Tag Archives: Liberal-Democrat-Policy-Consultations

I bet you think this blog is about you

Deputy Chair of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee Jeremy Hargreaves has made this contribution to the Meeting the Challenge website. Here, he outlines his proposed “narrative”:

It’s About You: putting you in control of your own life (and actively equipping you to be so), and making our shared institutions accountable to you.

I think he’s halfway there, which is a slightly nicer way of putting “he’s very, very wrong.” It isn’t that I’m opposed to a people centred politics, I just think that put like that it sounds very harsh, very consumerist and, frankly, very much like the Pre-Cameron Conservatives.

The most crucial criticism of this is that it isn’t all about you. It’s about your friends, your family, your community/ies. It’s about everyone you’ve ever cared for. It’s about your unborn children and grandchildren, nephews and neices. It’s about that poor starving African you’ve never met who you thought buying a wristband would help.

The point is, humans are by their very nature social creatures. If you want to be me going all Darwinian, there may be a bit of enlightened self-interest at play here, but what it basically boils down to is that no person is an island, and we should be wary of sounding as if we think that.

That isn’t to say the individual isn’t important. Of course we want to empower the individual. But that is because we have an optimistic view of human nature. Liberals believe that if you give people the means, broadly speaking they will be good citizens. Socialists believe it has to be done for them collectively while Conservatives don’t believe in good citizens in the first place. If liberalism didn’t contain within it that fundamental belief in human nature, it would be a dead philosophy.

In short, we should be individualist. But we should be championing an individualism that leads to strong communities and a more global conscience, not an individualism for its own sake.

I think it is important to reflect on Neil Stockley’s narrative archetypes:

  • The Politics of Hope
  • The Aspiring Individual
  • The Politics of Fear
  • The Enemy Within

Clearly, Jeremy has placed his flag squarely on “The Aspiring Individual” one. But that only tells us half the story. As Neil points out, Thatcher was keen on this, but she was also playing “The Enemy Within” card.

Ironically, I think we should consider doing the same. I hasten to add however that our “enemy” is very different from Thatcher’s! The “rot” we want to stop is mindless bureaucracy, centralisation, an anti-democratic culture (much of which the legacy of Thatcher herself of course). The reason we want to stop this rot is that it is destroying our ability to make meaningful choices about our own quality of life. Fundamentally, it is destroying our ability to care, leading to a rise in anti-social behaviour, lack of democratic participation and general engagement with society. It isn’t just about the right to choose school X or hospital Y, which is how the “choice agenda” is generally framed.

I’m not there myself yet: I still haven’t worked out how to distill this down to a few phrases. But we can’t afford to go into the general election sounding like rampant individualists. To quote a certain Mr Cameron: “we’re all in this together”.

Feedback please!

I’ve been in blogging overdrive recently (a phenomenon known as procrastination I believe), but I do have a number of articles up here that I’m genuinely interesting in hearing people’s feedback on, but that readers may have missed:

Missives gratefully received!

The tax shift

Despite being the late entrant, Chris Huhne has already been more successful than any other candidate in this race in terms of shifting the debate onto both policy in general and his agenda in particular. As has been mentioned elsewhere, he was the only one on Saturday who made a point of talking about the need for the party to improve its Parliamentary Gender Balance; now they’re all talking about it.

He has also brought with him not just environmental rhetoric but environmental policies. Ming announced his top three priorities on Friday as being “the environment, the environment and the environment” yet thus far has been rather sketchy on details. Chris on the other hand has been quite clear: he wants to see a radical tax shift off income and onto resource taxation.

The party has been paying lip service to this idea since at least 1998 and Paddy Ashown’s post-97 policy review yet has always been forced into the background as the front bench has competed with itself in what clever income tax policies it can come up with next. So we had the penny-in-the-pound. So we have local income tax and the 50p rate. Over the past few years I have grown increasingly desperate over this, unable to see how it makes any economic sense whatsoever. Finally, someone is prepared to use his time in the media spotlight to put a contrary view and I am delighted.

