Tag Archives: Liberal-Democrat-Policy-Consultations

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.

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.

Quality of Life (1) – Introduction

I’ve got out of the habit of blogging my responses to the Lib Dem policy consultation papers of late but the Quality of Life one caught my eye and I thought I’d have a stab at it.

My overall response is that, while I applaud the party for wanting to tackle this issue and personally consider it to be very important, the direction that the consultation paper is taking somewhat concerns me. Unlike some, I don’t think this is an area where government should not intervene, but it needs to be realistic about what it can achieve and it would be better off taking fewer, more strategic decisions than attempting to meddle with every little issue.

I’m also increasingly coming to the conclusion that equality and quality of life are flipsides of the same coin (it is no coincidence that most people who disregard the former also dismiss the latter). To tackle one is to tackle the other, and vice versa. Having entirely seperate consultations on the two areas – the equality consultation begins at the next conference – is to a certain extent redundant.

Anyway, without further ado, here is my response. I will try to contain my comments to the questions in the paper (although such questions always irritate me so I am bound to drift off topic):

1. Should government be more concerned to increase their citizens’ wellbeing than their wealth? What is the proper role of government in promoting quality of life?

The answer to the first question is most definitely yes, but few would subscribe to the notion that wealth and wellbeing are entirely unrelated. Having recently read The Spirit Level: Why More Equal Societies Almost Always Do Better by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, some of the most compelling charts they print in that book are the ones where they compare the GDP of countries with life expectency (page 7) and happiness (page 9). What these charts show are that GDP, life expectency and happiness are related up to a certain point (around $25,000 per capita) and then level off. From that point onward, equality becomes a more defining factor.

So my tentative answer to the second question is that the role of government is to foster a political economy that is both healthy and where people are relatively equal. But it is absolutely crucial that the way we achieve that equality is itself equitable.

2. Should governments concentrate on minimising misery rather than augmenting happiness? If so, do they need to do more or less?

This is a bit of a silly question. I would answer that our goal should be more about “minimising misery” than “augmenting happiness” since the latter sounds a bit too Brave New World for my taste. But I’m not entirely convinced that the government should be especially concerned with either per se.

I’ve always been wary of the term “happiness” and its utilitarian ties. I understand that a lot of people use happiness and well-being as interchangeable terms but this question somewhat suggests that the author is thinking of happiness in rather more simplistic terms.

There are a variety of things we should be seeking to maximise: liberty, self-confidence, trust in society, questioning of authority, a sense of being in control of one’s life (indeed, I don’t think you can have the former without the latter four – others disagree). These are things we should be concerning ourselves with, not gross “happiness”.

3. Are the ways our public services work detrimental to our quality of life?

In a lot of ways, yes. Far too often they undermine our need for self-control, demand unquestioning obedience and assume that society is a dark and sinister place. They need to be as transparent, accountable and democratic as possible and controlled at the lowest possible level.

4. What additional or alternative indicators should government use in place of GDP?

There are lots of different indicators we could use. The debate about alternative indicators has been going on for at least as long as I’ve been involved in politics. It hasn’t got very far, partially because I think it misses the point.

I have a far stronger indicator for the state of the economy than GDP. It’s called the Maltesers Index. I’ve noticed that over the last six months, an increasing number of shops I walk into are trying to flog me packets of sweets at discount prices. Borders appear to have forgotten that their main trade is in books. The last time I walked into a WH Smiths you could barely reach the counter for all the bargain bins of confectionary they had put in front of it. I have a fairly good understanding of the economics of why that is, but I wouldn’t want the MI to guide national policy for the simple fact that the government could massively improve their figures by banning Maltesers. This wouldn’t actually help the economy – it would make things worse. What’s more I like Maltesers.

We can find all sorts of measurements, but they will always be open to abuse because they are prone to being gamed. What’s more, they have to feel real to people. Two major quality of life indicators have dominated public policy for decades – reported crime and the British Crime Survey – yet they are rarely referred to as such. Politicians tend to emphasise whichever of the two figures that are more helpful to them (in my view the BCS is better but it isn’t without its flaws) and the result is that we tend to distrust both of them. You could say the same about unemployment figures.

