Labour

Tuition Fees – A mess of our own making

And so the government has won the controversial tuition fees vote 323 to 302, giving them a majority of 21. While the Tories have escaped much of the spleen-venting over the issue (presumably people expect them to live up to their billing as ‘the Nasty Party’) the whole issue has torn the Liberal Democrats apart.

I have to admit to being fairly agnostic over the fees debate. I’d love to see a system where everyone could have a free university education, but equally I don’t think that the Coalition’s extension of (let’s not forget) Labour’s policy is the end of society as we know it. I don’t even blame my own party for making the concession during the frantic negotiations after the election in May – the Lib Dems didn’t win the election and therefore don’t get to have their own way within a coalition government.

Having said that, if you allow yourself to be photographed gurning over a signed pledge to vote against an increase, then vote against is what you must do when the time comes. And here (among other things) lies Nick Clegg’s problem. As long as people are able to stumble upon the photo above, the conclusion will be drawn that Clegg was more interested in the trappings of power than sticking to the clearest promise he made in the run up to the General Election. No matter what happens now, no matter if the Coalition turns out to be the finest government this country has ever seen (stick with me on this) Clegg will always have this image hanging round his neck.

Some good might come out of this. The Lib Dems will have learned a harsh lesson to “think hard before you pledge” – something that parties who are used to government have known for a long time. And I hope that those who have been so quick to condemn will recognise that many Lib Dem MPs (including my own, Dan Rogerson) did what they promised to do and voted against the government. But, try as I might, there’s no way I can spin this as anything other than a bad day for my party.

 

David Miliband decides not to be Gordon Brown

The days of speculation around the future of David Miliband, following the narrow defeat by his brother in the Labour Leadership election, must surely have done enough to convince any watcher of the party’s internal warfare that his decision to step back from frontline politics is the right one.

Ed has been making all the right noises, talking about how he desperately wants David to be in his Shadow Cabinet and so on, but it has become abundantly clear that the leadership contest has done lasting damage to the relationship of the two brothers. This is hardly difficult to understand. David must have assumed that the leadership was his for the taking, having been the favourite for so long, only to have the prize snatched from him at the very end by his own brother.

His disappointment and the resentment of those around him is perhaps an understandable human emotion but there does seem to be more than a touch of the ‘Michael Portillos’ about his failed bid. Miliband, like Portillo in the John Major government, had an opportunity to topple Gordon Brown at the depths of his unpopularity but chose instead to sit tight and wait. Both men missed their best chance and ended up as hugely disappointed bridesmaids.

Ed Miliband, for his part, should feel no guilt for standing in the same contest as his brother. He had every right to put himself forward for the leadership and can point to the result – in spite of Labour’s bizarre electoral college system – as justification for his boldness. Perhaps in time his older brother will come to terms with it, but for now the emotions are probably just too raw.

David’s simmering resentment was clearly demonstrated by his unguarded remarks to Harriet Harman during the new Leader’s speech this week (towards the end of the clip below) and there can be no doubt that, if he had accepted the rumoured offer of Shadow Chancellor, a less-than-friendly media would have had years of fun highlighting divisions between the two brothers, whether real or imagined. After sixteen years of warfare between the Blair and Brown camps, the last thing Labour needed was two new faces to carry the civil war into the future.

David Miliband has done the smart thing for himself, his brother and his party and, although much will be made of it in the news over the coming days, the discomfort of such scrutiny will be nothing compared to the long-term dysfunctionality which would surely have been unleashed had he stayed within Ed’s shiny new tent.

Ed gets the nod

All credit to the Labour Party for providing a touch of drama at the announcement of Ed Miliband’s victory in their leadership contest. After four rounds of recalculating, Miliband beat his brother David by 1.3% of Labour’s slightly quirky electoral college.

Miliband the Younger now faces the challenge of any Leader of the Opposition in the wake of a recent defeat: ensuring his party doesn’t descend into navel-gazing and grand theoretical gestures. Ed Miliband’s campaign has been presented as ‘of the left’ but he is surely too canny to allow his party to vacate the middle ground. As one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, would happily tell him – that way lies long-term opposition.

Miliband’s challenge is to draw his party away from much of the, perfectly natural, hurling of toys from prams which has gone on since defeat in May. Regardless of anyone’s opinion of the merits or otherwise of the Coalition, any administration needs strong, focussed opposition and I genuinely hope that the Labour Party will quickly find themselves in a position to hold the government to account.

Much will be made about the fact that Miliband only crept over the line as a result of union support – his brother carried a final round majority of MPs and ordinary members – but the truth is that all of that will be forgotten if he proves to have been the right choice for Labour.

What Ed Miliband will need to do quickly is decide where Labour now stand on the deficit and to build a constructive narrative around that. In the short-term he will also have to decide his party’s position on next year’s AV referendum, particularly in the light of the manifesto Labour ran on in May and the fact that he himself was elected by that process.

I wish him well, as a healthy opposition is a vital part of a healthy democracy. There are likely to be interesting times ahead.

