Tag Archives: wealth

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.

Nine wishes for 2009 #4: An end to “money for nothing”

I’ve spent days resisting blogging this wish because, quite frankly, I don’t think it will happen. But it certainly is a dearest wish, so it makes the cut.

What I mean by “money for nothing” is the tendency of the late 20th and early 21st century to look at everything as if it were capital to be exploited, and yet at the same time to think that capital doesn’t behave like capital any more. When the classical economists wrote about capital, they were, in the main talking about widgets – things you build. They can make you a lot of money but they always break, rust or wear out in the end, and then you have to buy new widgets. Stocks and shares were part ownership of big widgets, and ultimately behaved by the same laws.

(As an aside, my reading of Locke’s definition of “property” is that it informed and is essentially the same as the classical economist notion of “capital” – it is one of the reasons I despair about this modern vogue for rightwing libertarianism in which people invoke Locke only to insist that when he talked about “property” he was referring to everything you might happen to “own” even though it contradicts his whole argument about rights to “property” coming about due to self ownership.)

We’ve been moving away from that model for 200 years, but in the last two decades it accelerated. Everything, from homes to public services to loans, became capitalised. Intellectual property, at the same time, has become less like capital as the limitations of copyright get extended and patents become renewable (I ended 2007 by declaring the 21st century to be dominated by IP Wars – we ended 2008 with the government capitulating and agreeing to extend recording copyright). Speculation, speculation on speculation and even speculation on speculation on speculation has become a central part of our finance system. All talk about “value” – financial value never mind ethical or social value – has become lost.

I’m not convinced that much will happen to change. The Lib Dems’ Green New Deal is very welcome indeed, but we don’t appear to be saying very much to ensure that the economy changes course – we aren’t arguing for much more than a greener, kinder version of the status quo. Brown just seems to be firing off in entirely random directions and even though I’m not convinced that piling up the national debt is the big problem the Tories keep claiming it is, my mind does boggle how he can keep coming up with more and more spending commitments with no idea how he intends to pay for it all. As for the Tories themselves, well, they appear to have looked at Japan in the nineties and said to themselves “we’ll have some of that!” Having got us into this mess, dragging the rest of the political class in the mire with them, their new approach seems to simply be to wallow.

Like I say, I don’t expect this wish to be fulfilled. Yet strangely, almost every day I seem to hear a new person expressing it. Are we looking at a longer term shift in attitudes? Either way, we won’t know for sure by the end of 2009.

The Wintertons aren’t abusing the system – the system is the problem

So, let’s get this straight. Nicholas and Ann “ten a penny” Winterton have used the Commons’ Additional Costs Allowance to buy an expensive Westminster flat and, having bought it, have passed it onto a trust to which they now pay rent – via the Additional Costs Allowance.

Shocked? Horrified? Well, you should be, but not at the Wintertons. They are just taking advantage of a fundamentally flawed system. This trick is played by middle class families across the country on a daily basis – the Mail on Sunday commenter claiming that “One rule for all of us, another for MPs” could not be more wrong. And would it really be any less of a waste of taxpayers money if they had never used it to buy a property and instead enriched a private landlord, as a number of MPs self-consciously and piously do? In that respect I have to take issue with Dr Pack over at Lib Dem Voice: the system is most certainly not “reasonable enough.”

If MPs were serious about reform, they’d scrap the ACA and replace it with a trust which MPs could use to buy or subsidise accomodation. If that asset were ever realised, the equity purchased by the trust would simply revert to the trust. This is hardly revolutionary – it’s how the government’s own shared equity scheme for key workers operates. Instead of blowing £20,000 per MP every year, that money would be recycled every time an MP vacated their seat. Given the nature of the housing market, the taxpayer would probably end up making a tidy profit.

But of course, that would mean admitting that the wealth accrued from such investments is fundamentally unearned and a drain on the economy. MPs dare not admit that as it could be the thin end of the wedge. Next thing you know, people would start demanding we tax this unearned wealth in exchange for tax breaks elsewhere. Revolution!

