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Thursday, 30 December 2010

Westminster should follow Scottish petitions model

In the news this week has been a curious story about the Downing Street online petitions system and how parliament should respond to it.

That change is necessary is patently obvious. The e-petition system was established by the Labour government, but few if any of the petitions had any impact - largely because there existed no framework through which they could be considered by parliament. It is marginally preferable to the previous system which allowed only for MPs to present petitions to number 10, thus allowing countless media savvy elected representatives the opportunity to publicly identify themselves with any populist cause, furthering their profiles in the process.

There is little purpose in a petitions system which makes no provision for eventual consideration of issues raised. It is also hardly progressive that the current system is so narrowly centred around the Prime Minister. The government, recognising this, have proposed introducing a new online system whereby the most popular petitions - probably those with more than 10,000 signatures - will be guaranteed political debate.

I have strong concerns about this. Labour are not too far off the mark in claiming this would result in "crazy ideas" being discussed. The proposals, as they stand, are a positive step in the right direction but would represent a triumph for populism rather than a genuine opportunity for people to connect with politics and influence debate. I have no doubt that petitions in support of foxhunting, "Sarah's law" or of withdrawal from the EU - or, for that matter, calling on David Cameron to resign - would attract more signatures than those supporting prison reform, advocating progressive changes to mental health provision or those concerned with constitutional change. A recent petition calling for Jeremy Clarkson to become Prime Minister attracted 50,000 signatures: it is possible that people may well be tempted to vote for the more "crazy" petitions simply for the novelty of seeing such ideas being debated. This would hardly enhance our democratic model.

Labour Newport West MP Paul Flynn has dismissed the plans as a "foolish gimmick". This assessment is grossly unfair. For all the deficiencies of the government's petitions proposal - which has the usual "back of an envelope" hallmarks - here at least is an attempt to make a potentially useful idea fit-for-purpose. It is absolutely right that petitions should have a more integral role in the democratic process. Any endeavour to actively engage the public within the legislative process is overdue and welcome. Rather than represent a "gimmick" or a waste of time, a well-considered and practical e-petitions system would help bring a dimension of UK politics into line with the interactive era and help stimulate both debate and public interest.

I have two concerns. The first is that of a guaranteed consideration of only the most popular petitions rather than those with most merit. This is an irresponsible way to build an accountable petitioning system and could open the system up to the most cynical of manipulations. In focusing on the most popular, some of the more useful ideas and less publicised issues that urgently require parliamentary attention could be overlooked. This isn't democracy. The legislative process would be hijacked by those who are most adept at advertising their particular petition or cause.

The second concern is a presumption that petitions in some way represent a purer expression of the public will than representative democracy. We should not be providing further ammunition to the anti-politics brigade. A strong, cohesive and democratic e-petitions system would provide an additional layer of accountability rather than undermine the existing system of accountable government.

Fortunately, there is a tried, tested and working model of an e-petitions system which is both democratic and efficient by nature. It is the one used here by the Scottish Parliament. All petitions, irrespective of the number of signatures, are considered on their respective merits by a parliamentary committee. Petitioners are invited to provide additional evidence in support of their arguments and occasionally may be called to address the committee to put their case. The committee then investigates the matters at stake, taking advice from various agencies and sometimes referring the issue to either the Scottish government or the full parliament.

Most petitions are not debated in full parliament - because they generally don't need to be. Some may be dismissed immediately, often because they relate to non-devolved issues. A few are discussed by parliament. But, in over 60 per cent of cases, the committee is able to address the issues itself or refer them to an organisation that can.

The advantage of the Scottish system is that the merits of the petitioner's arguments that are considered over the relative popularity of the petition itself. "Crazy" petitions are usually discarded reasonably early in the process while the more sensible and well-considered can go on to influence legislation. The key thing to recommend the Scottish system is not, however, the democratic nature of the consideration process. It is this: it allows not only the public to engage with the political system but affords politicians the opportunity to engage with, and listen to, the concerns of the public. Even rejected petitions often have a strong influence on political thinking, especially if they are able to capture the public mood.

If David Cameron has a real interest in creating a workable and accountable e-petitions system rather than simply throwing a sop to populism he should look no further than the example set in Holyrood. Not for the first time, our own devolved parliament has led the way in shaping a fit-for-purpose, modern system of accountability that should be replicated on a wider level.

Friday, 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas to you all!

I would like to wish all my friends and fellow political campaigners a very happy Christmas and a successful New Year.

In particular, I hope all my friends in Inverclyde enjoy the festive season to the full! I'd also like to offer our campaign team in Oldham East and Saddleworth every best wish; I'd love to be out campaigning with you but I'm afraid I'm spending Christmas with my wife. Occasionally there are more important things in life than politics!

Cable's role diminished after "War with Murdoch" gaffe

On Tuesday morning it emerged that a number of senior Liberal Democrats had expressed concern about some of the government's plans - and their own roles within it. The revelations indicated that a number of ministers had misgivings about the "fairness" of certain policies including increasing tuition fees and withdrawing child benefit from higher earning families.

On the child benefit issue, Steve Webb is reported as saying that "the details aren't right", Ed Davey claimed to be "gobsmacked" by the decision and Scottish Secretary Michael Moore insisted that it "was blatantly not a consistent and fair thing to do". Moore has also hit out against the tuition fees hike, claiming that the move was "deeply damaging" to the Liberal Democrats and that it amounted to "the biggest, ugliest, most horrific thing in all of this...a car crash, a train wreck...I've done the worst crime a politician can commit, the reason most folk distrust us as a breed. I've had to break a pledge and very, very publicly."

On top of this, business secretary Vince Cable was talking up a "nuclear option" - that of being personally able to bring down the government by resigning from it. It wasn't sensible and it wasn't particularly dignified. It seemed tactically naive, although Clegg and Cameron were happy to brush it to one side. Like party activists, the two leaders understood that there are internal battles being fought and that it is natural for ministers to haggle and argue over policy compromises.

Regrettably, it is the public expression of unhappiness on the part of senior Lib Dems that is cause for concern. On one level Lib Dem activists can be now assured that, in spite of previously defending policy in public, many ministers share our concerns about the coalition's policy direction. I for one could identify with the positions of Moore, Webb and Davey and I imagine there are many who are relieved at what the revelations reveal about relationships inside the cabinet. It is no bad thing that differences of opinion lie at the heart of government. However, on another level it is disconcerting that private tensions should spill over into the public domain and have such potentially damaging effects on the unity of the coalition and on our own scope for effectiveness within it. Politically experienced ministers should be sufficiently adept at concealing their broader feelings from journalists, however subtle their cover.

Of course, these remarks were nothing to what came later. Almost immediately after the press conference in which Clegg and Cameron dealt with questions relating to Cable's "nuclear option", new revelations emerged which demonstrated even more reckless behaviour on the part of the business secretary. It emerged that, in a conversation with two Daily Telegraph reporters posing as party activists, Dr Cable had claimed that "I am picking my fights...I have declared war on Mr Murdoch and I think we are going to win...His whole empire is now under attack...so there are things like that we do in government that we can't do [in opposition]".

Immediately, Downing Street criticised the comments as "totally unacceptable and inappropriate". Dr Cable met separately with Nick Clegg and the Prime Minister and - after further emergency meetings which included chancellor George Osborne - he was stripped of his responsibilities for media policy although was allowed to continue to serve as business secretary largely because Cameron feared the effect of losing another senior Lib Dem from the cabinet on coalition unity. There is little doubt that if a Tory minister had made such a grave error of judgement he would have paid the ultimate price; ironically, and in a stunning role-reversal, Cable is now the beneficiary of his party's political standing. His survival owes nothing to his own abilities but to the awkwardness of replacing him. As Tory MP John Whittingdale said, it was "almost certainly [true] that Mr Cable would have been dismissed if he had been a Conservative. I'm not happy, but nevertheless I accept that in coalition we have to do things to keep our partners content...it's quite plain that Vince Cable is the second most important [Lib Dem] member of the coalition. we have already lost one leading Lib Dem minster and the feeling was we cannot afford to lose another."

As tensions in the Tory ranks increased, Labour leader Ed Miliband was unable to resist the temptation to indulge in some ill-judged gloating: "Liberal Democrats are now just passengers in a Tory-led government - not in the front seat, not even back seat, but locked in the boot."

It is difficult to understand Cable's motivations. As The Guardian pointed out, during the last few months Dr Cable has been transformed "from St. Vince to Mr Bean". There will be some who will point to naivete, and view him as the unfortunate victim of media manipulations. This would be too simplistic an interpretation; Cable's naivete is one of believing it to be politically expedient to say different things to different groups of people. There is so much more at play here, not least Cable's arrogance and self-indulgence which have now backfired spectacularly.

