Sunday, June 28, 2015

@liberal_reform - can you miss all four corners of a point?

I have been invited today to endorse a proposed amendment to the Party's Constitution, which reads;

In article 7.3 of the constitution, add to the end of the first sentence:

", and subject to the Leader's right to veto the inclusion of any specific policy."

What this means is that the Federal Policy Committee, which draws up the Party's manifestos for Westminster and Europe, shall retain its responsibility, subject to the right of the Leader to veto anything he or she doesn't like.

I like to think that I am not a tin foil hat wearing conspiracy theorist - I prefer a panama for one thing - but do have some respect for the history and traditions of the Party. Policy making by ordinary Party members is one of the things that makes us different from Labour and the Conservatives, a point made abundantly clear by Lizzie Jewkes and her idea that raising the personal tax allowance to £10,000 per annum would be a liberal means of redistribution and would allow more people more control over their own lives.

This amendment would, if passed, allow a Leader to conclude - I don't think that this policy is workable, so I'll veto it, even were it to be passed overwhelmingly at a Federal Conference. And, you see, a Leader isn't always right.

I am a bit of a process geek. I favour the notion of testing ideas through the filtration of Federal Conferences and Federal Policy Committee, because there is always someone who will, if given a chance, get up and say, "I think that you'll find that the 1846 Paper Clips Act makes the proposal unworkable.". Liberal Democrats can be pedantic like that, but good policy making requires exactitude and knowledge.

Yes, a Leader has people to do research for them, but my experience of a series of Leader's Offices is that 'group-think' tends to set in sooner rather than later. Which one of them wants to be the one to say to the Leader, "You're wrong on this one, Boss."?

We are also a Party which treasures its internal democracy, the right for all of us to have a say. What impression would it give for the Party to have a passionate debate over an idea, draw its conclusion and then have that overruled by one man or woman?

I do see a logic in the way Liberal Reform are thinking. Tuition fees turned out to be a disaster, and had Nick vetoed it before the General Election, we might not have had so many problems with the notion of trust. But, it wasn't about the policy, it was about what we did with the policy, about the pledge that so many of our people signed in 2010, and how we dealt with it in Government.

My apologies, ladies and gentlemen of Liberal Reform, but you do not address a misjudgement by the leadership of a political party by giving that leadership more power. And so, with regret, I must advise that I won't be supporting your constitutional amendment...

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Lib Dem peerages row - it is, apparently, an outrage...

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, it seems that the notion that the Liberal Democrats might pick up some new Peers through the Dissolution Honours list is upsetting some people. It is, they claim, causing increased disproportionality in the Upper Chamber. Well, yes, although nobody seemed to care very much when it worked the other way for so many years.

And if proportionality is such a good thing, are all of these people manning the barricades in favour of proportional representation? Almost certainly not.

The Dissolution Honours list is designed to reflect a desire to honour those perceived to have served their country well and faithfully over a period of years in Parliament (you will notice that I use the word 'perceived' - that's rather a matter of personal opinion, I appreciate). And some worthy recipients will be named in due course, I suspect.

There will be arguments about whether there were enough women, or BAME, Peers announced, undoubtedly, although those are as much arguments to be had within the political parties as anything.

But, in the lists of new Peers that will follow this one, it seems unlikely that there will be many Liberal Democrats, if any - if the proportionality argument resonates with David Cameron, that is. And the Grim Reaper will also act to level things up, if that's what people want - there is a steady winnowing out of the membership year on year.

So, good luck to the new Peers, whoever they are. Holding the government to account, scrutinising its activities and examining proposed legislation for defects is seldom glamorous, but in a Parliamentary system designed as it currently is, it is a means for Liberal Democrats to contribute to the governance of this nation.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Mid Suffolk: what does cutting tax credits mean here?

Amidst all the talk of cutting the welfare budget by £12 billion per annum, the focus has been on tax credits – after all, given that pensions have been fixed through the ‘triple lock’, there is less scope for reductions otherwise. But, whilst there is a general acceptance that we need to ensure that benefits follow need, the actual impact on families, working or otherwise, can easily be lost in a snowstorm of statistics.