Cunning stunt? Buy a calculator

A few days late on this one, but I have been meaning to follow up on this article about Grant Shapp’s cunning stunt over the Christmas holidays:

“Our plan would build more houses than the Government. But the way to do it is not to do it in a centrally planned way. That has always failed.

“The way to do it is to incentivise communities to want to build houses. It works by saying, ‘build these houses and you get a new town centre or other services like a hospital or school.’ The existing community gets the gain, not just those people who move there.

“If people knew that council tax receipts were kept for five or 10 years if they took houses and therefore council tax was lower, they would often be in favour. This way you are building up an array of benefits from being a Yimby, not a Nimby.”

No-one is disputing that if communities had incentives to develop, all things being equal they probably would. But perhaps Mr Shapps ought to buy himself a calculator if he intends to make this incentive reliant on council tax receipts. Because while only a fraction (a quarter to be precise) of local authority revenue is raised from council tax, new developments will continue to have net costs associated with them, not net benefits.

If the Tory policy is for council tax to shoulder a bigger burden of local tax revenue, it’s news to me, and I’m sure it will be news to the millions of people who are unlikely to welcome a massive tax hike to the tune of thousands of pounds. And it must be news to Caroline Spelman and Eric Pickles who have spent the past two-plus years denouncing any attempt of government to even contemplate revaluation by coming up with scare stories about taxing “nice views“.

If Shapps truly wants his dream of creating incentives for new build to become a reality, he’s going to have to be a bit more radical than that. It won’t happen without a significant tax shift onto land values. That isn’t something that David Cameron, Gideon Osborne and the other members of the Tufty Club behind the New Model Tories are likely to contemplate, no matter how many times Grant sleeps in a cardboard box.

Shapps of course must know this; he’s seen how Osborne has been inflated to the point of being hailed the new messiah by the Right for suggesting (modest) cuts in wealth taxes after all, which makes his stunt seem all the more hollow. Almost as hollow, in fact, as this claim:

Mr Shapps points out that the real losers were the Lib Dems whose second place was a foretaste of the disarray that eventually claimed their leader.

W-O-W – this is amazing stuff coming from the man who claimed he had proof that the Lib Dems were running a “poster lottery” (which has subsequently earned Iain Dale the immortal nickname Pravdale) and whose hands appeared to be caught stuck in the YouTube cookie jar. Cunning stunts indeed. Without wanting to revisit old battles, let’s just make one thing clear: just as the Lib Dem’s victory in Dunfermline and West Fife in 2006 had nothing to do with our lack of a leader at the time, winning Ealing Southall would have done nothing to save Menzies Campbell’s job. He would still have quit this autumn. For Shapps to claim that one of the greatest Tory fuckups of 2007 was in fact a bold act of regicide on his part is immodest even by his standards.

It’s nice to see him begin his political rehabilitation however. It is clear he has learned nothing, which suggests that we will have a second chance to have some more fun at the expense of this legend in his own lunchtime before too long.

Nick Clegg: video killed the media star?

I’ve finally got around to watching Thursday night’s Question Time Lib Dem leadership hustings. Not much for me to add that hasn’t already been said by so many others. It was no knock out, but the clear consensus (which I agree with) is that Huhne won on points although Clegg recovered well in the second half. In the interests of balance though, I have to agree with Aaron Heath at Liberal Conspiracy: Huhne’s tie should be tried at the Hague for crimes against humanity.

I’m always being told that Huhne is boring and dry. He wasn’t on Thursday. He managed to combine passion and principle with clarity and intellect. Even at his best, Clegg only really scored highly on the first two.

I’m beginning to think that it may be TV that will do for Clegg. What’s clear is that while people like myself have been quick to point out that he’s a media star, it’s the newspapers – not the broadcasters – who are saying that. The Guardian has come out for him this weekend, but failed to come up with a good reason why. Apparently he is “fluent” – well, he hasn’t been fluent in either of his major TV tests so far, unless that fluency is in waffle.

