Friday 13 November 2015

Why I am a Liberal Democrat

The LibDems recently ran an essay competition on the theme "What  it means to be a Liberal Democrat today". Results of the competition are not out yet, and I have no idea when they will be. Here is my effort, for what it is worth.


I am a Liberal Democrat because I have a sense of justice. Justice means everybody getting a fair chance without the playing field being tilted against them throughout their lives. Justice does not mean everyone being treated the same all the time. Equality before the law is a sine qua non, but equality before the law requires different treatment, e.g. those who cannot afford representation should get legal aid. Those who can should not. My sense of justice is Biblical as much as it is political, though I accept it will not be for everybody. The Old Testament justice of Amos “Let justice roll on like a river and righteousness like an ever flowing stream”. Justice is so much more than equality before the law: it demands that we treat everybody as we would wish to be treated ourselves. Thus the two most important fibres in my being, the political and the religious, are intertwined.

Liberal democracy involves a lifetime of effort levelling the playing field. We come into a world with a tilted playing field. We make the effort to level it. But the effort does not end once the field is level because in our world the most influential currency is money, and money is magnetic. Wherever it is, it attracts more. If we leave the playing field alone, it will gradually tilt again as those with money use their power to accumulate more. So we need to work constantly to keep the playing field level. It is not just about fairness, it is also about effectiveness. Wealth used for the benefit of all benefits the wealthy too (some of the wealthy realise this). Wealth redistributed to those who have no work keeps them fit and alert and best able to contribute when work does come their way. Wealth redistributed towards those who will never be able to work means we care for those less fortunate than ourselves. Hence my implacable opposition to the poisonous policies and practices of the current Department for Work and Pensions.

The second most influential currency is information, which is crucial for the exercise of power. Information is light which we shine into the murk of both states and corporations to find out how they are affecting us. Without information we are not free, so being a Liberal Democrat means a concern for the freedom of information everywhere and in every form. People must be free to communicate with each other everywhere and about anything, provided it does not harm other people. But people in power hide information as obsessively as they hide money. So liberalism involves a permanent struggle to uncover information and set it free.

I don’t aim for a small state. I aim for an effective state. Size and effectiveness are not necessarily correlated. I want a state that is strong when I need it to be and otherwise leaves me alone. At the same time I want a society that encourages other people to be all that they can be, but to leave me alone if I am not affecting them. Regulation is a necessity; without it markets and social relations would not be peaceably ordered. Too much regulation is problematic, but so is too little – as we discovered in 2008. I want a smart state, one that is strong enough to counter balance prevailing global forces, and at the same time nimble enough to deal with rapidly changing circumstances. The Home Office’s leaden footed response to legal highs is a perfect example of how not to respond to change.

So the state needs to be smart, which entails that the people need to be smart. We need an active concerned and involved citizenry to keep the state tuned to our needs rather than to the needs of those in power. Liberalism also involves realism. I am realistic enough to know that we will never have an entirely active and involved citizenry. The forces of individualist consumerism are too strong for that. But we need a certain minimum, and everybody should at least have the chance, which means we need an education system in which people learn how to be smart. The system we have at the moment teaches one thing and one thing only – how to be measured. It is a tribute to the indomitability of the human spirit and to the professionalism and creativity of our teachers that most of our pupils leave the system with their character intact.

Ultimately, liberalism, like any political philosophy, is about character. Liberalism includes generosity of spirit. I do not envy those who are richer than me, provided they have earned it, which is by no means always the case. I do not scorn those who are poorer than me, because they did not bring it on themselves. They just live in the wrong part of the playing field, the one that I am constantly working to level up. Liberalism involves being always conscious of the rest of the world, not just the bits of the UK that go beyond my comfortable environment, but the entire world. Being internationalist means we won’t forget that our comfort depends on the discomfort of many others.

