberal Democrats are anxious about why it is that our leadership on policy, on setting out detailed policies about how we protect the environment, how we move to a zero carbon economy, doesn’t seem to be translated into real political leadership on this. Why is it that David Cameron appears to have stolen such a march without any substantive proposals on the environment? Why is it that the green agenda has been hijacked by this very superficial appeal from Cameron? I think that is a very serious political question. It’s certainly not directed personally at Chris. It’s an issue for the party as a whole…

Steve Richards: But he is the environment spokesman for your party, so…

Nick Clegg: Well hang on a minute. It’s a question for the party as a whole. Environmentalism is something integral to my philosophy. It’s something I’ve worked on for years. I’ve written books in the past about how you, for instance, change the world trade system to make sure that it actually boosts environmental protection rather than undermining it, and I think it is quite right for me as a prospective leader to say hang on a minute, we’ve got to make sure that Cameron doesn’t get away with blue murder – or blue-green murder – by pretending that he’s an environmentalist when he isn’t, and I think that what we need to do is be very careful that we don’t berate and hector people on the environment, but inspire and motivate them to make changes and make sure that they know that we are also placing a real obligation on businesses and on government – local and national government – to meet their side of the bargain, so it isn’t just people struggling in their own homes to change their lightbulbs, save more electricity, use less water, that also that we will give them answers as to why it is at the moment they then come home every afternoon with ten tons of plastic from the supermarket, or why is it that the local authority or central government gets away with not meeting their own carbon emission targets. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about – a new language on the environment which motivates, doesn’t berate – I think that’s exactly what our party should do.

It’s true that Cameron has made the environment a big issue over recent months. It’s also true that he’s been made to look a plonker with the chauffeur incident and hugging huskies nonsense. In recent months he’s also made it clear that he is distancing himself from the more deep green policies of Zac Goldsmith.

The wheels have already come off the Green Tory Bandwagon. I have to ask therefore why Team Clegg are so busy helpfully putting them back on again. Chris Huhne has produced polling evidence that suggests Cameron is not doing that well on this issue; what is Clegg’s response to that? Why is he not attacking Cameron’s empty pledges on the environment rather than using him as a stick to beat his opponent with?

No doubt Lib Dem Voice and others will have more about this interview.

UPDATE: The Guardian have picked up on this.

nonEXCLUSIVE: Chris Huhne talks to Quaequam Blog! (part 1)

The Millennium Elephant has been trying to organise a bloggers’ hustings for the leadership candidates and he kindly invited his two Daddies (Richard and Alex), Mary Reid, Paul Walter, Jonny Wright, Jonathan Calder, Stephen Tall and myself to take part (the link is that all of us were either shortlisted for the Lib Dem Blog of the Year 2007 awards, won one of the subcategories or won the big prize in 2006).

Anyway, today we interviewed Chris Huhne (sadly Jonathan and Stephen couldn’t make it, but hopefully next time) and I think the general view was that a worthwhile time was had by all. Without further ado I will report what was asked, how Chris answered, and my own view on his response.

Party Organisation
Daddy Richard kicked off by asking Chris what he would be doing to get the party back in the 20s in the opinion polls.

Apart from a quick joke about the two candidates having a jobshare on the basis that our polls have actually gone up during the interregnum period, Chris very quickly declared a specific target, that of us beating our high watermark in the 1983 general election – 23 per cent – and indeed to aim for a vote in excess of 25 per cent.

The way he proposed doing this was as follows: the win the air war and being “sharp elbowed” in terms of getting the liberal view heard. He paid tribute to both David Laws today and more generally the “phenomenal” Norman Baker in terms of being able to set the media agenda by finding specific stories which resonate more widely.

But more fundamentally, he also outlined an approach that would have the party organising with a view to, over the course of two Parliaments, building up enough support and seats in the Commons so that it will be “impossible to form a government without the Lib Dems being part of that government”. He was vague on exactly how many seats we would need for such a situation to arise – he mentioned 150 but only in passing as it was a figure that he said that Nick Clegg has cited. His idea is to set that target and then develop, in effect, a business plan, establishing what those target seats should be, what they would need, and focusing the party on delivering that.

He also said that in his view the party’s “air war” needed to be much more professional about defining our key messages and being strict about repeating them again and again. Those messages would have to be rigourously market researched.

On money, and specifically how to pay for all this, he was somewhat vague beyond saying that he was confident we could raise it.

He contrasted his approach with the existing “incrementalist” approach by the party which is opportunistic, focused on byelections and target seats but ultimately is based on “hoping for the best”.

Throughout the answer to this question, Chris drew on his experience as a journalist. His final point was to emphasise the importance of imagery; “a picture is worth a thousand words”. He related his experience in 2005 of proposing to the Parliamentary Party that as an act of solidarity to Maya Evans, they should repeat he “crime” and read out the names of the UK soldiers who had been killed in Iraq. “Wiser heads” he said prevailed, but he argued that such actions would symbolise our opposition to specific illiberal pieces of legislation.

My view: I was very impressed with his answer here, which was specific and motivating as an activist. He did a very good job at selling to us his experience as a journalist and what that would bring to his role as leader.

I’m a little concerned about the party getting too specific in terms of numbers of target seats. We certainly can’t win them all and there is a danger in being too transparent. But his strategy does have the clear advantage of giving the targeting strategy a direction of travel and answers my previous complaint that we seem to be set on a goal of forming a government which will take us the best part of a century to reach on current performance. The aim to specifically go out to create a balanced Parliament is a compelling one, but it is one that would suggest mainly focusing on Labour-held seats.

Core message

Following on from Chris’s exhortation that we distill our campaigning down to a core message, Jonny Wright then asked Chris to complete the following sentence: “I should vote Liberal Democrat because…”

Chris’s answer was that the party stood for “a fairer society and a greener society where power is handed back to the communities around Britain.”

In terms of fairness, he defined that as “not being just about equality of opportunity,” suggesting that childhood poverty needed to be a priority.

