Budget 2017: An Unsustainable Future

Budget 2017: An Unsustainable Future

Yesterday, the Chancellor delivered his latest Budget. It was gloomy reading, with dreadful OBR productivity growth forecasts meaning that households face continued wage squeezes and that the austerity will continue to haunt politics.

Many announcements in the budget seem aimed at addressing this low productivity over the longer term; expanding the National Productivity Investment Fund, further investment in T-Levels (not due to exist as a qualification until the end of this decade) and a funding boost for schools teaching A-Level maths. Any one of these could be argued as a plank in creating a high-tech, high skilled and high wage economy in the future (though taken together, it is hard to argue that they go far enough).

What strikes me most about this budget, however, it that it does not seem to consider the importance of a sustainable future. High tech jobs might be a good thing, but on a planet with finite resources, it is increasingly clear that the economy of the future must be low impact. This budget has done almost nothing to encourage sustainable growth, or to address environmental challenges.

Instead, we have a politics of appeasement. For example, fuel duty remains frozen at 2010 levels, while taxes on economy flights and new diesel HGVs are also frozen. Policies like this are popular with the electorate, particularly those who are less well off, and can be presented as the Government supporting ‘hard working families’. Yet they feed into damaging patterns of behaviour, which are not sustainable. If there is a to be a focus on transport investment, to ‘get Britain moving’, it should surely be on mass public transport – busses and rail infrastructure, which is far less harmful to the environment. The Government prioritises driverless cars, when it should be looking at a carless future.

Bizarrely, targeted investment to address congestion and a focus on support for electric cars, both of which feature in the budget, demonstrate that the Government knows cars are a problem. Air pollution, particularly in big cities, is now a common complaint, with London implementing the T Charge, and Oxford taking steps to ban cars from the city centre. Yet the Government is wedded to the idea that everyone should drive as an ideal, they should just drive less damaging cars on better roads.

Faced with such criticism, the Government might point to the introduction of the new 26-30 railcard as evidence of a commitment to public transport. Yet here again the policy does not go far enough, because the railcard (once it has been negotiated with the rail companies), will only apply to off-peak travel, thus making it next to useless for commuters. Further (much like current housing policy), the focus is on the demand side, rather than the supply. To make rail travel a more appealing option, substantial investment in the network and stock is needed. More, and more pleasant services will in turn encourage increased demand, which should (in a healthy market place) push down prices for travellers.

Beyond transport, Government also seems unwilling to use the levers at its disposal to build a sustainable future. The introduction of a five pence charge for single-use carrier bags in England (following an example set in the other home nations), led to an 85% reduction in the use of such bags in the first six months of the charge. Alongside this positive change in consumer behaviour, and has raised significant sums for charities and community groups. Yet despite this positive evidence, there was no commitment to take similar steps to alter behaviour, for example by charging for disposable hot drinks cups, or introducing a deposit scheme for plastic drinks bottles – only a promise to consult on options.

One final point of condemnation for this budget remains. We cannot ignore the elephant of Brexit, which will damage our ability to cooperate to address global climate change, not to mention mean the duplication of services and the creation of unnecessary infrastructure. This is a budget which meets the political needs of the Conservative Party above all else. The environmental needs of the country and the world can, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, ‘go whistle”.

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Why we (try to) write

Why we (try to) write

It’s been a while since I’ve written anything of substance here. There are good reasons for that – I got a new job in January, which takes a fair part of my brain space, I have two London choirs taking up weekday evenings, there was an election, and I’m now chairing a small housing policy working group. But the biggest change happened in August, when I moved in with my partner. The move itself was time consuming, but more significantly, where once I shared a house with people, I now share a way of living. There is far less scope to simply sit with my own thoughts. And that’s no bad thing.

Nonetheless, I continue to believe that writing here is worthwhile. Because there is much which warrants writing.

I look around me, and see a country, a world in crisis. Half the population is having to face the reality of how it has systematically oppressed the other half. The UK is failing to deal with the largest non-military state action since de-colonisation, while ignoring domestic policy challenges which worsen by the day. Europe is beset by rising nationalism and xenophobia. In the Middle East and Far East, nuclear tensions grow, and the plight of insecure democracies in the global south continues to be ignored. All the while, the planet warms by year on year, threatening our very existence. No shortage of topics then.