So, what is at stake for residents of Mid Suffolk? The average number of families (rounded to the nearest hundred) claiming either Working Tax Credit (WTC), or Child Tax Credit (CTC), or both, was as follows in 2013-14;
  • 1,100 out-of-work families
  • 1,800 in-work families with children, claiming WTC and CTC
  • 1,500 in-work families with children, claiming CTC only
  • 500 in-work families with no children, claiming WTC
Of the 3,300 families with children claiming WTC and/or CTC, 1,200 of them were single parent households.

The average amount received per household was;
  • £6,291 - out-of-work families
  • £8,601 - in-work families with children, claiming WTC and CTC
  • £3,513 - in-work families with children, claiming CTC only
  • £2,447 - in-work families with no children, claiming WTC
The average amount received, per household, was £5,951.

Given the suggestion that an average of £1,400 will be lost per household through the cuts, one might assume that the biggest blow in cash terms will fall upon in-work families with children, ironically, the very group of people that politicians of all hues have been saying need to be focused on most.

There is no doubt that, here in Mid Suffolk, we’re relatively fortunate. Unemployment is low - 2.7%, compared to 5.3% across the county, and 6.4% in England (Q4, 2014) - and earnings relatively good. But, for those people who have come to rely on the top-up to their income that tax credits provide, and who are unlikely to have much in the way of financial resilience - low (or no) savings, little scope to increase earnings immediately - any cut will lead to, at the very least, transitional hardship, and in some cases, to domestic crisis.

Yes, we need to ensure that we develop a social security system that is sustainable in the long-term and which protects the poor and vulnerable, but Iain Duncan-Smith, George Osborne and their Conservative colleagues need to understand that government is not just about numbers, it's about people.

* Interested in the data, either for MId Suffolk or for your own area? Here's the data...

Monday, June 22, 2015

A new tax on frequent flyers? Have you really thought this through?

It would be fair to say that I do a fair bit of travelling. I have, in the past, joked about having a carbon footprint the size of Wiltshire (an utter exaggeration, I admit) but I have, over the years, flown a lot more than most people do, and for a range of reasons. I pay, as a result, more than my share of Air Passenger Duty (APD). Do I begrudge that? Well yes, a bit. Do I accept that it is inevitable given my lifestyle? Yes, actually, although I would rather see a more nuanced APD that encourages airlines to fill flights or put on less of them. And so, the news that a group are proposing a tax on frequent flyers is of obvious interest to me.

In their letter to the Observer, they propose that anyone making more than one return flight a year should be taxed, by HMRC, using data supplied by the airlines and linked to their passport number. Further, the level of tax levied should increase as the number of flights does.

In fairness, they have considered some of the issues. However, there is a sense that it is a means of making rich people pay so one of their supporters feels it valid to say;

Now, pardon me, but I'm not aware that tax havens have scope for a lot of second home owners, and I certainly wasn't aware that France and Italy, which have large numbers of British second home owners, were tax havens. However, I'm not that sympathetic towards second home owners abroad. The model depends for the most part on cheap flights. But then, they do pay a lot of Air Passenger Duty now.

But there are a lot of people in this country, an increasing number, who have family and loved ones overseas. In our increasingly international world, it is not unusual to have a scattered family. And, in a Europe of open borders and freedom of movement, people have cause to travel home to visit. A Romanian working here to feed his or her family back home will use budget airlines to see them, and possibly visit as much as monthly. They aren't rich, their journey isn't for business, so under these proposals, we would tax them until they couldn't afford to go home at all.

Someone with an Indian family, like me, might make a trip to see them in February and then, in March, have to go home for a funeral. They would be taxed for attending a funeral, or a family wedding. And, the proposers admit that;
We’d like access to better data on this but from what we can see, although low-income migrant communities are more likely than others in their income bracket to fly, they are still unlikely to fall into the frequent flyer category that this tax reform will target.
In other words, they don't know, and possibly don't care that much. The cause is more important than the collateral damage.