Paradoxically, while the print media is more biased it can also be more forgiving of politicians’ shortcomings. Fluff a line in a newspaper interview and the journalist will always accept your second “take”. Fluff a line on live television on the other hand and it’s there for all to see. Steve Richards, newspaper journalist would never have exposed Nick Clegg in the way that Steve Richards, television interviewer did without even trying.

Clegg must surely realise this. Why then did he allow himself to get blindsided by Dimbleby’s interjection about an article he wrote during the last leadership election when he accused Huhne of opportunism. Surely there’s someone on his campaign team working on rebuttal? Like the tax fluff the week before, this should have been swatted away with ease.

Indeed, it is interesting to watch how Clegg dealt with Dimblebum: in short he didn’t. While Huhne was always quick to interject and get the last word (with those “sharp elbows” of his he was telling us about last week) and treated Dimblebum as a steam roller would a bicycle, Clegg kept listening to him, getting steered off course.

Daniel Finklestein is at least one print journalist for whom the penny is starting to drop:

Clegg is an intelligent and charming man, which is why journalists generally like him, but he seemed lightweight and uncomfortable last night. He hadn’t very good lines to take and his position on Trident (almost the only substantive thing he said) is incoherent.

This is serious stuff for Nick Clegg. Being “telegenic” has up until now been his biggest USP. It isn’t any more. He’d better manage to knock up something bloody spectacular on the Politics Show later today or his big mo will start to sink like a stone.

Incidentally, I notice that the Scott Press has started claiming that this election is a contest between a social democrat and a liberal. All I can say to that is that as someone who was arguing earlier this week for the party to put more emphasis on taxing income less and wealth more, and who is very conscious of the fact that the candidate closest to my own view on this is Chris Huhne, I was pleased to see the Guardian remind everyone this weekend that this position has at least one high profile exponent: J. S. Mill.

Chris Huhne’s manifesto: the verdict

I thought I’d give Huhne’s manifesto the same treatment that I gave Clegg’s speech last week.

Once again, I’ll give each main section marks out of five for how much the section is in the party’s comfort zone, how much it is reaching out beyond our traditional supporter base and how much I personally agree with it. I realise the first two are tests which Nick Clegg first set, but they are valid ones.

Changing the system, not just the Government

Huhne starts off by talking about the electoral system, a matter close to Liberal Democrats’ hearts but not neccesarily the wider public. To be fair, it is the first matter of substance that Clegg referred to in his speech last week as well.

Not much I can add here. Obviously I agree with the policy. I’m not sure this is how I would articulate it, particularly if I had one eye on the wider public. I would want to emphasise the importance of choice and competition, not simply fairness.

Comfort rating: PR, nuff said. 5/5
Reaching out rating: he doesn’t mention “PR” explicitly, at least. 2/5
Personal rating: just to be picky, I’d have phrased it differently and find “fairness” a bit woolly. 4/5

Giving back power to people and communities

This is a radical vision of decentralisation which I think both the party and the public like the sound of. When Lib Dems talk of localism, we mean it, and this is a particularly well articulated section.

Comfort rating: localism is an easy sell internally. 5/5
Reaching out rating: well trod turf, but it is a message which I think is resonating increasingly. 4/5
Personal rating: sounds good to me. 5/5

Fixed term parliaments

This section is actually about more than that. Rather, it is a summary of issues relating to Parliament. I think fixed term parliaments resonate more widely at the moment because of the phoney election debacle, but that is quickly fading. The stuff that is of wider interest I think is the stuff about gender balance in the Lords, not because it will set the world on fire but because I think it shows an interest in how the party looks, which is important.

Comfort rating: some might shuffle their feet about gender balance in the elected Lords. 3/5.
Reaching out rating: some stuff of interest, but mostly the public won’t care about this section. The gender balance stuff gets a point for its long term boost to the party’s image though. 3/5.
Personal rating: if this gender balance stuff is a combination of existing party practice (the “one third” rule), training and mentoring and pro-activity, then great. 4/5.