Liberalism is not an easy creed. It involves a tolerance for complication, an appetite for the convoluted practice of listening to every point of view and working to accommodate all of them. By and large political philosophies are based on either fear or hope. The politics of fear is easy. You point and shout. Liberalism is founded on the politics of hope, which is hard, hard work. We do not have the Daily Mail to expound our beliefs. We have Focuses. Which have to be delivered. So we pound the pavements. Activism gets you fitter. Not only have you got the message out, but you’ve taken your health into your own hands as well.

Saturday 29 August 2015

Over-qualified graduates or an under performing economy?

The CIPD reports that more than half our graduates are working in non graduate jobs. Employers are beginning to use a high qualification bar for recruitment in order to sift applicants more cost effectively; and recruits are finding that they have skills which are not being used. (The report makes a genuflection in the direction of general under use of skills, but needs to make more of the fact that many non graduate employees are not being stretched to their full capacity either - and never have been.)

Reporting of this report is varied. The Guardian says, "Britain’s failure to create sufficient high-skilled jobs for its rising proportion of graduates means the money invested in education is being squandered, while young people are left crippled by student debts, warns a new report."  AGCAS says, "The report suggests a range of interpretations of the available data, but the findings raise questions about the size of the HE sector in relation to our labour market needs and reinforce calls for investment in alternative routes into work for young people." Adventures in Evidence is looking forward to the bun fight: "The annual graduate employment statistics remain much-emphasised by universities and government.  Providing an alternative, more sceptical view, this report is worth a bit of attention: it will be interesting to see what counter-arguments are put to this and by whom."  Though so far there doesn't seem to have been much of one. Readers may point me to analyses which I have missed.

Creating high skill jobs requires investment - that thing that Tory governments don't do if they can possibly help it. The Tory rationale is that investment is best left to the market. If firms want high earning staff, they will create high paying jobs. Trouble is there is a mismatch here between requirements for the economy as a whole and requirements of individual corporations. In a way the Tories are right: investment is best left to companies and sectors to decide for both short and long term strategies. But what happens when the business sector gets it wrong too?

Globalisation, technological development and the increasing power of the managerial classes are causing a widening divide throughout the world between the elite and the rest. The CIPD report mentions the hourglass workforce demographic, where there are some nice jobs at the top, then a squeeze, below which the hulk of (generally low paid and precarious) jobs are situated. The elite who run the companies are quite happy with that. It appears our government is quite happy with that too because much of George Osborne's economic policy is pushing that way. But therein lies the contradiction - if that is the shape of our economy, we do not need a large body of graduate employees. The rationale behind Blair's HE expansion was that to maintain our prosperity we would need to compete with the rest of the world on skills and inventiveness. For that we need a large base of well educated recruits. But the economy we are developing (rapidly) is not that kind of economy. So at some point that contradiction will need to be dealt with.

I do not expect our business sector to be able to deal with it on its own. While there is a great deal of entrepreneurship and vision around in the business sector, it seems to me that there is not enough, and current policies do not encourage it nearly enough. It seems to me that our managerial class has become expert in forms of behaviour which are great at enriching them and maintaining their position, but does not require them to find new fields and new endeavours. In other words, they have become among the world's leading experts in rent seeking: in extracting the value of other people's labour and appropriating it for themselves in bonuses and dividends. Why risk unbalancing the trough when your nose is still in it?

The CIPD says, quotes in Times Higher Ed, “It’s crucial we as a nation take stock now of whether our higher education system is delivering desired returns for graduates, for organisations, and society.” In my view, it is not the HE sector we should be looking at, it is the economy. We should be looking at whether our economy is delivering desired returns for graduates, for organisations and particularly for society. All the signs are that it is not. And it can be changed. The economy is not a monolith, as neoliberals would have us think. It is not beyond influence - in fact what the Tory half of the last government and Tory whole of this government is doing is influencing the economy in the - for me - wrong direction. What we are developing is a finely tuned version of the economy of the trough and we desperately need a form of economy that spreads security and prosperity as widely as possible. People should be rewarded for the work they do, rather than the value being sifted out of it and given to people who have not worked for it. And we should also recognise that the economy is easily big enough - massive enough in fact - to afford to pay a decent minimum, without constant harassment, to those who, through no fault of their own, are not working.

