Sunday, October 21, 2007

How this blog influenced Chris Huhne's leadership campaign!

The claim may be slightly exaggerated... Yet, just a few days after i commented on the need for a debate over the mechanism of choice in public services, Chris Huhne has made the first soundings on the issue. I can't find the links at present, but several papers were reporting that Huhne was warning against embracing the choice and competition agenda that both the Conservatives and Labour have relentlessly pursued over recent years. I am delighted that this issue has been raised so early on in the leadership campaign; in my view there exists no more important debate in domestic politics today. I fervently believe that New Labour's decade long experiment with this agenda has had a damaging, fractious impact on our public services, serving only to entrench a two tier system that leaves many with a 2nd class education or substandard local hospital. Consequently I view it as our duty as Liberal Democrats to have an upfront debate on this topic during and beyond the leadership election. My focus today will be upon education.


It is important to note that when i make such grandiose claims about the state of our education system, i do not do so without a degree of supporting evidence. Just days ago the Guardian ran yet another story on the lack of upward social mobility in the UK ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/britain/article/0,,2195680,00.html). Obviously, social mobility is intrinsically linked to education and a static level of social mobility is a sad reflection of an education system which is clearly not succeeding in boosting the prospects of children from the least advantaged backgrounds. I am convinced that the 'choice' agenda for secondary education has been the central reason for the governmnent's failure.

Diagnosing the Problem
-Parents are provided with a 'choice' of secondary schools to subscribe to. Very often, there are 1or 2 outstanding schools in the area (as is the case in my own home town of Bishop's Stortford) which are vastly oversubscribed. The third or fourth 'choice' schools are invariably far less succesful and attract far fewer subscribers. Yet, because of oversubscription it almost becomes a lottery as to where children finally end up. The students who ultimately attend their 3rd or 4th choice institution are then condemned to an inferior standard of education simply because they were 'unlucky' in the lottery.

I used the qualification of saying it was 'almost' a lottery as to how places are decided, because one of the biggest injustices to the current system is that it is open to manipulation by some families and not others. Parents universally realise that their son or daughter is more likely to get a place in a certain school if they move closer to the catchment area. Yet, self evidently, some families can afford to move, whereas others will not be able to do likewise. Nobody would begrudge these parents doing the best thing by thier child, yet it surely it is a great injustice that this is an advantage that is denied to the poorest families. An injustice that has greatly hampered the prospects of many of Britain's least advantaged children and is surely a major contributory factor to our stalling level of upward social mobility.

The Solution ?

An obvious practical solution is not forthcoming, but i am completely convinced that simply maintaining the status quo and offering parents this 'false choice' between secondary schools is not a viable policy. I would tentatively support an open lottery for places as a stopgap measure. At least this would be an honest lottery, that would not disadvantage families who cannot afford to move closer to the most succesful institutions.

Beyond that, i believe we need to display a steadfast commitment to being more pro-active in boosting the performance of the lowest achieving schools. Perhaps by contemplating ideas such as offering higher wages for teachers willing to work in less succesful schools.

I keenly await to hear what Clegg and Huhne say on the issue- and any other comments people have on this article...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Lib Dem Leadership Contest: Charting a new policy direction

The cult of celebrity permeated British politics long ago. Principally driven by the 24 hour media circus, each and every election campaign becomes more ‘Presidential’ in nature. There is a fascination surrounding the personalities at the top of British politics that often detracts from having an open and informed policy debate. I am hopeful that a similar fate does not befall the Liberal Democrat leadership contest. Whilst accepting that a candidates’ leadership skills (speechmaking, media presentation etc) will be of importance to prospective voters, it will be the individual with the most impressive policy suggestions that will capture my 1st preference vote.

The leadership race must not descend into a ‘beauty contest’ that focuses disproportionately on personality traits. By contrast, this contest ought to provide the party with a unique opportunity to engage in an open debate about our future policy direction. In the next few days, I will be commenting on the policy challenges that I believe we must most urgently address as a party. Below is a brief summary of the topics i will be posting on and where I believe our focus must lie:
1. Education and the ‘Postcode Lottery’

As yet another major report reveals the scope of the educational divide in the UK, it is even more crucial that we establish how to close the gap between the best and worst performing institutions. It is an appalling injustice that there is such chasm between the best and worst schools in our Country. We must be the party that thinks imaginatively about how best to extend opportunity for all. Building upon the ‘pupil premium’ policy will be a good starting point.

