Monday, June 02, 2008

Can they really be Labour's saviours?

Congratulations go to my friends in Oxford City Council's Labour ranks, Cllrs Turner, McManners, Bance and Baxter. They all gained national recognition yesterday in an ever-so-unbiased article in The Guardian, on the subject of Can Oxford save Labour?

Obviously, Oxford is a key battleground between Labour and LibDems, and this article attempts to set the parameters of the debate. Labour is presented here as the party of social justice -- yes, that's right, of social justice.

I don't eat cornflakes, so I didn't choke (sorry to disappoint you, Antonia & Ed). But here is the fault-line: I'm sure they joined Labour because they genuinely imagined it could be a party of social justice; I joined the LibDems precisely because I see it as the only party of social justice. How could one or other get it so wrong?

I'd bring to your attention evidence from the recent elections. Labour didn't like us fighting it on wanting a lower Council Tax -- when we did that precisely because that unfair tax hits some of the worst-off hardest. Perhaps Labour's response would be that anyone who can own a house doesn't deserve support, but that would be grossly to overestimate the wealth of some who have struggled to buy and stay in their own home, especially in an over-heated market like Oxford.

The blogs recently have also highlighted another blindspot in Labour's thinking. They attacked one of our candidates by quoting his blog in favour of reform of the drug laws, implicitly presenting themselves as in favour of the present drug regime. How can they imagine this sits with any assertion of support for social justice? I worry that they wouldn't even understand that question.

Labour in Oxford has also seen environmental concerns as somehow a distraction from social justice. True enough, one sets challenges for the other - but we should be finding ways to wed our actions on the environment with helping those worst-off. It's no good saving the planet, if the society left is not worth living in, but it's equally no use planning to build a New Jerusalem if the site is in the flood plain -- in other words, without a planet, there's no society.

These are only a few examples of the ways in which my friends on the opposite benches seem misguided in the claim that they belong to a progressive party. But, frankly, if they really want future elections in Oxford fought on grounds of social justice, rather than the mean-spirited campaign Labour recently run, my response is: bring it on. We will be more than happy to fight you on our home territory.


Jock Coats said...

"Progressive" is one of those words that ought to be banned from the political lexicon given that nobody can ever seem to agree on what it means. It certainly does not sound progressive to be flogging the same failed semi-socialist interventions all the time as if "one more attempt" and it's all going to work.

And on that leaflet, the thing that really depresses me about the political system as evidenced by that leaflet is that some spotty oik somewhere in a back room (I have his or her IP address!) thought three weeks or more out that "here's a great way to win that contest" and set out calculatingly and deliberately to trash me.

I'm sorry, that is not progressive, and it doesn't mean that the person who wins has won fair and square as being the best person for the job - just that they can scare some of their voters into blindly following them.

Anonymous said...

As an observer in another Lib Dem/Labour battleground I found the article risible (along with most of John Harris' writing).

Here we have Labour demonising travellers, campaigning on low Council Tax increases and being very silent on 'social justice' issues.

It sounds to me like it was just a bit of spin and that Labour (everywhere) need to pay the price for their use of drugs law as a political football untrammelled by efficiency or common sense, and their contempt for local opinion or, for that matter, the environment.

Philip Jenkins said...

Frankly I don't know which is more laughably tragic in an Oxford academic with some (albeit fairly low grade) intellectual pretensions: (a) the belief that it is in some sense evidence of a progressive local authority to cut public services for the poorest people to effect a risible tax cut which will nonetheless be greatest for the richest, or (b) not holding this belief oneself but thinking the electorate could be fooled into believing such a thing was in some manner progressive and that this belief was in some sense intellectually serious. Coun Rundle, I am sorry to say you have become a sad parody of yourself.

Jock Coats said...

I don't quite understand why one needs to get so personal and downright rude. If you think that the way to sustainable public services is through continued increases above what most people are getting in income rises it is you are being misguided.

The main purpose as I understand it of wanting to hold the council tax rise down was to maintain pressure on council managers to keep its financial incontinence (ht Patrick!) in check. Prior to that OCC's council tax had risen above inflation and average earnings growth for at least the decade since I first got involved in local politics. That's sustainable?

As a party we would abolish the council tax which is deeply regressive as I am sure you know. Labour have spent millions looking for an alternative and when Lyons finally reported it was whitewashed and basically ignored.

It may have been a small gesture to keep what is a minority of the overall household tax bill down, but these rises, added to all Labour's previous stealth taxes and attacks on pensions, make us all poorer.

philip jenkins said...

Mr Coats,

Given that you believe people with my views on hard drugs are all murderers it ill behoves you to give other people lectures on what might be rude.

More seriously, do you understand the distinction between wealth and income? Council tax is basically a tax on wealth - how big a property you can afford to buy, rent, or get a mortgage on - not a tax on income. Why the Lib Dems believe taxing income is necessarily more progressive than taxing wealth is quite simply beyond me.

Also you say that tax rises make us all poorer. Are you aware that this money is then spent by public authorities on public services, making us all richer (albeit not all of us become richer in narrowly financial terms, but then surely you and your party like to think that you do not see the world in narrowly financial terms)?

Coun Rundle may be able to explain these concepts to you: he is, it would appear, a believer in cutting public services so as to make piddling tax cuts. Private affluence and public squalor was the watchword of the administration of which he was part.

Note as well that because council tax takes more from people in big houses than from small houses in a ratio fixed by primary legislation, the richer you are, the bigger the tax cut from cutting the basic rate of council tax.

For poorer people living in smaller houses, the same cut in the basic rate delivers a much smaller saving.

Then again, given his rather shaky grasp of local government finance, and his apparent belief that giving tax cuts to people in proportion to the size of their houses is in some sense "progressive", Coun Rundle may not be able to explain these things to you.

Jock Coats said...

You have quite a touching, but hopelessly naive rose tinted view of the untrammelled benefits of someone spending your money to take more of your money to spend less than what they take from you helping others.

Council Tax is regressive. If it were even fair, the people in the best homes would be paying more than ten times the amount those in the least valuable homes, though we have precious few band A homes in Oxford. In fact it is more like four times. Further, those in the best homes are likely to have seen their incomes rise by a greater percentage than those in the cheapest homes - it is those poorest workers for whom the tax rises outstrip their income rises disproportionately.

I don't support Local Income Tax, and since you clearly read some of what I write on drugs, I would have thought you would have picked that up as well as I write a whole lot more about Land Value Tax. In fact at a local level I promote tax competition and flexibility with local authorities as in the US allowed to raise the most appropriate taxes for their area.

We rightly complain when we discover that charities we may give money to to do good with is spent on administration. But it's usually not a patch on the amount spent on "administration" by government bureaucrats at all levels of government.

There is no reason for keeping council tax rises below inflation to mean cuts in services that provide true public goods; there is plenty that can be saved by delivering club goods through dedicated social mechanisms more efficient than multi-purpose government mechanisms.

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