Friday, 17 August 2012

Liberal challengers?

In 1988, those members of the Liberal Party opposed to the merger with the SDP re-founded the Liberal Party as a separate political entity. It is to their credit that the party has continued to exist, albeit largely un-noticed and on the periphery, for the last 24 years. Against the odds they have managed to maintain a modest but fairly constant base of councillors, contesting a handful of Parliamentary seats at most general elections since 1992.
In light of the Lib Dem slump in the polls, and their wholly illiberal actions as part of the Coalition, I began daydreaming during my office tea break and asked myself the following question: could the Liberal Party realistically challenge the Lib Dems for the liberal/progressive vote, compounding the Lib Dems misery by helping to give them the electoral kicking that they well and truly deserve?
My tea-break hypothesis went along these lines: although the Liberals would be unlikely to make a parliamentary breakthrough, they could position themselves as a credible alternative Liberal voice and help bring about the defeat of sitting Lib Dem MPs. By looking to actively undermine Lib Dem support in their areas of strength, could they convert Lib Dem support into Liberal support, eventually usurping the Lib Dems as the primary vehicle for Liberalism in British Politics? Suitably curious, I thought I’d dig a little bit deeper to see how realistic this would be, and immediately discovered the challenges to my supposition.
Firstly, the Liberal Party only has a credible local presence in disparate parts of the UK. Not only does it lack UK wide coverage, there is very little overlap between their areas of activity and current Lib Dem areas of strength. A quick trawl of the Electoral Commission’s website for last year’s Liberal Party Accounts suggests a membership base of somewhere between 250 and 450 members across the UK. Their ability to adopt the sort of Lib Dem ‘decapitation’ strategy that I envisaged over my tea is significantly compromised by their lack of members. Members are not necessarily activists and I suspect that, with such a small membership base, their National Executive has the unenviable role of ‘head chef, waiter and pot washer’.
Secondly, they seem too focused on the fact that they are not the Liberal Democrats. Whilst that’s fine to a point, they need a more credible position based on a robust policy alternative to the Coalition to differentiate themselves. They do have policy that they can draw upon to develop this alternative,  but it has gaps, some of it is out of date, and some of it is ambiguous or confused. If they were to ever pose a serious challenge, they would need to overhaul their policy, fill in the blanks, and develop a coherent message based on a real Liberal alternative.
Whilst the evidence points to my hypothesis being disproved, I keep reminding myself that there are some 25,000 ex-Lib Dems (including me) who could be tempted with an alternative Liberal home. What if the Liberals focused their attention to actively recruiting some of these to their ranks? What if they positioned themselves as a distinctive Liberal alternative that relied on more than them simply not being the Lib Dems? What if they upped their game in terms of publicity, especially more social media and press work? What if they announced their intention to the world to take on the Lib Dems in their own back yards and directly challenge them for the right to represent Liberal Britain? The national press would love something like that, and it would certainly generate them much needed profile.
I cannot help but like the Liberal Party. It’s constitution, and the ideas presented in its albeit underdeveloped and ad hoc policy, are oozing with Liberalism. No, I don’t agree with all of it, but then I never agreed with all Lib Dem policy when I was a member. Who knows, with a bit of direction, and a lot of endeavour, they might just be able to roll their tanks directly onto Clegg’s Lawn.
Any Liberals in the vicinity of Sheffield Hallam, I wonder?

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Dear Chancellor.....

The Bank of England's recent economic growth forecast and yesterday's prediction that employers will have to start laying people off if the slump continues should have set the alarm bells ringing in the Treasury. Whether it takes heed remains to be seen.

I don't pretend to be an economist, but even I can figure out that a recession reduces the tax take and makes the deficit bigger, not smaller. This, in turn, pushes up borrowing which, of course, increases the deficit even further. Slashing public spending to balance the books has the exact opposite effect. Making public sector staff redundant means they pay less, or no, tax. Cutting back on services and capital projects reduces private sector opportunities to bid for contracts. In the medium term the welfare spend will go up, more claims being made by former public sector employees with no jobs to go to.

Not surprisingly, I've concluded that austerity is making the situation worse. While I'm not naive about the significance of the Eurozone crisis, there is much that we can be doing at home to try to improve the situation.

