Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Coalition government, the first 266 days

If, about a year ago, you'd made any Lib Dem party member an offer that in Feb 2011 the party would be nearly 9 months into a coalition government, they'd have bitten off your hand. Of course people should be careful what they wish for, because the reality wasn't quite as expected. The "natural" partnership (Lib/Lab) just didn't have the support it needed, so we ended up with a rather unexpected twist leading many to accuse the party leadership of selling out, propping up the Tories or just generally being opportunist blaggers who couldn't resist power once they had a sniff of it.

On the other hand the party leadership would have us all believe that everything is great, the coalition is a stable and powerful force for good in this country, and that Conservative policies are being seasoned with a good dose of Lib Dem sodium chloride.

I, like many other Lib Dems from what I can tell, are still in "wait and see" mode as to how this will all turn out. I don't think it's worth commentating on whether or not the current fiscal strategy is all to the good - there are strong arguments for and against, and the proof of the pudding will undoubtedly be in whether or not it comes out of the recessional oven all burnt around the edges or not. For the sake of the future of the party, it really better had be OK, because Clegg and co are unlikely to get a second bite of the cherry if things don't turn firmly upwards before the next election.

So where does this leave my own political experiment? I have to say that right now I have no real strong feelings about the party, but I still could not find a better one. I think Labour is now, having started to rally around a new leader, getting to the point where it could become interesting, but they are spending too much time criticising the government for the steps they are taking to get the country out of the recession that happened on their watch. Whether or not the huge deficit is Labour's fault is largely irrelevant - they must now show determination and innovation in order to be credible. The centre-left ground of British politics (and maybe even that dream team coalition with the Lib Dems) awaits them if they do.

Considering the available options after the last election (minority Conservative govt, another general election ot the current arrangement) I think the best choice was made. Whether or not it leaves the LDs able to hold their heads high after will depend on many things, but if they can maintain a distinctive message while keeping credibility in government I think they will achieve more than most commentators expect.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

So what have the British people "said" at this election?

We have a hung parliament. Political commentators and politicians alike are making a lot of noise telling us that this means the British people have said this or that, or want this or want that. As Stephen Fry puts it, it is "the peculiar propensity of commentators to feel qualified to extrapolate from the election results the Manifest Will of Britain"

A lot of people voted. Each one voted for someone to represent them in parliament, yes, whether they thought that was what they were doing or not, that's what they did. 36% of them voted for a Conservative candidate, 29% voted Labour, 23% voted Liberal Democrat. If you're looking for the split on how people voted, then look no further.

Anyone who thinks that there is some kind of "voice" of the electorate needs to sit in a dark room for a bit. Clearly this country is divided into many voices, more even than those of our political parties, such that each party is really a coalition of views, some alike and some unalike.

In our system 'power' is distributed to political parties in the way of seats. In my view this is a failing of our system, but it's how it is right now, so we need to work with it. Most power has been given to the Conservative Party (306 seats), a bit less power has been given to Labour (258 seats), and somewhat less (57 seats) to the Liberal Democrats (and the others have 28 seats). These numbers do not represent any kind of moral or ethical value, they are just the result of the system, like a hand of cards. In some years the Conservative voting majority might have given them an overall lead in seats, but not this year. So we need people to be sensible and talk to each other and do what politicians do all the time: compromise.

Mathematically the most sensible option would be for Conservative and Labour to join forces, but their positions seem too far apart (at the moment) for this to happen. This means that the Liberal Democrats get to use their hand for the first time in many years. The fact that this is a rare event doesn't make it an invalid one. Our system is so skewed towards getting an outright majority from either Conservative or Labour that when a landslide doesn't happen we might fall into the trap of thinking that something is wrong.

Despite the pain involved to our political parties, it is a blessing that results like this one come along from time to time. I hope it will push us away from apathy and complacency and help people to reengage with politics.