On “green” he said he was proud of getting the party to sign up to the policy of a zero carbon Britain. He was keen to point out that according to Ipsos-MORI, the party has increased its lead over the other parties on this issue by 6 percentage points under his tenure as environment spokesperson. He said that he believed that “at some point” “the scales are going to fall from the public’s eyes on this issue” and it will leap up the political agenda (“like the Iraq moment”). Having a leader who is fully committed to this agenda would therefore be an advantage. In making this case he cited the examples of Australia and Canada where a bad drought and a mild winter have had a major effect on voting patterns and that PM John Howard – who opposed Kyoto – is now set to make Australia the first country in the world to ban the incandescent lightbulb.

My view: That’s certainly a list of priorities, but I’m not convinced that it is quite a core message for us on its own. His argument about there being a moment when the public will suddenly wake up to the importance of climate change as an issue may well be true, but it is a risk; it wasn’t clear what he was suggesting we should do in the meantime to ensure that this doesn’t become a damaging issue for us. Fundamentally, I don’t think he has satisfactorily answered Nick Clegg’s concerns which I believe are valid.

In terms of the polling evidence he cites, it is of course true. Up to a point. The flaw is that the 2006 data is from 31 August – 6 September while the 2007 data is from 20-26 September. The latter was immediately after the Lib Dem conference in which the environment was made a central issue. Nonetheless, it does undermine the Nicholas Blincoe argument that David Cameron is popularly regarded as the UK’s greenest politician and that this reflects badly on Huhne (incidently, I couldn’t resist looking at the equivalent law and order polling figures. According to these, the party has slipped 3 points under Clegg which when you consider this was also based on polling figures at the end of our party conference is not exactly stunning. Well, you started it Nick).

On equality, people will be unsurprised to learn that I approve of his position, but I have another article to write on that subject so I won’t go into it here. The localism agenda I also agree with.

It does leave one wondering where the freedom agenda lies however. If this is to be left off from our list of core priorities, and that we are to focus far more on our core priorities at the expense of other issues (including internationalism, Chris made explicit), where is the opening to do our tearing up of ID cards and protests about the DNA database? In retrospect this is a topic we should have probed him further on.

Communication Skills

Paul Walter pressed Chris on his reputation as being the less punchy of the two candidates and of, to use his memorable phrase “more sotto voce and approving of phrases like sotto voce“. As Paul pointed out, Chris’ first question when arriving and seeing Millennium Elephant was to ask where is emmanuensis was, a word so obscure that it defeats all the dictionaries I have to hand (including a two volume Oxford shorter) and even Google struggles to find more than two dozen references. The top result, it has to be pointed out, are the minutes of the Pembroke College Winnie the Pooh society (actually, it could be that the correct spelling is immanuensis, but that only gets four results – still at least they are about gods and not Pooh).

Chris’ answer was simply to “look at the Ipsos-MORI polling data”. He further pointed out that not only has David Cameron been concentrating on the environment as an issue but David Milliband, widely regarded as one of Labour’s greatest communicators, was also Environment Secretary until relatively recently and yet Huhne has managed to hold his own against both of them.

My view: I find Chris’ cerebral approach quite refreshing, and I also recall the Newsnight / Frank Luntz programme in the run up to the 2005 General Election which showed that Vince Cable polled incredibly well for the similar reason that he comes across as a big brain who knows what he’s talking about. The immanuensis/emmanuensis thing is a bit of a red herring as he didn’t even raise it in the interview itself.

With all that said, I still worry that he isn’t empathic enough. It still want to hear more from him about individuals daily lives. As leader he will need to reach that one step further and that means being both a big brain and someone with the common touch.

Local Government

Mary Reid asked what should Liberal Democrat-run councils do that is distinctively Liberal Democrat.

Chris started by contrasting the Lib Dem approach to localism and Labour’s: the Lib Dems were interested in devolving control while Labour are only interested in devolving management responsibilities. He emphasised that the alienation people feel about politics at the moment is not just about the quality of public services but because people need someone they know, from their locality who is their way into the political process and who is in a position to make a difference.

He also critiqued the way the party has forgotten the real philosophy behind community politics; that it has become an election campaign tool rather than a way of empowering people from the bottom up. He called on the party to go back to the ideas of people such as Bernard Greaves and others in the 70s and start empowering people once again.

From this he developed his arguments on public service provision, arguing for an emphasis on localism. His argument against market based solutions seemed to be not so much an objection to such solutions per se, but the idea that such policies should be wheeled out at a national level. Rather than risking what he calls a “nationwide balls up” he is calling for a system that allows for local experimentation.

My view: The way Chris expressed his position on public service reform here was better than the rather dogmatic way his manifesto came across. Of course, not having a single nationwide system in place will restrict the ability to deliver certain policies (I certainly think that health insurance proposals fall foul of this), but at least he is taking less of a “public-control good, market-based bad” approach.

On the other points I can merely agree. I am encouraged by his critique of the way the party has forgotten the meaning of community politics.

I’m not convinced he actually answered the question though.

The Monarchy Question

Alex Wilcock asked, in essence, that given that Chris is in favour of so much democratisation, what is his position on abolishing the monarchy.

Chris’ answer was that he doesn’t believe in “fighting battles that aren’t really going to change things.” He argued that as radicals we should choose our fights carefully and that getting dragged into the monarchy debate would confuse the issue. To round things off, he said that he thought that the institution of a constitutional monarch has many advantages. In short, he’s against it.

My view: I’m an apathetic republican. I’m opposed a monarch in principle, but I can think of so many other issues I’d rather concentrate on before considering the issue to be even a low priority.

What’s the point of leadership?

Alex also asked Chris to outline what he believed the purpose of a leader to be.

Chris began by emphasising his experience in managing a team both as a journalist and in working in the city (apparently economists are easier to manage than journalists). He said that in his experience a leader must have an honest assessment of his/her strengths and weaknesses and to build an appropriate team around them.

Fundamentally however, a leader must be able to represent the party well and convey the idea that they are someone that the public is likely to be comfortable with having to lead the country. Naming no names, he suggested that some of the party’s previous leaders, while likeable, did not convey that image.

Finally, he emphasised that the leader should be able to convey the idea that she/he would be a good pair of hands to entrust the economy with, quoting Bill Clinton.

