Saturday, 29 May 2010

David Laws

Following the exposure of details of his private life in the Daily Telegraph, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has issued a statement, which is reproduced with comments by Stephen Tall on Liberal Democrat Voice.

Nobody has been defrauded here.There has been no "flipping". Laws has probably charged the taxpayer rather less, for the necessity of maintaining a London home, than would have been the case if he had gone to the open market.  I'm sorry that he felt it necessary to return money to the taxpayer, which looks like an admission of guilt.

It seems to me that the situation is analogous to MPs' renting constituency offices from a local party organisation, as is the case with Labour in Neath, as I understand it. So long as the market rate is paid, there is surely nothing wrong with such a mutually beneficial arrangement.

The suggestion has already been made that this story has been broken in the Tory Telegraph  by people annoyed at the prospect of losing some of their perks, such as taking advantage of low capital transfer tax on property, under the new politics. David Laws is recognised as the driving force behind cutting costs and tax loopholes. There are many Conservatives - as well as City friends of New Labour - who would like to bring him down.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Back to Beveridge

Liberal Democrats have quite rightly, over the last year or so, sought to restore the reputation of Sir William  Beveridge (link to the Beveridge Group here)  as the preeminent author of the caring state in the face of claims by various Labourites. However, it should be recognised that Sir William was not a soft liberal.

As Nicholas Timmins writes in "the five giants" (Harper Collins 1995), "In line with his attempt to balance rights with duties, but also to keep people in touch with work, he recommended both a training benefit and arrangements that would be recognised by those who in the 1980s and 1990s called for American-style Workfare for the unemployed. [However, to] reduce someone's income just because they had been out of work for a certain period was 'wrong in principle', Beveridge said. Most men would rather work than be idle. [If he had been writing seventy years later, no doubt he would have amended that to 'most men and women' - FHL] But the danger of providing adequate benefits indefinitely was that men 'may settle down to them'. Thus he said men and women should be 'required as a condition of benefit to attend a work or training centre' after six months, the requirement arriving earlier in times of good employment and later in times of high unemployment. The aim would be twofold: to prevent 'habituation to idleness' but also 'as a means of improving capacity for earning'. [...] Attaching such conditions to benefit, Beveridge also noted, would unmask malingerers, and those claiming benefit while earning."

So far, we don't have Iain Duncan Smith's detailed programme for benefits. His speech, Spectator article and snippets in other newspapers suggest that it is not far removed from Beveridge.

There are one or two differences between then and now. Many jobs now require IT facility. The training allowance needs to recognise the higher costs of IT courses and be set at a realistic level accordingly. Travel is also much more expensive. One of the reasons that people would rather not work is that travel costs eat into the margin between benefits, if they stay at home, and working if that is any distance away, as is all too often the case. I hope that Duncan Smith will take on board our proposal to pay the full minimum wage to all people in employment, to encourage young people out of the latter trap. The earlier one gets people into the habit of work, the better.

Above all, the tests for fitness to work must be genuine, not an excuse to penalise genuinely deserving cases for the sake of civil servants' bonuses.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Villain of the match

It seems that Indian media have taken the next logical step from "man of the match" awards: "match ka mujrim" or "villain of the match". Amit Varna has written a wide-ranging article about India's ambivalent attitude to the T20 IPL televised, and heavily commercialised, cricket competition.

Since humiliation programmes like "Weakest Link" and "Celebrity Big Brother" have been so successful in the last decade, one wonders why our own television companies have not latched on to the concept. Perhaps S4C will take the lead in its football coverage and introduce an award to parallel "seren y gem". What's the Welsh for "match ka mujrim"?

Friday, 21 May 2010

Estonia on the way to join Eurozone in 2011

Estonia on the way to join Eurozone in 2011
Liberal International reports:
Amidst all the turmoil surrounding the Greek debt crisis, European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs Olli Rehn announced that Estonia is on track to join the single currency in January next year after maintaining low inflation, sound public finances and stable exchange rates for the last year. Commissioner Rehn, from Finnish LI Full Member Keskusta, said: “We commend Estonia for its long-standing commitment to prudent policies. To ensure that the adoption of the euro is a success, Estonia must pursue its efforts to maintain a prudent fiscal policy stance. Estonia needs to remain vigilant and react early and decisively in case signs build up of macroeconomic imbalances or losses of competitiveness.” The liberal Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip from LI Full Member the Reform Party earlier said with confidence: We have made all efforts to switch to the euro, we have met all entry terms and we are an example for other countries. We have reached all euro-entry criteria in a sustainable way and expect to receive a positive stance from the European Commission on our bid to make the currency switch next year.