And yet, I don’t for a second believe that what I write here will change anything. I don’t believe Theresa May will read my blog, and, as though struck by a bolt from the blue, abandon her disastrous pursuit of Brexit. I don’t believe that, sitting in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-Il will read this, and recognise that his attempts to secure nuclear ICBMs are undermining global stability, or that Donald Trump, won over by my flowing prose, will recommit to massive reductions in carbon emissions.

No, I do not write because I believe it will change the world. I am neither that egotistical nor that foolish. I write, because in doing so, I learn how to articulate my thoughts; indeed, I learn what my thoughts are. I learn to comprehend the world, and to shape my view. I write because writing changes me.

And if you want to change the world, there are worse places to start.

Election Reflections 2017-06-09

Another year, another unexpected election outcome to dissect. Here goes.

The national picture – Labour Up, Tories Down

The big story of the night is of course the decline of the Conservatives to the benefit of Labour.

I will admit from the outset I got this very wrong. I accepted the media view that a party led by Jeremy Corbyn would not be seen as plausible. This was clearly mistaken. It is evident that there *is* support for a more left-wing politics, and that Jeremy Corbyn has benefitted from not being a typical career politician. He has definitely come across well throughout the campaign, and deserves credit for this. It may be that he can build a more left-wing labour party, but combine that with the professionalism of New Labour.

Having said that, I do believe that Labour benefitted hugely from a dreadful Conservative campaign. Going in to this election, the general public didn’t realise just how dreadful Mrs May is. Pre-election, there was a lot of discussion among politicos as to whether she was good or just lucky. It is clear now that pre-election she was just lucky. The Tory campaign was truly abysmal, and their policy platform was far to the right of the acceptable one-nation Conservatism of Cameron. Clearly, this position has been soundly rejected, along with their brutal Brexit.

More generally, we have seen a shift back towards a more bi-polar electoral map. The presidential feel of the campaign clearly benefitted Labour over the Tories, but it has also resulted in a shift back to extreme divisions between left and right, where people are more likely to vote to keep out the opposition they really dislike. Certainly Labour energised voters (it seems they even got the sought-after boost in young voters), but at least some of that vote will also have resulted from the desire to keep out the Tories, which is clearly more pronounced now that two years ago.

The Lib Dem Picture – we can build on this

As a proud Liberal Democrat, this election cycle has been one of huge personal swings, from massive optimism through to outright terror. At 8pm yesterday, I was pretty sure we would be down to about five seats and facing a Tory majority. On balance, I am not unhappy about moving from nine to 12 seats (an increase of 1/3). This is a small, but significant step to rebuilding the party. It is great to have Vince Cable and Ed Davy back in parliament, to have regained Bath and Eastbourne, to have taken Oxford West, and to have the beginnings of a restoration in Scotland.

There are, of course, great frustrations. Foremost amongst those was Fife North East (a seat once held by the late, great Sir Menzies Campbell), by 2 votes! Likewise, the loss of Richmond Park to Zac Goldsmith by 45 votes is a blow. However, small margins will, one hopes, spur the local parties to work even harder next time around – these seats are clearly winnable. Sarah Olney had been given little time to build a local presence, and of course this time round Zac Goldsmith had the full weight of the Tory party behind him (despite the party committing to Heathrow expansion in their manifesto, the policy which first led him to resign the whip).

Other seats we lost were greater blows – to have no MPs in Wales is a setback, as are the losses of Greg Mulholland and of course Nick Clegg, who, above all others, was a media-friendly big name for the party (though his departure from the party’s front line may, with time, help us recover support among those who have still not forgiven us for the coalition era).

In terms of wider trends, we have suffered from the presidential, two-party style of this election, with a drop in vote share of 0.5%. The pattern of Labour up and Tories down has hit us too – our losses (with the exception of Richmond Park, and Southport, where we had lost our incumbency bonus with the retirement of John Pugh) were primarily to Labour. This trend also explains the failure of target seats such as Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes’ patch), and Cambridge (Julian Huppert), to turn orange (in the latter of those seats, I fear we are still haunted by tuition fees).

In contrast, our gains have been entirely from Tories and the SNP (who have been thoroughly bloodied). Opposition to the Tories explains successes in Bath and Oxford, in Eastbourne, Twickenham and Kingston & Surbiton. Some failed targets, such as Cheltenham, also saw positive swings to us.