Significantly, this episode does far more than reveal Cable as arrogant. It shows his attitude towards the coalition - and in particular, how he views the success of Liberal Democrats within it. Many Lib Dem members and activists such as myself view it in terms of not only policy success (in which we act as a sobering influence on Conservative excesses and implement some of our own ideas) but - vitally - in terms of coalition survival. Liberal Democrats have a vested interest in ensuring that the coalition works and, as much as is possible, becomes a vehicle for a progressive new direction in policy. Cable, it seems, sees Lib Dem success in terms of taking on the Tories in individual battles and using these to express Lib Dem distinctiveness. The inevitable consequences of such an approach are strained relations within the coalition and an emphasis on internal conflict rather than unity of purpose and collaboration.

Cable's greatest asset was that he represented so much of what was and is distinctive about the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, his incendiary remarks and unhelpful talk of bringing down a government of which he is a key member threaten to further weaken the influence of the Lib Dems in government. Whatever Cable believed he was doing when speaking to reporters posing as constituents, he was not acting in the interests of either the coalition or his party.

The end result is that, while being allowed to continue to serve as business secretary, Cable has been stripped of any power to act an arbiter in the BSkyB case. Instead, the remit will go to Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary. It was not only Dr Cable, but the majority of Liberal Democrats who were concerned about News Corp's expansion. Cable faced demands from inside his own party - at all levels - to legally prevent News Corp buying the 61% of BSkyB it does not currently own. Hunt, whatever his personal views on the matter, is under no such pressure from Conservatives.

This spectacular own goal will have predictable ramifications for our party. Our influence over economic policy will be diminished and Cable, now weakened, will have more limited scope to provide much needed grit and a distinctive voice. In this respect, it may have been better - for the party if not the coalition - if Dr Cable had been replaced as business secretary rather than have a large chunk of his remit transferred elsewhere. Finally, it adds further ammunition to those who see the Liberal Democrats as either unfit for government or unable to adjust to the realities of "grown-up politics".

I have little doubt that this will change the nature of coalition dynamics and that the influence of our party will be very much the weaker for it.

It is also difficult to comprehend the motivations of the Daily Telegraph, which presumably would have a fair amount to lose if Murdoch's media empire is allowed to continue its expansionist agenda unchecked. Mr Murdoch, who now openly supports the Tories, will undoubtedly be delighted at the turn of events.

I would finally like to ask the question that doesn't yet appear to have been asked: why was Dr Cable unable to recognise the two journalists? Lest we forget, one of them was Holly Watt, the award-winning Young Journalist of the Year whose role in reporting (and creating) the MPs' expenses scandal should have made her instantly recognisable in Westminster. Even I know who she is and what she looks like, so is Dr Cable simply ignorant of developments and people within the media (a dangerous thing for a minister) or was he so keen to play up his independence and role to impress some constituents that he failed to consider the potential ramifications of the conversation being leaked (an even more dangerous thing)?

Sheridan convicted of perjury

So at last the circus that passed for a trial is over and - surprise, surprise - Tommy Sheridan has been found guilty of perjury.

This "news" has provided an early Christmas present for many journalists who have feigned shock at the outcome and have, for some unknown reason, been keen to play up the political significance of the verdict.

It's time for some sober judgement. The only person who actually believes Tommy Sheridan to be an important figure in Scottish politics is Tommy Sheridan. This is a man who led a small Socialist Party to its destruction and then, following its implosion, turned on colleagues he now brands "former socialists" and created his own, even smaller and less politically credible party - Solidarity - which lacks any serious ideology and is merely a fan club for its leader. The only big thing about Tommy is his ego. One fellow Lib Dem quipped that he's a bit like David Owen on account of their shared egomania and self-destructive qualities, but that's an unfair comparison. Owen, for all his faults, had gravitas and a strong intellectual grasp of political reality. Sheridan has neither.

I have intentionally refrained from commenting on the "drama" of the Sheridan trial, largely because I considered it to be of peripheral interest at best. Other than to watchers of Big Brother (and there can't be too many who would admit to that) Sheridan - and his party - have been entirely irrelevant during the last few years. Tommy retains his incredible gift for self-publicity but he lacks the ability to put it to effective use and he's become a more detached figure, appearing every now and then to rant about personal injustices and to portray himself and the underdog fighting against the excesses of capitalist empires.

Even after the verdict was announced, Sheridan couldn't resist a dig at Rupert Murdoch and his media empire: "I make no apologies for taking on the might of...Murdoch. Is it not time that [significant] resources were spent investigating the News of the World?" Perhaps he should have known, following Vince Cable's unwise comments, that it isn't particularly clever to declare war on Murdoch. Especially when all it does it to make himself look bitter and shallow.

The Great Tommy would like us to believe that this has been a battle between the working man and a powerful media magnate. He has consistently, and wrongly, portrayed this is a struggle between a fair, ethical and honest socialism and the oppressive nature of international capitalism. His splinter group, Solidarity, issued a statement in which it declared that "Sheridan's only crime has been to speak truth to power...he is a working class fighter who has waged war on poverty and injustice wherever he has found it."

Not only do Sheridan and Solidarity delude themselves as to the nature of socialism, they are clearly mistaken in their analysis of the outcome. Sheridan's crimes are many and even from the point of view of Scottish socialism I would imagine his legacy has been a negative one. While he might argue this trial has been about standing up to the likes of Murdoch - and his detractors would claim this has been about achieving overdue justice - in reality this has been about Tommy Sheridan - his leadership, his charisma, his delusion, his dishonesty, his hubris...

Throughout the trial, Sheridan sought to claim that he was a victim of a vendetta - or, more accurately, a series of vendettas. Conducting his own defence in the style we've all come to expect of him, he looked to undermine, discredit and paint as unreliable several of his former allies and colleagues. Ultimately, the case came down to whether Sheridan or his ex-friends and the police were more plausible. That he actually believed his own spin and self-deceit is one further reason why this man should never again be given opportunities by the electorate to resurrect a political career.

The Scottish Socialist Party, unusually accurate in its interpretation of the events and Sheridan's complex character, asserted that "the verdict would now define him...by his actions over six years, Sheridan has disgraced himself and negated his political contribution to the socialist cause. History will record that he did more harm to [socialism] in Scotland than any good he ever did it."

The most telling analysis, however, comes from today's Herald: "As for Sheridan himself, this case is reminiscent of those against Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, who both ended up serving jail terms for perjury following defamation cases against newspapers. Here are three able men whose charisma was ultimately their undoing. Self-delusion and a sense of being untouchable proved their Achilles heel. But nobody is above the law. This case was not in the end a contest between a colourful socialist and a powerful newspaper group. It was a matter of lies versus the truth and the jury decided the liar in this case was the man in the dock."

Colourful egomaniacs with scant grasp of political realities can not be the future of Scottish politics; in fact, the media should not have allowed this disgraced relic of pseudo-socialism to dominate political matters from the courtroom. I personally care nothing for Sheridan or his reputation. His claims to be principled were always questionable from the moment in 1999 when the enemy of the tabloid press entered into the pay of the Daily Record, writing a regular column. He remains typically defiant, but either refuses or can not recognise his culpability in his own downfall. Sadly, his lack of insight into his own personality has proved a tragic flaw.

Sheridan's phoney world has finally collapsed and he now looks like a lonely figure, supported only by his wife and the few Solidarity activists who share his regressive and simplistic worldview. I have no doubt that Scottish politics will move on - and move forward - while Sheridan will become more embittered and deluded still.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Miliband appeals for help on policy

It seems that Ed Miliband's party is so short on policy ideas that it is now appealing to the Liberal Democrats for help.

Ed yesterday offered the Lib Dems the opportunity to participate in Labour's policy review. He claimed that "the kaleidoscope of British politics has been shaken and I don't think the pieces have properly settled...[we want to] draw up areas where our policy reviews can be informed by submissions and ideas of Liberal Democrats who want to contribute." Ed highlighted areas that are obviously important to many Lib Dem members, including social mobility, the economy and what he termed "the way we do politics".

He's trying hard to be taken seriously as a non-tribalist, keen on helping to forge the "new politics". But his motives were laid bare when, moving away from the premise of mutual collaboration, he claimed that many Lib Dem members were "ashamed" of the coalition and that the Lib Dems were split between centre and left. No-one could be left in any doubt about Ed's intentions when he issued an invite to "work with us against the direction in which this government is taking Britain."

The first thing to say is that, from a tactical point of view, it's likely to be more effective than his leadership election approach of bashing the Lib Dems at every opportunity. People want to see co-operative politics and, to be honest, there are many Lib Dems who are more broadly in tune with Labour's thinking than the Conservatives'. Opportunities for collaboration should not be flippantly dismissed - unless of course they're simply part of a party political game aimed at undermining the coalition.

Of course Ed will present any unwillingness to co-operate with him as evidence of our party drifting rightwards and away from the "new politics". He would also present any signs of willing collaboration as evidence of divisions within both the Liberal Democrats and the coalition.