What a pity that politics won out over financial judgment when Greece and a couple of other countries which fudged their economic credentials were admitted to the euro.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

Were they expecting a coalition with Esther Rantzen?

Liberal Democrat Voice is still full of articles analysing the coalition and people's reactions to it. A lot of Facebook traffic on Liberal Democrat friends' pages is occupied with it. "Any Questions", especially the spluttering, petulant, Roy Hattersley, was obsessed by it this weekend. No doubt tomorrow's special federal conference in Birmingham will generate yet more. The term "navel-gazing" comes to mind. I had resolved not to add to the traffic, until I came across this article by Armando Ianucci, who had come out for the Liberal Democrats before the election. He sums up:

I get frustrated when Liberal Democrat voters shout that they never voted for Cameron. No, they didn't. But they knew there'd most probably be a hung parliament. What on earth were they expecting? A coalition with Esther Rantzen? Some would argue they were doing it expecting a pact with Labour, but alas, democracy doesn't yet provide us with a system where we can vote for one party while influencing how many people vote for another.
Those Tories and Liberal Democrats who complain that their parties have watered down their proposals don't understand the definition of compromise. You cannot compromise while remaining absolute. No number divided by two is itself. And any Labour voter who complains that the Liberal Democrats have let in the Tories is ignoring the fact that, without them, the Conservatives would have a powerful majority. Seventy per cent of something you don't like is still awful, but it's better than 100 per cent.
Now we really must move forward. There is unfinished UK business, like stopping the Trident replacement, restoring the Post Office network and securing genuinely proportional voting for the Commons. (It has passed many commentators by that we have achieved a promise of PR for the other place.) The Conservatives must be made to realise that they cannot go on playing silly buggers in Europe, as a correspondent so eloquently put it.

There is a Welsh general election next year, when Labour's mismanagement of the health service and Plaid's reneging on its manifesto promises will come under scrutiny.

For all this we need a strong and distinct continuing Liberal Democrat party.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Chess going home

Chess is believed to have its origins as a war game in northern India. The powers of the pieces and pawns were expanded in Western Europe. In the nineteenth century it became a world game and India was largely left behind. Now it seems that the success of Vishwanath Anand is restoring its importance in the sub-continent:

Cameron breaking with Thatcherism

I had a deep distrust of the Conservatives going into the election. I particularly doubted David Cameron's sincerity: There seemed to be parallels in his campaign with that of Margaret Thatcher in the 1970s, when she espoused support for the European common market, "town hall not Whitehall" and even said in her first televised speech as Prime Minister: "where there is discord, let us bring harmony". It became clear within weeks that she had no intention of fulfilling any of those implied promises.

Admittedly, Cameron had already distanced himself from one of the Iron Lady's most famous sayings, when he declared that there is such a thing as society, it's just not the same as The State.

There was a more subtle change in his speech on the Downing Street lawn yesterday. There was the same emphasis which Thatcher laid on responsibilities as well as rights, but where Thatcher would have defined a successful life in terms of money earned or high position achieved, Cameron said that his aim was to enable children growing up under the "new politics" to be whatever they wanted to be. In other words, fulfilment didn't necessarily come from riches or status.

(I was reminded of the desciption of the Kardomah Café in "Return Journey", where Dylan and friends would discuss how "Dan Jones was going to compose the most prodigious symphony, Fred Janes paint the most miraculously meticulous picture, Charlie Fisher catch the poshest trout, Vernon Watkins and Young Thomas write the most boiling poems ... ")

I am under no illusions that Cameron is carrying the whole of the Conservative Party with him. He will remain leader just so long as he seems successful. But at least he has been consistent so far in applying his philosophy of Liberal Conservatism.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Another historic building goes

South Wales Guardian reports that a 200-year-old water-mill in the Aman valley has been razed. BBC has a picture:

That coalition decision

Duncan Borrowman, a member of the Federal Executive, wrote on his blog last night:
"Tonight, as a member of the Liberal Democrat Federal Executive, I took part in the joint meeting of the Federal Executive and Parliamentary Party.

"I attended with a heavy heart, I have fought the Conservatives for decades, I entered thinking there was a 90% chance that I would vote against the deal on the table. I was wrong. Of all the Liberal Democrat MPs, all the Liberal Democrat Peers (who don't technically have a vote) and all the Federal Executive, in three separate votes after nearly 3 hours of discussion, only the hand of one Federal Executive member went up against what we had before us. No member of the Parliamentary Party voted against. Out of over 100 people voting, only one voted against.

"So why did I vote for the package?

"Despite what I have now seen on the rolling news, the package, which I had in my hand to read in full, was packed with Liberal Democrat policies. I could not turn down what the package had to offer.