First and foremost, we need a longer timescale for reducing the deficit. 'Slash and burn' simply isn't working. Let's not forget that there are two halfs to this deficit: cyclical and structural. The structural deficit is the legacy of bailing out the banks. We simply don't know how big this structural deficit is, and we won't know until the economy is performing again. This puts the onus on the cyclical deficit, caused wholly by the recession. Tackle this and we know exactly where we stand. So priority one is a growth strategy, with job creation at its heart. Keynes was right then and he is right now.

And what about tackling the deficit here and now, and in the future, post recession? Whether the politicians like it or not, taxation has to play its part. Given the role played by the banks in the crisis, I'd like to see a temporary 'reparation' tax levied on them, in addition to corporation tax. Coupled to this, we should introduce the much publicised Tobin, or 'Robin Hood' tax, the one percent levy on the huge financial transactions that take place in the City. I don't buy the argument that the banks would 'up and leave'; they are here because they have a cushy number compared to other countries, and it would still be cushy even if they had to pay a bit more.

I've read that the Tobin tax could raise as much as £800 billion. Astonishing. An aggressive pursuit of tax dodgers and the closing of tax loopholes is another must.

It's the human misery that austerity creates that irks me the most, and the fact that it isn't working just raises my blood pressure even more.

Monday, 13 August 2012

The new political idealism?

ResPublica’s Director, Philip Blond, has posted an interesting article entitled, ‘Our political bankruptcy demands a renewed political idealism’.

He argues that both the Left and the Right have failed and that, even though they are seemingly opposed, they have produced the same outcome of oligarchy. Both have, he claims presided over rapid and rising inequality and the seizure of wealth and opportunity by those at the very top of society. The figures presented in the article show that he has a point.
The right’s failure lies in its inability to create a mass stakeholder society, and instead monopoly and concentration of wealth are the norm. Free market rhetoric and competition law only hide the barriers to market participation, the reality being the dominance of big business and the crowding out of small businesses. By comparison, the left has permanently separated a group of people from production and ownership through welfare, which he argues creates a situation of permanent dependency that forces ‘supplicants’ (sic) to turn away from society and cuts people off from sociality and enhancing networks. In other words, it demotivates individuals from participating in the market, but the market prevents them from engaging anyway.
He calls for a ‘new political idealism’ that is anti-oligarchical. Here is what he calls for:
"It will craft a new political economy that multiplies ownership and maximises market entry. It will insist on life-long education and it will replace representative with participative democracy. Its means will be human association and its method will be relationship. Its foundation will be trust and its transmission will be fun. Its resources will be global but its response and concretion will be local. It will be the triumph of the micro and the defeat of the macro. It will be the horizontal over the vertical and the mainstreaming of the peer to peer. It will be periphery as the new centre. It will be consumer becoming producer and the client becoming the advocate. It will be ethical trade and moral market. It will be ends not means, and teleology not anarchy. It will be virtue not utility, and it will be hierarchy blended with democracy."

Is it just me, or does this ‘new political idealism’ have more than a smattering of liberalism about it?

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Lib Dems are revolting

Today's independent carries two stories about angry Lib Dems. The first, 'Get tough on Tories' urge Clegg activists, suggests that local constituency parties are preparing a raft of motions either calling for withdrawal from the coalition, or for the Lib Dem leadership to take a tougher stance against the Tories, perhaps calling for the parliamentary party to vote against some of key Tory proposal in revenge for Lords Reform.

A Liberal Left member, is quoted as saying:

"It looks now as though we will be going through a term in government with no form of constitutional reform to show at the end of it. People like me have never made any secret of the fact that we didn't want a coalition with the Conservatives, but there will be more complaints and motions about it at conference this year. It will be very difficult for the leadership."

The second story, Liberal Democrats slam Osborne over green policies,  explains how Danny Alexander, the Tories' 'Lib Dem darling', will move a motion about the economy at the September Lib Dem Conference over  "the refusal of the Conservatives to acknowledge that investing in carbon reducing technologies has the potential to make an important contribution to long-term growth".

And so it begins. The grassroots revolts, prompting the vacuous sabre-rattling by the leadership to give the pretence of still having influence, and who better to rattle the sabre than the Tories favourite Lib Dem for maximum effect? Interesting that he intends to slam the Tories on the Economy given that Clegg came out last week saying that there was no rift over energy policy within the coalition and that they were all committed to a low carbon economy. As well as marking out Clegg as a liar, it further highlights the non existent Lib Dem influence within the coalition.

As for the activists outrage over the dropping of Lords Reform, it shows a warped sense of priority. Whilst accepting that Lords Reform is long overdue, why is it only now that they've decided to put on the pressure? Where was the membership on Welfare reform, for instance?