So what can we learn from this. Our results prove yet again how deeply unfair our voting system is: 7.4% of the vote could, in a more representative system, give us some 48 seats (by the same token, the SNP’s 3% of the vote should have given them 19 seats, rather than 35). Sadly this is not about to change. Labour and the Tories both benefit from the status quo – This campaign proves that. With that in mind, it is a relief that our results show improved targeting. We must continue to build on this, with an ever more ruthless approach to local campaigns (as well as a realistic core vote strategy).

The results also give us a clear sense of our more obvious targets – socially liberal centrist voters who would have voted for Cameron, and perhaps Blair before him. Places like Richmond Park and Cheltenham are prime examples of where we need to look next, Bath and Oxford West of what we can achieve. These seats also, to some extend, vindicate our position on Brexit. Yes, we didn’t get 48% of the vote, but we did win remain voting seats from the Tories, and are seen as plausible in Scotland (which might not have been the case were we less ardently pro-seats)… It is arguable that we were seen as too much of a one issue party this time round (at a point when, as it turned out, this wasn’t the issue most on people’s minds. Nonetheless, our position on Brexit is a good indicator of our values (outward-looking, internationalist), and can, alongside policies such as 1p on income tax to fund the NHS, help highlight the distinctive voice of the Liberal Democrats in our politics,

All told, it may not be as good as we hoped, but these are results we can build on.

What now?

In the short term, we have a hung parliament. A Tory minority with support from the DUP looks like the most obvious outcome. Predictions from r the date of the next election on a postcard please.

The Big unknown in all this is of course Brexit. Mrs May went into this election seeking to strengthen her negotiating position – she has done exactly the opposite. If we are lucky, the EU will take pity on us, but time will tell. One thing is true. The nation has voted for chaos.

Ohh, and UKIP need a new leader (again). Applications on a postcard!

Dementia Tax…

The 2017 Conservative manifesto includes a commitment to funding social care through individual payments, capped so that nobody is left with less than £100,000.

This policy, widely condemned as a “Dementia tax” is deeply unfair. It would in effect mean that someone with a long term illness would face a tax rate of 100% on assets (including property) over £100,000. Inheritance tax currently stands at 40% on assets above a variable threshold, between £325,000 and £850,000.

In other words, Conservative tax policy will penalise anyone with a long-term, condition.

This, of course, has sparked backlash, as well it should. It is therfore unsurprising that today saw a Conservative u-turn. Theresa May announced that alongside this level of assets below which a person will not have to pay for care, there will be an absolute cap on the contributions any person will be required to make to pay for their social care.

I’ve blogged about u-turns in the past, and continue to believe they can be a public good. I’m glad Theresa May’s Conservatives have realised that their proposals for funding social care were deeply unfair. I’m glad they have announced this policy change, capping the amount anyone will be required to pay (though they have not specified what that cap will be). Im glad they are willing to change their position when flaws are highlighted (if we are going to have another Tory government, I’d rather it were one which changes its mind when presented with new evidence),

But this policy change does not go far enough. A system which makes an individual pay for their own care, regardless of how it is capped, is inherently unfair. Rather than sharing the burden of unforcosts and uncontrollable medical costs fairly across society, it penalises people for being ill. Let me repeat that. The Conservative policy forces ill people to pay for their care. This is entirely antithetical to the principles of the NHS. It is fundamentally unfair that two otherwise identical people will pay vastly different sums due to an accident of health.

A fair system would see everyone contributing to the country’s social care needs, in proportion to their ability to pay (it’s unpopular, but I increasingly see a larger role for inheritance tax in meeting care needs). This system does not do that. It makes some people pay through the nose, while others get away with paying nothing. This is not a way to build a more cohesive society. It may be that we need to use people’s housing wealth to cover care costs, but if that is the case, it should come out of everyone’s houses.

Don’t let the Conservatives fool you. They may have tweaked their policy, but in doing so they have only made it a bit less bad!

Brick By Brick

Brick By Brick

In March I joined the Liberal Democrats. I was optimistic about the path the party was taking, with increased membership, and a position on Brexit which not only set us apart from Labour and the Conservatives, but also spoke to wider liberal values. I felt that, with hard work and a good media operation we could make some real progress. We could focus on showing the country the value of truly Liberal philosophy in a changing world; a world where the biggest threats do not respect borders, where our enemies are fuelled by intolerance, where the old party allegiances are increasingly meaningless.

Then Theresa May called an election.

Initially I was optimistic. The party membership reached a historic high. I thought our message could cut through.