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Why to vote Lib Dem on May 6th

If you haven't already voted postally, you might want to think about these reasons to vote Liberal Democrat:

  1. It's the economy: the Lib Dems have the best strategy for recovery and that's without the advantage of the knowledge you get from running it for the last 13 years.
  2. They were right about Iraq, and not afraid to say so. 1 million British people marched on London to try to stop the war in Iraq, and the only party that stood with them (as a whole, not just isolated individuals) was the Liberal Democrat Party.
  3. The Lib Dems stand for your freedom, this is why they oppose forcing us all to pay for ID cards, just so the government gets a big database with all our names on it. They have consistently opposed draconian legislation, believing that freedom is better.
  4. They were right about the banks. They were the only party warning about the issues in British banking long before the others noticed that we had a credit crunch on our hands.
  5. They believe in electoral reform - that means getting the representation in government that the british people deserve.
  6. If you're into science and technology or general geek endeavors, the Lib Dems are by far the most clued up: http://geekthevote.org.uk/
  7. Dare I say, Nick Clegg? After the way we were all let down by Tony Blair I could well regret putting him forward, but he seems like the real deal to me and I hope that on balance he will be.
  8. But most of all because you want to, and there's no reason to feel guilty about it
But whatever party (or independent candidate) you want to support, most of all, just get out and vote tomorrow - make your voice heard!

Being a member

So what new and exciting things have happened in my life since being a Lib Dem party member?

  1. I had a visit from some local Lib Dems to welcome me to the fold (and see if I would give out some leaflets)
  2. I gave out the aforementioned leaflets (with much help from family)
  3. I now get emails from Paddy Ashdown, Nick Clegg and other people
Aside from this not much has changed, but that's probably all for the good. There are hints of parties (of the kind combining politics and a fun evening) at some point too.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

A Fairer Benefits System?

Time to reform benefits?

In the UK we are rightly proud of our benefits system and that nobody needs to starve.

I believe that the time has come for it to be improved and made much simpler, fairer and cheaper to operate. For some time now I've been mulling over and chatting with people about how we could make our benefits system operate much more efficiently. Of course someone else might also have had the same ideas as I have, in which case I would be interested to know who they are. This is the first time I've tried to write it all down in one place, it's a bit ragged around the edges but I hope the principle is clear.

The Current Problems

As I see it, here are the main issues we face right now:

  1. Poverty Trap. People currently claiming benefits have no incentive to work, because of the way that benefits are withdrawn once you get other income.
  2. Fraud. There are apparently many individuals claiming benefits while working, maybe to get around point 1 above.
  3. Stigma. Those claiming benefits are clearly in a position where they are looked down on by others and suspected of being idle or useless.
  4. Complexity. There are very many benefits and the number of forms, procedures and rules associated with claiming are a hindrance to having a smooth efficient system and, no doubt, a cost.
  5. Cost. According to one article, we're paying out nearly £200 billion a year in benefit handouts, and none of that money actually encourages people to work.
The Current System

All of these flaws come from the way our current system divides the potential workforce into, essentially, two types of people. Namely:

  1. Workers. These people are in employment (although they may claim benefit as well if they are on a low income). They also have another benefit, which we refer to as a "tax free allowance".
  2. Non-workers. These people are purely on benefits which aim to meet their most basic needs. We refer to these benefits are "means tested" because if you are earning above a certain level (often a very low level) they are lost.
Really there is a third group: People who are returning to (or trying to return to) being workers after being non-workers. Often people in this group are worse off than non-workers because they have got to the point where their income level removes a benefit. There are attempts to solve this problem but they seem to cause wrinkles in other places. They might not get the full benefit of the tax-free allowance because they may not be earning enough to use it.

Proposed New System

Here is the main principle of this system, which attempts to solve these problems:

Pay everyone the benefit.

At first this seems self-evidently stupid - people who are earning large amounts of money don't need a benefit, so why give it to everyone? However every tax payer already does effectively get a benefit - the tax-free allowance, which some technically do not need, they may also get some other non-means-tested benefits, such as child benefit.