The X Factor, Boring Politics and the August Blog Hiatus

The casual passer-by to this page might reasonably conclude that I have been terribly lazy throughout the month of August. It’s been a while since I’ve posted, and there are a number of reasons for this. First and foremost is the fact that my job (the one that pays the bills) is currently at full stretch with the height of the Cornish holiday season. I normally delight in telling people how easy my job is (loafing around behind the bar, making the odd sarcastic remark) but August is the month in which you could probably stretch it and say that I actually earn my money for once.

Of course, the traditional tourist rush isn’t the only reason I haven’t bothered to post here. As you will probably be aware, this blog is mostly (although not entirely) about politics, and the beauty of the free availability of blogging websites is that non-entities like me have every opportunity to vent spleen in a public forum about the poor misguided fools who aspire to run our lives.

The trouble is, after the General Election and the initial excitement of the first hung parliament in nearly forty years, politics has become rather dull again. The Coalition, while by its very nature containing some finely distilled elements of pure evil, is doing its best to be as insipid as possible. Pickles and Gideon only slither out infrequently, while even David Cameron seems to have temporarily parked the shrill, fat-faced toff act from the months leading up to the General Election. All of these things have served to keep my bile levels in a manageable state over these last few weeks. I can’t say this is a situation I entirely welcome.

The Labour Party haven’t helped matters much either. Their leadership election could have been a golden opportunity for a party, freed from the shackles of a long period in office, to capture the public imagination with an eye-catching and far-reaching debate over the future of the country and the role of the left. Fat chance. It’s been a bunch of dull people talking about dull things in a dull way. They could at least have organised some sort of nasty spat between a couple of the candidates but we haven’t even been given that pleasure. Deeply disappointing.

And so I find myself nearing the end of August with very little to write about. I can’t even summon any great sense of disgust about the return (tonight) of the single event that will over-shadow everything else for the next four months. I refer, of course, to the over-produced, overblown dung-polishing extravaganza that is the X-Factor. I wish it would make me mad, but I just don’t really care, to be honest. There’ll be bad auditions, heart-breaking back stories, manufactured spats between the judges, the annual assault on the Christmas Number One and the whole thing will be reported and tweeted about endlessly and watched by millions (although I won’t be one of them). But, to be honest, it’s part of the furniture now and Cowell’s dominance of the Christmas charts (Rage Against The Machine aside) at least spares us from Sir Cliff.

So I’m hoping that things will get back to normal before too long. Cameron, Gideon, Pickles et al will soon be back from their holidays (one pictures them all collectively attending some sort of giant reptile camp for the parliamentary recess) and my natural irritation levels will surely soar again. And who knows, the Labour Party might even do something hilarious and choose Ed Balls as their Leader. Here’s hoping…

If you lie down with dogs…

If you lie down with dogs there’s a good chance you’re going to get up with fleas. With that in mind, I don’t suppose I should be in the least bit surprised at the nature of this week’s Budget, not least the inclusion of the Tories’ favourite tax, VAT.

I’m also fully aware of the nature of coalition. There are those who express surprise at the amount of Lib Dem election manifesto commitments which have either disappeared or been completely reversed, but I guess these people haven’t grasped the concept of being the junior partner in a coalition. The Tories have the lion’s share of the seats and so the government’s agenda is basically theirs with a few added Lib Dem bells and whistles (movement towards a £10,000 tax allowance, for example, or a referendum on limited voting reform).

But I still can’t get past the thought that the price of these noble policy aims has been to accept a regressive Budget from a Chancellor who clearly doesn’t give a damn about those less well off than himself (in other words, most of the rest of us). I deliberately didn’t post in the immediate afterscorch of the Budget for fear of bursting out with a purely emotional response to its provisions, but three days on and my view of it is pretty much the same.

I can accept some of the cuts for the simple reason that as a country we can’t simply keep on spending money we clearly don’t have. Contrary to what the Labour Party will tell you, running a massive deficit is not a progressive policy because someone will have to pay for it in the end and the longer we wait the more it will cost, both in terms of cash and public services. That said, there has to be a balance between controlling spending and making sure such cuts don’t damage the wider economy. I think the nature and timing of the cuts will put the economy at serious risk and that the coalition has taken this leap for ideological rather than pragmatic considerations.

Inevitably part of the ‘medicine’ comes in the form of increased taxation, but here is the most glaring case of Tory ideological fingerprints all over the Budget. (I know I’m running the risk of turning this blog into a continual rant about VAT but I really do believe it is a most unfair revenue-raiser which disproportionately punishes those who can least afford it.) I think I could probably have lived with much of the remainder of the Budget had the Chancellor looked towards Income Tax as his source of increased revenue, but that was never going to be on the cards. Throughout the campaign the guarded comments of both George Osborne and Alistair Darling can have left no one in any doubt that, whichever of them was Chancellor, they would look to VAT to balance the books. What has been surprising is how meekly the Lib Dems, who rightly spoke out against the tax during the election, have allowed the rise to 20% to be nodded through.