The people’s veto

Yay! A constitutional reform which is not only truly democratic but is likely to resonate with the average Sun reader. Personally, as readers may have gathered, I’d go further, but a veto system such as this would be a powerful tool and would ensure that all laws had the assent – passive or otherwise – of the people.

Huhne doesn’t mention treaties here (can you say “Lisbon”?), but surely he wouldn’t make them exempt?

Comfort rating: I suspect many people in the party may be uncomfortable about this, but this limited form of participatory democracy will probably win them round in the end. 3/5
Reaching out rating: The public would love this. 5/5
Personal rating: I’d go further, but this is great progress. 5/5

A Freedom Bill to give back liberties

A Freedom Bill? That sounds a bit like a Nick Clegg idea! And Clegg was right – it is indicative of quite how scared he is of his own shadow that he didn’t mention it in his launch.

Is it good politics? Well, it is a great way to communicate our values – symbolism with substance attached. On the other hand it risks having us presented as the middle class liberati. On balance though, I think the consistency would be its own reward and would find its own audience. Not everyone will agree, but significant numbers on both the left and right will.

Comfort rating: can’t see the party having an issue with it. 5/5
Reaching out rating: it will find its own audience. 3/5 (I nearly gave it a 4)
Personal rating: sounds great to me. 5/5

Stopping money politics

This section is all very well as far as it goes, but is a little light on detail. What, for example, does Huhne propose to do about party funding? In fairness to him, he was probably simply being responsible given the Hayden Phillips talks and was not in a position to write his manifesto on the basis that they would collapse the day before.

On corruption, this section is stronger. The Saudi issue is good politics for us and Vince Cable has played it very well this week (maybe we should keep him…).

Comfort rating: not many people vote for corruption. 5/5
Reaching out rating: doesn’t exactly set the world on fire, but there is at least sympathy for our position. 3/5
Personal rating: would want more detail on party funding, notwithstanding the practicalities. 3/5

Markets in public services, or local control?

This section is very interesting. In short it is an argument for localism and against marketisation of public services. In doing so, he actually goes further than I would, dismissing school vouchers for example which is a policy which I have some sympathy for.

He does at least articulate a clear case however. You can agree with him or not, but you can’t accuse him of mincing his words in the way that Clegg was doing last week. This is a line that Steve Webb would have no difficulty with and David Laws would hate, but at least it is a line. I’ve been arguing for consistency in our policy, and this is certainly consistent.

On the down side, is it an issue which will resonate with the public? I think they are for localism, but this section doesn’t address how we will deal with the inevitable complaints about “postcode lotteries” and the like. While the internal conflict is certainly over the extent to which economic liberalism and social liberalism should hold sway in the public services debate, I think the wider public have other priorities that this section does not address.

Comfort rating: it’s broadly existing party policy, but a lot of people will be uncomfortable about going down on one side to such an extent. 2/5
Reaching out rating: this isn’t the debate the public particularly cares about, but at least it is a clear policy. 2/5
Personal rating: I broadly go along with it, but I think there are different balances to strike in health and education policies. 4/5

Solving the housing crisis

This is one of the issues I took Clegg to task for not mentioning last week. I still maintain that you can’t be serious about addressing social mobility without saying something about housing. So, full marks to Huhne for addressing precisely that, and indirectly my other issue – intergenerational equity.

Once again, Huhne here gives us a well argued case for the limits and strengths of council housing. He isn’t being prescriptive here but shows a depth of knowledge. He sits on the fence here to a certain extent, but it is certainly true that it is largely an issue that should be decided locally.

I’m not sure he satisfactorily addresses how he intends us to build 3 million homes over 10 years. There is no easy answer of course (unless you propose bankrupting the state by insisting the government should build every last one of them), but a bit more detail here – and less detail on the public services section – would have been welcome.

