Tag Archives: public-services

Are only classical liberals interested in saving money?

I was intrigued to see Mark Littlewood’s suggestion that Nick Clegg’s latest “In The Know” initiative is evidence of his innate classical liberalism.

Maybe Mark is right and inside Clegg there is a slash and burn tax cutter struggling to come out (it certainly seems like that at times), but the idea that saving money is a preserve of classical liberal/libertarians is bunk.

Way back in January I was the rapporteur for a session at the party’s policy conference where we discussed tax and spend. There didn’t appear to be many classical liberals sitting around the table with me but one of the things that exercised us all was how to make pledges to save spending that sound authentic rather than, to coin a cliche, the usual nonsense about cutting paperclips. It ended up forming one of the main things I ended up reporting back. It was just a brainstorming session, but it generated a lot of good ideas:

A said he was sceptical about efficiency savings, citing the Gershon Review and the James Review as ineffective attempts to do this.

B pointed out that the UK government spents £123bn per year on quangoes – the savings could come out of that. He suggested scrapping pay to sit on quangoes (although C pointed out that that would mean that only the wealthy would be able to afford to sit on boards).

He suggested that the current civil service encourages people to manage as much staff as possible. He suggested giving civil servants “financial incentives to do themselves out of a job.” Civil servants who managed to come up with money saving ideas should be rewarded with a proportion of the money they had managed to save. This idea seemed to enjoy broad support from within the group.

D said that, having worked in the public sector, she was disgusted by the level of waste she had seen. Too much pointless paperwork. She called for front line workforce to be “empowered.”

E was concerned that money saving measures would lead to redundancies, but the general view was that this would free up money that could be passed on a tax cuts (or spent differently).

F suggested more extensive use of the Sustainable Communities Act “right to know” how public bodies spend money within each local authority.

(Names deleted).

I like to think that our groups’ call for giving civil servants incentives to do themselves out of a job may have helped pave the way for In The Know, although of course I have no way of knowing if this submission was actually read by anyone rather than quietly shelved.

The Orange Book Delusion

The enduring irritation about the Orange Book is not its content, which was broadly uncontentious, but the mythical book which everyone who never read it imagines exists.

So once again my heart sinks when I read Nick Assinder claim:

In his first major speech since winning the job, Mr Clegg has pretty much adopted the agenda set out in the controversial Orange Book, authored by party frontbencher David Laws and others (including Mr Clegg himself) in 2004.

On one level, that is correct; as correct as it is banal. Most of the chapters in the Orange Book do little other than recite existing party policy, with a perhaps a slight difference in emphasis. Very few Lib Dems disagree with the notion that social and economic liberalism both have important roles to play, neither the economic liberals behind the Orange Book nor the social liberals behind Reinventing the State. In that respect, the Orange Book failed to move us forward. You might just as well argue that both Kennedy and Campbell “adopted” the Orange Book agenda.

The real issue is to what extent Clegg has moved in a David Laws direction. The answer to that is, he most certainly has. But adopted the agenda set out in David Laws’ chapter on health? Nope. Adopted Laws’ pugnacious stance in his chapter on liberalism? Quite the opposite. Given that the speech was about public services and philosophy and Laws’ chapters were the main ones on both, these facts matter quite a lot.

This isn’t a debate about a book, it is a debate about a general direction. And if that debate is to be at all meaningful, it should focus more on practicalities than principles: this isn’t an Oxford Union debate. As it stands, I broadly welcome the stance laid out by Nick Clegg on Saturday; I remain deeply sceptical about health insurance. So does that make me an Orange Booker or not?

Perhaps one day someone will publish the definitive book on social liberalism. The Orange Book was not it. I do wish people would stop waving it in my face and actually read it.

The Clegg era starts here

Notwithstanding my gripe on Thursday, Nick Clegg has had a very good week. He started by putting the finishing touches to his front bench, made a series of appointments regarding reforming party structures (about which I must get around to blogging about it detail at some point), made a well-judged debut at PMQs and has now made a major speech on public services reform.

This is the speech I didn’t get during the leadership election but nonetheless voted for, so I’m delighted my gamble seems to have paid off. Linda Jack’s point that he spelled out his approach in an SMF seminar in December misses the point: he spent the election campaign downplaying all this stuff when so many of us were urging him to be bold. Making a token speech to the SMF, towards the end of the campaign and with no fanfare is the oratorical equivalent of putting planning proposals, to quote Douglas Adams, “on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of The Leopard‘.”

So much for the past and back to today’s speech. I’m happy with it because it moves us forward, not in some symbolic “break with the past” way that some of the headbangers in the party might like but through clear-headed liberal analysis about what is wrong with public services in the UK and how they work elsewhere. There is a clear continuity with the approach the party has always had and the direction it has been traveling in.

It is a very politically calculated speech, and I mean this in a good way. He’s correct to say that the Orange Book was correct to call for the marrying of social and economic liberalism. What no doubt would have been more boring to say was that notwithstanding the question of how you get the balance right there is virtually no-one in the party who would disagree with that sentiment (a point about which most political commentators seem unaware): he could equally have said the same about the “social liberals'” answer to the Orange Book, Reinventing the State.

