In defence of liberal democracy

VoteYesterday’s Independent newspaper appropriated this title for its unprecedented editorial backing something that is clearly impossible. The Independent abandoned its traditional, and commendable, stance of remaining independent. It threw its support behind a second Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. The editorial added the caveat that it would like a second coalition to be more liberal and less conservative. Which is precisely why it is supporting the impossible. Whatever happens later today, we know that the Conservatives have swung to the right and the Liberal Democrats will be fewer in number come Friday morning. So the chances of a second Con-Lib coalition – if such a beast were to come into existence – being more liberal and less conservative are precisely zero.

Whether such a coalition is arthimetically possible and necessary to form a government we are yet to discover. Whether it is desirable for the parties or the country is quite another matter. But that is a discussion for another day. [Read more…]

The smoke and mirrors of small politics

This is supposed to be the most exciting election for decades, with the outcome still unclear only four days before polling day. But I can’t say I’m feeling it. With the exception of yesterday’s quite extraordinarily bizarre #Edstone stunt, it has all felt pretty humdrum, slightly surreal, and deeply infuriating. All at the same time.

It is humdrum because the spinners have tried to ensure politicians say as little as possible of substance and have largely managed to erect an impenetrable cordon between the politicians in their charge and anything resembling either a real person or a real question. So much of what’s happened during the campaign has felt rather anodyne. Last week’s special Question Time event in Leeds stands out so clearly as a consequence. The leaders had to engage with ‘the public’ in a way that was slightly less than rigorously stage managed – and for a change some of the bowling was overarm rather than underarm.

The election campaign has felt slightly surreal because politicans on most, if not all, sides have been allowed to get away with making all sorts of egregious pledges and commitments with very limited effective challenge. It would appear to be entirely acceptable for political parties to promise simultaneously to reduce the tax take, increase spending, and remove the deficit without thereby being derided as utterly incoherent. You would have thought adopting this sort of position should mean a party disqualifies itself from being treated as a serious party of government. But it seems not.

It’s as if tactics to achieve short-term impact on the headlines are everything. Promises are perceived to be consequence-free. You can promise anything you like, as long as it sounds enticing, because no one is really going to be able to hold you to account if you don’t deliver. Even if you chisel it into limestone. So our political debate carries on in a world unencumbered by concerns for prosaic questions of logical coherence, implementation and feasibility.

The debate is infuriating in so many ways it is hard to know where to start. [Read more…]

The disconnected housing debate

There is something of an oddity in the debate over the nature of the problems facing the UK housing system, and therefore by implication where the focus of policy attention is best directed. I’ve remarked on it before but it struck me forcefully this week when reading Christian Hilber’s new briefing, prepared with the aim of informing the election debate, UK housing and planning policies: the evidence from economic research. This was reinforced by Andrew Lilico’s contrarian post at CapX yesterday, which argues that there is no housing crisis and never was one. I don’t agree with Lilico’s overarching argument, but in the course of his discussion he makes a very important point. [Read more…]

Further leverage in the housing policy debate?

I’m not sure quite how I missed it the first time around. Most probably because, like many policy commentators, I’m inclined to focus too closely on the relatively parochial and the marginal shifts in domestic policy position.

As a consequence of this failure to look sufficiently far beyond the end of my own nose I only recently became aware of the Geneva UN Charter on Sustainable Housing, a document that was finalised back in October 2014. This document is not legally binding, but it offers a potential resource in ongoing discussions over the direction and ambition of housing policy emanating from Westminster. [Read more…]

Housing markets and economic stories

Part of the story isn’t being told.

As we move towards the General Election strands of news and snippets of information have emerged which circle around the issues but there is a gap in the middle where the story could – and should – be.

