Monday, 29 November 2010

Howard Flight and unspeakable truths

Howard Flight is in trouble for two reasons: he used insensitive language and he expressed a sentiment that is still taboo yet is felt by many people.  John Rentoul's recent blog on speaking the unspeakable is good on this.  Most people would agree that It is only responsible to bring children into the world if you can afford to bring them up.  

As a so-called middle class parent of two young children and a stepson, in a relatively well-paid job, in a household with two incomes, I am, shall we say, feeling very 'squeezed' financially. This is not because of profligate spending but thanks to the ludicrously expensive rail fares for my commute (£7000 pa - meaning I must earn £10k per year to pay for this) soon to rise thanks to the Government, the vast sums we must fork out on child care each month and because my mortgage repayments on a very small house account for over 50% of my disposable income. 

If people in good jobs, who are not asking the state to support them are unable to make ends meet and are about to be squeezed even further, surely they are less likely to have children.  This is not to say that poorer people should not receive benefits, merely to point out the ridiculous nature of modern British life in which families with two good incomes struggle to bring up a family.   Mr Flight should have emphasised this rather than make provocative statements about 'breeding' amongst the less well off.  However, he should not be condemned for expressing the frustration that many so-called better off people are feeling.

Of course people in genuine poverty struggle much, much more than we do and of course the state's resources should be directed at assisting them.  This equation works in normal circumstances - ones where those who work hard, aspire to earn more money and pay their taxes are able to live in a comfortable manner.  But there is a significant danger, in the present climate, that many politicians are either deliberately ignoring or singularly failing to understand that for vast swathes of working Britain, it is increasingly hard to make ends meet and yes - to bring up children - even in households with one or even two good salaries.  Iain Martin brilliantly summarizes these themes in his Wall Street Journal Europe blog and shows how Cameron et al are seemingly oblivious to the concerns of this group of electors.  Perhaps because of their own privileged backgrounds, or perhaps a result of political hubris, they don't appear to "get it", if we judge them by their inept handling of the changes to child benefit.

Ed Miliband, whom I did not support for the Labour leadership, but whom I wish well, is very definitely on to something when he talks about the "squeezed middle".  John Humphrey's inability to understand the concept is not sufficient reason to condemn it as vague.  If Miliband can link up his thinking on the "squeezed middle" with the ideas he espoused in his conference speech about improving people's quality of life, then we in the Labour Party could start to put some clear water (neither red nor blue) between us and the Government.  Cameron's happiness index is a welcome innovation on the surface, but where Labour can show true vision and attract new support is by exposing that the Government is proposing nothing which will actually enhance happiness.  For example, I doubt that reducing or limiting the working week, or increasing flexible working is high up the Government's agenda.  Where are the government initiatives calling for couples to be able to share childcare?  It seems unlikely that they'd take steps to allow more building on green belt land so as to gradually lower house prices and increase the supply of housing, both private and social.  Yet these are the very things that might enhance happiness - they might even help with bringing about the Big Society!  These are areas which are ripe for new thinking from Labour supporters, members and politicians as the party develops its new policy under the policy review announced by Miliband at the weekend.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Letter to The Times (unpublished) on Citizen MPs

The Editor
The Times


Vernon Bogdanor makes a persuasive case for the election of a proportion of local councillors by lot. By emasculating political parties while simultaneously empowering citizens by offering an equal right to participate in executive power and legislating not just voting, such a system would greatly enhance our local government.  

I agree that local government would be a good place to "begin" and argued on these pages in 2009 for a system of lots to select 'Citizen MPs' who would comprise a third of each House of Parliament, serving one-year terms.  When compared to the present system of selection, which is based to a greater or lesser extent on patronage and preferment, the injection of 'the people' into the heart of our Parliament need not be regarded as radical.  Many will argue that a system of lots is impractical and morally questionable.  I imagine these people would also be the first to defend trial by jury should they be accused of a crime.  Democracy, as with justice, is guaranteed not merely by the existence of elections or trials, but the active participation of citizens.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Vince Cable's denial of tuition fee betrayal is a gift for political dissemblers

Vince Cable yesterday added to the sophistry of his boss Nick Clegg.  First, stung by the virulence of the student anger, Clegg declared, in an unashamed display of political duplicity worthy of a Lib Dem election leaflet, that

At the time I really thought we could do it. I just didn't know, of course, before we came into government, quite what the state of the finances were.

Within days, Cable too had to delve deep into Aristotle's toolbox of rhetorical devices (spin to you or me) in order to declare, with a straight face no less, that

We didn't break a promise. We made a commitment in our manifesto, we didn't win the election. We then entered into a coalition agreement, and it's the coalition agreement that is binding upon us and which I'm trying to honour.
Of course, he can hardly say what most intelligent observers would think to be nearer the truth, i.e. that his party knew it was highly likely that they would have to countenance increasing tuition fees but the temptation to secure a sack-load of student votes in marginal constituencies trumped the danger of holing below the water the Lib Dems' repution for straight-talking (many in the political world knew this particular vessel had long been sinking). 

Not only can we now say that the Lib Dems' hitherto successful tactic of assuming the moral high-ground is dead, but it is fair to say that Cable has single-handedly re-crafted the much cherished tradition in Britain that politicians ought to be held accountable to their manifesto commitments (not least to explicit pledges signed in the full media glare to buy-off a particular constituency of opinion).  Or to put it another way: if you promise something at an election, then do a U-turn months later, don't be surprised to find the voters manning their U-boats.

