Would the authentic liberals please stand up?

RaceplancoverThe arrival of Jeremy Browne’s Race Plan, published by the think tank Reform, has generated plenty of coverage in the mainstream and new media. Everyone – within the community of political nerds at least – has, for a few days at least, been talking about Jeremy. Presumably that was a large part of the point. So it’s already mission at least partially accomplished.

Much of the talk in the yellow corner is about quite what possessed JB to publish the book just a few weeks before a key election in which the party faces a wipeout. Given that much of what he’s saying isn’t Liberal Democrat policy the inevitable result will be to generate further confusion about what the party stands for in the minds of voters. You’d be hard pushed to disprove the hypothesis that he’s set the dial to maximum mischief.  Some commentators have condemned him for being self-interested. I’m not entirely sure he’d see that as a criticism.

Browne has made headlines by proclaiming his agenda to be one of promoting “authentic liberalism”, with the implication that anyone who disagrees with him is not an authentic liberal. It’s a classic tactic for marginalising those you disagree with. And given that the evidence before us would suggest Browne’s liberalism is about six parts economic liberalism to three parts personal liberalism and one part social liberalism there are likely to be many within and without the Liberal Democrats who disagree with him violently. [Read more...]

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Welfare reform: the evidence mounts

There is little doubt that IDS’s pet project – welfare reform – is having a significant impact on the lives of some of the most disadvantaged members of our society. And for every case where we might conclude that impact is positive, it would appear there is a substantial pile of cases where the impact is negative.

The Work and Pensions Select Committee made some pointed remarks about the emerging picture last week, including offering recommendations on mechanisms for mitigating some of the worst effects. It will be a while before we see the official DWP response.

Today the Joseph Rowntree Foundation launches two reports addressing different aspects of the welfare reform agenda as they affect the social housing sector. These reports are the first outputs from the Foundation’s housing and poverty research programme.*

In between these two report launches we’ve had the pleasure of witnessing IDS face Andrew Marr for yet another session of the interviewer equivalent of underarm bowling. I’ve had words about that before. [Read more...]

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European Parliament – election debate

CEE 2013If you’re in or around Bristol on 28th April you might find the following event of interest. It’s being organised by Dr Diego Acosta Arcarazo, of the University’s Law School.

I’m not involved, but I’ll be there.

European Parliament elections 2014: join the debate

The European Parliament election is scheduled to take place on 22 May 2014 and the University of Bristol is hosting a political debate on Europe between the first candidates from each of the five most voted parties in the South West: the Conservatives, UKIP, Liberals, Labour and Green parties. You will have the opportunity to ask the candidates questions on key issues such as the future role of the UK in the EU, free movement of citizens or economic matters. [Read more...]

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The bedroom tax and the Liberal Democrats

It was an uncomfortable experience reading today’s Work and Pensions Committee report on what we are now calling the “social sector size criteria” – aka the bedroom tax – and other components of housing support affected by welfare reform.

It was uncomfortable because the cross-party Committee highlights the diverse negative impacts beginning to be documented, a year on from a tranche of major changes to the welfare system.

It is a story of households who are unable to move, because there isn’t suitable alternative accommodation, being plunged into greater poverty.

It is a story of households who do move finding themselves in poorer quality and more insecure accommodation.

It is a story of self-defeating rules that save money under one heading only to incur it again under another.

It is a story of households already facing huge challenges – such as coping with severe disability – being caused further distress by being required to rely upon the vagaries of discretionary housing payments. [Read more...]

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The Conservatives as keepers of the liberal flame

Over at the New Statesman on Friday Ryan Shorthouse argued that liberals should look to the Conservatives to find the party delivering on a liberal agenda. In the post he reprises some themes that he set out in his contribution to the Liberal Reform fringe meeting at Liberal Democrat spring conference.

Conservative vs. Liberal Beliefs
In order to arrive at this conclusion Shorthouse adopts the strategy of giving credit for the ‘liberal’ policies pursued by the current Government to the Conservatives, while glossing over the fact that it is a coalition government and, indeed, that some of the policies cited were initially opposed by the Conservatives but pushed by the Liberal Democrats. He then takes a detour into political ancient history to identify a range of liberal measures adopted by Conservative governments past. And, credit where it is due, some of those measures – such as the factory acts, extension of the franchise, and the abolition of slavery  - were enlightened: they enhanced dignity and autonomy, augmented individual rights, and rebalanced power so that the vulnerable had greater protection against the powerful. [Read more...]

