Uncharted Territory

May 20, 2010

Dodging Difficult Decisions

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 6:24 pm

Imagine yourself house-hunting, or just cast your mind back. You’ve worked hard all week, have your normal chores to carry out, but have managed to free up a few hours of your precious weekend. You window-shop, review sheets of details and finally book a time to see some properties. You spend Sunday thinking about them, agonising over your budget, and on Monday take the plunge. Sorry, says the estate agent, the vendor has decided to take that one of the market. Or maybe they’re not so decisive. You arrange a mortgage, pay for surveys, and only then are you given the bad news: sorry, no deal.

This is the awful situation prospective purchasers will once more be in as a result of the abolition of (Home Information Packs) HIPs, by the incoming LibDem Con government. And on the radio at lunchtime I heard a smarmy voice – it seemed to be a politician, but logic tells me it must have been an estate agent or other housing market parasite – justifying the decision as removing an obstacle to homeowners “testing the market”. Look, you twat, Tesco doesn’t let you get to the checkout before saying, sorry, we’ve decided not to sell those today, we might get a better price tomorrow.

I recollect painfully my first attempt to buy property, jointly. If I recollect correctly, we had 5 surveys done and were gazumped in most cases, never buying at that time, in the end. It cost us a fortune in time and effort, yet the (non-)sellers never spent a penny.

The last Government weighed up all the pros and cons and realised that it was fair for sellers to bear the cost of collating information about their properties, in part to show they are entering into discussions in good faith. This involved taking on a number of interest groups.

What have the LibDem Cons done? Yes, without thinking about it, they’ve abolished HIPs, making redundant overnight 3,000 people who had been trained to carry them out.

True, energy certificates have been retained, but you can still market your property without one. What’s the point of them, then, if they’re not available until people have decided which house they want?

So, the first way to dodge difficult decisions is to do the easy thing without any serious thought.

As I reflected on this I realised that the LibDem Con government is set on writing the book on dodging difficult decisions. There are other instances of “doing the easy thing without any serious thought”.

The third runway at Heathrow? Cancelled. Additional runways at Gatwick and Stansted? Refused. Um, shouldn’t we look into it a bit? I mean, no-one wants to concrete over villages, but the previous lot looked into this and reached a different conclusion.

Or take ID cards. Abolished. Now, correct me if I’m being a bit thick here, but isn’t the government also planning to clamp down on immigration? Wouldn’t it be useful for foreign nationals to have id cards? In fact, I thought they already had, so perhaps we can’t actually believe that id cards have really been abolished.

Because when we look more closely at the coalition’s statement of their programme for government (pdf), we say that they also employ other strategies for dodging difficult decisions.

Their second strategy is pretend to take difficult decisions but don’t actually do so.

Remember those Regional Development Agencies that received so much flak during the campaign? This is what the LibDem Cons say:

“We will support the creation of Local Enterprise Partnerships – joint local authority-business bodies brought forward by local authorities themselves to promote local economic development – to replace Regional Development Agencies (RDAs). These may take the form of the existing RDAs in areas where they are popular.”

Unsurprisingly, the LibDem Cons are not very clear, but I think we can be fairly sure that we’re not going to be able to tell the new pigs from the old pigs. George Orwell would be proud.

What about other quangos? Read on:

“We will abolish the unelected Infrastructure Planning Commission and replace it with an efficient and democratically accountable system that provides a fast-track process for major infrastructure projects.”

In other words: “We said during the campaign that we don’t need it, so we’re going to abolish it and reinvent it. Britain needs a new kind of government!”

Maybe we need a new word, for abolishing something, and simultaneously retaining it. It would save a lot of effort if Cleggeron simply stood up and said: “We’re going to abolain the RDAs and the Infrastructure Planning Commission”. Ra ra ra!

It goes on. School league tables? They’re being abolained as well!:

“We will reform league tables so that schools are able to focus on, and demonstrate, the progress of children of all abilities.”

And on. Remember the hated SATs?

“We will keep external assessment, but will review how Key Stage 2 tests operate in future.”

Which brings us onto another coping strategy for political parties that don’t know what they stand for in, especially those in coalition with those who stand for something different, though they’re not quite sure what. Announce a review! There are 27, according to the Guardian.

Then, if you can’t really think of anything, you can simply repeat existing government policy:

“We will apply transitional controls as a matter of course in the future for all new EU Member States.”

“We will seek to attract more top science and maths graduates to be teachers.”

