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Thursday, 29 July 2010

Time for some sober judgement

I’m not the world’s greatest Biblical scholar, but I’d like to take a short scriptural reference as the inspiration for my latest instalment: “...think of yourselves with sober judgement”. (Romans 12:3)

In relation to the coalition between our party and the Conservatives, I believe it is time to reflect on the previous few weeks with sober judgement. We have already experienced hostility from the media; the Daily Telegraph in particular has seemed unfriendly even to the idea of coalition government and was responsible for ending David Laws’ promising cabinet career, while closer to home The Herald and The Scotsman have suggested that the Lib Dems are likely to suffer electorally for “selling out” on principles. Even The Guardian sees the potential for party revolts around every corner.

It isn’t just the media who have been critical of course. There are members of both coalition parties who have been noticeably unhappy at how things have panned out since the inconclusive general election. I know that many fellow Lib Dems have been uneasy at the very prospect of power-sharing with Conservatives (myself included) and that some chose to resign from the party in protest at what they considered a compromise too far. Many party activists I know have, while broadly welcoming the opportunity for government, been understandably concerned about some of the decisions taken, especially in relation to cutting school building programmes and the rise in VAT. Recently MPs have also expressed their dissatisfaction with arrangements, with Tory David Davis rather foolishly referring to a “Brokeback coalition” and our own Tim Farron describing his Conservative colleagues as “toxic”. Deputy Leader Simon Hughes, speaking – I imagine – for many other Lib Dem MPs and party members, claimed that the party would not have backed the government’s Academies Bill had the Lib Dems not been in coalition.

Farron told BBC Radio 4’s World at One that the Conservatives are seeking to exploit their partners for their own ends: “we are providing some cover for [the Tories]. The reality is that David Cameron has a toxic brand....His brand, including most of his MPs, are toxic.” He went on to explain how he thought the Lib Dems could contribute to the coalition’s direction, suggesting that his party are having a positive effect on the way the Conservatives are presenting themselves and on key policy issues: “... [because of the coalition] the Conservative Party is less ugly than when it went into it. The problem is that most Tory MPs are determined to keep it ugly... the Conservatives would have preferred a less fair budget. I think that is blindingly obvious. We have now to make sure that our [own] policy is worked on, pronounced and announced and obvious to people”.

In some respects it is hard to disagree with the substance of Mr Farron’s assessment. Some of us, especially in Scotland, have no love for the Tories and have historically had closer links – both ideologically and practically – with Labour. Farron is right when he asserts that the coalition represents a "poor ideological fit". He also articulates the feelings of many members when he talks of the need to “re-establish our own identity”. The problem I have with what he says is that it stems from an underlying negativity and betrays a surprising lack of faith in his party’s leadership.

The Labour Party are understandably keen to treat the Cameron administration as if it was merely a right-wing Conservative majority government to which the Lib Dems have sold out. This is patently not true; many Tory MPs wish otherwise. The mistake of many in the media has been to take this facile argument at face value and to underestimate (or overlook) the new reality that the traditional two-party system has been broken and that Britain is currently being governed by a genuine coalition and the politics of co-operation. Yes, it is an ideological incongruity and a marriage of convenience rather than one of principle, but that doesn’t mean it is unworkable. The coalition is not based on values, but on the democratic outcome of a general election which made alternative agreements not only difficult but near impossible - more so when it became clear Labour weren’t willing to be remotely flexible. No-one in the Lib Dems is pretending otherwise – they are simply being pragmatic in their relationship towards the largest party in Westminster. As an editorial in The Guardian observed, “the [coalition] government is based on a deal between two parties that leaves the resulting team and programme connected to but distinct from the elements that formed it. This is the nature of coalitions as voters...in Scotland already know”. (End of the beginning, 27/7/10) These wise words are based in the sober judgements I refer to; there is a very real need for party members, MPs and the media (especially in Scotland, where the likes of The Herald and The Scotsman really ought to know better) to bmore fully understand and get used to the character of coalition government, which will be with us for the foreseeable future and perhaps beyond.