If Ed Miliband genuinely wishes to be taken seriously as someone who buys into the "new politics" of cross-party co-operation, he would be well advised to avoid these grand gestures (sorry, cheap publicity stunts) which appear shallow and cynical. I think he's on the right lines tactically in softening his approach towards our own party - especially with the Scottish Parliamentary elections in 2011 - but he needs to find alternative means of reaching out to Lib Dems than simply making scathing statements about a government in which Lib Dems are ministers. He needs to develop understandings based on experience and progressive ideas rather than merely attempting to cynically undermine the coalition with such overtly partisan gameplaying.

Senior Lib Dems Simon Hughes and Tim Farron were quick to respond to Ed Miliband's appeal. Simon Hughes, presumably interpreting Ed's statement as an overture to disaffected members and activists, urged Lib Dems to "stay with us because progressives are needed more now than ever in the history of the party." Party President-elect Tim Farron helpfully argued that Lib Dems "continuing the work...[of] fixing Labour's economic mess, taking millions of people out of income tax and reforming British politics...is far more attractive to Liberal Democrats than helping Ed Miliband's increasingly desperate attempts to work out what he actually stands for."

Unhelpfully however, Tim also added a stab at Labour who he accused of "sucking up to Rupert Murdoch and George Bush - why would any progressive even give them a second glance?"

I don't really understand why someone as capable as Tim Farron has to resort to the tactics of Tommy Sheridan, someone else who was keen to identify Labour with Murdoch to score cheap points. It also invites counter accusations that as a party we've been keen to "suck up" to a Tory Party which is connected to a host of other individuals many liberals would find unsavoury. And, put simply, it's not very sensible for the Party President to indulge in such divisive rhetoric when the opinion pools suggest that, after the forthcoming Scottish Parliamentary elections, Liberal Democrats may very well be "giving Labour a second glance" and working out a progressive plan for government.

This situation highlights how Westminster-centric both Ed Miliband and Tim Farron can be. They are so focused on the coalition in London (one defending it, one attempting to undermine it) that the broader realities of UK politics have passed them by. If Ed wants to genuinely develop a more collaborative politics and forge a new government whose policies can throw down a challenge to the direction of the Cameron-led administration, he should look no further than Holyrood and be looking to cultivate positive relationships between his own party and ours in Scotland. Similarly, if Tim Farron wants to increase Lib Dem influence he should recognise that the best way to do this is to ensure we are in a strong position to enter government in Holyrood and have developed the necessary understandings with the likely largest party ahead of the election. Unnecessary hostility will simply provide unwelcome obstacles that will have to be negotiated at a later stage.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Will this be our "Iraq moment"?

I'm asking the question the media have been asking all week: will the tuition fees vote prove to be the Liberal Democrats' "Iraq moment"?

Creating tension and fuelling misunderstanding is often the preserve of the popular press, but I would have expected something different from the BBC. Something less inflammatory, perhaps?

Whatever can be said about tomorrow's vote on increasing tuition fees and its potential ramifications (and a great deal has) comparing it to Iraq is hardly responsible journalism. As far as I am aware no Liberal Democrat MP is advocating a barely legal war, constantly changing his arguments for the basis for invading a foreign state, misleading parliament with "dodgy" evidence or putting at risk the lives of our troops and world security in order to further our friendship with the US President. So - no - this will not be an "Iraq moment".

If anyone wishes to draw comparisons with the Labour government, this could be our "Lisbon Treaty" moment. Remember when Labour promised in their manifesto a referendum on the EU constitution, and then failed to deliver what the public apparently wanted when Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty. I can understand that similar criticisms could be levelled at some MPs within our party who go back on the pledges they made just a few months ago. There will inevitably be anger if, as expected, the government wins the vote tomorrow. But to suggest this is likely to be an "Iraq moment" is overstating it more than slightly.

I remain diametrically opposed to increasing HE tuition fees. I will not change my mind, unless I see irrefutable evidence that increasing fees will actually lead to a more inclusive education system. However, I am convinced that signing the pledge was unnecessary and tactically naive. It was not "grown-up politics" but cynical populism. What the pledge actually did was to undermine any future Lib Dem position in which we would be able to continue to assert our political opposition to fees on principle while moderating Tory policy in government. Unfortunately, it's not a credible thing for us to say "Look, we don't like fees, but they're here and we have to work with the Browne Review. We still want to eradicate fees in the long-term but in the short term we're using our position in government to make this Tory policy as fair as possible." Our election strategy means that we will not be held accountable by the public for how well we moderate the excesses of Conservative policy, but for whether our MPs honour their election pledges.

There are student groups who are urging protesters to "send a message to Clegg". Perhaps while they're at it, they'll send a message to party strategists not to make irresponsible pledges which will inevitably cause difficulties for MPs further down the line.

I see that three Tories, including David Davis, have also indicated they will vote against the rise in tuition fees tomorrow. Strangely, there haven't been the same pressures on them to conform to the wishes of their party leadership, or to respect collective responsibility. They haven't been grilled by a BBC correspondant anxious to confirm the existence of a crisis within their party. Neither has Cameron felt the need to hold an urgent meeting of his parliamentary party, or call a press conference to confirm his ministers are united. Just a thought, but what does this say about the difference in media attitudes towards the respective coalition partners, or about the leaderships of the respective parties?

Monday, 6 December 2010

The unreality of TV shows

I'm not a fan of "reality TV", which has about as much basis in reality as a David Cameron original idea.

I really dislike these so-called talent shows, like The X-Factor and Strictly Come Dancing. Britain's Got Talent is marginally better as it at least allows for some degree of originality on the part of its contestants.

I don't mind the actual talent on display. I used to perform in competition myself (in a former life!) as a young Gaelic singer. It's no bad thing when capable people choose to use their gifts to entertain others.

It's what The X-Factor represents that I struggle with. It isn't a talent show. If I'm being polite I would describe it, more accurately, as a media circus. If I'm being more uncharitable, I might suggest it is little more than a cynically manipulative franchise of Simon Cowell's extensive business empire.

The best thing that can be said is that this is glorified, glamourised karaoke. That itself wouldn't be so intolerable if the performers could actually...you know...well, sing. In the last few years, however, The X-Factor has made celebrities of such untalented acts as Wagner Carrilho and the unspeakable Jedward.

What message does this send out? I'm not going to moralise too much, but my incredibly talented teenage niece, who once had aspirations of studying medicine, now simply wants to be "famous". Famous for what? "Oh, I don't know. Just famous." She's predictably addicted The X-Factor and its shallow glamour to the point that it has (temporarily, hopefully) distracted her from focusing her energies on more constructive interests. The X-Factor propagates the sub-Thatcherite philosophy that success is about finding a quick route to fame and riches. At least in Thatcher's era it was only the money that mattered.

Even the national media are obsessed with it. Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole attract more column inches than Barack Obama and Alex Salmond. The news no longer reports on things that actually affect people's lives but prefers to reinforce the shallow culture of celebrity worship by reporting the meaningless adventures of wannabes and "celebs". A celebrity class has emerged, fooling people into believing in a sham meritocracy where the problems of social immobility can be overcome by the power of the TV camera. In this context, The X-Factor is merely one more chapter in the national soap opera.

The X-Factor promises so much for so little. It promises glamour, fame, fortune and success to those who "have what it takes", not to mention millions for Simon Cowell. It's a British corruption of that phoney American Dream. So many are willing to buy into the myth, in spite of the obvious exploitation of vulnerable young people. Others simply find it a form of escapism, as Marx's maxim proves true: The X-Factor has replaced religion as a focal point for hope - it is "the opium of the masses; the heart of a heartless society."

You might wish to argue with that interpretation. What I think is beyond doubt is that this year we have witnessed some particularly mean-spiritedness from X-Factor organisers. Firstly, we had the controversy surrounding Gamu Nhengu whose absence from the final twelve appeared to owe more to political issues than Gamu's singing (unless the judges really were that stupid they couldn't recognise her obvious talent). Then there was Cheryl Cole's inexplicably judgemental and unprofessional outburst on live TV, when she confronted Wagner on things he had supposedly said to the tabloids, which only served to make her look petty and highlighted her own personal insecurities. There have been more allegations of "fixing", capped off by the show slapping a ban on Gamu's Christmas charity single - recorded to raise funds for Scottish children's charity Aberlour Child Care Trust - being publicised due to the terms of her X-Factor contract. Wonderful show of "Christmas spirit" there, Simon!

The last move from Simon Cowell might prove to be a huge PR mistake, and will surely make Gamu more likely to win the race for Christmas number one with Where Will You Sleep This Christmas? Already there has been widespread criticism of The X-Factor's stance, not least from our own Jo Swinson MP who has put down an EDM in parliament calling for fellow politicians to give publicity to the record.

At a time when footballers are often criticised for not living up to their status as "role models", what can be said about Simon Cowell and the example his greed, pettiness and egotism sets for X-Factor's young fans?

And I didn't even get onto his shameful determination to select the Christmas number one for the next 30 years.

Then there's Strictly Come Dancing. OK, so Strictly represents something completely different to The X-Factor. The judges actually know their stuff for starters. But it would be disingenuous to call this a talent show. Like I'm A Celebrity - Get Me Out Of Here! (surely to be renamed I Used To Be A Celebrity - Get Me Back On TV!), Strictly provides yet another opportunity for the escapist public to honour the cult of celebrity.

