Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Everybody makes mistakes

No one said being in government would be easy -- but do we have to make it so difficult for ourselves?

The package for tuition fees outlined today is undeniably more progressive than what was in place before. It will, if enacted, ensure that many graduates are lifted out of the need to pay completely. And, let's face it, a finite payment as provided by tuition fees is less noxious than a life-long charge for having gone to university that is a graduate tax. But all those good points -- or not-so-bad points -- are as nothing beside two unavoidable realities.

First: tuition fees, like graduate taxes, are wrong in principle. They penalise those who have gone to university on the false assumption that only the individual educated gains from that experience. It is in society's interest to see a proportion of its young through a liberal education -- at times it might not feel like it, but we all gain from having doctors, lawyers and, yes, broadsheet journalists. Education is not a private good; it should not be paid for as if it were a contract between student and 'provider'.

But, even if that were not the principle, none of us could get away from the fact that our party made a pledge to fight against tuition fees that we said were unfair. We were right then and it remains right. Of course, political parties go back on their promises -- look at the number of lies that came from New Labour. But, if we want to reform politics, we have to live the reform we espouse. Even if it were wrong, we'd need to stand by our pledge.

What now? First of all, we need to recognise that the Browne Review, designed by Labour to give the result it did, is not the only answer to the conundrum. There are larger issues here: what percentage of our young should go to university? What alternative educations are there?

The most depressing aspect of this is that the coalition government has failed to reject Labour's assumptions that were: higher education is a soft target for disinvestment, and that the only education that matters is that which is vocational -- in New Labour-speak, 'strategically important'. That language has continued in Lord Browne's Review, and it's that which needs to be attacked. It's time that Liberals stood up for the value of a liberal education.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The New Machiavelli

A little spot of moonlighting over at Liberal Democrat Voice where I have penned a review of Jonathan Powell's The New Machiavelli. It's creating some interesting discussion.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Spot the Difference

Browne Review of Higher Education, p. 14 (12th October 2010):
Higher education matters. It helps to create the knowledge, skills and values that underpin a civilised society. ... [It] helps to produce economic growth, which in turn contributes to national prosperity.

Master Osborne's Comprehensive Spending Review, p. 51 (20th October 2010):
[There will be] major reform of the higher education sector to shift a greater proportion of funding from the taxpayer to the individuals who benefit...

And who, pray, benefits? The economy, the nation, civilised society -- the taxpayer, then, according to the Review of Higher Education welcomed by the government only last week. But then, a week is a long time...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Labour's on your side, if you're rich

So, Labour have decided they are against taxing the rich -- sorry, 'middle income families'.

Miliband Junior's performance in his first Prime Minister Questions can at least reassure those who were worried that New Labour might have fallen off its perch and gone to meet its maker. Lord Mandelson can sleep soundly in his satin pjs.

Now, let's accept that there is a flaw in Master Osborne's plan to remove child benefit from higher earners. As has been pointed out ad infinitum (immo, ad nauseam), a household where two earn, say, £40k a year will continue to receive the weekly sum, while a household where one is getting an income over the higher tax threshold will not get it. This is certainly an anomaly: it would obviously be far better for the benefit to be withdrawn from both these examples. The reform does not go far enough but at least it is a start.

It used to be the Tories who insisted that state benefits should not be means tested, as that would penalise, they said, the better off. But, if we are going to protect the welfare state, which was damaged so much under Thatcher and Blair, resources do need to be targeted. And it can surely not be said that a high-earning family is at the sharp end of need, can it?

Clearly, Labour would now disagree. But the logic of their position is more insidious than a spat over child benefit. Young Mr Miliband describes those on the higher rate of income tax as 'middle income families'. If that is the case, then they should surely not be paying the higher rate -- the logic would be to raise the threshold to take those on 'middle incomes' out of the higher bracket. Is the new leader of New Labour really going to call for tax cuts for those who, on any reasonable measure, are rich?

But what is most disappointing is that the opposition has followed the media in concentrating on the minor issue. The more significant and the more worrying of Osborne's announcements was the cap on welfare benefits per 'family'. This begs so many questions, and they're the ones that need to be asked.

On that first performance, Miliband: non satis.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Better than a Graduate Tax

Mr Cable has announced that he has considered and is not in favour of a 'pure' graduate tax. There's nothing pure about penalising people for having gone into higher education. Even student loans, if they could be organised well, would be better than sending out the message that someone should be charged for life for having taken the opportunity of the education society has to offer.

There is, indeed, a better solution than graduate tax. And it is obvious. The average income of graduates is higher than the national average income. So, a truly progressive income tax system would introduce a rate intermediate between our standard and higher at the point, or just above, where that graduate average is. Yes, it would catch everybody who earns that income, not just graduates and that's precisely how it should be: a civilised society can't argue that it is a virtue not be educated. It's about time Britain realised that what society needs is not a graduate tax but a graduated tax.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Labour's Electoral Collage

The technicolor collage created by Labour's electoral college is so much fun, it beats democracy for entertainment value.