What Cable is essentially saying is that once the Lib Dems assumed office in May, they discovered that the conditions on the ground had changed (as Israeli generals routinely say about Palestinian land) and therefore all previous promises can be annulled forthwith and without the necessity for the politician concerned to take any moral or practical responsibility.  The annulling of such pledges is therefore not in the slightest the responsibility of the politician doing the the annulling.  The moral power of a promise can thus be swept away without any feeling of guilt or remorse.  No apology need be offered.  Thanks to Clegg and Cable, politicians in future any future will feel less need to defer to convention when tempted to promise one thing to parts of the electorate, in order to secure their support, while knowing full well that the promise cannot or will not be kept.  As long as he or she is able to say that the changed material conditions they discovered at some time in the future were unanticipated, they should, in the Cable/Clegg view of politics, be home and dry.  Ahh the sweet smell of New Politics.  Next you know, a Tory adviser will have to resign for telling the country that they've never had it so good.

This is a highly dubious development not just for the Lib Dems but for our politics as a whole.  It is important that we prevent this Lib Dem-inspired contagion  from nfecting the age old principle that politicians be held to account for the promises they make at elections.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Prime Minister's jokes at Commons Liaison Committee plus we may get wedding bank holiday

***NEWS FLASH*** Cameron used his summing up at the House of Commons Liaison Committee hearing which has just finished to suggest that the Government was considering a special Bank Holiday for the royal wedding, even if the Royal Family choose to hold the wedding on a Saturday.

For all serious political hacks, I'm not going to give any real political analysis here, but thought readers might be interested in some amusing asides from the PM.  To be fair, the questioning was lame (even from my side) and he is, although it pains me to say it, a very assured performer in these circumstances.  Perhaps most notable though was that Andrew Tyrie, Tory Chair of the Treasury Committee, used his main block of questions to ask about the CSR and the decision to scrap Ark Royal and Harrier.  I think it's a little remiss of him not to at least ask about an issue such as bankers' bonuses and reform of the financial sector, at a time when this is very high up the political agenda.  He really allowed Cameron off the hook on this subject.

Here are some of the more amusing/revealing/offensive (delete as appropriate) comments the PM made:

Re whether he could provide the BAe contract for the aircraft carriers to the Treasury Committee:

Cameron: “You find out in this job that you don’t make quite as many rules as you’d like.”

Re universities and science funding:

Cameron: “If ‘two brains Willetts’ can’t answer that question I don’t know what hope there is for me.”

Margaret Hodge asked whether social unrest is a price worth paying for the reductions in housing benefit?

Cameron: “People earning £20 - £25k per year who find out that their taxes are going to subside rents for unemployed people of £30, £40, £50k per year - I think that is more likely to lead to social unrest than our changes to housing benefit.”

A question from Richard Ottaway MP about where bilateral agreements such as the recent Anglo-French one fits in within the framework of multi-lateral ones:

Cameron: “We’ll get more bang for our buck, or should I say franc.  I’m sorry, I should say euro?  I don’t want to contribute any more to our euro woes!” [laughter].

Re a NATO strategy document:

Cameron: “In this job you read enough boring strategic documents which are completely impenetrable, but this one was clear” [and he told the author].

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

PMQs today - Cameron may have slandered Alastair Campbell over sexing-up dossiers

A howler from Cameron in PMQs 5 minutes ago, answering a question from Harriet Harman about his employment of Tory staffers on the Government payroll:

"We won't be employing Alastair Campbell to sex-up dossiers making the case for war".

Given that the Hutton Report cleared Alastair Campbell and the Government of this particularly pernicious charge from Andrew Gilligan, doesn't this place the PM in difficult waters in accusing him of sexing-up dossiers?

I'm no lawyer, but f it weren't for Parliamentary Privilege, this would be slanderous, wouldn't it?

Simon Hughes and hypocrisy over Phil Woolas

I just sent this letter to The Guardian about Simon Hughes MP, Deputy Leader of the Lib Dems...


You quote Simon Hughes MP ('Phil Woolas launches court challenge to decision to strip him of his seat', 16 November 2010) as saying of Phil Woolas that he made "statements which were not about Liberal Democrat politics but personal attacks on our candidate's character and conduct which he had no reasonable grounds for believing were true and did not believe were true."  Is this the same Simon Hughes who defeated Peter Tatchell using shamefully homophobic leaflets in the 1983 Bermondsey by-election?

The hypocrisy of the Lib Dems, and Hughes in particular, knows no bounds.

Yours faithfully,

John Slinger

Friday, 12 November 2010

The Times publish my letter on tuition fees

I take issue with your leading article (“Politics and Pantomime”, Nov 11). In emphasising that many do not or cannot go to university you obscure what should be our priority: that anyone suitably qualified, irrespective of the wealth of their parents, ought to be able to attend university without fear of huge and rising debts. Second, graduates are not the only beneficiaries of university study, so are the economy and wider society.
Your narrow, economic case chips away, perhaps deliberately, at the core principle behind other key areas of state provision. Only recently, the idea of encumbering graduates with £30,000-plus of debt would have met with howls of derision.
How long before the same thinking is applied to the NHS? After all, some people benefit more from its benevolence than others.
John Slinger
Rugby, Warks