Tag Archives: policy

Conference and canards

God know’s why I’m still up at 3am. Still a bit wired after conference I guess. I’m not staying up much longer but I wanted to write that I thought it was an excellent weekend both for the party generally, the Social Liberal Forum in particular and me personally. A few random thoughts:

1. I was pleased by the answer Danny Alexander gave me regarding the FPC playing a more pro-active role in formulating a response to government legislation in light of the Digital Economy Bill debacle. I have a few thoughts on this but will write about them later.

2. I was less pleased by Nick Clegg’s non-commital answer to my “friendly” question about if he rules out further tax rises, as he appeared to do in the Spectator this week. He neither confirmed nor denied the position he took. SLF Chair David Hall-Matthews also pressed him on this during the economy debate. The rumour going round was that he privately acknowledges “misspeaking” but it is concerning nonetheless.

3. Despite my constant grumblings, I really do think that Nick Clegg nailed it in his conference speech. “Change that works for you. Building a fairer Britain” is a lousy slogan but then, aren’t they all? As spelt out during the speech however, at its core is a brilliant narrative which encapsulates what distinguishes the Lib Dems from the other parties. The fact that we even have a narrative (or rather, a narrative of our choosing rather than one imposed on us) is a bit of an innovation for the Lib Dems going into an election. The four themes work well and, crucially, join together. The bad old days of the 2005 policy pledges seem long ago.

4. Standing room only at both SLF fringes, including the one about passing a constitution. FTW!

Finally, over on the SLF website, I’ve written a response to the Left Foot Forward/Fabian “research” which purports to prove that the Lib Dem tax policy is regressive – by its own admission it only applies if you cherry pick the tax cut while ignoring the tax rises being introduced to pay for it. Spectacularly bad.

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.

Real Women and Policy

The Lib Dem womens’ policy paper has now been published so the ‘airbrushing’ debate can now move away from what is being said in the media and onto what the policy paper actually says.

The paper has a total of 40 policy proposals, many of which are already policy. The two that have garnered media attention are:

21. Protect children from body image pressure by preventing the use of altered and enhanced images in advertising aimed at under 16s, through changes to Advertising Standards Authority rules. We would work with industry regulators and professionals to find ways to ensure that children have access to more realistic portrayals of women (and men) in advertising

22. Help women make informed choices by requiring adverts to clearly indicate the extent to which digital retouching technology has been used to create overly perfected and unrealistic images of women

The first thing that should be noted is that nowhere do the words “airbrushing”, “Photoshop” or “ban” appear. The clauses are much less prescriptive than last week’s hype might have lead us to believe.

I still have two significant problems with these clauses however. Firstly, the paper provides no evidence whatsoever to convince us that this would be an effective remedy. Not even a footnote (there are footnotes and anecdotes for other proposals).

Secondly, it fails to explain why advertising is being singled out here when the magazines that such adverts are to appear in are not. There does not currently exist a regulatory body to control what can appear on the front page of magazines. All the time they continue to pump out idealised images of women (and they do that because it sells) then why get worried about what appears on page 92?

When you break it down it appears like a fairly meaningless sop. Having read the paper I don’t think it gets to the heart of the problem at all. As such, I fear that this is selling short the very women and girls that the paper is seeking to protect.

For completeness, I should point out here that the paper does have a number of other proposals when it comes to body image:

23. Encourage the British Fashion Council and design schools to ensure students are taught and judged on their ability to cut to a range of sizes and body types
24. The fashion industry should implement all the recommendations in the Model Health Inquiry, including introducing model health certificates for London Fashion Week
25. Require cosmetic surgery advertising and literature to give surgery success rates by collecting and publishing Patient Reported Outcome Measures. This would assess whether the surgery had the desired effects
26. Ensure age-appropriate modules on body image, health and wellbeing, and media literacy are taught in schools

23 and 24 are surely unobjectionable as they are simply urging best practice and not even regulatory. For non-libertarians, 25 seems a pretty common sense measure, aimed at providing people with useful information. 26 is all well and good, but I have to say I question the wisdom of adding to the already long list of things we make teachers cover in schools; I thought we were demanding a bonfire of the curriculum as recently as March this year? Either way, I am sceptical how a lesson one afternoon in school is going to achieve much.

In short, I can’t help but feel this is just scratching the surface of what is a much more complex issue.