My view: a difficult question to answer, but I think he did quite well. Good on emphasising experience and his other selling points, which is fair enough.

…at this point I’m going to take a short break, ‘cos summarising all this stuff is doing my head in. My question is yet to come, as are everyone else’s second bite of the cherry and last but not least my final conclusion. More on this tomorrow!

Clegg and Huhne need to pare it down to basics

The Lib Dem leadership campaign is starting to get spiky. Good, it’s past time for a bit of frankness. And while Nicholas Blincoe’s attack on Chris Huhne over on Comment is Free is ad hominem enough to make even me blush (making up a pretend speech impediment and then taking the piss out of it is in the gutter even by my standards), his criticisms of Chris Huhne’s stance on the environment aren’t a million miles from my own yesterday.

But he is wrong to complain of Huhne being schismatic. Or rather, he is wrong to express exaggerated concerns about Huhne causing a split in the party. The party’s attempts at looking every which way and being all things to all people have got us nowhere. The fact that one of Clegg’s key advisers is openly calling for as much soft soap in this contest as possible (while reserving the right to put the boot in himself) confirms my worst fears about the mushy, safe “liberal future” he appears to be promising. So much for moving out of our comfort zone.

Huhne’s manifesto contains two core elements that he should push home as much as possible over the next few weeks. The first is the People’s Veto – a brilliant populist move which happens to also be a democratic one. The second is his defence of equality. The latter guarantees that the likes of Andy Mayer and Tristan Mills won’t vote for him, but it marks him out as a centre left politician and contrasts with Clegg’s emphasis on meritocracy. It is an issue of principle that he can stand or fall on. For me – and others – it makes Clegg’s exhortation of liberalism sound hollow.

Both of these topics evoke visceral responses which is what we need in a contest like this. We have serious issues that need to be resolved. Saying we must never try resolving internal philosophical differences for fear of scaring the horses is lamentable. We will be stronger for having had a robust debate, not weaker.

Everything else in that manifesto should be junked, at least in terms of core messages. The rest of it either restates existing party policy or goes to a level of nuance that we really don’t need to be getting into. If he can’t pare it down then Blincoe will have a point: having lots of arguments on lots of topics will generate far more heat than light.

And Nick Clegg? He gets an easier task. To win my respect, all he has to come up with is one big, bold idea that it is possible to disagree with. At its heart, the fact that I haven’t heard him articulate one is what is most frustrating me about his campaign. People keep telling me he has one; that he has lots. David Boyle – someone I certainly do respect – has just joined the blogosphere and assures us that Nick has one. Everyone who knows him seems convinced that Nick has one. Yet no-one seems to want to say what it is.

Age concern – the Liberal Democrats and generational equity

I wrote this article in Summer 2006 for Liberalism – something to shout about, published by Graham Watson MEP and edited by Simon Titley. I’m taking the liberty of republishing it here, but if you want to read the other articles – by Graham, Simon, Ros Scott, Jonathan Calder and Simon Bryceson, follow the above link for an order form.

Any article on this topic will inevitably date quickly, so please bear that in mind. In particular, “Hands off our future” is a reference to an abortive attempt of mine to set up a campaign website on the topic which in the end I didn’t have the time to keep going.

Demographic change is creating a dangerous situation, one where younger generations are suffering increasing economic injustice. A system of ‘neo-feudalism’ will emerge unless radical steps are taken. Do the Liberal Democrats have the courage to campaign for justice – or will they miss the boat?

Introduction
There’s no easy way to put this, and I can almost hear the shrieks of outrage as I type, but young people are being expected to shoulder too much of the UK economy while older people are getting away with shouldering too little.

That isn’t to say that pensioner poverty doesn’t exist, nor is it to deny that some young people are extremely wealthy. As in any discussion on economics, we are talking in generalities here. It is however to say that, as well as being unfair, it is having a deleterious effect on our economy and stands to reinforce class barriers and social immobility at a time when we are flattering ourselves that such things have been relegated to our past.

Young people are hit by a sextuple whammy of costs that older people do not have to worry about to the same extent. These are: graduate debt, credit, saving for the future, environmental taxation, income-based taxes and housing costs. We should take a moment to consider each one in turn:

The problems
Housing costs
The owner-occupier dream of the Thatcherite 1980s is coming to an end. Only 20% of 20-24 year olds are homeowners, compared with 34% in 1994. First-time buyers now make up only 38% of total buyers1.

Why is this? Simply enough, house prices have got out of control. According to the Department for Communities and Local Government2, the average house price across the UK is now £190,051; in London it is £279,418. Median earnings meanwhile are £22,412 (less than one-eighth of the average house price) across the UK and £28,912 in London (less than one-ninth of the average London house price)3. According to Nationwide, the median home loan is now worth 3.21 times the incomes of those buying the property, compared with just 2.39 in 19944. That of course means that half of new loans are being lent at even higher multiples. According to the Halifax5, public sector workers cannot afford average priced homes in 65% of towns, compared with just 24% five years ago. Mortgage repayments typically now use up 42% of take home income.

Unsurprisingly, 40% of first-time buyers now get parental help6. For many more people however, the solution is to simply rent. There again, the options available to people 20 years ago simply do not exist. The right-to-buy policies of the 1980s, which got so many people onto the housing ladder (earning many of them small fortunes in the process), were unsustainable as they depended on selling council housing that was not replaced.

One other option is buy-to-let: buy a house in a more affordable area than the one you live in and use the income from that as security. This in turn of course helps bloat the housing market even further, pricing even more first-time-buyers out of the market.

Ultimately, all of this must be unsustainable, although the bubble is still looking fairly robust at the moment. If the housing market does crash however, it is again young people who will predominantly suffer.

The obvious solution to all this is to build more affordable homes. Yet that has been official government policy for years now and little progress is being made. We cannot escape the fact that, under the current system, property developers have very little interest in building large numbers of affordable homes.

Graduate debt
People graduating from university this year owe an average of £13,500, according to the Association of Investment Trust Companies (AITC)7. As with many of these figures, it needs to be emphasised that this is an average: graduates from wealthy families typically have far less debt to repay, while poorer graduates will have significantly more. This figure also does not take into account variable top-up tuition fees, introduced this year: at a stroke, such fees will increase debt for graduates from the top universities by £9,000 to £12,000.