You can go even further and state policies that are in fact the normal business of government. Here’s my favourite:

“We will make every effort to tackle tax avoidance, including detailed development of Liberal Democrat proposals.”

Or you can make meaningless statements:

“We will take a range of measures to encourage charitable giving and philanthropy.”

And if you’re in a real mess, you can engage in complete obfuscation. This is my favourite passage, on the rather important topic of taxation:

“We will increase the personal allowance for income tax to help lower and middle income earners. We will announce in the first Budget a substantial increase in the personal allowance from April 2011, with the benefits focused on those with lower and middle incomes. This will be funded with the money that would have been used to pay for the increase in employee National Insurance thresholds proposed by the Conservative Party, as well as revenues from increases in Capital Gains Tax rates for non-business assets as described below. The increase in employer National Insurance thresholds proposed by the Conservatives will go ahead in order to stop the planned jobs tax.” [my emphasis]

That’s right. They’re going to fund a tax cut with money they aren’t spending. “Mummy, can I have that toy?”; “Sorry, darling, we don’t have any money.”; “Can I have some sweets, then?”; “No!”; “Whaaaah! But we’ve saved money by not buying that toy!”.

The most worrying thing about the LibDem Con “programme for governance” is that there are an awful lot of giveaways: an increase in the personal allowance for income tax, reductions in corporation tax, freezing council tax and so on, and very little in the way of clawbacks.

Either there’s something they’re not telling else, or this government’s going to be a dog’s breakfast.



May 11, 2010

It’s the Executive, Stupid

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 8:28 pm

So, I hear on the radio that the Lib Dems are getting into bed with the Tories for – Heaven help us – 3 or 4 years. “For the good of the country”, of course.

The poor dead babies seem to be operating under the delusion that a coalition is about agreeing a set of policies. It isn’t. That’s the easy bit and would result from the parliamentary arithmetic anyway. For example, the Tories are dropping their proposal for an inheritance tax give-away, which only their 306 MPs support.

No, what government is about is the day to day decisions, the responses to events, dear boy, events. In short, the executive.

So if we put the policy horse-trading to one side, Clegg has steered his party into the arms of the Conservatives in return for a referendum on AV. Which, as I pointed out earlier, will very likely be lost, so will be worse than no referendum at all. Much worse.

The last few days, though, have shown that proportional representation will simply not work in the UK. Power is so concentrated in Downing Street that further constitutional changes are needed as well.

In fact, many constitutional changes are needed. I started a blog post a couple of weeks ago listing things wrong with our political system. I never finished it. There was too much to write. The franchise doesn’t even makes sense, for Christ’s sake, with votes for Commonwealth citizens living in the UK, but not for EU and others working here and also profoundly affected by decisions on how their taxes are spent and the services that are provided.

Looking at my draft now, though, I see how I was waxing lyrical about how we have strengthened our presidential system with the TV leaders’ debates. And the Tories won the battle in a shamelessly compliant media that the Prime Minister must be “elected”. Which is meaningless in a parliamentary system.

With all this in mind, here’s my proposal: separation of powers (throughout the whole election campaign I’ve only seen this mentioned by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian).

We should directly elect a Prime Minister – who appoints a cabinet – and, separately, a fully proportional legislature – the House of Commons – which will be free to pursue shifting allegiances.

The executive vote should be by Alternative Vote (AV), since otherwise the outcome depends on which candidates are on offer, as we’ve seen in the US when Ralph Nader ran against Al Gore.

Single Transferable Vote (STV) in multi-member constituencies makes sense for the legislature, since it is desirable for legislators to have some contact with what happens on the ground. To all intents and purposes, the legislators in this proposal would operate in a similar way to back-bench MPs at present.

There’s a lot more that could be done – for example, power, including the right to set the appropriate tax rate could be devolved to departments such as health, and the executives of such departments elected separately – but my point is that electoral reform in isolation makes no sense in the UK.

Other proposals, such as fixed-term parliaments, also make no sense in isolation. The UK’s constitution relies on a Prime Minister with the confidence of the House of Commons. It’s entirely possible that no-one would be able to “command a majority in the House”. We’re not far off that situation now. AV (or PR) plus fixed term parliaments in fact creates an even worse situation.

I’m not sure I agree with fixed-term parliaments anyway – what’s the point of lame-duck government? – but in isolation it makes no sense.

It seems to me that a whole package of constitutional changes needs to be agreed by all the major parties, as a coherent whole, and put to the British people in a referendum.