Monday 3 August 2015

Five years in prison....

Actions that carry a maximum sentence of five years in prison:

Trading in firearms without being registered as firearms dealer
Selling firearm to person without a certificate
Repairing, testing etc. firearm without a certificate
Falsifying certificate etc. with view to acquisition of firearm
Violent disorder
Female circumcision
Unlawful wounding
Assault occasioning actual bodily harm
Abandonment of children under two
Acquisition by or supply of firearms to person denied them
Dealing in firearms
Setting spring guns with intent to inflict grievous bodily harm
Failure to disclose information about terrorism
Child sex offence committed by person under 18
Abuse of trust: sexual activity with a child
Abuse of position of trust: causing a child to engage in sexual activity
Abuse of trust: sexual activity in the presence of a child
Abuse of position of trust: causing a child to watch sexual activity
Possession etc of articles for use in frauds
Putting people in fear of violence
Offences in relation to certain dangerous articles
Possession of indecent photograph of a child
Sexual activity with a child family member, with penetration (Offender under 18)
Inciting a child family member to engage in sexual activity (Offender under 18)

Or,if the government get their way, I might be a landlord who happens to be renting a flat or a room to an asylum seeker. And I might decide, when I hear that their request for asylum has been refused, that I cannot be so callous as to evict them just after they have been told they cannot stay in the country. For that as well, they want to give me five years in prison.

We were right to talk about adding a heart to the Conservative party. They don't appear to have one.

Thursday 9 July 2015

The Budget: in which the Chancellor says many fine words but still screws the poor

It was a very successful budget. It did what it set out to do. It was a very political budget from a political master. George Osborne doing what he does best - wrong footing the opposition by fixing the narrative in his terms and burying inconvenient facts.

The tax threshold rise is good but not as progressive as a rise in the NI threshold would have been. The National Living Wage is also a good thing, but I have not yet seen an analysis of who will gain what after reductions in tax credits and housing benefit are factored in. I suspect Osborne has some stats tucked away which tell him that the NLW will be more than offset by those other changes. It is still ultimately a redistribution of relatively little amounts of money among the less and the least well off. And the pain will be widespread: the IFS estimates 13 million families will lose money as a result of the benefits freeze. And as far as corporations are concerned, the biggest will by more than happy about reductions in corporation tax that will sweeten the burden for them. And the NLW is a masterly piece of Osbornism, nicking the term for something that is only a slightly expanded Minimum Wage, well below what a living wage actually is.

I do not think that Osborne has any intention of being nice to people. The neoliberal project is about keeping the bulk of the population just precarious enough - insecure enough not to complain, but not so insecure that they have nothing left to lose. I suspect Osborne realised that previously mooted plans went too far and has pulled them back into viable territory. When the NLW rises to £9 in three years time, he will get a double benefit. He gets the benefit now from announcing it; then he will be able to get the benefit again, and twice over “This year we are raising the NLW to £9 an hour (pause for cheers and waving of order papers from the Tory benches, and maybe a modest fistpump from Iain Duncan Sixpack). But is it only fair that if people are earning more....” - followed by announcement of a further squeeze on tax credits or housing benefit or some such.

Housing, and the wealth tied up in it, remains the unspeakable conundrum. The rise in inheritance tax allowance will benefit only a tiny minority (some reports suggest 8%) but will be loved by many who still think they will be among the few who will make it to the top, while the cuts in housing benefit and rise in rents for social housing tenants will make a lot of renters much worse off. (An example given on Ekklesia today: “A lone parent working 16 hours per week with two children will gain just over £400 from Chancellor Osborne’s ‘living wage’, but will correspondingly lose £860 via tax credit changes in 2016/17”.) While taking a little heat out of the pension market, the Chancellor remains intent on pumping up the housing bubble, perhaps in the belief that it will never explode. Or perhaps he will stop when the housing market has been entirely privatised.