Liberal Democrat policy is to scrap tuition fees. This has been very popular, but it should be remembered that students from the poorest backgrounds don’t pay fees anyway while students running up average debts and paying full tuition fees would still end up graduating with £10,000 hanging over their heads.

One argument used to justify the increased burden that individuals themselves pay is that graduates earn more; the Dearing Report8 claimed that graduates would, on average, earn £400,000 more over their lifetime. Yet, as higher education has expanded, so the worth of each individual degree has fallen. The University of Swansea estimates9 that the ‘value’ of a degree for a male arts graduate is now just £22,000. Yet with degrees now a minimum requirement for so many jobs these days, non-graduates find themselves severely disadvantaged regardless of their ability.

Credit
71% of young people (aged 18-29) have an overdraft facility and one-in-five are permanently overdrawn10. 18.7% of all bankrupts were aged 18-29 in 2004/5, compared with just 7.8% in 2001/2.

There is a temptation to dismiss these figures as simply young people spending irresponsibly, yet that is to ignore how credit has been promoted quite as fiercely as it has been over the past couple of decades. It is also to ignore the fact that banks will tend to refuse lower interest loans to customers with little credit history while being quite happy to give them credit cards. Borrowing is treated as a rite of passage that young people are expected to go through and, whether individuals struggle or not, banks are guaranteed a profit.

To his enormous credit, Vince Cable MP has been making a noise11 about the problems associated with unsustainable levels of debt for some time now. The party should pay him more attention.

Saving for old age
Young people are now expected to save for their own old age in a way that their parents’ generation never need worry about. Final salary pension schemes are a thing of the past. The Turner proposals12, largely accepted by the government, offer some hope for the future, but there is no escaping the fact that, for them to work, people must contribute more out of their own salaries.

Yet as the importance of saving for the future has increased, in fact the opposite has happened. According to Pensions Minister James Purnell in July 200613, the number of young people saving for a pension has fallen from one-in-three to one-in-four since 2000. Purnell was quick to pin the blame on young people themselves for their “live fast, die poor” lifestyles. Can we really simply dismiss this trend as shortsightedness, or are young people simply expected to cope with debt? This is a vital question for politicians to answer if they hope to make opt-out stakeholder pensions – one of the lynchpins behind the government’s new pensions strategy – a success. If it is financial pressures that are putting young people off from taking out second pensions, there is a real risk that a disproportionate number will opt-out under the new scheme.

Income-based taxes
There is no denying that income taxes fell significantly during the 1980s and 1990s. I mention them here because it needs to be emphasised that this form of taxation is paid predominantly by economically active middle-income earners: the rich avoid them while the poor and economically inactive pay very little.

In the recent past, income taxes have begun to creep up again, under the guise of national insurance contributions. Liberal Democrat policy in 2005 would have added an additional 4p in the pound due to the introduction of a local income tax.

Climate change and resource taxation
It is now largely accepted that the human race is responsible for global warming and climate change. Because of inaction in the past and little scope of major improvements in at least the short term, significant climate change is also now regarded as all but an inevitability. Mean temperatures are expected to increase by two degrees Celsius by 205014. Today’s young people, their children and their grandchildren will be paying the price in the future.

Today’s young people, however, are also expected to pay the price now; environmental taxes will either creep up if the timidity of the current government continues, or significantly increase if a more environmentally responsible government takes control. Either way, today’s young people will be expected to bear the brunt, on top of everything else, in a way that their parents’ generation was never expected to.

The future – neo-feudalism?
What no-one should be blind to here is that these factors do not affect all young people equally. Families with assets are able to help their children out by subsidising student costs, housing and ultimately by passing on an inheritance. They help out in other ways too. A recent report from the Sutton Trust15 found that 54% of top journalists went to public school, up from 49% in 1986. Similar statistics can be found for the legal profession and other white-collar jobs.

One factor driving this is that, as more and more people have degrees, employers are increasingly dependent on other ways of assessing candidates. A simple mechanism used by a lot of employers is to offer internships and most young people who take up unpaid work experience in this way are dependent on their families to see them through. Thus the expansion of higher education seems to be doing little to improve opportunities for young people from poor backgrounds; indeed, it could actually be entrenching privilege.

There are other ways as well in which the ‘haves’ can consolidate their position. The subsidised loans available to students may be intended to help poorer students feed and house themselves at university, but increasingly they are used by wealthier families as an investment: invest the money in an ISA and pocket the difference. Inheritance tax, properly managed, is effectively voluntary, with wealth handed down the generations long before the aging relative dies – and the bigger the estate, the greater the likelihood that families will have made such provision.

The important question we should be asking ourselves is, where is this taking us? I have dubbed the (avoidable) nightmare scenario ‘neo-feudalism’. Through a combination of some talent, some hard work and a large amount of luck, some families are consolidating their position at the expense of other families. The current fad for buy-to-let could be the tip of the iceberg: there is every reason to believe that the people who play the system well will increase their property portfolios over time, pricing ever more people out of the property market in turn.

For the new underclass, the future is bleak, with the rising middle-class operating an effective closed shop in a way that would make the most militant shop steward baulk. Meanwhile, the children within these ‘landed’ families will be trapped in a cycle of dependency. These mini-Princes of Wales will be forced to wait impatiently for their inheritances to come through, conflicted by love for their parents and the desire for freedom and independence. Entrepreneurship, creativity and hard work will be stifled by an economy dominated by class and privilege.

Policy solutions
Higher education policy
The Liberal Democrats’ policy to scrap tuition fees has served the party well, but there are at least two major reasons for reviewing it.

A principled reason is that it doesn’t actually help the poorest. We may well wish to argue that students from lower middle class backgrounds can ill-afford the tuition fees they are forced to pay under the present system, but it is highly doubtful that scrapping fees will see a massive influx of students from the poorest backgrounds.

The pragmatic reason is that tuition fees have been with us for seven years now. Hundreds of thousands of young people have already paid them, and there is an increasing danger that this policy will decline in popularity as young people and their families increasingly ask themselves “well, we had to pay fees, so why shouldn’t they?”