Not so some of my fellow bloggers. Militant Ken feels that we shouldn’t be calling for a tax shift at all, but instead should plough the money we raise into environmental schemes. Missionary Iain on the other hand feels that Huhne is being, to use a Sir Humphreyism, “courageous”. I’m delighted we are finally having this debate, and respectfully disagree.

With regard to Ken’s argument I will simply say this: no-one is saying we shouldn’t invest in environmental schemes. But what we are saying is that the overall level of tax should not be raised. To go into the next election saying otherwise would truly be suicide, especially since we would be raising revenue through what are often caricatured as “stealth taxes”. But fundamentally, what this policy is saying is that individuals should be entitled to keep more of a proportion of their income. In return, when they use a service, they should have to pay more in terms of its environmental externalities.

In a lot of cases it isn’t a matter of taking the car or taking the bus; it is a case of using the car less. Reduction should be our priority, not encouraging greener alternatives to current levels of consumption.

There’s also only so much we can do with subsidies. The rail industry receives more state aid than it ever did before privatisation, yet every time that money is increased, costs simply go up and we are back where we started. That is the perversity of using public money to shore up unpopular services.

Surely, and I’m not suggesting there isn’t a balance to be struck, but it would be better for people to use their own money to choose whatever service suits them, even if it costs a bit more, than for the state to choose what service is best for them and then subsidise it (God I sound very Reform there – I should add that I’m talking about things like transport here not health!)?

Iain worries, if I may paraphrase, if this isn’t too much too fast. Where I would concur is that we would have to come up with some kind of safety net – some way of ensuring that the poorest in society can still adequately pay for heat and light. Beyond that though, I think it is a strong message. Raising personal allowance in the way Huhne suggests would lead to a big net increase for most wage-earners and I think they would respond well to the idea of being able to take more personal responsibility over both their own lives and their own environment.

The messages will be absolutely vital here, but I think we are helped by Cameron wanting to shift onto this ground. My suspicion is that Dave will want to essentially adopt the line being taken by Mark Oaten this evening – that rather than talking about the environment in terms of taking a bit of pain now in order to avoid bigger problems down the line, all we have to talk about is simple pain-free solutions such as money off council tax for recycling and pretending that bio-ethanol will allow us to carry on as before. It will certainly have its detractors and I don’t see the Truckers Lobby liking it very much, but it will look more credible and make us look like we are prepared to be more honest about what needs to be done. Lembit’s analysis on Meeting the Challenge that we should be more willing to take risks suggests to me that he is backing the wrong candidate here.

But we won’t get anywhere unless we are willing to champion it as one of our Big Ideas. That means doing everything we did a couple of years ago – and more – with local income tax. It won’t be an easy sell, but I really believe that if we sell it with conviction we can significantly shift the debate onto our ground over the next couple of years.

This is exactly the sort of thing I want this party of ours to be doing and I’m delighted to be supporting a candidate who wants to lead in this direction as well.

Telling stories

I’ve more or less given up on my attempt to blog the Meeting the Challenge paper – I found it too rigid a structure around which to frame my thoughts. But I did get stirred up by the plenary session at yesterday’s conference about narrative (more about which you can read here).

In short, I found this session a frustrating waste of time. A lot of the contributions were of value, but the discussion, as set out by Lord Rennard in the first five minutes, about about the party’s core messages which are not, as I understand it, the same thing as a narrative. Unfortunately there was no-one on the panel to give a countervailing view.

To be fair, I think the narrative idea causes a lot of confusion and I’m not sure I understand it myself 100%. But one thing I am clear about: there is no such thing as having “no narrative”. It is not an optional bolt-on to make you more electable. If as a party you choose not to think about crafting your narrative your opponents and the media will craft it for you.

For all our talk about being the “real alternative” in the last election (a slogan), our actual narrative in 2005 was this (or an approximation of it):

The Lib Dems are set to make gains in this election, largely due to Labour’s unpopularity because of the Iraq War and tuition fees. They hope to “decapitate” the Conservative Party by using tactical voting to get the desirable scalps of senior Tory politicians. They are the most high tax of the main parties, and will introduce a 50p income tax rate on incomes over £100,000. They oppose council tax and want to replace it with local form of income tax, which is criticised by their opponents for hurting middle income families.