Probably the worst thing that can be said about Strictly is its ability to rehabilitate the reputation of Ann Widdecombe, whose understanding of dancing is about as thorough as Tommy Sheridan's appreciation of co-operative politics. As one judge put it, she danced like "a dalek in drag". And yet the public liked her, voting for her in spite of her comical moves until she finally left in the quarter-finals.

"Widdy" went from retired right-wing MP, known for holding deeply intolerant and repugnant views, to national treasure in just a few short weeks. Quite a turnaround. So her bigoted attitudes towards gay people are forgotten, as are her irresponsibly divisive plans to deal with anti-social behaviour - and instead the public will remember her as a hopeless dancer on a popular TV show.

Perhaps, following her example, if Nick Clegg or Vince Cable seriously wants to improve their standing with the voting public, a few appearances on the upcoming Britain's Got Talent wouldn't go amiss. It would be a great publicity opportunity and - here's the best bit - they wouldn't even have to be any good!

Mulholland calls for tuition fees vote delay

I've just watched Lib Dem MP Greg Mulholland argue on BBC News 24 that Thursday's vote on Higher Education tuition fees should be postponed. Citing the lack of debate - only three hours will be given to the issue on the floor of the Commons - Greg indicated that he would have to vote "no" on Thursday as what is actually being debated is not some of the more progressive aspects of the government's proposals but merely an increase in tuition fees. Voting simply for an increase, asserts Greg, is something that "many" Liberal Democrat MPs have trouble with.

"I don't want to vote 'no' ", he explained. "There is one way out - postpone the vote and look at this again in 2011".

This approach is more reasonable than it at first might appear. It is pretty clear that divisions seem to be deepening within the party. It is also clear that the leadership has been unconvincing in its efforts to contain this division. Many party members are concerned, understandably, that coalition unity is being placed before party unity. Perhaps some more time to think seriously about the vote and its potential ramifications would help heal rifts and allow for the development of a new understanding within the parliamentary party.

Perhaps.

I'm not convinced. There has been plenty of time for the party's MPs to consider their stance - both as individuals and collectively. Understandably two distinct approaches have emerged: "we're bound by collective responsibility and therefore must vote with the government" and "we owe it to our constituents to honour our pledges". These are both simplistic attitudes, and are hardly indicative of the "grown-up politics" we are supposed to be championing.

The first perspective illiberally reduces MPs to unthinking, robotic and unquestioning lobby fodder, whose only purpose is to see through government policy, irrespective of individual conscience. While I recognise the need for "collective responsibility", clearly that term means a multitude of things to different people. My own interpretation of "collective responsibility" does not attack individuality as dangerous and is more than merely a means to impose conformity.

The second approach perhaps gives insufficient consideration to the needs to keep the coalition united. That does not mean that coalition interests supercede those of the party. But our party's interests are inescapably linked to the success of the coalition. There is little purpose in pursuing goals that will untimately compromise broader opportunities for the Liberal Democrats.

Unfortunately, there is a widespread - and I think mistaken - belief that a sizeable "rebellion" would be bad for the coalition. It wouldn't; it would be unlikely to affect the outcome and would hardly cause David Cameron headaches. Neither would Lib Dem MPs voting three ways necessarily damage the party. As Paddy Ashdown (also speaking on BBC News 24) said "the process is as important as the outcome to hold the party together." And public disagreement on policy and principle, however regrettable, is infinitely better to the personality centred divisions we witnessed within the Labour Party in the final months of the Brown administration.

And it's this "process" I have concerns about. Lord Ashdown might contend that "the process...[allows MPs] to respect each other's views without rancour...[the party has been united] in listening to all the voices...agreeing maybe to disagree ...people will take different views." While the unity he promotes - that of honest discussion and mutual respect, irrespective of agreement on principle - is a more genuine unity than one that is enforced and dictated, there is no escaping the unfortunate reality that the "process" has ultimately failed. The party appears divided and chaotic, while the strict terms of the coalition - allowing only for abstention - undermine any unity based on "the agreement to disagree".

Greg Mulholland's proposal to postpone the vote, however laudable his reasons, would only serve to further confuse the situation and would in all likelihood have the opposite effect to the one he intends. The Lib Dem leadership would be made to look particularly weak and incapable of maintaining party discipline. Suspicion about the depth of supposed divisions would be heightened and probably exaggerated. We would be ridiculed as a party in turmoil.

Tensions have already been raised today with Norman Baker indicating he "is unsure" of how he will vote and that he may be willing to resign.

Nick Clegg's job is probably the most difficult in British politics. Deferring the vote would make it more difficult still.

What I really struggle with is why "grown-up politics" should be so averse to the possibilities of allowing MPs a free vote on this issue. Surely, as Paddy Ashdown says, "the process is as important as the outcome" in respect also to coalition unity? If our MPs vote three different ways and yet can retain respect for each other, and if our party can remain united and committed to pursuing a fairer society irrespective of our disagreements on this single issue, that will be a greater achievement than enforcing a superficial, undemocratic and artificially created "coherent position" at the vote on Thursday. Even if the government wins the vote (which it will surely do), it will be a hollow victory if it has been gained at the cost of losing the trust of the public, creating resentment among Lib Dem MPs and undermining the Lib Dem leadership.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

A Martian speaks out (again)



Hi! Zut-Zut here again.

It's been a while since Andrew last asked me to post. I've been back home to Mars for a flying visit but, you know, I missed Scotland so much I returned earlier than expected. Timed it perfectly - I got back just as the heavy snow had fallen! It's not the weather I don't like; you should see the storms we get on Mars! No, it's the way that everything here stops for a bit of white stuff! Honestly!

I've been trying to follow political developments, which has been pretty difficult really as we've had some power cuts around here. Still, I've had a good chuckle at the mess Alec the Salmon has found himself in. In the last few weeks we've seen that this man who claims to lead a government has not noticed that key powers have lapsed, has approved a confused budget and has come under fire for keeping secret a £180,000 loan. The Salmon has gone from seemingly invincible visionary leader to a confused, rambling object of ridicule in the space of a few months. Strangely, with the reputation of both himself and the SNP suffering and Labour light years ahead in all the polls, he still believes he can win the 2011 elections. Och well, at least he has a good motivational coach.

I did see the debate in Holyrood on the "secret loan" issue. To simplify the whole affair: an earthling festival called The Gathering was to be cancelled because the company running it was on the brink of insolvency. In true socialist interventionist style, the Salmon loaned £180,000 to ensure the showpiece went ahead - then had to write the loan off when the company predictably collapsed. And he has the nerve to criticise the UK government's financial dealings? Even by earthling standards, this is pretty stupid.

Strangely, the debate seemed to centre about what was meant by "secret loan". Lib Dem Nicol Stephen noted: "is it not a fact that the loan was kept secret from the partners in the event – they did not know about this loan?” To which the culture minister replied that, no, the loan wasn't secret, the government just didn't feel it was their responsibility to tell anyone about it.

Onto more serious things, and I've also found Vince Cable's succession of announcements amusing. "I'm opposed to tuition fees"..."I believe in a progressive graduate tax"..."I support the government's position to increase tuition fees"..."I think I might actually abstain in the vote"..."er, I'm going to vote with the government after all". For Foch's sake! It's also been interesting to see other Lib Dem MPs struggling to decide how to vote, which is perfectly understandable and something that really should have been foreseen. Perhaps it is no bad thing for the Lib Dems if - on this vote - the party is split three ways, so long as efforts are made to contain potential future divisions. Imposing a rigid party discipline in the run up to the vote would be counter-productive.

We have an excellent system on Mars, and you earthlings should take note. We have a range of funding options and allow students and their families to choose the best one for their particular circumstances. We also recognise that the rewards of education are felt by all, so "repayment" can be made in terms of time worked in particular areas of service. I know it's hard to grasp in societies like yours where a "one cap fits all" approach is the norm, but maybe it's by time you developed a more sensible approach to education than either "it should be free" or "you should pay for it". But it's good to see politicians squirm!

The Scottish Tories are in disarray. Oh, that's not news. No, but can you believe they spent one million of your pounds in Scotland during the election? And returned just one MP? That just shows what happens when you give a large sum of money to such a luminary as David McLetchie! Also, the lovely Annabel will have to stand for election next year if she wants to be the Leader of the Scottish Tories, rather than just the Leader of the Scottish Tories in Holyrood. Imagine if she doesn't win? What a joke!

I noticed that Labour seem to be making progress due to the unpopularity of the Tory-Lib Dem coalition in Westminster. That wouldn't be a bad thing, but they don't seem to know what they stand for. "Er...we don't want independence for Scotland". OK. Anything else? "We don't like the Tories, and the only thing that's worse than the Tories are the bloody Lib Dems". Hardly much of a policy statement.