I can’t pretend I’m happy about the Budget (or the coalition for that matter) but none of that stops me being a Lib Dem, albeit on the progressive social democrat wing of the party. I’m also relieved to have an excellent local Lib Dem MP (Dan Rogerson) rather than a Tory alternative. I’m certainly not going to jump ship – Labour are, let’s not forget, the authoritarian, warmongering joke that helped get us all into this mess in the first place – but equally I have no intention of being an unquestioning apologist for the coalition. I will happily applaud them when they do well, and there is already much they can point to, particularly in the area of civil liberties. But I’m no longer prepared to stay silent when they indulge in the morally indefensible, as they did this week with Osborne’s Budget.

Ed Balls: dishonest or delusional?

Ed Balls is right. As he wrote on Thursday, an increase in VAT would be unfair to the poorest and damaging to jobs and the economy, and the coalition will be making a big mistake if George Osborne’s budget includes such an increase.

Balls has said, in an email to Labour Party members, that “Raising VAT is hugely unfair. The VAT rise will hit the poorest households harder than the richest and will hit pensioner couples and ordinary families hardest of all. It is simply not right.” His parliamentary question, tabled ahead of the Budget, asking for the distributional impact of a VAT rise is a smart political move which gets to the very heart of why VAT is wrong, and his stance on this issue has helped to set him aside from the other candidates in the Labour leadership contest.

But does he honestly think that if his great mentor, Gordon Brown had won the General Election Labour would not have increased VAT? Ever since 1992 Labour have been terrified of increasing the headline rate of Income Tax – clearly the fairest way of raising revenue – and all the evasions during the election campaign clearly pointed to a VAT hike as their preferred tool for dealing with part of the deficit. Yes, Alistair Darling – rightly – increased the top rate to 50% in his 2009 Budget, but this can clearly be seen as the act of a dying government which had suddenly found a lost reserve of courage. It certainly wasn’t a typical example of the New Labour approach to fiscal policy.

Balls’ posturing on VAT is of course naked opportunism, designed to bolster his bid for the Labour leadership, and I can’t blame him for that. The party’s leadership contest has yet to burst into life and hasn’t come anywhere close to engaging the wider public. Perhaps Balls has found an issue which can resonate with many who are sceptical at best about Osborne’s “we’re all in this together” nonsense.

None of that changes the fact that VAT is a thoroughly regressive tax and that it will be a particularly appalling day for the coalition (and in particular the Lib Dems) if Osborne is allowed to push through a hike.

But had Labour pulled off the impossible and won the General Election they would certainly have increased VAT – no question about it. As Balls himself admits, all of their campaign rhetoric pointed in this direction. For him to claim now that there would have been any other outcome demonstrates that he is either plainly dishonest or deeply delusional.

VAT: the sneakiest tax

I suppose the bedrock of any coalition must be the readiness to compromise. It is for that reason that the Lib Dems have had to swallow (among other things) the Tories’ aggressive cuts agenda and Michael Gove’s potty ‘Free School’ nonsense in return for progress towards a £10,000 tax threshold, limited political reform and the ability to restrain the mouth-foaming wing of the Conservative Party.

Within the culture of compromise there still have to be red lines, however. With George Osborne’s ‘Emergency’ Budget on the horizon, first and foremost among these should be a Lib Dem refusal to countenance any increase in VAT.

As I’ve written before, VAT is the worst tax of all. It gives the impression of fairness (no one is exempt, the more you spend the more you pay in tax) yet disproportionately punishes the poorest because they naturally spend a higher proportion of their income (VAT accounts for 13.6% of the gross household income for the poorest 10%, compared to 4.1% for the wealthiest 10%). In addition the wealthy can afford to have their accountants play with the books and claim large chunks of VAT back from the taxman – those on the minimum wage cannot.

Let’s not forget that the Tories spent most of the election campaign bitching about the rise in NI contributions (in fact, they could barely squeeze a sentence out of their over-indulged mouths without uttering the campaign’s most irritating soundbite – “Labour’s Jobs Tax”) yet now there’s every chance they will impose an additional cost on small businesses in the form of VAT. Never mind, at least the super-wealthy won’t be too badly affected.

Of course, Labour supporters will erupt in faux outrage if and when Osborne raises VAT on Tuesday, conveniently ignoring the fact that their standard defence when asked about an increase during the election campaign was exactly the same as the Tories – “We have no plans to raise VAT” or “You can’t expect me to reveal what would be in our first Budget”. They will try to have a field day on this issue, but anyone from the Labour Party who tells you they wouldn’t have raised VAT if they’d won the election is either dishonest, deluded or both.

Lib Dems are naturally opposed to regressive forms of taxation such as VAT – or at least, they should be. There’s little dispute that, allied with a certain level of spending cuts, taxation will have to rise to offset the deficit left by the last government, but surely the fairest – and most honest – way of doing that is via Income Tax. This most straightforward of taxes is based on what you earn, and is clearly outlined in your payslip. It is universally regarded as the most ‘progressive’ form of taxation and, while no one particularly likes paying it, at least we would all know where we stood. Why then are the Coalition so scared of it?