The proposal would be intrusive too. 
First, HMRC would need access to data that is already captured by the Home Office, on passenger movements in and out of the country. This would have to be stored in an automated database that airlines could access in real time when selling tickets to customers. Second, airlines would need to start recording customers’ passport numbers at the point of ticket sale - instead of before boarding as is currently the case.
And, as for the impact on those businesses trading overseas;
The best option is probably to charge the levy to companies for their employees’ business flights rather than the individuals flying, with each company having a tax-free flight allowance based on company size.
As if that is a reliable yardstick. But again;
We would like to commission further work to look at the market impacts of this proposal in more detail, both for the aviation sector itself and for other sectors that are currently heavily reliant on air travel.
So, in other words, this is an intrusive, untested, ill thought out proposal which is likely to punish those with families overseas and businesses, without necessarily raising as much money as Air Passenger Duty does, some of whose supporters appear motivated almost more by a dislike of wealthier people than a practical sense of designing something that would work.

My advice? Go away and think again. And please skip the arguments that wealthy people need to be punished...

Data breach allegations: Mark Gettleson communicates strategically...

It now seems to be generally accepted that Norman Lamb was not involved in the decisions that led to accusations of data protection breaches and push polling over the weekend. It did seem unlikely, knowing what I know of Norman, but one wanted to be reassured. But, whilst we wait to hear more about Gavin Grant's role in events, there is time to analyse young Mark Gettleson's statement, as published in the Guardian today.

“The survey we conducted was not a ‘push poll’,” he said. “A push poll is an unethical campaign activity, where an untrue or unverified statement is pushed towards a wide audience with the sole aim of distorting their views.”

I agree with Mark when he claims that a push poll is unethical - it takes a special lack of awareness to believe anything else. But his definition of what push polling is can be challenged.

Wikipedia defines a push poll as "an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of voters under the guise of conducting a poll". 

Mark admits to holding very strong views about Tim Farron and his suitability for the position of Party leader, and I do find myself wondering if the Lamb campaign's early references to 'real liberalism' and 'consistent liberalism' came from him. It is noticeable that, in his statement to the Guardian, he refers to 'Tim Farron's illiberal record'.

So, Mark needs to answer some questions;
  1. Were those people contacted told that they were being called on behalf of the Lamb campaign?
  2. What use was intended for the results?
  3. In what form was the data transferred to the third party organisation?
  4. Who paid for the work to be done?
Mark Gettleson is a 'strategic communications professional'. He may want to make a more convincing case for that self-description over the coming days...

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Time to endorse a candidate for Leader...

I've been involved in a lot of selection contests over the years - for Westminster and European Parliamentary seats - and even the odd internal party contest - the 2008 Party Presidential contest comes to mind for some reason. For the most part though, leadership contests have passed me by.

In 2006, as a Local Party Chair in South London, I was somewhat surprised to see how long it took any of the campaigns to contact me to seek my support - after all, I might have, theoretically, been influential in my own patch, or had the means to contact local members. And, having blogged my surprise, I was almost immediately contacted by the Huhne campaign team. I ended up supporting Chris, a decision made easier by such signs of competence.

In 2007, I was a bit busy with the early stages of Ros's campaign for the Party Presidency, but I did chair the first hustings (in Newbury), much to my own surprise. I attended more hustings meetings than most - I was in Derby and Leeds too - and was one, if not the first, amongst the blogosphere to question the Huhne campaign's attack strategy. It was, in the end, the decisive reason why I opted for Nick over Chris. I wasn't alone, and given the closeness of the margin of victory, that sense of unhappiness over negative campaigning may have been decisive.

And so, to 2015, Farron versus Lamb. I like both men, and would have no real objection if either of them became Leader. So, even if a second preference is meaningless, I'll cast one assuming the ballot paper allows it. But I am obliged to make a choice, and I should have some reasoning for doing so. So, here goes...