Next week, there are due to be some more student protests. I really like this expression of British culture. You know, thousands marching, ensuing riots, inevitable police heavy-handedness, footage of sundry individuals wielding heavy objects for the benefit of news reporters who want "good TV". The NUS are hoping it's going to put some pressure on Tory and Lib Dem MPs. I can imagine many of the Tories are terrified...I can picture them now, sitting in Committee Room 3, saying how "ghastly" it all is while looking skywards and tutting...

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Cable may "abstain" in tuition fees vote

Just as the tuition fees protests gather more pace, Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced that he may "abstain" in the key vote, to be held on 9th December.

This is not only surprising but downright absurd, and demonstrates the difficulties facing the Lib Dem leadership with a divided parliamentary party. I'm not entirely sure, but I would imagine it's unheard of for a minister to refuse to vote in support of legislation he is recommending to the House.

Labour have been quick to make political capital from this, claiming it shows Cable's indecision on the issue. They are wrong. While I find it hard to believe him entirely when he says "I am in agreement with the proposals" merely weeks after proposing an alternative graduate tax, there is little doubt that Vince has injected the findings of the Browne review with some key ideas of his own which he means to implement. Certainly, his efforts have resulted in the final proposal being significantly preferable to implementing the Browne findings in full.

His announcement, however bizarre and unexpected, instead stems from a desire to maintain party unity. In recent days a number of Lib Dem MPs have indicated they might vote against the Bill, and there is a very real risk that the parliamentary party could spilt three ways. While this would be unlikely to affect the outcome of the vote, it could be potentially disastrous for the party. A sizeable Lib Dem rebellion could also create some ill-feeling between the coalition partners, something that Nick Clegg and Vince Cable are understandably anxious to avoid.

It would seem that what the leadership want is to adopt a "team approach" to abstain en masse, as permitted under the coalition agreement. Nick Clegg seems keen to keep his party together while adhering to the conditions of the CA. (Clegg admits Lib Dems may abstain in tuition fees vote, The Guardian, 26/11/10) On one level, this is utterly sensible. However, surely such a strategy should have been adopted earlier, before MPs went public with their opposition and before the controversy (predictably) deepened.

If Cable seriously believes he can persuade Sir Menzies Campbell and Charles Kennedy to merely abstain, then I would suggest he is more than optimistic. He may have better luck with MPs such as Tim Farron and Simon Wright, but an agreed party position should have been determined well in advance of the key debate and any key objectors identified (and hopefully pacified). Desperately trying to keep your own MPs onside in the days leading up to a vote sends out a clear message - one which would have been best avoided. Perhaps the leadership's main failure has been its inability to keep its MPs united - if not in agreement - on this key issue.

Labour might look to exploit this apparent division, but that would be rich from a party that doesn't even have a policy on the matter. What is certain is that this issue now has the potential to damage our party's standing in the country in the same way that the Iraq War seriously damaged Labour.

If I was a Lib Dem MP, I would be asking two key questions. The first is how fair are the proposals, and are they consistent with not only Lib Dem policy but a Liberal Democrat philosophy? Already the IMF, Million+ and OBR have claimed the plans are not "progressive" and that they will have a negative impact on the social mobility Nick Clegg aims to make reality. I agree that Nick's emphasis on social mobility is the right one, but we need to adopt the right policies to achieve such an ambitious goal. If rejecting the plans at this stage and going back to the drawing board can result in a more progressive policy, taking into account the concerns of the IMF and others, then it is certainly worth considering voting against the proposals as they stand, whatever the rules on collective responsibility.

Secondly, I would be asking whether more damage might now be done by denying MPs the right to vote according to their conscience or the interests of their constituents. A united team approach may well have been the right one, but the opportunity to present a genuinely united front has long gone. Imposing a collective, rigid discipline will now be seen as top-down control freakery from people both within and outwith the party and could probably be even more damaging. On the other hand, a few rebel MPs might restore some public faith in a party that has allowed itself to become defined by an issue over which it actually has very little control.

As far as the party as a whole is concerned, we need to maintain our principled opposition to tuition fees (taking care to be realistic about the prospects of eradicating them) while not allowing it to be the defining principle of our political identity. This, admittedly, is a challenge but it is one that we need to rise to if we are to retain our credibility. Part of the problem is that for too long we have simply allowed ourselves to be seen as "the anti-fees" party and this has now created huge difficulties for Nick Clegg as he has to equate this position with the task of being a minority partner in a coalition government inheriting the unenviable task on acting on the findings of Lord Browne.

On the wider issue of Higher Education, it is vital that the debate does not become constricted around the narrow matter of tuition fees. Serious consideration has to be given to the more pertinent issue of long-term HE funding, and the value of the policy should not be defined merely by how strictly it conforms to our General Election manifesto but by how effectively it can contribute to creating social mobility and a farier, more liberal society. As far as I can see, the proposals on the table currently do not go far enough in this regard; however, the success of any new policy can only be properly judged in respect to how well it has provided for the needs of HE further down the line.

While I am proud of - and agree with - our party's historical position on tuition fees, it was a serious mistake on the part of party strategists to so closely identify itself with the issue, and a potentially catastrophic error to make such capital out of it given that in the (not unlikely) outcome of a hung parliament tuition fees could be the sticking point in coalition talks - talks in which we would almost certainly not be in a particularly strong position. It is this fatal misjudgement, not a principled rebellion, that is now conspiring to damage our party.

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Liberal Democrats against tuition fees



I am proud that the Liberal Democrats have a long history of standing against tuition fees and supporting inclusive Higher Education.

Whatever the confused rhetoric of the coalition government on tuition fees and the broader question of Higher Education, the Lib Dems are still a party which supports the principle of abolishing tuition fees, as witnessed at the Scottish Lib Dem conference when a huge majority of party activists and members rejected increasing tuition fees.

Most of our grassroots members are more than uncomfortable with the shape government policy on Higher Education is taking. We did not campaign at the General Election for the regressive, discriminatory and simplistic remedies of the Browne Review.

We believe in a Higher Education system that is genuinely fair. We believe that education should be open to all. As the great Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith said: "a man is not free until he has the opportunities and means for education". The policy being proposed would remove these opportunities for many - and in our view that's not acceptable.

Only yesterday, over 100 Lib Dem parliamentary candidates urged Nick Clegg to oppose plans to increase tuition fees: Lib Dem candidates urge rethink on tuition fees (The Guardian, 29/11/10) This might not be the most sensible tactic in respect to maintaining party unity at the current time, but it reinforces the fact that we broadly remain a party opposed to tuition fees.

It's not just the grassroots activists who are unhappy with the government's policy. Some Lib Dem MPs, like Party President Tim Farron, have been outspoken in their opposition to increasing tuition fees; even if we are realistic enough to recognise that coalition requires compromise and that some of the changes being proposed are preferable to the status quo, we also value our distinct principles and beliefs as well as party integrity. Tim Farron accepts that Vince Cable has helped "improve the package" but that "people like me feel that it's not right to go against what we said [when] making a pledge". This is something that would strike a chord with many ordinary party members.

As Margaret Smith MSP pointed out at our Scottish conference, Liberal Democrats also see that the beneficiaries of Higher Education are not only the graduates themselves but also wider society. Any truly fair and progressive system of funding Higher Education should also be equipped to tackle current inequalities in education, rather than exacerbate them.

I have started a facebook group: Liberal Democrats against tuition fees. I would invite all like-minded people to join.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Help make ticket touting history

I'm a Liberal Democrat but - more importantly some would argue - I'm also a football fan. I'm an Albion Rovers supporter but a big fan of the game more generally and I'm an irregular visitor to such centres of culture as Cappielow, Firhill, Broadwood and Somerset Park. I wouldn't (by choice, anyway!) be anywhere else on a Saturday afternoon than at a football match. I love the game in Scotland, with its unique sub-culture and tradition. It's a completely different (and more authentic) experience watching a game in Scotland compared to, for example, south of the border - at least in my opinion.

I'm also a supporter of the national team. I manage to attend the odd game every so often. While supporting the Scotland team is perhaps evidence of sado-masochistic tendencies, I believe that the fortunes (and otherwise) of the Scotland side actually play a significant role in shaping our national identity. And while our prospects of qualifying for a mojor tournament look rather slim at the moment, at least Scotland fans can always have a good laugh at England's misfortunes.

But there's something very ugly been happening in Scottish football in recent years. No, I'm not talking about Craig Levein's Harry Potter look. And I'm not referring to the referees' strike either, although I have sympathy with their rationale for taking action.

Over the last few years there has been a noticeable increase in ticket touting in Scotland. On sites such as eBay, there are regularly Old Firm and SPL tickets for sale, often at prices well above the face value. This is also true in relation to Scottish Cup matches, with tickets fetching twice or three times their original price. More recently, tickets for the Scotland v Spain game were fetching four figure sums on online auction sites, until some principled fans took it into their own hands to sabotage the auctions by placing fake bids - as reported in the Daily Record.