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, Unity has just written this:

[The main problem the Green Party faces is] it’s open and democratic approach to policy-making in which any member can put forward a policy, call for vote and get the policy accepted into the party’s manifesto if it prove popular with members too readily militates against evidence-based approaches to policy making, particularly in a party that typically attracts considerably more than its fair share of proponents of pseudoscience.

He’s writing about the Green’s anti-science policies but before we get to smug about their often loony ideas we should pause for thought about how the Lib Dems are often subject to the same forces. I don’t agree with Unity and Martin Robbins that the problem is democratic policy making processes; Labour has torn up its democratic structures but its policies are if anything less evidence-based than the Lib Dems’. But people need to be wary of voting at party conference in favour of “nice things” and demand a more rigorous approach. It is notable that the party’s Federal Policy Committee has failed to demand this itself in this instance. Perhaps this is a good example of how the policy paper model, imposed during the merger period by the SDP wing, doesn’t particularly work very well. Certainly the rules about policy papers having to have specific word limits works against a more evidence-based approach.

Nick Clegg’s far, far, far, far, far, farce over tuition fees

Oh God. Here we go again. Remember all that nonsense last year when Nick Clegg started claiming that the Lib Dems were about to unveil a package of £20 bn of cuts – the “vast bulk” of which was to be passed on in the form of tax cuts? Remember how, after an ugly row at party conference, he first capitulated (explaining that by “vast bulk” he meant “teeny tiny amount“) and then ended up dropping the whole charade about finding these enormous spending cuts in the first place? Remember how that left so many people feeling, not least of all myself, feeling demoralised? Well, it seems to be about to kick off again. And once again it is due to that nasty habit of over-clegging, ahem over-egging, the pudding.

The party’s pre-manifesto – A Fresh Start – has been launched today. Let me start by saying how happy I am with the overall pre-manifesto document. It is very sensible. It’s priorities – a green economy, fairness and cleaning up politics – are spot on. And it’s recognition that hard choices are ahead and that the party should not increase overall spending is surely correct. I even agree that we will have to go into the next general election making fewer spending commitments than we have in previous years.

There is a clear danger in flagging such a situation up however, and that is that it will immediately lead to speculation about what will and what won’t be cut. Now, you can choose to dampen such speculation or you can encourage it. The FPC played a delicate game, being careful to avoid the suggestion of a hierarchy of which cuts are needed and avoiding the sort of language which would suggest there will be a bonfire of the spending plans. Clegg, for whatever reason, has chosen to ramp such language up.

In his interview in the Independent yesterday, he made such posturing a centre point. Now, we can blame interviewer Andy Grice for the nonsense about the party having “traditionally had a long shopping list of policies but been less convincing about how it would pay for them” (not true, for the past three general elections at least, our manifestos have been fully costed and vetted by the IFS) and for providing a remarkably specific list of spending commitments that will be axed. But we can’t blame him for statements such as:

Our shopping list of commitments will be far, far, far, far, far shorter.

You don’t repeat a word five times by way of emphasis unless the point you want to make is that your default position on every commitment will be to cut it. Even George Lucas only used “far” twice (small mercy that, at least, it was no more than thirty). And you don’t frame your argument in terms of “shopping lists” unless you have contempt for those spending commitments. This doesn’t sound like making tough decisions at all; it sounds like making the incredibly easy decision of just throwing everything into the bin.

We are perilously close to “vast bulk” territory once again. How to respond to this clear difference in emphasis between Clegg and the FPC is tricky: unlike Make it Happen where the central problem was a poorly worded document, here the problem is purely the spin on which the leader is putting on it and its potential implications further down the line. This deserves chewing over.

But since Clegg has fired the starting gun for a debate about priorities (according to Grice: “Mr Clegg wants to kickstart a debate that he claims Labour and the Tories are denying the voters as they squabble over headline departmental budgets in a Whitehall-speak that leaves ordinary people cold” – fine Nick, let’s debate). Let’s get one thing well and truly out of the way first: the commitment to scrap tuition fees has got to stay.

To be honest, I’m not interested in revisiting the debate about whether we should scrap fees or not. That debate happened within the party, in excrutiating detail over a two year period. In Harrogate this spring, conference voted overwhelmingly to retain that policy. Despite the fact that neither the motion nor any amendment called for dropping the policy, speaker after speaker queued up to talk about the need to retain the policy. It was possibly one of the most emphatic non-debates I’ve ever witnessed.