Tim Farron was, when I first ran into him, one of those 'annoying students' (you can tell that I was in the youth wing, can't you?). Almost always wearing that Blackburn Rovers shirt - and no, it wasn't an affectation - he was surprisingly much as he is now. He has almost mythic campaigning ability - just look at his majority. I have been sceptical about his leadership potential in the past, having even had a bit of a dig at him on Liberal Democrat Voice. Does he have gravitas? Compared to someone like Ming, no, not really. Do we share the same view of the world? Mostly, although I'm more cautious than he is (I'm a bureaucrat, remember). Do I think that his two terms as Party President were an unmitigated success? Well, he wasn't as good as his predecessor...

Norman Lamb is my more local candidate. A Norwich City supporter (which rather counts against him south of the Waveney), and a really good minister, he impressed me when I saw him speak at Saxmundham a few months ago. I used to run into him on the train to London, sitting in Standard class, working on constituency and ministerial papers, and he was always polite. In return, I would leave him alone. He has gravitas, he's an excellent campaigner - I've been on the doorstep with him in Mundesley and Potter Heigham - and he has tremendous energy.

They have both said what I believe to be the right things about our time in the Coalition, both been honest about the tuition fees debacle, both articulated a view as to the future of the Party and how it might be organised that resonates. They are both, I believe, gut reaction liberals.

Different times require different strategies. One thing that worries me is the risk that we try to recover by playing the political game in the same way as we have for more than a decade, i.e. just like the two Ugly Sisters. We're not like them, and if we want to be like them, frankly, they're better at it. We need to be positive, optimistic and live our principles.

I had been wavering over the past few weeks, leaning slightly one way, but not so that I felt committed. I wanted to be persuaded. And now, I have been. Here are my key criteria;

  • boldness - we may well be fighting for our lives, and caution won't help
  • integrity - the Leader must be seen to exhibit our values, not just in his words, but in his deeds and in those whom he surrounds himself with
  • passion - ironic really, coming from a bureaucrat, but we do need some of that 'old fashioned religion', if you'll pardon the expression
There's not an awful lot in it, but Norman has been slightly more cautious, slightly less passionate and has been unfortunate in terms of the people surrounding him. And so, I have decided that I will be voting for Tim Farron. Well, unless he, or his campaign team, do something stupid enough to annoy me.

So, keep it clean, positive and upbeat, Tim. That's the best hope for our Party and for our country...

A bureaucrat speaks to his expectant audience...

Here I am, trying, and failing, to look as
though I'm not reading my speech...
Yesterday saw the Suffolk Liberal Democrats mini-conference in Ipswich, and I was asked to speak for four minutes on the behind the scenes stuff that happens in our Party. Here's what I said; 
So, you’ve become a Liberal Democrat or, for some of you, been one for many years. It’s all about campaigning for liberal democracy, right?
Well, yes. But you need to be organised, because it’s not quite as simple as going out and knocking on doors, or calling people on the phone, or using social media. And, behind the public face of a political party, there are a bunch of people keeping things ticking over, raising and managing funds, recording what has been decided, making sure that members are able to take up all of the opportunities that being part of any organisation offers.
That means treasurers and secretaries, database managers and so much more. You need people to manage candidate selections so that they’re fair, to draft policy, to design leaflets, and most of all, to ensure that things are done by the rules. Government particular likes to make rules that effect political parties – campaign finance being one of the most obvious areas.
As a result, the bureaucracy of political parties can be very important, if not necessarily very glamorous. But it may be that, sitting in this room, are people with accountancy skills, or organisational skills like process management, who might not like active campaigning but want to help out behind the scenes, or who even like both. 
In my professional life, I work in central government, and thus am somewhat restricted in what I can do publicly. However, I have an accounting background and believe that process matters. And because of that, I’ve found myself a niche deep in the organisational structure of the Party over the years, and had the opportunity to meet, and work with, a range of people I probably wouldn’t have met otherwise – like Ros.
Daunted by the responsibility? Don’t be. There is plenty of advice and support, both locally and from Headquarters, and there are old-timers around like me only too happy to answer questions.
There is also a little-known network of committees that, effectively, run the Party, some locally, like the Executive Committee of your Local Party, some regional – in our case, the East of England - and some at English and even Federal levels. They all need people with skills who can help decide how we select Parliamentary candidates, organise our conferences, design and consult on policy and even how we co-operate with our sister political parties across Europe and beyond. And, there is no reason why it couldn’t be you, if you wanted.
More than a quarter of the membership of this Party have joined in the past six weeks, and a new Leader will doubtless want to change things too, so there are potentially new ways of doing things, and opportunities to influence how the Party works. And here in Suffolk, and beyond, the Party will warmly welcome you if you want to contribute your skills, your knowledge and your time behind the scenes.
So, if you think that you might be interested, come and talk to me in the session that follows these presentations. I promise to talk English, not Bureaucrat, and if you simply want to know how the Party works, I’ll be happy to explain as best I can.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why does George Osborne need a law to make him do what he wants to do anyway?

