Pop goes the #ldconf

The feature article in yesterday’s G2 magazine was a piece from the Liberal Democrat conference by the music journalist Alexis Petridis. It was fascinating to read the impressions of a party conference novice. All the more so because I wasn’t at Conference this time around (for reasons discussed here).

A leitmotif of Petridis’ piece is that Liberal Democrats at Conference are just enjoying being in government, after years in opposition. It may only be for short period of time before electoral annihilation awaits, but members are determined to enjoy the ride. He likens the atmosphere to that of a holiday camp. This may be the case for some. But I’m not sure enjoyment is the right approach to government. It seems to me that it underplays the awesome responsibilities one is entrusted with. Read more of this post

Crunch time for the Liberal Democrats –The NHS Bill and electoral oblivion

The tuition fee debacle was bad. But at least there was a reason, if not an excuse. Neither major party was committed to removing tuition fees. So whoever the Liberal Democrats ended up in Coalition with it was unlikely that the party was going to be able to honour its pledge. The hand was no doubt badly played, but the outcome was going to be nothing other than politically damaging.

This time there is no excuse. The Conservatives may claim that their manifesto refers to extending GP commissioning. But this passing reference is a threadbare justification for the enormous changes being proposed. And how many electors actually read the manifesto? If they bought the story at election time then it was more likely to be Cameron the compassionate Conservative reassuring them that the NHS was his top priority, that it was safe in his hands, that there would be no top down reorganisation, that it wouldn’t be privatised, etc., etc., etc. That these reassurances were not worth the breath required to produce them seems increasingly apparent. Significant chunks of the electorate have interpreted the Government’s plans as taking an axe to their beloved NHS. Read more of this post

The middle classes, mansions and Mr Pickles

Last Friday’s Telegraph published a couple of brief pieces drawing on a wide ranging interview with Eric Pickles. The Communities Secretary had a few characteristically pithy observations to make in relation to the ongoing debate over the future of the 50p tax rate and the alternative mooted by the Liberal Democrats of moving to a tax on high value properties.

The Telegraph reports that Mr Pickles:

… is determined to face down Liberal Democrat sensitivities and reduce tax for the middle classes. New taxes on more expensive properties are definitely not on the agenda.

“We as a government have got to understand that middle-class families put a lot into this country and don’t take a lot out,” he says. “It would be a very big mistake to start imposing taxation on the back of changes in property values.”

Mr Pickles also goes further than some of his colleagues by insisting that the 50p higher rate of income tax should be scrapped for ideological reasons.

The Treasury is conducting a study to establish whether the new top rate actually raises much money, but the Liberal Democrats have said it is “cloud cuckoo land” to consider scrapping the tax at the moment. Mr Pickles expresses the views of many Conservatives when he says: “We always said it [the 50p rate] was temporary.

“We’ll get an assessment at the end of this financial year as to how much money we’ve got [from the tax]. But you know I’m a Conservative, I like the idea of lowering taxation.

“I believe you get more tax revenue by lowering taxation because people work harder. I like people to keep more in their pockets for their family.”

Elsewhere in the Telegraph he is reported as saying that:

“… a mansion tax on high-value homes could hit many ordinary middle-class families because of high property prices in some areas.”

“People will suddenly find themselves in a mansion and they hadn’t realised it was a mansion,” he says. “If it is only going to be mansions, the kind of thing you and I would regard as a mansion, it ain’t going to raise very much.”

It is important to put these comments in perspective. Read more of this post

Could the riots be the beginning of the end for the Coalition?

Today I was idly wondering whether the way in which the Government responds to last week’s riots could turn out to be pivotal for the Coalition. Possibly the beginning of the end. Why might that be? I was pondering what makes Liberal Democrats distinctive.

If you think about Liberal Democrats on a left-right political axis then the Party’s identity is perhaps rather indistinct. It encompasses a broad range of opinion. It stretches from the left of the Social Liberal Forum, which would appear to share common ground with the remnants of the left wing of the Labour party or the Green party, to Liberal Vision and beyond which occupy parts of the political spectrum where it is hard to tell a Liberal from a Libertarian at twenty paces.

But if you look at the Liberal Democrats on the authoritarian-liberal axis then they are hugely distinctive from the other major parties, which share a strong authoritarian streak (although Labour is perhaps less clear what it thinks on this point than it might appear, as discussed here on Liberal Conspiracy today). The only party that comes close to the Liberal Democrats on questions of human rights and civil liberties is the Green party. The only comparable area of divergence between the Liberal Democrats and the other major parties might be constitutional reform.

This is, I think, why things might start to unravel. Read more of this post

Governing in the private interest?

The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerated the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than the democratic state itself. That in its essence is fascism: ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or any controlling private power.

Franklin D Roosevelt

Anyone interested in the health and sustainability of liberal democracy should be concerned if the levers of government come under the control of concentrated, sectional interests. That is the case whether the interest is corporations, the military, trades unions, bureaucrats, or organised religion. By happenstance such situations may result in benign government with a concern for the broader interest. More typically they result in government not for the many but for the few.