Changing the voting system alone would simply exchange one unfair system for another, even more unfair system, where Clegg and his successors remain permanently in power! And as far as the vast majority of the electorate are concerned it will still be a case or Tory or Labour.

Adieu, AV

Filed under: 2010 General Election, Politics, UK — Tim Joslin @ 3:53 pm

What does Clegg think he’s doing?

The situation will probably have changed by the time I finish and post this piece, but, as I write, the Lib Dems are back in talks with the Tories, who seem to want a coalition to govern for a full term! That’s just not going to happen, guys.

If I was a Lib Dem, I’d not agree a deal at all. The Tories would just have to try to struggle on with a minority. The news-flow would be caustic for Cameron as his party shows weakness on a daily basis as they struggle to get legislation through.

Here’s one possibility: once Labour has a new leader they could ally with the Lib Dems and others to vote Cameron down on a confidence motion. But then refuse a dissolution (I assume this is allowed in the constitution), instead indicating that Miliband can command a majority. The Queen would have to ask him to form a government. This probably wouldn’t last long either, but would allow the Lib Dems and Labour to control the timing of an election and prepare with some populist legislation and executive action. Maybe they’d even get through a referendum on the Alternative Vote system (AV).

The trouble is, it seems to me that Clegg is a self-deluding fool. I therefore expect him to go into coalition with Cameron and destroy his party. The pretext will be “the national interest”, but the real reason will be the desire for power. Many Lib Dem voters who lean towards Labour or even tactically voted – together possibly a majority of Lib Dem support – will be long gone by the next election. And then there’s the risk that the Lib Dems will be seen to prop up an unpopular Tory government, or will be seen as hopelessly split on whatever issue brings the folly to an end.

And whatever happens, Clegg’s probably already lost the Lib Dems any chance of AV, let alone PR, for a generation.

Here’s why. Think about it. The Tories have said they will campaign against AV in any referendum they grant the Lib Dems. What incentive will Labour have to support the proposal? None. Sure, they might pay lip-service, since AV was in the Labour manifesto, but, unlike if they were in coalition with the Lib Dems, they will not expend political capital whipping their significant dissenting elements into line. And they’re hardly likely to spend a lot of money on a referendum campaign when they could be saving their pennies for the next election. I simply can’t see the Lib Dems winning a referendum on anything against the Tories, their toadying media supporters AND elements of the Labour party.

Especially after what’s happened since last Thursday. It’s same old, same old. Like many voters I might support the Lib Dems if I could just work out what they stood for.

Given all the talk of Lib-Lab tactical voting, I rather hoped we’d see Clegg talking to Brown first. By 6am last Friday morning I was able to sleep because I was contentedly absolutely sure the Tories would have around 10 seats less than the Lib Dems and Labour combined. I didn’t lose a night’s sleep willing on the Lib Dems to reach a position to prop up a Tory government.

It is simply ludicrous for the Lib Dems not to know who their natural allies are until after an election. Clegg may be a closet Tory, but whatever, the strategy is entirely wrong. In fact, it’s more than a strategy, it’s what the Lib Dems are, the way the party has been shaped over decades, so it’s not entirely Clegg’s fault. If we’re going to have PR, or even AV (which gives a slightly more proportional outcome in terms of MPs per vote), the electorate (and MPs of other parties!) needs to understand that the Lib Dems will ally with Labour (or the Tories), if at all possible. Only if the natural alliance is absolutely impossible should allegiances of convenience be considered.

We wouldn’t be where we are now if Clegg had campaigned on the basis of being a more moderate progressive party than Labour, so would seek to form a coalition with them. Or, if the party is really the wet wing of the Conservatives he should have made that clear. If any party wants to be taken seriously they have a duty to tell the electorate what they are voting for.

When the dust settles, I think the Lib Dems will find the voters are really quite cross with them.

Sorry, I’m in favour of electoral reform, but, in my judgement, the British people are simply not going to vote for an electoral system where only one vote counts – Nick Clegg’s.

A future of continual tawdry soliciting by the Lib Dems for coalition partners after every election is not a prospect that can be sold to the voters.

And why the hell the Lib Dems want a referendum they’re likely to lose is beyond me. They won’t get another chance for decades. I guess they simply haven’t thought it through.

Since the Lib Dems’ appeal during the election campaign was to break the two-party mould and usher in PR, I fear – no, I can feel it to be the case – that support is ebbing away from both the policy and the party advocating it. Don’t throw away those red-blue swingometers just yet.

Adieu, AV, it was nice knowing you.

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