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.

It’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird

It’s a  sin to kill a Mockingbird

This post explores my reaction to reading Go Set A Watchman – here be spoilers for Watchman and for To Kill a Mockingbird (if you can really call comments on a novel released over 50 years ago ‘spoilers’).


I recently finished reading Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee. Never have I been so conflicted about a book.

Let me explain.

I have loved To Kill a Mockingbird since the first time I read it in my teens. It certainly ranks in my top five favourite books, and might just nudge it’s way to the top of the list. Mockingbird is, for me, one of the best explorations of justice and equality ever written, and I have long thought that if I can grow up to be half the man Atticus Finch is, I will be justifiably proud.

I was, therefore, apprehensive when I heard about Watchman. I was aware that it was an early exploration of the world and characters which eventually formed Mockingbird, and that its release was far from uncontroversial. I had heard, too, that Watchman presented those characters in a very different light to Mockingbird. Together, these led me to fear that reading Watchman would, to a degree, destroy the relationship I had with the Finches et al. In the end, I was so uncertain that I didn’t buy or borrow Watchman. It was not until I was given a copy at Christmas that I decided to read it.

Well, here I am, having finished Watchman, and I cannot deny that, as I expected, my relationship with the world which Harper Lee created has changed. But I remain uncertain as to whether or not this is a ‘good thing’.

Watchman is set some 15-20 years after Mockingbird. In it, Scout Finch returns to the small Town setting of Mockingbird, to find that the civil rights movement has strained previously functional relationships between black and white communities and people (one of the most painful sections of the narrative involves Scout visiting Calpurnia, who had been her housekeeper and surrogate mother, and finding a cool reception). Over the course of the novel, Scout comes to realise that the people she had held up as paragons, in particular her father Atticus, are not as perfect as they appear.

Both novels explore Scout’s relationship with Atticus extensively, and it is here that we see the greatest shift. In Mockingbird, Atticus is presented as the town’s moral compass, willing to stare down a lynch mob unarmed, to defend an innocent black man. We readers assume this is because Atticus cannot abide discrimination and injustice – a view supported by his positive attitude to Boo Radley, a young man with severe learning disabilities.

Watchman alters our perception of Atticus. Whilst I do not believe the book presents him as actually racist (as some people might argue), it does show a man with painfully distorted priorities – a man willing to tolerate racism, in order to attempt to maintain the social structures of Alabama (structures built around social discrimination and segregation), and because his preeminent concern for the law means that he cannot condone the Supreme Court’s intervention and infringement on States’ rights (through rulings such as Brown vs. Board of Education).

Scout cannot dismiss this new experience of what her father is like. I cannot dismiss Watchman as an ‘early draft’ of the novel which became Mockingbird because (except for a small number of allusions and flashbacks), it covers new territory. It has a significant new character (Hank), while two other main characters from Mockingbird (Dill and Jem) are absent. I am therefore forced to integrate the novel into my understanding of Harper Lee’s Maycombe County.

This is a painful experience for Scout, and similarly for me. We both held up Atticus as an ideal man and father. Watchman forces us both to face the reality that everyone is flawed. In some ways, this enriches the reality of the novels. They are more true in that they present a world in which there are no paragons. Scout discovers this new reality some time after the events of the novel, paralleling the experience of readers who first saw Atticus as a hero through her eyes, and are now forced to accept the imperfection of reality. This is especially interesting for people like me – people who first read Mockingbird as children or teenagers, and have grown up in between the two novels. Our experience of the world matches the unique publication order of the novels.

So, the shift is painful but true to life, (and pertinent when we consider that to this day the USA has failed to address its legacy of race division). Nonetheless, I feel I have lost something which cannot now be regained. The novel treats Scout’s experience as one in which she ceases to see Atticus as a God – a source of absolute moral authority – and sees him instead for nothing more or less than the man he is. Atticus is now forever tarnished for me, as he is for Scout. I can still praise his virtue, but it is now tinged with disappointment. I cannot help but feel it might have been better not to see that side of Harper Lee’s world. I know all our parents disappoint us sooner or later, but I wonder if, for that very reason, there is a value in having paragons?

We all need ideals to give us something to strive for. There is surely a place for fiction in providing this? Yet, I cannot now go back. And I’m honestly not sure if I would choose to do so if I could.

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!

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.

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.

 

 

Truth.

 


“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” This may or not have been said by Joseph Goebbels. Whether he said it is not, on this occasion, what matters. What matters is that, in some ways, its true.

The ‘Big Lie’ will always be just that, but if you repeat it often enough, loudly enough, eventually people stop correcting you, and at that point, you’ve won the argument. Someone, somewhere will hear it without a counter argument; and then, to all intents and purposes, it is the truth. if I have not corrected the lie, I have lost the right to object when it is believed.

The truth matters. We all need to understand the world we live in, and that understanding must be rooted in some commonly agreed and accepted touch-stones. We can disagree on interpretation, but if we don’t agree on the source, we can’t have a meaningful discussion – we can’t have a shared democratic life. If our shared context is distorted, so too is our discourse. That road leads only to autocracy. If you want to know more, just read 1984. Please.

I am lucky enough to live in a society where we can change direction, even when, as now, many things seem to be falling apart. So I must do my part to ensure that such a change can happen. And so must each and every one of you. Your fate, and that of everyone you love, depends upon it.

So whether we are highlighting the fact that President Trump’s list of ‘unreported’ acts of terror includes events which dominated the news and continue to dominate our collective psyche, reminding Prime Minister May that only 38% of the electorate actually voted FOR Brexit, clarifying that claims of widespread voter fraud in the 2016 US election are baseless, or pointing out that Jeremy Corbyn’s train carriage really wasn’t that busy, we must keep speaking the truth. We must not let truth be twisted. we must highlight and counter lies and mis-information.

We must hold on to truth, just as tightly as we hold on to hope. If you want some help, have a look at this.