Tuesday 26 October 2010

The Spending Review and the Big Society

So we've had the Spending Review and the big speech by George Osborne in the House of Commons (very nicely delivered, I thought, in the face of not much in the way of heckling from the Opposition, who were clearly out of their depth). Everyone had the jitters beforehand, it seemed, and now the Press, various pressure groups and other organisations seem to be keen to tell us that the brunt will fall upon 'the Poor', which makes it all (as they point out stridently) a travesty of fairness and social cohesiveness.

This all sounds dreadful, and if it were really true in the literal sense, would indeed be dreadful. I don't think anyone (including the Coalition) wants us to go back to some Victorian scenario where orphaned children are imprisoned in the workhouse or sent up chimneys, or worked into an early grave by cruel masters, simply because their parents left them penniless and there is no safety net in place. No one wants, either, to see hordes of homeless people living in cardboard boxes in the arches of London, as was seen all too often thirty or forty years ago, nor do we want to have miserable families without enough to feed and clothe their children properly. But on the other hand most of us realise that the welfare state has not produced the Utopia that its founders longed for and expected. The NHS does a reasonably good job, and so does the education system (could do better, both of them, but a long way from failing). But the payment of benefits is a shambles, and an expensive shambles at that, one we as a country can no longer afford. It isn't surprising that when everyone is finding their incomes having to stretch to meet higher costs and prices, those who are working and paying taxes are not happy to see those taxes being used to support in idelness people who could be economically active - many of whom would in fact prefer to work but are better off on benefits. This is a central plank of the Spending Review, that work should be rewarded, and it is an important one in terms of justice and the encouragement of a work ethic, as well as in the realm of debt reduction. If it is, as I suspect, mainly the welfare benefits cuts that lead some groups to think that the poor will be poorer as a result of the Spending Review, then we need to consider what the alternatives might be. Whilst the economy is still teetering on the brink of recession, the Coalition have declared their support for the wealth-creating potential of business, and small businesses among them. Not everyone in receipt of benefit is an adequate whose employment potential is small. Some are keen to break out of dependence, and a small business start-up would be a great way to do that. There is lots of part-time work around for which income support is still available as a back-up, and the freelance and informal economies are booming. Having earned my own living (including three years as main breadwinner for our family in the early 2000s) as a freelance, I know that whilst it looks insecure, it doesn't have to be, if you work hard and are good at your job.

So it seems to me that the government are trying to create the conditions where national debts can be paid off and the 'real' income-generating private sector can flourish. I've no doubt they haven't got everything right, and there are obviously compromises between fairness, affordability and political reality that George Osborne has had to make - but is it fair or sensible to expect everything to be perfect in a government policy? Imperfections in the Spending Review shouldn't give us an excuse to sit on the sidelines and snipe, as it seems to me that both the Opposition and some charitable bodies are keen to do - an attitude which is at present earning them my contempt. We all need to take responsibility for our own lives and communities including our fellow-citizens. Check your neighbours are okay; get to know them so that you can help when they need you, and see the favour returned, possibly in some quite surprising way. Get involved in your community, even if it's just by shopping locally and going to local events. (I cheered when I heard George Osborne say that the network of local post offices would be supported.) These are the things that David Cameron means by the Big Society - at least, I think that's what he means. It's a difficult idea to get over, which is why I can't be sure. But it's really quite a simple idea in the terms I've used for it, and the social concept has economic corollaries. To take a small personal example: babysitting for us is helping a young woman of my acquaintance to save up for her driving test, an absolute necessity in a rural area like this if she is to access the employment market. In the process she has become a friend, with her own individual contribution to our relationship, and my daughter loves her. The contact didn't come from an impersonal employment agency, but via our involvement in the local church.

The Big Society is in our hands now, not the State's. That is the point of it. This is the way we can pay off our national debts without causing greater hardship to the poor. This is how we can be 'all in this together', as the rather irritating Coalition catchphrase has it. In other words, George and Dave and Nick are doing their bit. If the country now falls apart as a result of social unrest, or there is deep suffering among the poorer sections of society it isn't the Coalition's fault, it's ours. We have to look after each other, and in doing so we will become stronger, as well as quite possibly happier and more self-reliant both individually and comunally.

It's up to us now.

Wednesday 12 May 2010

The New Era of Coalition and Consensus

I’m relieved. It seems the Lib Dems thought better of their flirtation with Labour (see my acerbic comments on that yesterday) and have come to an historic agreement in coalition with the Conservatives. It is clearly the most sensible thing to do, and I applaud it. Both sides are to be congratulated on their willingness to compromise and their understanding that the much-vaunted National Interest will best be served this way – as I’m sure it will.

