Tag Archives: meritocracy

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.

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.

John Harris: physician, heal thyself

(argh! this post was meant to go out yesterday! why does Ming have to bloody resign during a heavy work week?)

Question: if you write an article about the Lib Dem leadership contest specifically on the issue of diversity and the fact that Huhne and Clegg are both white, middle-class males, should you a) talk to the various groupings within the party concerned with diversity such as the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, the Woman Liberal Democrats, the Campaign for Gender Balance and possibly even the party’s “diversity Tsar”? Or b) a couple of white, middle-class guys?

If your answer is (b), I suggest you’re doing something wrong. Okay, both Ben Ramm (yes, that Ben Ramm) and Lembit Opik have non-visible minority ethnicities, but then so does Clegg (and Huhne as well for that matter IIRC). What does it say about a journalist that he professes that such issues are important but can’t be bothered to reflect them in any meaningful way in his own article?

It’s not as if I disagree with his fundamental point, after all it is the subject of one of my standard-issue rants. But the ill-informed mudslinging of as partisan a journalist as John Harris won’t actually change anything, which is possibly his intention.

Bottom line, the reason there doesn’t seem to be any choice other than Huhne or Clegg is that both are bloody strong candidates. Last time around, until Huhne threw his hat in the ring I was in despair. I was torn between voting for Campbell as the anyone-but-Hughes candidate or Campbell as the anyone-but-Oaten candidate. A lot of other people agreed with me. While I have no doubt this campaign will become more bad tempered as time goes on, neither of the candidates, as far as I know, evoke that visceral sense that if he wins the party will go straight down the toilet in anyone. It’s just possible that we had a poor choice paradoxically because we have such a good choice.

And we don’t actually do too badly when it comes to not being lead by toffs. Neither Campbell or Kennedy came from arisocratic or even upper-middle-class backgrounds. The last Etonian to stand for party leader was David Rendel (a man, I hasten to add, I have a lot of time for) in 1999. He came fifth out of five.

Harris also presses another of my buttons, which I’ve only just blogged about, by referring to ‘meritocracy’ as an idea. Parliament is a meritocracy – that’s the problem. It is batshit crazy talk, the sort of batshit crazy talk that I thought Harris hated about people like Tony Blair, to suggest that you need a meritocracy to achieve equality of outcome. So why is he now stealing their rhetorical clothes?

If you want to write a serious article about the Lib Dems’ failure to internalise diversity and equality issues, John, you’re going to need to dig a lot deeper than simply having a quick chat with a celebrity boyfriend and the editor of a literary magazine.

Neo-Feudalism: back with a vengeance

Polly Toynbee mourned the death of social democracy in the Guardian yesterday which, based on her definition, is not something I will be shedding many tears over. He kneejerk reaction that what Brown should have done instead of raising the IHT threshold was to increase income tax on people with incomes above £100,000 was akin to arguing that instead of shooting himself in the foot he should have simply shot himself in the head. Not only would such a move have been massively unpopular, but it wouldn’t have made much economic sense either.

Fortunately, calmer voices were also to be found in the Grauniad, with Shelter’s Chief Executive Adam Sampson giving a much more lucid account about why wealth taxes are a good thing and the government so wholly wrong this week. In doing so, he breaks a major taboo, suggesting that our home owning economy might not be the unambiguous good that the cross-party consensus asserts.

The problem, which Sampson readily acknowledges, is that when you live in a society where 70% of the electorate are home-owners, making the national interest case for wealth taxes is a thankless task. Quite what a mountain we have to climb is summed up by Andy Beckett’s article on IHT which explores quite how unpopular the tax is and why. Beckett or more precisely Professor Stuart White, for that is who he is quoting, manages to both sum up the conundrum and miss the point with this sentence:

“What seems to have come through in Britain, post-Thatcher, is not so much a meritocracy as a feeling that what you get is what you’re entitled to.”

Michael Young, the man who coined the term meritocracy in 1958, became exasperated towards the end of his life at the way in which politicians came to adopt the term uncritically. His 2001 essay on this is even more relevant now than it was back then. The point is that exhorting meritocracy leads precisely to the view that people get what they deserve. The political establishment’s failure to challenge the idea that it is okay for the rich to get ever richer so long as you piously acknowledge the importance of “equality of opportunity” is precisely why the general public seem so resistant to wealth taxes. The fact that it could lead to, among other things, lower income taxes, increased social mobility and a more entrepreneurial culture falls on deaf ears.

The vested interests which ultimately defeated the 1909 People’s Budget sat in the House of Lords. Sadly, those same vested interests now dominate the electorate (although I suspect that over the longer term these mini-property empires will begin to aggregate as some manage to press home their inbuilt advantage better than others). For a substantial minority of the population that represents the death of hope: a life of no accumulation of assets, high income taxes and high user charges on services.

I see this as a profoundly depressing future; the very antithesis of progress whether you are coming at it from a liberal or a socialist perspective. Yet the Lib Dems can’t really give Gordon Brown too hard a time over it. While the rhetoric of our taxation policies is quite sound, almost everything we are committed to doing in our hypothetical first term of government is to compound the problem. In the long term, we’re committed to land value taxation; in the short term we’re committed to scrapping municipal property tax (making the eventual implementation of LVT much harder). In the long term, we’re committed to reforming IHT into an acquisitions tax, thus closing off a major loophole; in the short term we’re committed to raising the IHT threshold as well. Ming was careful at is conference speech to talk of transferring the burden of taxation from incomes and onto pollution – not resources. At a time when he desperately needs a USP, and the cause of progressive taxation needs a champion, he’s being advised to back away slowly from the sound of gunfire.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh on political parties. They are, after all, prisoners of an electoral system that gives enormous power to a handful of swing voters. All the time the parties are forced to chase the same small part of the electorate around like Pepe le Peu, the scope for making the case for broader policies will always be limited. Somehow we need to capture the public’s imagination outside the party political sphere. Anyone got any ideas?