Some sections in it, such as his call to scrap F and G GCSE grades, probably won’t transform society, but they represent a move away from an “everyone shall have prizes” approach to education and towards clearer delineation between pass and fail. This is symbolism, but in a meaningful way.

Possibly the most important passage of the speech can be summed up in a few lines:

I stand for these simple principles:

The state must intervene to allocate money on a fair basis.

The state must intervene to guarantee equality of access in our schools and hospitals.

And the state must oversee core standards and entitlements.

But once those building blocks are in place, the state must back off and allow the genius of grassroots innovation, diversity and experimentation to take off in providing an array of top-class schools and hospitals.

At first it sounds very motherhood and apple pie, but in practice this is a real challenge for political parties of whatever hue to live up to. Clegg singles out Brown’s approach for failing to live up to these core principles, but the same could be said of Cameron, such as his proposal for a “Tsar of all the MRSAs.”

It will be a key test of the Lib Dems in the future to see if they can live up to these principles or are tempted to jump on this interference bandwagon. The biggest challenge is what exactly is meant by “core standards and entitlements”. You could argue that the National Curriculum does that; Labour certainly do. The National Curriculum is a “minimum standard” that has grown and grown over the past two decades, driven by political expediency. One person’s minimum standard is another person’s nanny-state interference. Literacy? Some educationalists argue you shouldn’t even start to formally teach reading until the age of seven. Sex education?

How do you stop minimum safety nets from transforming into straitjackets over time? And who sets those minimum standards: national or local government? My suspicion is that we need to better spell out what checks and balances need to be put in place for such a system to work in practice, but that is for another time.

His model for Free Schools will also need careful crafting. Over the New Year period, Clegg caused some controversy by endorsing the role faith schools have to play as “engines of integration” in The Jewish News. I commented a few months ago about the hypocrisy of Jonathan Sacks making the same point while opposing any measures which would stop faith schools from being able to choose their own pupils. If Clegg wants to ban selection completely, which also means taking on the handful of local authorities which still have grammar schools, he will have to also take on the faith lobby which he has been courting.

Orthodox Judaism isn’t the real issue here anyway. I’m sure the Vardy Foundation will have very little problem with banning selection if what they’re getting in exchange is even greater freedom to teach creationism. I’m sure the Scientologists Applied Scholastics are similarly licking their lips. And these problems are relatively simple in urban areas where there is a great enough population density to mean that parents have a wide choice of schools to choose from; in rural areas the economics works very differently.

It isn’t all one way of course; under this proposal there is nothing in principle to prevent a group of parents setting up their own school and effectively starving the local brainwashing academy of minds (so long as they can find enough support). If it is an open enough system for L. Ron Hubbard’s supporters, it is certainly an open enough system for fans of Richard Dawkins. The challenge for this proposal (which emphatically is not a fatal one) is how we combat liberalism’s greatest enemy: monopolistic power.

The health proposals are less problematic for me. The idea of allowing patients to go private after a waiting time period has expired is a sensible middle way between the Tory’s old policy of voucher system which would simply have undermined the NHS by allowing the wealthiest to take the money and run, and Labour’s target culture.

Overall then, this is an excellent start for the Clegg era. It is the most thoughtful speech given by a party leader since Ashdown departed these shores for Valinor. I think he needs to slightly change his mode of attack on Cameron, with whom he is so frequently compared. He needs to emphasise that while Cameron adopts similar rhetoric, even if he is being sincere he can never deliver while he is at the mercy of a mulish party which only allows him to lead when it feels like it.

The key fight to pick with Cameron, which to Clegg’s credit he seems to have identified as well, is over school selection. The more Clegg challenges Cameron to support a system which emphasises parental choice over school selection, the more the swivel eyed loons in the Tories will go nuts and start banging on about grammar schools. The fact that Cameron has already buckled under the pressure once suggests this will be a fun fight to watch.

The important point is, Clegg’s speech today is one that Cameron could never afford to make. That is what annoyed me so much about the “senior official’s” interview in the Guardian on Thursday. Our strength, ultimately, is our unity. The Tories’ fatal, potentially election losing flaw is their internal division. It makes no sense to talk up disunity within the party when it prevents us from exposing our opponents’.

Finally, this has been a good speech about challenging what he calls “inherited disadvantage”. That’s fine but ultimately if you want to truly tackle social mobility you need to tackle inherited advantage as well. As Clegg has set up a social mobility commission, he can’t afford to leave it too long before starting to address that.

Nick Clegg: It’s beat up an activist day!

Oh dear, oh dear, and he was doing so well:

Nick Clegg will unveil plans to end state interference in schools this week as he moves to bury the Liberal Democrats’ traditional approach to public services.

In his first keynote speech since becoming party leader, Clegg will challenge many of the party’s supporters in teaching and local government by issuing proposals which will “effectively take schools out of state control”, according to one official.