I shall be interested to see the detail – for the “devil will be in it”, as usual. But the discovery of common ground between the two sides must have been a revelation, and the fact that all the Lib Dem MPs and peers voted for the coalition is a testimony in itself. The opportunity had to b e taken, not only in the National Interest but in their own. Experience of government, at ministerial rank, is a prize to be treasured, and very good for the Lib Dem CV in five years’ time!

I'm fast becoming a David Cameron fan. On Friday afternoon he outlined in his speech the broad outlines of the coalition he was offering the Lib Dems. And lo and behold, when we come to the policies they have agreed on, they are very similar. This is a man of great promise, I feel. He can broadbrush an outcome, and deliver it. He has steel underlying the charm, the command of his party, and last night we saw his ability to deliver with humility a simple, note-free little homily on the steps of Downing Street. Now for the real challenges of government...

Tuesday 11 May 2010

The Pursuit of Folly...

Well! Just when it seemed the obvious thing to do for the Lib Dems to take up David Cameron’s offer to join a formal or informal coalition with the Conservatives, thereby at a stroke creating a government with a working majority, the support of more than 50% of the electorate, and the chance to prevent the markets going into meltdown and our losing our AAA financial rating – the Lib Dem senior MPs pull the rug from under Nick Clegg and try to act like little Labour acolytes. What a shambles! What a wasted opportunity! As I write this, I’m still hoping that Clegg & Co. will see the error of their ways in time and make the right decision, but I think even if they do their much-vaunted integrity is in the dust. To have secret talks with Labour, resulting in Brown’s last-ditch resignation as a prerequisite for any further negotiation, at the same time as they negotiated apparently upfront with the Conservatives, seems underhand in the extreme. The country (and I) will not forgive them lightly. I think it will be the last time I vote Lib Dem, even for the sake of my good local MP. Activists and MPs in the LD party may feel more comfortable with the Left, but the 23% of the electorate who voted for them may well feel very differently.

And in any case, it’s madness. The numbers don’t add up, for a start. Labour have 258 seats and the LDs 57. Added together this comes to 315, only nine more than the Conservatives have on their own, and 11 less than an absolute majority, never mind a working one. This would inevitably mean instability and the inability of government to get through the House any measures except those on which everyone agrees. This sounds nice, but in practice it would mean no hard decisions, no unpopular cuts to bring the deficit under control, no new beginnings, just a hand-to-mouth existence with the primary function of keeping Labour in power.

Why should that latter function be so attractive to the Lib Dems, I wonder? If it’s just about PR, then it isn’t worth it. The voting system isn’t perfect as it is – everyone including the Conservatives agree about that – but PR won’t necessarily make it perfect. Has PR become such a Holy Grail to the LibDems that they must achieve it at all costs? Or are there enough of the Old Guard former SD types in the background of the party for whom an alliance with the Conservatives would be anathema?

In any case, if all the LibDems want to be is part of an anti-Tory coalition of some kind, then PR will do nothing for them. Above anything else, what PR would deliver is a permanently hung parliament. If this is the best the LDs can do when they do get such an opportunity, many people will be confirmed in their suspicions that a two-party system is the best way to go. I have a horrid feeling that instead of being the Beginning of Better Things, an LD choice to support a discredited Labour government which will fail within months may mean the Beginning of the End. And that would be a pity. For there are some good ideas in their manifesto, some of which might have been put into effect in a Lib-Con coalition, especially as Cameron seemed willing to compromise, and with a third of his party new to parliament, he might have been able to deliver on those compromises. There is a phenomenon known as ‘the pursuit of folly’, where leaders continue to pursue policies that are plainly leading them nowhere. It has been seen throughout history, as Barbara Tuchman’s excellent book of that name narrates. Perhaps this is one more instance.

Thursday 6 May 2010

Election time really is here now - it's today!

It's been a fascinating election campaign - dull till the first TV debate, then electrifying for a couple of weeks, but dying down for interest in the final week, which is a bit sad. It was good to hear the Lib Dems air their policies properly, and have them investigated and tested thoroughly by other parties and the pundits, too. Mostly they stood up quite well, I thought, considering the fact that the party has only local council experience of actually running anything. Nick Clegg's experience as an MEP seems to have stood him in good stead, though, and he was beautifully relaxed in that first debate - no wonder people warmed to him. He did seem different. Perhaps later in the campaign he didn't seem quite so different, and that would explain the falling-off in the Lib Dems' share of the vote in the Polls.