There are those who deride the Lib Dems for entering into a coalition agreement. To these short-sighted people I would ask what the alternative should have been. To squander the chance of partnership in government? To enter a “progressive” alliance with an unwilling and un-cooperative Labour Party? As I explained in a previous post, a relationship with Labour would have been preferable in many respects but risked leaving the largest party out of government and had the potential to bring into question the very democratic principles Lib Dems passionately believe in. Even the argument that the Lib Dems could have been more influential in opposition to a Cameron minority government doesn’t convince, especially in relation to issues such as political reform. It simply wouldn’t have made it onto the agenda in the face of likely Tory and Labour opposition.

There are also those who see Nick Clegg in the pocket of David Cameron, just as some perceived David Steel to be in David Owen’s. These people I would point towards the hard reality: despite the obvious chemistry between the two leaders, there have in recent weeks been significant disagreements on Iraq, Higher Education funding and immigration. Number 10’s rubbishing of Clegg’s insistence that the Iraq invasion was illegal hardly suggested at either a subservient role on Clegg’s part or a Lib Dem leader short on distinctive ideas.

Labour might want to portray him and the other Lib Dems in the cabinet as “Tories in Disguise” for purposes of narrow, tribal political interest. But the mud is unlikely to stick, especially among the 57% of voters who believe the coalition is doing a “good job” (The Guardian, End of the beginning, 27/7/10). And it won’t stick with those of us who are aware that coalition policy has been imbued with a liberal perspective alien to the Conservative Party. Lib Dem achievements in administration outweigh the party’s modest representation in the cabinet and include significant progress on increasing income tax thresholds, an AV referendum and better scrutiny of government. Lib Dem participation has also resulted in significant policy concessions and almost certainly helped dilute George Osbourne’s budget proposals.

Historically, there has always been a small “purist” wing within the Liberal Party and its successor with a disproportionately large influence. The purists are again becoming voluble, contending that the Tories are getting more from the coalition, just as Tory purists argue the same things about the Lib Dems. The risk is that this excessively loud group can be seen as representing broader Lib Dem opinion, and that this plays into the hands of Labour Party tacticians aiming to propagate the myth that the party is divided and dissatisfied with ideological sell-out on the part of its leadership. The likes of former MP Sandra Gidley, who warns that the Lib Dems will be “toast” at the next election if they don’t cease to be a mere front for Tory cuts, are not only wide of the mark but are also doing their party a huge disservice.

What is happening, and by nature always happens in coalition government, is that Nick Clegg is making tough compromises in the national interest. No lesser a figure than Lord Ashdown, hardly a man with pro-Conservative tendencies, admitted that the Tory/Lib Dem coalition was the only combination that had offered "a stable government with a clear majority in the House of Commons at a time of crisis...coalitions are usually about establishing the lowest common denominator between the two parties. This coalition's not - it's a genuinely reform-minded, a genuinely radical programme of reform. So this far, it's going far better than I imagined it could".

Tim Farron states there is a need for the Lib Dems to “re-establish” distinctiveness. I am not sure that the party has lost its distinctive character; what has happened is that distinctive policies have been eclipsed by the political pragmatism of coalition government. Nick Clegg’s failing hasn’t been one of selling-out, but of not being sufficiently active in selling the coalition, its policies and the Lib Dem role within it to the public. In not doing so, he has handed initiative to Labour and their shallow arguments. Coalition and co-operation does not necessarily result in the respective partners’ identities becoming merged or indistinguishable; neither does it result in the lesser partner being swallowed up by the larger. The Lib Dems retain a strong and distinctive agenda which is more than distinguishable from that of the Tories. Clegg and his ministers simply have to be more pro-active in promoting it to a critical media and a sometimes sceptical public. As Tim Farron suggests, the Lib Dem position has to be "pronounced and announced and obvious to people".

What is needed is some sensitive and skilled salesmanship from the media-savvy Nick Clegg. And a healthy dose of sober judgement from the rest of us.

What has the coalition ever done for us?