The fact is, government measures lots of things. We could measure a few more things but I’m not convinced it will change much. The best indicator in my book is the record of votes cast for whom in each election. We should try having an electoral system that reflects it at some point.

5. People are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life. What role should government play here? What happens if our liberal commitments to equality and freedom of choice appear to conflict with our desire to enable to enjoy a good quality of life?

This is a question that is crying out for a “for instance”. The simple answer is “it depends.”

Yes, people are often bad predictors of what will improve their own quality of life, but governments are too. I’m not convinced that the solution is for the government to step in and meddle with every single solution. We need the government to be looking at more strategic shifts. This is why, for me, equality is such a big deal. The evidence before us suggests that by managing this shift, we could improve a whole range of social and health indicators in a way that hundreds of government programmes have been unable to match.

For the most part, the role of government should be to mitigate bad personal choices, not to prevent them. That of course brings in the question of moral hazard and there should certainly be a cost for making mistakes. But that isn’t the same thing as letting people rot.

Drugs policy is an excellent example. We know that taking drugs such as cocaine and heroin is generally not a very good idea, leading to addiction, the risk of overdose and mental health issues. Yet all attempts to restrict this choice have backfired. Yet all the experiments involving legalisation to one degree or another suggest that such an approach leads to fewer social problems and even less drug useage. Part of the lesson here is that by allowing people to make wrong choices and picking them up off the floor when they do, we enable them to make right choices in future instead of getting stuck in a cycle of desperation and criminality.

The real challenge to freedom of choice is the much cited tragedy of the commons, but I’m not convinced that simply removing choice or even costing in externalities will be the solution. Apart from anything else, such moves are not popular and the parties that propose easy solutions are the ones that tend to win at the ballot box. Mark van Vugt wrote an interesting article in New Scientist a couple of weeks ago challenging this and proposing an alternative approach, suggesting four “i”s: information, identity, institutions and incentives. Ultimately, if individual choices tend to be flawed then it is the role of the state to help inform those choices. In the longer term that will be more effective.

I enjoyed conference shocker!

People who know me may have noticed that by halfway through autumn conferences in the last few years I have become very sullen and withdrawn, wandering around the halls of the conference centre muttering darkly under my breath.

The truth is, in recent years I’ve come to loathe party conferences. They’ve increasingly become worryingly close to the Tory version for my taste, with policy “debates” reduced to Nuremberg-style rallies (the fact that the person speaking at the front usuall has the charisma of a wet fish appears to have escaped people’s notice). The policies themselves have tended to be dire: over-interventionist, full of lazy sloganeering and squarely aimed at the lowest common denominator. By the end of the conference week I had normally lost the will to live.

But not this time. In fact, I really enjoyed myself. This is probably in part due to ego, as I enjoyed the extra attention borne from writing chapters in two pamphlets (Liberalism – something to shout about edited by Graham Watson MEP/Liberator and Community Politics Today/ALDC) that were doing the rounds, writing the Taking Power local party’s guide and speaking in two fringe meetings. But it is also to do with the fact that for the first time in ages I’ve been able to detect tangible evidence of neural activity going on in the upper echelons of the party.

Ed Davey’s plans for revamping our campaigns and communications was better than I was expecting, despite having heard some very good rumours beforehand. The tax paper, while not perfect, has respectable underpinnings and is taking the party – at last – in the right direction in terms of economic policy. Notwithstanding Alex “crass, boorish and more a bruiser than blogger” Wilcock’s mean comments (some of which are very much spot on), as a first attempt at moving away from the party’s usual sloganeering, it isn’t bad. The important thing is to keep padding it out and to keep revisiting it.