The point of doing this is:

Giving the benefit to everyone means that there is never a stage when you lose income.

so that:

The universal benefit becomes a platform on top of which your other income from working is added.

So how would this system work?

As I've pointed out earlier, every worker in the UK has a tax-free allowance. This is the amount of their salary that they don't pay tax on. Note that if a person's tax-free allowance is £6000, and the basic rate of tax is 20%, then the real benefit to them is £1200 per annum. Effectively the state gives each taxpayer this amount back in their salary.

So my first step would be to effectively remove the tax free allowance - fear not better things are coming in its place.

Now, some people in the UK are claiming benefits because they are out of work. The actual amount you can claim depends on the number of children you have, your National Insurance situation and other circumstances. People may also be claiming benefits such as housing benefit to cover the cost of renting accommodation while they are unemployed.

So my next step is to get rid of all these kinds of benefits.

Having got rid of all the existing benefits, I propose that we replace them with:

A universal payment.

So instead of either giving people a tax-free allowance or benefits, we give everyone a lump of money each month. This could be payed directly into the individual's bank account, just as the current child tax credits and working family tax credits are. The actual amount of payment would need to be worked out, however I propose that the amount would be somewhere between the current average benefit payout and the effective benefit gained from the tax free allowance. I suggest that following principles are applied:

  1. The amount wouldn't really be enough to live on in the long term. The idea is to encourage families and individuals to take some work at least to make up the shortfall, so the expectation is that there is no "benefits for life" situation and that just about everyone will need other income.
  2. There will be an increase in revenue from taxation (because of the removal of the tax-free allowance) but a net cost to the exchequer because the benefit is paid to workers. This would be met by (a) the fact that more people would be brough into the taxation system who were previously not working (b) the reduction in payments to those previously on the older style of benefit (c) savings in administration of the benefits system (d) if necessary a small increase in the rate of tax (this wouldn't be bad for poorer working families because effectively their tax-free allowance has already increased)
Now although I call it a "universal payment" it wouldn't necessarily have to be the same for everyone. I'm thinking specifically of people with disabilities or illness who cannot work. For those people I believe there should be a sliding scale based on their ability to get any kind of work, so someone who really couldn't work at all could have a large benefit which would cover all their needs, potentially forever, whereas someone with a minor disability or illness who could work part time, or even full time but would require help to do it, would have a smaller payment.

The principle though remains that every adult would be entitled to this benefit in their own right [see below for some variations as to how this could be calculated]. So a student could see this as a grant, a working single parent could see it as help with childcare, etc etc.

Benefits of the system

Here's what I think the benefits would be of using this system over the current one:
  1. It eliminates the poverty trap - every extra £ you earn gives you an increase in income and so encourages people to take any low paid work that comes along
  2. It enables people who are unemployed to quickly get back to work
  3. There are no forms or procedures associated with unemployment or needing to prove that you are looking for work before you can claim benefit
  4. It eliminates fraud - everyone is entitled to the payment, so nobody can claim it fraudulently (maybe except by inventing a new person somehow)
  5. It simplifies the whole system tremendously
  6. It takes away the idea that some people are spongers - in this system every able-bodied gets the same benefit
  7. It encourages everyone to take responsibility for their own financial situation
  8. Everyone easily knows where they stand
  9. Nothing changes when you go in and out of work
  10. I think it would make the job market more stable and make it easier for employers to recruit to some types of job
Possible flaws:
  1. Obviously the sums are not done - I'm hoping someone with a better grasp of financial modeling could work on this
  2. There might need to be some interim arrangements and/or phasing in as some people are very reliant on their current level of benefit and might get a shock
  3. I'm not sure how the housing element should be catered-for. Maybe child benefit would need to be increased, so that families who need larger accommodation are not disadvantaged too much by the system.

Having said that I don't really know how much the benefit should be set at, I'm just going to give a possible example . Apparently median earnings in the UK are somewhere around £2000 per month.