Their leader is a nice man, a “fully paid up member of the human race”. But there are concerns that he is not up for the job. His wife is about to have a baby.

You might want to argue about the specifics of this, but my point is this: our narrative was a mixture of our message, our opponent’s message about us and media speculation. Talk of “decapitation”, “high taxes” and Charles’ personal problems were rather unhelpful for us, at least as far as some groups were concerned. Other bits were useful.

My very important point is this: we do not own our narrative, all we can do is influence it. Wanting to narrow the debate down to what our messages should be is to miss the point. And if we are on the subject of narratives, we should also be talking about ways we might want to shape our opponent’s narratives.

Secondly, to a certain extent now is the worst possible time to be talking about narrative as a large chunk of it will be crafted by the leadership campaign. The story of our leader will be part of the story of the party, and whatever else we want to say must be shaped with that in mind.

Ming’s story for example is that of the elder statesman. This is both a positive and negative thing. Andrew Rawnsley today veers towards the positive, and ekes out the other important point about Ming: he has a humble background and has pulled himself up with his bootstraps. There is a lot there that looks like a good antidote to the Cameron effect. But there is also the question of his age – already a major theme in his current media profile – which could seriously undermine him.

Simon’s story is that of an energetic inner city politician, a religious man with a social conscience, but with a reputation for chaos and for being a little dated. To me, there is very little in that that works in opposition to Cameron. He lacks the statesmanlike qualities of Ming and perversely, despite being 10 year’s Campbell’s junior, comes across as rather more old fashioned. On that basis, I think he would be a poor choice, but that isn’t to say we can’t find ways of countering if minus points in other ways. We do however, need to be thinking about it.

Leaving aside my personal opposition to him, Mark’s narrative is that of the professional marketing man with a photogenic family who wants to drive the party forward into the 21st century. And he is the loyalty candidate who stood behind Charles while others plotted against him. However, as far as the media is concerned he is a bit of an unknown quantity, and that perception shows signs of changing. His launch has been less than slick, contradicting his professional reputation. And his claims to be the loyalty candidate look less and less credible as it emerges that he cannot rely on more than a couple of MPs willing to actually support him and tempers calm as the party slowly begins to adjust to the post-Kennedy era. Indeed, I would say that of the four candidates, he is the one who most lacks a narrative, and that is undermining him quite severely.

Chris’ narrative by contrast is currently shaped not by reputation but a lack of it. Thus far it has been summed up in three words “dark green horse“. In many respects this very much works to his advantage because it means that his narrative will be shaped by the election itself. He has already been very successful at making the green agenda his own and has intellectual respectability. If he can demonstrate his political skills over the next few weeks, then he will have real momentum. While Campbell is the perfect “anti-Cameron”, Huhne is the perfect “conviction Cameron” – someone with a similar agenda to Cameron but with a track record that suggests he actually means it. That is a very tempting prospect and one reason why I am supporting (the other being that I happen to like what he’s actually saying!).

The point of this article is to make one very simple point: talking about narrative as if we have a blank slate to start and are in isolation to everything else with is futile. Our first step must be to identify, as clearly and honestly as possible, what the various narratives (our party, our opponents, the state of the nation) actually are, and then look at how we would want to change them. Our tools most certainly are our policies, our slogans and our messages, but this shouldn’t be our starting point.

Generational Theft?

I spoke at a breakout session at yesterday’s Meeting the Challenge conference called “Generational Theft?” and organised by Liberator (or more precisely Simon Titley). I thought I’d put my own thoughts on how the debate went here, if for nothing else than to help Simon with his official report.

The other speakers were Ed Vickers and Simon Bryceson. Given that they clearly knew far more about what they were talking about than me, I was flattered to have been asked to be on the platform, but I like to think I may have made some contribution in terms of bringing the discussion onto campaign strategy and policy ideas. And since I don’t know the names of all the contributors, and they might object to me quoting them here in what was a frank discussion, I shall adopt Chatham House rules. Continue reading Generational Theft?

Back to business

The holiday season, followed by the events of the last few days, has meant that I haven’t blogged about my regular preoccupations for quite a while now.