(Adapted from Monty Python's Life of Brian. Apologies to Cleese, Idle, Palin, Chapman, Jones et al)

Reg: We voted Lib Dem and they betrayed us with the coalition. And what has the coalition ever given us in return? (he pauses smugly)
Xerxes: An increase in income tax thresholds?
Reg: What?
Xerxes: You know, on income tax, we won’t have to pay so much.
Reg: Oh yeah, yeah they gave us that. Yeah. That's true.
Masked Commando: And the referendum on electoral reform!
Stan: Oh yes ... the AV referendum, Reg, you remember what UK politics used to be like.
Reg: All right, I'll grant you that progress on income tax and the AV referendum are two things that the coalition has done ...
Matthias: And the debt reduction...
Reg: (sharply) Well yes, obviously the debt reduction ... tackling the huge debt mountain goes without saying. But apart from income tax, the AV referendum and tackling debt...
Another Masked Commando: Abolishing ID cards...
Other Masked Voices: Health reform... fewer quangos...better scrutiny of government spending...
Reg: Yes ... all right, fair enough ...
Voice Nearer The Front: And more freedom for local government.
General Audience: Oh yes! True!
Francis: Yeah. That's something we really would never have got under Labour, Reg.
Masked Commando At Back: And we’ve got a proper strategy on Afghanistan now! (more general murmurs of agreement)
Reg: All right ... all right ... but apart from fairer taxation, the AV referendum, health reform, more accountable government, debt reduction, civil liberties, a sensible strategy for Afghanistan and increased freedom... what has the coalition done for us?
Xerxes: Brought stable government!
Reg: (very angry, he's not having a good meeting at all) What!? Oh ... (scornfully) Stability, yes ... shut up!

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Is Scotland heading for disaster?

This seems an unusual and perhaps even inappropriate question to ask. However, having read Joan McAlpine's poorly researched polemic in yesterday's Scotsman (Scotland is heading over a cliff to disaster) I feel compelled to respond.

Ms McAlpine claims that implementing the proposals of the Calman Commission "will impoverish our people and result in cuts...more savage than anything the rest of the United Kingdom will experience". She particularly objects to the fact that the Commission's proposals are likely to be introduced "without a referendum" and therefore lack democratic basis, although in suggesting Scotland will not be consulted on the proposals she conveniently overlooks the provisions of the The Scotland Act 1998 (1998 c. 46) which "allow the powers of the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive to be adjusted over time by agreement between both Parliaments by means of an Order in Council". This argument is not only simplistic but facile. There is nothing to prevent constructive dialogue between the Cameron-led government in Westminster and Salmon's government in Holyrood.

McAlpine refers to the justified criticisms of the economists Drew Scott and Andrew Hughes Hallet, whose work has also been used by the SNP to make political capital: "Calman is London parties' poll tax". The economists' concerns include the overdependence on income tax revenues and the lack of a share in UK VAT revenue. McAlpine draws on this to conclude that having Scotland's income tied exclusively to fluctuating income tax will result in our being "£500million worse off per year"; she also asserts that the Lib Dem policy of increasing the threshold at which income tax is paid will inevitably reduce Scottish income as long as no provision exists to claw the money back elsewhere as income tax revenues shrink.

These of course are legitimate and understandable concerns, but clearly McAlpine has not examined Lib Dem fiscal policy in detail and appears ignorant of aspects of the party's proposals to fund the reduction in income tax to the lowest earning. She ignores the need to alleviate poverty and provide incentives to work, preferring instead to focus on what appears to be a narrow nationalist agenda. Lib Dems, including Tavish Scott MSP, are aware of the inadequacies of the Calman report and have been advocating instead "Calman Plus". As Mr Scott told The Scotsman in May: "Calman’s vision of a stronger Scottish Parliament within the UK does not represent the finishing line for Liberal Democrats. The Steel Commission argued for greater change ... so I want to see Calman Plus emerge from the work. This lays the responsibility on Alex Salmond. He has to decide whether he wants to be constructive ... and work with the UK Government and others. The ball is firmly in Mr Salmond’s court. If he plays on the pitch which strengthens Scotland’s Parliament then much can be done.” The "Calman Plus" proposals include giving Holyrood even greater control over taxes raised in Scotland as well as corporation tax and a share of oil revenues.