One equitable solution to this would be to offer tax relief on student debt repayments. The full amount may not be affordable, but a significant proportion would not only amount to the same thing as paying full tuition costs, but would benefit all graduates.

Going further, we could replace our existing spending commitment to scrap fees with a return to the means-tested maintenance grant. This would target our funding at those least able to pay.

It is unlikely to amount to much while the massive expansion of higher education continues however, and this leads me to consider an even more radical proposal. Why not remove the universal state subsidy on university tuition altogether, replacing it with means-tested cover for both tuition and maintenance? This more targeted approach would enable us to help students most in need, while giving the market a greater role in determining demand for higher education.

There are bound to be howls of protest regarding this proposal and I have to admit I am not fully convinced of it myself: how would we preserve liberal arts departments for instance? How can the market determine how many medievalists the country to fund? I am merely throwing these ideas in to provoke a discussion I believe the party desperately needs to be having.

The bottom line for me is that, at the next general election, we need to have much more to say to both graduates and the poorest students. With the party committed to keeping spending commitments down to a minimum, this cannot be done without significantly changing our existing policy of tuition fees.

Taxation
Just as we are sometimes guilty of portraying our policy of tuition fees as a social justice issue when the poorest are unaffected, so the same is true with our policy to replace council tax with a local income tax. The claim is frequently made that it would benefit the poorest, and specifically pensioners. Yet the poorest are entitled to Council Tax Benefit and are thus exempt.
We aren’t, to be fair, alone in this. Help the Aged’s website16 claims that an elderly couple with just £182 per week income “could end up paying the same level of Council Tax as their neighbours, a young and wealthy couple with an income of tens of thousands”. Yet if you look elsewhere on this website, it helpfully explains that an elderly person on that level of income is exempt from the tax. A curious game of deception is at hand here, and unfortunately the Lib Dems bear much responsibility for it.

The real problem with our existing policy is that it represents a massive tax cut for the owners of some of the most valuable properties in the country, while shifting the entire burden of taxation onto economically active young people. This makes no economic sense at all and will help to increase property prices still further, enriching the wealthy and pricing even more people out of the housing market.

We are frequently told that this policy is important because it helps old people who may have large wealth, but have little income. In fact, asset rich, cash poor pensioners form a tiny minority. In his submission17 to the Tax Commission report, Prof Iain McLean cited research from Warwick University, which shows that just 1.2%-2% of the population fits into this category. There are other ways to ensure that this small group does not unduly suffer without introducing a system that would unfairly penalise others.

The signs coming from the party’s Tax Commission unfortunately sound remarkably confused. By the time you read this essay, its final report18 will have been published but, at the time of writing, it looks as if it will be a strange mix, calling for national income taxes on the one hand while introducing even higher local income taxes on the other. This strange, hybrid ‘pushmepullyou’ is unlikely to please anyone and is likely to confuse seriously both journalists and the general public.

So what’s the solution? Simply put, our new taxation policies have a property tax-shaped hole in them. We should fill it with our historical commitment to introduce a system of land value taxation. This would encourage greater efficiency of land, lower property prices, and discourage second home ownership and buy-to-lets. Safeguards could be introduced to ensure that old people would not be taxed out of their homes, such as a system whereby people could voluntarily choose to defer tax payments until after they realise the asset.

Funding the future
Britain is appalling at squandering its assets. North Sea oil, now rapidly drying up, has been used as a cash cow by successive chancellors for the past 30 years, with Gordon Brown using it to fund spending commitments last winter. Yet once this natural resource is gone, it’s gone.
Other countries have a more enlightened view. Since 1995, Norway has invested its North Sea oil receipts into its National Petroleum Fund (recently renamed the National Pension Fund)19. This fund, worth 1.48 trillion Kroner (about £125 billion or €185 billion) in 2006 and administered by the Central Bank, is designed to ensure that this short-term windfall is enjoyed by future generations.

Alaska operates a similar scheme called the Permanent Fund20. Though much smaller – $32 billion (about £17 billion or €25 billion) at the end of 2005 – the fund is enough to pay out a dividend to Alaskan residents of around $1,000 per capita per year.

It is mostly too late to put Britain’s North Sea oil receipts into a similar fund, but as climate change is taken more seriously, this could be a useful way to handle receipts from environmental taxation.

Using environmental taxes to fund general expenditure is problematic at best, particularly at high levels, because if they are successful we can find ourselves with a shortfall. Climate change is likely to make the twenty-first century a very unstable period. Establishing a fund in this way would help give future generations a helping hand.

Getting our message across
One major objection to the party shifting its policy more towards young people is that older people vote in greater numbers and should therefore be our main target. I would repeat that I am not calling for us to ignore old people in elections, and strongly support our policy positions on a Citizens’ Pension and increasing the basic rate.

But, despite the fact that we all but stuffed their mouths with gold coins in the last election, old people did not generally vote for us. This is partly because of tribal loyalty, and partly because of a perception of the party brands – indeed, where we do well amongst older voters it is because they recognise our strengths as community campaigners. By contrast, younger people flocked to us in the last general election, despite us having very little to offer them. We have a real opportunity here not simply to capitalise on the votes of under-40s but to create lifelong Liberal Democrat supporters.

For such a campaign to work, however, it cannot simply be conducted by the occasional press release. At the moment, the media is largely unaware of this issue, normally reporting rises in property prices as an unequivocally good thing. For us to make an impact on this issue, our frontbench team must be seen championing it. It should get mentioned in every speech Ming Campbell makes between now and polling day.

The good news about a campaign aimed specifically at young people is that much of our target audience is web-savvy. What’s more, the people whom these issues affect are getting increasingly organised – see websites such as housepricecrash.co.uk, pricedout.org.uk and Hands Off Our Future. It is clear from reading the forums on sites such as these that there is a real sense of injustice out there and that people are crying out for a political party to take these issues on. If we miss this opportunity now, we may find ourselves paying the price in the future.