But today is the day, and who knows what will happen? That's the fun this time - no one really knows. Will the electorate turn off again and not bother? Will they believe the scare stories from both left and right and scuttle for the safety of old allegiances? Will they spoil their ballot papers in protest at the fact that their votes won't translate into seats? Or will they decide on a real change and vote Lib Dem in large numbers - it's possible though not probable, and would certainly rewrite the political landscape radically, not least because a large Lib Dem vote would not translate into a proportional number of seats and the inequities of our current constituency boundaries combined with the First-Past-the-Post system of voting would be very apparent. It will probably be fairly apparent anyway, since there seems more than a possibility that the Conservatives might win the popular vote without winning most seats in the House. Will that change their minds on proportional representation of some kind, I wonder? I've been surprised that they've stuck to the old system so faithfully when it works against them. Perhaps they really are ideologically conservative after all....

Poor old Labour look dead in the water, and Gordon Brown ploughs on, playing bravely like the orchestra on the Titanic, not understanding that he is a large part of their problem - perhaps the most unpopular prime minister since the War, at least so early in his tenure. It so easily could have been different. A better relationship with Tony Blair, recognizing that his strength was as second in command rather than leader, might have saved them both. Though perhaps TB would have had to take a different line on Iraq, too. It was really that piece of dishonesty, chicanery and subservience to a foreign power (the US, I mean) that sank him. No one will ever forget it, I think, whatever the Inquiry says. However, you can't discount the reds, who have proved remarkably resilient in the wake of the failure and discrediting of international socialism in Russia and Eastern Europe. They reinvented themselves in the 1990s. It remains to be seen whether they can do it again in the 2010s.

We have a sitting Lib Dem locally, and while I respect what David Cameron and the Conservatives are trying to do, and like the idea of the Big Society (and a much smaller State), I don't think our local MP has deserved anything but my support. He has been honest and hard-working for the constituency, and had no scandals of any kind attached to him. So I think it would be ungrateful to desert him. Good luck, Dan Rogerson! You shall have my vote.

I must remember to cast it, too - there was one election when I very nearly forgot....

Friday 23 April 2010

Election time is here!

I re-read my February blog, and I don't have much to add to those thoughts, except to say that it has turned out really interesting since we had the first Prime Ministerial debates. I wouldn't like to see Clegg as Prime Minister, I must admit, though I think Vince Cable would make a good chancellor - better than George Osborne, who is a clever man but I'm not sure has the necessary bottle if things get tough (Cameron undoubtedly has - there is real steel beneath that smooth exterior, as we saw on the matter of Conservative expenses last year, and before that when he was campaigning to be leader of the Tories). A hung parliament is a gamble, as the Conservatives rightly point out, but it isn't surprising that the electorate want real change, something radically different - ironically just what the Conservative campaign posters offer us, but I suspect they didn't quite have in mind what has turned out to suit the public mood!

I don't think anyone except the truly committed activists knows what will be best for our country in the next few years, and perhaps the hung parliament option is something we have to try. If it doesn't work, a few months will have been lost and we will have to have a new election (which may of course bankrupt all the parties...). But it's an experiment worth making, if it's what the electorate choose. Maybe the time has come for us to find out what coalition is really about. It has worked at times of national emergency before, and there is going to be a national emergency quite soon, I think - whoever wins, and even if no one wins outright. We could do with making use of the best of the talent from all parties. And we might get proportional representation, which would at least be fairer. Does it make sense to have a breakdown where the Tories on 32% would get around 250 seats, while the Lib Dems on 31% would only get 110? And the Labour Party, on 28%, would get even more than the Tories. Surely that can't be right.

Friday 19 February 2010

Here's to a Hung Parliament

I find it's nearly a year since I posted a blog, which is extraordinary. This one will be short, but if anyone is reading - which I doubt - I would like to say that I still hold by what I said last year on the subject of the recession. It may look as though we are coming out of it, but I don't think we are - and the level of public debt is going to pull us back down again. "Double dip" may be an understatement. I think we'll be lucky if the country avoids bankruptcy on the Icelandic model, never mind the Greek one. We shall all have to tighten our belts before this is over.

So which political party is telling us the truth? Both Conservatives and Labour are hinting at the pain to come, in their different ways and with slightly different emphasis. But no one is really owning up to the swingeing cuts, tax rises, and general economic doom that is actually going to have to come if we are to avoid the bankruptcy I spoke of above. Do they think that people can't cope with reality? Add that to the public distrust of politicians in the wake of the expenses scandal and many years of shifty dishonesty over the Iraq war and other policies, and I wonder who exactly will vote in the May election. Will the parties tighten up their act when the electioneering proper begins, or will we continue to see this failure to tell us the truth? All in all, perhaps we shall be better with a hung parliament, a government of national unity. Never since the Second World War have we needed one so much. And of course there is the bonus of the Lib Dems' Vince Cable - the one man who might be able to carry our trust as Chancellor.

Roll on, May. At the very least it will be interesting.