Friday, May 25, 2012

Right to Buy: the wrong policy then, the wrong policy now

It is perhaps in the nature of a government that it is schizophrenic. Indeed, it might be a virtue for a government to appear so, allowing differing audiences to take away different messages. That a coalition government should veer between the progressive and the reactionary is not surprising. But what continually fascinates me is how Mr Cameron, the Witney Wonder, wanders between wanting to shake off the Conservatives' 'nasty party' label and then promotes a return to those Thatcherite policies that won them the title in the first place. One such policy is, of course, Right to Buy.
We know well the rhetoric of home ownership that was used to justify it; we also know -- in a city like Oxford with a chronic housing shortage, we are acutely aware -- of the reality of the loss of social housing. We also know of the scams that were created, with speculators conning tenants into using RtB only to find they were passing on the house to a money-making landlord; and we know about the individual tragedies of repossessions and of homelessness.
But the government consulted and then came up with its revision of the scheme for Right to Buy reborn. Did the Conservatives listen? The increasing of the possible discount to a single national cap of £75,000 suggests not, to put it mildly. Of course, it might be argued that, if the proceeds from each sale could ensure an equivalent amount of social housing was built in the same area, then the policy could meet both individuals' desire to buy a property and the wider social need to have housing for all. Our Liberal Democrat colleagues in government have at least fought the corner to achieve recognition of that. But it seems as if the Conservatives still don't get it. Even on a quick glance, the numbers don't look as if they will stake up: the proportion of income coming back to councils, plus the requirement that the receipts fund only 30% of the cost of replacement homes, will make it hard for councils to have the finance to replenish the stock, even if land could be found within the authority's boundaries. The reactionaries will shrug their shoulders at that, but for the progressives it means this policy continues to be the wrong one, now as then.

There is a useful briefing, released today, on RtB policy available from the LGIU .

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The rest was silence. Up to now.

I have received complaints that this site has been inactive for too long. And I can't disagree. There has been much to report, including the impressive success of the team in my ward of Headington in the recent local elections.
But what I have found time and again in politics is that what fires me up, what makes me more active is not success, it is not when things are going well, it is when things are not and when others are messing up. I should have plenty to write about, then.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

What makes Italians smile

Italian friends have not been so happy in a long time. Never mind that the new Prime Minister and his cabinet are unelected and there are rocky times ahead -- at least Berlusconi is gone.

Jokes are circulating like this one:

Un uomo va a Palazzo Chigi e chiede di parlare con il Presidente del Consiglio Silvio Berlusconi. Il carabiniere di guardia risponde: “No da stasera Berlusconi non è più Presidente del Consiglio!”.
L’uomo si allontana ma dopo due minuti ritorna dallo stesso carabiniere:“Vorrei parlare con il Presidente del Consiglio Silvio Berlusconi”. “No, guardi… le ho già detto che da stasera Berlusconi non è più Presidente del Consiglio!”
L’uomo se ne va ma dopo due minuti ritorna dallo stesso carabiniere: “Vorrei parlare con il Presidente del Consiglio Silvio Berlusconi”. “Senta, le ho già detto che che da stasera Berlusconi non è più Presidente del Consiglio!
Lo ha capito o no?”
“Capire l'ho capito. Ma... che ci vuole fare? Mi piace così tanto sentirmelo ripetere!”...

Here's a rough translation:

A man goes to the Prime Minister's residence and asks to speak to the PM, Silvio Berlusconi. The guard replies 'No: since this evening Berlusconi is no longer Prime Minister'.

The man walks off but a couple of minutes later comes back and ask to see Prime Minister Berlusconi. The guard replies 'Look, I've already told you -- since this evening Berlusconi is no longer Prime Minister'.

Off the man goes and back he comes two minutes later, asking to see Prime Minister Berlusconi. 'Listen, I've already told you, since this evening Berlusconi is no longer Prime Minister. Do you get it or not?'

'Yes, sure, I get it. But what can I do? I just like so much to hear it repeated'.

With thanks to Stefano for that one!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Politicians, go on holiday. Please.

Enough of this macho politics which assumes party leaders need to throw off their summer shorts and put on their suits whenever the word crisis is in the air. Judging from Messrs Cameron and Miliband’s performance in the last few days, the best thing these politicians could do is stay on holiday.

The scenes of random violence that have come to be dubbed ‘riots’ were depressing but the spectacle of politicians scrambling to make capital from the human tragedies has been even more unedifying. In their attempts at creating an explanation for the recent events, all politicians have been guilty of over-interpreting. The original riot – and riot it was – had a clear cause in disgruntlement at the police handling of a specific incident. The copycat events that followed were most often acts of mimickry where there is little sense in rationalising them. The potential for small-scale disorder was apparent and the opportunity seemed to present itself. Most incidents needed little more justification, though a very few might have been aroused by malicious individuals.

And in response Mr Cameron seems intent on re-gaining the nasty label for his party. If society is broken, it needs careful mending, not smashing against the wall until it mends itself. The reaction of the justice system, egged on by Conservative ministers, has been disproportionate and often misdirected. It is an ironic display of the impotence of the state – an attempt to reassert the strong arm of the law when its ability to act at the right moment has been shown to be a myth. Yet, the Tory over-reaction, supported by the gutter press of the Daily Mail and Express (who needs Murdoch?), will only be given further specious justification by ill-advised comments by liberals. I think, in particular, of the Howard League for Penal Reform – a worthy organisation but responsible today for saying that the jailing for four years of those who incited looting on social media is ‘excessive’. Of all the sentences, these are perhaps the least over-the-top: the inciter, in this context, is like the drug-dealer. It is the drug-taker for whom we should have more concern and the equivalent are those teenagers now being criminalised by our courts. ‘They should have thought of that before rioting’, the dark Lord Howard says – missing the point that looting was most often precisely thoughtless. The concomitant thoughtlessness of Howard – and others – is the failure now to consider the consequences of the actions they demand: why this insistent desire to embed dysfunction within our social fabric?

Lord, save us from our politicians.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Master Osborne does it again

Post-war Britian has not been blessed with many talented cabinet ministers. There are some, it is true, who have shown early potential that disappeared when they came to sit around the table at No. 10; there are others whose lack of ability has been no bar to later holding the keys to the front door of that house. The present Chancellor of the Exchequer is certainly not in the first category -- let us pray he is not in the second.

While the flames of summer madness subside, Master Osborne has been cooking up his latest ruse: to end the 50% rate of income tax for those whose income is over £150,000. His argument is that it is 'uncompetitive internationally' - those who 'earn' that amount can pay to avoid tax or go to live elsewhere.

If someone does prefer to pay an accountant to avoid tax rather than hand it back to the government for the upkeep of the welfare state, it might be best if they did leave the country. There will be a few who do that but there will be more who judge that the advantages of living in Britain outweigh the disadvantage of becoming very rich just a bit more slowly. Advantages like having a functioning national health service -- which, if they don't intend to use it directly, they know at least that the private hospitals they plan to visit live off its resources.

Master Osborne's pronouncement is so ill-timed -- so out of step with his Prime Minister's platitudes -- that you wonder how he can get away with it. Isn't it time he was sacked? But, then, Cameron showed his weakness at the very beginning: any in-coming premier wanting to demonstrate his control and please the City (who, remember, considered Osborne a buffoon) would have ditched his university chum straightaway. But he did not and, in the months since, it has seemed at times that Osborne has spoken for the Conservative Party -- a Tory Party so enamoured with the inanities of market libertarians that it has forgotten its own One Nation roots -- rather than his master. The tragedy is not Osborne's lack of talent; it is his grip on power.

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.