I’m thinking here of housing-related aspects of the party manifestos: cuts in inheritance tax on property versus mansion taxes. I’m thinking of the observation that buy-to-let lending was the only component of mortgage lending not to stall in February. I’m thinking of Hannah Fearn’s argument that removal of the obligation to invest pension pots in annuities can be interpreted as a move to recapitalize the bank of mum and dad. And finally I’m thinking of Christine Lagarde’s words of support for George Osborne’s strategy for economic management.

So what’s the story that is missing? [Read more…]

Selling off social housing

8182240298_f9770a9cbeRumours have been circulating in the housing policy ether for several months now. Given the housing policy influence of the Policy Exchange at No 10 those rumours should have been, and were, treated seriously.

And now it looks like those rumours are well-founded. They’ve only gone and done it.  The Conservative manifesto pushes the Policy Exchange line that local authorities should be forced to sell high value properties in order to fund building new properties in lower value areas, and, if elected, they are proposing to extend the Right to Buy to housing associations. This opens up the possibility of an extra 1.3 million households having the chance to buy their home at a discount.

This is supposed to be the Conservatives’ big offer. Although, to be fair, it would seem to be a big offer targeted at a relatively small group of people – housing association tenants who earn enough from stable employment to be able to afford a property which, even at a substantial discount, is going to be a financial stretch.

Despite what some people seem to think, extending the Right to Buy to housing associations is not a new idea. [Read more…]

Policy unpacked #9 – Housing and the General Election

Policy UnpackedFor this podcast I am joined again by Ken Gibb to discuss housing policy ideas emerging from the political parties in the run up to the General Election. We review some important discussions over the future direction for aspects of housing policy in Scotland, and reflect on the development of policy competition between the Edinburgh parliament and Westminster. We also consider one or two policy proposals emanating from other commentators.

(Running time: 50′ 05″) [Read more…]

On the NHS budget black hole

Modern hospital and emergency signToday’s FT carries a front page story (£), based on research by the Health Foundation, stating that the financial ‘black hole’ facing the National Health Service is bigger than previously forecast. This is a result of a sharp decline in productivity during 2013/14. It is suggested that the NHS will need an emergency injection of cash after the election, whoever forms the next government.

This productivity decline follows an increase in the number of agency nurses employed in the wake of concerns about understaffing. It also follows the reorganisation that followed the 2012 NHS and Social Care Act. There is, as one might wearily anticipate, dispute over whether the reorganisation has also contributed to this drop in productivity.

Three things struck me on reading this FT report. They are not entirely novel thoughts, but I’ll share them anyway. [Read more…]

Liberal Democrats in a ConDemNation

4432788423_187ca72566_nLast week I took a trip up to Sheffield for the Political Studies Association Annual Conference. I presented a paper in a panel organised by the British Liberals and Liberalism Specialist Group. The paper looks at the Liberal Democrats’ strategy in coalition government and how it interacts with the party’s unstable identity to pose challenges for the party’s future survival.

I’m not particularly planning to do anything further with the paper. So rather than leave it languishing on my hard drive, I thought I’d make a version of the paper available on Scribd in case anyone was interest. Below the fold you’ll find a revised version of the paper I presented in Sheffield. [Read more…]

Bringing economics to the people

Business Financial Disaster HeadlinesFor three days this week Manchester played host to the (un)conference Boom Bust Boom Bust: why economics is for everyone. The organisers put together an impressive programme of speakers and participants, including a number of the highest profile academic economists, political economists, and economics commentators in the UK.  The programme also included a number of contributions from policy professionals and activitists. The fact that the event was organised by enthusiastic students from Post-Crash Economics Society at the University of Manchester and other UK institutions makes this doubly impressive.

A characteristic that united the unconference organisers and the contributors is a dissatisfaction – at the very least – with the way that mainstream economics tends to approach its subject. Pluralism and non-mainstream perspectives on a range of key economic issues and debates ran throughout the event. A second characteristic was a desire to move economic debate out of the seminar room and elite policy circles in order to engage a wider public in deliberation about some of the biggest challenges society currently faces. [Read more…]