Happily however, there is news. ALTER has just published Prof Iain McLean’s submission to the Lib Dem Tax Commission on their website, while the Centre for Um have launched a new section on their Free Think website dedicated to land value taxation, kickstarted by a 50 page pamphlet by ALTER Chair Tony Vickers.

I haven’t had a chance to digest either paper yet, but one statistic from Prof McLean’s saubmission did scream out: going on the government’s official definition of poverty (admittedly something which Andy Mayer here brings into question with some good cause), only 2% of the population can be described as cash-poor asset-rich, the intended beneficiaries of switching from council tax to local income tax. Everyone else is either cash-poor asset-poor (who should be our main target for social justice measures) or cash-rich asset-rich. What ever else you may say about local income tax, basing an election campaign around a policy that either doesn’t help or actually hurts 98% of the population is a little daft.

I get a sense from the blogosphere that there is a real groundswell here, not so much to abandon local income tax (personally I favour quite radical localisation of income tax), but to move away from the commitment to abandon domestic property taxation altogether. Can we convince the rest of the party?

Lynne Featherstone’s crime screed

Lynne Featherstone MP has written an article on crime for the Meeting the Challenge website.

Lots and lots to digest there. Early thoughts are that it is a shame she saw fit not to mention anything about drugs and prohibition, particularly given that she started the article with the maxim that “when it’s a choice between reducing the number of future crimes and punishing people now we should take the tough choice and say – stopping future crimes takes priority.” I’d have been interested to see how that squares with drug laws which appear to make criminals out of desperate people.

She also talks a bit about my personal hobby horse “fear of crime”:

we should be willing to tackle fear of crime head-on. Far too often fear of crime is treated as if it isn’t really a proper problem to acknowledge – “oh the problem isn’t actual crime, it’s just people’s whipped up fears …” etc. But fear is real, it affects people, it hurts lives and it hinders freedom. So we need to tackle it as a serious problem in its own right.

No-one questions that the fear is real. What is questioned is whether a lot of that fear is rational.

The causes are a mix – actual crime levels, media coverage of crime, fear of strangers and so on. More and more people don’t know those around them so more and more people are strangers. Grotty or dark environments, the lack of reassuring safe official faces, and many more causes all add up to a greater fear of crime.

There’s an undertone for some people, especially older ones, of the good old days having gone and the world around them being different. This is more than just about crime, it’s about people feeling unsettled by the changes in the modern world and part of the nostalgia is for the good old-crime free days (that actually never were).

Indeed. We should be tackling this head on.

What all this boils down to is not so much crime but quality of life. Miserable, lonely people have a much greater fear of crime than happy, gregarious people. The point is, it isn’t nasty criminals making people frightened to go out at night but a lack of community spirit. And the more we talk up those nasty criminals, the tougher it is to create that community spirit.

Some examples of other actions – improving lighting, installing CCTV and clearing up areas of graffiti and grime are now common parts of the crime-fighting agenda, making people feel safer in these areas.

Does CCTV make people feel safe at night? It doesn’t make me feel safe. It makes me think I’m in danger of being mugged and I’m not at all confident that a bloke in a balaclava is going to be identified from a few pixels on a TV screen. More people in this country are convinced that crime it at an all time high than ever, despite it being the lowest in decades. Is it a coincidence that that irrational fear has coincided with the explosion of CCTV? We’re the most monitored countries in the world.

But why not do more and tackle more of the other causes of fear? Crime statistics will always be prey to the temptation of instant headline seeking, but why not invest them with more independent authority by taking them clearly away from the Home Secretary and the Home Office? But also look at the range of statistics published – where the basis of a statistic changes, we should do more to try to rework older figures on the same basis. Otherwise changing the way crimes are counted far too often leads to a false impression of increase. Yes – such recalculations will involve some estimates, but far better to give a realistic estimate as to what the actual change has been.

Seriously for a second. Do you really believe that making crime statistics independent of government is going to stop the Daily Mail one bit from playing its fun and games?

Sentences too should feature – it’s a common opinion finding that people greatly under-estimate how long jail sentences really are on average (because it’s the short sentences that generate the controversy and get the coverage). So why not have annual statistics published alongside the crime figures for average sentence length and so on?