In short, the party is moving in the right direction. Still plenty to be irritated about but that’s a far cry from two years ago when I very much thought we were going backwards. Even Ming’s speech outclassed anything that his predeccessor delivered in his 6 years, although he’s still got a long way to go to beat Paddy. Can I suggest borrowing the latter’s trick of using his conference piece as a think piece to challenge the party rather than slavishly following the “Labour – bad, Tories – worse, Lib Dems – yay!” formula that simply flatters the prejudices of its audience?

The only real cloud on the horizon for me was the party’s strategy to involve more women and people from under-represented groups. Apart from Simon’s dreadful diversity motion, which I was the speaker to oppose (although I understand that one of the other speakers got a speech on the basis that they said they would speak against and then didn’t – some very dirty tricks there as it unbalanced the debate), the announcement of a £200,000 “leaders fund” was worse than I was expecting.

Let me be clear about something. This £200,000 is for supporting candidates who have already been selected. Not a penny of it will go on outreach work to attract new people. Not a penny of it will go on training people interested in becoming candidates. Not a penny of it will go on mentoring, coaching or support. Somehow, individuals at the top of the party have convinced themselves that the main problem the party faces is giving selected candidates in target seats sufficient support. It is the single most arse-backwards policy I have ever come across and the party will – I promise you – pay the price.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the existence of this fund won’t help to convince people that if they get selected they will get sufficient support, or that that support isn’t needed. But in order for us to truly ensure that our candidates better reflect Britain we have to go out there and find hundreds of new people who up until now have not been putting themselves forward. And that costs money.

So be it. All in all, I’ve come away from the conference feeling enthused and inspired, to the point that in the areas where I’m less happy, I can at least see there is a point in spending time doing something about it.

Willy waving over 50p

It looks like we are set for a “war” in the autumn over the Lib Dem Tax Commission’s proposals to drop the party’s commitment to a 50p supertax. The Federal Policy Committee are insisting that removing it should only be an “option” for the party to vote on, while Ming is staking his leadership on getting the policy scrapped – a risky move given the mindset of some Lib Dems to embarrass the leadership whenever possible.

This whole thing does seem completely unneccesary. The motion could be amended if there is a strong movement to keep the policy – the FPC doesn’t have to keep it in as an option. By the same token, Ming’s intervention means that the debate will no longer be about the issue, but about his leadership. This is not a way to make good policy.

I’m reminded of the debate a few years ago over the party’s Public Services policy paper. The Party’s front bench and campaigns department lined themselves up behind a policy to scrap National Insurance and replace it with a hypothecated health tax (which “by coincidence” would raise roughly the same amount of money as the amount we were spending annually on health at the time). Lots of senior figures in the party lined up to stake their reputations on the policy, leaving just a few of us to vote against it. In the event, once calmer heads had prevailed, the party establishment came to the same conclusion as the rest of us – it was a bloody stupid policy that didn’t really solve anything – and it was quietly dropped.

I can’t help but think the FPC are picking the wrong fight over the Tax Commission. As I’ve written previously, the real problem in their proposals (at least as far as the reports about it – including Ming’s own speech last month – are concerned) are that they have a massive property tax-shaped hole in them. That means we are set to go into the next general election with two of our flagship policies being to drop the basic rate of income tax by 2p in the pound AND to introduce a local income tax of roughly 3.5p in the pound.

As far as anyone’s wallet is concerned that is an income tax increase of 1.5p. It is a virtual invitation for the other parties to tear into us for being confused and misleading. I suspect that after the current round of debate has been resolved, calmer heads will again prevail and we will quietly modify this policy. But all that means is that the debate we have this autumn will be completely meaningless.

If the FPC were doing their job, they would be throwing this back in the Tax Commission’s faces. Instead they’re playing chicken with supertax. Pardon me if I don’t sound impressed.

Taxation Okey-Kokey

The Observer has been given a sneaky-peak of the Lib Dem’s Taxation Commission’s current thinking and it sounds good. 2p off the basic rate of income tax, paid for by increases in environmental taxation and “tougher tax rules for the wealthy”.