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Fighting talk

Why_PovertyThese days it seems we’re more likely to hear politicians talk about a “cost-of-living crisis” or, possibly, allude to problems of housing affordability than we are to find them discussing “poverty”. Indeed, we’re back in an era where the whole concept of poverty, and whether there are any households in genuine poverty, is being questioned. The translation of the banking crisis into a crisis of welfare has seen benefits cut and uprating mechanisms pared back. The prevailing policy narrative of over-generous welfare provision has caused the discussion to loose its moorings. The political elite fail to show any great appreciation of when or whether their cuts might be at risk of reducing citizens to an unacceptably low standard of living.

Yet, in recent weeks the term “destitution” seems to have made an unwelcome return to the political lexicon following the intervention by Archbishop – now Cardinal – Nichols to raise the issue of overzealous benefit sanctions.  And there’s been some discussion of quite how far the UK will miss its child poverty targets by, largely as a consequence of the Coalition’s welfare “reform” agenda.

Into this fog of political euphemism and misdirection comes Julia Unwin’s Why fight poverty? This brief book was published towards the end of last year, but I’ve only just got to reading it.

The book is a timely reminder of what is at stake. Unwin provides a restatement of why poverty is a major social problem – not just for those who find themselves poor at a particular point in time but for everyone. Poverty is risky, costly and wasteful. [Read more...]

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Moralizing destitution

Just by way of a change, today I wrote a post at Medium.com. It’s a crisp, clean properly WYSIWYG writing experience. There is just enough formatting to allow you to make your point. But not a lot of bells and whistles to distract you from the writing. That is, I believe, the point. I may well use it again.

Here’s how I got going:

Moralizing destitution

Now the clergy are involved. That adds a whole new dimension to the debate.

A bench of bishops and a whole bunch of other church leaders have called on David Cameron’s government to act to address hunger. They note that:

“Britain is the world’s seventh largest economy and yet people are going hungry … Half a million people have visited foodbanks in the UK since last Easter and 5,500 people were admitted to hospital in the UK for malnutrition last year”.

While not placing the blame for this situation exclusively at the door of the Government’s welfare reform agenda, the church leaders claim that half those using foodbanks: [Read more...]

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Insipid centrism

That’s what the Liberal Democrats are risking. That, at least, is the view Jeremy Browne expressed on last night’s Radio 4 programme about Nick Clegg. Chris Huhne wasn’t much more complimentary about the current strategy of trying to situate the party between the two major parties. Huhne felt that defining the party negatively – at least we’re not as bad as Labour on the economy or the Conservatives on just about everything else – isn’t really a very appetizing message. A more positive case for what the party stands for needs to be made.

We could dismiss these views as sour grapes from the rejected and discarded. There might be something to that. But Browne and Huhne are hardly alone. While there are high profile defenders of what we might call the “non-specific centrism” strategy, there are plenty of activists who feel that just parroting “stronger economy, fairer society” all the time hardly adds up to a compelling political offer. And I’m not even thinking of those who would have preferred it to be “fairer economy, stronger society”.

The leadership’s non-specific centrism strategy is now seemingly accompanied by an attempted rapprochement with Labour, presumably in the expectation that a coalition with Labour is viewed as more likely than another coalition with the Conservatives.

It seems to me that pursuing the strategy of publicly courting Labour may make the coalition outcome less likely. [Read more...]

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Vince on “social housing”

6162309761_6e59bfde6d_nVince Cable made a substantial speech to the Royal Economic Society at the beginning of this week. The speech is worth reading in full because it represents one of the most thorough, thoughtful and wide-ranging perspectives on the economy that you are likely to hear from a front bench politician. Vince very clearly differentiates his position from that of the Conservatives on a whole host of points. He also, in my view, provides a more balanced assessment of the nature of economic policy under Coalition than you are likely to get from any member of the Quad. Vince does not pretend that the Coalition has adhered resolutely to plan A in the face of temptations to change course. Rather he acknowledges that things have not played out in the way that was anticipated in May 2010. He acknowledges that the recovery, though real, is not balanced and consequently places a welcome emphasis upon the continuing need to rebalance the economy and upon investment.

Vince identifies four major areas of policy action in pursuit of a sustainable, balanced recovery. These are “boosting the disposable income of low and middle earners; stimulating business investment (with the help of public investment); taking action, including through the industrial strategy, to tackle bottlenecks in skills, business finance, exports and UK supply chains; and building lots of new homes”. There is much that could be said about his thoughts under each of these headings, but my eye was inevitably drawn to his comments on housing. [Read more...]

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