What Joan McAlpine's misinformed polemic also fails to appreciate is that, as Vince Cable stated recently, "Calman Plus" is now UK government policy. She claims that the Lib Dems are "behaving like sightless men leading a mass of blindfolded people over a cliff" and accuses us of being motivated in our constitutional polices by nothing more than a loathing of the SNP. She goes as far as to question the political neutrality of the Calman Commission itself, stating that "[in] financing Scotland...it doesn't matter [to the Commission] whether the figures add up. All that really matters is keeping the Nationalists at bay". She repeats the SNP's rhetoric that only full fiscal autonomy could boost Scottish economic growth, something roundly dismissed by the better informed Iain MacWhirter in The Herald (Fiscal autonomy? Better be careful what you wish for... 5/6/10)

McAlpine's political sympathies may be obvious, but her use of unnecessarily emotive and sensationalist language is irresponsible. Furthermore, her singling out of Scottish Secretary Michael Moore as weak, ultra-cautious, lacking "fight" and "knobbled [by] mandarins...and civil servants...[to]do as he's tellt" lacks any kind of evidence base. This is prejudice masquerading as intellectual critique.

The Scottish Lib Dems have, unlike the SNP, supported the Calman process and have been pro-active in promoting an even more radical agenda along the lines of the proposals of the Steel Commission. This pro-activity, coupled with the Westminster government's acceptance of the "Calman Plus" arguments as a basis for policy, is not something Liberal Democrats should apologise for. Yes, there are concerns about the findings of Scott and Hallett that dependency on income tax alone would result in either public spending cuts or increased taxation; this is why Lib Dems are proposing something different and further reaching.

McAlpine fails to ask the question "if not the Calman proposals, then what else?" Certainly not full fiscal powers, which would result in the Scottish government having to cope alone with an inevitable budget deficit. The SNP argument that Scotland's current surplus is evidence of Scotland's capacity to "go it alone" is a false claim; if anything, this figure is evidence of the benefits of the status quo, however imperfect the current arrangements. A party as renowned for large-scale public funding initiatives, Salmond's SNP would be completely incapable of living within its means if it were to secure full fiscal autonomy.

As MacWhirter points out, Calman "insisted on tax sharing rather than simple fiscal repatriation" because it would be socially irresponsible to abruptly end "the considerable public subsidy transferred to Scotland through the mechanism of the Barnett Formula...London politicians can not be given an excuse for dumping Scotland, and its social problems, on its own resources...it would be a grotesque injustice if Scotland was to be propelled into fiscal crisis because a capricious Westminster opts for a clean break." The Lib Dems and the UK government understand this, as well as the shortcomings of the Calman proposals, which is why Calman's report will not be implemented unquestioningly and without scrutiny. It will certainly not be adopted wholesale, and variants of the Calman proposals will be carefully considered in respect to the current government's economic policy and position on taxation -and their likely socio-economic impact on Scotland.

As Vince Cable tacitly indicated, the Calman proposals are merely the starting point in a new Westminster approach towards Scotland. The Liberal Democrats have historically supported an alternative fiscal arrangement which will both promote Scotland's interests and be far more transparent than the current system. The Lib Dem contribution towards this debate and their record on fighting for what is genuinely in Scotland's interests rather than on narrow nationalist agendas should, therefore, be applauded rather than derided.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Is Cable's "universities revolution" fair?

Amid intense media intention, as well as speculation about the likely ramifications, Business Secretary Vince Cable has announced a “revolutionary” blueprint for Higher Education (HE) in which there would be the potential to introduce quotas to ensure greater inclusion for pupils of state schools, higher-earning graduates would pay additional tax to fund degree courses and struggling universities would be allowed to fail.

Already dubbed the “graduate tax”, Dr Cable’s proposals have pre-empted the outcome of the Browne Commission, which is currently engaged in reviewing the arrangements for student finance. This in itself is regrettable, and allows the plans to be seen as little more than the political manoeuvrings of a party anxious to demonstrate to its members and the public that it has distinctive proposals on HE funding which are both progressive and realistic.

The media has so far been reasonably unfriendly towards Dr Cable’s plans. While I was personally surprised by the timing of the announcement – and unhappy not only at the way in which the findings of the Browne Commission were pre-empted but also at the lack of open dialogue within the party in advance of Cable’s pronouncement – I have also found myself taken aback by basis of media opposition, which appears to be founded on uninformed assumptions that the status quo is either sustainable or desirable.

So what exactly has Vince Cable proposed? How does he plan to “revolutionise” HE and what are the alternatives? Are his plans “liberal” and consistent with our party’s historic position towards HE; more pertinently, are they fair?