Thursday, 9 August 2012

The rules of engagement

I happened upon a summary of the findings from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s (JRF) research project, Working in Neighbourhoods (WIN) project based in Bradford during my recent reading on community empowerment. Although this project was up and running prior to the introduction of the Localism Act, the findings are framed in terms of the contribution that neighbourhood working can make to both the Coalition’s localism agenda and Cameron’s ‘Big Society’.

I have no fundamental disagreement with the approach that the Localism Act takes but, as with ‘Big Society’, there is scant regard for the need to support communities, particularly disadvantaged ones, to take up the opportunities the Act offers them. The community empowerment aspects of the Bill do not, unfortunately, make the transition to this side of Offa’s Dyke as it is part of the Welsh Government’s legislative competence. With a Welsh Labour Government obsessed with control and centralisation, it’s not likely to materialise any time soon either.

Bradford Council was already engaged in its own brand of localism before the bill was introduced. Through the WIN project, JRF have charted the progress of Bradford’s efforts and highlighted some important lessons for effective community empowerment and the stimulation of civil and civic involvement. It teased out some interesting points, including:

- You need to employ neighbourhood workers to coordinate and broker solutions to local problems
- You need consistent but flexible structures (partnerships) to provide a focus for action, co-ordination and activity
- There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach and you need to allow communities the freedom to innovate and come up with their own solutions to local problems

Crucially, you need active citizens and JRF acknowledges that not everyone will want to be active – you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. While suggesting that there are probably ‘willing localists’ out there, JRF contends that lower income neighbourhoods have even low levels of participation.

So how to get people engaged? JRF point to the formal structures for community engagement, like consultation, and suggest ways of making them more involved and less formal. Holding meetings in less formal settings like cafes, proactive outreach through community ‘walkabouts, and even attaching social/family events to consultations to make them more appealing are all floated as ideas. They also highlight the need to shift the purpose of consultation. The current onus on local authorities to find out what concerns are and to act on them could be replaced with a more involved approach that looked at what the community and the local authority could do collectively. It’s an approach that already informs engagement methods like co-production and participatory budgeting. Recognising the value of activities outside the formal structures - like community centres and local clubs – is something that Bradford did to good effect. This is grist to the mill of ResPublica’s argument for greater support for clubs and associations.

The report also considers the risk of devolving powers to communities, particularly the fitness of local groups to take on more responsibility in terms of capacity and governance, especially as the local authority has overall responsibility for budgets. For me this again highlights the inescapable fact that not all communities are either confident enough or strong enough to take advantage. We need a positive policy response from government at all levels to allow communities to take greater control of their own affairs, not just an expectation that they should do so.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The intrinsic value of community clubs

ResPublica’s recent report, "Clubbing Together: the Hidden Wealth of Communities", explores how the group leisure and social pursuits that encourage us to join or create associations or clubs can act as catalysts for civic activity and public good. The potential for civic ‘spin offs’ are, it claims, strong reasons for provoking group instead of individual behaviour by using groups to draw in further participation, and that this should be central to initiatives across a range of policy areas. It argues that, if we want to encourage citizens to engage in extra voluntary and charitable activity, then we need to create the conditions to allow them to do so. It is the ‘contagious attitudes of engagement found in clubs’ that create spin offs of social value that spill over into the wider community and promote public good.
The report calls for a move away from quantifying successful communities purely in terms of volunteering statistics, public services and economic activity. Quantification should also include local social activity, the mix of group affiliations & club memberships, informal bonds and consumer preferences. Community benefits are based on a ‘rich tapestry’ of social engagement, they argue.
None of this should come as any surprise to liberals as we have long recognised the intrinsic value of associating with other individuals to pursue common interests and the sense of community, fulfilment and wellbeing that it brings. Such groups, clubs, and common pastimes play an important part in building the fabric of the strong and empowering communities that we seek to foster and create, and we know that where they don’t exist the greatest social problems are usually found. The report teases this out, citing research that illustrates how those communities where opportunities for association were limited were more prone to last Summer’s English rioting than those areas that had a strong association base.
Whilst you may not agree with all of the report’s recommendations it makes for an interesting read and presents a compelling case for government recognition, support and encouragement to allow them to flourish right across the country. ResPublica concludes that "by aligning policy priorities with the recognition of the club-culture which already exists and how it can be nurtured, demonstrable results for social and public good will follow".
For me personally, the report hits home exactly what is wrong with Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda; neither he or his Office of Civil Society colleagues have properly considered how and what is needed to develop, replicate or encourage civic spirit. The bottom line is that you cannot expect disadvantaged communities to help themselves without first helping them to help themselves.