The fundamental problem here is that right now, our target seat candidates have nothing they can say about tuition fees. After Harrogate, the party’s campaigners breathed a collective sigh of relief: finally, after two years, they could get on with promoting one of the party’s most popular and distinctive policies once again. Those plans were dashed by Nick Clegg today. Can you really afford to put that leaflet sitting in your garage out? What is Liberal Youth going to say at this autumn’s freshers’ fairs? Won’t you just be attracting criticism from your opponents if you do so?

I’m the last person to say the party should only adopt policy on the basis that it is distinctive and popular. I remain stubbornly wedded to the idea that policies should be the right thing to do as well. But in this case the policy most certainly is right and the reason for getting it reaffirmed earlier this year (something which almost certainly should have happened 12 months before – there is no excusing the delay) was precisely so we could get on and campaign for it.

What’s more, does anyone really believe that either conference or the Federal Policy Committee will not insist on the manifesto having this specific commitment in it? I suppose it is just possible that the broad coalition of people in the party who oppose tuition fees might suddenly decide that they will take this lying down, but I wouldn’t put much money on it. It is slightly more possible that this policy might get dropped after an enormous and highly damaging debate resulting in swathes of resigning candidates and members – many of whom will do so from the conference stage. But the most likely result, by far, is that the party is going to go into the next general election with a firm commitment to scrap tuition fees.

I write this as someone who, in Lib Dem terms, isn’t that wedded to the policy. I certainly support it but in my own awkward way would – in an ideal world – like to explore other options as well. The strength of support for this policy at Harrogate this gear caught me by surprise. Surely no-one who attended that conference (or who knows who currently sits on the Federal Policy Commitment) can be in any doubt that this policy will almost certainly be retained?

That being the case, I have to ask, why revisit the debate again? In what way is it valuable for the party to have yet another internal discussion over the next few months instead of just getting on with campaigning?

There are other policies that you might want to make special pleading for and we almost certainly will end up with a somewhat longer “shopping list” than Clegg’s Independent interview implies, but our anti-tuition fees policy is different because it is such a central campaigning priority. The party supports this one with its feet. By contrast, we’ve never been this far away from a likely general election date with a fully costed and priotised policy on pensions and benefits for the elderly for example, and so it is reasonable for this package to remain at least somewhat up in the air at the moment. Tuition fees is different because all parties are committed to supporting pensioners in one way or another and so the party’s policy can’t hope to be a key dividing line; by contrast you are either for or against tuition fees and in the case of both Labour and the Tories you are very much in favour of them. You won’t find a clearer dividing line (with the exception of electoral reform and even that might change before polling day).

And can we seriously contemplate scrapping this commitment whilst also arguing, as stated in A Fresh Start, that “We need to ensure that the next generation does not pay the price for the mistakes made by government and bankers today”? Promising to not force the next generation to pay for our mistakes via tax hikes will ring pretty hollow if we insist they have to pay the same amount in the form of graduate debt. What charlatans we would sound!

My generous analysis of this situation is that Nick Clegg has simply been blindsided and didn’t anticipate that this failure of communications would happen. Part of the problem however is the way the party communicates. Up until a few years ago, we used to be able to take it for granted that whenever the party made a new policy statement that a new pack, providing local parties and candidates with promotional materials, a standard press release and outlining possible lines of attack and their rebuttal. This simply no longer happens and I am at a loss as to why. One of the useful aspects of such a pack would have been, I suspect, that the party’s press office would have been forced to think through how exactly this new announcement was likely to play. Clegg sounded horribly ill-prepared for some fairly underarm bowling from Eddie Mair on PM this evening, even if the Evan Harris factor did somewhat take him by surprise. Once again, I don’t think this is being thought through properly.

There are two simple solutions to this immediate problem over tuition fees. The first is for Nick Clegg to make it very clear over the next few weeks that the policy is safe. The second is for the party to carry on campaigning as if it was regardless. The two can potentially be complementary and mutually reinforcing, but if the former doesn’t happen it is all the more crucial that the latter does take place. Waiting until April 2010 to get this message across will be a farcical wasted opportunity.

More on faith schools

Following my piece on Sunday, I’ve written another article on faith schools over on Comment is Free:

It is a shame that the supporters of faith schools lack the faith that their ethos could survive a few children of atheists running around the playground. Ultimately, society as a whole is the weaker for indulging their insecurity.