Firstly, let’s take a look at the positives. Dr Cable has put forward an agenda that is certainly radical. He is looking at doing things differently. In his speech (to an audience of vice-chancellors in London, I should add) Cable demonstrated the courage to challenge conventional wisdom, especially in relation to three year degrees (something I have always questioned), the divide between further and higher education and the previous government’s attitude towards student numbers. This was all welcome stuff, and something most Liberal Democrats would have little difficulty with.

I will come to the detail of the “graduate tax” shortly, but in highlighting the inefficiencies, wastefulness and unfairness of the current system (as it stands in England and Wales) he was utterly correct. He was also right to talk about what he considers to be “the looming crisis”. Here is not a government minister willing either to play the “blame game” or to optimistically speak up HE prospects, but one who recognises the near-impossible realities facing HE and the need to find urgent solutions. Cable spoke of “deep cuts” which would lead not only to consolidation but contraction, the need “to do more with less” and the potential need for increasing student contributions. He admitted that “there will probably be less funding per student ...future spending has to be adjusted accordingly”. It was a brave thing to tell an audience of vice-chancellors.

What can be said for certain is that the status quo is that is unworkable and unsustainable in the long-term. As Cable suggested, and the party outlined in its election manefesto, the 50% target of the Labour government must be scrapped. The emphasis on raw targets and the view of education as the preserve of universities must be challenged. Labour’s experiment was not only expensive, but failed to tackle inequalities and increase social mobility. Its long-term legacy is one of graduates finding their qualification is a dud investment and a passport to nowhere. The target-driven approach was so narrow in its interpretation of positive educational outcomes that universities have essentially become mere production lines for suitably “qualified” but ill-equipped and ill-served graduates. In the process, degrees have become devalued and the three years spent at university – an experience that once passed for education – has become in many cases little more than an opportunity for social networking. This is a tragic legacy of a deeply flawed and ill-conceived Labour initiative that failed to appreciate how best to reform the educational system to maximise access. Throwing more public money at HE was never the responsible solution.

The current funding system is by nature expensive and, given the current financial situation, unsustainably so. It naturally increases short-term public spending and the public purse can not continue to subsidise current levels of investment in HE. To Cable’s credit, he doesn’t find solutions merely in efficiency savings but in advocating radical reform. And he is attempting to unveil something that is not only fiscally responsible but fair and socially just. This is why he wants to remove the upfront debts: price tags which act as both a psychological and material deterrent to many. As a one-time medical student who was effectively forced to withdraw from my studies and abandon what would otherwise have been realistic ambitions for a medical career due to receiving no support and having to cough up for my fees in advance (the product of an inflexible system that penalises against those who wish to change career but who have already studied for a degree), I would wholeheartedly embrace the thrust of Cable’s vision as well as his attempt to inject some realism into the debate.

As ever, the devil is in the detail. And it’s the detail of Cable’s alternative proposal that concerns me, not his recognition of the need for one. Of course, this is not yet government policy and Cable only suggests that it “should be considered” but he is clearly attempting to steer Browne in a particular direction.

I respect Cable’s genuine desire to move towards a more inclusive system of HE, but I have concerns with his chosen remedy. Firstly, as a very basic level Cable has been too keen to focus almost exclusively on the system of funding rather than consider the broader challenges facing the wider educational system. Even “revolutionary” shifts in how HE is funded would not it themselves change the emphasis, intransigence and culture of how education is delivered and therefore would be incapable of addressing the wider problems at the heart of the matter.
In proposing quotas for state school pupils, Cable is looking to take long overdue action. Dr Cable’s diagnosis is correct – children from poorer homes are seven times less likely to go to university than their wealthier counterparts – although the prescription is the wrong one. Widening access to leading universities must be a key objective for any incoming government. However, this is simplistic and reserving places for those from the state sector could prove counter-productive. Moreover, it obscures the real issue: that of supporting less well-off students to study and equipping them with the necessary skills prior to studying at HE institutions. There are more socially responsible and further-reaching methods of boosting participation, but these need to be carefully implemented in co-operation with schools and further education (FE) establishments.