While on one level this was a victory for "people power" against the touts, this isn't a lasting solution to the problems of touting. Just last week, Rangers v Manchester United tickets were being sold to willing buyers for over £100 each. What is required is legislation to prohibit the resale of tickets - or at the very least to ban resale fo tickets at a level higher than their original face value. The SFA might argue that "there's never been a great market for black market tickets" and that "the only way to [stop touting] is by refusing to pay", but this simply isnt true. Wherever there's a high demand, people will be willing to pay and it's this demand that touts exploit. The Scotland v Spain fixture was a gold mine for them.

I have written to my own MSP in relation to this issue, as well as the Minister (Shona Robison) and the sports spokespersons of each of the parties represented in Holyrood. Trish Godman, Patrick Harvie and Bill Butler were supportive of my proposals for legislative action to combat touting, while Tavish Scott was sympathetic but felt this was an issue for the UK government. Ms Godman agreed that “the legislation currently applying to England and Wales should also apply to Scotland” while Mr Scott asserted that “the introduction of legislation to ban the resale of tickets for events at above their face value is certainly worth considering...[but] this would be best done at a UK level...thankfully we do not have the levels of football hooliganism which would justify us following the route used in England”. Shona Robison has to date declined to reply.

I have also been in contact with eBay and the SFA. The SFA were predictably diplomatic in their response, but conceded that as long as “it’s not illegal here in Scotland...some sellers are wise to the system...making it impossible for us to trace [them]” and therefore take action. What the SFA does not admit is that, even if those reselling tickets can be traced, they are powerless to actually prevent the resale under current legislation. It is interesting to note that the SFA have “had discussions with the Scottish Government regarding the prohibition of this practice”. Clearly, the aims and principles of the Scottish Football Association are being severely compromised by its inability to be able to act decisively to prevent ticket touting and would be aided by some overdue legislation.

The irony is that UK law prohibits the resale of football tickets, but this only applies to fixtures in England and Wales. There is surely no reasonable justification for similar legislation not being applied to Scotland, especially after the Spain match provided the media with the opportunity to successfully expose the depth of the problem.

Sport is a devolved matter as are law and home affairs and therefore I have to disagree with Tavish Scott that this is a matter for the UK government. It is not; it is a problem that the Scottish government must get to grips with. Interestingly, the Scottish Government set a precedent by introducing legislation preventing tickets for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games being sold at a price higher than their face value - so why not extend this to cover other sports, or even tickets for concerts and events such as T in the Park?

My own belief is that the Scottish government is able and equipped to take overdue action. However, irrespective of which government should be responsible for dealing with the matter, my concern is that touting must be challenged. Please consider signing my petition, calling on the Scottish government to take action, featured on the Scottish Parliament website.

This is a serious issue, not least because touting undermines the SFA's principle of "football for all". The Sunday Post will this weekend be running a story on this issue, drawing attention to my own campaign for a legislative solution. Please help support the campaign and send a clear message to Shona Robison and the government.

A long six weeks...

I've not been blogging for a while and that is due entirely to the fact that unfortunately I've been ill and have spent longer than I would like experiencing first hand the services our NHS has to offer.

If a week in politics is a long time, then six weeks is an eternity. During the last few weeks, the Comprehensive Spending Review has been announced, Lord Browne announced his recommendations for the future of Higher Education, Ireland has been bailed out and a number of student protests have caused something of a stir. Here in Scotland, the SNP government is finding itself in all sorts of trouble, with John Swinney's spending review provoking criticism and the party finding itself at the centre of a row over the "Tartan Tax". There's also the matter of the election for the Liberal Democrat presidency: may I take the opportunity to congratulate Tim Farron and recommend he visits Inverclyde during his tour of constituencies.

Obviously there is a great deal about which I could write. But I have no intention of exploring in any detail these recent events; after all, these have been well documented elsewhere. However, like other Liberal Democrats I have been concerned in recent weeks at how events have unfolded and our own party leadership's response. It is more than worrying that entering the festive season, the polls continue to show Nick Clegg as only slightly more popular than King Herod.

It's all a far cry from the euphoria of April, when "Cleggmania" supposedly swept the nation. Admittedly, by its very nature, political exhilaration is always short-lived. But to have given way so spectacularly to fierce antipathy is perturbing; I imagine that none of the usually Lib Dem-friendly students attending recent protests were wearing "I agree with Nick" T-shirts.

This requires a considered tactical strategy on the part of our party. Instead, we find our leadership becoming more defensive. Not only is this a tactical mistake, it's also very uncomfortable witnessing Clegg and Cable defending government policy which, only a short while ago, they were fiercely opposed to. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of coalition government and collective responsibility but I imagine most Liberal Democrats would prefer Nick Clegg to be not quite so enthusiastic in his selling backward-looking policy packages as "progressive".

The Comprehensive Spending Review was neither comprehensive, nor a review. Anything that protected and ringfenced specific budgets can hardly be called comprehensive. And it wasn't so much a spending review as an opportunity to formulate and implement controversial policies which otherwise would probably never be considered by any sober-minded government. I'm not naturally cynical, but it is hard to see the CSR in terms of anything other than a smokescreen for introducing policies that had far more to do with the Cameron-Osborne worldview than any serious attempt at tackling the deficit.

I'm also not one of the unrealistic "no cuts to jobs and services" brigade. That's not to say that I welcome cuts - far from it. But there has to be realism, and there also has to be policy and a considered strategy to deal with the deficit. However, in attempting to tackle this terrible legacy of New Labour the government has to recognise the potential human and social ramifications of its policy; unfortunately it would seem that not only does the coalition government have limited imagination in regards policy ideas, but at best it seems blind to problems it will either create or exacerbate. Less kind people would say it simply doesn't care.

There were some constructive elements to the CSR. Some of it was painfully necessary, and I won't take lectures from those who refuse to grasp the economic reality. If you want to see what happens when an economy continues to borrow to fund its domestic spending programme, take a look at mainland Europe. It simply isn't viable for the UK to be living beyond its means.

However, the CSR was about so much more than redesigning the government's spending commitments. What have emerged are rather worrying social policies, which reflect the thinking of the more regressive elements of the Conservative Party rather than the socially liberal values our party has consistently promoted.

Let's take the review of welfare. Well, such a review was overdue. It's right that the benefits system should be re-examined and simplified. It's right that work should be made to pay - I know many people who are trapped not only by the benefits system but by low aspiration and a poverty of hope. But it is patently wrong that instead of declaring war on unemployment the government has declared war on the unemployed. Making distinctions between the deserving and undeserving poor or describing those on benefits as "scroungers", "lacking a work ethic" or having opted for a particular "lifestyle choice" is unhelpful and socially divisive (not to mention judgemental) but such worrying language has originated from senior Tories and the tabloids in recent weeks. Only yesterday former MP Howard Flight expressed his disgust that people of a particular social class might actually breed. It is from this limited appreciation of British society and its problems that the Tories propose their remedies, including such ill-conceived plans as capping housing benefit (surely capping rents in certain areas would be more progressive, but that might mean house prices in London coming down to a sensible level and that wouldn't please Cameron's friends in the City), reducing access to social housing, making claimants work for their benefit and axing benefit to those who have been unemployed for over a year. The right-wingers might think they're "punishing the workshy" but the most likely effect of these draconian measures will be to destroy communities and people's lives. Placing a cap on how far the government will support you to live where you are well connected, around friends and family, suggests that community is irrelevant. This doesn't really sound like "the Big Society", although I'm not sure Cameron will be too concerned about the inconsistency between rhetoric and policy.

This should be anathema to liberals. We value communities. We believe in fairness, and these Tory ideas are obviously unfair. We also believe the best way to tackle joblessness isn't to "punish", but to create new jobs. Admittedly that's a tough challenge when the country's coming out of recession, but that's the only reasonable, long-term strategy to actually make inroads into unemployment figures. Job creation should be the government's top priority but, regrettably and criminally, it seems more interested in finding out how "happy" we all are now we're out of work. Even more alarming is how keen our Conservative partners in coalition have been so keen to ignore or marginalise the perspectives of Lib Dem ministers on this issue.

The scale and depth of the cuts will themselves have significant human consequences, not least here in Inverclyde where so many people are employed in the public sector, and will hardly aid job creation. I'm not convinced that, however necessary some cuts might be, cutting so deeply so quickly is the responsible solution. I found it very easy to agree with Nick Clegg when, earlier in the year he said this: "My eight year old ought to be able to work this out - you shouldn't start slamming on the brakes when the economy is barely growing. If you do that you create more joblessness, you create heavier costs on the state, the deficit goes up even further and the pain with dealing with it is even greater. So it's completely irrational." I found it less easy to agree with Nick Clegg when, in Monday's Guardian, he wrote: "I reject the idea that it is more progressive to pay off the deficit more slowly than to act decisively". (Inequality becomes injustice when it is passed on, generation to generation, 22/11/10) Which begs a number of questions: a) when did Mr Clegg change his mind?, b) does he completely reject Vince Cable's pre-election remedies which won respect from economists and voters and c) is Mr Clegg aware that many - or probably most - members of his party have trouble with such "decisive" action?