Nice idea, but again, what is it going to achieve? Who’s going to report this when it doesn’t suit their agenda to do so?

Generally, I am a fan of the British Crime Survey over recorded crime statistics as the latter are far too vulnerable to under-reporting, miss-reporting and changing definitions. Perhaps we need to do more though than just address some of the criticisms of the BCS – such as extending the range of crimes it covers – for if it really is a better basis for making decisions (as I believe it is), do we not needed to massively expand its size so that statistics are available reliably for much smaller geographic areas? At the moment we have the BCS as the best indicator of crime at a national level – but when you get down to police forces and councils looking at their patch, they have to fall back on recorded crime. In addition to expanding the scope of the BCS, local crime-fighting partnerships should be monitoring fear of crime and have targets for it, alongside the more traditional approach of looking at crime figures.

It’s nice to see a Lib Dem spokesperson on Home Affairs support the BCS – I’ll happily quote this the next time I see a “CRIME OUTRAGE?!?!?!?!?” Lib Dem tabloid. And that brings me to my final point. This article is full of ideas about what the government should be doing, but as a political party we have a responsibility to make a change as well.

It is 2 days before Christmas. The solemn Lib Dem prediction of a “Christmas Crisis” fuelled by liberalisation of the licensing laws has proven to be completely wrong. Let’s make 2006 the year we stopped playing games with crime policy.

Too risky?

The Meeting the Challenge website has suddenly had a rush of articles posted on it. Thus far I’ve only had a chance to read Lembit Opik’s piece.

Pretty much everything I’ve ever read by Lembit has been on these lines, which can basically be summed up as “feel the fear and do it anyway”. I have to say I agree with him, even if he is, again as usual, notably light on detail.

I really don’t think there is space in the UK political arena for three parties to rush headlong into the centre ground. That isn’t to say that the Lib Dems should rush off in the opposite direction, but it is to say that we will probably do a lot better by identifying what we stand for and robustly promoting it than constantly looking over our shoulders at what the others are doing an responding accordingly. In some respects, Cameron is doing us a favour by attempting to narrow the space between him and New Labour.

As Lembit says, having a policy that is opposed by 60% of the population still gives you an awfully large constituency to target.

Meeting the Challenge 4/3: Localism

LOCALISM: to what extent can policing, health and regeneration be devolved to neighbourhoods and families?

Full paper.

This is a bit of a silly section. Admirer as I am of David Boyle, it is clear that he wrote this chapter and appears to be having a conversation with himself. Happily however, this is one area where I appear to be relatively in tune with my partisan superiors.

The Centre for Um’s Free Think website is currently looking at this area, although traffic to it would appear to be stony dead. Go over there and have a look – I have been valiantly defending Sarah Teather’s good name and fearlessly mocking Prof Corrigan’s deluded fantasies.

The real question for me here though is not policy but strategy. The party has always been in favour of radical decentralisation to one extent or another, and yet it never appears to be a campaign issue for us. Read our “top ten reasons to vote Lib Dem” and not one – not one – is a commitment to devolve power (indeed, as the Tax Commission admits, the local income tax pledge commits us to make local government even more reliant on central funds!).

So instead of answers, I have questions that I’d like the working group itself to answer:

  • How do we sell localism in a general election, rather than hide it in our manifesto?
  • How can we resolve the paradox of fighting an election at a national platform whilst effectively prescribing localised solutions?
  • Does our commitment to localism extend to making it a core part of our campaign strategy, even if the polls say it is not an issue that the public are particularly interested in?

If the working group cannot answer these three simple questions, then I would humbly suggest not spending any more time on the subject.

Meeting the Challenge 4/2: Fairness

FAIRNESS: what should we do to reduce inequalities in health, education and prosperity?

Full paper.

This is in many ways one of the weakest sections of the paper, taking a very narrow view of fairness with none of the deliberation of different definitions that was found in the Tax Commission and I have already made my comments there. So instead, and because I’m massively behind schedule on this project, I thought I’d just run through the specific questions:

4.3.4 This is in some ways an inevitable result of focusing on the most vulnerable groups in society, and needing to target limited resources and priorities – as any political party has to do. A significant question for us, then, is whether this policy package is adequate to address the barriers to freedom and social mobility identified in Chapter 2, many of which derive from social class – poor education, poor health standards, low pay. Do we believe the balance of our antipoverty strategies, focused on pensioners and the causes of poverty, is appropriate?