Let's point out the basics first: the Labour Party elects by one member one vote in the sense that each member has one vote but they don't decide the election. The college is divided into three equal parts: Parliamentarians, rank-and-file members, and 'affiliates' which opens up the election to trade union members and to associations linked to the Labour Party, like the Fabians.

It does mean that Labour is saved from the decision being who is the members' favourite: if they had, after the distributions under the AV system, Miliband D. would now be their Leader.

It also means that a Parliamentarian's vote is more valuable than any other member's by a factor of somewhere in the region of 450.

It also means that those who are members of the party and members of a trade union can vote more than once. Each member gets one vote, but some get more than one. (And some who are not members and who can't stand the party got to vote. More than once).

And all that said, here are some interesting facts:

* 'socialists' in health and education will be breaking open the asti spumante, as they strongly backed the winner

* the BME caucus had a bad day, heavily backing Miliband D.

* musicians will be playing a funeral march with their favoured candidate coming last

* Christians preferred D., Jews preferred E. (results from Christian Socialist Movement and Jewish Labour Movement)

* more Unite members spoilt their ballot papers than voted for Balls and Burnham combined

* members of one union -- Unite -- cast nearly half of the votes in the 'Section 3' affiliates, and heavily for Miliband E.

* about nine in every ten trade unionists were bored rigid by the whole process and did not return their ballot papers

What a system, what a result.

Thanks, Trade Unions

I needed a bit of mirth to improve my day, so thank you, thank you so much, Trade Unions. Miliband (D.) wins the overwhelming support of the members of the party, Miliband (E.) edges ahead thanks to the robust support of the closed shop comrades.

What a delight. Not that the young leader of the Labour Party is personally to be disdained: from his pronouncements to date, he has learnt that lesson that a new incumbent can and must break with the mistakes of the past. So, belated opposition to Iraq and at last a leader who appreciates that if you want to begin to be progressive, don't think of introducing ID cards.

But the method of election, with the 'electoral college' being like something out of the old Ealing Comedy, School for Scoundrels, really does give the lie to Mr Blair's claim that he introduced democracy to his party. One trade unionist colleague of mine was eligible to four votes. So, can you take three off Diane Abbott's total, please?

And, when the election parties are over (will victorious Remus invite Romulus to his side of the wall?), tomorrow's hangover won't be a pretty sight. Working out how to present Miliband Junior to the public will be a challenge even Mr Campbell wouldn't relish, one would have thought. As he well knows, you can have a whole raft of good ideas, but if you can't present them adeptly, there's not much point in being in politics. And so the heir to Blair starts with something of a disadvantage.

Oh, and by the way: when will they elect a new Deputy Leader? Can they keep it in the family?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Laughable Leaflets Mark 1

Election season is silly season this year. The race has started (sort of) and Labour are off -- running in clown costume, It's a Knock-Out style, with a knock-about leaflet as their baton.

Glossy card, one side assuring the people of key LibDem / Labour marginal Oxford East that only the party that invaded Iraq and began the dismantling of the NHS can 'beat the Tories' here. The pithy prose comes complete with bar-chart. That claim, you would think, would make the other side redundant: a pleasing orange colour, but with a picture of la bete bleu of British politics, snatcher Thatcher. The purpose is to purport a link between the LibDems and the Tories in their heyday. Why waste their money on that assertion when they want to claim we're irrelevant?

What makes it all the more a work of genius is the attention to detail: Thatcher wears a Labour-looking red rose, a subliminal reminder of how Messrs Blair and Brown continued so many Tory policies. And they credit the attack on Clegg with a newspaper quotation -- from the Daily Mail. I am sure the present MP for Oxford East believes everything he reads in that source.

I have a sense this is going to be the first in a series of amusing election communications.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

O tempora, o mores

The Conservative Leader of Oxfordshire County Council, Keith Mitchell, is that rare breed, a jocular curmudgeon. When a Tory major complained to him about a lack of grit for our ice-rink-like roads, he followed suit, responding by complaining about, well, a lack of grit.

'What has happened at the British spirit that defeated Hitler and yet quails at a little snow?'

Before you start accusing this generation of being no wartime heroes, let's remember, Mr Mitchell, that you are no Winston Churchill.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Change of circumstances

The eagle-eyed among you will have noticed that the strapline at the top of this page has changed. As those who know me will realise, 2009 saw two crises hit the Rundle family. With the cumulative effect of them, it has become impossible for me to continue, for the time being, leading our LibDem group on Oxford City Council. You can imagine my frustration, in the run-up to the most important set of elections Oxford will have seen this millennium, as we face a Labour administration better at the political street fights than at running our liberal city. But there was not a scintilla of doubt in my mind about my priorities: in this situation, family must come first. There are, after all, very capable councillors who can run our group.

For the immediate future, my focus in Oxford politics will be on continuing to work hard to represent the good people of Headington. I have made no secret of the fact that helping my ward is what I enjoy most as a councillor and so it is with relish that I will pursue that through, I hope, this year and beyond.