It is clear now, that I was wrong. We haven’t seen a poll surge, fuelled by people who hold liberal values close to their heart. The local election results were at best mediocre. The two main party leaders declined to take part in leader’s debates, meaning that our only hope would be to be the best of the ‘minor’ parties. And, because of the chocolate fireguard of an electoral system which is First Past the Post, Theresa May has been able to shape the election as a choice between herself and Jeremy Corbyn.

Increasingly, I think this election could not have come at a worse time for us. Had it followed straight on the back of the referendum, we could have made far more of opposing Brexit, which now feels, to most people, a foregone conclusion. Conversely, had the election been a few years later (following the fixed term parliament act), we would have had the benefit of a more substantial break from the coalition, which still undermines potential centre-left support, alongside evidence of just how bad Brexit will actually be.

So what now?

We plug away. We build on our increasingly professional media operation, and make the most of any airtime we can get. We throw everything at key seats, and we hope that, come June the 9th, we are not worse off. I’ll be pleased if we make it in to the 20s at this point – if we lose seats we are in real trouble. But regardless, I increasingly see this election as a battle for survival, because we simply don’t have the bandwidth to do more. We are short on time, we are squeezed out of the competition by Labour and the Tories.

Once we are through the next few weeks, the real work will begin.

For too long, our cultural discourse has been high-jacked by illiberal voices, so that we have almost lost sight of what we are missing. The Liberal Democrats must step up and show the word that we can achieve more if we value differences of experience and culture, rather than seeking to impose conformity. That we people should be supported to pursue their own vision of a good life, through excellent education, through real electoral choice, through the freedom to love without consequence. That we can still work with people of different views. That any society relies on the contributions of all its parts, and cannot afford to demonise those who are rich, poor or not from round here. That our greatest challenges do not respect national boundaries.

The world needs Liberalism. Its our job to help it realise this.

Open, Tolerant & United: Why I joined the #LibDemFightback

Open, Tolerant & United: Why I joined the #LibDemFightback

Last week, after much umm-ing and ahh-ing, I joined the Liberal Democrats. Hopefully this will explain why (and might even spur someone else to do the same).

Throughout the majority of my political life, I have held the view the we would be better served if political parties did not exist. It is too easy for voters to get entrenched in voting patterns, without actually assessing policies or candidates. If we were all swing voters, It would ensure candidates actively engaged with their communities, making politics more of a conversation.

The reality, however, is that parties are here to stay, because, consciously or not, we all put ourselves in groups – whether by philosophy, nationality, religious outlook, or some other identity.

So if you want to play an active role in shaping the future, as I do, you must start by working with people who share a given identity. I look around and I am scared for the future; I am scared by our apathetic response to war and famine, by our baseless distrust of difference, by our disregard for the needs of the most vulnerable in our society, by the reckless abandon with which we abuse our planet. These are choices – choices driven by our political discourse which I must condemn. But simply to condemn the status quo is to abdicate responsibility. To live with integrity, I must act positively. I must seize every opportunity to turn things around. That’s why I decided the time had come to join put my money where my mouth is.

But why the #LibDemFightback?

I wrote about identity earlier in this post (and in previous posts on this blog). Indeed, it’s something I care about deeply, and there are few parties with whom I identify. Our two main parties of government seem committed to re-fighting Marxist battles between the workers and owners. True, you get working class Conservative voters, perhaps drawn to the party’s strong stance on law and order, just as you get middle class Labour voters, but those two parties are fundamentally concerned with ideas of wealth and class. Its in the very name of the Labour party – the party of manual labourers.

This division makes little sense to me. I don’t identify as working class, yet neither am I part of the wealthy elite (despite having grown up in the Cotswolds). What matters to me, far less than what rates of tax the Government sets, is what they do, and why they do it. And while there are Labour policies of which I approve (and conceivably even one or two Tory policies – I won’t rule out that possibility, though it seems doubtful), I cannot share their underlying philosophies. Labour requires ‘solidarity’, thus opposing dissent and plurality, while the Conservatives are inherently opposed to change and, consequently, raising the common good.

One other party has, at times appealed to me. The trouble with the Green Party is that it emphasises ecology above all else. That means my partner would be out of a job (no testing on live, non-human subjects, even if they are nematode worms), and more generally, that they have little time for exploring more radical options like geo-engineering.

So, in some ways I am left with the Lib Dems almost by default. But my membership is a positive choice, driven by positive values. One of the more striking things about the Lib Dems is that they put values first and foremost – even in their constitution. Where the conservative party exists “to sustain and promote within the nation the objects and values of the Conservative party”, the Liberal Democrats exist:

“to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full. We aim to disperse power, to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. We believe that the role of the state is to enable all citizens to attain these ideals, to contribute fully to their communities and to take part in the decisions which affect their lives.”