David Laws, the Lib Dems’ schools spokesman, paved the way for changes to the party’s approach at its annual conference in September, pledging to inject more choice into the system by making it easier for parents and community groups to set up new schools. The plans won the backing of the conference, although some activists and MPs are uneasy about the approach – which chimes with many of the policies proposed by the Conservatives.

I’m not opposed to “effectively” (weasel word) taking “schools out of state control”. Indeed, it’s just possibly I might actually be happy going further than what Clegg has to say on Saturday; he’s certainly already ruled out school vouchers, something I have in the past said I’m open minded about. Indeed, the party is totally up for taking schools out of state control, if by state you mean central government; always has been. The devil however is always in the detail.

What annoys me is that we’re back to activist-bashing again, and less than a month into Clegg’s leadership. It’s an old leadership tactic: make yourself look bold and radical by portraying your own party as awkward and out of touch. The worst thing is, it is with reference to a policy that has already been passed by party conference.

Do I have to remind Team Clegg of these results? Clearly I do:

  • Nick Clegg: 20,988
  • Chris Huhne: 20,477

Nick Clegg had a chance to spell out his vision for public service reform during his leadership election campaign; he bottled it. By all accounts he should have won an easy victory; he failed. If he wants to make the case now, that’s fine, but he doesn’t have a mandate and the price he has to pay for only just failing to pluck disaster from the jaws of victory is that he has to treat the intelligence of the party membership with a modicum of respect. Spinning before making a major policy speech that we aren’t going to like what he’s going to say is pathetic, counter-productive and yaaaawn! so like his predecessors.

Spinning that he plans to copy the Conservatives is equally foolish; apart from making it sound like he will utter little more than a “me too!” this is the party of the National Curriculum and standardised national testing we’re talking about, remember?

Tories confused over whether Peter should rob Paul or not

Last week, you may remember David Cameron defending his plans to fine hospitals for superbug infections on their turf:

“We have got to make sure every hospital, every service, is prioritising this and the best way to do that is to make it part of the payment by results system.

“That will mean that every doctor, every nurse, every ward sister, the management of the hospital will be absolutely thinking of infection control first and foremost.”

As I’ve already suggested, replacing targets with incentives is to fundamentally miss the point about what is wrong with targets which is that they can game the system and are subject to the law of unintended consequences. Both problems also apply to incentives. Now it emerges that Cameron has another critic on his front bench.

Speaking in an Opposition Day debate on the New Year Network Rail debacle, Theresa Villainous said:

As my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) noted earlier, merely imposing fines on Network Rail would not be an adequate response, as the taxpayer would pick up the bill for them anyway.

Good point, well made. But, um, doesn’t that apply to hospitals as well?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Core message

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Communication Skills

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

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

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

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

Local Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Monarchy Question

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

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

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

What’s the point of leadership?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Charley Junior’s School Days

I’ve just come across this public information film from 1949 (or try here) about the post-war education reforms. With hindsight, I’m a bit ambivalent about the politics, but the sentiment is touching, and the quality of the animation is breath-taking.

Remember: this is a public information film. I was looking for a different one involving a certain Charley.

UPDATE: I’m trawling through the Public Information Film National Archive – it’s fantastic!

Surplus School Places

More grist to the School Voucher debate mill:

The number of surplus school places in England has risen to 758,000 – the highest level since 1998.

This is the equivalent of more than 2,000 average-sized primary and 250 secondary schools lying empty.

Later on it states that 12% of Primary School places and 7% of Secondary School places are vacant, while some education authorities such as Birmingham have up to 25% vacancies.

How would vouchers change this? Surplus spaces aren’t necessarily a bad thing. There is always surplus in any system (and when there isn’t… look what happened during the fuel crisis in 2000) and any system which maximises ‘choice’ has to factor in a certain amount of redundancy. Once again, I suspect it largely depends on what level you set the voucher. But what does the panel think?

School vouchers: the new Tory approach

It would appear that my post on Tuesday about school vouchers was timely. The second in Direct Democracy’s series of Localist Papers is on precisely this topic.

I haven’t read the pamphlet yet, but my knee-jerk reaction is indeed negative. On first reading their proposals sounded like the Monty Python right for men to have babies. Allowing people to claim the cost of education from their local authority to spend however they choose, rather than a wholesale voucher system, does indeed sound like a simple exercise to subsidise public schools while offering everyone else almost nothing. New independent schools would struggle to get started under such a system.

The analogy to the right to buy scheme is unfortunate: while I don’t have a problem with the ‘right to buy’ the Tory scheme was actually a ‘right to subsidy’ and a ‘prohibition for local authorities to reinvest in housing stock,’ the socially regressive consequences of which we are now suffering from in terms of a dramatic plunge in social mobility and racial tensions caused by a lack of social housing. So much for localism.

I can’t help but think that if you’re going to introduce such a system you should introduce it wholesale. The piecemeal approach will simply cause more pain over a longer period of time. Nevertheless, I need to read the whole paper. Another one to add to the list.