Probably the most significant incident during the speech was Iain Duncan Smith's repulsively pugnacious fistpump when the National Living Wage was introduced. It has been variously reported as delight at the introduction. But it is not. That expression is the face of the bully, not the patron. He was overjoyed indeed, but not about workers getting a slightly more fair deal on pay. He was delighted at Osborne having shafted Labour (and the LibDems, it must be said).

It's not a great budget actually, not the game changer it has been said in some places to be. Rather, it is consistent with everything else the Tories do, a significant step but only one in a journey on which the Tories and their neoliberal chums are taking us and the rest of the world. It shifts us even further from the idea that welfare is affordable and in fact necessary in an economy where most people's jobs are precarious. Benefit claimants are people, and respectable people at that. All but a tiny minority are not in work because they cannot work or because there is no work to do. The benefits they receive are expensive but eminently affordable given the wealth that Britain possesses and creates, even in times of recession and recovery. But that wealth still goes to the top, and the top is still unreformed. It is significant that on the day of the budget Barclays Bank got rid of its reform minded CEO, in a move brilliantly analysed by David Boyle. Reform of the banks is completely off the agenda, given no mention in the budget but a cosmetic change that may well (Boyle again) make things worse for ordinary customers rather than better. And it's a lot more than the banks - corporate welfare remains untouched, and indeed unspoken about. (The Guardian discusses it, but Labour does not say a word.)

And nor do we speak of the miserable bedroom tax, the painful and horribly ineffective Work Capability Assessment, the vindictive sanctions regime or the awfulness that sees hundreds of thousands of children, women and men reliant on food banks in one of the world's richest countries. While the LibDems were in coalition, we helped Osborne and Duncan Smith move us along this road. Now, for the sake of the precarious half of the country, we must find alternative directions.

Wednesday 8 July 2015

Libdemmery reading list

This is today's snapshot of an evolving repository. A reading list almost randomly thrown together of articles, books and statements which will help to understand what Libdemmery is all about. If you join Diigo and log in (it's worth it) you can annotate these items in a Diigo outliner, and join in discussions about them. If not, just read them; your time will be amply repaid.

Additions are always welcome. It's a living list.

Saturday 9 May 2015

I am a cockroach

Tim Farron famously said a little while ago something along the lines of after the apocalpyse has happened, there will still be cockroaches and Liberal Democrats delivering leaflets. Well, the apocalypse happened on Thursday. A grim night. Lewes lost, in Norman Baker, the best MP it has ever had, or likely ever will. I doubt that his successor, for all her fine words, will measure up. (Irony: some circles in Lewes have just noticed that she is pro fracking: a bit late.)

We have been well and truly punished in the only poll that counts. We can now look back on some fine achievements, and some apologies that need to be made, and we can look forward to more pain for the many, and comfort for the few.

It looks to me as if the electorate has said, well, if we have to have Tory policies, we may as well have proper Tories making them. I know it's more complicated than that. But there are things which we have participated in, and enabled, and we no longer have to support - the ideological insistence on privatisation of everything possible, Iain Duncan Smith's heartless war on unemployed, sick and disabled people. Of course, now we're out of power, we have lost any ability we had to mitigate those efforts.