Indeed the preamble to the Constitution goes on to further outline Liberal values, taking about a page of A4, far more than any other major party.

In other words, rather than a specific set of policies, Liberal Democrats start with a set of values are free to build policy on those values, as the needs of the moment dictate. For a policy wonk who wants to change the world, that’s quite a draw. But, when all is said and done, it was those core values which convinced me to join the Party, values nicely summed up by the party slogan. We are Open, Tolerant are United.

 

The Crown Estates

This is a public service announcement.

Time and again, people criticising Conservative economic policy cite a few choice examples of Government expenditure to prove that austerity is a political choice. They argue that cuts to social care, to housing, to green subsidies, to local government or to the arts (to give a few examples) are not necessary, but are ideologically driven. They point out that the Government could find the money if they wanted to, but instead choose to use simplistic economic arguments to mask the fact that their ideal is a free market economy with minimal state interference. After all, the argument runs, the state bailed out the banks, it is spending vast sums on a new generation of nuclear power stations, on high speed rail, on the Trident successor.

Such arguments are not without value. Certainly austerity is a political choice (contrast current economic policy with that pursued in the post-war period, where, despite huge debts, we built the NHS). However, all too often, these arguments are marred. Alongside Trident, the banks and HS2, the other self-evident waste of money which is routinely cited is the Monarchy. And that is a problem.

In the financial year 2015-16, the Crown received £40m of taxpayer income. in 2016-17, it will receive £42.8m. This is not small change, and could be put to better use than funding one rich family’s decadent lifestyle.

Except that isn’t true. in 2015-16, the Sovereign Grant was £40m, and that did rise to £42.8m in 2016-17, but this is not taxpayer money. It is granted from the Treasury, but funded from the income of the Crown Estates. These are lands which belong to the Crown (rather than to the monarch as an individual) – which have traditionally been used for the administration of the state. Under the current Sovereign Grant scheme, the crown receives 15% of the crown estates’ income, with the other 85% going into Treasury coffers.

This 15% grant is used to fund the royal household. Now remember, the royal household remains a branch of government. This is not (as it is often presented) money going into the Queen’s pockets. It covers staffing, property maintenance and so on. Spending 15% of income on operational costs would give any business very good profit margins. Or, to look at it another way, the crown pays tax at a rate of 85%! It is of course right that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burdens, but even the most redistributive of us would surely agree that 85% is a pretty high rate of tax.

Controversially, it has been agreed that, from 2017 to 2027, the Sovereign Grant will be increased to 25% of Crown Estates income, in order to fund repairs to Buckingham Palace and other Crown properties. In other words, the crown will only be taxed at 75%, so that it can afford to pay for repairs to its most famous properties, which have been put off due to lack of funds. These properties are used for state functions and are huge tourist attractions. Recent repairs have included replacing roofing (so that priceless historical artefacts are not damaged) and removing asbestos (because “Queen Dies of Asbestos Inhalation” is a headline nobody wants). Such repairs are not decadent, and should not be seen as controversial.

I should add that the Sovereign Grant is only one part of the royal income. Royal ceremonies and security are paid for from the public purse, separately to the Sovereign Grant. The Queens’ personal expenses, meanwhile, are funded by the Duchy of Lancaster and from her personal assets. These income streams are primarily inherited, and will be taxed as capital gains. There is an altogether separate discussion to be had about how inherited wealth and capital gains are taxed in this country, but the over-arching point is this:

The Crown voluntarily surrenders the income from the Crown Estates to the state. The state recognises that the Crown is part of it, and so returns a relatively small part of this money to the Crown. This is not unreasonable. Nor is it unreasonable that the amount of money should be increased to ensure that the Estates’ property is maintained in an appropriate fashion. To cite the increased in the Sovereign Grant as an example of frivolous spending of taxpayer money is misleading, as the money came only from a single tax payer – the same tax payer who is being given some more of it back. It is disingenuous to present this money as further lining the pockets of an individual born into great wealth. It fails to recognise that the increase in the Sovereign Grant is, in effect, a long term investment in buildings of national importance. And it fails to recognise that, even after the increase, the state will still do pretty well out of the Crown.

In other words, there are far better arguments against austerity to be articulated.