By the latter, I’m taking it to mean, at least in part, to some kind of “progressive property tax,” although Vince Cable’s quotation about share income being taxed at a lower rater than general income suggests reform of capital gains. Nonetheless, I welcome it: the Lib Dems absolutely should be the party of low income tax. These reforms suggest a “direction of travel” that I’m very comfortable with.

But there is a cloud on the horizon however. Read carefully, and it is clear that we are just talking about national income tax here. Existing Lib Dem policy is to replace Council Tax with a local income tax of, on average, 3.5p in the pound. If this policy isn’t significantly changed by the Tax Commission, we would have to go into the general election with the highly confusing policy of saying that, nationally, we want to cut income tax while locally we want to pile it on. In net terms, every taxpayer would end up paying 1.5p more in income tax.

Kiss goodbye to any electoral benefit we might expect from the tax shift, in other words: our message to the electorate would be horribly confused. We wait and see what the Tax Commission come up with, but there seem to be two solutions. The first one is to replace Council Tax with something else, maybe a genuine tax on property that is continually revalued (every 1-2 years for instance, like everywhere else: Council Tax is mostly based on 1991 values and thus has little to do with actual values) and taxes high value property at the same rate as low value property. The Band system of council tax leads to effectively a subsidy on the rich that the middle classes have to pay. Better yet, base it solely on site values and leave the capital entirely out of the equation. The second solution would simply be for our policy to not have a policy: local authorities should be free to raise their taxation however they pleased. Of course, that would be pretty meaningless as a policy if 75% of local government expenditure continued to come from national government: a shift to 50% or even 25% would, at a stroke, give local authorities far more clout, and enable us to drop the basic rate of income tax even more.

The problem is, a lot of senior Lib Dem spokespeople have gone on record to say that our local income tax policy is here to say. It seems to me though that we’ve reached a crunch point: either we think income tax is a good tax that we want to shift the burden onto, or a bad tax that we want to shift the burden away from. There is no middle way or third position. That is the decision the Lib Dems, collectively, have to make over the next 3 months. Fudge this, and all our critics will be vindicated.

Policy making as if it mattered

We’re all modernisers now, then. Personally, I detest the word. I don’t want to come over all Hoggartesque, but would anyone in politics ever claim to be an antiquator? It is a banal label that is used to present yourself as dynamic and forward looking, regardless of what you’re actually proposal.

The problem is, a lot of “modernisers” seem to be stuck in a very antiquated vision of party politics. I’m not making cheap jibes about “modernisers” wanting to emulate Gladstone, my concern here is the disdain a lot of self-appointed “modernisers” have for observing a formal policy development process, and a preference for a model whereby MPs essentially dominated political parties and members were merely keen supporters.

Over the past year, we’ve been moving increasingly towards a system of policy making by spokesperson diktat. We had it with David Laws’ pensions review in November. Increasingly we’re seeing major policy announcements being made in press releases without recourse to the party’s policy committee. It remains to be seen to what degree the new management will encourage or discourage it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m no fan of the status quo. Over the past few years I have become less and less tolerant of policy making by conference resolution. There are three reasons for this: firstly, conference doesn’t adequately represent the whole membership and is under no pressure to do so. Secondly, it is uneccesarily divisive. Thirdly, it doesn’t change hearts and minds – it has the effect of entrenching opinion. You can win all the conference debates in the world and still never get anywhere. Trust me: when I worked for LDYS I had a proud record of never losing a single conference debate, yet the party’s 2001 manifesto had virtually none of the education policy we spent so long getting passed at conference in 1999.

However, it would be a mistake to replace it with a Tory-style system of whatever the leader says. I get the impression that some people in the Lib Dems, mainly Tory defectors, go all a-quiver at the prospect of being told what to think by a bunch of MPs. Yet it needs to be remembered that it hasn’t done the Tories many favours in the past. Labour, which has a formally very inclusive process which is generally ignored by its leadership, is now facing itself in a crisis with only activism decreasing at a faster rate than membership. What we should be moving towards is a policy development system that is more deliberative, more inclusive and is hardwired into the party’s communications strategy. It’s a tough challenge, but it can be met.