"I read the package, and in the detail I could not put my hand on my heart and oppose it. Indeed, I am delighted that we will get a government that will introduce a wide range of Liberal Democrat policies on Civil Liberties, the Economy, the Environment and Political Reform.

"But on the flip side, what were the alternatives? Labour bottled it, they did not want a coalition, that was clear. As much as I would have liked to explore it, a Labour or Rainbow coalition, the so called 'progressive coalition' was kicked into the long grass by the Labour Party.

"The other option was a Conservative minority government, lasting months, with us being rightly lambasted for not exhibiting the grown up politics we have preached. We would rightly have been laughed out of town. Instead we get stable government for a fixed term of 5 years.

"I voted with my head, and while my heart does not make me a natural friend of the Tories, I also voted with my heart for a policy document that is strongly Liberal. All along the process that I have spent three evenings this week in meetings with colleagues has been about getting Liberal Democrat policies in action. It has been about not sitting on the fence and shouting from the outside, but about making a positive contribution from the inside.

"I will sleep easy tonight that I have played my part in history and done the right thing."

It is noteworthy that the agreement was endorsed by peers and MPs without dissent, and with only one vote against on the Federal Executive, which is very large and very representative (elected by a preferential vote, naturally!). This group includes those who vigorously fight Conservatives in England, as well as Labour and the Nationalists elsewhere.

It is also clear that, Peter Hain, Andrew Adonis and, possibly, Alan Johnson apart, senior figures in the Labour Party were not really serious about forging an alliance with the Liberal Democrats. As a Liberal Democrat spokesman said yesterday:

Key members of Labour's negotiating team gave every impression of wanting the process to fail and Labour made no attempt at all to agree a common approach with the Liberal Democrats on issues such as fairer schools funding for the most deprived pupils and taking those on low incomes out of tax.

It became clear to the Liberal Democrats that certain key Labour cabinet ministers were determined to undermine any agreement by holding out on policy issues and suggesting that Labour would not deliver on proportional representation and might not marshal the votes to secure even the most modest form of electoral reform.

It is clear that some people in the Labour Party see opposition as a more attractive alternative to the challenges of creating a progressive, reforming government, not least in the context of a Labour leadership election campaign.

The Labour Party will now have the opportunity to resolve its internal differences which have been suppressed while they have been in government. An outsider's impression is that the process will not be as bloody as that in the 1980s, and the political process will be all the better for that. They do have to examine how they came to be suckered into the Thatcherite view of the economy while in government, though.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Progressive Alliances

So Gordon Brown has seen the request for clarification by Liberal Democrat MPs as a breakdown in talks between David Cameron and Nick Clegg. He has made himself available for talks to keep Labour in power.

He should bear in mind that a majority of MPs was elected on manifestos which promised an end to ID cards and the national identity database, a cut in the number of  MPs, to encourage green growth and jobs, to give voters the right to sack corrupt MPs, to end payments into the Child Trust Fund - and that's just from memory of the overlap between the Conservative and Liberal Democrat manifestos.

And, as far as I am concerned, AV is as unpalatable as no change in the voting system at all. The odds and ends of parties (DUP, SNP etc) needed to form a bare majority with Lib Dems and Labour agree on not very much, but proportional representation is, as far as I know, on all their platforms.

On the other hand, there are doubtless more Labour MPs who want to see no replacement for Trident and an end to Eurofighter commitment, than there are on the Conservative benches.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Alan Watkins

Robert Harris, in his Observer piece, sums up Alan Watkins' passing: "It is a bitter paradox – but not, strictly speaking, an irony, as he would have been the first to point out – that Alan Watkins should have died this weekend, of all weekends. For 47 years, right up until last month, he produced a column on British politics unsurpassed in its wit, its knowledge of parliamentary history and the quality of its prose."

Friday, 7 May 2010

A minority Cameron administration may not be a disaster

I've just seen Jeremy Vine on BBC-1 play with different models of coalition government. Neither of his most plausible speculations looks stable. Since the Conservatives have gained from both Liberal Democrats and Labour across England & Wales, and will clearly be the largest party at Westminster, they have earned the right to dictate the shape of the next government.

So, logically, David Cameron should lead a minority administration. There are precedents in Scotland, Wales, in local government and abroad. I think he will quickly gain support for an emergency economic package, because so much is ground held in common with the other parties, though without the immediate damaging cuts to front-line services. There is a big worry about Cameron's attitude to the EU which unfortunately is shared by too many leading Labour politicians, but indications from the market may give a reality check there.