In my view, as many have already said, we became too economically liberal and were not socially liberal enough in government. Our achievements were mainly on the socially liberal side of the agenda - equal marriage, pupil premium, raising tax allowance for *everyone*, resistance to the snoopers' charter. But the main thrust of being in government was economic liberalism. I was struck by a piece from Mark Littlewood quoted in Liberal Vision. He says we may have the opportunity to redefine ourselves “as a genuinely classical liberal party, seeking to shift power in every area of life away from the state and towards individual men and women.”  The trouble is that nowadays that doesn't work. Globalisation and post industrial capitalism have taken us to the point where removing power from the state means that it accrues not to ordinary people but to corporations, and what we need is a form of liberalism that finds tools to empower citizens in the face of both the state and corporations. That tends away from the classical tools of economic liberalism, such as simple versions of free trade, which work to accumulate more power in the hands of unaccountable corporations. (Hence my opposition to TTIP; its headline is free trade, its effect is corporate dominance.)

I wrote my wishlist before the election. It still stands:
- a welfare policy that affords a decent minimum without harrassment to everybody who is not working because they cannot or because there is no work
- major increase in the capacity of the civil service to frame and monitor contracts given to the private sector (where increasing the power of the state works to the benefit of the individual citizen)
- FOI for all contracts issued by government. Corporate confidentiality should not be a figleaf. Transparency is all - when we can see what private companies are doing with our money, it is so much less easy for them to get away with it.
- properly funded units to chase tax avoiders
- MPs can have as many jobs as they want, but they cannot speak or vote on anything in which they have a financial interest. (It works for councillors, it can work for MPs.)

It is an incomplete list, but it's a start. It is by and large a socially liberal list. We still need to be economically liberal, but we need to get that right, so that it actually works on behalf of the citizens, not on behalf of the powers that be. I am no longer “for” minimal government. I am “for” the level of government that works for everybody, not just the few, that enables all of us to stand up best to the power of corporations, as well as the power of the state. I am "for" Conrad Russell's definition of liberalism: we stand up to bullies - everywhere.

That is my “air war”. As for the "ground war", I will be delivering leaflets, and preparing the ground for a battle about fracking. It will be a big one.

I am a cockroach.

Thursday 12 March 2015

How to live and die with dignity

Sir Terry Pratchett's death was announced, as Buzzfeed says, in a beautiful and perfect way.

Transworld Publishers got it right too. “The world has lost one of its brightest, sharpest minds.”

We mourn him not just because of the conduct of his passing but because of the conduct of his life, a life which enriched, enlivened and, in his own way, ennobled the world.

To dwell on the things of this world may seem to sully the remembrance of the pure joy Sir Terry brought, but it is important to remember that his way of life was an act of will, and that the opposite way of life is also an act of will.

We live in a world of sharp contrasts, and one where, far too often, people are concerned to bolster their egos at the expense of others. That half of the world is typified by Jeremy Clarkson, who could learn a great deal from Sir Terry, if he were able to tear himself away, for a moment, from the pursuit of obnoxious celebrity.

Sir Terry was, and will remain, a shaft of light in an otherwise all too often murky world.

Wednesday 25 February 2015

About. Bloody. Time. (But not far enough.)

Clampdown on cold call companies unveiled by government. Not before time. Cold calls are a menace, and even more so this week: I've been on holiday. I'm trying to relax, but the phone at my holiday place rings every day with cold calls. In the end I set the ringer to zero volume, so if somebody called it who actually wanted me, they wouldn't get me.

Even within current legislation, the ICO's reponse has been pusillanimous. So, when it gets these new powers, it needs to start using them. Also, these powers only deal with cold calls within the UK. The faux Microsoft calls from India need to be dealt with too. At the moment phone companies have no way of filtering out withheld numbers from foreign places, because BT Openreach does not provide one. You can buy one to fit on your own phone, but why should we have to? It is a quick technical fix to provide a call blocking mechanism for withheld numbers but Openreach apparently have no interest in providing one. Ofcom should give Openreach a very hard kick up the backside on this one, and keep kicking till they provide it.

An addition to my election wishlist: MPs' jobs on the side.

An addition to my election wishlist. This has been in my mind for some time, well before the Straw / Rifkind hands in the honeypot debacle; I didn't remember it when I wrote my original election wishlist.