Comfort zone: he doesn’t mention anything like building on greenbelt land. 5/5
Reaching out zone: to both the young and the working class, this is one of the biggest issues. He should have made it more central in my view, and linked it to other issues such as immigration, but the fact that he mentioned it at all puts him light years ahead of his opponent. 4/5
Personal rating: he doesn’t mention anything truly radical that might interest me such as contemplating some building on the greenbelt. 3/5

No to Trident

I’ve already banged on about this enough.

Comfort rating: plays well with a certain cleavage but seems to have already backfired to an extent. 3/5
Reaching out rating: I just don’t see many people joining the throng. 1/5
Personal rating: good policy, wrong politics. 3/5

Rebalancing our foreign policy

Again, Iraq War aside, I can’t help but think this will largely leave the average person in the street cold. We’ve acquired a good reputation with regards to foreign policy in the past, but most of the people who support us on this issue have already come over to us. There is some anti-American sentiment out there, but there’s more anti-European sentiment.

None of which is to say that there is much here I would take issue with, although I’m curious why it mentions the English-speaking Commonwealth and not just the Commonwealth; are there not ties there which if anything will grow in importance over the next few decades? He deserves points for bravery for even mentioning the Euro, and has a clear answer for why joining is an option but certainly not yet.

In terms of low politics, it is also interesting that he appears to position himself as broadly more Euro-sceptic than Clegg, who was rather fulsome in his praise for the EU.

Comfort rating: some feathers might be ruffled by being rude about the EU and mentioning the Euro, but nothing to get in a lather over. 4/5
Reaching out rating: very mild Euro-scepticism and anti-Americanism reaches out of a certain extent, but this won’t get them talking at the Dog and Duck. 2/5
Personal rating: broadly fine but uninspired. 4/5

Fairness: a core belief for social liberals

Here Huhne firmly nails his colours to the mast and outs himself as a social liberal. Good. We have a real contest now as Clegg is clearly on the economic wing.

There is a lot here I can’t imagine Clegg saying, based on his speech last week. If I had a rather larger ego than I do, I might even think that this section was tailor-made to get my attention:

It is not enough to speak of equality of opportunity, aspiration and level playing fields. If ‘meritocracy’ means that individuals will receive the rewards their abilities and work deserve, it produces a very unattractive society in which complacently successful people constantly look down on their less able fellow citizens, whom they firmly believe to deserve less. We need more than that.

In truth, I suspect this section has rather more to do with Duncan Brack than it has to do with me.

For me, this is the most important section in the whole document. It is about our core beliefs and reclaiming equality at a time when so many Lib Dems seem keen to drop it as a priority altogether. It is clarity such as this section that recharges my political batteries and convinces me there is actually a point.

Comfort rating: actually, I think that much of this will cause the wider party difficulty. This is a debate we haven’t had in years and it is time we did so. 2/5
Reaching out rating: Will this resonate in the posh suburbs of Kensington? No. Will it resonate in the down-at-heel streets of Manchester where I cut my political teeth? Absolutely. 4/5
Personal rating: I need to hear this sort of thing from my leader, not bloodless exhortations for ‘meritocracy’. 5/5

Tall poppies and tall stories

I believe this is the section which opponents of Huhne may wish to caricature as ‘hammering the rich’. He doesn’t use that phrase, but if I have a criticism it is that he does very little to disabuse people of that notion.

There is an important issue to address in terms of company directors awarding themselves outrageous pay bonuses, but we need to be careful to avoid appearing to play the politics of jealousy. The language here could be more balanced and emollient.

That says, the underlying theme – that we should be concerned more about taxing wealth than incomes – is one of my pet hobby horses. Huhne is cagey about land value taxation but is warm about it in principle. In all honesty, that’s as good as I’m likely to get in this election.

Comfort rating: perhaps a little too much emphasis on bashing high earners. 4/5
Reaching out rating: we need to think about how we might sell this. The stuff about high earners will resonate with a few, but not enough. 2/5
Personal rating: as good as I’m going to get. 4/5

Talking straight on crime

An impeccably liberal approach, but not one that is likely to dispel any caricatures about woolly liberals sadly. It isn’t woolly – it is well argued and succinct – but for many acknowledging home truths such as the fact that fear of crime in this country is disproportionate to the level of actual crime will lead to them simply dismissing the whole argument.