Let's suggest an amount of £300 per month as the universal payment for adults, and make child benefit be £100 per month per child. This means a family of 4 gets £800 in benefit. In order to reach the current median earnings the two adults would only need to earn another £1200 between them.

To put it another way, the amount of benefit they get is similar to having an extra full-time minimum wage worker in the family.


By and large, people can make choices about how they want to live. Given a system like this some might try to live in squalor on the basic benefit and not work at all. I think they should be allowed to do that if they want. I'm fairly sure that the vast majority will soon start to see that a little bit of extra income here or there will help, and so will soon start contributing tax to the system.

I think the whole thing stands or fails on what the taxation system would have to look like for people who earn in order to accomodate the new payment. However with benefit payouts in the realms of hundreds of billions of pounds per year, the potential savings from the reduction in these are enormous.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

First they ignore you...

Day 1 of being a Liberal Democrat has brought some amazing stories.

First off, Nick Clegg has been attacked by the Telegraph for being entirely open and transparent about his finances.

If that wasn't good enough, 5Live this morning reported that Nick has also been attacked for writing this excellent article for the Guardian in 2002. Anyone who thinks they have a problem with that article should read it first and then decide if they are not really Basil Fawlty.

I have to say that I didn't expect such a violent reaction to the revelation that I (and many others) have joined the UK fastest-growing political party, but we can always take heart from the words of Gandhi (I think):

"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Why I didn't join the Lib Dems (and why I did)

Time to cut straight to the chase. I've just joined the Liberal Democrats (at least I think I have, the confirmatory email has not arrived yet). First thing to note is that was cheaper than I thought - only 10 quid - bargain (although I could have spent up to 250 - we'll see if they are worth it first). Who would have thought you could be a fully fledged political animal for only a tenner?

So "Why the Lib Dems?" you may ask. Good question. In the light of recent events I should say first what the reasons are not.

1) Vince Cable. Hailed as the man who predicted the credit crisis and helped to fix Northern Rock, I certainly have a lot of time for Vince, and he could be a good reason to vote Lib Dem, but not to join them, not on his own.

2) Nick Clegg. He seems like a good chap, if he wasn't I might have been put off. But I've been eyeing up the Lib Dems since long before he came on the scene. So I haven't just been converted by his recent gains in the Prime Ministerial Debates, although I'm looking forward to more of them.

3) A love of orange. You can't miss it, but I prefer green, as a colour.

4) Dislike of a two party system / the need for change. Again I think this is a strong reason to vote for a strong third party, but not necessarily to join it.

So here are the reasons:

1) Freedom / Privacy. I value freedom, I value privacy. I'm fed up of people wanting to track me. It's bad enough when it's supermarkets but when governments do it then I really objects. It being election time it's hard to get past the fluff, but the Lib Dems aren't afraid to tell you on their web site that they are generally in favour of people having as much personal space to what they want as possible. I feel quite strongly that this should be the main idea in many aspects of society, including education, parents and local and national government. Laws should exist to stop people hurting each other and to make society work better, not to impose unnecessary restrictions on people. Have a read of The Freedom Bill and you'll see what I mean. Most of what this Bill does is repeal laws. We have too many laws, let's get rid of a few!

2) Greenness. I may write about the Green Party later, and I have a lot of time for them, but of the 3 main parties the Lib Dems have taken green issues on board a lot more than the others. Global warming isn't the only issue, by green I'm thinking really of being frugal with our limited resources - I want some oil left for my kids to use.

3) Ability to debate rationally. I'm generally impressed with the way the Lib Dems conduct themselves. They aren't actually afraid to agree with people from other parties. I think this is a good basis for political debate in the future.

4) Electoral reform. They seem to be the only party that is prepared to grasp the issue of our stupid voting system. Of courses this coincides with them being a smaller party and currently disadvantaged by that system, but it's also a fundamental view of mine, that everyone's vote should count the same, not just the ones belonging to people in marginal constituencies.

So there we are, that's what I did and that's why I did it. Anyone think I made a big mistake?