Monday, 6 August 2012

It doesn't work

Wales' policy framework for supporting young people not in education, employment or training is an incoherent mess. This confused muddle involves three levels of intervention by: the Welsh Government; Department for Work and Pensions; and European Structural Funds' projects.

No one seems to be quite sure how this all fits together. Overlapping projects compete for the same participants and duplication of effort, particularly in the Convergence area of Wales, is commonplace. The Competitiveness region, which has substantially less ESF funding, has the opposite problem, and there isn't enough provision.

You would have thought that the Welsh Government would have sought to address this, especially as it also has some oversight of what's going on through the Wales European Funding Office (WEFO). Alas, this has not been the case, and it has done little to provide any coherence or structure to Welsh youth employment strategy. To its credit, it has introduced the pan-wales Jobs Growth Wales and Young Apprenticeship schemes. These offer fix term paid job opportunities for 'work ready' young people, giving them a boost at the beginning of their working life. Whilst laudable, their focus on those furthest away from the job market is lacking. This is largely the preserve of the ESF projects and is ad hoc.

Then there is the small matter of the DWP's Welfare to Work measures. The Coalition's intervention came about after many of the ESF projects were already up and running. The blanket approach of the Work Programme across the UK and its 'whatever it takes' approach to getting people into jobs posed some real headaches. ESF projects have to be additional to government support. It's pretty hard to be additional to something that can, within reason, try anything. For many of the ESF projects, their only option was to narrow their focus to those under 18 - mandatory referral to the Work Programme kicks in then. The result is a lot of ESF projects chasing a very narrow group of beneficiaries.

Whilst impractical to devolve Welfare benefits to the devolved administrations, it was remiss of the Coalition to not devolve the delivery of mandatory employment support. This would have offered the Welsh Government the scope to integrate provision with existing arrangements. Even the scope for the two governments to cooperate and make the most of the current hotch potch is undermined by the very different ideological paths that permeate each administration.

The situation is exacerbated even further by the 'payment by results' approach that underpins the ESF and Work Programme providers. They get paid on the basis of getting a percentage of participants into employment. Unfortunately this encourages them to target the 'quick wins', those who are more 'job ready' than others, to the detriment of those with the greatest development needs, the biggest challenges and the least qualifications.

As is so often the case, those who need the most support run the risk of receiving the least.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Passing the buck on Council Tax Benefit

Today's Independent carries a story on the impact of Council Tax Benefit cuts, both on the recipients and local authorities. Whilst it's not new news, it serves to further highlight the Coalition's cack-handed and unjust approach to welfare reform.
The decision to cut the budget by ten percent has a double sting in the tail. Firstly, local authorities / devolved administrations have to decide how best to administer it and fill the shortfall. This then leaves them in an impossible position and they face a hard choice - reduce the benefit available to recipients (but not the level of Council Tax), pushing them further below the bread line, or put up Council Tax to meet the shortfall.

This is buck-passing on an epic scale.

No doubt the Coalition will then respond by exercising its power to cap Council Tax increases in England, just to make life doubly difficult.

Friday, 3 August 2012

Where now for social liberals?

In His recent Shifting Grounds article, Professor Richard Grayson of Liberal Left, the grouping of Lib Dems opposed to the coalition, pinpoints exactly how and why the Liberal Democrats have lost their way.  There is, he argues, a small elite of individuals in the Lib Dem ranks who want them to become a centre-right party of small-state liberalism. I would argue that it is probably a larger grouping that isn’t confined to an elite, but this brand of pseudo-conservatism is certainly driving the Lib Dems in the Coalition.  He points to the overbearing influence of individuals like David Laws, libertarians who see less government as the answer to most problems.

By asking the question, ‘how many  of the Coalition’s state-slashing policies are helping to disperse power and build capability in our citizens?’, Richard gets to the heart of what Liberalism is all about, as well as highlighting just how Liberalism - or at least the social liberalism that I associate with – has been absent from the Coalition’s Programme. Perversely, Nick Clegg summed up the crux of the argument in a speech in 2010: ‘It is not the size of the state – it’s what the state does that matters’.