This section presents to me a dilemma. I don’t disagree with any of it, but I know it is a hard sell. Huhne doesn’t give us much of an idea of how he plans to sell all this either.

How do we get this balance right? I have to admit I think Clegg does it better. Sometimes it is just a matter of not saying certain things that don’t need to be said. We can’t afford to alienate people; we have to talk in a language they understand.

Comfort rating: will ruffle quite a few feathers actually – Lib Dems can be quite reactionary at times. 3/5
Reaching out rating: I’d love it if people listened to common sense on crime, but they broadly don’t. We need to communicate this better. 1/5
Personal rating: I can’t deny it doesn’t appeal to me personally. 5/5

Sustainability: challenging on the environment

There’s a lot here that doesn’t need to be said. You’ve already won the argument Chris. Once again though, he doesn’t address how we engage with the public on this issue in a language they understand. Clegg’s critique that when we talk about green taxes, most people just hear ‘taxes’ is correct. Huhne needs to address that point. Calling for further cuts in the basic rate of income tax does that to an extent, but it doesn’t address Clegg’s other point about people being able to see their sacrifices making a difference.

In this respect, I would actually argue that Huhne is currently weaker than Clegg on the environment. Not because he’s wrong on policy but that he is wrong on emphasis. The next battle is on selling this policy, not simply entrenching it. Huhne needs to engage with that fact.

Comfort rating: broadly established party policy. 5/5
Reaching out rating: communication counts. 1/5
Personal rating: fine as far as it goes but barely moves us forward from 2 years ago. 3/5

Our party can win

Thus far, and point me to where if I’m wrong, but Clegg has barely addressed the issue of party organisation. Huhne therefore deserves credit for including this section.

The emphasis on local party development is important as is the emphasis on diversity. His approach on mentoring and training is welcome.

His point about constitutional change being a prerequisite to partnership government is vital. It addresses the Oaten lament that coalition is an issue that the party hasn’t been talking about enough but doesn’t get us distracted in self-defeating speculation about horse-trading.

Finally, the final paragraph succinctly sums up what the party is about. This is a strong section.

Comfort rating: the party will find little to disagree with here. Making it happen though is another matter. 5/5
Reaching out rating: a strong, better trained and more diverse-looking party across the country would inevitably reach out to more people. Simple, but true. 4/5
Personal rating: Again, my concern is making it happen. An uncharitable 3/5 (because I’ve been here before).


You can’t compare like with like with these scores and Clegg’s in my earlier article. Overall, in my view there is more meat here for the general public to grapple with than was in Clegg’s speech last week. There is also more for the party faithful to potentially object to. Interestingly, although I really liked certain bits, as an overall package I found myself less comfortable with it than with Clegg.

Huhne is clearly taking risks, and he should be congratulated for that. He has brought substance to a debate which until now has been distinctly wanting for it. On a number of issues however, he simply doesn’t seem to appreciate the communication issue. On the environment, on crime and on taxation it isn’t that he is wrong on detail, but that he hasn’t worked enough on communicating the message. This is at least a much bigger concern of Nick Clegg’s.

But on consistency, he wins hands down. You can’t fault him for not being prepared to answer difficult questions. This is an issue my scoring system doesn’t measure, yet it is important. Developing a clear Liberal Democrat identity is crucial. It gives us a brand – not something that 100% of the population will agree with, but something which a substantial minority certainly will. Longer term, such consistency will help us bridge the gap between the 10% of the public who identify as a big-el-Lib big-dee-Dem and the 50% of the public who identify as a small-el-liberal. It is not something that Clegg has begun to grapple with thus far, nor can he if he is afraid to reach out beyond existing party policy.