2. NHS – Choice and Competition?

The same ‘choice and competition’ agenda favoured by both Labour and the Conservatives has arguably had a fractious impact upon the NHS. As some hospitals thrive, countless others face spiralling debts and the threat of closure. I will recount the debate i had a while ago with Norman Lamb MP about ‘choice’ in the health service; arguing for ‘pragmatic choice’ to replace the choice and ‘contestability’ agenda of New Labour.

3. Environmental Policy

Whilst warmly welcoming our vision of a carbon neutral Britiain by 2050- i am convinced that the party must be even more imaginative in respect to our environmental policies. This would ensure that we move away from having a largely punitive approach to curbing pollution. Yes, green taxes have merit, but so too would providing greater incentives for people to go green; such as scrapping VAT altogether on the least polluting cars. Equally I am personally convinced that we must invest far more heavily in research and development projects for renewable energy sources.

So, that is a flavour of what is to come... I look forward to receiving contributions from any quarter (Lib Dem or not)-as to your views on the policy debate and the leadership race in general.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A battle we must win- Liberal Democrat Income Tax Policy Vs Conservative Inheritance Tax cuts

U-Turn, retreat, humiliation; brand it what you will, Gordon Brown's lengthy flirtation with a November election is officially over. The inherent cautiousness of the man aside, this decision has undeniably been hugely influenced by the spate of opinion polls that have shown a Conservative resurgence in the last week. Delve deeper into the poll data and you will discover that the reason most commonly cited for a floating voter switching to the Tories is their enthusiasm for Cameron's policy on inheritance tax. Announced at the Tory conference earlier this week, Cameron's party pledge to use money raised from a new tax on non-domiciles to raise the threshold at which inheritance tax has to be paid on an estate to £1millon pounds.

The message from the Tories is clear; we will virtually eliminate the dreaded 'death tax'. Millionaires alone will pay inheritance tax, whilst the rest of the hard working British population can rest easy, safe in the knowledge that their final legacy to family and friends cannot be touched by the greedy chancellor. As a Liberal Democrat, i recognise it is imperative we never understimate the Conservative party. This is unquestionably an extremely astute move. Cameron has recognised that swathes of 'Middle England', (Express, Mail, Sun readers) live in perpetual fear of having to pay so called 'death taxes'. Accordingly, when the Conservatives announce that 'normal people' will no longer have to pay inheritance tax, 'Middle England' feels a collective sense of relief and believe that they have been awarded a significant 'tax cut'. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Despite the hysteria generated on the subject, Polly Toynbee rightly recognises (http://www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,2181677,00.html) the reality is that only the wealthiest 6% of estates have ever actually had to pay inheritance tax. If we wish to maintain this state of affairs, the threshold at which estates pay inheritance tax needs to rise in accordance with rising house prices. It is for this very reason why the Lib Dems have already stated that under our fully costed tax plans, only estates worth over £500,000 will have to pay inheritance tax. This is entirely the right approach, ensuring that middle income earners are not burdened by inheritance tax and quashing any notion that this is a tax that will impact upon anyone one other than the most affluent in society.

The most important task for the Liberal Democrats is therefore to expose the myth that the Conservative policy on inheritance tax represents a unique tax cutting policy for middle earners in the UK; it unequivocally does not. Despite the furore over 'death taxes' caused by papers such as the Daily Mail; the reality is that with the threshold rising to reflect house price appreciation, it will remain the case that only the very highest earners will have to pay any form of inheritance tax. The Conservative policy is not a tax cut for middle Britain, it is a tax cut for high earners and for obvious reasons, it is a tax cut that wont make any immediate impact on people's livelihoods.

The Liberal Democrat inititative to cut 4p in the basic rate of income tax could not provide a more stark contrast to the Conservative proposals. Here is a bold proposal that will disproportianately benefit the lowest earners and most unfairly taxed people in our society. A cut in the basic rate of taxation from 20p to 16p in the pound will make an immediate and drastic difference to the quality of life for someone earning the average wage (or below) in the UK. It means that industrious, low and middle income earners will recieve greater rewards for their efforts and will have a significantly greater dispensable income. Under our complete tax proposals (which can be found at www.libdems.org.uk) the IFS have confirmed that the great majority of people in the UK will be better off than they currently are.

Our tax policy is an embodiment of timeless Liberal principles; it is progressive, rewards effort and only increases the burden upon the very wealthy. It is imperative that every Liberal Democrat campaigner makes this same point across the length and breadth of the country. If you want a fairer tax burden for Britain, it is the Liberal Democrats and not the Conservatives to whom you must now turn.