Meeting the Challenge has been a small baby step in that direction, but while some senior party officers appear to think it is a radical shift, we need to recognise that it doesn’t nearly go far enough. We need to do much more than simply produce a pack for local parties on holding a consultation meeting to adapt as they wish, and instead provide some leadership. We need a much easier “in” on the website than a series of long essays that will simply put the majority of people off, and provide a forum for people to discuss simple issues. We need to be using the process to at all times sell the party itself, our values and the fact that membership buys you a stake in the party. In short, we need to borrow shamelessly from Labour’s Big Conversation, only without the stage management and spin.

And yes, to pick up on an earlier debate, we do need to include qualititive and quantitive opinion polling in the policy development stage. The alternative – and the current situation – is far worse. If this sort of analysis is left until the end, we get what we had in 2005: a series of policy bites that don’t string togethert which happened to be the most popular in an opinion poll. Instead of settling for the fact that very few people are interested in constitutional reform, for instance, we should be exploring how it can be made more of a popular issue. Polling makes a poor master, but it can be a useful servent.

Let’s have a situation whereby the final “white papers” at the end of a consultation process don’t simply make policy pronouncements but are required to summarise the responses received and any polling data commissioned. Let’s have formal submissions posted on the party’s website for people to read. After all, we believe in openness and transparency don’t we? Let’s encourage people to both take part in the debate and have an informed opinion, rather than accept whatever the final report tells them.

Let’s have less policy at conference – after nearly 20 years, one thing the party doesn’t lack is policy. Move the consultation sessions from the graveyard slots and into the heart of conference. Allow for regular, “open mike” sessions on general themes such as education and crime which don’t make specific policy but the minutes of which will be formally tabled at a subsequent policy committee for consideration. If we have less space for policy, let’s have some kind of prioritisation. If you ask me, yes, we should replace the current “18” registration for films to be replaced by a “16” rating, but I don’t consider it to be a priority for a Lib Dem government. Ditto abolishing the monarchy. Ditto boycotting Nestle (mea culpa).

In short, we should have less policy, and do it better. There remains the issue of “interim policy” where a spokesperson has to come up with a response to a topical issue which the formal processes are simply too slow to handle. We need to see the parliamentary party to stop seeing the Policy Committee as an obstacle and instead work with it. Generally speaking, the spokespeople who do tend to get their way in any case, while the ones that don’t cause unneccesary irritation.

One change I think the party needs to consider is whether it was wise to prevent MPs from being able to stand for direct election onto federal committees. The thinking behind this in 1998 was that the parliamentary party was a small, fairly homogenous group, which managed to dominate federal committees disproportionately. Yet, the parliamentary party is no longer small, and is subsequently far less homogenous. This ban has institutionalised a “them vs us” culture which I don’t think is helpful. It is time we went back to the old model.

Having read Ming’s manifesto, I expect to see some significant changes over the next few months. I agree with the analysis that “activists” currently have too much say in the process, but it would be a gross mistake to conclude that we subsequently need to shift everything to the MP’s favour. Rather, we need a new contract that gives MPs, activists and other members a stake and ensures that when a decision is made, it is meaningful and consensual wherever possible.

Duncan Brack on Equality

I’m surprised this article on Equality by Vice Chair of the Meeting the Challenge working group Duncan Brack hasn’t provoked any discernable debate so far. No doubt everyone has had other distractions this week. I certainly don’t have time to deal with it in depth right now.

It is laying down the gauntlet to quite a serious ideological debate however. Brack’s argument is that inequality lies at the heart of the problems we face with health, quality of life and crime issues, while other commentators such as Andy Mayer are quite contemptuous of such notions.

I’m not saying I agree with every word that Brack has written – I certainly don’t share his warm feelings towards the egalitarianism of income tax – but I do think it is a serious challenge to the classical liberals within the party that they need to answer.

Renewing Liberal Britain

A couple of weeks ago I critiqued Jeremy Hargreaves’ take on what the Lib Dems’ narrative should be. But it isn’t good enough simply to criticise; far too few people are taking part in this crucial debate and so I thought it was time to try and work out some tentative ideas of my own.