If only Clegg’s actions in government had been as Liberal as his words.

Whilst I admire the attempts of Richard and his Liberal Left colleagues to fight the Social Liberal corner, I remain unconvinced of their ability to bring about the change of direction needed. Other than a light smattering of press coverage, I see no evidence of significant impact. Crucially, their Advisory Board and Executive Committee lacks parliamentarians and boasts no MPs.  Liberal Left cannot hope to change the course of Lib Dems in Parliament without this support.

The sad reality is that the Liberal Democrats no longer offers a comfortable home for social liberals. Consequently, members and voters are deserting the party – in droves.  An article in last Sunday’s Independent suggests that one in five Lib Dems resigned from the party last year, with the worst loss of membership in those constituencies represented by Government ministers. In Scotland, Lib Dem membership is down by over a quarter.

They shouldn’t have expected anything less. The feeble and irritating defence from a ‘Lib Dem spokesman’ was to acknowledge the difficulties caused by their decision to ‘put the interests of the country before party’, and to pay tribute to the ‘real liberals’ who’ve stuck it out, the ‘heroes of Liberalism’. The ‘heroes of Liberalism’?? Are they serious? Can they really be that dismissive of losing 20 percent of their membership base?

There are now a lot of Liberals who find themselves disenfranchised, disillusioned and despondent. The question is, are they just going to pack up and go home, or are they going to mobilise and try to present a truly Liberal alternative to the Coalition? More importantly, who can rally them, and through what mechanism? Can anyone succeed where Liberal Left is struggling? Time, as always, will tell.

The closing of the door

It's now clear that the Tories have closed the door on the prospect of House of Lords reform. By doing so they have, once and for all, slammed, bolted and barricaded the door closed on any notion that the Lib Dems have any real influence in the Coalition.

The bickering will begin, the 'tit for tat' rejection of each other's policies will begin, and the Coalition will blunder on until 2015, ineffective and directionless.

Neither party can afford the electoral consequences of disengaging from it.

Mr. Clegg, how naive you have been. You sold out on your party's principles very cheaply indeed.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

The worklessness myth

Founded by Iain Duncan-Smith, the work of the Centre for Social Justice on its alleged ‘five pathways to poverty’ has strongly influenced the Coalition’s flawed and unjust approach to welfare reform. To crudely repeat the CSJ’s argument, ‘benefits trap millions in worklessness and dependency over several generations and that future economic recovery will bring only a slight reduction in worklessness’.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s recent riposte, Poverty: The Role of Institutions, Behaviours and Culture, helps to dispel the myth and leaves the CSJ – and the Coalition’s welfare reform advocates – with some questions to answer.

First and foremost, work is not always in itself a ‘cure’ to poverty. Those at most risk are families with a single earner in low wage or part time job. Under-employment, and the availability of good employment opportunities, is the issue for such households.

The Coalition’s rhetoric has focused on demonising the economically inactive, such as those claiming incapacity benefits, with the claim that the current benefits system is an attractive alternative to paid employment, and that this view is passed on from one generation to the next. In fact, only 0.8 percent of all households – a mere 15,000 across the UK – have two or more generations that have never worked.

Whilst there is a correlation between the periods of unemployment of fathers and sons, local labour market conditions and the availability of jobs are important factors underlying this. Equally, when the local labour market is strong those with health problems and disabilities are more likely to work than those in areas with weak labour demand. It would seem that the availability of local employment opportunities has the most impact on worklessness.

The CSJ’s suggestion that there is a ‘culture’ of worklessness in some communities that creates poverty misses the point entirely. As work disappears from an area, the individuals in these neighbourhoods face less access to employment, creating an alternative culture that lacks routine, organisation and structure. It takes time to turn this situation around, and habits can be difficult to break. JRF’s research actually suggests that residents in disadvantaged communities share values and aspirations similar to the rest of us: fairness, hard work and responsibility.

Do the CSJ and the Coalition seriously think that reducing the benefits available to these communities, leaving them worse off, will actually make them less likely to be in poverty? What’s needed is strong local leadership and better community engagement led by community organisations that can provide support and advice to break habits and raise aspirations.

Once you cut through the right-wing drivel, it’s pretty clear what’s lacking – jobs.
State-sponsored vilification of the most vulnerable in our society does nothing to tackle the unfounded prejudices that exist about our disadvantaged communities. It is a pretty disdainful fig-leaf for the coalition to use to cover up the absence of a growth and employment strategy.