This paternalistic approach is hardly “liberal”. It will require further centralising of power and removes autonomy from the institutions, conflicting with Cable’s statement that “we in government must respect universities’ independence”. If this could be demonstrably proven to genuinely widen access to education, I would withdraw my objections on the basis that the greater good was being achieved. However, I see the quota as simply a backward step and an idea devoid of imagination unlikely to deliver the desired outcome. It fails to appreciate that it is not simply the HE funding system that fails the poorest members of our society. Other factors appear not to have been considered.

The “graduate tax” is Cable’s most radical proposal and one which we has been keen to defend as “progressive” and “fair”. He wants to move away from loans and fees and replace them with a “contribution” based on earnings. He admits his plans to create “a larger graduate contribution…is only part of the solution and there will still be severe financial pressures in the next few years” but believes that it is vital “that low graduate earners pay no more (or less) and high earners pay more”.

Cable is at pains to argue a graduate tax would be fair. In arguing that the current system of tuition fees amounts to a “poll tax”, he asserts that “it surely can’t be right that a teacher or care worker or research scientist is expected to pay the same graduate contribution as a top commercial lawyer or surgeon or City analyst whose graduate premium is so much bigger.” It appears a fair principle: that those who benefit most should pay a higher contribution.

However, Cable’s “graduate tax” is seriously flawed and less than “fair”. For a start, it makes the unreasonable assumption that graduates are the sole “beneficiaries” of their training and qualifications. This is patently untrue and a brutally simplistic defense of the policy. Secondly, it raises further, unanswered questions, about how the individual universities are to be funded once the link with fees is abolished – how will the revenue raised from a graduate tax be apportioned? As those graduating from the leading universities invariably earn more, it isn’t unrealistic to assume they will be also the leading beneficiaries while others are left behind. Thirdly, I would be concerned that this sets a dangerous precedent; if particular groups are taxed over and above general taxation to repay benefits – either perceived or real – where do we draw the line? In fairness, graduates earning the salaries Dr Cable discussed are making more than sizable contributions. Why should they be further penalised? Fourthly, it raises serious questions about retrospective payments, especially in relation to those, like myself, who have already paid fees. And, crucially, it goes against the grain of long-help party policy on the issue.

A possible ramification of a “graduate tax” would be the very thing Dr Cable is keen to tackle: the potential to discourage future graduates. It would also create further (and unnecessary) bureaucracy and inevitably more state control of the HE system. Is this really what Dr Cable wants?

I would also be critical of the “graduate tax” proposals as they assume, uncorrectly, that academic ability is inherently superior to non-academic achievement. In this respect, it is as short-sighted as Labour’s approach which viewed university education as an end in itself, the be-all-and-end-all. It also ignores the fact that many non-graduates earn far more than those of us with degrees. At a time when the very value of degrees is being debated, Dr Cable’s conclusions seem somewhat perverse.

The “graduate tax” might work better than the status quo for people like me, whose own career ambitions were derailed by the current system. But that alone shouldn’t be enough to either recommend it or gloss over the fact that it is by nature discriminatory. Graduates would not be paying for their degrees but their subsequent career success. It would be completely unfit for purpose.

Cable’s realistic appreciations of the current challenges facing HE must be matched with a sensible and equally realistic long-term approach. A future government approach to education needs to facilitate inclusivity while recognizing that academic study isn’t for everyone; the 50% target was always unrealistic and reducing HE student numbers is an obvious way to cut expenditure. I for one would support this on the condition that alternative, ongoing educational provision is created by strengthening the role and purpose of FE establishments and investigating ways in which vocational training can be better encouraged. New thinking on apprenticeships would be a key part of a new approach. “Lifelong learning” has to become more than a failed Labour buzzword, and alternative routes to meaningful education should be promoted in addition to university degree courses which are themselves often unable to prepare graduates for the world of work.

As for the key issue of funding, rather than experiment with new and untried ideas, Dr Cable would have been better advised to look northwards. While the system here in Scotland is not perfect, it is certainly fairer and more progressive than both the current system in England and Wales and the “graduate tax”. The Cubie Commission, acting independently of the Scottish parliament, published a report into the future funding of HE which eleven years later contains pertinent and relevant principles. While it was clearly concerned with exclusively Scottish HE provision and admittedly the economic climate is somewhat different from 1999, sound principles are sound principles and I would like to see Scotland’s funding arrangements at least considered in a UK context.