We probably all have a piece of law which we believe to be stupid, or unnecessary, or both. And then there are laws which serve no useful purpose except to cause trouble for someone, some time, some place.

Enter George Osborne, who has the idea that you can have legislation which limits the freedom of not only himself, but any future occupant of his current position, to act as they see fit, applying the philosophy that they have a mandate for. He doesn't want to raise taxes, so he proposes to pass legislation preventing certain taxes or levies to be increased. He doesn't believe in debt-based government spending, so he seeks legislation preventing a future government from running a deficit except under certain unusual circumstances.

It's almost as though he doesn't trust himself.

But really, all he is doing is creating a pointless legislative stick to beat his opponents with. In a future election, he can tell the public that it is impossible for opponents to do certain things because they will be in breach of the surplus rule, or because they'll need to raise taxes that can't be increased. It is, if you like, the politics of the kindergarten.

And yet, it is astonishingly stupid for three reasons - there are probably more, but I'm in a hurry;

  • Any incoming government can simply repeal it. If they want to be bound by it, they will behave accordingly. If not, they won't. So, wasting Parliamentary time on a piece of vanity legislation is really unhelpful, especially when your party has things it would really like to do.
  • It gives the impression that your Party's future is more important than that of the country. Such a cynical move does not go unnoticed by your enemies, and even your current friends, and it does give this observer, at least, a reminder of your perceived arrogance.
  • It takes away a whole clutch of your economic tools voluntarily. You might want to do something unexpected, or events elsewhere may force your hand. Do you really want to make yourself a liar? Are you seriously giving your opponents the means to bring your trustworthiness into question?
Frankly, if the Lords has a chance to play with it, they should. It is anti-democratic, foolish and unnecessary, and is the sign of a man who confuses smugness for competence, and has an opinion of his genius which is far outweighed by the evidence.

Bosmere Liberal Democrats - thinking about what matters to us

It is odd, is it not, that I've been a member of a political party for more than thirty years, and yet in all of that time, the number of organised political discussions I've taken part in at Local Party level can be counted on the fingers of one hand. There might almost be a sense that policy is for conferences, specific setpiece affairs with a structure and a process, much of which excludes most activists.

And yet, we now have thousands of new members who have joined because they believe in something, in the idea of liberalism and its relevance in our communities. It might not be clear to them why they should be limited in such a way.

When word reached me that the neighbouring branch to ours, Bosmere (which covers Needham Market and the villages to the west and southwest), was having a meeting solely to discuss policy ideas, I was keen to join in.

And so, yesterday evening, Ros and I arrived at the Limes Hotel in Needham Market to see what would happen. One of our newer members, Stephen Andrews, had organised a room, come up with a list of topics, and dinner had been organised (fish and chips).

Over dinner, Ros and I (particularly Ros, it must be said) chatted to some of the newer members, before Stephen took the floor. His idea was to open on a particular topic, the EU Referendum, or education, and get people to express their views as to what we should be saying or doing. It was quite lively, with some decidedly interesting views expressed about sovereignty and free trade during the EU debate, for example.