What’s the big idea?

The first Social Liberal Forum project (technically the second one, as I will explain later) has now wheeled into view: The Ideas Factory.

We want your ideas for what should be in the Lib Dem manifesto. Your idea will be critiqued by our dragons advisory board and opened to further debate. Visitors to the SLF website will be able to give each idea marks and the whole lot will be submitted to the Lib Dem Manifesto Working Group.

To start things off, I’m going to write my own pitch this weekend. Want to do one as well? Email it (max 500 words) to manifesto *at* socialliberal.net.

EXCLUSIVE: Chamali Fernando quits the Lib Dems

I was woken this morning by texts asking if I’d heard that Chamali Fernando – putative candidate for London mayor and sister of party president candidate Chandila Fernando – has resigned the party. It transpires that his is apparently true. No word as to why, but I understand it happened before the vote on tuition fees last night (where she presumably would have supported abandoning the party’s policy to scrap fees).

It’s all go today, innit?

Clegg, cuts and communication

The Lib Dem press office has just issued a press release about today’s PMQs. In it, he accuses Gordon Brown of deliberately misrepresenting Lib Dem policy on tax and spend:

On numerous occasions you have deliberately misrepresented Liberal Democrat economic policy in the House of Commons, claiming that we propose a £20bn cut in public spending:

As I have repeatedly made clear, Liberal Democrat policy is to identify £20bn of Government spending which is either wasteful or ineffective and to re-allocate it to Liberal Democrat priorities in areas such as education and care for the elderly.

If there is money remaining once Liberal Democrat spending priorities have been met we propose to increase the funded tax cuts we are already offering to those on low and middle incomes.

Is Gordon Brown deliberately misrepresenting party policy? Of course he is! But the fundamental problem here is that Clegg hasn’t repeatedly made our policy clear; quite the opposite. What’s more, it had another opportunity at PMQs again. Brown made the accusation after his first question and Clegg did not respond, instead robotically going into his second question. Yet this was a pretty predictable accusation to come from Brown; so why wasn’t Clegg better prepared?

It really is time Clegg got his act together on this issue. It’s been a problem for months now and he can no longer afford to let it get in the way of our broader message.

Crunches, Guido and Seigniorage

One of the more entertaining aspects of the current global financial meltdown is watching Guido Fawkes, aka hedge funder Paul Staines, transform from arch-cynic about all things political to dewy-eyed innocent about all things financial. It isn’t that I’m a capitalist-hating trot who fervantly believes that this current crisis is going to lead to world socialism, but reading Guido you would think that the financiers have no culpability whatsoever.

At Lib Dem conference on Tuesday I moved an amendment in the debate on the Housing and Mortgage Crisis. I think it was the poorest speech I have delivered in years (if you want to add to my humiliation you can still watch me on iPlayer – I’m about 40 mins in), mainly due to the fact that even after my crash course in all things monetary the night before, I wasn’t at all sure of my subject.

But at the same time, it is a subject very close to my heart. I heard a lot of speeches from MPs this week about how money worries are giving some of their constituencies mental health problems. As someone who went from someone who diligently filed all his bank statements every month when I was younger to someone who gets panic attacks opening letters from banks and generally keeps bank statements, unopened, in a box under the bed, I think its fair to say first hand that I know how they feel. Having gone through the process where my bank (Halifax, natch) wouldn’t give me an affordable loan and instead left me with no alternative but to try and manage a mini-financial crisis with a credit card, there’s a reason why I have a habit of talking about economic issues in moral terms – it’s the only morality that really matters in my humble opinion.

I’d agreed to do propose the amendment on behalf of ALTER, whose own speaker couldn’t attend. And I have to admit that while the idea of the credit creation charge (specifically a tax on bank’s creation of credit) has some appeal, I’d want to look into it a lot more before deciding whether to support it or not. While Neale Upstone and I could have probably done a better job at prebutting the criticisms made by Vince Cable in his summation, an out of the blue amendment is frankly not the way to win the argument, or even particularly to create debate.

We certainly need some kind of mechanism for controlling cheap credit, and the CCC has the advantage of using it to raise revenue which can be doled out to the wider public in the form of tax cuts (and possibly a citizen’s income), but there may well be other mechanisms. This week Vince Cable seemed to at least acknowledge there was a problem which needed solving.