The merits of pluralism have been much debated. Political processes in which all have the potential to prevail, on the basis of the strength of the case they can make, capture something important about the nature of liberty. They are the antithesis of systems in which entrenched and powerful interests systematically shape and dominate the agenda. It is a topic close to the hearts of Liberal Democrats. Genuinely pluralist political practice remains something to strive for. Its attainment is by no means assured and precarious at best. But it is nonetheless a noble aspiration.

These thoughts crossed my mind at 3.30am this morning as I was enjoying some bonus time awake courtesy of rather too much late night caffeine.

While I was waiting to see if sleep might revisit I read the recent Democratic Audit report Unelected Oligarchy: Corporate and Financial Dominance in Britain’s Democracy. And the content is alarming enough to keep a good democrat awake at night all by itself. Read more of this post

Open Public Services: market fundamentalism with a thin sugar coating?

We forget at our peril that markets make a good servant, a bad master and a worse religion.

Amory Lovins, CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute

The Government’s long delayed White Paper on public service reform – Open Public Services – has now been released into the wild. I blogged an early reaction to its rationale over at Dale & Co on Tuesday. I’ve now had a chance to come to grips with the detail, such as it is. My feeling is that this is an intriguing, infuriating and – at times – alarming document.

It is a document that lacks coherence in a way that suggests it is the product of several hands, or a fevered mind. It is a document that lacks detail in its justification and its implications in a way that is troubling. The policies and initiatives it identifies as being in accord with the Open Public Services agenda are a ragbag of largely unrelated actions, some of which are problematic in themselves.

There are some components of the proposals that are welcome and sensible. They point, for example, to greater local government or community control over services delivered in their area. If the White Paper had stopped there then it would be a very different beast. But such moves to enhance local democratic control are the secondary storyline. This is the sugar coating.

The overarching message is the onward march of marketisation. Read more of this post

Distinctive positions on housing

[Originally posted at Liberal Democrat Voice, 04/07/11]

There is no doubt some soul searching going on at the moment, in part as a consequence of the poor result at the Inverclyde by-election. I’m sure the leadership will seek to dismiss poor election results at this stage in the electoral cycle as to be expected when you’re “in government”. But that can hardly carry much weight, given the Tories aren’t doing anywhere near as badly. It seems to me that rather deeper reflection is needed. Is it clear any more what the Liberal Democrats stand for? Why would someone – beyond the most unwaveringly committed – vote for the Party? Read more of this post

Policy, evidence and dogma – the homelessness episode

A leaked memo from Communities & Local Government exposed in today’s Observer has already generated considerable comment. The memo, written by a senior civil servant at the start of the year, sets out perfectly clearly not only that the Government’s welfare reforms ran the risk of making an additional 40,000 households homeless and reduce the number of new homes constructed, but also that – taking these knock-on effects into account – the “reforms” won’t save any money. On the contrary, they are likely to impose an increased burden on the public purse.

A lot of attention has focused upon the former point. It raises important questions about whether David Cameron misled Parliament in statements about the downside risks of the policy. The memo suggests that statements may have been made in Parliament that contradicted the best available evidence and advice to Ministers. The memo also gives some indication of what sort of costs the Prime Minister considers worth paying to drive this policy through. There is a callousness there that many will no doubt find extremely distasteful.

It has been asserted today that Mr Pickles has distanced himself from the memo and is fully behind the Government’s welfare reform agenda. I’d expect nothing less. Or more.

The suspicion of Government hypocrisy is bad enough, but I think it is the second component of the memo is more revealing. Read more of this post

Conference, security and the ‘managers of unease’

The additional security provisions for the Liberal Democrat September conference in Birmingham have attracted considerable high profile comment in the Lib Dem blogosphere. Bloggers including Caron’s Musings, Aunty Sarah and Mark Thompson have registered significant and fundamental concerns. A explanatory post by Andrew Wiseman at Lib Dem Voice, in response to a strongly critical post by Dave Page, has generated substantial comment.

The concerns are several. Three stand out. First, it appears – though it is not entirely clear – that it will be the Police who accredit those who are able to attend Conference. The criteria against which potential delegates will be assessed are not clear. Nor is the basis upon which someone might be rejected. There appears no right of appeal. So not only will the Police stand in judgement over who is able to participate in a lawful democratic assembly, but the process will be utterly non-transparent. Second, the additional data submitted for accreditation can be stored by the Police indefinitely. While that might at first sight appear to contravene the Data Protection Act, there are widespread exemptions for the security services. Third, a key reason for accepting the Police and Home Office position that accreditation is necessary is that not to do so would risk rendering the conference uninsurable.

The proposals for accreditation might seem unexceptional to many because they have been in use at Labour and Conservative conferences for years. Critics have seized on this debate as indicating that Liberal Democrats are not a “serious” party. Read more of this post

Dr Cable: the Cassandra within Cabinet?

Vince Cable seems to be occupying a somewhat awkward role in Government as the Coalition enters its second year. While continuing as Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, he appears to be acting as agent provocateur-in-chief of the new style Lib Dem “opposition within government”. He popped up as the surprise guest at the recent Fabian Progressive Fightback conference. And ConservativeHome placed him squarely at the top of their Yellow B**tards Premier League.

Yet, while this role appears rather awkward from the point of view of cabinet unity and collective responsibility, you get the sense that it is more congenial to Vince personally.

Vince is at it again in an interview in the current New Statesman. Read more of this post

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