It will be interesting to see what Stephen's notes look like afterwards, but given that our membership in Mid Suffolk has gone up from 77 to 120 since polling day, we've got a whole bunch of people whose enthusiasm can be tapped, and a whole bunch of ideas to espouse. It is, perhaps, time to start taking our message to the people...

Friday, June 19, 2015

Liberal Democrat Peers propose liberalisation of cannabis law?

It seems that our Noble Friends in the House of Lords have decided that some radical thinking is necessary. They're right, of course.

And so, as part of a possibly new, expansive, and definitely liberal approach, Brian Paddick and Sally Hamwee have submitted the following amendment to the Psychoactive Substances Bill, about to have its Second Reading in the Lords;

After Clause 10

Insert the following new Clause—

“Control of cannabis

(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Secretary of State shall make regulations to amend the Misuse of Drugs Regulations 2001—

(a) to omit from Schedule 1 to the regulations the substances listed in subsection (2); and

(b) to add those substances to Schedule 2 to the regulations.

(2) The substances referred to in subsection (1) are—

(a) cannabis; and

(b) cannabis resin.”

What this would mean, if my reading is correct, is that cannabis and cannabis resin could be administered by a doctor or dentist, or manufactured or compounded by a pharmacist. Possession of such administered or prescribed cannabis or caanabis resin would also not be illegal any more.

Perhaps someone could confirm my thinking here?

Creeting St Peter invites you to Parliament – we’ve got a site with existing planning permission…

The Palace of Westminster, Mother of Parliaments, nada, nada, nada. Yes, very nice, and don’t get me wrong, it’s very attractive… from the outside. The inside is nice in parts too, but only in parts. You wouldn’t want your office to be there for one thing – dark, gloomy, cramped (even for senior Parliamentarians). And yes, it’s convenient for the eight-minute dash to the voting lobbies – another absurdity in itself – but the offices in the surrounding Parliamentary Estate are much nicer, with windows that let in light, facilities that work reliably and space to keep all of the research material that a modern Parliamentarian still needs.

“Ah, but,”, I hear you say, “it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Grade 1 listed to boot.”. Well, yes, but is it really worth something north of £3.5 billion to keep it standing up and drag it up to twenty-first century building standards?

credit -
Well, in truth, you could just hand back the keys to Her Majesty – it’s a Royal Palace, after all – and opt to establish a new Parliament, but where in central London could you find a site big enough to build such a replacement? And even if you could find one, how much would the land cost, let alone the building work that would be necessary?

The obvious answer, if my fellow provincials are to be believed, is to move the whole show out of London, to Bradford, or the Midlands, or somewhere that isn’t London. And yes, I can see the attractions. I myself have noted the London-centric nature of our politics and of our decision making, exacerbated as it is by the fact that so many of our key players – Civil Service mandarins, corporate heads and politicians – live in or around London, and spend much of their time in it.

But a capital is what it is for a reason, as a focal point for governance (note I don’t say government), and it is helpful to have all of the key personnel in one place. And don’t believe that video conferencing will replace face to face networking and random encounters any time soon. If you move the Parliamentarians, you would need to move all of the key civil servants, policy advisors, and other paraphernalia of government with them. Think of the cost, the disruption and the likelihood that the mindset would merely change to reflect the attributes of the new location. You will feel no nearer to government in Bristol if MPs and Peers sit in Creeting St Peter or Cromford (although the mill does sound nice).

And it isn’t just government. All of those lobbyists, voluntary sector representatives, national organisations, embassies and high commissions, would want to move too. They want to influence, or meet with, government too.

So, moving Parliament is not as simple as it might be, at least, not on a permanent basis. It requires all sorts of support services, accommodation and infrastructure, all of which is currently available in, or around, London SW1.

On the other hand, you could just move Parliament out for a while, knock down the old Palace and build something fit for purpose. That’s almost as radical an option as moving out of London, and equally unlikely, I fear…