My main criticism of the CSR is its unusually long term nature. The government has used the need to reduce deficit as a smokescreen to introduce a series of long-term policies. A review should be essentially focused on the short-term, addressing immediate priorities with the hope to be able to increase spending in key areas once these priorities were dealt with. To his credit, this has been John Swinney's approach in Scotland, but Cameron and Osborne are made of different stuff. They have cynically used the economic situation to implement polcies which will have a devastating social effect on communities like ours in Inverclyde and, worst of all, have no intention of reviewing or revisiting these policies in the near future.

As for the Browne Review...it didn't contain many surprises. In the ensuing controversy, however, it seems to be forgotten that it was Labour who instigated the Browne Commission and presumably would hardly have been able to reject the thrust of either its findings or recommendations. It should also be noted that, while Vince Cable expressed a preference for a graduate tax, he has actually done a great deal to ensure that the government's new policy is infinitely preferable to the more simplistic interpretations of Browne's remedy.

Students have taken to the streets en masse (mostly peacefully, I must add) and I respect their position. I also understand why there are many who are critical of Lib Dem MPs who pledged to vote against increasing fees only to be doing an about-turn once the party is in government. My instincts lead me to side with these critics, at least on this issue. When our party made such capital from a historic opposition to increasing fees, compromise on policy can be accepted from our colleagues in cabinet but compromise on principle can never be acceptable for the party at large.

I, however, also appreciate the pragmatic politics of coalition; furthermore, I understand that in the current economic climate it would be impossible to realise our long-standing objective to abolish fees. Those who remember the 200 Conference will remember the debate on this very issue, with the leadership asserting that, while this should remain party policy, the party must accept that it could not be achieved in the short-term. Clegg and Cable got a lot of stick at the time from party activists, but that is an inherently sensible position.

Personally, while I commend Vince Cable for imbuing the new policy with something of a Liberal Democrat perspective, I don't accept that this is actually a "progressive" policy. It's a reactive policy, not a principled one, understandably cobbled together and compromised. It's purpose isn't to deliver a fair system (however much Nick Clegg protests otherwise; it's sole aim is to find a pragmatic means of funding Higher Education during a period of austerity.

My chief regret is that, again, the coalition has forged a long-term policy on the basis of short-term priorities. For this reason it is vital that, whatever the coalition position and outcome of the vote, the Liberal Democrats retain their unique and distinct position as opponents of fees and remain committed - in the long term - to their eradication.

The problems the SNP is currently experiencing I will deal with elsewhere, but it is worth making one observation. Whatever the technical reasons behind the "tartan tax" powers being allowed to lapse, why has it taken John Swinney three years to become aware of it?

Finally, it would not be right of me not to mention the story of the week: a young couple called William and Kate are engaged to be married on 29th April next year. I don't really understand the media hype - this may be because I'm not a great believer in the monarchy - which I think drastically overestimates public interest in the Royal engagement. With this in mind, I thought the most honest, refreshing and observant journalism came from the Guardian's Tanya Gold: Royal wedding: The agony of the ecstasy. It made me laugh anyway.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Sorry David, your sums don't add up.

David Cameron's had a tough week.

And rightly so. The last few days have, I believe, demonstrated the shallowness of his attempts to portray himself as honest and above politics.

Let's revisit the child benefit debate. My own views are clear, and I've expressed them on here. However, I fully appreciate why the coalition government feels the need to consider all possibilities when it comes to tackling the deficit and I would - along with many other people - reluctantly accept axing child benefit payments to the better off if it could be demonstrated that such a political risk would make substantial savings.

David Cameron and George Osbourne have presented the child benefit reform as a painful necessity, essential to the long-term financial recovery. That's how they've sold it to the public and that's how it's been sold to MPs and even their own party.

It is, of course, plainly wrong of the Prime Minister to have done this. He's been disingenuous at best, at worst intentionally dishonest. Because, to put it simply, his sums don't add up.

Ensuring that their sums add up has not always been the Conservatives' strong point. However, given the current economic situation and the government's determination to press ahead with the Comprehensive Spending Review, it would be hoped that the Prime Minister would have some idea of the costs and savings involved in implementing policy.

Having sold us the child benefit cuts as vital, the government announced that it expected to save £1 billion (out of a total of £100 billion structural deficit to be recovered). Essentially this amounted to an admission that the government was willing to compromise its election pledges and take a huge political risk to make a saving of 1% of its overall target. However, after investigating further I discovered that no allowance has been made to assess the potential increased costs of administering the new child benefit system - bringing into question even this statistic.

This really is back-of-an-envelope stuff. An first year economics student would struggle to get a 2:2 for that one. I can only imagine that there may have been some opposition to ending universality, with the Tories responding by patching together a policy over a few drinks on Sunday evening that creates so many unfair anomalies.

That isn't the worst of it. As I wrote yesterday, I read in The Herald that the projected cost of the married person's tax-break - being promoted by Cameron as helping to compensate some of the projected loss of income from child benefit - is £550 million. This would mean a mere £450 million saving.

Except it doesn't. This figure appears to be yet another statistic plucked out of the air lacking in any quantifiable evidence base. Reading the same newspaper, I discovered that Michael Settle had uncovered some interesting analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies that reintroducing the married couples' tax allowance would cost £1.6 billion per year.

So we're not talking about savings at all, but a £600 million loss.

The whole premise that the child benefit cut was about making savings vital to economic renewal was a false one. We have been deceived, misled and lied to. I can accept it when our own, well-meaning MPs like Tim Farron and Menzies Campbell talked about the need to cut child benefit because they were doing so out of a conviction that this was regrettably necessary to make inroads into tackling the deficit.

But it is quite a different thing when it becomes apparent that the Conservatives' motivation in pressing ahead with such a risky policy is merely so it can claim credit for introducing one of its most backward-looking and illiberal manifesto pledges. I have no problem with making tough decisions aimed at alleviating poverty when the national deficit urgently needs to be reduced; I do, however, have a significant problem when policies marketed as doing just that are in fact little more than a smokescreen for implementing Cameron's ill-advised pet project to "reward marriage within the tax system".

Ignore the Tory sums. This is not about making savings, but about moral motivations and a Tory obsession with a misguided and outdated ideology that doesn't sit very comfortably with those of us whose instincts are by nature liberal. Cameron's ambition to "reward marriage" is - if we accept the calculations of the IFS - likely to cost us at least £600 million. It's hard to know how much dialogue has gone on within the Cabinet about this (not very much it would seem) but I resent the way in which Lib Dem ministers, bound by collective responsibilty, may now have to defend a cut on a completely dishonest basis.

Whether Cameron and Osbourne are guilty of deliberate dishonesty or just plain incompetence, one thing is clear. These decisions, combined with an unexceptional speech from the Prime Minister at Conservative conference, point to a leadership unsure of its direction and already out of touch with its own party. As Michael Settle noted, Cameron has succeeded in "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory".

Or, for a more blunt interpretation, how about this one from a Tory delegate: "the words ‘up’ and ‘cock’ spring to mind.”

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Child benefit to be cut for higher earners; Cameron "sorry"

A couple of weeks ago, I argued in favour of maintaining the universality of child benefit (The future of child benefit?). I was even caught on camera by the Daily Politics making this point, and I'm not going to apologise for it now.

Earlier today, in a facebook discussion started by Jo Swinson, I repeated my arguments. It goes against my liberal instincts to make distinctions between the deserving and undeserving. The views of various charities and support networks, who work on the frontline and have an understanding of the realities many politicians lack, should be listened to. The amount of money "saved" is questionable as the system will now become more complex and, by reason, more expensive to administrate. And, finally, the Liberal Democrats have a historical position, founded on solid liberal principles, which I don't feel should be so easily surrendered in the name of austerity.

In response to this, one man wrote: "Great contribution, though it looks like many historical positions are being surrendered all too easily!" This is an oversimplification, but it is true that here is an example of pragmatism overtaking principle.

Yesterday's Guardian led with "Cameron 'sorry' child benefit cut was not in manifesto". Cameron is reported as being "forced to apologise for breaking an election promise with his decision to withdraw child benefit from 1.2million higher rate tax payers". He is quoted as saying: "We did not outline all those cuts, we did not know exactly the situation we were going to inherit. but I acknowledge this was not in our manifesto. Of course I am sorry about that."

It was a remarkable admission. Firstly, it made him look rather stupid for apologising for what is now Conservative policy. Secondly, as Iain McWhirter observed in today's Herald, it appears the Tory tactic is "to antagonise the middle classes and, therefore, make it easier, in future, for Mr Cameron to soak the poor." And that's exactly how it will come across to Average Joe. It's as if he wants to get this one in early, ahead of announcements about deeper cuts, to counter claims that such cuts will hit the poorest disproportionately. Cameron might want to be seen as not overty protecting his own, but the potential political costs - not only of cutting benefit entitlements but of going back on manifesto commitments - are likely to be great.