The problem for Vince Cable, and for the Lib Dems in government, is that the party has made the actual abolition of tuition fees so super-significant an objective. In our General Election manifesto, the party pledged to scrap fees in order to save students over £10,000. It did not pledge to scrap them to create a graduate tax. It would appear that in order to sweeten the party, Cable is willing to propose anything than can be construed as a victory for anti-fees activists – even if that involves graduates being subjected to a taxation that will follow them for the rest of their working lives.

Abandonment of tuition fees at any cost can not be allowed to become an end in itself. It is understandable that our colleagues in government wish to set a distinctive policy agenda, but a “graduate tax” is neither true to our historical position on the matter nor likely to achieve our firmly held objectives of a liberal and socially just HE system. The way forward involves moving away from entrenched positions, asking questions about the kind of HE and FE education Britain deserves and how to achieve it. A new approach facilitating education for all, empowering individuals to fulfil their potential both within and outside the HE structure, needs to be found in accordance with need and affordabilty. Instead of focusing on tuition fees, Dr Cable and the government should be examining how to develop a new, fair, innovative, inclusive, integrated and socially just education system. In respect to this challenge, the “graduate tax” proposals are little more than an unhelpful distraction.

Lib Dem "unease" showing; Clegg to host "crisis summit"

According to the BBC website, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg is to address MPs, peers and councillors at an "away day" aimed to address concerns expressed by some senior Lib Dems about the direction of coalition policy.

The planned rise in VAT and the decision to axe 700 new school building projects are suggested as reasons for potential dissatisfaction amongst Lib Dems, with Bob Russell's rebellion over VAT and the abstentions of former leaders Charles Kennedy and Menzies Campbell on key votes adding fuel to suspicions of disharmony in the ranks. Former Liverpool City Council leader Warren Bradley's rather unwise intervention in stating decisions taken in government could result in the party being "wiped out" at the next election has been picked up by the national media, even though it was in reference to peculiarly local pressures.

Since the formal coalition agreement was announced, there have been rumblings among the media that the partnership will be short lived and that the Lib Dems are "divided" or "compromised". It would appear there is some wishful thinking here on the part of the media, which seems anxious to suggest disharmony and disunity both between and within the parties of coalition. Using language such as "crisis summit" to describe policy dialogue between the cabinet and their colleagues in the legislature is unhelpful and misleading. What else did they expect other than for the Lib Dem leaders to consult with the party of crucial and difficult policy decisions?

As a Lib Dem member, I am realistic enough to recognise that it simply is not possible for our colleagues in government to gain all that we would like. We are not going to see everything in our manifesto translated into policy. We have some very difficult and complex decisions we have to make on issues such as student finance, the NHS and the economy in partnership with a Conservative Party which historically has not always seen eye-to-eye with us. That is the very nature of compromise, and of partnership government. That might not please the media - and will not always please our members, councillors and MPs - but it should be noted that Lib Dem participation in government has already led to some significant policy gains and is more than preferable to either the legacy of Labour or a Conservative majority government.

There is no "crisis" in the party. One MP voting against the party whip and a handful of abstentions does not constitute a rebellion. What does exist in a democratic Liberal party is a healthy appetite for discussion, accountability and positive influence. Obviously all Lib Dems are anxious not only that the coalition should work, but that it should work in the interests of the country in promoting a liberal agenda. This meeting is simply a means for the party to discuss its policy priorities and how to contribute effectively to the coalition's programme of reform. Nick Clegg and the cabinet should be applauded for facilitating an ongoing and open dialogue rather than being criticised for creating a non-existent "crisis".

As Jeremy Browne told the Daily Politics show: "I am looking forward to celebrating the Lib Dems being in government for the first time in 70 years and demonstrating emphatically that when people said that hung Parliaments led to weak government, and when people said the Lib Dems could not take hard-headed decisions in the national interest, they were wrong. We have debunked both those myths."

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Scotland needs strong public services

As if to prove the point I made last week in relation to the "ringfencing" of the NHS budget not necessarily equating to protection of services, the Health Secretary yesterday announced a "radical overhaul" of the NHS in England which he admitted would result in job losses in cutting "unnecessary" bureaucracy.