References
1 BBC (2006). How hard is it to afford a house? BBC News Online, 6 July; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/5145090.stm
2 UK Department for Communities and Local Government (2006). House Price Index – May 2006 (DCLG Statistical Release 2006/0051). Press release, 10 July; www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1002882&PressNoticeID=2197
3 Bachelor, L. & Flanagan, B. (2005). On average, you can’t afford it. Observer, 4 December; http://money.guardian.co.uk/houseprices/story/0,1456,1658132,00.html
4 BBC (2006). ibid.
5 Halifax plc (2006). Halifax Key Worker Housing Review. Press release, 29 July; www.hbosplc.com/economy/includes/KeyWorkerAffordability(UK).doc
6 BBC (2006). ibid.
7 AITC (2006). Press release, 9 August; www.aitc.co.uk/press_centre/default.asp?id=5439
8 The National Committee of Enquiry into Higher Education (1997). www.leeds.ac.uk/educol/ncihe/
9 O’Leary, N. & Sloane, P. (2005). The Changing Wage Return to an Undergraduate Education. IZA Discussion Paper No. 1549. http://ssrn.com/abstract=702781
10 Credit Action (2006). Debt statistics. www.creditaction.org.uk/debtstats.htm
11 Cable, V. (2006). Press release, 23 July; www.libdems.org.uk/news/young-peoples-debt-spiralling-out-of-control-cable.html
12 The Pensions Commission (2005). Second report. www.pensionscommission.org.uk
13 Purnell, J. (2006). Speech, 12 July; www.dwp.gov.uk/aboutus/2006/12-07-06.asp
14 UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (2001). Literature review of the implications of climate change for species, habitats and the wider UK countryside. www.defra.gov.uk/wildlife-countryside/ewd/rrrpac/lreview/06.htm
15 The Sutton Trust (2006). The Educational Background of Leading Journalists. www.suttontrust.com/reports/Journalists-backgrounds-final-report.pdf
16 Help the Aged (2006). www.helptheaged.org.uk/en-gb/Campaigns/PensionsAndBenefits/CouncilTax/
17 McLean, I. (2006). www.libdemsalter.org.uk/archives/000078.php
18 Liberal Democrats (2006). Fairer, Simpler, Greener. Policy paper 75. www.libdems.org.uk/media/documents/policies/PP75%20Fairer%20Simpler%20Greener.pdf
19 Wikipedia (2006). The Government Pension Fund of Norway. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Government_Pension_Fund_of_Norway
20 Wikipedia (2006). Alaska Permanent Fund. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaska_Permanent_Fund

How Nick Clegg meets his own standards

Okay, I admit it. If I hadn’t been hungover yesterday morning I probably would have resisted the temptation to use the word “meltdown” in my blog about Team Clegg yesterday. A wobble it certainly was however, and while I of course accept Richard Allan’s apology, he still has not explained where the email addresses they were using had come from. One suggestion has been that it was Ming Campbell’s supporter list (something which I was signed up to as I was certainly an ABH voter).

The fact that I claim to be undecided in this election despite the fact that I express warmth to Chris Huhne’s campaign and am rather more critical of Nick Clegg seems to cause some people a lot of confusion, so let me be more explicit: my default position is that unless Nick Clegg badly alienates me, or Chris Huhne does something bloody spectacular, my vote will be going to the former not the latter.

Chris Huhne was the right candidate in 2006 and everything that has happened since has vindicated that fact. We wouldn’t be where we are now if he had been elected. But Nick Clegg is not Ming Campbell. That Clegg is the better communicator is clear. One person who was at the South Central conference last Saturday put it to me yesterday thus: both candidates spoke with passion about social justice but while Huhne barraged the audience with statistics, Clegg talked about a woman on a housing estate in his constituency. The best part of Ming Campbell’s speech at party conference – the part that signified that he finally got it – was when he talked about the people he had met since becoming leader, and their experiences.

Chris Huhne ought to set himself a challenge: when he next does a keynote speech he should make it a statistics-free zone. Clegg’s speech this week certainly was.

Saying all that however doesn’t make me an uncritical flag-waver of Nick Clegg by default, a fact which appears to cause a number of readers of this blog great difficulty. Where did all this bullshit about undeclared bloggers having to be impartial come from? What’s wrong with being inclined to vote Clegg but having a sense of loyalty to Huhne? And what’s wrong with pointing out that the Golden Child has feet of clay?

For feet of clay he certainly has. His campaign launch last week didn’t merely not impress me, it pissed me off because I felt he was insulting the intelligence of a very significant section of the party. Extolling the party to move out of its ‘comfort zone’ does not ring true coming from a candidate who, two years ago, was telling us to do the opposite. It was simply not true to claim that the party has been locked up in “internal self-analysis.” And claiming to be anti-establishment whilst having the clear backing of most of both the party and media establishment was simply bizarre. He should hire Antony Hook as his personal BS-detector.

But let’s take the two key ideas that came out of his Sheffield speech – the need for the party to move out of its comfort zone and the need for us to extend our supporter base – and apply it to his speech this week at the National Liberal Club. The latter speech has five main themes – empowering individuals, extending opportunity, balancing security and liberty, protecting the environment, engaging with the world – and I’ll take each one in turn, giving each a rating out of five for comfort (5 – the Liberal Democrat equivalent of a plush sofa in front of a roaring fire), reaching out (5 – the political equivalent of Mr Tickle) and my personal opinion. Generally speaking, a low comfort rating and a high reaching out rating suggests that the substance broadly matches the rhetoric:

Empowering Individuals

First of all, “empowering individuals” is horrid language. Of course, Huhne has already bagged “people in charge” so maybe he was stuck with how to put it. And to be fair, he recovers well with this important distinction:

“Our objective isn’t simply to bring power closer to people. It is to give power to people.”

I’m also not sure about this stuff about favouring communities over bureaucracies. Of course the former is always preferable over the latter, but they are hardly opposites and communities can be pretty oppressive things. One of the key features of “proper” community politics as opposed to communitarianism is that the latter lionises community while the former critiques it. Indeed, at worst, communities can be pretty bureaucratic themselves: there is an order of things, and woe betide anyone who does not go along with that. My parents’ experience of joining a village community 7 years ago would confirm that.