On balance then, this is definitely a stronger package than what I’ve seen from Clegg so far. It is however a package for long term growth – to what extent that is a luxury we can currently afford is not something I have formed a firm view on yet. It certainly isn’t the killing blow that Huhne needs to deliver to defeat his rival. Perhaps I should wait however until Clegg produces a comparable document.

“Pity the poor rich old ladies!” Oh dear, here we go again…

In recent months, I’ve noticed a marked increase in media stories about intergenerational equity, pointing out that young people today are up to their eyeballs in debt and struggling to get onto the housing ladder. I suspected there would be a backlash against this, and it would appear that the Observer has started a rearguard action. Apparently we are to believe that Baby Boomers are “broke, ailing and anxious” while Mary Riddell wants us to know that “not everyone can grow old gracefully“. The implication of both these stories is clear: older people need big cash payouts from their kids, and fast.

Some of this stuff stretches credulity. The first story is based around a book called “The Maturing Marketplace: Buying Habits of Baby Boomers and their Parents” by Professor George Moschis. He claims that “boomers are not as financially well-off as their parents; boomers are in worse health than previous generations were at the same age.” This is appears to go against almost everything we know about demographic trends, which indicate that people are increasingly living longer. If Moschis is correct, surely we should have amassed evidence by now to indicate a reversal of this effect, or at least a dramatic levelling off? Or has some new phenomenon emerged that I was previously unaware of, in which poor people in poor health live into their hundreds en masse? Clearly we will have to read the book to find out; the Observer is only interested in the scare story.

Reading between the lines, the pattern that appears to be emerging is that the issue is less that Baby Boomers are deprived compared to their parents, but that they have squandered the opportunities that many of their parents literally died to bring them. They aren’t financially insecure because they lacked opportunities, but because “they have enjoyed spending their money more than saving it” (I still don’t see how this squares with the amount of property owned by Boomers). They eat poorly due to over-indulgence, not malnutrition. They live stressed, vain existences and are terrified about the prospect of old age.

The problem with this story, and Mary Riddell’s piece, is that it doesn’t seem to be telling us anything particularly new, but is nudging us to draw startlingly bad conclusions. We’re supposed to have thought that there is no such thing as geriatric poverty. Has anyone ever said that? The conclusion we are invited to draw is that the young must bail out the young. Mary Riddell smugly points out that “more than 40 per cent of the electorate is over 50,” clearly implying that if the young don’t give it away, the old will simply vote in a government that will take it from us. But the fact of the matter is that while geriatric poverty exists, so, undeniably, does geriatric wealth. Yet Mary Riddell is also quick to point out the so-called scandal that anyone with more than £21,000 in assets is forced to pay for their own social care. Presumably she would prefer it if their wealth could just sit there growing, untouched, while their every whim is cared for by the state.

Dig a little deeper and you often find that the people who shout loudest about pensioner poverty (including, sadly, the Lib Dems in the last General Election), are in fact set on tax breaks and handouts which disproportionately benefit pensioners in a much more stable position. Free nursing care? Of no benefit whatsoever to poor pensioners. Local Income Tax? Ditto. Citizen’s pension? Limited. Yet the cost of such proposals have the effect of making it harder for the next generation to save or to acquire assets, leading to more dependent, asset-poor pensioners in the longer run. Meanwhile the untaxed assets of pensioners that we dare not touch eventually passes down to their children, creating an entrenched them-and-us society of social immobility and an elite able to lord it over an emerging serfdom. We are sliding back into feudalism.

It is precisely this sort of monstrous short-termism that Prof Moschis appears to associate with the Baby Boomers, so don’t expect any great change any time soon. The challenge is for the next generation to develop a wider consciousness. Linked to that is an awareness that our parents appear to lack of the fact that we will get old at some point, and that we need to be prepared – both financially and spiritually.

That spirituality is the key factor. You don’t have to be religious to recognise the limits of materialism (indeed you only have to look around yourself to see that organised religion is riddled with materialism itself). If we are going to survive the 21st century, we are going to need to replace the cult of the individual with a renewed emphasis on co-dependency. It’s anyone’s guess how we do it though.