Labour have already condemned the move. That much is to be expected. But, as McWhirter accurately discerns, it is a rare achievement indeed "to unite the Guardian’s Polly Toynbee and the Daily Mail. Ms Toynbee likes child benefit because it goes to the mother direct and therefore can’t be “drunk by the husband”. The Daily Mail likes child benefit because it helps mums to stay at home. Both use antiquated images of domestic life to argue for a form of universalism that is long past its sell-by date. I have difficulty disagreeing with Iain Duncan Smith’s remark that giving child benefit to people earning over £50,000 is “bonkers”. But under the Tory scheme, er, they’d still get it if they split their incomes."

It is this inherent unfairness that most Tories object to. A family with two adults earning £80,000 would still be eligible for benefit, but a family with a non-working parent living on a single income of £44,000 will get nothing. Not only is this inately unfair, it suggests that very little thought has gone into the detail of how this will work in practice. This lack of planning is acutely embarrassing. The suspicion that the planning behind the policy was classic back-of-an-envelope stuff seemed confirmed when culture minister Jeremy Hunt confirmed on Newsnight that "I did not know about the timing of these announcements. I did know these options were being discussed." He then, unhelpfully, went on to argue that those having "too many children" should be denied support: "The number of children that you have is a choice and what we're saying is that if people are living on benefits...it's not going to be the role of the state to finance those choices." This unguarded statement hinted at motivations beyond mere savings.

I have been watching parts of the Conservative Party conference, and much of the discussion was stimulating and relevant. Unfortunately, the timing of the child benefit announcement overshadowed some of the many positives to come out of the conference. Even the Prime Minister's emphasis on "fairness" seems empty and hypocritical when the government pursues policies that are plainly anything other.

The Guardian speculated that the "government has made [its] first big mistake". "Is this the coaliton's 10p?" asks Jonathan Freedland. It could be, especially if it hits the core vote of either of the coalition parties. However, a YouGov poll found 83% of people backed the cut and a Daily Politics survey of Lib Dem members at conference revealed similar results. MPs Tim Farron and Menzies Campbell stated their belief that higher earners should not receive benefit and no-one blinked an eyelid.

I fully understand the arguments in favour of ending universal entitlement to child benefit in hard times. Even although I am opposed in principle, I fail to comprehend the furore, which seems based on certain misconceptions.

What I find most difficult to stomach is that it appears to be being made, in part at least, to fund the regressive, unfair and utterly discriminatory tax break for married couples. The government claim the child benefit cut will save £1bn (of the total £100bn structural deficit), but what is the likely cost of introducing the marriage tax break? I haven't looked at this in any detail, but yesterday's Herald reported the cost of introducing this tax break to be around £550 million, rendering any savings from the child benefit cut so minimal as to defy belief.

This in turn raises questions about the government's judgement. Does it really make so much sense to sacrifice principle, or to risk so much politically, to save a mere £450 million and fund a backward-looking, discredited tax break?

I can just about grasp the notion that, in certain circumstances, reducing entitlement to child benefit for higher earners could be considered fair. Offsetting that with a Tory plan to "reward marriage" is plainly not fair and makes a mockery of Cameron's credentials as a man motivated by a sense of fairness.

As for whether "rewarding marriage" in this way will take some of the bite out of the child benefit cuts - come on, David. Even Daily Mail readers won't fall for that one.

Cameron’s speech fails to inspire; emphasises “Big Society”

Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party Conference yesterday was something of a call to arms. Repeating the theme of togetherness he has persistently used during the last few months, Cameron urged the nation to get involved: “your country needs you” he said, invoking memories of Kitchener and appealing directly to the kind of nostalgics whose ideas of Britishness stem from Daily Mail editorials.

He turned to his ideological vision of “the Big Society” as the solution for taking the country through the “difficult times” ahead. Referring to the pending Comprehensive Spending Review, Cameron admitted unapologetically that there would be tough decisions to be made. But, he added, “the Big Society” would see Britain emerge stronger, as ordinary people with “the spirit that will take us through...step up” with a sense of “national unity and purpose”. “The spirit of activism...dynamism...to get things done...the spirit of social responsibility that drives [us].”

To emphasise the point, Cameron explained that Britain should be “a country defined not by what we consume but by what we contribute. A country, a society where we say – I am not alone, I will play my part, I will work with others to give Britain a brand new start.”

He frequently beat this drum throughout his speech. He pledged to fight bureaucracy, assist the transfer of power from the state to society and create a fairer and more prosperous future. He was particularly keen to emphasise the need to “work together in the national interest” and praised Liberal Democrat contribution to government.

As a liberal, it isn’t hard to identify with a rhetoric that promotes decentralisation and smaller government. I don’t want to see the return of heavy-handed government. I broadly agree with the PM that, whichever way the election result is interpreted, “Statism lost, society won.” It’s also a measure of how far the Conservatives have come since the days of Thatcher that Cameron is so willing not just to recognise that society exists, but to promote an ambitious vision to engage with and empower it. “Society is not a spectator sport”, said Cameron. “This is your country. It’s time to believe it. It’s time to step up and own it.”

However, this heavy emphasis on his “Big Society” is unhelpful. I appreciate the ideology behind it. But it isn’t something that is resonating with the public, which in fairness doesn’t seem to understand the concept of “Big Society” largely because the Conservatives have been ineffectively selling it. And, although the Prime Minister argues to the contrary, as far as the public in concerned this looks like nothing more than a cover for cuts.

I know, and I’m sure you know, that the average person in Inverclyde – or Inverness or wherever – is far more concerned with the Big Issues than the Big Society. We’re interested in employment. We’re interested in public services. We’re interested in health, in education, in fairness. To be honest, we’re probably also more interested in the economic situation than we have been for many years, and have more than a passing concern about whether the government’s strategy to reduce the deficit will actually be...fair. Many of us are more worried about just making ends meet and already do a fair amount for our society and communities, and so it is hardly surprising if the “Big Society” is greeted with a certain amount of cynicism.

Mr Cameron did talk about fairness. “Fairness means supporting people out of poverty, not trapping them in dependency...[it is] giving people what they deserve”. Quite right, David. Unfortunately, in again trying to appeal to Daily Mail types, he then went on to use the example of “taking more money from the man who goes to work...so that the family next door can go on living a life on benefits without working” rather than provide ideas about how to empower people to break free from benefits dependency. Going for the easy target, he preached: “if you refuse to work, we will not let you live off the hard work of others”.

He didn’t seem to have much to say about how to create a fairer society, other than a vague reference to “sorting out the banks”. How they were going to be "sorted" and what that will mean in practice he didn't say. Yes, he wants a better deal for small businesses. But that’s about it.

He had little to say about the pending cuts, which surprised many people inside the conference hall. He made the obligatory criticisms of Labour for having created the problem and for delaying cost-cutting. While he was unlikely to discuss detail ahead of the all-important announcement on 20th October, I might have expected a broad examination of the financial situation and an overview of how the government might reasonably deal with it.

At times, Cameron showed he remains a tribalist. He turned on Ed Balls for being “anti-inspirational, anti-success [and] anti-parents”. His cheap parodies at Labour’s expense might win laughs from a Tory audience, but were regrettable in that they ensured – as Eddie Barnes points out in The Scotsman - “the speech fell short of being above politics”. He would have been better resisting the temptation to show his tribal side, something Ed Miliband seemed to recognise last week.

One thing Cameron seems to have learned from the Labour leader is to be positive. It would have been understandable for him to have been pessimistic and defensive; instead what we witnessed was a welding of optimism and ideology.

The Prime Minister regrettably said nothing about Scotland, other than reinforcing his position as being pro-union. He did, however, for reasons best known to himself, refer to the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. This was wrong, said Mr Cameron, “and undermined our standing in the world”. He pledged this would “never happen again”.

I found this intervention to be objectionable on two counts. Firstly, one of my friends lost his sister in the Lockerbie disaster and I find it distasteful for politicians to make either moral judgements or political mileage in this way. But, secondly and more importantly, it also betrays an attitude of distain towards the autonomy of Scotland’s parliament. Lest we forget, this was not a decision for the UK government to take but for the SNP government in Holyrood. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter, Scotland must be allowed to make its own decisions; Cameron seemed to be suggesting that as Prime Minister he would be willing to interfere in matters of Scottish justice. If that really is how this man thinks and what his approach will be towards Scotland, he has clearly learned very little from previous Conservative mistakes.

For the second year in succession, Cameron’s speech was extremely light in terms of policy. He touched on ending the universality of child benefit, explaining that “it's fair that those with broader shoulders should bear a greater load”. He won applause for re-affirming the Tory position on Trident and, in a move hardly consistent with the government’s austerity drive, promised a tax break to “recognise marriage”.

Tim Montgomerie, editor of Conservative Home, wryly commented: "The big society should be part of our message alongside welfare reform, growth and dealing with the debt, but to make it the pre-eminent theme is a mistake and a missed opportunity."
For all the positivity, this was a speech that failed to inspire and was – in a word – forgettable. The detail of the Comprehensive Spending Review, set to be announced in a few days, will guarantee that.

The full speech can be found on the BBC website.