But I am most hopeful on the social front. Labour and Lib Dem members could find themselves supporting Cameron against the more reactionary elements on his own back benches. The homosexual law reforms look safe, for instance. We may even find acceptance for a comprehensive overhaul of our system of criminal justice.  Now that the parties are no longer bound by electoral rhetoric, the prospect of cutting the prison population, both by early correction of offenders by more radical (in the UK, anyway) methods and by reducing the reoffending rates must appeal to Cameron.

There is also the prospect of a cooperative approach to social troubles at a local level, as proposed by Iain Duncan Smith. This chimes with some traditional Liberal thinking, and I would hope that Nick Clegg would support these ideas against the centralising tendency of Labour and even some Conservatives.

[Later: one would expect Cameron to make good his promises about civil liberties, including the abolition of the National Identity database, the NHS computer system and the third runway at London Heathrow, too]

There is still the big question of electoral reform. I concede that Cameron is unlikely to move towards a fairer voting system. Here he will be supported by most of his party and by most of Labour, too. But since Brown is offering only Alternative Vote, not a proportional system, I believe that the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party will have to be patient for a while longer, because the big prize is likely to be achievable when the next general election comes round.


It seems that I put the curse on Lembit by including a photo of the two of us on my election literature;-( However, if he had to lose to anyone, there is consolation in that his conqueror, Glyn Davies, is from the solid centre of the Conservative tradition, and a farmer. The House has not had enough of either in recent years.

Other losses are harder to bear: GPs in Evan Harris (OxWAb) and the Independent Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest), and a pharmacist in Sandra Gidley (Romsey). There is not enough professional and technical expertise in the Commons as it is.

It seems that Conservative money has removed two leading LD women, Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) and Julia Goldsworthy (Camborne, Redruth & Hayle).

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

There are Labour supporters I almost feel sorry for

Comedian and Radio 4 presenter, Mark Steel, for instance, heads his Independent Viewspaper piece: "Farewell to the Labour Party". He writes: "the odd poll creates a cruel whiff of hope, as if the surgeon's rung to say he can't find the rake so it might just be the shovel and the trowel.

"Most days the moment of optimism is dashed by the latest spectacular Labour nonsense, such as suddenly endorsing a vote for the Lib Dems in areas where Labour can't win. What's the Labour candidate in those areas supposed to do now? Presumably if someone on the doorstep says, 'You can count on my vote', they have to say: 'NO. Don't vote for me, I'm an idiot', and start Tasering their pets."

The weather looks as if it is against Gordon Brown as well, in Wales at least. Traditional political wisdom is that fine weather favours the party in office. The forecast for tomorrow includes showers.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Digby Jones's call for positivism

Around the time that the party leaders were preparing for the final TV debate, on the economy, Lord Digby Jones, a former head of the CBI and former minister in Gordon Brown's "big tent", spoke about the deficit. He made a plea that politicians and commentators should stop harping on about public sector cuts and concentrate on the other side of the equation, getting business going again. He is certainly not in favour of over-staffed "back offices" in the public service, but he is concerned about the current negative approach, which could mean the loss of many front-line jobs, like nurses and teachers.

The deficit has two components: public spending and the shortfall in taxes. Get businesses functioning and people earning again and the tax take will rise towards the (hopefully reduced) government spend. Lord Jones' pronouncements on BBC News will certainly resonate in Wales. It seems to me that we are already on or below the minimum front-line staffing needed to maintain a civilised state. Professors of business management (partly paid for out of public funds, be it noted) say that there should be more public service cuts because too high a proportion of economic activity is in the public sector in Wales. I have for a long time maintained that they are looking at the wrong side of the equation.

If there has been too much emphasis on cuts, it is largely the fault of these people, of Conservative-supporting media and even Lord Digby Jones's friends in business pressurising politicians to discuss how far and how deep we should cut.

Moreover, some of the cuts which have already been made have militated against recovery. The closing of local post offices and of local tax offices and the degrading of the Royal Mail have hit small businesses in Wales outside the cities. A draconian cut in job centres was only halted by Peter Hain's successor at the Department of Work and Pensions when it was obvious even to the government that we were in a deep recession. Shrinking the Probation Service means that released prisoners are slipping back into crime rather than being supervised into work.

I applaud Lord Digby Jones's approach, and hope that he will be back in government as part of a more forward-looking administration after the election.

Saturday, 1 May 2010

Farewell. 3.5" disk

Sony has announced that it has ceased manufacturing 3.5" diskettes. Frankly, I'm surprised that they lasted so long. The early USB memory devices made an immediate 16-fold increase over the most advanced diskettes, and they have now advanced a thousand times further.

But they had a good innings. They were introduced in the mid-1980s, not only as this article says because they were more robust than the first floppy disks, but also because they could be sent through the post in Japan more cheaply than the larger 5.25" and 8" formats.