Contortions and distortions – The party conference currency

Conference season brings out the worst in British politics. No question about it. Bad jokes intended to tickle the faithful. Set piece speeches designed to rally them if they’re flagging. All sprinkled with the odd soundbite designed to hit the news headlines in the mainstream media. We are offered question and answer sessions displaying differing degrees of robustness. Some appear genuinely challenging; some appear stuffed with planted questions from oleaginous party wannabes. Most of the material is delivered in a ponderous and uninspiring manner. The lack of gifted orators among the current generation of frontbench politicians is all too obvious.

But perhaps the most depressing aspect of conference season is how disconnected from reality it can all become. Hypocrisy is inevitable in politics. There are no doubt delicate diplomatic situations in which telling the unvarnished truth would be unwise or dangerous. But the industrial scale dissembling we witness at this time of year does little except bring politicians further into disrepute.

This is perhaps most evident at the current Conservative party conference. Read more of this post

Customers? Time for something a little more feudal perhaps

[Originally posted at Dale&Co, 01/10/11]

How should we refer to the users of public services? What sort of identity should be ascribed to us? Over the last 30 years the concept of the service user embedded in policy has been radically reworked.

The language of “clients” or “claimants” in the postwar welfare state was criticised for its implications of dependency. Clients are reliant upon the discretion and largesse of public service professionals. The bureaucrats are in charge.

The Thatcher governments sought to reinterpret service users as consumers exercising choice. Major’s Citizen’s Charter was not so much about establishing the inalienable rights of citizenship as an attempt to import a culture of customer complaint into the public sector.

The later Blair governments were similarly enthusiastic about consumerism, choice and competition – sorry, provider diversity. Initiatives such as personalisation pushing these ideas further than the Conservatives ever attempted. But the Blairites spiced up the mix with communitarian-infused notions of self-discipline and of responsibility to the collective as a condition of accessing services.

One might argue that the Coalition Government’s Open Public Services white paper reprises many fo these well-worn themes. The rise of the choice-making, provider-disciplining public service consumer does indeed appear to be inexorable.

But is that the whole story? Are there, in contrast, signs that the wheel turns again? Read more of this post

Penurious progressives

There will no doubt be much soul-searching at this week’s Labour party conference. There will no doubt continue to be subtle – and not so subtle – attempts to distance the party from the legacy of the Brown government and its cataclysmic electoral implosion. Without, of course, suggesting that it is therefore inappropriate for some of Brown’s closest associates to be leading the party to a bright new dawn, whether red, blue or purple.

The biggest issue on the agenda is the party’s stance on the economy. How can it regain credibility for its stewardship of the economy, given the perception among much of the electorate – successfully promulgated by the Coalition – that the poor state of the public finances in 2010 was almost entirely attributable to Labour’s uncontrolled largesse with other people’s money? Personally, I don’t buy the narrative that it was all Labour’s fault. But it doesn’t matter whether it is accurate or not. It is the one that the party will have to neutralise if it wants another sniff of power any time soon.

Yet, there is a different way of thinking about the problem. And it perhaps highlights the scale of the challenge the party faces. 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

Compassionate, careless or conniving?

Today I posted over at Dale & Co:

In the run up to the Parliamentary recess the country was transfixed by a scandal involving the Conservative contingent of the Government, the media, powerful private companies and a Select Committee exerting itself. The scandal gained momentum when it was clear that particularly vulnerable people were being affected by unacceptable or underhand practice.

There is another scandal brewing which has the same cocktail of ingredients. I am talking about the changes to Incapacity Benefit and the implementation of Employment Support Allowance. The rhetoric of reform here is positive. Some might even say unexceptional. But the practice is, by comparison, looking decidedly ropey. As so often turns out to be the case.

You can read the full post here.

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

Progressive but not centre-left? Best not to …

On Sunday we had an interesting juxtaposition.

The Observer declared that Ed Miliband ‘opens the door to future co-operation with the Liberal Democrats’, contrasting Tory policies with ‘progressive ones’ and inviting Liberal Democrats to join him on the side of progress. This resonates with his previous attempt to appeal to the putative ‘progressive majority’ as the banner under which left-leaning Lib Dems might align with Labour to dislodge the Tories.

While I was reading this Observer piece Nick Clegg was interviewed on Andrew Marr’s show. Lib Dem commentators have already noted that Nick’s performance contained some promising signs of differentiation from the Tories, although some of his comments on health reform were perhaps not quite what some would have hoped for (as noted, for example, on Caron’s Musings here) . Read more of this post

On bankruptcy constraints, soft and hard

One strand of the economic critique of government provision is that public providers face a soft bankruptcy constraint. If they operate inefficiently or extravagantly and run out of money then they can turn to government for a handout to cover any shortfall. If the government is short of money to bail them out they just put up taxes. Private providers, in contrast, operate in the face of a hard bankruptcy constraint. They must operate in the face of ever-present risk. If they don’t produce what consumers demand, and do so as efficiently as possible, then their continued existence is in doubt. Hence, the argument runs, a powerful incentive is missing from the sphere of public provision. This argument has been invoked as one component of the justification for shifting activities from public to private sector. Read more of this post

Tax payers and ‘the right to the city’: alternative narratives on cuts to Housing Benefit

A few days ago I tweeted that current housing policy was a “right mess”. That was in part a response to the news, reported in Inside Housing, that there is going to be an increase in the distribution of tents for homeless ex-offenders in Nottingham, in lieu of settled accommodation. But it was a more general observation that the intersection of the various current initiatives don’t seem to sum to anything bordering on coherent. A key element of the current agenda is the reform of the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) for private tenants. And we’re now moving into the implementation phase of the reforms.

I’ve written about the LHA before (here and here). But I return to it because the more I think about it the more I think there has been something missing from the debate. Read more of this post

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.