Much of the rest of this section is firmly in the comfort zone: change the electoral system and localism. No great surprises there. The key paragraph in this section is here:

“We need to set some ground rules here: our universal public services must be free to use and accessible to all. But beyond that, I want us to think afresh about how they should be funded and delivered.”

It is a shame he does not expand on this. How does this differ from, say, the Huhne Commission on Public Services which the party adopted four years ago? Does he side with Steve Webb or David Laws (Chris Huhne’s own position on this is spelt out here)? This is a crucial area we need to hear much more detail from him on.

Comfort rating: most of it is pretty safe ground and even the rhetoric about public services is pretty similar to what Kennedy was saying five years ago. 4/5

Reaching out rating: talked about PR without mentioning PR, which is good politics. But mostly this is well trod territory for the Lib Dems. 2/5

Personal rating: nothing new, but little I object to. 4/5

Extending Opportunity

This section, to me, is particularly confused. First of all, it’s a red rag to a bull, I’m afraid, to call for the Lib Dems to work ceaselessly for a meritocratic society, for reasons that I’ve already outlined on this blog. Saying you believe in a society where everyone gets their just deserts is another way of saying that some people ‘deserve’ to be poor. You can comfort yourself that you strive for equality of opportunity, but ultimately it is social Darwinism by any other name.

Much of this section is taken up discussing the pupil premium policy, which is already party policy and wholly uncontroversial within it.

On benefits, Clegg seems to be, well, confused. In particular, I simply don’t understand this bit:

“Tony Blair famously promised ‘a hand up, not a hand out’, but Gordon Brown’s obsession with means tested benefits has had precisely the opposite effect.

“The Liberal Democrats will deliver where this government has failed. We must take people on higher earnings off means tested benefits and use the money to help the poorest pupils in our school system.”

What he’s actually calling for here is more means testing, not less, but he presents it as if he opposes means testing. Again, what it boils down to is a restating of party policy, shortening the taper of tax credits. But then our policy isn’t quite as simple as that as we are also in favour of raising child benefit, which higher earners would also be entitled to.

This bit is also confused:

A higher basic pension, linked to earnings, will get our pensioners out of poverty and off welfare for good.

Well, I suppose. If you don’t regard the basic state pension as welfare – a position which is pretty unsustainable since the link between NI and pensions became so eroded. And again, there’s nothing new here.

We have, to be fair here, a slightly confusing policy (not a criticism, just a statement of fact), but Clegg’s role here is to provide clarity not obfuscation.

But in a section on social mobility, it is striking what Clegg does not mention here: housing. How can you do a speech about social mobility and not reflect on housing? This is an issue that effects hundreds of thousands of people across the country and is shooting up the political agenda. We can’t afford to be silent on it. What is his position on the number of houses we need to build nationwide for instance? What does he have to say about council housing?

Linked to that is another of my pet issues: intergenerational equity. Linked inextricably with social mobility, what does Clegg have to say about the fact that wealth is increasingly being locked up within families, causing wider mobility problems and causing the burden of taxation to lie unfairly on incomes?

Neither housing nor intergenerational equity are obscure issues. Read any national newspaper and you’ll see these cropping up again and again. There are votes in these areas for a party leader looking to reach out beyond the Lib Dems’ normal supporter base.

Comfort rating: there doesn’t seem to be anything here that the party didn’t back overwhelmingly at conference last month. 5/5

Reaching out rating: education and pensions are hardly new territory for us. 2/5

Personal rating: no mention of housing or intergenerational equity is a major disappointment for me, and much of the rhetoric seems confused. 1/5

Balancing Security and Liberty

First of all, since when did Liberal Democrats talk about “balancing security and liberty”? Indeed, I challenge any liberal to demur with this statement from our recent governance policy paper (pdf):

“Security can only be genuinely realised if liberty, justice and human rights are upheld as the cornerstone of our democratic system, to be enjoyed by all on an equal basis. Liberal Democrats believe that ceding liberty to attain security jeopardises both.”

With that said, this lazy formula is not returned to in the body of the speech itself. Indeed, not surprisingly for our Shadow Home Secretary, this section is one of the strongest parts and I think he gets the balance right.

What I’m less convinced by however is that there is anything here that Simon Hughes or Mark Oaten weren’t saying before him. One of Clegg’s selling points is that he isn’t afraid to talk about crime but I’m simply not convinced that he’s bringing anything particularly new to the table.

What he is probably better at doing is articulating our policies. Credit to him is due for ditching Oaten’s stance about “tough liberalism”. But again, is this reaching out to people and knocking the party out of its comfort zone? Oaten at least could be credited with attempting to do that with his rhetoric; the problem was his rhetoric was utter balls.

Comfort rating: nothing new here, and a comfortingly liberal approach. 4/5

Reaching out rating: I know how the media works and that simply by saying that the Liberal Democrats must not be afraid to talk about crime makes it sound like he’s being much more radical than he is. 3/5

Personal rating: I can’t fault the rhetoric, but the slogan about balancing security and liberty has got to go the same way as Tony Blair who loved it so much. 4/5

Protecting the Environment

This is turf that Huhne has made his own, so it is interesting to see how Clegg’s position contrasts. What he does not do is make the case for climate change – that battle has already been won. What he does instead is discuss how we can win people over to make personal sacrifices for environmental gains. I have to give credit where it is due: this is an important topic to highlight and a good tactical stance to try and put some water between the two candidates.

Once again: notice the complete absence of statistics in this section, even in a section on climate change of all topics. His broad theme, that government must practice what it preaches, reminds me of the running battles that Donnachadh McCarthy used to have with the Ashdown and Kennedy regimes to persuade them of the same thing. How far we’ve come.

But for all that, once again, I’m also very conscious that there is almost nothing here that is new. It is also unclear where he ultimately stands on the party’s green tax switch policy – the line about people hearing only “tax” when you talk about green taxes is well made but almost suggests an antipathy to this approach. There is almost nothing in this section that David Cameron wouldn’t be comfortable about saying, with the obvious exception of the last two paragraphs of course.