Firstly, I would seriously question that the Lib Dems have a strategy to reduce pensioner poverty. Notwithstanding any changes that will no doubt now be made as a result of the Turner Report, the fact remains that the Lib Dem’s commitment to poor pensioners was limited to the over-75s and those people whose circumstances meant that they did not make full contributions in their lifetime to warrent a full pension (in the form of the introduction of a Citizen’s Pension). While I don’t dismiss either of these, our strategy to pensioners was aimed squarely at attracting relatively affluent pensioners; notwithstanding the paperwork, our policies don’t make poor pensioners any better off than they would be if they we in full receipt of the Pension’s Credit – it is pensioners whose assets exclude them from this who benefited from our policies. Add to that our commitment to scrap council tax (again, only affecting pensioners who are relatively well off – poor pensioners get CT benefit) and free personal care (irrelevant if you don’t have assets), and what emerges is a sop to the middle classes. Until the party’s leadership is willing to acknowledge this, we aren’t going to get anywhere.

I have a counter question to the working group: why should a first term Lib Dem government target resources towards asset-rich, cash-poor pensioners where there is a more urgent need to help asset-poor, cash-poor pensioners?

As for the causes of poverty, I’m not convinced that party has much to say on this either. Preventative health and quality education is fine and dandy, but what are we saying about housing, communities, families? What are we doing about giving people a stake in their future? Labour’s baby bonds may be a meaningless sop, but they wouldn’t be if instead of scrapping them we were committed to backing them up with real resources.

Do we need more attention to the short-term problems faced by adults living in poverty? If so, does this require more attention to policy on benefits, wages, or other areas of policy?

Interesting to note that this question doesn’t bringe up the possibility of tax cuts. Yet a lot of the real problem here would appear to be that people find themselves having to choose between benefits and getting a job (in fairness, I think Vince Cable gets this and expect to see some real progress in this area).

Is existing policy adequate to address the growing pensions crisis?

The Turner Review and David Laws’ response is a strong basis for progress on this and I’m not proposing to go into it now. But this isn’t the real crisis. The crisis is that the country’s assets are being bought up by investors and families which is leading to a situation where we are creating a new underclass whose only crime was not to be in the right time and the right place in the 80s and 90s. That’s where your long term poverty is going to come from in the next century if we do nothing about it. The privileged, landed-class may be a lot larger than it was 200 years ago, but it is still stopping social mobility.

4.3.5 Underlying all this is the tension between freedom and equality touched on above in para 4.3.1. How unequal a society are we prepared to tolerate? What liberties should we be curtailing – for example,though a higher tax rate for high earners – to reduce inequalities that restrict others’ freedom?

I think I’ve already dealt with this in my Tax Commission proposals.

Was the reduction in the total burden of local taxation we envisaged adequate to address the impacts of moving from Council Tax to Local Income Tax?

Again, covered (but I thought we wanted to increase the overall burden of local taxation; we just wanted it to be fairer?).

4.3.6 A fair society is also one in which discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or disability is not tolerated. The current government has a reasonably good record in trying to make such forms of discrimination illegal, but there is still a long way to go – for example, in ending inequalities in pay between men and women (women’s hourly pay rates are 82% of those of men). Perhaps most pressingly, overt racism seems to be on the rise following the series of terrorist incidents since 2001. How can we deal with these problems and create a society which is genuinely a fair one for all its members?

This is big concept stuff! I have to say, I think we’ve got much of this covered already. We have anti-discrimination laws on the basis of race, sex, disability status and now age. Labour are generally good at this sort of thing, even if they do go to far as they have done with religious hatred.

Ultimately, you can’t legislate to make people love each other. All you can do is create opportunities for all, promote enlightenment values and reduce anxieties and ignorance wherever they can be found. But there is no easy answer; indeed, I’m not convinced this paper should be overly concerned at finding one.