The move will not affect Scotland directly, so I will not comment on the specific details of the White Paper. It is sufficient to say that plans to open up the NHS to wider private sector involvement and to give more powers to GPs while ignoring the roles of other health professionals in forging a fit-for-purpose NHS will inevitably prove controversial.

What I have been concerned about in recent weeks, however, is the way in which the government has been so keen to target the public sector. Even sections of the media are keen to demonstrate how public and private sector workers are effectively working in different economies. While inevitably the public sector unions don't help themselves or their members with their inflexible approaches, I actually think that a vibrant public sector is a vital component of a thriving mixed economy and should be valued as such.

The government is understandably keen to reduce the costs of local government and public services. However, the consequence of Osborne's aggressive plans to cut the deficit quickly will inevitably be job losses and poorer quality public services. There can be no escaping from this statement of fact. The actions being taken are driven by economic pragmatism rather than the interests of quality.

The consequences of job cuts or job freezes will be felt not only by public sector employees. For example, in the recent past the public sector has provided career opportunities for new graduates who, as we have seen, are finding it almost impossible to find work in the current climate. And so job shortages affect not only graduates but others out of work with lesser skills who find it tougher in a more competitive market. Public sector cuts are also likely to have social ramifications as communities suffer when funding for significant projects is cut. None of this is rocket science.

And so, in defence of the public sector, it must first be said that it wasn't the public sector that caused the recession. However problematic the unions might be, they weren't responsible for the growth of irresponsible lending. It wasn't the public sector that created an economy based on speculation rather then production, in which the value of an employee was determined by the amount of money they could make. And the public sector didn't delude itself that the good times would always be here to stay, artificially inflating property prices and encouraging increasing personal levels of debt in the process. In short, it wasn't the public services who adopted the false belief that the market (especially a market susceptible to the cynical manipulations of the financial industry) always knew best.

Liberal Democrats knew this. Vince Cable, writing in his best-selling book The Storm, observes: "In the immediate future [the public sector] is a safe haven for employment and a necessary support for economic activity." Cable recognised that, in the long-term, the public sector required significant structural changes and would require constraints to deal with historic problems such as the pensions deficit. Like Vince Cable, I am hardly advocating further expansion of the public sector, but I have concerns at the rate in which the government is pushing through its reforms while giving relatively little thought to the responsibilities of the private sector.

Some of the near hysterical musings of the media on the subject have been less than responsible. I find it more than a little hypocritical of some journalists to be declaring war on the public sector employee. As someone who works in the NHS, I've also seen the other side. I've seen when the economy is booming and my friends working for the banks and other private sector industries were getting their huge pay raises and more than generous bonuses - while we got minute rises in return for a little more in the way of job security. Most people eager to make money wouldn't even have considered the public sector and took their abilities and ambitions elsewhere. The public sector can not and should not be derided and compromised due to the pressures of a recession it neither caused nor contributed to.

The Conservatives and their supporters in the media have to stop this relentless populist quest for easy targets, and instead adopt a more honest, supportive and even realistic position in relation to the public sector. They need to move away from the Thatcherite notions that assume the primacy of the private sector. Our Liberal Democrat colleagues in government, like their Conservative partners, are understandably anxious to deal with the legacy of the recesion and Labour's malmanagement of the economy. However, this can not be done by cutting too much too soon, as Vince Cable has expertly evidenced.

The final word comes from the Liberal Democrat manifesto, Change that works for you. "Liberal Democrats believe in investing in and improving the quality of our public services. They are the cornerstone of a fair society, opening up opportunities and providing support and help when needed." Scotland, and the wider UK, need strong public services that are supported and equipped to tackle some of the inequalities and social problems Nick Clegg frequently highlighted during the election campaign.

The Con-Lib Dem government is admittedly restrained in terms of the resources at its disposal. However, it has not only an historic opportunity to provide the imaginative leadership necessary for redesigning effective public services but - in having Lib Dems at the heart of government - the personnel with the understanding and vision to create the kind of public servcies our country and communities need. The early emphasis on cuts and the private sector is far from encouraging but, if the coalition can adopt and deliver a vision of a strong mixed economy in which an innovative public sector is a key part, then the government's long-term achievement could be the creation of a genuinely fairer society rather than merely balancing the books.