Comfort rating: a gentle critique of the current party stance. 3/5

Reaching out rating: the emphasis on practicing what we preach and international efforts don’t hurt. But ultimately, talking about the environment at all will switch a lot of people off. 3/5

Personal rating: I don’t disagree with his line of argument, but wonder where it leads us. 3/5

Engaging with the world

Another strong section which I struggle to find fault with. Indeed the final three paragraphs are quite stirring stuff for any internationalist:

“But the great external threats that we face – from climate change to terrorism to cross border crime – are all linked by one fact: that power has been globalised, but our methods for controlling it have not.

“The challenge before us then is to construct a system of global governance capable of controlling global power.

“Only Liberalism, with its easy accommodation both with the market economics that drive globalisation and the internationalist politics needed to regulate it, is capable of guiding us in this process.”

But once again I return to my two tests: in what way is this breaking free of the party’s comfort zone or reaching out to new supporters? This is traditional Lib Dem policy in traditional Lib Dem territory.

Comfort rating: stirring internationalist stuff which conveniently avoids any talk of referendums. 5/5

Reaching out rating: even the populist globalisation stuff such as international development (I thought it was required by law that all senior politicians must pay homage to Make Poverty History in any speech on globalisation these days?) is barely touched on here. And what about that referendum? 1/5

Personal rating: Great stuff, but then I’m weird. 5/5

TOTAL COMFORT RATING: 21/25
TOTAL REACHING OUT RATING: 11/25
TOTAL PERSONAL RATING: 17/25

Conclusions: the rhetoric does not match the detail. There is very little that I could find in this speech that was new or challenging. This was a well articulated speech that will do little to persuade members of anything other than of Nick Clegg’s presentation skills and accord with core party values. Some of his rhetoric – about balancing security and liberty, a rose-tinted view about community and a mild scepticism about green taxes – sound conservative, but there is more than enough evidence here to suggest that Clegg is firmly liberal.

If he wants a rightwards shift in our policies on crime and public services (for example) now is the time to start talking about them and to seek a mandate for change. But he hasn’t. There is little I object to here and much that I strongly applaud. But if Clegg is going to continue to make speeches like this, he should drop the hyperbole about shaking up the party.

Gideon Osborne on followership

Which party was the first in this Parliament to call for an increase in the IHT threshold?

The Liberal Democrats

Which party was the first to call for replacing air passenger duty with a tax on planes?

The Liberal Democrats

I ask, because Gideon Osborne has today been branding the “theft” of policies as “scrabbling around in a panic,” a “cynical stunt” and “followership not leadership.” If the cap fits…

Why calling for UK population controls misses the point

Madeline Bunting purports to be thinking the unthinkable in her Guardian column this week, calling for the UK to consider population controls. Indeed, I made a similar point when reviewing the Centre for Um’s recent pamphlet on demographics. Sadly though, I must add my name to the members of the blogosphere who think she must be tad confused.

The most fundamental point which she seems to miss is that, leaving aside immigration, indigenous European population growth is rising extremely slowly. It is hard to see what sort of policy you could adopt in a liberal democracy that could slow it further still, and something tells me Ms Bunting wouldn’t approve of, say, scrapping maternity allowance (which, for the record lest there be a misunderstanding), I wouldn’t approve of either! If all you’re going to do is spend lots of money on advertising campaigns around slogans such as “Stop at Two” I suspect you’ll be on a hiding to nothing in a society where so many families now stop at one.

Secondly, adopting a zero net immigration policy – which she appears to be endorsing (while tutting the BNP for having similar policies) is going to do precisely bugger all to stop population growth. The problem is not UK population growth, or even European population growth: it’s global population growth. Even if you could stop people from coming here – illegally or otherwise – the problem is that in developing countries people are breeding at an unsustainable rate.

The solution? Well, perhaps instead of telling us how we need religious people at the centre of political discourse, Madeline should be more vocal in her criticism of the Catholic Church which actively encourages people in developing countries to have as many children as possible and even spreads lies about condom use? Getting control of family planning in developing countries would have three effects: fewer people desperate for work spilling out into other countries, national economies that are better able to manage themselves and – as a massive positive side effect – better control of the HIV-AIDS pandemic. And that’s before you even get into the wider issue of the environment and population.

If we can’t sort that out, then talk about population controls are meaningless. This is probably why, apart from the danger of sounding like a Nazi, so many are unwilling to engage in the debate. The fundamental problem is not trendy secular liberals baulking at nanny-statism but your buddy Benedict XVI (not to mention fellow theocrat George W): deal with it, Maddy.

Official response to green energy targets: lie

The Guardian’s expose of DBERR’s response to the EU’s 20% renewable energy target which Tony Blair signed us up to earlier this year is sadly reminiscent of Yes, Minister, replete with calls to reclassify solar panels in Africa and nuclear energy as counting towards our renewable target.

The worst thing about all this is that our partners on the mainland are making us look like chumps. The civil service response to every green target has always been to fudge it; now we are lagging behind to a cringe-making degree. Even if you are a climate change denier, surely decreasing the UK’s dependence on foreign oil has to be a good thing? And how can a relatively land-locked country like Germany be spanking us on windpower? Isn’t that just plain embarrassing?

To catch up, all it takes is the level of spending recommended by the Stern Review, launched with great aplomb by the then-Chancellor last autumn. Instead, we’re ploughing public investment into money pits like the M6.

The tragedy of environmental policy is that for all the rhetoric, our Government isn’t even prepared to do the basics. It then turns around, having sat on its hands, and insists that we have to stick with things like nuclear energy. Sadly, with time pressing, I fear this may be a bullet we can’t afford to dodge, but let’s be clear what this means. Never mind stuff about the safety of plants or disposal of waste, the real thing we should be worrying about is where all that uranium is going to come from if worldwide demand for it trebles (which is a conservative estimate); is switching from foreign oil dependency to foreign uranium dependency really progress? What does this mean for global security? Sadly, I’m not optimistic.

A final point: most of the level of renewable energy across the EU appears to be coming from energy from waste. Perhaps it is time that environmentalist groups who so dislike the oil, gas and nuclear options should start muting their opposition to such a rich potential source of energy?