So, here goes. My proposed narrative would be “Renewing Liberal Britain.” To use the archetypes spelled out in Neil Stockley’s article, this would seek to combine the “Great Island Nation” with the “Enemy Within”. The premise is that most of what makes Britain great can be summed up as liberal values: tolerance, democracy, liberty, questioning authority, sang froid (if you’ll pardon my French), entrepreneurship, concern for the individual and the underdog and an instinctive dislike of the mob. Those values are embraced by politicians from other parties who seek power (Blair, Cameron…) and dumped, just as quickly, by the same people, once they get in power.

In short, I’m proposing embrace and develop a liberal form of patriotism, one which doesn’t wrap itself in the Union Jack in the way that Gordon Brown has been doing of late. A deliberate, unapologetic and calculated exposition of how what one might call “drawbridge down” values aren’t simply more rational, but go to the heart of the British identity.

These values are under threat like never before. New Labour, having successfully co-opted them in 1997 with their themes of “Cool Britannia” and “things can only get better” have done more to undermine them than anyone else. David Cameron is now adopting the same 1997 approach, despite the fact that his party has always been the historical opponents of liberal Britain. Why should we believe that the self-appointed heir to Blair would behave any differently to Blair if he ever gained power? The Liberal Democrats, by contrast, are liberal Britain’s traditional champions.

Where does that leave the individual? The individual is at the heart of British identity. As Adam Smith liked to say, we are a nation of shopkeepers. The fight for individual rights and human dignity is the story behind the Magna Carta, the Civil War, the Bill of Rights, the Free Trade Movement and the creation of the Welfare State. But we’ve drifted. Britain has reached a point where there needs to be a new constitutional settlement. To be frank, Parliamentary Sovereignty has let us down and we need something a little more substantial to guarantee our rights and freedoms.

Anyway, it isn’t there yet and I clearly need to develop things further, but what do you think? Comments in the usual place, please.

Lloyd George would approve

Far be it for me to get a reputation as a nay-sayer all the time. I have just read the three leadership contender’s positions on land value taxation (courtesy of ALTER) and pronounce myself Well Pleased.

There are subtle differences. I’m not entirely sure about Ming/Cable’s line that LVT should be set nationally rather than locally so as to not be seen to be doing a u-turn on LIT. We are already committed to SVR at a local level to replace business rates, and thus it would be a very minor tweak to extend it to households too. On the other hand, I entirely welcome the fact that they are considering national LVT, so perhaps I shouldn’t complain. If anything, Chris Huhne’s line is actually the weakest of the three (although none of the candidates are unequivocally in support).

There are two points to take from this: firstly, none of the candidates need ALTER’s few votes to get them elected, so one can only conclude that this consensus suggests a genuine change of opinion within the Parliamentary Party over the past few years. The headbangers who insisted we drop all property taxation and adopt the taxation policies of a Socialist Utopia are in decline. Secondly, with all of the candidates in agreement, there should be a real pressure on the tax commission to subsequently act on it.

As the opposite is always assume I will again make myself clear: I am not opposed to LIT per se, indeed I very much endorse Chris Huhne’s tax commission proposals to substantially devolve income tax to a local level (doubling or even trebling our current commitment of 3.5p in the pound to be raised locally). I happen to think that taxing land at the same time should be seen as a complementary policy.

The Lib Dems need to be aware that there is significant movement within the Labour Party on this. The latest edition of Renewal includes an article on LVT, the IPPR have just published a collection of essays and Iain McLean has written a piece for Compass on the subject (word). The New Statesman is a supporter (or at least, it was under Peter Wilby), along with respected figures such as the FT’s Martin Wolfe and Samuel Brittain.

True, so far the best they’ve come up with is the Barking Planning Gain Supplement, but I strongly suspect that Brown is listening to the debate and taking notes. When he finally does come up with some kind of plan, wouldn’t it be better to already be there in front of him?