MPs can have any second job they want. Or third. Or fourth. But they cannot vote on anything in which they have an interest. (If the rule is good enough for councillors, it's good enough for MPs.) The Speaker's Office should have an arm devoted to determining who can vote on what, with stringent rules. Any bill brought before Parliament would have a list attached to it of MPs who cannot vote on it, with the reasons why. An advisor to a large multinational company might find themselves excluded from all the important votes.....

An objection will immediately be raised. What about people like doctors who need to do a certain amount of practice in order to maintain their credentials? As experts, they have specific contributions to make to debates in their specialisms. I don't think that is insuperable. Even doctors can't have everything. They have to make a choice; do they want to be a doctor or an MP? If they want to be an MP, they put their doctoring on hold. If they lose their credentials and have to get them back after they have ceased to be MPs, provision for retiring MPs is very, I mean VERY, generous - they have plenty of both time and money to re-credential themselves.

Also, I think the argument about having expertise in the house is overblown. 650 largely white, largely middle class, largely middle aged men will not have expertise on everything. They rely on outsiders for expertise, and perhaps should rely more. The medical profession, like any other profession, is an interest group. I would hate doctors to have some sort of claim to being listened to more than all the rest of us when it comes to legislation on medical matters.

Thursday 19 February 2015

My election wishlist

None of the items below is sexy, but I think they are all necessary and will have a surprising effect on accountability, efficiency, the quality of the services we receive, and the amount of tax available to pay for them.

Welfare policy
Whatever the words employed, current welfare policy is about demonising and impoverishing claimants. We want a society where everyone who is not working, either because there is no work, or because they are too ill or disabled to work, is guaranteed a decent minimum without fear of constant harassment.

Civil service capacity
We've been outsourcing busily for thirty years. That's an entire generation. But the capacity of the civil service to monitor the tens of billions of pounds in those contracts remains unacceptably low. We need to beef up the contract control functions of the civil service so that it is capable of ensuring that every profit making contractor delivers the service that we are paying them for.

FOI for all government contracts
Much of our tax money is wasted through sloppy procurement of public services from private contractors. (Example: SERCO had to repay £200 million due to overcharging on offender monitoring contracts.) We need to extend freedom of information provisions to all contracts awarded by central and local governments, so that we can see what is going on with our money, and neither ministers nor contractors will be able to hide behind the fig leaf of commercial confidentiality. Yes,  it's not sexy, but it will make a much bigger difference to both our services and our taxes than most people think.

As many staff to tackle tax avoidance as benefit fraud
Benefit fraud costs us approximately £1.2 billion a year. Tax evasion costs approximately £70 billion a year. The DWP claims to employ 3250 people chasing benefit fraud; HMRC claims to employ 300 people chasing high earning evaders. (Other figures are available.) We need to ensure that as many resources are put into chasing tax evasion as benefit fraud. And we need to see that the proportion of tax evasion cases taken to prosecution equals or outstrips the proportion of benefit fraud cases.

And then when we wake up exhausted the day after election day, I wonder what our red lines should be. Just a few observations here. I have very few things that I would call red lines. I don't think our tax ideas need to be there (I don't think a further raise in the level of personal allowance is the best thing to do for low paid people). There has been a certain amount of speculation about the LibDems not having the stomach for another coalition with the Tories. I don't feel that way. If the electorate deals us those cards again, then we have to play them. The country is not in the delicate state it was in in 2010 so we can afford to take longer and play harder if we think it right to do so. Alternatives like confidence and supply are more open than they were in 2010. There is one area where I would foresee difficulty if I were in the negotiating team. I do not see how we could tolerate being in another government with Iain Duncan Smith. It's not about stomach: I can imagine being in the same room as him. But his lethal combination of vindictiveness and incompetence directed at the poorest and most vulnerable is the very opposite of liberal government. If we enabled him to take another five years to bully poor people, sick people and disabled people, we could no longer call ourselves liberals.